It’s that time of year again when the big name publishers start dumping title after title on us in an unrelenting wave until the end of the year. In the past this just meant I had a good amount of review fodder available, able to dump a good number of hours into each game as they came out. Now though? Not so much and so I still find myself on the hunt for short, typically indie titles to bridge the one game per week routine whilst I whittle away at 1 or 2 of the big name titles. This week’s title is A Short Hike, a title that came to me via the new discovery engine and is an interesting blend of exploration mechanics with light story elements that make for a wonderful casual experience.
You’ve gone to visit your aunt at Hawk Peak Provincial Park and, like any good remote location, there’s no cell reception at her hut. You’ve been expecting a call from someone though and so, on the advice of your aunt, you start the trek up to Hawk’s Peak summit. Along the way though you’ll meet a lot of interesting characters, all of whom have come to the park for varying reasons. Of course you can’t simply just climb to the top, no in order to make it to the very top you’ll need to complete a series challenges, often with the help of others. You also don’t need to rush to the top either as there’s plenty more to the park than just it’s summit.
A Short Hike has a unique visual style that’s reminiscent of isometric games of yesteryear. It’s deliberately down-res’d with the number of pixels on screen being artificially capped at around 640 x 480 and then upscaled to your screen’s resolution. This means that on the surface it very much has this retro feel to it but there’s also this undercurrent of other things that give away it’s modern underpinnings. Initially I was a little annoyed with it, the low resolution initially making it a little confusing visually, but it didn’t take long before I got used to it and then it’s really quite enjoyable. The visuals are also backed up by a great soundtrack which is only let down a little by the stock foley work. Still in terms of general craftsmanship A Short Hike is definitely up there in terms of quality.
Whilst the main goal of A Short Hike is to reach the summit really the main aim of the game is to just explore the park. The main mechanic is the golden feathers, a mechanic inspired by the stamina wheel in Breath of the Wild. Each feather allows you to do a mid air jump, run longer distances and climb any surface for a limited period of time. The game is designed in such a way that most places are accessible with a minimal amount of feathers and so the additional ones usually open up shortcuts that weren’t available to you before. Once you’ve got 6 or so you’ve basically got access to the entire island, including the summit, although I admit that having a few more does make it a lot easier to reach the summit as that final stretch doesn’t leave much wiggle room for mistakes. As you climb up you’ll encounter a bunch of NPCs, most of whom will have a quest for you or a small amount of flavour dialogue. This simplicity makes it easy to get into and enjoy the act of exploration.
Your view of the park is constrained a little bit more than what I’d like but this does make the world feel a lot larger than it really is. Initially this does make it a little hard to figure out exactly where you are in the world, especially considering that the camera is on rails and can sometimes whip around in an ungodly fashion that’s sure to disorient anyone. Still despite these two shortcomings it’s still very enjoyable to make your way around the park, getting familiar with all the locations and figuring out how best to make your way around. Once you’ve got a few feathers under your belt the island really starts to open up and it doesn’t take much to get anywhere. It’s at that point you’ll likely make for the summit which then gives you a really good opportunity to see more of the world.
The story is very light on, told through little scraps of dialogue between you and other characters in the game. There’s no real depth to many of the interactions, with them either being setups for quests or just commenting on the park itself, but there’s enough in there to give you the feeling that this is a well loved place. The small parts of the main storyline are pretty heartwarming too which just adds to the overall nice feeling that A Short Hike has.
A Short Hike is a wholesome exploration adventure, one that doesn’t ask much of the player but delivers a lot in return. The crudely rendered but artfully developed world is a lot of fun to explore and with the narrative kept light and brief there’s not much to distract you from doing just that. There’s a few small drawbacks, namely the constrained view and camera that could be a little better done, but overall the game and the world within it is realised well. If you’re suffering from epicness fatigue from all the AAA titles coming out of late then maybe it’s worth taking the time for A Short Hike.
A Short Hike is available on PC right now for $11.50. Total play time was 76 minutes with 37% of the achievements unlocked.
The one thing I’ve always hated about most Metroidvania games is when they show you something that you’re not able to access with your current abilities. Often this manifests extremely early on as you explore the level only to find there’s a part you can’t get to with no indication of when you’ll get the requisite ability to explore there. Quite often those areas aren’t even necessary for you to explore, just a bonus or something, so their inclusion is merely to draw you back to earlier levels. To be fair there are some examples where this is done well, the revisiting of the level being driven by story or other mechanical elements, and for those I have far more leniency. I tell you this mostly preface my thoughts on Supraland as it’s this particular mechanic, as well as a handful of other issues, that made this a game I didn’t want to play past a couple hours.
The Steam store page for Supraland proclaims, among many other things, that the story is “minimal” and that’s absolutely true. Whilst the premise is quite cool, all the characters are toys in a kid’s sandpit, the plot itself is ridiculously basic: you’re the red guys and the blue guys have shut off your water supply and it’s up to you to turn it back on. However to actually get to the blue guys you have to make your way through numerous different challenges, many of which will require you to upgrade your equipment and skills in order to do. I’ve read elsewhere that there’s a little more too the story later on in the game but it does nothing to expand upon it at all, save for having little dialogue instances between NPCs which have nothing to do with the plot at all.
The graphics of Supraland are heavily stylized and simplified, giving it a very cartoony feel. The developers have managed to avoid the typical Unreal engine game feel, keeping the use of specularity to a minimum. There’s a heavy use of depth of field which is supposed to give you the feeling that you’re a very small being in a large world. To some extent this works however it can have the effect of simply making everything disorienting like in the screenshot below. The issue here is, of course, perspective as whilst the game touts that it only has a tiny map of 9m2 that’s somewhat meaningless if you’re scaled down in size. So try as you might to make it feel like a small world with tiny people it’s going to end up feeling just like normal anyway, no matter how much you try to use depth of field or tilt shifting to change that.
Supraland bills itself as a combination of games like Portal, Zelda and Metroid which is horrendously disingenuous as it’s much more akin to the run of the mill indie puzzle platformers we’ve seen many of over the past decade. To be sure there are elements that you could say are borrowed from each game: the platforming from Portal (although that’s a stretch), the semi-open worldedness of Zelda games and the reexploration mechanic from Metroid. Realistically it’s just a bog standard first person puzzler with a tacked on RPG progression system. There’s really nothing wrong with that but the appeal to authority of titles with much greater pedigrees is what’s getting me. Honestly I was going to write this off as just your average indie puzzler until I reread the Steam page but now I feel compelled to point out all the faults given that it thinks it’s a combination between 3 of arguably the most influential titles in the puzzler space.
The combat is simple and implemented poorly. There’s really no nuance to it at all with enemies just running directly at you or standing dead still whilst they shoot from you at a distance. There’s also no way to block so you’ll likely end up dying to the first enemies since their melee range is the same as yours and there’s nothing you can do to stop them from hitting you. Once you get the gun you can basically just kite everything around but in its default form it’s annoyingly slow. Not that you’ll be wanting for upgrades for long though, even with rudimentary exploration you’ll be unlocking the upgrades in no time flat, even with the requisite barrel running task that serves no other purpose but to burn more of your time. But let’s not judge the game based on the one attribute which it doesn’t trumpet the most, let’s take a look at its puzzles and exploration.
The puzzles are incredibly simple, most of which you’ll solve pretty much straight away without too much of a thought. Others are easily solvable with emergent behaviours that the developer hasn’t taken into account, like being able to bypass entire sections of the game by walking on terrain that hasn’t been properly walled off. This only gets more ludicrous the more mechanics you have access to, giving you all sorts of means to break the game and bypass core game mechanics. This would be fun if it weren’t for the fact that it also means that there’s a certain level of gank to puzzles you can’t bypass, necessitating replaying certain puzzles over a few times in order to get them to complete properly.
Exploration is rewarded, although most of the time it’s just a few coins hidden around a corner or somewhere else rather obvious. The other parts are, of course, hidden behind mechanics you don’t yet have access to, something which will necessitate you trudging all the way back through the levels in order to get back to it. There is a rudimentary fast travel system however you can’t access it from a map (I don’t believe there is a map, actually) and it takes a good 20 seconds for it to travel you somewhere. This makes retreading ground a pretty annoying experience and, given that most of those hidden rewards are just basic upgrades, there’s no real compelling reason to do so.
It’s for these reasons that I didn’t find myself drawn back to playing Supraland after the first night I sat down with it. The fact that most of the work was done by a single developer is commendable but the marketing of it could not be further off the mark. The game is simplistic in all the wrong places, making combat a chore, puzzles easily waltzed through and the prospect of going back to retread old ground something I don’t think any sane player would want to do. Of course the reviews on Steam paint a much different picture and so it’s quite possible I’m on the wrong side of the fence for this, but in all honesty I simply cannot see what others find enjoyable in this game.
Supraland is available on PC right now for $28.95. Total play time was 2 hours with 27% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s rare these days to see concept pieces that have no ambition beyond simply existing. Most are at the very least teaser pieces designed to get you enticed into backing them on Kickstarter or buying the full title. Indeed I thought as much when I first saw What Never Was, a solo project by a developer called Acke Hallgren whose day job involves designing open world environments for AAA titles like Rage 2 and The Division, but it seems I was wrong. What Never Was stands as a piece for the developer to keep their skills sharp, all the while telling a short but interesting tale about a granddaughter going through the process of sorting through her granddad’s possessions.
You play as Sarah, the granddaughter of Howard James Wright who recently passed away. He was an adventurer, always trekking through the world in pursuit of ancient relics and meticulously documenting his travels in the various books that he authored. You’ve taken on the task that everyone dreads when a relative passes: cleaning out all their belongings. You quickly discover though that there might have been more, a lot more in fact, to the travels your grandfather took and many of the relics he’s left behind are not quite as they seem.
What Never Was is built on the UE4 engine and, like many indie titles built on the platform, has that distinct Unreal engine feel to it. Considering that the vast majority of the visuals were done by the single developer behind it though they’ve managed to achieve a decent level of detail and polish; the single level environment bristling with details for you to investigate. Coupling that with the full voice acting for every bit of dialogue you’ve got a very complete experience, even if the play time won’t run you much past an hour if you get it to 100% completion.S
The game is essentially a one room puzzle, one that most seasoned gamers won’t find too challenging. The real attraction is from clicking on all of the bits of memorabilia around the room and hearing your character reminisce about how those things played a part in their life. The one quibble I have is that the game doesn’t tell you when you’ve finished hearing all the bits of story from a particular item which often means you’ll have to keep clicking it even after you’ve finished the dialogue train to make sure you heard everything. Other than that there’s not too much to talk about except the story itself.
The way the story played out I had fully expected to track down the developer and see that a full version of the game was incoming as What Never Was does an incredibly good job of setting up a world that a larger story could play out in. So I’m somewhat disappointed to see that there’s nothing in the works as this small room does an exceptional job of making you want to see more. I won’t go into more details as the game is really worth taking the 30 mins or so to play to see it for yourself.
What Never Was is a great example of a concept come to life, giving the player just enough details to want more before wrapping everything up. It being the work of a single developer makes it even more impressive as it obviously a labour of love that they just wanted the world to see. The real disappointment is that it is likely to stay a concept as I see nothing to indicate the developer wants to work on it further. It’s a real shame as I’m sure even another small vignette or two like What Never Was would we warmly welcomed by many, myself included.
What Never Was is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 19 minutes with 50% of the achievements unlocked.
I have to admit to having an aversion to free to play games. Mostly its due to many of them resorting to questionable tactics to extort money from you, usually in the form of microtransactions. For those, like Marie’s Room, I often think it’s because the devs didn’t believe their work was worth charging for and thus likely not worth playing. However I’m very glad to be wrong in this instance as the developers behind Marie’s Room have created something that is very much worth playing. Due to the nature of the game, much like Gone Home, the rest of this review is just for those that have played the game as I can’t really discuss it without diving deep into spoiler territory. You have been warned.
I’m not usually one for stories told in retrospective, feeling that much of the tension is lost, however in Marie’s room it works quite well. Part of this is due to the non-linear story construction, with you piecing together the various elements of the story as you go along, but also locking away key moments until you’ve heard enough story elements to progress. The developers have also done a good job in ensuring each of those story fragments works towards building out the bigger picture, rather than just being different parts of a single cohesive story cut up and thrown around randomly. That’s probably the biggest distinction I’d draw between something like this and say Dear Esther with the latter feeling like a confused mess of story elements that didn’t all drive towards the same conclusion.
In terms of pure construction Marie’s Room is well put together, especially considering it’s not done on the indie dev darling Unity (it’s actually Unreal 4). I will have one slight quibble with the hit detection used for showing you items that you can interact with as it seemed a little finicky even at the best of times. Whilst I was able to find the vast majority of the story objects there were many I had to try numerous different approaches to in order to unlock. Also it would be nice to know which items you’d already listened to, just so you don’t accidentally click on them again. Given that the game barely tickles an hour in total play time though these are minor gripes.
The story flowed well between the different core elements giving ample time to each of them to grow and flourish. I do wonder how I would’ve felt about the story if I had explored the room in a less methodical way. The way in which the story unfolded to me felt quite organic, focusing the early story on Kelsey and Marie’s relationship with a small sprinkling of external factors. Then as Todd entered the picture and Marie’s past starts to come into the picture the real core of the story, and the reasoning for your character’s motivation for being there, begins to unfold beautifully. Thinking about it going the other way, knowing Kelsey’s past before knowing about how Marie’s family saved her would give you insight into why she acted the way she did in the first place. I’d be keen to hear what other people’s experiences were and whether or not their particular story path resonated with them.
Overall I quite enjoyed the story, the full gravity of what happened really hitting home in the game’s final scenes. Whilst that exact situation is rare I’m sure many of us can resonate with the guilt of having done something they regret and how revisiting the scene of the crime can bring that all back. Indeed I think that’s universal for all grief and loss as our memories and experiences are tied to the places and people we create them in and with. If there’s one lesson to be learnt from the story of Marie’s Room its that we can’t remove the pain we caused in the past, we can only try to move forward and deal with it.
Marie’s Room is a great short story presented in game format. On first look the retrospective, fragmented presentation of the story would imply it’d be destined for disaster however the developers have done a great job in crafting a narrative that works well in the format. The craftsmanship is on point too with good visuals, great soundtrack and only a few small niggling issues that could be easily addressed in future patches. In all honesty I wouldn’t have any hesitations recommending this at the $5 price point so the fact that it’s free makes it a no brainer. If you find yourself with an hour to kill and are craving a good narrative experience then you shouldn’t look past Marie’s Room.
Marie’s Room is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 39 minutes with 86% of the achievements unlocked.
Sometimes I forget what drew me to a game. You see I maintain a list of games I’d like to review when they come out, saving me (sometimes) from having to trawl through the new release to see if there’s anything that catches my fancy. Of course some games stay on that list for quite some time and the reasons as to why they made it there are lost in time. Such is the tale of The First Tree, a game which, in my head, was completely different from the actual experience. As an interactive story it certainly hits home, but there’s definitely room for improvement from indie dev David Wehle.
The First Tree follows the recounting of the narrator’s dream with his wife. The dream follows a tragic story of a mother fox whose cubs have gone missing. However like all dreams the world the fox passes through is interspersed with elements of the narrator’s life, bringing back memories of the past. The dream is a journey through the narrator’s life, his relationship with his dad and what that all means to him.
From an aesthetic perspective The First Tree makes use of the highly popular low-poly/simple texture style that’s become quite popular among this style of game. The execution is quite simple as well with the mass re-use of numerous assets being very noticeable, especially in particular levels. Animation is also quite simple as well, appearing to be hand done. All this being said though it still managed to slow my PC down a bit after I cranked everything up to max. Whether that’s an optimisation issue or not I’m not sure but there have been a couple updates since I finished my playthrough. After saying all this though The First Tree does manage to pull off the simple visual style well, providing you a perfect visual background to the game’s narrated story.
The First Tree is predominantly a walking simulator style game with the narrator drip feeding you bits of story as you explore the various environments. There are platformer and puzzle elements included but they’re very basic, all done in aid of getting you to explore a bit more. As you explore you’ll encounter points of light which you can collect, areas to dig up that trigger dialogue sections and other collectables. However all these mechanics are background to the game’s story which is told in retrospect through a conversation between the main narrator and his wife.
Before I jump into the story though it’s worth mentioning that some of the platformer and exploration parts could have been a little better done. The light collectables are 2D sprites which are really hard to get a visual fix on which makes collecting them a challenge (especially if they’re in mid air). Considering that only 28% of players who own this game have gotten 50 stars I get the feeling I’m not the only one that found that a little frustrating. This ties into what I felt was a lack of rewards for exploration as there’s no obvious reason for collecting the stars (although at the end it’s revealed to you). If the story elements were paced a little better this would have been less of an issue, however.
You see whilst The First Tree’s story is engrossing (especially when coupled with the great backing soundtrack) it struggles to pace itself out well. This isn’t a particularly easy thing to do, indeed the only similar game that I can think of that pulled it off was The Turing Test, but The First tree has long gaps without narration or music. Sure, I can appreciate that sometimes just having the foley sounds can be relaxing, but to me it usually meant I’d obviously been exploring for far too long without finding anything. To the developer’s credit though it did get better in the latter levels, although that may have been due to me finally starting to understand the developer’s logic.
The story hit pretty close to home for me, having just gone through similar events in my life this year. The narration could have been a little better as the delivery of the bulk of the lines felt like they lacked the emotional investment that I think they needed to really have an impact. It’s possible that this was meant to be more “realistic”, since the story is being told in the middle of the night and after the narrator woke up from a dream, but most people are able to sound semi-normal after a couple minutes of conversation. All this being said though the game’s 2 emotional climaxes did manage to bring a few tears, so there’s something to be said for that.
The First Tree, whilst far from perfect in many respects, does manage to deliver a competent story that avoids many of the pitfalls that its peers have fallen into. The core game play mechanics are simple and don’t get in the way of the story but could use some more polish. The sound track is fantastic and it’s unfortunate that the game’s pacing means that it disappears more often than I’d like. The story will resonate strongly with those who’ve suffered loss, even if the delivery from the main narrator could use a little work. Overall The First Tree is an adequate story first game, one that I’m sure fans of the genre will enjoy.
The First Tree is available on PC right now for $7.99. Total play time was approximately 1.7 hours with 33% of the achievements unlocked.
If you cycled back a decade or two the generally held definition of what constituted a game was fairly rigid. Today that definition is far less defined with the indie explosion bringing us all kinds of experiences that dance on the edge of what could reasonably be called a “game”. Whilst I’ll leave that debate to one side (nestling it close by the “are games art” discussion) the games which have kindled that debate are undoubtedly some of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a gamer. Everything, which comes to us care of the developer of Mountain, is an exploration of the idea that everything is connected and how we define nebulous concepts such as self and identity.
You are something, but so is everything else. How do you define what is you and what is everything? The definition of you can change at any time as you journey through space and time. Wherever you go there is always something which is made up of something else. The worlds you explore are infinite, built upon and under one another. If this is all sounding incredibly nebulous then you’re right, it is, but that’s the beauty of the story that Everything tries to tell. As you explore you’ll be many things and each of those things will give you a new perspective on what this world is.
Everything uses a stylised, low-poly, simple texture aesthetic. It’s a procedurally generated game with various different biomes defined covering everything from lush forests to galaxies to 1D sub-atomic structures. Whilst this does meant that that there’s not much variety within a biome there’s enough of them to keep you interested in exploring for hours on end. For the most part it runs very well however once you get a bunch of entities together on screen performance starts to take a noticeable dive. That’s mostly of your own making though so it’s easy to avoid performance issues if you don’t go overboard. All said and done whilst Everything’s simplistic visuals are a nice backdrop to the game’s music, narration and core game play.
Exploration is the core mechanic of Everything as it puts you in a large world for you to explore. The mechanics of how you do this are a little esoteric and not all of them will be available to you at the start. Initially you can just move around and see the thoughts of other things as you walk past. After a while you’ll be able to become other things and then explore the world from their perspective. From there you’ll then learn about ascending and descending, essentially exploring the next “layer” in the realm of existence. There’s also a bunch of other mechanics in there like herding, dancing and a few other things but they’re essentially distractions from the main exploration mechanic. In terms of an overall objective there’s really none as Everything is meant to be experienced more than played, as evidence by the inclusion of an auto-play system which turns Everything into an overgrown screensaver.
When I first saw a demo of Everything I honestly thought it was a joke. The animations are laughably simple with animals rolling around and the various “thoughts” you come across are typically nonsense cobbled together using an algorithm. However there’s something strangely relaxing about it all, watching a big herd wander across a landscape with the soothing backing music playing away. Once you get a handle on the ascend/descend mechanics then the game starts to take on a sense of purpose as you look around you environments for new places to explore.
If I had one gripe it would be that the exploration mechanics of Everything are so obtuse, even after the tutorial, that it can be hard to feel like you’ve got a sense of control. Initially you’re limited in what you can do, which is fine given the broad scope of the game. However even after unlocking all the mechanics it can still be a bit hard to understand how to ascend or descend, what certain UI elements mean or how to direct yourself to the place you want to go. Of course you could avoid all this frustration by just letting the auto-play do its thing but, realistically, I think that’s really only meant for when you’ve become tired of doing the exploration yourself. Still if you can get past this initial barrier the experience of Everything is quite rewarding.
The story, if you could call it one, is to listen to Alan Watts‘ lecture on his theory that everything is connected. The ideas are presented in a highly consumable way and often enough that you won’t go long without stumbling across another audio log to listen to. Whilst I’ll leave the philosophical debate to the reader the ideas presented are interesting and wholly in alignment with the ideas the game wants to present. I’d be interested to know how this particular lecture played into the creation of Everything as the developer has noted that in creating Mountain he saw the potential to represent more of the world through an experience like this. Either the game was somewhat inspired by the ideas presented or they were retrofitted into the game afterwards. Either way it would be interesting to know the creator’s perspective on this.
Everything is a brilliant exploration of ideas through the use of simple graphics and mechanics. Whilst they’re a little obtuse on first glance after a while they start to make sense and that’s when you can truly take control of your journey through this game’s procedurally generated world. After slogging my way through numerous AAA titles and text adventures of late it was great to be able to sit back and simply explore without a goal to achieve. It’s not a game for everyone but, if you’re suffering epicness fatigue from the last couple months barrage of AAA titles then this might just be the unicorn chaser you need.
Everything is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours play time and 44% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s only recently that chatbots have evolved to a state where they could be called truly conversational. In years prior they could really only respond to a line of text in isolation, unable to derive any kind of contextual meaning from the messages it recieved previously. This made them see stilted and awkward, often resulting in them receiting your words back to you in the form of a question. So when I saw Event, which bases the entire game premise around a chatbot, I was intrigued as the idea of having to massage a rudimentary AI into doing my bidding harked back to the fun I had messing with chatbots as a teenager. Whilst it’s far from the conversational AI that powers say the latest Google Assistant or Siri it is an interesting take on conversations as a game mechanic, something I’m interested to see explored more in future.
Event takes place in an alternate version of 2012 where mankind has made siginificant strides in space exploration. You were part of a team called Europa-11, sent to explore the moon from which the craft takes its name. However you were met with a catasrophe and found yourself adrift in space in an escape pod. Just as you were giving up hope that you’d be rescued a transmission from an unknown craft came through. It seems a relic of the past, a luxury space resort, has managed to stay active despite no contact from the outside world for years. The ships AI seems keen to help you get back home but first you need to gain its trust.
Event brings with it that trademark Unity look with passable graphics done in a retro-futuristic style. Since this is marketed as a story first game it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that graphics weren’t the prime focus and indeed they’re a more than adequate backdrop for the game’s narrative. The environments do have a level of detail in them that’s above average for games of similar pedigree which is saying something for a first time indie developer.
Event’s core mechanic is your interaction with the ship’s AI, called Kaizen. You’ll interact with it through the various terminals scattered about the ship, clacking away at the keyboard as you try to convince the AI to do what you need it to do. There are some other, more traditional puzzle mechanics mixed in however for the most part you’ll be trying to figure out the AI’s motivations, the story of what happened to the ship and, most importantly, how you can get yourself back to Earth. Over time you’ll learn how to do things for yourself without the AI’s help, something that you may need to do if you want to accomplish your ultimate goal.
Mechanically Event is a little awkward when you first start off, the requirement for the full use of the keyboard when you’re talking to the AI precluding the use of the traditional WASD movement layout. This can lead to some frustrating moments as you try to move about only to hear the clack of the keyboard. There are many ways that this awkward control scheme could have been avoided, like making a prompt appear when you want to use the keyboard, but it seems this is a design decision made by the developers. You’ll get used to it eventually but it does make the opening moments of the game a little more frustrating than I would have otherwise liked.
The conversation system of the AI is a blend of a traditional chatbot with some rote sequences that are triggered by keywords, actions or in some cases inaction. The rote parts are easy to pinpoint as the AI will just keep blathering on regardless of what input you give it. In normal chatbot mode it’s somewhat conversational, able to pick up on some contextual elements, but it often gets caught up on keywords or syntax that trigger some of its pre-programmed routines. The developers billed the AI as having “moods” and that it would respond differently based on whatever mood it was in at the time. I definitely noticed that, it seeming to want to exploit my naviety about my situation at times whilst at others feeling guilty for doing so. Overall it felt like it was a middle of the road chatbot AI, not quite approaching the contextual sense of something like Siri but definitely a cut above most chatbots I’ve fiddled with.
The story starts off with a Firewatch-esque backstory text selection exercise which seemingly didn’t make much of difference to my experience. I have to admit that the conversational nature of Kaizen did make it more interesting to discover parts of the story, forcing me to attempt many different ways to elicit information from the AI. It was painfully obvious when I came to a block however as the AI would simply ignore most of my requests for further information. It would have been interesting to see what could happen if I could have essentially completed the game from the very first terminal, and maybe that’s actually possible, but as far as I could tell there were a certain set of actions you needed to do to make any meaningful progress. Overall the story was interesting although I think it had aspirations for a greater emotional reaction than it was able to elicit in me. Your mileage may vary and, with Event currently on sale, it might be worth the asking price to find out.
Event is an interesting experiment in exploring new ways for players to interact with games. It may not be the prettiest or most well designed game to come across my desk however the experience it provides is truly unique. The concept of a conversational AI being the main mechanic is something I definitely want to see explored further and Event is a great demonstration of what the mechanic is capable of. It’s a decidedly middle of the road experience overall however; good but not great, one for the fans of experimental games or those who are narrative first gamers.
Event is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 50% of the achievements unlocked.
There’s almost no need to introduce No Man’s Sky, the game that was catapulted to stardom the second its concept trailers hit the Internet. The fervour surrounding it is easy to understand as it taps into that oh-so-popular survival genre that Early Access games are known for whilst upping the stakes significantly, giving you an entire universe to explore and play in. I had long been wanting a game that did full, proper space exploration for some time and so was sold on the concept early on. Then I do what I usually do, ignore any news of the game until it finally gets released and then play it with no expectations.
It seems that I might be the only person on the Internet who’s done that.
The game that No Man’s Sky teases you with is one of infinite adventure. There are quintillions (literally) of worlds to explore, each with their own unique flora and fauna. You are The Traveller, an explorer who finds themselves wrecked on a planet far from the galactic core. For some reason you’re drawn there, wanting to make your way to the centre to see what awaits you there. However it doesn’t take long for that plan to go off the rails with various threats, distractions and curiosities getting in your way. How you journey through the galaxy is up to you though and the stories you create will be yours and yours alone.
No Man’s Sky isn’t exactly the most high fidelity game out there but that’s likely due to its procedural origins. Initially my system appeared to struggle with it, the not-so-great graphics seemingly able to bring my beast to its knees. As it turns out No Man’s Sky, for some inexplicable reason, caps your FPS at 30 on PC by default. Changing that and maxing out the settings made for a much better looking and running game. The visuals themselves are passable, better than what I’ve come to expect from most games in the genre but falling short of some of the stunning masterpieces I’ve played of late. No Man’s Sky does manage to produce some screenshot worthy moments but most of the time you’ll be in an endless expanse of more of the same. This is par for the course with procedural generation as sure, you get a lot of variations, but those variations are often not that far away from each other.
No Man’s Sky is a survival exploration game on a galactic scale. Initially you’ll travel around your spaceship, looking for the parts you need to fix it. Then you’ll travel between planets, searching out different kinds of wildlife, plants and resources. Finally you’ll be able to travel between systems, each of which has its own set of unique features. When you’re planet side you’ll spend most of your time exploring the landscape, mining for minerals and cataloguing the various plants and animals you come across. When you launch into space you can trade with alien races, mine asteroids and engage in space based combat. You’ll also be presented with a few story related choices along the way: either you journey to the centre of the galaxy or you’ll follow the Atlas path. I couldn’t tell you how either of them pan out however as I gave up long before I reached the end but if you’re a die hard survival exploration fan there’s more than enough to keep you going here for quite some time.
Exploration typically takes the form of landing somewhere on a planet, checking out what minerals are common and then cataloguing the various bits of wildlife if you’re so inclined. Initially it’s amazing to see the variety in this game, from the different wildlife, planets and alien races that you come across. However it quickly starts to become repetitive after you’ve visited a dozen planets or so as many of the basic things are the same (like the habitats the aliens use) and the procedural components start to become obvious. Still for a long time I was still motivated to follow the Atlas path as that seemed genuinely interesting. However there are, of course, barriers to your progression and that’s when you’ll start looking around for upgrades.
Like many I began farming resources in order to earn the cash required to upgrade my ship, something that takes quite a bit of time if you do it the “legit” way. After getting frustrated with my progress I took to the Internet and found there was numerous ways to get ship upgrades without paying for them. Indeed this way was also one of the best ways to get rare materials for crafting so I spent a couple hours churning through ships. I tried to do the same with my multitool but, for one reason or another, RNGjesus simply didn’t smile on me and I maxed out at a 10 slot tool after numerous hours. This is eventually what ended up killing No Man’s Sky for me as I just couldn’t be bothered trying to farm the required upgrades to get to the next point. At least with the ships I felt like I was making some slow progress.
The combat, both ground and space based, is barely worth talking about. Your multi-tool is more than capable of taking out most foes with just the mining laser with the combat upgrades just making the process slightly faster. Space combat is janky at best as the flight model just doesn’t feel right. Even with a bunch of upgrades my weaponry didn’t feel anymore effective, probably because I seemed to get matched up against more foes to compensate for it. Since there’s really no penalty for death (if you can get your grave back, which you always can) it’s usually better to just die instead of trying to fight anymore than a couple foes. It’s a shame really as that would’ve been a great progression mechanic, one that I might’ve stuck around for if it was any good.
No Man’s Sky is riddled with the issues that comes with procedural generation, namely all the edge cases which you simply can’t account for until people start encountering them. I’ve come across buildings that were embedded in mountains, inaccessible unless you had a good supply of grenades handy to blast your way in. Falling through the world is quite possible and easily doable if you land in a semi-awkward position. Similarly the physics engine sometimes freaks out if you clip terrain in a certain way, flinging you away with enough speed for the game to think you’ve engaged the pulse engines. There was also a couple times my frame rate dropped to slideshow levels which I could only attribute to some poorly optimised particle effects which were thankfully gone when I reloaded my last save. I’m sure some of the more egregious issues have been fixed in the weeks since I finished playing No Man’s Sky but they certainly did nothing to endear it to me.
No Man’s Sky strives to inspire a feeling of awe in you through the act of exploration. The base game does a good job of that however the ancillary plot, where The Traveller tells you that its feeling awe, is less convincing. Since there’s not a lot of build up as to why you’re trying to get to the centre (or follow the Atlas path) it’s hard to empathise with The Traveller’s varying emotions. I honestly wasn’t expecting much though, this is a procedurally generated game after all, but the disjoint between the potential of the emergent stories versus the curated plot was somewhat jarring.
Now whilst I may have avoided the hype I’m not ignorant to the controversy that’s surrounded the release of No Man’s Sky and I do believe it merits addressing. As a standalone game No Man’s Sky is a good, but not great, title that I’m sure would appeal to certain niche. Not knowing of potential features I felt no loss at them not being there and so harbour no ill will for Hello Games. Indeed I feel like we, the gaming community, need to temper our expectations for any game lest we set ourselves up for Molyneux levels of disappointment. Sure Sony and Hello Games are partly to blame for this, whipping the community into a frenzy with teasers and interviews and whatnot, but we gamers are better than that. We’ve all been here before, with promises of games that would redefine genres or push them to new heights, only to be disappointed when the reality did not meet our expectations. If No Man’s Sky was released on Steam Greenlight for $30 and spent the next 2 years in Early Access no one would be shouting “BROKEN PROMISES” as loudly, yet because it had a full release it seems everyone feels entitled to voicing just how angry they are.
TL:DR, stop getting so hyped. It never works out how you’d expect it to.
Good but not great is the tagline I’d go with to sum up my experience with No Man’s Sky. I know of a few friends who’d love it as they’ve sunk many hours into similar games like Terraria or The Forest. For others, like me, it was an interesting aside but quickly became repetitive and so I left it behind. This isn’t unusual, indeed there have been many higher budget games which I’ve done the same with, and shouldn’t count against it if the concept interests you. Even looking back, after getting burned by the grind/upgrade cycle, I still think it’s worth playing, even if it’s just to see a few different planets and systems before it gets shelved. That might not be worth the asking price for you but that’s not a judgement I’ll make for everyone. For me, someone who got 15 hours of game time out of it, No Man’s Sky was worth it, even if I may never go back to it again.
No Man’s Sky is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 15 hours of total play time and 45% of the achievements unlocked.
Journey was one of my favourite games of its release year, blending together many well-crafted elements into an enthralling experience. Long time fans of Thatgamecompany weren’t surprised at this though as the developer had a history of delivering atmospheric titles with brilliant sound tracks. For me though it was the multiplayer aspect that made Journey shine; the co-operation through minimal communication a truly inspired mechanic. However Thatgamecompany’s usual release cycle of every 3 years has come and gone without another release, leaving us wanting for the kind of experiences that they were known to deliver. In the mean time however former art director for Thatgamecompany Matt Nava has formed a new games development house called Giant Squid Studios and their first game, ABZU, has just been released.
It’s easy to see Matt Nava’s influence in ABZU, the main character sharing similar stylings to the main protagonist of Journey. Indeed the setting, whilst being the polar opposite of Journey’s desert, shares a lot of the same elements. After a short cut scene, which obviously holds some significance to ABZU’s plot, you’re dumped in a massive underwater world and set forth to explore. The how and why of everything are left up to you to figure out as there’s no dialogue nor walls of texts to explain anything. The only helping hand you’ll get is a few screens that fade in to let you know what the controls are, after that you’re on your own.
Borrowing yet again from it’s spiritual predecessor ABZU has the same highly-stylised, almost cel-shaded like aesthetic. Unlike the barren wastes of Journey ABZU is a world that teams with life, schools of fish and other sea creatures dancing about as you explore. These visuals are then accompanied by an incredible sound track done by Austin Wintory, the same composer behind Journey. I’ll endeavour to stop making comparisons between the two but calling it “Journey but in the sea” seems like the most apt description of what ABZU is on first glance.
ABZU is an exploration game, one that makes full use of the underwater environment to provide you with much more freedom than traditional platformers do. You’ll be dropped into a gated off area, one that you must explore in order to find your way out. Along the way you’ll find various collectibles, unlocks and various items that are used to unblock/unlock your way through to the next section. There’s no combat to speak of however, the game preferring to gently remind you that there’s a better way than throwing yourself head on at every problem. Overall it’s a very simple game but as we’ve seen before simplicity in game mechanics doesn’t mean it isn’t a sophisticated experience.
The exploration is done mostly well, the environments being full of detail that’s worthy of exploration just by itself. Unlocking additional creatures from their underwater prisons adds them directly to the local ecosystem, sometimes changing it radically. You move at a good speed, especially with boost, making it easy to get across a map in no time at all. What’s lacking however is an indication of how complete each section is, leaving you to wonder if you really did get everything or there was something left behind. I may have just missed the signal that showed you that but I remember Journey’s version of that being very obvious and if ABZU has a similar mechanic it was far too subtle for me to pick up on.
I did as instructed when the game asked me to use a controller however even then the controls felt a little janky. I do understand that there’s a certain amount of inertia when you’re in water however the way the character moves sometimes doesn’t quite line up with what your inputs are. It’s not unusable by any stretch of the imagination but it does make some moments far more frustrating than they need to be. I didn’t swap it out for the mouse and keyboard however, so I’m not sure if that might have resolved my issues.
The story is told through your interactions in the world, various hieroglyphics that adorn parts of the world and lots of cut scenes that paint a high level picture of what your character is trying to accomplish. Consequently there’s not a lot of meaning you can derive from ABZU directly, it’s all inferred from what you see on screen. This doesn’t prevent the game from having some truly impressive emotional moments however, many of which are reminiscent of Journey, but it does mean that the higher meaning of the game is somewhat elusive.
ABZU is a true spiritual successor to Journey, taking all of what made its predecessor great and applying it to a whole new setting. The visual and sound design both come from direct from those who worked on Journey and their influence can be seen throughout ABZU. Mechanically it plays largely the same with the added freedom granted by being underwater used to great effect. The controls are probably the one black mark against the otherwise solid experience, making some aspects of the game just a bit tedious and awkward. Overall though ABZU is a standout debut title for Giant Squid Studios and I very much look forward to what they do next.
That is if Thatgamecompany don’t release something before them, of course!
ABZU is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.
If there’s one game that you should buy a PlayStation for it’s Uncharted. Naughty Dog made a name for themselves by being a premier developer on Sony’s flagship console and each subsequent release of Uncharted was simply another demonstration of how they were a cut above the rest. Of course that would be nothing if the actual game itself wasn’t any good but the Uncharted series has been consistently good over it’s almost 10 year life span. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the final instalment in Nathan Drake’s story and the last title in the series that will be developed by Naughty Dog. True to their pedigree this last hurrah is a fitting end for the series and another testament to Naughty Dog’s exceptional craftsmanship when it comes to PlayStation titles.
Uncharted 4 explores the somewhat blurry past of the main protagonist, taking you back and forth between the present and the past. It’s set some time after the events of Uncharted 3 where Nate has settled down with Elena. He’s taken a job doing salvage and recovery work, a far cry from his adventuring days of years gone by. However adventure still calls to him with tantalizing prospects always nipping at his feet. It’s not until his past comes back to haunt him that he heeds the call once again. This last adventure could be the end of him or at least all the things he cares about but Nate’s obsession is a hard thing to ignore.
Uncharted 4 is an absolutely stunning game, one that clearly demonstrates just how powerful the PlayStation4 can be when it’s fully utilized. Everything from the wide open vistas of the gorgeous tropical islands to the dark, cramped caves that you explore is brimming with detail. The extensive use of modern lighting effects, particle systems and an incredibly detailed physics system makes for some of the most realistic and immersive environments that I’ve seen to date. This is shown best by the screenshots I captured below, all of which are done in-game, not during a cinematic. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise honestly as this is what Naughty Dog is known for doing but, once again, Uncharted 4 sets the bar for all future PlayStation4 titles to beat.
For long time fans of the series Uncharted 4’s game play will feel very familiar, retaining all the core mechanics of the previous games. You’ll be running, jumping and climbing your way through all sorts of environments, most of which will be falling down around you while you do it. Combat comes in the tried and true 3rd person shooter format with the same 2 weapon limitation and infinite health regeneration. The stealth system has been improved somewhat, allowing you to tag enemies before making your way around the level to take them out. There’s also extensive vehicle sections which allow you to 4WD yourself around various places giving you a nice change of pace from the usual running and jumping. Lastly you’ll be solving various weird and wonderful puzzles, some of which do require a good deal of lateral thinking to solve. All in all Uncharted 4 is, at a game play level, a final evolution of the series more than it is a revolutionary one.
Combat largely feels the same as its predecessors as you’ll be going from cover to cover, seeking out enemies and taking them out as you see fit. Weapons in the same category as each other feel largely the same, with the only differences being in special weapons like a grenade launch or a sniper rifle. Variation in the enemies you’ll fight is also relatively low with their toughness directly related to how much armour they’re wearing. This isn’t to say that the combat isn’t exciting or satisfying, it most certainly can be when you make it through in one go, it’s just nothing we haven’t seen before. However it is one of the most polished versions of this kind of game play that I’ve seen.
Stealth feels a little better than it did in previous titles however it’s still missing a few additional mechanics that would polish some of the rougher edges. For instance whilst you can run away to regain “stealth” status there’s no other way in which to regain it. It also seems like there are no silenced weapons in this game (I couldn’t find any at least) which means that there are some situations where doing it all by stealth is either incredibly difficult or just flat out impossible. Lastly since there’s literally no benefit to doing everything quietly you might as well just run and gun your way through it all since that’s so much quicker and less prone to mistakes. Indeed if you asked me what I think Uncharted 4’s weakest point was it would be this one mechanic as it’s just not up to the same standard as the rest of the game is.
Exploration has been augmented in Uncharted 4 by the addition of a grappling hook, something which strangely didn’t make an appearance in previous titles despite the story showing Drake using one often in his earlier days. This opens up a lot of the environments, allowing the developers to make them far more expansive but still enabling the player to explore them. The grappling hook also allows for some ludicrous action movie-esque scenes to take place, something which I’m definitely not adverse to. The climbing is the same as it always was which is not to say it’s bad, just that climbing in these games is a pretty passive affair. Again it’s like many elements of Uncharted 4’s game play: unoriginal but refined and polished.
The addition of vehicle sections is one of the nicer touches that Naughty Dog added to Uncharted 4 as it further opens up the environments that you’re able to explore. As a result Uncharted 4 feels so much more expansive than its predecessors did. Of course this also makes looking for the various bits of hidden treasure just that little bit more frustrating as there’s so much more area to explore. I mostly gave up on doing that unless I saw what looked like an obvious hiding spot as you could lose dozens of hours trying to find everything. I’m sure there’s a non-zero percentage of players that will love that however.
Uncharted 4’s story is everything it should be, from the writing to the voice acting to the motion capture. All of the performances in Uncharted 4 are top notch which helps to bring the on-screen visuals to life. Each of the elements I’ve discussed so far are great on their own however Naughty Dog has managed to combine them all together seamlessly into a great experience. The only gripe I have is that the story starts to drag around the last quarter or so but the finale is worth it. I really don’t want to say much more as you really should just play it, especially if you’ve been following the series since inception.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End yet again demonstrates Naughty Dog’s domination of the PlayStation 4, showcasing their expertise in creating experiences on this platform. It is by far the best looking game on PlayStation 4 to date and will be for a while to come. The core game, whilst evolutionary and familiar, is extremely well done. The improvements might be formulaic but the entire experience is tied together so well that it’s easy to overlook those aspects. As always the story is well done with the writers, voice and motion capture actors all coming together to produce a great performance. Uncharted 4, in my opinion, is the flagship title for the PlayStation 4 and a must play for anyone who owns this console.
Uncharted 4 is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $77. Total play time was approximately 12 hours with 11% of the trophies unlocked.