One of the secrets behind the Nintendo Wii’s wild success was how it was able to tap into one of the largest markets that had been largely ignored for decades: non-gamers. The games industry might eclipse other entertainment but it’s still doesn’t have the same level of penetration among the wider community. So when my non-gamer friends recommend games to me it’s always worth looking into as the design, objectives and mechanics are completely different than those I regularly play. That’s how Florence, an interactive story from the developer Moutains and published by Annapurna Interactive, made its way to me. I’m very glad it did too as the short experience is a great example of how simple mechanics, good story building and a wonderful soundtrack can come together into an emotional experience.
This review is mostly for people who’ve already played the game, so SPOILERS BELOW.
Florence follows the tale of a relationship between the protagonist (from whom the game draws its name) and Krish, a street performer. Whilst there are some bits of dialogue scattered throughout the game most of the communication is nonverbal, done through mini-games and graphic novel styled panels. The game has 20 chapters, each of which focuses on a different part of Florence’s life. You don’t have any real influence over how the story plays out, I believe, but you are able to put your own touches on some things, like a childhood painting that reappears in a couple scenes. This creates a narrative that, whilst guided by what you’re seeing on screen, is largely built out of your own imagination as you fill in the gaps between scenes. That’s what makes Florence’s story feel so personal to us all because, in the end, it’s us who’s building out her story.
The visuals are a simple, whimsical style reflective of our protagonist’s love of watercolour paints. The colours are usually solid with dark pen outlines, something that certainly felt reminiscent of a time when I used to dabble with them. Colour (and the lack of it) is also used to draw your attention to things or to reflect the mood of the characters on screen, with high tension moments taking on sharper, more aggressive tones and times of emotional lows reflected in the colour draining away. This is then all backed by an absolutely wonderful soundtrack by Kevin Penkin. This makes Florence an absolute joy to play just from an audio-visual experience which is then amplified tenfold by the narrative.
Florence starts of with a deliberately slow pace initially, reflecting the monotony of everyday life that everyone finds themselves in at some stage in their life. Then everything starts to pick up dramatically as a single event changes everything, in the case of Florence that’s meeting Krish. From there it’s a wonderful tale of seeing their young love blossom as they get to know each other at a much deeper level. The game mechanics start to come into play wonderfully at this point, like the conversations initially starting off difficult with lots of puzzle pieces but then, at its climax, turning into a single piece that just fits. Honestly I would’ve been quite happy with Florence if it just kept along that trajectory and never explored any of the more challenging aspects of being in a relationship. However I feel the developer wanted to explore relationships in a more realistic way, which is why the second half of Florence is dedicated to the breakup and how Florence recovers after.
For me personally this is where Florence started to really hit home. Not so much from the relationship perspective (although I’ve been there, but I’ve also been extremely lucky with my dear wife) but more in rediscovering something of yourself that you’d left behind and how sometimes tragedy is what leads you to rediscover that. That, I feel, is something universal to the human condition; we’re all pushed to pursue certain things in our lives and quite often a piece of ourselves might get left behind. Even when others recognise it in you and try to bring it out it can be hard to take the leap to begin the process of rebuilding yourself. The ending then is somewhat bittersweet, Florence has discovered how to be true to herself but only through gaining some emotional scars. Perhaps that’s why it’s stuck with me because it feels so true to life.
Florence is one of the best examples of a game that has universal appeal. The barrier to entry is low with it being available on iOS and Android and the mechanics being simple and easy to understand. The story it tells is one that I feel anyone can take something away from, whether it’s being stuck in a routine life, the joy of a new relationship, the pain of a breakup, rediscovering a lost passion or the process of rebuilding yourself up from your lowest point. On top of all of this it’s simply a wonderful audio visual experience with its whimsical art style and gorgeous backing soundtrack. Florence is hard to pass up because it asks so little of you yet gives so much in return, especially for lovers of a good story.
Florence is available on iOS and Android right now for $4.49. Game was played on Android with about 45 minutes of total play time.
Amanita Designs has developed quite the reputation for creating simple games with beautiful hand drawn visuals. Whilst they’ve been active since 2003 it wasn’t until their release of Machinarium in 2009 that they really broke through as a developer. Since then they’ve gone on to release several games in their trademark style, many of which have won praise for their visual design. Indeed I remarked as much in my review of their second full length game Botanicula back in 2012. I gave Samorost 3 a miss, mostly because I didn’t have the time to play through the previous 2, but when I saw CHUCHEL I was excited at the prospect at playing another one of Amanita’s games. However, whilst the trademark visual comedy style remains, this particular game failed to grab me in the same way Botanicula did.
You follow CHUCHEL and his pet/friend/enemy Kekel through a variety of challenges with one goal in mind: to get back that delicious cherry. To do so you’ll have to complete many and varied challenges ranging from simple things like distracting a watchful beast to playing a simplified version of pacman. Each of the panels is filled with clickable items that will react in varying ways, some producing rather hilarious and unintended effects. Solving the puzzle doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get your hands on that cherry though as a disembodied hand, which seems to revel in torturing poor little CHUCHEL, will likely sweep in at the last second and take it away from you.
Amanita’s visual design is as great as ever in CHUCHEL, leaning more towards a child like hand drawn aesthetic than its previous more dream-like works. The backgrounds are usually simple watercolour inspired designs with soft colours bleeding out and mixing together. Items and characters stand out from the background thanks to their hard edges and use of solid, bright colours (with the exception of furry things like CHUCHEL). The design has a children’s book feel to it with each of the levels feeling like it could be a page from one of your childhood favourites. It should come as no surprise that the game has already been recognised by the Independent Games Festival with an Excellence in Visual Art award.
Like their previous titles CHUCHEL is a point and click (sans adventure) game, requiring you to explore the environment by clicking around to figure out what you can and can’t do. For the most part the puzzles are contained to a single panel however there’s a few that take place over multiple, increasing the challenge. You’re quite unlikely to get stuck as the game seems to recognise when you’re taking too long to solve a particular puzzle and begins dropping hints about what you need to do. However there’s a lot to be uncovered should you take your time in solving the puzzles with much of the games content hidden in non-puzzle elements. This is then accompanied by a great soundtrack and excellent foley work which is sure to captivate many players, both young and old.
However unlike Botanicula, which managed to engage me right through to the end, CHUCHEL just failed to grab me. More so than its predecessor I believe CHUCHEL would likely be enjoyed more by children and played on an iPad as the game lends itself well to the platform. Playing it on the PC, whilst far from a bad experience, just feels like its half a stepped removed from how it’s meant to be played. I haven’t yet had the chance to unleash this particular game on any of my nephews or nieces but I’d hazard a guess this is the kind of game that could keep them thoroughly entertained for hours on end.
For me though there just wasn’t enough to keep me coming back to play it. The art and sound design are great but the puzzles quickly start to feel repetitive after a really short period of time. I personally could only play it in ~20 minute bursts before I grew tired of it. Perhaps the lack of even a simple overarching narrative, which Botanicula had, is the key here as there really wasn’t much beyond wanting to see the next scene to keep me going. I’ve barely played it for an hour and I just simply don’t feel like going back to it. Maybe I just need to watch someone else play it.
CHUCHEL is proof yet again that Amanita Design is a master of their style, delivering another gorgeous point and click adventure game that’s sure to delight many. The hand drawn childlike aesthetic is simply beautiful, echoing the kinds of things many us would’ve drawn as kids. Unfortunately the repetitive nature of some of the puzzles combined with the lack of even a simple overarching story made it hard for this reviewer to remain engaged with it long term. Still it’s easy to recognise the quality of the work put into making CHUCHEL and, whilist I might not have enjoyed it as much as their other games, it’s still likely worth picking up even if it is just for the kids.
CHUCHEL is available on PC, iOS and Android right now for $9.99. Game was played on the PC with just over an hour of play time and 0% of the achievements unlocked.
There’s no denying that the original Monument Valley set the bar for what a mobile game could be. Its minimalistic visual style has since been replicated by dozens of other titles but none have come close to matching it in terms of overall experience. Indeed even when compared to games on dedicated platforms it still ranks up there as one of the best puzzle games I’ve played in recent history. Of course I was devastated last year when I saw Monument Valley 2 was released on iOS and not Android, leaving me wondering when it would be out. Out of luck I was browsing the app store and, happily, I discovered that the sequel had been released. What followed was perhaps the best 2 hours of my gaming life this year in one of the strongest sequels I’ve ever played.
Taking part in a different corner of the Monument Valley universe to the one Ida inhabits Monument Valley 2 puts you in charge of Ro, another keeper of the world’s geometry. However her story is not one of tragedy and reviving a world left barren, instead it is of Ro, her child and what it means to grow up in this strange world. The journey is one they start out on together but eventually, as it always is for members their race, is one where they must part ways. The infinite mothers of the past are there to help guide you but ultimately it is up to you to carve your path through the world’s geometry and care for the monuments.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that ustwo games had retained the same art style as the original but the differences between the two are night and day. Whilst the overarching style retains the same minimalistic aesthetic, with the signature elements of simple shapes and bright colours, there’s a much greater use of shading, lighting effects and more overall “modern” design elements. The developers have also been much more adventurous when it comes to experimenting with the visual style they created with a much greater variety between different puzzles. Backing all of this is the impressive soundtrack and foley work, all of which is tied directly into how you interact with the puzzles on screen. Usually I scoff at games that tell me to reach for the headphones but in the case of Monument Valley 2 you’d be doing yourself a real disservice if you didn’t. It is so, so rare to find a game that manages to execute all these elements together so well. Rarer still are sequels that manage to improve on a formula that they defined before (I can only think of Inside as another example). Once again ustwo has demonstrated their mastery in crafting experiences like this.
The same non-Euclidean puzzle mechanics return for the sequel, making up the bulk of the Monument Valley 2’s game play. Each level plays out in much the same way as well with the puzzle’s main mechanic being introduced early in a simple form before it’s exploited in more varied and complex ways. The experimentation in visual style extends directly into the puzzles as well as the designers have been free to integrate more wide and varied visual elements with which to play. There’s also the rather fun addition of letting you drawn your own spirograph thing at the end of each sequence, a simple thing but one that brought an immense amount of joy to me. I think the best way to describe it is that it is the original but improved in nearly every way, something few sequels manage to get right.
For players of the original or veterans of the non-Euclidean puzzle genre though there’s not likely going to be much challenge to find here. I remember the original having numerous head scratching moments, some requiring me to put the game down for a bit to mull over my approach. This time around there was none of that, each of the puzzles being solved pretty much directly without much fussing about. I’m in two minds about this as, on the one hand, the reward from completing a challenge is (to a point) tied directly into the effort required to solve it. On the other there’s something to be said about puzzles that are designed in such a way that the pace of the game, and by extension its narrative, are maintained (like in The Turing Test). That is perhaps the only true negative I can level at the game, if you could call it that.
I did have some slight issues with touch recognition again with some interactions not working exactly how I’d expect them to. Again this could be a hardware level thing and this being Android small things like this are somewhat expected. For reference I am using an original Google Pixel and I did give the screen a thorough cleaning after I identified the issue first time around. That certainly made it better but there were still times when touches didn’t seem to register properly. However these weren’t constant so my overall impression of the game wasn’t tarnished much. It certainly didn’t wipe away the huge smile I had on my face the whole time I was playing.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Monument Valley II is one of the greatest examples of the basic writing principle “show, don’t tell”. All the information you need to understand the story is shown to you on screen and some of the things are so subtle that when you notice them a whole narrative blossoms in your mind. For example when you send your child off she’s young, her footsteps moving in double time to yours in order for her to keep up. Your world then turns to grey and the soundscape changes to a set of cutting, piercing noises that show every moment is a burden without her in your life. After then however colour slowly begins to return to your world as you know she is on a journey of her own making. Then when she returns you see that she’s no longer a child anymore, she’s a woman, now ready to take the responsibility you’ll bestow on her. Few games manage to communicate such complex emotions through such a simple medium with so little dialogue. After playing through numerous games recently with such a derth of narrative playing something like this reminds me of why I love narrative-first games. To ustwo I’m thankful for being reminded of that as it’s far too easy to forget sometimes.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Monument Valley 2 is a true gem of a game, one that extends itself far beyond the confines of the original. The art style has been improved in ways that I could never think of, the unbridled creativity of the level designers shining through in each level. The mechanics remain largely the same and will likely pose little challenge to those who played the original. However examining each of these parts individually feels like I’m doing the game a disservice as the overall experience is so much greater than any one component. Really for a game this good and of such short length there’s little more to say than this: go play it, you won’t regret it.
Monument Valley 2 is available on Android and iOS right now for $7.99. Game was played on a Google Pixel with approximately 2 hours of total play time with 100% of the achievements unlocked.
Even if I don’t manage to get 1 review per week out I do try to make sure I’ve at least played one game a week. That does become a little troublesome when I’m travelling for work, like I was all last week. Fear not, I thought, I’ll peruse the Google Play store and something will catch my attention. After an initial burst of excitement seeing Monument Valley 2 available I was inevitably let down by the fact that it’s not available on Android yet and was left to the pit of sorrow that is app discovery on the Play store. Eventually I came across Milkmaid of the Milky Way, a simple point and click adventure game that seemed perfect for playing through on the plane ride over to Singapore.
Ruth’s life has never been easy. Her mother disappeared when she was young and her father passing away many years later. Now she is in charge of the farm, churning out butter and making cheese that she sells at the local markets. Ruth can’t help but wonder if this all that there is for her in this life, doing the same things day in and day out. That all changes very suddenly when a UFO flies overhead and (predictably) steals away her cows, something that she just can not abide!
Milkmaid’s art style is now somewhat typical blend of traditional pixel art with a smattering of modern effects that we see in many modern adventure games. The detail is certainly on the low side, with most of the environments being decidedly uncluttered and most textures being solid colours. Considering most games are now overflowing with detail it’s refreshing to see a title that pairs it down a bit, letting the story and other elements do a bit more of the heavy lifting. Speaking of which the soundtrack to Milkmaid is top notch and is one of the things that will likely leave a strong impression on you. From there though things start to get a bit mixed.
Milkmaid is an adventure game, albeit a very short one. All the base elements you’d expect to see are there: a small inventory system, different areas that you’ll click madly around trying to figure out what you can interact with and some kind of challenge you need to complete before you can move on. There’s really nothing else of note to talk about from a base game mechanics perspective but, since I played this on my phone, there are some issues that I think are platform specific which bear mentioning.
Now I don’t know if Unity, Android or the game itself are to blame here but the touch detection on objects and UI elements is down right terrible. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to move an item out of my inventory only to have it not respond at all. Worse still tapping on the screen doesn’t always seem to register on interactive screen elements, leading to a bunch of highly frustrating incidents where I was stuck on a puzzle because I thought I’d already clicked everything, only to find out that nope, that thing I thought was unclickable actually was. Worse still is the fact that some elements are so small on screen (and it’s not like I’m using a small device either, it’s a Pixel XL) that it’s nigh on impossible to actually see them. This ultimately left me thinking the game was bugged as I simply couldn’t find anywhere else to explore. Checking a walkthrough showed that there was a screen I hadn’t got to yet, one which had an impossibly small area to click on to get to it. Suffice to say, whilst this game can be played on mobile, I’m not sure it’s the best platform for it.
From a story perspective it’s certainly not bad, indeed I’d rate it above most story-second games, however the developer made the horrendous choice of using rhyming couplets for all text. I’ve lamented the use of this kind of dialogue style before and my opinion hasn’t changed since then. For me it feels like it removes a dimension from the characters, constraining them all into the same cadence and making it hard for them to differentiate themselves properly. Worse still it seems like the dev actually started off with a more traditional script and decided to change it after writing the first chapter. How I’d feel about the story if it wasn’t told in this way is something we’ll never know.
Overall Milkmaid of the Milky Way is an average adventure game, one that’s probably better played on the PC rather than on a mobile device. The uncluttered pixel art style and great backing sound track are its stand out achievements, both of which are let down by the so-so mobile implementation and the honestly bonkers choice of writing in rhyme. Of course I’m willing to admit my impression might just be due to this old writer’s biases so take that into consideration. Though for the price of admission, and the fact I could play it on the go, Milkmaid of the Milky Way was a perfectly acceptable way to spend part of my plane trip overseas.
Milkmaid of the Milky Way is available on PC, Android and iOS right now for $5.99. Game was played on a Pixel XL running Android Oreo with approximately 2.5 hours of total play time.
The use of full motion video in games used to be a kludge; done to inject a semblance of realism into an otherwise unrealistic world. Even with brand name actors they still had the penchant to be campy and overacted, but that ended up being part of their charm. The late 90s to early 2000s saw FMVs fall out of favour, replaced instead with cinematic renderings or in-game cut-scenes. Recently however the FMV has been making something of a comeback with titles like Quantum Break upping the ante when it comes to mixed-media productions. However what I haven’t seen up until now is a movie production that incorporates game elements and that’s where Late Shift, from CtrlMovie, comes in. At its heart Late Shift is very much a film production but it also incorporates the idea of player’s choice, putting you in charge of how the movie plays out.
Late Shift puts you in control of Matt, a young student who’s taken a job as a parking attendant for high end cars. The night begins like any other with Matt taking his place at the front booth and settling down to while away the hours until his shift is over. From here where the story goes is up to you and you’ll be faced with numerous decisions over the course of the film, each of which can have a drastic impact on how the plot plays out. Late Shift features some 180 decision points, 7 different endings, 14 chapters combining into a total of about 4 hours of film. Suffice to say it’s an impressive gambit and one that I didn’t think would grab me as much as it did.
The film made its debut on iOS and in select cinemas last year, only coming to Steam just recently. Reading up on the cinema release shows that they used an audience majority vote to dictate the choices, using the audience’s smart phones to cast the votes. Indeed it seems that CtrlMovie’s whole focus is on developing technology to support more movies like this with Late Shift demonstrating on the bare essentials of what they are currently capable of. In all honesty I’m excited to see where this kind of tech could lead as I’m a big fan of narrative focused games and, whilst I’ve said I like interactive movies before, this is probably the first title to be 100% true to that idea.
Mechanically Late Shift is very simple: at various points throughout the movie’s run time you’ll be presented with a bunch of options. Depending on which one you choose certain things will happen and the course of the story may change. I’d estimate that about half the chapters are “mandatory” in the sense that there’s really no way to escape them but even in them there’s a bunch of decisions that change how that particular chapter plays out. There’s also the option of not making a decision at all (if you allow the timer to play out) but from what I can tell that by default chooses the leftmost option. Once its all said and done you’ll be presented with a screen that shows you how many decisions you made, the number of chapters you saw and the endings that you unlocked. It would’ve been nice to see the global statistics for choices at this point but they weren’t included (and I can partly understand why, they don’t want to spoil the other endings).
I was initially on the fence about whether or not Late Shift would be worth it but after playing it through once myself I was sold on it. My wife also enjoys these kinds of interactive stories (she played Until Dawn no less than 4 times over) so we sat down to play it through again together, this time with her in the driver’s seat. It was interesting to see the choices which, on the surface, would seem to not matter actually influencing some aspects of the story quite heavily. Additionally her ending played out completely differently to mine, showcasing some decision points which, in my play through, meant nothing but for her meant a lot more. Interestingly her play through also highlighted that there is a “path of least resistance” as the game will put up a lot more roadblocks to some decisions than others.
The tech that drives this is relatively simple however there are a few rough edges that could be smoothed out a bit. CtrlMovie boasts “seamless playback” on their website but it’s anything but with decision points, the interface freezing up for a half second or so as it loads the next bit of video. Additionally, and this might have been due to us using Steam in-home streaming for the second playthrough, the click recognition on the decisions can be a little finicky at times. Both of these things aren’t huge distractions from the overall experience though and are things that can be easily fixed with a few minor patches.
Late Shift’s story is a crime thriller and its strength comes from the interactivity. If it was presented just as is I don’t think it’d be anywhere near as engaging as it is otherwise. There are a few weird plot holes that exist due to the interactive nature, mostly things that may/may not have relevance to your particular story thread. I’ll stop short of saying it’s a must see for everyone but if you’re a lover of narrative-first games, walking simulators and the like then Late Shift is definitely up your alley.
Late Shift shows that the ideas of player choice can translate well into the land of cinema. It’s definitely a 1.0 product although that being said the rough edges and handful of choice-driven plot holes are a small price to pay for the overall quality of the end product. I really can’t say much more without diving into spoiler territory but suffice to say Late Shift was an unexpected gem, one I’m sure will get a few more playthroughs in the future.
Late Shift is available on iOS and PC right now for $12.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours playtime and 40% of the achievements unlocked.
This may come as a surprise given my gaming pedigree but I never really got into the old Lucasfilm adventure games. It wasn’t a lack of interest, more that we were a MS-DOS/PC house and my friends who loved those games were all Mac families. So I stuck to my titles and they to theirs and so I was left to discover adventure games much later in life. I tell you this because I feel a lot of what should make Thimbleweed Park good is tied up in the nostalgia associated with those games. Don’t get me wrong, nostalgia is a completely valid thing to base a game on, however for those lacking the requisite history with the product/franchise/developer those same elements can be confusing, kitchsey or downright trite. Such is my experience with Thimbelweed Park, one where I can see a lot of what I know is likely to be a huge draw card for many but simply not for me.
Thimbleweed Park puts you in charge of a whole host of characters, ranging from two detectives who couldn’t be more different, to a young girl with aspirations to become a game developer and even a clown cursed to never be able to remove his makeup. The game starts off with the detectives investigating a murder in this sleepy town of just 81 people. What follows is a deep dive into the town’s history, how it came to be and why everything seems to hinge on a single dilapidated pillow factory on the town’s outskirts.
As the game was developed by the very same people behind all those Lucasfilm Games titles it should come as no surprise that its art direction reflects them to a tee. The art is perhaps a bit more detailed than its predecessors were with things like better shading being quite noticeable on comparison. Thimbleweed Part definitely leans more towards a stylized, cartoony feel rather than a pixel-art imitation of the real world which, again, is reminiscent of its spiritual predecessors. The simplistic graphics do belies a great amount of detail in some areas however, like the bookshelves (which in most adventure games would just be decorative) containing hundreds of titles in them. This is, of course, all part of the game’s core mechanics.
There’s nothing new or inventive about how Thimbleweed Park plays out and that’s very much by design. Long time fans of these specific kinds of games will be instantly familiar with the trademark grab-bag of verbs at the bottom left-hand side of the screen which dictate how you can interact with objects and NPCs. There’s your inventory which will contain a bevy of both useful and useless items, although which is which is an exercise left up to the reader. Every room is filled with details, some of which you’ll need to solve the current issue du-jour and others that will come in handy later. Indeed the structure of Thimbleweed park is done in such a way that there’s no dead-ends and no way for your character to die so you should (hopefully) never get stuck. Combine this with witty quips from all the characters, constant breaking of the fourth wall and not-so-subtle references to the developer’s previous employer and you’ve got a campy but interesting trip down memory lane…I assume.
As the game will tell you (if you listen to the pigeons, that is) Thimbleweed Park is a well designed adventure game in terms of mechanics and puzzle layout. For the first few chapters there’s always something to do and a pretty logical construction to all the puzzles. The inclusion of a to-do list for every character means that you’ll always have at least half a thought towards what you should be doing, even if it’s not immediately obvious. You will however still spend your time doing what you always do in these adventure games: trying a whole bunch of different item combinations and interactions until you finally figure out which one works. Of course once you figure it out it all makes sense, but the journey to that point can be quite frustrating at times.
Thimbleweed Park’s puzzle construction and layout might be both its greatest strength and weakness. Whilst it’s great to have a lot of avenues for progression having them early on can be something of a mixed bag. If you’re like me then you’re quite likely to chase down a bunch of red herrings that aren’t related to your current objective, just because they seem like obvious problems to solve. A good example of this is a puzzle in the diner which I cottoned onto very early on in my play through. Trouble with that was that puzzle didn’t need to be solved until right at the end of the game and so I ended up wondering what the point of it was, thinking I had wasted my time. This is in stark contrast to my general experience with adventure games (both new and old) which gate puzzles like that to keep you on track.
For people who really like to explore through everything though I don’t think this will be much of a problem. The amount of content in Thimbleweed Park is pretty impressive, putting the average completed play through at around 16 hours or so. For people like me though, those without the background in these titles or a deep interest in the story (more on that in a second) it can lend itself to frustration. This is why at around the 4 hour mark or so I gave up any semblance of dignity and headed for the walk through guides with reckless abandon. I do this because otherwise I’d be likely to quit the game in frustration and this way, at least, I can see how the story ends.
The story didn’t do much to grab me, unfortunately. Sure it’s refreshing to see a game not conform to the current norms for adventure games (both new and those in a similar style to this) but after a while some of those aspects start to lose its sheen. Breaking the fourth wall can be funny and thought provoking, but you can only do it so often before it becomes repetitive. The one-liners, repeated jokes and other story mechanics are good in moderation but that’s not something Thimbleweed Park has in large supply. I’m sure all these things that I’m mentioning as negatives are things that long time fans of these types of games say they love, and I’m not trying to take away from that. More I’m trying to show you what it looks like from an outsider coming in and, honestly, it just wasn’t all that and a bag of chips.
It probably doesn’t help that I didn’t really engage with the story past the first 4 chapters or so. The various character’s story arcs were only loosely coupled together which made their required co-operation to solve puzzles even more confusing. Again this comes back to the no-dead-end policy which, whilst ensuring the player can’t find themselves irrevocably stuck, means that certain things aren’t as tight as they could be. For me this appeared to be the story as the connecting elements just weren’t there to pull the whole thing together. Couple that with the items I mentioned before and the overall story experience just wasn’t up to the level that the hype surrounding this game would have you believe.
Thimbleweed Park is most certainly a game for the fans of the Lucasfilm Games series of years gone past, something which this old writer unfortunately let slide by. Had I not my experience of this game would likely be worlds different; a trip down nostalgia lane rather than a mediocre adventure game. All this being said though there is an inherit quality to the game, one that has obviously been shaped by the decades of experience by those who created it. So whilst it might be making my game of the year list I’m sure it’s going to be a delight to those it was made for: those with an inner child who still hold Lucasfilm Games in high regard.
Thimbleweed Park is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, iOS and Android right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 7 hours of total play time and 55% of the achievements unlocked.
Ah the post christmas drought, where everyone is still reeling from the barrage of AAA titles that were released just in time for the holiday season and nothing else is scheduled to come out for weeks. Often this is the time where I catch up on titles from the previous year that slipped my grasp but this time around I managed to do much of that over the christmas break. So I wandered the Steam Winter sale (something which is incredibly disappointing when half of the titles are already in your library) and came across Hocus, a curious little game whose puzzles take inspiration from the mind bending drawings of M.C. Escher.
The principle of the game is simple, you have a red cube and you need to get it into the little red ditch. Of course it’s not as simple as clicking on it however as the path to get to the goal isn’t as straightforward as it might look. Instead you’ll have to figure out which pieces cross where, how your perspective is being twisted and which parts of the impossible drawing are real. It’s a mind bending exercise in throwing away your preconceived ideas of geometry and figuring out just how all the bits and pieces actually fit together, something that can be a quite complex challenge once you’re in the thick of it.
Whilst Hocus most certainly started out as a mobile game I really have to commend the amount of work the developer put into the steam version of their title. The game has been fully reworked to make use of the PC platform rather than just being a straight port dump like so many others are. This goes hand in hand with the beautiful minimalistic stylings, both in terms of the game itself and the background music. This just seems to be the start for Hocus too as the developer has promised to deliver a level editor in the not too distant future.
In terms of actual game play Hocus is most certainly a satisfying challenge, providing you with numerous puzzles to try your wits against. The difficulty curve isn’t entirely linear though as some puzzles, even though they look complex on first glance, are by far the easiest. Indeed it was the seemingly simple puzzles which presented me with the most grief, probably because they really only had one true solution. Hocus’ puzzle design also fits the mobile platform better than the PC, due to the fact that it starts to feel a bit repetitive after a longer session.
Hocus is a great puzzler, one that benefits greatly from the developer’s commitment to the game and the community that has cropped up around it. The minimalistic stylings are a perfect fit for this kind of game, focusing you directly on the challenge at hand. The puzzles themselves are no trifle either and are sure to provide a challenge for even the most non-linear thinkers among us. If you’re looking for another time killer for your phone or just enjoy a good non-Euclidean styled puzzler then Hocus is definitely a title you should check out.
Hocus is available on iOS and PC right now for $0.99 and $1.99 respectively. Total play time was approximately 1 hour.
Long time readers will know that I’ve long held the belief that OSX and iOS were bound to merge at some point in the future. For me the reasons for thinking this are wide and varied, but it is most easily seen in ever vanishing delineation between the two hardware lines that support them. The iPad Pro was the last volley that iOS launched against its OSX brethren and, for me, was the concrete proof that Apple was looking to merge the two product lines once and for all. Some recent off-hand remarks from CEO Tim Cook convinced many of my line of thinking, enough so that Tim Cook has come out saying that Apple won’t be developing a converged Mac/iPad device.
That statement probably shouldn’t come as much of surprise given that Cook called the Surface Book “deluded” just under a week ago. Whilst I can understand that it’s every CEO’s right to have a dig at the competition the commentary from Cook does seem a little naive in this regard. The Surface has shown that there’s a market for a tablet-first laptop hybrid and there’s every reason to expect a laptop first tablet hybrid will meet similar success. Indeed the initial reactions to the Surface Book are overwhelmingly positive so Cook might want to reconsider the rhetoric he’s using on this, especially if they ever start eyeing off creating a competing device like they did with the iPad Pro.
The response about non-convergence though is an interesting one. Indeed, as Windows 8 showed, spanning a platform between all types of devices can lead to a whole raft of compromises that leaves nobody happy. However Microsoft has shown that it can be done right with Windows 10 and the Surface Book is their chief demonstrator of how a converged system can work. By distancing himself from the idea that the platforms will never meet in the middle, apart from the handful of integration services that work across both platforms, Cook limits the potential synergy that can be gained from such integration.
At the same time I get the feeling that the response might have be born out of the concern he stirred up with his previous comment about not needing a PC any more. He later clarified that as not needing a PC that’s not a Mac since they are apparently not Personal Computers. For fans of the Mac platform this felt like a clear signal that Apple feels PCs are an also ran, something that they keep going in order to endear brand loyalty more than anything else. When you look at the size of the entire Mac business compared to the rest of Apple it certainly looks that way with it making less than 10% of the company’s earnings. For those who use OSX as their platform for creation the consternation about it going away is a real concern.
As you can probably tell I don’t entirely believe Tim Cook’s comments on this matter. Whilst no company would want to take an axe to a solid revenue stream like the Mac platform the constant blurring of the lines between the OSX and iOS based product lines makes the future for them seem inevitable. It might not come as a big bang with the two wed in an unholy codebase marriage but over time I feel the lines between what differentiates either product line will be so blurred as to be meaningless. Indeed if the success of Microsoft’s Surface line is anything to go by Apple may have their hand forced in this regard, something that few would have ever expected to see happen to a market leader like Apple.
Time waster style games were once the bastion of Flash games hosted on sites like Newgrounds. Since the introduction of smartphones they’ve slowly transitioned themselves away from the web and instead found a comfortable home on everyone’s mobile device. Thus it seems kind of odd these days to play a time waster style game on the PC as they’re no longer the platform of choice for this genre. Still when deciding on whether or not I should get Hook on my mobile or my PC I opted for the latter, if only because I rarely find time to play games on my mobile these days. Interestingly though Hook seems simple enough that it can service both platforms without needing to make any concessions with either.
Hook has a very simple premise: you have to pull all the wires back without any of them colliding with each other. You do this by pushing a trigger that initiates the pulling and, if you done everything in the correct order, it’ll slide all the way back. Other than that there’s not a whole lot more to speak of and the base game comes with a grand total of 50 levels to make your way through. If you’re a power gamer this won’t take you much longer than an hour to accomplish although I’m sure if you got this on the mobile you could stretch out that play time over the course of weeks if you were so inclined.
Hook, like many other minimalistic puzzlers, has a very clean and simple aesthetic. I’m sure part of this was an artistic choice but later on it becomes obvious that the lack of distinction between visual elements is actually a key element of the game play. The background music is similarly simplistic, swelling and fading as you solve puzzles or make a mistake that triggers the level to refresh again. I’m sure some would like the option to change the colour palette but in all honesty I don’t think I’d bother.
As I described before the mechanics of Hook are pretty simple, pull all the wires back without any of them colliding with each other. The puzzles start out pretty simple, literally just clicking any of the buttons in any order will solve them, but after that new mechanics start getting dropped in every 10 puzzles or so to spice things up a bit. Most of these additional mechanics come in the form of ways to block off paths however there’s also a few that break the line, forcing you to retrace the paths again. It would be easy enough to brute force the puzzles however if you make one mistake (or 3 in the later ones) the puzzle refreshes, forcing you to restart from the beginning.
There’s a pretty simple algorithm you can use to beat every one of the puzzles contained within this game although executing it may be a little easier said than done. What you first need to do is find the line that can be moved first, usually one without anything blocking it. Then you need to block off all other paths so that only it gets moved. Then from there it’s simply an iterative process to eliminate the rest of them. Using this process I was easily able to breeze through all 50 puzzles in just over an hour, something that many other reviewers have been able to do. This is probably one of those games that could benefit immensely from a level editor and Steam Workshop integration as I’m sure the community would be able to come up with infinite puzzles that would be orders of magnitude more difficult than the default set.
Hook is a great little puzzler with an unique mechanic. The puzzles, whilst not especially challenging, are rewarding enough that I felt compelled to blast through them all in one sitting. It’s shortness is something of a detraction, especially considering that the addition of a level editor and a way to share user created levels would ensure a near endless supply of content. Still for the asking price I don’t think anyone will really mind the lack of content as $1 for 1 hour of entertainment is pretty good by anyone’s standards.
Hook is available on iOS, Android, Windows Phone and PC right now for $0.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with a total of 1 hour playtime.
PC ports of mobile games have mostly been of low quality. Whilst many of the games make use of a base engine that’s portable between platforms often those who are doing the porting are the ones who developed the original game and the paradigms they learnt developing for a mobile platform don’t translate across. There are exceptions to this, of course, however it’s been the main reason why I’ve steered clear of many ported titles. The Silent Age however has received wide and varied praise, even after it recently made the transition to the PC and so my interest was piqued. Whilst the game might not be winning any awards in the graphics or game play department it did manage to provide one of the better story experiences I’ve had with games of this nature.
You’re Joe, the lowly janitor of the giant research and development corporation Archon. For the most part your life is pretty mundane except for the wild and wonderful things that your partner in crime, fellow janitor Frank, tells you about. One day however you’re called up to management and, lucky for you, it’s good news! You’re getting promoted, taking over all of Frank’s responsibilities because you’ve shown such dedication to your job (with no pay increase, of course, you understand). When you go down to inspect the place where you’ll be doing your new duties however you notice something strange, a trail of blood leading into one of the restricted areas. Following that trail starts you on a long journey that will eventually end with you saving the world.
The Silent Age comes to us care of the Unity platform however you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was an old school flash game that had been revamped for the mobile and PC platforms. It shares a similar aesthetic to many of the games from the era when Flash reigned supreme with simple colours, soft gradients and very simple animations. On a mobile screen I’m sure it looks plenty good although on my 24″ monitors the simple style does lose a little bit of its lustre. Still it’s not a bad looking game by any stretch of the imagination but you can tell which platform it was designed for primarily.
Mechanically The Silent Age plays just like any other indie adventure game with your usual cavalcade of puzzles that consist of wildly clicking on everything and trying every item in your inventory to see if something works. The puzzles are really just short breaks between the longer dialogue sections which, interestingly enough, are all fully voiced. There’s a small extra dimension added by the time travel device, allowing you to travel to the past or future at will, but it’s nothing like the mind bending time manipulation made famous by some other indie titles. Other than that there’s really not much more to The Silent Age something which I ended up appreciating as it meant there wasn’t a bunch of other mechanics thrown in needlessly. It’s pretty much the most basic form of an adventure game I’ve played in a while and that simplicity was incredibly refreshing.
The puzzles are pretty logical with all of them having pretty obvious solutions. There’s no real difficulty curve to speak of as pretty much all of them felt about on par with each other, although there were a few puzzles that managed to stump me completely. Usually this was a result of me missing something or not recognizing a particular visual clue (a good example being the pile of wood in the tunnel under the hospital, it just looked like background to me) so that’s not something I’d fault the developer for. Some of the puzzles were a little ludicrous, requiring a little knowledge about how some things could potentially interact, but at least most of them wouldn’t take more than ten minutes or so of blind clicking to get past. Overall it wasn’t exactly a challenging experience which I felt was by design.
The PC port was a smooth one as pretty much everything in the game worked as expected. The 2D nature helps a lot in this regard as there’s a pretty good translation between tapping on the screen and using a mouse cursor but I’ve seen lesser developers even manage to ruin that. There was one particular problem which caught me out several times however which was that my mouse, if it strayed outside the bounds of the main window, would not be captured. So every so often I’d end up clicking on my web browser or whatever else I had open on my second monitor at the time, closing the game down. A minor complaint, to be sure, but one that’s easily fixed.
The story of The Silent Age is one of the better examples I’ve come across recently, especially for a mobile title. Whilst it’s not exactly the most gripping or emotionally charged story I’ve played of late it does a good job of setting everything up and staying true to itself internally. Of course whenever you introduce time travel into a story things start to get a little weird depending on what model of causality and paradox resolution you ascribe to and The Silent Age is no exception to this. However they manage to stay true to the rules they set up which is more than most high budget films are capable of. Overall I’d say it was satisfying even if it wasn’t the most engaging story.
The Silent Age is a succinct story told through the medium of video games, one that manages to avoid many of the pitfalls that have befallen its fellow mobile to PC port brethren. The art style is simple and clean, reminiscent of Flash games of ages gone by. The puzzle mechanics are straightforward, ensuring that no one will be stuck for hours trying every single item in their inventory to progress to the next level. The story, whilst above average for its peers, lacks a few key elements that would elevate it to a gripping, must-play tale. Overall The Silent Age was a solid experience, even if it wasn’t ground breaking.
The Silent Age is available on PC, Android and iOS right now for $9.99, $6.50 and $6.50 respectively. Game was played on the PC with approximately 2 hours of total play time and 71% of the achievements unlocked.