Exploration games fit into two major categories: those that guide you along a pre-determined path, allowing you to wander off to your heart’s content, and those who simply drop you in a world and let you have at it. For the purists the latter is more desireable as you’re free to uncover the world as you see fit. However for those looking to tell a story the former is a much better approach as it gives you control over what parts of the story are revealed when. Cradle, though indicating that it was a more of a unguided adventure, fits into the latter category, guiding you along a predetermined path whilst revealing its story to you.
The year is 2076 and the advances in science have been numerous. Age and death have been conquered as people can now transfer their consciousness from their physical form into synthetic bodies, granting them immortality. However this technological marvel brought with it a terrible plague as some people rejected the technology at a fundamental level, causing them to violently explode. You, however, have no knowledge of this, waking up in a yurt in rural Mongolia without any memories of who you are. So begins your journey to rediscover who you are, why you found yourself in this place and what part you have to play in its future.
Cradle is a decidedly pretty game, especially from a game studio whose entire team consists of four people. It has a muted aesthetic which helps with the kind of post-apocalyptic feel that permeates most aspects of the game. On first look it reminded me of the numerous games that have been built on the Unreal engine but in fact it’s built on Unigine, a relatively unknown platform. Suffice to say it’s definitely capable of producing some top quality visuals although there were a couple unexplained slowdowns from time to time.
As I alluded to earlier Cradle is a guided exploration game, plonking you in a seemingly huge world to explore and discover. The world is littered with remnants of its past like articles, brochures and books, all of which will help you in understanding the world you now find yourself in. Interestingly Cradle wants to make you think it’s an unguided adventure however, should you play it as one, you’ll likely run up against numerous obstacles as many things have to be done in a very specific order. Additionally there’s a rather peculiar mini-game which you either need to complete, or fail at least once and then skip, several times over in order to progress the story further. Overall once you get past the idea that this is supposed to be an unguided adventure Cradle starts to come into its own, despite some of its more glaring faults.
You’ll spend the vast majority of the game travelling between two main points in the game: your yurt and what appears to be a nearby amusement park. Whilst the core of the story will be revealed to you by following the path that the “hint” system (which it really isn’t, it’s really an objective tracker) sets out for you there’s quite a lot more that’s revealed in all the various artefacts that are scattered around the place. Thankfully most of these things aren’t giant walls of text that have become common in games like this, making it a little easier to digest the wealth of information at your disposal.
The mini-game, which you’ll have to play several times over, is honestly quite confusing when you first play it. The rules are simple enough to understand but their implementation is just a little confusing. It’s not entirely clear on whether using the blocks you need to reach the goal for other things, like making bombs or platforms, will actually consume that block. After a couple tries though it’s easy enough to get the hang of it and, thankfully, should you fail once you can simply skip the game entirely. I can see why the developers included this minigame, it’s good to have a break from all the reading/talking/walking from time to time, however it wasn’t what I’d call one of Cradle’s standout features.
Whilst the whole “I’ve lost my memories and need to figure out who I am” trope might’ve been done to death the backstory of Cradle was interesting enough that I was able to let it slide. Your relationship with the woman you find, whilst feeling a little stilted thanks to the rather flat voice acting by the main character, develops rather well as both your backstories are fleshed out together. The game does feel like it ends somewhat abruptly as the main character seems to know something the player doesn’t but it does at least wrap up most of the loose ends. There is some rather lively discussion going on in Cradle’s community forum about the various aspects of the ending and, honestly, it was actually kind of nice to trawl through it and figure out what I thought the ending really meant.
Cradle is a beautiful game, both in aesthetic terms and the story it crafts. Whilst you’ll spend your time in a small area you’ll quickly find it brimming with details, building up the world which your small slice of post-apocalyptic paradise resides. The mini-games and the flat voice acting are Cradle’s two major failings however they’re both quickly forgotten as you dive deeper into the narrative that developers has crafted. For lovers of the exploration game genre there’s plenty to love in Cradle and for a first game from an indie studio it does credit to the talent at Flying Cafe.
Cradle is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was approximately 4 hours with 44% of the achievements unlocked.
They say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and if there’s any truth to that then Notch, creator of Minecraft, must be feeling awfully flattered. Whilst there’s only been a few outright copies that have looked to capitalize on Minecraft’s success there’s seemingly an endless number of games that have drawn inspiration from it. From games like Terraria which translated the idea into 2D and then added its own flavour to others which have taken the block/mining/building idea and put some kind of twist on it. Blocks That Matter is the latter, being a 2D puzzler that uses the idea of mining and placing blocks as the main game play component.
Blocks That Matter puts you in control Tetrobot, a small white block with arms, legs and a drill who’s capable of mining blocks and placing them anywhere on the map. You’re the creation of 2 struggling game developers who, instead of working on their latest title, were working on you. This drew the ire of a mysterious individual who kidnaps the developers and forces them to complete their game. You are their only hope for rescue and in order to make it to them you have to navigate your way through various puzzle areas in order to reach a portal that will transport you closer to them.
Whilst there’s nothing particularly amazing about the graphics of Blocks That Matter I did find it quite visually pleasing, mostly because of the neo-retro aesthetic that’s consistent throughout the entire game. There’s a definite homage to the classic platformers with many of the tile sets bearing a striking resemblance to the games that inspired them. That being said whilst it might be inspired by several different games of yore Blocks That Matter still has its own distinct style about it and I certainly never found myself thinking I was bored with it visually.
As I alluded to earlier Blocks That Matter draws inspiration from Minecraft for one of its main mechanics but it also combines aspects from another game to give it a challenging bent. Whilst you’re free to mine and collect certain types of blocks (a selection which gets expanded as you progress) you can’t simply place any block wherever you want. There are 2 simple rules to placing blocks: the first is that it must attach to another block or a wall somewhere, meaning you can’t just place them in the middle of the air. The second, and by far the most challenging aspect, is that all the blocks must be placed in sets of 4 meaning all the shapes you can create are in fact are tetrominoes (the pieces found in Tetris).
In the beginning this doesn’t present too much of a challenge, especially once you figure out certain ways to construct things that will allow you to recover the majority of your blocks whilst getting one of them into the position you needed it in. There’s also some areas where Blocks That Matter shows off some emergent game play aspects because of this as if you manage to save enough blocks you can effectively get yourself anywhere on the map without too much trouble. This idea of block conservation becomes key in later levels as many of the puzzles will be incredibly difficult unless you have a certain number of blocks spare.
This becomes even more important when you’re given the skill which can destroy any type of block (useful as there’s many block types that you will simply never be able to drill) as long as they’re in a row of eight or more. Quite often you will be able to make rows with a certain minimum number of blocks, however should you simply rush into it you’ll end up wasting blocks that you didn’t need to. Finding these little block advantages isn’t necessarily required if you’re just trying to get to the end however should you want to mine the block that matters (the little treasure chest shown in the bottom left hand corner in the screenshot above) every block counts as most of the time you’ll need all of them to get to it.
For the most part the puzzles are challenging and rewarding upon completion, especially when you manage to get through them the first time through. However I feel there’s a critical flaw in the way most puzzles play out. You see it’s quite possible for you to get yourself into a situation where you will not be able to complete a level (like being trapped under undrillable blocks). Don’t worry you can suicide yourself and restart the level, all good right? Well whilst that does get around the sticky problem of having to playtest everything so thoroughly that the players can never truly bugger themselves up it does mean that challenges you once completed get undone, forcing you to replay that section of the level. When you make a simple mistake right at the end of the level having to replay it all from the beginning isn’t that fun, especially if that “mistake” was misplacing a block which you could no longer recover.
The puzzles also start to get a bit samey after a while, even with the additional upgrades that add different game mechanics. There’s just over 40 levels in the adventure mode and another dozen or so in the bonus section but by about the halfway point you will have seen most of the tricks. From there on it’s just a matter of making your way through them, conserving blocks and figuring out which types need to be saved and which can be turfed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there’s a lot of people who will enjoy that kind of challenge, but it certainly lost me by about level 34 or so, to the point where I didn’t bother playing through until the end.
The story is also a little strange as it takes the 4th wall, smashes it into pieces and then proceeds to dance on its bloody corpse for the rest of the game. The characters are Penny Arcade style spin offs of their creators being 2 independent game developers which mirrors Swing Swing Submarine’s actual development crew. It’s a rather light hearted affair and really only there to give you some modicum of motivation to keep doing what you’re doing but I couldn’t help but feel a little awkward during any of the plot points thanks to that 4th wall chicanery.
For a game that’s essentially a mash up of nearly every game that my generation grew up on Blocks That Matter does a great job of creating its own unique experience using all those elements without feeling like a cheap imitation. The puzzles are challenging, artwork unique yet familiar and the overall experience is smooth and trouble free. The story and having to repeat challenges ad nauseum are where Blocks That Matter lets itself down and whilst there’s no easy way to fix the story the addition of a quick save system would go a long way to making those long, complicated puzzles towards the end much more enjoyable. For fans of puzzlers or just those of us who grew up on all the titles that Blocks That Matter pays homage to there’s a lot to love in this game and is worth paltry price of admission.
Blocks That Matter is available on PC and Xbox right now for $4.99 and 240 Microsoft Points respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 4 hours played and 28% of the achievements unlocked.
4 hours played, 28% of the achievements unlocked.
The new year is upon us and its a good a time as any to take stock of the year that just past. 2011 was quite a year for gaming with several hotly anticipated block buster releases hitting the shelves, some mere weeks after each other. It was also something of a coming of age for this blog in terms of game reviews, seeing myself being flown up to Sydney to preview Modern Warfare 3 and getting my very first ever review copy of a game. Now with the year over it’s time for me to put my vote in for game of the year and whilst I’d love to say it was a close competition it really was anything but.
All in all 2011 saw me complete 22 games total (there were far more played, see here for an explanation as to why they didn’t get reviewed) and here’s an exhaustive list of the reviews in chronological order:
As I was creating this list it struck me just how mixed this list of games is. Whilst the dominant platform is still PC for me there’s 2 other platforms in there and their respective releases both felt right at home on their platform of choice. The dominant genre here would appear to be FPS although just going off the usual 8~10 hour playtime rule for said genre I dare say that the vast majority of my gaming time in 2011 was spent on RPGs or games with a RPG element to them. Although if I’m honest I have blown quite a lot of my time recently in Modern Warfare 3’s multiplayer and a heck of a lot more in Star Wars: The Old Republic (review coming soon!).
Before I dive into the game of the year however there’s a few games that deserve recognition either for their accomplishments or outright failures.
Gemini Rue is by far the most underrated game of the bunch. It’s been well received critically both here and elsewhere but it’s still a title most people would not know if they heard it. I’d say this was because of its lack of a release on Steam when it first came out (which has since changed) even though it had a digital distribution channel. Still the game is expertly crafted, bringing up all kinds of nostalgia whilst delivering a story that I really cared about, thoroughly exploiting all aspects of its chosen pixel art medium. Whilst it might not make the cut for my game of the year it would definitely get my vote for independent game of the year, hands down.
For most over-hyped/biggest let down of the year the title can go to none other than Duke Nukem Forever. I was thinking about making it a tie between said title and Rage but in defense of id’s latest release it at least had some redeeming features in the engine and game play. Duke Nukem Forever is unfortunately nothing like that being little more than a generic shooter that rode the Duke brand as hard as it could. Indeed it’s the definition of a critic proof release as for Gearbox it was a commercial success despite it’s woeful critical reception. I’ll be honest this is the only game that I played through to the end just so I could review it as for any other title I would’ve just stopped playing and not bothered to review it.
So what then is my game of the year for 2011? The answer is Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
As a game Human Revolution really is something amazing. The graphics are simply superb with it rightly taking the title away from Crysis as being the game to stress test your new rig with. That’d all be for naught if the game wasn’t good but suffice to say it’s brilliant. The plot and characters are engrossing, there are wide and varied game mechanics ensuring that no 2 playthroughs are the same and it has rekindled that feeling that everyone had when they first played the original Deus Ex. Put simply Deus Ex: Human Revolution sets the bar for the FPS/RPG hybrid genre and does it with an almost effortless elegance. It’s fitting then that it received my highest score review score of the year, putting it second only to StarCraft 2.
With 2011 now done and dusted its time to look forward into 2012 and the games it holds for us. It’s already shaping up to be a fantastic year for gaming with games like Diablo 3 and Mass Effect 3 due out early in the year. It will also be the year when I ramp up my game review efforts significantly on here as I’ve got plans to make my console reviews better (and do more of them), dabbling with the idea of producing video reviews and overall playing more games so that I can do more reviews. In the end that’s what its all about, well that and my not-so-secret desire to be a games journalist… 😉
Sandbox games and I have a sordid history. Whilst I often enjoy them it’s not usually because of the engrossing story or intriguing game mechanics; more it’s after I’ve finished the mission at hand, saved my game and then promptly engage Jerk Mode and go on whatever kind of rampage the game allows me. Long time readers will remember this being the case in my Just Cause 2 review where I grew tried of having to do everything within the rules of the game and modded my way to Jerk nirvana. Still there have been some notable exceptions, like Red Dead Redemption, where the combination of certain elements came together in just the right way to get me completely draw in an engrossed in the story.
Minecraft, whilst sharing the sandbox title, has almost no elements of a traditional game in this genre. Having more in common with game mods like Gary’s Mod Minecraft throws you into a world where the possibilities really are only limited by your imagination. Over the past few months I have watched the news around it go from a single story to a media storm and I was always fascinated by the way it managed to draw people into it. Up until a couple weeks ago however I hadn’t bothered to try it for myself, not even the free version. However after watching a few videos of some of the more rudimentary aspects of the game I decided to give it a go, and shelled out the requisite $20 for the full (beta) version.
That’s a deep mine…
The premise of the game is extremely simple. You’re thrust into a world where everything is made of blocks and at night time hordes of zombies and other nefarious creatures will emerge from the wilderness, baying for your blood. The tools you have at your disposal are only your blocky hands but the world of blocks around you can be used to your advantage. By cutting down trees you can make wood which can then be converted into a whole range of tools. The race is then on to create some kind of shelter before nightfall comes, so that you might have a place to hide when the horde arrives. As you progress deeper however you’ll begin to discover other rare and wonderful materials that can make even better tools and weapons, leading you to delve even deeper underground in order to find those precious resources.
However whilst the basic idea extends to only surviving through the night there’s the entire meta game of creating almost anything you can think of within the Minecraft world. The world’s resources are pretty much at your disposal and their block like nature means you can build almost anything out of them. This has lead to many people building extremely ornate structures within Minecraft, ranging from simple things like houses right up to the Starship Enterprise. As with any sandbox game I took the opportunity for absurdity as far as I could imagine it at the time building a 1 block wide tall spire high up into the clouds where I mounted my fortress of evil.
All that’s missing is an Eye of Sauron.
The basic game mechanic of Minecraft has a dinstinctly MMORPG feel to it. You start out by cutting down trees for wood so you can make a pick axe to mine cobblestone. You then use the cobblestone to make better tools in order to mine iron. You then use the iron to mine other resources like gold, diamond and redstone. Much like the gear grind that all MMORPGs take you through before you’re able to do the end content Minecraft gets you hooked in quickly with the first few resource levels passing quickly. Afterwards it’s a much longer slog to get the minerals you require to advance, usually requiring you to dig extremely deep to find them. Like any MMORPG though this mechanic is highly addictive, leading me to lose many hours searching for the next mineral vein so that I can craft that next item.
After the first week however I started to grow tired of the endless mining that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I had dug all the way down to bedrock and had found numerous rare resources but seemed to be lacking the one mineral I needed to harvest them: iron. Googling around for a while lead me to figure out that I was digging far too deep to find much iron and that the best place to find resources was in randomly generated dungeons or caves, basically pre-hollowed out sections of the map that were always teaming with resources (and zombies). After randomly digging for a while I started hearing the distinctive zombie groan and I followed it to the ultimate prize.
Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff!
Exploring this find lead me onto a string of caves all containing the resources I needed to progress further and I was hooked again. Whilst the last few hours I’ve spent with Minecraft have focused more on extending my fortress of evil and the surrounding area I still find myself often taking a trip down into the mines in the hope of coming across another cave or mineral vein as the excitement of finding one is on par with getting some epic loots in a MMORPG. I also set about setting up a Minecraft server so that I could play along with some of my more dedicated Minecraft friends although with a server fan dying I’ve had to put that on hold until I can ensure that it won’t overheat with more than one person playing on it.
Would I recommend this game? Most definitely, especially if you’re the type that enjoys sandbox style games that allow almost unlimited creativity. I was the kind of person who lost hours in Gary’s Mod, making whacky contraptions and using them to unleash untold torment onto hordes of Half Life’s NPCs. The tables are very much turned in Minecraft’s world but it’s just as enjoyable and I have no doubt that anyone can lose a few good hours in it just exploring the retro world that Minecraft generates for you. The game is still technically in beta but for the price they’re asking it’s well worth the price of admission.
Minecraft is available for PC and web browser right now for a free trial or AU$20. Game was played on a local single player instance for the majority of game time with an hour or so spent on a multiplayer server. No rating is being assigned to this game as it’s still in beta.