There’s been few IPs that have managed to achieve the same level of success that Wolfenstein series has. Each new instalment went from strength to strength, refining their formula for old-school inspired corridor shooter action whilst simultaneously working to improve their storytelling by leaps and bounds. So, as you’d expect, my expectations for Wolfenstein: Youngblood were high as I felt Machine Games had really locked their sights on what mattered. However that’s not the case with this instalment in the Wolfenstein franchise as it’s instead this kind of semi-open world co-op hybrid that’s light on the story and, frankly, pretty much everything else I’ve come to expect from this new breed of Wolfenstein games. I don’t appear to be the only one thinking this either and I think there’s a lot of us questioning the idea behind releasing 2 spin off games (the other being Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot) rather than a single, fully fledged one.
It’s 20 years since the events of The New Colossus and most of the world is now free of Nazi control. BJ and Anya have returned to America and have spent their time raising their twin girls, Jessica and Sophia, out on their ranch, teaching them the skills they’ll need to survive in this still hostile world. However one day BJ mysteriously disappears. Fearing the worst Jessica, and Sophia search for clues about where he might have gone and discover a hidden room in the attic with a map indicating Blazkowicz traveled to Nazi-occupied Neu-Paris to meet the French Resistance. Believing that American authorities will not follow Blazkowicz to Nazi France, the girls steal an FBI helicopter and a pair of powered armor suits and head for France. So begins your Nazi killing adventure as one of the twins.
Youngblood is still on id Tech 6 (the debut id Tech 7 game will be DOOM Eternal) and looks as good as it ever did. Much like my previous experiences with new Wolfenstein games though there was a lot of tweaking needed to get it looking good and performing well initially, only for me to discover that I hadn’t yet updated to the newest drivers again which made everything work perfectly. It just goes to show just how much optimisation the respective driver teams must do as it was a complete mess before I updated, chugging constantly no matter what settings I changed. Afterwards it much like I remembered although there was a noticeable decrease in environment detail, I assume due to the fact that it’s supposed to be more open-worldy. In any case it has me excited for what DOOM Eternal will look like though as it’s been a little while between drinks for id Tech engine upgrades.
Deviating significantly from the series’ formula so far Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a co-op, open-world-ish FPS game. After a few short initial missions you’re then left to run around Nazi occupied Paris to your heart’s content: exploring the world, picking up side missions, following the main story lines and all of the usual stuff you’d expect in an open world game. You can play co-op or solo, with the latter granting you an AI partner who’s not completely useless but not for the reasons you’d first assume. There’s a much heavier focus on levelling with the more powerful skill and gun upgrades locked behind levels which don’t come easy as you start to creep up in power. All being said the changes really don’t feel like they’re for the better, even in a spin-off game that might’ve just been some overwrought experiment meant to buy time between Wolfenstein 2 and 3.
Combat has also taken a more RPG bent, trading off the rapid pace of its predecessors for a more bullet-spongy kind of affair. The AI of all enemies, and I really do mean all of them, is complete pants as all they really do is shoot whilst they walk towards you. Nearly all of them can be cheesed in some way most often by positioning in such a way you can hit them but they can’t hit back. This even works for the brother tower protectors who go from being these scary mecha-nightmares to simple bullet soaks with just the right angle through a doorway. Probably the worst thing though is the lack of ammo, even with the upgraded ammo talents, as you’ll constantly run out of it for your weapon of choice. This is made all the more painful by the armour matching mechanic, requiring you to flip between guns when you come up against enemies with certain armour types. So if you, like me, try to min/max you’ll only have a handful of weapons properly upgraded and once those two are out of ammo you’ll be fighting long, slow battles until you can find some more.
Progression comes in a relatively steady stream at first and then seems to slow down considerably past level 30. That doesn’t matter a whole lot since it seems that most enemies will be matches to your level type with only a handful having strict higher levels set. Even those are still defeatable, they’ll just take that many more bullets to take down. None of the upgrades, both skill and weapon, feel particularly impactful however as most of them are just incremental upgrades to things you already have. To be sure there’s definitely a vast difference between a level 1 player and a level 30 one but with auto-scaling enemies and only minor upgrades between levels it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re really that much more powerful.
I didn’t get a chance to try it co-op (even though one of my mates has it) but in all honesty I don’t think it would’ve changed much of the experience. There’s nothing really in the game that would make it better with a friend as all the co-op mechanics amount to are your usual “you need 2 players to do this” kind of thing. I mean sure, there’s always a bit of fun banter when you’re playing with mates, but given the rather mediocre state the game is in you’re likely going to spend most of your time laughing at the game rather than with it.
The game appears to have been built with grander aspirations in mind as it comes bundled with things I really didn’t expect from the franchise. For starters there’s microtransactions which admittedly are limited to just cosmetic items but as far as I can tell there’s no other way to acquire them through playing in game. Further there’s daily and weekly missions which would indicate that the devs think this is the kind of game that you’ll keep coming back to often to progress your character. I really don’t know what kind of person would either spend money on a co-op only game or come back to level after multiple weeks as there’s really no reason to.
I was level 30-something by the end and whilst it wasn’t exactly a breeze to get through most sections (mostly due to the aforementioned issues) I certainly didn’t feel like I needed to go back and grind out a bunch of missions in order to move forward. Indeed the last boss could be cheesed in much the same way as the other bosses so it wasn’t like there was a lot to challenge me there. So who the heck are these mechanics, copied directly from the looter-shooter playbook, built into this co-op game? I really have no clue.
Co-op and open world games invite jankiness and Wolfenstein: Youngblood is absolutely no exception. Throughout the game I had all sorts of weird and wonderful things happen, most notably: enemies clipping through walls (and sometimes getting stuck there), my AI partner teleporting randomly around the room whilst refusing to press a switch to move forward, interacting with objects causing me to get stuck there and so on. It certainly feels like the id Tech 6 engine wasn’t built with this kind of purpose in mind as from playing previous games built on it I know it’s not exactly prone to having issues like this.
Whilst Machine Games and Arkane Studios would have you believe that Youngblood is a spin-off it’s really anything but as the events that happen in it are part of the core story. The narrative functions mostly as a time warp to move everything forward 20 years for the upcoming Wolfenstein 3 whilst also adding in a few more characters which I’m sure will make an appearance. Indeed for all the time you’ll spend in the game nothing much of consequence really happens. Sure, Jessica and Sophia get fleshed out, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that they won’t be the main characters in Wolfenstein’s final instalment. For a series that had been actively improving its storytelling I had hoped we’d get something from Youngblood but it seems that wasn’t to be.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is an unfortunate misstep for the franchise; an experiment that I hope the developers see really didn’t pay off. All of the changes made don’t do anything to make the game better than its predecessors and, in many cases, actively makes it worse. I don’t think any of my gripes really bear repeating in my closing statement so I’ll just leave you with this: if you were looking for another juicy instalment in the Wolfenstein series than this isn’t it for you. You’re going to (hopefully) be far better served by Wolfenstein 3 when it comes out.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $49.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 7 hours playtime and 40% of the achievements unlocked.
Reviving the old school 3D shooters simply can’t be done. Pixel art adventure games, point and click stories even old school styled platformers still seem to be able to work and be innovative in this modern day. Shooters in the vein of the original Quake or Duke3D however have just never really been that great, with notable examples like the Rise of the Triad¹ reboot and the recent Kickstarter disappointment STRAFE. I had thought that AMID EVIL might be different in that regard, seemingly having some small influences from the modern day in it, but they are unfortunately not enough to save the dreary and simplistic combat that was the 3D shooters of old. So I don’t blame the developers for the game they’ve created, no it is the idea that these kinds of games are still good when they are simply not.
Each level of AMID EVIL has its own little story, told through little nuggets of text that are scribed on the walls. It’s nothing particularly deep or meaningful, mostly just a kind of flavour text that gives you some insight into the various enemy types and the boss of the particular level. There might be more to it but honestly I don’t think it’s worth chasing down. If the devs really wanted you to engage with the story they would’ve done something more with it like, say, voice the lines or something like that. Still you’re not going to be playing AMID EVIL for the story so I’m not going to count that against it too heavily.
The graphics try to strike a balance between being old school and modern which makes it end up feeling more dated than anything else. The old school style UI elements overlaid on a low poly environment that has decidedly modern lighting effects removes any illusion that this was an old school game that never saw the light of day. Instead you know that it’s a modern engine (Unreal 4, although that’s easy enough to tell from the way it handles specularity) and it’s been implemented deliberately this way. If you’re trying to make me think I’m playing an old school game then you’d better try your darndest to avoid any cues that remind me I’m playing this in 2019.
As you’d expect the combat is pretty straightforward, you’ve got half a dozen weapons each of which is reminiscent of similar archetypes from games of yesteryear. AMID EVIL’s spin on the traditional shooter mechanics is the overdrive system whereby each enemy you kill fills up a meter that, when unleashed, changes the secondary fire of each of the weapons into a horrendously overpowered version of itself until the meter runs dry. That’s fun enough although after a while you’ll find yourself saving it up “just in case” and then find yourself rarely needing to use it at all.
Each episode has different enemies but they’re dumb as rocks, walking directly at you for the most part and not having more than a couple different attacks. The old circle strafe strategy works far too well here which, depending on what you’re looking for here, is either an extremely faithful rendition of what these old school shooters were like or simply a lazy way of implementing an AI. The bosses do exhibit some more novel behaviour but even then it only took me a couple tries to get past the first boss, his only real challenge being that you needed to DPS him as fast as you could before he had a chance to fill up the room with thousands of projectiles for you to dodge.
Similarly the game also has many opportunities for emergent gameplay, some of which are fun but others are clearly not intended by the developers. Like the games it’s inspired by quite often you can skip large parts of levels or find secrets by exploiting parts of the geometry. Indeed there were a couple sections with certain kinds of angles that allowed you to jump off them when you clearly weren’t supposed to be able to do so. Again if you truly are seeking an experience like the shooters of old then that’s going to be what you’re after but frankly I’ve come to appreciate my games working as intended more than I have come to want to exploit them. I leave all that up to the speedrunners.
Depending on which side of the fence you’re on you’ll either love AMID EVIL for its rather faithful recreation of the shooters of the early 90s or hate it for the exact same reason. If it isn’t already painfully clear I’m very much in the later camp, not really finding any enjoyment in revisiting that part of my gaming history. You might be different however, as are numerous people over on the Steam page who are loving the experience that AMID EVIL provides. So if all the issues I’ve been bellyaching about sound like a good time for you then please, be my guest, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
AMID EVIL is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 68 minutes play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked.
¹ Upon reading the Steam page I see that the people behind this are also the ones behind the Rise of the Triad reboot. I really should have read further before I hit the buy button…
I gotta admit, my backlog of games I want to play ran out a while ago. Sure there’s a few titles on there that I could catch up on but most of them have some barrier to entry (looking at you, Metro Exodus) which I can’t be arsed getting around. So I’m left to scour the Steam releases each week, hoping to see something that catches my eye. Unfortunately the pickings have been slim and so I’ve resorted to playing things that are somewhat interesting but usually not what I’d typically find myself playing. APE OUT, whilst having most of the trappings that you’d usually assume would be right up my alley, was just missing that extra something to keep me coming back. The concept and execution are both extremely well done however so it’s not for a lack of craftsmanship, more it just doesn’t have the mechanics I’d seek out in this kind of game.
You’re an ape in a laboratory and you’ve decided it’s time to get out. Of course the lab can’t have what appears to be a super-intelligent ape running about the shop so they’ll do anything they can to stop you. Of course you’re quite a bit bigger than them and can easily paint the walls with their corpses should they get in your way. Your goal is simple: find a way to escape without getting shot to bits. All this happens whilst a wild jazz soundtrack plays in the background.
Visually APE OUT is very striking with its top down perspective, lack of texturing and use of vibrant colouring. Whilst this does make it rather easy to distinguish foes from furniture the top down perspective could use a little work as quite often pillars get in your way when it feels like they shouldn’t. There has been a lot of attention given to making the visuals feel as chaotic as the background track with numerous overlays, changing colours and other weird and wonderful VFX making for a kind of visual bonanza I haven’t really come across before. I honestly would expect no less from the crazed mind of the great Bennett Foddy (you know, the one behind QWOP and Getting Over It).
The soundtrack deserves its own mention as it’s a reactive mish mash of jazz percussion. Each playthrough will have a slightly different track due to the generative nature of the backing track, even down to things like events on screen driving which part of a drum kit gets played. Each of the albums has its own theme so all those different samples do work together to produce something coherent but it’s still very chaotic. I’m not really a fan of jazz but I certainly appreciated the effort that went into building up the engine that drove APE OUT’s wild soudtrack.
The objective of each level is simple: just get to the other end. You’ll be met with a wide variety of enemies, themed to the current album you’re playing. The levels themselves aren’t particularly big but it’s never going to be as simple as just legging it from one side to another. Curiously you can do it without killing a single person as there’s an achievement to that effect. How you’d do that for some sections is beyond me though as there’s situations where I couldn’t see an easy route around flattening a few folks.
For the most part the combat feels fair as the enemies telegraph their moves and the AI isn’t particularly smart in how it approaches you. Of course when you’re cornered by more than a couple of them things start to get real tricky fast and many of the special types of enemies are designed to make simply crushing everyone more challenging than finding a way around them. Even with the short levels though I found the enemies to get repetitive pretty fast and I think that’s probably what made me give up in the end. I mean sure, part of it was also the difficulty of it, but since there’s no real progression system or anything else to keep you coming back (bar the new levels) I didn’t really feel like the challenge was worth it.
APE OUT is a finely crafted game that I just didn’t find myself enjoying all that much. The visuals, soundtrack and mechanics are all on point, delivering the exact game experience that it set out to achieve. However I felt that it was mostly a game for the speedrunner/Twitch crowd, something that people would love to watch but not necessarily play themselves. That’s why after just a paltry 36 minutes with it I decided to call it quits, lest I give this game a score that’s much further below it’s true value. If you favour that kind of reaction based, beat ’em up gameplay then you’ll surely enjoy APE OUT but for me it just didn’t hit the mark.
APE OUT is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $21.50. Game was played on the PC with a total of 36 minutes play time and 4% of the achievements unlocked.
Steam’s recommendation engine, despite the unholy treasure trove of data they have on what everyone plays, is total arse. Even the new discover queue is a hit and miss affair; weighted extremely heavily towards the last handful of games you’ve played. I’d know too as I got recommended dozens of visuals novels after playing Dream Daddy and not a single other visual novel game (I don’t count Pyre in that genre, for what it’s worth). Suffice to say I don’t have a lot of trust in it and there’s not many games from there that I end up buying. Katana ZERO is an exception to this rule however as it popped up as a recommended game for me and was bought shortly after. The videos were just enough to grab my interest but its solid mechanics, great artwork and perfect game length is what makes it one of 2019’s more interesting titles to date.
You are a samurai assassin, blessed with the gift of precognition. This allows you to look into the future and plan out your moves, ensuring that no target is outside your reach. However you know nothing of your past, save for the fact that you were involved in a great war some time ago and you’re haunted by nightmares from your childhood. Your therapist is helping you though and thankfully the dose of the drugs he gives you is going down. So you keep doing his bidding, taking out targets that he gives to you after each session. Still though something feels off, time seems to flow strangely every so often, the past, present and future mixing together until they all coalesce back together. Although that can’t be right, time always flows forward right?
Katana ZERO has some of the best pixel art I’ve seen in recent times, seamlessly mixing in modern elements that give it a really nice visual flair. This is made all the more impressive that it’s created in GameMaker, something which has a reputation much like Unity for having a certain kind of aesthetic for all titles built with it. The frame rate was also consistently high, something that I’ve definitely not seen done a lot with other GameMaker based titles. On top of this Katana Zero has a great original sound track, one that’s available in ogg format in the game’s base directory should you happen to want it. Overall I’m very impressed with Katana ZERO’s level of craftsmanship.
Mechanically Katana ZERO is a kind of beat em up puzzler as every level is about planning out your moves, figuring out what triggers what and how to overcome seemingly impossible scenarios. You have a couple key mechanics at your disposal: roll which makes you invulnerable, the ability to slow down time significantly for a short period and your usual array of 2D melee combat mechanics. You’ve got one life and a single hit will take you down so you’ll have to plan your attack route carefully. There’s no upgrades, items or inventory to manage; all you have to do is make it to the end of the level by laying waste to everything in your wake. Of course that’s much easier said than done but Katana ZERO provides ample challenge without being unnecessarily difficult. A fine line to walk in this age of Dark Souls clones who are trying to out compete each other in brutality.
The combat is incredibly satisfying when you’re able to clear a stage in a single section, giving you that lovely feeling of being the badass ninja assassin. Of course there’s certain levels which have the “fuck you player” mechanics in them, I.E. things right at the end of levels that’ll kill you instantly and the only way to know about them is to play the level. The boss fights could also prove challenging for some as they all have very particular mechanics that aren’t particularly straightforward. Still Katana ZERO’s combat feels a lot more forgiving than other, similar titles that I’ve played in the past and I think that’s one of the reasons that it didn’t feel like a complete chore to play through to the end.
I only have minor gripes about Katana ZERO which says a lot about it’s quality. Every so often the game would lose its capture of the mouse which meant that it’d shoot out the side of game window and onto my browser running on the second monitor. Clicking would then minimize the game and, most often, lead to a death. The game can also be quite visually confusing when a lot is happening on screen, something which can make it rather hard to understand exactly why you died at one particular time. For me it always seemed to be the shotgunners because, despite being able to reflect the projectiles, it appears you can only reflect one of them. Given there’s like 20 of them coming at you it’s pretty much guaranteed death, even if you hear the ting of the reflected shot. Other than that Katana ZERO was pretty much solid.
The story of Katana ZERO is really what brings it all together though as it’s well thought out and given ample time to develop over the course of your playthrough. Initially it just seems like another typical super soldier story but it quickly starts morphing as you uncover other elements that I can’t discuss without spoiling it. I’m not quite sure how much control you have over the various elements but there was definitely enough freedom of choice to make me feel like I had some control, which is probably all you really need in the end.
Katana ZERO will go down as one of my big surprises for 2019, coming out of nowhere and providing an experience that is just well done all round. The art, music and mechanics are all on point, providing ample amounts of challenge without making it difficult for difficulty’s sake. The story is engaging, well written and appears to give you just enough influence to make you feel like you’re in control of what’s happening on screen. I could go on but realistically if your interest is piqued I don’t think you could go wrong by giving Katana ZERO 4 hours of your time.
Katana ZERO is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $21.50. Game was played on the PC with a total of 4.6 hours playtime and 16% of the achievements unlocked.
The biggest problem with having a game you really enjoy is that it sucks up all the oxygen for other titles. For me currently that’s The Division 2, a game that I will definitely review in the near future, but between it, our new baby and work I’ve had little time to look at many of the other top tier titles that have been released of late. So once again I turn to the indie scene, looking for more casual experiences that don’t ask much of my time but hopefully provide a good experience nonetheless. Feather, from Melbourne based developers Samurai Punk, fit the bill perfectly with its simple visuals, great music tracks and stress free mechanics.
The premise of the game is simple: you’re a bird and there’s a big island you can explore. As you fly around it you’ll find different things you can interact with, most notably the large circular totems that, when flown through, change the music to a new track for you to fly around to. There are no objectives, no enemies to fight or even an end to the game; it’s just simply a place to explore with a handful of different songs for you to enjoy. When we’ve been inundated with numerous games overflowing with mechanics, many designed to keep us coming back or to spend more money on microtransactions, it’s nice to have something that is as simple as it looks.
The graphics are a very low poly affair with little to no texturing, just plain solid colours. This simplicity is augmented slightly by the implementation of some more complex lighting effects and the inclusion of a full day/night cycle for the island. I played this on my now 3 year old XPS, which happens to rock a Geforce 970M, and initially had some issues with the frame rate not being the greatest. Granted it’s not as powerful as the desktop equivalent I have in my gaming rig but it was a little disappointing to see it struggle with something so simple. It may just be how the default configuration was set up as it does have a very high DPI monitor and running the game again on my home rig showed no issues.
The flight mechanics of Feather are pretty great; simple enough to be approachable yet there’s a few subtle things thrown in that you’ll need to master if you really want to explore the island fully. Climbing high and diving down will allow you to approach speeds that you won’t be able to normally and using space bar to hover is a necessity if you want to explore the underground cave system. Unfortunately other players (who will drop in you session from time to time, ala Journey) don’t seem to be as masterful of the controls and so interaction with them can be a little hard. I often found myself and another player going in circles trying to look at each other.
You’re probably not going to spend too long in Feather as even exploring at a leisurely pace would see you get around the island in under an hour or so. That’s likely to make the $15 asking price a little high for some, especially with no plans for the game to grow beyond currently what it is today. This is certainly one of those titles that could benefit from integration with the Steam Community Workshop as there’s already a solid fanbase who love the game for what it is. I don’t usually gripe about price and playtime but it’s sure to be a key deciding factor for many.
Feather is a fantastic, if a little short, experience. The simple premise and it’s solid execution make it a great distraction, something to play if you’ve got a bit of time to spare and don’t want something that asks much of you. However its greatest attributes may be the thing that drives some players away, not wanting to spend their money here when there are many other greener pastures to farm. Still I enjoyed my time with Feather and hope that the concept helps Samurai Punk delve further into developing titles like these.
Feather is available on the PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $14.50. Game was played on the PC with 27 minutes total play time and 100% of the achievements unlocked.
We sometimes forget just how young video games are as a creative medium and how far they still have to go as methods of expression. But that relative youthfulness brings with it an incredible amount of experimentation with the many centuries of artistic expression that preceded the medium suffusing themselves into the storytelling lexicon of game developers. When all those elements come together it can create some of the most beautiful experiences that we’ve ever created. Gris, by Nomada Studios, is a fantastic example of what games as a medium can be, combining stunning hand animated visuals, a deeply moving soundtrack and game mechanics that evolve alongside the game’s visual style. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful games of this year, both in terms of visuals and its story.
Your world is filled with beauty; fantastic colours swirl around you as you raise your voice in concert. But suddenly your voice leaves you and the world begins to crumble, dumping you down into a place drained of colour and life. As you begin to stumble forward you notice that the world reacts to the small points of light that have followed you, allowing you to move onwards. There’s no telling if the path forward will bring back the world you once knew, nor if your voice will ever return, but you continue on hoping that one day you’ll see the world brighten once again.
Gris’ is a hand animated game that uses a watercolour palette and art style, giving you the feeling of a children’s book come to life. The developers favoured a simplistic art style although they thankfully didn’t skimp out on the animation frames (unlike a recent, similar title). Each of the different sections has its own distinct visual style which forms a key part of the game’s mechanics. Supporting all of this is an absolutely amazing soundtrack done by Berlinist, a music group from Barcelona. The whole album is up on Spotify and is honestly worth a listen just by itself. Suffice to say from a craftsmanship level Gris achieves a level of refinement I wouldn’t expect from a first time developer, even if it was founded by 2 long time developers.
Mechanically Gris is simple, essentially being a platformer with a few interesting mechanics. Most of the puzzles you’ll encounter are fairly straightforward, only requiring you to figure out the right sequence of moves in order to get past them. If you’re chasing momentos though there’s going to be a slight increase in the challenge, often including a timing element that’s not present in most of the required puzzles. You’ll gain new abilities as you progress but unlike many other platform puzzlers they’ll always be used individually or in sequence. This means that puzzles towards the end of the game aren’t really that much harder than those at the start. Mechanical complexity isn’t really a focus of the game however and nor should it be. Far too many games have ruined themselves by letting the mechanics get in the way of the core story.
Exploration is usually rewarded through giving you a momento although they don’t do anything beyond playing a cool sound (at least, nothing I saw when I was collecting them anyway). If I was to level one criticism here though it’d be that in the larger environments exploration feels cumbersome and the lack of a good reward doesn’t motivate you to seek them out. This is especially true for some sections where the game takes you through a large spanning environment for minutes on end, making you wonder where they could’ve hid things. Thankfully not exploring at all doesn’t detract from the overall experience but it could be rewarded just a little better.
PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW
Here’s where I step into pure speculation about what I believe the story is about because, well, I had a fun time speculating as to what each of the game’s visual elements meant. The colour leaving the world feels like an allegory for depression, something which I think many of us who’ve struggled with it can attest to. The bird that torments you is doubt, the thing that keeps coming back and screaming at you, threatening to knock you down if you don’t prepare yourself for it. The small lights are akin to hope, building the bridges you need in order to push on as you try to restore colour to your world.
So the story is one of succumbing to doubt and falling into a depression so deep that it drains the colour from your world and preventing you from doing the one thing that will bring it back. It might not be the most unique of stories but it’s relatable and told beautifully which is really all I can ask for from most games. I haven’t yet gone around yet to see if my interpretation lines up with anyone else’s so I’d be keen to hear anyone else’s thoughts on what the visual story of Gris means to you.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Gris is a masterpiece, telling a beautiful story through the use of wonderful visual artwork, a great soundtrack and simple but solid game mechanics. It came at the perfect time for me to, after having put a bunch of hours into no less than 3 different shooters I was ready for something that favoured beauty over action. Nomada Studio has set themselves a strong precedent with this and I’m very much looking forward to what they start working on next.
Gris is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $16.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 horus play time and 29% of the achievements unlocked.
5 years ago I attended my first (and, as it turns out, only) PAX event in Australia and, despite the teething issues, managed to have a rather enjoyable time. Whilst I was there I went through the expo hall and picked my way through the various indie developers who were there to showcase what they’d been working on. There I stumbled across The Voxel Agents and I spent a few moments talking to them about their game, though for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. I asked if the game contained any voxels, to which they replied no and, in what I now see as a total dick move I asked them if any of their games did which they answered no. Sensing that I was probably being one of those people, something that might be especially considering I was in full Adam Jensen cosplay at the time, I made a swift exit stage left. Imagine my surprise then when I stumbled across The Gardens Between, an intriguing time puzzle game, by those very same developers I annoyed all those years ago.
Although, and I can’t stop myself from writing this, it appears that their most recent game is still voxel-less. Sorry…I’ll see myself out…
Arina and Frendt are best friends who’ve shared many pivotal moments of their childhood together. However one day Frendt tells Arina that he’s moving away for good and they head up to their tree house to spend one last night together there. They then embark on a whimsical journey through their collective past, reliving their most cherished memories together through fantastical worlds littered with the everyday objects that played background to their story. Arina, the headstrong one, pushes forward lighting the way for the pair whilst Frendt is the thinker, manipulating the world’s objects. It’s a bittersweet tale that many of us can relate to, of close childhood friendships that are torn apart by circumstances beyond our control, but also a reminder that we’ll never lose those memories we forged together.
The Gardens Between has a stylized, simplistic art style that’s light on the textures but heavy on environmental detail. The fantastical worlds it presents are cobbled together out of everyday objects that are scaled, warped and twisted making the environments seem paradoxically real and otherworldly at the same time. Under the hood its powered by the Unity engine and thanks to the heavy investment in assets, lighting and shading effects it avoids that typical unity game sheen. Working hand in hand with the great visuals is a fantastic backing soundtrack and extensive foley work which makes the whole world come alive. Looking at their back catalogue at games it’s honestly out of left field for them and shows that they’re wanting to grow as game developers. Kudos to you.
The game’s main mechanic is a Braid-like time travel mechanic where you move time forwards and backwards to complete the puzzles. There are various items that are time independent which you can then use to change the flow of how events come to pass. How you manipulate time also has an impact on many puzzles, like some requiring you to stop time and hold it there or moving back and forward a certain amount to repeat actions. There’s also a bunch of achievements for doing less than intuitive things in certain puzzles which can be a bit of fun to chase down if the main puzzles don’t feel challenging enough. All in all it’s a relatively simple game mechanically but therein lies its charm as you’re unlikely to get stuck for very long, ensuring the story keeps moving at a steady pace.
Probably the only gripe I have is that moving forwards and backwards through time is a little slow for some of the larger puzzles which can take quite some time to unwind. This becomes quite noticeable for puzzles where you have to follow (sometimes multiple) things bouncing around a level to figure out which one you need to put your lantern on. With a start to finish time of only 2 hours though I get why they might not want to put that in, the game is short enough as it is, but even something like speeding it up the longer you hold it down would be much appreciated.
If I’m honest the story didn’t do much to grab me early on, feeling like I was looking through someone else’s picture album: interesting to be sure but no emotional involvement from my side. Towards the end though, and I can’t quite put my finger on what did it, I started to get more invested in their story. Perhaps it was remembering similar stories from my childhood that did it, the many people I spent so much time with but then lost them to moving away or them growing apart from me. Whatever did it though the story hit home and that bittersweet feeling hit me like a truck. Growing up is filled with such sweet sorrow as what The Gardens Between shows us and, whilst we may not like to be reminded of it, I’m sure we can certainly all relate to it.
If annoying developers at conventions can lead to games like The Gardens Between I’ll be sure to do it more often as what The Voxel Agents have done here is certainly worth the price of admission. The audio visual experience is exceptional, defining a style that I hope they take forward into whatever they choose to pursue next. The game mechanics, whilst not exactly novel, do bring a new view to what time travel games can do. The story, whilst it takes some time to find its feet, is one that I feel is quite relatable to a lot of people, especially those who aren’t lucky enough to still be in contact with their childhood friends. Suffice to say if you’re looking for a break from the AAA release firehose (like I have) then The Gardens Between is certain to fit the bill.
The Gardens Between is available on PC, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total playtime and 35% of the achievements unlocked.
Once upon a time I found myself elbow deep in the world that was games on Kickstarter. It was the time when many old IPs found new life on the platform with multi-million dollar pledges becoming the new norm. But it was also a place where many smaller, indie titles sought to find validation in their ideas with varying levels of success. Whilst I haven’t backed anything on the platform in years I’m still treated to a small trickle of titles which, back in my backing heydays, are finally starting to come to fruition. The latest of which is Light Fall, a game which, I assume, I backed due the metroidvania phase I happened to be going through at the time. It certainly isn’t a game for everyone but for those who enjoy a good, hard core momentum platformer it’s certainly one to chuck on the list.
In Numbra, one misstep is all it takes to meet a quick end. This harsh world is colossal and ancient; the entire continent permanently shrouded in darkness, lit only by the moon. Its inhabitants live and abide by a simple law: the strongest survive, while the weak are crushed. That did not stop the Kamloops, a small and peaceful Nation, from leaving their homeland for Numbra. Exhausted from the constant wars between rival nations and trapped in the middle of an everlasting conflict, the Kamloops left everything behind. Everything but a hope for better days, a hope for peaceful solitude. Alas, something vile stirs in the dark night of Numbra. Mysterious crystals have appeared out of nowhere and scraped the entire landscape. Houses and entire villages are being razed to the ground. With the world crumbling once again, will the Gods answer their people’s plea one more time?
At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Light Fall was a high end Flash game as its visuals certainly take a level of inspiration from that style. Under the hood it’s powered by Unity which is quite surprising, showcasing just how versatile that engine can be. It might just be me but some small parts of the visual flair also felt like they were inspired by the work of Supergiant Games with some of the effects (like flames, for instance) having an uncanny resemblance to them. Regardless of where the creators drew their inspiration from the resulting art style is quite beautiful, the silhouetted figures contrasted by bright glows lavished with lighting and particle effects. There are some points where your character gets lost in the background however, the small figure blurring into the visual onslaught. They are thankfully rare however, the developers taking care to avoid heavy visuals in areas where timing is key. Performance, as you’d expect, is also good and I can’t imagine Light Fall would struggle even on the relatively meagre power of the Nintendo Switch.
Light Fall is a modern 2D platformer with all the usual mechanical flairs we’ve come to expect from this genre. It’s partly momentum based, allowing you to skip through massive sections of the game if you’re able to keep the pace up. Its main differentiator is the Shadow Core, a box which you can summon which performs a variety of functions. Initially it’s just a box that you can place somewhere in the environment, giving you an extra step to reach new places. As you progress you’ll unlock the ability to use it as a weapon and summon it either below you (saving you from a fall) or in front (useful in gaining height). At the same time the levels will begin to throw new and varied challenges at you, some of which can be bypassed entirely if you know what you’re doing. The idea isn’t particularly unique it’s application in this momentum/twitch based platform is and whilst it can be frustrating at times once you learn its ways navigating the game’s various challenges becomes quite satisfying.
The main platformer sections of the game are pretty straightforward most of the time. The levels, in general, progress from left to right, providing a pretty straightforward path towards the end. For the majority of the game the checkpoints are where you need them to be so deaths don’t set you too far back. However the game doesn’t do a great job of introducing new mechanics to you, especially for the core abilities you have. This is most notable when you’re trying to do the challenge puzzles which, especially early on, require you to make use of the new mechanic in order to complete them. There was one in particular which required the use of the “summon block below me” which I didn’t know about until I went looking for videos on how to complete it. Past the first hour or so this issue disappears but it does make the game’s opening gambit more hostile to new players than it should be.
The main increase in challenge, at least for about half of the game, comes from more complex puzzles requiring more intricate uses of your power. Many of the puzzles have the obvious solution but this is usually more reliant on your skill as a player rather than exploiting the mechanics. Then there’s the second, less demanding solution that requires a bit of trial and error to figure out. For instance there’s one section where you have to fall through a section of lasers. There’s a platform there and, if you stand on it, you can ride it down and constantly summon the shadow core to block them out. However if you simply jump down there and summon the shadow core once it’ll follow you most of the way down, blocking the lasers for you without any further effort. I’m not entirely sure how many of those solutions are intentional but it definitely felt like there was always an easier way to solve the problem than what I saw on first glance.
Unfortunately in the later parts of the game the challenge mostly comes from spreading out the checkpoints further, requiring you to complete longer and longer puzzles to progress. The trouble with this is that many of them are impossible to solve on first go, requiring multiple retries in order to get past them. This becomes annoyingly apparent in the final boss fight as it has 4 phases, 3 of them which introduce new abilities and change existing ones. There’s also no way to accelerate the boss fight either, meaning any stuff up puts you right back at the start, leaving you to endure all the phases over again. I’m all for a good challenge but repetition of this nature isn’t something I find reward in completing. At the very least give me an out after say 30 minutes of trying and deny me an achievement or something. I’d rather that than having to waste upwards of an hour on the same bossfight.
Light Fall also has some hitbox issues which aren’t readily apparent, mostly because they result in instadeath which seemingly comes out of nowhere. Some enemies and mechanics have hitboxes larger than you’d expect, leading to your death when you’d otherwise expect to live. Also any mechanics which move your character in some way will result in death should you accidentally summon the shadow core in front of you. This is most noticeable in the final boss fight where I died several times to it, not knowing how or why died. These aren’t game breaking, especially if you’re aware of them, but it does add a small layer of frustration to an already challenging game.
The story, which should get credit for being well developed and fully voiced, didn’t manage to grab me. I definitely appreciated the background narration, giving a little more flavour to the world that I found myself bouncing through, but nothing about the characters or plot really grabbed me. The final reveals towards the end also felt a little rushed, with numerous points revealed and then resolved in the space of an hour. It’s not entirely forgettable with a few choice moments here or there but it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when I recall my time with Light Fall.
Light Fall is a solid first title from Bishop Games showcasing their unique brand of talent in this genre. The art style is reminiscent of the Flash games of yore, albeit with a better flair for lighting and modern effects. The platforming itself is well polished with only a few small niggling details needing further attention. The majority of the game follows a good difficulty curve although it struggles later on, resorting to simply making the checkpoints longer to make the game harder. The final boss is probably the biggest misstep in the whole game, requiring a lot of repetition and luck to make it through. The story, whilst well crafted and fully voiced, doesn’t leave much of an impression. All this being said though Light Fall is certainly a game that fans of this genre will enjoy and is a great opening salvo from this indie studio.
Light Fall is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 6 hours play time and 42% of the achievements unlocked. Game was backed on Kickstarter at the $10 level.
Games as a medium have matured extensively over the past decade or so. Numerous ideas and stories which would have never previously been explored now find their way into game form. Increasingly we’re seeing games based around cultures and their mythologies, providing a new and interesting lens into these worlds that typically wouldn’t have been explored in this medium. Mulaka, the second game from indie developer Lienzo, explores the lore of the Tarahumara people through a 3D platformer beat ’em up. It’s one of the few examples where I can say that the developer knew their limitations and chose to focus on where to best spend their effort. The result is a simple, relatively short game that achieves what it set out to do with only a few minor hiccups along the way.
You play as one of the Sukurúame, a Tarahumara shaman who has tasked themselves with ridding the world of the corruption that has begun to plague it. To do so you will have to enlist the help of the demigods who will imbue you with their powers in order to cleanse the corruption from the land. The path before you won’t be easy however as many of the normal creatures of the land have been warped and changed by the corrupting magic that now infuses the world.
Mulaka utilises a low poly visual style with bright, solid colours and little texturing to be seen. The art style is somewhat reminiscent of older Nintendo 64 like Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Goemon’s Great Adventure with the NPCs having flat faces with simple textures. Under the hood this is all powered by Unity but, thanks to the customised art style, manages to avoid that trademark look and feel. Consequently the game runs absolutely lightning fast on any semi-modern PC and, given it has a Switch release, would likely run quite well on nearly anything you cared to throw at it.
The game can be largely categorised into 2 major parts: the 3D platforming and puzzle sections, and the now standard “Dark Souls-esque” style of combat. Each of Mulaka’s levels requires you to find 3 stones in which to unlock a door to progress to a small final section, most of which are found via exploration or completing a quest set by one of the NPCs. Initially they’re your stock standard platforming puzzles but as you unlock new abilities they change into more of a traditional puzzle experience. The combat follows a similar progression, starting off with your typical dodge/roll/parry and quickly building into more complex encounters thanks to multiple different types of enemies and the new abilities you unlock. There is a small progression system in the form of currency you’ll receive from defeated enemies but, honestly, I did the vast majority of the game with only buying one (and that was actually a mistake). Overall there’s actually not that much to Mulaka in terms of game mechanics but for things it does do it does them well.
Combat isn’t exactly a challenging experience as most enemies can be defeated by simply spamming one attack at them. Whilst challenge initially comes from trying to figure out how to tackle new enemy types it unfortunately tends towards simply throwing more enemies at once at you. The upgraded enemies you’ll come across later in the game are simply bigger, badder versions of their earlier incarnations and so they don’t really feel like that much more of a threat. The bosses are however all quite interesting, attempting to recreate that same feeling you get in the Dark Souls series of being a very small person going up against an unbelievably giant threat. Suffice to say you’re not going to be playing this for the challenge (or taunting your friends to “git gud” at it) but it was somewhat refreshing to have a combat experience that didn’t feel like it was getting in the way too much for once.
The puzzles are similarly none too difficult with the majority of them being a follow the bouncing ball kind of deal. The 3D platformer puzzles can be solved in numerous ways, many of them I’m sure weren’t entirely intended by the developer. Other smaller puzzles (like the water one shown above) only have a single solution and can usually be solved in a few minutes. Mulaka could do a slightly better job of communicating when you’re not able to solve a particular puzzle due to you not having the requisite ability as this is one of those games where not everything in every level is available to you from the start. For instance you’ll likely find items behind a big rock with red claw marks on it, something which can’t be cleared until you get the bear ability. The game doesn’t tell you this (nor for any of the other blockers) so it can sometimes be a bit of a guessing game as to what you can access right now and what you’ll have to come back for.
There’s also some quality of life improvements that could be made, 2 of which jump immediately to mind. First off the upgrade vendor is only in one map which means you’ll have to trek back there every time you want to purchase one. Since the game already has characters that travel from map to map with you it’s not out of the question to bring said upgrade vendor along with you. Secondly the potion crafting, whilst simple and concise, is needlessly laborious in its resource collection mechanic. In order for you to craft a single potion you’ll need to get 4 of a certain item and then you’ll automatically create one. As far as I can tell those resources will spawn an unlimited number of times meaning that the second you find a resource you can, in theory, fill your potion inventory. However the time taken to do so is a little bit too long in my opinion and instead could take inspiration from the estus flask idea in Dark Souls (I.E. refilling them all at certain points). I admit that there is a small lore reason for the gathering mechanic but I’m sure that could be worked in other ways.
The game is well polished in most respects although there are a few minor issues here and there that could use addressing. As the above screenshot shows there are numerous places on several maps where you can fall through the world. Thankfully instead of outright killing you the game will simply teleport you back to a safe place after you fall for a while so it’s not a major issue when it happens. The hit detection, both for your character and enemies, could do with a little tuning as well as some of the enemies attacks connect when you’d think they’d miss. Thankfully these are minor gripes in the overall scheme of things and I’m sure future patches will work most of them out.
The story is steeped in the mythology and culture of the Tarahumara people with many of the places, stories and even game mechanics taking inspiration from it. With your character being an entirely mute protagonist it is a little hard to engage fully with the story. There are some interesting pieces here and there and the story’s ultimate climax is cool but, overall, I didn’t get that much out of it. Looking at the Steam page there’s a bunch of videos that the developer made diving into the culture and how it influenced the game so had I watched those before playing I might be saying something different.
Mulaka’s greatest strength is that it achieved what it set out to. Too often I’ve seen both indie and AAA developers strive for grand visions that can never be fully achieved, resulting in games with half baked ideas and broken implementations. Mulaka instead had a simpler, narrow vision which helped it focus more on what mattered. The game that came out the other end is simple, short and concise. There’s improvements to be made though with some levels needing a little more polish, a few quality of life improvements here or there and a little more story work could elevate this title to much greater heights. None of these are terminal issues though and, should the developers decide to revisit this world, I’m sure a follow up game could strive for a much greater vision.
Mulaka is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 5 hours play time and 50% of the achievements unlocked.
These games reviews serve a couple different purposes for me. The first is to push me to try things out of my comfort zone as there’s so much more to the world of gaming than just the AAA releases. The second, and one I’m finding increasingly useful as my back catalogue of reviews grows, is to serve as a secondary memory; a kind of online copy of my impressions of the game to augment my own. So when I saw The Fall Part 2: Unbound I had this feeling that I’d played something like it before which, of course, I had. So I felt compelled to give the sequel a shot as, after reading through my previous review, I remember liking the concept even if the implementation fell a little short. It seems that the developers have stayed true to their roots in that regard as Part 2: Unbound keeps the same intriguing story whilst retaining many of the issues that I grated up against before.
SPOILERS FOR THE FALL BELOW
Part 2: Unbound begins where the previous story left off with ARID being dragged away for repurposing. During this process she’s infected with a virus which, interestingly, allows her to redefine her core rule. No longer bound by the need to save her pilot, nor anyone else, she defines her new rule as: I must save myself. However a user on the network is attacking her body, seeking to destroy what is left of her. In order to save herself she must find out who this user is, reaching beyond the confines of her body into the vast network beyond. It is there where she meets others who will help her fulfil her rule, whether they want to or not.
The visuals of Part 2 don’t appear to have changed appreciably in the 3 years since the original’s release. There’s certainly a lot more detail in most of the scenes, especially those that deviate from the original’s corridor-only design. The visuals have the trademark “Unity Engine” feel to them which is especially noticeable when the camera zooms in for close ups. 3 years ago this was a refreshing change from the current trends but now? It feels a bit dated. This is somewhat understandable as the focus appears to have been spent more on the puzzles and level design, given the sequel is almost 3 times as long as the original.
Mechanically Part 2: Unbound is the same game as the original, requiring you to explore your environment to find the solution to the current puzzle. This time around however you’ll be doing the majority of that through others, taking control of other AIs to help you complete your task. Each of these different entities have their own set of capabilities and limitations, both of which you’ll need to exploit fully in order to progress.The game also introduces several new mechanics along the way which ramp up the puzzle difficulty substantially towards the end (although I’ll abstain from describing them as it’s most certainly spoiler territory). Combat makes a return with a couple additional mechanics thrown but it’s mostly a distraction from the core puzzle solving game. It’s clear that the developer has focused more heavily on the parts that were received well (puzzle design and story) whilst defocusing others. The result is a game that I’m sure will delight fans of the first but, for people like me, it does highlight a lack of growth in the developer.
I mentioned in my review of The Fall that it was clear that the developer and I weren’t completely in-sync when it came to puzzle design. That hasn’t changed in Part 2: Unbound as there were numerous puzzles that just simply didn’t make any sense to me. Sometimes it was something simple, like missing an interaction point, but other times the logical leaps required would never come to me. Sure I could try clicking everything in sight in order to find out but that gets tiresome really quick. The worse ones were problems that had an obvious solution that was locked behind some mechanic I simply didn’t understand, preventing me from solving the puzzle until I’d completed some other, seemingly unrelated, task. I’d estimate that about 65% of the puzzles made sense (even if they were challenging), 15% were faults of mine and the remaining 20% were just nonsensical. I’ve played worse, to be sure, but I’ve also played better.
I’d forgive the game for that, as I did for the original, if it wasn’t for the fact that the developer made many of the same mistakes again. The control scheme is still the awkward mess it was before with the game often failing to capture the mouse pointer. For dual monitor users this will result in the game minimizing itself every so often when you click outside of the game’s window. There’s also a few puzzles which you can get stuck in, requiring you to exit to the main menu in order to be able to reset. There’s even a few places where you can fall through the world, like when One is on the train (simply walk to the left, there’s no barrier to stop you plummeting off the edge). That will also require a restart to get you back again. For first games from an indie studio I’m usually quite lenient, it is after all not easy to create a game, but for further titles I expect to see some level of polish. It’s just not there unfortunately which is a real shame. Hopefully I don’t see the same mistakes in Part 3 (this is supposed to be a trilogy, after all).
The story is still great with the addition of 3 extra characters giving you a much broader perspective on the world that you find yourself in. Each of the new characters are given enough backstory to get you invested which helps immensely in driving you through the game’s more obvious flaws. It certainly had its share of climatic moments, the Josephs scene comes to mind, and the little bits of levity sprinkled throughout are a welcome distraction from the dark overtones. The game proudly announces “To Be Concluded” at the end, signalling that the next instalment is coming and will be the finale to the story, something which I’ll always take points off for. It definitely feels like the story I’d be much more into if it wasn’t for the awkward controls and illogical puzzles. It’s a shame really as I always hope to see indie developers grow beyond the confines of their original success.
The Fall Part 2: Unbound, doubles down on what made the original popular whilst retaining many of the things which I’d had hoped they’d change. The story and puzzles were definitely the developer’s main focus as the game is much longer and more in depth than its predecessor was. However things that marred the original, like the awkward control scheme, lack of polish in some aspects as well as puzzle design that simply didn’t gel with this writer, felt like I was playing almost the same game from 3 years ago. For those who loved the original these issues aren’t likely to pose a problem but for me, someone who loves to see indie developers grow over time, it feels like they’re stagnant. In my mind Over The Moon Games has one last chance to prove that they, and their IP, can innovate beyond what they’ve achieved so far. All this being said The Fall Part 2: Unbound is still probably worth playing for those who love a good puzzle and story, I just wish it wasn’t almost the same game as it was 3 years ago.
The Fall Part 2: Unbound is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $16.99. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total playtime and 43% of the achievements unlocked.