Thinking about my journey as a gamer it’s interesting to note how I’ve ebbed and flowed between being focused on single player experience and those enjoyed with others. To be sure part of this was due to the way I came to games in the first place, sharing the family PC with my brother and later moving onto the first generation NES console which we’d waste endless hours on. Later on, when I was blessed with my own personal PC, that I started to find an interest in gaming by myself. That was upended when I got into the LAN scene and continued in strength as the world of online gaming was unlocked when I was graced with the wonderful gift of broadband. The last decade has been a good mix of the two although I’ll admit that most of my gaming time is more on the single player side than otherwise.
Suffice to say I don’t often go looking for co-operative experiences these days, especially if they don’t come with a single player option. However Degrees of Separation caught my eye early last year and it had long been in my review queue to play with my wife when we got the time. Well, once again thanks to the bushfires that continue to rage on, we managed to sit down and make our way through it. Whilst it’s core mechanic is somewhat novel it is a rather run of the mill puzzle platformer. That being said it can be a good bit of fun when you’re playing with another, especially if they aren’t exactly experienced with this kind of game.
Ember and Rime are from two different sides of the same world: hers a warm one of endless sunshine blessed with boundless heat and his, a world of frozen beauty. They are separated by an enigmatic force, unable to reach each other nor visit each other’s world. It’s clear however that their world has suffered some great tragedy at the hands of despotic ruler and they set out together to uncover the mystery of their shared world. Working together is the only way that they’ll be able to uncover the mystery of what happened and why they both are separated from one another.
Degrees of Separation is crafted in the style of Flash games of yesteryear with its flat 2D environments, simplistic animations and limited use of modern effects. There’s an unfortunate amount of asset reuse which makes a lot of the areas feel very samey, even though they’re supposed to be completely different environments. That being said it’s not like it’s an ugly game, more that it’s just very simplistic in its implementation. I can hazard a guess that’s likely due to the developers needing to create 2 of everything: one for Ember’s world and one for Rime’s. Combine that with the various interactions that needed to be coded in and I can see why they wanted to keep things simple from a visuals perspective.
The game’s claim to fame is the two worlds of the main characters: one world is hot and the other is cold. Initially that’s all there is to it and solving most puzzles is just figuring out the order in which things need to be done with the various worlds so you can progress forward. The later worlds start to play on the divide a lot more, bringing in mechanics that make use of it in some way. However all of these new mechanics are contained within the level that they’re granted in, so this isn’t some kind of metroidvania style game where you’ll be unlocking different parts of past levels with new skills. The only metroidvania style thing in here is the main overworld which is non-linear, but realistically you’re going to have to complete a number of levels in order due to the number of unlocks required to open them.
The puzzles are almost all self-contained and we only came across one that required us to bring something in from another puzzle in order to solve it. I personally prefer it this way for a co-op setting as otherwise you end up second guessing each other’s ideas endlessly, spending countless hours trying to drag things from other puzzles around in order to try and solve them. It also means that you’ll need to be aware of the developer’s logic as you progress through the levels as if you lose sight of that then there’s going to be puzzles that you won’t be able to solve. Thankfully those seem to be few and far between as I can only remember skipping maybe 3 or so in our full playthrough.
The puzzles are also predominantly physics based with a good chunk of them requiring precise platforming and/or timing in order to complete them. Given the game’s less than stellar control implementation this can make some puzzles a little more frustrating than they need to be as objects might not react the way you expect them to or you’ll find yourself having to repeat sections over and over again because you mistimed a jump. Even I, the seasoned puzzle platform gamer that I am, struggled at times much to the delight of my wife. This could also partly be due to us playing it on console as, I’ll admit, I don’t usually do most of my platforming with a controller.
All this being said the puzzles are, for the most part, pretty straightforward and most of them should be doable for even novice gamers. Thankfully not every puzzle must be solved as you’ll only need a certain amount of scarves (the game’s collectible) to progress to another level. The only improvements I’d seek to make would be the inclusion of a map and a reworked checkpoint system as it’s something of a pain to get back to where you were after you’ve put the game down for the night.
The story is told via a voiceover that’s triggered on every new puzzle screen, which is nice, but the story itself is pretty forgettable. I think this is partly because it’s told in the third person and the characters themselves rarely interact on the screen so it’s hard to really empathise with them at all. To be sure I prefer having the story told to me as I’m playing it rather than being presented with walls of text every so often, but having the entire thing told in the third person just seemed to take a lot of the emotional investment out of it.
Degrees of Separation is a solid co-op platformer with a novel take on the genre’s mechanics. Whilst its visual style and story err on the side of simplistic the puzzle/platform mechanics are on point, requiring some real lateral thinking and cooperation to solve. Its casual nature will make it attractive to those who are looking for something to play together but can only do so in short bursts. Other than that there’s not a terrible amount to say amount Degrees of Separation and hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you know if it’s for you.
Degrees of Separation is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with a total of approximately 4 hours playtime and 38% of the achievements unlocked.
My history with the Trine series is long, stretching all the way back to 2011. However it could have never happened at all as I missed the game when it first came out, it not really registering as a blip on my radar back then. It was on the recommendation of a friend, one who had noticed the uptick in my gaming consumption, who recommended that I give it a shout. What’s bloomed from that is a love of the quirky series that I’ve seen go through ups and downs over the decade of its existence; from it’s awkward beginnings as a quirky physics based platformer all the way through to its latest incarnation which, I’m happy to say, is the best one in the series to date.
This time our intrepid trio of heroes isn’t summoned to adventure by the Trine, instead the request comes from the Astral Academy. Prince Sellius, one of their “students”, suffers from intense nightmares. This would be one thing but he’s also gifted with potent magic abilities and those nightmares are starting to invade the waking world. So the call goes out once again to the Wizard, the Thief and the Warrior to help save the kingdom from this threat and, hopefully, save the prince in the process.
Trine has always had amazing visuals and the latest instalment is no different. The trademark dreamlike quality is retained, coming to us through the liberal use of bloom and bright lighting effects. The 3D backgrounds and set pieces have become even more elaborate, becoming bigger and more detailed than they ever have before. The game still runs on the in-house proprietary engine and it appears that Frozenbyte has done a great job in improving its capabilities and optimising the implementation as the whole game runs very smoothly, even on old hardware. Suffice to say that Trine continues to be one of the most visually impressive platformers in the market and I’m glad the developers keep pushing themselves to improve upon what they’ve delivered before.
As anyone who played Trine 3 could predict the game has returned to its 2D platformer roots, removing the 3rd dimension and going back to what they know. For fans of the series this is a great thing as whilst the 3D version of Trine was indeed a step up the fact that they could only deliver a third of the game they wanted to with 3 times the budget of Trine 2 says a lot about the effort required to make it work. So in that respect Trine 4 is much more of an evolution of what Trine 2 was rather than a rework of 3 and the mechanics are all back to their roots. There have been some changes to make all characters more equally a part of the overall experience however, notably with the Wizard now having substantial combat capability and the Warrior being a key piece of numerous puzzle mechanics. Progression is now split into 2 tiers: one from combat and one from finding experience jars. The former is effectively the unlock for new puzzle mechanics whilst the latter unlocks augments to those abilities, effectively being quality of life improvements. Frozenbyte describes this as the “most complete Trine” experience they’ve ever created and, I’m glad to say, I wholeheartedly agree with them on that.
Combat is, as it always was, something of an also ran in the Trine experience. To be sure, there’s a more comprehensive combat experience to be had there than there ever has been, but pretty much all the engagements play out in the same way. The addition of more combat abilities to the Wizard, in the form of abilities that allow you to slam objects and levitate enemies, does make for a more varied experience but in all honesty most of them will get done with a lot of hack and slashing. The resurrection mechanic is also very, very forgiving ensuring that you’re unlikely to actually die and need to go back to a checkpoint at any time. To be fair this kind of combat fits into the whole overall zeitgeist of what Trine aims to be: a casual puzzle platformer that could be enjoyed by anyone. In that respect I don’t ever envision the combat aspects getting much more complicated than they already are.
The puzzles have gone back to their roots with physics based problems being the name of the game. The wizard still has the ability to conjure boxes and platforms, the thief grappling hook things and now the warrior’s shield forms a core part of the experience with its reflecting ability. There are numerous augmentations to all of these abilities which bring with them a wide variety of challenges for you to solve. For the most part though the majority of puzzles are going to be heavily focused on the last mechanic you unlocked with only a couple other abilities required to solve them, at least for the main puzzles. The secret ones do ramp up the challenge somewhat although they, like pretty much every puzzle that’s ever been created in Trine, is subject to the whims and whiles of the emergent gameplay that the series is well known for.
Initially you’re pretty limited in the shenanigans that you can get up to as your abilities are significantly limited. However once you’re able to summon 2 items things start to get pretty interesting and only start to rocket up from there. Indeed the combination of multiple boxes plus the fairy rope means you’re able to make platforms of arbitrary height that you can grapple onto, meaning that no matter what the height of something is you’ll be able to get to it. Combine that with the fact that the developers have still not solved the likely unsolvable issue of the Wizard levitating things he’s standing on in some capacity (this time you can grapple 2 boxes together and then levitate one of them, which can fling you basically anywhere) and you’ve got a recipe for some rather whacky solutions to the puzzles at hand. Additionally, and I don’t remember noticing this in Trine 2, but the co-op aspects have obviously played a bit into the level design as there are some puzzles that have multiple solutions, most only requiring one character. So for those it’s usually very easy to get past them with all 3 abilities at your disposal.
Despite all of that though the game is very well polished, not really suffering from any major game breaking issues or glitches. I mean sure, there were times where something happened that I wasn’t exactly expecting but I was deliberately trying to find ways to break the game’s physics engine in order to solve a puzzle in an easier way than intended. Perhaps my most enjoyable moments was when I was trying to grappling hook 2 boxes together, one of which was directly on top of the other. Doing that is fine however the second you start to levitate them things go wildly out of control as they start to clip and bounce off each other. I’m sure there’s easy fixes for edge cases like that but honestly, I think the game is better off with them in.
The story is perhaps the most well fleshed out of the Trine series but it’s not like that was a high bar to get over. The focus of Trine has always been on the visual and puzzle experience, notsomuch the characters or the world that they reside in. To be sure this does expand the world of Trine a little but it’s a pretty standard affair with a rather predictable outcome. Thankfully the story doesn’t get in the way of the game at all, mostly playing as background to what’s happening on screen.
Trine 4 is a return to form for the series, taking the essence of what made it great originally and building that up significantly. The more varied and deeper puzzle mechanics make for some truly interesting game play, especially with the trademark exploitable physics engine that allows you to do all sorts of things that the developers never intended you to do. The visuals are once again of AAA quality, retaining the same stylings that have become a trademark of the game. The usual not-so-great features are still present in this instalment with the middling combat experience and a run-of-the-mill story that you’re likely to forget shortly after playing. Still what makes a Trine game great is here in spades and for fans of the series this is a definite must-play.
Trine 4 is available now on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $42.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 9 hours playtime and 53% of the achievements unlocked.
Portal is mostly remembered for its mechanics, and rightly so given how revolutionary they were at the time, but its storytelling was just as influential. Nearly all of the games that seek to capture some of Portal’s mechanical magic will also attempt to put their own spin on the omniscient AI who’s running you through experiment after experiment, with or without the added sarticial element. Gravitas, whilst not really innovating or providing anything particularly new from a mechanical perspective, did manage to make its story lighthearted and universally appealing. In this age of endless soulless clones of every popular title it’s somewhat refreshing to see one that’s given some good thought to the kind of experience they wanted to player to have beyond just the simple mechanical level.
Gravitas puts you in control of a mute protagonist who finds themselves on their way to a space station that’s home to the Gallery of Refined Gravity. There you meet the Curator, a small floating robot who’s spent an unknown amount of time building all sorts of puzzles that involve manipulating gravity and he very much wants you to experience them. So begins your journey into the weird and wonderful world of an AI who’s been left to their own devices for far too long.
Developed on the Unreal 4 engine Gravitas’ visual style is pretty basic favouring simple textures, basic lighting elements and uncomplicated level design. It’s certainly not a bad looking game but it does feel like the majority of the assets have come from the Unreal store, which isn’t a bad thing per se, it just makes the game feel somewhat generic. Still I don’t think the main focus was on the mechanics however, with the story elements being much more fleshed out. Overall Gravitas’ graphics aren’t terrible and don’t distract from the experience.
Mechanically Gravitas is your typical platform puzzler that relies on a certain trick mechanic, in this case being the use of a “gravity glove” that allows you put down columns of manipulate gravity that pull things, including yourself, towards them. Puzzles consist of most of the standard tropes for this genre: getting blocks from A to B, moving things around so you can get to the next room or blocking off deadly obstacles so you can pass through. If you’ve played any of the multitude of games in this genre then none of the mechanics will be much of a surprise, or challenge, to you and you’ll likely be able to complete most on the first pass.
However it’s the story and its performance by the voice actors is what makes Gravitas worth playing. Whilst the narrative isn’t anything new it’s still thoroughly enjoyable, striking the right balance between its satirical and sinister parts. It’s also well paced with the only real breaks in the story coming when you’re working your way through the puzzles. Given that most of them can be solved pretty quickly this means the story keeps going on at a steady pace throughout the game’s short play time.
Gravitas is one of those rare short indie games that gets the storytelling right, ensuring that the core gameplay loop doesn’t get in the way unnecessarily. The mechanics are simple and unchallenging, ensuring that you’ll maintain a good pace through the game. It’s short play time works to its advantage too as much longer would see a lot of the comedic elements wear thin and the basic game play would then become more of a chore than anything else. Hopefully the success that Galaxy Shark Studios has found here with its first title will give them the confidence to try something more ambitious next time around.
Gravitas is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 51 minutes with 50% of the achievements unlocked.
Exploration in games used to just be about finding the secret room or a hidden easter egg that the developers left behind. For many games now exploration is a key part of the experience, sometimes completely changing the narrative or mechanics leading to a whole different kind of experience for those who invest the time to explore deep and wide. Further the exploration of things outside of the game has also become an integral part of many titles, including Sea of Solitude which seeks to explore the emotions of depression, loneliness and loss. It unfortunately does so in a rather ham fisted, stereotypical way; it’s apparent metaphorical storytelling being far more direct than I think it’s creators intended. To be sure I’m not denying that the feelings that went into creating this story aren’t real, indeed the creative director states that it was due to a breakup of hers, but it’s clear that that experience has been workshopped and massaged into a very middle of the road experience.
You play as Kay who finds herself in a world that’s been consumed by the sea with only a few scarce buildings popping out over the waves. Her boat is her only respite from the deep waters that are inhabited by monsters who taunt her endlessly. Those monsters are of her own creation however, stemming from events in her past that she has yet to deal with fully. Your journey is then one of exploring her past, uncovering the trauma that has created the monsters that now inhabit this sunken world. It’s up to you to guide her through the pain and, hopefully, come out the other side healed.
Sea of Solitude’s art style is the ever-trendy low poly chic that nearly every indie game seems to be implementing these days. The wider world isn’t exactly filled out well with a lot of noticeable asset reuse, making a lot of the more open parts of the world feel very samey. However the internal level parts are brimming with detail, each which their own distinctive style (something which I’m sure the level designers are quite proud of). Animations are a little on the simplistic side however, feeling like they’ve mostly been hand cranked which makes some characters look a lot more stilted than they should be. Overall the games visuals are quite good for Jo-Mei’s first all inhouse, standalone title.
I’ve shied away from calling games like Sea of Solitude “adventure” titles as, in my mind, that’s games like the old school LucasArts titles and their more modern equivalents. Instead I feel that games like this are more akin to puzzle platformers as their puzzles are typically self contained and usually heavily blended in platform elements. Indeed that’s pretty much Sea of Solitude in a nutshell: you’ll move between various different platforms (quite literally most of the time too), working your way through until you hit a puzzle that requires you to solve before going on. There’s two sets of collectibles for you to track down although whether or not they actually change the game in any appreciable way is unclear. Altogether Sea of Solitude is a pretty simple game mechanically and isn’t likely to challenge most players.
With all the puzzles being self contained it’s usually not terribly difficult to figure out what needs to be done. Some of them are unforgiving though, sending you all the way back to the start of the puzzle should you happen to time something wrong. Many of them are platform based which, as anyone who’s played 3D platformers before will tell you, means there’s a certain unwieldiness to them. There’ll be times when you’re pretty sure you’ve made a jump or calculated your timing perfectly only to be slapped down unceremoniously. Thankfully the game doesn’t require frame level precision nor are any of the puzzles minutes long sequences that need repeating upon failing so you won’t be struggling for hours on end to get past something.
The game also has a few rough edges that could do with some sorting out. For starters it’s not completely clear on communicating its mechanics to you, most notably during the first light beam puzzle which tells you to “focus” with the mouse…somehow. I tried doing everything I could think of with my mouse and nothing seemed to work, until I started wiggling it wildly only to find that the game had dropped the sensitivity way down, requiring quite a few long passes across the mouse pad to get the beam moving. This then extends to the rather unwieldy controls which make most things a little more challenging to navigate than they otherwise should be. Most notably this happens with the boat which makes navigating around with it quite a pain. These things aren’t beyond fixing so I hope future patches will smooth these things out.
Sea of Solitude warns you straight up that it’s going to deal with some heavy emotional content but what follows fails to really deliver any emotional impact whatsoever. There’s no real one issue at play here, more the culmination of the various storytelling choices removed any kind of empathy I had for any of the characters. The voice acting isn’t particularly great, feeling devoid of emotion save for a few choice scenes that happen later in the game. The ham-fisted approach to working through the various emotional challenges, typically done by using stereotypical exposition of scenes associated with them (Bullied at school, career focused father, depressive boyfriend), makes it hard to truly resonate with the story. Given that I’ve been through most of the trauma that the game describes myself you’d think it’d be a slam dunk but, in all honesty, it felt like someone from the outside trying to tell my own story back to me. It simply didn’t hit the mark at all.
That is really the true failing of Sea of Solitude. For all the effort put into making a great looking game the substance needed to back it up, either in the form of great mechanics or an intriguing story (perhaps both, if we’re lucky) just wasn’t there. The CEO describes this as her most personal game to date but I just don’t really get that feeling. The story, even if born out of true events, feels like it’s done at arm’s length, almost as if there’s a fear that doing so would alienate those seeking to play it. Really that was done the second they decided to partner up with EA and therefore only be allowed to release on Origin, not exactly the platform known for its vibrant indie scene. For what it’s worth I’d still like to see more from Jo-Mei but only if they can take the lessons learnt from this and make something that actually achieves some form of emotional impact.
Sea of Solitude is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours playtime and 73% of the achievements unlocked.
The one thing I’ve always hated about most Metroidvania games is when they show you something that you’re not able to access with your current abilities. Often this manifests extremely early on as you explore the level only to find there’s a part you can’t get to with no indication of when you’ll get the requisite ability to explore there. Quite often those areas aren’t even necessary for you to explore, just a bonus or something, so their inclusion is merely to draw you back to earlier levels. To be fair there are some examples where this is done well, the revisiting of the level being driven by story or other mechanical elements, and for those I have far more leniency. I tell you this mostly preface my thoughts on Supraland as it’s this particular mechanic, as well as a handful of other issues, that made this a game I didn’t want to play past a couple hours.
The Steam store page for Supraland proclaims, among many other things, that the story is “minimal” and that’s absolutely true. Whilst the premise is quite cool, all the characters are toys in a kid’s sandpit, the plot itself is ridiculously basic: you’re the red guys and the blue guys have shut off your water supply and it’s up to you to turn it back on. However to actually get to the blue guys you have to make your way through numerous different challenges, many of which will require you to upgrade your equipment and skills in order to do. I’ve read elsewhere that there’s a little more too the story later on in the game but it does nothing to expand upon it at all, save for having little dialogue instances between NPCs which have nothing to do with the plot at all.
The graphics of Supraland are heavily stylized and simplified, giving it a very cartoony feel. The developers have managed to avoid the typical Unreal engine game feel, keeping the use of specularity to a minimum. There’s a heavy use of depth of field which is supposed to give you the feeling that you’re a very small being in a large world. To some extent this works however it can have the effect of simply making everything disorienting like in the screenshot below. The issue here is, of course, perspective as whilst the game touts that it only has a tiny map of 9m2 that’s somewhat meaningless if you’re scaled down in size. So try as you might to make it feel like a small world with tiny people it’s going to end up feeling just like normal anyway, no matter how much you try to use depth of field or tilt shifting to change that.
Supraland bills itself as a combination of games like Portal, Zelda and Metroid which is horrendously disingenuous as it’s much more akin to the run of the mill indie puzzle platformers we’ve seen many of over the past decade. To be sure there are elements that you could say are borrowed from each game: the platforming from Portal (although that’s a stretch), the semi-open worldedness of Zelda games and the reexploration mechanic from Metroid. Realistically it’s just a bog standard first person puzzler with a tacked on RPG progression system. There’s really nothing wrong with that but the appeal to authority of titles with much greater pedigrees is what’s getting me. Honestly I was going to write this off as just your average indie puzzler until I reread the Steam page but now I feel compelled to point out all the faults given that it thinks it’s a combination between 3 of arguably the most influential titles in the puzzler space.
The combat is simple and implemented poorly. There’s really no nuance to it at all with enemies just running directly at you or standing dead still whilst they shoot from you at a distance. There’s also no way to block so you’ll likely end up dying to the first enemies since their melee range is the same as yours and there’s nothing you can do to stop them from hitting you. Once you get the gun you can basically just kite everything around but in its default form it’s annoyingly slow. Not that you’ll be wanting for upgrades for long though, even with rudimentary exploration you’ll be unlocking the upgrades in no time flat, even with the requisite barrel running task that serves no other purpose but to burn more of your time. But let’s not judge the game based on the one attribute which it doesn’t trumpet the most, let’s take a look at its puzzles and exploration.
The puzzles are incredibly simple, most of which you’ll solve pretty much straight away without too much of a thought. Others are easily solvable with emergent behaviours that the developer hasn’t taken into account, like being able to bypass entire sections of the game by walking on terrain that hasn’t been properly walled off. This only gets more ludicrous the more mechanics you have access to, giving you all sorts of means to break the game and bypass core game mechanics. This would be fun if it weren’t for the fact that it also means that there’s a certain level of gank to puzzles you can’t bypass, necessitating replaying certain puzzles over a few times in order to get them to complete properly.
Exploration is rewarded, although most of the time it’s just a few coins hidden around a corner or somewhere else rather obvious. The other parts are, of course, hidden behind mechanics you don’t yet have access to, something which will necessitate you trudging all the way back through the levels in order to get back to it. There is a rudimentary fast travel system however you can’t access it from a map (I don’t believe there is a map, actually) and it takes a good 20 seconds for it to travel you somewhere. This makes retreading ground a pretty annoying experience and, given that most of those hidden rewards are just basic upgrades, there’s no real compelling reason to do so.
It’s for these reasons that I didn’t find myself drawn back to playing Supraland after the first night I sat down with it. The fact that most of the work was done by a single developer is commendable but the marketing of it could not be further off the mark. The game is simplistic in all the wrong places, making combat a chore, puzzles easily waltzed through and the prospect of going back to retread old ground something I don’t think any sane player would want to do. Of course the reviews on Steam paint a much different picture and so it’s quite possible I’m on the wrong side of the fence for this, but in all honesty I simply cannot see what others find enjoyable in this game.
Supraland is available on PC right now for $28.95. Total play time was 2 hours with 27% of the achievements unlocked.
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.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s release surprised me as I hadn’t really kept track of where the next instalment was at. You’d think then that I’d have no big expectations for it but reading back over my reviews though I think they were set high given the previous game, Rise of the Tomb Raider, rated up there among many of my favourite games of that year. This is always a challenge for follow up titles and it seems that unfortunately the developers just weren’t up to the task this time around. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot to like in the newest Tomb Raider game, but like many other long running AAA titles they’ve stumbled and they’re going to have to shake things up considerably if they want the IP to be successful.
Following almost directly on from the events at the end of the previous game we find Lara and Jona tracking down the leaders of the Trinity cult. They track them down to a town in Mexico where they discover that they’re looking for an ancient artifact that can bring about the remaking of the world. Lara then finds her way into an ancient temple and steals the Dagger of Ix Chel, one part of the two things needed to accomplish this. Shortly after however she’s captured by Trinity who take the dagger from her, informing Lara that she’s just begun the end of the world. You then follow Lara’s quest to find the other half piece, the Silver Box of Chak Chel, so she can stop Trinity before they remake the world by purging everyone from it.
I can strongly remember Rise of the Tomb Raider opening with a wide sweeping in-game cinematic that was absolutely stunning, showing right from the start that it was a visual marvel. Shadow of the Tomb Raider by comparison doesn’t, feeling decidedly last-gen with its muted colour palettes and tendency towards tight, closed in set pieces. Now I’ll admit that it’s quite possible some of this is due to the limits of the hardware it’s running on, given my PC is nearing 4 years old at this point, but even looking back at my old screenshots they just look so much better than the ones I have here. Rise of the Tomb Raider still has its moments, some of them which can be improved dramatically by using the built in photographer mode (not used for any of these shots), but on the whole it feels like a step back in visual quality. Given that this was supposed to be the biggest budget Tomb Raider game yet, up to $100 million possibly, it does make me wonder why the graphics took a bit of a back seat.
Where Tomb Raider reinvented, Rise refined and Shadow, unfortunately, simply copies most things wholesale from its predecessors. The game play will be familiar to those who’ve played the previous two instalments with a handful of new mechanics being thrown in. You’ll start off with a lot of abilities now I vaguely remember requiring skill points to unlock previously, many of which were necessary quality of life improvements. The upgrade and crafting system is much the same, requiring a mish mash of different items gathered from both humans and beasts in order to get the best items the game has to offer. There’s also a bunch of outfits and other weapon types available for you to find if you’re into exploring every inch of the maps that the game has to offer. Many other reviews have criticised the game for becoming stale and it’s a valid point as Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t bring enough new things to the table to make it feel truly distinct from its predecessor.
The stealth/combat is almost identical to Rise of the Tomb Raider with really only two new notable mechanics: covering yourself in mud and hiding on leafy walls. They’re introduced early but they don’t really make much of an impact in how combat plays out. It’s only towards the end when the enemies get infrared goggles does the mud mechanic make some sense but even then it’s not a huge change in the way stealth sections play out. So the combat flow follows the same pattern that a lot of games do: stealth around and take out as many enemies as you can before you inevitably trip up and have to go full gunslinger mode. There doesn’t appear to be much (if any) penalty for just shooting up everything in sight either so if you’re not really a fan of the stealth sections then you can simply blast right past them all. This would be more glaring if there was the same amount of combat in Shadow of the Tomb Raider as there was in previous games but I probably spent less than half of my total game time in combat.
There’s definitely a much heavier emphasis on platforming this time around with a lot more of the environments explorable. Shadow of the Tomb Raider does make that most annoying choice of showing you parts of the map you can’t access until you get a certain item, something which always gives me the shits. This was especially annoying given that the fast travel system never seemed to be available for me, preventing me from going back to places even after I had unlocked the requisite gear. There also appears to be some gear that you don’t get from completing the campaign missions as well (the rope ascender being the first that comes to mind) and I never saw it at any vendors either. So I’m not sure what happened there but even at the end of the game I didn’t have all the tools I needed to explore every part of the game. I’ll admit that towards the end I was starting to lose interest quickly so I might have missed some important side quest or some such which might’ve given me those tools I needed. Still my point stands: showing a player somewhere they can explore but forcing them to come back later is crap and I don’t like it.
Progression comes at a pretty steady pace throughout the game with basically every action you take giving you XP. There’s still a lot of skills which aren’t particularly useful and some that honestly shouldn’t be there at all. For instance the one that allows you to buy bigger resource bags from vendors feels a bit shit, it should just increase the one you have already. In fact the steady levelling is offset somewhat by the rather high cost of items bought from vendors and the fact that you have to buy the lesser version of something before you can buy the bigger one. Had I known that going in I might’ve been a little more strategic with how I spent my cash. Still it’s not like anything I bought from the vendors make a great deal of difference to how I played. The different bows and other types of weapons all feel basically the same, none conferring any real advantage or disadvantage over the other. Indeed you’re probably best placed just fully upgrading the defaults as you won’t really need much else.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider has a few rough edges, most notably in the platforming sections when Lara doesn’t respond to inputs as you’d expect her to. Quite often I had her leap in an unintended direction because I wasn’t angled in exactly the right way, causing her to leap to her doom. There’s also a few sections which, for some reason, instantly kill you when they shouldn’t, like the big tower which you can explore if you take one path down but will die instantly if you jump to it (even though it’s a fully survivable jump). The aiming also feels a little unrefined with a lot of shots that should have connected whiffing their target completely. None of this is game breaking but it does feel a little more rough than an AAA title like this should.
The story dives deeper into the Lara’s family history and the ties it has to the Trinity organisation which is, on the whole, not bad. It does jump around a fair bit with events unfolding a bit too fast which makes some plot points a little unbelievable. This has nothing to do with the mystic elements either, more you have character relationships developing too fast, events taking place in weirdly accelerated time frames and a lack of moments to let the story breathe. Indeed a lot of the flavour of the game is hidden in the collectibles which are all fully voiced but will only play if you stay in the inventory screen. It’s a big missed opportunity to have them playing in the background as you walk around as some of them are quite interesting. It’s not like they didn’t do that for other parts of the story too, like when you sit around the camp to upgrade your skills and Lara will either chat with people that are around or go through her internal monologues. Overall I think the story was probably one of the stronger elements of this instalment, it was just let down by the so-so game play.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider would be a fine game by any other standards but it seems small compared to the shoulders of the giants it stands on. The game feels like a step back for the series as a whole, with a lack of innovation and refinement in nearly all aspects of the game. It’s still very much the kind of game that rekindled the IP over 5 years ago, which might be great for some, but I’d want to see a lot more for the kind of investment the developers have made in it. To be fair it would’ve been hard to continue going from strength to strength, the weight of the hype train always weighs heavily, but for this reviewer Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels to be the weakest in the series. I still have hope for the franchise but at this time of year, when competition for a gamer’s attention is never greater, these kinds of missteps can be lethal.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 11 hours of total playtime and 52% of the achievements unlocked.
A tried and true path to making a successful sequel is to hone in on what made the original great and build from there. For some games this is an easy road to tread, sometimes involving just dusting off ideas that couldn’t make the cut originally or streamlining certain things to focus on the game’s core. For others though it can be a more painful process, forcing the developers to shed parts of the game that they felt were core to the overall experience. Unravel 2 feels like a combination of these two ideals, adding in something that I never I knew I wanted in the original (co-op) whilst dropping what I felt was the weakest part of the game (the story) which I know the developers felt was the cornerstone of their game. The result of those two changes is an experience that far exceeds that of the original, one that my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed playing together.
Whilst there appears to be some semblance of a story going on in Unravel 2, told through ghost like figures playing out scenes in the background, it is most certainly not the focus of the game. Instead, if you play the game the way I feel it’s meant to be played (with another person), the story that will develop is one of the trials and tribulations you face as you try to progress through the game. For gamer/gamer pairs it’s possibly not one of much note, but for any other kind of pairing it’s going to be about how you figure out how best to work together, the hilarious situations that evolve when you don’t and the joy you’ll experience when everything just starts working.
Unravel 2 retains the same gorgeous, lovingly detailed art style that made the original so distinct. The models, texturing and environment design are all done with near photorealistic accuracy, aided by the clever use of other visual tricks. I have the feeling that, had we played this on PC, the visuals would have shown a marked step up but regardless they still looked absolutely amazing on the PS4. Yet again the backing soundtrack is wonderful, flowing along with you as you progress through a level. Coldwood Interactive have proven yet again that they’re capable of some exceptional levels of craftsmanship when it comes to a game’s audio visual experience. I look forward to whatever project they throw themselves into next just based on that alone.
At a nuts and bolts level Unravel 2 retains the same basic mechanics as its predecessor in its puzzle/platformer mechanics. The main difference is, of course, the fact that you have another player with you and most of the novel puzzle mechanics are based around that. I’m sure there’s some differences in the single player version since not all of the puzzles could be done with just one person, even if you were controlling both Yarnies. The challenge, for me at least, was helping my dear wife through various sections and the various hilarious things that would happen along the way. To her credit though she became quite apt at the game as we continued through the levels, even completing a few of the challenges once we really started to find our groove.
Many of the puzzles aren’t exactly novel in their design, taking the form of one player needing to do X so the other player can do Y which unlocks the path to the next section. The more advanced puzzles later on and the challenges do require a good amount of lateral thinking, some of them stumping us for a good few minutes before we could carry on. The later puzzles end up mostly relying on timing and your platforming prowess which, whilst a good challenge for a gamer like myself, proved to be extremely challenging for someone like my wife who doesn’t play as often. Of course for those sections you can just hitch a ride on the more capable player, something we did every so often after a few solid tries.
The team work aspect of Unravel 2 isn’t to be underestimated and you won’t simply be able to rely on a single skilled player to make it all the way through. For instance if you’re swinging around or in mid air and your partner decides to grab the yarn (to climb up to you, for instance) you’ll instantly lose all momentum and, if you’re airborne, fall to the ground like a rock. Initially I couldn’t figure out what was happening until I accidentally did it to my wife at one stage and it was then I realised that she was the cause of the seemingly random physics engine quirks that had been plaguing us to no end. Additionally there’s a number of puzzles where you won’t simply be able to run to the end and then hoist your partner up with you as your yarn simply isn’t long enough. This means either finding a creative way to get them closer or attempting the puzzle together.
Probably the most challenging (and by extension enjoyable) puzzles were the ones where you had to each get on a platform at opposite sides of the screen. This often required a bit of lateral thinking and planning your moves out in order for it to all work out. Some of those later puzzles use mechanics which you’d either not been introduced to or weren’t explained well (like the tension of a string when you’re tying it off) which can make them a tad frustrating to solve. The hint system here was good though, initially giving you a few nudges in the right direction before just outright telling you what to do. We only needed to use that once though but for lesser skilled players I’m sure it’ll be a saving grace.
There’s definitely been a lot of improvement in terms of the game’s overall polish when compared to its predecessor. Most of the original issues with Yarny are gone and the platforming mechanics feel a lot more solid than they previously did. Part of that is due to the lower reliance on physics based puzzles as the ones that do make use of that are still some of the more janky experiences the game has to offer. We did end up breaking the game completely at one stage where our respective Yarnies were on two sides of a stick which, for some reason, caused the physics engine to freak out and dropped the frame rate through the floor. This then buggered up the sound engine and made the game’s music start looping in a really weird fashion. Try as we might to fix it we had to restart to a previous checkpoint which, thankfully, solved the issue.
The story of my wife and I playing through Unravel 2 was an exceptionally enjoyable one, warts and all. She’s your typical sometimes gamer, able to grasp the basics quickly but hasn’t got the tens of thousands of hours of game time that I do which has honed my hand/eye coordination significantly. This lead to many great moments where she’d inadvertently hit buttons, controller flailing and all sorts of other amusing behaviours that made our time together with Unravel special. To be sure I’m not blameless here either, my bravado often resulting in my untimely demise because I figured I could make it through a puzzle quickly without considering the consequences. We did give up after doing a couple of the challenges though as they just weren’t as fun given their reliance on timing and technical skill rather than problem solving.
Unravel 2 took the best elements of the original and made them better through the addition of the co-op mechanics. The gorgeous visuals and amazing soundtrack are now signature items of Coldwood Interactive’s games, something I hope they continue to work on with any upcoming titles. Defocusing the story in favour of letting players craft their own through the simple act of playing the game results in an experience that will be very personal to those who play it with someone else. The increased polish on the core mechanics is very much welcome, even if there’s still a few minor edge cases to sort out. The original was a game that struggled to achieve its ambition whilst its sequel does so admirably, making it a much better experience overall. For gamers and non-gamers alike Unravel 2 is an experience that is well worth investing the time in.
Unravel 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 8 hours of total game play and 14% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a sucker for eye candy. Sure I’ve played (and enjoyed) my share of games that have gone for substance over style but I’m far more likely to enjoy something if it’s visually pleasing and manages to get all the usual trappings in as well. However that penchant for visual flair can easily lead you astray as judging a game by its screenshots is the same as judging a book by its cover. That, dear reader, is how I ended up playing NUMERIC, a bargain basement platformer that suckered me in with semi-decent visuals, tricking me into thinking there was actually a game underneath it to be played.
NUMERIC has a story but it’s so ham fisted in its implementation it’s barely worth mentioning. It’s clear that English is a second language for the developer, as the description of the game on Steam will attest:
After a long sleep, the Model “98” finds itself in an abandoned place away from the usual house. There is little left in the memory, in addition to the memory of old friends. Where are they? What happened, why is everything so empty and lonely around?
With no story to drive the game along there’s only 2 things left for it: the visuals and the gameplay. One of those is above average, but that won’t be enough for the astounding lack in the other two.
So visually NUMERIC has a lot going for it. It manages its own spin on the current low-poly aesthetic that’s all the rage with indies these days. If I had to hazard a guess though the majority of those assets have come from the Unreal Marketplace and all of them have been dumped directly into the game’s files. That means for a game which has barely an hour of gameplay in it and a handful of environments the entire package clocks in at a whopping 6GB; not something you’d expect given its low-poly nature. NUMERIC does make good use of modern lighting effects to make for good screenshot bait but, beyond that, there’s really not much more to it. Honestly I should’ve expected as much when I was trawling through the new releases section of Steam, but a man can dream can’t he?
The core game play is 3D platforming, with all the usual pitfalls coupled with a distinct lack of any refinement or inspiration. You simply have to get to the end of the level, usually through hitting a few switches to unlock doors whilst avoiding a few obstacles. The game will always trigger a cutscene whenever you’re triggering an action which is skippable but, honestly, after the first time we’ve seen it there’s no reason to trigger the cutscene again to remind us of what is happening. Worse still the hit detection is very unreliable, often failing to trigger multiple times until you figure out where the hitbox for the switch your or character is. Couple that with level design that isn’t exactly well thought out and you’ve got a bunch of levels which can be finished in obviously unintended ways and others which are just exercises in frustration as you work you way around the developer’s mistakes.
NUMERIC then comes to an unceremonious end with a screen that says “Thanks for playing The End 2018” not even trying to attempt to close off the loose jumble of threads it thinks counts as a story. I would be kinder to the developer if this was their first title but it’s not, they’ve got no less than 3 titles for sale on Steam, all of which were released this year. Looking at the others it’s clear that they’ve found their formula and are running with it, hoping to churn out title after title until they hit on something. Whilst admirable it doesn’t lend itself to developing quality titles and won’t do them any favours when it comes to standing out of the torrent of games that are released on Steam every day. What they’re producing isn’t as egregious as some of the asset flip titles I’ve seen, but its close.
NUMERIC does the very bare minimum to be counted as a game, luring in visually driven idiots like myself in the hopes of finding something worth playing. Whilst they’ve managed to make some good looking visuals with the help of marketplace assets that’s where the substance stops. There’s nothing about this game that warrants playing it, nor even watching a stream of it on Twitch or a Let’s Play on YouTube. The fact that the developer is churning out title after title should tell you a lot about the motivations behind this game’s creation and none of them should compel you to spend money on this game. You’d think I would’ve learnt my lesson after Elementium, but alas, it seems I’m a slow learner. Hopefully you’ll head my words and let this one pass through to the keeper.
NUMERIC is available on PC right now for $1.99. Total play time was 54 minutes that I’ll never get back again.
For many decades games were a simple land of fantasy, made up of tiny blocks of pixels that crudely replicated the real world. As the medium improved so did the stories that came with it, exploring greater and more mature themes. Then with the democratisation of development tools the stories started becoming incredibly personal, often directly reflecting the life experiences of their creators. Indeed I’ve played many games which I felt were something of a catharsis for their creators, a part of their coping process for dealing with tragedy (That Dragon, Cancer and The First Tree come to mind). On the surface Inked would seem to be one of those titles however I don’t feel it is, the story of tragedy instead born out of a want to develop a tortured artist character. This, coupled with a few missteps from a game design perspective, means that Inked falls short of some its aspirations whilst still managing a few interesting firsts, at least from this writer’s perspective.
You’re put in control of the Nameless Hero, a samurai warrior who’s on a quest to save his one true love. Upon rescuing her however she is immediately taken away from you by your creator, an artist named Adam. It’s clear that there’s no love lost between you and Adam, he seemingly delighting in torturing you at every opportunity. However you are able to turn his weapons against him, gaining control of the ink that forms your world and bending it to your will. With your love taken away there’s only one thing left driving you: revenge. The journey to the temple where your creator resides won’t be easy and there’s no telling what twisted things Adam’s mind will create next.
Whilst I’m sure that Inked isn’t the first game to use a pen drawn aesthetic I’m struggling to remember any that had a similar art style. It’s not all hand drawn like Forgotton Anne or Chuchel, instead it’s a full 3D game (with physics and all) that utilises pen styled textures to give it that sketchbook aesthetic. Honestly it’s done so well that the parts which aren’t done in this way are incredibly jarring, lacking the same love and care lavished on the pen and paper style. The monotone colour schemes also make it a lot easier to identify puzzle elements which could otherwise have easily blended into the background. I hope this becomes Somnium Games’ trademark style for future titles as it’s quite distinctive and could be easily extended to bigger, more ambitious titles.
From a game play point of view Inked is a simple platform/puzzler game with a few key mechanics. You’re able to create and destroy a number of different objects, some of which will also perform actions like blowing things over or setting them on fire. Most of the puzzles are physics based and, as you’d somewhat expect, can often be solved in emergent ways by using things in ways they weren’t intended to be. This is limited somewhat by the fact you don’t get all your powers right away but after about halfway through the game you have enough tools at your disposal to get away with some really whacky things. The levels also change the puzzle dynamic as well, like one where gravity is about 1/0th of normal or another where the floor is ice. It certainly falls in the category of “easy to understand, hard to master” although for all the wrong reasons in my opinion.
Probably the most glaring fault is the fact that the game is done in an isometric view but your movement doesn’t align to it. Instead for all directions the game will require you to move in you’ll need to hold down two movement keys which makes some of the precision platforming in this game extremely frustrating. Not only that it’s also not entirely clear at times where solid ground ends and a bottomless pit begins, making some of the most simple puzzles a rather frustrating experience. This only gets worse when you’ve got puzzles that have a timer on them, forcing you to execute awkwardly imprecise jumps and simply hope that you make it through this time. The hitboxes are also quite a big bigger than you’d think, especially on things that instantly kill you.
The last few items are things that I think can be easily addressed, giving some elements a little visual flair and making the timer on some puzzles a little more generous, but the movement system really is Ink’s achilles heel. Sure you could probably remap the controls but then you’ve got the problem of the movement on screen not aligning to what you’d expect it to be. Bar reworking all the levels completely I’m not sure how Somnium Games can address this. It’s a right shame as had the developers spent a little more time thinking about how they should tackle the problem of cardinal movement in an isometric system I may be signing a different tune. Alas, at least for this title, it was not to be.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
This is not to say that the story is the game’s saving grace, far from it. Part of it is likely due to the so-so voice acting which feels stilted and flat, lacking any real emotional depth until the game’s final scenes. The story itself also feels kind of trite. I mean sure I understand what they were trying to present, an artist driven to madness by grief, but that’s a character that you’d likely want to be sympathetic to. I think the main issue here is we’re not given enough time away from Adam and his perspective to build that empathy as we’re simply his tortured play thing for the entire time. The reason I mention other titles like this is that since those games come directly from real grief it was much easier to be sympathetic to the main characters. Inked feels much like Dream Daddy in that sense, a story created from the outside of someone else’s experiences rather than from it.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Inked might be far from a perfect game but you’d struggle to find any first time indie dev that was. The artwork is absolutely phenomenal as it manages to translate that pen and paper, hand drawn aesthetic to a fully realised 3D world. This is no small feat and I’m sure others will attempt to recreate and pay homage to it in the not too distant future. However that’s where the good ends as the base game makes a few odd choices which drastically hamper the game’s playability. Couple that with a so-so story delivered by seemingly uninterested voice actors and you’ve got a game that struggles to meet the goals it set out for itself. Still I hope it finds enough success so that Somnium Game’s can continue onto the next big thing, taking the lessons learned here along with them.
Inked is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 6.1 hours with 77% of the achievements unlocked.