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.
Ever since I gave myself new, unknown forms of RSI playing games like Super Meat Boy I’ve had an aversion to twitch based platformers. The challenge can certainly be rewarding but the games can be exhausting to play, needing to be put down after an hour or so. Trouble is when I feel forced to put a game down, rather than feeling like I’ve come to a good place to stop, they tend to not get picked up again. That is the unfortunate tale of Celeste for this old reviewer as whilst it’s a very competent platformer I simply haven’t had the drive to go back to it after I last decided to give it a rest.
You play as Madeline, a young woman out on a quest to conquer the mighty Celeste mountain and, in the process, confront her own inner demons. The journey to the summit is fraught with all sorts of fantastical dangers that will push you to your limits. There will be those who belittle you for daring to take on such a challenge, some who support you and those whose intentions aren’t particularly clear. The reason as to why you’re climbing the mountain isn’t particularly clear but one thing is for sure: Madeline will make it to the top no matter what.
Celeste takes its artistic inspiration from fellow low detail pixel art platformers, emulating the style of games of yesteryear that weren’t capable of pushing more than a handful of pixels at a time. The attention to detail is impressive though, using each pixel to convey much more information than would otherwise be from say larger images that had been downscaled. The higher resolution images have that old Flash game feel about them which isn’t surprising given the developer’s heritage in making games on that platform. Overall it’s a pretty stock standard pixel art affair.
As I alluded to in the opening paragraph Celeste is a platformer, one that takes much of its inspiration from the bevy of similar games that have been released over the past decade. Its signature mechanics are simple: a dash and the ability to hold/climb on walls for a limited amount of time. Each level will have its own unique additional mechanic which it will make use of to provide additional challenge, leaving your in-built abilities unchanged. Each of the levels ends with what you could call a boss which typically takes the form of something either chasing you or making your platforming journey just that extra bit more difficult. Scattered throughout the levels are dozens of collectibles, all of which are trapped behind harder than usual platforming puzzles. All in all, from a base game perspective, there’s not much I haven’t seen before and this doesn’t feel like a case where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
The platforming mechanics are crafted well enough, rarely did I find myself in a position where the journey from beginning to end of a particular puzzle wasn’t clear at the outset. Indeed Celeste does a pretty good job of demonstrating the mechanics to you, ensuring you have all the tools at your disposal. Of course using them correctly is where the challenge comes in as, if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to forget which finger does what when you’re in the middle of a complex puzzle. Thankfully all the harder challenge puzzles are completely optional so I never really felt like I was being put up against an unfair challenge. No, instead where I started to lose interest in Celeste was in how it ramped up the challenge.
You see there’s really only so much you can do with a simple bag of mechanics that are augmented with a single additional one per level. So instead the challenge typically comes from extending the puzzles length, meaning the distance between checkpoints progressively gets longer and longer. This means that the later puzzles are more difficult not because they’re more complex but because it takes longer to get to the point to retry that particular section. This is especially true for the boss sections which are the longest by far and include another additional irritating mechanic that makes completing those puzzles just that little bit harder. Sure the sense of accomplishment is very real when you finally complete a level but I could never really push myself to attempt more than one level in a sitting.
For those who enjoy platformers though these things are likely to be what makes a game like Celeste worth playing in the first place. There’s certainly a lot of content packed into Celeste with the strawberries, b-sides and what have you scattered around. I simply don’t enjoy chasing those kinds of rewards and so, when I put down Celeste on Sunday for the final time, the compulsion to go back simply vanished.
STORY SPOILERS BELOW
Had the story found its legs earlier I may have played it through to completion however. In the beginning the game doesn’t do much to build out the greater narrative except for hammering home the fact that Madeline is flawed. There is one incredibly touching moment when Madeline has a panic attack in the cable car, something I think anyone who’s dealt with anxiety before can relate to, but that comes over halfway through the game. Perhaps the story develops at a much faster rate in the sections which I haven’t played yet but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough to keep me engaged to want to see if that was the case. Perhaps I’ll watch a run through on YouTube or something one day but, sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever see it of my own volition.
STORY SPOILERS OVER
Celeste is a competent platformer that is sure to delight fans of the genre. Whilst none of its features stands out as the main reason you’d play it what they have done does fit together well. For me though this is probably one game where my biases against this type of game are showing through as I simply didn’t find enough reward in its challenge. To be sure it’s a well designed platformer, carefully guiding you through each of the level’s signature mechanics before hitting you hard with more challenging puzzles. Good design does not guarantee a fun game, however. Perhaps if I sunk another hour or two into Celeste I may sing a different tune, especially if the story manages to find its feet beyond that point, but for now it shall join the rest of the platformers I’ve laid to rest.
Celeste is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 3.5 hours of total play time and 20% of the achievements unlocked.
The “frustration game” genre has developed a cult following over the last 5 years or so. Born out of the democratisation of game development tools these games are typically the spawn of newer developers looking to try their hand at making games. Not knowing how or not wanting to adhere to conventions they stumble about and end up creating experiences that are defined by their awkward, frustrating nature rather than being derided for it. There are, of course, those who set out to deliberately craft them and none are more infamous than Bennett Foddy who brought us flash games like QWOP, GIRP and CLOP. Getting Over It is his first ever full release and, in staying true to his previous accomplishments, is a brutal mishmash of awkward controls and punishing gameplay.
The game is an homage to a flash game called Sexy Hiking which was released some 16 years ago. You are a man in a cauldron called Diogenes and, armed with a rock climbing hammer you make your way up a mountain covered in various detritus. At any point in the game however you can make a wrong move and plummet all the way back down to the start. There are no checkpoints, no way to solidify your progress so you can continue from there. You will fail, sometimes spectacularly, and you’ll have to do what you did once again…and again…and again.
Getting Over It has all the trappings of what Foddy describes as “b games” which are akin to their b grade brethren from the silver screen. The game appears to be made almost entirely out of assets taken from the Unity store, all of them loosely cobbled together to form the level you’ll play through. There’s a surprising amount of attention to detail put into it however like the use of various different sound effects for different surfaces, your character’s utterances which are dependent on your actions and the inclusion of numerous physics enabled objects, typically done to throw you off your game. If I had to put it in one sentence I’d describe it as a beautifully put together trash pile.
The objective of the game is simple: make your way to the top of the mountain. To do this you have to wrangle your hammer in various ways to overcome the objects in front of you. The mechanics are pretty simple, the hammer will grip most surfaces and your character is strong enough to rotate themselves around an attachment point, but the controls don’t respond how you’d expect them to. The character’s arms are somewhat bound by realistic physics however things change dramatically with momentum and, depending on where his arms are positioned vs where your cursor is things might not go how you expect them. Honestly it’s hard to describe just how unintuitive the controls are as you’re better off just playing it yourself to see what I’m getting at.
Getting Over It does a good job of slowly introducing harder and harder puzzles to you although the difficulty curve takes a sharp spike up the further you progress. Quite often you’ll find yourself progressing without really understanding how you got there and, when you inevitably fall back down, will struggle to redo the section you just did. You’ll start to work out what strategies work for you however and eventually you’ll have a good idea of how to keep on moving forward.
That is until you reach here.
This corridor seems to have broken me and many others attempting this game. Whilst there are numerous strategies for getting through it I couldn’t get any of them to work reliably for me. Sure, I did make it past that point once, however I instantly catapulted myself off the top, sailing gracefully back down to the bottom. It was honestly so soul destroying that I couldn’t do anything but laugh for the next 5 minutes, my anguish best expressed in tears of laughter rather than sadness. I did make it back up there eventually but fell back down again not too shortly afterwards. It was then I decided to put the game down and watch a speed run on YouTube.
Indeed the stats show that this is pretty much typical for anyone playing this game. Half of people playing this game give up before they’ve played 1.3 hours and the average total play time is a meagre 3. Beyond that the minority who’ve managed to complete this game once average a total of 11.7 hours, or some 10x the amount of time I’ve spent in the game. Honestly I’d had my fill by then and am quite happy to say the game has beaten me. I’ve got much more interesting things to do with my life than continue to slam my head against this wall.
Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy is exactly what you’d expect from a game like this. It’s a horrifyingly awkward, frustrating game to play and it delights in tormenting you whenever you should fail. It is rewarding when you manage to complete a section but if you’re like me that doesn’t happen often enough to justify the continued time investment. There are some who will delight in this kind of no-holds-barred challenge and to them I commend you. For me though whilst it was a hilarious distraction it’s not something I’d recommend unless you knew what you’re getting into and even then I’d urge caution.
Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy is available on PC and iOS right now for $7.99. Game was played on the PC with 1.6 hours of total play time and 0% of the achievements unlocked.
Sometimes I forget what drew me to a game. You see I maintain a list of games I’d like to review when they come out, saving me (sometimes) from having to trawl through the new release to see if there’s anything that catches my fancy. Of course some games stay on that list for quite some time and the reasons as to why they made it there are lost in time. Such is the tale of The First Tree, a game which, in my head, was completely different from the actual experience. As an interactive story it certainly hits home, but there’s definitely room for improvement from indie dev David Wehle.
The First Tree follows the recounting of the narrator’s dream with his wife. The dream follows a tragic story of a mother fox whose cubs have gone missing. However like all dreams the world the fox passes through is interspersed with elements of the narrator’s life, bringing back memories of the past. The dream is a journey through the narrator’s life, his relationship with his dad and what that all means to him.
From an aesthetic perspective The First Tree makes use of the highly popular low-poly/simple texture style that’s become quite popular among this style of game. The execution is quite simple as well with the mass re-use of numerous assets being very noticeable, especially in particular levels. Animation is also quite simple as well, appearing to be hand done. All this being said though it still managed to slow my PC down a bit after I cranked everything up to max. Whether that’s an optimisation issue or not I’m not sure but there have been a couple updates since I finished my playthrough. After saying all this though The First Tree does manage to pull off the simple visual style well, providing you a perfect visual background to the game’s narrated story.
The First Tree is predominantly a walking simulator style game with the narrator drip feeding you bits of story as you explore the various environments. There are platformer and puzzle elements included but they’re very basic, all done in aid of getting you to explore a bit more. As you explore you’ll encounter points of light which you can collect, areas to dig up that trigger dialogue sections and other collectables. However all these mechanics are background to the game’s story which is told in retrospect through a conversation between the main narrator and his wife.
Before I jump into the story though it’s worth mentioning that some of the platformer and exploration parts could have been a little better done. The light collectables are 2D sprites which are really hard to get a visual fix on which makes collecting them a challenge (especially if they’re in mid air). Considering that only 28% of players who own this game have gotten 50 stars I get the feeling I’m not the only one that found that a little frustrating. This ties into what I felt was a lack of rewards for exploration as there’s no obvious reason for collecting the stars (although at the end it’s revealed to you). If the story elements were paced a little better this would have been less of an issue, however.
You see whilst The First Tree’s story is engrossing (especially when coupled with the great backing soundtrack) it struggles to pace itself out well. This isn’t a particularly easy thing to do, indeed the only similar game that I can think of that pulled it off was The Turing Test, but The First tree has long gaps without narration or music. Sure, I can appreciate that sometimes just having the foley sounds can be relaxing, but to me it usually meant I’d obviously been exploring for far too long without finding anything. To the developer’s credit though it did get better in the latter levels, although that may have been due to me finally starting to understand the developer’s logic.
The story hit pretty close to home for me, having just gone through similar events in my life this year. The narration could have been a little better as the delivery of the bulk of the lines felt like they lacked the emotional investment that I think they needed to really have an impact. It’s possible that this was meant to be more “realistic”, since the story is being told in the middle of the night and after the narrator woke up from a dream, but most people are able to sound semi-normal after a couple minutes of conversation. All this being said though the game’s 2 emotional climaxes did manage to bring a few tears, so there’s something to be said for that.
The First Tree, whilst far from perfect in many respects, does manage to deliver a competent story that avoids many of the pitfalls that its peers have fallen into. The core game play mechanics are simple and don’t get in the way of the story but could use some more polish. The sound track is fantastic and it’s unfortunate that the game’s pacing means that it disappears more often than I’d like. The story will resonate strongly with those who’ve suffered loss, even if the delivery from the main narrator could use a little work. Overall The First Tree is an adequate story first game, one that I’m sure fans of the genre will enjoy.
The First Tree is available on PC right now for $7.99. Total play time was approximately 1.7 hours with 33% of the achievements unlocked.
When I reviewed Inside last year I remarked that Playdead had modernised the formula they pioneered with Limbo many years prior. With Limbo it took many years before other games seeking to emulate the style would come out and I had expected similar with Inside. However here we are barely a year later and we have a game that, on first glance, seems to be heavily influenced by Inside both in terms of aesthetics and mechanics. Indeed even digging into the game’s development history you see how heavily Playdead’s games influence Black the Fall, with the original bearing an uncanny resemblance to Limbo and the subsequent versions looking a lot more like Inside. Of course emulating greatness doesn’t mean that you’ll attain it and whilst Black the Fall is good simulacrum of a Playdead game it fails to attain the same heights as that developer’s titles do.
Black the Fall transports you back to an alt-history communist Romania, putting you in charge of an old machinist who’s lived in the oppressive regime for decades. However today he decides that enough is enough and it is time to make his escape. Along the way he discovers an unlikely companion: a small robot who was caged up and left behind to rust. Will their quest to escape their oppressive leaders be successful? Or will the world devour them before they ever get the chance.
Black the Fall has the unmistakable Unity game feel, lacking the finesse that other titles have in hiding the telltale signs that the default engine configuration leaves behind. The low poly/cartoony look is very reminiscent of Inside, as is the use of a fixed camera that pans around the environment for cinematic effect. Truth be told the Inside-esque visuals were what drew me to the game in the first place and whilst they might not be up to the same standard they are most certainly a step above similar Unity based titles. What could really use some love is the animations, especially the main character. Looking at them closely they all have the signs of hand-animation, something which is honestly a rarity to see these days. Considering that all you need is a Kinect to get decent motion capture data I’m not sure why you’d go the manual route these days.
Unsurprisingly the game play of Black the Fall is a side-scrolling, puzzle platformer. Pretty much all the puzzles are single rooms with everything required to solve them available in the one spot. None of them are very complex and thankfully the time limited puzzles are limited. The tutorial for mechanics are cleverly hidden in various signs and artefacts that make up the game’s background, meaning that every time a new mechanic is introduced you should have a general idea of how it functions. For myself there were a few instances where the developer’s logic didn’t gel with mine however most of those could be put down to me misinterpreting various visual cues. There’s really not much more to Black the Fall than that and for the most part it’s executed well.
There is some issues with the hit detection however which can cause an incredible amount of frustration. One section in particular, the one in the factory where you have to avoid being cut into strips by big spinning blades, stands out in my mind. At the end it’s obvious you have to jump onto an overhanging bar to proceed. However just jumping straight up isn’t sufficient, you have to do a running jump. “That’s obvious!” I hear you say, well it’s not when your character’s jump height doesn’t appear to visually change between a running and standing jump, but it does in the code behind. Other sections had similar issues with my character not latching onto ledges, refusing to interact with objects and other slight annoyances which made otherwise simple sections horrendously irritating. I’d like to say that a little more dev time could have polished over these rough edges but Black the Fall was already released 2 years after their original Kickstarter promised delivery date.
The story likely has more of an impact for those who lived under such regimes but for someone like me there wasn’t much to appreciate. Sure, I can understand the oppression that these regimes imposed on their people but Black the Fall doesn’t provide a new perspective on the matter. Instead it’s your run of the mill escape the oppressive regime story, one that doesn’t have anything unique or interesting about it. In this case the addition of a narrator or something else to give a deeper insight into what was happening on screen could have done much to improve player immersion and the emotional impact of the story. As it stands Black the Fall doesn’t do much of anything, at least not for this writer.
Black the Fall pays homage to Playdead’s masterful side-scrollers but does little to push that genre forward itself. The graphics, whilst retaining some of the default Unity engine’s branding, are a solid emulation of the Playdead style although the animations could use some work. The mechanics are simple, and, for the most part well implemented save for some hit detection issues that plague certain sections. The story may resonate for some but does little to show an unique perspective on well trodden ground. Overall Black the Fall is an adequate game but one that stays firmly in the shadows of the games it seeks to emulate.
Black the Fall is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with 3.2 hours of total playtime and 43% of the achievements unlocked.
Once your average game development house find some success they tend to stay on the same track. Even in the indie scene, which is ripe with games that explore every niche possible in the gaming medium, you’ll see developers stick to a formula once they know they have an audience for it. However there are a few developers which, for better or for worse, branch out with every new release. Tequila Works, who previously brought us the survival horror game Deadlight, is very much in the latter category as their latest game RiME is nothing like anything they’ve released before. Whilst it might not be the most original idea (indeed I think we’ve had enough games in the “young child lost in ancient ruins” genre that it’s something of a stereotype) it is exceptionally well executed.
You wash ashore, the waves lapping at your feet and the sounds of a tropical island echoing in the distance. What lays before you is an island of ruins, the marks of a civilisation that has long since fallen dotting the landscape. In the distance stands a great tower, looming over the picturesque landscape below. Your memories of how you came to be here at hazy and there’s an ever present feeling that someone is watching you from a distance. This island and its mysterious tower hold the secrets to your past and, eventually, your future.
RiME’s cartoon-esque style comes from its cel-shading which typically goes hand in hand with low-poly work. RiME is most certainly not a low-poly piece however as after I cranked everything up to its maximum my system turned into a slideshow. As the screenshots will attest to though you can see that RiME is making good use of all the grunt you can throw at it with its large, expansive environments that are all lavished with details and modern effects. There were a couple sections where performance dropped through the floor although I’m not 100% sure if that was due to me alt-tabbing out or not. Also worth mentioning is the absolutely amazing soundtrack and foley work that coincides with RiME’s impressive visuals, something that is often overlooked in similar games.
RiME is a 3D platformer/puzzler, pitting you against a variety of challenges that you’ll need to beat to progress to the next section. It’s a linear game in terms of progression, meaning that there’s no backtracking through previous puzzles with new abilities in order to unlock something that was previously unavailable. Mechanically all the puzzles are straightforward and self-contained, rarely requiring you to go far away from the current area in order to solve them. However exploration is still very much encouraged as there are various things to collect scattered all over the place, the purposes of which aren’t made clear to you until the very end. Overall RiME is a very simplistic game, one that would have you focus more on the overall experience rather than any one aspect of the game itself.
As there are no real progression mechanics to speak of all of the puzzles in RiME build up in difficulty based on your understanding of the mechanics it presents to you. Initially the puzzles are simple, putting this block there or getting a NPC to do something for you, but over time you’ll be introduced to different mechanics which you’ll need to understand fully as the game goes on. RiME makes clever use of mechanics like perspective, day/night cycles and sound, all of which can be combined together in a variety of different ways. RiME shies away from making anything too complex or deliberately challenging although there are some sections (like the one where everything gets non-euclidean for a spell) which I can see some players getting stuck on.
For the most part the puzzles are intuitive although the game does have some issues when it comes to visual signalling. As an example not all surfaces are climbable and, whilst climbable ones are marked, there are some you can climb that aren’t marked (which are required to solve the puzzle). This becomes more apparent when you start exploring to find secrets and other hidden things as there’s numerous (unintentional, I believe) false flags scattered around. Now I’m not usually one to go object hunting in these kinds of games so I may be a bit more critical of these kinds of things than other reviewers may be but it was enough that I gave up on it after only an hour or so into my play through.
RiME tells its story visually with no dialogue to speak of. Whilst you get the general gist of what brought you to the island early on the nuances of the story are left until much later in the game. The ultimate reveal of RiME, whilst a powerful statement in its own right, probably required a bit more development of certain story aspects for it to have the impact it was aspiring to. Don’t get me wrong, RiME certainly had its heart wrenching moments for me, however I feel like the conclusion (which came together in the last 30 mins or so) needed a bit more time to develop to ensure that I was fully invested. Still the journey to that end was an enjoyable one.
RiME is a beautiful, well executed puzzle game from a game developer that continues to demonstrate their ability to innovate. The cel-shaded environments belie the incredible amount of detail throughout the game which, if you’re not careful, can bring even the most beastly of gaming PCs to its knees. Mechanically RiME is simple, putting the focus on the overall experience rather than challenging puzzles. The story, told visually without dialogue, is done well although its ultimate conclusion needed more development to have the impact it desired. If for nothing else RiME is worth playing just for how well everything is put together as the music, mechanics and visuals all work together beautifully.
RiME is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours of total play time and 26% of the achievements unlocked.
The question of “Are games art?” has been asked long before the indie renaissance. However it comes up more frequently now that more games attempt to explore the idea. Indeed there are many games that take their inspiration from various other forms of artistic expression, reinforcing the idea that at least some games could be considered art. Bound draws inspiration from the abstract art movement and modern dance, combining them into a kind of surreal platformer. I have to admit to putting this one on the back burner for quite some time due to its release being so close to many AAA titles. Whilst I don’t think this needs to be on everyone’s must-play lists I am glad I went back and played it as it is one of the more interesting experiences of last year.
You play as the unnamed princess of a blocky, abstract world. There is a monster that is destroying you mother’s kingdom, wrecking havoc on everything. Your mother charges you with finding the saviour, the only one who can save your world from this monster. All of this however is just a retrospective view of the real world, a surreal reflection of the events that happened in your childhood. The metaphors used throughout this game are your way of dealing with those events and what that means for your future is up to you to decide.
Bound is visually stunning; its utilisation of simple geometry and low-poly modelling at a grand scale giving it a style that’s not like any other. The environment reacts to your every move with your footing shifting uneasily at your feet and a sea of cubes undulating around you. It takes some getting used to as the twitchy environment is reminiscent of other games where that would form part of the challenge. Bound instead takes a much more relaxed approached to platforming and so the jittery terrain is simply a visual aspect, nothing more. Surprisingly even with the extremely busy visuals Bound manages to stay at a near constant 60fps even on my last gen PlayStation 4 hardware. As someone who has the hardware to see the difference I can say it’s most certainly appreciated.
At a game play level Bound is a relatively simple platformer with generous edge detection that will stop you from falling off the edge (most of the time). Initially most of the challenge comes from figuring out what you can interact with and what you can’t. This stems primarily from the busy visuals which make it hard to discern one thing from the other. There’s rudimentary combat, insofar as you having to perform certain dance actions to protect yourself from various threats in the world. Other than that Bound focuses heavily on the audio-visual experience, reminiscent of similar titles like Journey or ABZU.
The platforming is pretty straight forward once you’ve figured out the basics. The edge/hit detection is pretty generous, often saving you from an otherwise fatal fall. However it’s not complete foolproof and the princess will fall to her doom if you do mess up badly enough. There are, of course, the standard set of issues that come with 3D platforming such as it being really hard to judge distances. It also doesn’t help that the camera controls get taken away from you every so often, sometimes locking them in a position that’s not at all conducive to playing properly. There’s also some secrets to be found around the various worlds of Bound however with the jittery terrain it can be a little hard to find the clues to get at them. I only found one in my play through and I was pretty sure I was looking in all the right spots.
Bound’s short length mean that it’s biggest flaw, it’s repetitiveness, isn’t too much of an issue. After 2 levels or so you’ve basically seen everything the game has to offer mechanically and all that’s left is the audio visual experience. Don’t get me wrong, that was enough to carry me through to the end of the game, however it does mean that the developers idea of playing this all the way through in one sitting is probably a little ambitious. Sure you could do it, but I don’t think it would improve your overall experience of the game.
The story of Bound is one of reflection, an abstract representation of a woman’s childhood. In the beginning it’s not completely clear what’s going on, mostly due to the heavy use of metaphors and surreal visual imagery. However it starts to make a lot more sense as more real world scenes are revealed to you. Since the majority of this story is told abstractly though it’s hard to empathise with the characters beyond a rudimentary level. This means that the ending, which is driven by a single choice by you, is somewhat hollow in its execution. Compared to the audio and visual aspects of the game it’s a little bit of let down honestly and a well executed story could have taken this game from good to great, no question.
Bound is an interesting foray into the ever blurring lines between games and art. The combination of surreal, abstract art with modern dance makes for an experience that very few games even come close to providing. It is however very rudimentary at a game play level, the platforming providing little challenge apart from the usual tribulations that come from 3D platformers. The repetition and hollow story mean that Bound fails to achieve the same greatness that similar titles have making it a good, but not great, game. If these kinds of games appeal to you the Bound is certainly worth playing however, for your run of the mill gamer, it’s probably best left to the Let’s Play crowd.
Bound is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours.
With the holiday season rapidly approaching there’s no shortage of AAA titles to sink your teeth into. It’s at this time of year that people’s allegiances to franchises, developers or publishers becomes clear as they will likely be the deciding factor in what you play, less so the game’s review scores or objective quality. For smaller developers it’s a tough time of year with few even daring to attempt a release within the few months before the holiday rush begins. Comcept and Armarture Studio, both established but small time developers, seem to have no such qualms and recently released ReCore out to the public. Much of the fanfare surrounding this game comes from the designers who brought us Metroid Prime series being involved in the ReCore’s creation and, I believe, the hope for a similar experience.
ReCore is set some 200 years in the future where a disease called the Dust Devil Plague has ravaged humanity. Earth is fast becoming unfit to sustain human life and so an ark project was commenced to resettle humanity elsewhere. Before the first colonists were to arrive however an army of Corebots, autonomous machines that are capable of doing the necessary work to make the new planet habitable, were sent ahead of them. The planet, dubbed New Eden, would then be terraformed over the course of 200 years before the first batch of colonists would arrive. You play as Joule, a kind of care taker sent ahead of the first colonists to ensure that everything is running as expected and New Eden is ready to accept the fleets of colonists that are about to arrive. However you’re awoken from your cryosleep far too early and discover that the world is nothing like you expected it to be.
The dystopian setting of ReCore would lend itself to a drab, muted colour palette but instead you’ll find yourself in a vivid, Borderland-esque world of colour. The style is obviously influenced by the underlying engine (Unity) having that same kind of feel that many games developed on the platform share. It’s certainly one of the better done Unity games out there but the graphics are certainly a few notches below what I’ve come to expect from current generation games. Indeed the engine choice is worth mentioning due to the fact that it’s only available on 2 platforms (Xbox One and PC) with Unity usually being the top choice if you’re targeting 3 or more. Regardless it’s still a decently pretty game, even when you’re in the depths of cave or enjoying the numerous vistas it presents to you.
Where ReCore comes a little unstuck though is in the lack of focus in the mechanics that it throws in front of you. ReCore bills itself as a third person platformer and most of the puzzles and challenges are built around that idea. It also incorporates RPG elements in the form of a levelling system for both you and your companion, loot that drops freely from mobs, chests and bosses and gear upgrades created through a rudimentary crafting system. Combat is a rudimentary 3rd person shooter, lacking any kind of cover mechanics but retaining the now traditional infinitely regenerating health system. The best way to describe it would be as a 3rd person, single player version of Borderlands with platforming thrown in the mix. For some that’s likely to be a draw card however the game quickly runs out of steam as you plough through it with many of the initially interesting mechanics becoming tedious and repetitive after a while.
Combat is a great example of this. Your enemies will be one of 4 different colours and you’ll have to change your weapon’s colour in order to do the most amount of damage to them. Then once you’ve done enough damage to them you can extract their cores through a quick time event, netting you some materials you can use to boost up your companion. However if you do choose to do that you won’t get any of the other type of crafting material, so you have to know what you need before you go venturing out. The problem with the combat system is that none of the fights really play out any differently, most of them consisting of you running away while you get pot shots in and your companion does a good deal of the heavy lifting. Combine that with the core extract mechanic which does not change at all over the course of the game and you’ve got a recipe for very repetitive combat that is not engaging at all. This wouldn’t be so bad if you could clear areas out but all enemies will respawn anew if you leave the area. Suffice to say combat isn’t ReCore’s strong suit.
ReCore does commit what I deem to be the unforgivable sin of showing you things you can’t get to yet, forcing you to re-explore places you’ve already been to once you unlock that particular upgrade. Indeed the worst aspect about this is that you can’t bring all those upgrades with you, ReCore limiting you to 2 bots you can bring with you at any one time. This, again, necessitates you going back and forth to your home base to make sure you’ve got the tools you need to complete a particular section. At the very least the actual platforming is done relatively well, allowing you to explore vast swaths of the world if you know how to exploit the mechanics well enough. For some this might be enough to save the game since so much is built around it but for me it just wasn’t enough, the numerous jumping puzzles just feeling tedious more than anything.
The upgrade system is a little hit and miss as whilst you and your companion level up the main character’s level doesn’t really seem to affect much of anything. The game informs you that Joule’s gun has levelled up but there’s no abilities or upgrades unlocked because of it. Crafted upgrades for your companions will require them to be a certain level however which does provide a modicum of progression but I feel like it should’ve been extended to Joule as well. As it stands the only way to really feel like you’re getting anywhere is to seek out the blueprints for you companions upgrades and that will mean grinding dungeons repeatedly to unlock all the chests since most of them can’t be acquired in a single hop through.
ReCore can only be had through the Windows Store currently and thus it’s a Windows Universal App, bringing with it all the challenges that the platform currently has. Purchasing the game was a bit of a nightmare requiring me to dig through regional settings and other internals Windows settings so that the store would actually let me buy the damn game. I also had a few occasions where the game started up without sound and would only restore it if I alt-tabbed and the switch-to back to it. That’s not to mention the numerous issues it had with being alt-tabbed in the first place, something which I think all gamers feel is a based requirement for any modern game. Thankfully the game itself ran error-free once I got in but the initial experience didn’t endear itself to me.
The story is ReCore’s redeeming feature however the core game just never gives it enough opportunity to shine. Even though I only managed a meagre 5.5 hours in the game I still felt like I’d been playing for far too long, the little snippets of story here and there just not enough to sustain me through the drudgery of the core game. The characters are believable and voice acted well, your companions each have their own distinct personalities and the larger world that’s built up is intriguing, begging you to find out more. It’s a shame really as I’ve played many games to conclusion just because of their story but unfortunately for ReCore it simply wasn’t enough.
ReCore captivated me initially on concept alone, the fact that Metroid Prime people were working on it wasn’t even factored into my decision to buy it. Initially it was a great experience, the various mechanics and progression systems giving me a lot to sink my teeth into. However that rapidly descended into a repetitive experience, the core things that made it great done over and over again until they sucked all the fun out of them. Overall I’d say ReCore was a competent but confused game, one that could have been a lot better if it focused on a few core aspects rather than the smattering it ended up with. I wanted to like Recore, I wanted to play more than I did, but I just couldn’t be bothered to spend anymore time with it when there were so many more promising games on the horizon.
ReCore is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $39.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 5.5 hours of total play time and 64% of the achievements unlocked.
Playdead’s Limbo inspired an entire sub-genre of atmospheric puzzler platformers. It’s one of the few games that many will finish in a single sitting; its succinct and engaging game play cementing you to your seat until it’s finished. It’s been quite a while since Limbo was released however and many have been eager for Playdead’s sophomore release. Inside was teased 2 years ago and, like all good hotly anticipated releases, was met with numerous delays before being released this year. Of course the release brings with it the question of whether or not Playdead can live up to their previous accomplishments and, perhaps, even exceed them.
On first blush it would seem that Playdead was hoping to ride out much of the nostalgia and hype that they generated with their seminal title. Once again you find yourself in control of a lone, young boy making his way through a dark and dangerous wilderness. However where Limbo’s world was allegorical Inside’s is more literal, everything seeming fare more real than its predecessors did. You’re given just about as much instruction as you were in Limbo, leaving you to figure out what the controls are and how to interact with your environment. Once you’ve got that down you’re then left to explore this dark world and all the dangers that it contains.
Inside utilises a muted colour palette with a highly stylized aesthetic reminiscent of games like Team Fortress 2. Where Limbo used their own custom engine to produce the trademark monochromatic visuals Inside instead uses Unity with a specially developed temporal anti-aliasing filter. This is what gives Inside it’s smoothed, cinematic quality that eliminates most of the jaggies that would otherwise be present. It also, as the developers point out, has a nice side-effect of giving everything a stochastic effect which adds that slight dreamlike quality. The resulting experience is quite honestly exceptional, bringing that Limbo-like effect to the modern day.
Like its predecessor Inside is a puzzle platformer, pitting the young boy against a myriad of challenges which will require you to figure out how best to tackle them. None of the mechanics it uses are new or inventive however they’re all tied into the theme of Inside in some way. There will be much dying, retrying and going down dead ends to try and find the various secrets scattered throughout the game. Inside is very much of the ethos of “Show, don’t tell” with the game giving you clues and hints about what it wants you to do next. It’s also a linear experience with there being one and only way to progress to the next section. It’s simple and unoriginal but Playdead made their name in defining this sub-genre and the quality of craftsmanship in all aspects of the game belies its mechanical simplicity.
What Limbo and Inside both do exceptionally well is inspire feelings in the player. There are numerous moments in Inside that inspire sheer terror or that horrible sense of foreboding should you step one foot out of place. As someone who’s typically not a fan of horror or its sub-genres it was genuinely refreshing to see this done right. This, coupled with the drip feed of information about the world that’s given to you, gives you a driving sense that this is all building to something but you can’t be sure what it is. Then comes what I think is the game’s pinnacle moment and what cements it as another brilliant title from Playdead.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
The moment is, of course, when you transition from the scared boy to the blob. The entire premise of the game up until that point is you existing in a world that is hunting you, one that you should be afraid of. That all changes when you become the blob, the world now fears you, and what you might do to it. Instead of the world and its people fighting you they assist you (for the most part), trying to ensure their own survival just like you were before. The fear and tension is gone, replaced by a kind of excitement. You are now in control, even if that means you’re a strange amalgam of body parts that moan in the most horrendous way whenever you move.
Which leads us to the story. I’m firmly in the camp of the boy being controlled directly by the blob, sent on a direct mission to free it from its prison. Of course how you interpret either ending is up to you, that’s the beauty of how the story is told, but that’s the only explanation I’ve seen thus far that fits well with the events as they unfolded. Regardless of what explanation you take as true it’s hard not to appreciate the final ironic climax, the purpose of Inside being only to get outside. Inside’s story is definitely an intellectual rather than an emotional one.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Inside has done what many would think would be impossible: improve on the formula set by a classic and bring it into the modern age. The aesthetic retains that same Limbo-esque feeling whilst modernising it significantly, likely setting the precedent that many games will follow for years to come. The gameplay, whilst standard affair for the genre, is well polished and all done in aid of telling the story. The overall narrative, shown to you rather than told, is certain to keep people talking about it for years to come, the ultimate meaning hidden behind many clues, red herrings and good old fashioned speculation. Inside is a game that is thoroughly worth the time to play and, if you can manage it, in a single session on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Inside is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 2.9 hours of total play time with 29% of the achievements unlocked.