5 years ago I attended my first (and, as it turns out, only) PAX event in Australia and, despite the teething issues, managed to have a rather enjoyable time. Whilst I was there I went through the expo hall and picked my way through the various indie developers who were there to showcase what they’d been working on. There I stumbled across The Voxel Agents and I spent a few moments talking to them about their game, though for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. I asked if the game contained any voxels, to which they replied no and, in what I now see as a total dick move I asked them if any of their games did which they answered no. Sensing that I was probably being one of those people, something that might be especially considering I was in full Adam Jensen cosplay at the time, I made a swift exit stage left. Imagine my surprise then when I stumbled across The Gardens Between, an intriguing time puzzle game, by those very same developers I annoyed all those years ago.
Although, and I can’t stop myself from writing this, it appears that their most recent game is still voxel-less. Sorry…I’ll see myself out…
Arina and Frendt are best friends who’ve shared many pivotal moments of their childhood together. However one day Frendt tells Arina that he’s moving away for good and they head up to their tree house to spend one last night together there. They then embark on a whimsical journey through their collective past, reliving their most cherished memories together through fantastical worlds littered with the everyday objects that played background to their story. Arina, the headstrong one, pushes forward lighting the way for the pair whilst Frendt is the thinker, manipulating the world’s objects. It’s a bittersweet tale that many of us can relate to, of close childhood friendships that are torn apart by circumstances beyond our control, but also a reminder that we’ll never lose those memories we forged together.
The Gardens Between has a stylized, simplistic art style that’s light on the textures but heavy on environmental detail. The fantastical worlds it presents are cobbled together out of everyday objects that are scaled, warped and twisted making the environments seem paradoxically real and otherworldly at the same time. Under the hood its powered by the Unity engine and thanks to the heavy investment in assets, lighting and shading effects it avoids that typical unity game sheen. Working hand in hand with the great visuals is a fantastic backing soundtrack and extensive foley work which makes the whole world come alive. Looking at their back catalogue at games it’s honestly out of left field for them and shows that they’re wanting to grow as game developers. Kudos to you.
The game’s main mechanic is a Braid-like time travel mechanic where you move time forwards and backwards to complete the puzzles. There are various items that are time independent which you can then use to change the flow of how events come to pass. How you manipulate time also has an impact on many puzzles, like some requiring you to stop time and hold it there or moving back and forward a certain amount to repeat actions. There’s also a bunch of achievements for doing less than intuitive things in certain puzzles which can be a bit of fun to chase down if the main puzzles don’t feel challenging enough. All in all it’s a relatively simple game mechanically but therein lies its charm as you’re unlikely to get stuck for very long, ensuring the story keeps moving at a steady pace.
Probably the only gripe I have is that moving forwards and backwards through time is a little slow for some of the larger puzzles which can take quite some time to unwind. This becomes quite noticeable for puzzles where you have to follow (sometimes multiple) things bouncing around a level to figure out which one you need to put your lantern on. With a start to finish time of only 2 hours though I get why they might not want to put that in, the game is short enough as it is, but even something like speeding it up the longer you hold it down would be much appreciated.
If I’m honest the story didn’t do much to grab me early on, feeling like I was looking through someone else’s picture album: interesting to be sure but no emotional involvement from my side. Towards the end though, and I can’t quite put my finger on what did it, I started to get more invested in their story. Perhaps it was remembering similar stories from my childhood that did it, the many people I spent so much time with but then lost them to moving away or them growing apart from me. Whatever did it though the story hit home and that bittersweet feeling hit me like a truck. Growing up is filled with such sweet sorrow as what The Gardens Between shows us and, whilst we may not like to be reminded of it, I’m sure we can certainly all relate to it.
If annoying developers at conventions can lead to games like The Gardens Between I’ll be sure to do it more often as what The Voxel Agents have done here is certainly worth the price of admission. The audio visual experience is exceptional, defining a style that I hope they take forward into whatever they choose to pursue next. The game mechanics, whilst not exactly novel, do bring a new view to what time travel games can do. The story, whilst it takes some time to find its feet, is one that I feel is quite relatable to a lot of people, especially those who aren’t lucky enough to still be in contact with their childhood friends. Suffice to say if you’re looking for a break from the AAA release firehose (like I have) then The Gardens Between is certain to fit the bill.
The Gardens Between is available on PC, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total playtime and 35% of the achievements unlocked.
The indie scene loves a breakout hit; especially those that either defies or creates a genre. Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please is a fantastic example of this creating a new genre of documentation review based games like Cart Life, This is the Police and Va11-Hall A. This always then begs the question as to how they’ll follow up the breakout hit: iterate on the formula, try something completely different or pursue a passion project. Pope appears to have gone for option 2, wanting to challenge himself with a lot of creative constraints to build something quite different to anything else he had done before. The result certainly achieves that, enough so that I didn’t even know it was done by him until I saw the developer name on the Steam page. I can certainly appreciate the level of craftsmanship brought to bear here however putting a good 4 hours into the game I don’t feel much compulsion to go back.
The good ship the Obra Dinn disappeared some six months ago, taking with it 200 tons of cargo and all of its crew. One day however it strangely turned up in port, bereft of any crew. You are an insurance assessor, tasked with boarding the ghost ship and figuring out what happened. Your tasks are simple, identify the crew, how they perished and who was responsible for it. What follows is a tale of endless tragedy that befell the crew of the Obra Dinn, their journey seemingly cursed from the start to fail. That is of little concern to you however, you are merely there to document everything and report back to your superiors. You may never be the same again, though.
Obra Dinn utilises a 1 bit colour palette in the vein of computers from another era. You can even switch between different models of computers, although all that really does is change the 1 colour you’ll be staring at. It’s still a 3D game though so the effect is a really unusual one. Indeed I’m struggling to think of another 3D game that utilised dithering to achieve shading so from a visual perspective the game is truly unique. This also gives rise to some really interesting visual effects, like when the background fades away to an image (like the screenshot below). I’m typically a very visual person when it comes to games but what Pope has achieved with the Obra Dinn is quite astonishing, even with just 1 colour to work with.
The game play takes the form of an investigation whereby you’re tasked with figuring out who died (or didn’t) when and who or what was responsible for it. You do this by reliving the last moments of most of the crew through the use of your pocket watch. Reliable information is incredibly scarce and so you’ll have to rely on various other things in order to make your judgement calls. This can be things like someone’s position on the ship, their race, their relationship to others or even where they were. When you make 3 correct guesses the game will confirm them for you, preventing you from simply spamming the options and hoping for a hit. If this sounds like a challenge it most certainly is, one I’m not ashamed to say got the best of me.
You see as you relive the last moments of the crew’s life you’ll get to see the story of how the ship met its fate. Following this thread until the end probably lasts a couple hours or so when the game will indicate to you that you’ve seen everything and should get on with solving the puzzle. This will of course mean revisiting a lot of the memories, looking for clues and trying to figure out what information you can glean from where. For some this is going to be a great experience, following the chain of clues to find that one nugget that lets you seal away a fate or two. For me though? It became a chore, not least of which was due to the annoying way in which you have to go to find the memories in order to review them. I did give it the old college try though, solving 15 fates total, but after that point, knowing all there was to know of the story, I didn’t feel like there was much left for me to enjoy.
Perhaps my brain is currently wired for short term gain, thanks to the almost embarrassing amount of hours I’ve put into Black Ops 4 even after panning it, but I couldn’t help but feel much like I did when playing The Witness. The level of care and attention to detail is obvious but I just couldn’t find the joy in there that others seemed to. To be sure this is a game the creator wanted to make, not something that was driven by community or by a large customer research team. There’s beauty in that, and I wholeheartedly support developers attempting this if they have the means, but it also seems to have a trend where craftsmanship can sometimes overpower enjoyment. The usual line I’d quip here is that this game isn’t for everyone but then really, what game is?
The Return of the Obra Dinn is a fantastically crafted game from Lucas Pope, showing the kinds of creativity that can blossom in the face of severe constraints. Everything about how the game was built is unique from the art style to the unique investigative mechanics to the wonderful sound and music design. However beyond the first couple hours, where the story drives you forward, the game peters out considerably and I could only manage to stick with it for another couple hours before putting it down. Credit where credit is due though there are a lot of people out there who are finding much to like about this title and an astonishing 31.5% of players have managed to fully complete the game. So this may simply be a case of this game not being for me but if the idea of playing a time travelling insurance assessor is apealing then it might just be for you.
Return of the Obra Dinn is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 4 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.
There comes a time in every game’s development when the call to ship it needs to be made. For some games this comes at the right time in their dev cycle where the incremental improvements are hitting diminishing returns. For most though it happens as the budgets start to run dry and the need to ship something forces the game out the door. Such is the case with Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna a game that, according to its Kickstarter, was meant to release its first episode some 2 years ago. That most certainly didn’t happen and the resulting game heavily points towards them needing to ship now rather than shipping nothing at all. To their credit the developer, KeoKen Interactive, has committed to providing a free DLC in the near future to make up for it but haven’t committed to a timeline.
Not that anyone would believe it even if they did.
The Earth has been plundered for nearly all of its natural resources, sending Earth into an extended energy crisis. To solve this our world leaders formed the World Space Agency, tasked with exploiting the Moon’s plentiful He3 reserves and sending the energy back to Earth. To their credit it worked and for many years the Moon beamed back nearly limitless energy, staving off the death of civilisation on Earth. However one day the energy stopped flowing and the colony on the Moon ceased all contact leaving Earth to plunge back into darkness. However one team, dubbed Fortuna, put together a last ditch attempt to get back to the Moon and restart the energy grid. What follows is your tale of making it to the Moon and figuring out just what happened to the colony all those years ago.
Deliver us the Moon has that typical Unreal engine feel to it with seemingly unnatural high levels of specularity in some places and a weird plasticy feeling to most assets. It’s not that this is a limit of the engine per-se, more it’s what will happen if you use the engine in its default state (much like Unity in the same way). That being said there has been quite an investment in developing assets for the game and it’s conceivable that the early release was due to a heavy investment for assets. Had this released 2 years ago, as planned, I’m sure it would’ve been considered among some of the top tier visuals of its peers. Now however it feels just a little bit dated, something that’s not helped by the use of (what I assume is) hand crafted animations rather than mo-cap which make everything look needlessly robotic. Since this is their first game I’ll give them a pass, for now.
Deliver us the Moon is primarily a walking simulator game with a few puzzle mechanics thrown in (ala Tacoma). That’s in stark contrast to what their Kickstarter page promised, which had aspirations of letting you roam free on the Moon’s surface to explore at your leisure. Of course anyone who expects a Kickstarter to live up to its campaign page promises is almost certain to be disappointed but I mention it to set the scene of what to expect if you decide to dive into this game. The beginnings of all the things the developers wanted to include are there but none to the level required to fulfill that vision. Combine that with the game ending just as the story starts to find its feet and you’re left wanting more with no indication of that will ever come.
Unlike other games which are built on the broken dreams of the developers Deliver us the Moon is thankfully a full playable and mostly trouble free experience from start to end. The puzzles are pretty simple affairs, typically requiring you to find a couple things within a single room and get them in the right places. Navigation around the various bases can be a bit of a chore though as there’s no HUD pointing you in the right direction and the maps on the walls aren’t the easiest to follow. Still there are some good quality of life things included that even AAA games still miss these days; like voice recordings playing in the background as you explore and already viewed cutscenes highlighted in blue so you don’t accidentally play them again. The breaks between levels are indicative of the developer’s original intent to make the whole thing episodic and indeed the levels were big enough in scale for that to be a possibility. However that’s not the game we’ve got and instead you’ll blast through most of those levels in the space of 30 minutes or so.
Optimisation of the game also appears to have taken a back seat as there’s numerous times when the game starts to struggle noticeably. This is at its worst when you’re outside on the Moon’s surface as the framerate (and subsequently the physics engine tick rate) drops through the floor. It’s not just the vehicle simulation that does it either as the performance problems continue when you’re on foot. I didn’t check if my GPU was fully utilised at the time so not sure if its bottlenecking there (indicating poor model optimisation) or elsewhere so the jury’s out on the actual root cause. Suffice to say that whilst my PC is over 3 years old at this point it hasn’t had trouble like that with much more graphically intense games.
Deliver us the Moon’s story starts out by violating the first rule of storytelling by running through long exposition pieces, explaining in detail things that your character would likely already know. It extends as far as the flavour text for exploration items as well making the game’s opening moments feel like a high schooler’s creative writing project they did the night before it was due. However the game gradually starts pulling back from this as you dive deeper into the narrative and does a good job of drip feeding you enough details so you start theorising about what happened. Then, just as you start to get leads on a major plot point in the narrative, the game abruptly ends. For those poor souls who backed the game or bought it early they were then left wondering just what the hell was going on. The discussion forum is filled with threads about this and the developers have stated that everyone will get the free DLC that closes the story off, when its available. Hopefully the game sells enough copies to make that a reality but honestly I’m not particularly confident we’ll see it inside 6 months.
Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna is one of the few unfinished games I’ve played that’s left me wanting to see it in its full glory. There was an obvious investment in making a lot of assets, many of which would’ve been utilised fully if the game’s vision was realised. What we’re left with is still a competent game in its own right but it’s clear that the game had aspirations of something far greater. The upcoming DLC will likely give us the story closure many of us are seeking but it’s unlikely it will realise the full vision that it developers laid out when they first embarked on their Kickstarter campaign. For what it’s worth I did enjoy my time with it, warts and all, but until the promised DLC is out I’d recommend you leave it on the wishlist.
Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 57% 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.
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.
There’s no denying that the original Monument Valley set the bar for what a mobile game could be. Its minimalistic visual style has since been replicated by dozens of other titles but none have come close to matching it in terms of overall experience. Indeed even when compared to games on dedicated platforms it still ranks up there as one of the best puzzle games I’ve played in recent history. Of course I was devastated last year when I saw Monument Valley 2 was released on iOS and not Android, leaving me wondering when it would be out. Out of luck I was browsing the app store and, happily, I discovered that the sequel had been released. What followed was perhaps the best 2 hours of my gaming life this year in one of the strongest sequels I’ve ever played.
Taking part in a different corner of the Monument Valley universe to the one Ida inhabits Monument Valley 2 puts you in charge of Ro, another keeper of the world’s geometry. However her story is not one of tragedy and reviving a world left barren, instead it is of Ro, her child and what it means to grow up in this strange world. The journey is one they start out on together but eventually, as it always is for members their race, is one where they must part ways. The infinite mothers of the past are there to help guide you but ultimately it is up to you to carve your path through the world’s geometry and care for the monuments.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that ustwo games had retained the same art style as the original but the differences between the two are night and day. Whilst the overarching style retains the same minimalistic aesthetic, with the signature elements of simple shapes and bright colours, there’s a much greater use of shading, lighting effects and more overall “modern” design elements. The developers have also been much more adventurous when it comes to experimenting with the visual style they created with a much greater variety between different puzzles. Backing all of this is the impressive soundtrack and foley work, all of which is tied directly into how you interact with the puzzles on screen. Usually I scoff at games that tell me to reach for the headphones but in the case of Monument Valley 2 you’d be doing yourself a real disservice if you didn’t. It is so, so rare to find a game that manages to execute all these elements together so well. Rarer still are sequels that manage to improve on a formula that they defined before (I can only think of Inside as another example). Once again ustwo has demonstrated their mastery in crafting experiences like this.
The same non-Euclidean puzzle mechanics return for the sequel, making up the bulk of the Monument Valley 2’s game play. Each level plays out in much the same way as well with the puzzle’s main mechanic being introduced early in a simple form before it’s exploited in more varied and complex ways. The experimentation in visual style extends directly into the puzzles as well as the designers have been free to integrate more wide and varied visual elements with which to play. There’s also the rather fun addition of letting you drawn your own spirograph thing at the end of each sequence, a simple thing but one that brought an immense amount of joy to me. I think the best way to describe it is that it is the original but improved in nearly every way, something few sequels manage to get right.
For players of the original or veterans of the non-Euclidean puzzle genre though there’s not likely going to be much challenge to find here. I remember the original having numerous head scratching moments, some requiring me to put the game down for a bit to mull over my approach. This time around there was none of that, each of the puzzles being solved pretty much directly without much fussing about. I’m in two minds about this as, on the one hand, the reward from completing a challenge is (to a point) tied directly into the effort required to solve it. On the other there’s something to be said about puzzles that are designed in such a way that the pace of the game, and by extension its narrative, are maintained (like in The Turing Test). That is perhaps the only true negative I can level at the game, if you could call it that.
I did have some slight issues with touch recognition again with some interactions not working exactly how I’d expect them to. Again this could be a hardware level thing and this being Android small things like this are somewhat expected. For reference I am using an original Google Pixel and I did give the screen a thorough cleaning after I identified the issue first time around. That certainly made it better but there were still times when touches didn’t seem to register properly. However these weren’t constant so my overall impression of the game wasn’t tarnished much. It certainly didn’t wipe away the huge smile I had on my face the whole time I was playing.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Monument Valley II is one of the greatest examples of the basic writing principle “show, don’t tell”. All the information you need to understand the story is shown to you on screen and some of the things are so subtle that when you notice them a whole narrative blossoms in your mind. For example when you send your child off she’s young, her footsteps moving in double time to yours in order for her to keep up. Your world then turns to grey and the soundscape changes to a set of cutting, piercing noises that show every moment is a burden without her in your life. After then however colour slowly begins to return to your world as you know she is on a journey of her own making. Then when she returns you see that she’s no longer a child anymore, she’s a woman, now ready to take the responsibility you’ll bestow on her. Few games manage to communicate such complex emotions through such a simple medium with so little dialogue. After playing through numerous games recently with such a derth of narrative playing something like this reminds me of why I love narrative-first games. To ustwo I’m thankful for being reminded of that as it’s far too easy to forget sometimes.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Monument Valley 2 is a true gem of a game, one that extends itself far beyond the confines of the original. The art style has been improved in ways that I could never think of, the unbridled creativity of the level designers shining through in each level. The mechanics remain largely the same and will likely pose little challenge to those who played the original. However examining each of these parts individually feels like I’m doing the game a disservice as the overall experience is so much greater than any one component. Really for a game this good and of such short length there’s little more to say than this: go play it, you won’t regret it.
Monument Valley 2 is available on Android and iOS right now for $7.99. Game was played on a Google Pixel with approximately 2 hours of total play time with 100% of the achievements unlocked.
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.
When playing games that wouldn’t fit the typical definition of the medium there’s always one question I ask myself: was this the only way this story could be told? Certainly for games where your choices matter there’s a strong argument (although who didn’t love those choose your own adventure books as a kid) but for linear, narrative focused games the choice is less decisive. There’s a lot to be said for interactivity, which can drive immersion in a story, but for some titles this can actually be a distraction. Such is the story of Last Day of June, a story that could have been served just as well, if not better, if presented as a short movie rather than as an interactive title.
Last Day of June follows the story of Carl and June, two people who are so adorably in love that you can be absolutely sure that tragedy is just looming around the corner. The sun is setting on a beautiful autumn day which you’ve spent down at the lake together. However it starts to rain and you both make a beeline to the car before you get soaked. On the trip home however tragedy strikes and you awake as Carl, alone in your house and wheelchair bound. What follows is a story of uncovering the events that led up to that tragedy and, interestingly, giving you the chance to undo the damage that has been wrought on you.
On first look Last Day of June’s visuals appear simple though they are anything but. The aesthetic is a combination of Picasso-esque caricatures and dreamlike visual effects which give it this kind of surreal cartoon feel. The characters big heads and lack of eyes do make them a little disconcerting to start off with but that fades relatively quickly. The amount of detail put into the areas you’ll be wandering around is impressive until you realise that you’ll be retreading it multiple times over throughout the course of your play through (more on that later). If nothing else Last Day of June is a visual marvel, one that manages to escape the Unity look-and-feel trap that many other titles fall into.
Whilst not strictly a walking simulator Last Day of June plays a lot like one. The same day is presented to you through different perspectives and the only way to progress is to figure out the way to change their outcome. Each of the different puzzle perspectives are simple enough but changing actions in one can have effects on another. This is all interspersed with flashbacks to the character’s memories, hidden collectables and a few other things which tilt this more towards a story focused puzzler than a more traditional walking simulator. Last Day of June’s biggest flaw isn’t from the execution of its core mechanics however, it’s from the ungodly amount of retreading a path already taken to progress the story.
Each of the new perspectives brings with them a new puzzle to solve and all of them will require you to undo things that you’ve previously done with another character. This means re-watching the same cut scenes over and over again as you stumble your way through each of the puzzles. Worse still all of them require you to go through the motions of failing the puzzle first before giving you the freedom to fix them, even if you’ve already managed to figure out a solution in the first place. This is only exacerbated by the lack of any skip function, even for cut scenes you’ve already seen multiple times before. I can partly understand this from a game length perspective, with my play through only clocking in at around 3 hours, but padding a game out with repetition isn’t something I’m in the habit of commending.
Last Day of June is also not free of technical issues, one particular one which I couldn’t get a fix to for several days. After playing for an hour or so I decided to call it there for the day but, upon launching it again, the game would crash just before the main menu. I traced the issue down to my save file (renaming it allowed the game to run) but nothing could cajole it to run with that file. After logging a support ticket and getting told to reinstall and verify the cache files (something I had already done but did again anyway) I was able to get back in. I’m not the only one suffering from this issue either as there’s quite a few people reporting the same problem both on Steam and on the official forums. I’m sure issues like this will get ironed out eventually but it did mean that I spent an hour or so on troubleshooting when I could have otherwise been playing.
I’m on the fence with Last Day of June’s story. Sure some parts of it resonate with me but the lack of dialogue does mean that there’s a certain lack of depth to most of the character’s development. Carl, for instance, doesn’t really receive enough development for me to empathise with him and June’s best friend’s crush on him feels like an unnecessary aside. I can identify with the themes of dealing with grief, wanting to change things that you can’t and all that but if I’m not invested in the characters their struggle will just feel hollow. It’s possible that a lot of my feelings are born out of the frustration I felt with having to retread the same path so many times which is why I thought that this story may be better served as watched rather than played. I would be interested to hear what anyone who watched it on Twitch or YouTube has to think as my money’s on the experience being just that much better.
Last Day of June comes out strong with it’s beautiful visuals and wonderful sound track but falls short in most other respects. The constant replay of puzzles you’ve already solved means that a lot of time is burnt on repetitive tasks, something you wouldn’t usually see in a 3 hour game. The short play time also means that most of the characters aren’t given enough time to develop fully, at least not to the point which this writer empathised with them enough. I’m willing to admit that it might be my frustration that was boiling over into other aspects of the game that’s influencing my feelings here, so your mileage may vary.
Last Day of June is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours playtime and 71% 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.