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.
Atmospheric puzzlers have typically been bound to the mobile market. The bite sized puzzles lend themselves well to the platform, allowing you to work through a few when you have a moment or two spare. This often means they don’t translate well; it’s rare that you’ll want to boot up your PC or console just to play for a couple minutes. Some do better than others though and Linelight, which is only available on PC and PlayStation 4, manages to be better than most. It is, however, still a step below story based puzzler games, but that’s par for the course in this genre.
The game’s core mechanic is simple: you’re a little green light and you have to collect the yellow stars by following a pre-determined path. At first this is pretty easy, simply follow the route and you’re done. As the puzzles roll on though more and more mechanics will get thrown at you, requiring you to figure out how best to use them. Towards the end of each world you’ll then also be greeted by a sister line that will follow you around, presenting another layer of challenge. There’s also a bevy of secret puzzles laid around for you to find, all of them hiding in plain sight.
Linelight takes an extremely minimalistic approach to visuals, favouring soft colours bathed in neon glows from all the little lines. There’s the odd particle effect here or there for when you pick up something or complete a level, but nothing more beyond that. The backing soundtrack though is decidedly pleasant, providing a lovely ambience that casually reacts to whatever is happening on screen. This makes playing Linelight quite a relaxing and zen-like experience which is probably my favourite thing about atmospheric puzzlers. Well that and their shorter lengths, something this reviewer appreciates when he’s short on time!
The mechanics are relatively straightforward with the “tutorial” for each mechanic built into the puzzles themselves. You’ll be introduced to the mechanic using a simple puzzle and after there it quickly ramps up, requiring a healthy dose of non-linear thinking. Quite a few will also require semi-precise timing in order to pull off, lest you find yourself trapped or dead. Also unless you’re probing every nook and cranny of Linelight’s puzzles you’re not likely going to trip over any of the secrets. Indeed I didn’t know there were any secrets until I accidentally managed to go in a direction that appeared to be impossible.
The puzzles don’t lend themselves well to emergent solutions but I did manage to encounter a few issues when I solved something in particular ways. For instance it appears when you get the “tail” addition that part isn’t capable of progressing you to the next section, only your front line is. Of course this only necessitated a restart to checkpoint to solve so it was no big deal. Other than that there really were no technical issues to report.
However, even though Linelight does a lot better than its peers in terms game play, I still couldn’t do more than about 20 minutes per session with it. Like all games based on a core mechanic with slight variations there’s not much to drive you on once you reach a good stopping point. I mean I still came back 3 times over a few days but past that I didn’t really feel compelled to go back. I’m really not sure what games like this can do to keep people like me coming back though.
Linelight is a great distraction that combines minimal visuals with a great backing soundtrack. The simple mechanics make for frustration free play, the puzzles whizzing on by as your little light speeds from one side of the screen to the other. It is a little lacking in the (re)playability department though with most of my sessions not exceeding 20 minutes or so. That being said I think it’s still worth the price of admission, if only for the lovely piano plinking.
Linelight is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $9.99. Game was played on the PC with 84 minutes of total play time and 24% of the achievements unlocked.
It is rare to find games that manage to blend all of their components together into a cohesive whole. Even the most well resourced project will still suffer from the pains of integrating everything together, often leading to one or more parts just not feeling right. Games that do manage to do this however set the standard for those to come, showing that mechanics, story and sound can all be joined together to become greater than any one component. Such is The Turing Test, a near perfect combination of all its elements that makes for one of the most enthralling gaming experiences of this year.
You play as Eva, a pilot put into hibernation in orbit around Europa to act as a safe guard for the ground team on Earth. You are awoken to find out that your station AI, Tom, has lost contact with the ground team and needs you to re-establish contact with them. Upon landing you find that the entry to the base has been reconfigured in such a way that Tom cannot make his way past it alone. It is now up to you to make your way deep into the base to find out what happened to the crew and, hopefully, bring them back under the watchful eye of Tom.
The Turing Test does quite a lot with very little, the graphics erring towards visual simplicity more than anything else. It’s very reminiscent of Portal with all of the set pieces feeling like they were born out of the same design team. In puzzle based games like this such simplicity is definitely a plus, drawing your focus to the challenge at hand. The game definitely has that Unreal engine feel to it with its trademark visual flairs like its specularity mapping. It should come as no surprise then that The Turing Test ran flawlessly on my current rig and I’d suspect it’d run just fine on run of the mill hardware.
Mechanically The Turing Test is just your typical first person, physics based puzzler. Each room contains within it all the tools for you to progress through to the next challenge which is always just getting to the next room. The puzzles start off simple, requiring you to just find the right combination of what goes where, but quickly ramps up after that. In the end you’ll be facing timing puzzles, non-linear progressions and various other challenges that all seem impossible at first until you look at them from the right angle. The simple mechanics means it’s very quick to pick up and, honestly, not too hard to master either.
Now for some this might be seen as a downside as the satisfaction in puzzlers comes from the challenge in solving them. However in The Turing Test’s case the simple puzzles are part of the game’s overall rhythm. They’re designed to be solved at a certain rate, one that allows the story to progress at a steady rate. Indeed even with perfect knowledge of how to solve them I believe you’d still only just get through one puzzle before the dialogue dried up. Too often developers would include other time-wasting mechanics to extend the game’s play time but The Turing Test doesn’t. This means that both the story and game progress together, ensuring that the neither one gets in the way of the other.
This is then all brilliantly amplified by the sound track which ebbs and flows in sync with the game. Too often game soundtracks are overlooked, left as just something that needs to be there rather than an integral part of the game. Indeed for many of the recent games I’ve played I couldn’t really tell you if I enjoyed the sound track or not, it simply left no impression on me. The Turing Test however does a wonderful job of integrating the background music into the events happening in the game, amplifying all of the game’s pivotal moments.
The story itself, whilst not original nor inventive by any stretch of the imagination, is aptly paced and perfectly in sync with all of The Turing Test’s other elements. That is on the proviso though that you only play through the main areas and don’t go to the sides however. If you do unlock the secret rooms (which aren’t hard to find nor solve) the story has a very weird disconnection between what your character should know and what they appear to know. Whilst I’m sure there are some great theories as to why that could be due to the way the game’s world is set up that’s a conversation for another day.
Each of these elements, simple and concise in their own right, would only make for an average game if simply thrown together. The real beauty of The Turing Test is how well these are all worked together, the various elements integrated so well that they are much more than they are separately. Had this game been released in a world that was bereft of Portal or The Talos Principle it would be a shining star of inventive, thought provoking game play. Even in the shadow of those titles The Turing Test still stands out as an excellent piece of craftsmanship, one that should be lauded for aspiring for greatness that it easily achieves.
The only real niggle I’ll have at this otherwise exceptional game is that, due to the nature of its physically based puzzles, emergent game play can sometimes lead you astray. I’m quite sure there were several puzzles I solved in ways that wasn’t intended, mostly because I ended up at the exit door with more puzzle pieces than were required to solve it. Depending on how you swing though this might be part of the charm as I’m sure there’s numerous ways to break the puzzles. It should say a lot that that’s my only complaint about this otherwise fantastic game.
The Turing Test is a brilliant, well crafted example of what games can accomplish when all of their elements work with each other. Each element on its own is simple, from the visuals to the mechanics to the sound track, however together they form a cohesive whole that’s very much greater than the sum of its parts. The total game time doesn’t run long, maybe 3~5 hours depending on how much of a puzzle nut you are, but that entire time could be easily done in a single sitting. The Turing Test is one of those games that I will wholeheartedly recommend to any gamer as it really is worth the time.
The Turing Test is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $19.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 3 hours of total playtime and 93% of the achievements unlocked.
The work of Team ICO is renowned among the PlayStation faithful. Their two titles, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, have attained the status of cult classics and this meant that anticipation was high for their next release. However an entire console generation came and went without a peep from them and the studio shut down in 2011. For many this was thought to be the end of their next title however work was then transferred to genDESIGN, a new studio which was filled to the brim with Team ICO staff. Development then continued on The Last Guardian and hope was renewed that we would eventually see it. Here we are, some 9 years after initial development began, and it has finally been released to us, the unwashed masses. Has the near decade of development time resulted in a game that’s worthy of the Team ICO pedigree? Or is this another Duke Nukem Forever moment?
You are a boy; an unnamed boy who finds himself trapped in a towering city of ruins. How you got there is not known but when you awoke your body was covered in markings that were not there before. Beside you lay a great beast, a Trico, chained down and in great pain. It becomes clear at that point that if you are to return to your village you will need to work together as the challenges this place poses are not to be faced alone. This realisation begins your journey, one that will see you scaling the incredible heights of these ruins, navigating the trials and tribulations that it will place on you both.
The Last Guardian’s long development cycle are obvious in the graphics which are rooted in the previous console generation. To be sure there are some impressive elements, the beast’s flowing feathers being one of them, but all the environments feel decidedly dated. There’s also some distinct performance issues in certain areas, indicating that the environments haven’t been fully optimised for the platform, an indication of issues in porting code and assets across. All this being said though The Last Guardian does manage to impress with its diverse scenery ranging from towering vistas to cramped caves and ruins. Had this been developed from the ground up for the PlayStation 4 I’d imagine it’d be vastly more impressive but such are the costs of long development cycles.
In terms of how The Last Guardian plays it’s essentially your run of the mill puzzler. The main mechanic comes from the difference in abilities between Trico and the boy, the former able to reach and leap to great heights whilst the latter able to fit into small areas. The game plays off this dichotomy, forcing you to think about who you need to use to complete a task. However you don’t have direct control over Trico’s actions, instead you issue him commands which then get interpreted depending on a number of conditions, some of which aren’t exactly that predictable. Indeed The Last Guardian does a good job of simulating what it would be like to try and wrangle a beast like this but the unfortunate reality of this is that it doesn’t exactly make for what I’d call a fun experience.
So say you need the beast to jump over a particular obstacle. Typically what you’d do is call the beast over and then climb on its back. Then, with the camera pointed in the direction you want to go, you’d do the “Jump” command (which is just the boy jibbering a bit and jumping up and down), and then hope Trico followed it. Sometimes this will work and Trico will leap successfully across. However, most of the time, Trico will either sit there, looking around at nothing in particular, or do something completely different. So what follows is an exercise in troubleshooting: am I actually able to jump that gap with Trico? Is there another location I need to be in to do that jump? Have I not satisfied all the right conditions to make him jump? What this means is you can never be quite sure if you’ve got the right solution and Trico just isn’t co-operating or if you’re barking up the wrong tree.
I can understand the design choices that influenced the creation of the beast AI mechanic and, honestly, I think it’s a brilliant idea for telling a story through mechanics. However the trouble is that with an AI that is so unpredictable the player is left guessing as to whether or not they’re playing the game correctly. Thus, for me, this meant that the moments where Trico and I are meant to be getting ever more in-sync didn’t feel like that at all. Instead it felt like I finally just got lucky enough that the bloody dog finally listened to me. I can’t tell you how many times I got stuck and had to consult YouTube videos to make sure I wasn’t going completely insane only to find out that I was doing it right all along and my AI dog just wasn’t as co-operative as the other ones.
This isn’t an unsolvable problem in my mind. The easiest way to tackle this would be to put say little white dots at places where you could command the beast to do something. Then, if you centre your camera on them, an outline of what the beast could do would appear. This would then give you some certainty over what actions are going to happen, removing the second-guessing which was my main source of frustration when playing. Sure this would reduce the length of the game significantly but honestly we’re long past the point of where play time is a sign of overall quality. Unfortunately I don’t think this will ever happen, especially considering the rather cryptic nature of the patch notes.
Putting the core game mechanic issues aside there’s still some other niggling issues which don’t do anything to help. The camera is a wonky beast at the best of times, often whipping around wildly when it can’t quite figure out where it should be pointing (often when you’re trying to climb Trico). The platforming mechanics are hit and miss with the boy sometimes just straight up failing to grab onto a ledge or Trico, sending you to your death. There are also some triggers which don’t seem to work initially, preventing cut scenes from occurring and blocking your progress until you retreat from the area completely or reload a checkpoint. Suffice to say that you’d think most of these kinds of issues would’ve been straightened out in the game’s long dev cycle but unfortunately that’s just not the case.
Now the story is the part which many say redeems The Last Guardians glaring faults and, personally, I’m in two minds on this. For the vast majority of my play through I didn’t think there was much to it, the various bits of dialogue so brief that they really didn’t add anything to the experience. Combine that with an uncooperative companion and I really couldn’t care what happened to the pair of them. That was until the last 30 minutes which, I admit, managed to tug on the heart strings in just the right way and for a brief moment I forgot all about the frustrations that had led to this point. So whilst I’ll commend genDESIGN for managing to do that I will not (now that I’m clear headed) give them a pass for the incredible missteps they made in designing the core game.
The Last Guardian stays true to the Team ICO formula, seeking to tell stories through game play rather than dialogue. It is, unfortunately, plagued by horrendous game design decisions that force the player to second guess not just themselves, but the game as well. This leads to an incredibly frustrating experience where you can never be sure if you’re anything right, making almost all puzzle challenges an unrewarding chore. When it works it’s brilliant and something I’d like to see more of but those moments are so rare that they’re lost in a wash of frustration and swear words. I will admit that I did a 180 on the game in its final moments, the game able to grab a hold of that tenuous connection I had built up with that dumb beast and squeeze it for all its worth. It’s hard for me to recommend the game solely on that however but if you’ve read all the way through this and are still interested in playing The Last Guardian then it might just be worth it for you.
The Last Guardian is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $99.95. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.
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.
Truly unique game mechanics are a rarity. This is not because of any lack of imagination on the part of game developers, far from it. More it’s to do with the fact that there have been so many games made that it’s almost inevitable that a mechanic has been explored before. So often game developers combine different mechanics, hide them cleverly or just rely on the story to carry things along. SUPERHOT however brings with it the novel mechanic of only moving when you do, putting you in a kind of eternal bullet time movie. It was this mechanic that made it a Kickstarter success (full disclosure: I backed it at the $75 level) and the resulting game is much more than just an extended version of their prototype.
You get a message from your friend. It’s this game, superhot.exe, and it’s amazing. He sends you a crack for it so you can get in on the action. It’s interesting but in the end it’s just you, no plot, no nothing. Just killing red guys. Still you can’t seem to draw yourself away from it, going back again and again, playing through the various scenarios it throws at you. Things start to get weird after an unknown entity starts talking to you, warning you that you don’t know what you’re doing. Will you play on? Or will you quit while your mind is still free?
SUPERHOT retains the minimal, low poly aesthetic that featured in the original game and accompanying marketing material. The environments are all stark white, lacking in any real detail apart from a few objects strewn here or there. Your enemies are bright red, easily distinguishable against the plain background. Other than that there’s not much to say about SUPERHOT’s graphics as they’ve been done to focus your attention, rather than be a distraction. Considering how hectic things can get, even though the game doesn’t move unless you do, this visual simplicity is something I’m sure all players will be thankful for.
At it’s core SUPERHOT could be considered a simplistic FPS, one where a single shot takes down all enemies (and you, if you’re not careful). Of course what changes it from being a rudimentary FPS to the novelty that it has become is the fact that time only moves when you do. So whenever you shift sideways, look around or perform an action the game will advanced forward. This means that you have an almost unlimited amount of time to plan your next move, choosing the best course of action possible. Each level you clear is played back to you, showing your superhero like fighting skills in real time. In the end SUPERHOT ends up being more like a FPS puzzler as each level is a game of optimization and understanding what actions happen when.
The core time mechanic would, on the surface, make the game incredibly easy. However whilst the game freezes while you contemplate your next move you are not an omnipotent being and, as such, you don’t know everything that’s happening around you. Whilst most of the time it’s easy enough to figure out what you need to do there are numerous puzzles where enemies spawn behind you, meaning you’ll probably have to die a few times before you know exactly what to do. Also the AI isn’t dumb and will attempt to lead you when shooting which can see you running into their bullets rather than away from them. Indeed whilst the first few levels are a breeze SUPERHOT quickly becomes a much harder game than you’d first expect it to be.
Most of the levels are done well, giving you enough opportunity to flex your FPS and prediction skills whilst punishing your mistakes. Some levels are far more strict than others, really only having one solution that you need to execute perfectly. One issue that I have to point out though is that the AI doesn’t react in the same way to the same situation every time which makes some of the more difficult levels pretty frustrating. The very final fight, for instance, required a good chunk of luck for everything to go perfectly. In the first 10 seconds an AI deciding to pick up a shotgun or simply run directly at you could be the difference between barely making it through and not having a chance at all. All that said however the challenges are beatable but they can be a little frustrating at times.
The story, whilst somewhat basic, is presented in an interesting way. Most of the dialogue is presented to you through a DOS-like terminal at the start of the game, taking the form of a chat between you and someone on the other side. Eventually it takes over the main game, using the SUPERHOT flashes. It’s best described as a psychological thriller, one which makes you question what is real and what is not within the game world. It ends rather predictably but then again I wasn’t expecting massive narrative development from a game that’s only a couple hours long. Suffice to say for a game that rode to fame on its mechanics the story was well above my expectations but SUPERHOT isn’t a game you’ll play for the narrative.
SUPERHOT sets the bar for Kickstarter games priding themselves on innovative game mechanics. The minimal visual aesthetic is purposefully done to focus your attention on what matters most, casting all visual distractions aside. The core “time only moves when you do” mechanic is done well, transforming an otherwise rudimentary platformer into an intricate puzzler. The story is above par for these kinds of games, even if it is somewhat predictable towards the end. Overall SUPERHOT is an excellent game that makes great use of its core mechanic,
SUPERHOT is available on PC right now for $24.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 36% of the achievements unlocked. The writer was a backer of the project on Kickstarter at the $75 reward level.
Games, like all creative endeavours, are aspirational things. They all have a goal; some to tell a great story whilst others challenge you with mechanics and puzzles. One of the key things that I’ve come to judge games on is what their ambition is and how close they get to achieving it. Great games do this effortlessly whilst lesser ones struggle to realise the vision of their creators. Unravel unfortunately falls into the later camp, proudly announcing its intentions early on in the game but failing to evoke the kind of emotional response it was looking for. It is, however, one of the more beautiful and mechanically inventive games of recent memory.
You are Yarny, an adorable little creature woven out of red yarn. You find yourself in the home of an elderly lady, one filled with photographs and memories of years gone by. However it seems her most prized possession, a photograph album, has long since faded, its little woven decorations missing. So you take it upon yourself to explore the places where these memories were formed and to find those mementos of times long since past. Along the way you’ll encounter many challenges, all of which you’ll overcome using the one thing at your disposal: your yarn.
Unravel is an absolutely gorgeous game, having the same kind of “small person in a huge world” feeling that Little Big Planet did so well. The environments are incredibly detailed and are slathered in modern effects like depth of field, realistic weather and volumetric lighting. Whilst there’s some slight stylization here and there everything else aims to be far more realistic from the detail on the wood textures to the small flecks of rust on a metal bucket. All of this is amplified significantly by the beautiful original soundtrack. In terms of sheer craftsmanship there are few games, especially in the same genre, that can hold a candle to what Unravel’s team has created.
Mechanically Unravel is a 2.5D platformer, often putting you in a situation where the exit is just out of reach or hidden behind another obstacle. The novel mechanic comes from Yarny who is tethered to a specific point and only has so much length which can be used. All the other mechanics flow on from this principle, like being able to swing between points or building little yarn bridges which you can use to pull things across gaps. Like most platformers there’s also numerous secrets to be found, requiring either exploration or a keen understanding of the mechanics to unlock. It might not sound like much of a twist on the standard platform formula but it’s enough to keep things interesting over its 6 hour duration.
The puzzles start out being easy enough, usually just requiring you to pull something in one direction or get up enough momentum to leap across a gap. Where they start to get tricky is when the length of yarn you have is barely enough to make it, forcing you to optimize how you use it. For the most part this is obvious, untie knots you don’t need and find the shortest path possible, however some times it requires finding the other yarn stash which might not be immediately apparent. Probably the most frustrating ones are the timed, twitch based platforming sections which will inevitably require several tries to complete. I’m honestly not a fan of these kinds of challenges as they seem more anti-player than anything else, eliminating the skill requirement and requiring you to do it multiple times in order to progress.
Unravel also has some pretty rough edges, almost entirely brought about by the troubles that come from physics based game play. Objects will simply not behave themselves sometimes, often leading you to get stuck on a puzzle because something didn’t do the thing it was supposed to do. Quite often when you jump towards an anchor point Yarny will either not target it or will target another one. There’s also some puzzles which, if done in a certain way, will stop you from progressing leaving you with no option but to restart the entire level. Finally there are a few places where you can simply fall through the world completely, again requiring a restart. None of these issues will stop you from completing the game however they can add in enough frustration to warrant putting it down for the day.
At the beginning Unravel states, explicitly, that they’ve included a lot of mature themes in the game as that’s what they believe makes a good story. True to their word those themes are in there however they’re explored implicitly, dribbled out to you in the form of a few photographs in each level. It’s a story that everyone can relate to, sure, however Unravel is not a game that’s driven by its story. Instead it’s a beautiful platformer, one that relies on its mechanics to drive everything forward above all else. In that respect whilst it’s admirable that the Unravel team aspired to deal with issues that other games leave at the door it’s done in such a hand wavy fashion that I can’t really give them much credit for it.
Unravel is an exceptionally beautiful game, one that is complimented strongly by its inventive mechanics. The graphics and accompanying soundtrack are stunning being far above the average for other games in this genre. The platforming mechanics are done well with the additional yarn mechanic working pretty much how you’d expect it to. The experience is marred by the usual bevy of issues that come with physics based game play, not to mention a few glaring issues that will need patching sooner rather than later. The story, which is highly asiprational in nature, is too ethereal in nature to be of much impact, even if some of the themes will resonate universally. Still overall Unravel is a game that’s worth the short time it asks of you and is sure to delight those who find charm in Yarny’s cuteness.
Unravel is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $29.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 62% of the achievements unlocked.
I’m not one to talk about my most anticipated games but long time readers will know that I’ve been hanging out for The Witness. Braid was one of the most amazing titles of its time, demonstrating that it was possible for an independent developer to make a game that would delight and enthral thousands of people the world over. So when I heard he was working on another title of his own making, his magnum opus that would consume his entire Braid fortune, I was sold instantly. The screenshots and tentative pieces of game play only drew me in further and made me excited for its release early on the PlayStation4. However that day came and went but here we are, 2 years later, and I’ve spent the last week playing through it. Whilst it may not evoke the same level of feelings in me that Braid did it’s hard not to respect the craftsmanship of The Witness, a true masterpiece from one of the leaders of the indie game developer community.
The Witness starts without a lick of dialogue or even a starting screen. Instead you’re placed in a long corridor, a bright light at one end beckoning you to come forward. What you find when you open that door is a bright and vibrant world, one that seems to be locked behind a series of line drawing puzzles. These puzzles strictly adhere to the idea of “show, don’t tell”, guiding you through their mechanics slowly so you can feel your way around them. What happens in this world is up to you however as you are given no direction, no purpose and, above all, no restrictions bar the puzzles in front of you.
Visually The Witness feels like a cross between the cartoonish stylings of games like Team Fortress 2 and the low-poly look that’s quite trendy among the indie scene currently. The resulting visual landscapes feel like something out of a dream, lovely and beautiful to look upon but strangely devoid of detail when you get up close. The wide and varied landscape of the island means that you won’t be wanting for lack of visual variety as there’s everything from a wide desert to a swap to a snow capped mountain top for you to explore. Of course this simplicity belies the breadth and depth of the game world, something which I feel will only be fully revealed to players who invest dozens of hours into this game.
Mechanically The Witness is easy to explain at a high level although as the mechanics pile on things start to get extremely complicated. Essentially the base puzzle is drawing a line from one end to another, simple right? Well how about having to solve a maze whilst going through certain points? Or possibly having to separate different coloured blocks into 2 sections that don’t overlap? Those are just some of the simpler mechanics and, as you progress, you’ll begin to find that the puzzles cross-pollinate with each other. So a solution you’ve learnt in one puzzle might be needed to figure out another or, and this is where it gets really tricky, you’ll need to figure out how both of those mechanics combine in order to solve it.
In the beginning this process of mechanic discovery is incredibly rewarding. Each of the puzzle sets has its own language, a way of expressing to you the player what you need to do in order to solve it. For all of the mechanics these are shown in a tutorial like puzzle which demonstrates it in the most simple way possible and then progressively introduces new variables which give you the bounds of how it works. I can clearly remember after stepping out of the first area finding what looked like a secret path that was blocked by a puzzle that, on first look, was completely impossible. However after finding a tutorial near by it became clear what I needed to do and I was able to unlock my first secret, something which I had literally no idea what to do with. Still knowing that I had uncovered something that would be used later was pretty cool and kept me playing for a while longer.
Probably the most inspired part about The Witness, and this is mildly spoilery (skip to the next one if that bugs you), is that the very world you live in is actually a puzzle. I was fooling around in the desert puzzle area when I noticed that, from a particular angle, parts of the scenery looked like one of the puzzles I could solve. Sure enough by clicking on it I was greeted with an actual, solvable puzzle, one that has the most satisfying noise when you first discover it. Knowing this is both a blessing and a curse however as from then on you will be forever questioning what is part of a puzzle and what isn’t. Of course that adds yet another layer of complexity onto an already complex game and this, unfortunately, is where the wheels started to fall off the experience for me.
After I spent a good hour or so on solving the desert puzzle I was keen to dig into a new challenge, one that would engage a different part of my brain. Sure enough I found it however after a while I started stumbling across a symbol I hadn’t seen before and couldn’t figure out how it worked. So, of course, I went searching for other puzzles but it would often come to a point where I’d find yet another mechanic which I wasn’t familiar with. Now I’m the kind of player that hates leaving things unfinished and having to trudge around the whole island to find the right mechanics didn’t really enthuse me. So I did what anyone would do in that situation, I looked the mechanic up on the Internet.
While I’m sure that’s tantamount to heresy for The Witness purists the fact of the matter was that, after spending 8 hours stumbling around solving puzzles I was still coming across new mechanics and, frankly, I was getting bored. Whilst the mechanics are novel and inspired the fact of the matter is that it always boils down to getting a line from one side to the other. So sure, there’s different things to think about, but you’ll be staring at the same grid again and again for hours on end. It was at this point I felt I just wanted to see the ending and hopefully dredge up some semblance of a story out of the game that had barely uttered more than a handful of paragraphs at me.
However if there’s story in The Witness it’s buried so deep in all the secrets, recordings and imagery that you’re really going to have to enjoy exploration and puzzles to find it. After playing The Talos Principle I was incredibly excited for the prospect of a deep narrative in The Witness, one that would pull me along through the puzzles. What I found instead were quotes and snippets from famous scientists and, if the people I’ve been reading on Reddit are to be believed, a strung out metaphor about the development of The Witness game itself. Honestly this was my biggest disappointment with The Witness as Braid managed to do so much more with less. Perhaps someone will post a synopsis that changes my mind someday but after 10 hours of searching I’m still left wanting.
The Witness is an absolutely beautifully crafted game, both from an aesthetic point of view and the novel craftsmanship of its puzzles. It’s amazing to see how such a simple idea, drawing a line from one point to another, can be given such mechanical complexity. Taking that one step further and including the very world itself as part of the mechanics is an inspired achievement, one that blew me away when I finally figured it out. However the repetitive nature of the puzzles, coupled with the lack of narrative to drive you forward through those puzzles, makes it hard to keep coming back after a while. The Witness is most certainly a testament to Jonathan Blow’s dedication to perfection in all things he sets out to create however it falls short of acquiring the “must play” status that his seminal title did. Overall I believe The Witness is certainly worth playing, just maybe not to its ultimate conclusion.
The Witness is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $29.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 10 hours of total play time and 50% of the achievements unlocked.
I always have a slight feeling of cognitive dissonance when it comes to narratives that are player controlled. On the one hand I love that it allows me to imprint myself upon the character, crafting them into the person I want them to be in the game’s world. On the other hand however I sometimes feel like doing that runs contrary to what the true nature of the character might be, especially when I’m operating on imperfect information about said character. Oxenfree, the first title from Night School Studios (who count former Telltale Games and Disney staff among them), falls somewhere in the middle but still provides a great player driven narrative experience.
Oxenfree puts you in control of Alex, a teenager on the cusp of adulthood who’s heading out to an end of year rager with a bunch of her friends. Among them are your best friend Ren, his current crush Nona, a girl who used to date your brother Clarissa and your newly minted step-brother Jonas. The night starts off normal enough with everyone engaging in a rousing game of “Truth or Slap” however things start to quickly come unraveled as Ren beguiles you into investigating some of the island’s more paranormal features. From then on the night changes from being one of drunken revelry into a fight against a paranormal force.
The visual style of Oxenfree harks back to a time of pre-rendered backgrounds with simple 3D visuals layered on top of them. The backgrounds have a kind of textured paper look about them, as if they’re part of an arts project. The character models are quite simplistic, obviously done in that way to blend in more seamlessly with the backgrounds. However unlike the games which this art style pays homage to Oxenfree makes heavy use of lighting and visual effects, both in terms of aesthetics as well as forming part of the plot mechanics. Overall, from a visual perspective, Oxenfree is very well crafted and is done in a way that amplifies the story rather than distracting from it.
In terms of gameplay Oxenfree is primarily focused on the narrative and the dialogue choices you make as a player. You’re usually given 3 different options when responding, each of which can direct the story in a certain way. The main puzzle mechanic comes in the form of a radio which you tune to different stations, either to listen in for clues or to resonate with objects which will cause something to happen. There’s also some other puzzles which range in the form of simple to nigh on impossible although thankfully the latter, even if failed completely, will not stop you from progressing the narrative.
Oxenfree gets credit for keeping the story linear in nature whilst giving you the freedom to explore should you choose to do so. Too often I’ve played similarly styled games which lock core story elements behind inordinate numbers of puzzles, detracting from the narrative. The puzzle mechanics might be simple but they’re enough to keep you engaged through the times when there’s less dialogue about. One criticism I will level at them however is the “improved” radio which just doubles the number of frequencies you have to cycle through. Honestly that just adds tedium as you have to scroll through far more things in order to find the right frequency.
Oxenfree’s narrative deals with a lot of heavy subjects and does so through the lens of a teenage coming of age story. The paranormal aspects, whilst being downright scary in their own way, are used more as a mechanic to explore these issues rather than just being a license to do whacky things. You, as Alex, have quite a lot of control over how the story develops and this can radically change how you feel about the characters and, most interestingly, how they feel about each other. I really can’t say much more without wading into spoiler territory but suffice to say that Oxenfree delivers a solid narrative that deals well with issues that the video game medium is still coming to grips with.
Oxenfree is a powerful narrative driven game, one that shows how simplicity in all things but story can still add up to a great experience. The visual style pays homage to simpler times where pre-rendered backgrounds were a tool to get around the limitations of thte day. The mechanics are simple and do their best to get out of the way of the story. The story is what makes Oxenfree worth playing, both from the core story aspect as well as the level of control that the player is given over shaping it. For those who love a good story, or just a decent thriller, then Oxenfree is definitely worth a play through.
Oxenfree is available on PC and XboxOne right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with around 3 hours of total play time and 38% of the achievements unlocked.