Posts Tagged‘puzzler’

Inked: Suffer as I do.

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.

Rating: 7.0/10

Inked is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 6.1 hours with 77% of the achievements unlocked.

Monument Valley 2: In Which I Find Joy, Once Again.

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.

Rating: 9.5/10

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.

The Fall Part 2: Unbound: I Need My Rule.

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.

Rating: 7.0/10

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.

Last Day of June: Some Things Can’t be Changed.

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.

Rating: 7.0/10

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.

Black The Fall: Fleeing the Oppression.

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.

Rating: 6.5/10

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.

RiME: Paradise Lost.

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.

Rating: 8.75/10

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.

Linelight: I Shall Guide You, Little Light.

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.

Rating: 7.5/10

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.

The Turing Test: Are You Human?

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.

Rating: 9.5/10

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 Last Guardian: Trico…TRICO!

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.

Rating: 7.5/10

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.

ReCore: Far From Eden.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Rating: 6.5/10

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.