Posts Tagged‘puzzler’

Koral: The Beauty of Our Seas.

One of the many reasons I keep doing these reviews is that I enjoy charting the journeys of the various developers that I come across, especially the smaller indies. For some they create an IP and expand on it, like Frozenbyte with Trine or Moon Studios with Ori and the Blind Forest, whilst others like Supergiant Games continually experiment, almost reinventing themselves with each release. Carlos Coronado, who previously brought us Mind: Path to Thalamus, falls into the previous camp having experimented widely over the many years he’s been a game developer. Whilst I wasn’t able to experience one of his previous titles due to it being VR only when I saw Koral, a casual puzzler with a strong environmental message, I was very interested to see what he’d be bringing to the table.

Koral is a self-described love letter to the ocean, created by the developer whilst he was onboard a sail ship in a marine sanctuary in Northern Catalonia. The game’s core is quite simple: you’re an ocean current that can bring life back to the reefs that have been devastated by humanity’s impact on them. Along the way you’ll be peppered with facts about why many coral reefs are currently under threat and some of the positive actions that have taken place to restore them. When it’s all said and done the game will likely only take you a couple hours to get through, maybe one more if you’re looking to 100% it.

The puzzles aren’t particularly difficult although they do get awfully repetitive as they all share the same core base mechanic: explore to find the little light things and then bring them somewhere to unblock the way forward. The challenge ratchets up mostly through adding in more ways to hide the lights from you or by adding a timer to certain challenges. None of them would be out of reach of even beginner games I feel but there are definitely some that felt a little more tedious than others just because they had an arbitrary time limit placed on them, forcing you to do them over again if you fail.

The pacing could also be a little tighter as there’s numerous long sections where there isn’t any music or something particularly interesting happening on screen. Part of this is probably due to the game’s creation (more on that in a sec) but still I feel like these games live and die by their pacing, tying together the various visual and auditory components together so the game effortlessly flows between stages. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled too much by games like The Turing Test which showed me just how great a game like this can be when all those disparate elements come together well.

Probably one of the most interesting parts of the game for me was the credits when it was revealed that quite a bit of this game was created with assets from the Unreal store, including the music. I mean, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that all those kinds of assets are available on there, but it certainly demonstrated to me just how far that ecosystem has come of late. As time goes on it seems the barriers to creating something worthy of playing are getting lower and lower which, whilst it has increased the incidents of shovelware and asset flips, does mean that creators are now free to focus on the much more important aspects of game development.

Koral does exactly what its developer wants it to do: it shows his love for the ocean and the want to preserve it for all to enjoy. It’s construction might not be the best, suffering from slight pacing issues and repetitive puzzles, but it still manages to get its message across. Perhaps most interestingly for me is the amount of things that went into it that were already prebuilt, I honestly would not have guessed that any of it wasn’t created for this game directly had the developer not mentioned it in the credits. So, in summary, Koral is a great distraction even with its rough edges.

Rating: 8.0/10

Koral is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $16.95. Total play time was 2 hours with 59% of the achievements unlocked.

Vane: Where The Wind Takes Us.

Yeah I know, I have a type.

Take some kind of high concept, wrap it in an intriguing art style, throw in a few interesting puzzle mechanics and back the whole thing up with a semi-decent soundtrack and you’re almost guaranteed to get a look in from me. Part of my penchant for these kinds of games was born out of my time being consumed by other things but over time I’ve grown to quite like the genre and all the weird titles it seems to produce. Vane, as you’ve likely already guessed, fits that description almost perfectly and was the second title to come to me via the new Steam recommendation engine. I’m glad to say that this time around it was bang on the money, directing me to an incredibly surreal and intriguing experience that I had not come across before.

In a ruined desert, a strange golden dust transforms a free-spirited bird into a determined young child. You are not the only one to have undergone this transformation however and the world around you is littered with evidence of a world that was once far more than what it appears to be today. Your transformation sets in motion a chain of events that will reshape the world, hopefully for the better.

Vane’s art-style is quite unique with its direct influences coming from the Team Ico games of old. That’s combined with a weird glitchy aesthetic, which gives it this strange sci-fi overtone. Indeed the styling of the world is equal parts fantastic and high-tech, giving you this feeling the environment is stuck between the fantastic and the real. Given I’ve played far too many low-poly indie games of late it’s nice to see a developer take a different angle with it instead of simply using the aesthetic as a way to get out of needing to texture too much. There were a few poorly optimised areas, mostly the larger open areas when the heavy particle effects were going, but other than them the game ran perfectly smooth.

You’ll encounter a wide variety of puzzle mechanics whilst playing Vane as it starts off as a kind of walking-simulator-esque experience as you soar around the desert looking for places to land. From there the game evolves into a kind of puzzle platformer, requiring you to explore the level to figure out how it works, look for where you need to transform and so on. Later on the game then adds in what I’ll call the “rebuilding” mechanic which appears to reconstruct the destroyed world around you. It makes for an interesting progression in terms of mechanical complexity, gradually ramping up the challenge over the game’s short length.

None of those mechanics are well introduced unfortunately, making figuring them out a rather laborious endeavour of trial and error. There’s hints around, of course, but it can be hard to tell when the game is trying to nudge you in a direction or if it’s just something that looks like it should be investigated. Vane isn’t the first game to suffer from a problem like this and it’s one of the more challenging elements to get right; making exploration worthwhile by challenging the player and not just filling the world with random rubbish to seek out.

I’d probably be a bit more lenient on Vane if it weren’t for the absolutely god awful controls that it has. Flying is honestly a major chore and it’s far too hard to perch on something, especially considering that’s one of the core mechanics. Indeed I managed to spaz out the physics engine multiple times by flying too close to something and it not being able to figure out if I should land, bounce off or do something else. This continues with the controls on the ground which feel far more wonky than they really should be. This is most aptly demonstrated in the part of the game with a procedurally generated level, often resulting in you getting stuck on geometry or sliding around randomly as the game tries to figure out how to place you. For a game that gets so much right to get a basic thing like controls so utterly wrong really perplexes me.

The story is interesting, even if it’s so hand wavy in what it shows that you could really make anything out of it. It’s obvious that you find yourself in the ruins of a once prosperous world, one that’s ravaged by what appears to be a never ending storm. However from there everything is pretty much up to your interpretation. On a hunch I just checked and there are 2 different endings although really it seems either of them are as about as satisfying as the other. All this being said I don’t think that the story of Vane was the developer’s overall focus and, whilst it’s somewhat interesting to contemplate, it’s not really the main thrust of the game.

Vane is a weird dichotomy of excellent craftsmanship in some respects and down right negligence in others. The art of Vane’s world is an eclectic mix of old world fantasy with sci-fi overtones all built up beautifully in low poly detail. The puzzle mechanics grow organically throughout the game, ramping up the challenge gradually. However the lack of any direction with the puzzles coupled with the absolutely trash controls means that the game experience is far more frustrating than it needs to be. I’ve dealt with vague puzzle mechanics before, and I can somewhat forgive them, but controls that are that wonky just makes everything worse. Hopefully future titles from Friend & Foe Games don’t incur this penalty as what they’ve built here has the makings of something truly awesome.

Rating: 7.5/10

Vane is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2.7 hours playtime with 39% of the achievements unlocked.

Epitasis: Alien Shapes.

Everyone who’s tried to use Steam’s various recommendation engines over the years knows that they’re more miss than hit. Indeed most of the examples I’ve found diving through the “New and Trending” section or using the Discovery queue have usually been mediocre, if not downright terrible. So when I saw that Valve had put up a new type of recommendation engine, one that allows you to play with a few of the parameters that drive it, I was very intrigued. Setting the timeline to recent and turning the popularity to niche put up quite a few examples that looked good on first pass, Epitasis among them. Whilst this particular game might not have hit the mark, owing to its incredibly basic implementation, it was still a title that I would’ve never come across if not for the new engine.

The setup for Epitasis is done through a couple pages of text on screen, telling you that you’re a scientist combing through deep space signals for signs of intelligent life. One day you get one and it points to a set of coordinates on Earth. A team, led by yourself is put together to go and investigate whereupon you find out that the location houses a portal to an alien world. In there is a strange world of shapes and puzzles laid out before you, almost like some kind of test. It’s then your job to solve the puzzles of this world to see where they lead.

Right off the hop you can tell that Epitasis was built in the Unreal engine as it has that certain feel about it that most bargain basement games made in it have. The environments are sparse and lacking in detail, seemingly built to have a lot more put into them than what’s currently there. Some of the lighting effects are done well but honestly I don’t believe there’s anything there that isn’t built into UE4 by default. The trailer basically shows all the best looking parts of the game with the rest of it being a dull, lifeless landscape. The game world really didn’t need to be as big as it is and a lot more effort should’ve been spent on making the area that mattered tighter in its implementation and adding some detail.

Mechanically Epitasis is a simple puzzler, mostly consisting of making sure switches stay on or juggling boxes between gated sections. They weren’t particularly well playtested as some of them require an inordinate amount of legwork to complete, pinging back and forth between puzzle sections in order to complete them successfully. Then there are other sections which are quite obviously not intended to function together, allowing you to completely bypass the intended mechanic. The logic of the puzzles is also quite bizarre, with some of them giving you the impression they should function in a particular way but work completely differently, making some puzzles challenging as you try to work out the developer’s internal logic. All in all it feels like a decidedly unfinished game; barren and simplistic, falling short of what I feel was the creator’s intended dream.

Indeed looking at the game’s Kickstarter campaign which finished some 2 years ago it looks like a good chunk of what’s in the game currently was already there and the intent was to flesh out the world a lot more. Like nearly all Kickstarters it delivered late, over a year past the initial forecast date, showing that the developer must have been a lot further away from an actual game than they thought. Of course I understand the challenges that face a single developer but too often I see newcomers try and make something grander than they can ever accomplish. Games don’t need to be long or great in scale to be good, they just need to be enjoyable experiences. Epitasis could’ve done a lot more with the time invested if it pared back its ambition and focused on the core of what it wanted to achieve.

I will admit that it does have a good soundtrack however it’s decidedly out of place for the environment you’re playing in and is often out of kilter with what you’re doing on screen. Games like this live and die by their pacing and a key part of that is how the soundtrack ties into on-screen events. Epitasis doesn’t really appear to have much of that, leading to a very weird atmosphere.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on a university student whose only real world experience in the games industry is being a QA tester but even if I simply judge this game by how well it achieves its own vision it still comes up lacking. The environments are far too large for a game like this where exploration is beyond pointless, serving only as a monument to ambition that was never realised. The simplistic puzzle mechanics aren’t going to challenge anyone for long, even the ones whose logic are somewhat mystifying. Finally, whilst the game does have a good soundtrack it feels disjointed and out of place, lacking the tight coupling that these kinds of puzzler/walking simulator type games require. As a first title for a nascent game developer it’s not completely terrible but even among peers it’s not much to write home about.

Rating: 5.5/10

Epitasis is available on PC right now for $28.95. Total play time was 104 minutes with 90% of the achievements unlocked.

There The Light: Be Not Afeard .

We now find ourselves in that time of the year between the two major release seasons. For most this is a great time to catch up on the glut of titles that have been stampeding their way onto their platform of choice over the past few months. For reviewers like me it’s something of a double edged sword: no longer are we spoiled for choice, instead finding something that’s worth playing becomes a bit of a challenge. On the flip side though this does mean it’s the indie developer’s time to shine and it’s during times like these that I find myself playing all sorts of weird and wonderful titles. There The Light, which I stumbled across on /r/IndieDev, is a short, simple puzzler that’s gets a lot of things right, even if its a little rough around the edges.

In true walking simulator fashion There The Light doesn’t have any particular plot per se, although the world is littered with various plot styled objects that allude to an underlying narrative. Your only objective is to walk from one room to another, solving puzzles as the music builds and swirls around you. The small bits of text lying around talk a bit about how the light and the music of the island are intertwined and the visuals indicate that the island was once home to a larger civilisation that worshipped the light. But realistically I don’t think there’s a deep story to be uncovered here, it’s just there to provide a bit of flavour for the walking.

There The Light appears to take heavy inspiration from Journey both from an overall aesthetic but also from the way some of the animations work (like how the paintings light up). In terms of graphical fidelity it’s about half a step above most of the other games that use the same low-poly stylings, packing a little more detail into the models and environment. It also does a great job of getting away from the usual Unity-esque styling, enough so that looking back at my screenshots I thought it might’ve been an Unreal 4 game. There were a few places where performance suffered a bit so there’s still room for optimisation to be done.

The puzzles are, for the most part, very simple affairs of simply connecting the dots. The basic puzzles never get any harder than that so if a “joining the dots” mechanic brings back your PTSD from The Witness then don’t worry, it won’t have you curled up in a corner like that one did. The exception from this rule is the dial puzzles as I’m not quite sure how they’re actually supposed to work. I tried most of the combinations I could think of and none of them appear to make logical sense. However simply spamming them over and over eventually got them to change something that would then allow me to complete them. Looking at others playing it online it seems that most of them ended up doing much the same. I’m sure there is some kind of internal logic there but the game doesn’t do enough to surface that to the player.

The tie in between puzzles and the music is great but I think the pacing of it needed to be tightened up somewhat to make it really shine. There were long periods of walking around with not much at all happening, even when I was interacting with a bunch of different things that were scattered around the level. The build up to the game’s main song is done well enough so the potential is there it just needs a fair bit more playtesting in order to really get it all aligned perfectly. That, combined with making the later puzzle mechanics a little more intuitive, would turn this good game into something great.

There The Light is a good first release from CasualBebop, showcasing their strengths well whilst still showing they’ve got room to improve. The visuals, music and most of the puzzles are done well, easily equalling other indie developers who’ve been making games for many more years than they have. The puzzles and pacing could do with some work however as these two elements are what drag the experience down. Overall I enjoyed There The Light and it’s renewed my faith in the /r/IndieDev subreddit. Here’s hoping that CasualBebop found enough success with this game to take on another, perhaps more challenging, project.

Rating: 7.0/10

There the Light is available on PC right now for $14.50. Total play time was 103 minutes with 100% of the achievements unlocked.

Supraland: Red vs Blue.

The one thing I’ve always hated about most Metroidvania games is when they show you something that you’re not able to access with your current abilities. Often this manifests extremely early on as you explore the level only to find there’s a part you can’t get to with no indication of when you’ll get the requisite ability to explore there. Quite often those areas aren’t even necessary for you to explore, just a bonus or something, so their inclusion is merely to draw you back to earlier levels. To be fair there are some examples where this is done well, the revisiting of the level being driven by story or other mechanical elements, and for those I have far more leniency. I tell you this mostly preface my thoughts on Supraland as it’s this particular mechanic, as well as a handful of other issues, that made this a game I didn’t want to play past a couple hours.

The Steam store page for Supraland proclaims, among many other things, that the story is “minimal” and that’s absolutely true. Whilst the premise is quite cool, all the characters are toys in a kid’s sandpit, the plot itself is ridiculously basic: you’re the red guys and the blue guys have shut off your water supply and it’s up to you to turn it back on. However to actually get to the blue guys you have to make your way through numerous different challenges, many of which will require you to upgrade your equipment and skills in order to do. I’ve read elsewhere that there’s a little more too the story later on in the game but it does nothing to expand upon it at all, save for having little dialogue instances between NPCs which have nothing to do with the plot at all.

The graphics of Supraland are heavily stylized and simplified, giving it a very cartoony feel. The developers have managed to avoid the typical Unreal engine game feel, keeping the use of specularity to a minimum. There’s a heavy use of depth of field which is supposed to give you the feeling that you’re a very small being in a large world. To some extent this works however it can have the effect of simply making everything disorienting like in the screenshot below. The issue here is, of course, perspective as whilst the game touts that it only has a tiny map of 9m2 that’s somewhat meaningless if you’re scaled down in size. So try as you might to make it feel like a small world with tiny people it’s going to end up feeling just like normal anyway, no matter how much you try to use depth of field or tilt shifting to change that.

Supraland bills itself as a combination of games like Portal, Zelda and Metroid which is horrendously disingenuous as it’s much more akin to the run of the mill indie puzzle platformers we’ve seen many of over the past decade. To be sure there are elements that you could say are borrowed from each game: the platforming from Portal (although that’s a stretch), the semi-open worldedness of Zelda games and the reexploration mechanic from Metroid. Realistically it’s just a bog standard first person puzzler with a tacked on RPG progression system. There’s really nothing wrong with that but the appeal to authority of titles with much greater pedigrees is what’s getting me. Honestly I was going to write this off as just your average indie puzzler until I reread the Steam page but now I feel compelled to point out all the faults given that it thinks it’s a combination between 3 of arguably the most influential titles in the puzzler space.

The combat is simple and implemented poorly. There’s really no nuance to it at all with enemies just running directly at you or standing dead still whilst they shoot from you at a distance. There’s also no way to block so you’ll likely end up dying to the first enemies since their melee range is the same as yours and there’s nothing you can do to stop them from hitting you. Once you get the gun you can basically just kite everything around but in its default form it’s annoyingly slow. Not that you’ll be wanting for upgrades for long though, even with rudimentary exploration you’ll be unlocking the upgrades in no time flat, even with the requisite barrel running task that serves no other purpose but to burn more of your time. But let’s not judge the game based on the one attribute which it doesn’t trumpet the most, let’s take a look at its puzzles and exploration.

The puzzles are incredibly simple, most of which you’ll solve pretty much straight away without too much of a thought. Others are easily solvable with emergent behaviours that the developer hasn’t taken into account, like being able to bypass entire sections of the game by walking on terrain that hasn’t been properly walled off. This only gets more ludicrous the more mechanics you have access to, giving you all sorts of means to break the game and bypass core game mechanics. This would be fun if it weren’t for the fact that it also means that there’s a certain level of gank to puzzles you can’t bypass, necessitating replaying certain puzzles over a few times in order to get them to complete properly.

Exploration is rewarded, although most of the time it’s just a few coins hidden around a corner or somewhere else rather obvious. The other parts are, of course, hidden behind mechanics you don’t yet have access to, something which will necessitate you trudging all the way back through the levels in order to get back to it. There is a rudimentary fast travel system however you can’t access it from a map (I don’t believe there is a map, actually) and it takes a good 20 seconds for it to travel you somewhere. This makes retreading ground a pretty annoying experience and, given that most of those hidden rewards are just basic upgrades, there’s no real compelling reason to do so.

It’s for these reasons that I didn’t find myself drawn back to playing Supraland after the first night I sat down with it. The fact that most of the work was done by a single developer is commendable but the marketing of it could not be further off the mark. The game is simplistic in all the wrong places, making combat a chore, puzzles easily waltzed through and the prospect of going back to retread old ground something I don’t think any sane player would want to do. Of course the reviews on Steam paint a much different picture and so it’s quite possible I’m on the wrong side of the fence for this, but in all honesty I simply cannot see what others find enjoyable in this game.

Rating: 6.5/10

Supraland is available on PC right now for $28.95. Total play time was 2 hours with 27% of the achievements unlocked.

Islanders: Impeccable Placement.

It’s not often that a developer simply explaining the mechanics sells me on the game. Usually if you can’t simply show how it works through a gameplay trailer or similar I’ll switch off as even high concept games can hook you with as much. Still though I was intrigued by the voiced over trailer that GrizzlyGames put on their Steam page for Islanders, a rework of typical city builder/strategy games where there’s no resources to harvest, economies to manage or little NPCs trotting around. No instead everything is based around the buildings and how much you can make of them, something which sounds simple on first take but takes some real practice to get a feel for.

Graphically Islanders has a bright and simple aesthetic, taking inspiration from the numerous low-poly games that have made the style quite popular with the indie crowd. The simplicity is also partly born out of necessity as you’ll quickly start to crow out your little island in short order, making it a bit of a visual challenge as the game progresses. The highly saturated colours coupled with the varied biomes and procedural generation of each island means you’re not likely to get bored of the visuals any time soon. After spending my time in high end visuals from AAA developers it’s been nice to go back to a more visually simple game.

The core mechanic of Islanders is intriguing: instead of it following the usual city builder or RTS trope of giving you a main base and then letting you loose to harvest resources instead you’re given a handful of buildings. Each building you place will give you a certain number of points, something you can maximise if you understand what gives them bonuses. Just blindly plonking down buildings in places that give you the most points isn’t actually a bad strategy to start off with, however you quickly realise that if you want to go after the high score you’re going to have to be a lot more strategic about it. Each of the different island biomes has different mechanics available to it and you’ll need to understand each of them in order to maximise their effect. Further to that there’s numerous late game buildings that have synergies that you’ll need to build towards and that’s when the real challenge starts to set in.

You’ll likely want to set up various areas that are dedicated to a certain kind of synergy like say an area for houses, another for mansions and an area for all your farming/brewing/logging activities. This is because those buildings not only have synergies with themselves they also have strong disaffinity with each other’s late game buildings. This is something that became painfully obvious to me after I’d clustered as many buildings together in one spot only to realise that the late game buildings were effectively useless, preventing me from going on any further. Thankfully there is an out for this but you’ll want to use it strategically lest you abandon all the good work you’ve done and, by consequence, many of those delicious points.

The mechanic I’m referring to is the ability to travel to the next island. The game does confirm with you that you want to move on but it never goes into the why of it. If you’re like me you’ll likely just hit the next island button the second it becomes available, a viable strategy in some cases, however you’re likely better placed to hang onto it until you get yourself into a corner. You see Islanders will go on for as long as you have a building (or + sign, which allows you to get more buildings) in your inventory. If you find yourself in a position where you can’t get to the next lot of buildings and you’ve got a next island available you can continue afresh there. The game will then reset the target score to just 20 above your current, giving you free reign over the next island. Whilst this isn’t always an option understanding this is what helped me go from the 8,000th ranked player to around the 800th. I’m sure there’s even deeper strategies than that but honestly, I’m happy enough with that.

Islanders does have a good amount of polish on it although you can still pull off some shenanigans with building placement if you fiddle for long enough. The platforms seem to be the easiest ones to mess around with as I was able to embed a few water platforms in places where there was no water. You can do this by finding a place where it’ll let you place it and start sliding it against one of the invisible walls the game puts there to help you with placement. Done right you can slide along them for quite a ways, giving you a lot more options than would otherwise be available. I didn’t find any other issues during my playthrough so hats off to the developers for testing it thoroughly.

There are a couple improvements I’d like though. An undo button, even if it was just for the last thing you placed, would be nice as a small quality of life improvement. I can’t tell you how many times I placed a building awkwardly only realising I could’ve done it better if I moved the camera a little bit. It’d also be nice to have a mode that allowed you to rearrange things, possibly with a higher requirement on points for each level, as it’s quite satisfying to place a building just right and have all those little tokens tinkle away onto the score board. Thinking about it more most of the things I’d like to see in the game are just things that’d make me want to play it for longer, not so much things that need to be fixed.

Islanders is a fantastic twist on the typical city builder game, stripping away the mechanical complexity and replacing it instead with skill mastery. The visuals are simple and wonderfully colourful, a trend I’m very much happy to see continue in casual titles like this. The mechanics are simple but take some time to master and even then you’re still at the hand of RNGesus. I may have only played a couple hours of Islanders but I can see it being a good distraction every so often, especially when I’ve only got one hand free (the other holding my daughter, get your mind out of the gutter).

Rating: 8.25/10

Islanders is available on PC right now for $8.50. Total play time was 2 hours with 73% of the achievements unlocked.

What Never Was: My Grandfather’s Secret.

It’s rare these days to see concept pieces that have no ambition beyond simply existing. Most are at the very least teaser pieces designed to get you enticed into backing them on Kickstarter or buying the full title. Indeed I thought as much when I first saw What Never Was, a solo project by a developer called Acke Hallgren whose day job involves designing open world environments for AAA titles like Rage 2 and The Division, but it seems I was wrong. What Never Was stands as a piece for the developer to keep their skills sharp, all the while telling a short but interesting tale about a granddaughter going through the process of sorting through her granddad’s possessions.

You play as Sarah, the granddaughter of Howard James Wright who recently passed away. He was an adventurer, always trekking through the world in pursuit of ancient relics and meticulously documenting his travels in the various books that he authored. You’ve taken on the task that everyone dreads when a relative passes: cleaning out all their belongings. You quickly discover though that there might have been more, a lot more in fact, to the travels your grandfather took and many of the relics he’s left behind are not quite as they seem.

What Never Was is built on the UE4 engine and, like many indie titles built on the platform, has that distinct Unreal engine feel to it. Considering that the vast majority of the visuals were done by the single developer behind it though they’ve managed to achieve a decent level of detail and polish; the single level environment bristling with details for you to investigate. Coupling that with the full voice acting for every bit of dialogue you’ve got a very complete experience, even if the play time won’t run you much past an hour if you get it to 100% completion.S

The game is essentially a one room puzzle, one that most seasoned gamers won’t find too challenging. The real attraction is from clicking on all of the bits of memorabilia around the room and hearing your character reminisce about how those things played a part in their life. The one quibble I have is that the game doesn’t tell you when you’ve finished hearing all the bits of story from a particular item which often means you’ll have to keep clicking it even after you’ve finished the dialogue train to make sure you heard everything. Other than that there’s not too much to talk about except the story itself.

The way the story played out I had fully expected to track down the developer and see that a full version of the game was incoming as What Never Was does an incredibly good job of setting up a world that a larger story could play out in. So I’m somewhat disappointed to see that there’s nothing in the works as this small room does an exceptional job of making you want to see more. I won’t go into more details as the game is really worth taking the 30 mins or so to play to see it for yourself.

What Never Was is a great example of a concept come to life, giving the player just enough details to want more before wrapping everything up. It being the work of a single developer makes it even more impressive as it obviously a labour of love that they just wanted the world to see. The real disappointment is that it is likely to stay a concept as I see nothing to indicate the developer wants to work on it further. It’s a real shame as I’m sure even another small vignette or two like What Never Was would we warmly welcomed by many, myself included.

Rating: 8.0/10

What Never Was is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 19 minutes with 50% of the achievements unlocked.

The Gardens Between: The Joy We Shared.

5 years ago I attended my first (and, as it turns out, only) PAX event in Australia and, despite the teething issues, managed to have a rather enjoyable time. Whilst I was there I went through the expo hall and picked my way through the various indie developers who were there to showcase what they’d been working on. There I stumbled across The Voxel Agents and I spent a few moments talking to them about their game, though for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. I asked if the game contained any voxels, to which they replied no and, in what I now see as a total dick move I asked them if any of their games did which they answered no. Sensing that I was probably being one of those people, something that might be especially considering I was in full Adam Jensen cosplay at the time, I made a swift exit stage left. Imagine my surprise then when I stumbled across The Gardens Between, an intriguing time puzzle game, by those very same developers I annoyed all those years ago.

Although, and I can’t stop myself from writing this, it appears that their most recent game is still voxel-less. Sorry…I’ll see myself out…

Arina and Frendt are best friends who’ve shared many pivotal moments of their childhood together. However one day Frendt tells Arina that he’s moving away for good and they head up to their tree house to spend one last night together there. They then embark on a whimsical journey through their collective past, reliving their most cherished memories together through fantastical worlds littered with the everyday objects that played background to their story. Arina, the headstrong one, pushes forward lighting the way for the pair whilst Frendt is the thinker, manipulating the world’s objects. It’s a bittersweet tale that many of us can relate to, of close childhood friendships that are torn apart by circumstances beyond our control, but also a reminder that we’ll never lose those memories we forged together.

The Gardens Between has a stylized, simplistic art style that’s light on the textures but heavy on environmental detail. The fantastical worlds it presents are cobbled together out of everyday objects that are scaled, warped and twisted making the environments seem paradoxically real and otherworldly at the same time. Under the hood its powered by the Unity engine and thanks to the heavy investment in assets, lighting and shading effects it avoids that typical unity game sheen. Working hand in hand with the great visuals is a fantastic backing soundtrack and extensive foley work which makes the whole world come alive. Looking at their back catalogue at games it’s honestly out of left field for them and shows that they’re wanting to grow as game developers. Kudos to you.

The game’s main mechanic is a Braid-like time travel mechanic where you move time forwards and backwards to complete the puzzles. There are various items that are time independent which you can then use to change the flow of how events come to pass. How you manipulate time also has an impact on many puzzles, like some requiring you to stop time and hold it there or moving back and forward a certain amount to repeat actions. There’s also a bunch of achievements for doing less than intuitive things in certain puzzles which can be a bit of fun to chase down if the main puzzles don’t feel challenging enough. All in all it’s a relatively simple game mechanically but therein lies its charm as you’re unlikely to get stuck for very long, ensuring the story keeps moving at a steady pace.

Probably the only gripe I have is that moving forwards and backwards through time is a little slow for some of the larger puzzles which can take quite some time to unwind. This becomes quite noticeable for puzzles where you have to follow (sometimes multiple) things bouncing around a level to figure out which one you need to put your lantern on. With a start to finish time of only 2 hours though I get why they might not want to put that in, the game is short enough as it is, but even something like speeding it up the longer you hold it down would be much appreciated.

If I’m honest the story didn’t do much to grab me early on, feeling like I was looking through someone else’s picture album: interesting to be sure but no emotional involvement from my side. Towards the end though, and I can’t quite put my finger on what did it, I started to get more invested in their story. Perhaps it was remembering similar stories from my childhood that did it, the many people I spent so much time with but then lost them to moving away or them growing apart from me. Whatever did it though the story hit home and that bittersweet feeling hit me like a truck. Growing up is filled with such sweet sorrow as what The Gardens Between shows us and, whilst we may not like to be reminded of it, I’m sure we can certainly all relate to it.

If annoying developers at conventions can lead to games like The Gardens Between I’ll be sure to do it more often as what The Voxel Agents have done here is certainly worth the price of admission. The audio visual experience is exceptional, defining a style that I hope they take forward into whatever they choose to pursue next. The game mechanics, whilst not exactly novel, do bring a new view to what time travel games can do. The story, whilst it takes some time to find its feet, is one that I feel is quite relatable  to a lot of people, especially those who aren’t lucky enough to still be in contact with their childhood friends. Suffice to say if you’re looking for a break from the AAA release firehose (like I have) then The Gardens Between is certain to fit the bill.

Rating: 8.5/10

The Gardens Between is available on PC, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total playtime and 35% of the achievements unlocked.

Return of the Obra Dinn: Oh What Terrible Fate Befell Thee.

The indie scene loves a breakout hit; especially those that either defies or creates a genre. Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please is a fantastic example of this creating a new genre of documentation review based games like Cart Life, This is the Police and Va11-Hall A. This always then begs the question as to how they’ll follow up the breakout hit: iterate on the formula, try something completely different or pursue a passion project. Pope appears to have gone for option 2, wanting to challenge himself with a lot of creative constraints to build something quite different to anything else he had done before. The result certainly achieves that, enough so that I didn’t even know it was done by him until I saw the developer name on the Steam page. I can certainly appreciate the level of craftsmanship brought to bear here however putting a good 4 hours into the game I don’t feel much compulsion to go back.

The good ship the Obra Dinn disappeared some six months ago, taking with it 200 tons of cargo and all of its crew. One day however it strangely turned up in port, bereft of any crew. You are an insurance assessor, tasked with boarding the ghost ship and figuring out what happened. Your tasks are simple, identify the crew, how they perished and who was responsible for it. What follows is a tale of endless tragedy that befell the crew of the Obra Dinn, their journey seemingly cursed from the start to fail. That is of little concern to you however, you are merely there to document everything and report back to your superiors. You may never be the same again, though.

Obra Dinn utilises a 1 bit colour palette in the vein of computers from another era. You can even switch between different models of computers, although all that really does is change the 1 colour you’ll be staring at. It’s still a 3D game though so the effect is a really unusual one. Indeed I’m struggling to think of another 3D game that utilised dithering to achieve shading so from a visual perspective the game is truly unique. This also gives rise to some really interesting visual effects, like when the background fades away to an image (like the screenshot below). I’m typically a very visual person when it comes to games but what Pope has achieved with the Obra Dinn is quite astonishing, even with just 1 colour to work with.

The game play takes the form of an investigation whereby you’re tasked with figuring out who died (or didn’t) when and who or what was responsible for it. You do this by reliving the last moments of most of the crew through the use of your pocket watch. Reliable information is incredibly scarce and so you’ll have to rely on various other things in order to make your judgement calls. This can be things like someone’s position on the ship, their race, their relationship to others or even where they were. When you make 3 correct guesses the game will confirm them for you, preventing you from simply spamming the options and hoping for a hit. If this sounds like a challenge it most certainly is, one I’m not ashamed to say got the best of me.

You see as you relive the last moments of the crew’s life you’ll get to see the story of how the ship met its fate. Following this thread until the end probably lasts a couple hours or so when the game will indicate to you that you’ve seen everything and should get on with solving the puzzle. This will of course mean revisiting a lot of the memories, looking for clues and trying to figure out what information you can glean from where. For some this is going to be a great experience, following the chain of clues to find that one nugget that lets you seal away a fate or two. For me though? It became a chore, not least of which was due to the annoying way in which you have to go to find the memories in order to review them. I did give it the old college try though, solving 15 fates total, but after that point, knowing all there was to know of the story, I didn’t feel like there was much left for me to enjoy.

Perhaps my brain is currently wired for short term gain, thanks to the almost embarrassing amount of hours I’ve put into Black Ops 4 even after panning it, but I couldn’t help but feel much like I did when playing The Witness. The level of care and attention to detail is obvious but I just couldn’t find the joy in there that others seemed to. To be sure this is a game the creator wanted to make, not something that was driven by community or by a large customer research team. There’s beauty in that, and I wholeheartedly support developers attempting this if they have the means, but it also seems to have a trend where craftsmanship can sometimes overpower enjoyment. The usual line I’d quip here is that this game isn’t for everyone but then really, what game is?

The Return of the Obra Dinn is a fantastically crafted game from Lucas Pope, showing the kinds of creativity that can blossom in the face of severe constraints. Everything about how the game was built is unique from the art style to the unique investigative mechanics to the wonderful sound and music design. However beyond the first couple hours, where the story drives you forward, the game peters out considerably and I could only manage to stick with it for another couple hours before putting it down. Credit where credit is due though there are a lot of people out there who are finding much to like about this title and an astonishing 31.5% of players have managed to fully complete the game. So this may simply be a case of this game not being for me but if the idea of playing a time travelling insurance assessor is apealing then it might just be for you.

Rating: 7.0/10

Return of the Obra Dinn is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 4 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.

Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna: Humanity’s Last Chance.

There comes a time in every game’s development when the call to ship it needs to be made. For some games this comes at the right time in their dev cycle where the incremental improvements are hitting diminishing returns. For most though it happens as the budgets start to run dry and the need to ship something forces the game out the door. Such is the case with Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna a game that, according to its Kickstarter, was meant to release its first episode some 2 years ago. That most certainly didn’t happen and the resulting game heavily points towards them needing to ship now rather than shipping nothing at all. To their credit the developer, KeoKen Interactive, has committed to providing a free DLC in the near future to make up for it but haven’t committed to a timeline.

Not that anyone would believe it even if they did.

The Earth has been plundered for nearly all of its natural resources, sending Earth into an extended energy crisis. To solve this our world leaders formed the World Space Agency, tasked with exploiting the Moon’s plentiful He3 reserves and sending the energy back to Earth. To their credit it worked and for many years the Moon beamed back nearly limitless energy, staving off the death of civilisation on Earth. However one day the energy stopped flowing and the colony on the Moon ceased all contact leaving Earth to plunge back into darkness. However one team, dubbed Fortuna, put together a last ditch attempt to get back to the Moon and restart the energy grid. What follows is your tale of making it to the Moon and figuring out just what happened to the colony all those years ago.

Deliver us the Moon has that typical Unreal engine feel to it with seemingly unnatural high levels of specularity in some places and a weird plasticy feeling to most assets. It’s not that this is a limit of the engine per-se, more it’s what will happen if you use the engine in its default state (much like Unity in the same way). That being said there has been quite an investment in developing assets for the game and it’s conceivable that the early release was due to a heavy investment for assets. Had this released 2 years ago, as planned, I’m sure it would’ve been considered among some of the top tier visuals of its peers. Now however it feels just a little bit dated, something that’s not helped by the use of (what I assume is) hand crafted animations rather than mo-cap which make everything look needlessly robotic. Since this is their first game I’ll give them a pass, for now.

Deliver us the Moon is primarily a walking simulator game with a few puzzle mechanics thrown in (ala Tacoma). That’s in stark contrast to what their Kickstarter page promised, which had aspirations of letting you roam free on the Moon’s surface to explore at your leisure. Of course anyone who expects a Kickstarter to live up to its campaign page promises is almost certain to be disappointed but I mention it to set the scene of what to expect if you decide to dive into this game. The beginnings of all the things the developers wanted to include are there but none to the level required to fulfill that vision. Combine that with the game ending just as the story starts to find its feet and you’re left wanting more with no indication of that will ever come.

Unlike other games which are built on the broken dreams of the developers Deliver us the Moon is thankfully a full playable and mostly trouble free experience from start to end. The puzzles are pretty simple affairs, typically requiring you to find a couple things within a single room and get them in the right places. Navigation around the various bases can be a bit of a chore though as there’s no HUD pointing you in the right direction and the maps on the walls aren’t the easiest to follow. Still there are some good quality of life things included that even AAA games still miss these days; like voice recordings playing in the background as you explore and already viewed cutscenes highlighted in blue so you don’t accidentally play them again. The breaks between levels are indicative of the developer’s original intent to make the whole thing episodic and indeed the levels were big enough in scale for that to be a possibility. However that’s not the game we’ve got and instead you’ll blast through most of those levels in the space of 30 minutes or so.

Optimisation of the game also appears to have taken a back seat as there’s numerous times when the game starts to struggle noticeably. This is at its worst when you’re outside on the Moon’s surface as the framerate (and subsequently the physics engine tick rate) drops through the floor. It’s not just the vehicle simulation that does it either as the performance problems continue when you’re on foot. I didn’t check if my GPU was fully utilised at the time so not sure if its bottlenecking there (indicating poor model optimisation) or elsewhere so the jury’s out on the actual root cause. Suffice to say that whilst my PC is over 3 years old at this point it hasn’t had trouble like that with much more graphically intense games.

Deliver us the Moon’s story starts out by violating the first rule of storytelling by running through long exposition pieces, explaining in detail things that your character would likely already know. It extends as far as the flavour text for exploration items as well making the game’s opening moments feel like a high schooler’s creative writing project they did the night before it was due. However the game gradually starts pulling back from this as you dive deeper into the narrative and does a good job of drip feeding you enough details so you start theorising about what happened. Then, just as you start to get leads on a major plot point in the narrative, the game abruptly ends. For those poor souls who backed the game or bought it early they were then left wondering just what the hell was going on. The discussion forum is filled with threads about this and the developers have stated that everyone will get the free DLC that closes the story off, when its available. Hopefully the game sells enough copies to make that a reality but honestly I’m not particularly confident we’ll see it inside 6 months.

Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna is one of the few unfinished games I’ve played that’s left me wanting to see it in its full glory. There was an obvious investment in making a lot of assets, many of which would’ve been utilised fully if the game’s vision was realised. What we’re left with is still a competent game in its own right but it’s clear that the game had aspirations of something far greater. The upcoming DLC will likely give us the story closure many of us are seeking but it’s unlikely it will realise the full vision that it developers laid out when they first embarked on their Kickstarter campaign. For what it’s worth I did enjoy my time with it, warts and all, but until the promised DLC is out I’d recommend you leave it on the wishlist.

Rating: 7.0/10

Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 57% of the achievements unlocked.