To The Moon was far from a perfect game. Its disjointed pacing, rudimentary game mechanics and inability to deliver a compelling story until its final chapter are all things that I’ve dropped lesser games for. However those final moments of the game are where it finally finds its feet, bringing forth an emotional ending that I certainly wasn’t prepared for. That was enough to make it my game of the year for 2012, edging out many other worthy contenders. Since then I’ve wondered if the developer would ever return to this universe or would simply let To The Moon stand alone. Had it not been for the joke trailer that did the rounds a while back I may never have known that Finding Paradise was Freebird Games’ second instalment in the series and was due out before the end of the year. Just like last time however Finding Paradise stumbles its way through most of the story before finally finding its feet right at the end.
The two doctors (Dr Watts and Dr Rosaline) make a return in Finding Paradise however their no longer from “The Agency”, it’s now Sigmund Corporation. Their mission however is the same: to grant a dying patient’s last wishes in the form of memory manipulation. This client is different however, there’s no one thing they want. Instead their only request is that they make them happy, ensuring that they don’t change anything relating to his family. What starts out as a routine dig into the patient’s memories soon takes a strange twist and the two doctors struggle to find out just what exactly it is that will make their patient’s last moments everything they wished for.
Finding Paradise retains the same look and feel of its predecessor with the typical trappings of a RPG Maker based game. The colour palette is a lot more vibrant and bright this time around however which initially led me to think that the graphics were much higher fidelity than they previously were. Looking back over my screenshots however this is definitely not the case. Yet again the soundtrack to Finding Paradise is exceptional with the title track setting the scene beautifully for what is to come. The credit song is also a hauntingly beautiful track, one that would stand well on its own without the game to back it up. Overall the game manages to feel new but familiar which is certain to delight fans of Freebird’s games.
The overall game structure hasn’t changed at all with it following the same puzzle structure as its predecessor did. Each scene is essentially a small puzzle, requiring you to track down memory orbs which you then use to unlock a memento in order to travel through the patient’s memories. To unlock the memento you then have to complete a puzzle which now takes the form of a Bejewled-esque matching game with a number of ancillary mechanics to give you a little bit of a challenge. Most of them however won’t take you very long to solve, indeed even the ones that appear challenging typically only require a few moves to complete. Just like before however these are not the focus of the game and simply serve as organic progression blockers between the individual scenes.
Despite the game’s simplicity and ostensibly similar construction to its predecessor there’s a few areas which are lacking in polish. Some of the mechanics don’t trigger properly, either requiring a restart of the game or loading up of a checkpoint in order to get them working as expected. There’s been a few patches since launch day so some of the more glaring issues have been worked out but there’s still a few teething issues as at time of writing. I’m sure these will be addressed as time goes on but it’s one thing I don’t remember experiencing in its predecessor. These small issues don’t detract much from the game itself however, the story does a good enough job of that.
Just like its predecessor Finding Paradise meanders along during the early events of the story, spending a lot of time building up the backstory to a lot of the characters. The game also spends far, far too much time on throwing out red herrings and building up the greater world outside of the main story, ostensibly setting it up for a sequel with a much grander vision than the previous two games had. Whilst I’m all for developers building out a bigger world that a small story can exist in Finding Paradise goes out of its way to spend a lot of time on doing this long before its revealed what its ultimate intentions are for doing so. This means that the first 2 hours or so of game play are largely irrelevant to the core narrative as the core of the story doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
The developers, who cheekily note on their website that they’re “Ruining sentimental moments, one badly timed joke after another”, manage to do that with surgical timing for about 75% of the games play time. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of levity in games like this, indeed sometimes it’s necessary to save you from being emotionally drained with topics like this, however there were several key moments that were utterly ruined by sequences that added absolutely nothing to the story, world or the characters themselves. At this point I understand that this is the developer’s style and is done deliberately but that doesn’t mean it’s a good way to tell a story like this. If there’s one bit of advice I can give them it’s this: don’t sacrifice the small emotional climaxes for a laugh. Those small moments will mean so much more if they’re not devastated by a juvenile joke the second after they’re told.
However, right at the end, is where Finding Paradise begins to find its legs. As you begin to discover the core of what the patient’s last wishes are the revelations start to come thick and fast. The final moments are, just like they were in To The Moon, incredibly bitter-sweet and are sure to bring a few tears forth for those whose hearts aren’t made of stone. Finding Paradise does lose a bit of cred for loudly screaming about the potential for a sequel right at the end but all shall be forgiven if they can take some lessons learned from their last few games to heart and build it into something truly sensational (and free of emotional moments ruined by jokes).
Finding Paradise keeps the same formula of what made To The Moon great and, unfortunately, many of the things that should have been left behind. The visual style and accompanying soundtrack are both stand out items of the game, each of them contributing greatly to the telling of the main narrative. The mechanics are largely the same with the new puzzle mechanic being a nice touch. However the disjointed pacing, sacrificing the story’s key moments for the sake of a joke and the attention given to building out the world for an impending sequel are missteps that Freebird Games should not look to repeat in future games. The ultimate conclusion does save the game from itself however but that doesn’t mean that the developers should simply look to repeat this yet again. Finding Paradise might not reach the same heights as its predecessor but it still managed to evoke the same bittersweet feelings that brought this old reviewer to tears.
Finding Paradise is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 4 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked.
When playing games that wouldn’t fit the typical definition of the medium there’s always one question I ask myself: was this the only way this story could be told? Certainly for games where your choices matter there’s a strong argument (although who didn’t love those choose your own adventure books as a kid) but for linear, narrative focused games the choice is less decisive. There’s a lot to be said for interactivity, which can drive immersion in a story, but for some titles this can actually be a distraction. Such is the story of Last Day of June, a story that could have been served just as well, if not better, if presented as a short movie rather than as an interactive title.
Last Day of June follows the story of Carl and June, two people who are so adorably in love that you can be absolutely sure that tragedy is just looming around the corner. The sun is setting on a beautiful autumn day which you’ve spent down at the lake together. However it starts to rain and you both make a beeline to the car before you get soaked. On the trip home however tragedy strikes and you awake as Carl, alone in your house and wheelchair bound. What follows is a story of uncovering the events that led up to that tragedy and, interestingly, giving you the chance to undo the damage that has been wrought on you.
On first look Last Day of June’s visuals appear simple though they are anything but. The aesthetic is a combination of Picasso-esque caricatures and dreamlike visual effects which give it this kind of surreal cartoon feel. The characters big heads and lack of eyes do make them a little disconcerting to start off with but that fades relatively quickly. The amount of detail put into the areas you’ll be wandering around is impressive until you realise that you’ll be retreading it multiple times over throughout the course of your play through (more on that later). If nothing else Last Day of June is a visual marvel, one that manages to escape the Unity look-and-feel trap that many other titles fall into.
Whilst not strictly a walking simulator Last Day of June plays a lot like one. The same day is presented to you through different perspectives and the only way to progress is to figure out the way to change their outcome. Each of the different puzzle perspectives are simple enough but changing actions in one can have effects on another. This is all interspersed with flashbacks to the character’s memories, hidden collectables and a few other things which tilt this more towards a story focused puzzler than a more traditional walking simulator. Last Day of June’s biggest flaw isn’t from the execution of its core mechanics however, it’s from the ungodly amount of retreading a path already taken to progress the story.
Each of the new perspectives brings with them a new puzzle to solve and all of them will require you to undo things that you’ve previously done with another character. This means re-watching the same cut scenes over and over again as you stumble your way through each of the puzzles. Worse still all of them require you to go through the motions of failing the puzzle first before giving you the freedom to fix them, even if you’ve already managed to figure out a solution in the first place. This is only exacerbated by the lack of any skip function, even for cut scenes you’ve already seen multiple times before. I can partly understand this from a game length perspective, with my play through only clocking in at around 3 hours, but padding a game out with repetition isn’t something I’m in the habit of commending.
Last Day of June is also not free of technical issues, one particular one which I couldn’t get a fix to for several days. After playing for an hour or so I decided to call it there for the day but, upon launching it again, the game would crash just before the main menu. I traced the issue down to my save file (renaming it allowed the game to run) but nothing could cajole it to run with that file. After logging a support ticket and getting told to reinstall and verify the cache files (something I had already done but did again anyway) I was able to get back in. I’m not the only one suffering from this issue either as there’s quite a few people reporting the same problem both on Steam and on the official forums. I’m sure issues like this will get ironed out eventually but it did mean that I spent an hour or so on troubleshooting when I could have otherwise been playing.
I’m on the fence with Last Day of June’s story. Sure some parts of it resonate with me but the lack of dialogue does mean that there’s a certain lack of depth to most of the character’s development. Carl, for instance, doesn’t really receive enough development for me to empathise with him and June’s best friend’s crush on him feels like an unnecessary aside. I can identify with the themes of dealing with grief, wanting to change things that you can’t and all that but if I’m not invested in the characters their struggle will just feel hollow. It’s possible that a lot of my feelings are born out of the frustration I felt with having to retread the same path so many times which is why I thought that this story may be better served as watched rather than played. I would be interested to hear what anyone who watched it on Twitch or YouTube has to think as my money’s on the experience being just that much better.
Last Day of June comes out strong with it’s beautiful visuals and wonderful sound track but falls short in most other respects. The constant replay of puzzles you’ve already solved means that a lot of time is burnt on repetitive tasks, something you wouldn’t usually see in a 3 hour game. The short play time also means that most of the characters aren’t given enough time to develop fully, at least not to the point which this writer empathised with them enough. I’m willing to admit that it might be my frustration that was boiling over into other aspects of the game that’s influencing my feelings here, so your mileage may vary.
Last Day of June is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours playtime and 71% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s been almost 4 years since Fullbright released their seminal title: Gone Home. It was a game that hit close to home for me, the story echoing parts of my own life which I had similarly had to overcome. When I heard that their next game was set in a space station in the future I was incredibly excited for a similar kind of storytelling experience. Whilst the game is far more deep mechanically than its predecessor was, giving me a lot more to talk about before getting into spoilers, the overall narrative failed to capture me in the same way. I’ll dig into this a bit more later but suffice to say the reason Gone Home did so well was because of how relatable its story was, something that Tacoma unfortunately lacks.
Taking place some 70 odd years in the future Tacoma puts you in charge of Amy Ferrier, a contractor who’s been hired to retrieve an AI from an abandoned space station. You’re given strict instructions to retrieve the AI’s data and do nothing else, as your contract stipulates. Downloading the AI’s data takes quite some time however and, of course, your mind (and legs) begin to wander. This is when you start to unravel the mystery of why the station was abandoned and how the crew dealt with the crisis.
Tacoma uses Unity with what appears to be little modification. The visuals are simplistic and functional although there’s a great amount of attention paid to things that don’t matter in the overall theme of things. For instance the developers have made numerous brands for things like food, medical supplies and even cigarettes which litter around the space station. Sure it adds a little bit more depth to the environment but after you’ve seen the same brand of snacks 10 times over it starts to just look like mess. Some of the items do have a game play purpose but they’re few and far between. Given that this is a walking simulator/story first game though Tacoma gets a pass for its run of the mill visuals.
All of the game mechanics in Tacoma are centred on discovering more about the characters, their interactions with each other and the overall plot. You’re viewing everything in retrospect, able to move about through the recording as you wish both in time and space. At certain points people’s VR desktops will become available, giving you an even deeper look into their lives. Quite often you’ll play through the same scene several times in order to follow all the various conversations that are happening simultaneously. This does give Tacoma’s storytelling a very natural feel to it, especially when events in one scene affect another. There’s also a few hidden areas that can be unlocked if you pay attention during the VR playbacks or if you track down the various clues hiding in plain sight.
There’s no real blockers to you progressing apart from the timer on the AI download which, I believe conveniently ticks itself up to 50% after you view one half of the VR recording and then to 100% after you view the other. Either that or I had amazing timing every time I finished an area. Interestingly though I think these mechanics are more of a distraction than anything else as Tacoma’s predecessor had nothing like this and still managed to tell a deep, engrossing story. Whilst I won’t specifically lay the blame at Tacoma’s more ambitious game mechanics it does feel like some of the effort expended there might have been better spent elsewhere.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Tacoma’s plot seems to meander between various ideas without feeling like it comes together into a cohesive whole. Gone Home, by comparison, kept building up the tension right until the last moment, pulling you ever deeper into the mindset of its main characters. Tacoma on the other hand throws up various different red herrings, none of which have enough time to mature in order to be realised as a credible threat. Is it Odin that’s out to kill the crew because it’s finally become self-aware? Did the crew perish in an attempt to save themselves by modifying a cargo drone? Did some of the crew die in cryosleep? All of these ideas and more are explored in the games short 2 hour play time and most of them are dealt with in the same scene as they’re brought up in.
The ending also feels weirdly tacked on. I mean it’s great that Odin got to survive but I didn’t really see it hinted that you were someone from the AI Liberation Front in any of the in-game material. They were alluded to as an entity in the larger world but there was nothing to suggest you were part of it. For me this fits into Tacoma’s larger overall issue of not giving enough time for the various story elements to develop. Instead the focus seems to have been more on telling that story in a more inventive way which, whilst commendable, doesn’t feel like it worked out as intended.
Perhaps the whole reason I feel this way is due to how much the story of Gone Home resonated with me by comparison. The experiences detailed in that game were very close to my own life in many respects and so I felt a deep connection with the characters. Tacoma by comparison feels alien. I mean sure, some of the things the crew goes through are relatable, but not in the same way the events in Gone Home were. Combine this with the lack of overall story development and, for me at least, you’re left with a game that falls short of the high standard its predecessor set.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
There’s no denying that Tacoma is much more mechanically deep than its predecessor was but that’s about as far as the improvements go for Fullbright’s second title. The graphics feel about the same, although there is a lot of attention paid to details that I feel many will never see. The way Tacoma tells its story is unique and interesting, giving you the ability to see the same story from multiple angles and see how they interweave with each other. Unfortunately the story failed to resonate with me in the same way its predecessor did, possibly due to the fact that it’s just not as relatable. The game’s short length also didn’t allow for many of the story elements to mature as much as they needed to, leading to a feeling that many purported threats weren’t as bad as they could have been. Suffice to say I’m somewhat disappointed in Tacoma as it fails to reach the same heights as Gone Home did.
Tacoma is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s only recently that chatbots have evolved to a state where they could be called truly conversational. In years prior they could really only respond to a line of text in isolation, unable to derive any kind of contextual meaning from the messages it recieved previously. This made them see stilted and awkward, often resulting in them receiting your words back to you in the form of a question. So when I saw Event, which bases the entire game premise around a chatbot, I was intrigued as the idea of having to massage a rudimentary AI into doing my bidding harked back to the fun I had messing with chatbots as a teenager. Whilst it’s far from the conversational AI that powers say the latest Google Assistant or Siri it is an interesting take on conversations as a game mechanic, something I’m interested to see explored more in future.
Event takes place in an alternate version of 2012 where mankind has made siginificant strides in space exploration. You were part of a team called Europa-11, sent to explore the moon from which the craft takes its name. However you were met with a catasrophe and found yourself adrift in space in an escape pod. Just as you were giving up hope that you’d be rescued a transmission from an unknown craft came through. It seems a relic of the past, a luxury space resort, has managed to stay active despite no contact from the outside world for years. The ships AI seems keen to help you get back home but first you need to gain its trust.
Event brings with it that trademark Unity look with passable graphics done in a retro-futuristic style. Since this is marketed as a story first game it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that graphics weren’t the prime focus and indeed they’re a more than adequate backdrop for the game’s narrative. The environments do have a level of detail in them that’s above average for games of similar pedigree which is saying something for a first time indie developer.
Event’s core mechanic is your interaction with the ship’s AI, called Kaizen. You’ll interact with it through the various terminals scattered about the ship, clacking away at the keyboard as you try to convince the AI to do what you need it to do. There are some other, more traditional puzzle mechanics mixed in however for the most part you’ll be trying to figure out the AI’s motivations, the story of what happened to the ship and, most importantly, how you can get yourself back to Earth. Over time you’ll learn how to do things for yourself without the AI’s help, something that you may need to do if you want to accomplish your ultimate goal.
Mechanically Event is a little awkward when you first start off, the requirement for the full use of the keyboard when you’re talking to the AI precluding the use of the traditional WASD movement layout. This can lead to some frustrating moments as you try to move about only to hear the clack of the keyboard. There are many ways that this awkward control scheme could have been avoided, like making a prompt appear when you want to use the keyboard, but it seems this is a design decision made by the developers. You’ll get used to it eventually but it does make the opening moments of the game a little more frustrating than I would have otherwise liked.
The conversation system of the AI is a blend of a traditional chatbot with some rote sequences that are triggered by keywords, actions or in some cases inaction. The rote parts are easy to pinpoint as the AI will just keep blathering on regardless of what input you give it. In normal chatbot mode it’s somewhat conversational, able to pick up on some contextual elements, but it often gets caught up on keywords or syntax that trigger some of its pre-programmed routines. The developers billed the AI as having “moods” and that it would respond differently based on whatever mood it was in at the time. I definitely noticed that, it seeming to want to exploit my naviety about my situation at times whilst at others feeling guilty for doing so. Overall it felt like it was a middle of the road chatbot AI, not quite approaching the contextual sense of something like Siri but definitely a cut above most chatbots I’ve fiddled with.
The story starts off with a Firewatch-esque backstory text selection exercise which seemingly didn’t make much of difference to my experience. I have to admit that the conversational nature of Kaizen did make it more interesting to discover parts of the story, forcing me to attempt many different ways to elicit information from the AI. It was painfully obvious when I came to a block however as the AI would simply ignore most of my requests for further information. It would have been interesting to see what could happen if I could have essentially completed the game from the very first terminal, and maybe that’s actually possible, but as far as I could tell there were a certain set of actions you needed to do to make any meaningful progress. Overall the story was interesting although I think it had aspirations for a greater emotional reaction than it was able to elicit in me. Your mileage may vary and, with Event currently on sale, it might be worth the asking price to find out.
Event is an interesting experiment in exploring new ways for players to interact with games. It may not be the prettiest or most well designed game to come across my desk however the experience it provides is truly unique. The concept of a conversational AI being the main mechanic is something I definitely want to see explored further and Event is a great demonstration of what the mechanic is capable of. It’s a decidedly middle of the road experience overall however; good but not great, one for the fans of experimental games or those who are narrative first gamers.
Event is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 50% of the achievements unlocked.
If there’s one genre that can be considered “solved” it would be pixelart adventure games. Originally they were born out of the limitations imposed by the hardware of the time, the low resolutions and meagre processing power only able to generate the simplest of graphics. Their appeal came from the stories and puzzles that laid within them, often relying heavily on logic and critical thinking above all else. The pixelart adventure games of today are not much different with the most innovative features being slightly better inventory management and quality of life improvements. Shardlight fits the mold perfectly in this regard, capturing the essence of what made those original adventure games great.
The world ended on the day the bombs fell. Since then, it’s always been like this: disease, hunger, death. The ruling Aristocrats, a faceless oligarchy that controls all resources, have unchallenged authority. There’s never enough food, water, or vaccine to go around. The rich receive regular doses of vaccinations in exchange for their unconditional government support. The poor live in fear, superstition, and squalor until they die. You play as Amy Wellard, a young woman reluctantly working for the government to qualify for the vaccine lottery, believes there’s a cure — and she’s going to find it. Even if it costs her her life.
Shardlight pays homage to the adventure games of old, replicating their pixelart stylings in loving detail. The pixelart is obviously hand drawn, using every pixel carefully in order to convey the maximum amount of information in the smallest number of pixels. The larger, more detailed works show this off well with the character portraits and backgrounds being on par with many top tier games in the same genre. There’s no modern effects or layering in Shardlight, instead staying true to the pixelart adventure games of old. One thing I’ll also note is how well the voice acting is done being a cut above what I’ve come to expect from games in this genre. Overall it wouldn’t be out of place with games that were made 20 years ago, something which I hope the developer takes as a compliment.
Shardlight is your stock standard adventure game affair, pitting you against puzzles of logic, inventory management and dialogue tree exploration. You’ll be hunting around for items to pick up, figuring out how to use them and working out what the intended way of solving a puzzle was. You’ll also need to make sure you choose the correct dialogue options as many puzzles are reliant on you either setting someone up to do something or having a specific piece of information revealed to you at a certain time. Of course there’s all the usual red herrings, unnecessary items and levels where there’s not much to do at all which will make your journey through Shardlight a lot more difficult than it appears on first glance.
Indeed, just like the adventure games of old, Shardlight makes no attempt to hold your hand or guide you through it. Skip through a dialogue too quickly and you might miss something important for solving a puzzle or do something out of its intended order and you’ll be left wondering what you need to do next. Indeed one puzzle, shooting a statue off a ledge, wasn’t allowed to be done until after a certain event had occurred. I have to admit it was these kinds of things which had me reaching for the walk through guide as I honestly couldn’t be bothered retrying everything in order to figure out what I had missed. Still for the most part I was able to get by and I’m sure more seasoned adventure gamers won’t have any issues at all.
Shardlight’s story isn’t exactly an unique one, exploring the issues of a post-apocalyptic society with a stark class divide between the haves and have nots. It is however developed very well, allowing most characters enough on screen time to allow them to develop and have you empathize with them. All the elements come together quite well with no major loose ends left over leaving you wanting. Overall I’d say it was an aptly told story that didn’t extend beyond its reach, achieving what it set out to do without any fluff to get in the way. It may not have engrossed me as much as it seems to have other reviewers but I do recognise that’s a very well told story.
Shardlight is a true homage to the adventure games of old, both in terms of graphics and style. The pixelart is wonderfully done, eschewing any modern flairs and staying true to its roots. The game plays as you would expect it to with no embellishments or enhancements on the old school formula. The story, whilst not the most captivating for this writer, is expertly told owing to the no-frills attitude that permeates throughout the game. Overall Sharlight is a solid adventure game that’s sure to delight fans of the genre and those who just love post-apocalyptic stories.
Shardlight is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was approximately 5 hours with 47% of the achievements unlocked. A copy of the game was provided to The Refined Geek for the purposes of reviewing.
Walking simulators have seen an explosion of popularity and I believe with good reason. Their reliance on the story to move things forward, rather than mechanics or game play, often means the narrative has much more attention paid to it. For those of us who appreciate good stories this genre has brought us many great titles, although I’ll be the first to admit they’re not all up to scratch. Indeed the intense focus on the narrative means such games live and die by their story and, should it fail to capture the player it will fail as a game. Firewatch however makes no such missteps, quickly dragging you into its world of heartache, love and loss.
It’s 1975 and you, Henry, find yourself in a bar with your friends. No matter how hard you try though you can’t take your eyes off a girl at the bar. You walk up, tell her she’s pretty, her name is Julia, and before you know it you’re in a loving relationship. You’re happy, you get a dog named bucket and spend the summer afternoons drinking beer on the porch together. You’re not the definition of Hollywood romance, life still gets in the way from time to time, but you remain together. However Julia starts to fade in and out mentally and she gets diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers at the young age of 41. You’re both devastated but you stick it out for her until it becomes too much and she moves back home with her parents. That summer you find an ad for a job in the Shoshone national park. You take it.
Firewatch feels like it’s set somewhere in the Team Fortress 2 universe, having the same kind of cartoony style. The world is simplistic with little detail however it’s the small touches, like the volumetric lighting and the soft noises of the forest in the background, that elevate the experience by creating a great atmosphere. The ebb and flow of the background noises and music are done perfectly, ensuring that there’s no long periods of awkward silence as you make your way through the map. Overall Firewatch is an excellently crafted game, one that is deserving of the praise that has been lumped on it.
In terms of game play Firewatch is your stock standard walking simulator, plopping you in the middle of a vast area to explore. The key difference however comes from the inclusion of a walkie talkie that allows you to communicate with your superior, Delilah. This forms the basis of the narrative for the game, the back and forth between you two serving as both the main plot driver as well as the exploration reward mechanism. Essentially you can unlock additional dialogue options by looking around and finding things of interest which you can then radio back to Delilah about. Other than the only real mechanic is reading the map to know which direction you need to go in, something which shouldn’t be too difficult since you have a GPS indicator on the map of your current location.
The base game of Firewatch gives the appearance of being a free form exploration title however it’s anything but. Unlike other walking simulator games like Gone Home, which essentially give you free reign over an area and put the onus on you to piece together the story, Firewatch is crafted along a very specific path. Sure you can go exploring, and you’ll find things before you’re meant to see them, but the game will inevitably right your path. For someone like me, who’s a fan of well crafted narratives, this is a great thing however I do know that there are some who prefer freeform walking simulators over this kind.
I’ll admit that at first blush I thought the opening scenes, told through text on screen dialogue choices interspersed with short bits of game play, was a little cheap. However that quickly evaporated as I was given choices that felt like they had an impact and was made to care for the characters I was helping to craft. The ultimate reveal of Julia’s condition towards the end of the opening is heart breaking and Henry’s abandonment only exacerbated the pain I felt. There’s been few games that have been able to make me care so quickly and then used that care against me, something which helped set the tone for the rest of the game.
The main story of the game is a little messier as whilst the relationship development between Henry and Delilah is strong the weird, unknown force acting in the background kind of muddles things. As my long time readers know I’m not really a fan of horror and I had sinking feeling I might end up in some kind of supernatural show. However the story does manage to wind up well, even if it feels like there were some unresolved things between the two main characters that could have been tied up in an epilogue or something similar. Still, maybe that’s the way its meant to be as life doesn’t always resolve itself neatly, especially when you’ve spent a good deal of time running away from your problems.
Firewatch is a brilliant, narrative focused walking simulator that deals with heavy hitting issues that few other games dare to touch. It’s simplistic, stylized visuals serve as a backdrop for the story, serving not as a distraction but a canvas on which the story is painted. The foley and sound effects are done exceptionally well, fading in and out with poignancy at just the right time. The story is what pulls everything together and while it comes unstuck during the middle third or so it does wrap itself up well in the end. Firewatch, in my opinion, is a walking simulator that can be enjoyed by a much wider audience than its genre might suggest.
Firewatch is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with approximately 3 hours of total play time.
Games have been rapidly maturing as a medium, going from a distraction that was only for kids to the canvas upon which many artists now create their wares. As the medium has matured it has taken on the attributes of the others that preceded it, meaning games have been used for things beyond simple entertainment. More recently I’ve begun to see more games that are a kind of therapy, not for the user but for the game developer themselves. That Dragon, Cancer (the first title from Numinous Games) is a deeply personal journey for the developer, one that surely resonates for many, represented in a game that deals with many issues that come from battling this terrible disease.
That Dragon, Cancer follows the true story of Joel Green who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer when he was only one year old. You’ll take on many forms throughout the journey although primarily you’ll be put in the shoes of Ryan Green, the father. Throughout the 2 hour journey you’ll walk alongside the Green family as they deal with the incredibly difficult and trying experience that is childhood cancer. What you make of the story will be as personal as the story itself as I’ve yet to read an impression that was identical to any other.
Visually That Dragon, Cancer is striking with its low poly art coupled with bright pastel colours and lighting. The minimal aesthetic is purposefully designed to have you focusing on the key elements that are on screen at any particular time (like the chemo bag in the screenshot below). Whilst it’s not exactly an unique style it is well executed, running flawlessly on even mediocre hardware. Things do seem to come unstuck a bit when the 2D and 3D elements are mixed together however I get the feeling that’s part of the developer’s intentions.
Mechanically That Dragon, Cancer feels like an exploration with the game ebbing and weaving through various different styles of games over its short duration. Each of them has been crafted for a particular part of the narrative and for the most part they fit, however their implementation can be somewhat lacking in parts. Since this is a narrative first game however that doesn’t matter too much as they’re not designed to be blockers to progressing the story. Overall the mechanics were an ample backdrop to the main story of the game which is really the only reason you’d be playing this in the first place.
As to the story I’m in two minds. So often I was caught up in Joel’s tale, his stories echoing with my own experiences with my dad who’s currently battling cancer. However after a while the muddled progression of the story lost me, making me wonder just what exactly was going on. That coupled with the fact that I’m not exactly the religious type meant that the latter parts of the story, which are very faith heavy, meant that it began to grate on me heavily. However as a chronicle of Joel’s and the Green family’s life it is more than apt.
That Dragon, Cancer is an extremely personal journey of one family’s battle against cancer and the challenges that it brings. As a game it is simple, favouring minimal looks and mechanics over anything else that might distract from the story. It most certainly achieves its vision of being a memorial to Joel’s life, capturing his personality and the effect he had the people he interacted with. The telling of that story though can be somewhat muddled and, if you’re not the praying type, may rub you the wrong way towards the end. Still if you or someone you know is facing the same challenges as this game describes then it’s definitely worth playing, if just to know that you’re not alone in your struggles
That Dragon, Cancer is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 2 hours.
In the 3 or so years since I reviewed Dear Esther, a game which in my opinion was an incoherent mess, I’ve come to appreciate the walking simulator genre. They’re definitely not for everyone, what with the achingly slow pace and reliance a strong story to really make them, however they can shine beautifully when done right. If I’m honest though had I known that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was done by The Chinese Room (the guys behind Dear Esther) I probably wouldn’t have played it. Thankfully though I didn’t find that fact out until I was a fair way in as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture deserves to be judged on its own merits and not its heritage.
It’s a beautiful day in the quiet small town of Yaughton in Britain. It’s one of those places where you feel like you could hear a pin drop a mile away, the only sounds being the rustling of the leaves with the occasional bird chirp or quiet rumbling of a car off in the distance. That stillness belies something far more sinister however as you quickly discover that this town is bereft of people and the only thing that remains is an eerie ball of light that dances through the streets. As you walk through the town it begins to reveal its story to you and that of the people of Yaughton.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture utilizes the Crytek 3 engine and definitely makes good use of the capabilities that it provides. Whilst it’s not the pinnacle of graphical mastery that the engine’s flagship game was it’s still a decidedly pretty game. Indeed the sweeping views of an idyllic English countryside backdropped by columns of light are some of most enjoyable and serene set pieces I’ve seen in a long time. However what really sets Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture apart from all others in its genre is the absolutely stunning soundtrack, one that wouldn’t be out of place as a movie score. It definitely pleased me to find out that Jessica Curry, the composer, has received a BAFTA for her efforts as her current work shows just how capable she is.
As the genre would suggest Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is essentially a sightseeing tour, one that will walk you through the town of Yaughton and gradually reveal the story to you. Unlike most walking sims though there’s a guide to show you the way, a small ball of light that will dance and flit around from point to point, urging you to follow it. Then, when you reach certain trigger points, you’ll see events of the past rendered in a shower of light, the voices clear but the people seeming like ghosts playing out their past lives. The only real game mechanic to speak of is tilting your controller one way or the other to sync up with the light but beyond that it’s a lot of holding the left stick forward.
Walking sims generally encourage you to explore the environment, usually with the promise of revealing more of the story to you or opening up a shortcut. The addition of a guide, in this case the ball of light that races around from place to place, would seem to be contrary to that but it’s something that I actually came to enjoy later on. You see, whilst it’s easy enough to figure out what general direction you should be heading in, there’s a lot of places you can get yourself into which don’t lead anywhere. Following the ball, and straying from the path where it seems obvious to do so, seems to be the best way to play Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
One mistake that was unfortunately repeated by The Chinese Room was providing avenues of exploration, ones that seemed wholly intentional, that lead to absolutely nothing. The best example of this was the church early on in the game which, when you first go to it, you can’t access the second half of. However if you look around it’s clear there’s another path available to you but you’ll have to go all the way around to get to it. Naturally I did that only to be greeted by sweet fuck all when I arrived there. In any other game this would be a minor annoyance but in a walking simulator it was a 15 minute ordeal, even with the sprint button pegged down. This was the same issue I found so much frustration with in Dear Esther and it pains me to see them making the same mistake.
Thankfully the one mistake they didn’t repeat was delivering the story to you in randomized, disjointed sections. Whilst the story is still far from linear, delivered in vignettes as you stumble across key locations, it at least has a sense of flow and timing to it. Each section follows a particular individual’s story over the course of the events that preceded your arrival, revealing more and more details about their particular part they played. There’s also optional bits of dialogue that you can trigger by picking up phones or turning on radios which are key to understanding the central character’s motivations.
For me the way the story was delivered was the key difference between Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. In Dear Esther I struggled to have any empathy for any of the characters as it was hard to tell where I was in the story and how that section fit into it. With Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture on the other hand whilst the vignettes might be told in any order they’re at least internally consistent and often reference a point in time in the larger story. This means that there’s a flow to the larger story that its predecessor lacked, giving you a much better sense for how the events that led up to your arrival unfolded.
The story itself does meander a bit but it’s interleaved with enough background and character development that you feel drawn into their lives and the minutia of this small town. It grips you early on, especially with one scene (pictured in the second screenshot) where a desperate mother struggles to understand what’s going while being comforted by the local priest. The slightly disjointed nature means you know the ending long before it happens however the final few reveals were still an emotional journey. It may not have left me an emotional wreck like other similar games have done but it was definitely one of the more memorable stories in recent memory.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture aptly demonstrates the talent that The Chinese Room team has. Everything about this game, from the graphics to the story to the soundtrack, are well above par in all regards. They may make the same mistake of opening up paths of exploration without reward however there’s many more issues that plagued Dear Esther that are simply not present in their latest title. Indeed Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is one of the few games in this genre that I feel would have appeal beyond that of genre fans as it truly is a great experience.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is available on PlayStation4 right now for $29.99. Total play time was approximately 5 hours.
For gamers who’ve been craving solid stories where the player has real agency the last couple years have been a real boon with dozens of titles being released. Telltale remains the king of this particular genre and their style can be seen influencing nearly all others, for better or for worse. Life is Strange, the second game from Dotnod Entertainment who’s only previous title was the rather lukewarmly received Remember Me (although I quite liked it), definitely draws inspiration from the Telltale style but strives to stand out through their use of mechanics and more down to earth setting. For the most part it pulls this off however there are a few key things that, unfortunately, get in the way of the story.
Max had always dreamed of this and it was finally happening: she was going to Blackwell Academy to study under one of her photographic idols. It was so surreal coming back to the place she left 5 years ago, her home town having changed in subtle ways. Everything was going well, or as least as good as it could be given her shy and recluse nature, until she found herself in the grips of a strange nightmare in the middle of class. Upon waking however it appeared that she wasn’t asleep and events that had happened before seemed to be happening again, like the strongest case of deja vu you would have ever experienced. Her return home was about to take a turn for the supernatural.
The art style was described by the developers as “impressionistic rendering” which essentially boils down to them using hand painted textures. In some parts this works well, especially in the wider shots where the detail isn’t so important, however up close the stylization loses its lustre very quickly. This lack of detail is present in almost all scenes from the character models to the environments to even the animations which, jarringly, never seem to line up with the character’s speech. Indeed out of all the aspects of Life is Strange the visuals are the weakest, often getting in the way of the story coming across due to how jarring they are.
Life is Strange is your typical story-first adventure title where the focus is on developing the story and characters whilst giving you some real agency in sculpting how the story develops. However you’re given the unique ability to rewind (but not fast forward) time, allowing you to do things that would otherwise be impossible. Interestingly this ability is extended to all the key decisions within the game, allowing you to see how each of your choices would have played out. You can’t rewind infinitely though but it does give you an indication of how a particular decision would’ve played out and the potential consequences that could arise from it. Apart from that there’s a few rudimentary puzzles thrown in here or there, all of which make use of the rewind mechanic, but they’re a minor distraction from the rest of the game however.
For those of you who played Remember Me the rewind mechanic will be somewhat familiar as it’s very similar to the memory replay mechanic. Most of the time you’ll be rewinding to try and catch some kind of detail or figure out a series of events that needs to unfold in order to progress to the next stage. Interestingly items you pick up and your position in the world don’t change when you rewind, something which takes a little getting used to since that’s different from most other time travel games I’ve played in the past. Suffice to say the main mechanic is novel and definitely makes Life is Strange stand out a little more from the current crop of story-first games.
Thankfully Life is Strange does avoid the common pitfall of attempting to put in too many game mechanics that many story first games do, usually to avoid being lumped in with the walking simulators. The puzzles are relatively simple and the game usually gives you an indication of what you need to do through audio cues or visual prompts so it’s unlikely you’ll get stuck on them for any length of time. Instead Life is Strange encourages you to explore around your environment, uncovering bits of back story for all the characters you’ll come across and gaining insight into what Max is thinking. It’s a good balance, one that I’m hopeful more games like this will be able to achieve so their stories can shine rather than being hidden behind needless tedium.
As this is the first episode of what’s shaping up to be a 5 part episodic game it’s hard to get a complete picture of the story however this first instalment is a strong one. Life is Strange does require you to explore quite a bit in order to get the full picture and there’s a treasure trove of back story hidden in the journal that’s never really made reference to. However if you spend the time to explore, read and soak in the various details of the story it’s clear that there’s a rich world of detail that the writers are drawing on and the supernatural aspects are simply an aside rather than the main draw card. Overall this first episode sets up the game with a strong base, now all that’s left is to see if they can build on that and, potentially, give Telltale a run for their money.
Life is Strange is an interesting change of direction for Dotnod Entertainment, casting off their action roots in favour of a story first experience that, for the most part, achieves what it set out to. It’s quite clear where the majority of their focus was however and unfortunately some aspects of the game suffer because of it. I’m often of the mind that graphics don’t matter if the story is strong however Life is Strange’s art style and simplistic lip syncing detracts heavily from its well crafted story. This is somewhat made up for by the novel time rewind mechanic and strong story but it’s hard to escape it when you’re constantly reminded of the rather below par visuals. I am interested to see where this story goes however as it has the potential to set up Dotnod as one of the few developers able to execute well in the episodic game space.
Life is Strange is available on PC right now for $4.99. Total play time was 2 hours.
Whilst games have matured a lot as a medium in the last decade or so they’re still finding their feet when it comes to telling stories that deal with mature themes. Sure there are many great examples I can point to however the notion of interactivity drastically changes how certain aspects of story impact upon the player making it a lot harder to craft an experience in a certain way, especially if you want to include some form of player agency. The medium itself can even distract from your story with everything from glitches to bad animations or models breaking player immersion and ruining their experience. Unfortunately for 4PM, a story driven cinematic experience, this is exactly what has happened and any impact the story might have had is lost in the extremely sub-par execution.
You wake up in your apartment, head throbbing as the last tendrils of alcohol work their way unceremoniously out of your system. For Caroline it’s just another boring day in her life, one where she’ll repeat the same process of making a show at work before punishing her liver again after she clocks out. Unknown to her however this is the day when everything will break and she will be forced to make some tough choices in order to face what she’s been running away from for many years. Will you face these problems head on? Or will you continue the downward spiral into alcoholism, hoping your troubles will fade away.
4PM heavily touts its cinematic aspects in the marketing blurbs on Steam and from an aesthetic point it delivers on this somewhat. This is mostly achieved through the overuse of depth of field blurring which does a relatively effective job of hiding the decidedly below par visuals that make up the majority of the game. Most of the cut scenes do well with their camera work with some well framed shots and swooping cuts however anything done in the player perspective feels incredibly awkward. I’m hoping this was done deliberately to emulate the main character’s struggle with alcohol but even in scenes where they’re sober walking feels like you’re pushing a bag full of snakes with a broom. It’s all wiggly and not quite right.
The creator has billed 4PM as an interactive experience that’s “without the complexities and reflex based natures of classic games”. That almost places it in the same category as the walking simulators of new however 4PM doesn’t want you to explore, rather it wants you to go through the motions of the story whilst engaging in some routine game mechanics every so often. There’s a few places where you’re given a choice between two options however there’s really only 2 outcomes and the differences in dialogue are, to be blunt, minimal at best. The one thing 4PM has going for it is its extremely short playtime, clocking in at 45 minutes if you decide to play through all the alternate options.
Often in games you’ll find things in them that speak to the developer’s learning process, things that are in there because the developer created them as a proof of concept for something and it then made its way into the final product. 4PM feels like a collection of these things, a collection of developer experiences mashed together. Some of these are obvious, like the breakout game on the PC in the main character’s office, to other things like being able to rotate objects in front of the character’s face. This distinct lack of polish might be charming to some however it just gave me flashbacks to Velvet Sundown, not a game I think anyone wants to be compared to.
All of this is made worse when you actually get to see characters without the copious amounts of motion blur as they are, to be frank, horrendous. Your boss looks like a store mannequin brought to life, something which is only exacerbated by the jerky, stilted animations. It gets even worse when you’re talking to John in the penultimate scene as the canned animations he goes through seem to be highly incongruent to the words he is speaking. For a game that took up 3GB worth of space on my hard drive I was expecting a lot more but, unfortunately, it seems that’s just what happens when a game isn’t optimized at all.
I can see the potential in the story and indeed the final climatic scene almost managed to drag me in past all the crap the game had thrown at me to that point. However the way the final scene plays out is so highly confusing (both in player terms and that of the main character) that much of the impact is lost. Sure there are some hints as to what had happened if you hunt around in the opening scenes, but all you’re able to glean from that is that you’re a drunk and you’ve met this guy once before. It definitely feels like the length of the game is to blame for much of this as the story simply didn’t have the time it needed to develop to the point where the final reveal would have the kind of lasting impact it needed to overcome all of 4PM’s shortcomings.
4PM is a game that reaches far beyond its grasp, attempting to build an evocative story driven game but simply fails to deliver. It’s easy to see what the sole developer was attempting to achieve with this however there really isn’t any aspect I can point to which I could consider average. 4PM feels like a game that, given some more time and resources, could have been a real gem. Unfortunately the finished product is far from it and isn’t something I recommend to anyone.
4PM is available right now on PC for $4.99. Tota play time was 45 minutes.