Ever since I started keeping a list of games I’d like to review (some 6 years now) it’s become clear to me just how many I don’t get around to playing. Still I try to make time for the ones that everyone seems to enjoy or have seen wide critical acclaim. Which is why I went back to play Control as it has managed to snag many Game of the Year awards and nominations from many of the top game reviews websites. My opinion differs significantly to those as whilst I think Control is a very competent and novel game it’s far from game of the year material. Perhaps the most grievous sin it commits is to follow in the footsteps of the many Assassin’s Creed and Ubisoft open world titles that came before it, introducing the concept of grind into a single player game. Combine that with a game that’s still needing some polish 5+ months after its release and I really have to wonder why so many think Control is a better game than the numerous other contenders for the 2019 release year.
You are Jesse Faden and have arrived at the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, a place called the Oldest House. However upon your arrival you find it practically deserted the only person around being an old man called Ahti who appears to be to be bureau’s janitor. He then points you towards the director’s office for your interview, commenting that he could really use a new assistant to help him out. Upon arriving in the directors office you find his body, apparently dead from suicide. As you grab his weapon from the table you’re transported to another realm where it becomes clear that there’s much more to the bureau, and the world at large, than you first thought.
Control uses Remedy’s proprietary engine called Northlight which was first used with Quantum Break back in 2016. Back then I commented on how good the game looked but it seems like Control hasn’t really improved much on the visuals that the engine is able to offer. I think a large part of this is the fact that the vast majority of Control takes place in smaller spaces, making the lack of detail in some areas a lot more apparent than they otherwise would be in a more open setting. There also isn’t a great amount of variance in the environments either which makes the blandness stand out even more. This isn’t to say Control is a terrible looking game, more that it’s a half step or so behind what I’d consider to be the norm for a AAA title. No doubt part of it is also my now 5 year old rig which seemed to struggle in some places, even at 1080p, but given I had similar troubles 3 years ago with Quantum Break I have my suspicions that the engine could use a few more optimisations.
Control is a third person shooter/RPG hybrid with a healthy dash of open world elements thrown in for whatever reason. Whilst there’s a main campaign mission to follow there’s dozens of side quests, tasks and other errands for you to run that’ll reward you with varying amounts of resources, crafting materials and, if you’re really lucky a skill point or two. You don’t technically find new weapons instead you craft new forms of the “Service Weapon”, most of which fall into the typical archetypes we’re familiar with (pistol, machine gun, shotgun, etc.). Progression comes in 3 different ways: skill points, weapon mods and personal mods. The former is granted on completion of some, not all missions, and feels like it’s mostly tied to the main missions and a few of the longer side missions. Mods can drop from basically anywhere and are randomly generated, meaning it’s quite possible to pick up a mod with a god like roll that won’t get replaced for some time. This is where the game starts to tend towards endless grind territory as you attempt to seek out the best mods to tweak your preferred build. There’s even endgame level activities if you’re so interested although honestly I can’t really see why you’d bother.
Combat is typically medium paced as pretty much every encounter will have a couple waves of enemies and whilst your ammo and powers are unlimited they’ll need recharging pretty often, slowing down how many bad guys you can dispatch in any one go. After the first couple hours you will have seen basically every enemy archetype there is though and so after then it just becomes a matter of numbers and how many waves get thrown at you for any particular combat encounter. For the most part if you take your time there’s not much in the game that can kill you, especially considering that most encounters you can simply just walk away from and leash the enemies, giving you time for round 2. This makes for an overall combat experience that’s OK but somewhat boring after a while as you’re literally just doing the same fights over and over again.
It probably doesn’t help that the progression in the game is kinda meh for the most part. All of the upgrades you get, apart from the 3 or so new abilities and new weapon forms granted to you over the course of the game, are percentage based stat increases and so don’t feel particularly impactful to how you play the game. To be sure there’s a couple skill upgrades which make can change things a little, but even then not by much. Really the only one I got any kind of use out of was the levitating enemies when their health was low perk and even that was only useful because the enemy bodies were usually bigger than the other bits of crap I could hurl around.
If I was able to stack a ludicrous amount of mods then I could see myself having a lot of fun with some really stupid builds but unfortunately you’re limited to 3 weapon mods (per weapon type) and 3 personal mods. Whilst that makes for a large amount of build variety I don’t feel many of them are particularly viable as you’re going to want a health upgrade and, by consequence, the upgrade that makes the little health thingies that the enemies drop more effective. Either that or waste your valuable skill points on the same things which would limit you to the vanilla base skills. Really I feel like Control could’ve been a lot more fun if they just let you go hog wild with these things and become a complete wrecking ball like many other RPGs do.
Control also suffers from a few issues which at this late juncture I would’ve expected to have been ironed out by now. Switching from the menu to the game triggers a good 3 seconds of single digit frame rates which is a real pain in the ass when you have switch in and out of it all the time to read the various files strewn about the place just so you understand at least the basics of the plot. Since a good chunk of the game is physics based you’ve got the usual emergent behaviour issues that goes along with it, something that becomes readily apparent when you say, walk through a room with stuff strewn everywhere and Jesse seemingly forgets how to walk around or over things. In the grand scheme of things these are minor issues but given this is a AAA title, from a big name house and it’s been out for a while now I figured it should be basically issue free.
The story is interesting enough, being a kind of X-files meets the Twilight Zone kind of deal. The game does go out of its way to be especially obtuse with the various plot elements it introduces you to directly, forcing you to sniff around all the various files to find context and detail that you’ll so desperately need to have any clue about what’s going on. The main character’s inner dialogue also started to grate on me after a while as I didn’t feel like it added much and almost felt like a remnant of a choice system that was implemented and then scrapped halfway through the game’s development. If anything it’s reflective of the game as a whole: well built but just lacking that hook to really get me to buy in to the whole thing.
Control is a well constructed game that’ll tick a lot of boxes for many people but seems to lack that certain something to bind everything together to make the concept really sing. Indeed all of the individual elements are good to begin with but fail to evolve or improve over time. So the experience you get at the start feels largely the same as the one you have at the end which, for 10 hours invested, does make you question why you’d bother in the first place. I’m sure there’s some out there with dozens more hours invested in the game’s various end game and open world activities but, for me, I just couldn’t get invested enough to want to keep playing. Just goes to show that what makes something game of the year material will be different for everyone and, for me, it seems that I simply can’t find what others see in Control.
Control is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time.
The journey through mental illness is a deeply personal one, intertwined with the life events that lead to the eventual manifestation of symptoms that we label depression, anxiety and so on. I think that’s why exploring these themes in games is often done in a highly allegorical way that, on the surface, appears to be completely disconnected from what the stereotypical experience of these health conditions are. In that sense whilst games like The White Door would in one view be seen as a surrealistic exploration of the grieving and trauma process it could very well be exactly what it was like for someone to go through it. In terms of an actual game it’s definitely not bad and likely best enjoyed on your mobile platform of choice over many, small sessions.
Your character, Robert Hill, wakes up in a Mental Health facility and suffers from severe memory loss. The facility enforces a strict routine to help patients remember their past and what led up to them being there. Scattered throughout the room are remnants of your past, little details that’ll help jog your memory and, hopefully, bring about some resolution to the troubles of your past.
The White Door splits your screen down the middle, the one on the left being a kind of interactive map whilst the one on the right being what your character is currently focused on. That, combined with the simplistic graphics consisting of mostly bold outlines and limited coloured panels, gives The White Door a comic book like aesthetic. The use of colour (and the lack thereof) is one of the game’s primary storytelling mechanics, highlighting the difference between the past and the present, the times of emotions and feeling and the times of emptiness and thoughtlessness.
Mechanically the game is pretty simple, requiring you to go through the day’s routine step by step so you can progress to the next day. Whilst there’s no tutorial to speak of the game does guide you in the right direction should it see that you’re taking quite some time to finish a particular puzzle. That being said there were a few times I had to consult a walkthrough guide as I just couldn’t figure out exactly what the game was driving at. Still the game’s logic is consistent enough that once you’ve figured it out for the first time the deviations from there on out are relatively easy to understand.
The story, at its core, is a simple one although the heavy use of surrealism does lead you to question just exactly what is real and what isn’t. There are some parts of the narrative that are obviously completely disconnected from reality but making the connection back to real world events isn’t really possible since you don’t have much of a reference point. To be sure, as I alluded to in my opening remarks, some of these things are certainly allegorical elements reflecting a personal experience and are most likely representations of feelings more than they were actual events. Suffice to say it’s interesting even if it does leave you a little dazed and confused throughout.
The White Door is an interesting experiment in surrealistic storytelling, combining various narrative elements together to tell a much larger story than what it’s few words put forward. Its simple mechanics get out of the way for the most part leaving ample room for the story to develop. Apart from that there’s not much more to say about The White Door and, should this short review piqued your interest in it, then it’s likely worth investing the couple hours to explore it yourself.
The White Door is available on PC, iOS and Android right now for $5.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 102 minutes play time and 6% of the achievements unlocked.
I am…truly at a loss to set the scene on this one.
In my regular dive through the dumpster that is the Steam new releases page I came across KIDS and, given that it was free, I figured it was probably worth the price of admission. What followed was a surreal 20 minute experience that could be a commentary on how we interact with each other or some kind of weird ASMR tech demo.
Suffice to say it’s the first game where I’ve felt that screenshots aren’t going to be sufficient to demonstrate the rather bizarre mechanics it brings to bear.
There’s not much to say about it from an art style or graphics point of view, it’s just hand drawn black and white sketchbook art. The sound design does stand out though with all the animations being accompanied by some great foley work. There’s nothing quite like hearing the footsteps of a few onscreen figures slapping around before it turns into an ungodly stampede of the buggers trampling across your screen.
Mechanically it’s like 2D walking simulator as all you need to do is click in places to make things happen. Given that it’s only 20 minutes it’s really worth just going and playing it to see them for yourself but some choice moments are: moving through what I assume is someone’s digestive system, throwing countless figures into bottomless pits and starting a mexican wave of claps.
Like I said before, truly bizarre.
KIDS feels like the kind of game you used to find on places like Newgrounds or Albino Black Sheep. It’s a surreal experience that doesn’t really have a premise or a story to tell but it’s intriguing all the same. If I didn’t think it’d horribly scar children in some way I’d say it’d be a great little title for the iPad as the interactivity had a very tactile feel to it, even behind a mouse. In all honesty I have no idea if this game will appeal to you but for 20 minutes of your time I don’t think that’s a huge investment to find out either way.
KIDS is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 19 minutes.
Indie games are typically a tradeoff between several different aspects that were once considered to be critical for a game to be successful. The typical approach is to tone down graphics, mechanics and even interactivity in favour of better storytelling. This is what attracted me to the indie scene in the first place as I find it easy to write off larger faults in the game should it be able to tell an engaging narrative. However sometimes there are little gems of indie titles that manage to do well in more than just one area, executing more than just a good story. Mind: Path to Thalamus is one such indie game, being able to deliver an experience that’s above many higher budget titles yet still retains the same aspects that make indie titles so charming.
You are stuck in a surreal and desolate world, one devoid of any other humans and that seems to react to your very presence. Some of the places are familiar, reminding you of places that you used to visit as a child, whilst others seem to have risen up from your deepest nightmares, shaking you to your very core. There’s only one thing that keeps pushing you forward: you must reach the Thalamus, no matter how painful the journey to it is. Can you suffer through the mistakes you made in order to find redemption? Are you even worthy of it? These are the questions you’ll answer as you journey towards the ever elusive Thalamus.
For an indie game Mind: Path to Thalamus is incredibly beautiful with the wide variety of different environments providing a great array of eye candy. Part of this is due to it using the Unreal under the hood, an engine that’s renowned for being able to produce great visuals, however the artwork is above that of many other indie games of similar calibre. This goes hand in hand with the soundtrack that accompanies the visuals, swelling at all the right points in concert with your character’s emotions and dropping to deathly silence, reminding you that you’re alone in this world. The screenshots I’ve taken really don’t do it justice, it’s an exceptionally well crafted experience.
The core game of Mind: Path to Thalamus is that of a puzzler, done in the now traditional indie style of not telling you exactly how everything works but giving you enough visual clues in order to be able to figure it out. The various mechanics change throughout the game however they’re introduced individually so you can get a feel for what their triggers are, how they combine and what bits and pieces of the environment you should be on the lookout for in order to be able to progress to the next section. Overall the puzzles are pretty simple, if you’re struggling it’s typically because you’re doing something the wrong way, however there’s enough challenge that they feel like an organic part of the game rather than a brick wall designed to pad out the play time.
This is probably why Mind: Path to Thalamus has such great visuals as they really are key to the overall game experience. Pretty much every time I found myself stuck on something was due to me not noticing or forgetting about a particular game mechanic, usually one that was just introduced to me not 1 puzzle ago. The last few puzzle stages kept me busy for a good couple hours as they use every mechanic to their fullest, forcing you to figure out what sequence of events you have to go through in order to unlock the next piece. It was well timed however as the final dialogue sections, which are scripted to repeat after a certain time, only did so right before the final scene showing that the developer has paced Mind: Path to Thalamus out extremely well.
For the most part Mind: Path to Thalamus runs well with no graphics glitches or broken gameplay elements to speak of. It does however seem to crash randomly on occasion, something that didn’t seem to have any one particular cause. Some sections that would crash at one point would inexplicably play through fine afterwards. They didn’t happen often however the checkpointing system seems to get confused when it happens and will send you back to the start of the chapter and not the current respawn point you’re at. It’s not a big deal, especially if you’ve already worked out all the puzzles, but it was a slight frustration when I was elbows deep in the story.
What sold me on Mind: Path to Thalamus originally was one of the trailers that showed some of the opening scenes of the game which had some extremely gripping voice acting. Whilst that same level of passion isn’t carried throughout the game the story is delivered well by the sole voice actor. Usually out of order narratives annoy me but Mind: Path to Thalamus does in it such a way that several story threads are built around you and only towards the end is the relationship between the two revealed. It wasn’t exactly an emotional rollercoaster however it was a solid story on regret, redemption and the highly illogical process we all go through when we’re grieving. Suffice to say I’d rate it above many other story-first games that I’ve played in recent memory although I wasn’t exactly in tears at the end of it.
Mind: Path to Thalamus is a fantastic example of what the indie development scene is capable of producing, from the gorgeous visuals right down to the engaging story. Whilst a story-driven indie puzzler might not be everyone’s cup of tea I feel Mind: Path to Thalamus would stand well just on its mechanics alone, with the inventive mechanics requiring more than passing glance to understand fully. It might not be a perfectly polished gem however Mind: Path to Thalamus expertly delivers on the goals it set out to accomplish and is definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre.
Mind: Path to Thalamus is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was 3 hours with 48% of the achievements unlocked.