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.
Epitasis is available on PC right now for $28.95. Total play time was 104 minutes with 90% of the achievements unlocked.
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.
There the Light is available on PC right now for $14.50. Total play time was 103 minutes with 100% of the achievements unlocked.
Games built by students are, for the most part, completely terrible. Many of my friends went into game development courses and the games they developed as part of them were clunky, god awful messes that never made it onto their resumes. That’s part of the learning experience though as it’s one thing to play games and think you understand how they’re crafted and a completely different thing to actually sit down and do it yourself. With the democratisation of game development and distribution tools however we’re starting to see more games from students that will likely become the foundation upon which their creators look to build their future careers. Burning Daylight, made by a team of 12 students from The Animation Workshop, is likely to be one of those games as, whilst far from perfect, it does showcase just what that team is capable of producing.
Waking up naked in a grotesque slaughterhouse, you have no recollection of who you are or where you come from. Your only clue is a mysterious tattoo on your chest. You must now escape and travel through a dystopian society in order to uncover the mysteries of your origin. The story is set in the future where life cannot sustain outside, what remains of human society, now lives in megastructures waiting for the day, when they once again can live outside.
Burning Daylight’s artwork is quite an interesting array of barren dystopian corridors, oversaturated neon futurscapes and minimalistic nature scenes. Given that the game is really just a walking simulator these different landscapes are mostly just there for you to get a sense of the world you’re in, giving you different views of what life in the the giant megastructure is like. The artwork simplistic but still above par for what I’d expect from an all student team. The animation could do with some work though as all the interactions feel incredibly stiff and unnatural. Strangely the team did a good job of making the Unreal engine feel like Unity, something about the modelling style and lack of overused specular maps. All things considered though Burning Daylight does a good job of communicating story elements through its visuals, a key concept in walking simulators like this.
There’s really no mechanics to speak of, save for a few extremely rudimentary puzzles that you’ll have to solve. That’s likely for the best too as the ones that are implemented are a little janky, both in their implementation but also in their logic. Indeed whilst I’d consider the visuals above par the rest of the game’s implementation is very mediocre. The game crashed on me once and for some reason didn’t record that I’d actually gone past a checkpoint, forcing me to replay an entire section for no reason at all. In a 45 minute game this is no real drama of course but it’s not like checkpointing is a NP hard problem.
The story is an interesting one, told mostly though the activities of those milling around in the background as you run past. It’s nothing original but thanks to its short duration it gets right to the point. There’s some overemphasis on things that don’t mean anything to the overall story, like your character being naked from the waste down for half of it, but thankfully you can ignore them. The story in the game is self contained however the Steam page paints a picture of a bigger world that I think the developers want to explore. Given the game’s success I think there’s a real possibility of that happening.
As a standalone game Burning Daylight isn’t much: a 45 minute walking simulator experience with good artwork that’s marred by its janky animations and rudimentary mechanics. However what it represents is something much more: students can now go from concept to public release, giving them real world experience that they can then leverage into something more. Whilst Burning Daylight isn’t exactly game of the year material it is a solid first try from those who’d never attempted the craft before.
Burning Daylight is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 47 minutes.
There’s an increasing number of games that are made by developers as part of their own process of self reflection. For some this comes as a catharsis, a want to unburden themselves through their artistic expression. For others it is to mourn and pay tribute to those that have passed. I haven’t yet however come across a game which explored the actual process of self reflection itself which is what When The Darkness comes is to its creator. As a concept I find it thoroughly fascinating, even if the resulting execution makes for a so-so experience due to its bargain basement creation and lack of compelling narrative.
When The Darkness comes starts out in a similar vein to The Stanley Parable, with the game’s creator speaking to you about the game and how it’s basically over and you should leave. It then proceeds to dive into a series of vignettes, each of them exploring a different concept with each one becoming more abstract than the last. Depending on the choices you’ve made you’ll see different levels, each of them dealing with a particular aspect of the developer’s self exploration process such as: trying to understand the concept of meaning, how hard it is to escape past trauma and getting lost in your own thoughts without a path to find your way back.
The bog standard Unity visual flair is strong in this one although the developer did go to the effort to ensure that each level had its own visual concept that embodied their vision of the concept they wanted to explore. Some of them are quite interesting, like the one where you have to follow a path that you can only really make out if you’re walking right on the edge of it or when you have to leap from tower to tower and they only illuminate after you land on one. So whilst it’s not going to win any awards for eye candy it certainly gets points for its strong visual concepts that play directly into the game’s storytelling.
The game makes a point of telling you it has no meaning, both in how it advertises itself and numerous times over in the game proper, as well as saying it’s not something that anyone should play. Of course that’s all total bollocks as I’ve played games that truly had no meaning and ones that were never meant to be played and they are completely different beasts than something like this. I say this because I feel like it’s an overdone idea now and it feels disingenuous to the player to blurt such nonsense when it’s obvious that’s not the case. Critically it doesn’t add anything to the game’s experience either I feel as it seems like many of the things shown here are inspired by real life events that the developer has lived through. With that in mind it’s quite laughable to say that this game has no meaning as all the things it put forwards shows it does.
There’s a small narrative that ties parts of the game together although honestly it’s pretty loose and doesn’t do much to bind it all together. Given that this is mostly just an exploration of different concepts that’s not too much of an issue but I do feel like the whole experience would be a lot stronger for it. For me games always feel elevated when they’re put together as a cohesive whole and when they’re just a jumble of parts it’s just not as compelling. For what it’s worth though the story elements that are in the game are done reasonably well, they just fail to tie everything together like you’d expect. With that in mind I’d say that the developer definitely has the skills to do it, they choose not to invest their effort in it this time around. Instead they focused on each vignette individually rather than the whole.
When the Darkness Comes is an interesting exploration of different concepts through various game mechanics and visual styles. Its greatest downfall is the lack of an overarching narrative that could’ve tied the experience together better and no, the idea that the game has no meaning isn’t enough. Given that it’s free and short if you’ve never played this kind of high concept game before I definitely think it’s worth exploring. It may not be one of the highest scoring games I’ll play this year but it’s at least an interesting one and it’s certainly whet my appetite for what they may be working on next.
When the Darkness Comes is available on PC right now and is free to play. Total play time was 47 minutes with 34% of the achievements unlocked.
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.
What Never Was is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 19 minutes with 50% of the achievements unlocked.
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.
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.
I have to admit to having an aversion to free to play games. Mostly its due to many of them resorting to questionable tactics to extort money from you, usually in the form of microtransactions. For those, like Marie’s Room, I often think it’s because the devs didn’t believe their work was worth charging for and thus likely not worth playing. However I’m very glad to be wrong in this instance as the developers behind Marie’s Room have created something that is very much worth playing. Due to the nature of the game, much like Gone Home, the rest of this review is just for those that have played the game as I can’t really discuss it without diving deep into spoiler territory. You have been warned.
I’m not usually one for stories told in retrospective, feeling that much of the tension is lost, however in Marie’s room it works quite well. Part of this is due to the non-linear story construction, with you piecing together the various elements of the story as you go along, but also locking away key moments until you’ve heard enough story elements to progress. The developers have also done a good job in ensuring each of those story fragments works towards building out the bigger picture, rather than just being different parts of a single cohesive story cut up and thrown around randomly. That’s probably the biggest distinction I’d draw between something like this and say Dear Esther with the latter feeling like a confused mess of story elements that didn’t all drive towards the same conclusion.
In terms of pure construction Marie’s Room is well put together, especially considering it’s not done on the indie dev darling Unity (it’s actually Unreal 4). I will have one slight quibble with the hit detection used for showing you items that you can interact with as it seemed a little finicky even at the best of times. Whilst I was able to find the vast majority of the story objects there were many I had to try numerous different approaches to in order to unlock. Also it would be nice to know which items you’d already listened to, just so you don’t accidentally click on them again. Given that the game barely tickles an hour in total play time though these are minor gripes.
The story flowed well between the different core elements giving ample time to each of them to grow and flourish. I do wonder how I would’ve felt about the story if I had explored the room in a less methodical way. The way in which the story unfolded to me felt quite organic, focusing the early story on Kelsey and Marie’s relationship with a small sprinkling of external factors. Then as Todd entered the picture and Marie’s past starts to come into the picture the real core of the story, and the reasoning for your character’s motivation for being there, begins to unfold beautifully. Thinking about it going the other way, knowing Kelsey’s past before knowing about how Marie’s family saved her would give you insight into why she acted the way she did in the first place. I’d be keen to hear what other people’s experiences were and whether or not their particular story path resonated with them.
Overall I quite enjoyed the story, the full gravity of what happened really hitting home in the game’s final scenes. Whilst that exact situation is rare I’m sure many of us can resonate with the guilt of having done something they regret and how revisiting the scene of the crime can bring that all back. Indeed I think that’s universal for all grief and loss as our memories and experiences are tied to the places and people we create them in and with. If there’s one lesson to be learnt from the story of Marie’s Room its that we can’t remove the pain we caused in the past, we can only try to move forward and deal with it.
Marie’s Room is a great short story presented in game format. On first look the retrospective, fragmented presentation of the story would imply it’d be destined for disaster however the developers have done a great job in crafting a narrative that works well in the format. The craftsmanship is on point too with good visuals, great soundtrack and only a few small niggling issues that could be easily addressed in future patches. In all honesty I wouldn’t have any hesitations recommending this at the $5 price point so the fact that it’s free makes it a no brainer. If you find yourself with an hour to kill and are craving a good narrative experience then you shouldn’t look past Marie’s Room.
Marie’s Room is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 39 minutes with 86% of the achievements unlocked.
Sometimes I forget what drew me to a game. You see I maintain a list of games I’d like to review when they come out, saving me (sometimes) from having to trawl through the new release to see if there’s anything that catches my fancy. Of course some games stay on that list for quite some time and the reasons as to why they made it there are lost in time. Such is the tale of The First Tree, a game which, in my head, was completely different from the actual experience. As an interactive story it certainly hits home, but there’s definitely room for improvement from indie dev David Wehle.
The First Tree follows the recounting of the narrator’s dream with his wife. The dream follows a tragic story of a mother fox whose cubs have gone missing. However like all dreams the world the fox passes through is interspersed with elements of the narrator’s life, bringing back memories of the past. The dream is a journey through the narrator’s life, his relationship with his dad and what that all means to him.
From an aesthetic perspective The First Tree makes use of the highly popular low-poly/simple texture style that’s become quite popular among this style of game. The execution is quite simple as well with the mass re-use of numerous assets being very noticeable, especially in particular levels. Animation is also quite simple as well, appearing to be hand done. All this being said though it still managed to slow my PC down a bit after I cranked everything up to max. Whether that’s an optimisation issue or not I’m not sure but there have been a couple updates since I finished my playthrough. After saying all this though The First Tree does manage to pull off the simple visual style well, providing you a perfect visual background to the game’s narrated story.
The First Tree is predominantly a walking simulator style game with the narrator drip feeding you bits of story as you explore the various environments. There are platformer and puzzle elements included but they’re very basic, all done in aid of getting you to explore a bit more. As you explore you’ll encounter points of light which you can collect, areas to dig up that trigger dialogue sections and other collectables. However all these mechanics are background to the game’s story which is told in retrospect through a conversation between the main narrator and his wife.
Before I jump into the story though it’s worth mentioning that some of the platformer and exploration parts could have been a little better done. The light collectables are 2D sprites which are really hard to get a visual fix on which makes collecting them a challenge (especially if they’re in mid air). Considering that only 28% of players who own this game have gotten 50 stars I get the feeling I’m not the only one that found that a little frustrating. This ties into what I felt was a lack of rewards for exploration as there’s no obvious reason for collecting the stars (although at the end it’s revealed to you). If the story elements were paced a little better this would have been less of an issue, however.
You see whilst The First Tree’s story is engrossing (especially when coupled with the great backing soundtrack) it struggles to pace itself out well. This isn’t a particularly easy thing to do, indeed the only similar game that I can think of that pulled it off was The Turing Test, but The First tree has long gaps without narration or music. Sure, I can appreciate that sometimes just having the foley sounds can be relaxing, but to me it usually meant I’d obviously been exploring for far too long without finding anything. To the developer’s credit though it did get better in the latter levels, although that may have been due to me finally starting to understand the developer’s logic.
The story hit pretty close to home for me, having just gone through similar events in my life this year. The narration could have been a little better as the delivery of the bulk of the lines felt like they lacked the emotional investment that I think they needed to really have an impact. It’s possible that this was meant to be more “realistic”, since the story is being told in the middle of the night and after the narrator woke up from a dream, but most people are able to sound semi-normal after a couple minutes of conversation. All this being said though the game’s 2 emotional climaxes did manage to bring a few tears, so there’s something to be said for that.
The First Tree, whilst far from perfect in many respects, does manage to deliver a competent story that avoids many of the pitfalls that its peers have fallen into. The core game play mechanics are simple and don’t get in the way of the story but could use some more polish. The sound track is fantastic and it’s unfortunate that the game’s pacing means that it disappears more often than I’d like. The story will resonate strongly with those who’ve suffered loss, even if the delivery from the main narrator could use a little work. Overall The First Tree is an adequate story first game, one that I’m sure fans of the genre will enjoy.
The First Tree is available on PC right now for $7.99. Total play time was approximately 1.7 hours with 33% 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.
Maybe I’m getting older or maybe I just have less time but walking simulators fill a perfect niche for me. Their short play times, slow pace and (typically) well crafted stories make them a great escape from my usual diet of non-stop work and rage-inducing DOTA 2 matches. It’s also been quite some time since I got to play one, the last being Event towards the end of last year. So when a friend mentioned that I should look into What Remains of Edith Finch, a game from the same developers who brought us The Unfinished Swan, I was instantly intrigued. Like all walking simulators it’s certainly not for everyone but, if you like a gripping (albeit tragic) story, then it’s definitely up your alley.
The Finches are an unfortunate family, one that appears to be pursued by a curse that befalls nearly all of them to untimely deaths. You play as Edith Finch, returning to your ancestral home for the first time in many years. What unfolds from there is the story of how your family came to be in this place, the stories of their deaths and why you left. Much of the family’s history had been hidden from you as a child, your mother refusing to discuss anything. However with her death she had relinquished to you a key, one that unlocked the many tragic tales that befell your family.
What Remains of Edith Finch is built on the Unreal Engine 4 and whilst it does a good job of hiding that “Unreal” feeling there are a few telltale signs that give it away. The visual aesthetic fits in between realism and fantasy which is tied in heavily to the story’s themes. The visuals excel in the wide open spaces, with lovingly crafted vistas sprawling out before you. Up close the lack of detail in some areas becomes apparent but, for the places you’re meant to explore in depth, you can definitely see the extra effort that’s been put in. Overall I’d say that What Remains of Edith Finch’s visuals are above par for the genre, even if they’re not a selling point.
As is expected for this genre What Remains of Edith Finch’s mechanics are simple in their execution. Typically you’ll be locked inside a room or area which you need to find one clue or dialogue trigger. You’ll be rewarded with additional dialogue and story development the more you explore although, thankfully, the game keeps red herrings and dead paths to a minimum. All of the flashback sections have their own little twist on story telling, blending in different story telling elements to make each of them unique. Beyond that there’s not much I can say without spoiling certain story elements but, if you’re a fan of the walking simulator genre, then I’m sure what I’ve described appeals to you.
Knowing that all of the flashbacks would result in that family member’s death ignited something of a moral conundrum for me. In order to progress the game I had to do as the game requested but this, essentially, meant I was condemning them to their fate. Like when you were the child swinging over the cliff it was obvious what the outcome would be. However if I did nothing I could go no further and morally speaking they had already died, so I wasn’t changing anything. I guess the feeling came from the deep engagement I had with the game and the sense that I should have some form of control over the outcome, even if it’s already set in stone.
Whilst, overall, I think that the tragic tale of the Finch family was told well I didn’t like the fact that the narrator was killed off in the end. Sure, I understand that this is part of the “Finch Family Curse” motif the developers are going for but it just didn’t seem necessary to the overall plot. Perhaps my feelings about this come from the sense of loss that the game instils in you, wanting the stereotypical Hollywood ending to soften the blow, so to speak. Of course how you react to the story will be unique to you and there is no right or wrong way to feel when the credits begin to roll.
What Remains of Edith Finch well executed tale of tragedy, taking you through the history of family that has been forever surrounded by death. It’s visuals straddle the line between realism and fantasy, echoing the story. As you’d expect the mechanics are simple and unobtrusive, focusing you on the story. The dialogue and story elements are well paced and delivered excellently, ensuring that you’ll want to complete this game in one sitting. The genre suggests that this game is likely not for everyone but, if you’re a fan of a good story (even if it’s a sad one) then What Remains of Edith Finch is worth your time.
What Remains of Edith Finch is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours play time and 56% of the achievements unlocked.