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.
There’s a small file on my desktop and in it is the list of all the games I intend to review. It’s also a file of missed opportunities, listing off the games I thought would be worth a look in but never got a chance to play. Many of the games have been in there for quite some time, long enough that I often forget what made me put them there in the first place. ADR1FT is one of those games and, whilst you can probably guess why I put it down, I certainly don’t remember it being billed as a walking simulator in space. Regardless ADR1FT is best described as the unofficial game of the movie Gravity, even if it was conceived long before the movie’s release.
You awake in your spacesuit with destruction all about you. Something’s happen, something bad and your spacesuit is quickly losing oxygen. Worse still your suit’s propulsion system is broken, forcing you to use the very oxygen that’s keeping you alive to move around. There’s only one path to safety and that’s to revive the crippled station to the point of being able to launch one of the escape pods. To do so however you will have to traverse the wreckage of your once mighty craft and find out just what caused this catastrophe.
ADR1FT has a beautiful, futuristic aesthetic to it. The undamaged parts of the space station are almost exactly as you’d expect them to be: clinically clean and densely packed together to make the most of the limited space. It’s interesting then to contrast them against the utter destruction that abounds outside with pieces of space debris flying around everywhere. This is most certainly done as an aide to the overall plot, giving you a glimpse into the past which has now been shattered. Of course the best visuals come when you take yourself far away from the station and take in the glorious vista below. That might just be the space nerd in me though.
ADR1FT is, well, I guess you’d call it a space-walking simulator since you don’t do any actual walking in it. Your job is to repair the space station’s various subsystems in order to activate the escape pod that can take you back down to earth. To do this you’ll have to repair at least 3 critical subsystems, all of which require the same routine of activating the mainframe, manufacturing a new core and installing said core into the mainframe terminal. The challenges you’ll face between each of those will be different, depending on what arm it was (organics, navigation, power, communication) but it will all come down to the same mechanic: trying not to bump into anything and not running out of oxygen.
Navigating the environment is more challenging than you’d think it would be, mostly because it seems like your spacesuit is made out of paper. Any slight bump is enough to send cracks across your screen and turn the UI into a wobbly mess, making the already taxing task just that much more different. To the developer’s credit though this does work as a good motivator to not hit anything and you’ll likely improve rapidly. The movement mechanics are mostly accurate when it comes to movement in space however there are some limitations which prevent you from speeding through everything. For long time walking simulator players this probably won’t come as much of a surprise as it’s par for the course in this genre.
That slow speed however does make it a rather tedious affair at times, especially when you get turned around or misjudge where you’re supposed to go next. Done correctly I’m sure the game could be completed in as little as 2 hours however it’s quite likely you’ll get lost enough that that time is doubled. This would be ok if exploration was rewarded aptly but in ADR1FT it unfortunately isn’t. Sure you might uncover an audio log here or another collectible there but it’s not enough to drive you to do it more. It’s a shame because the voice acting and writing are quite well done, there’s just not enough of it to make me seek it.
As I mentioned before the main plot of ADR1FT is driven through various pieces of dialogue drip fed to you through audio logs and walls of text hidden throughout the environment. There’s enough to get a sense of what could have led to what happened on the space station but some of the larger questions are left unanswered. It’s a shame as there’s a lot of potential avenues left unexplored, some of which could have given the story a lot more depth and interest. Indeed it feels like ADR1FT falls into the same trap that many similar games have done in the past: letting the game mechanics get in the way of telling the story. If more of the main story was fed through more accessible means I’m sure I’d be singing a different tune.
ADR1FT is a gorgeous space-walking simulator but little beyond that. The infinite expanse of space is expertly contrasted against the almost claustrophobic interior of the space station, giving you a sense of what came before and where you must go. The space walking is done well, with the expected kinds of limitations put in place for this genre. Unfortunately this slow movement hides much of the game’s dialogue which hampers its impact significantly. Overall I feel that ADR1FT is a well crafted game, and one worth playing just for the glorious views it provides, but unfortunately doesn’t deliver much more beyond that.
ADR1FT is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was approximately 4 hours with 45% of the achievements unlocked.
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.
There are few games that manage to grab me with just a concept. Put simply it’s because I’ve seen it all, the vast swath of games I’ve played over the years covering the far reaches of the gaming spectrum. To put it in perspective over the 4 years or so that I’ve been doing this I’ve played some 200 different games and it’s easy to see the patterns emerging when you play that many games. However there are still exceptions, games that bring new ideas or new ways of looking at old ideas. Such games are of instant intrigue to me and Beyond Eyes, whilst not being the greatest experience overall, certainly sold itself to me just on its concept alone.
You are Rae, a young girl who wants nothing more than kids of her age do. However, one day, she’s unfortunately struck blind, her world now one of total darkness. As she comes to grips with her new reality she meets a new friend; Nani the neighbourhood cat. Rae and Nani become the best of friends, the ring of Nani’s bell the ever present reminder that her friend is there with her. One day though Nani stops coming to visit Rae and so she sets out into the world to find her lost companion.
Beyond Eyes is one of the few Unity games that manages to avoid the same aesthetic that many games built on the platform have. Beyond Eyes has a kind of watercolour style to it, almost as if it was ripped straight out of the children’s books of my formative years. The watercolour aesthetic is taken one step further by the reveal mechanic which feels like water creeping across paper. Probably the most interesting thing about the look of Beyond Eyes though is just how deceptive the mostly white environment is, making you feel like you’re in a much larger world than you actually are. This is most certainly intentional and is something I’ll dive into deeper shortly. Suffice to say I feel Beyond Eyes is one of the most unique looking Unity games I’ve seen in a long time.
Beyond Eyes is essentially a walking simulator at heart as all you do is trundle through the various environments, making your way around blockages until you move onto the next section. You can’t see everything that’s around you however, only the things that you’ve been near or, in the case of later levels, only the things that are right next to you. This is a powerful way to evoke the same feelings that a blind person would have as you really have no idea of what’s in front of you or if the sounds you’re hearing are coming from what you think they are. It’s an incredibly well executed concept in my mind as it does a great job of putting you in the mindset of someone who’d recently lost their sight.
There are some puzzles to speak of but they’re mostly just a function of finding the right thing to unblock your next path. Most of these can be as simple as taking an alternate path whilst others will require you to find an item in order to progress. They’re really not hard by any stretch of the imagination with most of them putting the solution right in front of you if you explore far enough. In all honesty though there’s not a whole lot of point in exploring too much as the rewards for doing so are minimal and don’t progress the story much beyond the little snippets of text you get every so often. I think even the most hardened achievement hunters would struggle to find much reason to go after them, honestly.
The various mechanics employed to emulate the world that the blind “see” is by far the strongest aspect of the game. The world being revealed to you, styled in a childlike fantasy, as you walk by everything is truly inspired. The replacement of objects, like a fountain turning into a drain pipe, gives you an idea of the struggles that people without sight go through. Even small things like barking dogs making Rae upset take on a new perspective when you realise that she would have no way of knowing if that dog was being aggressive or simply chasing a toy. It was this initial concept that sold me on Beyond Eyes and I’m glad to say it delivers aptly in that respect.
However whilst the mechanics are great the story is just too basic to take the whole experience to the next level. Games in this genre live and die by their story and the emotional engagement they can evoke with its players and, even though this might be based around a true story, is too short to have any meaningful impact. The ending was also just a poor attempt at tugging at the heart strings when, in reality, the character had absolutely no reason to come to the conclusion they did. The epilogue then feels like a ham fisted attempt at a bitter-sweet ending but, due to the lack of character development, just feels hollow. It’s a real shame honestly as I completely appreciate the goals they set out to achieve here, and in terms of replicating what it’d be like to be blind I feel they’ve achieved that, however the story they’ve used to demonstrate that experience is just not up to scratch.
Beyond Eyes set out with the ambitious goal of giving the sighted a portal into the world of the blind and, at a mechanical level, they have achieved that. The dreamy, watercolour aesthetic is a beautiful backdrop for the small pieces of the world that are revealed to you. How that world is revealed to you, through all the sights, sounds and smells of the world, is fantastically implemented, able to evoke what I feel are the feelings that the blind would have venturing out into the world. However the story simply fails to deliver, leaving this game to simply be a mechanical masterpiece rather than the emotional journey it strives to be. For any other genre this would still make it a game I’d recommend to a wide audience however, for Beyond Eyes, it’s really only a game for fans of the genre.
Beyond Eyes is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 1.5 hours with 30% of the achievements unlocked.
With game creation now within the reach of anyone who has the time to dedicate to it the differentiators usually stem from the strengths of their creators. Many come from a writing background, pouring themselves into the creation of a brilliant narrative that flows through the game. Others develop wild and intriguing mechanics, some that allow the players to develop their own story within a world they create. Few however find their strength in the art and graphical fidelity as out of all the things that make a game it is by far the most costly and time consuming to create. Homesick is one of those rare few indie games that brings with it astonishing visual quality that even rivals recent AAA titles.
You wake to a world that’s cold and unfamiliar. The world is barren, bereft of nearly all life and seemingly cold despite the sun’s unrelenting rays punching down through every crack and crevice. As you explore though you see remnants of the world that once was, little reminders that show people were here…once. However you struggle to make sense of the world, the books and letters are all written in code and try as you might there’s little sense to be made of them. You know one thing though, you must get out. You must find your way into the light.
I would forgive people for thinking that Homesick was simply a demo project for a new engine as it’s honestly by far the best looking indie game I’ve ever seen. The attention to details is astounding from things like the rooms with wallpaper peeling off to the fully working (but out of tune) piano. Looking at Barrett Meeker’s (the creative director) history in animation and effects it’s not hard to see why as he’s worked on such titles like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. If I hadn’t taken these screenshots myself I would’ve written them off as carefully crafted renders but the game really does look this good when you’re playing it. Of course there were some sacrifices made for this beauty, namely the extremely simplistic animations and accompanying sound effects, but it’s hard to deny that the graphics are anything but amazing.
Homesick is your (now) bog standard walking simulator where you’ll move forward at a relatively slow pace that encourages you to take in your surroundings, look at everything and essentially be a tourist in the game’s world. Each room has a set of puzzles that you’ll need to figure out in order to progress and, interestingly, they all share the same end goal. However that doesn’t detract from the challenge at all as figuring out how to accomplish said goal can sometimes involve a myriad of steps, not all of which will be obvious at first glance. Once you finish a section it’s off to the dream world which will allow you to progress to the next section.
The Kickstarter for Homesick described the puzzles as “hard, yet fair and sensible” and for the most part that rings true. The game provides absolutely not tutorial to speak of so for the first 10 minutes or so you’re on your own to figure out how everything fits together in this world. Thankfully whilst all the rooms are interconnected they’re not dependent on each other, meaning that each new puzzle is self contained and does not require any backtracking. There is a couple times where you can miss an important clue which will get you stuck (hint: make sure you look at all the filing cabinets carefully) but other than that you should be able to work things out eventually. My favourite by far was the blocks puzzle but I won’t say much more lest I spoil the fun.
Whilst the game is extremely pretty it does suffer from a few areas that could’ve used a little bit more polish. For some reason there are certain places where I’d get a lot of slowdown, usually when turning past a corner in some of the first rooms. There’s a couple other places where this happens too which leads me to believe there’s some unoptimized geometry hiding somewhere. There’s also a couple glitches that require a game restart to overcome, like an issue (which was said to be fixed but still happened for me) where holding a certain item would overwrite your entire inventory. Thankfully I didn’t lose too much progress but it was still a frustrating experience.
The story of Homesick is what you make of it as for the vast majority of the game you really have no clue about anything. Once you unlock the ability to decipher the riddles you can go back through the entire game and read everything which does give you a good sense of the world before your time in it. With games like these, ones where much of the story is locked behind globs of text hidden everywhere, I find it hard to get emotionally invested in the story and Homesick was no exception. I do admit that when I started to slowly unravel the code of the world I was a little excited but that wasn’t enough to drive me to slowly walk back through everything just so I could read some things.
Homesick is a stunner of a game with graphics that will remain unchallenged by the indie scene for a long time. Once you dig beneath the surface though what remains is your typical walking simulator game, with all the requisite puzzles and hidden pieces of text to flesh out the world. Whilst it’s worth playing for the graphics alone I really can’t say that there was much more that drew me in, mostly due to my resistance to reading large walls of text after I’ve slowly trotted my way through everything. Still I’m sure fans of this genre will find a lot to love and would not hesitate to recommend it to all the indie fans out there.
Homesick is available on PC right now $14.99. Total play time was approximately 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.
Ever since the Dear Esther incident of 2012 I’ve attempted to broaden my horizons in terms of what games I play, mainly to see if I could ever find something to like in games like it. Whilst I’ve often said that I’m willing to forgive a lot of mistakes in a game as long as the story holds up I’ve found even I have my limits, preferring to have some kind of mechanics rather than none at all. That being said I can’t recall having played a pure walking simulator (the genre which these games fall into) ever since Dear Esther. With those painful memories now fading I gave The Old City: Leviathan a walk through and whilst I’ll refrain from dubbing another game with the wooden spoon I’m not sure my opinion of this genre has changed entirely.
The world lies broken around you, the result of the Fall that struck down everyone and everything. Those who remain have split themselves up into factions and, inevitably, declared war upon each other, ravaging the lands even further. However there are those who have decided to exist on the periphery of all things, serving as mediators between the two opposing factions and engaging in a kind of isolationist nature rarely seen before the fall. You inhabit the mind of one of such people however it is broken and the world that you see and hear isn’t always the truth. So begins your quest but where it takes you is your decision.
The Old City has extremely high production values for a title of its nature, fully using the UDK it’s based on to its fullest. Whilst it’s sometimes a little overdone with the fog creeping in everywhere and the just a little over the top bloom it’s hard to detract from the fact that it’s a decidedly pretty game. The environments do end up getting a bit repetitive as you get towards the end as many of the assets are reused several times however there’s enough detail to make sure you won’t get bored before your first play through is over. Overall The Old City gets top marks for bringing impressive visuals to a genre that, in general, let’s them slip to one side.
As the classification of the game might allude to The Old City is a walking simulator which means that the mechanics are stripped back to their bare minimum. You have 2 speeds of walking (with the omission of having an “always sprint” option, unfortunately) and you can jump, not that you’ll need to for anything however. There are however some cleverly hidden mechanics, usually centered around exploring one area and then returning back to another in order to unlock a new section. Other than that however there’s not much more for you to do apart from walk, listen and read everything that’s contained within this world.
What I did find rather interesting was that, whilst The Old City lacks any definitive choices, you are forced to make decisions between two options on occasion, even if you don’t notice it. Mostly this takes the form of different paths which lead off in different directions, some of which you can’t return from. However you’re not going to be able to know that before venturing down a particular path and so the choice of where to go becomes important. This is especially so if you’re trying to get to Solomon’s notes which contain the vast bulk of the story within The Old City. Indeed without them you’re not likely to understand anything of what’s going on, even if you explored everywhere.
Thinking about it more the difference between The Old City and other titles like Dear Esther comes from the fact that the former actually has a structure to it, even if it seems random at first. You’ll often find bits of information that clarify points made earlier or reveal another piece of symbolism which helps you better understand just what’s going on in the world. The randomness of other game’s storytelling means that you don’t have an overall feel for where the story is going and are just left with a bunch of fragments with no continuity. Sure, there are people who enjoy putting those pieces together but, honestly, it just feels like someone trying to be clever through obscurity.
The story of The Old City does a good job of being opaque at the beginning, putting you in a rather thoroughly confusing world that’s seeped in metaphors and terminology that’s completely foreign. Over time however it starts to reveal parts of itself to you, analogous to the journey that one of its characters goes through themselves. However unlike many other titles of its genre The Old City doesn’t neatly wrap up in the end (well, it didn’t for me anyway) so you’ll likely be left with questions of just what the hell happened. It’s a fun thing to think about but not enough to draw me back to play through the same sections again seeking out additional detail. I can see the attraction for others, however.
The Old City: Leviathan is another title in the growing walking simulator genre that combines beautiful graphics and great voice over work into a readily playable title. I’m still not 100% sure on where I sit with it as a game yet, on the one hand I definitely feel that it’s better than others I’ve played before, but on the other I’m still not sure what I truly liked in it. The graphics a great and it didn’t overstay its welcome in terms of play time but there wasn’t enough to draw me back in for a second play through. With that in mind it feels like a middle of the road game for me but that, dear reader, will likely be wildly different for you.
The Old City: Leviathan is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 2 hours.