Posts Tagged Review
Despite the game industry’s fascination with big names, the influence a single designer, even one as prestigious as Jade Raymond, Sid Meier or Michel Ancel, has on a multi-million dollar title is minimal. The glossy triple A games of today are collaborative efforts of hundreds and hundreds of people, and while this has done wonders for the games’ polishing, their ability to express an individual, personal thought, idea or emotion has dropped in indirect proportion to the ever-growing size of development teams.
This expressive side of the industry is now often seen as the realm of the growing indie scene, smaller teams and bedroom developers that have given us wonderful games such as Audiosurf, Osmos or Limbo. Sipping moccacinos at some coffeeshop, Macbook in tow, these people spend their days carving art out of magical obsidian and their nights dreaming up new gameplay ideas to pursue, or at least that seems to be the rather romantic view the larger gaming audience has on the indie process. But what is it really like to conceive and create a game of your own, on your own? To make something this deeply personal and hold it up for public appraisal?
With the crowd-funded documentary Indie Game: The Movie, first time film-making duo Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky set about answering these questions with an in-depth look at the people behind the scenes of indie smash hits. By way of example, the film follows Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Team Meat through crunch time for Super Meat Boy and Phil Fish, as he presents his game Fez (at the time four years in the making and still in various stages of disarray) at PAX after a long public absence, while Jonathan Blow muses about his widely acclaimed mindbender Braid.
This trichotomy works well for the movie, as the three developers in question are not only stuck in different parts of the cycle, the outside interaction of promotion, media coverage and legal hassle, the deep-in-the-trenches coding and the “What now?” phase following success, but also add something through their varied personalities. McMillen and Refenes offer their own slightly weird and pessimistic, but ultimately grounded perspective. Fish, all nerves and need for appreciation, is more easily shaken by setbacks and he hides this vulnerable side behind a controversial facade. Blow, though calmer on the outside, is similarly sensitive when it comes to the reception of his work, which is shown through the amount of control he tries to exert over the creative discourse surrounding his game.
Indie Game: The Movie uses this wealth of footage to touch on more or less every problem and obstacle in the life of an indie developer: Financial troubles, karmic low blows, the frustration of shouting at the big, uncaring wall that is publishers, being so closely tied up in a project that it takes over your identity, being so closely associated with it that its eventual success or failure will be forever connected to your name, the fear of missing the forest for the trees, the nerve-racking realization that someone else is holding the legal kill-switch for your dreams. As McMillen, Refenes and Fish go through these hardships, we are presented with their raw, emotional, unfiltered feed.
We get to see them at their best, talking about design and art all starry-eyed, but we also get to see them at their psychotic worst: overworked, tired and stressed, facing a precarious future. In these moments, they make some rather crass statements, as artists are wont to do. People might take issue with some of the things that are said, but the film does well in presenting them. That is its job as a documentary, and while these moments never feel dishonest, it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes McMillen’s, Refenes’ and Fish’s words do not so much show their genuine opinions as they do serve to express a spur-of-the-moment sentiment. Hell, some of the most controversial lingo in the movie is just them using language as a coping mechanism.
Aside from some brouhaha over content, Indie Game: The Movie is almost without fault. Not only has it been blessed with rich source material, but it also makes clever use of the footage at hand, melding the experiences of three teams into a cohesive whole. Through some great structuring and editing, three personal tales have been cut to play right into each other, highlighting the transcendent message behind. Effect-driven sequences and the narrow cast of expert opinions provided can feel a bit underwhelming at times, but on the whole Indie Game: The Movie offers an insightful and heartfelt look into gaming’s auteur scene. Whether you’re into indie games or the creative process in general, this movie is well worth your time.
Games and music have always enjoyed a strong relationship. The driving 8-bit tunes of yore now live on in their own reverent, nostalgia-flavored musical genre, while memorable recent songs have managed to transcend their own products to be elevated to celebrated hallmarks of gaming culture. But as tightly woven as the connection between games and soundtracks might be, relations of power and dominance tend to be one-sided. With the possible exception of rhythm games, music in games only exists to heighten your enjoyment of the game itself: its mechanics, its set pieces, the act of play.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP goes a step further. Sword & Sworcery is less a game unto itself than it is a palate cleanser, a collection of puzzles and fights designed to heighten your enjoyment of the game’s music. Its cryptic narrative, the deliberate pauses and breaks, all is intended to get you into the right mindset to appreciate Sword & Sworcery‘s peculiar blend of rock, jazz and electronic beats.
To that end, Sword & Sworcery‘s adventure game content is broken up into four individual sessions to click, click, click your way through as you help The Scythian on her woeful errand to save the game’s forest idyll from the dark spirits of nearby Mingi Taw. Everything along the way, from fighting to puzzling to sworcery, the eponymous act of magical song, is controlled through a streamlined system of pointing, clicking and dragging, a testament to Sword & Sworcery‘s iOS origins.
Something has certainly been lost in translation to traditional mouse controls, as some of the tactile challenges of operating on a touchscreen with broad strokes have transformed into the kind of frantic clicking and hot-spot searching that adventure games are now generally reproached for. However, Sword & Sworcery‘s Steam release might also have benefitted from this transition, since the game works best in the kind of calm environment one is more likely to find in front of one’s computer screen than on the subway.
In either case, the real star of the show is not the puzzles or swordfights but the well-crafted soundtrack they are supposed to highlight. In terms of music, but also in terms of ambient sound and the use of pauses and breaks, Sword & Sworcery features stunning audio, and the structure of the game has been designed around this fact, though to varying success.
After 15 varied and melodious minutes, Sword & Sworcery‘s first session ends on a high note by taking you out of the experience and suggesting to let some time pass before you resume play to prevent oversaturation. Unfortunately, this dedication to taut structuring doesn’t continue into the game’s second act, which sends you on two virtually identical fetch quests. The progression of these two is tied to the passage of time outside of the game, and while there is a way to speed up the process if you don’t want to wait, completing the session will require some running back and forth, whether in the digital world or the real world.
As interesting as this connection to the actual physical world may be, it was unwise for Sword & Sworcery to let go of the player’s hand for such a long time, for in games as in music, timing is key. Your mileage going through this section of the game may vary considerably. Not everyone is going to see fault, or experience the amount of frustrated wandering I did, but the fact that its structure even allows for mindless backtracking is a problem for a game that thrives on novelty and variety. Not a big problem, but a problem nonetheless.
However, my complaints about Sword & Sworcery‘s less than optimal structure are easily balanced by the simple fact that its songs, in a way the game’s real content, are really, really good. There is a brief bit at the end of the first section, in which the Scythian and her companion Logfella walk back to Logfella’s hut after the first bout of adventure. As they are walking home, they start to sing and we get to hear the instrumental cover of that moment.
That moment, in a nutshell, is Sword & Sworcery. Mechanically sparse and a little coarse, but nice to listen to. The song in question is called The Prettiest Weed. If you like it, you’re probably going to like Sword & Sworcery too.
Games, and RPGs in particular, have always been eager to push technology to the limit to give us bigger playgrounds. They let us explore vast kingdoms, entire continents. Some have done away with borders altogether to offer endless worlds, procedurally generated just beyond the player’s horizon. More, more, more: In this industry, big is beautiful.
In a way, the Gothic series has always been a counterpoint to this trend, focusing on small but intricately detailed locales. The games are not sandboxes, but snowglobes: Limited in size, but very reactive. Gothic I & II, set in and around the penal mining colony of Khorinis, offered one of the most lively and rich, albeit tiny, game worlds the RPG genre had ever seen. When developer Piranha Bytes decided to expand to a larger, open world for the third installment, they ended up spreading content too thin while struggling to properly test, let alone balance, the sheer mass of new quests, skills, enemies and NPCs. The result was a bug-ridden, unplayable mess. Piranha Bytes lost the rights to the series during the break-up with ailing publisher JoWood, and nearly went out of business themselves.
So it was with some trepidation I took the news that after the reasonably sized and largely bug-free Risen, Piranha Bytes intended to return to its open-world ambitions with the follow-up Risen 2: Dark Waters. What’s more, the game abandons traditional sword and sorcery for a swashbuckling pirate theme, complete with flintlock pistols and voodoo magic. Not only does Risen 2 part with established settings, it also returns to the broad scope that almost destroyed Piranha Bytes not so long ago: For a project as daring as this, the mere fact that it doesn’t collapse under its own weight is kind of impressive. Sadly, not a lot more can be said for the game.
Despite his victory over Ursegor at the end of the first game (achieved at the price of an eyeball), the world of Risen continues to be ravaged by titans and, with no means to fight back, the nameless hero now spends his days guzzling rum. Having the first two steps of the pirate lifestyle down, when news arrive that a group of buccaneers has found a way to defeat the sea titan Mara, he is sent out to join them in search of the necessary magical artifacts.
While the first Risen focused entirely on the island of Faranga, Risen 2 has you sailing to about half a dozen islands of comparable size, at least, once you earn a ship of your own. The first half of the game, some rough 12 hours, are spent earning the pirates’ trust by taking part in all the necessary social rituals: fighting, looting, drinking and digging up treasures. During this phase, your travel options are limited to wherever your captain plans on going. It’s only once you acquire the first magical weapon that you’re given command of a ship, and are free to go wherever you please.
Risen 2 is definitely a lot bigger than its predecessor, but it doesn’t fall into the same trap as Gothic III by mindlessly trying to expand everything. The increase in size is offset by a simplified system of character progression. There are more sidequests, but less care has been afforded to each individual mission. There are more islands, but they are less detailed and contain larger sections of filler material. While I doubt that these decisions are wise, seeing how the series was originally known for its meticulously crafted settings, they aren’t technically wrong. The combat system is a definite step back, with the ability to block animal attacks now sadly a thing of the past for want of shields, but for the most part Risen 2 is on par with the original Risen in terms of quality. Content isn’t the problem, structure is.
The first few hours of Piranha Bytes‘ pirate adventure feel fairly focused, offering a small number of challenges and leaving it up to you to work out which to tackle first. This Gothic as Gothic does, and there few things as enjoyable as figuring out that the reward for fighting some harmless creatures is enough to buy you into the drinking contest, which will help you win a map to some buried treasure, which will pay for the combat lessons necessary to take on the next fight. The first half of the game offers a wonderful sense of challenge as you puzzle out what will kill and what won’t. It all leads up to a surprisingly decent boss fight and early climax halfway through the game, but after Risen 2 finally opens up the difficulty curve starts to fall apart.
Once you earn a ship and crew of your own, you’re free to go after either of the remaining McGuffins first, and Risen 2 seems to be crafted in such a way that any order is feasible. Unfortunately, this means there’s no difficulty progression throughout the entire second half of the game. In fact, since you continue to level up while fighting the same weak enemies, the game keeps growing easier. The final showdown in particular is obscenely short and disappointing, and it’s hard to feel accomplished after 30 seconds of fighting.
Now, this may sound like the first half of the game is brilliant, and the second half terrible, but in truth, the entirety of Risen 2 is something of a mixed blessing: The first half offers more of a challenge, but this also makes the dodgy combat more glaringly apparent. The second half can end up feeling needlessly long for want of challenge, but still spins a rather interesting tale.
All in all, I’m not entirely sure if I can recommend Risen 2: Dark Waters. On the one hand the first Risen, or even its spiritual predecessor Gothic II, offer more lively game worlds and wonderfully unforgiving RPG design. On the other hand, with its quest markers, autosaves, fast travel system and lower difficulty, Risen 2 is probably the closest this (extended) series has ever been to being approachable. The game might not prove entirely satisfying, but it’s certainly worth a look for the pirate motif, if nothing else.
“Proper review’s supposed to start at the beginning,” muses the effortlessly soulful voice of Logan Cunningham, Bastion‘s narrator. At least he might, if he were asked to review the game. “Of course, it ain’t so simple with this one…”
Bastion, the debut of indie developer Supergiant Games, is not an easy game to classify. It dresses up like a dungeon crawler, but sacrifices many of the genre’s core tenets in favor of focusing on a strong, heavily structured, linear story. This mélange may not grab you straight away, as you’ll lament the rather stale gameplay long before the aesthetics and subtle world-building add up to anything meaningful. But Bastion is worth enduring. It may not pay off immediately, but boy does it pay off in the end.
The protagonist, known only as The Kid, wakes up to find the city of Caelondia ravished by a mysterious calamity. His world is turned upside down, with bits and pieces of debris floating through the air, gliding up to form paths underneath his uneasy steps. A stranger’s voice fills his ears, guides him, and tells him to head for the eponymous Bastion, a safe haven for troubled times such as these. But no one got there in time. The Bastion is deserted, safe for Rucks, the engineer who built the stronghold. He’s not eager to share details, but the old man claims he can fix everything. He just needs a little help. So The Kid ventures right on into the Wilds, looking for survivors and the parts needed to rebuild.
In terms of gameplay, Bastion focuses more on top-down hack’n'slash combat than on the character-building, item-hunting of Diablo. Its approach is rather action-heavy, a flurry of dodges and well-timed attacks. The independent nature of the inputs, with movement and action tied to keyboard and mouse respectively, enables you strafe, evade, retreat, or take careful aim, and often turns combat into a positively visceral affair.
Yet even with this revised mission statement in mind, the game could still have used a bit more polish as the controls tend to act up on occasion. Swings and slashes have the most annoying tendency to glide off models ineffectually, which fortunately doesn’t affect enemies as much as it does near-indestructible crates. And though I’ve never been able to determine whether this is a real issue or just a matter of hard-to-spot hitboxes hidden against a backdrop of ragtag visuals, every so often you’ll find yourself placing an enemy square in your sights and somehow still end up missing.In between various field trips, The Kid returns to the Bastion to build new shops with the parts scavenged along the way. The Distillery offers passive bonuses by way of magical booze, The Forge lets you upgrade your weapons (which are stored at The Arsenal), while The Shrine lets you kick it up a notch by praying for bigger foes and bigger rewards. The Bastion is also where the many buffs and upgrades earned, usually focused on either critical hits or reliable damage output, can be applied. Yet while this measure of choice is nice to have, it doesn’t keep the game from feeling stale. Ultimately, there’s just not a lot to Bastion. Mechanically speaking, the game is sparse.
Make no mistake about it, Bastion is more concerned with delivering an aesthetically pleasing tale than with providing gratifying gameplay, which wouldn’t be a problem if the story took a little less time to pick up the pace. The visuals, the music, the smooth, sexy voice of Logan Cunningham; all of the individual pieces are there from the start. But after a strong intro, the narrative loses focus, content to provide backstory while letting you wander around. Given the linear nature of the piece, it’s easy to feel abandoned. The narration starts to feel like a gimmick, a way to fill our ears with lore without stalling the frenetic gameplay this genre holds so very dear (occasional bits of self-aware humor not withstanding).
It’s only some three hours in, roughly halfway through the game, that Bastion‘s story is truly set in motion. After all this time exploring the impact and consequences of the Calamity, the game finally starts unravelling the causes behind the catastrophe. The Calamity was no random act of god, but was in fact engineered by Caelondians trying to rid themselves of a native tribe. The few survivors The Kid has been rescuing – all of them natives – soon realize this, and one of the outraged survivors reacts violently. Suddenly the narrative comes to life, and conversely the gameplay starts breaking down.
Bastion keeps a tight leash on its mechanics right from the start, keeping them minimalistic to the point of being crude, showing us just how much it’s willing to sacrifice for its story. The game starts tormenting you. The more you try to rebuild, the more things start to fall apart. Ingeniously, Bastion turns your previous successes to dust and makes you watch as things break down around you. With every sacrifice you start to care a little more. Before long you’re willing to give everything, and you will.
Bastion‘s first half is slow, with every aspect pulling it in a different direction. However the second half, with its immaculate visuals, forceful narration, and absolutely stunning vocal pieces by Darren Korb and Ashley Barett, is a masterfully emotional experience. Bastion climaxes in a moment that is as profoundly deep as it is beautiful, as somber as it is hopeful, as sentimental as it is heartfelt. The game grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go. It had me tearing up, sitting through the credits and savoring every second of it. It left me dazed, staring at the screen, still lost in Caelondia.
Not many games have the power to move a person to tears. This one does.
Bottom Line: Bastion may not impress as a game, but it’s a damn fine piece of art and song and memorable in every way. I recommend getting the soundtrack edition, at your earliest convenience.
The 2D platformer has now turned into the gritty, military shooter of the indie crowd: After a few well-designed smash hits turned into huge commercial successes, the genre has risen to ubiquity and now every upstart bedroom developer and their dog seem to think that all it takes to put them on the road to fame is one retro jump’n'run with cutesy visuals. This thought struck me while playing Storm in a Teacup, a simple little Iphone game that was recently ported to the PC via Steam. As you probably already figured out, I wasn’t having fun.
After a series of delicious treats, from the twitchy precision of Super Meat Boy to the somber Limbo, from the mind-bending Braid to the colorful VVVVVV, Storm in a Teacup marks the point at which the genre tilts into oversaturation. Intent to ride the wave created by better games, it seems to be built on the assumption that as long as you include even the most egregiously contrived allusion to childlike innocence (in this case: a plot about some kid riding around in a magical teacup) any game will sell. Its shtick? Press spacebar to jump, tap spacebar repeatedly to jump slightly higher.
I’m loath to even call Storm in a Teacup a game. It’s a jumble of platformer tropes thrown together without thought or consideration: Keys and matching doors, seesaw puzzles, crates to be pushed and moving parts to be avoided. Everything it does has been done before, and better. If it wasn’t for the horribly imprecise controls, you could probably blaze through it in an hour. As it stands, you’re left with a game that deliberately wastes your time, forcing you to take the same cheap jumps over and over again until the 30 seconds worth of looped audio make you want to claw your ears out.
Perhaps you think that I’m holding Storm in a Teacup to unfair standards. The title did, after all, originate in Apple’s App Store store, priced at a mere dollar, and even the PC version is not much more expensive. It’s just a simple little Iphone game, right? Wrong. Fruit Ninja, Cut The Rope, Doodle Jump, Angry Birds and Ninjump are Iphone games. They make clever use of the touchscreen or at least manage to work around its limitations through good design. Storm in a Teacup tries to move an existing concept over to a new platform. It’s a PC game ported to the Iphone, then ported back again. And everything about it sucks.
Don’t let Storm in a Teacup fool you. Behind its facade of flash and color the game is every bit as soulless as it is uninspired, and unpolished on top of it. It’s not Modern Warfare 3, nor is it Battlefield 3. It’s not even Homefront. It’s an unlicensed copy of Terrorist Takedown in what is quite obviously a homemade box, with a photocopied cover and a chipped disk.
Bottom Line: Stay away. Every penny is too much, and every minute I spent with it is one I lament.
With a nod to Andrew Walt, I present ’10 For The Twitter Age’, my taut 2011 retrospective. 10 games I played this year, 140 characters each.
Portal 2: Surprisingly on par with the original for the most part, but significantly less taut. Still, remarkable writing, amazing ending.
Mount & Blade: Warband: First thought: So it’s just an endless series of battles? Second thought: Sweet, it’s an endless series of battles.
Super Meat Boy: Minimalistic, but excellently so. One of the rare cases where repetition leads to mastery, not boredom. Bitchin’ tunes, too.
Team Fortress 2: Multiplayer excellence, now free-to-play. It’s the gift that keeps on giving! Especially now that I embraced giving gifts.
Mass Effect 1 & 2: Brilliant writing, and veritable loads of it. It bends under its own verbosity at times, but it doesn’t collapse.
Alpha Protocol: Broken in some ways, impressive in others. Forces you to choose not knowing the consequences. Cruel, and genius.
Minecraft: Boundless in every sense of the word. Allows for endless creativity, and a glimpse at your own psyche. I turned away in disgust.
Rayman: Origins: At heart merely a solid platformer, but the art team went above and beyond. The soundtrack now ownes my soul.
Echo Bazaar: London dragged underground! Devils and dirigibles! Bohemians and Bats! Criminals and Clay Men. It’s free
Bastion: Crude mechanics and stale gameplay, but beautiful art and song. Moved me to tears. It’s that emotional.
Again, this is not a top ten list, simply ten games I happened to play last year. Spread the fire!
It’s easy to forget for all the misguided hate surrounding the issue, but whether you prefer PCs or Consoles was not originally a question of faith but of different technical capabilities. The two platforms excel at different things and some games work better on one than they do on the other: Strategy games and other titles with complex user interfaces (as well as, arguably, shooters) benefit from the precision of a mouse and the sheer number of buttons on a keyboard. Jump’n'Runs on the other hand lend themselves more naturally to a responsive controller. Even games that could swing both ways tend to settle down in one of the two camps. Consoles got fighting games and brawlers and the PC snatched virtually anything involving space.
Another genre that has almost exclusively been taking place on consoles for the last decade or so is that of the racing/action hybrid. The PC occasionally gets its own take on the subject, but the original formula is now firmly in the hands of Nintendo, who are refining it with each new installment of their MarioKart series. Those in the PC crowd who favored zany driving were sadly out of luck, at least until Bizarre Creations attempted a rather literal translation: Blur.
Those of you who’ve seen the game’s TV spot might recall that the game styled itself a grown-up version of MarioKart, and rarely has a commercial been more truthful in its promises. Safe for the transition to flashy pseudo-realistic visuals and cars, Blur recreates the feeling of the original almost bit by bit: You and up to 11 other madmen race down a variety of linear tracks, pummeling each other with the usual array of power ups: The heat-seeking missile, the three-round skillshot, the airstrike aimed at first place, the tripmine, the shield, the melee-thing, the turbo-boost etc etc. Unlike the big prototype, Blur allows you to store up to three power ups instead of just the one, but you can’t cycle through your available weapons, so the only way to reach the third in line is to burn through the other two.
The game’s second major innovation is the introduction of a health bar, which drops through both enemy projectiles and reckless driving and can be refilled using the repair power-up, though there’s really no reason to even bother. Damage affects your car’s visuals, but not its performance and thanks to Blur‘s minimalistic racing mechanics you’ll have no trouble keeping your car on the road as a flash of polished chrome or a mess of dented metal and fire. Even if you manage to wreck your ride entirely, you simply spawn right back where you were after a brief delay.
To be fair to Blur, it does add little things here and there, but the best that can be said for those changes is that they don’t get in the way of the wacky driving. The few new cogs fit right into the machine, but I’m not entirely sure of their purpose. They don’t break the formula, but they don’t take it to new levels either. The three item rule, for instance, could have added a layer of strategic thought by allowing you to prepare for certain eventualities through clever power-up selection (look at me missing the point of the game here), but with no way to cycle through your equipment it only ends up keeping the colorful death tools in constant supply, as if the game was afraid that if it doesn’t blow something up every 2 seconds we’ll grow bored and wander off.
This staggering fear of a coherent thought on our side might also explain why the game feels the need to resupply your trigger-happy partners in crime after every single goddamn turn. It’s nice to see that Blur would sooner be a display of fireworks than a NASCAR race, but it does make winning the game a rather tedious exercise. Your final position in a race depends heavily on whether or not you can make it through the first two minutes of utter chaos, when the horde of mad drivers slowly turns into a manageable string of vehicles amidst brightly colored explosions. Skill and evasion certainly play a role here, but in the end surviving this crucial period is mostly about hoping you don’t end up in the center of general attention by pure chance. Like the multiplayer components of so many shooters, this is the kind of thing that can be very infuriating once the game pulls out a scoreboard, but while you’re in the middle of the experience, it does offer its own kind of mindless entertainment. In this case: The simple joy of watching a car explode and pirouette through the air, except delivered at a rate of roughly 75 exploding cars per minute.
This may sound like a small thing, but the mere fact that Blur manages to make the experience of being in the middle of a race fun excuses many niggling flaws in the string of challenge races it calls a campaign. On the other hand, this kind of destructive entertainment tends to grow stale pretty fast. Normally the option to play with other people would help to liven things up, but splitscreen mode is one of the things that was lost in translation (Though I assume the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions might have it) and while the game does have an online component, it’s suffering from major connection issues. In fact, I only found a single match I could get into after about a dozen attempts, and that race only had a single other player. I suppose the guy must have spent some time levelling up his metaprofile. His car was a lot better than mine, so he just zoomed off into the distance five seconds into the race, never to be seen again.
But have no fear! You may not get to play with other people, but Bizarre Creations got other plans for tying you to their game: Achievements. Normally I wouldn’t even bother to talk about this kind of unrelated extras, but Blur actually puts its small rewards in the center of gameplay. The game sports a veritable plethora of tiny challenges, especially in the first hour it feels like you can’t take a single step without setting off a dozen new alerts about your progress towards unlocking some new sticker to put on your car. Depending on how you see their rise to omnipresence, this mass of achievements could be both an act of good will, adding more content to the game, or a diabolic attempt to hide Blur‘s stale and unfullfilling nature. It doesn’t really matter in the end. The simple truth is that achievements alone can’t carry a game, so Blur ends up achieving neither.
In the end, I’m not really sure what to make of Blur. The game itself is perfectly functional, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table and I can’t help but wonder if this genre isn’t better off on consoles. If you don’t mind playing solo, and can stand the less than subtle visual style, you’ll probably have fun with this nice little arcade racer. Just don’t expect it to set your world on fire.
Bottom Line: Blur doesn’t outmariokart MarioKart, but it’s fun for a while. If you don’t own a Wii, this may just be the game for you.
After a summer spent drinking, gaming and drunken gaming I’m moving back into a college schedule right now, which hopefully means you’ll get to see a bit more activity around here. I haven’t finished anything new yet, but I figured I might honor the occasion by shamelessly reposting some old work. The following is my entry to the Review Noir contest on the Escapist. Strictly speaking, I violate the rules by revealing which entry is mine, and should the voting ever resume I’ll be the first to fill Nuke in. Unfortunately it seems more likely to break down and eventually silently disappear, much like the previous installment did.
I recently realized that I have no backup copy of the review that vanished with the Indie contest. The thing was so bad that I don’t actually mind losing it, but the thought did serve as a reminder that, hey!, I got another review in a similar situation right now. So I figured I might as well salvage my entry this time. It’s a shame that I’ll never get to claim last place now.
The piece itself is a rather lackluster sideproduct of a busy week at college. It’s less a review and more of a narrative, and by narrative I mean one long tortured metaphor, and a blatantly obvious one at that. I deliberately cut the first draft short to stay within the word limit, grudgingly ignoring the various plotholes and kinks in the structure, but it still ended up at 200 words past the limit. Somehow I managed to cut it down to 1500, but I doubt that it got any better in the process. I’ll let you be the judge. Enjoy my weird, shoddy short story.
The Wretch & Hallow was one of the oldest bars in town, with a very loyal clientele. Even at this early hour it was filled with chatter, smoke and the constant clinking of glasses. This wasn’t the way Nathan normally liked to spend his evenings, but like every other cop out there, sometimes he just needed a drink. Most of his colleagues got their fill a little closer to the station, but he preferred drinking on his own. The Wretch & Hallow was on his way home, and the buzzing allowed him to be alone with his thoughts. Tonight, however, he wasn’t the only one looking for solitude there and just as the bartender gave him his first share of liquid remission, he heard a familiar voice by his side.
“Evening Nathan” “Oh Hey Peck. Didn’t see you there” “That’s quite alright. Wasn’t looking to be seen, either” And Nathan could see why. It had been a while since he last worked with Gregory Peck, but he distinctly remembered him being a prim fellow. There was no sign of that left. He looked unkempt and tired, and his bald, round head had gained a sickly yellowish color that neither his three-day stubble nor the blush of inebriation could hide. “What brings you here Nate?”
“Had a bit of a rough day. Got a body at the docks, but of course ain’t nobody down there gonna talk to a cop. It was one of them, some lowlife junkie, but they won’t open their damn mouths. Small stuff, eh? How’s business with the task force?” Greg took another sip, keeping his eyes fixed on the glass of whiskey in front of him. “Lousy” “Really? I heard yesterday’s raid went quite well. How much did you take off the street this time? Half a ton?” “Almost” “See, half a ton of pills that’ll never make it to some rich kid’s mouth. And didn’t you catch the four biggest drug lords in town at the same time?” “We had them alright” He downed his drink and gestured for another. “You don’t mean to tell me they’re out already?”
He didn’t. But the look on his face said everything. “In less than a day? I thought you had found someone to testify against Ink Blot?” “Ran for the hills. Ink resisted arrest and the guy taking him in ended up breaking his wrist, so his lawyer sprang him. Guy won’t talk while Ink is on the loose” “What about Pink Paul?” “We had some documents he signed, but somehow the guys at evidence misplaced them. They were among the old files destroyed today” “Wow. I knew the guy had some pull, but that… What about Strobe and Adrian Clyde?” “Made deals. The attorney would rather lock up some middlemen than give them a chance to break our witnesses in a drawn-out trial”
“Focus on the bright side: Some scum will end up in the can, and you got their goods. They’re prolly running a major loss and how long can they really…“Okay, stop. I know you’re trying to help Nate, but I can’t go on like this. You wanna know how long they can keep this up? Forever. We’re not taking anywhere near enough to mess up their business and anytime I get my hands on them they walk right back out of lockup in a matter of hours. I just can’t get to them, but they can get to me. You know what I found in my mailbox today?” “Mail?” “Cherries” “Cherries?” “Cherries” “Now what’s that supposed to mean?” “Haven’t a clue. But it can’t be good” “Maybe it is. You’re stepping on some toes.”
“Doesn’t matter if I do. This is game I can’t win” “But nobody plays the game like you. The guys are keeping track of your stats: Fourteen successful razzias in a row, no complications. You’re Gregory Peck, the master schemer. You should hear them go on and on about your elegantly designed plans: Nothing unaccounted for, but nothing past that. No fancy tricks, just getting the job done. Some say they could listen to your briefings all day long. Remember blowing that meet in the sewers? That place is agoddamn labyrinth, but you knew your way. Every. Single. Turn”
“That’s not all they say. They say there’s no variety. That I have just one trick, and even if that’s a very good trick sooner or later something will go wrong. And they’re right. I can’t go on dodging them forever. The guy in the park was a warning and I got lucky at the last raid when I just took a graze, but that won’t happen again. I am nogoddamn cat. I am down to my last fucking life” Mechanically, he raised his glass, but then put it down again. “I’ll resign tomorrow” “You can’t quit, Greg” “You wanna lecture me on that? Because the attitude didn’t serve you too well” “Don’t go there. Just listen to me when I say: You can’t quit. It has to be done”
“Are we still talking about me? What was her name again? Sally something?” “Sandra Lowe” “There were no leads, no witnesses, no anything! And you were up for promotion goddamnit! You could have gotten my job!” “I should have gotten your job, you know it” “Why didn’t you just let it go?” “I couldn’t. I promised” “You know what else you couldn’t do? Solve the goddamn case!” Nathan slammed his glass down, spilling its content on the counter. “You know what I think? I think you’re just a coward. You moved up the ladder, you’re finally in a position to change something in this hellhole of a city but you just won’t do it. You’re too scared, scared of everything. Too afraid to take the risks that this job is all about” “I don’t have to sit here and listen to this” “You’re a coward” “And you’re a lousy cop”
That was too much. The punch was awkwardly delivered, but Greg wasn’t prepared for it. Hell, Nathan himself was surprised he was doing this. He hit his cheek and Greg fell over backwards. He would have felt better about it if Greg had justified it by going along, but he simply got up again and went back to his whiskey. “It’s a shame it had to come to this” Greg noted unspecifically, paying for his last round. “I would have thought you’d understand. So long Nathan. Maybe you’ll get my job after all” And out the door he went. Nathan already knew he had to apologize, even if he didn’t like the idea. With a final sip from his glass he got up and stepped out into the streets.
Gregory wasn’t outside the bar, so Nathan marched off in the general direction of his apartment. The sun had gone down while was in the Wretch & Hallow and the streets where good as empty, but Greg was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he had taken a cab? He was about to give up when he heard something coming from an alley. “My, my Peck. Looks like somebody beat us to it”. Sure enough, there was Gregory held up by two goons. Presumably Strobe’s men, not that there was any shortage of people who wanted to see him dead. “Look here Randy” The first thug announced, pointing at something “Ain’t that some of our merchandise?” Nathan sighed. What had he said a few minutes ago? You can’t quit, it has to be done. It was no fair fight. They were armed, and sober. But goddamnit, he was at least going to try.
“Man, Peck. I never figured you was one for that stuff. You might as well though, must have plenty lying around”. They noticed him. No big surprise there, he was less than subtle about charging towards them. Fortunately Peck used his moment to shove the pair backwards, giving him enough time to tackle them both to the ground. Landing on top of the first goon, he tried to wrestle the gun from his hands while Peck mounted the other and proceeded to beat him to a pulp. Nathan and who he thought was Randy were rolling around on the floor. He could feel his grip on the gun getting stronger. He removed one hand from the barrel, grabbed Randy’s wrist and started twisting with all his might, when suddenly the alley resounded with a mighty bang. Nathan didn’t let go. He didn’t feel pain, just a strange, warm prickling sensation in his stomach. Randy pulled the trigger once more. Nathan stopped struggling and rolled off his foe. Warm blood was running from his torso, leaving him all the colder for it. Three more shots. Now Peck’s bald, yellow head appeared in his field of vision “Why did you have to interfere? This was my fight, you shouldn’t…” “That’s quite alright. Do you know Mitchell’s record?” “255 successful razzias?” “Break it.”
Games are predictable. When we expect them to jump they’ll eagerly hop up and down for us: We align them into genres and expect them to act accordingly, we deduct marks for not living up to established standards, we ask them to stick to a set of rules. If a game decides to deliberately bend those rules it can create a wonderful moment of denaturalization for us, but as all things in life this can be taken too far. Note exhibit A: Zeno Clash. It treats our expectations with such reckless abandon that even after completing it the only thing I can tell for certain is that it’s a video game.
The game picks up with our main character Ghat killing Father-Mother, the hermaphrodite head of a large and influential family in the town of Halstedom, a place he’d rather not be from here on in. But what’s more Father-Mother was his Father-Mother. The questions how he got himself into this mess and how he intends to get himself out again are addressed alternatively as he embarks on a psychedelic trip through the Dr. Seuss meets Oddworld meets Stone Age cave paintings gameworld accompanied by a strange lady called Deadra. The prime gameplay mechanic is that of a first-person brawler, but even at a total length of just three hours Zeno Clash is anxious to shake things up and mixes in a bit of gunplay. The focus between those elements keeps shifting back and forth. Some parts feel almost exclusively like a fighting game, whereas others feel like a traditional FPS. Then at halfway point there’s something that is neither FPS nor Brawler, but also both at the same time.
Judged from a gameplay perspective, Zeno Clash is decent, but not good. No element of the game is broken past fixation and they’re interestingly put together, but there’s also no denying that they’re all flawed in their own right and once you put them all together this creates room for frustration. As simplistic as the melee combat might be, there’s technically nothing wrong with it. At times it feels like you’re simply going through the motions over and over, but the decent sound effects and enjoyable Source-engine ragdoll madness makes it an enjoyable exercise and a similar thing can be said for the gunplay. Problems only start arising once the two combine: The lock-on function has an annoying tendency to simply switch to another enemy when you’re trying to turn it off, making it hard to get far enough away to open fire and this isn’t helped by the fact that Ghat will drop whatever weapon he’s carrying if an enemy so much as bumps into him. But it’s not like I need any help to get rid of my guns: I realise that in a melee/FPS hybrid like this you need some way to drop your weapons in a pinch. I accept that the game doesn’t necessarily need a jump button. I also understand that, with the key now useless, it’s reasonable to use the space bar for blocking, but as soon as I pick up a gun my FPS paradigm takes over and the fact that space bar then serves to throw away my weapon rather than to hop about the place is something I could only memorize after tossing much-needed equipment out-of-bounds a few times.
Gameplay is certainly a bit rough around the edges, but there’s one thing that still keeps Zeno Clash from being forgettable or mediocre and that’s the level of weird it radiates on all levels. The game boasts completely bizarre and often times deadly wildlife, at any given moment the themes can vary from motherhood to insanity and the use of lighting and space to communicate atmosphere is actually pretty decent. Especially in the beginning I found myself wanting to go on just to see what the game would do next, but unfortunately this charm is undermined a bit once the game stops to pick up all the loose threads and attempts to weave them together. Ghat’s and Deadra’s journey reaches a rather perplexing turning point when they meet Golem, the man-gone-macguffin character, who convinces them to face up to the society they left and makes loud-mouthed promises to “end all conflicts”. So the three of them travel back, win a climactic boss fight and of course we finally learn Ghat’s big secret, the one thing he knew that made killing Father-Mother look like a good idea. And without wanting to give anything away here, it’s just too tame. The game uses its entire length to build up anticipation for this one and all we get is a crime worthy of a Disney villain, whereas a sequence close to the beginning involves a trip through a subculture of raging lunatics and more than one instance of cannibalism. How’s that for consistency Zeno Clash? After that all we get is a cryptic monologue followed by a Rubik’s Cube out of nowhere (that’s not a metaphor), and then the credits kick us out of this intriguing but ultimately disappointing experience. It’s a shame for all the potential on display here, but on the whole Zeno Clash just isn’t worth your time.
That’s one way to look at Zeno Clash. Now if you’d be so kind to give me a second to put on my reviewer hat, there’s another perspective I need to cover here: That of an elitist connoisseur. I’ve been giving the game lip for ignoring conventions at every turn, but that’s not technically a bad thing. I quickly found myself enjoying how efficiently Zeno Clash managed to alienate me. Make no mistake about it, it takes some genuine cleverness to defy standards with such consistency, and with this in mind even the laughable ending might have been intended as another entry in a series of slaps across the face. There’s method to this madness, so an appreciation for clever design can definitely help you overlook some flaws. However there’s no ignoring that the game still puts itself into an awkward position. I enjoyed it, but that’s mostly because I picked it up expecting to be entertained, but without caring about the particulars. Even if you’re a sucker for first-person melee combat or an FPS enthusiast starved for new artistic venues, if you walk into this experience looking for any one particular kind of game, be it shooter, brawler or complex epic, then you might end up feeling disappointed.
Bottom Line: It’s hard to predict whether or not you’ll like Zeno Clash, but I’d say that its low price makes it worth checking out. It’s certainly a nice example of what the FPS genre could do outside of current trends.
The best things in life are free. If a game decides to put neither an upfront price nor DRM nor copy-protection between us and the fun it can get us to look past many issues inherent to the nature of such low-budget productions. Even if parts of the game end up irritating or annoying you it’s no big loss, so no harm no foul right? To tell you that such a game isn’t worth your while is a very dismissive conclusion given the low barrier of entry, but it’s the only conclusion I can reach with Haven 2. It’s peculiar nature doesn’t make up for the abundance of flaws bringing it down.
Haven 2 comes courtesy of Cleril, The Escapist‘s resident upstart game developer. His projects mainly take the form of visual novels, with Haven 2 being no exception. After the events of the original Haven Cleril, the protagonist not the developer mind you, is declared insane and consequently forced into an asylum in the game’s barely interactive intro. With nothing but empty walls around him Cleril is left to explore the depths of his own mind in which the raging parts of his personality assume the shape of four different people: The Jester couples humor with malice and a taste for game shows. The Flirt represents Cleril’s sexuality and similarly primal urges. The Writer personifies Cleril’s problems with his supposed avocation of being a bard and poet and the Stranger deals with the way Cleril is perceived by others, or rather how Cleril assumes he is perceived by others.
This being a visual novel gameplay is largely taking backseat and the writing is the one quality that ultimately makes or breaks the product, doubly so since the limits of RPG Maker stop visuals from playing a major role. This problem is fought with graphic overlays, but this procedure is very invasive and gives us awkward results at best. The sound design on the other hand is one of the few highlights: Music generally communicates the right tone for the scene and the voice acting is surprisingly well done considering how small a project this is. But sadly this doesn’t help the game. It’s still up to the writing to seal the deal and in that regard Haven 2 is a big letdown. Many issues undermine its overall appeal, but the most glaring of all is the fact that the game has the subtlety of a brick to the face.
When it comes to subtlety the golden rule of writing is “Show, don’t tell” and video games have a lot of potential for showing. Between its visuals, its sound and its interactivity, its ability to have the player actively participate in the events on-screen, a game can communicate a great deal without a single word. Haven 2 works on none of those levels. The game rarely allows you to have your say and when it does you’re likely still unable to influence the situation: The amount of dialogue options is limited and mono-dimensional to begin with and this is not helped by the descriptions generally failing to describe the actual intent of an option (Don’t get me started on the irritating habit of having all options lead to the same result). The visuals and the audio do a better job of conveying ideas, but generally they don’t have the time to create poignant images before we’re boldfacedly told what we’re supposed to feel.
As early as the first few lines of the game Haven 2 bluntly introduces us to Cleril’s mental predicament and all other characters are introduced in a similarly direct fashion. There’s a halfway interesting bit in which the Stranger sends Cleril back to the original Haven in order to see people’s attitude towards him, but sure enough the whole thing climaxes in monologue explicitly reiterating the various hints dropped throughout the quest. This is just bad storytelling and nothing about the ambiguous context of the game excuses such behaviour. The fact that it ignores the basic laws of presentation and design for sake of focusing all effort on “the message” just speaks to how pretentious this piece is and here’s an interesting twist: Even all those tradeoffs fail to give the game a salvageable message.
Haven 2 gives us the worst of both worlds. It produces a series of awkwardly presented, shallow points but never connects them with any sense of coherence, and be it coherent incoherence. This statement might indicate to you that I simply don’t “get” Haven 2, which is true. Between all the mindless pandering, the bad design and the habit of over-writing I can’t tell if there’s anything the game wants me to remember and so I walked out of the experience feeling I had gained nothing. If you want to assume that that’s simply because I’m thick then I can’t stop you. But keep in mind that just because something is open to interpretation doesn’t mean it’s above critique.
Bottom Line: Skip this one. It picks an interesting subject, but never lives up to the potential.