Horizon Zero Dawn

I don’t know if I can say something about this game that would do it justice.  I didn’t even know it existed until I happened to see some comparisons between it and other games that were released around the same time (and the answer to ‘which should you buy’ is ‘why not all of them?’), but then I saw the main character was a female with a bow who primarily uses stealth and I was like “well… I guess it was made for me.”  I suppose we have Katniss Everdeen to thank for the “badass female with a bow” trope becoming more popular lately but as someone who always picks the archer when it’s available (even when it suuuuuccckkkksss), I’m pretty excited about this trend.

If someone were to take all of my favourite games and blend them together, the result would probably be something similar to Horizon Zero Dawn (HZD).  Post apocalyptic, stealth elements and tactical combat, collections and crafting, good dialogue and interesting characters, a plot that holds a lot of mystery and doesn’t let you down with the reveals… all it’s missing is terraformable terrain and economics systems to hit pretty much every one of my favourite games, so it’s probably not surprising that I loved it.

I had expressed some interest in it after reading a little bit about it, and I happened to be sick and confined to the couch, so my husband brought it home for me.  I spent the next 2.5 days piling tissues around the couch and binging through HZD until my wrists hurt from holding the controller.  My husband watched the first couple of quests and then decided he would play it after me, and it was brutal to not be able to talk about the plot points as I went through it (I had to settle for repeating “Oh my god it’s so good…” and he kept repeating “Well hurry up and finish it so I can play it, then.”).  He’s playing through it now, but he’s on very hard difficulty and dallying around doing all the side quests so it’s going to take forever *shake fist*.

For those who like a challenge, the combat offers plenty of ways to be creative.  I had it set to the easiest (“tell me a story”) mode, so I spent the majority of the game sneaking around being a backstabbing goddess of invulnerability… but even on the easiest setting I had to use tactics, set traps, duck into cover, and learn the weak spots of the enemies in order to expose their weaknesses and go in for a critical hit.  Being on easy mode meant I could be sloppy and just be like “fuck it” and flail away when things went wrong.  My husband is playing on very hard and when things go wrong it means he is swiftly dismembered and gets to start the sequence over againI expect a lot of cursing on some of the later bosses.

What did I like about HZD (besides everything?):  It’s got pretty standard open world gameplay (go to places, unlock travel points, collect plants, find quests, clean out the map of points of interest) but the world itself is interesting to explore.  You start out as an outcast, which is a well-done version of putting the player inside of a protagonist who doesn’t know much about the world, in order to learn along with them (not facepalm inducing like ‘amnesia’).  The main plot point is Aloy trying to figure out why she was outcast as an infant, so she works her butt off to earn a way back into the tribe and get some answers.  As a player, you’re just as invested in discovering those answers as she is, and the writers did a fantastic job.  The world feels real.

What really won me over was the writing, by far.  I loved the story and I’m still thinking about it a week later.  I went onto the wiki and re-read all the data points.  The plot zags when you expect a zig, and even though some elements may play out the way you expect, there are enough flourishes that it will still surprise you.  As the ending sequences played out I was watching it and trying to rank it against my favourite games of all time, and I was sitting there thinking “It’s REALLY REALLY good, but it hasn’t really made me cry yet, so I don’t know if I wou—… … … fffffffffffffffffffff okay I’m misting up now.”
I think my “story enjoyment” final ranking would be just above Mass Effect, but not quite to the level of Last Of Us.

So we’ve established that I love the game.  How about Criticisms?  I really only have one, but it’s kind of a big one.  The game spends a lot of time hyping up its strong female characters.  I have no problem with that—more games need to have badass, yet realistic females that have more depth to them than just their badassery.  When I think back across the characters you meet, though, I can’t think of a single male character who isn’t pathetic in some way.
The ironic thing is I can’t tell if it’s intentional or not.  The cast of characters includes (I presume quite deliberately) a hugely diverse cast of races and cultures, and yet every single accomplished character is female.  Every named male in the game is either a failure, or outright evil.  Many of the males who are failures need females to solve the messes they’ve made.  Many of the males who are outright evil are thwarted by females, and solely females.  Even among the scientists, the ones with the most screentime and the most showcased roles are females, except for the one who programs the questionable content, who is, of course, male.  Avad seems to be a strong male character on the surface, until you dig deeper into his story and find he’s actually obsessed with his (female) Military Captain.  That’s a pretty minor character point in the grand scheme, but if you were to apply some sort of reverse Bechdel test to the game, it would go back to a fail right there.  Meanwhile, there is precisely one female in the game I can think of off the top of my head who could be considered pathetic or evil… and it’s made abundantly clear that she’s just misguided and following her own values.  And even she comes around in the end.

I’m not sure if I would call it misandry, and I’m certainly not certain if I would call it intentional misandry, but it’s skirting a line that I think needs to be balanced a bit more.  It is ENTIRELY possible (if not preferred) to have a strong female protagonist without shitting all over males while you do it.  The whole “mother earth” theme is pretty strong throughout the game, so maybe it’s intentional, but if “males ruin earth, females save earth” is intentional subtext, that’s pretty lame, to be honest.  I’m hoping any sequels, should there happen to be some, will rectify the imbalance by continuing the trend of badass females but also mixing in badass males to balance them, along with some pathetic evil females to balance out the pathetic evil males.

That niggling detail aside… I love this game.  Once again I lament the existence of exclusivity contracts.  Everyone should have access to this game on whatever platform they choose, because it is a masterpiece of storytelling that needs to be experienced.

 

The Talos Principle

I’ve been holding off on writing about Talos Principle because I wanted to get further in it and reveal a bit more of the story, because it’s one of those super mysterious “something reaaaallllly interesting is here and if you just get a little bit further you might get to reveal some of it!” sorts of stories, and it seems like a disturbingly large percentage of the time the reveals turn out to be complete balls.  But I am just loving this game so much that I am going to talk about it anyway.

The Talos Principle is a puzzle game, but it is also a journey into philosophy.  It wins my “Best Game Ever” award for two simple reasons:
1: The options screen has a “Motion Sickness” section where you can adjust things like FoV and turn head bobbing off.  These developers get it and I love them for it.  Game of the Year for that alone.
2: In one of the story snippets there is a burn on Twilight.  Excellent.

The premise is that you are a robot who has been dropped into a series of tests, which is all very Portal-esque, but instead of a sarcastic murderous robot you have a somewhat self-righteous god-voice by the name of Elohim (definitely not an improvement over GlaDOS, I have to say.)  As you venture through your trials you also uncover snippets of story that hint at the goings on outside of your own little personal rat-maze, as well as philosophical musings for you to think about as you go along.  Things like “How does someone know they are a person” or “How do you know you really exist”, alongside things like “Could a robot solve these sorts of puzzles or would it take a human mind to do it?”, where it all becomes very meta because in the game you are a robot and you are solving those puzzles but REALLY you are a human solving those puzzles right?? right?? so if you solve that puzzle that only a human could solve it does that mean a robot solved it or does it mean a human was still needed to solve it??? Or is it even talking about you at all????? Don’t play it while high or you might feel entirely too clever for yourself.

But actually mostly it makes me feel dumb.  But then I solve something and feel like a genius.  And then the next one makes me feel dumb again.  I was incredibly disappointed with how easy the puzzles were at first.  I was just going from puzzle to puzzle feeling like “…is this it?  Really?”  Sometimes a puzzle would be SO easy that I’d pick up the prize and then run back and forth for a bit wondering if I had missed something.  A lot of them take the same sort of logic too, so they almost get repetitive at times. The most disappointing part is when you get stuck on something for ages and ages and then finally you come across the solution and it is so god damn fucking easy and then you hate yourself for not figuring it out right away.

But then I ran into some of the hidden puzzles and my brain broke and I lay awake at night thinking about them.  Most of the puzzles are self contained, but the hidden ones require “outside of the box” thinking, and a lot of “outside of the level” thinking.  Most of them span levels, requiring you to break the fourth wall and figure out how to get bits from here to there, or how to cheat the system to get what you need to the area you need it.  In some cases it almost seems unfair, like, you can’t take items through the barrier so who would guess that you can shoot the fucking laser through it?!?!? (but then again, fair enough to catch me out on assuming that something would not be possible without trying it.  Fuckers.) There was one where I sort of figured it would be something pretty skookum, and I had an idea of what I would need to do, but I decided that I would be a horrible person and be lazy and not do it and just look up the solution.  I was reaffirmed in that choice when the description said “Hardest star in the game” and I was like “yep going to ruin this one for myself”, and I am kind of sad that I cheated but also I don’t think I would have figured it out otherwise.  It’s pretty epic.

And as I advance into the later worlds, the “easy” puzzles are less and less easy.  Every now and then I’ll bumble around in a level for so long that Elohim comes along and gently suggests I go to a different level.  Fuck you, God.  What kind of God is all like “Well if you haven’t figured this out by NOW you may as well just give up.”

You should buy this game.  It is excellent mysterious storytelling that almost makes me nostalgic for Myst, with a mix of puzzles that will make your brain hurt, but are not so tough that you need a walkthrough to get anywhere.  And also some philosophy crap that you may or may not enjoy. The world is beautiful and fun to explore, especially since there could be hidden mysteries or easter eggs around any corner or under any bush.  It’s just good old fashioned “I’m going to try this and see what happens” exploration fun, and it is highly rewarding.

Super Mario 3D World

We had a hankering for some Mario action so we bit the bullet and bought a Wii-U.  At least this way I will be prepared when the Xenoblade sequel arrives… plus it’s got delicious unique co-op options going on.  Mario 3D Word is one of them.

Mario 3D World is pretty typical Nintendo.  It’s essentially Mario 3 (the best Mario), mixed with some Mario World (probably the second best Mario), and then named after both of them with some stupid gimmicks thrown in so they can pretend it’s new.  Despite the recycled and snipped together name, the gameplay is really good.

Normally we’d “co-op” a Mario game by passing the controller back and forth once one of us landed in a pit, but 3D World has fully functional drop-in co-op where you’re both running around on the screen jumping on koopa shells and occasionally accidentally (“accidentally”) picking up your partner and throwing them into lava.  There are decent cooperation sections where you can both work together toward a goal – like when there’s a movable platform that requires more than one body to activate – but the game remains fully soloable as well (those same platforms can be activated with an item that creates clones of you.  It’s just easier with other humans to communicate with.  Until they pick you up and throw you off it, anyway…).  In most cases having a partner to work with to have someone’s head to bounce off of or have someone pick you up to chuck you to a goal simply makes things easier, but doesn’t change the dynamics immensely.  There are multiple characters to choose from, and they each have mild differences that make them distinct in ways beyond character models.  And yet they’re all balanced well enough that you can pick your favourite and not worry about the impact the changes will have on your game.  There’s also a small element of competition because it shows you a head to head score after every stage, but it’s 100% meaningless other than for bragging rights, which has the side effect of being not frustrating, either.

My biggest complaint with a 3D platformer is always going to be the camera, because fuck cameras that wander off or randomly adjust themselves in such a way that it changes the direction your controller thinks is “that way” and suddenly changes your perfect jump from “that way, onto the platform” to “that way, into that pit there.”  I did not have any problems whatsoever with the camera in 3D World, and that’s WITH a human companion running in the opposite direction and causing the screen to stretch and zoom out in order to accommodate both of us at once.  Nintendo may finally have this shit figured out, at least to the point where the camera is such a mild annoyance that you can forgive its small transgressions when they occur.

One of the amusing (yet pointless) features they’ve tried to add is the “Dark Souls” style communication system, where people can post pre-made stamps (which are one of the many collectables in the stages) for others to enjoy on their travels.  The game also lets you sketch or type small notes in there, so you may come across someone’s Mii standing on the map, or see a string of notes after you complete a level, which will give you an idea of what people think of things, or just admire whatever amusing stamp combinations they’ve come up with.  Most of them are something along the lines of “this is fun!” or “That level was really easy this is my score”, or “This game is lovely!” (I highly suspect that one came from someone’s mom), and sometimes it will be some really cool original art that relates to the stage you just went through… but every now and then some clever child realizes they can use the sketch feature to write swear words that won’t get caught by the filter, and you’ll see “BUTTHOLE” scroll past.  Heh henh hnhnheh butthole.  So edgy.  They must be moderating it pretty heavily though because “butthole” was the most egregious thing that wandered past in our travels, and that’s just statistically improbable.  I am suspicious about the extremely high positive comment ratio, as well… hmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

The other problem is that the game seems really short.  Really short.  We’re on what appears to be the last stage after roughly 6 hours of messing around with it.  Granted that’s not getting 100% of the stars, but still.  We fucked around and died a lot, too.

I suppose the only thing wrong with Mario 3D World is that it is on the Wii U, where no one will get to play it.  Things seem to be picking up over in Wii land though, and I’m excited to check out some of the other unique co-op options available.  Hopefully I’ll wring some blog entries out of it yet…

Paper Sorcerer

It’s been a month since I’ve written anything, and it’s entirely because the Diablo 3 expansion consumed my soul.  (Bonus review: the Diablo 3 expansion is really good.  Really really good.  Really good.)  After spending an hour before work, several hours after work, and all day every weekend levelling characters and farming achievements, we’ve got almost 100% completion and I woke up this Saturday and didn’t feel compelled to immediately log into Diablo.

This dawning of a new day happened to coincide with the release of Dark Souls 2, and reading about that put me in the mood for some dungeon crawling (of a non-isometric format, anyway), but something perhaps a bit cheaper than Dark Souls 2 since it will come on sale one day so why pay full price, right?  (spoiler alert: we also bought Dark Souls 2 tonight so I wouldn’t sit around mashing F5 looking for new updates after this, either :P.  Stupid games being good and time consuming and stuff.)  I stumbled over a game on Steam by the name of “Paper Sorcerer” and decided it looked interesting enough that I bought it not on sale for a 5 dollar price tag.

It’s good and you should buy it.  Because it’s 5 bucks.  And good.  I like to support 5 dollar games that are also really good.

It’s an “old school” first person dungeon crawler style, with turn based combat, but the art assets really make it unique.  The premise is that you are an evil sorceror/sorceress who has been trapped inside of a prison book as punishment for terrorizing the land with your summoned minions.  You traverse the dungeons within the book, regaining your powers and re-summoning your monster buddies (who serve as your party), while seeking to break the bindings holding the prison together.  The art is all black and white hand-drawn style, as is fitting for book illustrations, but it’s done in a really excellent way.  Exploration is satisfying, and loot is interesting.  It’s also challenging enough to keep you thinking about strategy, both in battle action choices and in party composition and skill layout, once you’ve unlocked enough monster buddies to have some options.  I’m on easy (because I am a huge wuss) and I still find myself sweating through the last few turns of a battle here and there.  The enemies and encounters are static and there’s no grinding to speak of, so it all relies on your decisions rather than your experience points. I think the catacombs have random fights so you could grind to overpoweredness I guess, if that’s your thing.  I chose the ‘rob everyone blind to have lots of cash available to buy skills’ style of grinding, myself.  The story isn’t the main focus (fear not, you won’t be stuck scrolling through text for 20 minutes every time you meet an NPC), but the writing that is there is well done and interesting.  The music is honestly a bit bizarre, but somehow really enjoyable too.

My major complaint (and only complaint…) is that the interface is a little iffy.  It’s fully swappable between keyboard and mouse, but sometimes it feels awkward to use one or the other, making you feel like you should be swapping… which is awkward in itself.  (So it is probably safe to say the UI is somewhat awkward, huh.)  I also find it a bit tedious that there are a lot of superfluous menus to click through.  I suppose it retains the “old school” feeling of “it was easier to program it this way so you have to agree to this option even though it’s literally the only option that will ever be presented to you” (e.g. having to pick “all enemies/allies” for group effects that will never be cast on anything but the entire field…), but it would have been nice to modernize that a little bit.  I also find the inventory a bit cumbersome.  Things are a bit better if you remember to hit Q and E to swap between your party members, but equipping new items on them can be a real chore sometimes.  Click(or spacebar) on inventory, click on Sorceress, click on desired item slot, double click on desired item, click on accept, swap to new character, repeat… unless you forget to swap before backing out, which results in having to re-select the inventory and character again before getting back to item select.  None of it is streamlined, and sometimes I feel like just selling the items I’ve found rather than worrying about whether one of my lesser-used party members might benefit from it.

But it’s five dollars and worth well over twice that, crappy menus and all.  Check it out.

Monsters of Men (Chaos Walking Finale)

Monsters of Men (Chaos Walking, #3)Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

These are good books and you should read them. The final book in the series holds up its end of the bargain and keeps you reading. It has its flaws (and a fair amount of cheesiness…) but it still deserves a five.

I still hate the random misspellings in Todd’s sections. They add nothing. Stop it. I don’t mean during dialogue where it dictates an obvious speech pattern, I mean in his thoughts where any word that ends in “-tion” is butchered into “-shun” for no reason. I got over it but it’s pointless. I still appreciate that every character sounds distinct, though.

Speaking of which, I absolutely loved the way the alien voice is written. It’s a challenging task to take on a language that is intended to be mostly pictorial and then change it into text, but it was effectively done (even if there were some shortcuts here and there). It felt alien. The worst thing about it is that I don’t think it can ever effectively be translated into a movie format. I almost hope no one tries to make this series into a movie because so much of it will likely be lost in translation.

Many of the complaints I had about the characterization of the villains were completely eradicated in the final book – which brings me to a whole new complaint (no, you can’t win). This series should not have been a trilogy. It doesn’t really feel like a cheap cash-in attempt (selling three books is better than selling one after all) but the books feel decidedly unfinished when you hit the break points between them. You need to read all three to get the whole picture and really appreciate it. It was amazing, but I wonder how polished it could have been if it were constructed as a cohesive whole…

Whistler Chestnut Ale

Holy shit.

It’s so good.

It might be a bit too sweet but… I’m going to finish this bottle and if I have anything else to add I will, but it might be that this is all that needs to be said.

It’s good.  I love Whistler Brewing.

[edit] Okay I have more details now.  It’s still really good, but I will add that it becomes overpowering quite quickly.  It starts out crisp and clean and refreshing with a strong vanilla flavour, and then it hits you with an awesome nutty chestnut flavour, but the strength of the flavours starts to undermine the refreshingness after awhile.  It probably is a bit too sweet, too.

Still amazingly good though.

FORCED

You know what I’ve always wanted?  I’ve always wanted the raid fights from World of Warcraft, but for 2-4 players.  Something that requires a lot of strategy and coordination, with specific roles for each team member, but without the need to collect and manage a group of 25 or more competent team members.

That game is FORCED.  We’ve played it for about 3 hours and only made it to the second set of challenges, but I already feel confident enough to recommend it.

The premise is that you are gladiators dumped into a ring, and you must battle through a series of challenges.  You can choose one of four roles/classes, then proceed into challenge chambers and try to succeed.  Succeeding at a challenge involves your standard “kill shit that is attacking you”, “avoid things that will kill you” (I accidentally referred to a giant spinning death beam as a “Lurker Beam”.  Sigh.  If you don’t understand that then, well, good.), as well as the novel mechanic which is passing an orb back and forth. The orb will activate switches which do various kinds of things (heal you, kill enemies, blow shit up, etc.), it might activate blocks which need to be pushed onto switches, or various other kinds of goals. Each encounter has three objectives: Succeed, succeed really fast (time attack, usually requiring a high degree of coordination), and a sort of “achievement” style challenge which can be anything from “do this perfectly” to “do this crazy shit that no sane person would attempt”.  Each time you complete a challenge you get a gem, which is used to unlock abilities, perks, and keys to bind things to.  I had originally thought that beating the chambers was fairly easy and that the real challenge of the game would be to complete all the extra challenges.  Then we had our asses kicked repeatedly in chamber 2.

People keep saying it’s an ARPG/Diablo clone, and I can see why because I also thought at first it was going to be a WoW/Diablo game (in fact… I think their own site refers to it as a Diablo style game)… but it’s actually not much like Diablo, aside from having a third person isometric camera angle and shit to kill.  There is no loot or experience.  The only progression comes from completing challenges and unlocking more abilities.  The real challenge is all on you as the player to execute the encounter correctly, and the advanced abilities only make that marginally easier by giving you more playstyle options that might better fit your comfort zone.  Basically, if you enjoy beating a challenge for intrinsic reasons (because it is challenging and then you can tick it off the “done that” list), you will love this game.  If you enjoy beating a challenge for extrinsic reasons (because it drops shiny items), you might wonder what the point is.

I also don’t see how this game will ever be fun to play with random groups.  My god, the ways you can fuck over an encounter… I can see this game ruining a number of legit friendships when they’re actually putting in effort, nevermind random internet assholes trying to grief things.  One tap of the space bar calls the orb to you, which calls it off-course from wherever it was going before.  A lot of the orb objectives require precise timing and aiming, and we screwed the encounter over so many times simply by losing track of which character was ours amongst the swarms of monsters.  Much cursing was heard.  And that’s on the second chamber with only two people who are physically in the same room and can yell instructions to each other easily.  I can only imagine it gets worse at higher levels, never mind with 4 people accidentally hitting space… and maybe some of them aren’t on voice chat… and then that one asshole keeps doing it on purpose…
Yeah.  Play this game with friends.  Very good friends that you aren’t likely to want to strangle.

The really unfortunate thing is that the game is suffering some launch issues, and I feel like that, combined with the misinformed “just another ARPG” vibe people are getting from it, will really hurt its reputation before it gets off the ground.  The netcode is apparently a little shaky, and the developers couldn’t afford to have dedicated servers for it.  The result is that the host has a perfectly solid game, but there are some pretty gnarly lag spikes for most everyone else.  My husband and I are in the same room and he was still having some connection issues (LAN doesn’t appear to be an option either…).  I’m really hoping they can iron it out or get some dedicated servers up before they lose rep.

My one legit complaint with it is that the camera gets in the way a lot.  The camera follows the orb, so when you and your buddies split up, it just zooms out so that you can still see everything.  Except you can’t really see everything and sometimes it messes you up.  Cameras are such a difficult thing to do correctly… it’s really only an issue because the game requires so much precision.  The other issue is that I found it really easy to lose my character in the mobs of monsters, or lose track of which character was mine on the screen (something that happened to both of us frequently, and it’s really bad because you’re like “Oh if I call the orb now it will hit that pillar perfectly!  … why is it going THAT w…, oh FUCK.”).  We were both on sinus decongestants at the time which probably wasn’t helping, though…

The game is fairly unique and I really want to support co-op endeavors like this, plus the developers themselves have a pretty awesome origin story and I feel like I want to support these guys.  The first review they list in their trailer literally says “Fuck your game!”.  What other evidence do you need!  Buy FORCED.

Papers Please

To be fair, I have only played this game for about an hour, and I lost terribly, but it was enough for me to drop the demo and go buy it full price on Steam and start again.  I bought a game on Steam that wasn’t on sale.  It’s only 10 dollars, but still.

Papers Please is a unique indie game that simulates being a border guard in a communist country, trying to regulate who is legally allowed in and who is a terrorist that is going to blow your shit up.  Meanwhile, you’re making pennies a day (okay, dollars… but not MANY dollars) and you have a decent sized family that is freezing and starving to death.  Do you stop this guy’s wife from crossing the border because she has an invalid passport, or do you take the bribe and hope it’s worth it in the end?  Bear in mind, make too many mistakes (even intentional ones) and your pay is docked, which might mean you can’t afford food tonight.  If your bank balance is negative your ass is in jail and your family will be deported to their eventual doom.  Plenty of people want your job, you know.

The actual gameplay is probably something that will be considered tedious to some people.  A person walks in your booth and hands over their papers, you inspect them and decide if they’re legit.  If you see a discrepancy you highlight it and the game starts an interrogation, from which you can decide if it’s actually legit, if they should be rejected, or if they should be arrested and detained for suspicious behaviour.  A lot of the discrepancies are obvious, assuming you watch for them – expiry dates that have passed, names or serial numbers that don’t match, pictures that don’t match, even genders that don’t match.  Some of the trickier ones are watching for incorrect issuing cities (who the fuck is going to memorize all these city names and the countries they’re from!) or incorrect seal logos.  You have a handy dandy reference book, but you’re paid per person that’s processed so you don’t have all day to leaf through that thing, man, move move move your kid needs some medicine!

The interesting part of the game is in the background narratives.  Some people return over and over again, trying new tactics to get in.  Some people try to bribe you.  Occasionally a terrorist hops the fence and turns your guards into giblets.  Sometimes people slip you notes and ask for favours with regards to denying or approving a future passport.  Can your paycheque take the hit, or should you play it safe and risk retaliation from the seedy underbelly later?  Do you help the rebels try to free the country, or play it safe and try to keep your family happy and healthy with your steady (but shitty) job?

And if you’re not sold yet… you eventually get access to a full body scanner.  The game has a “nudity” toggle which confused the fuck out of me, but once I unlocked the scanner it all made perfect sense.  Bonus:  I confirmed someone’s gender with it!

Don’t get too excited though, the graphics are……… well, let’s just say not great.  It would probably be at home on my old Tandy 2000, with nostalgic CGA style cyan and magenta blocks.  The entire game is 37mb to download (lol) so yeah, don’t expect dazzling textures here.  I’m not complaining though – I enjoy pixel style graphics and it adds to the uniqueness of the game, but I know today’s crowd can be pretty fickle when it comes to things like that, so fair warning.  This is not a game you play for eye candy.

When I lost terribly, the game informed me that I had achieved 1 out of 20 endings.  So there might even be a decent amount of replay in this thing, too.  Unfortunately it seems like the beginning is pretty similar… the same people came through and asked for the same favours, the same terrorists hopped the same fences and blew up the same guards, the kid got sick on the same day…  I feel like it could be a bit repetitive to play a lot in close succession, but then again if you know who to accept and reject in advance you could save up one hell of a nest egg, if you’re that sort of “trial and error” gamer.  Of course, there’s also Endless Mode, which I have not tried, but I assume it will be truly random from start to finish.
[edit] So now that I’ve said this… I went and restarted and it actually lets you pick any day you’ve completed to start from, so the repetitive problem isn’t really a problem until you’ve finished all 20 endings, and by then you’ve probably got your 10 bucks worth. [/edit]

I feel like it’s unique enough that it’s worth the 10 dollar entry fee, but if you want to see for yourself, you can try the beta version as a demo: http://dukope.com/
The Steam version is definitely more polished with more events, and achievements, of course.  I made it to something like day 6 before just going and buying it on Steam – see how you do!

Don’t Starve

I have not once starved in Don’t Starve.  I have died in countless of other ways, but not ONCE did I starve!  Therefore I have mastered this game.

Then again, I haven’t actually made it to winter yet.  So…

Don’t Starve is a title that is so new that it’s not even out of beta yet!  It’s exactly the kind of game I like to mess around with, so I bought it awhile back.  The amount of updates to it since then have been incredible, and I feel like it’s time to start talking about it.  If you buy it right now you get the beta version (release date is apparently April 23rd!), with all the potential bugs that come along with that, along with the caveat that your save file might be rendered obsolete by major updates.  Buying early gets you a discount AND a second copy to gift to someone though (or at least you do on Steam…), so if it sounds interesting to you it might be the right time to jump on the bandwagon.  There’s plenty of game right now, with more coming.

Don’t Starve is probably best described as a survival simulator/roguelike.  You are a dude who gets dropped in the woods and you must survive by gathering resources, securing food sources (don’t starve!), and defending yourself through the night.  You fashion axes from twigs and flint, chop down trees, collect berries, weave grass into rope, smash rocks to search for gold, build science machines to research new inventions… if you played Minecraft for the “oh god monsters are coming at night what can I combine to make myself more likely to survive” aspect more than the “I can build ANYTHING I FUCKING WANT!” aspect, you will love this game.  I played the shit out of an old game called “Stranded II” which was almost literally this game but with less to do (and 3D, although the polygon count made that a dubious decision) so I knew instantly that I would enjoy it.  There are plenty of things to work up to and build, and you find yourself thinking “I absolutely do not need to build that thing and I should spend the day collecting wood so I don’t die tonight… but I can totally build that if I go smash the shit out of those spiders.  How hard can they be, right?”

It currently doesn’t have much in the way of plot (the objective is literally “survive as many days as you can”), but a story mode seems to be in the works which will shed light on why you’re chucked into the woods in the first place, with potential for revenge and/or escape.  There is also a bit of a “carrot” hook in that you gain experience based on how well you do, which unlocks different characters with different attributes that can change things up on subsequent playthroughs.

As I alluded to, the game is not 3D.  It’s a sort of isometric view with a somewhat charming “Burton-esque” cartoony style.  The stylistic choices really shine when you accidentally eat a bad mushroom and start hallucinating hideous shadow beasts all around you.  I started the game to get a screenshot of the graphics to illustrate this entry, but a couple of hours later I was eaten by a tree monster that was angry about my wanton murdering of its brethren.  As I went back to the menu screen I said “Oh shit, screenshot.”  I may update this later with a proper screenshot, but the game will have to stop being so damn interesting first…

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

I think Amnesia has gained enough popularity that I don’t really need to promote it, but it is my favourite game that I am too scared to play, so I feel like I must give it a nod.  Plus, I’ve spent a fair amount of time recommending it to friends, so I have some material already typed up that I can cannibalize for this review.  It really should be something I post around Halloween, but with any luck we’ll have Machine for Pigs by then and I can proceed to be too scared to play THAT, instead.

The guys who made Amnesia made the Penumbra series before it.  They’re a very similar style of game – first person, wander around, solve some adventure-style puzzles, scare the shit out of you.  The failing of the Penumbra games is that they included combat.  I’m relatively certain you aren’t supposed to engage in combat, but it’s an option in the game so people immediately pick up the nearest rock and try to bash a hell hound over the head with it, die horribly, and then say “This game sucks” and quit.  Possibly because they learned from this, Amnesia contains no combat at all.  It has monsters, yes, and those monsters want to fucking eat you, but you have no offensive options against them.  And the game is so much better for it.

I love reading discussion about Amnesia because invariably someone will come along and do the internet tough-guy thing.  “This game isn’t scary I don’t understand why everyone gets so scared by this game it didn’t scare me at all.”  You most certainly can boil the game down into its components and realize that if a zombie catches up to you in a video game, you won’t actually die in real life, so jeeze if you get scared by that you must be some kind of pussy!  Or, you can play a game and lose yourself in the atmosphere.  Because if there is one thing Amnesia does, it is atmosphere.  Amnesia has taught me that I apparently do not scream!  I curse.  So instead of screaming it’s more like “AAH FUCK FUCKOFFYOU#!#@!#%^$^$@!@#!#$%^&#@!@#$” as I run for my life…

The premise of the game is that you wake up in a big abandoned castle with no memory. Shortly thereafter you find a note from yourself telling you that YOU wiped your own memory. And then you find out there are ghosts who are mad at you. The story is suitable levels of fucked up and if you enjoy psychological thriller movies, you should really enjoy trying to unravel what went on. There are also multiple endings.

You wander around in first person and almost everything in the world is interactive, and you have to use objects in your environment to figure out how to advance. This includes things like sliding open drawers and cupboard doors, opening shit, smashing down walls… all with mouse gestures rather than point and clicking. It feels very fluid. Embarrassing note: I got stuck for like 15 minutes because I was clicking on a door and thought it was stuck, when I really needed to slide the mouse to pull it open /facepalm. The physics are fun, although sometimes when you grab objects they go flying around like you’re actually superman and chucked them with superhuman force.

The main hook of the game is that you have a sanity meter of sorts, and it works similar to Eternal Darkness where if your sanity gets low, you start hallucinating shit. Hanging out in the darkness will drain your sanity. You can hide from monsters in the darkness. You can see the dilemma. Looking directly at a monster will also drain sanity. Progressing through the game will restore sanity. At least as far as I’ve played, they’ve balanced this very well to keep the pace moving. If you hang around in an area too long a gust of wind might blow out all the candles, “convincing” you to move forward and get back into the light. Solving the puzzles will restore a big chunk of sanity, so when things get dire you have an option to restore it. Running out of sanity doesn’t actually kill you, it just makes everything fucking terrifying, and you might occasionally drop to the ground and assume the fetal position if you let it get too low.
As a veteran of the Thief games, I spent my time skulking around in the shadows looking at stuff and promptly went insane. I’m doing better now but trying to decide whether to waste a tinderbox on lighting a lantern HERE, or wait to use it up THERE is really gutwrenching sometimes.

This was my experience in the flooded archives which is probably the first really “oh fuck why did I buy this game fuck FUCK” moment of the game, fairly early on. (Oh god this is the beginning, what’s coming later??!?!). This is like 30 to 40 minutes in, when the game is reported to last “about 10 hours, not counting the time you spend cowering in cupboards afraid to look out.”

(Note: I describe a couple areas of the game which counts as a spoiler.  It’s a small area, and available in the demo, but if you want to experience the game in a pristine fashion you may need to quit here)

The flooded archives are, well… flooded. Its about shin deep and restricts your movement speed a bit, and you make big splashy noises walking through it. There are lots of boxes and other furniture debris around. As you progress in, you notice you are not the only thing making splashy noises… and also the other thing making splashy noises has noticed you. You can see the splashes coming toward you, but the creature is invisible.

I freaked out and tried jumping on the boxes but I picked one that was too high to climb on and it whacked me once (getting smacked disorients you for a second which is NOT GOOD AAAHHH), then I managed to climb on top of one. The thing wandered back and forth below the box making splashes, but it couldn’t see or hear me if I wasn’t splashing in the water. This is where I sat on the box going “fffffuuccckkk” for a couple minutes, then looked around and figured out that there was a little box-path that I was obviously intended to escape on. So I did that!

Some of the boxes are too far apart and you hit the water, and it comes for you :(. So you freak out scrambling to get back onto the boxes before it catches up. Then I got all the way to the end of the hall only to find out that the GOD DAMN GATE IS SHUT. The switch, NATURALLY, is at the other end of the hall where I came from. So I had to go back. And then the switch was on a timer so I had to rush back down the hall to get back through it, which meant I fell off a lot of boxes. I got through the gate and it slammed shut, leaving the little splashmark of the monster on the other side. WHEW I’m safe.

Oh, there’s one on this side too. TO THE BOXES, FUCK.

THIS room was disturbing, because it was a wide open room with boxes on this end, and a box and a door on that end, and nothing but water and splashy monster in between. It knows I’m here, and it’s pacing around between me and the door. There’s no way I can make it.

There is stuff on my box. Oh good, dismembered body parts! Argh.

So I grab some unfortunate persons’ torso and chuck it as hard as I can into the far corner of the room. It goes sploosh, and splashymonster runs after it. I grab the severed arm that’s sitting there, just in case! Then I tear off toward the door. Splashymonster comes back for me! But I made it before he got to me. Then he went back to the torso and ATE IT.

Now there is a problem because the wheel to open the door is in water nowhere near my box, so I chucked the arm back toward the splashymonster to distract him some more, then dove in and started turning like my life depended on it. (because it did, I guess).

To turn the wheel you have to grab and then make circles with your mouse. I think I burned a circular pattern in my mousepad I turned that fucker so fast. He was coming back for me but I made it through. It was a short jog to the next area from there. The door is a transition to load a new area so I figured I was safe.

Holy fuck was I wrong. The door opened up into another flooded hallway, and a few steps in I start hearing the ominous splashing behind me. There are no boxes to stand on in here, but there’s plenty of debris to block your path.

I think the next few minutes can count as my cardiovascular exercise for the day. Sprinting through the hallway jumping over busted chairs with SPLOOSH SPLOOSH SPLOOSH and horrible monster like gurgling behind me… and ALL THE MOTHERFUCKING DOORS OPEN INWARD so every single FUCKING door you have to stop at and pull backward. The first door I ran too close to and jammed it on myself and had to reposition to get it open and through, and it caught me and got a hit in while I was doing it which took me to “barely conscious” and my vision went all red and blurry for the rest of the sequence… FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

And then I made it! And the next room was a serene little room with a fountain and bright windows and calming music and I was like “FUCK this game”
 

Then I immediately recommended it to everyone I know.

 

Miasmata

I’ve always been a big fan of the survival genre, and it’s always so disappointing to me when a game decides “survival” means “hack/shoot apart thousands of monsters and scrounge for health potions”.  I was quite intrigued when I saw Miasmata on Steam, but initial reports weren’t very favourable so I waited for a sale.  I really wanted to try it though, so it was awesome when it popped up as a gift on Christmas (yay thank you!).

The basic premise is that you are stranded on an island, and everyone else appears to be dead, possibly of a plague which you also have contracted.  You, fortunately, are a scientist, so you set about exploring the island and trying to synthesize a plague cure from the local plants.  The backstory of the game is revealed through tattered journals in abandoned huts.

Exploration consists of triangulating positions to fill in your map.  The vast majority of the game is this, actually, but fortunately the island is pretty interesting to explore.  There are statues and ruins and stuff so it’s not like “oh good, another rock.”  At least, not all the time.  Triangulation itself is pretty accurate, really.  You need to have two known landmarks (ones marked on your map), and then you figure out where you are standing from cross referencing them.  Once you do that, any landmarks near you become available to be used as reference points.  So if you dash off into the woods, your map will be blank, nothing known will be visible, and you’ll have to navigate by compass.  Oh yeah, and at night time you can’t see shit.  We are talking inky blackness of midnight, here.  Twilight does not seem to exist in this world (or maybe he needs to eat more beta carotene…), nor do full moons. You have a dinky lighter and can make a torch out of branches, but they really won’t help you, so keep an eye on your watch and stick near a known shelter when night comes around.

As you explore the island, you discover you are not exactly alone.  A large, green, horned cat beast is stalking you. And when it spots you, you discover that it also runs much faster than you do…

The game was not terribly well received for a few reasons.

First: It’s optimized like ass.  I reduced the resolution to make it run smoothly because it was not playing nicely.  If your computer already struggles with recent software, you might be unable to actually play it at a decent framerate.  The minimum specs really don’t seem adequate for anything other than sputtering around, and even a powerful machine will probably run into snags.

UPDATE: Since writing this, the game has been patched and I can now run around at full settings and pick flowers with glee.

Second: The gameplay consists almost entirely of wandering around the woods, triangulating positions to uncover the map, and collecting flowers to run back to the lab and analyze.  I, personally, really enjoy this gameplay, and I want more games to implement it.  But I can see how many people will get bored and find it tedious in a hurry.  The stalking cat adds some flavor, but interactions with it are kept fairly rare to ramp up the tension (thankfully!  It would get pretty annoying to have it on your ass every five minutes…) and there’s not a whole lot to do with those encounters except run the fuck away, since there’s no combat.  You have a few tricks to distract it (if you throw a torch at it, it will turn and look and give you a moment to haul ass), and you can use stealth to hide or lose it, but it’s not exactly a big part of the game other than adding to the atmosphere of exploration. (Here’s a big tip, and possibly a bit of a spoiler: The cat is modelled very realistically on real mountain lion behaviour. So if you want to deal with it effectively, go read up on what to do if you encounter a cougar who wants to chew on your skull. It’s actually an impressive feat of programming, I’d say.)  I haven’t uncovered a whole lot of the backstory as of yet, but I’m guessing it doesn’t do much to make up the gameplay gap.  So if you enjoy exploring and picking flowers, oh man do we ever have a game for you!  But if that sounds boring to you, eeehh…

Third: The graphics.  Despite running like ass, it’s not exactly the prettiest game sometimes.  I don’t usually let indie graphics bother me.  I played the shit out of a free game called Stranded II which was literally wandering around on an island and trying to build stuff, and it had some really terribly modelled creatures in it.  Compared to that, Miasmata is fucking beautiful.  I feel like the environments are pretty, and the sunrays at sunrise are wonderful to wander through, but if you glance down at your hands you kind of go “oh.”  Similarly there is a bit of jankiness when trying to pick stuff up off the ground sometimes which might pull you out of it.

But man when you watch a storm roll in over the ocean?  Look at this shit:

It is going to fucking RAIN, guys

It is going to fucking RAIN, guys

The rain itself is maybe not quite as impressive as the build-up to rain… but it messes with your visibility enough that it can make you either think twice about wandering off, or go “oh shit” and scramble for shelter if you’ve already wandered off the edge of your known map.

The game from that point is really what you make of it.  I am really enjoying losing myself in the atmosphere, trying to uncover my map, getting excited when I crest a hill and see some old ruins that look creepy, or finding a new flower I haven’t examined yet.  And then, just when you’re happily collecting some flowers a good 15 minutes from safety, you hear *Thump thump.  Thump thump.* The heartbeat indicates the creature has spotted you and is stalking nearby.

The movement in the game has been criticized too, but opinions are mixed.  The protagonist has a bit of a momentum based movement, so when you get going at a good clip, it takes him a moment to settle down.  So if you’re plowing through the forest and reach the edge of the cliff, letting go of the W key isn’t going to save your ass.  You’re going over, man.  Similarly, when he falls, he falls.  Ass over teakettle, camera flailing wildly, black out at the bottom depending on how hard and far you fell.  Some people have criticized it by saying the protagonist falls a bit too easily on every little dip in the terrain, but he is also dying of a plague! So that didn’t bother me. Falling hard also means whatever is in your hands will be let go and go flying, possibly being destroyed in the process.  I climbed a big ass mountain to reach some flowers and let me tell you, I’ve done a lot of hiking, and picking my way back down that slope felt just like picking my way down some loose scree.  I’d creep forward and the guy would slip a bit and pick up speed as he skidded, so I’d mash S with my heart in my throat, terrified of tumbling down and losing my hard won petals.

And then when I got to the bottom and was all “Whew, now I can book it back to the lab!”, I heard *thump thump.  thump thump.*

“Oh fuck, the cat.  If it attacks me I’ll have to climb that god damn mountain to get these flowers again!  Okay, the tent isn’t far in that direction so I’m just going to dash for it.”

So I started dashing, and THERE IT WAS.  Apparently I chose exactly the wrong direction to dash in…

A panicked about-face later (with the guy lurching and skidding all over, trying to turn at high speed… it’s really quite effective once you’re used to it) I dashed in the opposite direction.  The creature roared behind me and the heart beat sped up.  Up ahead, a tent I hadn’t uncovered yet!  Yes!  Safety!

*whack* it hit me from behind and he tumbled, ears ringing.  I didn’t drop the flowers!  KEEP DASHING GOD DAMMIT.

When you go uphill he slows down to make the climb too, so climbing the last slope to the tent was fairly intense.  But once inside the creature loses interest and wanders off, and I was able to take some medicine to calm the fever that being mauled by a giant horned green cat had made worse, then sleep until morning.

I found the above exchange very exciting, and I am looking forward to synthesizing medicine to make me stronger, and allow me to do things like swim and access more areas of the island.  If you find it appealing to get lost on an island that decidedly does not want you to pick its flowers, then you should definitely check this game out.  If exploration is boring to you, move along.