Harbinger Down

Harbinger Down appeared on Netflix and twigged something in my memory.  ‘Wasn’t I really looking forward to that for some reason?’ I thought to myself, and spent a few minutes googling it while the opening screens played through.  I had definitely clicked on the IMDB link at some point in the past!

It took a bit of hunting but I finally discovered that I had been interested in it because it promised full practical effects – a throwback to the horror/suspense movies of our childhood.  One of the very first lines says something like “In the style of classics like Alien and The Thing…” and my husband said “I was just going to say it really has an Alien vibe so far.  Those are both very good movies.  I’m looking forward to this.”

If you grew up watching 80’s suspense/horror movies with 80’s special effects, you might even be tempted to say that the writing isn’t as important as the visuals.  I mean, all those movies have the same damn plot anyway, right?  As long as it looks cool, who cares!  Well, Harbinger Down is here to show you that you are wrong.  It turns out the writing is, in fact, pretty important.  Because hoo boy does this movie have some bad writing.  I mean, it does hit a lot of the same ol’ tropes you’d expect to see, but it also does some about-faces in its plot that make no god damn sense whatsoever, which just reveal how threadbare the writing actually is.  They slapped together the template and filled it with special effects and didn’t put much more thought into it.  “Oh no there are explosives on the ship!  We need to save the ship!  Whew thank goodness we saved it; now we can get down to the business of properly destroying this ship…”  /facepalm.  And the ending… sigh.

Though I will say the steps leading up to biological contamination at least made more sense than the whole “Hey let’s just turn off this sterile forcefield and expose this alien head to our air supply just for shits and giggles!” plot point in Prometheus.

The effects were great though.  It really felt like an Aliens era movie, and that’s something you just don’t feel that much nowadays.  I’m not a big fan of the heavy handed leaning on CGI nowadays, although I’m not sure that 100% practical is the best way to go either.  I feel like CGI enhanced practical effects lead to the best results, but you just have to appreciate the awesomeness of a well executed practical effect and I hope movies like this keep the art alive.

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October 31st Movie Reviews

I didn’t want to say ‘Halloween movies’ since none of them were even remotely halloween themed aside from being some sort of attempt at scary, but it’s a halloween tradition here to plunk on the couch and watch ‘scary’ movies after dark, and we made it through three of them last night.  Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Last Shift
Rookie cop spends the night alone at an old police station guarding some evidence that still needs to be transported to the new one.

See, the description for this movie was all “She meets the KING OF HELL” and I was like “this is going to be a laugh riot of a movie”, but it ended up being the best one we watched.  It does absolutely nothing new or unique; it’s all standard haunted house tricks.  The protagonist is so god damn stupid that you spend the entire movie yelling at her not to do things (but, y’know, horror movie.)  But the movie itself sets up a good amount of tension and uses sound and visuals well to set the tone.  The King Of Hell thing is not nearly as cheesy as the stupid description might have you believe.

We Are Still Here
An older couple lose their college-age son to a car accident and buy a new house to start a new life as they pick up the pieces.  Once they move in, they start to suspect the ghost of their son is still with them.

Not bad but it suffered a bit because it came after watching the much better first movie, so it paled in comparison.  Another pretty standard haunted house story, but with a few twists to keep it interesting.  I found it a little confusing though, too.  The ghosts really needed to make up their god damn mind about who’s side they were on.

Storage 24
A plane crash nearby traps several people inside a storage facility, and soon they discover the plane was carrying some deadly alien cargo that is now stalking them.

Okay, THIS is the movie I wanted to write bitch about because I spent the whole movie sending snarky texts to my friend, and it’s absolutely not because we watched some better movies first.  Needed MUCH LESS relationship drama and MUCH MORE aliens eating people.  Could you possibly write less sympathetic protagonists?  I was rooting for the alien really early on and it just kept disappointing me.

Here’s an ending spoiler, which you can avoid if you care (you shouldn’t care.  Don’t watch this movie.):
The whiniest fucker takes on a Gary-Stu style survival skills and ends up escaping the alien on, like, three different occasions for no god damn acceptable reason (camera cut!  Oh no he must be dead boo hoo ooohhhh look he lived how could this be!  Fuck off) and then slays the alien with his bare hands and escapes with all of the females.

At this point I sent a message to my friend saying “This movie will get two stars instead of one if the alien resurrects and pops out and kills them all right fucking now and that’s how the movie ends.”  Instead of that, though, he makes some flippant remarks to show how cool he is, and then they pan out to show alien ships landing all around the city.  Which is ALMOST, but not quite, what I asked for.  Okay sure the aliens are probably going to kill everyone but you didn’t show one blowing up this whiny fucker as it buzzed past, so now we can only assume he will run out there and melee all of them to death like the whiny badass he obviously is.  *BZZZT* you fail, collect 0 stars.

So, to summarize:
Last Shift was great and I recommend it, even if the protagonist is as smart as a bag of bricks.
We Are Still Here was passable and worth a look.
Storage 24 is a horror movie for an entirely different reason and thank god Netflix subscriptions essentially mean I watched it for ‘free’.  Bitching about it was highly entertaining, at least!

SOMA

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is my favourite game that I am too scared to play, so I was pretty excited when I discovered they were releasing SOMA, a similar style of game in a more sci-fi horror setting.  And it released just in time for us to be in a Halloween sort of mood, too!

The majority of the game takes place on a deep sea research station where you stumble from station to station trying to piece together what’s gone wrong and where everyone went.  It has a very Doom 3 sort of feel, actually, except you have no weapons to protect you.  In typical Amnesia fashion, the game has absolutely no combat, and you have to rely on careful movement to avoid notice, and occasionally running for your god damn life when you don’t.

Sadly it does not include hidey holes like the Amnesia cupboards, which were some of my favourite mechanics.  Sitting in a dark cupboard listening to footsteps and groaning outside and sllloooooowwwllllly opening the door to peek through a crack to see if it was safe yet was one of the things that really made Amnesia stand out, to me.  SOMA feels less interactive in that way.  Instead of being able to choose how fast or slow you want to open a door, most things are binary.  It makes sense since most of them are powered so it’s like connect power, open door, *whoosh* as opposed to turn handle, pull/push door in direction, but I feel like that was a loss.  A lot of the tension I gained from Amnesia (the brief amount I actually played it for myself as opposed to watching someone else, anyway) was from moments like peeking, or from dashing to a door in a panic and flailing away at it before realizing I had to pull it instead of push it and oh god I just wasted 5 seconds and it’s coming for meeee nooooooo pull pull open faster god damn you door nooooooo!  And not because of a struggle with controls, either. It just felt like I was fumbling with opening a real actual door because I was too panicked to think straight.

We chose to play SOMA (I say “we” but I suppose for the sake of accuracy I should say: I forced my husband to play SOMA because I was too chicken to do it myself…) on the big screen in the front room, for ease of spectatorship (and also fancier sound system), so he chose to use a controller from the couch.  I was pretty distracted the whole time by just how annoying the controller was to use, and I wasn’t even the one using it!  Every time he tried to interact with things I was thinking “This would be so much easier with a mouse”.  One of the most tense moments we experienced was entirely because the controller fucked us over.  We were repairing an elevator which was a fiddly bit of business, requiring you to put a piece here and then flip a bunch of switches in order, then close the button and activate it.  We figured out the sequence, but as he was putting the pieces together he was discovered by a monster.  The next few seconds consisted of us yelling things like “THAT ONE GOES THERE! FLIP THAT! QUICK CLOSE IT!” and then the elevator opened and he scurried in, only to discover he now had to push ANOTHER button to tell it where he would like to go.  He wrestled with the controller, with the damnable cursor drifting too high to click on it, now too low, and oops too high again, all while I’m yelling “CLICK IT CLICK IT CLICK IT!!!” and him yelling “AAAAAAAH AAAAAAAAAAHH!!!” each time the cursor drifted, and just as he got the cursor into the middle and clicked, the monster charged and we died and had to start the sequence all over again.  Had he been using a mouse we probably would have survived.  Moral of the story: controllers kill.

The game takes about 10 hours to play and has a lot of really good moments.  Some of the levels were really well designed, I thought. And some were… less well designed.  A lot of them are twisty and confusing, which is good if you’re thinking about it in a ‘oh no I am trapped in this horrible place’ sort of way, but it’s kinda bad when it causes you to lose momentum because it results in you wandering back and forth after you missed your turn and you’re not entirely sure where you need to go next.  But they absolutely nailed the atmosphere of most of the areas, particularly the underwater storm.  I just had an overwhelming sense of “oh fuck” the whole time we walked through that.  Atmosphere and dread is what these guys are good at, after all.

What they are maybe not so good at is story.  I enjoyed the story in SOMA, but I felt a few parts of it dropped the ball.  The protagonist comes across as pretty whiny, and there were a few philosophical discussions where I felt like the writers were imposing a viewpoint on the player that perhaps might not be true for everyone.  It still serves its purpose, though, and gives you some interesting things to think about whether you agree with the protagonist or not.  The game also serves up a number of choices along the way that do a good job of making you reconsider your actions.  The choices aren’t hardcoded into the story – in fact you may get tripped up by videogame logic at first and not realize they are optional actions.  Even though the choices ultimately mean nothing for the overall story arc of the game, I felt like they did a really good job of presenting them, making you think about them, and not beating you over the head with their presence.  Bravo on that one.

So in conclusion, SOMA is pretty good and you should buy it.  It’s a great atmospheric experience that sometimes also makes you think about yourself.  And who doesn’t love a game where you heal yourself by sticking your fist into an alien butthole?

It Follows

And as part two of our “It’s not October yet but it feels like October so bring on the scary movies” a-thon, we watched It Follows.

I found this one pretty interesting.  It’s almost like a take on an old-school zombie movie, with the monster following slowly and relentlessly behind, easy to run away from but never ceasing.  Unlike zombies, though, you can shake it off onto another person by… uh… having sex with someone.  Which is interesting because that’s certainly something that horror protagonists tend to have issues with!  It’s the worst kind of sexually transmitted disease.  Well… maybe not, since most STDs are still with you after you pass them along.  But they also don’t usually eat you, so… hmm.

I really enjoyed this one.  Tons of tension, nothing too over the top, and a lot of really creepy atmospheric hints for you to spot in the backgrounds.  It’s a simple formula and it really works.

Things that detracted from it included: my husband arguing that the monster should be really easy to deal with because all you have to do is create a mathematical formula to calculate how fast it’s walking and then move every 200 days as it starts to catch up to you /facepalm, arguments over whether sexual promiscuity and infidelity is acceptable if it gets rid of ghosts, and that god damn shell e-book reader thing that contrasted with the ’80s electronics and left us arguing for an hour over what time period the movie was taking place in, until I finally googled the damn thing and discovered that literally everyone else was arguing about it because it was deliberately left ambiguous and confusing.  *shake fist*

Honestly the ebook reader was the worst part.  The rest of it was just thoughtful discussion!  Fuck the ebook reader >:( get out of my movie.  Maybe if there were more modern tidbits scattered around it would have been okay but almost everything else was old (and royalty free, I noticed!) so it was just glaringly out of place and distracted from the tension.

Other than the ebook reader though, thumbs up!

Unfriended

Normally we don’t break into the crappy horror movies until October, but it’s been so cold and miserable outside that it feels like October and my husband started craving some cheesy Halloween style movies.  I picked up a few promising looking titles, and Unfriended was on top of the pack.

I was not expecting much from this movie.  A girl dies and then haunts people through Facebook?  What?  But it was surprisingly well done.

The entirety of the movie takes place on a computer screen, which is certainly a novel (and probably very cheap) way to film something, and I hope it doesn’t become the next ‘thing’ and get run down into a trench that’s the size of the Grand Canyon.  It was clearly done by someone who uses computers a lot, and it feels authentic, though there are certainly things that will annoy people who use computers a lot themselves.  For one: why is your internet connection so awful, auuuugghhh.  The video on the Skype connections is constantly blipping out, which is probably supposed to replicate the feel of a found footage shaky cam, but instead of increasing the tension I just found it fucking annoying.  Buy a new wireless card for fuck’s sake.  Also bonus marks for taking like 5 fucking minutes to download a 900kb file and then 2 seconds to download a 1.6MB file immediately afterward [/nerd rage]. There were also some minor errors here and there, which I at least found easy to ignore because there is a ghost in the computer!  But I did find it a little annoying when she shared her screen with everyone to show them that it wasn’t working, then immediately tabbed out and started typing private messages and no one seemed to remember that the screen was shared and they should be able to see it.

The story itself was well done, I thought.  A decent amount of tension and interesting outcomes.  The beginning was a little rough, since it’s basically just teenagers whining to each other and in general being annoying, but once it starts rolling it’s a fun ride.  I’m not sure if it’s a problem or not, since it is a horror movie and it’s basically par for the course, but there are no sympathetic protagonists here.  You will hate everyone and want them all to die.  Fortunately, it’s a horror movie!  So they do.  Oops, spoilers.

Year Walk

Year Walk made it onto my wishlist after a bunch of people recommended it as a super creepy and atmospheric puzzle game.  The general consensus was that it was too short, but still worth your time and money regardless.  Then it came on sale during the Halloween sales and I nabbed it.
tl;dr: Year Walk is a short and super creepy atmospheric puzzle game that is pretty short (~2 hours, unless you suck at puzzles and/or are unobservant) but still worth your time and money.  In fact it’s still worth your money at full price, because at ~6 bucks and 2 hours of playtime, I’d say 3 bucks an hour is worth the experience.  That’s how much I liked it.

The premise is… difficult to describe.  You’re not really given much background before you’re dumped into it.  The term “Year Walk” is based on a Swedish tradition that probably would be largely unheard of if it weren’t for this game.  All my information about it comes from this game and Wikipedia, and for all I know the creators of this game put it on Wikipedia, because this is the internet.  But basically, once a year (“Year walk” can also be translated as “Annual walk”) they’d go without food and water while locked in a dark room to deprive their senses, then leave at midnight to walk through the dark woods to the church to do battle with supernatural beings in the hopes of seeing the future.  The game follows that fairly closely, with a couple of other significant threads woven in that give the whole time-warping aspect a bit more substance.

You’re given NO guidance whatsoever, and honestly, I thought that was the most awesome part.  You meet up with someone at the beginning who’s all “You’re going on a Year Walk?  Don’t you know that’s dangerous?” and then you head out into the woods at night and wander aimlessly until everything gets fucked up.  I sent a series of emails to my friend while playing it which was basically just “This game is pretty cool and creepy. You should get it.”  “Wow.  What the fuck.”  “What the fuck.”  “What the FUCK!”  “Seriously you should probably get this.”

I will say you need a pad of paper nearby when you play, and there’s something a bit refreshing about that.  It’s been a while since puzzle games have respected their players enough to just leave them to their own devices, although some sort of in-game notetaking function would have been nice. There’s an in-game encyclopedia that includes the lore behind the legends and traditions.  You need to read it.  A lot of the game and guidance is concealed within the information that’s there, so don’t dismiss it as flavour.  A knock on the game is that sometimes it would seem like you should have all the information to solve something and you could dick around for ages trying to figure it out, when really there was another step first.  In fact, here’s a hint: When you first find the key, the next step is NOT to open the cemetery gate where the key very very obviously fits.  When the key vanishes after you find it it’s not because you collected it, it’s because it went somewhere else.  That was not obvious at all.

The other thing I will say is don’t cheat.  It’s really simple to look up all the solutions to everything on the internet, but the game is only two hours long man.  If you’re not going to get a pad of paper out and do it the old fashioned way you’ll probably be left wondering what the point was, because you missed the point.  Year Walk is a super creepy atmospheric game that respects its players to dig around and figure shit out, and the puzzles aren’t so hard that you need to Google them.  Check it out.

 

 

 

Resolution

I’m debating about even writing this entry because I finished watching the movie, thought to myself “That was pretty okay, I should mention it on my blog”, and glanced at some reviews to discover that I must have watched it all wrong.  All of these reviews are gushing about the meta commentary of the film and I’m sort of looking at them going “there was meta commentary?!”  So I guess this will be a review of the movie from the point of view of someone who doesn’t do the whole “movies as art” thing very well.  I do “movies as entertainment”, and Resolution was entertaining… although apparently it is even more entertaining if you like to read into meta commentary.

The premise of Resolution is that Michael gets a video from his junkie friend, along with a map to his current location, and decides he should give it one final try to bring his friend in to rehab before it’s too late.  Things are never as easy as “Let’s go to rehab” “okay”, so he handcuffs him to the wall and settles in for a week of dealing with withdrawal symptoms before he can try his final attempt at reasoning with the guy.

I’m going to pause right there and say that, when I originally decided to queue this one up for watching, the description mentioned a week of withdrawal and a warping of reality.  So I was expecting a “that-scene-from-Trainspotting”-esque sort of series of mindfucks that left the viewer unsure which things were truly happening and which were a result of the withdrawal.  It’s not that at all.

Instead, Michael spends the week trying to appease druggies who are trying to collect, also appease the owners of the shack his friend has been squatting in who want them out, and investigate a series of creepy media messages that are being left for him to find.  The messages get creepier and creepier, until they begin to star the two guys themselves.

The majority of the movie was interesting, but honestly it wasn’t very creepy until the last little bit when shit starts to get real.  A lot of it seemed disjointed, and things that came up never really came up again so it all melded into a big ball of “That was weird; what was that about?” but no real tension.  There was a lack of tension through the whole build-up actually, even though I was curious to see what happened next.  It could have been Michael’s reaction to the whole situation… he approached all the creepiness with a matter-of-fact curiosity that sucked all the creepiness right back out.  Almost every situation played out like “Hey Chris, look at this creepy thing.  I wonder what this is about.”  followed by Chris saying “How the fuck should I know give me some crack.”  Michael was interested to get to the bottom of it, and I was interested to watch him get to the bottom of it, but he never seemed to be unnerved by all the weirdness or have a second thought about investigating a strange noise.  Which might be why the ending has more tension for me – he finally starts reacting to the events with a “holy shit this is fucking weird” and “How can I get out of this alive…” attitude.  It takes looking at images of his own corpse to finally elicit a reaction.

Wait, was that the meta commentary?  That the horror “movies” didn’t scare him until it actually threatened him directly?  Maybe that was meta commentary.

Here’s some actual meta commentary discussion, involving ending spoilers (and I just realized the movie is named “Resolution”, which makes more sense now.  I thought it referred to video media resolution, as opposed to “ending resolution”, and then was confused about video resolution not really being a big deal…) Read more of this post

Oculus

It’s October, which means it is time for our annual search for scary movies that are rated higher than, oh, let’s say 4 on IMDB.  That’s usually the point where a movie stops being scary and just becomes scarily awful.  With any luck I should be able to update this blog with cheers and jeers as we wade through a queue of hopefully-good-but-probably-actually-awful “scary” movies!  One of the recent ones I queued up was “Oculus”.

I don’t ask for much from horror movies. I prefer tension-filled horror movies or mindfuck horror movies, and not so much the “there is blood everywhere gosh isn’t this scary?” sort of horror movies, and I’m pretty forgiving of a ridiculous premise when it’s trying to set up a ghost story, so really all you need to do is display some effort and I will enjoy your stupid horror movie.  I quite enjoyed Oculus.

The premise of Oculus is that a family moves into a new home and the wife invests in some antiques to furnish it.  Among those antiques is a mirror that is so obviously demonic in its design that I’m not really sure why she couldn’t immediately tell that it was going to kill her… but anyway she buys it and hangs it in her husband’s new office.  It proceeds to cause almost everyone to go insane and murder each other, finally ending with the son finishing off his dad while protecting his big sister.  And a decade or so later he gets out of the psych ward and his sister picks him up and says “Now that you’re free, let’s go kill that thing”.

The movie has a decent amount of tension throughout.  It tells the story of the past and present simultaneously, revealing bits as it goes.  It starts out pretty strong with the “Was it all in my head?” theme, but it pretty quickly dispenses of that and goes “Yup, mirror trying to kill us.” which is a bit unfortunate in some ways, but at least it isn’t entirely cliche.  The mirror has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, usually involving a warping of reality that leaves you wondering which thread is true and which is insanity.  I enjoy ‘monster’ movies that don’t shove monsters down your throat, so I liked that the enemy was a largely unseen presence, experienced but not seen. I also liked that the characters started losing grasp of reality and started making little mistakes that indicated as such (like referring to the dog by the name of their childhood pet), and the movie didn’t come running out of the wings to go “SEE.  DID YOU SEE THAT??  I JUST WANTED TO MAKE SURE YOU DIDN’T MISS THAT!  Carry on then!”  I felt like the writers actually had some confidence in their audience, which usually results in a better story overall.

I wouldn’t try to claim that it’s entirely fresh and original, but it’s definitely got enough interesting elements that it’s a decent “dim the lights” October style movie, worthy of a watch.

Liminal States

Liminal StatesLiminal States by Zack Parsons
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really struggled with how to rate this. I was originally thinking a solid 4.5, but then the ending was a little too ambiguous, so that dragged it down to 4… but the uniqueness of it deserves to be rewarded, so it bumped back up to 5. Eh, 5. Why not.

This is not a book for the faint of heart. If this book is made into a movie, they will need a very large “fake blood” budget. I meant to go back and see how many times the word “entrails” appears, but I forgot to. It was a lot, though.
It is also not a casual read. I discovered pretty quickly that it is not the kind of book you can read while half asleep at 11PM and still understand what the fuck is going on in the next chapter. The book is a masterful example of showing and not telling, and you have to pay attention to keep up.

How do I even describe this to you. At its heart, the book is a horror novel that reminded me a lot of Stephen King. A lot of the imagery is brutal or disturbing. Despite that, it somehow never seemed gratuitous. The story itself spans three time periods, which correspond to three different genres of writing. The old west, ’50s noir, and finally sci-fi and dystopian present/future.

I’m not sure I even can provide a quick synopsis of this. Let’s just say it involves a mysterious pool that seems to resurrect and provide immortality to someone who falls into it. Each section of the book follows the same characters (more or less…) but examines a different aspect of the consequences of the pool, seeming to widen the scope each time, beginning with individuals and eventually moving to a global scale.

Common criticisms seem to be that the different time periods don’t interface well with each other, making it more like three different related novels than one whole story. Looking back, I would probably agree that is true… the jumps are very significant and you have to re-orient for each one. While I was reading I did not find it to be an issue, and probably wouldn’t have mentioned it if it wasn’t commonly bitched about.

The different genres for each time period are well written and feel authentic. I’m not a big fan of noir, so the middle of the book dragged for me, but someone who enjoys the genre will probably love it. The sci-fi section had a decent “oh, shit is going down now” feel to it, and I thought the visuals worked really well. The over-arching horror story of the pool itself felt a bit vague, though. I read some discussion about it and it seems like it was intentionally left that way, and then a lot of the questions and backstory is resolved in a separate serial. I dislike relying on external material to understand a book… but to be fair, it doesn’t really matter for the narrative of the actual story, so it just left the situation ambiguous in an unsatisfying way.

If you’re looking for something unique, gripping, and disturbing, you should probably give Liminal States a try.

View all my reviews

Found Footage (Comparison)

I keep tripping over these things for some reason so I thought it might be fun to do a bit of a compare/contrast on some of the “found footage” style movies we’ve watched recently.

You’re probably aware of this, but “found footage” refers to a movie which is shot as though it was discovered on someone’s hand-held camera and then adapted for a wider audience.  It’s largely reviled as “shaky cam” because, as anyone who watches youtube videos knows, the average person with a hand-held camera absolutely sucks at keeping things in frame.  It’s a double edged sword because if you make it too shaky, people get nauseous or can’t tell what’s going on and it’s stupid.  If you make it too steady it’s pretty obvious it’s actually a movie camera mounted on special equipment, handled by professionals, which ruins the whole atmosphere of “oh shit they found this footage and the people in it are missing and no one knows what will happen!” which is kind of the point of it.  It’s usually resigned to cheap horror movies because of the premise and the ability to use the shakiness to obscure the scariest bits to good effect (assuming they use it to good effect, and not just “annoying as shit” effect, that is).

I was going to start with the worst movie first, but then I realized I couldn’t decide which one was the worst.  Conundrum.  Read more of this post

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.

 

Anna

Anna is a “survival horror” game where you attempt to discover what is going on in a creepy abandoned sawmill.  The basic background of the story – and believe me, if you didn’t look for it you might miss it because it’s in a PDF in the game folder – is that you are a professor who is troubled by nightmares and fainting spells.  After passing out and being put on medical leave, the discovery of some old pictures leads you to this sawmill, where you attempt to figure out what is going on.

I bought this game for 3 dollars while drunk on New Year’s.  The extremely short review is: It is worth 3 dollars, but I’m not sure it’s worth 10.  I enjoyed it but it only took me 2 hours to get all three endings.  It will take you longer if you don’t cheat your ass off through the “puzzles”, but the sense of reward you get from that really isn’t going to be worth it.  Trust me.

Here’s the bad news:  The game essentially emulates old nostalgic point and click adventure games, complete with fuzzy “adventure game logic”.  Not only that, but it suffers very much from pixel hunt syndrome… in 3D.  I attempted to play it “legit” for the first couple of sections, only looking at a walkthrough when I was stumped, but it quickly devolved to the point where there would be no way to figure things out without painstakingly going through your inventory and clicking everything onto everything else.  Now, I have done that for games before!  But the inventory system is clunky and slow and I just didn’t have the patience for it.  I played an old game called Scratches which had some pretty bad adventure game logic, with the worst of it probably being when I had to use the phone X number of times and check a certain location X number of times between calls before the plot would advance.  I didn’t come across anything quite that obtuse in Anna but it was pretty close.  There were two turning points – one was when I had to use the ritual knife to start an event.  First you have to do something to “activate” the knife for rituals, and then you click it on the thing.  Except I did that and it didn’t work so I wandered around for a bit trying to figure out what to do with this damn knife, until I looked it up and it turned out I had clicked two pixels to the right of where I actually needed to click.  The second turning point was during the leaves puzzle, which seemed super obvious until you had to place a leaf on the picture indicating death, and they pretty much all look like they’re displaying death.  Trial and error revealed that the one that properly displayed death didn’t really look anything like death at all.  The walkthrough explained why it was supposed to depict death, as opposed to, say, the one with corpses and gravestones, and it made a bit of sense, but it annoyed me.  At that point I stopped wasting my time trying to figure things out on my own, and I feel better for it, because some of the later ones… yeah.

Adding to the annoyance of the puzzles and interface, is the completely superfluous items.  You start with a cell phone and a diary, neither of which can be used.  The cell phone, as far as I know, never becomes a factor in anything aside from making you scroll around it to get to the other shit in your inventory.  The jotter is just there for ~~immersion~~ as far as I can tell, because it corresponds to the PDF file in the game directory.  Except nothing really points you to that… I discovered it later while trying to figure out what the jotter was actually doing in the game.  It could have been implemented much better.  Then, there are a numerous points in the game where you can pick stuff up out of a pile.  You can pick ALL of them up, if you want to.  But you only need one.  Ever.  And then you have the rest of them in your inventory going “ha ha you used the crappy interaction dialogs and picked us up for no reason, loser”.  I think extraneous items get cleared when you move to a new area, but still.  I picked up some rocks outside (the description said “useful for scaring small animals” so I totally decided I should defend myself against the rabid squirrels I was undoubtedly going to encounter) but there was literally no use for them.  You can’t even pick them back up from your inventory to try to use them on things, it simply says you can’t do that.  Yet they sit there in the inventory.  I suppose it’s some sort of red herring to make you feel like there is more depth than there is… but really it just makes the player resent the poor planning.

Once you get past all of that, the game is entertaining.  I put “survival horror” in quotes because you quickly realize there isn’t much survival involved.  It’s not like Amnesia where there are things that are going to fuck you up and you are completely defenseless against them, so you spend the whole game cowering in a cupboard while slowly going insane.  There is no danger in Anna, but somehow the atmosphere of the game still gets to you.  I even had a genuine scare at one point, where I solved a puzzle and smugly turned around and went “AGHCK”. (And if you have played the game, it is probably NOT the one you are thinking of.  For that one, I obliviously stared at the opposite wall/other objects for the whole event and then turned around while it was fading away, then said “Hunh.  Well, that probably would have been really creepy.”) I felt silly afterward, but it shows that the game was effective in what it was attempting to do.  There are some super creepy moments too, like the mask on the chair.  It was such a simple effect but I really enjoyed it.  Each of the “supernatural events” were fun to stumble across and really added to the atmosphere.  I kind of want to go back and just try to trigger the events to experience them.

The story… well, I would play the game for the atmosphere rather than the story.  Let’s leave it at that.  There are three endings, each with a bit of a different perspective of the events.  Essentially the endings correspond to how deeply the protagonist goes down the rabbit hole.  You can bail out of the game fairly early if you do things “right”, and the ending is essentially just “Hey I’m not dead!  Well this place is creepy, I’m out of here” and you really learn nothing about the story.  But you also didn’t die so is it a “good” ending or not!?  In contrast, the most extensive ending includes a whole extra area of the game (complete with shitty illogical puzzles…) with a lot more dialogue and story reveals, as the professor gets his memory back.  I searched for some discussion about the endings, but it looks like the game simply wasn’t that popular.  There’s not a whole lot to discuss, I suppose, but they are ambiguous enough that something interesting might have come of them.

I don’t feel like I wasted 3 dollars OR 2 hours, which is more than I can say of some games I have bought, so if you can look past the flaws I feel that Anna has enough interesting elements to make it worth a look.  Wait for a sale, though…