Friday, March 28, 2014

Enola (Alpha Build)


Enola alpha 0.9 - September 2013

            Surprises aren’t easy to come by these days, even in the indie scene. With Steam Greenlight/Early Access and Kickstarter ensuring (read: promising) consumers get timely updates and new builds every other day, the indie scene has started to put out ideas rather than  full games. Shooter with random elements? Greenlit. Zelda with random elements? Greenlit. MMO with random elements? Greenlit. Deeply personal and incredibly mature horror with a much needed human center? Not Greenlit. Indeed, few screenshots and even fewer videos of Enola exist. One goes in with no idea of what to expect, and one comes out wondering why they had no idea what to expect: why aren’t people talking about Enola?
            Enola is, in essence, the purest burst of survival horror I’ve experienced since last year’s brilliant Lone Survivor, but to compare those two games is entirely false: Lone Survivor is downright sugary compared to Enola. Most horror games deal with amnesia, scary monsters, and buckets of gore; Enola concerns itself with intimate horror: your character’s past, known to them, but not to you, and the far-reaching psychological damage these events have caused, the pain your character has had to deal with. But Enola isn’t just a story about personal discovery; it’s also about discovering the intimate secrets of your significant other, things that have permanently scarred them in the most horrific way. What if you found out that the person you slept next to every night was actually putting on a mask: a disguise to help them deal with mental trauma? To say that Enola’s themes are thought provoking would be a vast understatement, but in truth, the subtle elements are only half of Enola’s brilliant narrative.


Enola alpha 0.9 - September 2013

            The visceral elements of the story are what really make your jaw drop, and they are what put you in the frame of mind to absorb the story so willingly. You begin in a mysterious house, looking for your lover, who has disappeared without any immediately apparent trace. Just moments later, you find yourself on a deserted and entirely mysterious island that appears to contain both clues to your lover’s whereabouts and also pieces of both of your pasts: her father’s grave, your old house. Those are obvious ones, but others are less obvious: a strip club, an old, creepy cathedral. The question starts to become: who is who? Which pieces belong to which character? Who is the protagonist of the story? Is it your lover, Angelica? Or is it the character that the player takes control of? This is all handled differently here than in most horror games: all of this mystery and confusion isn’t set up just to create an interesting premise, but also to tie into one of the game’s more overt themes: identity crisis. Enola doesn’t just throw in fun set pieces and interesting new locales, or indeed, terrifying scares because it wants to superficially blow you away: it does it to grab your attention, get you invested in the story, and set you up for one of the disturbing examples of a horror narrative in recent memories. Everything that’s here is here for a reason, and future message boards and forums analyses will have a field day drawing out all of the connections and underlying themes for everything, and while Enola is an intellectual horror game,it isn’t pretentious or highbrow enough to alienate people who just want it to scare them for a few hours.



            Enola deals with difficult themes, and the two lovers that are central to the story are lesbians, which as the recent Gone Home proved, can alienate some players, but if a game like this took every step to sand off every edge and make sure nobody was every alienated, how would it even exist? The game doesn’t judge our characters, and it doesn’t even appear to judge the villains responsible for the scarring memories that seem to haunt the characters. Enola presents you with a brilliant character-driven horror narrative, and wants you to make of it what you will, and it succeeds wonderfully. The fact that the game had such an impact on me, this early in its development (the game is currently in alpha) with no ending in sight, really says something Enola's quality.
            But that’s enough about that wishy-washy story nonsense: what does Enola offer for gamers who just want something fun to play? Well, as you can probably guess from its genre label: not a whole lot. The game will please horror fans immensely with its difficult and satisfying story and its surprisingly intricate puzzle design, but I don’t imagine it appealing to anyone else, but why should it? The game is unique for having nothing in the way of combat (well, reasonably) or carnival jump scares, so for people who prefer Dead Space or Doom III-style jump scares over Silent Hill 2-esq slow-building tension and terror might not get their fill, but fans of the aforementioned ‘psychological’ horror will love the minimalist approach to horror and storytelling.


Enola alpha 0.9 - September 2013

            The story is delivered through notes scattered throughout the environment and the occasional voice over. Puzzles are complex and sometimes a little too difficult for my tastes, but overall, I enjoyed them, and they’re certainly more interesting then the puzzles I’ve encountered in most recent horror-adventure games. They’re much more of the Myst variety than Enola’s Silent Hill influence would first indicate.
            In fact, Myst seems to be as prominent an influence as any: the game’s world is made up of a giant hub world with several small pockets that all look distinctive and connect to unique areas with puzzles and locations that will unlock other previously locked areas of the world. Where you start and what environments will unlock others is all a mystery, and it can only be solved after much exploration. This reliance on exploration is a great thing because Enola’s world is so interesting and full of detail. And did I mention that the world is gigantic? I mean, everywhere you look, off in the distance you’ll notice a new building shrouded in fog, or a giant, twisting puzzle of staircases waiting to be traversed. It could take twenty minutes to walk across the whole thing, and for an indie horror game, that’s completely insane, in a good way, but its also the biggest issue with Enola’s reliance on exploration and its huge environment; your character walks very slow, and realizing that the area you just trekked to for several minutes is locked and can’t be accessed yet can be infuriating. A sprint button would have been nice.


Enola alpha 0.7 screenshots - Apr 15th 2013

            Again, I have to mention that this game is only in alpha, and usually that’s a disclaimer you put up when you’re about to say something like, “I swear, the story is worth it, you just have to look past the rough edges!” but in this case, I only bring it up because of how technically impressive this game is. The graphics are colorful and set the mood perfectly. The game has several cool visual motifs that are repeated just enough times to create a unique visual, environmental palette without ever seeming repetitive. And on the sound front, Enola is equally well done. The game’s score is minimal, but effective. The sound effects are incredibly good at setting the atmosphere, and because most of this game’s horror comes from its sound design and narrative threads, this is imperative to making the game terrifying, and it pulls it all off impressively.
     And really, that's all I have to say about Enola for now. I'm honestly waiting on the edge of my seat to see how it all ends, and that's truly something special. Stay tuned for a more detailed review when a more 'final' build finally emerges. Until then, just remember: even if Enola was cancelled now, it'd still be one of the most exciting and fascinating indie games that I've come across in a very long time, and for that: I can't recommend it enough.

Enola: halloween 'broken machine' screenshots


Verdict: A

(I worry that some of my discussion of the plot might have been off-base or incorrect guessing on my part, but until I see the ending, I'm not sure any discussion of the plot could be expected to be entirely true to the developer's intentions. If you're reading this Sergio, these were just my thoughts and questions while playing, so if I'm wrong, feel free to explain why. :D)

Friday, March 7, 2014

Doorways (Chapters 1 and 2)


     There are good games, there are great games, there are bad games, and there are terrible games. Sometimes, however, there are games like Doorways. That is, a critic's worst nightmare: games that offer a breezy experience that leaves no impression, good or bad, on the player after watching the credits roll and even worse, are difficult to form an opinion on. So, for that reason, I'm going to keep this review short and sweet: while Doorways may not be too offensive to the tastes at first glance, and has some decent moments here and there throughout its playtime, between the manipulative use of the episodic format and a lack of actual content on display, it doesn't warrant a recommendation even to the hardest of hardcore horror fans. This is one Greenlight game that fails to live up to its promises in many unfortunate ways.
     Doorways is advertised on Steam as being a horror game with a 'complex story' and a 'deep atmosphere'. Vague words, but enough to make any horror fan curious. Unfortunately, to call anything on display here 'deep' or 'complex' would be silly. Doorways can't decide what it wants to be: Amnesia or Dear Esther, with some hints of the recent Montague's Mount thrown in for good measure.


     The game starts out with a quick tutorial that sets up your character essentially being an amnesiac, audience surrogate with nothing much in the way of personality, but in a horror game this gothic, what else would you expect? However, in games like Amnesia (the clearest inspiration for the game), the protagonist starts out not knowing who he is, but slowly learns over the course of the game more about his violent past, with answers always being dangled tantalizingly close to the player throughout the journey, compelling them to press on through the horrific challenges they'll face. Not in Doorways: I guess we're supposed to just take the developers' word for it that the story will be wrapped up in the final chapters, but considering how little the protagonist is developed over the course of these two episodes, I'm assuming it'll either be half-hearted exposition or a stock plot twist that'll tie everything up at the end. To say that there is no compelling central mystery would be an understatement: there's no damn plot to be found anywhere.


     The two chapters both focus on one unique big bad each, both of whom are responsible for hideous murders and the like. The game fills you in on the details of both's crimes with expository notes that can be found throughout the game's two environments. This is where the game's Dear Esther influence shows, as the notes do something similar: they detail gruesome events that aren't really at all evidenced by anything in the rooms where you find them, giving the areas a sense of history, and in turn, leading to most of the game's 'deep atmosphere'. Unfortunately, while these notes are gruesome and generally well-written enough to make the game succeed on the strength of them alone, the notes never form any sort of narrative arch nor do the chapters themselves ever feel properly paced enough to make the game seem to have any kind of plot at all. And what of your character's involvement in all of this? The game won't tell; guess you'll have to find out in the next two chapters!


     Which brings us to the game's biggest issue: its length. Doorways is short. Like, very short. For ten bucks, the game is an utterly incomplete experience that can be finished in under two hours easily, even if you die a lot. What makes this even worse is that you won't get the next two chapters with your purchase either: you'll have to pay again to unlock them once they finally release. Ultimately, I find it hard to believe that the developers have the gall to charge so much for only half of such a lazy game, and I don't find myself particularly excited to see what happens next considering the game's plot goes absolutely nowhere. And really, besides plot, what else does this game promise that it has going for it?
     Well, there are some decently fun platforming bits (weird, huh?) and some clever puzzles, but anyone with working hands and a undamaged brain can breeze right through them all with no problem. In fact, that's the general issue with what little content Doorways does offer: the game is so breezy, you'll blow through the whole thing before it can ever even sink its fangs into you properly. There are virtually no scares that ever break up the tedium or jar you out of the daze the game's dull atmosphere puts you in, and you're hardly ever in immediate danger, as most of the game's enemies stand completely still until you run into them. The gameplay is alright, but why pay for Doorways when a game like Amnesia has even better gameplay, much more dynamic horror, and a pretty excellent plot over a much lengthier adventure for the same price?



     What's the best thing I can say about Doorways? Well, it looks nice. In fact, let's not mince words: it looks gorgeous at times. The game's grandiose architecture in the second act is so well done I could almost feel my jaw drop at times while playing it, and while the first act's environment was nothing special in and of itself, the torture dungeon you find yourself in towards the end of the act feels appropriately sinister and creepy. The game's sound: not so much. The audio is mostly droning noise and silence, so nothing to really keep you on the edge of your seat. Still, between the superbly responsive controls and the well done visuals, Doorways greatest asset is its production values, no contest. In fact, in terms of visuals, nothing in Amnesia really compares to the locales visited in Doorways' second chapter. But are those visuals worth twenty bucks? (or even ten?) Unfortunately, no.
     While I was rooting for this game to hook me, especially thanks to the second act's gleefully dark antagonist, I couldn't help but feel like the game was just sand slipping through my fingers, not ever making much of an impact on me. The puzzles were easy and rather obvious, the platforming worked perfectly well and never required much thought or skill to complete, and the game's scares never really surprised me quite enough to stick in my memory. Worst of all, the game's story barely even exists at all, and for a game that sells itself based on its complex narrative, this is a serious problem. All of this points to Doorways being a game that fails to deliver on its promises, and live up to its many, much more substantial inspirations. Doorways might indeed pull out a final act that makes the entire experience much more worthwhile, but currently, with no ending in sight and virtually zero originality, I don't reserve very much hope and I certainly can't recommend you pay its ten dollar entry fee to try it out and see for yourself. Go play Amnesia instead and hope that the developers change their mind about the game's pricing. Otherwise, mark Doorways under 'wasted potential' and move on.

Verdict: C-

(Keep in mind, games like Gone Home sometimes charge silly prices for very little content, but at least Gone Home has originality going for it, and for its target audience, it offers a great narrative-focused experience. Doorways offers neither a good story, or good scares, and for that, the price seems outrageous, especially considering the experience is incomplete.)

Friday, February 14, 2014

Anodyne


     Generally, I try to rate games as experiences. It's an abstract concept to think too hard about, sure, but with every game I play, there's always this gut feeling I have that's a culmination of all the fun I had, the fear I felt, the wonderment I experienced, etc while playing the game. This 'gut feeling' usually dictates my final score. I don't devise some numerical system to rank gameplay, story, sound, and graphics separately because I think it's a oversimplification of the medium: did Ebert rate movies this way? Does Robert Christgau review music this way? Still, this presents problems, as there are times when my gut is telling me something is great, and my brain is powerless to interpret the pros and cons of the experience. Enter now: as I type this, I find myself with no idea of how to begin telling you about my recent experience with Anodyne. An A+ feels like a disservice in some way. My gut knows it's amazing, but my brain is putty. It takes a game like Anodyne to remind me what makes our medium special, and to make me question how on Earth I'm going to pitch it to you without going off on tangents and sounding like a pretentious nut. On one hand, I'm thrilled; on the other, a little terrified. Oh well, here goes.


     Anodyne is a Zelda-clone. From the retro graphics, to the hilariously cliched premise, Anodyne wears its retro-inspired feel on its sleeve like a badge of honor. In the opening exposition dialogue, you're told that The Darkness has spread across The Land to steal The Legendary Briar; by the numbers, right? Even later, when you find yourself in a creepy, rain-soaked clearing outside a temple only minutes into the game, you probably won't give it a second thought. The melancholy music, the self-aware dialogue; it's just an indie thing. They like to do this. "Hey look at me, I'm self-aware but ultimately the same!" Oh, those silly indie devs. Except they're not joking this time, and while Anodyne may indeed be laughing, it's probably laughing at you rather than itself. Sure, the dungeon designs are Zelda-tastic, and yeah, the dialogue is filled with in-jokes and references, but Evoland this is not: Evoland did it to be cute. Anodyne, on the other hand, invokes nostalgia for the same reason that Boards of Canada does: to freak you out as your childhood memories begin crumbling right before your eyes.
     But, also like Boards of Canada, Anodyne doesn't overdo it. This adventure is filled with those beautiful little moments where the total experience comes together perfectly: cute music, humorous dialogue, colorful visuals; they all combine to truly make your heart jump with joy at all the right moments. But those moments are usually chased by moments that will make your heart sink. The plot is a celebration of video games and the escapism they offer us from our sometimes painful daily lives, but it also reminds us how poisonous this escapism can be. When the darkness piles on, I'm never sure just what to think. Early on, Anodyne teaches you not to trust anything it tells you, but what any of the bizarre imagery, horrific setpieces, and the hilariously self-aware frame narrative ultimately represents is not exactly clear. If that sounds unfortunate, trust me: it's not. I wouldn't trade the feelings of horror, beauty, and ultimate confusion Anodyne left me with for anything in the world. 


     It's the kind of experience that's hardest to write about because no one thing is the star of the show: the world, the characters, the dialogue, all of it combines to create an experience that left my brain mush and my heart aflutter. Ultimately, the atmosphere that Anodyne creates is the kind that could only exist in a video game, where we the player aren't just an onlooker; we're an active participant; where we can stop moving, close our eyes, and can almost feel the wind on our face and the music echoing somewhere off in the distance. It gets dark, yes, and often, but I can't help but remember Anodyne more as a celebration than a condemnation, even if that wasn't what the developers intended. 
     If you're confused, then I've done my job at faithfully setting you up for Anodyne's bizarre world and fascinating characters. Everything here is surreal and probably nonsensical, but when the credits roll and the fun puzzles and frustrating platforming segments are but a distant memory, you'll remember the whacked-out stuff the most clearly, both the cute and the horrific, and you'll probably draw some kind of moral from the experience. As long as you don't go into Anodyne expecting a breezy, mindless retro experience, and you're willing to fill in some story gaps yourself, the experience will feel very rewarding. And that's it; that's literally all I can do to advertise Anodyne's insane plot as I'm still reeling from the shock and awe of it myself. If you like weird, you'll like Anodyne. The end.


     Phew. Now that all that pretension is over, let's be a little more blunt: Anodyne has no real plot. Yeah, sure, you have a hero's quest to accomplish and there are plenty of challenges to overcome to accomplish it, but Anodyne has a story the way Zelda games have a story: there's just enough there to justify calling it a story, but really, the plot is no more than a framing device. Unlike Zelda, however, Anodyne uses its familiar frame to make you even more uncomfortable with its insane content than you would have been if this had been just another Braid. How does The Cabin in the Woods tagline go again? "You think you know the story?" Boy, do you ever.
     And that's really the magical part of Anodyne: it doesn't offer up any answers, and the plot ends just as weirdly as it began, but yet, it feels conclusive and satisfying, because this is such a familiar structure that the ending doesn't feel as abrupt as it usually does from these kind of games. As long as you know at the outset that Anodyne doesn't have some stupid plot twist to explain away its crazy Wonderland-esq world, than you'll likely feel satisfied by your time with it, especially since it lasts around eight hours, which is rather lengthy for an indie game. Overall, the experience succeeds mostly on the strength of its fascinating world, and its charming self-awareness. The closest thing I can compare it to is OFF, but with less of an easing period before the weird crap starts happening.


     But wait, Anodyne isn't all mystery and heady surrealism; no sir, Anodyne comes chock full of classic SNES-era adventuring gameplay to boot. There are several unique dungeons in the game to be conquered, and, in classic Zelda tradition, each has its own gimmick that must be mastered in order to proceed. What's truly surprising about these dungeons, though, besides the obvious horror-influenced thematic material, is that these are some masterfully designed Zelda dungeons. As someone who only just completed the recent A Link Between Worlds, let me tell you: these are every bit as good as the real thing. Anodyne stumbles a bit when it introduces the 'jumping boots' and decides platforming is as good a focus as any for a dungeon, but even through the frustration the platforming-focused dungeons caused me, it couldn't be denied that I was having fun, and that Anodyne could hold its own against even Nintendo's legendary dungeon design is something truly awe-inspiring.
     The bosses that end each dungeon are a little less refined, however, as I felt that they hardly ever made use of any specific gimmick well, and they are came off as a little on the easy side, except towards the end when they suddenly become incredibly frustrating. If there's any one part of this Zelda-clone that doesn't quite live up to its inspiration, it might be the bosses. But what the bosses lack in challenge they usually make up for in character, so I ultimately enjoyed my time dueling with them, and trying to guess what each boss would be before I got to them was a fun little game to play with myself as I conquered the puzzles within each labyrinthian dungeon.
     Unlike almost everything else, Anodyne's structure is less Zelda and more Fez. Traditional this is not. The world is vaguely Zelda-ish in that everything connects in interesting ways, and that certain parts of the world will only be accessible after you get certain items, but other than that, Anodyne's structure is every bit as bizarre as everything else in the game. You'll often find yourself in locations that seem to come out of nowhere. And dungeons appear just as suddenly: one second you're traversing some weird black and white city, and the next thing you know, you're fighting a flaming skeleton monster in his apartment. Yeah, it's that kind of world design: one with practically no logic and liberal doses of mind screw. Think Yume Nikki but with ever so much more structure and the aforementioned traditional gameplay elements.


     Presentation-wise, Anodyne is a beaut. The music is either appropriately pretty or appropriately horrific depending on the scene, and all of the tunes maintain a consistency that is impressive considering their sheer scope. The graphics are seemingly what you'd normally expect from a retro game, but the 16-bit art style still has some tricks up its sleeves, and on the whole, Anodyne looks every bit as distinctive as it should. Seriously; some parts of the world have to be seen to be appreciated. Whether you're staring out over the cliffs, or trekking carefully across a monochrome suburbia, the graphics are stunning throughout.


     The developers of Anodyne cite Link's Awakening and Yume Nikki as the project's two biggest inspirations, which is essentially the easiest way to describe the experience in as few words as possible. If Yume Nikki isn't really your thing, well, maybe the Zelda stuff will sell you instead. Not a Zelda fan? Well, perhaps you've always thought what Zelda needed was a little Yume Nikki to spice things up. Either way, it's easy to recommend Anodyne to anyone who will listen, despite or even because of its surreal leanings. While this love letter to gaming ultimately runs the risk of seeming too familiar to some and not familiar to others, Anodyne's heart shines through its retro trappings, and for someone who had no idea what to expect in the first place, I couldn't help but allow myself to be swept up in Anodyne's sometimes scary, other times beautiful world. A Link Between Worlds has nothing on this.

Verdict: A+

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Miasmata


     Maybe I'm cynical, but it's often obvious to me that for all of the innovation and exposure Steam's brilliant Greenlight serve affords low-profile indie games, it also affords plenty of games free publicity that they didn't need in the first place or simply didn't deserve. Take for instance, games created by popular internet personalities, or indeed, ridiculous rip-off games 'inspired' by console exclusives, or just simply a game that attempts entirely too hard to cash-in on a popular trend. These games are now getting more attention than ever, and games that truly deserve attention and that are truly innovative are now more than ever dying by the wayside. It's sad really.
     But, there is one thing about this system that I do find both humorous, and encouraging, and that's that plenty of games can now get greenlit easily by simply looking like something it's not. You call it false-advertising; I call it poetic justice.


     Case in point: Miasmata, a survival game. "Like Minecraft, yeah?" and based on that misconception, a few tons of votes later Miasmata was one of the first games to be greenlit. After release, when gamers finally got their hands on it, there were undoubtedly a few tons of Minecraft fans that were confused: this game wasn't at all like Minecraft!
     Believe me, this is a good thing. Miasmata is one of my favorite kinds of trend-followers: the kind that turns the trend in question on its head and in turn offers an entirely new kind of experience. Whereas Minecraft can be either a good 'filler' game or a serious, epic journey across a foreign land depending on what mood you're in when you play it, Miasmata is an intense battle for survival that can only function as a serious, atmospheric experience to fill hours upon hours of your time in rapid succession. It offers narrative in the place of crafting and world generation. It offers tension and horror in the place of building your own mountain fortress. Above all, it offers breathtakingly beautiful vistas and a uniquely living, breathing world with an interesting and mysterious history, and I wouldn't have it any other way.


     Miasmata's story starts off with a whimper rather than a bang: you wake up next to a little wooden rowboat with some pop-up text informing you that you are suffering from a deadly plague that mankind has yet to find a cure for. Luckily, you yourself are a scientist, and you have come to this mysterious, yet-unmapped island in search of the right medicinal herbs to complete a cure and, in the process, save both yourself and mankind in general. Things start to pick up a little when you first stumble upon your first dead scientist, discarded in the thick brush of Miasmata's central unnamed island. There are also tons of scientific outposts that have already been set up across the island, each with their own dead scientists adorning them, setting up several compelling mysteries right from the word go: why are these scientists dead? What killed them? If this island is indeed yet-unmapped and unexplored for the most part, then why are there so many expensive outposts set up across the island filled with mostly complete research? Wait, I thought I was mankind's last hope? Where did all these posers come from?
     But that's only part of Miasmata's mystery: the scientists leave behind journals in their wake that explain their experiments prior to their murder, and also fill you in on some of the finer details of the story: island lore, news stories from the world at large, and mentions of a mysterious 'beast' that seems to be stalking the scientists and making life difficult for them. Indeed, this game is keen on the 'show don't tell' design philosophy, and although their are big ancient monuments dotting the island, and tons of strange locales (I nicknamed my favorite the 'Forest of a Thousand Creepy Eyeballs') Miasmata never explains it all away, and rather, actually expects you to fill in the gaps yourself.


     While Miasmata's story doesn't contain a whole lot of payoff and doesn't provide a whole lot in the way of concrete answers, its narrative is a great central mystery that kept me going until the very end, which could take anywhere from 10-20 hours to arrive, depending on how lucky you are with finding outposts and discovering new plants and herbs. Overall, the narrative's main draw is that it gives the island itself a very distinct sense of place and a creepy foreign quality. You never feel safe, and the mysterious ruins and such give the island a sense of history and culture that many games ignore entirely. The game's setting is actually the game's most interesting character in many ways, and it's definitely the biggest draw for players who want that 'special something' in their games that make them click even as they get tedious or overly difficult. The story will draw you in, and the island's mystery and beauty will keep you playing until the very end.
     On the gameplay front, there's a whole lot going on here. Controlling your character, for instance, takes the survival horror approach of making movement something of a chore. The controls manage to make your character feel both incredibly heavy and equally slippery and weightless at the right times. It's like controlling the world's heaviest ice cube: it may be hard to gain speed in Miasmata, but once you do, you'll more often than not want like hell to stop. This makes every adventure dangerous, meticulous, and tenseMiasmata is not a game for the impatient gamer, as one wrong move can set you fatally back and leave you dying out in the middle of nowhere.


     This is all thanks to the game's 'fall' mechanic, which allows you to trip and fall if you run too fast on tricky terrain or decide to sprint straight down a steep cliff. It leaves your character rolling and careening down mountainsides as you look on helplessly, watching all of your precious work go to waste. The mechanic is at its most demonic when your character happens to be holding any precious plants you've found, which all get thrown carelessly to the side when you begin falling, ensuring many frantic searches as the sun begins to fall and you hear growling begin to emanate from the darkened jungle. Oh yeah, did I mention this game has one of the most terrifying night/day cycles I've ever seen before?


     But continuing my previous thought, plants are everything in Miasmata. Searching for them might even be the game's central mechanic, if it has one. The overarching goal of the game is to create three mixtures that can be combined together to create a cure. The problem is, you have no idea what the alien plants on the island do, so you have to pick up every new plant or flower you find and examine it at one of the outposts in order to determine its usefulness. Oh, and you can only ever hold a few at a time and only one of a single species at a time, which means that stockpiling is essentially impossible, and carting a large number of rarities back to your base takes a long time. Remember what I said about accidentally falling and losing everything you were holding? Yeah, well that's ultimately what keeps the fetching from ever growing old. If you zone out and fail to pay enough attention to what you're doing, you could lose the one plant you need to complete the game and set yourself back to square one. Or perhaps it's getting late, and you're just headed back to your camp after a hard day's work, when suddenly: you spot a rare new species. Carting something rare back to your home as the sun goes down, and your field of vision grows dim is an experience that can't truly be matched by anything else out their in the survival genre currently. Miasmata's tension is its greatest asset and what keeps it from feeling like anything else on the market today. It's practically a horror game.


     But all that tension is eased by what are perhaps the most breathtaking visuals of their kind. The island feels real, and lived-in, with every square inch bursting with activity and life. I couldn't stop snapping images the entire time I was playing, as it felt like I was taking some kind of tropical sightseeing tour. The game's mapping mechanic encourages you to climb to great heights to map out new territory, and this in turn encourages you to constantly stop and gawk at the beautiful vistas on a regular basis. The skyboxes in particular, while sometimes a bit oddly colored, are a thing to behold. One thing's for sure: if this game really was made by only two people, those two people have somehow outdone almost every other game on the market in creating such a realistic world that manages to be equally colorful, and overall just a joy to look at.
     Discovery is the name of the game gentlemen. Miasmata is about the little moments; the unscripted moments of wonderment, horror, or just plain magic that happen once you settle into a routine of mapping out new territories, searching them for new plants, carting those plants back to your camp, and turning in for the night, excited to see what you discover the next day. It's one of the most immersive games I've ever played, and it's a testament to what indie devs are really capable of: beautiful visuals, a richly detailed world, and atypical gameplay that helps reinforce the horror aspects fantastically. Bravo, Miasmata. Bravo.


Verdict: B+

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Paranormal (Early Access)

     Paranormal is the newest in a string of indie horror games launching close to Halloween, and like most of the other games in this category, it's now on Steam thanks to the almighty Greenlight. What makes Paranormal stand out, however, is its history, being that it has been in development for a few years now, and has built up quite a reputation amongst LPer's and horror fans. It's already gotten a ton of coverage since its launch day, and the new Steam release is sure to garner even more attention than before. The question, then, is this: is it really deserving of all this praise?
     First off, remember: the game is part of Steam Early Access, so the game technically isn't finished yet, although it's clear that Matt Cohen is mostly finished with the base game, and that he's only putting the finishing touches on it at best, so take any criticism with a grain of salt, and remember: everything in the game is subject to change at a moment's notice. With that in mind, I'll dive right in.

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     Paranormal centers on a young starving artist who apparently gets a great deal on a nice, big house with plenty of space for his studio. So great was the deal, indeed, that the guy did no research into the house's previous history, and he almost doesn't even seem surprised when things start to go a bit south. The game opens with the man telling us that, in order to prove that the house is haunted, he's decided to record his next few days in their entirety, exposing to the world the horrors that exist in the house. Simple, right? The idea is a familiar one, but the way it's carried out is anything but.
     For one, the story itself goes in some distinctly unpleasant directions. Even the protagonist himself, who struck me right from the beginning as a bit strange, doesn't seem to be doing the recording for any other reason than to piss off the ghosts. Indeed, he almost seems to enjoy pushing them to do something fantastic for the camera, and boy, are they only too happy to oblige. Once you get past the initial obvious horror tropes (mannequins, loud footsteps, etc) the game's story gets very tragic and extremely terrifying very quickly. There's a central mechanic based around trying to figure out who, exactly, is the entity that is haunting the house in the first place. Journal entries, Google searches, and other environmental clues will gradually fill you in on what's going on, but never enough that you feel like you've 'cracked the case', making the ghosts feel mysterious and more creepy than ever even after you've discovered their origin.


     Overall, at the end of your 30-40 minute journey, you'll feel like you've been through hell and back, the ending fittingly caps the experience off in a cool "gainax ending" (depending on how you play, that is. There are multiple endings.), and there's little doubt that you'll breathe a little sigh of relief that the experience is over, and you, not the character necessarily, made it out alive. This is because Paranormal has that distinct creepypasta version of horror storytelling that makes the story feel uncomfortably realistic and dangerously close to home. After playing the game, I found myself averting my eyes near mirrors, windows, and anything else even remotely associated with this game. For me, this was perhaps the biggest reason this game has had such a lasting effect on my mind: ever since I've finished it, I simply can't get some of the more disturbing images out of my head. Paranormal has a terrifying way of sticking with you after you finish it. It definitely fits the 'Couldn't sleep for a week.' genre of horror, and fits it better than any other game I've ever played.
     Gameplay-wise, though, the game is quite forgettable, but that pretty much comes with the territory with games like this. It's like a mixture of Silent Hill 4's hauntings mixed with the random 'scare-system' of Anna. The main draw of the game is having things go bump, so actual gameplay consists of little other than walking around, waiting for something to happen. Yes, you do occasionally find journal pages and stuff that clues you into what's going on, but these are hardly frequent enough to actually feel like a real gameplay element. Also, there isn't a lot that actually poses a real threat to your character, so if like your horror with a larger sense of danger, like in games like Amnesia, this may not be your bag, although most players won't notice that they're in no danger when a mannequin materializes in front of them while they weren't looking.

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     Graphics aren't great, but they're not all that bad either. The game has a distinct lack of color, and the motion blur and screen static makes it feel grimy and ugly, although that was probably intentional. It does have that Unreal quality of having weird shiny textures on certain objects that look extremely gross (think the slime monsters from Condemned 2), but overall, it looks fine, and is perfectly capable of scaring the pants off of you. I only wish that I didn't have to manually set my resolution every time I hop into the game, but it's in Early Access, so I can only guess that that will be something they fix in future updates.
     And now, for the bad. Paranormal is a scary game for sure, but its pacing creates a few very serious issues. For one, the game condenses itself into a 30-40 minute experience, an experience that remains pretty much the same no matter how many times you play it. Granted, small things will change, but for the most part, the biggest moments remain faithfully chronological (or at least, they did when I played it.), so replay value is limited to trying to scare your friends and waiting for more DLC to launch, and at $10, that could potentially be a deal-breaker for some.
     But the pacing also creates a much bigger problem for the experience, at least, it did for me. I was really interested in the history of the house; I couldn't wait to start up the game and dive into the house's history, find those journal pages, and confront the ultimate evil. I thought it sounded a bit like a more dynamic Scratches. Sign me up, please.

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     But once I was in the game, I realized that this entire mechanic was hardly even there. Yeah, maybe I assumed too much from reading the Steam store page, but the pacing was so fast that 'exploration' and 'discovery' took a backseat to waiting for things to pop out and scare me. There was a central mystery, but genre-savvy players will figure out the central evil in mere seconds. I mean, as soon as you start the game, you're standing in front of a laptop. If you walk up to the laptop and interact with it (and really, who wouldn't?), it tells you exactly what's haunting the house, and although it probably thinks it's being vague, I knew immediately based on the text what I was up against, and a lot of the mystery was lost for me, although that obviously didn't stop me from being terrified when the thing started showing up to scare me within an inch of my life.
     And the scares themselves, being paced the way they are, can feel like a bit much at times. Remember in FEAR when you'd be walking down a quiet hallway, and suddenly an image of a mutilated head would just pop-up on your screen for a second, accompanied by a loud scream or something? Yeah, Paranormal loves scares like that, and encountering one or two of those in rapid succession is enough to piss me off and make me just want to rage-quit. Jump scares are fine, but sometimes, this game felt less Paranormal Activity and more like the an amusement park ride.

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     And of course, the final complaint: Paranormal is buggy. Bugs are usually so horrific that one might even confuse them for intentional scares, but I'm pretty sure teleporting through the ground and being thrown across a room were not scares programmed into the game. Also, the game kinda supports an Xbox 360 controller, so while you can pause with a gamepad, you can't un-pause with one for some reason, and the look sensitivity can't be changed anywhere in-game. All of this will probably be fixed in the future, but you still may to steer clear if you'd rather wait until the game's quirks are ironed out before you experience the game.
     Overall, though, Paranormal is a great scare-fest for the horror-fanatics out there. Even though it's a bit rough around the edges, and it wasn't exactly what I expected, I'd still heartily recommend it to anyone who wants a dynamic horror experience with a decent mystery at its core. Think Paranormal Activity with a touch of creepypasta and tons of delicious jump scares.

Verdict: C+

(I'll be reviewing each new DLC episode after they release, and if the base game changes dramatically, I will probably write another review, so don't take this as my final word on Paranormal.)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Swapper


     Just in case you thought indie platformers were beginning to get a bit too kitschy for their own good, here's The Swapper, a game designed to absorb you into its cold, disturbingly serene world and disarm you with a blend of unique storytelling and fantastic puzzle design. Look out Braid.
     The Swapper begins with your character, an unnamed, entirely silent astronaut crashing on a desolate space station where something horrible has obviously occurred. Armed with "The Swapper", a mysterious cloning device that seems to be in the center of all of the The Swapper's drama, you'll travel around the nearly uninhabitable Theseus station, gathering clues from 'memory terminals' and interacting with a mysterious woman with a seemingly bipolar personality (more like a tri-polar personality), all in the hopes to be able to put together a picture of what exactly happened to all of the people who used to work on Theseus, and hopefully figure a little about your own mysterious identity in the process. Oh yeah, and there are talking rocks.


     So, everything is set up purposefully for some kind of grand twist, and yes, the developments themselves are often surprising, but the plot is much more of a philosophical, slow-burning one than the Bioshock-esq premise might initially indicate. Though the plot is very entertaining and brain-teasing over the course of the game, its true intricacies and pleasures are most likely going to be enjoyed on message boards and discussions with friends. This is definitely not a knock on the game, but I just feel that its just a little too brainy for its own good. Once again, if you like Braid's philosophical style of plot, you'll love this, but if that felt too un-affecting and pretentious for you, than this probably won't do much for you either.
     But what of all that puzzle gameplay that people have been raving about? What of The Swapper device itself? What's interesting is that, though this is considered Metroidvania, there is no real progression to the game's bag of tricks. Once you get the ability to swap, you've gotten every ability the game has to offer. This sounds like a bad thing, but it isn't: the puzzles are so deceptively simple, but yet brilliantly difficult. The game's focus is laser-precise, and the puzzles are insanely consistent, and they're never frustrating, unlike some of the puzzles from the aforementioned Braid, where figuring out the solution was only half of the challenge, and wrestling with dodgy jumping challenges and perfect timing was the other.


    Perhaps most impressive of all, though, are the game's visuals, which are all hand-made, from either household objects or clay. This lends the game a very distinctive aesthetic design that helps add to the game's unique atmosphere. Yes, 'beautiful void' space stations are typical in Metroidvania style games, but The Swapper still manages to stand out. Helping the atmosphere in critical, but indeed very subtle ways, is the game's fantastic score, which picks up at all the right moments, and stays ambient and moody otherwise. The Swapper's world feels fleshed out, and the characters finish up the story much more nuanced and complete than I expected. In the end, it all adds up to one of 2013's best and most mind-expanding titles that uses morality in interesting ways and challenges players to think about what it really means to be alive and conscious, all the while also challenging you with brilliant puzzles. Even as games like The Last Of Us are being praised for being an advancement of the medium, The Swapper is a reminder that the medium has always been capable of mature, deep stories: you just have to know where to look.

Verdict: B

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

OFF


     As far back as 2005's Shadow Of The Colossus, video games have been trying to use morality as a way to play with the player's emotions. A way to interact with us in a somewhat disarming fashion. A fashion that will, indeed, very often give the unprepared player pause for thought, and force them to think over what they've done over the course of their 'adventure' in a new and disturbing light. What's the quickest way to a gamer's heart? I'd say its probably guilt.
     I recently spent a decent amount of ink talking about Downfall, another game that uses morality in disturbing and thought-provoking ways, and although I hate to start sounding redundant, let's explore another similarly-minded little indie nasty: Mortis Ghost's fantastic OFF.
     On the surface, OFF is just an exceptionally-produced indie RPG with some surreal visuals, but that's all nothing but surface fluff, and the most arresting things about the game go far deeper than that. Even the story begins innocently enough: you are in control of The Batter (the game's goes to lengths to make sure you don't believe you actually are The Batter), and he's got a very important mission: he's out to 'purify' the whole world, and you're going to help him.
     It doesn't take long for things to get weird, though. Perhaps the most bizarre thing about the game's characters is that, right from the start of the adventure onward, they constantly refer to the player by the player's actual name, and talk down to The Batter as if he's nothing more than a puppet. It's a little jarring at first, but that's just the tip of the iceberg as far as OFF's array of Nightmare Fuel is concerned. Suffice to say, though, the fourth wall will not protect you.


     The game's colorful cast of characters is almost as impressive as its very unique and developed world. As you work your way through the game's many distinct 'zones', interacting with the 'elsens' (droves of identical, sickly little grey people) that inhabit nearly every corner of OFF, and purifying the 'spectres' that threaten their very existence, you're sure to fall in love with this strange place. Whether it's the odd bits of lore the locals will share with you at nearly every turn, or indeed, just their well-written and bizarre dialogue, it's clear that this place is a place like none other, and that Mortis Ghost went out of his way to make sure the world was as fleshed out as possible, and in the end, his efforts pay off: OFF's wonderfully thick atmosphere and unique sense of place elevate it to new heights that not many other story-centric titles out there can achieve simply on the backs of their quality yarns.
     But what about all that tasty "morality in video games" talk I teased you with at the start of this review? Well, to say that OFF goes a bit off the rails (in a good way) would be an understatement. The game begins as a fairly standard RPG, gameplay-wise, that happens to take place in an incredibly distinctive framework, and ends a survival horror game with mind-bending puzzles and sinister locales that change and manipulate themselves in the most disturbing ways possible. And speaking of disturbing...
     I spoiled it a bit in my introduction, but I'll reiterate: this game, during many of the its more infamous sections, gets very difficult to stomach. I saw Spec Ops all the way through until its bitter end, and nothing in that game came even close to a few of the memorable "Wham moments" that OFF has up its sleeves. It explores morality in a more confrontational way than any other game I know of, and it does so without even coming off as manipulative. The final stretch, in particular, is brutal. If you finish the game and plan on sleeping afterwords, don't worry: you won't.
     The ending is still going to disappoint people looking for concrete answers, but overall, it strikes a very good balance between being vague enough to spark discussion and debate and yet still feeling satisfying. What is perhaps my favorite thing about the way that OFF wraps up is that, unlike so many other indie titles, the game is not only a decent length, but it knows how to make the narrative flow evenly over its lengthy runtime, and most importantly, end in such a way that the player doesn't feel like they've been abruptly yanked out of the experience. Suffice to say, if you're playing OFF, it's going to be for the story, which is, on the whole, very adult, very emotionally devastating, and very original.
     Well, what of the gameplay then?


     A resounding 'eh'. Several of the game's many areas have spots that need to be traversed over and over again numerous times (especially puzzle rooms), so having random encounters occur here is both dastardly and annoyingly distracting. I want to find out more about the world. I want to hear more plot exposition. I want to get to the bottom of the characters' motivations. I do not want to keep fighting these stupid ghosts over and over again, and repetition simply will not change the fabric of reality. Perhaps worst of all, though, is that these encounters also tend to yank players out of the immersive atmosphere the game creates so well, which is very unfortunate.
     One thing OFF does get right involving its gameplay are the puzzles, which are pretty well-thought out and appropriate. A few particularly frustrating ones did convince me to look up a walkthrough, but overall, I thought they were decent, especially towards the end, where they suddenly become very sinister and nearly as mind-expanding as a few of the simpler puzzles in Antichamber. The puzzles usually boil down to simple number combinations and strange keys, but still, the dressing that OFF uses for these puzzles makes them feel so much more multifaceted and complex than they really are, which is nice.
     Special mention must go to the game's production values. The score, composed by Alias Conrad Coldwood, is amazing, start to finish. The graphics, too, maintain an exceptional amount of quality throughout (especially that giant elsen. so adorable.) and many of the game's visuals were obviously hand-drawn, which is always a treat to witness. Its thanks to these things that OFF's atmosphere feels so thick and distinct. In addition, some of the bizarre scripted events that occur in the game's latter portions are just insane, and props go out to Mortis Ghost for figuring out so many incredibly surreal ways to manipulate RPG Maker 2003's rigid and boring engine. It simply must be seen to be believed. And did I mention that it's free?
     All of this results in what I believe to be one of the most personal indie horror games I've ever experienced. No, it's not really 'scary' in the traditional sense, and it's definitely a bit of a stretch to classify this as 'survival horror', but when its all said and done, and you're staring at the credits, reflecting on the experience, this game has done to you what only the best horror stories can: it has shaken you to the core, and you couldn't be more thrilled with it.

Verdict: A+