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+

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Downfall

     While Harvester Games' recent title The Cat Lady is busy out there, wowing gamers both young and old with its incredible storytelling and thickly discernible human heart, their first effort, Downfall, is still hardly getting any attention at all. Between its limited availability (Gamersgate and Desura appear to be the only sites that let you purchase it.) and its relative obscurity, Downfall piqued my interest, mostly because there weren't many reviews floating around, and I thought it'd be nice to play a game not knowing what quite to expect going in besides the game's promise to be very shocking. Let's give it a go, shall we?


     We begin our adventure in the shoes of Joe Davis, an everyman traveling with his schizophrenic wife. He's ready to get off the road, due to the ever intensifying storm, and also because his wife is beginning to have an 'episode'. He stops at the Quiet Haven Hotel for the night, and the two get a room. After an intense argument between them, Ivy suggests they sleep it off. They do.
     But when Joe wakes up the next morning, Ivy is nowhere to be found. He runs down to the kitchen to see if she's decided to grab some breakfast but finds the entire kitchen void of any life. Disturbingly, though, the bodies of many patrons are posed in the dining area. Through a mysterious woman who seems to be in charge of the hotel, Joe learns that Ivy disappeared with a woman named Sophie, who has a habit of viciously murdering and eating the people unfortunate enough to try and make friends with her. So, it's up to us to save Ivy and deliver her from this horrible beast. Just one small problem, though: how does he accomplish this?
     A ghostly little girl in Sophie's apartment suggests Joe kill all the little pieces of Sophie scattered throughout the hotel. Specifically, her memories of different stages of her troubled life. She promises Joe that if he murders these four distinct 'Sophies', Sophie will die, and he'll be able to rescue Ivy from her evil grasp. But it's not that simple. After meeting the first two Sophies, you realize something disturbing: you don't want to murder these poor girls. But the game keeps telling you to, promising that it's all in the name of saving Ivy. What do you do?


     To say that the plot packs quite a punch is a bit of an understatement. It's rare that video games make their players feel so legitimately ashamed of their actions, but Downfall doesn't shy away from making you feel like an asshole. In fact, if there's one thing that Downfall does best, it's making you feel terrible about your decisions throughout its runtime. If I had to compare it to something, I'd probably choose Spec Ops: The Line.
     The game all seems to be leading up to some sort of final revelation and it definitely doesn't disappoint us there. The end twist is a bit formulaic, but is, overall, pretty well done. The decisions you have made throughout don't affect the ending a ton, but that doesn't matter so much simply because the guilty feelings they create in you are effective regardless of how they factor into the plot. It's a fairly short game, and it only took me about four hours to finish, but I ended up playing it through twice, and so I felt pretty satisfied with the game's length.
     Is the game scary? Well... that's a difficult one to answer. It's definitely disturbing, and it has a few good jump scares, but for the most part, the closest it ever gets to being scary is during a few very creepy dreams  and some of the chase sequences, although some players will inevitably be more creeped out than others, so its entirely possible that some may find the game absolutely terrifying.


     So, the bad? Well, for starters, this is a point-and-click adventure game we're talking about here. So, in that regard, its not going to be to everyone's tastes. Me personally, I don't mind archaic gameplay as long as the story holds up, but others that require a little more visceral stimulation will likely be disappointed with the slow, plodding pace of picking up countless mundane items and combining them into reidiculous contraptions that are all replacements for keys in some way or another. The puzzles don't ever get too offensive (certainly nothing as bad as the puzzles from Scratches rear their ugly head here.) but still, I know of at least one person who stopped playing the game because they couldn't get past a particularly annoying puzzle late in the game. Plus, it must be said that the sheer volume of objects you pick up in the game leads to feeling overwhelmed a lot of times, which is especially bad towards the beginning of the game, when multiple items you pick up won't come into play until at least the last third of the game.


     The ugly? The game looks and feels very rough, in some ways like a beta more than a finished product. The game contains numerous spelling errors and some weird bugs that occur over and over again at the strangest times. The backgrounds are excellent, and look like they were drawn by Stephen Gammel (of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark infamy.) The animations, however, are just plain awful. The character's themselves are gross-looking, and have fuzzy, indistinct features that stick out like a sore thumb when compared to the often quite wonderfully ugly watercolor backgrounds. One particularly amusing animation occurs when Joe crosses a large city street, or the hotel parking lot. He moves faster than a rocket and skids around without so much as moving his feet. It got a lot of chuckles out of me, but when I first saw it, I got worried I had just wasted ten bucks on an unfinished game. Luckily, it didn't take long for me to forget about the dumb animations and enjoy the amazing things this game has to offer.


     And it does have an awful lot to offer. There are few other games out there that attempt to tackle such difficult subject matter in such an interesting way. The writing does occasionally read like something from a teenager's diary, but it handles pretty mature themes like divorce, anorexia, and mental illness in a surprisingly nuanced and loving way. It may not always be the prettiest game, and it doesn't wrap up quite as well as it could have, but overall, Downfall is a remarkably original indie horror adventure that deals with mature themes in a very mature way, and never fails to surprise us at every turn.

Verdict: A-

Scratches: Director's Cut


     Point and click adventures are often seen as a dead genre, only occasionally rising up out of its grave to serve a few retro-indie titles with crap-tons of fan service in them before disappearing again and never really truly gaining a second wind of any sort. Some would argue with this assessment, but its, unfortunately, pretty accurate. At one time, adventure games exploded and then soon after died a relatively quick death, just as soon as they truly hit their peak.
     This is fine, though. Adventure games were always meant to primarily tell an interesting story, and storytelling has never exactly made money the same way flashy graphics and cute gunplay always has. Let them keep their Halo's and Call of Duty's: I've got Scratches.
     Keep in mind: I know that their are a lot of other much better and much more important adventure games out there, but that doesn't change the fact that Scratches impressed me in a way not many other games have in a good while. It kept me in a state of constant terror, and told me a story in such a way that I was dying to get to the bottom of all the mystery. What more could you want?


     The premise is simple: a popular horror writer is looking for solitude after discovering that he's got a somewhat severe case of writer's block. His solution? He tells his agent to find him somewhere nice and creepy, preferably with a shady past, to vacation. His agent is all too eager.
      And thus, we find ourselves at the front gate of Blackwood Manor, a creepy old mansion with a very disturbing and very mysterious past. As the legend goes: the previous owner, a Mr. James Blackwood, supposedly snapped and killed his wife, before proceding to hastily bury on the grounds of Blackwood Manor somewhere. No one knows why he did it, and after he dies very suddenly of a heart attack, everyone in town assumes the mystery will forever go unsolved. Until now, of course.
     So, after his showing of extremely poor judgement with deciding to reside in the house in the first place, our hero Micheal does the natural thing to do in a clearly dangerous situation like this: do some exploring and try to get to the bottom of this 'cold case'. He starts with reading old diaries and flipping through old newspapers. By the end of our adventure, he'll by swinging across rooftops, desecrating graves, and perhaps most disturbing of all, descending the basement stairs in the hopes to find out where those mysterious scratching sounds that haunts his sleepless nights are coming from.
     Sound creepy? Well, if it doesn't, don't worry: it is. Credit goes to the sound design especially in helping to create the terrifying atmosphere. Yes, there are a lot of cheap jump scares. Yes, I know that's not truly effective horror. But in this case, I felt like the jumps helped create the uneasy feeling I had traversing the creepy hallways and deserted wooded areas that dot the mansion. I never felt like I could trust the game, and thus, every time I turned a corner, every time I entered a room, I was terrified something horrible would be waiting there for me. Needless to say, the game is very effective at scaring the pants off of you, and keeping you nice and paralyzed with fear until it finally does so with a well-timed jump scare.


     My main complaints with Scratches lie with its puzzles. Yes, the gameplay is archaic and boring, but I didn't really mind that so much. What I did mind, however, was that without a walkthrough to help me along, I literally don't think I ever would have finished the game. The puzzles themselves are silly and contrived, and their solutions are even worse. To make matters worse, navigation in certain areas can be a little frustrating, and it can be easy to miss items sometimes. There's a specific puzzle towards the end of the game that I won't spoil, but that involves you digging a hole in the ground at a specific spot in the ground, using only a photo of the area as a reference. To say that this puzzle was 'frustrating' would be a huge understatement. I wanted to launch my mouse through the screen all the way up until I randomly stumbled upon the correct solution.
     The ending isn't exactly the greatest either. Yes, it makes perfect sense, and yes, it was pretty clever, but I can't help but feel that it just too abrupt. For a game with so much build up, the initial shock and awe of the ending means that its abruptness will be especially obvious when we find ourselves, mouths agape, staring at a credits sequence. Also, the secret ending is kind of cool, but just don't expect much out of the new Director's Cut-exclusive chapter "Last Visit". It just seems to ruin some of the mystery surrounding the original ending, and it renders 'the secret ending' completely 'non-canon' and thus, more of a joke ending than anything else. Plus, besides drawing attention to few things to clear up confusion about the ending, it didn't really offer any new answers to me. It felt like a needless retread, and thus, I recommend you skip it, unless you just really just can't get enough of Blackwood Manor.
     The graphics are fine. The sound design is relatively excellent. The voice-acting is pretty good, although it has moments of sheer-awfulness too. But above all, Scratches manages to be both terrifying and strangely subtle in its brand of horror, which is something we just don't see often enough. Its a fascinating horror game with smart twists and a mysterious plot that unravels at an excellent pace. Even if it looks a little boring in the trailers and screenshots, I promise: you will be scared, and you will love every second of it.

Verdict: B-