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.)