Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “adventure game”

Dreamfall Chapters for PS4, Xbox One, PC, Linux and OS X

1999’s The Longest Journey is one of my favourite games of all time, and certainly my favourite adventure game which doesn’t contain Guybrush Threepwood. Wonderful world-building and a truly epic journey which loved up to the name were held together by April Ryan, one of my favourite game protagonists ever. 2006’s sequel/spin-off Dreamfall: The Longest Journey impressed me less and I feel has actually aged much worse than its 7-year older predecessor. The long awaited Dreamfall Chapters is the third in the series and, unsurprisingly based on the name, is very much is the vein of Dreamfall rather than The Longest Journey. It is likely to be the concluding game of the entire saga and whilst elements work very well, it ultimately falls rather short. It could have worked as a 2017 style adventure game, it could have worked as a revival of a 1990s style adventure game, but instead it feels like a revival of a 2006 adventure game, which I don’t think anyone would argue is the genre’s golden age.

Dreamfall Chapters picks up a few months after the end of the last game; over in our world, the technologically advanced Stark, Zoe Castillo awakens from a coma, having forgotten the events of the previous game. To rebuild her life she moves to the continent wide mega city of Europolis, but it isn’t long before she is caught up in a new intrigue and local politics. Despite Zoe’s efforts in Dreamfall, Wati Corp have managed to release their sinister Dream Machine, which has turned many into lifeless husks, addicted to lucid dreams. Over in Arcadia, the apostle Kian Alvane has been imprisoned for betraying the Azadi Empire, who have invaded Marcuria and begun a system of oppression against magical races. To atone for his part in the death of April Ryan, Kian is recruited into the Resistance to fight his former masters and help the magicals he had previously despised. Finally, in the House of All Worlds, a strange child with mysterious powers, Saga, is born.

I’ll start out with the things I liked about the story of Dreamfall Chapters. The actual dialogue is as good as ever, with the same sharp, engaging and fully rounded characters that the series should be known for. Returning characters form The Longest Journey and Dreamfall are welcome, particularly the cowardly, sarcastic and intensely loyal Crow, my favourite sidekick in gaming history. I also really enjoyed the development of the stoic and powerful Dolmari Likho from Dreamfall, whose character develops in some interesting ways. I also really liked some of the new characters, particularly the nervous and endearing member of the magical resistance Enu, who forms an unlikely and very sweet bond with Kian. Zoe was never the most engaging protagonist, but she’s a bit better here, helped by a new and improved voice actor. I didn’t expect to like Kian as much as I did, but we find out that there is a fair bit more to him than we saw in Dreamfall and he even gets some endearingly funny moments.

There are elements of Dreamfall Chapter’s plot which work very well, but it’s origins as an episodic game expose major plot issues, which are exacerbated when the five chapters are played back to back. Seemingly major plot elements from earlier chapters vanish in later chapters, either without a trace or in brief dialogues. A seemingly key plot point in the first couple of chapters about an upcoming election in Europolis, on which Zoe works as a campaigner, fizzles out into nothing. Seemingly vital characters vanish into the aether, with the final episode in particular introducing a dazzling number of concepts and locations in its dash for the finish line. I totally get why this game had to be episodic due to the realities of crowd funding and publishing, but I can’t deny that it hurt the eventual release. If this is the final Longest Journey game as has been suggested, I would be pretty sad due to the fact that the fascinating reveal at the end of the first game has still not been addressed; the reunification of Stark and Arcadia and the so-called War of the Balance. In fact, a lot of plot points from The Longest Journey are glossed over, such as The Balance itself, the Draic Kin and the multiverse. They are referenced and touched upon, but the focus is always on the vaguer notion of ‘The Dreaming.’ During the Kickstarter, game director Ragnar Tournquist suggested a potential direct sequel to the first game, The Longest Journey Home. He has recently suggested that this is unlikely to happen which is heart-breaking as it honestly feels that there is a story left to be told. Dreamfall Chapters does a decent job of wrapping up the series, but it simply doesn’t have the time to address everything.

Dreamfall Chapters is mechanically very basic, only a very slight step up in interactivity from Telltale. There are a handful of puzzles, but they’re simple and not particularly engaging. The Longest Journey infamously went too far in the other direction, with some the most hilariously obtuse puzzle solutions in the genre. Still, at least The Longest Journey felt like, well, an adventure. Although some other locations are included, Dreamfall Chapters mostly sees you running around a smallish open world in Europolis as Zoe and in Marcuria as Kian. Most puzzles just involve wandering around these environments and there’s little sense of discovery or satisfaction in your travel. I almost wish that they’d gone the whole hog and made Dreamfall Chapters an entirely narrative, Telltale-esque experience rather than this weird hybrid, because it doesn’t really work.

For the relatively low budget, Dreamfall Chapters looks pretty nice. The environments are particularly impressive, bursting with character and life. The character models fare less well, generally stiff and fairly expressionless, but the voice acting and writing are to a high enough standard that it doesn’t feel like a major problem. Some dramatic moments come off as stiff and a bit awkward, with the visuals feeling more like an early Xbox 360/PS3 game rather than something more modern, but it never really hurt the experience for me.

There was a lot I liked in Dreamfall Chapters and I’m happy to have got some kind of ending, but ultimately the stuff I wanted to see the most does not appear. I truly hope that this isn’t the end for the series, but for something as obscure and niche as this to get an ending at all, with roughly a decade between instalments, is a hell of a thing. It may not be exactly what I wanted, but I’m still glad it exists.

Day of the Tentacle Remastered for PS4, PS Vita, PC, OS X, Linux and iOS

When it comes to adventure games, I’m a LucasArts man through and through. The first two Monkey Islands are a pair of my favourite games of all time and I really love Sam and Max too, but there are a lot I missed. The Day of the Tentacle is a very well renowned game which I missed first time around (I was two to be fair) so I was happy to see it pop up as a free PS+ game.

The Day of the Tentacle is actually a sequel to Maniac Mansion, one of the earliest Lucasarts games. That said, a few references aside I really didn’t feel like it held back the experience. The game opens with a sentient purple tentacle drinking the toxic run-off from the mansion of scientist Dr. Red Edison. This causes him to mutate, gaining massive intelligence and a desire to conquer the world. The nerdy and hapless Bernard, along with two friends, is summoned to the mansion to stop Purple Tentacle. The three set out in Dr. Red’s time machine to stop the Purple Tentacle from drinking the sludge, but a malfunction sees the three split up across time. Bernard remains in the present, the laid back roadie Hoagie is sent back 200 years to the signing of the United States Constitution and the deranged Laverne arrives 200 years into a dystopian future ruled by the tentacles. The three must work together across time to end the Purple Tentacle’s plans.

The whole thing is suitably silly and deranged for a Lucasarts game. I didn’t feel that it quite holds the cleverness of the Monkey Island games, particularly the cerebral and strange Monkey Island 2. It’s a lighter game, a more-pure comedy lacking in some of the genuinely heartfelt moments some of the other games have. The writing is vintage Tim Schafer, but I’m not sure if it carries the depth and humanity present in much of his other work. The Purple Tentacle itself isn’t quite enough of a presence throughout the game to come across as a genuine threat, but he’s still silly and over the top enough to be enjoyable. I liked the characters, particularly Laverne, a brilliantly unsettling, macabre and twisted figure.

This is a LucasArts SCUMM adventure game and so has all the strengths and flaws that entails. Controlling three figures across time, which can be switched at will, is a neat twist and leads to some interesting puzzles. Items can be freely swapped between the three, with the time travel element allowing events in the past to influence the future. Some of these time meddlings are amusingly clumsy, such as altering the US Constitution to ensure that there is a vacuum cleaner in the basement in the present or changing the US flag to create a tentacle costume. There are some brilliantly clever puzzle solutions, although it is naturally saddled with your classic ‘adventure game logic’ problems. The Day of the Tentacle contains one of the most ridiculous and obscure puzzle solutions I’ve seen since The Longest Journey’s ‘rubber ducky/subway key.’ I have no shame in saying that I freely used a guide whilst playing; I don’t have the time for the insane level of experimentation which would be needed to solve some of these puzzles.

The Remastered version for consoles actually works surprisingly well, with dragging the cursor around being way less irritating than I expected. You can freely switch between the remastered version, with updated visuals and music, as well as a cleaner interface, or the SCUMM original in all its glory. Call me a nostalgia bitch, but I preferred the SCUMM version. The new visuals are just a bit too clean; I liked the jagged edges of the original and seeing how expressive and vibrant the world and characters are with the limited technology. It really is a wonderful looking game in its original form, but if you’re not familiar with the SCUMM engine it may be a bit off putting. The music is really great, although again I preferred the original versions to the remastered versions. The voice acting is good too, hammy and over the top with not a degree of subtlety or nuance, as well it should be.

Without a nostalgic frame of reference, it’s difficult to talk about The Day of the Tentacle. I ran into a similar problem when I played the remaster of Grim Fandango. I just don’t have the time or inclination to play these games as they were meant to be played anymore, but even with regular usage of a guide I still enjoy them. The next LucasArts remaster is supposedly Full Throttle, another one I missed and I look forward to passively enjoying that one with a walkthrough too.

 

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Minecraft: Story Mode for PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, OS X, iOS and Android

So…this was a weird one. I have no particular love for the Minecraft brand; I’ve dabbled and I have huge respect for it as a game and learning tool, but it’s just not for me. Telltale’s brand of narrative games are almost as far from the huge freedom of Minecraft that you can get, but I fancied a narrative game to play over 5 episodes and thought what the hell. I bit off a bit more than I could chew because it wasn’t long until the series was extended to 8. Last year I was surprised to find myself enjoying Tales from the Borderlands much more than Game of Thrones despite massively preferring the latter franchise and this year I’ve been surprised to find myself enjoying Minecraft: Story Mode far more than Telltale’s Batman.

Minecraft: Story Mode is split into two distinct arcs across the first and final halves of the season. The protagonist is Jesse, male or female, who alongside his friends and trusty pet/bestie Reuben (a pig) enters a building competition in his home town. It isn’t long before Jesse is pulled into world changing events as maniacal genius Ivor releases a ‘Wither Storm’, a huge creature which grows continuingly, destroying the land. Jesse and his friends set forth to find the Order of the Stone, legendary warriors who slew the Ender Dragon many years earlier for their help in stopping the Wither Storm. The second half sees Jesse and his friends expelled from their world and unable to find their way back, wandering between a series of strange alternate worlds on their quest back home.

Recent Telltale games have struggled with openings and Minecraft: Story Mode is no exception. The tone is oddly dark and portentous; I had been expecting a lighter and breezier affair. The whole Wither Storm arc doesn’t really work; the general aesthetic doesn’t match a bizarre sense of impending doom the game aims for and the characters are too broad to carry this sort of emotional range needed to support this kind of story. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the characters, but most never get beyond that point of likeability into being something more interesting. There’s a general feeling that things just aren’t as funny as they should be. There are some heartfelt moments towards the end of the first arc when I realised I was genuinely invested in what was going on, but it just takes too long to get there. There are some great moments in this first arc, but it is in the second that the potential for this series comes into its own. Seeing Jesse and his friends travelling to a new world each episode opens up the range of scenarios that can be explored and the most interesting moments can be found here. From a murder mystery pastiche in a mansion to a rogue AI to a Hunger Games style tournament, there’s a feeling of looseness and fun in the final four episodes somewhat lacking in the earlier ones. If Telltale choose to do a second season (and I would be surprised if they didn’t) I hope that this is the approach they stick with.

Minecraft: Story Mode is a Telltale game and plays as such. There are some nods towards the normal Minecraft experience; there are crafting tables and you will sometimes have to…y’know, craft things, but this is very limited. You are essentially just arranging the items you will have picked up automatically to advance the game in a particular order. There’s nothing more to it than that. There are hints towards a more full-fledged combat system than the usual QTEs, but it’s not particularly fun and drops off towards the end. If ever there was a time to get out of the comfort zone and open up the experience a bit, it was here, but Telltale played it safe and stuck with the formula. It’s one that worked well, but it’s hard not to feel that diminishing returns are setting in, or perhaps already had set in a while ago.

The blocky look of Minecraft works surprisingly well, particularly in the character models which are much more expressive than you would expect. The voice acting is to a high standard as it has to be for this sort of game. I normally choose female characters in games, but I had to go for the male this time so I could hear Patton Oswalt, who I’m very fond of, as Jesse. He does a great job and the supporting cast do too although I struggle to think of any truly stand out performances. Telltale games are often unforgivably janky, with low framerates and dodgy textures. Minecraft: Story Mode doesn’t really have this problem, probably due to the simpler art style and runs as well as a game like this should. The music was surprisingly good too, with lots of keyboard and synths making action scenes genuinely exciting.

Minecraft: Story Mode does very much feel like Telltale on autopilot but is a decent enough experience despite all that. I enjoyed the hour or so a week I played with my fiancé, an approach which perhaps softens some of the flaws. This is far from the best Telltale game and doesn’t come close to The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us or Tales from the Borderlands, but it’s still likeable enough anyway.

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Gone Home for PS4, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

Gone Home has become an odd vector for controversy since it was first released back in 2013, being a favourite punching bag for Gamergate knuckle-draggers bemoaning the success of something that isn’t a ‘real game.’ In the years since, this attitude has only become more ridiculous, as more and more games in the vein of Gone Home have come about, although this may have had the effect of slightly robbing the original of its impact.

In 1995 Kaitlin is returning to her childhood home after a lengthy period travelling. Arriving to an empty house, the player moves around using visual and audio clues to piece together what happened in her absence. The plot is fairly slight, but deals strongly with a theme little seen in gaming back in 2013 (and still very little today); LGBT love. Kaitlin’s sister had fallen for a young female army cadet, with the strong implication of serious disapproval from her parents. The actual story isn’t actually that interesting but it is one of the first time that this kind of stories has been the focus of a game. There have been strides towards LGBT representation in games; from the transgender mercenary deputy in Dragon Age: Inquisition, to your gay boss Miller in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and not forgetting the varied player controlled protagonists given gay romance options. Still, what none of these games do is put LGBT experience at the core of the narrative/ They may contain gay characters, but the stories aren’t about them and in some case gloss over them, filling a diversity quota but not much more. It is still inconceivable to imagine a AAA action game with an LGBT protagonist. Gone Home proudly stands as a noble exception.

That said…I still didn’t really like it much. I actually have little problems with walking simulators if the environments are beautiful or interesting enough, but Gone Home’s house simply isn’t that enjoyable to explore. It’s small, boxy and annoying to navigate. The story isn’t actually interesting beyond the overdue pleasure in seeing an LGBT narrative at the core, but if you’d taken the exact same gameplay and story and made it about a straight couple I don’t think I could have cared less.

Overall though, it undeniably was a pleasure to see an LGBT relationship at the core of a videogame and I hope to see more of it soon, but preferably in a more interesting game than this.

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The Walking Dead: Michonne for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, OS X, iOS and Android

I’ll confess straight up that I’ve never watched The Walking Dead TV show or read the comic and so went into this with no idea who Michonne was. My experience is likely very different to someone who is familiar with the character, but I approached this as a fan of the games and Telltale in general. That said, The Walking Dead: Michonne made me more interested in watching the show than anything else has previously.

Michonne, a lawyer before the zombie apocalypse and now a machete wielding badass, has found herself with a group of survivors on a ship. When following a distress beacon, Michonne and Pete, the captain, find themselves taken to the floating settlement of Monroe. It isn’t long before things start to go wrong as misunderstanding and distrust begins to descend into violence.

There’s a feeling in the first episode of The Walking Dead: Michonne that it is going through the motions slightly. I felt like I was seeing a lot of familiar stuff and I’ve only ever played the games, much less watched the show or read the comics. There’s a frustrating predictability in how everything descends into chaos but things improve greatly in the second half, as the narrative focuses and becomes much more tense. When the cast narrows down in size and the stakes shrink this game provides some great examples of the unbearably difficult decision making this series is known for. One of the most interesting elements is Michonne’s haunting by the spectres of her (presumably) dead children. This builds throughout the episodes to an intense emotional climax at the end. In some ways the visions of the dead is a cliché, but it’s hard to complain when executed this well. All said though, Michonne grabbed me far less than Season One or Two did simply because none of the supporting cast interested me nearly so much as those from the other seasons.

There is little to discuss mechanically or visually, with it essentially playing the same and looking the same as The Walking Dead season 2. If you found the interactive story/gameplay-lite focus of previous Telltale games grating you won’t like this either.

The Walking Dead: Michonne is, for better or for worse, exactly what it says on the tin. I love playing these games with my fiancé so much that I almost always enjoy them despite their flaws. I’ll only stop playing when Telltale tell a genuinely bad story, which has yet to happen.

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Tales from the Borderlands for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, OS X, iOS and Android

I wasn’t particularly excited for this one. I love Telltale games, particularly playing them with my fiance, but I only ever liked the Borderlands universe rather than loving it. I was much more interested in the Game of Thrones adaptation, but here I am, waiting for the final episode of Game of Thrones and barely caring whilst I cannot stop thinking about Tales from the Borderlands. This is Telltale’s best game, beating out The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us.  
 
Tales from the Borderlands picks up following the death of Handsome Jack at the end of Borderlands 2 but with Hyperion still floating ominously above Pandora. Down on the planet a mysterious stranger with a shotgun has taken two people hostage and is interrogating them to discover their story. There is Rhys, a Hyperion middle man who betrays his company and his jerk boss to come into possession of an incalculably valuable Vault Key. The other is Fiona, a Pandoran con artist who takes part in a con involving a fake Vault Key. The two worlds collide on Pandora as Rhys and Fiona, alongside a wide cast of allies, work together to find the Vault and gain the riches they crave.  
 
I love when media refuses to abide by a single genre category. My favourite TV shows tend to be dramas which make me laugh and comedies which make me cry and Tales from the Borderlands is the first Telltale game to achieve this tone. The writing for the Borderlands games has always been on a teensy bit obnoxious for my liking, but the comedy is immediately smarter and more character driven than anything seen in the main games. The first episode was mostly played for laughs and I couldn’t really pinpoint the moment when the balance shifted and I was genuinely emotionally invested in these people, but I really was. The writing is genuinely top notch, with even seemingly straightforward characters exhibiting emotional depths and genuinely moving moments. A few characters from the main games appear; some of these appearance feel natural and vital to the story, such as an AI Handsome Jack and Athena, a character from a Borderlands 1 DLC and the Pre-Sequel. Some others feel a little shoe horned in, including some Vault Hunters from Borderlands 1 and 2. Overall though, the writing in Tales from the Borderlands is up there with Telltale’s best. 
 
There’s little in the way of gameplay differences in Tales from the Borderlands, but for whatever reason this was the most fun I’ve had with the actual mechanics of a Telltale game. There’s something about the choreography of the action scenes, particularly in the utterly joyful final episode, that makes you feel more involved than normal. I mean, it’s all an illusion, but it’s a mostly successful one. There’s a neat mechanic introduced earlier on involving kitting your Loader Bot out for battle which doesn’t make enough re-appearances towards the end and Tales from the Borderlands mostly abandons its new ideas as it goes on, which is a shame because it was aiming for something a little different. Let’s be honest though, no one is playing these for the mechanics.  
 
Congratulations Tales from the Borderlands, you’re the first Telltale game which isn’t a weird technical disaster! Sure, there’s the odd visual glitch, but this is easily Telltale’s nicest looking game ever. It helps that the art style of Borderlands transfers without a hitch over to Telltale’s signature style, but they also feel more expressive and human in their facial expression and movements than has been the case in the past. As you’d expect, the voice acting is outstanding; I have no criticisms and so little of interest to say there. The use of music is really interesting here, with some incredible intro sequences supported with some really interesting and effective music choices.  
 
Tales from the Borderlands may very well be Telltale’s best. Even if you’ve never played a Borderlands game I’d recommend this one; the storytelling is genuinely top notch with a story which varies compellingly between comedy, action and drama. This is not one to miss. 

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Life is Strange for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC

Life is Strange is the second game from Dontnod, who made the intriguing but ultimately lackluster Remember Me. Life is Strange is a much greater success, blending Telltale style gameplay and storytelling with a nifty little time travel mechanic. Although there are multiple issues in the presentation and some clunky writing, Life is Strange ultimately emerges as a massive success, offering an experience which had me emotionally hooked from beginning to end.

Max Caulfield is a shy teenager who has returned to her home town of Arcadia Bay after having moved away with her family several years before. She has enrolled at the prestigious Blackwell Academy, where she is pursuing her passion for photography. One day in her class, she has a vision of a massive tornado destroying Arcadia Bay and soon stumbles into the girls bathroom, where she sees her childhood best friend Chloe shot and killed by Nathan Prescott, the son of a powerful local family. In her distress, she discovers the ability to rewind time and saves Chloe from her death. Taking place over five days, Life is Strange tells the story of Max and Chloe discovering a dark secret at the heart of Arcadia Bay, all whilst the storm looms in the horizon.

The immediate impression that Life is Strange gives is of a self consciously ‘indie movie’ aesthetic. It can all be a bit much at first and the fairly cringe worthy attempts at ‘teen’ dialogue don’t help. I’m fairly sure nobody has ever described anything as ‘hella’ something. The soundtrack, the tone, everything about it initially grated, but at some point everything clicked. I’m not sure where, but it did. It stopped trying so hard to be an quirky indie movie and became its own thing; I like that ‘hella’ is now used fondly by the Life is Strange fan community. The real success of Life is Strange lies in its characters, moreso than its plot. Chloe is the absolute star of the show, vibrant and dangerous and never quite possible to pin down, but Max is a compelling and likable protagonist. Almost every character conceals depths which will be explored later on and unlike many other games of this type your choices really do matter. By the end, I cared about Chloe and Max as much as I cared about Lee and Clementine in The Walking Dead, which is no easy feat.

Although the time travel mechanic adds some basic puzzles, Life is Strange is still a mostly narrative driven affair. You’ll be walking around, talking to people and making decisions which ripple down the series. There are several much more open areas than we have become used to seeing in Telltale games and a lot of the little interactions which make Life is Strange special are skippable. If you’re anything like me, you won’t want to as I became rather attached to this circle of teenagers and the wider Arcadia Bay community and wanted to talk to them as much as I can. You can, at most points, rewind time with a press of a button which is used in some puzzles and sometimes to improve the outcomes of conversations, now armed with more information from the get go. It’s not particularly deep or anything, but it adds a very nice twist to the narrative which works well. Interestingly, after most major decisions you get the option to rewind and change your mind, meaning that you often get to see the immediate fallout whilst the long term ramifications remain clouded. These lead to some extraordinarily tense moments where the short term result is very bad and you have to make a decision whether to stick with your gut and flip in the knowledge that everything could get even worse in the other timeline. Where Telltale games are based around blind luck half the time, Life is Strange gives the player more agency.

The voice acting in Life is Strange is flawless, with a wide range of characters feeling broad enough to be defined without resorting to simple stereotypes. The music selection is lovely as well; I initially found the twee indie burblings a bit grating, but the music choices become more story appropriate as the game moves on, with some nice Amanda Palmer being my personal highlight. The biggest drawback of Life is Strange is its visual presentation. Although the environments look absolutely lovely, with some particularly beautiful lighting effects, the character models are horrible. Everyone looks like they’ve been molded from plastic with rigid, unexpressive facial movements. The lip synching is…well, non existant. There is seemingly no connection between the words they say and the movement of their mouths, which is more than a little off putting. It is a testament to the quality of the writing and voice acting that the game manages to rise above these issues; these problems could have sunk a lesser experience. If Dontnod make another game in this style, and I sincerely hope they do, working on the character modeling and lip synching must be their top priority.

Life is Strange is the kind of game which latches into your head, refusing to be shaken out. If you’ve enjoyed Telltale games in the past, give Life is Strange a go. Dontnod put their own spin on a now familiar formula to create a truly special experience.

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Until Dawn for PS4

I’m a big fan of interactive stories. My fiance isn’t much of a gamer, but gets really into game stories. She loved BioShock: Infinite and The Last of Us for example, but games like that can get pretty dull for her to watch because of all the…well, gameplay. Games like Until Dawn are a brilliant way to spend time with another person and I would almost describe it as a perfect ‘date game.’ There may not be any mechanical complexity, but that means we have a more purely narrative experience that’s perfect for sharing.

Until Dawn is, at it’s core, a fairly loving homage to that most classic for horror movie set ups; a bunch of horny dumb teenagers in a cabin on a mountain. A year prior to the events of the game, a cruel prank at the cabin had indirectly led to the death of sisters Beth and Hannah, with the bodies never discovered. A year later their brother Josh invites his friends back to the cabin in an attempt to move on from what happened, but it soon becomes clear that dark forces are at play on the mountain and that there will be no safety until dawn (geddit?). Intermittently in the story, a strange man analyses your decisions and probes into your motivations.

There isn’t a huge amount of gameplay  in Until Dawn, with the core mechanics being your basic wander around and input QTEs type of deal. One of the most interesting things about Until Dawn is that there is no failure state, if you mess up a QTE you just have to deal with it and roll with the punches. There are a few types of event, such as standard button presses and targets to hit. Sometimes the best thing is to not take an action and an itchy trigger finger could spell trouble in Until Dawn. The coolest mechanic is that sometimes you just have to stay perfectly still, with the motion sensor in the controller picking up any movement. If you’re a wuss like me this is terrifying and such a good idea I can’t believe nobody else thought of it sooner. The only real irritation is that it can be very easy to miss clues and totems, which give you a vision of the future and unlock a clip detailing the backstory. It would be nice to have a way to avoid stumbling onto the next story beat, but I do appreciate that this may have been a bit immersion breaking. Until Dawn is split into episodes which vary from about 45 to 90 minutes, which chunks things up very nicely.

The plot of Until Dawn won’t be winning any prizes for originality, but the element of player choice manages to make what would feel cliché in a film genuinely terrifying as a game. The plot starts out intriguing, but as is often the case with horror, as we come to understand what’s going on the tension drops and the final few twists lack the impact of those earlier on. It never stops being enthralling however, as Until Dawn follows through on the idea of player impact in a way that Telltale doesn’t. With Telltale it’s all smoke and mirrors and your choices never matter as much as they may seem, but your decisions can either have everyone survive or turn Until Dawn into a bloodbath. In many ways I didn’t feel like I was actually controlling the characters, but instead playing the role of a director.

Until Dawn looks very nice, with an atmospheric environment and excellent character and facial animations. A higher frame rate would have been nice, but this is a rare experience where the ‘cinematic’ justification holds a fair bit of water. The voice acting is excellent, with a cast including such actors as Claire from Heroes and Ward from Agents of SHIELD, who all do an admirable job inhabiting their respective horror tropes. It’s interesting seeing a larger budget go towards this kind of experience and something which I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing more of.

Until Dawn is a cool game which likely won’t be for everyone. As a shared experience with one or more friends it really shines. I hope we get more games like this in a variety of genres.

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Grim Fandango Remastered for PS4, PS Vita, PC, OS X and Linux

It’s always interesting playing a game considered to be a genuine classic. More so than any other medium, games age badly. If we remove nostalgia, I’d say that there’s only a tiny portion of games which remain truly timeless. One of the very few games I’d call timeless is the original Secret of Monkey Island, as adventure games tend to age better than a lot of genres. Grim Fandango though…well I’m not so sure.

Grim Fandango takes place in the afterlife, in a sort of purgatory between life and the mysterious ‘9th Underworld.’ Manny Calavera works for the DoD, the Department of Death, who sell travel packages to the recently deceased to make their journey to the 9th Underworld easier. Only people with relatively clean souls qualify for the more deluxe packages, with the worst of all being forced to walk the arduous journey to the end themselves. Manny uncovers a conspiracy at the heart of the DoD, with good souls having their golden tickets stolen. The game takes place over four years, with each part taking place during the Day of the Dead where most spirits go to visit their families.

Tim Schafer is a hell of a storyteller and Grim Fandango told a story I thoroughly enjoyed. As with games like Psychonauts and Broken Age, Grim Fandango is a whimsical experience which I wouldn’t necessarily call a comedy, although you certainly will laugh. His stories are always very human, making each character, even the minor ones, feel better developed than the cast of your typical AAA blockbuster. Sure, the central conspiracy isn’t necessarily that interesting but the core of Manny’s journey from self serving middle man to genuinely caring and heroic leader is compelling. This is helped by a wonderfully understated performance from Manny’s voice actor.

The game looks great as well, with the remaster tidying up some of the character models and smoothing off some of the edges. It’s not a huge change but it doesn’t need to be. Generally, games from this era don’t age well, but by the sheer quality of the world and character design Grim Fandango has. The voice acting is exceptional across the board and the music is fantastic; that jazz clarinet theme song isn’t leaving my head any time soon.

Sadly, I didn’t like the actual gameplay nearly as much as I did the story and presentation. Now, I grew up on adventure games. I get that they’re trial and error and that the puzzles are obscure, but that’s part of the charm. I even didn’t mind the infamous inflatable duck/subway key puzzle in The Longest Journey. However, there was one reason that adventure games could get away with this sort of design and that was simplicity of their interface. There’s a reason the SCUMM engine was the best possible for game design; any interaction with the world was, at most, three clicks away. You could experiment and try loads of stuff and it wouldn’t waste too much of your time. However, Grim Fandango is not point and click, so traversing the world is a bit clunkier and it can be difficult to interact with the object you want to. The time it takes to remove items from your inventory makes experimentation a drag, with this awkwardness making many puzzles painfully irritating. Fine, call me soft, but a hint system would have been invaluable. Sure, a lot of people would have complained, but keep it optional and who’s harmed? Coming to this as a seasoned adventure game player who missed this one back in the day, Grim Fandango simply isn’t a particularly good adventure game.

Overall though, in the end, Grim Fandango was a positive experience for me. You may perhaps need to adjust your expectations though; as with any classic you have to remember that times have changed and that, as much as we tend to mythologise the past, there are certain ways in which modern gaming has simply gotten better. Regardless,  I’m really glad that I got to play this influential and important game.grimfandangorelease

Valiant Hearts: The Great War for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC and iOS

There’s a reason the First World War is rarely done in games; it’s very difficult to extract anything fun from one of the most nightmarish conflicts in history. From a purely gameplay standpoint, the prominence of trench warfare would make an FPS a difficult proposition. Valiant Hearts opts for a different path, presenting us a moving and emotional tale of bravery and sacrifice as an adventure game.

Valiant Hearts takes place from 1914 to 1917, a year before the end of the war. It follows a group of characters from both the German and Allied sides whose stories intertwine and separate throughout the course of the game. Karl is a young German man living in France with his wife and young son who is deported at the start of the war. He is drafted by and sent to the Front. Emile is Karl’s father in law, and the main protagonist of the game, who plays a large number of roles from chef to sapper to prisoner of war. Freddie is an American man who joined the French army after his wife was killed by German bombs. His sole purpose is to take down the German General Von Dorf, who was responsible for the raid that killed his wife. Finally we have Anna, a Belgian nurse who seeks to rescue her father who was captured by Von Dorf.

Valiant Hearts conveys very well the utter horror of war in the best way I’ve seen since Spec Ops: The Line. The story is told largely without dialogue, but with a narrator orating to us the plot. The cartoonish art style conveys the emotions of the characters vividly, with a plot that is genuinely emotionally engaging. There are also scraps of information to be found which detail real events of the war, often crossing over with what’s happening in the game. The biggest issue with Valiant Hearts is its tone; despite attempting to humanise both sides of the conflict, Von Dorf is a ridiculous villain and some moments are laughably over the top. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with moments of levity in even the saddest of stories, but Valiant Hearts doesn’t always get it right.

This is an adventure game by and large and a fairly simple one at that. Everything takes place on a 2D plain, with the main gameplay being the solving of simple environmental puzzles. There’s no inventory stuff, with the solution to each puzzle always to be found in the area that you’re in. Some puzzles involve throwing objects and many involve your canine sidekick, who can be ordered to squeeze through gaps and pull switches and the like. There are also some more action-y moments, some which work well such as frantic dashes through No Man’s Land and some which are a bit silly, such as a boss fight against a tank. There’s not much to be said for the gameplay here, it’s simple but clever enough and a good vehicle for what the game wants to say about World War One.

The art style is gorgeous, with characters human enough to convey the horror of the conflict but cartoonish enough to be accessible. The music is also quite lovely, but Valiant Hearts is also capable of conjuring a really hideous soundscape on the battlefield as we hear the crashing of explosives above the moaning of the injured. Once again, the UbiArt engine may struggle with substance, but it can more than make up for it in style.

Valiant Hearts taken purely as a gameplay experience is a rather bland experience, but Ubisoft do deserve credit for attempting to tell the stories of those who bled and died in the First World War. The story telling is uneven, but when it works is really works. I like that Ubisoft are also putting out smaller games alongside their blockbusters and will continue to follow the UbiArt games with interest.Valiant_Hearts_Key_Art

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