Category Archives: Review

Rise of the Tomb Raider review

I’ve apparently forgotten how to write. So, here’s a video review of Rise of the Tomb Raider!

Fallout (4 ) Never Changes – First Impressions

I’ve put about 10 hours into Fallout 4 over this weekend. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the time it will take to complete the game, but I think it’s enough to get a handle on the positives and negatives of this new iteration of Fallout. I’m not writing a full review – I haven’t finished yet, and writing a review of an open world game sounds terrible. However, I do have some assorted  thoughts on the game.

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  1. Character creation. For the first time in Fallout my character isn’t an ugly, blurry mess. Borrowing from DAI’s face sculpting tools, you can actually create a decent looking character in this game.
  2. Setup. For the first time, we get to see what things were like before the bombs fell. It’s brief, but we are introduced to our character and their partner and child just minutes before they’re ushered into a Vault and the nukes go off. It’s nice to have a minute to appreciate Fallout’s distinct aesthetic in its prime before the world becomes a Wasteland.
  3. Story. The game tries to give us a more urgent and personal story from the get-go, but it doesn’t succeed. As we wake up in the Vault we see our infant son get kidnapped, so we go out to find him. However once you leave the vault and get a glimpse of the wasteland, all thoughts of the creepy baby are quickly pushed aside, as exploration is much more appealing. Sure, you can tell people in conversation that you’re looking for your baby, but so far I’ve gone 10 hours without following that particular story thread. There’s no emotional attachment there and frankly it’s just not that interesting.
  4. Urgency. There really isn’t any. At least so far. However, this is a problem with pretty much all open world games, so I won’t hold it too much against Fallout 4.
  5. Voices. For the first time, the protagonist is voiced. This is a very welcome change, though the performance of the female protagonist so far is not particularly inspiring. It’s not bad, but she’s certainly no Commander Shepard. Partially this is due to the writing – the dialogue is sparse and to the point. Though there is usually a sarcastic response option.
  6. Storytelling. Where I’ve always thought the modern Fallout games excel is visual and environmental storytelling. It’s not the big arc, it’s the small ones. It’s stumbling upon a sidequest while you’re on another mission, seeing a skeleton in a car and piecing together what happened, hacking into terminals to find the real story behind a location. Fallout 4 continues to excel at this.
  7. Robots. This game is full of sassy robots, who are full of personality. Not just your companion Cogsworth, there are many robots to meet in the Wasteland.
  8. Combat. VATS is still great, the rest of combat is still kinda shit. Though I’ve been reading in other reviews that the FPS combat has improved, I’m not really seeing it. Especially at the beginning of the game when most enemies rush into melee range, I don’t find the shooting mechanics are very good.
  9. Companions. Companions are quite helpful in combat when it comes to killing things. However, they’re also in the way. Like, all the time. Going down a narrow corridor? There they are, blocking you. Trying to shoot something at a distance? They’ll become an obstacle. If anything, I think this problem may be worse here than in previous games.
  10. Explosions. One of my biggest frustrations in previous Fallout games was that I’d often get blown up in combat, and have no idea where the explosion came from. Though they have added a little icon to tell you when a grenade is near, I still get caught in mystery explosions way more than is necessary.
  11. Saving. You can quicksave your game anywhere, though autosaving doesn’t happen as often as I’d like.
  12. Crafting. Fallout 4 has introduced a rather robust crafting system where you can modify your weapons and armor. It’s an enjoyable addition so far, and it’s nice to customize things to suit your playstyle or visual preferences.
  13. Workshop. Your home in the Wasteland can be built up to our specifications through the Workshop. While initially I didn’t think this was something I’d like, I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time with it. You can build beds, new houses, plant crops, build water pumps – everything a growing Wasteland settlement needs. People you help through the game will join your settlements. It is fun to build, though the game’s engine isn’t ideal for it. Placing objects is awkward. Some kind of overhead or simplified view of things would be great. You can build electric systems to power your base, but it isn’t explained very well. The best part of this is that all the junk you find in the Wasteland – the clipboards, the old telephones – can be used to build things rather than just as vendor fodder.
    One thing I’m not liking as I go through the game is that every place where you help people can be turned into a base, with a workshop for you to build up. While making one wasteland sanctuary sounds fun, making a dozen sounds like a huge timesink. I haven’t figured out what, if anything, happens when you ignore these bases. Does it matter if they don’t have enough food or defence?
  14. Exploration. I’ve been pretty burnt out on open world games lately and I have to say, exploration in Fallout 4 is 100x more enticing than it was in games like Witcher 3 or Dragon Age: Inquisition. Part of this is due to the simplicity of the map. You see icons for major landmarks, but not every single place where you can gather a resource or fight a camp of raiders. So there’s mystery. There’s a reason to explore. It’s not just a matter of ticking off every box on the map. I’m sure there will be many little locations and items that I’ll never find. And that’s okay. The locations I do find are interesting, full of great visuals and stories that don’t need to be explicitly spelled out.
  15. Finding things. At the beginning of the game I found it really hard to locate items. So many games I’ve been playing recently help the player by highlighting objects of interest in some way, and Fallout doesn’t do this. Now that I’m a few hours in, I’ve gotten used to it, and it makes things feel less game-y.
  16. Text. Fallout has some of the best in-game text entries. RPGs are generally full of lore and codex entries, books and letters. I hate reading them. In Fallout most text is found on terminals, and I read every word. Text entries are put in the right places. It’s not just general knowledge or lore, these entries tell you about the places you are in  and the people who live (or have lived) there. They often tell a story from multiple points of view, they can contain hints of where to find item stashes, point you to other interesting locations. Log entries tend to be darkly humorous and the fact that you often have to hack into these terminals to find the information just makes it that much more intriguing. Reading information in Fallout feels like reading someone’s journal, not like reading a textbook.
  17. Overall. Fallout 4 feels like Fallout. The good parts of Fallout 3 are there – the exploration, environment, the storytelling within particular locations, the dark humour. And the bad parts are still there – the combat is mediocre, it doesn’t look as good as other current games, the story doesn’t have any urgency. Though some new mechanics have been added, I don’t find that the existing ones have been improved much. I wouldn’t want a ton to change, but it’s been five years since New Vegas, some refinements would be nice.

If you prefer videos, I’ve also done a mini video review. It covers some of the same stuff, and includes some gameplay footage.

Planet of the Eyes review and giveaway

My latest video is up today. It’s a review and recommendation of the recent indie platforming game, Planet of the Eyes.

It’s a gorgeous game with a beautiful art style, standout music and great writing. The platforming is pretty fun too, and you get to play an adorable little robot (who will get brutally dismembered fairly often).

This is a game made in my home town of Toronto. I was given a Steam code from one of the developers, and I’d like to help support the game and pay that forward by giving away a code for the game to someone else!

If you want to enter to win, just leave me a comment here and tell me what your favourite indie game is. I’ll pick a random winner on Friday September 4th. Be sure to use a real email so I can get in touch if you win.

Note: You do not have to watch the video or go to my YouTube channel to enter (YouTube contests aren’t allowed and I don’t want to get in trouble). Just comment here on the blog.

Congratulations to DragonLich, who won the copy of Planet of the Eyes.

This is day 29 of Blaugust.

Sunset (Review)

Sunset is the latest, and probably last, game from Tale of Tales. They make rather unconventional, open ended games that attempt to provide meaningful narrative experiences. I like what they’re trying to do, though the execution is sometimes lacking. I really enjoyed The Path, while their (even) more abstract The Graveyard and Vanitas didn’t really connect with me.

With Sunset, Tale of Tales attempted to make a “game for gamers.” Whatever that means. They seem to think it means adding field of view sliders and multiple control modes? It’s kind of puzzling. I suppose Sunset has slightly more conventional gameplay than their other games, but to what end?

In Sunset you play Angela Burns, an American living in a fictional Latin American country under an oppressive regime. Angela is the housekeeper for Gabriel,  a powerful man in the government. Though the backdrop of civil unrest and revolution is potentially interesting, the game itself often isn’t.

Sunset game elevator

Each day you take an elevator up to a posh penthouse suite. While Angela narrates some thoughts you are presented with a list of tasks to do, though you can do more (or less) if you’d like. The main mechanic of the game is that you can perform tasks warmly or coldly. How you perform these actions affects your relationship with your absent employer. I didn’t even notice there were options on how to perform tasks until a few days in. Then all of a sudden, after choosing to paint a wall red instead of blue, leaving some lights on, and moving some slippers, Angela and Gabriel were on the cusp of a romantic relationship.

The idea of romancing your boss, especially given the nature of the working relationship, wasn’t one I was entirely comfortable with. The fact that Gabriel wasn’t even present in the game, and Angela never met him, made it even more strange. However, once I was started, I continued down the romantic path to see where it went. After a while, Angela and Gabriel start communicating via notes left around the apartment, though the content of these notes don’t seem to affect Angela’s narration events, at least in the beginning.

Sunset started out on rocky terrain by making the gameplay about housekeeping. That’s not really something I want to do in my own apartment, never mind choosing to pretend to do it in a video game. The story isn’t strong enough to make up for this. It takes a long time for anything interesting to happen. Days and days went by before the gameplay started integrating into the story of civil war. About an hour in, I was quite bored. Eventually some interesting tidbits of information started appearing, but they were spread too thinly throughout the game.

Sunset isn’t completely without charms. The voice acting is good, the music is great, and I enjoyed the increasing focus on art. But it’s just not enough. The good things in this game are few and far between. Had the game been 2 hours instead of 4 I think some of the issues could have been solved and the pacing would have been better but, as it is, Sunset just wasn’t an engaging experience.

Rating: Not recommended. Making a “game for gamers” seems to have backfired on Tale of Tales. As I read about how they tried to make this game appeal to the masses and see the options screen full of resolution options and horizontal smoothing sliders, I wonder – was Sunset made to mock “gamers” or was this really an attempt to go mainstream? Either way, I don’t recommend going out of your way to catch this Sunset.

This is my 9th post for Blaugust.

Revisiting The X-Files – Ice

“Before anyone passes judgment, may I remind you, we are in the Arctic.”

Cold open. Literally. It’s dark and blustery. A whining dog walks through a research station, passing bodies as it goes. A lumbering man with a gun turns on recording equipment and begins to speak – “We’re not who we are” then is attacked by another man. The ensuing struggle leaves them pointing guns at each other, in a standoff. Reaching a silent understanding, they slowly point their guns at their own heads. A quick cut to outside, and two shots are heard. It goes no further than this. Or does it?

After a few middling episodes, Ice offers a breath of fresh, cold air and is the first episode that really showed X-Files as something that could be great. Mulder and Scully are sent to investigate the disappearance of the Arctic Ice Core project team, who haven’t been heard from since the video recorded in the opening. Some scientists and a helicopter pilot are also along for the ride (one of whom is played by Felicity Huffman), meaning the agents will be trapped in the arctic with a group, rather than just each other.

From the start, paranoia is rampant. Doctor’s Da Silva and Hodge request everyone show ID so they all know everyone is who they say they are. These two are also immediately suspicious of Scully and Mulder, assuming they know more than they’re letting on because they work for the government.

X-Files season 1 - Ice

We start discovering what happened when a dog attacks the helicopter pilot, Bear. The dog shows symptoms similar to bubonic plague and Bear, in secret, discovers he has the same symptoms after he’s been bitten. He immediately becomes paranoid and aggressive and the doctors soon notice a worm wriggling around under his skin. When the worm is removed, he dies. Things devolve into chaos as the survivors wonder who else may be infected. Who’s not really who they are? The influence of The Thing is plain to see.

This is a really great Scully and Mulder episode, and a standout for Scully in particular. While everyone else is losing their heads, Scully is the only one who keeps a semblance of cool. She stays scientific and analytical, while everyone else engages in a witch hunt. As Mulder’s paranoia grows, we think he may be infected but really, that’s just Mulder. The pair get a couple great scenes together, as their trust in each other is tested but ultimately grows.

X-Files season 1 - Ice

One of the more dramatic scenes has Scully and Mulder pointing guns at each other after Mulder is found with the body of Dr. Murphy, a reflection of the scene from the intro. Mulder is the  one to lower his gun first, as Scully suggests that he may not be who he is. He’s locked away and its up to Scully to find a solution to their problems, which she does very quickly. It turns out the creatures causing the infection will not tolerate each other and will kill one another if a second specimen is introduced into the host.

Scully, unsure that Mulder really is the one infected, goes to talk to him alone.  The agents inspect each other for physical symptoms in a scene that’s slightly reminiscent of the examination scene from the pilot, but much less gratuitous. It comes down to Hodge and Da Silva vs. Scully and Mulder, each pair convinced the other is infected. But it’s Da Silva who, at the last minute, is discovered to be the one. The agents work together to hold her down and she’s given the last worm.

Aside from being one of the more well-written and thrilling episodes of The X-Files so far, I really like how Ice showed much more respect to Scully than she had gotten previously. Her scientific background comes into play when she realizes how to cure the infection, and her skepticism ensures she never gives in to the hysteria being experienced by the other characters. Scully finally gets to be the hero here.

The Charnel House Trilogy (Review)

One of the greatest merits of the adventure genre is the platform it gives a writer to tell a story. They can tell of thrilling exploits, amusing capers, mysteries of the world and of the mind. They don’t need to rely on flashy visuals or reaction time-testing action. By letting us step into the shoes of a character we get to learn about their life and story through their conversations and observations about the world around them.

The Charnel House Trilogy - Inhale

The Charnel House trilogy, a classic style point-and-click adventure game by Owl Cave, succeeds at telling a great story. In the first chapter, Inhale, we meet Alex, a 20-something woman who seems to be working to overcome some hardships – a recent break-up that’s still in the forefront of her mind, a sick father.  Alex will be going on a journey. This first act functions mainly as a set-up for the rest of the game, and introduces us to the characters and themes that will be explored more deeply later on. Act 2, Sepulchre, was actually available as a standalone game for a while and is made stronger by the bookending chapters. Sepulchre focuses on Harold, who boarded a train with Alex, and has to deal with strange events that are happening. While Harold seems to be in an almost fugue-like state, Alex is plagued by her memories, which weigh heavily on her. Act 3, Exhale, goes back to Alex and does an amazing job at tying everything together.

It’s hard to say a lot about the story without giving things away, but the titles (Charnel House, Sepulchre) should certainly give you an idea of the direction it takes. While it is a horror game, it’s not scary in the traditional sense, but provides a gradually increasing sense of unease that worms its way in and turns into dread. The writing by Ashton Raze is on point. Dialogue goes from sounding completely natural to Lynchian levels of bizarre. The best praise I can give is that from Act 2 on, no line is wasted. Everything has a purpose, and is building towards something. It’s a very well constructed story with a self-aware script, and it gets better as it goes.

The Charnel House Trilogy - Exhale
For a game that maxes out at a 320 x 200 resolution, not a pixel is out of place. The style is very reminiscent of the Blackwell series (Ben Chandler did work on both this and The Blackwell Epiphany). The character portraits that pop up during conversations are lovely and the backgrounds, few that they are, are attractive.

The soundtrack often blends seamlessly into the background, but when it becomes more prominent, it’s really quite great. I highly recommend playing this with headphones, I put them on halfway through and was immediately impressed by how great it sounded. The voice acting is competent. Madeleine Roux’s Alex started off a little flat, but got better as the game went on. I have no complaints about the rest of the main players. Jim Sterling did well in his turn as a too-friendly neighbour, and the smaller parts were also generally well done. Though to be honest, I can’t hear Abe Goldfarb without thinking of Joey Malone.

The game is light on puzzles, but since the story is the star, that works out. There’s no mindless combining of inventory items or pixel-hunting for objects. Gameplay is quite straightforward, and I think more challenging puzzles would have been a distraction.

I only have one real complaint about the game. Inhale is peppered with in-jokes and nods to the voice actors. In-jokes are okay, but the first 10 or so minutes of the game consisted of little else, so that it was a bit of a turn-off.  Once the game got that out of its system, the story started steaming ahead and I was more than happy to go along for the ride.

The Charnel House Trilogy took me about 2.5 hours to complete. It’s currently available on Steam for less than $5, and it’s well worth the cost. Content warning for the game – it does deal with topics such as violence, stalking, and suicide.

Verdict – Highly recommended. If you’re a fan of adventure games, horror, or just great stories, The Charnel House Trilogy is a treat. It’s a taut, wonderfully written experience kept me intrigued and I ended up finishing it in one sitting.

 

 

The Fall (Review)

As The Fall begins, we see an astronaut free falling through space, crash-landing on a seemingly abandoned planet. The astronaut is rendered unconscious, so the combat suit’s artificial intelligence, ARID, takes over. ARID’s prime operating parameter is that she must protect her active pilot, so she sets out on a strange and dangerous journey to find medical attention.

The Fall - mission parameters not found

The Fall is the first effort by Over The Moon Games, and what a game it is. It deftly combines great dialogue, eerie atmosphere, and intelligent story-telling to create one of the best games I’ve played lately. Gameplay combines point-and-click adventure puzzles with side-scrolling shooting action. The combination felt a little odd at first but once I got the hang of it, it worked really well. The amount of combat isn’t excessive, but it helps keep the pace of the game on track, breaking up exploration and inventory puzzles with cover and timing-based action.

The controls are a bit unintuitive at first, but didn’t take too long to get used to. Items are examined by pointing the flashlight on your gun at them using the mouse, while actions are taken using the keyboard. The puzzles can be challenging, though the solutions make sense. If you find yourself stuck, you’ve likely missed an object – exploration is important.

The Fall shooting at a robot

Story is where The Fall really shines. Damage has rendered a number of ARID’s functions inoperable and a big part of the game involves regaining access to those abilities. However, getting past obstacles often requires going against her other operating parameters. This raises a number of questions about artificial intelligence. Is this AI just a computational series of rules and protocols or can a machine display general intelligence? Can it have free will? What happens when a machine acts contrary to its programming?

One of the most clever parts of the game had ARID undergoing tests in order to prove her worth as a domestic robot so she could continue on her journey. These tests involved seemingly simple things – setting the table, calming a crying baby – but all involved some very creative problem solving as ARID is not programmed to be a domestic robot. The way the “humans” in the test treat her also raises concerns about roboethics.

The Fall operating parameters

The dialogue in The Fall is well-written and fully voice-acted. There aren’t too many characters in the game but each is voiced perfectly, especially The administrator, and AI who alternates between robotic precision and human inflection. The sound is also well done, and adds to the general atmosphere.

The Fall is similar to The Swapper in a number of ways – it has a similar aesthetic and setting. Since The Swapper is a game I rated 10/10, this is not a bad thing. The story and gameplay are different enough that The Fall does not seem derivative.

It took me about 3 hours to finish the game, which is the first of three planned episodes. It’s available on PC and Wii U, and is well worth the $10 the price tag. I’m really looking forward to episode 2, which will hopefully be out later in 2015.

Verdict – Highly recommended. The Fall combines great dialogue, eerie atmosphere, and intelligent story-telling to create a unique and thought-provoking game experience. Though the controls are not the most intuitive, once you’ve gotten used to them the gameplay provides very satisfying puzzle solving and combat.