Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Vague and Confusing Process

I'm not really sure what to make of Process, a free indie game by TrainYard in which you're given 20 minutes to stop a train from an accident that will send it flying off the rails at high speed. It's basically a point and click adventure game rendered in a fully 3D, first-person perspective; you explore a few train cars solving puzzles and trying to find a way to escape from the train's inevitable fate. Process boasts some good atmosphere and an interesting premise, but the execution of its gameplay made it difficult for me to appreciate the game as a whole.

The thing that bothered me most is that everything is so intentionally vague. There's something to be said for games that leave themselves open to interpretation, but you really need to have some kind of concrete foundation upon which to base your conclusions, which Process makes no effort to establish. There are some really bizarre "cutscenes" that remain completely unexplained, and the ending offers no hints as to where you are or what's really going on. The ultimate effect was for me to sit back with no idea what I'd just played and no idea what to make of it.

The game's vague intentions even permeate the gameplay, with many of your actions not producing a clear effect on the environment, and with some of the puzzles not following a clear logical direction. There's one control panel, in particular, that's meant to fix an "unknown error" message that pops up when you try to engage the emergency brakes, but there's no indication anywhere that it has any connection to the brakes, it's not readily apparent how you're even supposed to interact with it, and it's not even clear what you ultimately have to do with it. You just kind of bumble around doing random things, not really understanding what it is you're actually doing.

I don't understand what Process was really all about. The game's development blog claims that "it's a game about predetermination of events and the subjectiveness of perception of the surrounding world," which sounds like kind of a pretentious way of saying they wanted to have weird, vague, unexplained things happen in order for different players to experience and interpret them differently. That's an interesting idea, but I'm willing to bet most people had very similar, confused reactions to the game as I did. If you're interested in trying it out, you can download it here

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Great Games You Never Played: Cryostasis

"Fine, obscure gems." Part of a periodical series: Great Games You Never Played.

Cryostasis is one of the more novel takes on horror that I've played in the last several years. Set in 1981, you play as Alexander Nesterov, a geologist working at a North Pole research facility, who stumbles upon a derelict nuclear icebreaker, the North Wind, which has been floating around the arctic circle since 1968. The ship is entirely frozen over, parts of it wrecked and destroyed, with no power running through it, and with seemingly all of its crew dead or missing. As you explore deeper into the vessel, the past manifests itself before your eyes, occasionally letting you relive past events leading up to the ship's untimely demise, all-the-while being stalked by murderous monstrosities coming out of the metalwork.

A unique ability called the "mental echo" gives you the power to take control of a deceased crew member's memories and change the events of the past to alter the condition of things in the present. A section of the ship is flooded with ice, a dead man lying near the surface; touching him gives you a chance to succeed where he failed, to seal the emergency doors and prevent the flooding, thus clearing the way for you in the present. By using this ability, you're able to progress through the ship, piecing together the story of what happened and, should you succeed in your endeavors, alter the fate of the North Wind.

As a horror game, Cryostasis does a pretty good job of mounting tension and making you feel vulnerable. One of its unique twists is representing your health meter in the form of body heat, with the intense cold of the ship lowering your health to extremely low levels and forcing you to seek the scarce warmth of electric lightbulbs, steam valves, and turbines. The things attacking you can look pretty disturbing, and as an ordinary geologist you're stuck fighting them with improvised weapons (e.g., a loose pressure valve as a bludgeoning weapon) and antiquated firearms (like the bolt-action Mosin-Nagant 1891). Combined with the health system, this makes each encounter tense, as you try to survive on your way to the next heat source.

I hesitate to call Cryostasis a "great" game, however, because there are a number of flaws holding it back from true excellence. Glitches and performance issues aside, the game is almost detrimentally linear, there are too many instant deaths resulting from unconscious errors, and some of the mental echo "puzzle sequences" rely a little too heavily on trial-and-error. There are valid reasons leading to the game's mixed reception, but what it does well, it does incredibly well. The story and atmosphere are absolutely top notch, and the unique premise lends it a lot of personality. Imperfect as it may be, it's a novel game worth experiencing.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Things I Hate About Console Games

It's no secret that I'm an ardent PC gamer -- they're measurably superior to consoles in most regards -- but I don't harbor any resentment towards consoles or console gamers. Consoles are fine for what they are, but I prefer the wider versatility of a PC, and the style of PC-exclusives are generally more appealing to me. Despite this, I recently bought a PS3 in order to play a number of console-exclusive games that had somehow managed to elude the almighty PC. I was genuinely looking forward to these experiences and have enjoyed my time with the ones I've played so far.

However, there are a number of things about console games that really annoy me -- problems that generally don't exist in PC games, unless it's a bad console port. For the most part, these things don't ruin the experience, but they do get under my skin a little bit and just go to remind me of how limited the current consoles really are in comparison to a modern PC. So if you're still reading and haven't disregarded me as a snobby PC elitist, I have a list of five things that I hate about console games, in the full article.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Impressions of Blackwell's Asylum

Blackwell's Asylum is a short, free indie stealth-horror game by students of the Danish Academy of Digital Interactive Entertainment, and is currently available on Steam as part of a spotlight for the winners of Intel's Level Up 2011 contest. The competition was designed for indie game developers to create game demos, with selected winners receiving a little bit of funding and the potential to develop their demos into full games. I hadn't heard of this at all until the spotlight appeared on the front page of the Steam store. But as a fan of horror games, I decided to give Blackwell's Asylum a shot. And it ultimately disappointed me. 

You play as an inmate of a women's asylum trying to escape the facility by hiding from the patrolling wardens. It starts out very interesting, with a great deal of atmosphere and a unique visual style almost reminiscent of something you'd see in a Tim Burton movie. Everything looks warped and distorted, lending the environments a very uncanny feeling; the sound effects are minimal but do a sufficient job of layering the atmosphere on top of you. As promising as these aesthetics are, however, the gameplay felt kind of boring to me, as I'll explain in the full article.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Buying New Releases: It's Better to Wait

I don't understand the appeal of buying new releases as they come out. I guess there's something appealing about being at the forefront of a cultural gaming experience, being one of the first people to play the newest, hottest game, and discovering things while they're still truly undiscovered. That element can be pretty exciting, but the more rational side of me feels that it's better to wait a year or more until after release before buying a game.

New releases cost $50-60, a pretty significant chunk of money, especially if you're buying multiple releases per month. By waiting a year, you can buy games while they're still fairly new at a much more reasonable price, sometimes in the $20-30 range. Sometimes games launch with problems that don't get patched out until later; if you bought the game on day one, you can be left playing a less-than-perfect version, possibly even finishing it before the patch even arrives. Developers are also getting into the habit of releasing new content after release, either as free updates or as paid DLC. By waiting, you can have all of the updates available for a single playthrough in one complete package.

It's been many, many years since I pre-ordered any games because it was just more economical to wait. I broke this trend with Risen 2, and I almost regret that decision because I ended up playing the entire game in a flawed state. When they released the next bit of DLC, I thought maybe that would give me an incentive to replay the game with the new patch updates, but by that point I was finished and ready to move on. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was another that I'd considered pre-ordering, but by waiting a year I was able to buy it for $30 and skip right to the mega patch for the Enhanced Edition, the definitive version of the game. 

Part of me wonders whether I'll be missing out on the Enhanced Edition experience by not having played the original version to be able to appreciate all of the changes it made. I suppose that's a minor drawback, but in the grand scheme of things it seems like the better deal. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Deus Ex: Inhuman Revulsion

The original Deus Ex is one of my most favorite games. It was one of those rare, special games that transcended what an ordinary gaming experience could be. Being caught up in an elaborate conspiracy, betrayed and not knowing whom to trust, operating from the shadows with figures all across the globe to uncover corruption, with each action and decision triggering its own unique consequences, all in a world dripping with atmosphere, memorable locations, and interesting characters. For my young and impressionable mind, it was mind-blowing.

When I'd heard that Eidos-Montreal would be attempting to revive the series with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I held the same concerned skepticism of any Deus Ex fan: "after 11 years, is it even possible for a prequel to live up to the legacy of the original?" I approached Human Revolution without any specific expectations, bordering on reserved optimism, and found myself pleasantly surprised. Great atmosphere, intelligent gameplay design, easy accessibility -- the sort of combination that draws me into a game and makes me want to keep playing. In a time when all of the most popular, mainstream shooters and RPGs are filled with shallow, uninspired mediocrity, Human Revolution was a welcome, refreshing sight.

But the more I played, the less it felt like Deus Ex. The similarities are obviously there, and it does improve upon the original in a few key areas, but it also feels like a step backwards in some other, perhaps more important areas. So while I enjoyed my time with Human Revolution, I also felt a little disappointed by it. It's a lot smarter and more cleverly-designed than other modern games, but it's ultimately not as intelligent as the original was, despite having 11 years of industry advancements under its belt.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Ben There, Dan That! - Review

Ben There, Dan That! is an indie point and click adventure game that tells the story of a typical day in the lives of Dan Marshall and Ben Ward. After escaping from a Peruvian jungle in a prologue sequence (in which Ben uses an absurd, jury-rigged assortment of inventory items to revive Dan's lifeless corpse), the two pals start a new adventure of repairing their television so they can watch Magnum PI. Just as they finish this task, they're abducted by an alien spacecraft and have to solve a series of inventory-based puzzles to escape in time to catch the end of the episode.

Created by Dan Marshall and Ben Ward, you play as their in-game personas in an adventure that spoofs, references, and pokes fun at the tropes and conventions of classic adventure games. It's a very intelligent, self-aware game that breaks the fourth wall in both subtle and ludicrously obvious ways. It's a game that had me laughing at the written dialogue and interacting with everything, trying all possible combinations of actions to find more bits of hidden lines and easter eggs.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Sea Will Claim Everything - Review

The Sea Will Claim Everything is the latest point and click adventure game from Jonas Kyratzes, a man who has built up a reputation for creating charming and thought-provoking games. In TSWCE, you visit the Lands of Dream through a special window which allows you to see, travel, and interact with the various elements of the Fortunate Isles. Your window initially connects you to the Underhome -- a living, biotechnological house that's been damaged by goons threatening to foreclose on it. As you help The Mysterious-Druid get Underhome back in shape, you find yourself on a much larger quest to free the citizens of the Fortunate Isles from the political and economic oppression of Lord Urizen.

If I had to describe my experience with TSWCE as simply as possible, it would have to be "a clever, quirky, emotionally-engaging experience in a whimsical realm of fantasy and reality." The gameplay elements are ultimately nothing to write home about, but this game drips with charm and made me connect to its world in a way that I don't often experience. From the wonderfully vibrant hand-drawn visuals, to the offbeat descriptions of nearly everything on every screen, to the brilliant soundtrack, to the elegantly poignant characters, to the game's clever handling of the fourth wall, I found myself deeply engrossed and sad to see it all eventually come to an end.