Mento's May Mastery: Day 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

As we head towards the end of May, I'm starting to get philosophical about this particular series and its future. There's no doubt in my mind that I'm personally happier with this particular format of going deeper with the more pressing items on my Steam backlog (though these meandering intros have gotta go next year), but I'm wondering if I truly need to make them a daily thing. I can't help but feel that I'm spamming the forums and, for lack of a better term, permeating the site with my own opinions and inadvertently drowning others in the process. It's a big site, and I'm probably being paranoid, but when you start seeing spambots copying the titling format it feels like a wake-up call.

I originally began doing these daily blogs to challenge myself. To push myself to write something, anything, on a daily basis and ensure that it was substantial enough (and not filled with typos, though I'm not sure if I've managed that part) that I wasn't just wasting everyone's time with the equivalent of stream-of-consciousness LiveJournal chickenscratches. I feel like I've plumbed the depths with the games I've covered; even those that have repeated for three days (like today's game) and have stretched my capacity to create interesting, new observations to its breaking point.

2016's May Madness, or whatever alliterative name I choose next year, might not be a daily series. Or, if it is, it won't be published on the forum day after day. Maybe I'll go back to the observational bulletpoints list format that I use for the Metal Gear Solid games, though I'm concerned that it only really works for games with stories/moments people are intimately familiar with. I'm sure I'll think of something. There's too much I personally like about this format to abandon it, and those Steam games aren't getting played without a big event to galvanize me. I guess we'll see.

Sorry, didn't mean to get all navel-gaze-y. Not a whole lot's happening around here right now, though June ought to be fairly interesting with the way things are moving. I hope I'll find the time to exhibit all those Atari ST games for the system's 30th birthday in the midst of everything else happening that month.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Well, I guess it was fortunate timing that I happened to beat this game just hours ago, given that I was about to put it away for a few days to concentrate on the next two games. I'll obviously have more to say with the way it ended, if not the particulars, when I get to the end of today's rundown. The fact is, though, that this will be the third time I've covered this game while prohibiting myself from discussing the plot, its details, its twists and turns and, now, its conclusion. What I can still state, and have stated from the offset, is that the story of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, and by extension all aspects of its storytelling from the characterization to the dialogue to the cinematography (or video game equivalent) to the way it uses the perspectives of multiple protagonists, is truly excellent. It'll factor heavily into my final opinion on this game at the end, along with my specific feelings about how it concluded.

Instead, what I thought I'd do today is to draw comparisons with three other noteworthy games that I had the pleasure of visiting for the first time fairly recently (for two of them, at least), even though they and this game were all released fairly close to one another almost a decade ago. Not exactly generational comtemporaries, but close enough that I don't feel the gaps are necessarily significant. Many of my older blogs tended to frame my recent experiences with a game using examples of other games and exploring the connections. All games are connected beyond simple inspiration/homage relationships, and trends tend to influence the way developers consider the inner workings of their games. Even for games as patently uncommon as Dreamfall's mix of traditional point and click graphic adventure sleuthing and its mild (and mostly reductive) action elements.

#teens.

The first of these is Troika's Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines from 2004, which I played for the first time in 2013. The two games share a lot of similarities that don't involve vampires, but specifically it's the combination of it being in "adventure" mode and being in "action" mode. In Bloodlines, the player is a newly sired vampire looking for answers about what they are and this new underworld they inhabit and, eventually, looking for a purpose that gels with the type of entity they are. It offered a lot of freedom, and in that regard it's disparate from the linear story Dreamfall is telling. But alternating those two modes: the exploratory, dialogue-heavy sequences where you're simply gathering information and looking for where to go next, and the more active sequences where you're stealthing around hostile territory and occasionally getting into fights, is very much how the two games operate. There's no denying that the former is easily the highlight of the two games, while the latter usually served to distract from what made the game good: the intrigue, the revelations and using your wits to stay one step ahead of your enemies. The two games also share a certain cinematic style, with panning shots and other cinematography tricks while smooth Indie music about "finding oneself" sets the mood. It's rare I play a game with this much confidence about the story it wants to tell but so lacking in gameplay depth/quality that it sometimes feels superfluous to the experience: it's almost always the opposite scenario.

The second is Quantic Dream's Fahrenheit, known elsewhere as Indigo Prophecy, which was released the year before Dreamfall. While, again, we're looking at a combination of a graphic adventure game with movie leanings (complete with another soundtrack filled with Indie moping) propped up by less than sufficient gameplay elements, there's a specific similarity I wanted to discuss. The game plays around with perspective; not so much in terms of where the camera's pointing, but how it'll switch the playable character and force you to sympathize with characters that you already know are working against the ostensible hero of the game. These characters have their own generally altruistic reasons for wanting to hunt another of the protagonists down. In Fahrenheit's case it's the pair of detectives who are investigating the murder Lucas Kane unwittingly performed. In Dreamfall, it's a zealous and skilled assassin of the antagonistic Azadi Empire who nonetheless has the capacity for compassion and rationality. In addition, the game will zip around as the story sees fit, creating a layered narrative that shows as much of a character's story arc as we need to become invested before it drags us away to check in on another. It's the sort of "first-person hot potato" storytelling that's worked so well for the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, and something that the Game of Thrones TV adaptation has had to find creative ways to maneuver around. I won't claim that Fahrenheit has the best or most coherent of video game stories, but the early chapters where this protagonist hopping was at its most pronounced were also easily the best parts of the entire game.

Crow's working some Rough Chuckles these days.

The third and final game I want to draw a comparison to is Konami's Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty from 2001. This actually has nothing to do with Dreamfall's scattered and undercooked stealth elements, but almost entirely to do with how the two games tease the player's expectations, especially where they pertain to sequels. Metal Gear Solid 2 pulls a big prank on its fanbase by removing Solid Snake from the story a few hours in, replacing him with a new, younger character who has his own backstory and destiny to discover. Solid Snake then adopts something of a secondary advisory role throughout the rest of the game, and MGS2 is eager to slyly reference his diminished role and make meta observations about the structural similarities between the two games. Dreamfall has a similar case with The Longest Journey's protagonist April Ryan, who is frequently told that she is no longer expected to save the world and can live her life freely. The fact is, that suddenly being bereft of purpose has made April bitter and resentful, and she chooses to direct that ire towards the occupying forces of the Azadi for no other reason than to give herself something to do. Likewise, during the few chapters in which you play as April, you're often being reminded of people and events from the first game and how they nor the locations of Arcadia are quite as integral to the plot this time around. April actually visits several major characters from the previous game only to be told that she should just chill and let the new girl handle it, in so many words. Even Crow abandons April to be with Zoe, seeing as the former heroine no longer has any desire to be part of this struggle against the newest threat to the Balance between Stark and Arcadia. It's a little distracting for fans of the first game to see all their favorite characters get sidelined like this, but it's interesting too how they appease those same proponents with fan service cameos that are really just passing through and want no part of this new adventure. There's something to be said about how Dreamfall could easily be the MGS2 of its particular franchise simply because of how weird and divisive it is compared to its predecessor.

Anyway, here's my finishing thoughts on Dreamfall: The Longest Journey: It's one of those games that you should absolutely play if you have any deep appreciation for this artform, or are the sort of person who considers that word to be applicable to video games in the first place. It doesn't adhere to familiar video game structure, it has some really cool storytelling aspects, and the irksome and half-baked gameplay conceits can be suffered through without it detracting too much from the experience. I prefer The Longest Journey on the whole, as a solid adventure game with an equally solid story, but Dreamfall almost feels like it's the more significant of the two through the way it breaks the mold and presents something almost entirely unique.

Still a great looking game. Referring to its art direction, of course. It's the only visual element that's timeless, unlike screen resolutions and poly counts.

One of the big sticking points is that conclusion though. The game simply ends, almost immediately as soon as the third act would've traditionally begun. The many characters are... well, in a less than great place. I'd consider it the dark middle chapter, like Empire Strikes Back, except that movie at least offered a little closure. It built up to the Vader fight and ended on an optimistic note with the party at their most vulnerable. Conversely, the various plot threads of Dreamfall are just abandoned one by one, and it almost feels like the developers ran of out of time and/or money. That the many fans of the series have had to sit on those final few cliffhanger cutscenes for over eight years until a conclusion finally arrived is some real Waiting for Godot bullshit. I hope they find that closure with these new Dreamfall Chapters, which I am now happily prepared to jump into. (Y'know, as soon as they've released them all.)

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Mento's May Mastery: Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Today I have been mostly complaining about: The new Humble "Nindie" Bundle. Insofar as I immediately registered my displeasure on Twitter (kvetching and dumb humor is the only thing I use it for) at least. Now that I've taken some time to reflect, I'm slightly more ruminative about what this bundle might mean for the future of Nintendo.

Nintendo, as we all know, is somewhat apprehensive about present trends in the industry. They treat this prospective future of digital distribution and free-to-play business as the greatest and scariest of all question mark blocks, and are presently far too cautious to hit it full on and deal with whatever pops out. This Humble Bundle is a big step for them; something I'm sure they had to be cajoled into by the slightly more adaptable younger executives in their employ. It's a huge bummer that this particular bundle is only available to the Americas, but at the same time I'm happy to see Nintendo getting their feet wet in this potential new enterprise for them. I'm hoping this region-locking blowback isn't so harsh as to scare them away from this type of distribution delivery system forever, sending them right back to their comfort zone of charging ten bucks a pop for twenty-year-old SNES games and thirty-year-old NES games.

Talking of old embracing the new in a less-than-ideal way, it's time to head back to Stark and Arcadia.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey is, alas, beginning to lose me. Whereas the story of the original game was excellent and found a lot of mileage with a dual-world plot that was able to combine near-future sci-fi with atypical magical fantasy hokum, the actual adventure parts were fun too. You'd be solving the standard adventure game puzzles and getting into a lot of fun dialogue with NPCs like your buddy Crow (the only big NPC from the prior game I haven't bumped into yet, actually, unless you count the antagonist). I appreciate that Dreamfall had to get with the times, edging towards the nebulously defined "action-adventure" that took over the PS2 era and beyond, but the action-y additions haven't enhanced the game one iota. If anything, it's allowed the puzzle parts to atrophy as more focus is put towards the entirely unnecessary stealth and combat.

I'll give you an example of this, since I'm still reluctant to discuss the plot in any fine detail. (For the record, the plot is still very much the highlight, and pretty much the only thing keeping me going right now. They're definitely doing some interesting things with the "disturbing the capital-b Balance of the two worlds" story this time around.) Zoe did indeed wake up in Arcadia moments after I quit the game last night, and we're introduced to the first game's city of Marcuria, the Journeyman Inn and its pragmatic host Benrime and the various sentient species that inhabit the capital. It's currently under occupation by the Azadi, who appear to be religious zealots with little love for magic or the non-human races, but still protect the city and improve the quality of life for the humans in their care. They're a layered bunch, not entirely evil, but clearly not the sort you'd want to throw your lot in with.

For as weirdly static as the facial animations can be, this game is surprisingly gorgeous for a game made in 2006.

Anyway, this sterling example of poor puzzle design happens soon after Zoe lands in Arcadia. She's tasked with finding someone who can help her get back to Stark, and possibly hook her up with this April Ryan character she's been hearing about. To do so, Zoe needs to ask a beggar named Blind Bob for the whereabouts of the deposed Minstrum Magda, one of the wise elders and former rulers of Marcuria. He won't tell you anything, however, without the Journeyman Inn's famous mulled wine. To get the wine, the innkeeper Benrime tells you to slog across town (two whole areas, no skipping) to the spice merchant. The spice merchant is waiting for his supply, and the trade caravan owner is currently stuck a few feet away from the Inn. So that's back two whole areas again. You're then given the package of spices, but you can't give them to the innkeeper directly, so it's back across two whole areas again. Then you get the spices, hand them over to the innkeeper (two areas back, naturally), give Blind Bob (who is not even blind) his mulled wine to be told that he has no idea where Magda is, but he knows another beggar who does. This beggar is presently three whole areas from the Inn, and wants you to rescue her pet before she'll tell you where Magda is. As for Magda? She's the soup kitchen attendee a couple feet away from the spice merchant, who I talked to about three times during this whole process. Nothing in the game intimated that this sequence was meant to be deliberately annoying, so I'll chalk it up to the game designers treating their players with barely-contained animosity for some perceived slight of which I am entirely incognizant.

There's another puzzle a little bit later when you're sneaking around the top-secret basement of a major corporation. Long story there, clearly (and an even longer journey), but suffice it to say that the game went for a style of puzzle design I tend to call "using every part of the buffalo". What this essentially means is that so much was spent on individual resources that every single one is factored into the puzzle in some way, which is great if you want a puzzle with a dozen different steps but not particularly realistic. If there's six different accessible rooms in a circular hallway and the puzzle requires that you visit every single one, then there's a definite sense of contrivance to the proceedings. Most adventure games would like you to think that they are filled with incidental detail; little hotspots in the environment that offer nothing but flavor text and enhance the mise en scène. This attention to detail seems to vanish the moment after leaving the first room of the game in many cases: with Dreamfall this would be Zoe's room, which is filled with little details about her life. You can then use abductive reasoning to intuit what her situation is from these contextual clues moments before the game explicitly tells you. With this particular corporation basement puzzle, most of the nuance has long since dissipated, and the game just has you going from points A through Q with explicit instructions while trying to stealth your way past security spider robots throughout. It's really quite disappointing.

Um... it was you?

Still, I'm here for the story and for the sequel hooks for this Dreamfall Chapters serial adventure I'm curious about. In that regard, at least, it's a worthy sequel to The Longest Journey. The game's getting fancy with its narrative at this point, jumping between Zoe, April Ryan and an Azadi Apostle (which I'm meant to believe is some kind of paladin or agent of the Azadi Empire) named Kian Alvane. Now, I remember a couple of things about the prior game that leads me to believe that Kian might not end up an enemy of April Ryan's. Quite the opposite, in fact, but I suppose I'll find out as I get further into the game's story. Despite her brief sojourn into Arcadia, Zoe is firmly up to mischief in Stark and will probably end up being the chief protagonist for that side of the balance. April and Kian will no doubt be more focused on the Arcadia half. But then, this is the sort of game that continues to surprise me with plot twists and character turns, so I'm anxious to see what happens next... if, perhaps, a little less excited about even more stealth/fight sequences to come.

Hey, at least I got to meet that loveable Starkian-trapped-in-Arcadia drunk Brian Westhouse again (he was also the tutorial protagonist! So that's four playable characters so far!). Make sure to check in tomorrow as I continue to vacillate between liking and hating this game.

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Mento's May Mastery: Day 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

It's the final week of May, everyone. Next Monday will be the start of June and the end of this specific daily series of Steam game appraisals. I've already hinted at this several times already, but we're starting what I've dubbed "Ringer Week": a week where I'm starting major backlog items that I intend to keep on playing into June. The three day rule still applies, of course, but suffice it to say that the three games I've chosen for this week aren't simply random Steam curiosities that I'll be uninstalling almost as soon as I've written about them.

Meanwhile, I'm still plugging away at Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow after taking a day or two off to focus on this series. It's still as excellent an IGAvania as I remember, and despite the passage of time and recalling that they supplanted the gothic-romantic character portraits of Ayami Kojima for some generic anime business, its sprite work still looks incredible. This was a time when Konami saw the new console Nintendo was putting together and put their best foot forward, creating a Castlevania that looked as good as Symphony of the Night (now possible with the DS's graphical power) and a few silly touchscreen gimmicks to show they were happy to play ball with whatever new tech Nintendo wanted to push. I miss that Konami. Maybe a new Castlevania wasn't the most innovative step (they released a DS Ganbare Goemon game slightly before then, which wasn't a whole lot more creative) but at least they were trying, and produced an exceptional game during the DS's halcyon days when its library desperately needed a few of them.

Maybe we'll cover that more in intros to come, though given that the game turns ten years old in a few months, it's likely we all know the score by now. Dawn's not as expansive as Portrait of Ruin nor as old-school challenging as Order of Ecclesia, but that soul gathering/equipping gimmick never gets old. Well, unless you've spent an hour trying to farm that Peeping Eye soul while listening to the Beastcast. I've only myself to blame for that, though.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

I beat the superb The Longest Journey back in 2013, as it was considered one of those games any self-confessed adventure game fan like myself really ought to play at some point. Shortly after that a new serial adventure game based on the property was announced: Dreamfall Chapters (I notice the series is pulling a Rambo: moving the original's name to subtitle status, and then losing it completely). We've already seen the release of the first two episodes, the second only months ago as of writing. I figured it was therefore high time to move onto the game's first sequel (based between The Longest Journey and Dreamfall Chapters) which switches protagonists and moves the story ahead ten years after the near-cataclysm caused by the events of the first game. I've been slowly catching up with what's occurred in that space of time, as well as familiarizing myself with the new heroine Zoe Castillo.

Zoe's the typical rudderless college dropout character, reminiscent of April Ryan from the first game (who was also in a rut), though life starts to get interesting for her pretty quickly and the game speeds through its early chapters a lot quicker than the first did. Soon, Zoe's seeing odd visions of a creepy little girl asking her to "save April Ryan", a person about whom she would have zero knowledge. Next, her ex-beau and still close friend Reza (who the game pronounces as "RZA", leading to all sorts of jokes (from me) at his expense) is an investigative reporter who vanishes after giving Zoe a simple errand that ends with her foiling a murder and getting arrested. The story quickly picks up from there, wasting little time setting the stage and moving Zoe from her Casablanca home to the prior game's Venice, Newport setting. The place has fallen from grace in the ten years since the first game, and I found myself sneaking into the seedy tweeker den that used to be the student-friendly Border House accommodations in order to track down this errant pal of hers. I don't want to get too much more into the story beyond that to avoid spoilers, which will probably make the next update(s) something of a challenge to write. I mean, what else is there to talk about pertaining to an adventure game beyond its story?

Zoe (left) and Olivia (right). Liv's such a huge help for the early game, giving you all the tech support you need. There's actually a point where you're exploring Reza's apartment and have to visit her three separate times for new phone gizmos.

Actually, there's a lot we can talk about here regarding game mechanics and features. The point and click genre was effectively dead by 2006, and wouldn't be resurrected until the Indie boom a few years later (except in places like Germany, where it continued unabated). In order to survive, the genre took on action and puzzle elements, usually drawing on other genres to bulk up the gameplay side of things. However, these additions often served to distract from the stories they wanted to tell rather than enhance them. Dreamfall looks to be another case like this, where the game deigned to introduce a rudimentary combat system and hacking mini-games for some of its puzzles. Zoe's an accomplished martial artist, because of course she is, and so there's a few instances in the game where you can fight your way through an altercation if you weren't smart or stealthy enough to avoid it. And yes, that's also something they introduced to this game: sneaking around to avoid getting caught by hostile NPCs, if there isn't a way to adventure-puzzle your way out of a fight entirely. It feels a little like that LucasFilm Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade game (and probably Fate of Atlantis, I don't recall) where you can avoid or outwit the various patrolling Nazi guards in the Castle Brunwald area of the game, while failing to do so meant being forced into a tough fistfight. I guess the Nazis weren't carrying guns in case they inadvertently damaged any of the priceless tapestries?

My original intent for this first day was to reach Arcadia: the alternate world that The Longest Journey spent most of its runtime exploring. It sits in parallel to Stark, our world, being as magic-heavy and technologically sparse as ours is the converse. The Longest Journey really picked up upon reaching this world of magic, even in spite of how interesting the near-future world of Stark was to explore. Stark features a lot of technology like automated taxis and friendly purple AI organizer gorillas (NOT BonziBuddy) and subterranean "Vactrax" trains that span across the world in hours and other innovations that don't yet exist but feel very much like they could one day soon, sort of like visiting the timeline of Star Trek a few decades before they started building starships and meeting aliens (but, uh, without that big war that almost killed everyone). I did manage to reach a point where the character breaks through to Arcadia, sort of, but it might also be a dream sequence. Hard to say, but it sure seemed like an appropriately trippy note to end today's adventuring on.

I'm not quite sure this "Chinaman merchant" (their words, not mine) character was necessary. Then again, every sci-fi universe seems to have one. Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden...

Anyway, I'll be providing more updates on this game for probably the next two days at least. One remarkable aspect of The Longest Journey was that it was, true to its name, an incredibly lengthy example of its genre. I don't expect Dreamfall will be any shorter, and it feels like I've only seen the tip of the iceberg so far. I'm just hoping I don't have to do much more sneaking around and punching stuff if I can help it.

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Mento's May Mastery: Day 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!

What's this? A May Mastery that's (somewhat) on time? Honestly, I didn't have to play today's game too much to know what to make of it, which isn't necessarily a negative. It's more that it's very much a game to play in intermittent spurts, like Luftrausers or Spelunky or most mobile/tablet games.

Unfortunately, this being Memorial Day weekend and all, there's not a whole lot of newsworthy material to discuss in today's intro. I did finally take the time to watch the recently translated GameCenter CX special where Kacho Arino and his crew honor Super Mario Bros.'s 30th birthday with an hour-long NicoNico live event (Japan's equivalent to YouTube and the occasional annual shows they put on filled with YouTubers you've never heard of). Arino is challenged to play World 1-1 with only his feet and a power pad variant, and then gets to challenge others with three stages he personally created in the upcoming Mario Maker.

Which also reminds me: the Nintendo Entertainment System also turns thirty a little later this year in October. Though I've already honored its Famicom equivalent's 30th, which occurred back in 2013, I'm not sure what I intend to do for this particular milestone, if anything at all. I'm actually celebrating another video game-related 30th anniversary next month, so maybe I shouldn't overdo it. Then again, the Super Famicom (but not the SNES) celebrates its 25th in November and the PlayStation 2 turns 15 in October. I guess there's such a thing as too many anniversary celebrations, but then I am very fond of talking about older games because I am old and this is what old people do.

For the time being, though, we're going to be talking about contemporary Steam games. Like the following:

Cook, Serve, Delicious!

Verb, Verb, Adjective is a cooking/restaurateur sim from Vertigo Games that got a lot of buzz on this site, courtesy of the approbations of one Ryan Davis. Though it resembles your run of the grill frantic and addictive restaurant game of the type that were early mobile/Indie hits, Cook, Serve, Delicious somehow manages to combine semi-realistic cuisine preparation with the aforementioned panic-inducing real-time speedgaming hooks. Chefs set up their menus ahead of time, taking into account the popularity of certain dishes and how well they compliment each other, and then spend a whole day preparing food, performing chores (such as taking out garbage and setting rat traps) and raking in the dough and tips. Every food item on the menu has a slightly different QTE attached to it, and it becomes a game of juggling the food items and chores that take time (such as steaks or washing dishes, respectively) with those you can do nearly instantaneously, getting the latter out of the way so you can focus on the former. Getting food orders mostly right earns you an "average" result, while getting them spot on nets you a perfect. A day filled entirely with perfects nets you a huge bonus, especially early on, so it pays to get wise to how the game works and work towards flawless days as often as possible.

You know, I've never eaten a corndog. It's just not a UK thing. If I'm ever in the States again, I'll hunt one down.

What threw me off is just how layered this game actually is for what could be waved off as a simple mobile-tier experience. There's a lot of consideration that goes into menus (each food item has its own pros and cons), what recipes you choose to invest in, what cooking equipment you buy to prepare more elaborate types of food or other purchases that make life easier in myriad other ways. Each variation of every meal has its own name. You have to account for your restaurant's popularity (called "buzz" in-game) which fluctuates depending on how well you've been doing, how food trends are going and how bored people are becoming of your culinary choices. Different food items are popular at different times of the day, and stacking too many breakfast meals on the menu (for instance) will make the day top-heavy as a result. You can buy upgrades to meals you cook frequently, adding more ingredients and other preparation steps in exchange for earning more per sale. I'm not even at the one-star rating yet (there's a checklist of requirements, one of which includes playing for twenty in-game days which is close to a couple of hours at least) and I'm aware that's even more features to come, such as foiling robberies and taking part in a certain metallic-named syndicated TV show for competitive chefs.

Like Mr. Davis, who is honored with a hamburger variant in his name (and who the creators personally thanked for spreading the gospel and being a stand up guy when he passed in 2013), I was seriously impressed with the level of content this game has. Maybe my expectations were a little more tempered by that memorable Quick Look and the fact it's been almost three years since that video happened. That said, the game is still extremely stressful ("hardcore", as Ryan put it). The various rush periods (lunch and dinner, essentially) really tax how quickly you're able to complete orders on time, and you're frequently juggling multiple tasks at once while making split-second decisions as to whether you have time to complete a longer chore before a client walks off unhappy, or to tend to that person's order first and potentially lose some buzz from having a stinky, vermin-ridden kitchen. Certain foodstuffs sell better and are easier to prepare, but due to the way "menu rot" works for meals that eventually fall out of favor, you're often pulling items for a couple of days to let them be "fresh" again and replacing them with meals you're less confident about cooking to a sufficiently efficient degree. I'm fond of the recipes where you simply throw a bunch of different ingredients together, like the pizzas and salads, rather than the odd cases like cooked chicken breasts which require six (exactly six!) hits with the tenderizer hammer before going on the grill.

As is also the case with the recent Invisible Inc., it's hard to dislike a game that does something this classy.

Because of this stress factor and the fact that the game can get kinda samey after three or four "day"s in a row, it's perfect as a "drop-in, drop-out" style portable game that you can keep popping back into. I've actually booted it up and played a little of it three separate times today, each with a few hours of breaks in-between, and I imagine I'll keep making incremental progress towards earning stars for my restaurant as May Mastery continues (and for the months beyond, for that matter). It's as moreish as the mouthwatering meals it depicts.

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Mento's May Mastery: Day 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through

I have a confession to make. I spent most of today playing Magrunner after I said I wouldn't. Actually, I said I wouldn't be talking about it any more, which I'm guess is what I'm doing right this moment. So now I have a new confession: I'm talking about Magrunner again after I said I wouldn't.

Like how things suddenly took a turn for the eerie immediately after I booted it up yesterday, it got even more surreal today. It's also super long, to my surprise: I'd say it's far closer to Portal 2's length than Portal 1's. Of course, given that one of the common criticisms of Portal 2 was its drawn out runtime, it's entirely debatable whether or not this is a plus. I'm not saying more content is a bad thing, but there's a balancing trick in producing a number of puzzle rooms that feel fresh and different that don't involve going through the same motions over and over. There's also the deleterious effect such padding does to the story which, due to the nature of this kind of game, must be doled out in small chunks between puzzle rooms. The continuous, interconnected plot snippets can't hope to maintain a sense of dread or suspense with the potentially huge gaps of time that the player may spend solving the puzzles in the interim, and thus generally stick to checking in with the various NPCs and other status updates.

But I've already talked too much about this darn game already. I really don't want to spoil anything about the final act, because it gets as insane as one might expect from fiction inspired by Lovecraft. I'll say it pulls something similar to Half-Life's Xen and leave it at that. (And yes, you do get to meet you-know-who. Sort of.)

The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through

I'm still powering through a few of the small weird games I have lying around before we hit the last week of May Mastery guns akimbo with three particular games I've been anticipating playing for some time. I don't suspect I'll be completing them, so sticking them at the end of this month affords me the opportunity to keep playing them without skipping a beat once we hit June (though I'll have plenty else to do and see that month, as I suspect we all will with E3 looming). Today we look at two games that, individually, might be a bit too sparse to make for a full update. That's not to denigrate them as uninteresting, of course, but simply that they're built on simple mechanics that don't need a lot of delineation.

The Nightmare Cooperative is the most interesting of the many vaguely "roguelite" dungeon crawlers I've got stashed away in the bowels of my Steam library, mostly in part because it's one of the few that went for a vector graphics (that's Adobe Flash/Illustrator vector graphics, not Vectrex/Lunar Lander/Star Wars Arcade vector graphics, though I guess they're technically more or less the same thing) art style rather than the Indie industry-standard pixels. It's also more of a strategic puzzle game than most roguelikes/roguelites, treating its heroes more as chess pieces than characters you develop and grow attached to. Hey, a bit like Fire Emblem then. People rave about the characterization in those games but those units sure do stay permanently dead a lot, don't they? Gimme Vandal Hear- you know what? I'm getting off-track.

The Nightmare Cooperative, then, is not so much a convenience store that is filled with noisy people and never has any fresh baguettes left for some reason (okay, no-one outside the UK is going to get that one) and more of a dungeon crawl where the player has to make every move count. Enemies move when you do, as is the roguelike fashion, but most enemies simply repeat a pattern on loop rather than seek the heroes out. The trick is to find a way to gracefully pass through these patterns without incurring damage; such as not being there when a fireball-machine turns to look your way, or sneaking past enemies that walk back and forth in patrols. Enemies can be killed by heroes, but each melee scuffle does a point of damage to both parties: as heroes never have more than four or five hit points total, and it's not easy to heal lost HP, it's integral to minimize enemy encounters. There are also blue potions, which allow for special attacks/abilities (different for each character class) that can make removing enemies easier but are also best saved for emergencies.

Sure, it looks straightforward enough now, but wait until there's four of them. It's like trying to manage a birthday party full of five year olds, but with acid pits.

Trouble is, if you wanted to pick up loot or explore the stage a little, almost everything you touch will summon more enemies. Chests summon them, items summon them - even waiting too long summons them. "Enemy" in this case isn't just reserved for hostile creatures either; they can include traps such as lava floor tiles (which can sometimes helpfully block the exit) and the aforementioned fireball shooters. I've not discovered a reason to collect money yet, which is what you're raiding all these monster-spawning chests to find, but I'm sure there's not much to be gained by ignoring it. This is a dungeon crawler, after all. The other challenging aspect occurs when the player acquires a party of three or four adventurers: you'd think it'd make the game easier to have so many extra heroes to fall back on, but having to simultaneously move all four can become a perplexing juggling act very quickly. I sometimes made it a habit to get the speedy ninja to the exit immediately, and work on collecting loot with the other characters. That way if I majorly screw up, well, at least I still have that ninja.

Truth is, I played The Nightmare Cooperative a few times and kinda got my fill of it quickly enough. The game and its mechanics are easy enough to pick up, so what you're left with is something akin to Spelunky in that there's tricks you can learn to make the game easier on yourself, but a lot of what makes each individual run either a success or an abject failure is down to the luck of the draw (and user error). That there's even fewer moving parts in a single run of The Nightmare Cooperative than there is in Spelunky means it's not really compelling enough to play over and over until you finally make it through to the end of the dungeon. More likely you'll make a dumb mistake halfway through the ice caves and have to start over. I'll give the game this much: each game goes by fairly quickly, so there's no big sense of loss when your whole party gets wiped out because you dared to swipe too much gold without ensuring the exit route was clear.

However, there's still that unsatisfying sense of capriciousness that permeates all games of this sub-genre, where you can do everything right and still fail because the stars weren't aligned correctly. It's why I tend to stick to games like Rogue Legacy or Super House of Dead Ninjas, where even a failed run can lead to some progress.

Lilly Looking Through, conversely, is one of those delightful ephemeral Indie adventure games of the type I tend to bash out in a couple of hours without realizing and then feel immediately melancholy about finishing it too quickly. I've already played one game of its type so far this month from Amanita Design (who are the experts at these types of games) but I'm always happy to squeeze a few more into any May feature. Lilly Looking Through plays similarly to something like Amanita's Machinarium in that a lot of the puzzles require your hero to be standing in the right place, and getting them there can be half the struggle. Oddly, there's also times where the protagonist doesn't need to be anywhere near the item, and the player can simply move it to wherever it is needed with their cursor. Most of the game's puzzles involve clicking on hotspots to interact with them, with the more overtly puzzle-y set-pieces requiring some observation and trial and error before a solution starts to coalesce.

Lilly Looking Through has two major points in its favor: the first is its wonderful art design and animation, putting the expressive eponymous Lilly through her paces as she climbs, drops, trips and runs to the various destinations you send her. These animations clearly had a lot of work put into them, and it's one of those aspects of enhanced verisimilitude in video game design that tends to go unlauded and underutilized outside of an Eric Chahi or Jordan Mechner joint far too frequently. It's expensive and time-consuming to put so much focus on realistic animations, of course, and in Lilly Looking Through's case it has the added malus of making certain actions take longer than they need to as the little heroine struggles to climb the few feet to the next hotspot, but they really can make the game's world feel like a living breathing place, more so than any amount of high definition and chunky framerates are capable.

It's a great looking game, I'll give it that. And, for whatever reason, it reminded me a lot of Zack & Wiki. Maybe because of how most of the puzzles simply involved moving from one place to the next.

The second point is how Lilly can wear a pair of goggles to be instantly transported to a different, yet similar world. It doesn't take long for the player to realize that the happier world Lilly is seeing through the goggles is that of the distant past, and the majority of the game's puzzles involve switching from one to the other and back to make incremental progress. Were I the type to write thinkpieces, I'd suggest that this whole feature was a metaphor for relying too heavily on rose-tinted nostalgia glasses, which tends to be what most Indie games trade in (just check out the recent Kickstarter success stories for corroboration). Whether Lilly Looking Through makes the case for or against such figurative trips back in time isn't quite so clear, nor is the reason why I decided to get all philosophical about symbolism for the past paragraph instead of getting on with it.

Lilly Looking Through is, as tends to be the case with these little Indie adventure games, regrettably on the short side. Its handful of screens aren't enough to sustain much more than an afternoon of your time, though that's possibly for the best. It also ends on a cliffhanger, suggesting that the developers have more adventures planned for Lilly and her reckless sibling in the future, though I've no idea if the game did well enough to make a sequel happen. I'd hope so. There's something indescribably cute about the game, and it does Amanita's schtick almost as well as they do. I had an issue with a color-based puzzle towards the end, but most of the set-pieces were smart and satisfying enough to solve as long as you're able to identify the various moving parts in play. "Be on the lookout for levers" is the only advice I can proffer.

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Mento's May Mastery: Day 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse

I figured I'd get more done today, but the one-two punch of the Giant Beastcast and UPF means Giant Bomb is now taking up more of my Fridays than ever before. Still, I'm stoked about there being a GBeast podcast going up every week, though I wonder if they won't cut into the Giant Bombcast's news segment once too often. Either that, or we'll be getting the same news in stereo. They'll work it out, I'm sure. Bombin' in the AM did something similar with the pre- and post-weekend news and nothing ever felt too toe-steppy about that show. It's always good to have more takes on whatever's been going on, ultimately.

As it's Friday, we have the week's round-up here to alleviate clutter on the Community Spotlight. Just consult this list if you wanna know what I've been up to over the past seven days:

  • Day 16 involved sticking it to the man in the comedy puzzle-adventure game Stick It to the Man! Is it Psychonauts-lite, or is there more going on beneath its cranium?
  • Day 17 had me falling through the monochrome world of NaissanceE, and ultimately abandoning it after I'd had my fill of directionless mazes and discovering I had insufficient computing power to process a bunch of black and white cubes. Humbling.
  • Day 18 introduced me to one of the best games I've played yet for this year's May feature: the excellent stop-motion-y clone 'em up The Swapper. Swap your own stories about murdering clones in the comments!
  • Day 19 spooked me silly with Claire, a 2D survival horror game in the vein of Lone Survivor. More and more of these Indie horror games are overtly borrowing from Silent Hill, and I couldn't be happier. It's not like we're getting a real one any time soon.
  • Day 20 is the adorable chalk drawing skull-skulking puzzle-platformer Dokuro. Here's to more Steam ports from Game Arts in the future!
  • Day 21 attracted me to Magrunner: Dark Pulse, creating a magnetized murder mystery not even the Insane Clown Posse could solve or understand. Come on over and be repelled by even more terrible magnet humor.
  • Day 22 is... well, you're reading it.

Anyway, the weekend's coming up, so I'll be sure to fast-forward through the few games I have ongoing (today's game and Dokuro, mostly) and start on something fresh. For now, though, prepare for some second helpings of Magrunner: Dark Pulse. (Huh, maybe I shouldn't have been calling the kettle black with that "repeated news stories" gripe earlier...)

Magrunner: Dark Pulse

I mentioned that at some point this game goes off the rails and gets heavily into Cthulhu and monsters and shit, but I didn't expect it to happen so soon after I stopped playing yesterday. One room later and I walk in on a fellow magrunner getting ate by some sort of fishman. After this, the game starts dropping you through the bowels of the facility (hey, where have I heard that one?) and the once-mocking reporters and corporation reps are sending me panicked messages whenever I'm in earshot.

I dunno if I should be making story predictions, as I may happen upon the actual plot of the game and end up spoiling it for others, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and surmise that the magrunners being carefully selected for their mental acuity, acquired knowledge in various fields and physical excellent is all poppycock, and we were really chosen for some seven-person sacrificial ritual that one of more of this corporation's bigwigs is putting together to summon an Elder Being of some sort. The fact that one or more of the magrunners have already been murdered (or are actively being hunted, like myself) doesn't necessarily negate this theory: if anything, we could be the last scions of whatever magicians crafted the barriers between this world and the next, and that's why we all need to die within the confines of this place before Mr. Tall, Dark and Octopus can be resurrected. I'll enjoy seeing if my theory pans out.

This was the point where things started to go downhill for ol' Dax.

Or at least I will once I figure a way out of the room I'm stuck in. The game's starting to get a little cute about some of its puzzles, in a way I'm not entirely copacetic about. I talked about the lack of order and control last time with how a lot of this magnetic field business can often lead to unpredictable results, usually tossing boxes around in random directions. The game helpfully "sticks" boxes in central positions or markings on the ground, to ensure that they go straight up if they suddenly have the opposite polarity of the platform they're sitting on. These types of upward boosts have been a major part of getting around thus far, and having the flight path of that object be anything less than perfectly vertical would lead to a lot of frustration. The game smartly sidesteps a lot of precision issues which might arise in that fashion, though it hasn't fixed all of them. One particular instance where I had to grab a box in mid-air while standing on it became a lot trickier to deal with once I discovered that you lose all horizontal momentum when you do this, despite the fact that physics don't work that way. The idea was to land on a distant platform after the box and I had been launched, and then I would grab the box before it fell from view. It required such a precise degree of split-second timing that I honestly thought I'd solved the puzzle in an incorrect and horribly more difficult way.

That paranoia turned out to be legit to some extent with a later puzzle where I had to carry a box found early in the room to a spot near the end in order to activate a moving platform (some boxes can be slotted into holes in the wall, which govern the forward-backward momentum of a floating platform in their influence). I simply assumed that the box I picked up near the start of the level would be the same box I needed towards the end, and endeavored for close to thirty minutes to get it and myself to that point. Turns out that, once I had gotten up there, there was another box that was entirely obscured from my view from below. The intended purpose of the box I'd been trying to get up there all along was instead to make the whole process of getting only myself up there slightly easier. Aggravating.

This thing spooked me until I realized it was a Quake reference. If you're doing a first-person Lovecraftian sci-fi game, better honor your elder(being)s.

I still like Magrunner, for some of its less well-devised puzzles and it being as shameless as it is about "doing Portal but not quite". I wish the plot stuff was more elaborate: maybe introduced more characters and named/developed the rival magrunners so it would be more shocking once they started getting knocked off; adding more lore, either in a database or through found notes, that elaborated on this near future sci-fi universe and the links this corporation apparently has to intergalactic deities beyond our ken; and perhaps a bit more characterization for the dull, cookie-cutter protagonist. Some of that might still be coming up of course, as it feels like I might have an entire act left to go once I find whatever &%£! missing &%£! piece I need to solve this &%£! current &%£! puzzle room. For fuck's sake.

Either way, this'll be it for my Magrunner coverage. It's a fine game, though for all its Portal allusions it doesn't really measure up to Valve's goofy classic. Magrunner certainly doesn't bother attempting to match its humor element, instead focusing on suspense and horror beats. Surprisingly, it isn't too bad at either of those, despite the fact that puzzle games are built to be pacing-killers by design: the player could spend anywhere from a couple of minutes to hours on each of the game's puzzle rooms, and there's no accounting for individual player resourcefulness from a design standpoint. Hard to string together a series of effective scary moments when there's long stretches of puzzle-solving and frustration in between. In fact, it was mildly humorous when the music started getting all horror-ish and violins-heavy when I spotted a creature in the middle of doing a puzzle, and then proceeded to take another half hour to solve it (it was that one with the two boxes I mentioned earlier) with that music playing the whole time. I actually had to turn the music off after a while because having those tense violin strings going for thirty minutes straight was stressing me out too much. And people buy soundtrack albums of this shit?

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Mento's May Mastery: Day 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse

Man, today just kind of flew by. I know, that's my excuse for almost all of these so far, but it still feels like I barely got any progress done with today's game, as well as today's errands in general.

Part of this, I feel, is falling back into the IGAvania hole.

Yep, despite my better judgement and the fact I'm already playing a huge number of games this week, I've started a new game of Dawn of Sorrow. I'm already getting burned out hunting for rare souls, so it's really more the case that I needed to get it out of my system than it is something I anticipate will take over the free time I ought to be putting aside for these Steam games and their subsequent write-ups. Just one little binge to vent my SpaceWhipper addiction for a while. (A sensible person might've lined up some Indie SpaceWhippers in case something like this happened, but I appear to be fresh out of the things. Maybe I should grab that recent Strider reboot while it's still on sale...?)

Magrunner: Dark Pulse

So I neglected to play much of today's game, which is a shame because this is one I fully intend to play to its finale. A first-person physics puzzle game of the like I'm sure we've all seen before, Magrunner: Dark Pulse got a lot of buzz near release due to the way it goes off the rails at a certain point and becomes fully Lovecraftian weirdness. I'm getting hints of that already where I'm at, though truth be told I'm barely any further than where the QL finished.

Magrunner is the tale of a young engineering prodigy named Dax who manages to qualify for an exclusive Gattaca-style project in a private corporation's space program. In order to win such a coveted position he must complete a gauntlet of challenge rooms centered around the corporation's new technology that will allow for affordable space travel and colonization: magnet technology, or magtech. Using two magnetic fields, the player can imbue certain objects with a magnetic charge, allowing them to attract and repel each other. There's been numerous applications for this concept so far, from moving platforms to springboxes to sending cubes flying through glass walls, and it appears the first act of the game (in which Dax is earning his stripes) is intended to teach the basics to me before the game begins in earnest. Not unlike the part in Portal where Chell goes off the grid, in fact.

Now, I'm no physics major, but the fact that magnets with the same charge (depicted as either red or green, though this can be changed) are attracted to each other while those of different charges repel one another seems kind of ass-backwards. Maybe the game thought it was making it clearer by putting it that way around, but I wonder if they underestimated their player base just a tad by assuming they would not be able to get their heads around the idea of "opposites attract". They could always pipe in that Paula Abdul song if people are having too much trouble.

So, funny story, I thought I didn't have The Swapper for Steam and thus had to rely on Giant Bomb's image gallery. Actually, I did own The Swapper on Steam, but not Magrunner. I guess I confused the two? So back to defaults we go for the time being. (I'll take some Bandicam shots tomorrow, I swear.)

Despite dealing with that counter-intuitive magnet weirdness, which occasionally feels like playing the game with inverted controls turned on, it's been quite fun so far. My usual bugbear with action-puzzle games - a lack of precision and order with its moving parts - isn't quite as bad here as I was anticipating. While magnetically charged boxes tend to have a mind of their own, there's a certain method behind the randomized madness. Currently, building a chain of on-off-on-off magnetized boxes has been the hardest to manage, but I suspect I'll get a feel for it eventually. It helps that the game has a button that allows you to see the radial area of effect for the various magnetized items in the vicinity, giving you an idea where an item's magnetic influence terminates. It's a little messy from a visual standpoint to have all those opaque colored spheres everywhere, but it's another case where you'll get a feel for what's going on soon enough. I always like a puzzle game with a strong intuitive element to it; ones where you might fiddle with trial and error for a while until you get a sense for when something's "just right". It's a staple of all those Artillery games like Scorched Earth and Worms, for one thing.

Anyway, definitely sticking with this one for a while, and I'm fortunate that it actually runs fine on my less-than-stellar PC (unlike NaissanceE), mitigating any worries I might have about trying to do precision first-person jumping with a host of hitching and framerate issues around to put me off my timing. Maybe I'll do a double catch-up episode tomorrow for Magrunner and Dokuro, get a little closer to a conclusion for both of those.

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Mento's May Mastery: Day 20: Dokuro

It's the twentieth of these! I'm starting to suspect I won't be able to get through the list I've prepared, though all the same I'm happy with the progress I've made so far. I have plans for the final week - they involve starting games that'll take longer than the three days to beat, with the idea being that I can continue to plug away at them after May is over - so really there's just a handful of days left for odd little games like the one I'm covering today.

I'll come clean before we begin, however, by saying I have a vested interest in this particular Indie game because it was developed by a Japanese developer that once created a lot of JRPGs of which I'm very fond. The game I'm about to cover was their attempt (and that of their publishers, the obscenely rich publishers of the Puzzle & Dragons franchise GungHo Online Entertainment) to "test the waters" of the modern PC market, I suspect, and are preparing at this moment to release more of their back library on Steam. Of course, the JRPG is oddly well represented on Steam already, with many Nihon Falcom games like Ys and Trails in the Sky (explicable, since they've been computer game developers since the MSX and PC-8801), Square-Enix's various Final Fantasy PC ports, Sega's Valkyria Chronicles (where's Skies of Arcadia, dang it Sega) and those weird and vaguely porny Agarest: Generations of War/Hyperdimension Neptunia games. Even so, couldn't hurt to throw a bunch more classics from the PS1/PS2 era on there.

The company in question is Game Arts, and the games they're best known for are the Lunar and Grandia series. I'd love nothing more to see those two represented on Steam, especially Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete and Grandia II. The latter, it appears, is now an inevitability, so I figured I'd celebrate by looking at the charming little Indie puzzle-platformer they put up at the end of last year, converted from a 2013 Vita release.

Dokuro

Dokuro ("Skull") is a fairy tale-like game about a lowly henchman of a Dark Lord. His master kidnaps a beautiful princess one day, and since the henchman is treated like dirt and goes unnoticed by everyone, he decides to help the princess escape. The princess is a tad on the oblivious side, so she also tends to ignore the henchman as well as the castle's many, many traps. It's up to the hen- (you know, I'm just going to call him Dokuro. It fits) It's up to Dokuro to get her safely through his master's castle, stopping the other minions and henchmen along the way.

The point where this game gets cute is when Dokuro drinks a tonic that unleashes his heroic alter-ego, who appears to be a handsome if still partially skeletal prince who fights with a rapier and is generally more dashing and heroic than his little henchman form. Not only does the princess seem to acknowledge his presence in this form, but she can be carried past dangers and obstacles for as long as Dokuro can maintain the transformation. Both the prince and the henchman form have their uses - the henchman can fit through smaller gaps and has a double jump; the prince can permanently eliminate enemies, carry the princess and survive small pools of water - and the player needs to switch between them fairly regularly. In addition, the game introduces a magic piece of chalk that is needed for a handful of puzzles, though it seems to mostly take a backseat to the transformations. Dokuro's storybook aesthetic is already heavy on the chalk drawings, so it stands to reason that more chalk can summon whatever is drawn into being.

Dokuro definitely doesn't look the hero type. If I had to describe his mannerisms in a word, it'd be "furtive".

I've gotten through the first three worlds (actually different parts of the Dark Lord's castle) as of this blog. They're fairly short, ten stages apiece, but it looks the game has around 15 worlds in total which makes for 150 stages. It's not a bad number. I'm enjoying what I've played so far, though it can be a little finicky with the precision aspects and the princess is as dumb as a box of hammers. She is, at least, predictable with her behavior, which is all you can ask for in an AI companion with "helper" puzzle games like this or something like Mario & Wario or, uh, Rocko's Modern Life: Spunky's Dangerous Day (sorry, I'm still working on a bunch of weird SNES wiki pages).

What's truly disconcerting is how the game is getting panned on Steam because of technical reasons. Not even bugs, as far as I can tell, but a lack of graphics/screen options and control remapping and joystick support and the sort of things only PC gamers care about. It's the sad state of the industry we're in right now where UI and technology trumps artistic merit and imagination when critiquing a game. (The controls really are a bit iffy though, to be fair, with A and D for lateral movement, the comma and period buttons for jump/act and the mouse for using chalk. It's impossible to have enough fingers to be prepared for it all simultaneously.)

"Fuck pretty flowers, where's my 1080p/60fps?! I can't 360-no-scope under these conditions! I quit!"

I could extend this Dokuro coverage to tomorrow, but I'm thinking I should move onto something else and keep playing Dokuro on the sly, like Life of Pixel and a handful of others so far. I'll keep you posted on developments, but it seems like a straightforward puzzle-platformer. Probably nothing too surprising ahead.

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Mento's May Mastery: Day 19: Claire

OK, I have a few things to get off my chest today for this intro dealie. Don't mistake this as me suddenly getting my ass into gear and preparing ahead of time; that's only for the game appraisals. These intros are very much off the cuff, but occasionally something interesting will happen (by a certain limited definition of the word) and I'll have something to write about.

The first is that there are apparently spambots out there who are copying my title/text before tossing in the requisite links to colorjet printers that can get make you erect for six hours, presumably because I've been successfully spamming the forums for weeks now and they're all getting ideas. If you start reading one of these May Mastery blogs and I suddenly sound a lot more erudite and insightful than usual, maybe hit that flag button just in case. No, don't hit it now. I'm still me. I think? (Man, that The Swapper playthrough really did a number on me.)

The second is that I watched Mad Max: Fury Road today, and am happy to join the thousands of other internet voices in your cyber-ear in highly recommending it. It feels like a proper old-school action movie, the sort of romp you could only expect from the director of Happy Feet 2 Babe: Pig in the City The Road Warrior. It is pretty much that movie in a lot of structural ways, and I think it's been so long since the last one that no-one's able to recall just how weird and uncomfortable those movies are/were. We're used to seeing it through a filter of the massive amount of pop culture it inspired since the previous movie, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, was released 30 years ago. Heck, we just saw a massively popular fighter game release last month with a Master Blaster ersatz. Mad Max has always been about the sheer depravity of a completely lawless society, and the handful of people still yearning for sanity in a world where it's become as precious and rare a commodity as water and gasoline. Anyway, movie's great, you should go see it. And don't worry about those MRA goons, they clearly don't recall Tina Turner's ruthless but even-handed Aunty Entity, or Virginia Hey kicking ass in that white armor get-up. Max has always shared the limelight with tough-as-nails female characters who always seem to want to kill him the first time they encounter him.

(Also, I'm looking forward to that Mad Max game from the Just Cause creators even more now. Feels like I'm ready to jump back into that out-there outback.)

Claire

Talking of hardy female characters, Claire is a 2D side-scrolling Indie horror game that wears its Silent Hill inspiration on its sleeve. In that respect, it's very similar to the equally disquieting and perplexing Lone Survivor by Jasper Byrne. Claire might go even further with the Silent Hill parallels, including maps that edit themselves to account for blockades and locked doors, transitions that suddenly turn banal environments into creepy and potentially dangerous ones, and a stock of healing items that seems to deplete as quickly as it grows while exploring.

The game deigns to take the pacifistic (or helpless, depending on your view) hero approach where the enemies are unkillable and will pursue you, at least for a little while. There's places to hide, but you're better off making a run for it through several doors and try to move on from where you ended up. There also feels like there's a few side objectives, often finding NPCs and helping them with their problems, but for the most part you're simply exploring as many rooms as possible for supplies and to follow a string of objective markers to move the story along. Exploring also means you're greatly increasing the chances of finding a random white noise enemy too, but thems the breaks. (Fortunately, you can run right past them without getting hurt if your reflexes are quick enough.)

Don't worry, this is normal. Well, to a certain extent at least.

Claire also integrates some kind of sanity meter, but I've yet to discover what affects it. There's barely any items that reduce panic, and occasionally the screen gets all weird if you see too many jump scares in close proximity, but there's also times where I've gone into my inventory and seen it be perfectly calm. Either it recovers slowly in "safe" areas, or I'm triggering events that help restore Claire's calmness between the scary moments.

I should probably say what this game's about, huh? Well, I'm not actually sure, to be honest. The eponymous heroine begins in a flashback as her home is ravaged by some unseen force of darkness, leading to her waking up in her mother's hospital room. One quick trip downstairs for coffee later and everything goes nuts, the walls start to bleed and Claire wakes up strapped to a hospital bed with an enormous visceral abomination peering at her from the ceiling. Her faithful pup Anubis scares off the encroaching shadows, frees her and they're off exploring. Anubis doesn't offer a whole lot more than that, besides companionship, but he will start growling if enemies are nearby.

I think I'd be "dot dot dot" too if I suddenly woke up underneath Red Falcon.

For what I've seen of it so far Claire feels very much like an amalgam of elements from various big-name horror games, the sort that Konami and Capcom no longer feel the need to produce because earning money sucks or something. Many Indie games are taking the first-person route, closely following the example made by Frictional Games's Amnesia series, though it seems just as many are borrowing elements from the style of horror survival that has sadly fallen out of favor with the bigger developers. In particular, Claire shares elements of Clock Tower (female protagonist, pursuing invinicible enemies), Silent Hill (the aforementioned similarities), Alan Wake (a limited, battery-driven light source that seems to have some mild offensive power) and others I might recognize if I was a little fonder of the genre.

Unfortunately, I'm not a big fan of the "unkillable enemies" variant of survival horror. I understand the choice, of course, that in order to set the monsters up as terrifying they need to be utterly unstoppable. That's been a staple of horror media forever. It's just that, sometimes I want to be left alone to explore, to read notes and be fully engrossed with the bizarre horror world the developers have created. If I'm suddenly chased through a dozen doors and end up missing a bunch of locations to check out, it irks me. It's why I was thankful that Silent Hill (almost) always gave you the option to take down enemies if you were determined enough. It's also why I consider Fatal Frame to be so successful at what it does: almost every enemy in every game is vulnerable to the Camera Obscura, but the game's mechanics are predicated on unnerving the player as much as possible while fighting them. They can be exorcised, but you have to stick that first-person perspective camera lens right up in their eerie dead faces as they lunge at you in order to do it.

I love this sort of map system, and I don't understand why more horror games don't use it.

I'll say that dropping this game is largely due to personal preference than anything specifically wrong with the game itself. It plays well (or really, as well as a simple 2D side-scrolling horror adventure game can expect to, given you spend most of the time walking around and looking at things), it's not nearly as obtuse as Lone Survivor (for better or worse, I guess), it's fair with its items and telling you where to go (or, at the very least, where you've already been) and does get in a few good scares here and there. If you're into the sort of horror game where you'll wander into an enemy and have to book it and hide, it might be the 2D Indie horror game for you. As for me, I'm going to keep on moving through this pile.

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Mento's May Mastery: Day 18: The Swapper

I was going to start "ripping from the headlines" more often to fill these intro spots, as I appear to have made them a permanent feature of this season of May Madness (I won't be making that mistake again), but the most significant game industry thing I've heard today is that people are upset at the idea that there's an industry "fashion code". Plaid shirts, jeans, sneakers. Anyone else is made to feel like an outsider, apparently. I'm almost positive that this has more to do with the fact that industry people neither have the inclination nor time to care about what they're wearing, and simply settle on the above as an inoffensive, quick to put on and cheap to replace ensemble.

However, the notion that someone who might care a little more about dressing up for big industry events could feel like the one smart-casual person at a fancy dress party who clearly didn't read the invitation is curious (in a "I never thought of it that way before" sense), understandable and something to be empathized with. Twitter being Twitter, it seems to be either fully in agreement or fully in disagreement with these sentiments without appreciating the other party's viewpoint and meeting in the middle, but then that's nothing new.

I really should talk more about something actually video game-related before I turn this series into Kotaku Lite. I dropped NaissanceE for the time being, that's something. Might return to that either when I have a spare moment (not now - it's the start of the week, which means podcasts, which means wiki time) or way into the future when I have a better system that can run it without hitching all the time. I bothered to create a category in my Steam folder for that very purpose; it can join such rarefied company as the Arkham games that keep getting sold in bundles (that I've already played on consoles), that Thief reboot, FEAR 3 and a whole bunch of other stuff I'm sure I'll have forgotten all about in however many years it'll be before I can afford another PC. I should just rebrand that category "Limbo" and stop lying to myself.

The Swapper

It wasn't intentional to immediately follow one with the other (I actually took a list of backlog games I wanted to play and randomized it before starting the series) but Facepalm Games's The Swapper shares a lot in common with NaissanceE - moody atmosphere, excellent lighting effects, barren surroundings that suggest a past catastrophe, a female protagonist whose gender isn't emphasized and is fairly immaterial in narrative terms - but then adds a whole lot more. It's easier now to see where my apathy with NaissanceE was coming from, because the aspects I felt were missing, like an ongoing narrative, a series of well-written notes and journals that gets into some heady material and a framework of puzzle mechanics, are all elements that greatly improved my enjoyment of The Swapper.

Arriving on an abandoned spaceship after a brief visit to the nearby planet it was mining/excavating, the player is thrust into a mystery involving a bunch of telepathic rock aliens and a gun that allows the player to create clones and swap places with them. To say anything more might be spoiling the experience, as the entire narrative flow is predicated on the slow burn as the player starts to appreciate who they're controlling, what went wrong on the ship, who is in this other spacesuit wandering around and how they might find a way off the ship and back to civilization. Though the game is dark and foreboding, the game rarely goes the horror route, instead preferring to build on the suspense and mystery. In that regard, it feels a little bit more Metroid than Dead Space. Of course, the only thing you're shooting (and shooting at) are clones of yourself.

For all its perspicacious ratiocination about the nature of consciousness and identity, neither it nor the company that made it have particularly intelligent names. (I know, I know, I'm named after a candy.)

The game presents its puzzles by creating barriers which need a certain orb collectible to power them, and then presents a surplus number of these orbs in the vicinity each with its own puzzle to solve, the idea being that if you find one particular puzzle too difficult you can (temporarily) skip it. The game continues to add inexplicable wrinkles like colored lights (red light stops the beam that takes over clones, but allows you to create them in that space; blue is the opposite; magenta prevents both) and anti-gravity platforms, but they're worked into the puzzles so gradually that the player shouldn't ever feel overwhelmed. In fact, the first big puzzle epiphany doesn't even involve the puzzle rooms: there's a certain technique possible with the swapper gun that the game never deigns to tell you about. It's simply left to the player to figure it out if they hope to proceed. Oddly enough, this technique then takes a backseat for the next 60% of the game. I want to say that the developers did this intentionally; to create that wonderful breakthrough feeling you get in puzzle and adventure games in a scenario outside of the designated puzzle rooms where it can be felt more keenly. It's one thing to solve a specific room's puzzle and grab the shiny at the end, but another to completely change the way you get around the map. Almost like figuring out there's a double-jump.

The Swapper more or less continues on like this, providing consoles that move doors out of the way or turn on vital systems, but needs a specific number of orbs to do so. It's a contrivance, as is the number of rooms on the spaceship that seem to be purposely built solely to make an object harder to reach without owning a magic clone gun that presumably didn't exist before they built the ship in the first place. Don't worry about it. Instead, soak in the atmosphere, marvel at the stop-motion look of the visual design, take in the weirdness of those talking rocks and try not to think too hard about creating and killing hundreds of your own clones and whether or not they can feel pain. I mean, until the game asks you to ponder it.

I like the "Neverhood" vibe with some of these environments. (I neglected to take any screenshots myself, because I don't actually own the Steam version. Whoops! I wonder if GOG Galaxy will have a screenshot key...?)

Oh yeah, important note: I beat The Swapper in a single day, and for all my high-falutin' word wizardry I'm not actually all that bright, so caveat emptor on that if you wanted a game like this to keep you busy for a while. It can be challenging enough later on, but it's not the most difficult 2D puzzle-platformer on the Indie market. Lends to its appeal, I suppose, since it means you can expect to finish its story without too much trouble and/or looking up video walkthroughs.

Man, I'm starting to appreciate why it was hard for Patrick to talk about this game. Everything about it - from figuring out what's going on with the story to discovering new uses for the swapper - will ultimately detract from the reader/viewer's own experience. I'm glad that I skipped most of the hubbub about this game and could appreciate it fully, and I'd also highly recommend anyone who hasn't played it to do so. And to think, I was mocking it at the time for being a less whimsical The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom copycat.

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