I quite like Dreaming Sarah. I suppose I should append "so far" to that, because the game appears to be an Early Access game of the "in-progress variety": rather than everything being buggy and broken with the merest hints of what a finished competent product might be, the game is fairly structurally sound; it just doesn't seem to end right now. Or maybe it does, but I have no way of knowing for sure without looking up the ending (or a lack thereof) without spoiling the game's puzzles. My fault for loading up yet another one of these Early Access types for this feature. I'll stick this in the vault too, I guess. (Though it does strike me as odd that, even though it's Early Access, it has achievements and Steam trading cards enabled. I suppose these days those things are just good promotion and worth interrupting one's dev cycle to implement. As is the decision to give away the game's soundtrack to early adopters. This is how you do Early Access right, folks.)
The game is a trippy 2D pixel platformer that does a few of the usual platforming things (there's a scenario where you have to outrun a lava flow, and one where you have to float down a hole where the walls are lined with spikes), but it's far more skewed towards "adventure game" than "platformer". You run and jump around, investigating new areas, solving the occasional environmental puzzle and obtaining new items. These items can be one of two things: simple inventory items that you need to hand off to the right NPC to make progress, or an item that you can toggle that affects the world in some way. For instance, a pair of spectacles that allow you to see hidden doors, or an umbrella that allows you to float like Princess Peach. Obtaining these items and using them in the right situations gets you further along, and the game eventually starts tipping its hand as to who Sarah is and why she's in some bizarro dreamworld. (Hint: she's dreaming.)
I've read that this game is inspired by a far more unsettling doujin game named Yume Nikki, which has a similar theme of a young girl trapped in a literal nightmare, and I'd be happy to see what Dreaming Sarah is like with a bit more polish and, well, an actual conclusion. Like another recent game with similar gameplay and a similarly pixelly visual style, last year's Finding Teddy, it's a relaxed and breezy adventure game that's more concerned with setting an atmosphere than thrills. A fine tonic for the brash and loud zombie nonsense that Steam's become known for. I'll be keeping an eye on this one for when it hits v1.0.
Laika, the unfortunate stray dog that the Russians launched into space with no intention of bringing back (this Achewood strip captures the fucked-up-ness of that particular historical moment of scientific progress), did not die in this alternate timeline version of Earth but descended back to terra firma considerably more intelligent and with a powerful robotic body that is able to equip numerous weapons as well as project a kinetic shield that protects Laika from both enemy gunfire and environmental hazards. The Soviet Union has, in the time since Laika's launch, blown up major parts of the world and conquered the rest, but now has to deal with the fallout (literally, in some cases) of the various environmentally unsound weapon programs that ascended them to dominance. The game does a fine job looking into how the Cold War hypothetically might have proceeded had the Soviets narrowly won by desperate means, dabbling into all sorts of unethical science and explicating the unfortunate living conditions of those few who survived the war. Laika joins a scrappy bunch of rebels of various nationalities early on, and then chooses to help them achieve their goals in defying the Soviets.
My immediate thought when seeing The Sun at Night was that it was somehow connected to A Valley Without Wind: both share a distinctive yet somehow simultaneously dull visual style, like someone built entire level design out of default sprite templates for crates and furniture that came with Unity. The combat's similar too, as is how both games found an unusual means to visualize maps. They both even have what sounds like a Zen koan for a title. Turns out that the two games have absolutely nothing to connect them, however.
(A Valley Without Wind, to digress a moment, seemed like such a great idea on paper: a procedurally generated SpaceWhipper with useful items scattered across randomized zones filled with monsters and other dangers. The player could go exploring in any direction, finding all sorts of necessities out in the dangerous world to bring back to a home base which would continue to expand. I suppose I was hoping for something more like Animal Crossing with randomized dungeons. But hey, I've always got Dark Cloud for that sort of thing, kinda.)
So far the game's been kind of middling. The various characters (both ally and enemy) whizz around so much that it's hard to keep your weapons trained on them, and combat is generally just leading the enemy and watching their health bar quickly drain down, multiplied by infinity. There is some exploration, but besides some notes and other lore (which, to be fair, is quite well-written and does a good job thoroughly expanding on this alt-history setting) and the occasional upgrade gizmo, there's usually not a whole lot to find. The game has a handy feature where you can reduce useless items, like ammo for a gun you don't yet have, into a base resource which can then be processed into any other consumable. Likewise, finding consumables when you don't have room for them means you can simply break surplus items down for resources and never have to deal with that irritating feeling of passing on items you've maxed out on but might find yourself needing some time later. While convenient, it does mean that you never have to go out of your way for hard-to-find consumables, leaving those upgrade points (and the occasional new weapon) as the only viable reason to ever wander off the beaten path.
The Sun at Night has some neat ideas, then, but the execution's a little lacking. Backtracking through all these large and mostly empty areas for stuff to find is a little dull, the combat's both too frenetic and too repetitive and it just doesn't look or sound all that great. Like Magicians & Looters, it has plenty of great notions for a SpaceWhipper (though I guess Laika is closer to a SpaceWhippet?) that I admire and would like to see more often, like a waypoint system on the map screen that tells you the optimal path to take by highlighting which rooms you want to pass through, and a busy upgrade tree that lets you prioritize upgrades of a utilitarian, defensive or offensive nature. The core just isn't quite there though. I might stick with it to see where its unusual story is leading, but I suspect I'll be drained of any enthusiasm by its dull gameplay long before then.
Yeah, I'm not sure about Albedo just yet. I should've checked before playing it, but it's currently in Early Access, so this will be a short one. What it appears to be is a first-person shooter/adventure game with physics puzzles and a rather intense blurry filter over everything. It's going for a certain retro zeerust 50s/60s sci-fi B-movie feel, as evinced by the marquee title screen, but I'm not sure that whatever filter they're using to make it seem all VHS-quality is necessarily working. Honestly, it just makes me feel queasy and disoriented, and that's from someone who's played swishy and swooshy first-person games for years without issue.
The first room of the game sets up some elaborate puzzle that presumably sets the bar for the many adventures to come. I believe the game eventually becomes a shooter as well, but I can sense that it wants to impart a certain necessity for resourcefulness onto the player in lieu of striding into every enemy encounter guns-akimbo. Perhaps a bit more your Alien: Isolation than Doom, I'm surmising. Anyway, this puzzle requires that you find a temporal widget that reveals what each room should look like post-puzzle as a form of hint--as in, giving you an idea of what you ought to be working towards--which in this case is the corpse of a big alien bug monster in the middle of the room. From using objects in the vicinity (clicking the mouse wheel helpfully highlights all interactable objects with a green sheen), you're meant to smash a nearby vending machine with a brick, find a rat in a packet of snacks taken from the machine (what?), trap the rat with a rat trap close to the machine, tie the vending machine to a rope and then let the alien that then breaks down the door to get to the rat chase after it, while you drop the vending machine on top of it. Voila, big dead bug alien monster in the middle of the room; the future refused to change.
Even so, the nausea-causing swimmy visuals and arbitrary obtuseness so far means it's a little too rough for me right now. Maybe once it's passed through the Early Access process, I'll give it another gander.
Source: Remute's Rewind Your Mind bundle (Groupees)
Level 22 is a little more straightforward than the obfuscated (in more ways than one) Albedo, as it's a charming little top-down stealth game with some neat pixel visual design that recalls that Tested "Blockhead" T-shirt or the isometric pixel art of eBoy. Like with Braveland a few days ago, there's a distinct feeling that I'm playing an up-rezzed iOS/Android game, in part due to the graphics (the stretching of pixels to fit a resolution worthy of a monitor can be very noticeable, and I say this as someone who frequently uploads enlarged 8-bit and 16-bit images as header images for our wiki) and the fact it was over in a few hours. Honestly, though? I didn't mind its length at all. It knew precisely when to end before wearing out its welcome.
The threadbare plot of the game is to get Gary, who is once again late for work and is one misdemeanor away from losing his job, to his office on the 22nd floor of a corporate skyscraper. Each floor is filled with co-workers, all of which are quick to rat Gary out to the boss despite presumably not knowing who he is or where he's working, as well as numerous other unusual obstacles like conveyor belts and androids. It's one of those games where you tell your protagonist where to go with cursor placements, rather than controlling them directly. You can also command Gary to pick up items or hide in lockers and the like. The goal of every stage is to simply reach the stairs up.
The game gets a little more complex than that, of course. There's collectibles to find, a secret safety deposit lockbox on each floor that requires a six digit code gleaned from background details scattered around the stage you're on (though some are frighteningly abstruse, and can require the use of the Periodic Table or knowing the Ancient Greek alphabet), to give you something other to do than to make a beeline for the stairs. it also has a goofy sense of humor, though one seems a little too eager to break the fourth-wall early and often. The previously-fired best friend character, who gives Gary most of his worst ideas via his phone, kind of reminds me of Stu from The Life & Times of Tim, which also kinda fits the "office drone in peril" theme here. Man, I miss that show.
Level 22 has its problems, though not many. It gets particularly brutal later on, the pathfinding can often take you on odd and disastrous routes as it maneuvers around angular level geometry, and the safety deposit clues can require a little too much lateral thinking at times. All the same, the stealth is very fair, and you're given a few seconds to escape the gaze of a co-worker if you're just far enough away. If you're right on top of them when they turn around, however, that's pretty much an instant game over. It also checkpoints frequently enough though, generally whenever you've made progress (acquired an item needed to move on, let's say) and are in a safe spot. Its rules are simple to grasp and it never puts you in a position where you need lightning fast reflexes, though a few boss fights can be touch and go. Literally, if you're playing on a mobile device with a touchscreen.
It's hardly GOTY material, but it's an enjoyable breezy game that seems to be the norm for Steam Indies, and those that were originally iOS games in particular. Maybe buy it for a buck on your handheld communication device of choice and give it a whirl.
It's another iOS adaptation for PC, but a special one. Not only is Year Walk one of a handful of iOS games that Giant Bomb has ever Quick Looked that wasn't some crappy freemium thing, but one of the few games I was actually looking forward to playing when it wasn't exclusive to a $500 paperweight. Year Walk is, and this ties in nicely with another recent release by the name of Never Alone, a game based on actual pagan mythology of a northern peoples that Christianity, in its wisdom, all but scrubbed away and replaced with something they liked better. But whatever, if not that, then something else, right? Fortunately, it's common enough to find preserved specimens in the snow and tundra of rural Scandinavia, and so too has much of their folklore been dug up in a similar fashion. The Year Walk is based on one of these ancient traditions: a ritual fasting period followed by taking a walk into the deeper parts of the forest in a semi-delusional state to learn things beyond mortal ken.
As a game, it's fairly rudimentary adventure game puzzle stuff, but does have a bit of a "how far does the rabbit hole go" feel a la something like Fez. You're never sure if the solution you've found is the complete picture, as there's multiple unexplained elements and iconography scattered around the sometimes confusing map that either means something or it doesn't. It's a neat compromise that Fez pulled off as well, in that you can reach a conclusion and still feel like you haven't found everything. And I don't just mean something as immaterial as collectibles, which this game does not have.
Tonally and artistically the game is very grim and stark and, as Brad himself said in the Quick Look, doesn't shy away from the often brutal twists and endings that came with traditional folklore and fairy stories before they got Disneyfied. The nature of the creatures in the game is left purposefully ambiguous as well, as each one seems neither particularly evil or good but simply an impartial force of nature like the snow under your feet. It's certainly not a long game--I beat it in an hour with zero hints--but worth the few dollars they're asking for it. It's culturally informative, eerily spooky and utterly unique.
But man, if I can just afford a little bit of grousing here, this is the second day in a row where I've been temporarily stymied by a puzzle requiring musical aptitude. Indie musicians should not be designing games, consarnit. Let them sing about how much it sucks that Starbucks keeps getting their order wrong and away from a game engine. Rabble, rabble, rabble.
(Yes, I realize this game came out in 2013, but only for mobile platforms so it doesn't count. So myeh. Man, I'm crabby today.)
Braveland turned out to be fairly short in the end (though it does end with an ominous "End of Book One" line after the epilogue), but I still enjoyed my brief time with it. I won't go into my antipathy with the Mad Stackz system again, but the game manages to do a lot with a little, which is high praise for an iOS/Android game where resources are generally thin on the ground and a compact but satisfying product is ideal. More ideal still if you don't jam in microtransactions somewhere, which Braveland avoids doing despite ample opportunities for it. (At least, there aren't any with this Steam port.)
As discussed last time, Braveland's a strategy game where the player is an oddly well-built peasant who's tired of all these bandit attacks consarnit, so raises an army of other farmers and scouts before eventually recruiting healers, crossbowmen and knights to their forces. Though there's a scant seven unit types, and only about twice as many enemy units, there's enough strategizing in the form of who to take with you, which units to bolster with new recruits and whether or not to spend that money instead on new equipment which adds passive buffs to the whole army. You can also (and are advised to) make detours to obelisks which boost stats permanently, statues that widen the player's spellbook repertoire which can be activated after enough damage has been received, and new vendors and recruitment locales. I leaned pretty heavily on the HoMM comparison last time, and while you aren't building up some stronghold somewhere, you do go out of your way a lot for nodes and treasures lying just off the beaten path, perhaps with a particularly tough encounter guarding them.
I actually started to appreciate the level of strategy in the fights too. For instance, I learned very late on that if you leave an enemy stack alive with such a small number that they cannot possibly do much harm to your units, they will still add to the "fury" gauge whenever they ineffectually bat at your armored front-line. This fury gauge is what allows the player to activate the aforementioned spells earned from statues: they range from a relatively strong fire arrow attack on a single unit, to a buff that greatly increases the movement range of a unit (great for cumbersome knights), to a buff that boosts the entire army's morale to a massive firestorm spell that hits up to three enemy units. Finding a way to build up this gauge quickly is a handy way to turn a battle in your favor. Likewise, a judicious use of the "wait" function, used after moving your units almost as far as they can go (moving that last space ends their turn without an attack round), can let you wait for enemy units to come into range so you can whup them on the same turn. Archers can aim for enemy ranged units, but they might also be better used whittling down the front-line so your fighters can quickly get past them and take care of any ranged units themselves: archers are considerably less effective when a melee unit is standing right next to them.
Anyway, there's a lot more to Braveland than meets the eye, though it's worth keeping in mind that it's still nothing as complex as a Heroes of Might and Magic or some other big PC strategy game. Don't expect too much and you'll probably be content with what it has to offer.
Always Sometimes Monsters is interesting. There's footage of Brad playing it on UPF, so that takes away some of the heavy lifting when attempting to explain what this game is, but I suppose the closest descriptor I can think of would be "life simulator". Say, your Cart Life or Papers, Please or social games like The Sims. It looks like a 16-bit RPG, as every other Indie game invariably does, but there's no monster encounters (despite what the title suggests), resources are slim, priorities are of paramount importance and there's a certain sense of desperation and compromise. It's not quite as oppressively grim as the aforementioned duo, but it's certainly not a walk in the park either. The protagonist, who you choose at the start of the game (as well as his/her partner, who can be of either gender as well), is a struggling writer who is given a publishing opportunity during the prologue. However, when the game skips ahead a year, it appears the protagonist has not only squandered this opportunity but has split with their partner as well, both instances happening some brief amount of time after the intro that the game eventually expounds on via flashbacks. The game begins with your near-destitute writer hero(ine) eking out a living in the unfortunately named metropolis of Dubstown, which is where the resource management and hard decisions come into play.
I've only completed a day so far. It borrows a little from the dating sim genre (or, let's say, the non-dungeon parts of Persona 4) in that the player has a certain number of day "segments", during which they need to find ways to raise money for rent, buy food to keep their stamina up and decide how best to spend their time. There doesn't seem to be any other stats to worry about besides stamina, which appears to double as both a tiredness and hunger meter, so you aren't micromanaging your character's happiness and well-being every step of the way a la The Sims.
So far, I've had to set up a band's instruments at the local nightclub (I got docked for switching the guitar and bass placements around, because fuck me if I can't tell two 50x50 pixel guitars apart) and helped at the cloakroom desk, both of which were mini-games of sorts. I suspect other employment scenarios in the game will involve similar mini-games as well. On the whole though, it's not a game that seems too interested in beating you down with a miserable, "can't win" narrative. More that it wants to tell you an unusual story with highs and lows, and has added these gameplay elements to maintain a kernel of interactivity. I might stick with it for now, though I did just get a new influx of games to try so perhaps "now" might be "later in the month if I run out of stuff".
Ah, good old ESJ. Though Electronic Super Joy released last year, the psychedelic masocore platformer from Michael Todd Games received a standalone add-on in 2014 that feels sort of like a Blood Dragon or a Peggle Nights: A comparatively bite-size morsel that riffs on its source material, but has its own original story and new ideas that might just make it to a fully-fledged sequel some day. Groove City isn't particularly big (it's the size of a regular chapter from ESJ), but it's more ESJ if you're missing the silly orgasmic checkpoints and the even sillier plots about robot strippers and buttless heroes.
It'd be easier to point to an earlier thing I wrote about the original game and then talk about what's new with this add-on. The game has new music, the original's thumping club mixes being one of the draws for Electronic Super Joy (well, if you're into that sort of thing), and the game also adds in collectibles in the shape of white stars. Collectibles do nothing but add towards the player's score, naturally enough, and it does the risk/reward thing by adding black stars which are worth considerably more but create homing missiles that plague you until you complete the stage (or die). There are rainbow stars too, which replace the well-hidden trinkets from the original that occasionally require you check for false walls and leaps of faith. Usual stuff.
The game's also considerably easier than the final chapters of the original ESJ, which seems like an odd choice if you're shipping a game like this for the diehards who have conquered ESJ's myriad challenges and are thirsting for more. There's a few tricky sequences, but nothing I couldn't jump my way past in less than a handful of minutes. I think I hit a record 60 deaths on one stage, which isn't actually as bad as it sounds. Death is not a hunter unbeknownst to its prey, especially in this series. There are a couple of post-game stages that are a bit more devious, but again are fairly short. You'll be done with everything the game has to offer in a couple of hours, if that.
But hey, that simply means the game works as an introduction to the original ESJ rather than a post-game expansion. Play the series backwards if you like, and I don't imagine Groove City will be heinously priced in any upcoming sales. It's an intense and goofy platformer that you'll be screaming at, but in a good way. But not in as good a way as those people announcing the checkpoints. I'll have what they're having?
Since Groove City was over with so quickly, I put a few hours into this next game as well. Tortuga Team's Braveland is your archetypal iOS port. It's not terrible, not at all in fact, but there's a certain blocky cartoonishness to anything devised for the mobile market that it's instantly recognizable. A strategy RPG, Braveland feels very much like a Heroes of Might and Magic game without all the city-sim stuff. There's a map with branching paths, and each either leads to a fight or to a means to supplement the player's army via recruiting new soldiers or buying new equipment which offers passive buffs to every unit.
I said it was Heroes of Might and Magic specifically, because this game employs what I pejoratively call the "Mad Stackz" means of visual presentation of armies. Which is to say, every unit of the same type kind of sits on each other's shoulders to create a single stack with a number to designate how many of that unit is actually there. So a farmer with a "7" means there's actually seven of that unit, not just one. In larger numbers, units do more damage, but that damage output goes down as the stack takes hits from enemies and the number of units in the stack dwindles. Beyond a certain threshold, a unit becomes useless as they simply won't have enough damage output to contribute to the battle meaningfully (and as every unit in the game will counter the first attack they receive that round, it way well be suicide to keep using them). If you aren't familiar with HoMM or the games it inspired, the Mad Stackz conceit is a little hard to wrap one's head around conceptually at first. It all adds to the strategy, albeit in an abstruse manner.
Beyond that, the game's fairly simple and straightforward, and thus precisely what you'd expect from an iOS game. It proceeds at a brisk pace, always giving you new challenges on the horizon and decisions to make regarding whether you ought to get more units or power up the units you already have, and I can tell I'll need to make a choice soon about which units I want to bring into fights as it appears I'm edging closer to a specific limit. So far I have: farmers, which are weak but stack in great numbers and are cheap to replace; archers, for ranged support; pathfinders, who are fast and deadly rogue-types; healers, whose healing magic become more potent the more of them you hire; and footmen, who are burly dudes who hit hard and take a lot of punishment. The game appears to only allow five unit types, and also limits how many high-level units you bring with you. I can definitely appreciate how layered they made this game, while also ensuring that it's easy enough to grasp and to play.
But man, do I not care for Mad Stackz. I'll keep at it for the time being, as I can't imagine there's too much more, and then move onto something else if I find it gets a little too samey. See you tomorrow, Steam chums.
As suspected, I wasn't too far away from the end of Magicians & Looters. It's perhaps a bit shorter than your average SpaceWhipper, even including its peers in the traditionally lighter Indie market, but that also means it doesn't overstay its welcome either. My opinion on it hasn't shifted: It's not particularly remarkable in any way, besides splitting the hero into three separate protagonists with their own separate strengths and weaknesses that are subsequently suited for different parts of the game. Beyond that, it's just a fairly solid SpaceWhipper with everything you could ask for. There's trinkets, hidden areas, new equipment and abilities in hard to reach places, backtracking when a new power is unlocked and some well-balanced boss fights. The player grows stronger by finding XP Orbs, rather than fighting enemies (which just awards money), and these orbs are all hidden away in each area. The game does tell you how many there are to collect, though, and also tells you which region each piece of missing equipment is. It manages to reveal enough without revealing too much, fortunately, as these items can still be tricky to find even if you've narrowed it down to a specific region of the game.
Likewise, the consequences for getting yourself killed are very fair. Whenever the player character is defeated, all their gear flies out of them like a Diablo character (and a musical sting plays that is more or less a sad trombone), though the player actually only loses a small percentage of their cash. Because gold is an infinite resource it's never the end of the world, and there's plenty of hidden caches and loot chests to ensure a thorough player isn't a little short when shopping at one of the game's many vendors. The player is also kicked back to the last save point, but their collectibles/map progress is retained. They can also warp to any region once they're a high enough level, so the end-game backtracking dash for 100% completion isn't too obnoxious either.
The presentation isn't much to write home about (though I did find the music catchy enough, excepting perhaps the final dungeon's dubstep) but the core is solid and sometimes that's all that matters in a SpaceWhipper. No trapping collectibles in areas you can't return to, no weird difficulty leaps, no overlong backtracking, no entirely incongruous tower defense RTS sequences, and really no amateur errors in general that often plague Indie additions to this genre. I can respect a well-made game, even if it doesn't offer a whole lot new to its genre's formula or has much in the way of fancy visuals or trenchant wit.
Morgopolis Studios's Magicians & Looters is essentially the archetypal Indie SpaceWhipper. The humble SpaceWhipper, so maligned by the major studios that the two namesake examples are either on ice (Metroid) or have transmogrified into a regrettable series of God of War clones (the other one), is a genre most beloved by Indie developers after tower defense, first-person multiplayer survival-crafting-whatever-the-hell-that-whole-shebang-is-called, anything zombie-related and parody simulators. Oh and Indie platformers that aren't SpaceWhippers but have something to do with gravity or momentum in some way.
All right, so SpaceWhippers are still fairly rare even among the Indie crowd. It's a good thing, then, that Magicians & Looters can join the likes of Valdis Story: Abyssal City and Dust: An Elysian Tail and Aquaria as the newest example of an Indie exploration platformer that took several years for a small studio to develop. While a bit rough around the edges and not particularly remarkable graphically-speaking, the three distinct protagonists and its dumb sense of humor are at least promising, and I've been having enough fun with it so far to keep going. I have no idea how much more of it is left to go after the point I'm at, but it's far exceeded what meager expectations I had. Honestly, I just grabbed it out my library because it was a SpaceWhipper released this year and I need to keep this feature going for another two weeks. Integrity, I have it.
I'll go into more detail tomorrow, when I'll have perhaps completed it, but for now I'll just bring up the basic plot and the three main characters. The trio are apprentices at an exclusive floating school for talented wizards, though neither of three are particularly serious about their courses. In fact, they're pretty much typical detached teenagers who begrudgingly get involved with saving the teachers at their school after it is raided by the titular Looters. Nyn is a dual-wielding warrior who uses dodge rolls and slides to boost her martial prowess; Brent is a guy with a shield, and perhaps the one who takes his wizardry studies most seriously; and Vienna is an incredibly fast monk and gymnast who seems to have the lion's share of the exploration-enabling powers endemic to this genre. She's also my favorite. The three protagonists have slightly different experience trees and abilities, and only two can equip weapons (Vienna's fists are all she needs), but the most striking difference is the abilities they find. Nyn's slide, Vienna's high-jump and Brent's wall-jump all give them exclusive access to certain areas of the map, so the player is expected to switch between them fairly regularly. Unfortunately, it means going back to a save point each time, rather than the on-the-go swapping of something like Portrait of Ruin.
Still, Magicians & Looters is a competent Indie SpaceWhipper as far they go, and I'm happy to stick with it for the time being. Its silly humor is a darn sight more palatable than that of UnEpic, the last parody fantasy game I played in this genre. Let's hope this one doesn't end in an interminable tower defense sequence too.
Phew, this one comes in right under the wire. Turns out, this game was a little bigger than I anticipated, though perhaps "bloated" is more the word. I'm afraid to say that my opinion on Tesla Effect has worsened now that I've played it all the way through to the end. It's still a great adventure game, and the scenes with FMV actors are as fun as they were from the offset, but the game suffers from a lot of weird pacing and scale problems past the first few chapters and seems to have carried over some of the excesses of the FMV generation.
Let's start with the pacing problems. Tesla Effect takes place in a few venues, one of which is Chandler Street: Tex's home and that of a bunch of colorful locals who usually have something piquant or sardonic to offer to the current mystery Tex is working on. This street, though it becomes very familiar as the game continues, is where the "asking NPCs questions" side of the game comes into focus, and for as largely empty as the street is it's fun to stroll around badgering the neighbors and collecting information. The other venues are, I suppose, what you'd call "instances" or "stages": self-contained areas of little narrative importance beyond the chapter you're currently playing (if you ever return to these places, it's usually just to talk to an NPC). There's usually one big puzzle to solve there, often involving a set of collectibles necessary to move on with the plot, and a bunch of secondary puzzles which usually lead to one of said collectibles. It's a tad formulaic, and some of the puzzles aren't quite as fun as they could be. Instead, we get the same bunch of Layton/Mensa also-rans that pop up frequently in any adventure game from the FMV generation onwards, some completely incongruous stealth and laser-dodging sequences (fortunately neither are particularly tough) and, though I hesitate to say anything about the finale, a difficult and excruciatingly precise timed puzzle to cap the game off. I sorely wish Tesla Effect could've played to its strengths more and focused on the NPC interrogations. Not with LA Noire's half-baked "human lie detector" routine, necessarily, but something akin to that perhaps. You know, detective stuff.
The scale of some of the areas, too, can be a bit of an issue at times. One of the late-game locations, a giant abandoned hi-tech facility, has about an acre of empty rooms, test chambers, reactors and an enormous atrium, but you're usually just solving one or two inventory puzzles per each of its four floors and were it not so gigantic you'd be done within fifteen minutes. As it is, the items and hotspots are so spread out that you're spending an hour simply exploring the place. Maybe it's verisimilitudinous for this facility to be big enough to house a hundred people, given that they bothered to install all these impressive fixtures and a nuclear reactor, but it's still a chore to sift through the dozens of rooms for collectible objects needed for a puzzle.
Speaking of which, I've got nothing against collectibles (quite the contrary, in fact) but the game seems to lean on item hunting a little too often. I very much recommend switching the difficulty to "casual": even if you don't intend to use the hints provided on this easier mode, the player's torch will generate a sparkling effect on any item in the environment the player can collect, even through drawers and cabinets the player can interact with. When it comes to finding tiny keys and other smaller objects lying in the dark, the feature is invaluable for saving time.
So Tesla Effect has its problems, on top of those inescapable ones that come with being an FMV game. Maybe dumb Mensa puzzles and silly action sequences were trademarks of the Tex Murphy franchise, I wouldn't know as a series novice, but they don't seem like a particularly good fit. I'd still recommend Tesla Effect though; I enjoyed its writing and acting, its near-future setting and crazy ideas, its charm and chutzpah, and... well, you simply just don't see this type of point and click adventure game around any more.
Confession time: I've never played a Tex Murphy game, at least before today. I dropped out of adventure games around the advent of FMV and needing multiple CDs per game, and even though the Tex Murphy series are generally regarded as some of the few good ones (though perhaps still stricken with the same abstruseness that briefly put the adventure game genre on ice), I've never gone back to check them out. I actually bought the whole set in a GOG sale some months back, so it's perhaps sheer bone-idleness. Anyway, the point of this pre-amble is to say that Tesla Effect seems very much a game built to appease its pre-existing fanbase, which has lead to some bemusement on my part as a Murphy neophyte.
In a sense, the statement that the game is made specifically for current Tex Murphy fans is literally true, being the result of a successful Kickstarter driven by deeply nostalgic crowd. The game itself makes numerous references to both the Kickstarter campaign that allowed it to exist (though in the usual peripheral metaphorical way, such as a set of mugshots in a burned down building) and Tex's many past adventures, as he'll occasionally find some artifact from a previous game and have it switch to a "flashback" mode that plays back that game's FMV in as high a quality as the developers can manage from the source footage. Even without the direct flashbacks, many of the game's legacy characters make a return, and there's plenty of references to their shared history with Tex.
In a sense, this is both exclusionary and cozy. The world feels lived in, its characters having been developed through multiple adventures and appear in this game fully formed. Tex Murphy's actor Chris Jones, who is also the series' long-time director and formerly of Access Games, has an easy familiarity with the role and its tonal swings from serious noir gumshoe to goofy, pratfalling adventure game hero. It sort of feels like coming to a TV show several seasons in, when you can appreciate how it now runs like a well-oiled machine but sort of wish you could go back to its awkward early days just to be there on the ground floor. Something I fully intend to do with Tex Murphy as soon as I've completed this new one.
Beyond that, I'll have more to say about the game once I've seen it to its conclusion, hopefully tomorrow. For right now, that I'm actually eager to see more of it should be proof enough that I think it's pretty great so far. Sharp and funny script, well acted (for an FMV game) by a cast of actors and mostly actors fine with being dolled up in absurd prosthetics, never too perplexing and even has a collectible side-quest. I love those!