Brut@l: Extended Thoughts

Just last Friday, I made my debut as a DToid staff member with my review of Brut@l. I found it to be rather mediocre, but at least acknowledged the game was well made. I, sadly, did not finish the game before posting the review, but I stood with conviction in my verdict.

Not one to let stones be unturned, I plugged away at reaching the finale to see if my opinion on Brut@l would change; overall, I’d say no. In a few ways, yes, but not for the better.

Brut@l_20160816140519

The biggest issue with Brut@l is that the camera is just too finicky. Since the game deals with permadeath, failing to make it across a gap results in an instant game over. It feels cheap and out of the players hands when that happens.

Another problem comes from the randomly generated dungeons. Since there aren’t any pre-determined setpiece moments, a lot of the game just blends together. If you speedrun through (skipping all the upgrades, enemies and collectibles), you could finish the game in an hour, but most people won’t be able to do that.

The combat is too simplistic to remain fun for long. The enemies start ramping up in hit points and your weapons fail to get any stronger, unless you’re lucky enough to have the game grant you a tome for a stronger weapon.

You can, eventually, unlock talismans that grant you small buffs, but even that is dependent on the randomizer. Having so many options out of your control just makes for a really frustrating experience.

Brut@l_20160816140720

I’d be more forgiving if the game had occasional boss battles, but the only such moment occurs on the final floor. When I, eventually, got there, I was a little thrilled. It was finally something different in the game.

Sadly, the joy ended almost immediately upon tackling the boss. He’s pretty easily disposed, but monotony sets in and the game falls into a groove that isn’t very much fun.

You enter a small room with the boss sitting on a perch. He summons a wave of monsters which you then need to dispose of. After that, you collect an ASCII letter (in this case, a special V) and repeat the process.

Once the two waves are down, you can lower a crossbow that then shoots off one of the three heads on the boss. He then destroys the crossbow and flies off. Now you have to repeat that process two more times.

Brut@l_20160816141828

Or stand like an idiot because your inventory is full and you can’t pick up the damn item to initiate the wave!

I’m fine with the game encouraging more exploration, but why does it take 26 floors to finally have this happen? Why weren’t there more boss battles peppered throughout the game? Having one every five floors may be a bit excessive, but every 10 wouldn’t be so bad.

For that matter, why is 26 the floor limit? Why wasn’t more care put into distinguishing the level design? I know something like The Binding of Isaac is based around randomly generated floors, but the pool that Isaac draws from to create levels is pretty varied. Brut@l’s is not.

Sometimes you can get four levels in a row that all have the same beats. A poisoned floor, bottomless pits and locked chambers that require you to destroy a wave of enemies; it’s just boring after an hour or two.

Brut@l_20160816140614

As a matter of fact, I almost feel like giving the game a five is being generous. Sure, everything works, but it’s so devoid of creativity that it almost feels insulting. Why would you spend $15 on a game that couldn’t be assed to create fully developed levels?

Again, the concept is sound. I don’t mind tinkering around with core mechanics that can change up on each playthrough, but those mechanics need to be very solid. When combat devolves into just mashing Square and jumping away, your game has failed.

I’m sure Brut@l has fans out there, but I don’t see what they do. The art style is the most realized thing in the entire package; everything else feels like half measures thrown in a big pot and set on low heat.

Still, I did actually finish the game. I won’t let something defeat me. I can’t say the same for others. That’s why I won’t change my original review score. Everything I originally said still stands.

Brut@l_20160816141951

Without abusing save game backups, most people are not going to finish Brut@l. I guess the game lives up to it’s name, but it could do with a lot more polish.

Sigy Says – Life is Strange Review

The narrative driven, choice based adventure game has been a pretty big hit ever since Telltale made The Walking Dead. Lots of other studios have taken a crack at creating uncomfortable and trying scenarios for gamers to rack their minds with. Those studios usually forget to make choices have deeper meaning or create decisions that exist within a binary function of “right” and “wrong.”

Life is Strange attempts to tackle the problems these games typically face. It doesn’t quite nail the impact of decisions (deciding to go with an all or nothing type ending), but it certainly sidesteps the issue of viewing the world in terms of black and white.

ss_lis_review_001

Life is Strange (PC [reviewed], Linux, OSX, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360)
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: Between January and October 2015
MSRP: $19.99

The main plot follows a week in the life of Max Caulfield, an 18 year old art student studying at a prestigious school in a fictional Oregonian town. She witnesses the death of a punk rock girl and, in a moment of desperation, turns back time. She doesn’t know what happened or how she did it, but manipulation of the very fabric of space and time is within her control.

The tale then follows her path to uncover the source of her powers, the reason behind the murder she originally witnessed and the problems facing Blackwell Academy. Lots of the story deals with a coming of age type narrative arc, before giving way to a murder mystery straight out of Law & Order.

The real meat and potatoes comes from all the different branching choices you’re given. Life is Strange deftly handles choices without falling back on “right” and “wrong.” Most decisions will never seem better or particularly easy. It’s all about figuring out how you would react or what causes the least amount of harm.

Max’s power of time control is also wonderfully worked into the gameplay. Once you make a choice and see the impact play out, you can immediately rewind to attempt the alternate option or just to tinker around with different outcomes. Instead of relying on the player to keep different save files or playthrough a second time, you can see basically all of the decisions first-hand.

There is one key part of the story that rips control away from Max and creates a heartbreaking encounter that can potentially end in tragedy. There are also story arcs that tackle the implications of getting a “do-over” and changing “destiny.” It’s not entirely original, but its application is very well done.

ss_lis_review_002

What’s not so great is the dialog in the earlier episodes. Until around the mid-point of Episode 2, the writing is a bit wonky. Things like, “hella amazeballs” and “for cereal” are uttered without a hint of irony. It feels like an adult was trying to remember what being a teen was and mixed up some memes online.

The acting is also stilted, at first. I’m guessing no one was exactly sure how the game was going to pan out during the development of the first episode, but it just feels like a lack of direction was going on. Some of the lines are either a bit too soft or lack any dramatic weight. This does eventually pick up and turn into genuinely great performances (save for the final episode fizzling out), but it’s not thoroughly mesmerizing.

There are also some uncanny valley moments with the presentation. While this runs on the Unreal 3 engine, the characters are stiff and the environments feel detached. There is a very touching scene in a pool, but it looks like two dead mannequins floating in nothingness. I couldn’t get around that image, either.

What I did truly love was how gameplay elements were organically woven into the story. There are a lot of puzzles sprinkled throughout Max’s adventure and it’s awesome to not feel like you’re simply a spectator. You have to use critical thinking to figure out solutions based on the powers you’ve been given.

One scene has you gather chemicals to create an IED, blow open a door and then rewind so you end up on the other side. It’s a really awesome accomplishment. It truly feels like you came up with the answer on your own.

Chapter 4 is where this really shines. You have multiple pieces of information you’ve gathered over the course of the game that you’re required to piece together. You have to take a long look at any correlation and connect the dots. Even if you fail, the game has a few work-arounds to get you back on track (excluding your rewind).

ss_lis_review_003

The final chapter drops the damn ball, however. There is a stealth section that is entirely pointless. Since you can rewind and remain in place, there is literally no reason to have characters searching for you. You cannot fail and pressing forward serves no repercussion. I understand it was a narrative device, but it utterly fails as a piece of gaming.

Honestly, the game was building up to a crescendo that Episode 5 never delivers. The definitive ending is certainly gut-wrenching, but the 2 hours leading up to it feel like a cop-out. It seems like DONTNOD had no idea how to really make your actions take affect or just wanted to impose their own will on the story. Regardless, Episode 5 does away with all of the good that the rest of the game exhibits.

There are some light puzzles, but everything is a forced, linear path and the dialog amounts to nothing more than expository exchanges with main characters. Some beats will tug at the heart strings, but most will just bore you (do I need to see that damn picture changing cutscene each time?).

That doesn’t destroy all the good that Episode 3 and 4 bring, but it does bookend the game with average scenarios. It starts slow and ends with a whimper. If you chopped out a little bit of the first episode, you could honestly combine it with the second and get the same result.

In all honesty, a lot of these games seem to crumble under marketing hype. Developers never know when to chill out with how cool their games are (or publishers pressure them into overselling their creations). Life is Strange is more about the relationship between two friends and how choices aren’t the end of the world (until they literally are).

I hate to be so harsh to a game that tackles such dark, dramatic and realistic topics like sexual abuse, stalkers, suicide and bullying, but most of the elements drag down the experience. The ridiculous twist of the real villain is also completely out of left field.

The game creates characters that feel like 3 dimensional beings and demands you look at them as more than caricatures, then the final chapter ends up labeling you a hero and the main bad-guy a psychopath. Dammit.

Still, Life is Strange is absolutely worth a playthrough. It’s not the best thing around, but it has an excellent mixture of gameplay and narrative heft to feel like a really important piece of gaming history. It will also resonate deeply with people who have suffered through similar tragedies in life.

I just wish DONTNOD nailed every aspect. This could have been a stone cold masterpiece.

6.5

All Right

Slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy this game, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.

A More “Real” VR Experience

“We hope as more people get to see VR, the experience will become more normal. People will then come into the VR experience and just see another game instead of a toy.” – Cindy Miller, Lead Designer at Culture Shock Games.

IMG_0137

I spent my past weekend at PAX East looking at a bunch of “new” games. While I wasn’t entirely impressed with most of the showcase, I did manage to find a few interesting things. One of the more intriguing displays was for an indie game called We Are Chicago.

At first, my friend and I were simply lining up to try VR. We were glancing at the monitor and joking about almost everything in the game world. This older guy and his son were joining in with us as we kept pointing out some of the inconsistencies of the VR experience.

The demo consisted of a scripted conversation about inner-city life and a scene where the player is supposed to set the table. I wanted to get into the demo and start flinging plates around. I wondered how awesome it would be to teleport into a fridge or smack someone in the face. I was hell bent on breaking the game world.

Weird little glitches like disappearing doors and unshapely character models were just adding fuel to the fire. It was like some low budget B-movie with a more interactive twist. Who cares what the people are saying? The real joy is in tearing it apart.

IMG_0135

Just look at that!! How could you resist throwing it?!

As we kept waiting, though, I realized something about my behavior; I was being a real jackass. I won’t claim that every game should be treated as a masterpiece (or even with respect), but it’s hard to fault a small team for trying to break new ground.

The non VR experience of We Are Chicago is substantially better. It still has a way to go before being released, but its ability to convey a story through a slightly interactive medium looks to be taking an already tired genre in some new directions.

“We want people to empathize with how things are,” is what Cindy Miller told me. “We like the fact that we are touching on these topics and we are going to be giving some proceeds from the game to help non-profit organizations.”

That really hit me in the gut. Here I was, joking about how goofy the VR demo looked. When my friend asked the lead programmer, Michael Block, about the intended plotline for the game, I jokingly said, “It’s about a teleporting man who is tasked with setting the dinner table and refuses to.”

I suppose that is the downside to an expo dedicated to “new” things. People want to experience VR, but the show floor is so crowded that dedicating yourself to any one thing is a monumental task. When some indie developer has a quick, accessible demonstration out, you mainly want to fuck around with it to experience the technology.

IMG_0131

Which way did he go, George?

“We like the fact that a lot of people come for the VR and stay for the game. We’re happy that people get to experience it,” Cindy said to me with a bright smile. It doesn’t matter if people think her game is bogus; she is mostly happy to present the idea to the masses.

Thankfully, I’m not the kind of person to shut my mind off. I tinkered with the VR experience on the first day of PAX, but I returned to that booth every other day. The second day was to take another friend over and the third day was to grab some photos and quotes. I wanted to challenge myself with bringing out the better side of this game.

I don’t know if I should explain its plot details or any of the controls. At its best, the game feels like a Telltale adventure game before they began sucking up every contract possible. We Are Chicago is taking the idea of an interactive narrative to its logical conclusion.

We’ve seen games built on making us empathize with protagonists or thrusting us into difficult scenarios, but none of them have truly dealt with real life problems. The abundance of World War II shooters may have all been based on true stories, but none of those felt real.

Most gamers also don’t have to live in a shitty slum. A lot of us have a comfortable life. The worst problem we will ever face is pissing our boss off. None of us know the emotional toll that constantly living in fear brings. None of us need to worry about stray bullets flying through our walls and killing our families.

Cindy and Michael both told me, “Everything that happens in the game is based on real events.” Cindy then added, “Our writer came from Englewood and is bringing his personal experience into the game.” Well, damn. Safe, secure, blissfully happy me gets to go home to white suburbia while these developers have grown up in a crappy reality.

Did the rest of the attendees connect with this game on the same level? I honestly don’t think so. People were so happy to get into a VR headset that the conversations might as well of not happened. You could have put stickmen in place of the character models and no one would bat an eye.

IMG_0130

Half of these people probably never even saw the game. I know Jed didn’t!

I didn’t want to leave the expo and have this game become a distant memory. I didn’t want others to see the low budget and think this game was a joke. VR may be the future, but if it robs a game like this of its narrative punch, then it doesn’t deserve to survive on the market. VR should be opening people to new realities; it shouldn’t be relegated to a simple plaything.

Thankfully, We Are Chicago will be releasing as a standard game first. The VR experience was mostly made for PAX (and was finished in a week), but will become available at an unspecified time after the game is finally out.

I feel that is for the best. I’d rather the discussion start with how dramatic the game is rather than how ridiculous a flying plate looks in VR.

IMG_0134

Cindy Miller (Left), Michael Tisdale (Center), Michael Block (Right)

Not Every Game is For You


Hyper Light Drifter was just released this week. Word on the street is that the game is quite challenging. There has been a lot of hype surrounding the release of the title; people have fallen in love with the visual style and were waiting to dig their claws into the game.

Gaming Blog “Rock, Paper, Shotgun,” posted an impressions piece in which the author, John Walker, claimed the game was just too hard for him to finish. While I can respect him leveling with his audience about his personal experience with the game, I’d like to make a counter-point to his stance on difficulty.

The closing few paragraphs of the article mention that gaming shouldn’t cater to one specific group of people. I completely agree with that, but not in the way Mr. Walker claims. He said that every game should be made accessible with different options to allow less experienced players to see the game.

That doesn’t make sense to me. Certain games are built around their difficulty. If you changed Dark Souls, for instance, to have an easy mode, its atmosphere wouldn’t feel as foreboding. It’s similar to the problem Resident Evil 6 has with its fundamental design; Capcom wanted to make an action shooter, but shackled the end product to Resident Evil’s past as a survival horror game. You got a pathetic attempt at modernizing a franchise and a really unfrightening horror vehicle.

Some games can withstand different options for various skill levels. Things like Ninja Gaiden and God of War are focused more on empowering the player than berating them. You get to execute enemies in a glorious, bloody hurricane of destruction. The option exists to make the games challenging (and Ninja Gaiden is pretty unforgiving on any difficulty level), but the design wasn’t based around an uphill battle.

You can be this awesome and suck. It’s crazy!

I can understand Mr. Walker’s frustration in being engaged with the game until the first boss. It is truly aggravating to be sinking into a game’s atmosphere and have it pull out the rug from underneath you. We do live in 2016, though, where the amount of available games is staggering. A quick run through Steam, GOG or Green Man Gaming can let you find something else you’re interested in.

There are also a tremendous amount of games built on being a more spectator driven experience or even just a plain easy one. It might suck that you can’t play this one specific game, but just look at how much else you can find online. It’s similar to being rejected by someone you like; don’t fight it, just move on and go your separate ways.

I can’t disagree with Mr. Walker’s assessment that gamers with the mentality of difficult games being only for them is selfish. That is true; I just feel he misses a key point. Not every game is going to be built for your own skill level. If life had an easy option, we would all be sitting on our asses and getting nothing done.

So honestly, I feel Mr. Walker just needs to accept that not everything will be his cup of tea. It’s pointless to change a game’s core design just because you find yourself at an impasse. If your life is so full of other distractions or obligations that you can’t put the time in to learn a game, maybe it’s time you started looking for different games.

The options are staggering.

Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye

For youth growing up in the 2000’s, AOL Instant Messenger was basically a way of life. Not having a screen name meant you didn’t talk to anyone, apart from meeting at school. Gone were the days of clogging up phone lines or leaving your baggage at school; now you could continue the conversation at any moment.

It allowed kids to express themselves freely while also giving others the time to calculate their responses. Talking face to face can be intimidating and difficult, but an instant messenger gives you lots of free time to contemplate just what you will say.

That doesn’t mean everything you type will be perfect. Far from it, actually. Emily Is Away shows just how mixed any seemingly innocent response can be. When two people are not ready to express how they feel about each other, it doesn’t matter what medium of communication they are using.

While this game may not resonant so much for younger gamers, anyone who actually used AIM will get struck right to the core. We’ve all had that one person we wished we could be 100% honest with. We’ve all wanted to speak our minds completely, but fear that saying the wrong thing will ruin everything.

It’s hard to see that come rushing back, especially when the entire look and feel of AIM is recreated down to a tee. It’s neat to be taken back to a desktop from my youth and have it function basically the same way. I’ve also come to hate that damn message noise, for all the awkward things I said in my past.

What the game reveals, though, is that both parties are in the same situation. A lot of men like to believe that women are manipulative bitches, but that isn’t the case. Emily does care for you (well, the you from this game), but she doesn’t know how to say it. She’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Life has no single answer and she is just trying to figure everything out. She was always a friend, but possibly could have been more. If both parties had just said what they wanted, then maybe this romance could work. The great thing about this game (much like Depression Quest) is that the correct response will come up, only your character will erase it.

Sometimes it’s easy to type things in a furry of rage and adrenaline, but then you begin to second guess yourself. I remember moments like that, even if I tended to just speak my mind without caring. Still, Emily Is Away definitely captures all those awkward transitional phases of life.

You can replay chapters, but all of the choices in place do not allow you to game the system. The outcome is fixed, even if your personality can be manipulated. It doesn’t allow you to have the happy ending you want, which is a bit of a bummer, but also partially realistic.

Instant messengers were a very impersonal way to chat with friends. You had anonymity and never needed to look someone in the eye. You didn’t even need them to be present; you could type up a literal dissertation and plant it at their virtual doorstep. It had all the convenience of the modern era with just enough of a margin of error to make mistakes.

It just made things weird. I remember my last year of high school and constantly talking to the one girl I fell for. She would blurt out her exploits and I’d be filled with rage, but I internalized everything. Since she couldn’t see my face, she never knew there was an issue.

I also got into some sociopathic practices and made dummy accounts to try and catch her in lies. It was a really troubling part of my life that I’ve done everything to forget. While I will never be cleansed of the nightmare, at least I acknowledge how wrong it was and never practice it.

Emily Is Away doesn’t get that dark with it’s narrative, but it does make one wonder about how things could be different. If you said something else or badgered Emily a little more, maybe your future could come true.

While it’s mostly just a different way to experience a story, Emily Is Away does end up being a really cool little game. Essentially a choose your own adventure style game, Emily Is Away can shed some real insight on how you live and love. It also allows you to not hurt anyone in the process.

Portal Stories: Mel – Review

With Valve having seemingly given up game development, fans of their IP’s have been wondering what their next game will be. Instead of waiting, Prism Studios decided to craft an unofficial prequel to Portal 2 in the mean time. The quality of the level design may not always be top class, but Portal Stories: Mel ends up feeling like a full retail product, despite being a free mod.

While a lot of that credit has to go to the prior work Valve did with Portal 2, to even craft puzzles or a story close to as engaging as Valve’s work is a true testament of Prism’s skill. A lot of the ideas get borrowed from Portal 2, but the character of Virgil ends up feeling alive and cheery.

The exploration of Aperture’s past is also highly intriguing. While we got a lot more of an in-depth look at how the world of Portal comes to be in it’s sequel, we now understand a bit more of how Cave Johnson ended up running the company into the ground and what helped GlaDOS ressurect herself.

Of course, this is all non-canon, but the sheer quality of it all is very engaging. After finishing the game, I almost wish this were an official part of the Portal storyline. We may be removing a bit of the mystery behind GlaDOS and Cave Johnson, but at least it all remains interesting.

As for the puzzles, they start off strong and begin to get repetitive near the end. The last few chapters are some of the best designed in the entire mod, but they come too little, too late. The boss encounter is very reminiscent of the original Half-Life and even a few levels take some ideas from Black Mesa.

The soundtrack is also incredible. For a fan project, I’m surprised we got an entirely original score, but it fits the mood extremely well. I was always partial to the atmosphere sounds of the original Portal and I’d say that is the only place where I felt Portal 2 did not live up to it’s predecessor. I guess Prism thought so, too, as this score blows Portal 1’s out of the water.

The slight alterations to the Source engine since Portal 2’s release have yielded some better lighting and incredible looking water. Since PC’s are also a bit more adept, extra foliage is present in the “Overgrown” segment. It looks worse for wear than in Portal 2, which kind of screws around with the idea of this being a prequel.

If it weren’t for the middle section of the game, I’d say this is a homerun. Portal 2 had a strange reliance on ending most platforming/story segments with a half-open door that required you to portal out of. Portal Stories: Mel also does that quite a bit.

From the beginning of the middle until the intro of the finale, we also get treated to an incredible amount of block puzzles. The gels do make a return (and water gets utilized, which is nice), but a lot of the ideas are just more obtuse setups than what Portal 2 had.

I did have fun, but I can’t deny that the ideas stopped being creative and exciting after awhile. The last 2 chapters really were a standout as they feel completely different from the official Portal series.

Still, at the price of free, why aren’t you playing this? It’s an easy recommendation and is quite well made, too. I hope the team at Prism Studios can someday make an original project. I’m sure they’ll come up with something wholly awesome.

8/10

Bankable Nostalgia (Short Blog)

With the recent release of Puzzle and Dragons Z + Super Mario Bros Edition, I’ve come to a few realizations; Nintendo really isn’t afraid to take risks and nostalgia seems to be their entire M.O. As a matter of fact, the media world, in general, seems obsessed with nostalgia.

Mad Max: Fury Road recently came out. While the film is quite good, I can’t help but feel that releasing 25 years later was the plan all along. I know that can’t be 100% true, but it just seems way too convenient for this film to just now get made, especially after being in development hell for a decent chunk of time.

It seems that we’ve come into an era of “bankable nostalgia”:. Hollywood action films are milking our comic heritage for everything its worth; musicians that should have retired 20 years ago are bringing out new material; game developers (be it indie or triple A) are focusing their talents on re-creating the past.

I’m not sure how long this type of cycle can sustain itself. This clearly isn’t a new idea, but will nostalgia ever run out? For people in my age bracket (21-34), nostalgia is basically what keeps us ticking with tired ideas. Aren’t we a bit young to be feeling such longing for our wonder years?

When does that well run dry? Will we get to a point where a brand new, totally original Mario game will garner a collective shrug because Mario is old hat? How about when Captain America 4 comes out and we’ve just given up on the whole idea?

I guess everything is fine if the creations are all quality. It can never hurt to have an abundance of things you enjoy. I just worry that our favorite hobbies will become insufferable after a litany of similar releases come out.

Mario can only put up with Bowser’s nonsense so many times before calling it quits. This is similar to how all the Resident Evil protagonists can be frightened of zombies for a few games before going guns-blazing at everyone.

Eventually, you need to grow as a character. To mirror humanity, stagnation breeds complacency and complacency breeds contempt. Without creative flair, we may be doomed to walking away from this medium and never looking back.

Then again, I know a few people who have never played a video game or watched a film and still manage to find joy in life. To them, there are other avenues of passion that capture their imaginations. There is even a man in Japan whose sole purpose in life is to make sushi.

I may just be noticing this due to the recent surge of past ideas resurfacing, but I just don’t want to see this wonderful medium turn to dust. I’d also really hate for music to become completely absent from my world. I want new things to happen and original voices to be heard.

Hopefully this “bankable nostalgia” is simply a craze that will fade away. 3D Gaming seemed to die down, so I guess we just need to be patient.