Category Archives: Software

Life Is Strange: Chrysalis

I’m in a weird position here, in that I’ve never played an episodic game before. The chapters are not terribly long, but they’re long enough that the full game seems like it will turn out to be incredibly long, plus also I’m so bad at reviewing partial games anyway. Not to say I expect to stop playing Life Is Strange! But things happen sometimes, and the part where I opted to take a break between chapters is, if not telling, at least cautionary.

So, anyway, this is one of the new wave of exploratory, talky, thoughtful games that are mostly devoid of shooting wave after wave of nameless enemies who are (if not alien invaders or zombies) nevertheless human, thereby raising questions of morality. You may recall that I played Gone Home, about an older sister arriving unexpectedly from college to find that her entire family had been upturned in the meantime, via exploration of the empty house. Life Is Strange’s first chapter, Chrysalis, is certainly more “interactive character” / less “detached observer” than that was, which is a good thing. It was a lot easier to get immersed in Max’s problems, because she actually had a personality and a physical form, instead of being a set of silent eyeballs floating through a silent house. (Irony: I did like Gone Home, but its flaws are apparent now that I’ve played literally any other game in the same new genre of play.)

Here’s the deal as gleaned in the first five minutes of play. Max Caulfield is a new transfer student to a prestigious high school academy on the Oregon coast, returning to her hometown from Seattle after 3 years away because it is the best place to pursue her love of photography. She’s an out of place loner who has not reached out to her former best friend because of a fear of rejection, she’s learning to navigate the many cliques (especially the Vortex Club, for hyper-popular people) in her new environment, she’s barely aware of the geek who is desperately hitting on her at every turn, she keeps avoiding a submission to a photography contest that the teacher she idolizes is pressuring her to enter (also fear of rejection), her earbuds are full of the latest alternative music you’ve never heard of, she finds herself thinking a lot about the preponderance of flyers about a girl who went missing last spring… it’s a high school story. Cool. Been here, done this.

Then, by way of a massive spoiler in the 5-10 minute range, it takes a sharp turn into inexplicable sci-fi territory, and the game is off to the races. I’ll probably talk more about how in future chapters when it would be less of a spoiler than it is in this one, but I am both impressed and a little dismayed by what is a paradigm-shift to RPG elements of games (if not to strategy elements; I’d link what game I’m thinking of, but the same spoiler problem applies) combined with a healthy middle finger raised straight at me. But[1] in a good way!

Long story short: The Steam Machine was a good purchase, if the new genre are all as good as the two I’ve played so far.

[1] Apparently, since I loved it and want to play more.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

First completed video game in ages! Moving and getting married are hard, distracting work. Anyway, knowledge of this game’s release was exciting, because I’ve played the rest of the series in part as a bonding experience with my father. Then it took long enough post-release for me to get him to my house[1] that I probably should not have pre-ordered after all? Whatever, the price is only like $20 less even now.

Last Nathan Drake game, I said the series needed some kind of plot shake-up to avoid the trap of “these are all the same game”. Because, I mean, they are. You climb around on walls, you shoot people who are guaranteed to shoot at you if you don’t (and probably even if you do), and you seek a really big treasure of some kind. It is known.

My point is this: A Thief’s End provided the shake-up I wanted. Good job, game designers of the previous future / current past! See, it starts with a flashback to an unguessed at childhood, then proceeds through some things that I would definitely consider spoilers, resulting in yet another treasure hurt, of course, but in a way that pre-empts at least some amount of the currently in vogue backlash against how Nathan Drake and so many other video game avatars are “murder hobos”, willing to slaughter dozens or hundreds of foes standing in the way of said treasure. And then the epilogue provides a whole new kind of shake-up, to boot!

The title indicates that this is the last game in the series. If it is, I think it went out on a really good note. If it isn’t, I’ll get the next one, because how could I not? I definitely liked it, which is not a shock considering my previous reviews on the series. But most of all, I appreciated the new depth to, well, every part of the game.

Huh. No. That’s not true. The depth of the fighting and climbing is basically identical. But there were some new and improved aspects of how to move around the map and solve the puzzles, and mostly I meant the plot. Which you probably already knew. Jerk.

[1] I have a PS4, he does not. His possession of a PS3 is why the other series entries were played at the Ranch, you see.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

51g6GKymFKLAt long last, I’ve played another Assassin’s Creed game. I must be at least four behind now? And at some point they get terrible, though I do not know what point that is. Anyway, Revelations (the last of the Ezio Auditore trilogy) was still a good game, so that’s nice.

Well. I mean, it was a good game. That part is true. All kinds of new toys to play with, the same climbing and running and jumping and assassinating fun from the previous two games, plus a satisfactory ending to Ezio’s story and both a nod to how terrible AC1 was plus a satisfactory ending to Altaïr’s story to make up for it. Gameplay, 16th century storyline and 12th century storyline, all of these were firing on all cylinders. Best Assassin’s Creed game yet.

Except… so, the ending of Brotherhood pretty much blew me away. It was a huge out of nowhere plot twist for Desmond’s story (he’s the guy in modern times that is reliving the genetic memories of his ancestors) that was simultaneously a huge cliffhanger. And for that part of the story… I mean, just nothing. Everyone seemed to treat it as no big deal and not worth mentioning, and I’m left clawing for answers that I suppose will never be forthcoming.

So that’s lame, and inevitably colors the whole experience. Alas.

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition

91jwO5PCReL._SL1500_A quote from my review of the first Uncharted game, lo these many years ago: Pretty much, it’s a Tomb Raider game where they reduced the budget on breast motion physics and invested that money into storyline and dialogue. It was, I think, a good trade.

I have a feeling that someone paid attention to that sentiment, because just a few years later Eidos rebooted the Tomb Raider franchise with exactly those modifications to the bottom line. And while I like the Uncharted series quite a lot, Lara Croft is a character I’ve been following for decades. Seeing her in the game she’s deserved ever since her inception was a pure joy.

Tomb Raider charts her progress from young archaeologist on her first big historical search to seasoned fighter of enraged beasts and evil men, not to mention world-class gymnast, expert mountaineer, and well, tomb raider. Which is to say, yes, it’s kind of silly if you don’t willingly blind yourself to that kind of thing. But the game solidly scratched my exploration and collection itches, redeemed a character that had always deserved better, and told a really good story along the way. I look forward to snagging the sequel.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

81Evx+k+qaL._SL1500_So, I’ve never played a Metal Gear game. It is plausibly the video game series about which I know the absolute least, in fact. I knew there was some guy named Snake who uses stealth and explosion tactics as needed to do military missions, and that’s about it. But Ground Zeroes was free on XBox Live and I have a new console, so, hey, why not?

Now I have learned that Snake is the occasional head of a South American third wheel uneasily placed between the US and the USSR during the Cold War, who uses those stealth and explosion tactics I mentioned earlier. In this particular game, he uses them to infiltrate Guantanamo Bay in 1975 and rescue two of his teenage proteges from the CIA prison camp onsite. Also, something about his group having nuclear capabilities and being inspected by the UN tomorrow, so he’d better do his rescue mission fast? I cannot tell if I was supposed to feel like a bad guy, nor if I would have felt less like one if I’d played the previous games.

What I do know is that it was damned short and did not leave me craving either the sequel or the many preceding games in the series. Gameplay was fine, but the storyline was definitely not friendly to newcomers. Which may be my fault? It honestly is weird that I know nothing about this series, but nevertheless, here we are.

The Last of Us: Remastered

51xISdGnMhLWhen I became vaguely aware of The Last of Us, I didn’t know very much at all. There’s a man and a girl, and they are making their way through a $zombie-infested landscape. Otherwise, the only remaining things I knew were that the genre was survival horror and that people had a great deal of praise for the game.

Having reached the end of my two-or-so-week run through the game, it is difficult to let myself say much more than that to you, the prospective player. It is entirely worth playing, and it is entirely worth playing unspoiled. The plot, the characters, and the setting all beg to be revealed in their own time. That said, I can throw you at least a few bones.

Is it grim and bleak? Sometimes. Never, I think, pointlessly. Every scenario reveals something important about the gameplay (at least, during the first quarter of the game before things normalize after you’ve seen most everything the gameplay has to offer), the setting, the plot, or the characters. Often multiple such important things, but always something. I think it’s fair to say there’s nothing wasted. And, to come back to my original point, while any $zombie setting or survival horror game will have bleakness to it, the bleakness is definitely not the point, nor is it incredibly common for that matter. The most obvious superficial comparison to my plot thumbnail above is The Road, but this is definitely not that, shared genre or not.

Does it look grim and bleak? Not at all! Yes, the ruins of civilization are all around, but everything is going back to nature, so if anything there’s far more brightness and greenery than usual, with occasional moments of sheer beauty. You know how New York City looked in Will Smith’s I Am Legend? It’s like that.

How was the world-building? Doled out sparingly on both the micro and macro levels. I cared about the explanation of events from a science fictional as well as from a personal perspective. That guy Ish and his notes about what happened to him outside Pittsburgh. Did they just tail off naturally, or did I miss a climactic reveal? Either outcome works thematically, and I wish I had the kind of time that would let me play through again. Not to learn the answer to that question, but to learn the answers to dozens of minor such questions.

How was the gameplay? It was the weakest aspect of the game, not because it was bad, but because it was nothing new or innovative (the Thief series has much better sneaking mechanics, and Gears of War and its successors have much better 3rd person combat mechanics, to toss out two obvious examples), and the rest of the game has, as far as I can tell, no weak points.

I can’t talk about the characters, or the events, or the climax. Yes, spoilers, but really because I’d be here all night. But man do I want to sit over some rum and geek out about basically everything that happened with someone else who played this. I still don’t know precisely how I feel about the way things turned out, and I won’t for a good long while, but this for sure: it was so, so good.

Also, the related shorter story Left Behind that was included in my download? Loved it too, and for all the same reasons. The seemingly unrelated multiplayer versus option? Don’t see any compelling reason for me to find out if that’s good, because it entirely misses the point of everything that makes this an amazing game, and I wish everything didn’t have to be multiplayer these days, frankly.

Oh, okay, I did think of one weakness to the game. There are no decisions to be made about the plot. In a way, I think there should be, even if only once or twice. In another way, though, I think the characters are fully realized enough that nothing could have happened differently than it did. Still, I know there are people who think it a weakness to have no control over events beyond whether you had to reload and replay the last little bit of combat or not, and it’s only fair to mention this aspect.

But the movie in between the bits of tactics and strategy is, as I may have already said once, so good.

Braid

51baP9k+ubLAnd then, the first and last game of the weekend[1], Braid. The downside of which is that I am obligated to find a way to review Braid. (The upside, obviously, is that it was a fantastic game, full of challenging and rewarding puzzles and a truly incredible (and incredibly presented!) climax to its story.)

The thing is, I don’t really want to say anything about it, because it is to be played, not told. So I’ll give you what you can see and what you can begin to intuit from the first two minutes of play, and then I’ll nod to myself and consider my job done[5]. Have you ever played Super Mario Bros.? The one for the original Nintendo (also there was a somewhat different arcade version) with the walking mushroom people and the giant lizard who kidnapped Princess Peach? Along every meaningful angle from which you could consider SMB, this game is the response to that game. </wise nod>

[1] I had played a great deal of it before[2], and I also took a break in the middle before coming back to wrestle with the last few, ultra-hard levels. Ultimately, there were seven such that a walkthrough was involved in[4], and of those, I only felt like I should have figured out two of them. The rest involved knowledge I had somehow missed having or ideas that would never have crossed my mind to attempt.
[2] Annoyingly, on the XBox 360. Will I go back for my gamerscore? Probably not![3]
[3] I mean because I’m pretty lazy, but honestly, going back for gamerscore feels like missing 100% of the point of the game, too.
[4] Awesomely, my host had the walkthrough and doled out the hints gradually, so sometimes it really was just a hint.
[5] If this sounds like a candyass way to conduct my affairs, well, a) maybe it is at that, but b) it doesn’t change the fact that I would be robbing you of an experience you owe yourself. If you play video games and people don’t sidle away from you because of things you say at social gatherings, then trust me. Just play the game. The five or ten bucks that it will cost you is worth it, as is the hour or three of time you’ll spend.

Journey

journey-game-screenshot-1-bI am returned, triumphant, from my long sojourn of, er, not writing the last two reviews I have owed. And if that doesn’t really sound like all that much of a Journey, it’s because I’m trying to create a parallel with my unfortunate experience playing a short indie game of the same name.

As you can see, last weekend was heavy with the light & easy games set, which… it did not convince me that small games that last a couple of hours is the way to go, but it certainly highlighted how much easier they are. I mean, yes to play, because you can’t write a particularly hard game that will only last 90 minutes, but especially I mean easy to find time for the playing of. Which is important! I can say anything I want about how much more I enjoy Dragon Age, but if I keep not turning on the XBox to play it, that claim rings pretty hollowly.

The irony is that Journey would otherwise be the perfect game to draw that comparison with. See, I finished it in about 20 minutes. You start out as a Jawa-looking dude[1] in the desert, climbing up a hill. Eventually, you see in the distance what look like places to go, and then you go to them, because you’ve ever played a videogame before. After doing some things in the desert which may or may not have any particular long-term relevance or unlock insightful cutscenes, you go through a portal to a snowy mountainscape. Or at least I did. After some additional snow-doings that may also have some kind of relevance or unlock some other set of cutscenes, a finale occurs. I can only speculate about all these things[2] because what happened to me was as follows: I collected a couple of glowing things in the desert, tried to take them back to a platform that looked like it might have been missing some glowing things but instead accidentally fell through a portal onto the mountain (was there a way back? I’m told yes, but it didn’t look like it) where I climbed for a while, turned right, dodged a (let’s say) dragon, climbed some more (briefly the climbing involved a Shaolin temple), and then after some brief spoilers[3], the game ended.

I’m pretty sure I did something wrong? You would think, in a game whose title explicitly alludes to the destination not mattering, it would not be so easy to perform a speed run, much less without intending to. Oh well. Perhaps I’ll play it again someday, when the memories have faded.

[1] Or possibly lady! If you’ve seen a Jawa before, you know I’m impressing my own opinion without any particular evidence.
[2] Well, not only speculate. I have hints from my incredulous host to go by as well.
[3] I’m taking it on faith that there were spoilers to be had. It was, from my perspective, merely an inexplicable happenstance.

Flower

41MZscmDiuLHaving covered the media I consumed whilst packing and then waiting in the airport for hours on end to die, violence and bloodshed hounding me from every quarter, it feels only right that I should have found a calm, meditative game like Flower to ease my mind as my weekend in the wilds of Danville, CA progressed. And it feels all the more right that I was playing a game in which dull, lifeless yellowed or grey fields should transform into lush greenery under my expert controller-tilting when you consider how similarly yellowed were the steep hills surrounding the house on all sides. (But seriously, there’s something incredible about the sunlight, and especially the afternoon’s last gleaming, on those too steep hillsides, dotted now and again with lone trees.)

So, there’s this game for the various Playstations (I did it on the 4, but there are other options) in which you are the wind, and you move flower petals around. And… that’s the whole game, basically. If your gust of wind passes over a new flower, you get one of its petals, until you are eventually a whirling maelstrom of color and delight, rushing across the landscape, transforming it as you go. Then later, there are some blasted urban cityscapes, and, let’s face it, if it were not so calm and beautiful, it would be an environmental screed.

But, while it did not end up feeling screedy, it was certainly environmental, and there’s really not a whole lot else to it, except for being pretty. Still, it was fun. Or maybe I was just very amused by the ten-year-old with whom I was sharing the controller and his claims of knowing how to embrace the flower. At first, it was a zen koan that deepened my attachment to the game; by the time I realized that “embrace the flower” was simply code for “I’m playing this game better than you are”, the attachment already existed. The more positive Amazon reviews say that the game has a different, deeply emotional, experience available to each player. I suppose this counts as that?

Gone Home

header_292x136Although I have not touched a game on PC since probably 2006 at the latest, I still have a Steam account from back when that was a reasonable place to play the various Half-Life sequels. This is relevant because, some months ago, a friend gifted me a first-person (rather than text) interactive fiction game called Gone Home. I took a week or so getting the Steam client to work with my laptop (since I’m not going to put a game on a desktop and the Steambox still shimmers hazily in my future), and then I played about 45 minutes of the game and set it aside.

Which is not to say anything bad about it, I just have a habit of not completing games, which is why even one that lasts about two hours took me two or three months to actually finish, and honestly I’m a little surprised it happened all the same. So, what’s the deal? It’s 1995, and you the player have just returned home from backpacking in Europe. Only, nobody answered the phone, nobody picked you up at the airport, and the house is dark, silent, and (thanks to an ominous storm, pervasive minor key mood music, and the implausibility of every family member being away) kind of menacing. Still, it’s IF, so the only thing to do is wander from room to room, reading the notes and computer screens and various detritus of daily life that your family has left scattered around, trying to figure out what has happened here.

At two hours, “what happened here?” is pretty much the whole game, so I won’t say anything to spoil it, but I appreciated that every resident has a story waiting to be discovered, and I also appreciated that each story was opaque to the other residents, wrapped up in their own lives and troubles, only discoverable by the player because you are coming in with a fresh eye after having been gone from home for like nine months.Exciting high adventure, it’s not, but it sets a hell of an atmosphere, at turns creepy, depressing, or nostalgic. I’m not sure I’d pay the $20 Steam has it listed at as of press time, but as a gifted diversion, it definitely hits the spot.