Category Archives: Software

What Remains of Edith Finch

I played another entire game over the past few days. This is so so weird. (Which I say every time I finish a game, I know. But it is! Especially relative to how long it’s been since I finished a book[1].)

This time, What Remains of Edith Finch, which is another plot-heavy / game-light exploration game in which … you know, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a game like this, except, minimally, Gone Home. Edith Finch has, um, returned to her ancestral dwelling after the death of her mother and the receipt of a mysterious key, which grants her access to the majority of the house, which has been sealed up and inaccessible since before her earliest memories.

What follows is an exploration of generations of Finch family history and the simultaneous exploration of a truly ridiculous plus awesome house, with mysteries galore. There are elements fantastical, elements tragic, and elements personally very uncomfortable. If you want trigger warnings, you should expect that most things people get triggered by (besides inflicted violence) will be in play.

It’s barely a game in the way that all the things which fall into this genre are, in the sense that there are minimal choices to be made; you only move forward through the sparse and lonely plot. But it was a plot full of people and events I cared about, which is what I was looking for.

[1] Outside of a specific reading schedule

Tacoma

So far, my favorite thing about Xbox’s Game Pass service is that it gives me the freedom to try things out that I cannot otherwise convince myself to pay for. To wit, Tacoma, which is apparently the only other game from the people who made Gone Home.

The upshot being, a) I really liked this story, about an abandoned orbital station where I was tasked with downloading the station AI and acquiring the associated hardware, which perhaps (or perhaps not?) inevitably involves learning some details about why exactly the station is abandoned; but b) I felt somewhat misled into believing that I would have some kind of influence over the outcome, rather than only walking through a story. I am not per se opposed to this form of visual novel, I just want to have a clearer idea of what to expect? I don’t think I ever felt this way about Gone Home, and by contrast I think I actually did have some minor influence over the outcomes of Firewatch, which was also a much larger game.

But that is an issue of expectations contrary to reality; the game taken as is was pretty excellent, and I would have no trouble recommending it. Which would be easier to do if it hadn’t fallen off the Game Pass thing at the end of the month, some very few brief hours after I finished it. Which is good news for me, but… oops.

The Outer Worlds

I played a game!

In even more shocking news, I played a game within about half a year of its release![1] I’m, uh, I’m actually having a hard time wrapping my head around that one. So, The Outer Worlds is a sci-fi RPG in which you wake up to a colonial civilization in decay and have to work out what to do about it. See, everyone came to the system from Earth about 70 years ago in two colony ships, except the second ship never showed up. Not to get too on the nose politically (primarily the first couple of groups), but the system is divided into approximately four groups.

  1. The Halcyon Holdings Corporation, who sponsored the outbound flight and even now works to develop new products for the many inhabitants of the Halcyon System
  2. The employees of the ten companies that pooled resources to form the HHC, mostly indentured to pay for their passage, and mostly unable to see a path to buying their full freedom from the situation, and that’s not counting the ones who haven’t really thought about wanting to
  3. Dangerous marauders who have broken free and now prey on society
  4. A handful of independents who through either corporate success or unlawful escape now live free of corporate restrictions, but at the mercy of the aforementioned marauders, not to mention the deadly beasts who roam the worlds and, sometimes, corporate troopers looking to enforce the original code

And now there’s you, a recently awakened colonist from the second ship, which is not lost after all, it just arrived extremely late, and by then enough water had passed under the bridge that the Board of the HHC decided… but I suppose now I’m getting into details past the first hour of play, so I’ll leave it here.

The story of this world is a delight. I can see lots of options I could have taken differently that would have had major impacts on the outcome, and some of them I would even want to see, only, who has time for playing for another 40-50 hours? The path I took, I have very few regrets about, so that’s nice. Plus the one sidebar about 90% of the way through the game that had me laughing in delight about one sublime moment of full character immersion for easily 30 minutes, before I restored and played like an adult instead.

The gameplay is… well, it’s fine, right? This is largely a shooter RPG, as I think they all are now, and it has companions, which means that your companions will always screw up your ambush and use up half or two thirds of its effectiveness. Which is a bummer. And the inventory system is nightmarishly bad. But on the bright side, once you acknowledge that there’s no way around that fact, it mostly melts away into irrelevance and just becomes the thing that makes you play a couple few extra hours than you would have in total. But if I had cared less about the plot and characters, I would have stopped playing quickly in frustration over just how bad it is, and never gotten past that threshold.

The story and backstory of the world definitely end up with more questions than answers, even as the story of the game concluded very satisfyingly. I very much want a sequel, and… I think I want that sequel to not include character importing, because my character’s story is over. But I’d hang out in the universe again from a different POV, no question.

[1] There is no question, in retrospect, that this is quarantine[2]-related. But I started in January, so it’s not solely due to quarantine.
[2] Note to future generations: It’s the Covid-19 coronavirus quarantine of 2020, not some weird personal thing or one of the other quarantines you will have learned about in your history classes.

Firewatch

The biggest problem with Firewatch is that I don’t really know what the genre is. Walking simulator is a really bland descriptor, indie is not a type of game, it’s a type of studio, and it felt a lot less interactive fictiony than other games I’ve used that tag on before. So, what kind of game was this?

One kind of game it was is “pretty great”. After a series of unfortunate life events, this guy Henry takes a job with the 1980s Wyoming forestry service on firewatch. Which, if not self-explanatory, is when you sit in a tower all summer looking for fires before they become uncontrollable. And over the course of the summer, a story unfolds!

The story is fine, too, but mostly what I loved was the haunting atmosphere. You’re wandering around the woods, no company, virtually no human contact, just the voice on the other end of the radio that is your supervisor between you and utter isolation. Which is I think what Henry was going for, but it gets really hard to take after a while. I am an introvert, in that I want to spend only a small amount of time interacting with people; but I guess I’m a soft introvert in that it comforts me to know that if I needed a person, it would be really easy to find one. I’m pretty sure a summer spent not seeing another person’s face and only hearing another person’s voice at their whim would leave me pretty dang bonkers.

Or maybe it was only haunting to me, because, see above? Either way, there was nothing I didn’t enjoy, even down to the  emotional discomfort. The one bummer was trying to figure out the controls. There was Steam controller support, but not in the sense that the game’s instructions matched them; purely keyboard driven, alas. Having a gated ecosystem is the better way to console in terms of support, but significantly limiting in terms of what games are available. So, definitely worth the trade-off! But still.

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.