Rising to the Occasion
I've always wanted to play PC games like Risen or Gothic but never had an opportunity until I obtained a Steam Deck. However, as with many games, controller configurations aren't always readily available for Valve's portable device. And despite an impressive customization tool, creating one from mouse and keyboard controls can be challenging.
So when THQ Nordic announced it was re-releasing Piranha Bytes' game Risen with gamepad controls and an updated user interface, I was interested in exploring what made this older RPG such a well-known title. Knowing the game wasn't remade or remastered, I went into the journey with lower expectations than I would for a newer production. But despite aged design, it's an enjoyable trek.
Thus far I've spent over eight hours wandering the island of Faranga as a survivor of a shipwreck. I've explored beaches, swamps, rolling hills and caves, and visited settlements including a bandit camp, town and farmland in between. The island is not huge but it does pack a lot into each area, mostly within settlements where NPCs and related quests appear.
One standout for me is how the various quests are interwoven among NPCs and factions. For instance, in the bandit camp, people need to be fed, protection money paid, predators dispatched and work completed, among other tasks. These are interdependent so some can't be completed if others are left undone. This isn't a new concept, but too many RPGs rely on independent quests that sacrifice the big picture.
It helps that each character appears to have a distinct personality and quality voice acting helps distinguish them. Grievances -- sometimes petty -- are aired and at times compel the player to take sides, a circumstance that becomes more common and stark as the game progresses. In particular, choices and quests in town often favor the bandits/townspeople or the strict Inquisition.
The reason boils down to the story of how temple ruins on the island were unearthed and residents coveted reported riches inside. The Inquisition came to the island's shores with their own designs on the ruins and sought to establish order from their Monastery, pitting Inquisitors and allies against townspeople including bandits. Complicating matters are the creatures that emerged with the ruins.
It's a simple premise that provides a solid foundation for the central conflict of Risen as well as for the context for the game's quests and player choice. Certain decisions have more impact than others, such as those that align with a certain faction. And the tasks themselves can range from simple fetch quests or combat to attempting to convince someone to take a stand, act or make a decision.
This is where gamepad controls come into play. On Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons, left shoulder button draws melee weapons while right draws ranged weapons (bow or crossbow). In combat, melee weapons correspond to face buttons: A results in different strikes, B blocks and X evades. Ranged weapons are fired with the right trigger. Left thumb stick moves, right controls the camera (pressing down jumps).
The directional pad pulls up different menu screens. Up is for inventory, down are maps, right are skills and character stats, left are quests and related maps as well as where to find trainers. Navigation within each menu screen is managed with shoulder or trigger buttons and/or thumb sticks. Plus button has game options and settings, minus button controls zoom.
One function I didn't explore until recently is hotkeys. Highlighting various consumables or spells, pressing the left trigger then selecting a face button or direction on the respective pad will map the item to that hotkey. Pressing the left trigger at any time plus hotkey will consume the respective item or cast the assigned spell.
The gamepad controls are surprisingly intuitive overall for both menu navigation (as described above) and combat. Drawing or sheathing weapons is quick and easy, melee combat early on involves simple strikes and defensive postures and ranged attacks are a little more nuanced as distance is a factor. As in most cases, combat boils down to timing and pattern recognition.
The only drawbacks to combat that I've found during my gameplay thus far involve melee strikes and blocking. Two or three strikes in a row will result in different attacks. But stringing them together leaves players open to attack as enemies can reposition in between attack animations. Similarly, blocking appears to initiate a target lock, but it sometimes breaks and leaves players vulnerable.
Injury or death due to these factors can be annoying, but I take the good with the bad. These scenarios are also examples of good enemy AI that will constantly evade or flank players, meaning players have to keep on their toes and switch up tactics on the fly. Some games do this well, but too many disregard this. Speaking of AI, one's allies also demonstrate quality behavior.
If you engage with enemies near bandits or guards (or if you're like me and intentionally bring foes back to armed characters/NPCs for an added assist), they will arm themselves and defend against the common enemy. The downside is that they could die -- one character, for instance, did perish fighting a bog body beside me. Not sure how that impacted their influence though my character did report their death.
Similarly, I was impressed with how NPCs react to my character. If I enter someone's home, they will immediately follow and warn me to behave. Or if I draw a weapon around bandits/guards, they will arm themselves and warn me to sheath said weapon or attack if I don't. Strike one by accident during combat, and they'll strike you down (not dead, thankfully). Once again, too many games pay little to no attention to these details, so it's a welcome development (no pun intended).
As for enemies, there is a decent variety early on, including grave moths, stingrats, ogres, skeletons, wolves, bog bodies and variations thereof. I also faced off with some spellcasting creature in a mine. Both the ogre and that creature pretty much finished me off with one hit. But it's nice to play a game where foes don't scale to your character and you learn to pick your fights.
Returning to a fight when your character has leveled up and/or procured better weaponry or spells helps when there is a process that supports it and Risen does enable players to train and grow various skills and purchase or trade for better weapons or spells. It helps that the quest menu identifies whom players can train with for a price.
Despite being a port of an old RPG, this game earns its renown for good reason. The characters, quests and enemy or ally AI all contribute to an engaging experience thus far, and the added gamepad controls and updated UI do a good job of upgrading the experience for more modern consoles. Of course the presentation is dated, but the character models, settings, animation and FX hold up well enough to immerse instead of detract.
There are some performance issues, such as enemies like an ogre or wolf pack clipping through the environment or otherwise glitching during confrontations. But such issues aren't surprising for a port of an older game that reportedly had its share. The fact that I've encountered similar problems in new releases shows this isn't exclusively an issue with past titles.
In fact, the re-release of Risen, besides making the game accessible for a new generation of non-PC gamers, should highlight the game's timeless elements that are too often absent from modern releases. The game is not without its faults, but demonstrates clear advantages over formulaic titles that ignore the details. THQ Nordic and Piranha Bytes have done us a favor by reminding us of what makes a gaming experience that holds up over time.
(This post was based on a review key of Risen for Nintendo Switch on January 24. The game also released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and was updated on PC.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
Maskmaker Crafts an Engaging Journey
A Fisherman’s Tale was a revelation with its fairy tale story and creative puzzles that used perspective to great effect. It was relatively short but very immersive and certainly left a powerful impression. For these reasons I was excited to play Maskmaker, the latest game by A Fisherman’s Tale developer InnerspaceVR and publisher Vertigo Games.
To be certain, there are welcome similarities that are apparent almost immediately. For one, art design is similarly stylistic and colorful. Maskmaker likewise opens almost like a fable or fairy tale, with a narrator introducing the story of a mask maker in search of an apprentice to carry on the trade. The player seems destined for the role.
But something is clearly amiss as the player witnesses an argument behind a boarded up storefront before being led on a journey to uncover the fate of the mask maker and unravel the secret of what happened. It’s a solid foundation for what follows – a story of magic and mystery that takes the player to fantasy realms ruled by an enigmatic king.
As the player and prospective apprentice, you are bestowed with the keys to the kingdom, figuratively and literally. The mask maker’s shop becomes a training ground for your nascent skills as you learn the trade and its significance, creating masks that, in turn, unlock the different realms you’ll visit on your quest to discover the truth.
In this way, gameplay revolves around exploration, puzzle solving, collecting and mask making. Intuitive controls on the Meta Quest 2 mean actions are simple, quick and satisfying, whether carving a mask, painting it or accessories, wearing it, collecting items or interacting with other objects. Most actions are performed with the side grip buttons to hold and use various objects.
I’m half to two-thirds of the way through the game, to judge by my mask collection and the realms visited, and no action thus far feels under- or over-utilized. I enjoy the process of mask making, including carving with chisel and mallet, adding accessories and painting, as well as puzzle-solving, which can involve using devices that incorporate winches, gears or other mechanisms.
But where the game shines is in its puzzles that require the involvement of more than one character. A Fisherman’s Tale excelled at requiring players to interact with two versions of themselves to solve puzzles – a larger one outside a model replica of their world and another inside it. Maskmaker likewise uses different perspectives to overcome challenges.
Donning masks not only sends players to new realms and different areas within them by inhabiting locals, but switching masks moves players back and forth between those individuals. That’s useful for gathering and sharing resources, and for operating devices remotely. Keeping these perspectives in mind helps elevate some of the puzzles.
These core gameplay mechanics are supported by a useful hub in the form of the mask maker’s shop, where tools and accessories are in easy reach, including boards for respective masks and maps that suggest the materials to be found there. The diverse biomes themselves are easy to navigate and uncluttered, making resource collection easy, but include nice details and beautiful settings.
It’s worth noting that comfort settings include snap turns and a vignette option, which make locomotion easy for me despite open areas having a corridor feel with lots of twisty pathways. The sense of scale is impressive as some locales are in high elevations like mountains or treetops and in that way reminiscent of Wayward Sky on PSVR.
The inspired art design is not only supported by diverse ecosystems but also the structures, wardrobes and masks particular to each locale. Ambient sounds help immerse players, while narration and distinct, quality voice acting help provide context and propel the story, all supported by an unobtrusive but atmospheric score.
I don’t want to delve too deep into the story as I’ve experienced it thus far, but it does raise issues and questions about the masks we all wear and the power of those identities. In that context, especially, it’s interesting to consider the act of inhabiting locals, i.e. others’ identities, in pursuit of your own goals. Besides the central mystery, I can only hope that this dilemma is addressed later on.
I’ve spent hours in the game and already it’s a much larger experience than its 2-1/2 hour long predecessor, and the varied biomes and respective puzzles help keep gameplay fresh thus far. The mystery likewise provides incentive to push forward. Maskmaker has the ingredients to continue InnerspaceVR’s impressive success in the virtual reality space.
The one caveat is that the puzzles thus far aren’t quite as inspired or challenging as those in A Fisherman’s Tale, though it would be hard for anyone to match the ingenuity of that experience. And it’s possible the puzzles could become more complex, as was the case with the other title. Still, the world building of Maskmaker, the care taken, and its use of masks do make for an entertaining journey.
Maskmaker and A Fisherman’s Tale succeed at immersing players in their unique fantasy settings, which are just off the beaten path of our reality. The colorful worlds, evocative narration and engaging puzzles combine for a refreshing experience that bear the distinctive stamp of an original developer that likes to craft unique games that will keep this gamer coming back for more.
(This post was based on a review key of Maskmaker for Meta Quest 2. The virtual reality game also released on Steam VR, PSVR, Oculus Rift and Viveport on December 15.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
I enjoy many games, but it’s a rare gem that literally brings a smile to my face from the start. The Entropy Centre is such a title. The first time I used the object rewind gameplay mechanic to get to an otherwise inaccessible area I smiled from ear to ear. This clever element is used to great effect in this puzzle game, and hasn't become a tired gimmick during my playtime thanks to the assured design of indie developer Stubby Games.
Players assume the role of Aria, a Junior Puzzle Operative at the titular facility. She awakens inside it to discover that the center is in an alarming state of disrepair, seemingly vacated and overgrown with foliage. Although the situation is dire, a Puzzle Exercise Assistant (PEA) named Astra (programmed into her Handheld Entropy Device or HED) shepherds her through her puzzle exercises. As it turns out, solving puzzles produces entropy, which the facility needs in order to operate.
It’s an interesting conceit, as entropy otherwise can be described as “degeneration marked by increasing uncertainty, disorder, fragmentation, chaos, etc.; specifically, such a process regarded as the inevitable, terminal stage in the life of a social system or structure.” Astra does eventually explain how it works but even Aria scoffs at it. Their ongoing dialog not only provides context for the goings on, but also interjects humor into their predicament. If this setup reminds you of Portal, you’re not alone.
The comparisons are understandable given the facility, the institutional AI seemingly in control, Aria’s situation and the projectile device and environmental puzzles that represent the kind of escape room gameplay that make up the journey. But the core mechanic of object rewind elevates this game not only to proud homage but a strong title in its own right with a creative twist on puzzle solving that requires a more thoughtful approach than standard challenges.
Familiar pressure plates, crates and springboards make their appearance but time and limited resources are where the Handheld Entropy Device comes into play. Object rewind is the primary function of the tool, which allows the user to move objects in real time but also in reverse by about 30 seconds. When players are faced with multiple pressure plates and too few crates, for instance, placing them in the proper order for when time is ultimately rewound becomes the key to forward progress.
If this hurts your head, well, it should. But in a good way. You basically have to solve each puzzle twice – once going forward to the exit, then again flowing backward to your start point in order to time object placement appropriately for the rewind. To the end. Trust me, it’s inspired and fun to figure out, especially when the game adds physical walls (breaking line of sight and object control), transformers (electrical fields that undo rewind) and multiple levels or sections to traverse in one area.
To their credit, Stubby Games consistently introduces new features to keep the puzzles fresh while leaning into the rewind action. Besides doors, extendable bridges are activated with pressure plates. And jump, bridge and collapsible cubes are movable objects that enable players to select where they need traversal options. Combining these with the rewind function adds welcome layers to puzzle solving in levels that feature superior design.
Speaking of level design, some areas have debris on the ground or are in a state of collapse. That debris can be rewound back to its original state, and will factor in to platforming options to maneuver through the area. The amount of options and ingenuity on display is impressive, and while I’d love to get into puzzle design I’m going to avoid giving away any more detail on that front to keep from spoiling the game, as the joy of discovery is part of what makes The Entropy Centre so fun.
It’s worth noting that I'm playing the game on Steam Deck, and although it’s not a verified game as of this writing, the default Steam controls work well. Basic controls include left stick for movement, right for camera, Y to interact and B to jump/select. HED controls are Y to pickup objects, X to launch objects and R2 to rewind time (it also will charge electric panels). The game functions as a FPS, needing players to target objects close up to carry or any distance to rewind time.
Players should know that their character CAN die, in my case when I found myself in the wrong place when rewinding debris or falling into water. Death sends you to the last checkpoint, which usually isn't too far back. Then there are the restarts that might be required, for instance, when I got stuck between objects or when a jump cube I was holding while jumping successively on another jump cube just disappeared and couldn’t be retrieved from a standing (replay) button in the puzzle chamber.
Such instances have been rare and the game actually has few technical issues that I’ve encountered besides these and noticeable frame-rate drops upon entering new puzzle chambers, but they don’t impact gameplay outside of the occasional restart. Indeed, from a technical standpoint, The Entropy Centre is a quality title from its sterling gameplay to its challenging level design and quality production values that lend themselves to this failed high-tech facility.
The setting, in fact, does a good job selling the game's premise -- from overgrown foliage to a facility seemingly abandoned in mid-operation, from the sounds of birds to running water and the noises of collapsing infrastructure or fracturing Earth. Our planet, as it turns out, is the figurative and literal backdrop for much of the goings-on. Astra and collectible emails reveal the emerging catastrophe while space-station views of Earth show its unfolding fate.
The story thus far has provided a solid foundation for the puzzle-solving action, as entropy generated by puzzle solutions not only powers the station but factors into the Earth's fate. The game does a good job of doling out information while the score is at times subdued or suspenseful but always entertaining. At eight acts and multiple hours in, the puzzles keep me entertained without frustrating, the story remains compelling and the pacing has been good with new features regularly introduced.
Initial comparisons to seminal puzzle game Portal are not misplaced but, to the credit of Stubby Games, The Entropy Centre boldly breaks new ground with its innovative object rewind feature. Solving some puzzles is incredibly satisfying when so many elements are at play. And the overall mystery complements the puzzle gameplay. It's a smartly conceived and executed game so far with hours of entertainment value that I can recommend for those seeking a clever puzzle challenge.
(This post is based on a review key for the Steam version of The Entropy Centre, which released alongside other versions for PlayStation 4 & 5 and Xbox One & Series X/S on November 3.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
Video games give you the freedom to do as you please, regardless of the moral implications. That freedom of choice is celebrated and encouraged as a means of player expression and wish fulfillment absent real life norms and responsibility. It's a rare game that not only attaches serious consequences to your actions, but forces those decisions on you as the main gameplay mechanic.
Players who take on the role of Joe in Family Man will face moral choices every step of the way in the new indie title by Broken Bear Games (published by No More Robots). The life of the protagonist takes a seriously shocking turn at the beginning of the game, placing him in debt to the mob when he can least afford it. It's a solid premise and one that the game's design is structured to support throughout.
To pay off the mob, Joe can perform jobs or tasks for the townspeople of Riverport. From flipping burgers at a local fast food joint to odd jobs including eradicating a rabbit problem, retrieving papers or running errands for local powerbrokers, players decide how Joe will make money. But legit options are limited, and payment is due to your crime bosses every day.
This is where the drama comes in to play. Joe can also choose to perform criminal activities that pay better, however, engaging in them not only takes a personal toll but also degrades the town as criminal activity escalates. Add to that dilemma the challenge of looking after your own family -- their welfare, mental and emotional well-being, and household chores -- and cruel trade-offs proliferate.
Neglect mob payoffs and Joe dies, neglect his own welfare and Joe dies, neglect his family and they leave Joe, neglect their welfare and they starve, etc. All are game-ending scenarios that exist every day over several weeks that Joe is expected to pay the mob. They lead to difficult decisions of time and resource management when not every obligation can be met.
Broken Bear Games deserves credit for a clever premise that seems simple and relatively straightforward but is complex in execution. For instance, catering to your family's needs means satisfying different measures; but each action benefits some while detracting from others. That mirrors the overall gameplay where acts might help some townspeople at the expense of others.
This leads to taut moments where players feel the weight of daily decisions amid the backdrop of a merciless day/night cycle. Few games are as effective at generating a sense of real consequence to one's actions or the related suspense of making the right choices within a limited window of opportunity. That the game succeeds at this for as long as it does is testament to the developer's efforts.
I often felt pressed for time as I rushed to make enough money to pay off the mob each day while still allowing enough time to care for my family, including shopping for food or medicine, eradicating pests or washing dishes, playing games or making it home for bedtime. These competing obligations tear at the player but also at the game.
It could be my poor decisions or execution, but the challenge of "doing it all" within a limited amount of time meant I was often sprinting everywhere, skipping dialogue and taking mob jobs first, and still enduring game-ending scenarios from time to time. For a game about choice, it felt sometimes like I had none. Though I'm sure others will have more success managing their obligations.
It didn't help that the game ramps up difficulty in an artificial way that's similar to how stronger foes or more enemies greet players as they progress in adventure games. As players become more proficient at meeting their obligations each day, the mob would demand a bigger payment from Joe. It's not unrealistic given the game's premise, but did feel a little contrived.
Because I relied on criminal activity to make ends meet, it meant an increase in the town's degradation. More thieves stood ready to intercept me, and I was at greater risk of wasting time in jail (I wasn't about to spend hard-earned cash to get out). Thankfully, players can upgrade abilities with earned points and obtain meat to feed their family by killing animals, both of which can improve survival.
The problems with these is that the retrieved meat would often fall through the ground and the upgrades I chose didn't have much of an impact until about a third of the way through, when I'd earned enough points to unlock one in particular that made the game much easier. One upgrade shouldn't make that much difference but I'm grateful it did.
One thing that surprised me about Family Man is that stealing food or money isn't an option despite criminal activity playing such a prominent role. There aren't even pickups off the thieves or other people you kill. Of course this all would undermine the chief gameplay mechanic but it's a notable incongruity in the game world that the developers created.
That game world can suffer from other minor issues, such as a small map; overlapping, obscure or absent mission icons; too small prompts and menu text in handheld mode; interruptions by people, animals and phone (the latter causing a cheap death); and glitches that impede progress like irretrievable delivery packages, frozen inventory screens and an inaccessible home (forcing a restart of the day).
Thankfully most are rare and don't often distract, which should allow players to better appreciate the game's appealing modular or block design of Riverport and its inhabitants (reminiscent in some ways to Minecraft), the comedic dialogue and discussion options between the player and colorful characters, or the melodic score that is (mostly) on point.
If players can take the time to appreciate Joe's exchanges with townspeople, chances are the ending they receive will resonate more with them. Like the game's introductory shock, its ending can pack a wallop, if the one I unlocked (of several) is any indication. Crafting a solid premise that has such strong bookends is no small feat.
In the end, Broken Bear Games is able to generate a suspenseful gameplay mechanic that makes every decision and action feel consequential in a way that too few games manage. But the intricacies of that design can sometimes weigh gameplay down or undermine choices. Still, it's a bold approach with a memorable start and finish (for me) that makes a visit to Riverport worth the trip.
(This post is based on a review key for the Nintendo Switch version of Family Man, which released alongside Xbox Series X/S and Xbox One versions on September 14.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
Player agency has often been at the center of gameplay design in a creative choice that seems conducive to an interactive medium. But that decision has resulted in formulaic approaches that often sacrifice story and character development. While the growth of independent studios has helped challenge that formula, games that resonate on an emotional or intellectual level are still the exception.
State of Play's South of the Circle is one such title, as it forgoes the current obsession with action-adventure gameplay to craft a journey that is measured, thoughtful and more intimate than your average gaming saga. The game, published by 11 bit studios, is described as a narrative experience and cinematic story, and it succeeds on both those measures. But is it an unqualified success?
South of the Circle follows the relationship between Peter Hamilton and Clara McKirrick as they navigate global, collegiate and gender politics during the turbulent 1960s and the tumult of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. As junior lecturers among their Cambridge colleagues, they face pressure from friends, Peter's mentor Professor John Hargreaves, outside forces and past internal conflict.
The pressures exerted on their relationship are mirrored by the threat presented by the global conflict between the superpowers. Both are existential crises that risk emotional devastation on the one hand and physical destruction on the other, and require those involved to weigh the consequences for themselves and others as they try to manage all the conflicting influences past and present.
The narrative flows between present and past in ways that are organic and entertaining, using common elements like a road or bed to shift back and forth from 1964 Antarctica -- where the story begins -- to Cambridge to Peter's childhood (though Clara's youth also is addressed). In this way players learn of current dilemmas and past traumas while avoiding the confusion that can result from such transitions.
The catalyst for such introspection is a fateful plane crash involving Peter and pilot Floyd, who was taking his passenger to a British base during a period of international tensions over the polar ice cap. The two are forced to find a way to survive, which triggers memories in Peter of his relationship with Clara, his time at Cambridge and the influence of his father.
It helps that the dialogue is well written and the voice acting is excellent. Characters in turn are believably earnest, vulnerable, funny, caring, desperate, threatening and manipulative. Authentic portrayals of every character but especially Peter and Clara help immerse players in their relationships and the romance at the heart of the story, which makes the drama more effective and the consequences more profound.
This effect is more pronounced and even startling considering that game design relies more on a stylistic, almost minimalist (but still stunning) presentation in mostly vibrant pastels instead of a realistic, detailed design including a broad color palette. That this world feels alive is also due in no small measure to excellent motion-capture animation, dramatic but subtle camera work and a beautiful score that enhances each scene without overwhelming.
Supporting elements also come together to help create a believable world circa 1960s Antarctica and England. City, rural and natural settings are well designed, support cast like Clara's friend Molly and Peter's friends Sam and Joseph are well portrayed, and radio and paper reports add to the setting and story. All elements come together for an effective, involving and entertaining story about our choices, our influences and our resulting successes and mistakes.
As successful as the game is in that regard, it still could disappoint some gamers if they expect the kind of gameplay associated with a more traditional action format. As a narrative experience and cinematic story, South of the Circle unwinds its plot to dramatic effect instead of relying on player agency and choice to entertain. There are controller inputs throughout the game, and while they help immerse players, they do little to impact what transpires on screen.
A help menu shows dialogue symbols though I didn't access this until I questioned how the controls work. Each symbol has three reactions associated with it, i.e. panic, confusion and concern; forthright, strong and assertive; or enthusiastic interested and curious. It reminded me of Quantic Dream games where reactions emerge in the air and players choose one, affecting how the discussion unfolds. Only in this game, one selects a group.
I effectively played through a couple times, choosing what I thought were opposite groups, and detected subtle changes in replies but no real impact on how dialogue or scenes played out. The same is true when presented with images as dialogue responses (i.e. suit, tie or shoes). And when one option is presented, there is no consequence to not selecting it (the comment just comes later).
To be fair, State of Play has described the writing as nuanced, and this is an apt description for the dialogue options and their consequences, at least in my experience. Likewise, players can control Peter, whether walking, driving or interacting with items. But I didn't notice choices that deviate far from prescribed actions or a predetermined path. The overall impact is increased immersion, but within the constraints of the narrative.
Of course, this isn't uncommon in many video game stories, but there is less latitude in South of the Circle given the very specific story being told. So if one approaches the game with that expectation, I think they'll enjoy the thoughtful, poignant and entertaining story much more. It's rare to find a well-executed narrative where the writing, acting and overall design makes for a compelling experience, and can be recommended on that level.
I also can guarantee that the ending will make you think carefully about everything that transpired before -- about Peter's choices, about his relationships, even about memories of his childhood and more. Part of my second play-through was revisiting those things. It's a relatively short game at about four hours for me, but has an impact beyond that time. If you enjoy such contemplative stories, then check out South of the Circle.
(This post is based on a review key for the Nintendo Switch version of South of the Circle, which releases alongside PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series S/X, Xbox One and PC versions on August 3, 2022.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
In a gaming landscape dominated by action games, it’s exciting to find titles that buck that trend in favor of more meditative and intriguing experiences where the journey is its own reward. Enter sci-fi adventure game Beautiful Desolation by developer The Brotherhood and publisher Untold Tales. Taking place in a fascinating post-apocalyptic South Africa, players will discover the world and uncover its mystery, and whether the creativity and attention to detail provide enough entertainment without relying on high-octane action.
The setup for the player’s journey into this harrowing world is the aftermath of a brutal war when the auspicious arrival of an alien object named the Penrose heralds a period of technological advancement where disease and mortality are eradicated. But Heretics emerge against Penrose and its defender Penrose Allied, leading to a period of conflict. Into this setting comes skeptic Mark Leslie to investigate Penrose 10 years after its arrival and the resulting death of his fiance Charlize.
Players control Mark as he enlists his older brother Don and they begin their pursuit of the truth. But before their investigation goes very far, an accident sends the two dramatically off-course and into an unfamiliar, far-off future where inhabitants worship or resist the highly advanced technologies that now rule their lives. How players interact with the wide variety of personalities they'll encounter will help determine the course of their journey and attempts to return to their own time.
Indeed the game is described as a story-driven adventure game that forgoes RPG elements like character customization, loot grinding or constant combat in favor of exploration, consequential dialog options and some puzzles (in addition to mini-games and optional combat). From the start, players will navigate the world from an isometric perspective and converse with others in an indirect first-person perspective. The presentation in this regard is impressive, apparently owing to the photogrammetry that the South African developers used to put pieces of Africa into the levels, art and characters.
Settings such as grasslands, marsh, shores or settlements are varied, detailed and colorful, creating interesting areas to explore on foot or from the air. During several hours I've explored three of the game's seven areas and am impressed with the natural and artificial landmarks, not to mention the ambient sounds present at each location. There is beauty to be found in Vesta, Zozo and Saxonwold, in the ruins, villages and places in between, not to mention in the imaginative characters that populate each locale.
Organic and mechanical life comes in a wide variety of beings that exhibit equally varied beliefs, loyalties and personalities. There are sentient robots called agnates; servants of Dullahan, the creator of the world that they believe came from the Penrose; Witnesses of the Ascendency (which bestowed immortality), who provide gold and technology to the High Priests of Tribulation; and nonbelievers who reject Inja and followers the Kettle Maidens, to name but a few. Who they and others are, are better left to players to discover.
Developer The Brotherhood reports that there are more than 40 unique characters, all of whom are voiced by African actors that speak thousands of lines of dialogue including multiple conversation paths. In fact, meeting and interacting with this world's characters is a high point of the game thanks to creative character design and strong voice acting that helps distinguish each individual and every encounter thus far. While I have yet to determine to what degree dialog choices affect the story, the conversations themselves are entertaining and worthwhile.
These encounters do form the basis of the story, as characters will reveal details about this future that Mark and Don find themselves in, and suggest how the world changed since the arrival of the Penrose. As noted above, the post-apocalyptic free-for-all has resulted in a head-spinning menagerie of individuals and factions each with their own values and goals. It can be a challenge early on to keep it all straight, but it does make for an exceedingly colorful and eccentric cast that provide a lively journey even without regular combat.
In these ways world-building feels like an accomplished feat, at least to judge by the first several hours. This is not insignificant considering that exploration and story play such a prominent role in Beautiful Desolation. But gameplay in general and the controls that enable it facilitate the player's journey, so do they likewise rise to the occasion? The developer touts that the game's controls, interface and movement have been revamped to provide an intuitive experience on consoles.
On the Nintendo Switch, basic interface controls and menu work fine. The plus button opens the game menu for save, load, achievements and game/video/audio settings, which include accessibility options for text size, subtitles and color. The minus button toggles descriptions on/off in the isometric view, expanding on labels that identify objects in the environment (eye icons also highlight interactive points of interest, while notepads/pens identify noteworthy objects for the journal). L and R buttons control 6x magnification.
The ZL button opens the inventory. Players select an item with X to Use With a point of interest, or with Y to combine it with another item. Uses can involve converting gold possessions to credits, which can then be used to purchase items from vendors; or combining items to gift in return for a favor. Items therefore have specific uses to obtain entry or objects that will help Mark and Don. This inventory system encourages progress, and is not your typical character-building, stats-buffing loot grind.
An in-game handheld device is accessed via the ZR button. L and R buttons navigate between a network connection, map, recorded messages/dialog, Messages Review and To-Do List. The up direction key opens a journal/sketchbook, which includes clues (i.e. symbols, numbers). The down key opens a kind of walkie-talkie for contacting others or summoning the Buffalo transport. A is the action button for picking up items, initiating conversations, adding journal content and entering/exiting.
All these work reasonably well. But problems arise (at least they did for me) when attempting to navigate in this world or track objectives. Character/transport movement is controlled by the left thumbstick and kept my character moving when on the correct path. The issue is that those paths are not always defined and when moving off the path, my character got stuck or movement impeded to the point that I had to struggle with the control stick to get back on the predetermined path.
This issue is compounded when using the Buffalo transport to traverse the world from the air. Perhaps because of its relative speed, getting myself into sticky situations proved easy, though extricating myself out of them proved a challenge. Turning and forward movement felt less responsive with flight controls, and boundaries are even less clearly delineated with the aerial view. It's possible that my own skills are at fault, but I don't have this kind of trouble with other games.
As for tracking objectives, I was left at a loss on several occasions. Maybe I'm spoiled by games that include a measure of handholding, but I did feel this element likewise was not that intuitive. Given the breadth of areas and objectives, I had to regularly consult not only with the To-Do List for tasks but also the recorded messages/dialog screen in some cases to remind myself where I needed to go to complete the task. I missed having related HUD indicators, quest logs to track progress, and related map icons for current tasks.
All this lead to repeat menu visits, backtracking and fighting with controls just to stay on the correct path. Again, it could be partially my fault, but it's not something I struggle with in other titles. A little more clarity or clear boundaries would go a long way, especially for a game where exploration and story play such a prominent role in the experience and entertainment value of the game. It's worth noting, too, that the game did freeze when I chose to speak again at the Kettle door after initial conversation.
On a promising note, The Brotherhood has indicated that dialog choices will impact the ending of the game, and that there are multiple ways to complete it. Side quests and world-building stories augment the experience, as do cutscenes that I have found well-designed overall. The instrumental/electronic music (by Mick Gordon) is upbeat and provides a good background score for the goings-on.
Several hours into the game, and having explored three out of seven areas, I can say that Beautiful Desolation so far is overall a creative and intriguing experience that I'm eager to revisit. Meeting the bizarre but charismatic denizens of this future dystopia and learning about this world is a fascinating exercise from a player and world-building perspective. But like this cautionary tale there are technical issues that hold back the journey. I'm hopeful that the story and characters will continue to shine brightly, and be what players remember most about this odyssey.
(This post is based on a review key for the Nintendo Switch version of Beautiful Desolation, which released alongside the PlayStation 4 version on May 28, 2021.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
A Haven From the Familiar
Haven just might be the game we need now. Normally, a narrative that focuses in large measure on the mundane, on the daily interactions of a couple – cooking, eating, working, showering – would not be the kind of story that grabs my attention or even passes as entertainment for me. But these are not normal times, and the thoughtful depiction of young romance is so deftly handled that players just might fall in love with the characters.
Admittedly these are bold claims when I’m four hours into the game, but so far I’m thoroughly entertained by the depiction of this relationship by The Game Bakers. Of course, it helps that there is engaging exploration and combat plus a beautiful score and scenery. But front and center are strong central characters Yu and Kay and their bond, cemented by top flight dialog and voice acting that lend authenticity and compassion to their portrayal.
The dialog is casual and realistic, and the voice actors are emotive and charismatic. The combination early is by turns playful and romantic and suggests strong chemistry between the characters. The character models and animations provide the perfect accompaniment and reinforce their relationship. A nice touch is that the characters not only animate in the foreground dialog screen but in the background, too, including lip sync, gestures and posture.
It might seem a stretch to some, but I’m reminded of Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us, Trip and Monkey in Enslaved, and Nate and Elena in Uncharted. With the exception of the latter they aren’t romances, but they are all carefully crafted relationships that demonstrate in ways both subtle and explicit the dynamic nature of a strong personal bond that ebbs and flows with the passage of time. And that humanity is very much welcome these days.
So is the change of pace. Haven actually warns players that it’s not a challenging game (difficulties are Default and Reduced). This is no Souls-style beatdown, no epic action RPG like many of late. Those have their place, but have spawned more than their fair share of imitators. There is room – if not a real need – for a more intimate and romantic story that takes its time to unfold and reveal small details. Here, the exploration, activities and combat serve the story.
We meet Yu and Kay after they’ve become stranded on one of many islets above a planet called Source. Their predicament means they not only have to repair their spacecraft, but they have to fend for themselves in an alien and sometimes hostile environment. This adds stress to their relationship but also opportunities for kindness and support. They express real affection as they tease, flirt and care for one another, while they also complain, disagree or bicker.
Players participate by choosing dialog options that can help dictate the tone and tenor of a conversation. These don’t occur all the time but can help build confidence or improve the bond between Yu and Kay. The same is true of actions undertaken together such as combat, cooking, chatting or even celebrating. It’s never made explicit from what I recall, but I think Yu and Kay can level up as a result, i.e. increase max health or learn grabs and backflips.
In this way, everything that happens has the potential to grow Yu and Kay independently and as a couple. Again, this reinforces that they are the focal point of Haven and its gameplay, and extends even to animations such as sometimes holding hands when gliding or kissing when standing. Activities such as cooking, synthesizing, repairing, gliding, foraging and combat are all undertaken together and during which they’ll talk, high five, embrace, etc.
Players can swap between Yu and Kay by pressing down on the direction keypad. Basic controls on Xbox One include A as the action button (in response to prompts like Cook, Eat, Repair), right trigger to glide, left stick to walk, hold down left stick for U-turn while gliding, and hold left trigger to drift while gliding. They are fairly intuitive and responsive, though gliding/drifting can feel a little loose/floaty at times, but can be managed with practice.
Actions like cooking/synthesizing and combat are more involved. The former involves direction key and/or button presses to add or combine ingredients obtained from outside. In combat, Kay’s moves are mapped to the direction keypad and are mirrored by Yu’s moves assigned to face buttons, i.e. their commands are a reflection of each other: Impact (left direction key or B), Blast (right or X), Shield (down or A), and Pacify (up or Y, after weakened) for Kay and Yu, respectively.
Combat moves require holding down the respective key(s) while the action charges, then releasing to implement, and they can be performed separately or together. When synchronized, players can perform Duo Impact/Duo Blast attacks if their timing matches an on-screen prompt. I’m not sure if characters can die, but they can get hurt (depicted by hunching over and grabbing an arm, or by their health meter in the Status menu). Using a med pack in the Nest or a camp will heal both.
Fighting has a turn-based feel even though it happens in real time. Opponents line up against each other and enemies strike with a regular rhythm, even if they don’t wait to be attacked. So players can be hit when charging an attack, sometimes losing a charge. Enemies include insect and animal variations ranging from small to hulking and weak to strong, though I haven’t noticed much diversity in their attacks. Still, combat is well implemented even if so far simple, and adds welcome gameplay variety.
Whether characters are injured in combat, are hungry or are tired, I haven’t seen any consequence to delaying treatment, meals or rest. That’s a good thing as it turns out, as I haven’t seen options to apply field dressings for wounds, eat raw appledews or rattlepeppers, or rest while on the go outside of the Nest or a camp. Having to return to the Nest or camp to heal, eat or sleep can annoy, though perhaps less so than listening to the complaints of the afflicted parties.
Thankfully, the islets I’ve encountered are not huge and Yu and Kay can get around quickly with the glide mechanic. Plus, they don’t appear hindered in the exercise of it when they’re hurt, hungry or tired. That’s helpful when gliding plays such an important role in foraging for meal or synthesizer ingredients. And it also means that the joyous mechanic of gliding around these unexplored islets can be pursued without interference outside the occasional battle.
The controls to glide are fairly simple as indicated earlier. Using hover boots, Yu and Kay zip quickly along the ground and can perform U-turns or drift, helpful skills when needing to gather flow by gliding along flow threads. Flow is necessary to fuel their craft’s damaged engine, eliminate a pervasive rust that covers vegetation and makes creatures behave aggressively, and gather rust as a resource for molding items in the Nest’s synthesizer.
The setup four hours in appears to suggest gliding as a kind of platforming mechanic, where Yu and Kay can use aerial flow threads to essentially fly so long as they stay the course. Aside from the sometimes loose/floaty feel, gliding high or low is exhilarating and practical, allowing for traversing large areas in a short amount of time. It also is a sublime way to experience the game’s beautiful design and electronic score.
As players explore the islets above Source and the characters of Yu and Kay, they learn not only about the planet, its resources and its place in the universe, but also about the backstories of Yu and Kay, their relationship and their motivation. Early on, players realize (minor spoiler alert) that Yu and Kay took steps to avoid being followed, are apprehensive about returning to the Apiary, and want more time away. Details emerge that add context and mystery to the goings-on.
I enjoy how the game is a slow build. Nothing feels forced, but it isn’t boring either. Everything from dialog to exposition to exploration and gameplay evolution, at least so far, happens in an organic way. To borrow from the game’s lexicon, it flows. Largely intuitive UI helps, including menus for Stuff (Special items), Inventory (Backpack, Resources, Gear), Dialog log and Status (Impact, Duo Impact, Blast, Duo Blast, Max Health, Flow burst, Gliding, Jumps). Though I’m still getting my bearings with the distinctive map.
Haven has staked out a welcome niche from the very beginning. It starts with the dazzling whirlwind of a colorful title cinematic that follows Yu and Kay as they fly, embrace and kiss to a catchy dance beat. This homage to young love is a theme that plays out as players progress, and only deepens as more is discovered about them and their world. It’s a promising start, and an entertaining one at that. One that I looking forward to completing, and hope many other titles emulate.
(This post is based on a review key for the Xbox One version of Haven, which released December 3, 2020, and is also available on Xbox Series X and S, PlayStation 4 and 5, Nintendo Switch and PC.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
Death Tales Is a Lively Fantasy
The alluring fantasy motif of Death Tales piqued my interest in this adventure game that previously had flown under my radar. Stylish settings, compelling character design and an overall beautiful aesthetic suggest a unique adventure in a strange but fascinating land. And while the beguiling presentation did contribute to an enjoyable experience in total, did other aspects of the game likewise rise to the occasion?
Arcade Distillery does craft an impressive fantasy world with copious use of expressive lines, colorful palettes and fanciful characters animated in a style that at times reminds me of marionettes. The score includes vintage fantasy themes whether music in the early Soulless Realm levels that’s reminiscent of Tim Burton films or compositions in Forest Night Time locations that suggest a more dramatic adventure.
The game’s levels also include the city of Vesilia, Mountains and variations on a theme. In this way, while the variety of locale is not extensive, changes related to the time of day or local conditions help vary the setting, including deep, vibrant earth tones during the day and shades of blue, purple, etc. at night, as well as backdrops of swaying trees, leaves, embers and more.
The characters that inhabit this world likewise match the exaggerated storybook style and eye-catching color, whether the playable Reaper, sidekick Spaura (the Reaper’s Soul Bearer), the Grim Reaper, Death, Soulless Queen or others. Some resemble variations on birds, a dead deer, people, even frogs, but almost always with a creative flair – including the unique 2D animation – that separates them from ordinary creatures.
All this helps establish the distinctive fantasy that is supported by little details like a grinning moon or sun that resemble the Cheshire Cat, trees (I think) that look like creatures or people, roots that conjure snakes, and structures that resemble birds. It’s an inspired setting for any game, and the premise of a Reaper traveling the world to gather souls for Death should make good use of such a fantasy setting.
The story, however, doesn’t do it any favors. It can be a little hard to follow, partly because it scrolls at the bottom of the screen and partly due to a plot and wording that sometimes confuses. More clarity or text requiring a button press to proceed would have helped. That said, the story follows a Reaper who refuses to take a soul, setting in motion events that reveal a schism among the powers that be and imbalance in the world.
For what it’s worth, the story has little practical impact on playing the main character of the Reaper. Regardless of the situation that the Reaper and Spaura find themselves in, the central task at hand is always the defeat of foes and the collection of their souls. Whether gathering them for the Grim Reaper and, ultimately, Death or helping displaced souls, the core action is still the same. Even side quests have the same impact.
Speaking of side quests, as well as the characters that issue them, there are far fewer than I’d presumed given the marketing I’d seen. Aside from the main characters and a couple others at the beginning, there aren’t that many to be found and neither is there much in the way of quests. And to the extent there are any, they aren’t very consequential and don’t vary from the task of collecting souls.
A video for the PC version in fact seemed to show many more character models than appear in the Switch version I played. I likewise expected more player volition given a choice presented to the player early on. But I can’t tell that the choice had any more impact than either rewarding the player or not. Also, I don’t recall another choice in the game. All in all, these early inclusions are exceptions rather than the rule.
Thank goodness, then, that the central task of wandering the land and collecting souls proves entertaining in its design and execution. Players on the Switch can jump (B), attack (Y), dash (A), cast spells (left and right shoulders), aim spells (right stick up) and use special moves: heavy combo (Y,Y, hold Y; or heavy attack of Y 5 times), launch attack (hold Y), windmill attack (left stick up + Y) and ground slam (B + left stick down + Y).
Controls are intuitive and responsive, providing fluid movements and constant action. Enemies can be kept reeling with repeat attacks and multiple foes can be hit at the same time, even launching adversaries together into the air with successive uppercuts. Players can dash to avoid hits or to strike quickly, including from the air, as is the case jumping, too, which also enables the ground slam move.
The basic move set works well enough against various foes that include witches, other conjurers and various robot types using melee or ranged attacks. But the environment, foes or sheer numbers might require the use of other offensive options. And while players shouldn’t expect the standard arsenal of different combos or chained attacks, they’ll have a variety of spells and weapon variations to access during their journey.
These additional items can be collected from chests, chosen at level completion, or purchased from the vendor Fiona in Vesilia with essence the player receives (along with spirit and life) upon defeating enemies. Among other things, they might enable players to spawn bullets, rockets or flame; summon meteors, stampeding unicorns(!) or a conjurer; or perform an extra action like a hit at the end of a dash.
Besides sickles or blades, Fiona also sells armor and hoods, which all have either offensive or defensive capabilities. Similarly, spell-cast training can be purchased from Inan, a protector of the forests in Inan’s Cove. These all provide players with more options. And while players can select bounties from Vesilia’s Lead Reaper for eliminating enemies or bosses, their main benefit is rewarding players with essence to buy more items.
What to do with all these items? The good news is that Arcade Distillery allows for five Gear Sets accessible from the Equip screen in the Menu (plus key). Each set allows a choice of Weapon (sickle/blade), Hood and Armor, as well as two spells (mapped to the left/right shoulders). Players can switch between sets on the fly, but also can alter each set anytime choosing among all weapons, hoods, etc. that have been collected.
Part of the fun is experimenting with each loadout and figuring out which you like best including for a specific situation. For more demanding platforming sections, I chose a set with armor that uses wings to slow descent and a hood that enables higher jumps. For combat I generally preferred armor that boosts protection and life, hoods that spawned meteors or rockets, and sickles/blades that offered health or bullets.
The plethora of options in this regard contributed to a degree of RPG inventory swapping. But they also have a visible and practical impact on gameplay. The action can grow chaotic when grinning meteors rain down, unicorns or conjurers leave a rainbow in their wake, rockets hit their targets, flames erupt, and enemies attack or explode in a shower of red (life), blue (spirit) and yellow (essence) orbs.
The FX are a sight to behold when in pitched combat. And it helps that there is little to no noticeable slowdown when the action becomes frenetic. However, it’s also a distraction when the screen fills with activity. The problem is that the small player-controlled Reaper can disappear among foes and particle FX, in particular because he turns red when hit, the same as hit enemies. At that point, button mashing is the best option.
The screen won’t always be filled with action, though, as some areas aren’t packed with foes and spell use depends on whether or not they have a cool down period and how much spirit fills the respective gauge needed to cast spells. Defeating foes can replenish spirit, and collecting spirit shards can extend the gauge, in the same way that collecting pieces of a torn heart card can gain one life heart.
Platforming sections, too, can help break up the action, albeit not as much as you’d think. Gaps in terrain, varying elevations, moving platforms and various obstacles that fall, swing or rise task players with familiar challenges. But these can be complicated by attacking foes. Spell casting can help clear a path in lieu of ranged attacks, but they can sap the spirit meter needed to pull them off.
In these ways resource management becomes more important, as players need to determine which Gear Set is appropriate for any given scenario, whether to select items with more offensive or defensive capabilities, and which spells might be best depending on their strength and cool down period. Now, this isn’t the most challenging journey, but planning in advance for certain foes or terrain can help player progression.
I should mention that I’m not very good when it comes to side-scrolling games. But I did manage to get to the final boss. If I’d played local co-op, where a second player controls Spaura, I might have beaten it by now. The point being, that others by comparison might find the game easy. For me, the challenge was tuned just right. I died sometimes platforming and other times fighting, but never felt cheated or frustrated.
To the extent there were disappointments, they were the aforementioned omissions, where better exposition would have helped the story, more gameplay variety or quests would have broadened the appeal, and player volition would have deepened immersion. It also doesn’t help that there was spell-cast training for spells I never saw (i.e., Heal Totem, Ice Block, Bomb Totem) that might have helped, at least against the final boss.
Still my overall impression of Death Tales was a positive one where I was often entertained by the inspired, almost fairy tale like quality of the eye-popping presentation and beautiful fantasy score, and happily engaged by the over-the-top combat involving an arsenal of rockets, meteors and stampeding unicorns in the service of a sickle-swinging soul reaper. With its current $9.99 price of admission, the game is worth a visit.
(This post is based on a review key for the Nintendo Switch version of Death Tales, which released December 3, 2020, and is also available on PlayStation 4 and PC.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
If you’ve seen any advertising or social media for Cloudpunk you likely were drawn to the dark, neon bathed metropolis bustling with pedestrians and drivers. The alluring cyberpunk setting in fact is well worth the visit. But the true appeal of this gem from Ion Lands is when players take a closer look, past the admittedly gorgeous façade, to discover a fascinating cast of characters struggling to survive a dystopian future where all is not as it seems.
It’s worth noting that I spent the first two hours of the game (I’m currently about seven hours in) just moving around the colorful cityscape that is Nivalis. Ion Lands should be lauded for crafting a glorious setting of towering buildings in neon neighborhoods that are nonetheless distinct from each other, such as the claustrophobic jungle of Midtown, curved roofs of Little China, modular units of the Stacks, or casino/clubs of Fulcrum Sector.
Indeed, the developer said that the city is one of the main characters of the game. And it most definitely HAS character. In my time with the game so far, I feel rewarded by the simple act of exploration. The level design consistently impresses with its verticality and depth. Every elevation seems to possess a neighborhood or single location worth a flyby or visit. This is in addition to the well-realized cyberpunk aesthetic that first attracted me.
That aesthetic is the result of designing with voxels, a choice that makes sense when you understand – as the developer did – that the modern architecture of today’s cities is more modular in nature. Using blocks or cubes to build this metropolis therefore fits with the vision of a futuristic skyline. In that context, even voxel characters don’t seem out of place, especially androids or the many humans with cybernetic implants or other artificial accoutrements.
The wisdom of this design is clear when exploring from the air. Flying is a treat whether following established lanes or venturing off the beaten path, snaking one’s way through narrow gaps or emerging above busy urban sprawl, all adorned with blue, red, green and yellow neon. Controls (on Xbox One) are simple and responsive, with the left stick controlling direction and the right ascend/descend, while RT/LT accelerates/brakes, and RB/LB strafes right/left.
Managing ascent/descent while accelerating takes a little getting used to, as does flying fast into a turn where you can easily drift into objects. But practice makes perfect and learning when to do the former is part of the process. Importantly, I haven’t felt like I had to fight the controls. There are times when I feel like movement is blocked, but that’s usually because I’m in cramped quarters even if I can’t see it because of the camera in those tight areas.
Helpfully, there are highways for getting around town more quickly, as well as vehicle upgrades that can be found or purchased. I bought improved bumpers before I realized I’d already found some earlier, and I paid for a kind of turbo feature that can be used by pressing a button. There are also mechanics where you can get repairs made, and gas stations for replenishing fuel (the HUD includes a fuel gauge, while smoke warns of damage).
The HUD, which can be turned off, includes a minimap in the lower right with color icons that correspond to character tasks in the upper right. Helpfully, when in the same general direction, a single icon might display multiple colors. The map actually can be too helpful, even showing locations for pickups. But turning it off is problematic, as players can’t even see objects when dealing with merchants or dealers.
One thing worth pointing out that you never want turned off is the incredible score. It’s a big reason why the simple act of exploration is so thrilling, as the electronic music is perfectly suited to the cyberpunk setting and can range from trance to upbeat dance. Like Daft Punk’s score for Tron: Legacy, it’s hard to imagine Cloudpunk without it. In fact, I’ll sometimes stop until a new music clip plays, as the non-music interludes feel lacking by comparison.
Which is not to say that sound is lacking in the game, as there is plenty to immerse players in that department. The ever-present sound of your own hover car (including as it accelerates or ascends/descends), other vehicles not to mention occasional police sirens, trains, advertisements or government announcements, pedestrians/crowds, robots/machines, moving platforms and nightclubs all combine to effectively convey a bustling metropolis.
Exploring the bustle of Nivalis on foot means first finding a space to park your vehicle (you can’t set down anywhere to disembark). Thankfully exploration on foot is just as simple as flying, and offers various perspectives including first- and third-person and several camera options for the latter. I enjoy first-person exploration, but prefer backtracking in third-person on exterior walkways as it provides a side-scrolling perspective of the immediate area.
The only issues related to the camera when on foot involve a shifting perspective in third-person that sometimes requires a change in controller input, or the inability to see a pickup as you approach it in first person (as some lie flat, and unlike some games there is no pop up icon). But these are minor and controls, as with flight, work well and include the same buttons and commands. It’s also rare to bump into people or some objects, which can be nice or distracting.
On foot navigation is helped with platforms that serve as people movers up or down or across large expanses. There are no accessible stairs I’ve come across yet. The only downside is sometimes having to wait for the platforms, which never appear to have anyone else using them. One preference is that I’d have liked to enter some establishments, especially those with open doors, but you can only enter buildings when the opportunity presents itself.
Aiding pedestrians are portals that effectively teleport you to another area in the neighborhood. Like the platforms, these are marked in the HUD minimap. There are similar portals at the end of highways when in flight, though they take drivers to different districts of Nivalis and involve loading screens that require a momentary wait. On foot, travel through the portals is almost instantaneous. The same is true of some doors, once you’re allowed to pass.
Thus far the only time my travels around the city were restricted is either when I’ve hit the ceiling or low point for flight, or when I’ve encountered a barrier on foot that requires something to pass (like a keycard or a favor for a bouncer). In general I’ve been impressed with how open Nivalis appears to be at least seven hours in, which is probably part of the reason I’ve spent so much time to date just wandering around.
Other reasons for my wanderlust are the collectibles, pickups, upgrades, merchants, dealers, vendors, random characters and other NPCs my character can encounter. Players can obtain objects to sell or upgrade their home or vehicle, plus items that might turn out useful (an NPC happened to be a collector of an artifact in my inventory, which netted me an achievement). But the real allure is the characters you’ll find wandering or during missions.
The story follows your character Rania, a driver for the semi-legal delivery service Cloudpunk, as she picks up packages and passengers throughout Nivalis. Everyone, and everything, has a story though Rania is encouraged at every turn to not ask questions. But it’s the captivating answers that provide the real color in this neon playground, and Rania is almost as eager to listen as others are to divulge their thoughts, feelings or worries about life in the city.
The game starts out promising by introducing players to a forlorn android trying to put the pieces of its life back together, an engineer who marvels at a city that’s so old they don’t even have names for all the building parts, an AI canine companion only too happy to help with digital tasks, a chatty package and Rania’s boss at Control who appears to be trying to protect her from unscrupulous customers not to mention a pretty bad day at the office.
Digging deeper you learn how androids might yearn for acceptance, a home or an occupation; how the city is in such disrepair that malfunctions or collapsing zones claim scores of citizens; how some will trade favors for drugs or obsess over a wrong; how shady characters and collectives operating on the fringes might be more influential than appears; or how an enigmatic AI might fit into the entire scheme of things behind the neon curtain that is Nivalis.
Excellent dialog and voice acting go a long way toward immersing players, as do realistic but creative headshots beside dialog captions that put a face to voxel characters. And while there are no dialog options (which feels like a missed opportunity), players at times are presented with the option to pursue different actions. These choices can emerge from quests, which include collecting punch cards, getting engine parts, buying narcotics, or simply delivering your cargo.
These, in turn, can open doors, figuratively and literally. Sell a valuable engine part to pocket the price and force an older racer into an overdue retirement, or deliver it to him and help him continue racing while paying off his debt to a mechanic. Deliver a ticking package or dump your cargo. It remains to be seen what longer term consequences exist for selecting one option over another, but at least there is some player volition during the game.
The first choice gamers face is whether Cloudpunk is worth the investment in time and money. And for me the answer is a resounding yes. Ion Lands has crafted more than a pretty package. Interactions with citizens of Nivalis deliver the real goods, with discussions ranging from funny to poignant, adding heart at the center of a beautiful urban dystopia. Visit Nivalis for the glorious neon skyline, and you’ll stay for the colorful hover car confessions.
(This post is based on a review key for the Xbox One version of Cloudpunk, which is also available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Steam, and released October 15 on consoles.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
Paradise Killer is not your typical video game, and we can all be grateful for that. Kaizen Game Works has built an elaborate fantasy where the principal gameplay involves interviewing colorful characters about outlandish acts while scouring an open world island for clues to a crime and even to the nature of this strange world.
I'm multiple hours into the game, and I'm impressed not only with how players can start to piece together the chief mystery of the game through diligent detective work, but how their dedication is rewarded with details and lore that collectively help begin to make sense of this exceedingly bizarre universe. It's a rich, outrageous tapestry.
You know you can expect a unique -- if not intimidating -- experience when the set up requires a few screens of background info. In short, the Syndicate has abducted Citizens to use their psychic powers of worship to ultimately resurrect their dead alien gods on successive islands perfected with each iteration despite corruption by demons attracted to the psychic power.
This cycle decreases demonic corruption over time but involves a slaughter of island Citizens when each island dies. Island Sequence 25 was supposed to be perfect but the murder of the ruling Council during the transition, reportedly by a Citizen possessed by demons, halted the process and brought disgraced Syndicate investigator Lady Love Dies back from exile.
To its credit, Kaizen Game Works provides a variety of options including turning screenshake and flickering lights on or off, selecting normal or open dyslexic dialog font, three kinds of color correction, and an autowalk setting. Controls themselves work well on Nintendo Switch: Movement (Left Stick), Camera (Right Stick), Interact (A), Crouch (B), Jump (R), Spring (Hold L), Torch (ZR) and AR Vision (Hold ZL).
Navigation is simple, whether in TV or Handheld mode. That's important considering so much of the game relies on exploring the world of Island Sequence 24 (not to mention other locations I've visited thus far, including a pyramid and space; and the game suggests Island Sequence 25 might be an option). That's an aspect of the game right up my alley.
I honestly didn't expect a completely free-roam game but that's essentially what you get (the only restriction I've found is a transition screen when riding a kind of Jet Ski). Walk, sprint and jump along paths, waterways, hills, beaches, buildings and other artificial structures. Players can even unlock a double jump to access more challenging areas.
The game makes such efforts not just entertaining but worthwhile. Along the way, players will discover items like Blood Crystals (Syndicate currency) to purchase drinks from vending machines, operate foot baths, make blood donations at temples, curry favors, unlock fast travel, etc.; red, blue, green and yellow crests to install at certain stations; and relics (photos, carvings, etc.) with info or lore.
Some related actions might, in turn, reveal more secrets like the location of important software upgrades, abilities like the double jump, more relics or Blood Crystals, important information, or -- in the case of fast travel unlocks -- wallpaper for your OS. Even the hidden items that don't appear to offer much value still contribute to the world's offbeat lore.
Better yet, there are clues and other details throughout the island that contribute to your case, even in areas where you might not expect to find anything of note. For gamers like me who love exploration, that adds extra incentive and satisfaction to scouring every area. And there are many areas high and low, inside and out, to investigate along the way.
To assist in this regard is a map, AR Vision and audio and visual cues. The map is only available via menus and does not show direction so is less helpful than other options like AR Vision, which is very useful for showing where, how far and how critical individuals might be at any given moment. Nearby items, conversely, will emit and show cues to alert you to their presence.
When Lady Love Dies encounters others in the Syndicate, there will be scripted exchanges that help establish not only member relationships but her involvement as well, including her role as the former head of the Paradise Psycho Unit charged with protecting the council and how the god Damned Harmony's deception resulted in her exile to the Idle Lands.
But there are also plenty of opportunities to help shape each conversation. Dialog options like Question, Doubt, Surprised, Irritated and Suspicious determine how Lady Love Dies reacts and how others respond. Such choices can prove useful whether in the initial discussion or when the player opts to address the Case Files or to Hang Out.
Case File options allow the investigator to ask each individual about elements related to the case, such as certain deaths, the nature of security or its breaches, the prime suspect, others' alibis and even each individual's suspicions, alibi or possible motives. Hang Out is structured more like an informal chat and can explore their relationship.
Even though I've been playing the game a while, it's too early to tell how impactful various dialog choices will prove later in the game, especially when making a case against a suspect. But I usually take advantage of opportunities to improve relationships and one did pay off when someone had a change of heart and shared more info than they initially were prepared to do.
Likewise I'm eager to find out how several strategic choices play out, such as placating a character with an outsized ego, acting devout for a zealot, or telling a pesky demon that pops up everywhere what I believe it wants to hear. If the example above -- and notifications that I've increased relationships -- is any indication, these choices should bear fruit down the line.
In the process of such conversations, the investigator will collect testimony, evidence and clues. Lady Love Dies can also use the Vision Engine for scene investigation, identifying and gathering key observations and items found at crime scenes or important settings. All such elements are then catalogued in her helpful Starlight OS for future reference.
The Starlight interface (+ button) includes Investigation Notes, Case Files, Inventory, Population, Timeline and Music menus. The two most helpful sources are Investigation Notes, which includes notes on potential leads and suspects, and Case Files related to each suspect (Motive, Alibi, Alibi Breakers) and crime. These offer detailed refreshers on information gathered.
The Inventory includes Key Items like a blood sample, unlock card, letter report; Upgrades to help unlock Nightmare Computer restrictions; and Relics such as photos, books, Island Sequence mementos, recordings and carvings. Population shows the Council, Syndicate and Citizens. Timeline displays History, Island Sequence 24/Current Island and Last Night.
Music deserves more attention as the upbeat electronic soundtrack -- a kind of contemporary electro pop sound -- provides an entertaining background to the grandiose goings on. Tracks (cassette tapes) are obtained from radio towers that broadcast music and are played in a loop. Options in Starlight include edit, restart, shuffle and volume.
The one exception is the jazz accompaniment for The Way of Blood Bar, a kind of hard-boiled interlude between two patrons of a cocktail bar -- in silhouette but suggestive of a man and woman -- who reflect on their current and past circumstances. It's an interesting mystery within a mystery, as it takes place in Island Sequence 25.
In the process of exploring the island and investigating the crime, Lady Love Dies will encounter puzzles along the way. These include light puzzles like finding and placing objects, operating machinery in the proper sequence, and matching puzzle pieces to decipher arcane hieroglyphics of the Nightmare Computer.
Like the puzzles, the game thus far is not necessarily challenging, though some strategy is involved in dialog choices or scaling areas for pickups. After all, Lady Love Dies -- like all Syndicate members -- is immortal. She'll land falls from any height without a scratch (helpful to reach some pickups), and resurrect at nearby spawn (save) points upon drowning in the ocean.
Indeed, there's no combat that I've encountered yet. There's a gun that can be obtained, but it remains to be seen how it comes into play. So for some, the light challenge and dearth of combat might be a turnoff, but for me and others I imagine, it's a welcome change of pace in a medium where the former is standard fare.
And standard fare is precisely what Paradise Killer is not. The over the top characters, ridiculous setting and imaginative lore all come together for an exceptional gaming experience. It's not without issues, like small text in menus (worst in handheld mode), lots of seemingly inconsequential pickups, and repeat lines whose spirit doesn't match the dialog.
There are also minor presentation issues like glitchy lighting in handheld mode or rain inside the Council building. But the overall presentation and gameplay is simply top notch. A highly stylized, cell shaded world with distinct colorful characters and well designed layouts provide a dazzling backdrop for political/religious intrigue of the highest order.
Immersive dialog options and platforming opportunities complement the stylish setting for a rewarding experience in total that deserves players' attention not just as a quality experience but as a unique one that has few rivals in terms of its operatic fantasy elements and investigative legwork in a crime drama procedural that's literally out of this world.
(This post is based on a review key for the Nintendo Switch version of Paradise Killer, which is also available on Steam and released September 4. The game retails for $19.99 but is on sale for a limited time for $15.99.)
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