Funimation Films' Kingdom tells an intimate story on a large stage. In this way it reminds one of other epic films, where ordinary characters are swept up in a grand struggle, and few conflicts are more grand than the Warring States period of Chinese history. But this fictionalized account of how the Qin kingdom set about unifying China deftly explores that challenge on a personal level as disparate lives collide on the journey.
This live-action film is based on the adventure-historical manga series of the same name by Yasuhisa Hara and tells the story of two boys orphaned by war and sold into slavery who dream of freedom and becoming great generals. When circumstances plunge both into the middle of China's political upheaval, their choices prove fateful and set them on a course that intersects with a cross section of Chinese society for better and worse.
Their journey from slavery to war is a tumultuous one that lays bare the schisms in society as orphans, slaves, slave owners, peasants, commoners, military officers, officials and royalty intersect or openly clash, including a mountain tribe and its shifting relationship with "flatlanders." In this fictional retelling, a deposed commoner king and his allies seek the aid of ordinary Chinese to defeat his usurper brother and unite the kingdom.
Without giving too much away, the story does an admirable job keeping the boys' relationship at the center of the narrative even when they are apart. The bond they formed as children, their dedication to each other, and the promise they made to both become great generals are recurrent elements from beginning to end. It provides context, motivation and rationale, even when the world forces a different path.
Kento Yamazaki (Li Xin) and Ryo Yoshizawa (Piao) are well suited to their roles, and have a solid chemistry that endures through all the tumult they experience. At times Xin's portrayal can be overwrought but it doesn't stretch credulity too far given the trauma the character experiences. In fact, the mental and emotional anguish as well as physical exhaustion were impressively portrayed and helped convey how dire circumstances were.
Yoshizawa, on the other hand, had a more complex challenge but effectively displayed an appropriate range of characterization that helped sell the story. Indeed, all the actors/actresses helped breathe life into their characters, especially Kanna Hashimoto (He Liao Diao), Masami Nagasawa (Yang Duan He) and Masahiro Takashima (Chang Wen Jun). The ensemble in general works well with each other and the material.
There are also more colorful, larger than life characters that add entertaining elements to the story. A mysterious assassin who mercilessly pursues his prey, a monstrous executioner named Lan Kai that towers over adversaries, and the legendary General Wang Qi that inspired the boys and continues to evoke awe. All reflect a manga influence, whether or not they actually appeared in the source material.
The dialog is generally well conceived and helps propel the narrative with just enough exposition to follow the overall story without getting bogged down in detail. In fact, the film's pacing provides a serviceable balance between quieter moments and action, maintaining a thoughtful, emotional thread in between confrontation and combat. In this regard director Shinsuke Sato has crafted a well-rounded, entertaining film.
Action scenes carry much of the film and complement the story well. Whether scenes of individual fights or full-scale combat, the choreography, camerawork and editing help create exhilarating, tense confrontations involving ranged attacks, melee weapons and acrobatics sometimes aided by wire work. They're at times intense and always satisfying, whether on a plain, in a bamboo forest, in interiors or elsewhere.
Speaking of, the location shoots, courtyard scenes and interiors are all magnificent and help convey the story's epic qualities. Forested gorges, a mountain refuge and a resplendent throne room are among the impressive sights, not to mention the detailed armor, tribal gear, silk robes and everyday clothes worn by the cast. The solid score accentuates each scene instead of undermining, hitting the right notes for solemn or martial moments.
Some elements of the film are weaker than others, including lines of dialog that can feel uninspired, unfunny or just out of place, fight choreography with wires that can come across as showy instead of having consequence, and makeup in the case of Lan Kai that looks more like a Halloween mask than convincing prosthetics. However, these are the exceptions to an otherwise solid and well-made production overall.
The central story of the boys' relationship is a moving one that is strong enough not only to carry the movie but to do so even when they're separated. The fact that their origin as orphans plays into the larger conflict and ties in to the role played by other commoners, peasants and underprivileged Chinese in the effort to reinstate the deposed commoner king is an inspired theme especially in today's divided world.
The film succeeds because of the way it expertly portrays an intimate story of underprivileged characters swept up in the tumult of historic change. The characters' conflicts and how they rise above them mirrors the challenges faced by China, and in a way that allows audiences to be emotionally invested in the overall story. Kingdom in this way is a sweeping epic with heart, that grips audiences while it also entertains.
(This review is based on a screener. Kingdom opens in select theaters August 16. It is shown in Japanese with English subtitles, is rated R for violence, and has a run time of 134 minutes.)
Superhot, a clever puzzle game that masquerades as a shooter, has received praise for good reason. Tying the passage of time to one's movements is an inspired concept and, reportedly, its execution in prior releases has been impressive. Superhot VR on Oculus Quest is my introduction to this gameplay, and looks to raise the bar for a game so heavily influenced by motion.
The Superhot Team to a certain extent went back to the drawing board to recreate their game in virtual reality. The rebuilt game apparently features levels and gameplay that differ from prior versions. Others can address how those compare. I'll focus on how Superhot VR works as its own virtual reality game, and in the process presume that readers are unfamiliar with the game, as I was.
The first thing made clear to the player is that there is no story. The fact is that the game is a series of shooting galleries and wastes no time establishing that. And while Superhot VR works exceedingly well on that level, and plenty of games suffer with tacked on storylines, I was disappointed to discover that prior versions have a compelling narrative that is conspicuously absent here.
Still, an approach that forgoes such attempts in favor of immediate action, especially when that action is so immersive, has its advantages. Call it "bullet time" a la Max Payne or Stranglehold. I prefer bullet ballet. Whereas the former is more offensive and allows players to get the drop on foes with precise targeting, the latter emphasizes defense by dodging bullets or melee attacks to set up the next shot.
The jumping off point is a closet-sized room with tables holding computers, monitors and floppy disks, and walls covered with challenges written on Post-Its. Players select from disks labeled to reflect each mode or option the game offers, put one in the hard drive and place the virtual visor over their head to begin. In between missions, completed challenges will have moved to the door.
The disks themselves represent the main Superhot game and related options like Reset Progress and Guest, or other modes that are variations on the core content, including Speedrun Game Time, Speedrun Real Time, Hard Core, Headshot Only, Don't Die and Endless. I found the main game surprisingly short despite multiple deaths, but the various other modes provide a ton of replayability.
Whichever disk is selected, each mission unfolds in the same way. You stand in a white environment over black guns or melee objects (bottles, ash trays, billiard balls, etc.) and opposite advancing, featureless red avatars that carry guns, knives or fists of fury. Levels might lack detail or texture but are varied, including an airport, mall, helipad, office, construction yard, bar and restaurant.
The settings usually provide some cover and weapons, and the moment you reach for either time starts to advance along with your assailants. That's why it's important to always assess your situation and plan your next move. In this way Superhot VR plays out more like a puzzle game where the player carefully choreographs every engagement, though deaths and trial and error gameplay figure prominently.
What's especially impressive about this setup is that I rarely felt frustrated or cheated. There are never so many foes or so few weapons or cover that players can't survive, so it comes down to how well one can analyze each scenario and choose which weapon to use when and on which enemy. Getting killed becomes a lesson in the pitfalls of impatience or carelessness.
Players gauge who is an immediate risk, either due to proximity or weapon. If nearby, a fist or melee weapon will save ammo. Are they bunched up or spread out? Find a submachine gun or shotgun for the former, handgun or melee for the latter. Have they raised their weapon? They're the first target at range. Of course, a quick check of your nearby arsenal will inform each decision.
Thankfully, foes will react to your choices. Fire too far in front of a distant moving target and they might change direction. Too close and they might avoid your shot. Waste your bullets on errant shots and you'll find yourself hiding behind cover or contorting yourself in borderline uncomfortable ways to avoid taking just one of many bullets and starting from the beginning of the mission.
Every single firefight boils down to how well you plan and execute every single move, and the game brilliantly takes advantage of that in virtual reality. Reaching for weapons at arm's length or farther, throwing melee weapons while firing a pistol, or dual-wielding guns to target different enemies, all the while positioning yourself low or high, right or left, creates a unique, immersive and entertaining experience.
I don't recall a VR game that challenged me in this way, demanding I use my entire body at all times in a relatively quick, responsive and thoughtful way while also anticipating how each scenario will play out. It's exciting, fluid and rewarding, especially when weapons can also stop bullets and a kind of energy beam from extended fists can help in a pinch (never mind its odd placement in a game without a story).
It's fun, when it all works. Thankfully that's often the case, but I was frustrated on several occasions by grab/hold buttons that stuck in place. Of course that's a problem with the Oculus Touch controllers, however, it's also a function of game design when players are required to hold weapons by continuously pressing down on the grab buttons. Release the buttons, and the weapons fall. (Usually.)
In most games such as Robo Recall, one press will grab an item/weapon, a second will release it. In a game that requires pressing down until you want to let the item/weapon go, the chances are greater that the button will stick. At best, I lost precious time trying to throw or change weapons; at worst, I suffered multiple cheap deaths because I could do neither.
This wasn't a constant problem, and it only became worse the longer I played. While annoying, there were few other issues that I had with game design/controls. Despite the main Superhot VR mode being surprisingly short, the variety of other modes adds considerably to the game's replayability. I found myself playing levels over and over to improve my kills in Endless or times in Speedrun.
My overall experience with Superhot VR was a joyous one that lived up to the hype. The immersion of full body movement, including (SPOILER ALERT) a required leap from a building, was exhilarating and still rare in virtual reality. Also, while my play space is limited, I was impressed to read how others on Quest could take advantage of larger spaces to reach farther weapons and foes.
Another feature of level design that was appreciated is the option on some levels to teleport to a second position within eyesight. This allows players to flank unsuspecting foes at a moment's notice and also enjoy a different perspective on the same map. Like the energy beams, I didn't take advantage as often as I should have, but their inclusion likewise increases replayability.
While there's room for improvement, the Superhot Team has crafted inventive must-play scenarios that provide a great foundation for future VR content. More than most virtual reality games, Superhot VR exploits the medium in entertaining ways that impress and inspire, and hopefully will lead to similar quality experiences going forward.
(This review is based on a review code of Superhot VR for the Oculus Quest. The game released May 21 on this console.)
Square Enix representatives were on hand at Anime Expo this year to detail the company's new Square Enix Manga and Square Enix Books imprints unveiled in May. Lead presenter Masa of the manga/book program was joined by lead editor Tania Biswas (responsible for bringing titles from Japan) and Square Enix America PR representatives Stephanie and Rachel.
Soul Eater: The Perfect Edition, by Atsushi Ohkubo, is about Maka, a weapon meister at Death Weapon Meister Academy, who is determined to turn her partner, the living scythe Soul Eater, into the Death Scythe -- the ultimate weapon of Death himself. She just has to find the tainted souls of 99 humans and one witch first. This edition includes new cover illustrations by Ohkubo-sensei, all color pages from the magazine serialization (never available in English before), a larger format and the full 25 volumes of the series now condensed into 17. The manga is coming later this year.
Hi Score Girl, by Rensuke Oshikiri, is set in the early 1990s and follows skilled gamer Haruo who is confronted with a gamer girl who defeats him and halts his winning streak. A rivalry ensues, but so does an unlikely friendship. The manga is expected this year; the anime is on Netflix, with the second season debuting in Japan in October.
A Man and His Cat, by Umi Sakurai, follows the heartwarming and funny story of an elegant man who stops in a pet store one day and leaves for home with a 1-year-old cat named Fukumaru. The series is about how much love an animal can bring into your life and how much better your life can be with a pet. This manga was the No. 1 top launch in Japan in the first half of 2018, and is coming in 2019. Stamps are available for purchase by searching Ojisama to Neko on the LINE messaging app.
Suppose a Kid from the Last Dungeon Boonies Moved to a Starter Town (story by Toshio Satou, art by Hajime Fusemachi, character design by Nao Watanuki) is about a young boy with big dreams who heads to the imperial capital to become a soldier in defiance of neighbors who consider him weak. Everyone around him soon discovers that weak is relative when you're descended from heroes. This manga is expected to hit stores in 2020.
Marked for Failure, the World's Strongest Sage Reincarnates for a Do-Over! -- story by Shinkoshoto, art by Kansho and Hyoko (Friendly Land), character design by Huuka Kazabana -- is the tale of the world's strongest sage who reincarnates to become even stronger, only to be born into a world where no one recognizes his potential. Mathias faces an uphill battle to prove everyone wrong. This manga includes new short stories written by the author of the original light novel and is expected to arrive in 2020.
Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina (story by Jougi Shiraishi, art by Itsuki Nanao, character design by Azuru) is about a full-fledged witch named Elaina who, instead of receiving great fanfare in the Land of Witches, is waylaid by a chance encounter and denied the recognition she deserves. Propelled on an unexpected adventure as a result, she leaves a mark on the creatures and people she meets. This adaptation of the light novel that ranked No. 1 on Amazon Kindle in Japan is anticipated to make its manga debut in 2020.
Cherry Magic! Thirty Years of Virginity Can Make You a Wizard?, by Yuu Toyota, is a heartwarming romantic comedy that tells the tale of a 30-year-old virgin named Adachi who has developed the ability to read people's minds by touching them, and what happens when a brush with a handsome colleague reveals that he has a crush on Adachi himself. Ranked No. 1 on Japan's Bookstore Employees' Recommended Boys Love Manga of 2019, this first BL series by Square Enix is a popular series on Pixiv Comics and expected to release in 2020.
My Dress-Up Darling, by Shinichi Fukuda, is about a high school boy with a passion for traditional dolls and a talent for sewing and crafting who finds himself making cosplay outfits for one of the prettiest, most popular girls in his class. This odd couple's interactions get racier as they grow closer. The manga is anticipated in 2020.
The Misfit of Demon King Academy: History's Strongest Demon King Reincarnates and Goes to School with His Descendants (story by SHU, art by Kayaharuka, character design by Yoshinori Shizuma) is the tale of demon king Anoth and what happens when his hoped-for peaceful reincarnation results in attending school with his descendants 2,000 years later. With magic on its last legs in this era, no one can assess or appreciate Anoth's true power and he has to overcome a reputation as a failure. This manga is anticipated in 2020.
To oppose the gods or to follow your destiny? Final Fantasy XV: The Dawn of the Future, by Jun Eishima, is a follow-up story about the dawn of the world, a new history of Final Fantasy XV and its characters: Ardyn, Aranea, Lunafreya and Noctis. The novel (~400 pages in the Japanese edition) contains basically four stories following the characters with additional context to their stories that weren't fully seen in the game and also sheds some new light on what happens after the game so kind of provides a new ending to Final Fantasy XV. It is coming this year. (The expanded cover illustration seen below might be included as a poster inside the book exclusively for the English edition.)
For more information and updates about Square Enix titles, visit Square-Enix-Books.com.
More Anime Expo coverage can be found here: Anime Expo 2019: Exhibitors, Artists & Cosplay.
More photos from Anime Expo can be found in the Photography section.
Anime Expo continues to be a huge draw for the industry, content creators and fans of anime, manga and Japanese culture in general. Reportedly the four-day event attracted 110,000 unique attendees and 350,000 total turnstile visits last year. This year, too, packed exhibit halls, meeting rooms and theaters with countless representatives and consumers eager to share their enjoyment of these popular mediums.
Besides shelves, tabletops and boxes of anime and manga, exhibitors offered attendees a range of goods such as action figures, plushies, bobbleheads, models, video games, music, arts and crafts, cosplay garments, Japanese fashion, T-shirts and caps, and accessories, not to mention the opportunity to obtain merchandise exclusive to the expo. They also provided performances, photo ops, playable video games, contests and more.
Exhibitors this year included Aksys Games, ATLUS, Bandai Namco, Crunchyroll, Cygames, Funimation, Gungho Online, Kinokuniya Bookstore, Lab Zero Games, NIS America, Toei Animation and VIZ Media, among many, many more both large and small. Booths ranged from large exhibits with banners/signage, video screens, statues, art, etc., including interactive displays, to single booths displaying tons of product.
If looking for artwork, the show floor and Artist Alley had more than enough for even avid collectors. The latter is in Kentia Hall, which is basically parking area A. The many long aisles are filled with artist booths and attendees can spend a long time walking up and down while appreciating the wide variety and consistently quality artistry on display. All mediums and crafts are well represented, with unique takes on popular characters and franchises.
Entertainment of course went beyond the exhibit hall to include the Welcome & Closing Ceremonies, traditional cosplay Masquerade (and World Cosplay Summit USA Finals), a Japanese fashion show, Late Comedy Showdown, Cosplay Chess, AMV (Anime Music Video) Showdown, Butler/Maid Cafes, anime premieres/screenings, Community Stage, concerts, the burlesque and cabaret After Hours, Lounge 21, Manga Lounge, karaoke and AX Dance.
Every day was full of insightful, compelling and/or entertaining content in the form of panel discussions on a variety of topics. What caught my eye were Diversity in Manga, Warner Bros. Japan Anime Lineup, Aksys Games, Square Enix Announcements, Gundam 40th Anniversary Panel, Japanese Game Creativity With New Game From CyberConnect2, Introduction to Shinto by Shinto Priest, and Play Anime! With Bandai Namco.
Last but not least was what attendees brought to the expo in the form of cosplay costumes. Year in and year out visitors and Masquerade contestants dazzle with impressive gear made from scratch to pay homage to their favorite anime or manga characters. They show a range of skill but all show off the attendees' love for the mediums. See below and in the Photography section of this website for examples.
The expo has grown by leaps and bounds, and not only in attendance. The breadth of exhibitors and especially artists is truly impressive. One day is scarcely enough time to even scrape the surface of this huge expo. I did overhear attendees complain about Thursday admission, but my experience was not too restrictive and, once inside, I felt it went reasonably well despite the huge throngs. If a fan of anime or manga, it's worth a visit.
More Anime Expo coverage can be found here: Anime Expo 2019: Square Enix Announces New Manga & Books.
More photos from Anime Expo can be found in the Photography section.
I do not have a green thumb, and am not really a fan of farming simulations. But I was aware of the gardening/exploration game Fujii and, more importantly, the work of indie developer Funktronic Labs (having demoed their entertaining Wave Break game) when I requested a review code of the virtual reality game for my Oculus Quest. Still, none of that prepared me for playing their latest title.
It might sound odd, but what immediately came to mind was the Disneyland ride "It's a Small World." I was reminded of its boat ride, charming world, enjoyable music, bright colors and enthralling design. But more than anything, it evoked the same childhood wonder that I associate with Disney. In fact the game has a fairy tale feel even without a narrative structure. Fantasy looms large in the landscapes, flora and fauna that players encounter.
Here are Sleeping Beauty's bold style, Alice in Wonderland's abstract allure and Snow White's adorable creatures, as well as Fantasia's appealing blend of animation, music and art. Composer Norman Bambi (I swear I didn't know that was his name beforehand) has crafted a sublime score that changes with each biome or garden and includes a beautiful arrangement for boat rides to/from your garden hub.
Creatures in each biome and garden hop, bob and sway as if with the music, and even plants move as they grow larger. And all are gorgeously rendered and endearing in a simplified but highly stylized fashion. They include eels that stand like stalks, snails that double as planters, and rabbits that emit cute noises and floating hearts. Not to mention flying jellyfish and hammerhead style animals in air and on land. All colorful, buoyant and irresistibly cute.
Plant design, too, is inspired. Some of it is a function of its purpose but much is just creative imagination. There are plants of all shapes and sizes, including towering clovers, large dandelions, varieties of cacti and coral, lily pads, and a wide array of flowers large and small, and many of which react when touched (moving, glowing or even producing musical tones).
You might wonder why I've spent so much time up front talking about the atmosphere of the game, but for a title like Fujii that places an emphasis on exploration and gardening, the presentation is a huge part of the experience playing the game. That said, the gameplay itself is simple and intuitive but varied and interesting enough to keep gamers playing for hours. In these ways it reminds me of classics like Flower or Journey.
Players venture out from their garden hub to visit different biomes by boat. These open up over time as gamers progress. The hub itself resembles a giant tree in the middle of an ocean, and roots connect it with each biome. It's along these roots that your boat moves, accompanied by a serenade from your companion gnome (much more appealing than the kind you might have in mind).
When you arrive at your destination, the roots beneath your feet fan out to follow different tracks. A visual pulse emanates outward, leading you along each path, some of which are blocked. Throughout each biome, players either will use found orbs to open gates or unlock other pathways by interacting with their environment. Both methods can involve the biome's flora and fauna.
Some creatures and the buds, petals and stems of some plants will glow as a signal to the player. Touching, grabbing or spraying water can activate these or other plants in ways that help with navigation, and often involve relatively simple puzzles in the form of pattern recognition, for instance. These help vary gameplay without breaking the pleasant meditative experience that Fujii provides.
The end result can be newly illuminated paths or the growth of plants like clovers or lily pads that lead to previously inaccessible areas. It's worth noting at this point that navigation is accomplished via teleportation by tilting the Oculus Touch thumb sticks toward a target destination. This helps traverse the giant clovers, lily pads and other objects for a light platforming element.
Exploration on occasion can thrill players with wondrous reveals or delightful hidden areas that might contain rare items. I won't ruin those experiences by describing them here, but they provided for me, at least, a welcome reward and that sense of awe that the game so consistently evokes. In these moments, especially, the production values and creativity elevate the experience.
Interacting with glowing plants or creatures can also yield resources like orbs or seeds and, indirectly, eggs and even wind chimes. Orbs sometimes also appear out in the open and can open stone gates or help obtain seeds or planters at your garden hub. The seeds and eggs you find in biomes likewise can help your gardens grow. Items like chimes and seashells can help decorate them.
Biomes and gardens reflect diverse environments. Hours into the game I've visited lush canyons intersected by streams, a dry coastal area of rock formations, and an area of luminous plant life at night. Each is unique and well designed from practical and aesthetic standpoints. Unlocked gardens can resemble the biomes players visit, though I've managed to mix up my plants (did I mention I don't have a green thumb?).
The gardens themselves are thankfully easy to cultivate. They include large stationary planters and smaller ones of varying sizes that can be moved. More small planters can be obtained with orbs at a kind of dispensing machine (there is also one for unlocked seeds). Simply deposit seeds in the planters, and water them until fully grown plants. Water, in turn, can be grabbed from large floating orbs, then sprayed with the pull of a trigger.
Seed appearance suggests the kind of plant it will grow in to, though I'm pretty poor at guessing as it turns out. I've grown cacti in my lush garden and regular flowers in my arid one. Still, with regular watering they can grow impressively large and make each garden a sight to behold. Thankfully, some plants yield orbs themselves, helping grow each garden without repeatedly visiting the biomes.
Another user friendly feature that I appreciate is the opportunity to cut short boat rides to/from biomes. While they are immensely enjoyable -- mainly for the accompanying music, floating creatures and sprouting flowers around the boat -- they are long and can grow repetitive. On return trips, however, there is a bell at the stern that when rung cuts the trip short.
Besides seeds, collected eggs and wind chimes help decorate one's gardens. Simply drop the egg and a creature will appear at your feet. Note that some creatures will already populate your gardens. With wind chimes, use the thumb sticks to extend your arms (this works with small planters too) to place them where you want them to hover, but they need to be placed within earshot in order to hear the pleasant tones they regularly emit.
There are other items you likewise can obtain to decorate your gardens though I'm still not sure exactly what function they perform besides improving the aesthetic. All told, it won't take long for your gardens to grow into beautiful environments themselves. The entire experience of Fujii is sublime and rewards a more relaxed and measured approach to exploration and gardening.
Importantly, the controls all work well. They are simple, intuitive and responsive. Touching, targeting for teleportation or spraying water, and grabbing are all well implemented. If there's a caveat, it's that grabbing on occasion can be imprecise, such as when pulling down on the stem of a tall plant or trying to harvest seeds from inside blossoms.
In fact, if there's one thing that sometimes annoyed, it's how seeds can sometimes be dropped on the first try. Normally that wouldn't be a big deal, but on a few occasions I had those seeds drop through the ground. One was irretrievable though, thankfully, I believe it at least showed up as unlocked back at the garden hub. But except for that one occasion, it didn't frustrate.
It's hard to take issue with such a beautiful and well designed game. Some might bemoan a relative lack of gameplay variety or challenge, but then Fujii isn't about creating a demanding experience. Quite the opposite, Funktronic Labs has crafted an impressive game that focuses on a relaxing, meditative and altogether enjoyable experience that satisfies with its embrace of life and wonder.
I might still have a biome and/or garden to unlock, but Fujii already ranks among my favorite gaming experiences. I look forward to more exploration and cultivation, especially when what I've already played has inspired me with its fanciful presentation and endearing immersion. And at just $14.99 USD, the game is well worth the investment.
My impressions are based on a review code of Fujii for the Oculus Quest. The game releases today, June 27. See the links below for more details.
Fujii Steam Page
Fujii Oculus Quest Page
Fujii Oculus Rift Page
Funktronic Labs Discord
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
The Oculus Quest virtual reality headset can popularize VR by providing a wireless, self-contained quality gaming experience that its competitors can only dream of offering. But how does it stack up? The following are my early impressions of the hardware, especially as it compares with my beloved PlayStation VR.
The key benefit out of the box is its untethered freedom. Once the Oculus app is synced with the headset, games and apps can be purchased, downloaded and installed via either option instead of through a wired connection. Some owners report installation issues via the app, but there are relatively easy workarounds. Overall the process is simple and intuitive.
The freedom of 360-degree movement in virtual reality, however, is the big selling point. Built-in motion sensors take the place of external cameras, and the lack of wired connectivity means true unrestricted range of motion. That's something the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PSVR can't offer, even with the multiple cameras that the former two use.
Indeed the one camera used by PSVR is pretty limiting, as players have to face forward for the most part (turning all the way around puts one in the camera's blind spot, facing an in-game grid and without motion controller tracking). Games get around this by allowing turning via controller (Skyrim), or sending foes scrambling to the front (Farpoint).
In this way, PSVR does allow an immersive virtual experience, and even manages to limit cable interference since they mostly stay behind the player. Of course Quest's design allows gamers to wholly exist in the virtual world and pivot in any direction that action requires or the game allows. For a PSVR user, this freedom is liberating.
But it doesn't come without some caveats. For one, battery power reportedly lasts for up to three hours (I think I've clocked in at somewhere between two and three before incurring a low battery warning), whereas with PSVR I've played for more than five hours straight. Game time is also a function of comfort.
The PSVR headset is so lightweight that I barely notice I'm wearing it. The Quest, on the other hand, is pretty heavy. (Understandable, as the PSVR is the least powerful of gaming headsets, whereas the Quest is basically a computer worn on your face.) It gives me a headache after a couple hours, and makes me consider the improvised counterweights that others have resorted to.
At least the straps are adjustable to allow as comfortable a custom fit as is possible with such headware. And an attachment accommodates eyeglasses inside the visor about as well as the PSVR does. One other design issue as it relates to comfort is the headphones jack on the visor -- its placement means my hands/arms get tangled in the wire more often than I'd like to admit.
Reportedly, there are Oculus headphones for the Quest that each have their own short wire, though it's one more investment. Also, some have suggested that wireless headphones might be a possibility, but the process is complicated and not guaranteed. (Note that the built-in speakers are pretty good, but I game late and use headphones to not disturb anyone.)
Another consideration is eyestrain and I'm happy to report that presentation on Quest of course is very good considering it is based on PC gaming technology. A few PSVR games are high quality such as Farpoint or Batman Arkham VR (or, reportedly, Blood & Truth), but many sacrifice presentation for gameplay on the lower performing PSVR.
While Quest supposedly sacrifices some detail and performance compared with the Rift or Vive, it's software generally has quality textures, animation, particle effects, etc., and certainly shines in comparison with PSVR. To date, I've played Vader Immortal, Robo Recall and Bogo, demos of Beat Saber and Journey of the Gods, and the First Steps tutorial.
Now, I'd love to show you the presentation via screenshots or video, but this raises an issue I have with sharing on Quest. Screen or video capture is possible, but you have to exit the game, select take a picture or record video, return to the game and select resume. There is a slight delay with a screen capture, and recordings are not retroactive (plus one has to back out again to stop a recording).
The problem with this is that timing can be crucial. What I love about PSVR is that pressing a button on the controller retroactively records 15 minutes of video, while holding the button down immediately takes a screenshot. There are also options to post immediately, or easily edit your video outside the game for start/end and time. (All are options outside PSVR as well.)
In addition, one can link to various social media like Twitter or to YouTube and post there, writing whatever accompanying copy you want. Quest, on the other hand, only allows posts to Facebook (I get it, as Facebook owns Oculus). One can link accounts like Instagram and Google, but only to view content as opposed to download from Quest, as far as I can tell.
Gamers can buy a USB adapter to connect with a PC and download content that way, or other hardware/software to effectively do the same, but I have yet to invest in those and they add another layer to the process. Of course, the PSVR visor is tethered to the PlayStation, which helps allow such ease of use; but there's no reason I shouldn't be allowed to link/download to applications besides Facebook.
I did try a workaround by casting to my smartphone while reviewing captures inside the Oculus Gallery app, but the quality of screenshots I took on my phone can't replicate the experience via the Quest. I might try casting a game and taking smartphone screenshots, though I should probably just spring for related hardware/software. [Update 6/17/19: I reactivated a FB account for the screenshots below, but the process is still cumbersome.]
Last but not least, gameplay on Quest is impressively solid, with good tracking and targeting, and quality collision and hit detection. There are random moments where I'm not credited for a hit in Beat Saber, I can't parry an attack in Vader Immortal, or I can't throw an object in Bogo properly, though I suspect these are due to my limited play space.
Of course, with any virtual reality hardware, gamers are encouraged to allow at least a 5x5 to 6x6 foot area. Mine is barely 5x5. But I rarely have an issue with PSVR. On such occasions, I might have to recalibrate weapon position when the Move controller has strayed beyond the camera's line of sight. But with Quest, I often run afoul of either the Guardian or Stationary settings.
The problem is a Catch-22. On the one hand, the spatial grid that is used for both settings is often triggered and can interfere with immersion if not also gameplay. On the other hand, the true 360-degree action keeps me pivoting enough that such a border is necessary to avoid running into or hitting objects in my room.
With PSVR I might turn my body (or use the controller to turn) but rarely have reason to move my feet. When straying too far, the screen actually goes black momentarily with a warning. Quest will show a room view, though I haven't triggered that yet. But the grid display can appear with annoying regularity.
That said, its appearance is not consistent, though it could depend on how I play each game. In Vader Immortal, my weapon swings meant the grid was practically a mainstay during combat. But in Robo Recall, I don't recall triggering the grid display, even when extending my arms to shoot or engaged in melee combat.
I haven't figured out how to disable the display, though I could extend the Guardian border farther. Either way, however, I then risk crashing into obstacles. (You might wonder why I don't play elsewhere, but I don't think there's anywhere besides our garage that might work, and I'd rather not resort to that late at night.)
The good news, besides the fact that the grid display happily does not appear in captures, is that the above issues can be addressed with hardware/software, improvisation, and relocation to a larger space (or hopefully, with software updates in some cases). They are not fatal flaws, and don't undermine the overall achievement of the hardware.
The Quest in general is a high quality standalone VR headset that releases gamers in immersive 360-degree virtual worlds with high-quality presentation and overall precise gameplay. The advantages for a PSVR user are the opportunity to play PC quality games and engage in true 360-degree action free of external camera(s) or cables.
Vader Immortal: Episode I allows enough interactivity and engaging lightsaber duels in a faithful recreation of Mustafar to ensure players feel a part of the Galactic Empire. Adjusting controls, climbing ladders and pipes, and wielding the saber feel responsive and fluid, though parrying saber strikes or laser blasts can sometimes feel a little imprecise. But the overall impression is of a thrilling Star Wars experience (the only thing missing was the opening crawl).
Robo Recall: Unplugged mixes precision gunplay, weapon variety and upgrades, satisfying melee combat and strategic teleportation in a well realized urban setting. Dismantling robots by hand and using their parts as shields or weapons is easy and a thrill, while switching guns, targeting and shooting helps gamers feel like a gunslinger. Intense action can make controls seem less responsive at times, but that's more a testament to the sheer over-the-top gameplay.
Bogo is a relatively simple yet charming pet simulator that allows players to nurture a cute animal. Picking various fruit and feeding your pet is easy with the responsive controls, as is cooking several in a pot to create different pastries, throwing them through hoops or keeping them afloat in mini games, playing fetch or petting your pet. Throwing can be imprecise, but Bogo is still a good introduction to the Oculus Touch controllers and the Quest.
Many are familiar with Beat Saber, though the demo was my first time with the game and it didn't disappoint. Only one song plays, but the catchy tune, well-synced rhythmic gameplay and flashy arcade action (that appears to be randomly generated with each play through) help keep me playing on a loop. Fast movements dominate and don't disappoint, despite an occasional dubious miss. Given the sometimes rapid-fire action, responsive movements impress.
Journey of the Gods is a fantasy action adventure game with a simple but creative cartoon-style presentation and engaging sword and crossbow combat in the demo. Add a corresponding isometric or God-view mode allowing manipulation of the environment for cover, etc., and you have a promising gameplay combination. Adding welcome strategy elements to effective melee and ranged combat should boost its entertainment value.
What do all these have in common? Immersive worlds and accompanying gameplay that is detailed, inspired, responsive and engaging. But above all, entertaining. Despite issues, Quest represents a new era of quality gaming in virtual reality, freed from physical and conceptual limitations that have restrained other hardware.
Of course there is room for improvement and both hardware and software will continue to be refined and perfected. But Quest offers a bridge between the first generation of tethered VR retail hardware and future variations that will be increasingly self-contained, user friendly and forward thinking, allowing more innovation and enjoyment.
In the meantime, while I still love my PSVR and appreciate features of the hardware that are relatively more accessible, Quest represents a vision of virtual reality that a wider audience might be more inclined to adopt. Both have benefits and my hope for the medium is that Oculus and others will incorporate the best of prior versions in the quest for a perfect system.
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
The Elder Scrolls: Blades is now in early access and exudes the telltale fantasy atmosphere and superficial touches the series is renowned for, but is designed from the ground up to take advantage of the mobile platform it makes its debut on. It's not perfect, but is a solid and entertaining foundation out of the gate.
Players begin as a former Blade who discovers their hometown destroyed after the Bloodfall Queen, an Imperial vassal named Urzoga gra-Batul who rules this portion of the realm, had sent mercenaries to collect taxes. One destroyed a statue and inadvertently triggered a devastating fire. That mystery -- and threat -- forms the basis of the story and gameplay.
This mobile game is necessarily a streamlined version of the PC and console games that have preceded it and that impact is evident in every aspect of this title. The character creation tool to begin with has no sliders for tweaking but does have multiple presets for every feature that still allow decent customization options. And typical character classes are available to choose from.
The world itself whether indoors or out actually is impressive with detailed textures, a wide color palette, smooth animations and particle effects, and varied ambient sounds. These are accompanied by the kind of score, sound effects, dialog and voice acting gamers associate with the franchise. In this way the overall atmosphere fits well in the Scrolls legacy.
On the road is where the mobile game starts to diverge more widely from traditional Scrolls titles, with linear paths presenting sequential challenges or scripted moments. And although there was at least one wilderness quest early on, I've since experienced only dungeon crawl settings regardless of choosing main story quests or odd jobs.
Thankfully, these settings do vary in appearance, including tombs, halls, castles, forts, etc. As such some will be relatively barren stone corridors separated by small rooms, whereas others might have corridors connected with large halls, and some could have cages or cells, and others a variety of furnishings. In all, various lighting wonderfully illuminates and casts impressive shadows.
These will be populated by enemies such as bandits, goblins, skeletons, skeevers, spiders or crypt wights, at least early on, and variations thereof such as a berserker goblin, if I recall (which are just more heavily armored or strong). Spriggans are an additional outdoor enemy. Related quests typically involve searching for items for someone or to further another goal, or towns people that have been taken captive.
The quests will be given by towns people who either need materials or need to find someone who's gone missing. And in general they follow a predictable pattern of mostly linear exploration and intermittent combat with enemies along the path. Along the way, players will acquire loot via urns, enemies or chests (or whatever's out in the open).
The combat itself is one area that surpassed by expectations compared with the E3 demo as it's a deeper and more satisfying experience. On the surface, it's a simple mechanic of defend (by pressing the shield icon) or attack by pressing elsewhere on the screen. But these include different gameplay options, not to mention that there are icons for spell casting.
I'd noticed the shield is deployed high or low but only read today that it's first held high than lowers over time. When high, it defends against overhead attacks but also can stun an attacking opponent. So it pays to time its deployment to block an incoming attack. When the shield is not wielded, players can attack with a melee weapon or spell.
There are a variety of both, including swords, axes, hammers, maces, and longer versions. Spells can involve elemental attacks such as fireballs, bolts and ice spikes. Melee attacks happen when players press the screen to reveal a circle; if players release when a light inside the circle reaches its edge, they can connect with a more powerful and possibly critical hit.
Spell casting involves pressing the respective icon to wield the spell, which takes a moment to be cast at an opponent. If an enemy strikes before it is cast, the spell will engulf the player instead. Thankfully, simply switching to the shield or weapon cancels the spell, though players will have to wait until their magic meter refills before casting again.
Other skills such as perks and abilities (including dodge, bash, quick strike, poison, combat focus, etc.) also can influence combat. Taken together, the streamlined fighting at one's fingertips still allows a degree of depth and related strategy that makes such encounters more interesting, especially when facing higher threats (represented by a quest's number of skulls).
The actual combat mechanic is well implemented with satisfying targeting and hit detection, practically no lag that I've noticed thus far in the early going, fluid animations and overall responsive controls. Given the importance of combat in such a game, it is a relief that it works as well as it does, especially despite the more robust options on other platforms.
(It's worth noting that my character Yuriqqa -- pronounced EUREKA, because I'm that dopey -- is a level 6 Imperial as of this writing, using iron armor and mainly a shield and E3 Watcher's Blade combo, with fireball and lightning bolt spells; perks of elemental protection, augmented flames and load bearer; and no abilities selected.)
Navigation in general works well, however, there is a measure of annoyance and even frustration here that is not present in combat, which involves no movement apart from attacking or defending. While locomotion is simple in general, with a press of the screen dictating where one moves to, looking around and landscape mode introduce challenges.
Sometimes just looking around, i.e. pressing down on the screen and moving one's finger, can result in changing position. This is especially bothersome in landscape mode, which uses virtual joysticks, that I have since disabled; and when surveying an area with enemies prior to combat. It's also easy to sometimes overshoot one's target location, or move when one intends to just pickup loot.
Thankfully these aren't too common, and hopefully disabling virtual joysticks in landscape mode will help. And that said, there are some cool elements to navigation, such as being able to look around while moving to one's target location, or one's character circumventing obstacles to get to the target location that one selected.
Loot grinding during quests is another area of Blades that is handled well despite being a watered down version of what franchise fans are used to. Players can find food or alchemy ingredients out in the open or in chests; coins, crafting or building materials in urns; weapons, armor or coins from fallen foes; and all, including rare items, in different chests.
The variety, while not that deep, still provides enough variation to be helpful early on. And the local smithy has some for purchase (as well as crafting/tempering/repairing services). The problem is with gems and chests, the former of which are rare yet necessary to bypass time limitations, and the latter of which are timed for opening and can only open one at a time.
It doesn't help that chests can be prime sources for gems, though sometimes certain quests will payout a number of gems. This can lead to scenarios where a gold chest might take six hours to open, preventing all other chests from opening, and leading to too many unopened chests so that players can't acquire any more while on quests.
Likewise, without enough gems, the process for opening chests, building up one's town, or having the smithy craft/temper weapons or equipment grinds to a halt. That puts the player in the position of stopping and waiting, or shelling out real world money to advance the game in a more timely fashion.
Hopefully accumulating gems becomes easier as the game progresses so these scenarios can be avoided. And of course players can continue playing even while other processes are ongoing, but it does risk bypassing loot in the meantime, though one's character can still level up and acquire more skills.
It's worth noting that the game's menus are all well designed and allow easy access. The main menu features the Town, Abyss, Arena and Store, plus a link to chests or another menu with selections of Character (Skills, Stats, Equipment, Potions, Misc), Quests (Quests, Jobs, Challenges), Chests (Golden, Silver or Wooden) and Store.
Abyss is a mode where players last as long as they can, accumulating loot and XP in the process. Arena is a PvP area that is still locked for me, either because I haven't met the criteria to unlock it or because it's unavailable in general. Players should visit the store everyday, as I believe there is a daily reward for doing so, such as a coin bag.
I believe I've covered the main elements worth noting thus far. Time will tell if The Elder Scrolls: Blades has staying power as a well-designed mobile experience overall. In the meantime, it so far has been an entertaining and ultimately satisfying variation on the Scrolls formula that effectively brings the series to mobile devices.
My hope for the game going forward is that players can enjoy it without any pay to play elements (and that with time there will be more gems and fewer time-consuming chests), and that the game is available on more devices (I played on an iPhone, but my iPad, with the requisite iOS update, couldn't play the beta; I have yet to try the early access version on it.).
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
Valley is a contradiction, and that's a good thing. Much of the action takes place high above the titular valley instead of deep within, and the game rewards those taking a slower, more deliberate journey despite encouraging a quick pace. Even the highly touted sprinting and leaping mechanic becomes a means to an end instead of an end in and of itself -- albeit an impressive one.
Blue Isle Studios has crafted an experience that overall is well designed and thoughtful. What begins as an adventure game involving an archaeologist searching the Canadian Rockies for a powerful artifact called the Lifeseed, soon becomes a desperate quest to discover the truth behind the object and the fate of those who became obsessed with it.
Aiding in the journey is the discovery of a Pathfinder's L.E.A.F. suit that enables breathtaking sprints and leaps, as well as miraculous life-giving -- and life-taking -- capabilities that impact the environment. The wearer can restore life to flora and fauna in the valley, or take life to replenish the energy that their suit consumes. In fact the suit and its abilities are central to gameplay and the story.
Players will use the suit to explore the valley. The game excels at establishing time and place with nicely designed environments including forests, lakes, hills, rock formations, ancient ruins, scientific and military installations, and subterranean passageways. Textures are less detailed than in major releases, but the art design crafts varied settings that are beautifully realized.
This applies to the landscapes and facilities. Fields, bushes and trees are well designed and animated, whether lush or dead versions depending on how one's game unfolds. The color palette is vibrant, even when applied to artificial interiors. Dynamic lighting adds realism to every setting, including rays through branches or ruins, moonlight, interior lighting and shadows.
Fauna includes rabbits, deer and birds. Peculiar forest sprites also appear. Ambient noises related to birds, waterfalls, lakes, wind and footsteps (which vary depending on the surface) help immerse players. The sound of players slicing through air and branches or bushes while sprinting/leaping creates a palpable and thrilling sensation of speed, as does quick, fluid movements.
The score features solid compositions that match the gameplay such as nature themes during contemplative moments or fast-paced music to accentuate quick platforming segments. The musical accompaniment never intruded or otherwise felt out of place, and in general provides a good example of a well integrated score that complements the game and its atmosphere.
Gameplay itself features controls on the Nintendo Switch that are relatively simple: Movement is controlled by the left stick, looking by the right, jumping by the B button, interaction by X, running by the left trigger, giving a life by the right, and taking a life by the right shoulder button. Controls generally work well especially for casual movement and while exploring the environment.
However, I found that looking with the right stick could be problematic as it tended to swing widely. Adjusting the sensitivity lower wasn't really an option either as you sometimes need to turn quickly when traversing the environment or during combat. This wasn't too disruptive but did impede gameplay from time to time. But at worst it was annoying instead of frustrating.
Progression requires opening passageways, and there are multiple means of doing this. Acorns from revived trees can open some ancient doors. Reviving trees swarmed by fireflies opens others. Medallions grant access to areas such as pyramid chambers. Some sealed areas can be accessed by sprinting, falling or leaping through barriers, pressing buttons or powering generators.
When entering new areas, your character's observations appear as text. Text also will appear when your cursor hovers over items such as documents or files (unfortunately if standing too close, the text won't fit on screen). And the option to open a container will show on screen when the cursor is hovering over objects such as crates.
Audiotapes, memos, journals and other files provide the backstory. (Scripted audiotapes will play in certain locations.) Such notes are interesting and provide context and a variety of perspectives about the unusual goings-on. The dialog is well written and voice acting is well done. The narrative actually builds into an interesting story that involves anthropology, mythology, science and war.
In fact, the setting and science-fiction storyline are well conceived. They have a basis in reality but spin a fictional history from that foundation, calling to mind games like those in the BioShock franchise. That comparison is reinforced with a retro design to the fictional artifacts, which reflect the circa 1940s/1950s backdrop for the story set in the World War II era and beyond.
The L.E.A.F. suit allows players to explore this setting. It's powered by amrita energy from orbs, generators, or flora/fauna the player kills (though I rarely had to resort to that). Found upgrades allow a double-jump, swinging or catapulting with a grappling hook, wall-walking/running via magnets (a la Prey), water-surface sprinting, and greater energy capacity with capacitor upgrades.
Settings in the wilderness and at facilities (indoor and outdoor) are thoughtfully designed to pose navigation challenges that involve traversal across horizontal and vertical distances where falling too far or into water is fatal. Such environmental puzzles prove satisfying despite their simplicity thanks to platforming that features varied options, fluid movement, speed and a solid framerate.
The penalty for dying is that part of the environment dies too in order to revive your character, symbolized by a branch with disappearing leaves. If all the leaves disappear, you return to the beginning of the level. But you can replenish them by reviving foliage/fauna with stored energy, which is finite but can be found or upgraded. While I died periodically, it really was never an issue.
Progression through the valley and story allows for increasingly dynamic and fluid gameplay as suit upgrades increase player options for navigation. Exploring treetops, subterranean rails (that add boost) or natural landmarks such as precarious rock formations makes for exhilarating platforming sequences. However, such gameplay on occasion could be problematic.
The first person perspective can make gauging some jumps more complicated, the distance for triggering grappling options seems inconsistent, and the checkpoint system can be less than forgiving. This can result in trial and error gameplay that sometimes infrequent checkpoints can penalize. One problem jump is fairly easy but only after experimentation to learn the precise mechanics.
Combat is actually easier as it involves enemies including amrita swarms or daemons protecting facilities. When players are detected, enemies will rush and fire projectiles. Higher level foes are faster and will dematerialize/materialize. The patterns aren't difficult to learn, and if spotted from afar foes easily can be picked off. It's simple but does vary gameplay and adds an extra dimension to exploration.
SPOILER: The climax does include a boss fight that is telegraphed with various allusions in memos or scripted moments. And while it offers a slight change of pace including a different attack, it is somewhat anticlimactic as the attack is familiar and overall the battle doesn't last very long. Some have suggested the combat in general is an afterthought, but I welcomed the gameplay variation.
A side note about the climax relates to how the story unfolds. Most of the time audiotapes play and memos can be read with one's undivided attention. But there was one instance where I missed a principal revelation because I was attacked during an audiotape playback. It reminds me of games like Bayonetta where battles can happen during important conversations.
One issue worth noting is that the presentation sometimes takes a hit during frenetic gameplay. One sequence triggered high contrast so colors were off, lighting too bright and text difficult to read until the game reverted after sitting idle for awhile. In another, leaping into a building exposed a subsurface layer of rock that impacted movement until the actual interior surfaces eventually loaded.
Speaking of the presentation, playing with the Switch docked was my preferred means of experiencing Valley. As a handheld portable game, Valley in fact is playable but the more limited visuals certainly make platforming and reading on-screen text more of a challenge than viewing on a TV screen or large monitor. At least the controls work well in either state.
An interesting aspect of the game is length. At least some reviewers complain about how short it is. In fact, one can race through the game and, to an extent, it's designed for that kind of experience. However, there's a lot more content than a quick play-through allows for. I highly recommend a slower pace to enjoy all that the game provides.
Indeed, the fact that the game allows such a fast completion is a disservice to the depth of material that exists in the game. And even though I took my time I still wonder about areas that I did race through. For instance, I forgot to open the pyramid chambers with my collected medallions! Thankfully, players can return to explore unlocked areas at any time, increasing its replay value.
Valley turned out to have a great deal more content than its marketing lead me to believe. The core gameplay in general is solid, entertaining and fun (despite occasional issues that can momentarily mar the experience), but there's so much beneath the surface that players should do themselves a favor and check it out, especially at the bargain price of $19.99 including on Nintendo Switch.
(This review is based on a review code of Valley for the Nintendo Switch. The game released March 7 on this console.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
Few mediums are as capable of delivering effective psychological horror as video games and at the same time as poor at taking advantage of the genre. But Bloober Team's Observer is a rare example of the impact the medium can have on a player when exploring a setting that cultivates confusion and fear.
That setting is a future cyberpunk vision of Krakow, Poland, after twin catastrophes known as the nanophage and the Great Decimation. The former was a digital plague that killed many thousands of augmented people and is still considered a threat. The latter was a devastating war between East and West, which allowed the Chiron corporation to seize control and create the Fifth Polish Republic.
Into this dystopian world steps the player-controlled character Daniel Lazarski, a "corporate tool of oppression" and neural detective called an Observer who hacks people's fragile minds and memories for information to solve crimes or otherwise protect corporate interests. An Observer's role is a thankless job that helps maintain order and, by extension, corporate hegemony.
As is often the case in such post-apocalyptic worlds, the setting itself functions as a character in the story. And that's rarely more true than in this game, as Lazarski meets few other people in person and instead must navigate a future where a curfew keeps streets empty after dark and people cower behind high-security doors as they turn to drugs, VR, neural implants and holograms to distract from a cruel reality.
In fact, Lazarski's personal interactions are fairly impersonal, a reflection of this digital dystopia: Communications with headquarters occur over the police radio, discussions with tenants happen via intercom, and interviews/interrogations with victims and suspects take place -- without consent -- via a wired connection to a neural implant. Between the plague, war and Observers, social interaction is something to avoid.
People still have relationships, whether professional, personal or romantic, but there is a cynicism and fateful quality to them. Even Lazarski's relationship with his son (a Chiron engineer) is strained, so when he receives an urgent message from him, the detective knows something is definitely wrong and his son is in desperate need of his help. Lazarski heads to the city's seedy Class C slums to investigate.
As an Observer, Lazarski's own augmentations allow him to scan his surroundings and probe people's minds. In practical terms, his vision likewise is augmented so that surfaces sometimes can appear digitized with a layer of computer code a la the Matrix, which can begin to degrade into heavily pixelated visuals if not maintained with a drug called synchrozine that helps stabilize the operation of his augmentations.
This is an important element because it helps plant the seed in players' minds that your sight is not always reliable. It is artificially maintained and, like any computer, is subject to visual artifacts or worse. In fact, with the nanophage as a backdrop and an occupation that involves hacking into people's minds, Lazarski's visions can be dubious. This element reminds me of The Suffering, and the hallucinations that plague its death row inmate character.
Lazarski himself resembles the cold calculations of a computer thanks to the dry, near monotone delivery of Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner, The Hitcher, Ladyhawke). If reflective of his personality, it would help explain his estrangement from his son. But that might be giving too much credit to this portrayal. Regardless, while I'm an admirer of Hauer, this performance could have used more humanity, especially to create more empathy and elevate the horror.
Be that as it may, Lazarski's scanning capabilities help investigate one's surroundings and the crime scenes that are encountered. An electronic scan locates objects of interest such as computers, ID cards, machinery, equipment or augmentations including neural implants. Another scan shows organic material like blood, skin, bodies or wounds. A closer inspection with either reveals detailed information. A third option is night vision.
Initiating these scans and more detailed inspections involves relatively intuitive button presses on the Joy-Con controllers of the Nintendo Switch, the platform that I played the game on. Indeed I felt that the controls configuration worked well in general, whether scanning, moving items, opening/closing doors/drawers/cabinets, picking up items, selecting buttons/switches/dialog options or walking/sprinting/crouching.
If there are any caveats about the game's controls, it's how some objects like the small neural implants can require precise selection in order to interact with them, how some objects react inconsistently to selection (like the lever in cellar #028), how the stick and motion controls can sometimes interfere with each other when opening/closing doors/drawers/cabinets and how those have to be actively released each time.
That said, these were minor issues that didn't impact my overall enjoyment of the game or its controls. Motion controls in general worked fine, and the game played well in either docked or handheld mode, though dialog, scan details, and other visual info or cues can be more challenging to read on the smaller handheld screen, though that's not unexpected. I did end up playing most of the game in docked mode.
In fact, controls were not paramount to the experience because the player's interactions with this world are somewhat limited by design. This is not, after all, an action game. As the title suggests, Lazarski observes. From the moment he arrives at the tenement, his search for answers about his son reveals one crime scene after another, and a possible killer to contend with. His pursuit of the truth, his son and suspect(s) lead down a twisting rabbit hole.
Performing scans, as it turns out, is less about obtaining clues than it is about filling out the story. Each observation helps provide more context for what happened or is happening and therefore makes the experience deeper and more involving. It's not a police procedural like L.A. Noire, where clues you've discovered directly impact the conclusions you can draw. Injuries, weapons, recordings, emails, computer files and objects all inform more than indict.
They all tell a story of desperate people caught in an inhumane world, struggling to come to terms with issues of identity and privacy, dilemmas of health care or insurance, or problems of employment and service. These sometimes intimate details of people's lives are only hinted at in Lazarski's conversations, but his numerous interactions with the tenement's colorful characters create a living, breathing world even if hidden behind closed doors.
The dialog and voice acting is solid, effectively portraying unique personalities brought together under one roof (or two) in this Krakow neighborhood. This microcosm shows off the fragmented society as convincingly as the intermittent video feed aired on each door's intercom. Then there are the rooms themselves, some open and others needing a code or some other obstacle removed first, dilapidated hovels and more comfortable accommodations. Each with a story to tell.
Some rooms have become crime scenes, others hide varied pursuits that can disturb, and still more are simple homes of sometimes odd proclivities. But it's these secrets, behind closed doors and shuttered minds, that are the purview of the Observer and -- by extension -- the player. We become voyeurs of sorts, investigating, analyzing and documenting people's lives. That Lazarski's family becomes his obsession makes us voyeurs into his life, too.
And it's here where the experience of playing Observer really shines. In any given moment we see this world through Lazarski's eyes -- literally and figuratively -- and get a window into this society. But when he initiates a neural hack with someone we pass through the window and see from the inside out. Both his perception and the subject's. And the result is often chaotic, surreal, disturbing and, ultimately, revealing -- of both subject and Observer.
In this realm, which players will visit periodically when hacking into the minds of different subjects, there are dreamlike sequences and nightmare visions through which the subject's memories course. It is a jumble of sensory inputs that Lazarski has to navigate to get to the truth. And some settings are actual puzzles with obstacles represented by the environment, the killer or both. These can involve using or moving objects, simple observation or even stealth.
However, I did not find any frustrating, and I tend to get stuck on such attempts especially stealth. These are not Max Payne style dream sequences. There was one puzzle I looked up online after multiple attempts but still figured it out before reading the solution. And the stealth portions require patience (including baiting the killer to move in one random scenario) but they never annoy. In every case I enjoyed the challenge and felt each fit the context of the story and the situation.
These hacks in general are creative explorations of their subjects' psyches and complement well the world that Bloober Team (the studio behind Layers of Fear) has crafted through emails, articles, voice recordings, settings and Lazarski's dialog with residents. It's a setting that is one of my favorite in video games, up there with BioShock, The Last of Us and Mass Effect. A strong narrative runs through it all, and the individual stories are not only interesting but are integral to the whole.
It's telling that the thread of Lazarski's story becomes tied to the larger narrative not only via his personal investigation but in the way his perception begins to fragment with visions more commonly associated with neural hacks. His own world starts to fray around the edges in disturbing ways that lead him, and the player, to question the nature of what they are seeing or experiencing. Is it a dream, a neural hack, a drugged hallucination, the nanophage or something else?
The doubt that this scenario sows leads to some genuinely creepy and effective moments. And it's part of a narrative arc that is disturbing from beginning to end. Something is clearly amiss and the visions and other experiences that occur in and out of neural hacks creatively exploit our unease and encourage our discomfort. Besides two or three jump scares, there were several times that the game actually gave me goosebumps. And that is an unusual experience in a video game.
The issues the game raises both explicitly in the narrative and implicitly in Lazarski's (and the player's) experience are rich ground to explore where we are as a society and where we might be headed. It's the best of what science fiction provides. In this regard, Observer is a rare video game that not only challenges established norms of gameplay and entertainment but has something to say about the human condition now and in the future. I personally love this game and can highly recommend it.
(This review is based on a review code of Observer for the Nintendo Switch. The game released February 7 on this console.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
Quality full-length video games in virtual reality still are in short supply. Ports such as Skyrim VR are good, and I personally love playing that version, but they can suffer in the transition. So full-length games designed from the ground-up for VR are relatively rare but can take advantage of the medium, including PlayStation VR titles like Farpoint, Moss, Electronauts and Astro Bot Rescue Mission.
Role-playing games in this medium are even more unusual so raise expectations for a fantasy action-adventure experience in virtual reality. inXile Entertainment's The Mage's Tale, which debuted on Oculus Rift for PC, recently released on the PSVR and promises an entertaining dungeon-crawl. After more than four hours (the story mode reportedly clocks in at 10+ hours), it definitely satisfies so far, though with caveats.
It's worth noting that the game takes place in The Bard's Tale world, and shares in the humor that the RPG series is renowned for. While the limited story (you're a mage's apprentice in search of your kidnapped mentor) serves to setup the action, it also lays the foundation for effective sarcasm, ridicule and ribbing via the mage's assistant who's forced to shepherd you through dungeons and the basics of being a mage.
The tutorial takes place on the fly, and so introduces controls in a relatively organic way. The PlayStation Move controllers have not been the most intuitive means of controlling the action in VR games, though some developers have more success than others. inXile has done a decent job with The Mage's Tale, though controller configuration is somewhat undermined at times by inconsistent targeting and collision detection.
The primary action of grip/release or spell conjuring/casting is accomplished with the trigger button on each controller. If I remember, the top left face button on the left-hand controller (top right on the right-hand) selects the spell, though only one hand can wield a destruction spell, if you will, at a time; the top right face button on the left-hand controller (top left on the right-hand) creates a shield spell, which can combine for a larger shield.
Movement is responsive and works reasonably well, but gripping/releasing objects can be problematic when they're embedded in the environment. For instance, menus rely on players drinking potions to initiate an action, an interesting design choice that can add to immersion. But the large menus can clip dungeon walls or objects, making potion retrieval literally hit or miss (see bottom video). This was also an issue with loot tossed from crates I broke open.
Conjuring/casting spells likewise is mostly effective. Targeting, as in the game The Persistence, uses tracking that involves head/visor movements. I played with the reticule turned off, so it might help to have it on, though I found it intrusive. The majority of the time I hit my targets, though some spells went astray, even with "seeking" enabled. Despite shortcomings, spell conjuring/casting is fairly intuitive and reliable.
Spells, as you can imagine, are at the heart of The Mage's Tale and are well implemented into both combat and puzzle solving. But it begins with a crafting process that's about as simple as can be. Found objects become available at a crafting bench as ingredients that can be added to a cauldron. Large liquid containers represent fireballs, lightning bolts, ice javelins and wind, for instance; smaller ones correspond to colors, movement and enhancements, etc.
Mages can have four destruction spells in their inventory, such as enhanced red fireballs that bounce, seek their targets or can be guided; or an enhanced green wind spell that gusts with extra force. Switching between them is relatively easy though doesn't stop combat. I typically throw or push fireballs/javelins, though not sure that motion is necessary (it isn't with bolts/wind). Action can be frenetic so movement is important.
Locomotion options range from teleportation to snap turns to smooth forward/back/turns and combinations thereof. I always prefer smooth forward/back and snap turns, and they (as well as teleportation) work well. To the extent moving, attacking and defending at the same time can be a problem, it's more a function of Move controller design, button placement, etc., as Skyrim VR and this title fare better with feet planted, though the simpler combat benefits The Mage's Tale.
Combat in general performs well in spite of the occasional targeting issue or glitch. Those issues are balanced by AI that, early on at least, tends to attack from set positions whether ranged or melee opponents. Goblins will advance within range then stop to attack or defend if holding a shield (though suicide goblins won't stop), moving from the line of fire infrequently. Archers are most vulnerable, though shields offer only limited protection against fireballs or bolts.
It takes casting several spells to kill one opponent (except for suicide goblins, whose explosives detonate), so combat is made more tense by sheer number of opponents, who spawn until you've killed whatever the set number of enemies is for that area. Reportedly, each of 10 dungeons includes a boss fight. Unfortunately, my battle with a giant glitched (see below video), allowing me to win handily but robbing the encounter of suspense or entertainment.
Once you've cleared the area of enemies, then you can explore or solve a puzzle. Puzzles thankfully integrate one's spells, for instance (SPOILER) requiring fireballs to ignite objects, ice javelins to freeze water, bolts to energize targets, or wind to break barriers. Sometimes players will need to use runes to solve a puzzle. And some puzzles provide hints in the form of talking walls that present related riddles.
Regrettably, glitches also can interfere with puzzles. I wasted time in one room (SPOILER) due to a glitch that allowed me to conjure fire when I wasn't supposed to be able to conjure anything (rooms with a blue effect typically impede such abilities). I was able to light all but one station repeatedly, however inconsistently, until my frustration sent me online to learn I should have been using a torch all along.
Collision detection also rears its head with puzzles, such as when needing to rotate large stone wheels to align runes. Players have to stand close to turn them, but standing that close also means that they stop or change direction when you withdraw your hand for another spin. It should be noted that in my four hours thus far, such issues were neither game breaking nor necessarily common.
The Mage's Tale benefits from a good presentation that helps tie all the elements together. Inspired fantasy settings, fluid animation, detailed and believable particle effects for spells, strong voice acting, humorous dialog, thoughtful riddles and puzzles, and a beautiful Gaelic-inspired score with appropriately tense combat music, all combine for a solid package. It reminds me of Skyrim VR, if a little less polished.
Technical issues such as targeting, collision detection and glitches (see another video below) do annoy, but thankfully not enough to dampen my enjoyment much thus far. inXile follows through on a strong concept for a fully interactive virtual reality dungeon crawl that also uses spells for the majority of gameplay including puzzle solving and combat (see more videos below). It thus far succeeds, despite its flaws, to create a fun, immersive RPG.
(Note my impressions are based on a review copy.)
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