Future Unfolding Review

This was the last review I wrote for Brash Games.  They have since removed my name and byline from the review.

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When I play a new game, I typically craft an opinion that doesn’t waiver more than a little bit over the course of my play through. Though not always true, my first impression is usually a decent predictor of my final thoughts. Future Unfolding is a bizarre instance where this is nowhere close to true. When I first started playing it, I thought it was a wonderfully different sort of puzzle experience. Two hours in, and I was bored out of my mind. Another two hours in and I was scratching my head, itching at some idea that I thought must be lurking under the symbols and bits of poetic language the game was throwing at me. Another two hours, and I was again rolling my eyes, frustrated with the repetitive nature of the thing. But now that I’ve spent all the time I need to finish it, I find myself confused, lacking a really good way of summarizing my thoughts and feelings about the experience of playing this strange game.

Play begins with the press a button. Out of thin air you poof into existence, as if this most basic moment of interaction creates the character you play as, with all potential futures at your fingertips. I began in a forest, though given the procedural nature of the game, starting locations are bound to vary. Instantly, the visuals impress. Future Unfolding is a gorgeous take on top-down games. Everything has a mystical, painterly look with plants, animals, rocks, and ponds drenched in vivid watercolor. To match the beauty of the wildlife, the sound effects and music are ambient and natural and give off a mysterious, thoughtful vibe. There is a constant, pretty hum to the world and just about everything you interact with produces a pleasant and fitting musical tone, reminding me of the sound design of other symphonic gardens (see Starseed Pilgrim) that have heavily influenced the indie game world.

As you venture out into dense wooded areas, flowery fields, and rocky bluffs, it’s not immediately apparent what you’re supposed to be doing. Of course, it’s hard to begin a game without the assumption that there is an objective. Exploration (something you’ll do a lot of in Future Unfolding,) even though massively rewarding in its own right, is typically done in the hopes of completing or finding a goal. Indeed, there are some definitive targets at the core of this game, but they’re hidden behind vague puzzles and strange enemies which impede your progress. There is a map for keeping track of your wanderings, and little moments of discovery, in which you are rewarded with some contemplative words or a new, alternatively-colored locale. But for the most part, you’ll be feeling your way through these areas without much of a concrete direction. No one holds your hand, there are no arrows pointing you in the correct direction, just an occasional map marker.

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“Wander” is a good word to summarize most of that you do in Future Unfolding. The better you are at roaming about with an indistinct notion of purpose, the more you will probably get from playing this game all the way through to the end. This sentiment comes through in the odd little pieces of poetry you’ll find as you zigzag through the world. One little quote that stuck with me: “A guess is often more fruitful than an indisputable affirmation. A dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments.” The connection between little ideas like this and the way the mechanics direct you to strange, convoluted conclusions is the most impressive thing I took from the game. The seemingly wishy-washy solutions to puzzles bloom into perfectly sensible answers when you simply let your skeptical mind take a break. There is a very natural feeling to solving these odd little riddles. The indiscrete “interact” button organically does anything you need it to in a way that makes perfect sense for a game that is all about human interaction with wilderness.

Nature is your every enemy and ally in this game. You wreak havoc on this world in search of answers. A theme appears: Human exploration necessitates destruction. If you wish to make your way beyond natural barriers of rocks or trees, you must utilize one of the awesome powers of man. As quick as lightning, blotches of something fierce and inky annihilate the original features of the landscape, paving the way for you to continue your journey. But the world is not devoid of dangers. Nature has more than one way of keeping your destruction at bay. And there are snakes, whirlwinds of deadly leaves, and lion-like creatures awaiting your misstep in many locations around the map. A simple balance emerges between your capacity for destruction and your need to stay hidden from these aggressive forces. Trees and rock features that provide a safe hiding place are knocked over in your quest for more exploration, more discovery, more game. But there are curious and helpful creatures as well. You can befriend sheep and rabbits, sitting down for a moment to get to know them and earn their trust. Fish spread out and collect items you need to carry on with your explorations. Deer allow you to hitch a ride and leap across gaps you would be restricted by alone. Another relevant quote: “The inhabitants of this world have taken note… You are a stranger whom they admire and fear. Explain yourself.”

Future Unfolding has a pervasive atmosphere of contemplation. You character sits in meditation upon discovering new curiosities, provides you a moment to dwell on what you’ve just discovered, and what it may mean. There is a generally mysterious and eerie tone, though as you discover more of what there is to be discovered, an over-arching theme regarding impermanence, death and rebirth can be gleaned. The game’s mechanics revolve around fluidity and uncertainty rather than perfection and hard-stops. Unfortunately, this hazy nature has a few downsides. There is an overwhelming amount of things to do, and for each of these things there is typically one nebulous way to do it. Most of your actions revolve around walking around and getting near objects that then in turn clear a path or otherwise allow you to progress, and this can get a little tedious, or at the very least a bit repetitive. And while I have no complaints about the gorgeous scenery you get to take in while traversing the humongous world, the world is truly humongous. It takes a long time to get from place to place and at times it was difficult to find the drive to carry on.

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Eventually, I realized that these little annoyances either didn’t matter or may have even been somewhat intentional. The game doesn’t worry about you getting stuck in any one spot, because it’s always pretty easy to just move on. If I had not played this game through to the end, I don’t think I would have liked it nearly as much as I did. But sticking with it, I found myself far more appreciative of what it had to offer. And that’s because it really doesn’t offer the same kind of thing as many other games. The puzzles don’t ramp up the longer you play, there isn’t really much of a change of pace in terms of your abilities and skills. You pretty much do the same thing from beginning to end. But as I played it, I stopped trying to figure it out. I just kind of accepted what I was doing and played along. This brought me closer to the place that I now think the game was operating on. A place not too heady and not too base. Something very clean but not grossly polished. Something very thoughtful but not convoluted.

Future Unfolding captures the essence of flow masterfully. You learn things through trial and error, exploration, and guesswork for the most part. Eventually, all these little imperfect ways of learning about the world culminate to a complex understanding of the mechanics of each animal and object. But it is kind of a pain to get to that point. There’s a lot to do, and much of it isn’t very engaging. There’s a lot of wandering, a lot of hypothesis – this is true while searching for entertainment and while searching for a serious, discernible interpretation. And I respect the integrity of the game’s message in how it corresponds to this wandering and searching, but I didn’t have all that much fun as I was doing it. And that’s OK in my mind, because Future Unfolding seems to me to be less about having a good ol’ silly time and more about slow contemplation and gradual comprehension.

N8

R8

7/8

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Uurnog Review

This was the sixth I wrote for Brash Games.  They have since removed my name and byline from the review.

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Two dimensional puzzle platformers are everywhere. From the seed of “move left and right and figure some stuff out” grows one of the sturdiest and most relied-upon trees in the world of independent games. Google search for a list of indie games and I’ll bet one of the top hits remain a “puzzle platformer” for at least another ten years. When I searched a moment ago, I saw Braid, Limbo, Fez, Spelunky, and The Swapper – all of which are widely-adored independent games with that same basic seed. Besides the obvious fact of the the genre’s popularity within the indie games scene, the fundamental mechanics of your classic platformer allow for virtually infinite creative directions for a developer. Looking at the list above, few would say those games are more similar than they are different. A wealth of great games will always be sitting on the clouds, just waiting for a bright-eyed game dev to figure out the perfect new way to throw a twist on this staple.

This preamble is simply an attempt to frame my thoughts and avoid saying things that are obvious things about the genre when talking about Nicklas (Nifflas) Nygren’s new game Uurnog – an indie puzzle platformer.

After a brief run through a tutorial area, you’re dropped into the Save Room. This room earns its name in two regards. The first is that it’s the place you return to when you die or quit, much in the classic notion of a save room. The second is that everything in the room remains the exact way you left it. This becomes crucial as you work towards the objective displayed prominently within this room. You must find and collect 15 “items” from the wild world and place them on a pedestal. This Save Room also has several doors which spit you out into new areas. Having played the developer’s previous puzzle platformer series, Knytt, I am used to the free form nature of the levels. Nothing beyond the first 10 minutes of the game tells you explicitly where to go next. It doesn’t take long to realize that keeping track of where you’re going and where you’ve been is something that you’ll have to take seriously, or risk getting lost in the sprawling world of Uurnog.

And given all the places to go and things to see in this world, you may find yourself getting lost quite happily. The places, people, objects, and enemies are overwhelmingly charming and warm-spirited, but surprisingly thoughtful and self-reflexive. The NPCs are an interesting example of this. They often act exactly as you might imagine a human player would, though much of the time they simply do what NPCs do. They keep a shop, they walk around town, they have short conversations with each other… But they also go absolutely crazy. I’ve seen the bomb shop owner pick up a bomb from her inventory and blow herself to smithereens, panicking like she forgot which button to press to throw it. I’ve seen two townsfolk hopping around quite happily, only to jump into a death pit one after the other. I’ve had random strangers jumping on my head for no apparent reason, seriously impeding my progress and annoying the hell out of me. There is something so lifelike about the way these little people behave. It makes me wonder how much of this behavior was meticulously designed compared to how much is utterly random.

I also find myself seeing more meaning than there may actually be in the way the game approaches death. It seems to do so in a serious but nonchalant way. There are spooky skulls and grim graveyards on one hand and these hilariously suicidal NPCs on the other. There are some doors that can only be opened by killing something on a sort of sacrificial altar, which is a really grim thing to imagine in such an overtly playful and cheery game. Other sparks of seriousness come from the loose distinctions between item, NPC, and enemy. If I don’t eat anything with a face, this is a land where food is scarce. Many of the items in this game are as full of bizarre, random personalities as the shopkeeper and city-dweller NPCs. Blue blocks are afraid of green blocks. Red blocks are constantly trying to get closer to you, like scared little children. Some blocks will talk to each other in oddly human-sounding voices. The point is, I notice some interesting barrier bending going on in Uurnog. It makes me question the way I use these item-creatures as mere tools, at least a little bit. But that’s not to say I suddenly felt overwhelmingly guilty for throwing the friendly little blue squares into a pot of death. I mean… This does seem to be a game where no one really cares if they live or die. Still, there is something special about games that manage to touch on weighty subjects while staying pleasantly light.

As light as its tone may be, Uurnog is tough as nails. There is a pretty steep learning curve going in, which makes it slow-going rounding up all the items you need. Gradually the game introduced me to new situations, which got me to utilize little tricks that I didn’t even realize I could do. Each new thing I learned about certain items or mechanics boosted my chances of using those little tricks elsewhere.

You’re also able to take the difficult edge of the game by taking advantage of the game’s inventory system, which is a clever combination of your working inventory (four item slots) and your storage inventory (whatever you can fit inside the Save Room.) Anything you can pick up is something that can be brought back and stored in your save house. This is a double-edged sword in many ways, because I found myself drastically overestimating the amount of stuff I needed to store away. I’d often wind up burying many important items under a mountain of gems, monsters, pointless blocks, and bombs. You can also give yourself a bit of a buffer by stashing some gems in your Save Room so you can buy some of the helpful items available at the many shops in town. This is useful since you lose all your money when you die – and death is quite common. Eventually, if you’re persistent and/or clever enough (the game rewards both,) you’ll find yourself turning in that last item triumphantly.

Uurnog is everything I’ve come to expect from Nifflas. Though it’s not as much of an epic as his previous big puzzle platformer, Knytt Underground, it’s still chock-full of good vibes and silliness. I experienced about a dozen amazing, happily unplanned moments that made me burst out laughing, often in exhausted frustration as all my careful plans unraveled hilariously before me. The complicated and ridiculous behavior of NPCs, the liveliness of the ‘items,’ and the amazing algorithmic music all add a distinctive characteristic to the game, which somehow embodies the goofiness and thoughtfulness of the other Nifflas games I’ve sat down with. There is a predominant air of whimsy in Uurnog, but it’s not without the occasional gust of weirdly serious wind.  A perfect addition to the ‘puzzle platformer’ genre.

N8

R8

8/8

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CAYNE review

This was the fifth I wrote for Brash Games.  They have since removed my name and byline from the review.

CAYNE begins in some whitewashed room of some future hospital.  There is a girl on an operating table.  She’s being waited on by a doctor and nurse.  She explains she’s without family, awaiting an operation which has been paid for by some unknown 3rd party – an operation involving a baby.  She is told to count backwards from 10, and the screen goes black…

When she wakes up, she is still on an operating table, but in a starkly different room and in a starkly different body.  She is now many months into pregnancy, with a belly the size of a woman’s who is nearly ready to give birth.  An eerie, childlike voice pipes up over the intercom, explaining that she will need to stay awake during the womb extraction procedure. It continues, “Your selfless gift to science will be remembered for generations to come.”  This ominous message, of course, sets our main character into a shrill series of screams while a lumbering, big-daddy-sized alien creature encircles her bed, preparing to operate…

When you’re finally given control and you’re able to assist in Hadley’s escape from her terrifying situation, you’re rapidly introduced to the general mechanics of CAYNE.  It’s a purely classic point and click adventure, chock full of inventory puzzles, click-hunting, and locks and keys – all played to the grizzly tune of some very well written horror science fiction set in the universe of STASIS, the developer’s previous isometric adventure game.

Quickly, it becomes apparent that this is no crumby, free-to-play waste of time. There is a very high level of quality in every regard here.  The gameplay just about matches the quality of most high-production point-and-click adventures, the voice acting is beyond impressive – especially from the main character, the writing is mature and begs comparisons to Harlan Ellison, and the environments are detailed and beautiful, though that’s a word I’d refrain from using again when describing the world of CAYNE.  A better word might be repulsive, sickening, terrifying, or horrible.

You progress through the blood drenched corridors of CAYNE in typical adventure game style.  You find a variety of key items like ID cards, scalpels, flagellation whips, and grub milk and use them on the dozens of gates that bar your way throughout the dismal facility.  For the majority of your time playing CAYNE, you’ll be pulling off the same tricks you learned in Adventure Game Elementary School.  You’ll search all over with your mouse for clickable areas when you’re unable to figure out where to go next, and if that doesn’t work, you’ll do it again with each item from your inventory in hand. I mean there’s always a chance that the grub milk you picked up will put out the fire that’s blocking your path, right? You’ll try combining every odd item you find, and when you finally realize what you’re actually supposed to do, you’ll simultaneously hate yourself and the puzzle that was giving you such grief. You’ll blame yourself for being too blind to see the solution and you’ll blame the puzzle for being convoluted in that perfect point and click fashion.

Interrupting the steady flow of keys, gates, machines, and electronics, you’re occasionally rewarded with a gruesome cutscene or a brief interaction with some of the quirky (crazy is more like it) NPCs.  Most of the back story is filled in through electronic diaries that just happen to be scattered about the rusty old operating rooms and experimentation chambers.  They tell you of the people who live (or lived) within the facility – a menagerie of mutants and weirdos, all in cahoots on some dark, violent, and evil procedures revolving around a living experiment named Samantha and the president of CAYNE industries.

As you search for your means of escape from the hellish complex, you’re accompanied by a mysterious disembodied voice.  He keeps Hadley sane, being the only source of normalcy in this twisted, gore-filled world. Slowly, bits of key information bob to the surface as you continue solving puzzles and moving forward.  The more you learn, the more you discover the curious topics CAYNE focuses on.  Science, religion, the combination of the two, violence in the name of human advancement, the struggles of motherhood, and insanity.  In a brief, 2-hour long game, a lot of serious questions are raised, though few are answered.

From what I can gather, a rather large chunk of CAYNE’s core lies within the exploration of the grotesque.  Maggots and grubs, extracted wombs, pus and mucus and blood, bizarre sexual fetishes, festering wounds, and mangled corpses are just a few of the delightful things you’ll get to encounter throughout the laboratory. These intense visuals (along with several detailed descriptions of such gruesome items) on top of the overarching narrative about science and religion and human testing give me the impression that there is at least some amount of subtle critique of the world within CAYNE. At the very least, this world is one in which science has gone entirely off the rails, resulting in horrors beyond belief.

CAYNE is a bright spot in the world of modern adventure games.  It capitalizes on the good while avoiding the worst and most frustrating tropes of the point and click genre.  The story is fleshed out and fulfilling, with some great writing throughout.  The production quality is out of sight for a free game and even though it’s only going to last you two or three hours, the voice-acting alone is well worth the time.  If you’ve got the stomach to handle the gore, and you’re looking for a really, disturbingly good sci-fi horror experience, CAYNE is a great freebie to snatch up! And if you enjoy CAYNE or games like it, it’s good to know that it will soon be followed up with a game called BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION, now on Kickstarter!

N8

R8

6/8

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The Eyes of Ara Review

This was the fourth review I wrote for Brash Games.  They have since removed my name and byline from the review.

Mystery is the name of the game in this charmingly intriguing indie title from 100 Stones Interactive. Well not literally… The name of the Game is literally The Eyes of Ara and its game, figuratively speaking, is mystery.  A quick search for this crowdfunded point-and-clicker will show you enchanting pictures of a huge castle with towers and bridges, lavish interiors in the traditional haunted mansion aesthetic, and bizarre electronic contraptions.  Anyone with even a slight familiarity with games in the adventure-puzzle genre would be able to make the obligatory comparison to the games in the Myst series, just based on these images. How will The Eyes of Ara turn out? Will it reel you in with its beautiful scenery and then leave you bored with fifty repetitive clue-fetching quests?  Is it going to be another mediocre Myst-like?  Or maybe, if you’re an optimist, The Eyes of Ara will be just as grand and impressive on the inside as it is on its surface.

The game begins with a gentle boat ride up to the castle’s side docks. You remove a note from your suitcase and read it, filling you in on the dire situation.  Apparently, there’s some strange signal being broadcast from deep within the castle, interfering with the neighboring village’s communication services. To put it in a simpler way, you’re just a tech sent out by the cell phone company to keep their customers happily paying. But hey, not many people get the chance to explore an ancient, abandoned castle on the job, so why not? Quickly, the world fills in around you as you notice pizza boxes and soda cans littered about the entrance area.  A popular place for teenagers to spend the night, it seems. This gives the feeling that there’s nothing to be afraid of in this place. It’s just an old building with some odd quirks. Nothing scary…

You head inside the massive structure, solving some incredibly simple puzzles on the way to the entrance hallway. The place is surprisingly well-kept. Maybe there’s a cleaning service or perhaps a caretaker.  The environment is furnished with a multitude of little flavorings, filling the castle with history and depth. It meshes excellently with the variety of written texts you’ll be discovering throughout. Notes, diary entries, purchase invoices, machine blueprints all feel intimately at home amongst dusty desks and cob-webbed cabinets.  These documents tell you the curious story of the house’s previous residents.  A spiritual mother who believed the house was haunted by ghosts, two excitable children who explore the rooms in search of adventure, and a wily old uncle who spends most of his time up in the tower conducting strange experiments.  This group of characters becomes the primary source of storytelling throughout the many rooms and hallways of the great castle.

These bits of story are peppered evenly throughout the many mental challenges that impede your progress through the rooms. At times, these puzzles feel so simple that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes as I put the pieces in place. In these moments, I really had to wonder what good came of including such easy ‘challenges’ at all.  Fortunately, the puzzles slowly ramp up in complexity and difficulty as you roam deeper into the castle. For the most part, the puzzles remain straight-forward and logical, requiring some light inventory work, jigsawing, and hidden item searching. There are also clues scattered around, which you will need to remember, so it’s a smart thing to utilize your screenshot button or a notepad and pen. Beyond these puzzles, the game consists of a large array of hidden items and collectibles. If not for the few puzzles which appear to be designed for people under the age of 7, The Eyes of Ara would feel truly polished and filled out in terms of gameplay.

Much of the ‘complete’ feeling that I mention above comes from the excitement of exploring the dozens of rooms (along with many other hidden rooms!) within the estate.  Here, the frustrating fact of the genre is that the desire to explore these lush room is impeded by the statuesque position of the player.  There is always something curious that just begs to be clicked on, which is simply not clickable!  So, even after you’ve finished the game and received the congratulatory music and the satisfactory vision of the credits scrolling offscreen, you’re still not quite sure if there was some hidden puzzle that you just couldn’t get to.

This contributes to the other faux pas I noticed in The Eyes of Ara, and that’s the surprising level of linearity that the sprawling castle seems to be built upon.  There are three or four sections of the castle, and they’re each gated by the ‘main puzzle’ that must be solved before progressing.  The first several rooms are one-off puzzles that you never really need to revisit. The fourth puzzle I can remember consisted of pushing two buttons hidden within a room – using the term ‘hidden’ lightly here, because the buttons were sitting out in plain view with absolutely no understandable context.  Many of the puzzles and solutions have absolutely nothing to do with the wonderfully decorated rooms they’re a part of. Despite this, the game is gripping and entertaining more often than not.

The Eyes of Ara is cohesive. The story meshes perfectly with the ambiance, which is only interrupted by the seemingly arbitrary puzzles positioned all over the place in ways that you’d imagine would be extremely inconvenient for anyone actually living in the castle. The music is soothing yet mysterious, egging you on but keeping you off edge. The graphics – while nothing stellar – are solid and fit my idea of such an old and intriguing place as well as I could imagine. The puzzles vary in difficulty dramatically, but the majority are quite stimulating.  All-in-all, The Eyes of Ara is a relaxing game that would make most fans of the genre quite happy.  There’s a solid 15 hours of exploring and puzzling ahead, so it’s a good thing that it’s an easy game to pick up and put down, each time solving just a small slice more of the mystery of The Eyes of Ara.

N8

R8

6/8

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Ace of Seafood Review

This was the third review I wrote for Brash Games.  They have since removed my name and byline from the review.

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Upon first reading the name of this strange indie game from developer Nussoft, you will likely fall into the trap of coming to inaccurate first conclusions.  If you’re at all like me, you might just fall into making the same assumption that anything called Ace of Seafood must be some sort of competitive chef simulator, or some strange spin-off of the usually terrible cooking or restaurant management game.

But no… In fact, Ace of Seafood is nothing of the sort. Instead, what you get with this weird little game is an action packed, laser blasting, hardcore underwater shooter. At the beginning of your first session, you’ll be given the choice of commanding one of three fully-armed sea creatures into chaotic battles of life or death against all the horrors of the deep, dark future-ocean. In these depths, you must begin your journey by choosing one of three backgrounds: the Sardines, the Salmon, or the Spiny Lobsters. On one hand, fish species allow complete freedom of movement in every direction, giving priority to dodging, strategic positioning, and flanking at the cost of some defense. On the other hand, crustaceans offer superior defense and abilities that lend to a cautious and protective style of play. Other species and play styles emerge as the game carries on and a skilled seafarer will quickly find that with each powerful weapon and ability comes a steep handicap.

So you make your initial decision and enter the choppy ocean waters. Immediately, you may wander in any direction you desire, the only restriction being your occasional need to feed. On your journeys, you will come in contact with dozens of other species, some passive and some extremely hostile. And when these myriad fishes do get violent, things get seriously difficult in no time.

In order to match the power of the many aggressive sea foods you’ll encounter, you’ll have to breed some strong species of your own, gathering new types as you go, each with different strengths and styles. As you explore the deep seas, you’ll discover dozens of reefs which serve as safety zones for you to heal up, regroup, and dig into breeding various fish, crabs, lobsters, and (strangely) war ships. The combat system is just the same as most airplane or submarine combat systems out there.  You have full horizontal and vertical control, and the aiming system is all particle-based and frustratingly accurate. It’s important to come to this underwater world with some first person shooter skills in hand. Beyond simple accuracy, you can also improve your chances by commanding your accompanying school of fish to take different strategic positions, blocking incoming shots or attacking from different angles.

As you stretch out the seemingly endless edges of your minimap, you’ll notice that this world is gigantic. Playing as different sea critters allows you to access different areas of the ocean, and though exploration is really secondary to the combat experience the game seems to focus on, there’s nothing quite as exciting as swimming and swimming into the distance, never quite positive if you’ll be able to make it back.  As a side note, the lovely music by artist Deku provides an amazing auditory backdrop as you delve ever deeper into the murky depths.

The only story elements in the game come during the loading screens, where you get cryptic messages about the end of humanity and the spirit of life being passed on to laser-shooting future fish.  These poorly translated moments add another layer of hilariousness to the already ridiculous notion of laser fish fighting rocket crabs fighting military war ships.

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And so Ace of Seafood goes. You’ll soon be speeding around the sea, hunting down new reefs with your posse of crustaceans, fish, and submarines tailing happily behind you; a fierce challenge for any monster sea creature that impedes your way. I found that an adaptive method of play worked best, using hard-shelled creatures to fight against attack-heavy opponents and speedier fish against slower, more deliberate enemies. Cleverly utilizing walls as a barrier to avoid the AI’s superior aim was also a winning strategy, alongside deploying decoys and using strong allies to bolster my chances as I attacked each new reef.  And since each new reef offers a safe place to recalculate your attacks, I never felt overly frustrated or annoyed when my horde of sardines was decimated by a pack of angry tuna.

In general, I was immensely surprised by the level of depth Ace of Seafood offered, especially considering my initial impressions of the game based on the title. More specifically, the open world (sea) is an impressive display of how huge an indie game can be, despite technical and logistic limitations. The combat system is also surprisingly well-tuned, minus a few annoying peaks and valleys in enemy difficulty. The aiming system in highly precise and maneuvering through each combat session feels as natural as any other shooter of this type, with only an occasional bout of directional confusion when trying to swim in circles or quickly turn around. The graphics leave plenty to be desired, but all-in-all there is a lot here for the price of a small studio game.

So, Ace of Seafood is a delightful little oddity with quite a bit going for it. There are a few annoying quirks and some strange design choices, like the option to turn on “online features” that seem to do nothing at all. But if you’re looking for a solid few hours of fishy entertainment, Ace of Seafood is not a bad catch.  To conclude, I’ll summarize my thoughts on Ace of Seafood with a comment from the developer: “So many dreams…and to think that playing as seafood would be the answer to all of them.”

N8

R8

6/8

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Infinifactory Review

This was the second review I wrote for Brash Games.  They have since removed my name and byline from the review.

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Start up Infinifactory for the first time and you’ll find yourself immediately abducted into an alien world populated with some of the majorly complex and difficult puzzles you’ll ever be forced to solve by a malevolent dictator. Infinifactory offers the dedicated solver a serious chance at digging deep into a mechanical world of conveyors, sensors, welders, and a variety of other devices necessary for making some of the most stupidly complex machines to appease your violent alien overlords. It’s a game that requires an open mind, a heart full of patience, and the temperament of someone stranded on a deserted island.

Like most “good” modern puzzle games, the instant Infinifactory is started you’re given no formal tutorial. You begin by walking down corridors, learning basic movement and block-placing mechanics while absorbing every inch of the dystopic scenery. You know you’re in some sort of spacecraft, and you know you’re not here because you chose to be.  Following that grim line of narrative, you notice a multitude of dead bodies strewn in outer space and some within the spacecraft itself.  It’s easy to see that this is not a friendly world…

But quickly, as is the case with many puzzle-centric games, you will likely realize that the freaky narrative of being abducted by aliens and forced to create crazy machines is little more than a safety blanket covering what would otherwise be a game without plot, characters, tone, or setting.  Infinifactory would indeed be the same excellent puzzle game, even if there weren’t the memorable spacescapes and alien overlords.

So foregoing the story elements for now, I find myself struggling to accurately formulate a complaint about this game.  I am no genius. I don’t exactly know how to tell an excellent puzzle game from a less-than-great puzzle game, but I do know that each puzzle I was matched up against in Infinifactory was a delightfully heady challenge to work through. Each problem seemed to have a very concrete direction in the sense that every puzzle has two requirements.

1.    Each puzzle builds of the last and you need to solve them sequentially to understand what you’re trying to do.

2.    The thing that worked for you in the previous puzzle will not work for you again. You need to deconstruct and build on what the game teaches you.

Each level provides you with a scenario that you are necessarily (assuming you don’t skip a level) familiar with. But despite your familiarity, there is always a layer of the unknown.  Each puzzle requires you to break the rules that you learned before in order to comply with the constraints of the current predicament.

This gives a player the sense of slowly becoming a master of what was previously seen as an unknowable pallette of little machines. This feeling arises in the form of an authentic sense of intelligence and ingenuity. This injection of self-confidence combined with the wide-open nature of the game, makes a person playing Infinifactory feel in control and free to address each problem as an intelligent individual. You’re not pandered to in the least. You’re limited only by the layout of each level’s terrain, your current inventory of machines, and your own ability to think through a problem. You’re reminded that YOU are smart enough to design something so complicated and purposeful so that each time you’re frozen with indecision at the beginning of another seemingly impossible challenge, you can’t help but remind yourself, “Well I solved the last one. I must to be able to solve this one.” And with time, effort, and information carried over from previous levels, it gets done.

And then another one gets done. And another. And another. Until you find yourself sitting on top of a mountain of knowledge that you couldn’t possibly begin to describe in words. With each new problem, your mind effortlessly cuts down on seemingly infinite possibilities, until you’re left with the most efficient and practical method of accomplishing the objective at hand. People have described this feeling as flow, but in Infinifactory, I would simply describe it as a player growing as a better and better designer. A better engineer. A better thinker. There is nothing more rewarding when it comes to problem-solving.

All that lovey-puzzly stuff said, the auxiliary story components are always nice little surprises. After completing one puzzle and moving onto the next, there is a real sense of reward when you get to listen to the voice recordings of all those who have failed where you might yet succeed. There’s also a sincerely sinister – and yet somehow hilarious – overtone to the entire game.  You’re making machines that create missiles, ship parts, and fuel, for the benefit of some quite obviously hostile beings, while being rewarded with goofy trophies and food pellets. I don’t think secondary rewards like this are necessary in a good puzzle game – and Infinifactory is a good puzzle game… But just like Portal would not have been the same without GLaDOS, Infinifactory wouldn’t quite feel the same without the recordings of the dead puzzle-solvers that came before you and your creepy-but-hilarious alien rulers.

So without really digging much deeper into the specifics of good puzzle games vs. bad puzzle games, I will put forward the opinion that Infinifactory is exceptional. It is robust with possibility, intensely complex yet refined, and painted with a decent amount of narrative, making the world in which the real puzzly meat is housed come alive.

N8

R8

8/8

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Sombrero Review

This was the first review I wrote for Brash Games.  They have since removed my name and byline from the review.  The 6 blog posts following this one are of the same variety.

Hitch your trusty steed, order your whiskey neat, and lasso up your friends for a hectic hailstorm of brightly-colored dust and hip-fired bullets in Sombrero.  This 2-4 player spaghetti western party shooter offers just a few ways to play, but they’re chock-ful of over the top havoc for anyone out there with a need for another competitive multiplayer indie title to add to their collection. The game is most of what it sets out to be – it is fast, competitive, and chaotic. Though the game is enabled for online multiplayer and local multiplayer, saddling up on the couch with three other desperadoes is really the only way you’re going to get your game on, since it is a long-shot finding even one other person in an online game. This is, unfortunately, the sad truth for most lesser-known multiplayer indie titles, but certainly not a reason for losing interest entirely. Sombrero is exactly the kind of game you want to have on hand when you’ve got the controllers, the bodies, and the mind for some classic competitive shooting with a catchy western style.  The game comes with 4 game modes, 4 maps, several power-ups, and a host of wacky western (and not-so-western) characters to choose from.

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So after I gathered up 3 other cowboys and girls, we fired up some classic Deathmatch. We were quick to realize the simplicity of the game. Using the right thumb stick to shoot in any direction, we set out blasting haphazardly across the map in all directions, some of us aiming and some of us merely trying to avoid inevitable death. The power ups at our disposal included some western classics like tomahawks and TNT and some stranger weapons like the boomerang and exploding metal fist. With each of our deaths, the much-loved Wilhelm scream tolled, mocking your death and putting a snide smirk on the face of your killer.

In the next variant Loot, we ran around the map gathering bags of cash and lighting fires for point multipliers, while still chaotically avoiding the plethora of projectiles being hurled and fired.  Quickly, we realized that actually having an objective besides killing your friends more than they kill you made the game considerably more enjoyable. We moved next into the game type called Banditos, in which we were tasked with nabbing a golden idol and keeping it away from everyone else. Though we found this mode enabled some pretty cheesy camping strategies, due to the fairly over-powered upgrade the idol grants to its current owner. In the last mode, we had our biggest hoot. Capture the Flag was a great balance between the chaos of simply shooting at anything that moves and actually trying to do something. It got everyone out of their corners and running all across the map trying to capture and defend their flags. This mode seemed to lend itself best to strategic thinking and shooting, while making the most of the madhouse mayhem the game is all about.

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Like all party titles of this shooty, fighty, fast-paced nature, Sombrero is going to be a good time with any group of friends. With characters this goofy, an art design inspired heavily by a beloved genre, and gameplay that is smooth and quick, it’s hard to poke it full of holes. That being said, there are dozens of games out there in a similar vein.  With plenty of alternative options like Super Smash Brothers, Towerfall: Ascension, Screencheat, Duck Game, Move Or Die, and Nidhogg, it’s a tough life for a competitive couch multiplayer game like Sombrero. And it is especially true in this case because there’s nothing in particular that really makes Sombrero stick out besides it’s colorful and energetic western theme. There is no real gimmick that goes along with the art and music style, there’s nothing really that makes it play differently than other shooters of its type, the characters all function identically, and you might find yourself moving to another game after only a brief amount of time spent with it, simply because there’s only so many times you can play CTF or Deathmatch. Other more nitpicky problems include unpredictable and somewhat unfair spawn positions, a lack of anything truly unique in the four game modes, and just a general feeling of repetitiveness after playing 5 or 6 rounds.

The western theme is a good choice, but it would really kick the game up a notch if there were some mechanic inherent to the playstyle that somehow called back to classic tropes of the western genre. Perhaps the occasional shoot-out between two players alone, or just a wider range of weapon choices or game modes, or perhaps wider, more expansive plains-type maps. That being said, there is nothing about Sombrero itself that would make you call it a bad game. In a vacuum, you could easily get your money’s worth with a group of similarly-skilled friends. The characters are delightful, the maps are well-designed and mechanically different from one another, the weapons are goofy and offer a good deal of variety to the gameplay, and the game feels over all polished.

So to round-up all that’s been said, Sombrero: Spaghetti Western Mayhem is an excellent choice for any drifters out there looking for another party game to add to the ole’ collection. The game is a truly good time if you’ve got enough people and controllers for the local multiplayer and it feels like a well-made game. There are some issues with the saturated field the game was thrust into, there’s a lack of anything precisely unique in the mechanics and they relate to the exciting western theme, and there’s no one to play with online. The art style is bright and hectic and the gameplay is equally enjoyable and chaotic. So, in a few closing words Sombrero is not exactly ambitious, but still a blast with friends.

N8

R8

4/8

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N8 AW8S: Stephen’s Sausage Roll

snow

Have you heard of this person that makes independent games and goes by the pseudonym “Increpare?” Well his human name is Stephen Lavelle and he makes shit loads of indie games and neat, free tools for other developers

For instance, the popular, simple, open-source puzzle game engine: PuzzleScript

And this awesome lo-fi sound effect generator: BFXR

Or for those a little more in the ‘know’, perhaps you’re familiar with the bare-bones point-and-click game engine: flickgame

And if you’re not acquainted with these nifty, e-z-p-z game-development tools, maybe you know some of the bizarre, chilling, provocative, and punishing games Mr. Lavelle has crafted throughout his many years as an indie dev.

He’s made games like:

English Country Tune

Holohoax

American Dream

He also a frequently collaborates with other developers, like Terry Cavanagh on games like:

Judith

VVVVVV

While I don’t claim to know what “increpare” means or what this person is all about or what I’m supposed to take away from >95% of the things he creates, I know each and every one of the hundreds of games hosted on increpare.com is worth taking a look at.

Playing any one of Stephen’s games will leave a peculiar taste in your mouth. It might not be sweet, or salty, or any of those classically pleasurable flavors, but it will be something you’ll learn to like. Or if not, at least you’ll be surprised.

All that about Stephen’s old shit aside, there is a new game in the makings, and it’s due to be released April 18, 2016!

Stephen’s Sausage Roll is a puzzle game, like most of Mr. Lavelle’s more ‘commercially viable’ games, and it’s got all the trappings of a game that is sure to incite exciting frustration and blissful confusion.

The first review is in and Destructoid gives it a motherfucking 10/10 which is goddam exciting.

Jonathan Blow, who you ought to know as the creator of Braid and more recently The Witness, has tweeted about the game, boasting its sheer difficulty, claiming that Lavelle’s past games pale in comparison in terms of just what it takes to figure these meaty puzzles out.

But Increpare is quite a tight-fisted gent when it comes to marketing.  He doesn’t like the idea of showing gameplay footage and only rarely tweets little nugglets of content and teaser-y material. So there’s unfortunately not much more to say, but here are some of his tweets about his sausage game. Get excited!!

$30!

Save the date! 

April 18!

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The Wonder of the Witness and the Hazard of Hype

For years, Braid was my favorite game. When I first bent time with little Tim, I was enthralled with the beautiful and distinctly different world Jonathan Blow had created. It made me feel smart and special – the kind of specialsmart you feel when you discover the solution to a really hard problem without any outside help. Some time later, when I played through Braid for the second time, something huge had changed. For sure, it was the same game. But somehow it had transformed in my mind from this cool, exciting, interesting thing to a profoundly life-changing and explosively revelatory experience. No longer merely a game that made me feel specialsmart, its story and puzzles transfixed me as I had only before been transfixed by certain music, books, and movies. Braid branded my mind with a message – something that I had somehow completely missed the first time. There was a lofty idea that was being danced around, prodded at, but never quite directly pointed to in Braid. There was a secret buried deep that would help me find purpose and meaning in my life.

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But like most such intense moments of awe and inspiration, my Braid-fueled motivation was unsustainable. I had swallowed a pill and its effects inevitably wore off. I was left with residual determination and excitement, but I fell back into routine and comfort. The game had disturbed my lifeflow, but for the sake of certainty (and laziness, and fear, and ease of living) I did not make any permanent changes. Of course, that didn’t terminate my love for the game or my interest in Jonathan Blow’s future endeavors. I eagerly anticipated any nugget of information on The Witness throughout its entire development. I read every blog post, listened to every talk, watched every gameplay video. I wanted another injection of inspiration, another pill to swallow. And while my eagerness for the game has left me with one hell of a come-down, I can happily say that The Witness is not just another pill.

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First of all, I should never have followed the production of this game so closely. Doing so made artificial and predictable what would have been a surprising, authentic, and fresh experience. And while the game totally exceeded my expectations, my problem was having so many expectations to begin with. Secondly, there is none of the violent revelation in The Witness that I believed to find so much of in Braid. The Witness is a significantly more mature game in content, design, and tone, and while at some point in the future it may induce that huge moment of insight for me (as it was with Braid,) so far its impact on my mental state has been much gentler. In fact, it seems that Blow very purposefully left out those sort of singular, overwhelming revelations – akin to the exploding princess in Braid – because that type of Big Answer is just not what The Witness is about. Those huge, bright instants are instead replaced with calmer, more hushed moments that offer slow and steady insight into the game’s themes. And while there certainly are moments of epiphany along the way, The Witness focuses on the gradual movement towards a better understanding, rather than some fantastic crescendo ending in an instant of complete clarity.

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Now this lack of a BANG does not mean that The Witness has had no radical impact on my thoughts and emotions. I have been dwelling on this game constantly, even after finishing everything there is to finish (I think). With Braid, I felt like there was some profound secret I was beginning to uncover, something that the poets and discoverers and beauty-seekers know that I needed to understand if I had any true desire to make something beautiful in my life. Braid cracked open my skull and installed an angry desire to dive in and find that which is truly awesome about this toddler of an artform called videogames. But as I’ve said, this dramatic urge was not a sustainable sources of inspiration. Braid burned me out. Comparatively, The Witness is teaching me something new. It’s teaching me something about patience, about accepting the unknown, about stepping away from a problem and coming back with a clear mind. I am learning to focus on the journey, on the moment as it is in the moment, rather than what it may become. I’m discovering that it’s counterproductive to spend so much time and effort trying to yank out some discernible and concrete answer like a fortune from a cookie. I must avoid the phoney certainty of such Big Answers if I value Truth. This is what The Witness is teaching me.

hard puzzles

And one of the most impressive aspects of the game is that this lesson comes through MORE clearly in the gameplay than it does in the audio logs. As you navigate this silent sanctuary of an island, learning its rules and philosophies, you start to notice that what you initially accept as plain and simple fact is actually far more complicated. That ‘fact’ you think you know becomes the one roadblock keeping you from solving the next puzzle. The game teaches the player that we create our own red herrings. The flow of The Witness works in such a way that as you quickly solve a string of easy puzzles, you inevitably pick up on the mechanics. And since you probably solved all those easy puzzles without making any mistakes, you become self-certain that a specific mechanic MUST work the way it did during those easy panels. Now by the time you get stuck on a larger, more complicated puzzle, the rules appear inconsistent. But instead of slowing down and trying to figure out what fundamental flaw in reasoning you’ve made, you repeatedly slam your head against the same puzzle until you give up and ask the Internet, “WHY ISN’T THIS SOLUTION WORKING?” Typically, the answer is simple. You’ve been taking the truth for granted.

Reddit posts

Big picture: The Witness’ mechanics revolve around perspective. In the example above, the head-basher will never be able to move past that harder puzzle until they are able to adjust the way they are looking at the problem. Players who are able to quickly change their points of view, both literally and metaphorically, will undoubtedly find solutions quicker. And beautifully, the same sort of thing can be said for the game’s unconventional ‘narrative’ content. If you’re like a lot of people, you may quickly shrug off the island’s many audio logs as overly-mystical, or overly secular, or just plain pretentious. But if you accept the message of The Witness, let down your guard, and step a little to the left, you may realize you’ve been shrugging off an intimate and personally relevant conversation. After bashing your head against a particularly tricky puzzle for hours, only to come back after a night of sleep and solve it in one try, it’s impossible to ignore the emotional gravity of an audio log that urges you to “stop looking for what you want.”

But all of this about altering your perspective and taking the truth for granted does not merely solve the game for you. Even for those with the most open of minds, The Witness is hard. It calls to its players on a mental and personal level that far exceeds video games as we know them. Thoughts of the panels will invade your waking life as the quotes of famous scientists and philosophers echo in your mind. These two intellectual components work in unison to challenge your logical reasoning and the understanding you have of yourself as a human capable of self-reflection. Rather than assuming the player is dimwitted, as many more popular games have adopted as common practice, The Witness carries on as if the player is actually intelligent. Even the most seasoned sleuther is destined to be stuck at some point or another, overtaken by a fit of head-scratching and self-doubt.

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And while the game’s line-based puzzles reject a more mainstream hand-holding approach, its sophisticated philosophical themes are not dumbed down in handing over chunks of simple narrative as some sort of reward for solving panels. Now I don’t mean that The Witness has no story, but rather the bits and pieces of story you may discover will not be easily formed into a line for your quick consumption. I imagine at some point in the future, people will come up with a theory, much as they did with Braid, that provides some definitive information about the narrative elements spread around the island. But I also imagine that the real Meaning of The Witness, as it was with Braid, will never translate perfectly to written word. And while this is a point of contention for some people (asitwaswithbraid,) I believe that any more classical story elements would feel like an injection of something that doesn’t really belong. A story set out in words would run the real risk of severely detracting from the game’s focus. And though I can’t precisely say what the Witness is about, I can say with a biiiiig smile that it’s not some convoluted mystery about a time travelling island or an allegory for the development of the atomic bomb. The Witness is subtler than that, and even if a distinct “story” of the island is revealed as players investigate with more vigor, I have hope that it will never overtake what The Witness is at heart.

The Witness_20160130114015

Among other, less speakable things, The Witness is a statement against the easy path. It urges us to put our preconceptions to the test, to doubt our beliefs and methods, and to sit with a silent mind for a few minutes before engaging the challenges of the day. And though there is a solution to every puzzle on this peaceful, encapsulated area of contemplation, The Witness reminds us that the real questions in life have no quick, digestible, happy answers. Unnerving as this may seem, we are reassured that to settle on an answer as a certainty is to abandon what it means to be an intelligent, lively, inquisitive agent in this world. It’s to settle for mysticism, dull one-liners, and those flashy Braid-like ‘revelations’ that don’t actually lead us anywhere interesting. There are no answers to life’s deep, philosophical questions here. There is just observation, interaction, and consideration.

I climbed into The Witness hoping for that quick, hot injection of life-changing serum that I had gotten when I replayed Braid all those years ago. And due to this expectation, my initial experience with Blow’s new game was unfortunately hollow. But I have learned from my mistakes, and from the lessons housed within The Witness. I will never again fall victim to this type of hype. But despite all the woes of my over-eagerness, The Witness has shown me a new way of looking at the world. I don’t fully understand it yet, and it will be a long time before I actually implement it into my day-to-day thinking, but where Braid shook my world, The Witness is offering me something that I believe to be quite permanent. And I do recognize that I have only just played through this beautiful game for the first time. I have my second experience ahead of me, and like all the best solutions in The Witness, I will let that one come naturally.

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The Witness comes out tomorrow

And I am getting flashbacks of trying to go to sleep the day before Christmas. I have been following the development of this game since I replayed Braid five years ago. There are reviews out now.  Most of them are seriously positive (though I have kept myself from reading more than the excerpts) and I’m just waiting to get my hands on it and finally get to experience this thing.

I have plans to write about the Witness, but I want to do it justice. I know I’m going to love the game, so anything I write will be useless as the usual sort of “Should I buy it?” criticism. So what I mean when I say I want to do the game justice is that I want to slow myself down. I want to write deliberately and focus on something special about the game.  I don’t want to shape anyone’s opinion, I don’t want to convince anyone of anything.  I just want to partake in the experience of the game, and document it. I will play and write and absorb and record.  Then, with a collection of my initial thoughts, criticisms, and struggles, I will work slowly and seriously towards a more thoughtful type of ‘review.’

And perhaps review is the wrong word again. I want to present my interpretation of the game. Of its explicit narrative and of its implied message. So from now until this thing comes out, this stupid little time-waste of a blog will be my repository for all things the Witness-related.  Hopefully I’ll come up with something to feel proud about.

More sometime this week.

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