Tag Archives: Puzzle

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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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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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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Tripping on Mushroom 11

The N8R8 award for innovation in 2D physics-based puzzle-platformer design has found a reason to be called into existence! And while technically the only contender for this newly established yet prestigious prize, Mushroom 11 is a prime example of what games would be if developers stopped rehashing the same junk and just tried a little harder to open their minds to something new, interesting, and a teensy bit experimental. There is no jumping, no walking, none of that sticky platformer goop that immediately makes us think of that red-suited, Goomba-bopping plumber we all know oh too well. A truly welcome variation on the genre is what you get for 14.99 on Steam (10% OFF NOW!) N8s got the deets, N8s got the gifs, N8s got the stupid 8 gimmick thing goin’ on – all the shit you need to get a good, firm feel for this mycological treat of an indie platformer.

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One of the first things you’ll notice after doing yourself the favor of buying Mushroom 11 is that there are no real characters in the game. There is no dialogue, no narrator, no signposts telling you how to play, not even the slightest suggestion that you have a goal or a mission or an end-point. It’s all organic. The only direction you get is through the classic effect of side-scrolling. You move your green, radioactive-looking blob of an avatar toward the edge of the screen and the screen moves along with you. Interestingly, side-scrolling occurs from right to left in this game, possibly for the sake of comfort as your means of progress comes from heavy use of quick up-and-down mouse flicks. Even more interesting is the primary source of challenge in the game – movement. All of the platforming done in Mushroom 11 is done with the abilities of an amorphous amoeba. You push yourself to the left by destroying yourself on the right. You rapidly erase your blob with the click of the mouse and it rapidly rebuilds itself in the opposite direction. This is easily visible in the trailer or in any one of these fancy-pants gifs I’s gots.

MovingThis fundamental change in the way the player is required to think about movement lends itself to a vast new array of level design options. The player can climb up walls, squeeze through the narrowest of cracks, cling to tiny or oddly shaped platforms by becoming the perfect shape to suit the scenario. The destructive method of movement and shaping is quickly shown to be a double-edged sword, of course, as it is easy to chop away too much too quickly and wind up with a tiny hopeless speck of green plummeting into a pit of acid or bottomlessness. With time, you become more skilled at trimming the ol’ globule so it’s moved and shaped in just the way you intend. The devs have taken full advantage of the perks of blobiness by crafting some truly unique and challenging levels, all littered with extraneous collectibles and hidden tasks for the perfectionists out there. And while the basic progressive task of moving to the end of each level is a formidable undertaking for just about anyone, the real test is in collecting all that hidden blue flora and fauna.

Collectibles

Puzzles in Mushroom 11 are a little less Braid and a little more Portal. They are not the toughest brain-benders in the sense that the solution probably comes to the player pretty quickly. The hardest part is actually putting your idea into practice and molding your blob into the optimal shape for the solution you’ve got in mind – and doing it quickly, too. This is not frustrating and annoying a la QUBE, but rather stimulating and encouraging as you get closer and closer to the right move after each attempt. That’s not to say the game is never frustrating. It gets increasingly difficult and I often found myself getting pissed off at the spacing between certain check points. Most of the time these were well-placed without being too easy to reach, but occasionally there’d be one next to a death trap I had persistent trouble with. Fortunately, these checkpoints are rage proof and bring you right back where you left off when you spaz out and alt-F4.

Spread in increments throughout the levels are also Intense, cinematic experiences in which the player sets in motion a chain-reaction and gets the pleasure of following the event to its conclusion. In these moments, the player must continue interaction with their blob while it rides a mine cart, gets shot through the air from a catapult, or bounces along on pistons above lava. The conclusion of each level is also marked with my favorite bits in Mushroom 11. The boss-battles are a classic but ever-welcome method of ending the levels with a bang. To prevail, each boss requires the player to utilize specific skills taken from the level in a new way. Unlike other similarly-styled platformers, however, you never gain new abilities or upgrades. While these cliches would be nothing but awkward and unnecessary if added in haphazardly, some type of variety from level-to-level would have been welcome, as they do sometimes get a bit repetitive, though no where near enough to want to stop playing.

Ramp

To pile more meat on the positivity pl8, the background and foreground art in Mushroom 11 is a charming display of mutated landmasses, dilapidated factoryscapes, and post-apocalyptic cities. Brief stories of the once-great human civilization are told via buried skeletons, barbed wire, and graffitied signs, leading the player to a vague understanding of how the world came to be succeeded by squishy green blobs, mutant spiders, and mechanized slugs. The background music is an atmospheric mixture of synthetic wind instruments, percussion, and chimes layered with the sounds of each specific level, like mechanical clangs and hums for the factory setting and the chirps of unknown bird species for the forest level. In my mind, all of this rich atmosphere would have fit perfectly over top of some direct story elements, though doing too much with the story would detract from the cohesiveness of the game overall.

pretty

The one undeniable downside of a game like this is that it reminds us that the rest of the world is full to the brim of copy-cut 2D platformers. Even though this classic genre is far from dead, it feels like a miracle when you finally uncover that beautiful shimmer of life in unique titles like Mushroom 11. With level-design that meshes consistently well with the mechanics and an atmosphere that fills the game world with color, sound, and excitement, it’s hard not to imagine what the gaming world would look like if more games were created with this amount of care and precision. Though Mushroom 11 occasionally felt a tiddly bit monotonous, the game is too solid and fun to speak of in a negative tone. If you’re looking for the freshest of paltforming produce, Mushroom 11 is as local-grown, organic, non-GMO, cruelty/cage/ISIS-free, and hella-tight as you can find on the deep web. Check it.

N8

R8

7/8

mushy3

Side note: Mushroom 11 is eventually coming to mobile, which I can imagine being a great experience assuming the devs get the controls down solid. It was difficult enough with a mouse.


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