For any followers or viewers that may have happened upon this blog site:
I have been writing for bagogames.com for a few months. If anyone that may see this is interested in following my work, I’ll link my author page.
For any followers or viewers that may have happened upon this blog site:
I have been writing for bagogames.com for a few months. If anyone that may see this is interested in following my work, I’ll link my author page.
Founded in 1995, Max Payne carries Remedy Entertainment’s legacy. In the fourteen years since Max Payne 2, only two console games have come from the studio–Alan Wake and Quantum Break. The latter was built up as one of Microsoft’s major eighth generation exclusives, though it came and went with a whimper. Is Quantum Break worth remembering or is it just a blip on the studio’s timeline?
Narrative has always been Remedy’s core strength. As a result, it should be no surprise that Quantum Break places a heavy emphasis on its story, though tempered expectations are advisable. The game stars Jack Joyce, a loyal friend to scientist, Paul Serene. Paul calls in a favor, asking Jack to help him test his time machine. As a surprise to no one, the test goes awry, setting in motion a chain of events including Paul’s physical deterioration as well as the impending threat of time ending.
The typical B-grade science fiction plot is filled with writing that fails to overcome its generic trappings. Whereas studios like Naughty Dog utilize tired plots as vehicles to drive believable and well written character interactions, Quantum Break meanders through its entire run time. Most characters lack depth. Jack Joyce and Beth Wilder aren’t exactly the most likable or engaging duo. To its credit, even if the writing isn’t up to snuff, each scene is at least well acted and directed with a level of cinematic flair you’d expect from a triple-A title. Part of this is due to the game’s presentation. Nearly two years later, the visuals continue to astound at higher resolutions, standing toe to toe with some of the most technically impressive titles of 2017.
Broken up into five acts, players will take control of the villain after each act’s conclusion in what the game calls a junction point. These junction points allow one of two decisions to be made which will impact later in-game events as well as the live action tv episodes. These episodes play out at the end of each act after a junction point. The roughly twenty minute episodes never overstay their welcome, though they exude an aura of low budget cable tv cheese that’s difficult to shake. Despite its hokey nature, the show accomplishes its goal of fleshing out Monarch, the token bad guy organization. It doesn’t match Remedy’s previous efforts, but it’s just enough to provide context for the gameplay.
While the story may not live up to the studio’s reputation, the frenetic time bending combat certainly does. Quantum Break begins as a basic shooter, though new powers are doled out at a breakneck pace. By the end, you’ll likely be combining these powers together in a chain of poetic beauty. Powers range from time bubbles that collect and then disperse bullets to a bubble shield that heals the player’s health. Just like Max Payne, Quantum Break has a bullet time style slow motion ability that can be activated by aiming immediately after performing a time dodge or time dodging into an enemy.
None of the individual powers at the player’s disposal are inventive, but when combined, they offer a level of tactical depth you rarely see in straightforward shooters. With its open arenas and nimble cover, constant movement is encouraged. Each combat space is designed to allow mastery of the game’s various systems, chaining powers together to wipe out an entire room of enemies. When the player understands the systems at play and how to exploit them, every single encounter with a group of enemies feels like a reward for sticking through the so-so narrative.
That perhaps brings us to Quantum Break‘s biggest issue. Whereas previous Remedy games strike a careful balance between engaging storytelling and exciting gameplay, Quantum Break veers heavily in one direction. It offers incredibly exciting shootouts, but offers little else outside of that. Puzzles are almost nonexistent while the environmental storytelling is too heavy-handed to stick. Rarely have I played a game that scatters so many documents and pieces of storytelling so close together. Reading everything does offer the most cohesive experience, but it also slows down the pacing of the action in the pursuit of contextualizing a narrative that even when fully explored isn’t going to invite intelligent discussions on the level of titles like The Last of Us or Nier: Automata.
At best, the story is passable material that skirts by on the merits of its excellent presentation. The combat is why you would want to pick up Quantum Break. It’s a shame that a more even balance couldn’t be struck, but there’s no denying the satisfaction of eliminating a wave of hostiles with efficient time power usage.
The mid-late 90’s spawned the immersive sim, a genre defined by influential PC titles such as Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock with the original Deus Ex following suit at the start of the millenium. Ion Storm and Looking Glass Studios pioneered the open-ended design we currently associate the genre with–design that consists of two core tenets:
The first principle is simple. An immersive sim generally consists of either one large open world map or several self-contained levels. Each environment in an immersive sim must provide a sense of scale on a micro or macro level while facilitating multiple playstyles. These playstyles are usually given more weight through some sort of progression system. Regardless of how a player chooses to build their character, proper immersive sims are designed from the ground up to allow each objective to be completed in a multitude of ways.
Deus Ex: MankindDivided and Prey are shining examples of this complex genre in an industry so far removed from the creative spark the industry once thrived in. Both these games are laser focused in their approach to game design, providing true freedom without the artificial progression barriers emblematic of contemporary triple-A game design.
This creative vision for the medium’s interactivity and its role in shaping unique experiences is the cornerstone of the immersive sim. Industry veteran, Warren Spector’s, sentiment hits even harder nowadays with the seventh and eighth generation of consoles giving rise to some of the most restrictive experiences the industry has known since the introduction of 3D gaming. Franchises that built their legacy on freedom of expression including Interplay’s Fallout have become hollow shells of their former selves.
The mainstream penetration of gaming as an industry has lead to a massive shift in priorities for most Triple-A developers and publishers. That shift chiefly consists of simplifying games to facilitate a new audience. We’ve seen this countless times. Franchises like Thief, Fallout, and The Elder Scrolls that used to mean something have abandoned old school free-form design principles in favor of catering to a broader demographic. It certainly makes sense from a business standpoint. This new audience of gamers didn’t materialize out of thin air and suddenly understand the complexities of yore. They’re being eased in through more and more streamlined entries with each passing year. Unfortunately, the end result is a neglection of the core audience that grew up with some of these intellectual properties.
Let’s backpedal a moment to Thief, Fallout, and The Elder Scrolls. Each of these fallen IP’s shares a connection with the modern day reinventions of Deus Ex and Prey. The abhorrent betrayal of the Thief legacy in the form of 2014’s reboot was developed by Eidos Montréal and published by Square Enix–the same duo that gave consumers Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. By the same token, Bethesda Studios, the publishing giant’s internal studio, continues to butcher the Fallout and Elder Scrolls names further with each installment.
Despite this sacrilege, Bethesda entrusted Arkane Studios with the 2017 iteration of Prey. As a reboot, it ironically offers more freedom than Bethesda’s own modern open world rpg’s. In an era whereby Bethesda pigeonholes players into playing specific roles for main quests as well as side quests with dialogue responses from NPC’s in select quests remaining exactly the same no matter what you say, a game like Prey shouldn’t even exist.
Yet it’s anomalous existence is a sign that true talent still exists within the Triple-A space. Both Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Prey explore the genre in slightly different ways, though they each share many of the commandments set by Ion Storm during the development process of the original Deus Ex.
- Problems not Puzzles – It’s an obstacle course, not a jigsaw puzzle. Game situations should make logical sense and solutions should never depend on reading the designer’s mind
- Multiple Solutions – There should always be more than one way to get past a game obstacle. Always. Whether preplanned (weak!), or natural, growing out of the interaction of player abilities and simulation (better!) never say the words “This is where the player does X” about a mission or situation within a mission.
- Pat Your Player on the Back – Random rewards drive players onward. Make sure you reward players regularly and frequently, but unpredictably. And make sure the rewards get more impressive as the game goes on and challenges become more difficult.
- Think 3D – An effective 3D level cannout be laid out on a graph paper. Paper maps may be a good starting point (though even that’s under limited circumstances). A 3D game map must take into account things over the player’s head and under the player’s feet. If there’s no need to look up and down – constantly – make a 2D game!
- Think Interconnected – Maps in a 3D game world feature massive interconnectivity. Tunnels that go direct from Point A to Point B are bad; loops (horizontal and vertical) and areas with multiple entrance and exit points are good.
- Geometry should contribute to gameplay – Whenever possible, show players a goal or destination before they can get there. This encourages players to find the route. The route should include cool stuff the player wants or should force the player through an area he wants to avoid. (The latter is something we don’t want to do too often.) Make sure there’s more than one way to get to all destinations. Dead ends should be avoided unless tactically significant.
Warren Spector touches on the idea of a simulation when describing the importance of problem solving. This, at the end of the day, is the holy grail of the genre with every other design element serving to reinforce that ideal. Immersive sims are titled as such partly because they are simulations, but not in the sense that you are probably thinking. They don’t concern themselves with ultra realistic depictions of the world “average joe” resides in. Rather, this simulation stems from the concept that the entire game operates by a consistent set of rules and logic. Understanding these rules and remaining true to them is key to maintaining the simulation.
How many games have you played in your life in which a crate can be pushed specifically because a designer decided pushing that crate by that wall was the only way to progress at that point in time? Yet, look around and the rest of the game is littered with crates that can’t be manipulated in any fashion. That inconsistency creates a rift in the simulation. This stands in stark contrast to the consistent game logic in Prey and Mankind Divided, both of which allow players to pick up, place, and throw nearly every object in the game world.
This simulation gives players the tools to experiment and solve logic puzzles in interesting ways. For example, the hub world of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is filled with verticality, remaining true to the commandment of thinking within a fully 3D space. When navigating the streets, a balcony, fire escape, or even an open window might draw attention. Sure, the player could find several entry points within that building from the ground floor or even below ground level and then exit through that window. However, because the player has grown accustomed to a simulation with consistent logic, the possibilities increase exponentially.
Logic dictates that window is a possible entry point, but Adam Jensen can’t jump high enough to reach it. You know what he can do, though–manipulate objects. A little bit of jerry-rigging together random boxes, trash cans, or whatever else seems like a suitable platform yields an improvised stair case. This isn’t breaking the game or exploiting any systems. It is an example of playing within a simulation to solve a simple logic puzzle. Prey allows the exact same manipulation of physics objects, though it also offers one tool that changes the game in either a dramatic or subtle way depending on how the end user chooses to engage with it–the Gloo Cannon
Trapping enemies is the gloo cannon’s primary purpose. Directing a stream of munition at a target will harden it into a stone-like substance, allowing the player to damage the enemy with conventional weaponry. The more genius application, however, is its versatility as an aid in environmental traversal. Each shot hardens into a circular glue-like substance when directed at any surface. There is no limit to its use case with none of the invisible walls or insta-death zones modern gamers are all too familiar with.
The turning point for me occured when I came across a power plant-ish area. As per usual, the intricately designed map facilitated upper level access prior to even entering the room. I found a broken walkway that lead to a door. A code I didn’t have access to blocked my entry. Gated behind level 4 security, I was unable to thwart it with my level 3 hacking skill. I had enough neuromods to upgrade to that final level, but I decided to find another way and invest those neuromods into other skills. I explored the upper bounds of the plant to find another door to the room, except this door could only be opened after turning on the plant’s power. If you’re keeping score, that’s already three different ways to access a completely random room in the game.
How did I solve this conundrum? A eureka moment suddenly hit me when I noticed an enemy wandering the room from ground level. I pulled out my trusty gloo cannon and improvised platforms up to the window, allowing me to smash through the glass with a wrench. This was only possible because I solved an unplanned logic puzzle through my own interaction with the game’s systems and underlying simulation.
The rope arrow from the Thief series is another excellent example of the degradation running rampant through the industry. The rope arrow can be used at any contact point on any wooden or mossy surface in Thief: The Dark Project and Thief 2: The Metal Age. That rope’s use case dwindled significantly, with only the designated points on deliberately placed beams deemed acceptable in the reboot. That change alone shatters the entire illusion of an immersive simulation that prioritizes freedom of expression. Thief (2014) is the poster child for how diluted game experiences have become in the past twenty years.
Mankind Divided‘s intricate design permeates every inch of the experience with even the most nondescript side quests offering a level of freedom Thief (2014) could only dream of. At one point, I was tasked with finding some sort of information from a room within an apartment complex. This locked room, situated on the second floor, enforces that interaction between player and simulation.
Searching for the access code from somewhere in the game world or perhaps even an NPC was within question. Hacking was also an option, though my hacking skill at that point wasn’t high enough. This would have been a barrier put in place by a less ambitious developer to prevent the player from accessing the aforementioned room until later, but as we’ve discussed, artificial progression barriers are antithetical to the immersive sim philosophy.
Eagle eyed players that canvassed the complex would have found a set of garage doors on ground level gated by lower level security, meaning these could actually be hacked. After entering both garage doors and gathering materials, I found a conspicuous air vent. This vent served as an interconnected tunnel that lead to several rooms within the apartment complex including the previously inaccessible room. The solutions don’t end there, though. If the player invested augmentation points into a strength skill that allows cracks in walls to be destroyed, he/she could have found said crack on the third floor. After crumbling the wall and entering the room, an improvised staircase thanks to the consistent simulation would have allowed the player to enter vents situated near the ceiling–vents that served as yet another entry point to that second floor apartment room.
This interconnected nature of Mankind Divided‘s hub world is taken even further with Prey. Whereas Eidos Montréal’s vision consists of two hub locations with individual levels thrown in for good measure, Arkane Studios opts for a single map. The Talos I is a gargantuan space station filled with hundreds of rooms and dozens of floors. The scope of the station is already complex enough to make exclusively indoor exploration feel rewarding with some of the most intricate loops and connections between areas you’ll ever find in gaming. It doesn’t end there, though.
Players are given free reign to exit the station and fly in space within a contained barrier. The only way to enter and exit the station is through five designated air locks. If you choose to exit through Airlock A and find another airlock you want to enter through for more convenient navigation, you’ll need to find and access that airlock from the inside before it can be used as an entrance. That isn’t the whole story, though, seeing as the station is filled with hull breaches and the like. This requires exiting the station and finding said hull breaches to access destroyed rooms that can’t be touched from the inside.
While Square Enix essentially murdered the Deus Ex franchise after Mankind Divided‘s sales figures, there is still hope thanks to Arkane Studios, the final bastions of hope for keeping the immersive sim alive. If you have yet to touch the genre to this day, Prey and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided are perfect modern day interpretations of those design philosophies pioneered in the early days. No genre is as emergent and encapsulating as the immersive sim.
Entering steam early access in the summer of 2014, Gang Beasts‘ gestation period has been a little too long for comfort. December 12, 2017 signaled the end of that era, with the game leaving its early access surname in addition to launching on Playstation 4 and Playstation VR. Despite launch day woes, Gang Beasts positions itself as a gloriously hot mess. This is the sort of game you play with your “squad”. You know, the pals; the friends you constantly insult and have hundreds of inside jokes with. If you’re looking for the ultimate “squad” game, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more fitting title than Gang Beasts.
Awkward controls dominate the honeymoon phase with a quick glance at the menu doing little to prepare players for a real-world match against human beings. Jumping, climbing, punching, kicking, headbutting, and grabbing objects feels imprecise. None of it has a particular science to it, meaning most players will fumble their way to success. The use of momentum based physics makes control even more difficult to master. In a live environment with up to seven other players, matches quickly devolve into a shit show.
On paper, it sounds like a disaster. Who would want to play a multiplayer game with awkward controls, right? That’s the beauty of art. Its expressiveness can not be described without witnessing the experience as a whole. The effect of the game’s control scheme in practice exceeds its supposed potential on paper, resulting in a transformative experience.
Gang Beasts contains four modes. Gang is just a team based melee and doesn’t offer the same thrills as double crossing close friends. Waves is a survival mode that can be played alone or with other players. It’s not going to replace melee, though the AI behavior can lead to legitimately funny moments. The most peculiar mode, soccer, will be hit or miss depending on the situation. The aforementioned control quirks make soccer next to impossible to play. A dedicated kick button exists, though it’s so flimsy and the physics are so unpredictable that most goals will be nothing more than pure accidents. Soccer doesn’t offer the same adrenaline rush as melee or even survival, but with the right group of friends, it can generate hilarious emergent gameplay moments that spawn out of the horrendously charming awkwardness that is Gang Beasts‘ control system.
Player avatars can be customized with a decent amount of variables. In addition, over twenty preset costumes are available from the outset. Identity is key here because losing the picture can be easy among the chaos of Gang Beasts‘ shining mode–melee. The rules are simple. Anywhere from two to eight players locally or online are loaded up into any of the seventeen stages with the singular goal of knocking everyone else off the stage or killing them using stage hazards. Each map offers a distinctly fresh take on the art of button mashing your way to success.
One stage takes place on a structurally unsound billboard situated above a highway. Another stage consists of two trucks racing alongside each other with the occasional road sign serving as a hazard for players fighting to the death atop the trucks. Yet another stage may be a straightforward ring with no hazards; only a ring-out status. Another map involves elevators operating parallel to each other with the ability to send each individual elevator crashing down.
The sheer variety on offer allows for completely fresh encounters depending on the stage. Not a single map feels like filler content with each stage designed to specifically induce anxiety in a different way. This variety combined with the emergent nature of its design makes Gang Beasts one of the most varied multiplayer experiences of the generation despite the relative simplicity of its gameplay–simplicity that is hamstrung by the controls.
Climbing is one of the few skills that can be learned quickly enough, though more advanced techniques like drop kicks and throwing objects at players are a monumental uphill battle. It’s not impossible, but in the heat of the moment you’d be forgiven for giving up on the subtleties of the game’s systems and flailing around like a lunatic. The controls are frustrating. Jumping feels too inconsistent to make platforming reliable. In addition, some of the game’s rules such as how it prioritizes who gets knocked out when players are simultaneously hitting each other will baffle many and may even lead to rage quits.
However, at the end of the day, Gang Beasts is an undeniably charming game whose quirky underlying systems allow for some of the most hilarious and unpredictable matches you’ll find. Gather a group of close friends and the laughs will keep coming. Gang Beasts is the quintessential party game for people that want more than just the fun and excitement a title like Rocket League might provide. Gang Beasts is the party game you turn to when you just want to laugh.
Difficulty is integral to turn-based role playing games. Gamers generally look to turn-based rpg’s over their active counterparts when they want a more mentally taxing experience. That’s not to say that games with turn-based combat always have to be hardcore masochistic tests of skill, but without enough player engagement, the passiveness of navigating menus becomes mind numbing. This is the predicament Blue Reflection finds itself in. It is one of the most insulting role playing games I have ever had the displeasure of playing.
The issue stems from its non-traditional progression system that ties leveling to story progress and optional friendship meters as opposed to experience points gained from battle. This wouldn’t pose an issue were it not for the game’s lack of urgency. Unlike the modern Persona titles, which contain a calendar system, meaning there are only so many social links and activities you can complete in one playthrough, Blue Reflection lacks such a system entirely.
What does this mean for the end-user? Remember when I brought up that leveling is tied to friendships and main story events? Players can bond multiple times with several characters, earning up to a dozen levels or more in a single sitting without engaging in combat or progressing the narrative.
I chose to develop as many bonds as possible around the mid-point of the game, hoping to break up the tedium of dungeon excursions with slice of life style interactions. By the time I returned to the main story path, I was so over-leveled that I plowed through every enemy encounter in a single move even on hard. This game breaking moment was exacerbated by the title’s inherently casual nature. Health and magic is restored completely after each fight, meaning once you have broken the game, spamming the most powerful multi-enemy attacks without the need to conserve any magic points in long drawn-out dungeons is the only strategy moving forward. This devolves what would otherwise be a fairly strategic battle system emphasizing ether management and wait times into a nonsensical spam fest. The issue is further compounded by Blue Reflection‘s lack of consequence. Dying in battle transports the player back to the real world without resorting to a prior save state.
Gust has expressed interest in developing a sequel. Despite my voracious tear-down of Blue Reflection, I won’t condemn a future installment. The writing and hardware optimization could use major retooling, but the core concepts are there. If Gust just re-balances the difficulty in any way they see fit, then we’ll already have a markedly more palatable experience. The question remains, though, whether they are capable of capitalizing on the franchise’s potential.
“Lose the clothes, save your life!”
With such eloquently stated writing on the back of the box, whatever could School Girl Zombie Hunter possibly be about? As a spin-off to the Onechanbara franchise, School Girl Zombie Hunter aims to titillate, but is it any good? The previous game, Onechanbara Z2: Chaos, while low effort in many ways, at the very least exhibited flashy combat that exceeded the level of depth you’d find in typical western character action games like God of War or Heavenly Sword.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of School Girl Zombie Hunter. While the game may introduce interesting mechanics, the core shooting feels under-cooked with a horrible frame rate that exacerbates the less than optimal character movement and control. Despite running on Unreal Engine 4, the game looks about 10 years behind the times. Even releasing in this state in 2007, it would pale stacked up to the competition. Remember, 2007 was the year of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and Crysis. Regardless, it is a modest visual upgrade over Onechanbara Z2: Chaos. Tamsoft finally upgraded from PS2 era levels to mediocre PS3 environments.
With that said, for a Playstation 4 exclusive running on a modern engine like Unreal 4, its laughably outdated visuals make the performance profile all the more baffling. Low budget Japanese games are no strangers to poor performance, but even so, School Girl Zombie Hunter is one of the most jarring experiences I’ve had all console generation second only to Warriors All-Stars. It seems to target a 60 fps refresh, though it regularly drops below 40 frames per second, with minimums as low as what feels like the teens in extreme cases. Even on a PS4 Pro with boost mode enabled(it has no official PS4 Pro support from what I can tell), it runs like hot garbage. When we have console games like DOOM running at 1080p at a stable 60 frames per second on the standard PS4, performance like this stings even more.
Unfortunately, fixing the frame rate wouldn’t solve much considering School Girl Zombie Hunter is a below average shooter at best. The game contains five playable characters throughout the roughly 4-5 hour story with each character providing different benefits. Rei is invincible during her melee animation, for example, while Mayaya reveals collectibles dotted around each level. The most interesting mechanic revolves around disrobing. Players can dress their characters in various outfits and even select the underwear/bra set underneath.
Pressing the touch pad rips the selected clothing, acting as a trap, enabling zombies to ignore the player and friendly AI. Underwear traps work exactly the same, though their effectiveness hinges on how long a character wears a set of underwear. School Girl Zombie Hunter tracks the amount of time each character wears an underwear set. Once ten minutes is exceeded, you can take a shower from the menu outside of missions, saving the dirty underwear as a single use item. The longer you wait to take a shower, the longer the underwear trap will last, capping out at one minute for thirty minutes of in-game underwear time. Traps are an underdeveloped throwaway mechanic that’ll make you chuckle once.
School Girl Zombie Hunter also contains a thin veneer of rpg elements. Completing missions rewards experience points with each level increasing a character’s health and stamina; a bar whose management is integral to sprinting, dodging, and performing melee attacks. Leveling up has an imperceptible impact on gameplay, though the loot drop system with several weapon types having different properties and effects adds depth to a game sorely lacking in meaningful content. It’s a shame then that with so many weapons containing variable stats, the game lacks a basic weapon comparison feature. Consisting of a by the numbers plot filled with archetypal anime characters and horrendous cinematography in addition to outdated animations, the loot drop system ends up being the single most compelling element of the entire experience rather than a supplemental addition to what should be the core shooting mechanics.
The act of shooting things lacks satisfaction. All weapons, including shotguns, sniper rifles, and rocket launchers lack impact. Even dismemberment weapons(guns that automatically dismember enemies on contact) feel weightless. When mowing down waves of zombies, I felt like I was shooting spitballs at grown muscular men. Shooting lacks the sense of weight and player feedback necessary to make the violence truly gratifying. Even worse, the campaign recycles the same four maps throughout the entirety of its run-time. The budget apparently only allowed Tamsoft to render School Building A, School Building B, The Outside, and Underground. Some chapters mix things up slightly by opening up the ability to freely travel across both school buildings and the outer premises within the same mission, but at the end of the day, it’s still only four maps that are repeated ad nauseam. Within the first hour, you’ll grow tired of seeing the same backdrops.
School Girl Zombie Hunter is a frustrating game. It follows a competent action game by the same developer just two years ago, but that’s not why it’s so frustrating. In the current political North American climate, low brow sexy games like this are unfairly dismissed by mainstream gaming media. Far too often, we see supposed “professional” reviewers give games poor or reduced review scores simply due to the reviewer being offended by said game’s representation of women or minorities, completely ignoring the actual quality of the game experience. Tamsoft has proven that they can make decent erotic games, but School Girl Zombie Hunter only adds fuel to the fire. Its poor level of quality and downright laziness serves as more ammunition for “politically correct” gaming journalists to justify their automatic condemnation of “weird Japanese games”. Even at a launch price of $40, School Girl Zombie Hunter is difficult to recommend, though if you find it on sale for under $20, it’s a passable mindless time waster for when you’re in that mood.
Supermassive Games has been around since last gen, dabbling in the creation of downloadable content for LittleBigPlanet among other minor projects, though 2015’s Until Dawn was their breakout hit. The developers saw Until Dawn transform into a party game due to its decision based gameplay that could result in either all or none of the eight playable characters dying.
This group-centered environment induced by Until Dawn’s mechanics heavily informed the design of Hidden Agenda. Whether that change in direction is for the better isn’t my place to decide as the developers have made it clear through interviews and trailers that the multiplayer “competitive” mode is THE way to play the game. Well, I have no friends so I have yet to try the multiplayer mode myself, but that’s not what this article is for.
Rather than writing a traditional review of Hidden Agenda because I have not experienced it properly, I aim to figure out how well it stacks up as a single player experience through the game’s “story” mode. Not everyone interested in this game may want to play with friends. They’d prefer an isolated experience in a similar vein to Until Dawn. Before starting the analysis, it’s worth noting the price. Launching at $20 after Until Dawn‘s full fledged $60 price tag in 2015(which can now be had for $20), it’s clear that Hidden Agenda is a budget title and should be treated as such.
First impressions for the single player gamer are not strong. Even if you want to play by yourself, you are still required to download the Hidden Agenda app for your smartphone. Don’t worry. It’s free, though using this app, as you’ll soon find out, is a price of admission not worth taking. Both the system and phone have to be connected through the same wifi network before they can be synced. The game is played entirely through this app, a design decision that ultimately hampers the single player experience, transforming it into a hollow shell devoid of any potential it might have had. The already simple mechanics of Until Dawn are streamlined even further. Players never physically control either of the protagonists in a three dimensional space. Instead, the three modes of control consist of:
On paper, crime scene investigation seems like the most interesting use of the playlink technology powering the game until you realize how shallow the experience is. Every crime scene consists of a single still frame with three pieces of evidence scattered about the scene. Crime scene investigations are timed, which when utilized properly, should add a sense of pressure that only video games can provide. However, instead of being a tense race against the clock, these scenes devolve into tedious wrestling matches against the unresponsive touch controls. Through the entirety of the experience, all decisions and mechanics are enabled through the use of an on-screen pointer that corresponds to your finger on the phone. Crime scenes use this pointer as well. This is where the game begins to fall apart. The second you identify a clue, the stupid app has a schizophrenic attack and loses the normally adequate, though not ideal, level of response for at least 2-4 seconds, wasting your time in the process. I did not time the crime scenes myself, though they are all definitely expected to be completed within a window of under thirty seconds.
The developers recognized this shitty technology and accounted for that. Guiding the pointer in the general direction of a clue highlights a gigantic magnifying glass, immediately giving away the item of interest. It’s a cop-out that would have been unnecessary if the app worked as the developers claimed or better yet, if gamers that know how to hold a controller were given the option of using one. Quick time events are similarly unresponsive, explaining why every QTE prompt slows down the action to give you enough time to wrestle with the controls. Even then, bringing the pointer close enough to the desired QTE box magnetically pulls it in. This design deficiency also adversely effects simple binary decisions. Often, when laying my finger on the phone, dragging back and forth, the pointer would magnetically teleport to the undesired choice, leaving me at the mercy of the playlink technology’s incompetence.
“We haven’t had any problems with latency and so forth. We’re comfortable with the fact that we have quick-time events in the game and timed choices, and that’s caused no problems at all…We haven’t at any point had to think, ‘We can’t do that because of latency.’ It just works.“
Right. Sure. Okay.
While control is limited, thereby inhibiting the level of player agency you’d expect from a game of this nature, Hidden Agenda does at the very least exceed Until Dawn in one key area: Presentation. In the move from an earlier version of the Decima Engine circa Killzone: Shadowfall to Unreal Engine 4, Supermassive Games has crafted one of the most visually impressive games of the generation. Despite being two years old, Until Dawn remains one of the best looking current gen games, with Hidden Agenda pushing far beyond that. Noticeable improvements to lighting, materials, and character models are integral to making the experience that much more immersive, a necessity given how lackluster the narrative is.
Hidden Agenda is far from a compelling story. The plot is poorly paced with characters having very little room to develop. It’s perhaps a byproduct of the two to three hour length better suited to film combined with the inefficiency of a script that feels as though it was written for a much longer game. Until Dawn was not cinematic genius, but it wasn’t trying to be. Hidden Agenda doesn’t aspire to be Citizen Kane either, though with the anemic length and lack of player agency, the game’s success hinges entirely on its narrative and when even that feels bare bones, there’s a problem. Filled with some of the most obtrusive scene transitions I have ever witnessed in any piece of entertainment, even Tommy Wiseau would be more capable of tying scenes together.
The basic plot holds promise for an interactive narrative. It centers around a serial killer that is sentenced to death for a series of murders dubbed the “trapper” killings due to each victim being rigged with a trap that kills first responders. The mystery and motives surrounding these murders has the potential to elicit unique gameplay encounters and enable morally ambiguous player choice. What we are left with is a poorly written story devoid of a legitimate sense of agency and filled with mostly binary decisions that do little to stimulate the mind.
Hidden Agenda is a botched attempt at capitalizing on the legacy the studio started to build with Until Dawn. In its chase for the casual group-think crowd, Supermassive Games has crafted a shallow experience. While it may very well be a fun game to play with a group of friends over some pizza and drinks, it’s almost insultingly empty for the single player gamer. With that said, Hidden Agenda is still worth looking into for devout proponents of the narrative potency of video games. While it may be a “failure” incapable of competing with proper crime/thriller films and television shows, it’s commendable that the developers took a risk in an industry so averse to experimentation. There are worse ways to spend $20. After all, you could end up finding a used copy of Final Fantasy 15.
Eleven years after its western debut, 2017 has finally become the year the Yakuza franchise has gained a foothold outside of Japan. The series has seen a dedicated following, but it wasn’t until January 2017’s localized release of Yakuza 0 that the series finally struck gold in western markets.
Part of Yakuza 0‘s success at reaching a relatively large audience stems from the fact that it is a fresh start. As the “0” in the title implies, this is a prequel to the entire franchise, setting up events that lead into Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of the original PlayStation 2 entry. It’s never been a better time to get into Yakuza.
Yakuza 0 centers around the plight of Kazuma Kiryu after he is framed for the murder of a civilian, which brings unwanted attention to the Tojo Clan. Through a series of events, Kiryu finds himself excommunicated from the Yakuza, allowing him to act on his own devices. Unbound by the shackles and “code of ethics” of the family he once belonged to, Kiryu is determined to clear his name.
Comprising of seventeen chapters, Yakuza 0′s story alternates between Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima every two chapters. This structure provides a strong foundation for a multilayered narrative. What begins as two distinct narratives about two entirely different characters with seperate goals eventually morphs into a cleverly connected overarching plot that ties the seemingly disparate stories of Kiryu and Majima together. It’s this penchant for storytelling that remains Yakuza 0‘s greatest strength.
The game has a strong enough narrative to be worth the price of admission alone. Thankfully, the game underneath all this story is just as worthy, though for entirely different reasons.
While Yakuza 0 presents a serious narrative with incredibly dark scenes and well produced cinematics, it also presents its gameplay elements and mechanics through dissonance.
To begin with, combat in Yakuza 0 is ridiculous in the best way possible. Battles play out in a simplistic 3D brawler fashion with standard light attack combos and a heavy attack that can be utilized as a finisher for said combo. In addition, players can pick up random objects such as bikes, chairs, ashtrays, stun guns, and poles. Enemies can also be grabbed and punched or thrown onto the ground. Throughout combat, players will fill a heat gauge that has up to three levels. A level two and 3 heat gauge will allow heat actions to be initiated, which are essentially destructive special moves of sorts. These heat actions range from contextual animations such as knocking an enemy over a nearby ledge to jamming nails down his throat. It is excessively violent and works fine, but repetition starts to set 50+ hours in after witnessing the same thirty or so heat actions repeatedly.
As players earn money, they’ll be able to unlock new moves for each of the three fighting styles with a fourth style unlocking after completing Kiryu’s real estate management and Majima’s cabaret club side stories, respectively.
That’s right. Real estate management and running a cabaret club, each complete with their own storylines are just a few of the dozens of fully fleshed out activities available in Yakuza 0. Other activities include batting, bowling, disco dancing, karaoke, playing old sega arcade games, watching erotic videos, “phone sex”, mahjong, shogi, darts, and pool. The list goes on and not a single activity save for erotic videos isn’t fleshed out enough to stand on its own and distract players for hours.
There’s nothing quite like finishing a heart wrenching ten minute cutscene, followed by going to the disco club and witnessing the hardened Goro Majima dancing like a fool to cheesy 80’s music with a ponytail and eye patch; or masturbating to erotic videos, after which, the character’s heat gauge will fill up to max level.
This wildly erratic tone that juggles between deeply engrained human emotion and absurdist humor is part of what makes Yakuza the distinct experience that it is. This dissonance between narrative and gameplay is further compounded by the roughly 100 substories. Substories are Yakuza‘s version of side quests, though most of these consist of nothing more than dialogue. Substories can range from stuff like teaching a timid dominatrix to assert her dominance to buying an adult magazine for a ten year old kid.
In other games, this tonal imbalance would be a detriment, but Yakuza 0 asserts itself with such confidence that players either learn to accept this dissonance or they don’t. Considering Yakuza‘s target audience, refusing to pander to western sensibilities is precisely what makes it such a success. It’s a representation of not only Japanese culture, but also its design doctrines with the west and the east adopting differing styles of game design and storytelling.
In the modern day, with more and more eastern studios like Square Enix acquiescing to western design sensibilities, it is a breath of fresh air to witness a game that flies in the face of contemporary design conventions. While the increasing trend in the industry has been to meld narrative and mechanics in such a way that they complement each other, Yakuza 0 says “fuck you. I’m a video game. I can be what I want.” to all of that. It is a deeply engaging narrative experience that also cements itself as an addictive video GAME by providing endless distractions that offer a reprieve from the story’s heavy themes.
What Remains of Edith Finch is many things. It is a narrative driven experience, or as some like to call it, a “walking simulator”. It is a collection of short stories, but most importantly, What Remains of Edith Finch is one of the finest contemporary examples of the effectiveness of interactive storytelling. When it hits its peak, Edith Finch utilizes the medium’s interactivity to deliver potent story beats and moments that would be impossible to replicate in any other form of entertainment.
The player takes control of Edith Finch, the sole remaining member of the Finch Family. She returns to her old family home after being away for years in search of the truth behind each family member’s death. This is where Edith Finch‘s narrative structure lies.
Once the player happens upon the Finch family home, they are left to their own devices. Each room contains a letter, note, or memorabilia of some kind which triggers a playable chapter detailing each individual’s final moments. Due to this set-up and the fact that the game contains no puzzles of any sort, it’s entirely possible to make it to the end while missing half of the Finch family secrets.
However, doing so would be a disservice to the team’s hand-crafted elegance. Rushing through the game is exactly the opposite of what you’re supposed to do. You are supposed to take it slow. After all, there is a reason the game’s default walking speed is mind-numbingly slow and why a sprint function is absent. What Remains of Edith Finch is a labor of love from a studio of tightly-knit individuals. They are proud of the experience they have created and entrust the player to appreciate the game’s quiet time, extrapolating extra information through environmental observation.
The house is painstakingly detailed. Each room serves to accentuate the individual stories as well as the story at large surrounding the Finch family’s supposed “curse”. A player could in theory make a mad-dash to each interactive note/object and learn enough just through the playable stories, but Edith Finch deserves more attention than that. Because this is a video game and not a film, the player is given the opportunity to linger and that more than anything is what cements Edith Finch as a strong narrative experience.
What Remains of Edith Finch also utilizes video game conventions to tell certain stories in ways that only a video game could. The story of Molly Finch is just one example of this. As a kid with an active imagination, Molly claims she was hungry one night, then saw a bird. She tried reaching for this bird and in doing so suddenly turns into a cat. Through a series of events and clever transitions, she then becomes an owl, then a shark, then a sea monster. Each shift in perspective provides a shift in playstyle and controls, each of which prove to be disorienting to the player.
Boundless leaps of logic are to be expected in a video game and that sort of logic-leaping nonsense in the typical video game is a perfect catalyst for representing the imagination of a little girl. These radical shifts in perspective leave the player in wonder as he/she comes to grips with the controls and rule set of each new perspective, perfectly echoing the mindset of a child as she’s pretending to be all these things and acclimating. Had this been a film or novel, the effect just wouldn’t have been the same.
Unfortunately, for all its successes, What Remains of Edith Finch also highlights why games like this still have a lot to learn. I mentioned quiet time earlier, but to be honest, there actually is very little of it. Edith herself talks a lot. Any interactive object will trigger dialogue from Edith. Traveling through most of the house will trigger dialogue. Go up these steps. Trigger dialogue. Open this door. Trigger dialogue. It’s as if the writers were afraid their niche game would somehow bore the sort of player that is interested in experiences of this nature. A little more restraint could have gone a long way.
“In Memory of Shirley Davis”
Reads the end credits soon followed by portraits of every member at Giant Sparrow. You’ll immediately notice that each member’s portrait is taken from their infancy and early childhood years. That’s when it hits. As Edith echoes in her final words: “I don’t want you to be sad. I want you to be amazed that we ever had the chance to be here at all“. What Remains of Edith Finch is a narrative experience that explores and celebrates the gift of life and living in the moment. While it may still have room to grow, What Remains of Edith Finch is about as good as it gets within this genre at this point in time. This genre and the video game industry at large still have a lot to learn about writing, pacing, and restraint, but regardless, it’s exciting to be a part of this and play something as special as What Remains of Edith Finch.
Nier: Automata exemplifies what is wrong with mainstream gaming media. Although Automata‘s reception has been startlingly positive from both critics and consumers, there are a scant few individuals that missed the point of Nier: Automata and as such, their overall impression of the game is less than positive.
One example is the Financial Post’s review. Before we begin to tear this review apart, I must preface this tirade by stating that I condone dissenting opinions. There is nothing inherently wrong with one critic liking a game and another one disliking it. It’s bound to happen and as long as both sides of the fence have legitimate reasons and arguments for their own sides, all it does is generate a rich discussion surrounding the game.
The issue with The Financial Post’s review of the game is that the reviewer in question(Chad Sapieha if you want to get out the pitchforks) did not finish the game properly. Based on the wording used in his review, it’s fair to assume he either never finished a second playthrough or just never even started one to begin with. This can be surmised by the following excerpt: “Perhaps I stopped too early. Maybe I should have played through a second time – and a third and fourth – to see what the writers were holding back for those with the patience and tenacity to keep going. Maybe Nier: Automata is actually the Rashomon of video games, providing new insight and perspective each time you play, resulting in something that transcends each individual play-though.
But if Platinum Games wanted me to do that, it should have made the first time through a lot more charming.”
This closing sentiment echoes the unprofessional attitude the writer took when choosing to critique Nier. The issue stems from that fact that the “multiple playthroughs” are integral to Nier: Automata‘s design. Unlike a lot of other games that like to claim “branching storylines” and “multiple endings”, Nier really follows through on that promise of delivering an entirely new experience until the true ending is achieved by the third playhthrough.
Automata‘s playthroughs are more than simply playing this game the exact same way and getting a different cutscene at the end. Story route A is basically equivalent to the opening 10-15 hours of a sprawling 60+ hour rpg. You’re barely scratching the surface of the game and in reviewing it so prematurely have defamed the narrative ambition of the title.
“Because – in what can only be described as an utterly miscalculated decision – the writers decided that in order to fully explore these weighty themes and issues they needed to make us play the game more than once.
After finishing it the first time, with no real resolutions provided, we’re told we need to start this 25-hour plus game all over again to get the full Nier: Automata experience.”
If the reviewer in question had bothered to begin a second playthrough, he would have immediately found out that the thirty minute or so prologue mission is entirely different and that players take control of 9S. 9S controls differently from 2B, already making it a unique enough experience from the outset. However, that’s not where the game’s ambition lies so let’s go a step further.
Each subsequent playthrough essentially acts as new game plus, meaning all gold, crafting materials, character progression, weapons, and so on carry over from story route A all the way to C, cutting down on the tedium typically associated with playing a game more than once for a different ending. Furthermore, 9S has the ability to hack enemies, chests, and doors, introducing an entirely new mechanic to story route b. That’s to say nothing of the added story scenes throughout that flesh out sections you’ve already played in addition to new enemy types being introduced. EVEN FURTHER, all previously completed side quests will remain completed, meaning no time wasted on doing the same tedious side quests again and again for lore or extra experience or just to scratch your OCD itch.
That second playthrough already sounds like a different enough experience to be worth playing, doesn’t it? The real game changer, however, is story route c. This third playthrough is a different game from beginning to end. It introduces yet another new playable character, A2, whom plays similarly to 2B with the added mechanic of taunting enemies to enrage them, increasing both your attack power and their attack power. Story route c takes place after endings a and b. This isn’t just some “let’s play the same main story again a third time with even more added cutscenes to flesh it out even more”. No, this third route is a fresh experience. Story route c is so integral to the narrative structure of Nier: Automata that a preview of future events in an anime style “this is what will happen next. Tune in to find out” plays after the end credits of story route b.
If Chad Sapieha had bothered to play the game three times and still didn’t like it much, then that’s fair play. However, as it stands, his criticism of Nier: Automata is predicated entirely upon the need to play an open world rpg more than once to fully understand the story. It’s clear by the review that Chad didn’t understand just how different each playthrough is and as such, his criticism of Nier: Automata is unprofessional. That it even showed up on metacritic is baffling. The Financial Post should stick to boring news and stock information. It’s clear that the site and Chad aren’t qualified enough to properly review a game.