Saturday, August 31, 2013

Alan Wake (Remedy Entertainment, 2010/2012)

Let's talk about TV...

If you've turned on a TV lately, you've probably noticed that these days every show is a soap opera. The sitcoms, the dramas, even the game shows (yes, American Idol and The Apprentice are game shows), they all have continuing story arcs that flow from episode to episode and expand over the entire season, or even the entire series. Before the days of DVRs, DVD box sets, and On Demand streaming, things weren't like this. For the first several decades of TV's existence, reset-to-zero was the standard. This meant that situations and story lines would generally wrap up by the end of each episode.

You would have the occasional series that pushed beyond this, but it wasn't until an award winning movie director named David Lynch created the groundbreaking TV series Twin Peaks that TV really started to hint at what it could be, and what so many shows today aspire to be. These shows with their long form continuing stories offer a single piece of entertainment that lasts potentially dozens of hours and allows the audience to really experience the world of the story in a way that a movie's short glimpse simply can't offer. You know what other form of media does this? That's right, video games. But while most games try to emulate the feel of a movie, a company called Remedy Entertainment realized that emulating the feel of a TV drama series makes much more sense. And with that idea, they created Alan Wake.

As with Remedy's earlier hit series Max Payne, story telling is an integral part of the experience of playing Alan Wake. It tells the story of Alan, a successful horror writer (sort of a Stephen King type), who has been suffering from writer's block for a couple of years and is afraid that his career might be over. In an attempt to get his mind off of it, Alan and his wife Alice take a vacation to the sleepy little town of Bright Falls Washington. Bright falls is a place full of secrets, colorful characters, mysterious paranormal phenomena, and a diner that serves some damn good coffee.

At this point, every Twin Peaks fan reading this is eye rolling, but it really does come across as much more of a loving tribute than a blatant rip off. I constantly got the feeling that this is what it might feel like if David Lynch and Stephen King teamed up to reinvent Twin Peaks for a new audience, and on a new medium.

The change of media isn't even as big of a change as one might imagine, as Alan Wake is constantly pulling TV drama tropes to give it the feel that you are inside the world of a TV Show. Each level is presented as an episode, beginning with "Previously on Alan Wake" and ending with an edge of your seat cliffhanger and a slow fade as a random song plays in its entirety.

And while many games would use the latest overplayed pop single, or some up and coming act the label is paying to promote, or maybe just some unknown band who's music could be licensed cheaply, Alan Wake instead uses perfectly fitting classic songs from artists such as Roy Orbison, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, and even Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Seriously, how often do you get to hear Nick Cave in a video game? (If you don't know who that is, open a new browser tab and google it, you can finish reading this review when you're done.)

The music plays a role in game as well. Throughout your adventure you'll often find radios to turn on, letting you listen to the local talk radio show to get an idea of what's going on in the town around you. These radio shows often play music as well, including music by the game's fictional band Old Gods of Asgard, a heavy metal band from the 70s whose two surviving members have a farm just outside of Bright Falls. Their songs provide clues to the town's past, and at one point have you in an epic battle on a full blown heavy metal stage in the middle of nowhere using the stage lights and pyrotechnics to battle monsters.

I should probably mention these monsters while we're at it. While the presentation of Alan Wake as a story driven dramatic interactive TV show certainly all holds true, at its foundation Alan Wake is still an action game. Most of this action is in the form of running from, or doing battle with shadow monsters. Because these creatures draw their energy from the darkness, light is used to fight them. While you'll generally have some sort of rifle or pistol on you, bullets won't hurt these monsters until they've first been weakened by light. For this reason, you'll also have a flashlight on you most of the time, which is every bit as useful in combat as a shotgun.

This mechanic allows from some imaginative yet intuitive gameplay. Since the game is presented from a 3rd person perspective, the beam of your flashlight shows where you are aiming, and eliminates the need for any sort of cumbersome aiming reticule heads up display. Also, flare guns and flash grenades become devastating weapons against your enemy, which prevents the designers from having to shoehorn rocket launchers or grenades into the story in order to let you better arm yourself. Mounted spotlights take the place of turrets and street lamps provide small areas of safe haven. One thing to keep in mind is that this game often removes your collected equipment for plot reasons between missions, so don't be afraid to use that powerful weapon you find, saving it for later will often just waste it.

 It's not all shadow monsters though, sometimes the environment itself comes to life and turns against you. There are several points where using your flashlight or other light sources against flying inanimate objects is the only way to venture forward. It's also not a rare thing to be attacked by a flock of birds, feeling like a cross between Alfred Hitchcock and the Rakk sequences from Borderlands. Alan Wake sometimes provides puzzle elements as you try to connect power sources and start generators in order to illuminate your foes. A couple sections even provide some platforming challenges that work surprisingly well given the game's lack of focus on jumping. Even the driving in the game feels good as the occasional car or truck you get to take for a spin offer tight and satisfying controls.

On top of all of this, the main draw of Alan Wake is still the story. It's hard to talk about the story without giving away elements that are much more enjoyable to discover for yourself, but the story has a lot going on that will keep you wanting to play just a bit more, and keep you thinking about the game when not playing it. Elements such as the pages of the novel you find scattered throughout the levels would be simple collection side challenges in some games, but in Alan Wake it is an integral part of the story and sometimes provides valuable information about challenges that lie ahead.

Visually, the game looks amazing. The environments are highly detailed and realistic. The characters each have a distinct and recognizable look without looking stylized or cartoony. The entire town feels like a real town where people actually live, and after playing through the game you'll feel as if you've really been there. It's not perfect however, the lip syncing never really lines up right, and the occasional full motion video sequences on TVs in the game feel out of place and mostly make the game world feel less realistic, but these few flaws generally feel insignificant compared to all that it does so right.

There's a lot to like about Alan Wake, and I could probably keep going on about it far longer than anybody would care to read, but I'll try to wrap this up. It's been a few months since I played a game that I really enjoyed this much. I'm glad that I play such a wide variety of games, but playing this one reminds me of why I enjoy gaming so much in the first place. So, hopefully Remedy will continue to expand on this series and not cancel it before its time as was the case with the show it pulls so much inspiration from.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Unmechanical (Talawa Games/Teotl Studios, 2012)

After playing through Bioshock 2, I was in the mood for something a little less heavy, but after playing through so many retro pixel games lately I was really enjoying the dark detailed graphics my underwater adventuring had offered. At first it felt like an unfortunate contradiction, until I remembered a quirky little game I once demoed on Onlive, and later picked up on a GOG sale after it spent months on my wishlist both there and on steam. It seemed like it would be the perfect balance of light gameplay and dark visuals. It was a lesser known game called Unmechanical.

Unmechanical is a 2.5D side scrolling puzzle game about a cute little flying robot trying to escape a mysterious contraption. I would say it also had Metroid inspired platforming elements to it, but can you really call it platforming when you fly everywhere? It's a game of exploration, a game of wonder, and a game of occasional frustration. Don't worry, I'm talking about the good kind of frustration, the kind you encounter in a well balanced puzzle game.

The controls in Unmechanical are simple and intuitive. You can move your flying robot around a 2D plane, and activate a small tractor beam to manipulate objects, and that's pretty much it. You could probably play this entire game with a USB Atari 2600 Joystick! The tractor beam is really the key to playing the game. With it you can pick up small objects, drag around larger objects, open and close hatches, and manipulate switches and other controls. You're never left wondering how to interact with something, which is useful because you'll need to focus all of your concentration on the puzzles.

The puzzles are incredibly imaginative, and always require a new way of thinking. As with God of War or Ico, Unmechanical never falls into repeating the same concepts over and over. The early puzzles are fairly straight forward as would be expected, and they get progressively larger (Some spanning several areas) and more brain-teasery (Is that a word? If not, it should be!) as you make your way deeper through the underground caverns of Unmechanical's world. Some of the puzzles really surprised me. My favorite essentially had you programming a drum machine to transcribe a random beat that played for you in order to unlock a series of doors. Various upgrades are earned along the way allowing you to traverse areas that were previously unavailable to you, and opens the game up to a small amount of backtracking, further implying a Metroid inspiration.

The progression of the puzzles is logical and makes sense, and never requires tutorials. In fact, there is no text or dialog in the entire game. Everything in Unmechanical is conveyed to the player through subtle visual clues, and occasional on screen action that some might consider understated cutscenes that never break you from your gameplay. Despite the lack of direct narrative interaction with the player, Unmechanical still manages to tell a story. Throughout the game, you'll really start to care not only about the small robot you control, but about other robots you encounter along the way, and eventually this mysterious world you are trying to escape from as well.

Unmechanical isn't a game about saving the world, rescuing a princess, or defeating a great evil. It's a simple relaxing game about dealing with your situation and coping with your surroundings. In that way it's a game that's much easier to relate to our normal every day lives. While it is an adventure game that takes you on a journey through an unknown world, you could consider it a casual adventure. It's not surprising that it's recently been ported to iOS, but given the nature of the protagonist, I'm surprised that it hasn't yet made it to the Android platform. It's not a terribly long game, but it's a fun time while it lasts, and I have no trouble recommending it to anybody who likes to think and explore at the same time, without having to worry about constant danger.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Bioshock 2 (2K Games, 2010)

If you've been following my reviews lately, you might have noticed that I've pretty much spent the summer talking about indie games and retro classics. In fact, I haven't touched on any sort of modern mainstream titles since Heavenly Sword last june. Maybe it just left a bad taste in my mouth that put me more in the mood for something different? Well, with the recent release of Bioshock Infinite, it seems like almost everybody I know has been talking about the Bioshock series lately. I thought the first game was amazing, and I've heard nothing but good things about the latest release so far, but I couldn't bring myself to play it just yet. Thinking about Bioshock made me realize that I never fully played through the second game in the series, something I set out to correct.

Since this is a sequel, I should start with a brief overview of the original Bioshock game that this one draws so much from. Bioshock was a first person shooter about a plane crash survivor finding his way into an underwater utopian society that had gone horribly wrong. It was presented as a horror story with a basic message that Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged was wrong, and would be a terrible foundation for any society that wished to sustain itself. The original style and atmosphere were a groundbreaking breath of fresh air in a genre that had stagnated with realistic war sims and the occasional sci-fi alien blast-fest.

Bioshock 2 takes place in the same iconic underwater city as the first, but while the first game let you witness the downfall as it happened, this sequel is set years later as the city has taken on a more desperate post-apocalyptic atmosphere. While the first game had you playing as an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation, this release starts you off as one of the Big Daddies, the drill armed diving suit wearing behemoths often seen throughout both games escorting the Little Sisters as they harvest the juices of the recently deceased.

Bioshock 2 was a fun game that did a lot of stuff right, but it also did a lot wrong, so I'm going to get my ranting out of the way before I sing any praises to it. First of all, as with Mass Effect, 2K Games made the idiotic choice to scrap the already developed gamepad support from the PC release, even though it works perfectly well on the console versions. Also, the first Bioshock game wowed audiences mostly with the originality of its location and the strength of its story. This sequel has a much weaker story and the atmosphere mostly feels like just more of the same from the first game. The graphics don't really look all that different from the first Bioshock, even though the system requirements were much higher on this release.

The level design felt formulaic as well. Each area generally consisted of: You arrive at a new area, something happens so you can't get to the next area, somebody on the radio tells you that you need to go find a certain thing to be able to get to the next area, but it's on the other side of this area held by somebody who doesn't like you and has an army of people trying to stop you. When you get to this somebody who has the thing you need you get to choose if they live or die, with very little effect on the game's story either way. The gripping suspense and plot twists of the first game were nowhere to be found. You spend the whole game trying to rescue a girl you used to know, who you later find out is very important, but for most of the game you're not told why. For the most part I found myself ignoring the plot and just fighting my way to the dot on my map.

The combat in Bioshock 2 was fun in short spurts, but again it was hindered by design decisions. If you've ever played a first person shooter before, you know that a big part of it is keeping up with how much ammo you have for each gun. This is standard practice that dates back to Wolfenstein 3D over twenty years ago. Some games only give you a handful of weapons, so there aren't many ammo types to worry about. Others, such as the Borderlands series, may give you hundreds of guns, but the ammo types are usually kept down to no more than around eight. Bioshock 2 on the other hand gives you about eight guns, but each gun has two or three different types of ammunition it can use giving you dozens of different ammo types to keep track of in order to fight your way across the underwater battlefields. I spent more time worrying about resource management than I did about the people trying to kill me, and that's just not a fun way to play an action game. Long story short, every time I started having fun during combat, I ran out of ammo. If you play this game, I'd recommend just running up and whacking people with your drill arm instead.

So, now that all of the nastiness is out of the way, what did Bioshock 2 do right? To start with, even though the atmosphere had little of the awe-inspiring originality of the first game, it still looks really freaking good! In many areas the world is much more worn down, rusted, and just plain creepy than before, and that's a good thing. Several of the areas are outside along the ocean floor, and even some of the inside levels were once flooded and filled with barnacle infested walls.

The plasmids (genetic altering injections allowing super-human powers, or Bioshock world speak for magic) are much more useful this time around giving access to new areas in interesting ways, in an almost Metroid style. Melting iced doorways with fire is always a good time, and freezing enemies in place so you can take your time destroying them has never been a let down. Actually, a lot of this game reminded me strongly of the Metroid Prime series, as did the first release. If you enjoy the lonely feeling of dangerously traversing dark and claustrophobic corridors by yourself as you launch destruction from your arm, this game is full of that!

The best part of Bioshock 2 is actually towards the end. It's in the last couple of areas that the game really finds itself and figures out what it is that it wants to be, to finally lift itself out from the shadow of its predecessor. If the first 8 hours or so of the game could have been condensed down into about an hour, and the final two hours of the game expanded, then it would have been a much different experience, and would have left a much stronger mark on the gaming industry at the same time. It's rare that a sequel lets you revisit the world of a previous title in such a different perspective that it really makes you rethink both games. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but the world of the Little Sisters will make much more sense to you after playing through Bioshock 2.

If you're playing the Bioshock series, you might as well play this one too. If you're new to Bioshock games, either of the other two games are probably a much better starting point. It's not a bad game, but it never really grabbed me. I never really missed the game when I wasn't playing it, and I never felt drawn back to it. In fact, I would often get bored with it while playing, and a lot of it felt more like busy work than gaming. I'm still glad that I played it though. Both because of how good it was towards the end, and because I'll be that much more prepared when I eventually dive into Bioshock Infinite.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Hero’s Adventure (Terry Cavanagh, 2011/2013)

There are two great things about the recent popularity explosion of indie games. One is the ability to play some extremely weird and experimental games that would be too much of a gamble for a large studio. The other is that we can once again play games created by a single individual. Back in the early Atari 2600 days, games were generally created by one person. By the time the NES came around, it would sometimes take dozens. Having a large team certainly helps for creating a more in depth experience, allows for specialized skills to be utilized, and it certainly helps to get the thing out the door faster! Still, there's something magical about a piece of media created entirely by one individual. It's generally the standard in literature, but virtually unheard of in Film and Television. Thanks to recent technology, it's becoming more common in music and the occasional web series. And while it's taken a backseat for a while, it still shows up from time to time in the game industry.

I also mentioned that these games can be pretty weird, and with a team of one it's easier to get away with that since nobody has to convince anybody else that it's worth the risk. Sometimes it's an unproven gameplay mechanic, or an unusual art style. In the case of Hero's Adventure, it's a bit different...

Hero's Adventure is a game by Terry Cavanagh, most known for his games Super Hexagon and VVVVVV. It's a free game, available on multiple platforms. I most recently played the Ouya release, but it's probably most widely known for its online release at It's a short game that only takes a couple of minutes to play through, so if you wanted to follow the link and play through it before finishing the review, I wouldn't blame you.

Reviewing a game like Hero's Adventure is different than reviewing most games. I thought it was a great game, but it's difficult to explain what makes it great without giving away spoilers. At its core, Hero's Adventure is a satire of classic 8-bit JRPGs such as Dragon's Quest and Final Fantasy, but rather than simply offering a nostalgic romp through a pixelated forrest, you are instead presented with a more philosophical theme.

There are certain tropes of role playing games and of the fantasy genre in general that have been around so long that we simply take them for granted. Avid fantasy RPG players tend to think that if we were ever somehow put into one of these situations that we would know how to react. And, even though that reaction is much different than what we might do here in the real world, it would still be the correct action simply because of the setting and context. But, is it really?

One of the unique aspects of Hero's Adventure is that even though it presents itself in a typical fantasy style, it is very much set in a modern contemporary setting. When the game finally draws attention to this fact, the mood changes drastically, and you are left questioning your actions, not only in this game, but in almost every game you've ever played. What does it mean to be a hero? In real life, being a hero is much different than what is presented in most video games, and the actions considered heroic in most games would be seen in a drastically different light in reality. It's rare that a game makes you truly feel guilty about yourself, but Hero's Adventure manages this in a fantastic way. It's not even the trendy cop out of playing off the video game violence debate that is continuously shoved at us by the ratings starved media. Hero's Adventure looks beyond that, into a much more real aspect of society.

What's also notable about Hero's Adventure is that it was made for the Klik of the month Klub, an online event in which games are created over the course of two hours. Yes, two hours, meaning that this game was created in its entirety in less time than it takes to watch the cutscenes of some games. Again, it's a free game that only takes a couple of minutes to play through, so do yourself a favor and just go play it now.