Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Telltale’s The Walking Dead





                I’m not a huge fan of the zombie subgenre. Blame it on too much Resident Evil when I was a kid, but I’ve grown bored of them, and the constant resurgence in pop culture is annoying. The latest Zombie spree was brought about by Robert Kirkman’s ‘The Walking Dead’ a decent comic series that focused not on the zombies, but on the character’s attempts to survive. I’ve read the first volume, and I liked what I read (still need to read the rest of the series). Then there was the TV show, which had a decent first series (save the finale) and an abysmal second series that was so bad that it killed any interest in the series.
                And then there are the games, or, more importantly, Telltale’s 2012/2013 episodic game. I was told, repeatedly, from many sources, that I would love the game as it had many things I liked in games – good story, choices and interesting mechanics.
                So I picked it up whilst it was on sale on the PSN network, hoping to get a story experience much like The Last of Us or Spec Ops the Line – smart, well written games that force you to make horrific choices.
                That’s not what I got. Not in the slightest.

                Lee Everett (Dave Fennoy) is on his way to prison, convicted of killing someone. Unfortunately, zombies happen and Lee finds himself lost in the wild with nothing but his own wits and an army of the dead wanting nothing more than to eat him. He soon stumbles upon Clementine (Melissa Hutchison) an eight year old hiding from the dead in her tree house, waiting for her parents to return from vacation. Feeling pity on the girl, Lee offers to look after her, and help her find her parents.
                From here, Lee encounters survivors that lead him to Hershel Greene’s (Chuck Kourouklis) farm, where he meets Kenny (Gavin Hammon), and his family – wife Katjaa (Cissy Jones) and son Duck (Max Kaufman). After an incident, the group head to the town of Macon, where they meet Lilly (Niki Rapp), her father Larry (Terence McGovern), reporter Carly (Nicole Vigil), IT Technician Doug (Sam Joan) and Glenn (Nick Herman). From here, the game becomes focused on the group’s survival, and the rest of the five episodes follow the ragtag gang as they try to survive.

                The plot itself is verily typical for the zombie apocalypse genre, and takes very few liberties or risks with the genre. Later in the game, we’re introduced to other familiar staples, such as cannibals and bandits, and the story mostly follows the group as they argue as to whether to fortify an area or keep moving. As such, much of the game is about dialogue rather than action or exploration.
                The dialogue system in the game consists of four dialogue choices that are attached to the face buttons of the controller, with some dialogue sequences requiring you to quickly make a choice or comment, which will affect the rest of the interaction.  These make up for most of the games more stressful elements, as you have to quickly read and decide upon your answer, and have to hope for the best as to whether the next line is delivered in the tone you imagined. It should be noted that the game will pick an answer for you if the timer drops all the way down, and it’s usually based on your other decisions.
                When you’re not in conversation, you can explore a little. By which I mean, you’ll have a small, pre-rendered environment to wander around, where you can interact with other characters and maybe one or two objects. Many of these areas are revisited several times with little differences, which is more annoying than anything else.
                There are also the occasional sequences of combat, which is usually a quicktime event or simply clicking on the right part of the screen. There are a few shooting segments as well, but there’s not much to actually call gameplay, and almost nothing in the terms of puzzles or challenges in these sections.
                This leads to my major point of contention – this is not a game. This is an interactive movie with some ‘game’ mechanics thrown in for good measure, but the actual gameplay is negligible and could have been easily removed without affecting the rest of the product. In fact, I would have preferred this if they removed the gameplay sections, as then I could focus on the story and simply enjoy that rather than have to put up with the poorly implemented game sections.
                As a point and click adventure game, The Walking Dead fails as there is nothing to do, and requires little to no thought on behalf of the player. There’s no need to explore, as there’s nothing to really explore or no purpose to do so. There is no ‘adventure’, so to speak.
                As for the rest of the gameplay, it’s marred with crippling bugs and problems. Clicking on objects works intermittingly, where the game will occasionally decide to cancel your action for no reason. This becomes very frustrating in sequences where you’re fending off zombies, as this will lead to instant death. For those that argue I’m just bad at this – no. I highlighted the zombie, pressed the action button and the game registered it with the flashing crosshair, and then I died because the animation never activated. This happened too often.
                That’s not to mention the quicktime events that come down to simply mashing on a button for a few seconds, meaning you miss the entire action because you’re watching a gauge on the bottom screen. Or the times where you get killed because the game doesn’t bother giving you a moment to process where you have to click. Worst of all are the few times you enter first person to shoot enemies, where the controls are too sensitive on horizontal movement, whilst under sensitive vertically, making it exceptionally difficult to aim. As a result, you tend to die a lot in these sections.  Basically, the game is cheap, and not fun.
                As for the conversation sections, these are the single redeeming part of the game. The dialogue for all the characters is very well written, even if they tend to jump from extreme to extreme with no real warning. It can be slightly stressful to make a choice whilst the time runs down. The game also makes a point of remembering your choices, which will affect character choices and actions down the line. In theory, at least.
                In practise, this is much less interesting. There are very few moments where I felt I had had any impact whatsoever on the rest of the game, but these weren’t actually all that important when you realise that it affected nothing. Characters you can choose to save seem to die in the subsequent episode, and there’s no way to change the outcomes as the game is exceptionally linear. The only major moment where the game actually seems to account for the rest of your choices is a single moment at the end of chapter 4.
                As I said, characters tend to only operate on extremes. A single choice in the second chapter completely eroded any favour with one character, whilst making another become best buddies with Lee. This was exceptionally jarring as I spent the rest of the game, and every episode after, siding with the first character but one negative choice made him hate my guts for the rest of the game. This actually came to a head at the end of chapter 4, where that character had lines of dialogue that completely contradicted the rest of my actions towards him.
                This all boils down to a game that gives you the illusion of gameplay, the illusion of choice, and the illusion of effect.  But the reality is that none of that is present here. The game is an interactive movie that throws you the occasional bone so you can pretend you’re having an effect on the game.
                However, even as a movie it has a lot of problems. It is well directed, and the graphical style is beautiful, but the animation is subpar at best. Movement is incredibly awkward, and lip-sync is terrible, especially if it’s anything more than a normal conversation. Characters trying to scream or yell are laughable in the poor quality of movement. Model glitches are uncommon, but do happen, especially with background models disappearing far too regularly. Models do have a tendency to clip through things constantly, which becomes rather hard not to notice after a while. The game also has a tendency to freeze constantly whilst trying to retrieve records of previous choices, and the loading screens are overly long and too frequent.
                Audio work is just as bad. The cast all do good jobs as their characters, but the constant audio glitches prevented me from noticing that, as audio constantly looped over itself or didn’t play. There are very few background sounds, and they tend to consist of zombie groans more than anything else.  Sound effects will often not play at all. The music is ok, with nothing much to say, except for the fact that the main theme is suspiciously similar to the Save Room theme from the Resident Evil Remake.

                This game would have made a much better book or comic. It’s very disappointing once you realise you have no effect and the game is simply linear, and the poor gameplay and constant glitches make it a trying experience. The worst thing? I have read choose-you-own-adventure books which had more gameplay than this game.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Rain





                A boy, bedridden from the flu, awakes at night to the sounds of heavy rain against his window. Looking through the window, he spots a girl running through the rain. For a moment, their eyes meet, but the girl quickly runs away, a strange creature chasing her. The boy runs out of his house and follows the girl and monster, walking through a great doorway. As he runs, he comes to the realisation that he is now invisible, save for his silhouette in the rain. Determined none the less, he sets out into the city to find the girl.
               
                Rain is an adventure game that’s main concept comes from the titular Rain. If you’re out in the rain, the Boy is clearly visible, and can be seen by monsters, but if you hide away under shelter, you’re invisible. Puddles also effect the gameplay – run through a puddle, and an enemy can hear you, and muddy puddles reveal your presence by making your feet visible. All of this applies to the enemies as well, and you can lose track of creatures when they pass through shelter.
                Much of the gameplay stems from this, as dodging enemies is a core aspect of the game, and forms much of the majority of the games length. Since there’s no way to kill the enemies, you’ll have to look around for ways around them or to distract them long enough to make an escape. This becomes more stressful when you have to move boxes to reach higher platforms, or open/ close doors. The Boy is no match for the creatures in anyway, and can be outrun easily, so you have to assess every area before acting.
                Rain feels almost delightfully old-school in some of its aesthetic. Whilst it’s a 3D platformer, it has a fixed camera quite similar to that found in Resident Evil or Silent Hill. Aside from a few moments where the path becomes unclear, the camerawork is quite brilliant, and gives the game a sense of scale and geography. This is also helped by some very good level design, that makes the linear paths feel more open than they actually are.
                The game itself is rather short – about 3 hours – so the games slight variations on the same idea provide enough variation to keep you interested, but that’s not to say the game is paced well. The last couple of chapters drag on for quite a bit without offering much in the terms of new ideas or even challenge, and relies upon a single story beat that gets repeated far too often in such a short amount of time to the point the game grew frustrating as a result.   
                Story wise, the game doesn’t particularly have much plot beyond the initial premise. There are moments where the game seems to be creating something more nuanced than the bare face value, but these attempts are flimsy and ill thought out. Extra story content is provided by collecting memories, which become available on a second play through, though these add little more to the games plot, and begin to retell the games story at some points.
                The story itself is very poorly paced. The game insists on telling us what we’re seeing, which leads to many sequences where the narration – which consists of a line of text appearing on the background – repeating what we’ve just seen or done. As much as I liked the overly of text on the background, it rarely says anything interesting or worthwhile. The Opening and ending cutscenes are presented via watercolour paintings (with text narration), which, whilst pretty, do go on for too long and suffer the same problem of describing what we’re seeing.
                The game is graphically decent. It won’t blow your mind away, but it does the job. The enemy designs are interesting enough, but there’s little real variety there. The rain and water effects are actually very good, and stand out from the rest of the game. It should also be noted that the games colour palette is often very dreary and dark, which creates a wonderfully oppressive attitude.
                Sound wise, much of the in-game audio is drowned out by the rain, though it is adequate. Footsteps sound authentically damp, and the few sound effects do their job well. The sound of the rain is perfect. The musical score, though, is lovely. The core theme is a variation on Claude Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, which works perfectly with the games atmosphere. The original compositions all far well, although several of them seem to be leftovers from a much different game, with the use of an accordion making several sections more comical than tense. The music’s still good, it just results in some cognitive dissonance.
                I did stumble upon some issues whilst playing the game. Asides from frustration at the games poor pacing (the final section specifically), there were moments where the games controls didn’t always work properly. This was especially frustrating in sections where you’re being changed chased and need the game to work to avoid replaying the section. The AI partner can be rather annoying and idiotic at times, and the enemy AI was occasionally exceptionally brutal, occasionally spotting me when I was both in cover and being silent.   My greatest annoyance came in the form of the Memories, which required a second play through to get, and turned out to be rather pointless after a while, and did nothing to further any plot or ideas in the game, or even explain the point of the game.
                Rain is not a bad game per se, but it certainly isn’t a good one. The games mechanics all work fine (for the most part), but there’s not enough variation in the latter half of the game, and the story just drags. It’s a game of two halves, but the annoyances in the second half of the game weigh too heavy on any praise for the first half.

                On a spoilery side note, I’m pretty sure that this game was supposed to be about the two main characters cheating death, as the intro mentions the boy fell ill, and the memories say the same for the girl. However, this collapses upon inspection – if the monsters are death, then there’s no reason why thy attack each other. If the door to the light is death, then it shouldn’t kill the monsters, but if it were life, then it makes no sense why the characters don’t go through it, especially since they both survive. Finally, the memories imply that this was all to get the boy and girl to meet each other, and the town conspired to do so, which raises way more questions than it answers. I suppose it could be about depression, and that companionship can save you, but that has no basis in anything. More likely, the game is about nothing, and I’m just expecting too much of it.
               

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Unfinished Swan.






                Once, there was a woman that loved to paint, though she never finished anything. Unfortunately, she died, and her son Monroe is sent to an orphanage, taking with him only her silver paintbrush and his favourite painting – the Unfinished Swan. One night, the swan disappears, leaving a trail of footprints. Taking the brush, Monroe follows the footprints into a world of pure white…
                The Unfinished Swan (2012) is not your average game. An indie game by Giant Sparrow Studios, and assisted by Sony Santa Monica, the game is enchantingly minimalistic and tells a charming story. Your actions in the game are exceedingly limited – you can throw paint and jump – but the game creates plenty of interesting scenarios and provides enough variation to keep your interest throughout its short length.
                All the games mechanics are dependent on the act of throwing balls of paint. In areas of no colour, throwing paint will cover obstacles in black, allowing you to see the world around you. The models, whilst minimal, are detailed enough and assigned hitboxes accurate enough that the paint conforms around them, giving depth. Unfortunately, moments of just minimal colour, or none, can cause some motion sickness as you struggle to work out where you are.
                Later levels do provide colour in the backgrounds (to a degree), and the art style remains pleasant and simple, and is never crowded or obscure. The game subtly leads you with the Swan, and the game rarely feels linear. One of the greatest achievements in the level design is being able to see areas you’ll soon explore pass by, and being taunted by just out of reach areas, helped by the tantalising collectibles littered along the way.
                There are also variants in gameplay. The second chapter requires you to grow vines with your paint (which is more water-like here), and lets you create bridges or ladders to climb through the level, whilst another lets you build cubes from blueprints to use as platforms. Whilst the puzzles are never hard, there’s a great sense of accomplishment to be had in working out how to progress.
                The game does not hold your hand, save for the odd tutorial. This can lead to some minor confusion, especially when you’re greeted with literally nothing after the opening. The game expects you to learn and experiment, and this perhaps why the game exudes a sense of wonder and discovery.
                What story there is in the game is told via narration (Juli Pari), which tells us of a King (Terry Gilliam) who wants only to leave a legacy of his time in the world. We only see brief snippets of narrative, told via storybook pages and the handful of cutscenes that follow and start chapters. It’s a charming story, and very much a fairytale, complete with an ending that is both charming and somewhat sad.
                Music and sound rule in a land with no visuals, and both are exceptional. The score is a mix of electronic and traditional, and lends a dreamlike quality to the game each piece perfectly fitting the scene it’s attached to. The sound design has enough variation for the simple act of walking that it can easily be used on its own to guide you through locations. It’s also vital to the atmosphere in one section, creating a genuinely creepy and tense atmosphere as you wander through dark woods with little light.
                The game is quite short, and can easily be beaten in a couple of hours, if not less. The extra content does not last that long, but adds enough to warrant playing through the games chapters to find them all, unlocking access to a prototype level.
                The Unfinished Swan is a fun and charming diversion for the few hours it lasts, and is a brilliant game to just lose yourself in. It is, quite simply, lovely.