Category Archives: Game Reviews

Donut County

Cute. Quirky. Colorful. Friendly. Light puzzle solving. Consuming small things to make a bigger thing. This describes Katamari Damacy, but it also describes Donut County. But also Donut County is a story about gentrification.

In Donut County, you make holes. And then you move the hole around to collect things. The more things that fall into your hole, the larger your hole gets. The goal of each level is to put everything into your hole. Also, you play as a raccoon (named BK) and you’re putting all these things into holes because you think they’re trash and you love trash.

While the gameplay is rather simple, the writing is rather good. It’s one of those stories that starts near the end as all of your neighbors and friends are mad at you for dropping all of their stuff into your hole. They’re mad but really kind of chill about it, and BK is kind of a dick about it but not really. He really wants a quadcopter and he has to drop all this stuff down the hole to get it, even if it means wrecking things. By the end, there is character growth.

It is a short game, but I would say that’s not a bad thing. Like many other shorter, more readily accessible games, it’s less of being too short and more of not overstaying its welcome. It’s over before the cuteness of it becomes annoying. Donut County is one of those games you can give to just about anyone and they will have a good time. It’s not a huge mind-blowing experience, but it’s fun and has a point.


Reference: Ben Esposito. Donut County (Annapurna Interactive, 2018)

Source: Purchased from GOG

Dusk

I was skeptical of DUSK. I’d seen it being played by others when it was in early access and I wasn’t particularly drawn in by it. It emulates older games, but I thought the enemies looked goofy in a way that would take me out of the game. As it got near non-early access release, it’d acquired some buzz behind it. Since I loved the games it purports to be inspired by (Blood, Quake, Redneck Rampage, Heretic, etc.), I gave it a shot. That was a good decision. DUSK was my favorite game to come out in 2018.

DUSK has a story in the same way all of those games had stories. It’s loosely told, doesn’t really mean anything, and it’s totally optional. This is a classic first-person shooter. Collect weaponry, find colored key cards, kill enemies. It’s got episodes that each have a theme, going from rusty farms to industrial plants to hell.

I am a product of the generation that made those classic FPS games and DUSK really takes me back to those days. It feels like a sequel to Quake. From the movement to the survivability to the weapons and the hordes of enemies, DUSK perfectly emulates those games. It just feels right. There’s no modern “niceties” to it. Health doesn’t regenerate. There’s no recharging shield. You can carry as many weapons as you can find. No objective marker. No one yelling at you to shoot the something or other. It really is “find the key, kill the enemies”.

Beyond the sometimes goofy-looking (but always lethal) enemies and some levels that weren’t quite as easy to navigate as others, I don’t have much to complain about. It’s a fast moving, fast action, classic FPS. The music rips, the levels are really atmospheric, the action is excellent. If this came out 20 years ago (okay, maybe 22 or 23 years ago), it’d be hailed today as a classic. Who knows what the future holds, so today DUSK is the best example of neo-retro done right.


Reference: David Szymanski. DUSK (New Blood Interactive, 2018)

Source: Purchased from Steam.

Dark Souls 3

A short while ago, I’d committed to ignoring games described as inspired by Dark Souls. I’d played some Dark Souls and didn’t enjoy it much, played some Dark Souls inspired games like Lords of the Fallen and Bound by Flame and I didn’t like any of them. But this isn’t a consistent dislike. I really really enjoyed Salt & Sanctuary, but the qualities of Dark Souls that inhabited Hollow Knight turned me right off. And almost immediately after I’d decided that Dark Souls-like games were not for me, Humble Monthly gave me a copy of Dark Souls 3. I beat Dark Souls 3. I enjoyed Dark Souls 3.

I am ill equipped to describe what makes Dark Souls 3 so different from Dark Souls, and even less equipped to compare it to Dark Souls 2, but Dark Souls 3 hooked me fairly quick. I know how these games work and they’re very unforgiving, particularly of my overly-aggressive playstyle. With the help of a build guide to direct my efforts on creating a character I would enjoy playing with, a simple melee sword-and-board fighter, I sliced and chopped my way through hordes of monsters. The variety in combat encounters and enemies ensured that even my simple character build was never boring. Maybe Salt & Sanctuary made me a more patient player, but I rarely felt like the fights were unfair, even when I was dying to bosses over and over. I’d eventually learn their patterns and weaknesses, and chop them to pieces with my sword. Where as I found Dark Souls to be a largely frustrating affair, Dark Souls 3 never felt frustrating; it was rewarding.

What isn’t rewarding in the game is the storyline, or lack thereof. It starts with a cutscene explaining that the lords of cinder have left their graves and need to be returned to their thrones to rekindle the dying world. From there, there’s more or less nothing much to offer until you reach the end, and you get a short cutscene for your efforts. Sure, you’ll find other non-hostile people with some “quests” of their own, but there’s no journal. No quest log. Often, I struggled to even remember their names. Most items have a sentence or two of flavor text but that’s about it for worldbuilding. You could go end-to-end through this game and never learn a single thing about the lords of cinder that you’re mercilessly hunting down and killing.

This is a bit of a shame because the world they’ve built, without the exposition, is really interesting in that it’s not standard fantasy or grimdark. If anything, it’s sorrowful. This is a dying world, roamed by undead things, desperate for purpose and meaning. I find myself wanting to go back to Dark Souls again for another try to see if I can fill in the blanks because I want to learn more. Even if I can’t, if I can find in Dark Souls what I found in Dark Souls 3, that’ll be enough. Dark Souls 3 is a challenging game that rewards persistence and learning without feeling cheap.


Reference: From Software. Dark Souls 3 [Namco Bandai, 2016]

Source: Purchased from Humble Bundle as part of a Humble Monthly bundle.

Assassin’s Creed Origins

I tell people I have a love/hate relationship with the Assassin’s Creed series, but I’m going to be totally honest here: it’s mostly a love/annoyed relationship. I find them to be brainless timesinks, and that’s not really a bad thing. They’re a reliable, often enjoyable 20 something hours of game. I haven’t played all of them, and the ones I have played are often regarded as the bad ones, but I almost always get one when I want to kill time. Assassin’s Creed Origins, however, is better than a time killer. It’s a great game.

Assassin’s Creed Origins takes the history-skipping game way back to ancient Egypt, in the times when Cleopatra’s brother occupies her throne, and he’s propped up by a Greek army. You play as Bayek, a Medjay, and you’re hunting down the people who killed your son. This mission will take Bayek all across Egypt and lead to uncovering a greater conspiracy.

Origins bins a lot of hallmarks of the Assassin’s Creed series. In doing so, it becomes a much more enjoyable game, and probably a more accessible game, but it loses some of what makes Assassin’s Creed unique. Origins presents a huge, sprawling Egypt, that you’re free to explore and engage with on your terms.

Origins took a lot of, let’s call it, inspiration from The Witcher 3. It’s very much about having a lot of stuff to do, and letting you do it in whatever priority you want. Often, you can even run off in the middle of a quest to do something else and then come back and pick it right up. While the quests aren’t quite as well written as The Witcher 3, and they rarely do that thing where it acknowledges when you’ve already solved a step in the quest ahead of time, they are competent. They don’t feel like a waste of time. Bayek himself, along with the rest of the cast, is also well written. Compared to some of the rest of the Assassin’s Creed series, this is the best it’s been.

What is loses is the strict focus on stealth. Bayek can get into a lot of fights and leave most of them alive, where most Assassin’s Creed protagonists would wilt like a flower. Additionally, if you do find yourself in over your head, you can simply run away and it’ll almost always work. This is in stark contrast with other games in the series, where enemies are almost omniscient and ever-preset to the point that being spotted means reloading a checkpoint. Add in that you no longer have the ability, or much need, to blend in with crowds, nor much need to run along rooftops to avoid being seen, means this Assassin’s Creed feels least like a game in this series. If it weren’t in a historical setting, with a single “assassinate” button, and good climbing mechanics, it’d be a different game entirely.

Some people aren’t going to like this shift; I’m not one of those people. I loved it. Like The Witcher 3, it hooked me early on and I spent a lot of long stretches of time playing it. Unplayed games notwithstanding, this is the best game in the series. The extra time Ubisoft put into its development clearly paid off; they made an Assassin’s Creed that I just loved.


Reference: Ubisoft Montreal. Assassin’s Creed Origins [Ubisoft, 2017]

Source: Purchased from Steam store.

Night in the Woods

There’s an audience for Night in the Woods that this game will hit harder than the rest. Here are just a few touch points this audience will identify: instant messenger, away messages, sleeping until 4pm, dropping out of college, being in a band that never plays a show, working in a low paying, low skill job for too long, bailing on said job as often as possible, living in a dying town but coming back because it’s home. All of these things come together to form a picture of Night in the Woods, and it’s not going to connect with everyone.

You play as Mae, who’s recently dropped out of college and returned home. You pick things up with your old friends, learn what they’ve been up to since you’ve left, but there’s something else going on in Possum Springs. Mae has nightmares or visions and strange things around town that cannot be easily explained seem to follow her.

To Night in the Woods‘ credit, the characters are well-defined, and it’s a pretty big cast. Each has a unique voice and the often more to them than their initial presentation. This clarity of character definition extends to the beautiful art of the game. Night in the Woods has a distinct, clean art style that never looks bad or dull.

Where it didn’t quite come together for me was in the narrative and gameplay. It took a long time for the story to build to a point where it had to hooked. It is a slow starter. This may be purposeful, as a lot of the draw of the game is the connection you should feel to the characters, but it felt tedious at times. Adding to this tedium is the gameplay loop.

Here’s the loop: wake up and check your computer for messages from your friends. Talk to mom in the kitchen. Walk all over town, talking to everyone. They’re always in the same places, but they always have something new to say. After you’ve talked to everyone, go back to the one friend you want to hang out with that night and tell them so. Then go to a character specific scene that nudges the story forward a little bit. These end at home where you talk to dad, check your computer for more messages, and go to sleep.

Again, this may be purposeful. They’re replicating some of the tedium of living in a small town, where you know everyone and they’re all going through a similar routine. But it’s not particularly thrilling and I wish there were a way to move a bit faster. Mae’s not a quick walker and I got a bit tired of walking all over town at her slow pace. It plays like Super Mario Bros. at half speed and, instead of squishing dangerous mushrooms, you’re chatting up your friends and neighbors. If it moved a bit faster, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me nine hours to complete a story that could’ve fit within maybe a quarter of that time.

I picked up Night in the Woods because so many people whose opinions I respect loved it. I get why they loved it, because the writing is good and the characters are great. But I found it pedestrian to the point of being just okay. It’s got its moments but they’re deep in there, surrounded by a lot of slow walking and repetitive gameplay. I was honestly quite surprised to find this game has an Overwhelmingly Positive user rating on Steam. It is very much not going to please everyone.


Reference: Infinite Fall. Night in the Woods [Finji, 2017]

Source: Purchased from Steam store.

Get Even

The number of video games that actually do something with medium that less interactive media (movies, TV) can’t accomplish is so vanishingly small. Video games are so frequently linear affairs without much opportunity for deviation that the rare ones that do something different stand out. Get Even stands out.

You are Cole Black and you can only remember one thing, a hostage rescue gone wrong. You wake up in a run down asylum where Red, your captor, has strapped a headset to you that can explore and replay memories. By replaying these memories and exploring the asylum, you have to put together the pieces to try to find out who you are, what you were doing, and who’s behind all of it.

In a lot of ways, Get Even reminds me of Condemned: Criminal Origins. Like Condemned, you have a handful of non-gun tools to explore environments and collect evidence, like blacklights, thermal vision, and an environment scanner. Collecting this information and finding documents are an important part of the game as you attempt to sort out Black’s memories. While using these tools to meticulously scour rooms is kind of fun, often I just found myself in rooms littered with documents to dump a lot of information.

However, this isn’t a walking simulator. There are guards and mercenaries everywhere. Black is equipped with a couple useful weapons, but discouraged from using them. This means most levels are stealthy affairs, and the stealth in the game isn’t exactly great. You can view enemy vision cones with your map, but the enemy’s vision extends far beyond what the cone indicates. This is no Metal Gear Solid. Additionally, you’re told upfront that your actions, including killing people in your memories, have consequences. So you’re given a cool weapon to play with, and told not to use it.

What Get Even does really well is mess with the player. At the start of the game, you know as much as Black does, so the game can reveal things to you and Black at the same time. This exploring of Black’s memories where Black doesn’t know what happens next leads to some situations where you as the player can and should question whether what you’re seeing is what actually happened or only how Black wanted to remember it. This merging of perspectives and unreliable narration are head games that other media can’t pull off, so Get Even‘s experience is pretty unique.

Looking at The Farm 51’s past titles, Get Even should be the game that gets them more positive attention. It’s a cool game that tries to create a different experience from most games and succeeds in many ways. Get Even seems to have flown under a lot of people’s’ radars, and it deserves more attention.


Reference: The Farm 51. Get Even [Namco Bandai, 2017]

Source: Purchased from Steam store.

Oxenfree

One of the things video games struggle with is human dialog, especially when they introduce player choices. It’s often stilted and flows poorly, if it’s written well at all. Many games can get serious kudos if they manage to get dialog and conversations right. Oxenfree is a game that gets it very right and it might be enough to cover its flaws.

In Oxenfree, you control Alex, a high schooler who’s gone to a beach party on a small island with her friends. However, the island has a dark history and Alex and her friends have to uncover it to find a way to save themselves when the night takes a turn for the worst.

The thing that Oxenfree does best is its conversations between characters. Your four friends are fairly chatty. The dialog is natural and well-written, but what Oxenfree brings to it is that you’re given up to three dialog choices, and when you makes those choices, you can interrupt your friends. Mass Effect did this, but your friends in Oxenfree actually react to it. It’s such a minor thing, but it goes a long way toward immersing you in what is going on.

Night School Studio is comprised of some former Telltale Games developers, so it should be no surprise that your dialog choices affect the story and how other characters think of you. However, instead of an outright “character B will remember this” type statement, you don’t really get a lot of feedback on when you’re changing hearts and minds. The only feedback you get is a little thought bubble over someone’s head with someone else’s face in it. It gives some indication that they’re thinking about that person, but not explicitly why. I like this a lot because it made my own choices feel more natural and less like I’m trying to push a friendship slider in one direction or another.

What might turn some people off is that there isn’t a lot more going on here than walking around this island and talking to your friends about the weird stuff that’s happening. There’s some very light puzzle solving, and you can choose to do a lot of backtracking to find collectible items that flesh out more of the mysterious island, but don’t expect to manage an inventory, or jump on a platform, or shoot anything. I’m not sure there was any point in time I could’ve “failed”, just dozens of opportunities to alter the story in negative ways.

While the gameplay is very light, I could not stop playing Oxenfree. I played it all over the course of a single day with the game lasting about 5 hours. The intrigue-filled story and the immersive dialog kept me around. If I was going to put it down at any time, it would’ve been during some of the item finding I did, where there wasn’t a lot of dialog but still got some payoff by finding another piece of the mystery. It nails a foreboding and dark story without being totally grim or colorless. It’s the perfect way to spend a winter weekend.


Reference: Night School Studio. Oxenfree [Night School Studio, 2016]

Source: Purchased from Steam store.

What Remains of Edith Finch

What Remains of Edith Finch reminds me a lot of Dear Esther, possibly the first “walking simulator”. Maybe it’s the narration, or the tone, or the setting, or faulty memory (it’s been a very long time since I’ve played Dear Esther) but I finished Edith Finch thinking about replaying Dear Esther. That’s not bad company to be in; Dear Esther was good but What Remains of Edith Finch is truly moving.

You are Edith Finch and you are exploring your old family home. Though you’ve been gone from it, it’s where your family always lived, and where you explore their lives and deaths. You see, you’re (probably) the last Finch.

The patchwork Finch home is an experience to explore. Every room is incredibly detailed, and they’re decorated in the manner fitting their occupants. Nearly every family member had their own rooms, and they’re all lovingly preserved. It’s kind of like going through the house of a historical figure, like the Lincoln home. It’s not quite as thoroughly interactive as Gone Home, but this is made up for by the vignettes.

While exploring, you’ll find bits and pieces of your family’s lives that take you to a little vignette about them. They seemed to all have a different style or approach, so no two were the same. Sometimes more interactive than others, these break up the exploration of the Finch house perfectly.

There’s no way to discuss the Finch family without ruining the experience, but I left the game knowing each of the Finchs by name (and there are about a dozen of them) and their personalities. It’s amazing how well their stories are constructed to be memorable and unique.

I really don’t have any criticisms of this game. It’s a beautiful, emotional experience. Pass on seeing a movie this weekend and play this game about family and death.


Reference: Giant Sparrow (developer). What Remains of Edith Finch [Annapurna Interactive, 2017]

Source: Purchased via Steam Store

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

The New Colossus is not The New Order. That much should be obvious from the title, but I want to make it perfectly clear. If you go into The New Colossus expecting more of the tone or content of The New Order, you will be disappointed. I know this because for the first half of the game, I was disappointed.

The New Colossus picks up immediately after the events of The New Order. You’ve dealt the Nazis a defeat, but not a killing blow, and they’re still in charge. But instead of liberating Europe, you’re moving on to free America. America surrendered after the Nazis dropped an atomic bomb on New York City, so you and your team of misfits are going to start a new American revolution.

I think maybe I have rose-tinted glasses when thinking back to The New Order, because I recall handily beating that game on “I am Death Incarnate” difficulty (the highest you can start with) and loving it. I started The New Colossus the same way and immediately died over and over until I realized that this isn’t fun and dialed the difficulty down to their version of “medium”. Even with the difficulty turned down, the game is still very challenging because you die very quickly if you don’t have armor. Even when you do have armor, there isn’t much indicating you’re being shot or where you’re being shot from until that armor has evaporated, and then you’re essentially done for.

However, the shooting and action does feel great. Enemies visibly react to being shot, weapons all have an appropriate punch to them, and heavy weapons can make you feel invincible. When you’re not sneaking around( which is still an option), you can run, dodge, shoot from cover, and melee, all of the options you want from an solid action game.

Thematically, The New Colossus is about revolution, and not the dour, grim game that The New Order frequently was. It rapidly switches from Nazi oppression and fascism on display to humor and humanity. It’s more rollercoaster than whiplash though, handled in a manner that few games can pull off. It’s a game that will shock you sometimes, but the shocks aren’t meaningless. They serve a purpose.

I’ve heard plenty of other people say that anyone wanting to play Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus should turn the difficulty down to easy and run through it, which I don’t particularly agree with. The action is fun and worth engaging with, even though it does suffer from lack of feedback. And running through the levels to get to the next cutscene neglects the wealth of background information in the well-done collectibles as well as the beautifully designed levels themselves. Maybe take one approach or the other, but play it. It doesn’t quite live up to The New Order, but it’s still an excellent addition to the series.

Below the cut are some thoughts and notes that will contain spoilers. This is your only warning.


Reference: Machine Games (developer). Wolfenstein 2: The New Colosssus [Bethesda Softworks, 2017]

Source: Purchased via Humble Store

Continue reading Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

ICEY

ICEY calls itself a meta game in disguise but that disguise is real thin. When the game exits the prologue, there is a narrator constantly commentating on your actions. The narrator is the meta game part of this otherwise familiar 2D action game, and one of its biggest detractors.

You play as ICEY, a clone in a tank, or maybe a cyborg, and you have to find and kill Judas. He’s the bringer of the apocalypse, that wicked devil. At the start, that’s it. The narrator and environment reveals more of the story, sort of.

The gameplay is simple sidescrolling action. Move to the right, mash the light or heavy attack until the enemies die, then use money to upgrade your combos or life meter. It’s competent and mostly fun without getting too repetitive, but the game is rather short.

What makes ICEY unique is the Stanley Parable-esque narrator. He tells you where to go or not to go, what to do, sometimes even why you’re doing it. The narrator frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the player directly. He talks a lot, and the game touches on a broad range of stuff from player choice to the elder gods.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It feels like there’s something to it, some message, but it’s all given to you in bits and pieces. None of it really adds up. Also, the voice acting on the narrator is bad. It’s lifeless, and stiff. Worse, the narrator is ever present. The bad narration follows you everywhere. If you can’t get over it, you’re never going to enjoy the game.

Some of the ideas may have been lost in translation. The developers are Chinese, so it may make more sense if it were played in Chinese. But there’s not a lot of excuses for the narrator. He’s a central figure in the game and one of the least enjoyable parts. Despite these problems, I enjoyed ICEY. It’s got enough weird in it that I wanted to press on to see what else it’d do, and the action is fun. But it’s hard to deny that the time wouldn’t be better spent on The Stanley Parable and Dust: An Elysian Tail, both of which do well the narration and action parts (respectively) of what ICEY tries to accomplish.


Reference: FantaBlade Network (developer). ICEY [X.D. Network, 2017]

Source: Purchased via Steam