The Twilight Zone VR - title

I like the original The Twilight Zone TV show. I wouldn't call myself a huge mega fan or anything, but it's easily my second favorite show from the 60's. Heck, The Twilight Zone might even hold up better than the majority of original Star Trek episodes, and the show is probably more progressive too. For one thing, it isn't loaded with as much of the casual sexism and fetishization of women that keeps popping up in Star Trek.

In any case, the PSVR2 release of a Twilight Zone game kind of came out of nowhere. I saw a preview of it on my Google news feed on my phone the day before the game went on sale on PSN. Heck, the PSN didn't even have it listed as "coming soon". It didn't even show up in the store until it was released, and I immediately jumped on it and bought it.

The game is a small anthology of 3 short, original Twilight Zone stories with some contemporary themes. I was glad to see the game divided up into multiple chapters, and for these chapters to apparently be playable in any order (even though I opted to play them in order anyway). The Twilight Zone really works better as short stories like this, as the premises and twists rarely (if ever) hold up for longer stories. In fact, trying to pad some of its stories into an hour runtime or longer was one of the biggest problems with CBS and Jordan Peele's recent reboot.

You are about to enter The Twilight Zone.

As a tiny nitpick, I will say that I don't understand why Pocket Money chose to use the term "chapters" instead of "episodes"? The use of the word "chapter" implies a small section of a larger story, with that small section not being a story in itself; while the word "episode" would imply self-contained stories that may relate to or follow one another, but which have their own beginning, middle, and end that does not necessarily depend on the other episodes. Yes, all 3 chapters do refer to one another, and seem to take place in the same continuity, and one of them kind of acts as a prequel to another. Regardless of those connections, each chapter is a completely independent, self-contained story that does not at all rely on the events of the other chapters in order to understand what is happening. You can play these chapters in any order, or play any one of them without playing the others, and it wouldn't make any difference to the perception or interpretation of the stories. And in fact, the game is perfectly willing to let the player play them in any order.

Each of this game's chapters takes about 30 minutes to an hour to play, and the whole game should be playable in 2 hours (give or take). Any of the chapters may take longer depending on how many times you might have to repeat some of its more tedious stealth or shooting sections. So these little VR stories hit the sweet spot in terms of length, and they don't over-complicate their gameplay such that it distracts from the story being told. In terms of story-telling, Pocket Money Games puts up a really solid product here. The actual game, however, is a lot less solid.

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Star Trek Deep Space Nine

The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and (depending on who you talk to) Voyager are widely regarded as the "Golden Age" of Star Trek. Since many Trekkies look back at this time period of the late 80's and 90's with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, it might surprise you to read that Deep Space Nine used to be a highly divisive topic among Star Trek fans. Even to this day, I've talked to "hardcore" Trek purists who dislike Deep Space Nine because of how dark and conflict-driven the series is. I can't imagine what these people must think of the Kelvin-verse reboots, Star Trek: Discovery, or Picard. If you think I'm hard on those recent iterations of Star Trek, then you should talk to these people!

In any case, the idea that DS9 is too dark and conflict-driven is a valid criticism from someone coming from the perspective of a fan of The Original Series and Next Generation. Both of those shows were about an idealistic future in which humanity had grown out of its petty squabbles and now seeks to better itself through cooperative exploration and colonization of space. Deep Space Nine didn't quite accept those ideas at face-value. Deep Space Nine's more pragmatic approach had some fans believing that Deep Space Nine violated the spirit of Star Trek.

Many fans of The Original Series and Next Generation criticized Deep Space 9 for being "too dark".

Deep Space Nine was also the first Trek series to be highly serialized, having a singular, overarching plot throughout most of the series, and with frequent mini-arcs running for half a season or a whole season. TNG had its share of recurrent story arcs. Q's "trial of humanity" was pitched as a framing mechanism for the entire show, but ended up only serving to bookend the series, while relegating most of Q's appearances each season as comic tangents. There were other recurrent sub-plots as well, such as Worf's discommendation from the Klingon Empire and his conflict with the Duras House in the "Sins of the Father" arc, the Borg story thread, Data's relationship with his brother Lore, Wesley's training as a Starfleet officer, and a few others. But TNG stayed mostly episodic. Almost all the single episodes of TNG (and the two-parters as a whole) can be enjoyed independently, without having seen any previous episodes of TNG. That was not the case with DS9.

I missed many episodes of DS9 because
it aired on weekend evenings.

DS9 was on the air throughout my elementary school and middle school years (I was seven when the show premiered). It frequently aired (syndicated on Fox in my region) on weekend evenings, and I was often outside playing tag, riding bikes, or playing touch football or street basketball with neighbor kids. As such, I missed a lot of episodes. Due to the highly-serialized nature of the show, when I would see an episode, I would have no idea what was going on! Because I rarely watched the show, and didn't understand it when I did see it, I didn't particularly like it. I'd still watch it, because it was still Star Trek. In fact, Voyager was the first Star Trek series that I watched regularly (it being on Wednesday nights, when I wasn't outside playing), and, well, you all know how I feel about Voyager.

In fact, I grew up with a bit of a preconceived notion that Deep Space Nine was the "bad" Star Trek series -- even though critics at the time largely appreciated it. On the off chance that I could talk about Star Trek with a peer, they generally didn't like DS9 either -- for many of the same reasons.

It wasn't until my college years, when the show was released for sale on DVD that I sat down and watched the whole series from start to finish. At first, I wasn't even sure if I wanted to bother buying the DVDs. After all, DS9 was "the bad Star Trek". So why spend the money? And those DVDs cost a lot of money! CBS wanted something like $120 for a single season, compared to $30 or $40 a season for shows like E.R. or Grey's Anatomy. At least the Next Gen DVDs came in fancy, sturdy boxes. The DS9 DVDs came in cheap, flimsy, rigid plastic booklets that start to fall apart as soon as you open them. I think my mom bought them from Costco for $90 a pop -- a considerable discount, but still obnoxiously expensive!

CBS wanted $120 per season for DS9 DVDs!

I was now older. I was coming to terms with my personal identity as a progressive secular humanist. Most importantly, I could finally follow along with the various multi-episode story threads and the complex, nuanced characterizations. And boy, did my opinions on the series change!

I'll always have a soft spot for Next Generation. That show has my favorite Trek character: Data. And Picard is probably my third favorite character after Spock. After my single favorite episode of Trek, the Original Series' "Balance of Terror", most of my runner-up favorite episodes are TNG episodes. Episodes like "The Measure of a Man", "Who Watches the Watchers", "The Offspring", "The Best of Both Worlds", "Deja Q", "I, Borg", "Tapestry", "The Inner Light", "Darmok", "All Good Things...", and so on...

Despite my fondness for Next Generation, I actually think that Deep Space Nine is the better all-around show.

Every Trek series since the original has taken a couple years to really find its footing. TNG doesn't really figure itself out until midway through season 2, and Voyager takes until the 4th season to figure itself out -- if ever. I don't know if Discovery ever righted its ship, since I didn't bother to watch past the first season, and Picard didn't even become watchable until the third season. I feel like DS9 finds its footing much earlier than TNG or Voyager. Deep Space Nine's characters, themes, and stories start to fall in place by the end of season 1. In fact, one of my favorite episodes of the entire series (and one of my favorite episodes of Trek in general) is a season 1 episode: "Duet". DS9 is the only Trek series (since the original) for which one of my favorite episodes comes as early as the first season.

Star Trek DS9 - Moritza afraid
- DS9 "Duet", season 1, episode 19
One of my favorite DS9 episodes (and Trek episodes in general) is the season 1 Holocaust allegory, "Duet".

The last episode of season 1, "In the Hands of the Prophets" starts to set up the season-long arcs (and a series-long arc) that would become a trademark of the series. That episode introduces us to recurring villain Vedek Winn and starts the process of her gradual accumulation of power, which we'll talk about later.

But despite the series coming together better in the first season, critics of Deep Space Nine aren't wrong when they say that it "feels different" from the Original Series or Next Generation. The show is unarguably darker and more conflict-driven. The entire second half of the series is about an interstellar war, and the seasons leading up to that repeatedly tell stories about domestic terrorism, Holocaust allegories, religious persecution, and cynical politics. These sorts of themes were present in episodes of TOS and TNG here and there, but DS9, at a fundamental level, was about these difficult topics.

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Alien Covenant poster

I really did not like Prometheus. The characters kept doing stupid things in order to create conflict and tension. The android antagonist seemed to act belligerently with no real reason to do so, and with the audience having no real idea what he was even trying to do. The tie-in to Alien also felt completely unnecessary and [more importantly] unwelcome. Apparently, the writers of Alien: Covenant saw those complaints and decided to double-down on all of them.

Covenant completely lost me as soon as the crew steps off the lander without any sort of environmental suits or helmets.

I could overlook the fact that the crew decides to land on the planet immediately instead of waiting for the storms to pass. Maybe they thought this was a rescue mission and time would be of the essence. Whatever.

I could excuse them for somehow completely missing the ruins of an alien city being within walking distance of the source of the transmission.

I could maybe even excuse the rapid pacing with which the alien gestates after being implanted by the facehugger, and how fast the alien grows. In the original movie, the facehugger was on the guy's face for like a whole day, then the chestburster doesn't pop out till the next day, and then it takes about another whole day for the xenomorph to grow to maturity. In Covenant, the whole process takes a matter of minutes or hours.

I could overlook all that stuff in a cleverer movie. But setting foot on an unknown alien world without even bothering to protect yourself from potential contaminants, and then setting the entire movie's conflict on infectious agents, is just unforgivable. Even Prometheus at least got that right ... until the crew decided to all take off their helmets because scans indicated that the "air is breathable".

Alien Covenant - no space suits
Why aren't you wearing environmental suits?!

You know what else is unforgivably stupid? Following a duplicitous android into his bio-weapon research lab and then sticking your face in an alien egg sac because he kindly asked you to. As soon as the captain found out that David had killed and/or experimented on Shaw, why didn't he just shot and killed him?

The movie is also a structural and pacing nightmare. The first 20 minutes of movie feels like pointless filler; while the last 30 minutes is a lazy, rushed rehash of the first Alien movie without any of the tension, suspense, or mystery. I could buy into the first thirty minutes being a "world-building" exercise, but not when you then go on to fail so miserably at world-building by not having your protagonists follow the most rudimentary of sci-fi safety procedures.

Aside from establishing the terraforming module, that first act really does absolutely nothing to set up anything later in the movie...

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Civilization: Beyond Earth: Rising Tide

I'm starting to feel like quite the prognosticator. Earlier this year, I started tossing around the idea of Nomadic civilizations for future Civ games. Around the same time, Creative Assembly announced Attila: Total War. They had apparently come up with almost the same idea independently at the same time. Well, now the teams at Firaxis have also implemented a variation of my idea for their new expansion to Beyond Earth, called Rising Tide.

This expansion seeks to remedy several of the core complaints with the Beyond Earth game. In my original review for Beyond Earth, my two biggest complaints were that the game and its leaders lacked the personality and variety of Civilization V, and that it just didn't feel futuristic enough. Both of these complaints ended up being the major focus of the first expansion, which definitely helps to make Beyond Earth stand out a little bit from its more realistic counterpart.

So we sailed up to the sun, till we found a sea of green

One of Beyond Earth's biggest failings was its lack of creativity in using its futuristic setting to innovate gameplay. The game felt very much like a reskin of Civ V rather than a new game. A big part of this was that the map posed many of the same sorts of restrictions on players that the Civ V map did: mountains, canyons, and oceans were all obstacles either impassable by units or uncolonizable by cities.

Civilization Beyond Earth: Rising Tide - aquatic civilization
Aquatic cities and civilizations help to separate Beyond Earth's futuristic setting from Civilization's historical roots.

Well now one of those restrictions has been lifted, and civilizations can build floating cities in the oceans. Such cities can even be moved in order to claim new tiles or to act as mobile military bases. This opens up some interesting (and sometimes silly) new strategic possibilities, but the whole mechanic feels a bit contrived to me. Moveable cities is something that I think can work very well in Civilization, but I just don't feel that Firaxis gave us much reason to ever need to move cities in this game. My proposal for nomadic civilizations was two fold: such a faction could mobilize its entire civilization right up to an enemy's borders during war; and it could also move in response to changing map conditions (migrating animal resources or climate change) during peace. Beyond Earth hits that first point by turning cities into massive aircraft carriers, but there aren't any mechanics in place to make the map a factor.

Fish and other harvestable sea creatures don't migrate, and other resources don't move. So if you aren't using your aquatic cities as mobile military bases, then there's never any real need to move them. And if you're not playing as the North Sea Alliance faction, then the cost to move a city can feel prohibitively expensive. The people at Firaxis seemed to have recognized this, and so they made it so that aquatic cities don't grow their borders based on culture. Instead, you must either buy new tiles or move the city itself in order to acquire adjacent tiles. But since moving takes valuable production time away from the city, I rarely find myself moving a city, and instead I just buy any tiles that I want.

Aquatic cities can be moved, and can act as mobile military platforms and aircraft carriers.

There are other pros and cons to aquatic cities, such as health benefits, faster virtue acquisition, and more profitable trade routes. You can also move the cities around to temporarily acquire resources that allow you to build specific resource buildings, but at the cost of possibly temporarily hurting your city's growth or production (and maybe even starving the city if you move away from food-generating tiles). So there's a lot to think about when build an aquatic or nomadic civilization, but it all feels kind of like ad hoc mechanics in order to make the mechanic seem more meaningful than it actually is. That isn't to say that mobile cities is a bad feature in Beyond Earth. It's perfectly functional, and can be fun to play around with. It just feels a little gimmicky.

Just look at the world around you, right here on the ocean floor

It certainly helps that the oceans themselves are a much bigger part of the game. The ocean isn't just divided into coastal tiles and empty ocean anymore. There's a whole host of new aquatic resources, and even the sea floor itself has different features. This definitely provides some incentive and reward to building floating cities, since the ocean can be a rich source of resources. The ocean tiles themselves can even be improved with a variety of new improvements (including basic farms and mines).

Civilization Beyond Earth: Rising Tide - marine life
The oceans are alive with life and resources, giving reason to found aquatic cities.

Aliens are also active in the oceans. Sea creatures will build nests (just like their land counterparts), and there's a new alien creature called Hydrocoral that is stationary but which spreads across the ocean surface if left unchecked. Resource pods, artifacts, and quest triggers can all also be found in the ocean. So there's plenty to do in the water now, oceans feel more like a genuine part of the map rather than just dead space between continents, and the variety of features and resources in the ocean helps to make the world look more alien.

...

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The Swapper - title

Since I have some extra time off for this holiday season, I'm trying to go through some of my backlog of shorter indie Steam games in between bouts of Cities: Skylines and Beyond Earth: Rising Tide. One such game is Facepalm Games' 2013's sci-fi indie hit, The Swapper, which I picked up in a Steam sale like a year ago. The game has also been ported to many consoles, including the PS3, PS4, Vita, XBox One, and Wii U, and the ports were developed by Curve Digital.

Making my clones do the deadly work

The Swapper seems to owe a lot to Valve's mega-hit Portal. Both games' central mechanics revolve around the player character using a futuristic non-weaponized gun (with 2 settings) to solve platforming puzzles and explore an environment. Portal is in full 3-D, whereas The Swapper is a more traditional 2-D side-scroller. The bigger difference however, is that the gun of The Swapper doesn't fire portable wormholes; instead, it allows the player character to instantly create clones of herself, and to swap her consciousness into one of the clones. Once created, these copies move in tandem with the copy that is currently being controlled by the player. The key to the puzzles is to maneuver yourself so that your clones can reach otherwise inaccessible areas or activate switches.

The Swapper - synchronized movement
All your clones move in synchronization, making relative spacing very important for solving puzzles.

The space station is laid out in an unbelievable, but serviceable, series of puzzle rooms joined together by modest platforming sections. At first, the platforming between puzzles is interesting because it kept me thinking along the lines of solving puzzles rather than just moving from place to place. But there's a lot of exploration and backtracking, and having to navigate the corridors between puzzle rooms quickly became tedious once using the swapper gun became second nature and automatic. Fortunately, the game provides handy teleporters to allow you to quickly move to key sections of the station, so the backtracking never became as problematic as it could have been.

The puzzles themselves start off fairly simple, requiring that the player simply point the gun and clone herself in order to reach a platform or cross a gap and collect alien orbs that you use to unlock new areas of the space station. The challenge quickly escalates. Soon, obstacles start getting thrown at you, such as colored lights that prevent certain operations of the swapper gun, forcing you to have to find more elaborate ways around the lights in order to reach your destination. You have to start using careful positioning, choreographed movement, gravity, momentum, and inertia in order to successfully solve the puzzles. And all this escalation seems to happen naturally based on the increasing complexity of the levels, rather than through the introduction of new mechanics or controls.

The Swapper - difficult puzzle
About an hour into the game, I ran into a puzzle that took almost an hour of trial-and-error for me to solve.

About an hour into the game, the difficulty suddenly spiked, and I ran into one puzzle in particular that took me quite a while to figure out. I even had to leave it and come back to it later with a fresh perspective. I thought maybe I was missing some kind of upgrade or needed to learn some technique that the game hadn't tutorialized yet, but that wasn't the case. Eventually, I figured it out, and the solution seemed head-smacking obvious, but I probably spent a good hour on that one puzzle (approximately half of my time with the game, up to that point).

There are also some other sci-fi mechanics such as the occasional zero-g spacewalk, gravity inversion (allowing you to "fall" up and walk on the ceilings), and so on. These all flow fairly seamlessly into the game; although, I did feel that the gravity inversion felt a little unnecessary when it was introduced. After all, the game teaches you fairly early how to use the swapper gun to effectively fly by repeatedly swapping to clones created above you. This "flying", is, however, limited by the number of clones that you can create, and it's still subject to being blocked by colored lights. So gravity inversion felt superficial when introduced as a means of navigating the station. Once the gravity inversion was introduced into the puzzles, though, I recognized its value.

The Swapper - zero-G spacewalk
You'll also perform the occasional zero-G spacewalk or invert gravity.

Any problems that I had in solving a puzzle were purely intellectual. Every control and mechanic is intuitive and comfortable, movement is responsive, and I almost never struggled with making the character do what I wanted her to do. All in all, the game plays near-perfectly. The puzzles are appropriately challenging; although, the exploratory nature of the game means that difficulty can wobble back and forth a bit depending on which puzzle rooms you reach first...

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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