Madison - title

I feel like Halloween just wouldn't be Halloween anymore without playing some new P.T.-inspired indie horror game. This year's "hot" title seemed to be MADiSON by Bloodious Games, which I started playing with a group of 2 friends on Halloween night (after returning from taking the kids Trick or Treating), but we didn't get around to finishing until after the New Year. It wasn't that we didn't want to keep playing. Quite the opposite, in fact. The reason it took so long to finish is because all 3 of us really wanted to keep playing, so I had to wait till all 3 of us were available for a next session before continuing.

In addition to being another indie horror game in a long line of P.T. wannabes, MADiSON also follows in closely off the coattails of Visage. Both games heavily utilize a polaroid flash camera as a critical multi-tool, but MADiSON does one-up Visage by making the camera much more integral to core gameplay. While I only remember the camera in Visage being used as a source of temporary illumination, the camera of MADiSON is both integral to the story, and also absolutely necessary for solving multiple puzzles and for progressing the game's story.

Yet another indie horror game about wandering the halls of a haunted house -- this time with a camera!

Ocular Obscura

The core gimmick of MADiSON is that the player uses a polaroid camera to take pictures of the environment, and the resulting photograph will show things that aren't really there. These photographs will be used as clues to solve a puzzle or to progress the scenario, or taking the picture will just outright trigger the next objective. The house is littered with such puzzles. Unfortunately, the layout of the house, the pacing of the scenario, and the solutions to many puzzles can be a bit on the obtuse side. So much so, in fact, that Bloodious Games resorted to scattering blank polaroids near important objects, which act as obvious signposts that you should take a picture of the thing. This isn't exactly obvious at first, because many such marked objects will get no reaction from the camera until later parts of the scenario, when they become relevant to the current task at hand.

The dense nature of the game's map creates a lot of problems for pacing and signposting. Multiple puzzles, from different chapters of the game, might be present in the same space and could serve to interfere with one another or confuse the player.

This isn't to say that the puzzles are necessarily "bad". Once we realized that the house is littered with red herrings that don't become relevant until later, I actually started to like that these puzzles are a bit more complicated and multi-layered than the typical adventure game fare the we've been getting over the past decade or so. This was, in fact, a big reason why all 3 of us wanted to continue playing the game: we wanted to solve the next puzzle! So many adventure and horror puzzles these days don't get much more complicated than "open a drawer, find a key, and use said key on the one and only lock in that same room." They can feel so patronizing. MADiSON's puzzles definitely do not feel patronizing!

Many puzzles require careful observation and inferences from the environment.

Even if there is a simple clue like a color or a number that is given to the player, there is always some confounding additional factor. It's never just as simple as matching a number or a color or a shape. Most of these puzzles require some careful observation of the player's surroundings, some contextual inferences that won't be obvious to every player, and occasionally a lit bit of arithmetic, spatial, or logic skills. Playing this game in a group actually did help in this regard. Any one of us would have been stuck for a while on multiple puzzles, but there was always one of us who would pick up on a given clue and point it out to the others.

But some of the early puzzles, in particular, are a bit heavy on the red herrings and could definitely have used some better sign-posting and direction.

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35mm - title

December, January, and February is usually a time when I try to make a dent in my ever-growing Steam backlog. I buy lots of games on Steam sales, and then end up not playing most of them. So when I do go into the backlog, I always try to emphasize some of the shorter, indie games in the hopes that I can power through several before the big spring game releases start rolling in. This time around, I loaded up an independent Russian game from developer Sergey Noskov, which was very well-reviewed back when I bought it in 2016. Apparently, it's going to be released on PS4 soon, so this review is sort of topical. It hasn't really held up as well as I hoped it would in the almost-5 years since its release.

Ironically, this game is set during a fictional ebola pandemic that has turned Russia into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and I'm playing it during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The game was released back in 2016, long before COVID.

35mm is a hard game to classify. It's not quite a shooter. Not quite a survival game. Not quite a horror game. And not quite a walking simulator. It straddles the line between all of these sub-genres, shifting from one to the other at the drop of a hat, but without ever feeling jarring about it. There's even a few little mini-games thrown in for good measure. As such, there's plenty of variety that helps prevent this game from ever feeling stale. Regardless of whichever genre 35mm is currently residing in, its slow pace, subdued, aesthetic design, and melancholy tone remains consistent. It is this pacing and tone that defines the game much more than any one genre.

35mm straddles the line between walking sim, shooter, survival game, and horror.

We play as a mysterious protagonist travelling across a post-apocalyptic Russia, presumably to get home to see his family. He is accompanied by a travelling companion for most of the game. The history of these characters and the relationship between them are never clearly defined, which feels like its setting up for some kind of narrative twist right from the start. Nevertheless, the companion character acts as a sort of guide through the first half of the game, telling the player where to go and what to do. Unfortunately, since these characters are never very well-developed, any potential tragedy or impact of the final twist (regardless of which ending is achieved) is severely neutered.

What's the deal with the camera?

Even though I can't quite put my finger on what genre to classify 35mm, one thing that I can definitely say is that it is not a game about photography. Given that the game is named for the type of film in a camera, and the camera is featured in the game's title screen and promotional material, I would think that the camera would feature heavily in the game. But this is not the case. The camera is never necessary. It isn't used to progress the plot. It isn't used to solve puzzles. There isn't even a recap of the photos I took at the end of the game. Photographs become a major part of the game's finale, but they aren't the pictures that I took during the course of the actual game.

The camera is not utilized, despite inspiring the title of the game and being featured on the title screen.

So I'm really puzzled as to why the game is named "35mm". It kind of set my expectations a little bit higher than they probably should be. I thought I was going to get something a little bit more artsy and creative. But instead, what I got is a pretty straightforward, linear game.

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Blair Witch - title

Blair Witch, as an intellectual property, is in a frustrating place similar to the Alien franchise. Both were innovative horror films that set numerous standards and conventions within their sub-genres, and which have been copied and ripped-off numerous times. Sci-fi games from Starcraft, to Metroid, to System Shock, to Dead Space have all taken heavy inspiration from Alien and Aliens. So much of the iconography of Alien and Aliens have been borrowed by these games, that when someone comes along with a game based on the Alien intellectual property, it's hard for that game to not feel like it's derivative of one (or all) of the myriad Alien impersonators.

the Blair Witch Project has similarly left a mark on the horror landscape. It single-handedly popularized the "found-footage" genre against the backdrop of a creepy, supernatural forest. Games such as Outlast, Alan Wake, and even Resident Evil VII all have a little bit of Blair Witch in their DNA. So when a game comes out that actually bears the "Blair Witch" name, it's kind of hard for it to stand out in the larger horror landscape.

Plenty of games (such as Outlast [LEFT]) have used tropes inspired by The Blair Witch Project.

This is the case with Lionsgate and Bloober Team's new Blair Witch game, exclusive to Microsoft platforms. Nothing that Blair Witch does feels particularly new or creative, even though most of the game's ideas are competently executed. Using a camcorder as a tool for navigation, exposition-delivery, and puzzle-solving feels pulled straight from Outlast or Resident Evil VII. Wandering through the woods and defeating monsters by pointing a flashlight at them gives me flashbacks to Alan Wake. Navigating the forest and occasionally picking up other people's trash also reminded me of Firewatch. Eventually, the whole game descends (rather predictably) into P.T. territory -- but, you know, without all the nuance or careful pacing that made P.T. so unnerving.

Who's a good doggy?

Blair Witch's most innovative feature is probably the dog companion (named Bullet), but even that feels pulled straight from Fallout 4. I probably would have been a bit more impressed if not for the fact that Bullet seemed to lose relevance as anything other than a monster compass, for a large chunk of the middle of the game. Without having healing items or ammunition or any other consumable supplies, the ability to send the dog out to find things feels like a sorely under-utilized mechanic.

Bullet is very well-introduced, and is integral to the early levels of the game. He finds clues for you, fetches key items, guides you to the next objective, and warns you of potential danger, all completely organically and without breaking immersion. But after a couple of hours, he just runs out of things to find and things to do. The puzzle shift away from using the dog, and more towards using the camera to do everything from manipulate the environment, to navigate mazes and looping paths, and even spotting monsters.

Your emotional support dog, Bullet, serves an integral role throughout the game.

...

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Observation - title

It's real refreshing to come across a science fiction game that isn't just about shooting aliens with laser guns or blowing up space ships. If you're in the market for a thoughtful, well-presented science fiction experience, then I highly recommend that you check out Observation. If you're also into horror, then even better, because this game definitely has some horror elements as well. They're much more subdued, but this game does do a fantastic job of creating a building sense of tension and intrigue as its over-arching mystery is slowly unfurled.

The gimmick here is that you play as a malfunctioning artificial intelligence on a near-future orbital research station. The game is presented as a sort-of found-footage narrative (think along the lines of the Apollo 18 horror movie) told entirely from the point of view of the on-board A.I. Something goes wrong, the crew are all missing and possibly dead, and you help the sole survivor try to find the remaining crew and piece together what happened to the station. Think along the lines of playing as the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or as Kevin Spacey's character in the [fantastic] movie Moon. You do this by jumping between different surveillance cameras (a la Five Nights at Freddy's, but, you know, with ambitions of being more than just a random jump-scare-generator). Through the cameras, you interact with various technology and station systems within your line of sight. You'll occasionally be asked questions or given commands by the surviving astronaut, and you chose how to respond.

You are an unreliable A.I.?

From the start, there's a certain degree of unreliable narrator going on. One of the very first actions that the game asks you to do is verify the identify of the surviving astronaut via her voice print. You are initially told that her voice print does not match, and you're given the option to accept or reject her voice print. If you reject, she'll repeat her authorization code, and you'll be told that it matches this time. Is she not who she seems? Are your own systems providing you with misleading information? Are your systems merely damaged? This creates an immediate sense of distrust. You (the player) don't necessarily trust the survivor, the survivor doesn't necessarily trust you, and you can't even trust your own perception and judgement.

From the start, it's unclear whether you can trust Emma, or whether she can trust you...

This immediately creates a dense atmosphere of intrigue and mystery and sets a level of tension that persists through the entire game.

This atmosphere is helped by the richly-detailed near-future space station that you inhabit. The visuals are immaculately detailed, and the station looks and feels like it could be modeled after the real-life International Space Station. The spaces are tight and claustrophobic. Accessories and stationary are strapped or velcroed to the walls, floors, ceiling, and desk surfaces in order to prevent them from floating off in the zero-gravity environment. Everything is believable.

The game further builds its atmosphere with its immersive U.I.. Every button press, command, and interaction has some in-universe context behind it that helps to keep you in the mind-space of your A.I. character. The U.I. is mostly easy to use, and most actions feel intuitive.

This game hooked me in with its setting and atmosphere, and I just had to keep playing to find out what happened and where this would go!

The space station and U.I. are believable and immersive.

...

[More]

Dark Souls III

The best strategies for defeating bosses in the Souls games typically involves staying as close as you possibly can to the boss, circling around to their backside, stabbing them in the butt, and rolling under their attacks when necessary. A few bosses in the series will break this convention and force the player to have to find different ways of defeating them. Dark Souls III has one particular boss that makes this go-to strategy almost completely futile. If you're able to circle-strafe around the feet of the King of the Storm boss in Archdragon Peak and then still beat it, then I am impressed.

Dark Souls III - The King of the Storm
The Nameless King and his storm drake require a different strategy than the typical Dark Souls boss.

Why you should keep your distance

The King of the Storm is one of the rare bosses in the series that actually requires the player to keep your distance from the boss and avoid getting in too close. There are actually quite a few reasons for this, but there are two that stand out as making this boss particularly frustrating for any player who tethers themselves to the boss's feet. The first is that you'll end up forcing yourself into battle with the most ever-present of Souls games' most formidable foes: the camera. Locking onto the enemy is impossible when directly below him, and so you won't be able to see any of what he is doing. He also moves very quickly and can cover a lot of space, so you'll end up spending a lot of time having to micro-manage the camera as you try to manually keep it focused on the dragon.

The second reason is that the dragon has a potent defense against this sort of strategy: its fire breath. If you hang around under the dragon's belly, it won't wait too long before flying up into the air and unleashing an area of effect fire breath attack that can often mean certain death if you get caught in it. Even a health bar that stretches most of the way across the screen can be more than halved simply by being hit with this attack. But that isn't the worst of it. The attack will also knock the player prone, but the fire spray also persists long enough that it can frequently trigger a second hit once you stand up. This second hit will almost certainly kill you.

Dark Souls III - flying fire breath
Getting caught in this flying fire breath attack means almost certain death.

These two reasons should be enough to keep you out from under the dragon, but there are other reasons why keeping your distance is the better option....

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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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