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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The Callisto Protocol - title

I saw a lot of social media posts in the days after Callisto Protocol's release complaining about the game being awful. Some said it was buggy and riddled with performance issues. Others said it was just a bad game, and would be bad even if it were stable.

I didn't experience a lot of the technical issues (on PS5) that others were reporting. But I also didn't start playing till later that weekend, so had the benefit of the day-1 patch. Maybe that fixed a lot of the technical complaints? Yeah, there were still some lingering technical issues, but they were mostly nagging problems that I could look past.

So I went through most of the first half of the game thinking "This ain't so bad." It wasn't very good either. But it seemed like it was being unfairly maligned. It's Dead Space, but just ... not good.

Callisto Protocol is borderline plagiarism of Dead Space, but not a very good copy.

But as I got into the middle of the game's campaign, my opinion began to change. The issues and frustrations mounted until they boiled over in the game's first boss fight (which doesn't happen until more than halfway through the campaign). Callisto Protocol is just not very well designed or though-out. It suffers at fundamental levels of gameplay design.

Space Zombie Punchout

Callisto Protocol's problems start with the awful melee and dodge system -- which is kind of the whole gimmick of the game. Instead of pressing a button to trigger a dodge, the character automatically dodges left or right if the player is pressing the left analog stick left or right (respectively when the enemy makes an attack. The character will also block if the player is pressing backwards when the enemy attacks.

It's a system that feels more like Mike Tyson's Punchout than any action shooter I've ever played. But where Punchout is a boxing game that features a stationary opponent ducking left or right to dodge the punches of a single opponent lined up directly in front of you, Callisto Protocol is ... not that. The character in Callisto Protocol is ambulatory, and attempting to navigate an environment while also fighting multiple enemies at both melee and at range.

I could not get the hang of which direction I should be dodging -- except against bosses.

I found it very difficult to get the hang of the melee combat -- at least outside of boss fights. Strangely, the boss fights seemed to have the most clearly telegraphed attacks and reliable dodging. Outside of boss fights, however, enemies are frequently zombie-like monsters that rush at the player and shamble around, making it difficult to read their movements. As such, I never know which direction to dodge. And even when I do seem to correctly dodge, I sometimes take damage anyway, which leads to the next big problem. Pretty much every time I had to engage in melee combat, I would die and have to retry.

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When I booted up my PS5 for the first time and signed into the PSN, I immediately downloaded a few of the must-have games. You know, the Demon's Souls remake, Miles Morales, and Returnal. I also downloaded some other ... shall we say "less high profile" games that piqued my interest, including the [ultimately very impressive] World War II shooter Hell Let Loose and a little indie game that claimed to be a sequel to H.G. Wells' classic sci-fi novel The War of the World, called Darker Skies.

Darker Skies takes place during the aftermath of H.G. Wells' classic novel The War of the Worlds,
but the visual and sound design is clearly pulled from the 2004 Steven Spielberg movie starring Tom Cruise.

Budget "Last of Us"

I didn't have high hopes for this budget indie title, but I was curious what a game developer would even do with a property like War of the Worlds. As soon as I saw the first enemy, a zombie shambling around just like a Clicker from The Last of Us, my heart sank. With all the potential of the source material, Steel Arts had to go with a zombie game?! The War of the Worlds is a classic sci-fi novel about a Martian invasion of Earth. My expectation for a video game adaptation of The War of the Worlds would either be some kind of survival horror game about surviving against Martians who survived exposure to Earth's microbes, or an action shooter about humans counter-attacking the Martians on Mars, or something akin to XCOM. It absolutely would not be a total knock off of The Last of Us, right down to having infected zombie humans.

And when I say this is a knock off of The Last of Us, I'm not just talking about the presence of Clicker-like zombies. The protagonist has an X-Ray "focus" vision, he scavenges random supplies in order to craft consumables supplies, and most encounters with enemies are intended to be dealt with by various throwable tools. There's even areas of the map that are overgrown with red Martian tendrils, similar to the spore-infested areas of The Last of Us, except this time around, the character doesn't need a gas mask to get through.

The character can use X-ray vision to detect enemies through walls, but only if they are moving.

The only thing missing is the tag-along NPC child character -- which is a big problem because the interactions between the two characters is a huge part of what makes The Last of Us a great game. That's where the heart and soul of that game was. If you played The Last of Us, and you thought the best thing to emulate is the crafting system, then I feel like maybe you missed the point...

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Letters to a Friend: Farewell - title

When I saw Errant Signal's video essay about Letters To A Friend: Farewell, I was instantly intrigued. Even watching someone else's footage, and not actually playing myself, the exceedingly grainy camera had me seeing things that weren't there, constantly wondering if something was going to pop out of the shadows. In a slow-burn psychological horror title like this, that kind of constant tension really helps to set a mood and elevate the emotional response to the game, and I wanted to experience it for myself.

Letters To A Friend is a short, 30 to 40-minute indie horror game with a unique silent film aesthetic. Aside from ambient background music, there is no dialogue and no sound effects. All the spoken dialogue and inner monologue of the player character are conveyed through text displayed on static title cards. The entire game is played in monochrome, with a heavy vignette and film grain effect.

Letters To A Friend is absolutely committed to its grainy silent film aesthetic.

The plot is about a notary who goes to a house so that the owner, Markus, can sign away his rights to inherit the property after his father had recently passed. Markus begins rambling, claims he can't find the key to the locked attic door, the time grows late, and the notary is asked to stay overnight in the study, so that Markus can find the key and sign the paperwork the next morning. The notary agrees, only to have his sleep disturbed by weird noises and odors, which are all described in text on title cards. Something is not as it seems.

I don't want to go into further detail right away because speaking any further about the plot or themes of this 40-minute story would completely spoil it. This game is short even by walking sim standards, but on the upside, at least it gets straight to the point without burying its meaning in layers of confusing metaphor and symbolism, as many walking sims are prone to do. This game is only available on itch.io, and its recommended price is $5.99 USD, but since it's on itch, you can opt to pay more if you want to help support the developer. Personally, I paid an even $7 USD. If you don't mind short, indie walking sims, and the silent film aesthetic looks interesting, then I recommend checking this game out and playing for yourself. Then feel free to come back and read the more spoiler-y details of the review and analysis.

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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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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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