Friday, January 26, 2024 07:50 PM

Alan Wake 2 is all over the place

in Video Gaming | Game Reviews by MegaBearsFan

Alan Wake 2 - title

I'll give Remedy this bit of credit: in a world overrun with soul-less, design-by-committee, live-services and vehicles for micro-transaction economies, Alan Wake 2 is a game that actually has a strong creative vision and personality. It follows in the footsteps of Hideo Kojima and Death Stranding by being completely confident in itself and being un-abashedly weird. And just like with Death Stranding, that means that sometimes Alan Wake 2 is genius; other times it's confoundingly stupid and hackneyed!

It's hard even to classify Alan Wake 2 into a single genre. That goes for both narrative genre and also ludic genre. In both cases, it's kind of all over the place. At the most reductionist level, it follows the basic formula of a modern horror game: exploring creepy environments to find keys for doors, fighting monsters as an over-the-shoulder 3rd-person shooter, solving puzzles, and managing a limited inventory. So it's a "horror game", right? In fact, sometimes, it's seriously scary and disturbing. But other times, I'm questioning its "horror" status while I'm laughing out loud to a deliberate joke, or bored out of my mind because nothing scary or particularly exciting has happened in hours. Yet other times still, it's farcically campy or schlocky, and un-intentionally laughable. It's story is ridiculously out there in its concepts and execution, but somehow every beat of the plot is set up and signposted as clearly and obviously as the neon signs that point the player to the next objective in the Dark Place.

Plot twists are signposted more clearly and obviously than the neon signs that often guide the player through levels.

It's also frequently up its own ass. It is, after all, a fictional story about the power of fiction to alter reality (and our perception of reality). It even features the lead designer as a self-insert character within the story. Though surprisingly, he made himself a secondary character instead of one of the 2 playable protagonists. So it's not really about him, but he still found a way to make the entire plot revolve around that secondary character.

In the mind's eye

I feel that Alan Wake 2 is consistently at its best when its sitting firmly in its horror-mystery mode. As such, the opening couple hours of the game really pulled me in and hooked me. The game's main quest and side content are split up into various "cases" for the FBI agent protagonists to solve. There's a mechanic in which the player can retreat into Agent Saga Anderson's "Mind Space", which is an imaginary office room in which she sorts through all the clues she's gathered and strings them together on an imaginary wall in order to fit the puzzle pieces of the mystery together. Each time the player discovers a critical piece of information in the game world, it will show up in the Mind Space's filing cabinet as a new file in a case folder. Putting the clues together in the right way will unlock new lines of inquiry, and can even reveal the next objective.

Agent Anderson can review the known evidence in her imaginary Mind Space office.

Apparently, the actual game doesn't even pause, and continues to play in the background while the player is in the Mind Space. Even though the Mind Space is a full-screen environment, the character can still be attacked by enemies in the "real world". At first, I thought this would be obnoxious, but after the first time I was attacked while trying to re-arrange items on the case board in the Mind Space, I learned my lesson. After that, I actually came to realize that that needing to find a safe, peaceful space in order to let the character think about clues they've discovered (and how to proceed), really helps to emphasize the danger and stakes of the situation.

Arranging the clues in the Mind Space is not very difficult or complicated. It's not like having to solve a person's fate in Return of the Obra Dinn, or anything like that. Most of the time, the process is just going through the motions. Even when there are multiple options for where a piece of evidence can go, the solution can be easily brute-forced without the player having to know anything about what's going on.

The Case Board is an immersive quest log and objective tracker.

Even so, the Mind Space is a creative idea for presenting objectives, quest logs, story summaries, and characterization. The Mind Space at least tries to force the player to have to engage with the events of the story in a meaningful and immersive way. The player has to at least pretend to know how the various events of the story, the characters, and the McGuffins you find all fit together in the broader story in order to progress the main story or side quests.

And in fact, the entire game is about the interplay between the audience and the fiction. For most of the story, it's about the ability of fiction to re-shape people's perception of reality, but as the game goes on, it becomes more and more about the audience's ability to shape or re-shape the actual fiction. It emphasizes that any creative work is made up of both the voices of its creator(s) and also the interpretation and reception of the audience. This has always been true, with all forms of fiction and story-telling, but it's even more true with video games.

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Song Of Horror - title

Not only is it really great to play an indie horror game that captures the slow and thoughtful nature of old-school survival horror, but it's also refreshing to play a good old fashioned gothic horror game. So many indie horror games come off as feeling a bit pretentious with their reliance on suppressed guilt twists for their psychological horror plots. Song Of Horror bucks that trend by being a straight-forward horror story about haunted houses, possessed artifacts, and otherworldly mysteries.

Song Of Horror also ups the stakes by featuring a cast of multiple playable characters, each of whom can be killed off (and removed from the rest of the story) if the player screws up. So not only do we literally not know what eldritch abomination may lie around any given dimly-lit corner, or behind any creaky old door, but if you're not careful, whatever is around that corner or behind that door might put a premature end to a given character's life and story.

Strut and fret your hour upon the stage, and then ...

Song Of Horror was originally sold as an episodic indie horror game on Steam, but the collection of all episodes was released for console as a single game in 2021. It somehow slipped under my radar until last month, when YouTube recommended a video about it by Mert Kay Kay. Each episode includes 3 or 4 playable characters to choose from, each of whom can be permanently killed off if you fail to avoid or escape from the phantasms that haunt each episode. If a character dies, all the items and notes that they've collected will be dropped on the floor at the spot of their death, and that location will be marked on the next character's map. So you don't really lose any progress if a single character dies. If you lose all the characters in a given episode, however, then it's "Game Over"!

Each episode will introduce one or more new characters, but old characters can also re-appear as playable characters if they survived the previous episode(s). Thus, losing a character in an early episode may have the longer-term consequence of reducing the player's available lives (to borrow a term from old arcade parlance) for future episodes, and reducing your margin of error.

Each episode has 3 or 4 playable characters, each of whom can permanently die.

But even if you do manage to screw up and get all 4 characters killed in any given chapter, you only have to restart that chapter. Song Of Horror won't delete your save file and force you to redo the entire game. Each chapter takes 2 -- maybe 3 -- hours to complete on a first-playthrough, and can be done in well under an hour if you know what you're doing. It's actually a loss of progress that is somewhat on par with dying in an old Resident Evil game after doing a fair chunk of exploration without backtracking to a save point.

The legitimate threat of permanently losing a character will naturally raise the stakes of the game and of the horror. It will force the player to play cautiously, to be observant of your surrounding and of context clues in the environment, to pay close attention to sounds and shadows, and to not barge through every door in a rush. In fact, it may do this more effectively than even a game like Resident Evil. Dying doesn't mean simply restarting with the same character and retrying the set piece that got you killed. Dying means permanently losing that character, and having to try again with a new character. Restarting at a checkpoint doesn't simply reset the stakes, it doubles-down on them!

Furthermore, the actual jump scares and dangers are semi-randomized. You won't necessarily encounter the same jump scare or the same monster at the same place and time in any 2 playthroughs. This also keeps things tense, because even on a replay (whether it be a whole new playthrough, or just a respawn with a different character), you can't just memorize all the places to avoid.

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Visage - title

It's virtually impossible to talk about Visage without first referring back to Hideo Kojima's infamous P.T. demo for the canceled Silent Hills project. P.T. has certainly left an almost Amnesia-sized footprint on the horror video gaming landscape, and it's hard not to refer back to Amnesia when talking about any horror game in the past 10 years either. It's hard to believe that P.T. was released six years ago, and the wanna-bes, copy-cats, and attempts at a spiritual successor have been rolling in ever since. The latest indie project to try to replicate P.T.'s success is SadSquare's Visage, a first-person horror game set entirely within a single suburban house in the 1980's. With Allison Road canceled, and Konami giving us no evidence that rumors of a new Silent Hill game (or a revival of Silent Hills itself) is true, Visage is probably the closest yet to a full-fledged realization of the concepts and novelty of P.T..

P.T. has influenced an entire generation of horror games.

P.T. mixed with a little Amnesia and Resident Evil

I think that part of the appeal of P.T. was its simplicity. With that simplicity came elegance. After all, it only had like 2 buttons that actually did anything, and the whole game consisted of walking around the hallway and zooming in to look at things. That's fine for what is essentially a tech demo that only takes an hour or two to beat, but for a fully-realized, full-length game like Visage, you need a bit more substance. Visage does deliver in that regard. While the entire game could be boiled down to just wandering around a house looking at spooky things, it also has several more traditional survival horror systems, which are used in new and sometimes creative ways.

The most substantive of these mechanics is a "sanity" mechanic pulled straight from something like Amnesia or Eternal Darkness, and which replaces a more traditional health system. The ghosts haunting the house will kill you and force a Game Over if they catch you, so your only defense is to run away. But when you run away, you need to try to run into a part of the house that is well lit, as the player character seems to be very afraid of the dark, and his sanity rapidly depletes if you're standing or wandering around in the dark.

The little red brain in the corner indicates you're in
danger of succumbing to a potentially-lethal haunting.

I wish the little sanity indicator had been moved to one of the top corners of the screen. Holding certain items in your left hand (particularly the lit lighter) often covers up or obscures the icon, making it hard to read. Other U.I. elements, such as some button prompts, will also draw a black bar across the bottom of the screen, which also covers up the sanity indicator.

Visage has some pretty good lighting effects, with realistic, dynamic shadows and darkness that is actually pitch black. It's not uncommon to catch a glimpse of a shadow from a flickering or swaying light in the corner of the screen and think that it's an apparition. Unfortunately, there's also some texture pop-in when playing on my PS4 Pro that happens when making sudden turns or when moving between rooms. This also looks like an apparition, and acted to quickly desensitize me to the deliberate peripheral visual trickery that the game tried to employ later.

The ambient sound design is also quite good. There's the cliche background ambiance of a rainstorm and thunder, but it's accompanied by numerous creaks and groans within the house itself. These creaks and groans, combined with the narrow corridors, blind corners, and ubiquitous darkness help to keep the horror atmosphere tense, especially in the early hours. Are those footsteps in the attic above me? Did I just hear something behind me? Is there an apparition waiting around the corner? The groaning and creaking reminded me of the novel House of Leaves, which I read over the summer, and which describes its house as "growling" whenever it reshapes its impossible geometry.

The house of Visage is also claustrophobic enough, cluttered enough, and confusingly laid-out, such that navigating in the dark is genuinely difficult. I had to play for hours (and finish more than a whole chapter) before I really started to get a feel for the layout of the house. Remembering which rooms and objects are where is hard enough in the early hours with the lights on. Not being able to see where I'm going only made early-game exploration feel hopelessly futile -- but in the good horror game way of making me feel unsure of my surroundings and vulnerable.

The house has a surprisingly large and complicated floorplan.
Keeping it well lit will both keep you sane, and also help navigate.
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Amnesia: Rebirth - title

The first few minutes of Amnesia: Rebirth had me expecting much more from the game. The first game, The Dark Descent revolutionized and resurrected the horror genre after major publishers basically gave up on horror altogether, and it provided innovative new ideas that have been iterated upon by almost every horror game since. Dark Descent has the player waking up in a decrepit gothic castle and then descending into dark, atmospheric corridors in which every moving shadow, every creaking floorboard, and every gust of wind ratchets up the tension.

The oppressive light of the sun can be as threatening as the dark.

Rebirth begins with a plane crash that strands the player in the middle of the Sahara desert and prompts the player to find shade from the oppressive heat. The player knows a bit about the protagonist and the situation, it's bright and saturated in color, and is totally the opposite of how Dark Descent begins. It made me think that Rebith might further innovate the horror genre by establishing new tropes, such as using sunlight as a tool for horror instead of cliché darkness. Dark Descent had you cowering in candlelight to restore your sanity after a trek through the darkness. Maybe Rebirth would invert that mechanic and have you seeking the dark, cool corners of the map to escape the parching heat of the sun?

Well, that idea kind of goes out the window when you take shelter in a dark cave about two minutes into the game. After this introductory chapter, it's mostly just back to the same tricks as the first game, except without the expert pacing and subtle atmospheric tension and mystery.

Five minutes after wandering into that cave, I travel through a glowing portal in the walls and step into a hellish Lovecraftian otherworld. There's no build-up to it. No anticipation. Just BAM! portal to alien landscape! Explore for a few minutes, then back to the dark caves. Rebirth kind of blows its load right here at the start by introducing the player to this otherworld right away. I guess you could say that visiting the Lovecraftian otherworld is a natural progression from the first game, which only hinted at such a world's existence, but geez, let us wonder about it for a bit before you show it to us.

Five minutes into the game, and Amnesia: Rebirth blows its load with a Lovecraftian otherworld.

Showing off the goods too much and too soon then becomes a recurring theme throughout the game. My first encounter with the monster had it grab me and hold me up in front of its face for a good 5 or 10 seconds, giving me a good, long look at its well-lit, un-inspired visage. The monster from the original game was usually glimpsed through fog or darkness, and its unnatural proportions and distorted face and jaw made me wonder if I was looking at a person or not. And when I finally did start to get better looks at it much later in the game, it revealed itself to be an instantly-identifiable, iconic monster wholly unique to Amnesia. It wasn't just some generic-looking ghoul, which is sadly the case with Rebirth's monster.

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Dark Souls - claiming the Dark Souls

I'm going to do something that I don't normally do, which is to muse a little bit on the theories of other fans. Normally, when I write these lore posts, I write about what I believe - my own personal interpretation. In this case, however, I stumbled upon a video and a blog written by two different users that posit two entirely different (and probably contradictory) fan theories regarding the Souls games. Both theories piqued my interest and lead me down a rabbit hole of my own thought and speculation. So I'm going to summarize the theories that these two have pitched, and also throw in my own thoughts.

But first, let's review the conventional Dark Souls wisdom of the cycles of Fire and Dark. According to conventional wisdom, the dragons and archtrees of the Age of Ancients existed at the genesis of the world. The fire then appeared and ushered in the Age of Fire, but the fire faded, and the Age of Dark began. Lord Gwyn sacrificed himself to rekindle the flame and renew the Age of Fire, but it eventually faded again, leading to an Age of Dark. And the world continued in this endless cycle of the fire fading and then being rekindled.

An overarching cycle of world-creation?

First, I'll start with a video by The Ashen Hollow, which is about the Cycle of Ages, and which speculates that the Soul of the Lords and Age of Dark ending establishes that the Age of Dark eventually gives way to yet another Age of Ancients. This creates a cycle of cycles, in which not only does the world of Dark Souls repeat Ages of Fire and Ages of Dark, but that once that cycle has run its course, it repeats yet another cycle of world-creation. Dark Souls III, therefore, takes place at the end of an Age of Fire, but it also takes place at the tail end of a cycle of world-creation and destruction. So Dark Souls III is a sequel to the first Dark Souls, and also the first Dark Souls is - in a sense - a sequel to Dark Souls III.

Dark Souls III - Soul of Lords

"Soul of the Lords.
One of the twisted souls, steeped in strength.

Use to acquire numerous souls, or transpose to extract it's true strength.

Since Lord Gwyn, the first Lord of Cinder, many exalted lords have linked the First Flame, and it is their very souls that have manifested themselves as defender of the flame."

When the fire inevitably fades, there will be an Age of Dark. This we know. The entire game series, so far, has been about perpetuating this Age of Fire for as long as possible in order to avoid the Age of Dark. Though the first and third game gives us the explicit option to initiate an Age of Dark, it's unclear if that ever actually happens in the canon of the series. And even if it does, the ending of Dark Souls II establishes that either course of action will just result in that chosen age cycling back to the other. We've never actually seen a proper Age of Dark, so we know little of what it would be like. Perhaps the Age of Dark is not permanent. According to the Fire Keeper (if given the Eyes of a Fire Keeper), the Age of Dark is not completely without fire, for there will be little embers dancing in the distance, left to us by past lords.

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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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