Among the Sleep - title

This is a game that caught my attention back in the beginning of the year. I was on the lookout for new horror games to whet my appetite, and the novelty of this little Indie game had me intrigued.

Among the Sleep - teddy
The teddy bear actually comes off as a bit of a creeper at the beginning of the game..

The novelty of Among the Sleep is that the player character is a two-year-old toddler. I actually think that this is a very clever conceit for a horror game. The world can be a very big, scary place for a small child, full of things that are outside of the child's control and beyond the child's understanding. A young child is completely dependent upon its parents or caregiver, which makes them inherently very vulnerable.

Unfortunately, since the game is being played by adults, we can't play the game with the ignorance and naivety of a two-year-old, so we would see any real-world environment as exactly what it is: not scary.

So in order for this to work, the designers would have to be very clever in how the environments are presented. Easily he most effective part of the game is the early chapters when the child is lost in a closet and then exploring the house after waking up to find his mother and teddy are absent.

The first person perspective puts the camera very low to the ground, which makes the ordinary environments look large and menacing. The character moves slowly and clumsily (running for more than a few second results in the character falling on his face). Thus, simple hallways seem long and treacherous. Even interactions as simple as opening a door require a small amount of puzzle-solving since the character can't reach a door handle without climbing onto something. This section takes good advantage of the central concept of playing as a toddler by using the legitimate hugeness of the real world, and tapping into our own innate desire to protect and shelter children, in order to make the player feel small and vulnerable.

You even pause the game and access menus by covering your eyes with your hands! Hooray for a lack of object-permanence!

It is a promising start to the game.

But instead of expounding upon this and turning an otherwise mundane environment into an intimidating one, the design quickly shifts into a blatantly-imaginary, whimsical dreamscape. This disconnect from reality suddenly shatters the immersion of the child character, and squanders the inherent novelty of the game's central concept...

Among the Sleep - birthday cake
The mother plays an important role in the narrative,
but the player doesn't interact with her long enough to develop any attachment to her.
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Tomb Raider (2013) game banner

Crystal Dynamics really missed the point with this game. It seems like the creative team started the project with one creative vision to make a “lost on an island adventure story”, and then early on, they all got fired and replaced with people who were instructed by corporate overlords to make “Uncharted with a girl” and the final product turned into a mindless shooter.

Tomb Raider - limited edition box
The only things you'll be "surviving" for most of this game is bullets and explosions.

The game is called "Tomb Raider”, but the bulk of the game is an action shooter instead of exploring tombs.

The tagline on the back of the box says “A survivor is born”, and the first objective in the game is to find a bow and kill a deer for dinner, but then you don’t ever have to hunt or treat wounds or take refuge from the elements or do any other “survival” things.

A sheer majority of the game is shooting hordes of enemies in tedious gunfight after tedious gunfight after tedious gunfight. Maybe over the course of the game, you’ll stumble across a tomb or two. But if you do, it’s just a 15-minute detour while you solve a single environmental/platforming puzzle in order to collect an arbitrary and useless reward. The rest of your time will be spent running around the levels that you just cleared of bad guys and collecting random items.

Tomb Raider - hair physics
Hair probably isn't the part of Lara's anatomy that many ... um ... "fans" were hoping to see benefit from real-time physics, but then again, at least this is something innovative.

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This review was originally published 05/15/2011 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 05/13/2014). It has been republished here for archival purposes.

Portal 2

Portal 2 cover art

Yes GladOS, we brought you back to life because we really do love to test!

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t looking forward to this game. I love the first Portal, as it was about as close to "perfect" as any game has ever come, but I couldn’t help but fear that Valve might turn this into a franchise, and in doing so, some of the allure of the game would be lost. But the game was released, and it is a triumph. Mostly.

Apparently, a very long time has passed since the first game. The Enrichment Center is very different. Under the care of the watchful AI, Wheatley, the entire facility has been slowly falling apart. The degrading, decrepit test chambers make for much more interesting visuals than the sterile, white and gray chambers of the first game. They are now overgrown with weeds and vines, panels are falling off the walls, broken glass litters the floors, and fallen and bent metal beams and girders obstruct some of your paths. It’s just too bad that with all the debris and vegetation littering the environment, that none of it is interactive. It slightly breaks the immersion when you walk through dangling leaves and they don’t react to your passing at all.

There is a lot of visual variety in this game. You travel through the dilapidated chambers of the early game until the facility begins to rebuild itself. You watch it piece itself back together. Then you get to travel through the deepest guts of Aperture Science. And finally, you come back to see the test chambers tear themselves apart again

Portal 2 - co-op characters

The co-op puzzles are fun, but not terribly replayable.
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This review was originally published 09/14/2010 on Game Observer (now defunct). It has been republished here for archival purposes - and in anticipation of a Trine 2 review.

Trine

Trine cover

A fun and graphically very pretty puzzle-platformer, but physics and controls could have used a little more work.

If you look at the review score above, and think "Hmm, this game can’t be that good to be given a 76," you should be aware that the score takes into account that this game was reviewed as if it were a full-priced $40 to $60 title. But, don’t be discouraged, Trine (regardless of price point) is still good. The friends who have played co-op with me virtually unanimously agree that the game’s fun factor make it worthwhile even at a $40+ price point, regardless of its rating. That being said, let’s talk about the actual game.

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Catherine box art

Despite the over-corporatization of the video game industry, not every game is going to be a consumer mega-hit like whatever Call of Duty game that happens to be coming out any given November. Sometimes, these little-known, niche titles can be real gems in the rough (Demon’s Souls, Trine). Other times, they just barely get by. But more often than not, they are utter garbage.

Catherine is not a game for everybody. Not only does it have a very mature plot, but most people probably won’t find it’s gameplay very appealing either. But even though I wouldn’t consider Catherine to be a particularly good game, it isn't a horrible game either, and I have no doubt that its charmingly quirky nature will earn itself a very hardcore following from its niche fans (particularly among adolescent boys). And I definitely have to give the developers credit for really trying to create something that is new and interesting instead of just something that has mass-market appeal.

The entire game consists of pretty much 3 parts that loop a handful of times:

  1. Long-ass cutscene that the player has absolutely no control over.
  2. A scene at the bar in which you walk around with your hands stuffed in your pockets, talking to friends and fellow patrons, and sending/receiving text messages on your phone.
  3. A series of increasingly-long and increasingly-difficult puzzle/platforming sequences in which you push blocks around in order to climb to the top of a wall of cubes.

Rinse and repeat. Or not rinse. But definitely lots of repeating.

The first two parts tend to be the most interesting parts, while the puzzle sections start off being fun but quickly devolve into a frustrating mess of bad camera, twitchy controls, and unnecessarily escalating and cheap difficulty.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to opinions about video games and the video game industry. But occasionally, I talk about other stuff too. Feel free to read about the blog.

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