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]

Shadow of the Colossus (PS4, 2018) - title

I debated whether to turn this into a retro review of Shadow of the Colossus, or to focus this review on whether or not this particular remake manages to re-capture the magic of the original. Honestly though, what could I possibly say about Shadow of the Colossus that hasn't already said? I might as well try to write a retro review of Citizen Kane or Hamlet!

The original game (released in 2005 by Fumito Ueda's Team Ico at Sony) is a classic and a masterpiece of interactive art. It ranks right up there with games like Portal, Half-Life, Super Mario Bros., and Tetris as a contender for the title of "best video game ever made". Virtually every creative decision that the original team made was the absolute perfectly right decision to make. From the desolate and bleak, yet hauntingly-beautiful landscape. To the immense sens of scale and grandeur that embodies almost every crevice of the game and the sheer smallness of the protagonist himself. To the intimidating, yet majestic aesthetic design of the colossi themselves. To the bittersweet death animations of the Colossi, accompanied by Kow Otani's outstanding score, that makes you question the rightness of your actions. To the way that Agro's independent actions, slightly imprecise controls, and occasional insubordination sell the idea that she's an autonomous living character, rather than a simple vehicle that you pilot as an extension of the player avatar. To the decision to not drag down the game's pace or pollute the overworld with a single encounter with grunt enemies. And on and on...

Shadow of the Colossus was like a digital vacation when it was released in 2005.

It's as perfect a video game as has ever been made. It's the centerpiece of any "games as art" argument (if we still even have to have that argument anymore). Critics and analysts before me have already consecrated Shadow of the Colossus far beyond my petty powers to add or detract.

Bluepoint is the masters of remasters and remakes

Why couldn't Bluepoint have done
the Silent Hill HD Collection?!

Because of how absolutely brilliant the original game is, I had reservations about any attempt to remaster or remake it, especially after the debacle that was Hijinx Studios' Silent Hill HD Collection. Fortunately, however, the remake privilege (or burden, depending on how you want to look at it) was given to Bluepoint Games, the veritable masters of remasters and HD collections. Bluepoint had already released an HD remaster of Shadow of the Colossus on the PS3 back in 2011. I never played it because I thought the PS2 version of the game still looked fantastic and didn't need to be remastered to be enjoyed. That HD remaster was very well-received by the general public, as have been all of Bluepoint's remasters, as far as I am aware. Why couldn't Konami have given Silent Hill to these folks?!

[More]

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice - title

Ninja Theory is a developer that doesn't have very much work under their belt, but the work that they have done has type-cast them into a very specific niche of games. They got their start with the PS3-exclusive Heavenly Sword, and then went on to develop the rebooted DMC (Devil May Cry). So they specialize in stylish, fast-paced, thumb-blistering action games. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is a bit different though. It still has plenty of hacking and slashing, but it's a much slower, more cerebral experience, and it's Ninja Theory's first game that seems to really be about something.

Death, love, and psychosis

One of the principle gimmicks of the game is its perma-death feature. Early in the game, Senua is afflicted by a black rot on her arm. Each time she dies, the rot grows, and if it reaches her head, then she is lost to the abyss. At that point, the game is over, and your save file is deleted. It's similar to the concept of hollowing in Dark Souls, except this time, the game is very upfront and explicit in informing you that it can put a premature end to your adventure.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice - Out, damned rot!
Out damned rot! Out, I say!
Each time you die, the rot grows. If it reaches your brain, it's game over, and your save file is deleted.

This upfront threat puts significant ludic pressure on the player to take Senua's life seriously and to play cautiously and defensively. Not only do you lose some small amount of progress when you die; you may lose all your progress if you are repeatedly sloppy. Ninja Theory isn't completely cruel though. As I progressed through the game, it became apparent that this mechanic is surprisingly forgiving. And if you want to know just how forgiving I think it is, then you can check out the super-duper-secret spoiler section at the bottom of this review. Early in the game, I started to suspect that the rot does not seem to progress if you die repeatedly to the same enemy or trap, so repeat deaths at the hands of a single particularly challenging encounter will not unfairly end your game. In fact, dying in boss encounters didn't seem to progress the rot at all! The combat difficulty is also set to automatically adjust itself by default. So if the waves of enemies become overwhelming for the player, the game will automatically scale them back.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice - PS Cloud save scumming
PS Plus members can save scum
using the PS Cloud.

Also, if you happen to be playing on the PS4 (and are a PS Plus member), you can still save scum by using the PS Cloud feature. I would assume that you could also make a copy of your save file for the PC version. So you can use that for insurance if you want. Don't let the threat of perma-death stop you from playing this game.

The voices told me to

The second, and arguably more important, major gimmick of Hellblade is that the player character is a mentally and emotionally traumatized person who is suffering from severe psychosis. The most obvious manifestation is via voices in your head. The advice and information that these voices provide will even vary and will often conflict...

[More]

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard - title

It's been a long time since I've given a crap about Resident Evil. I loved the classic Resident Evil games. The Play Station original is a foundational game for me, and jump-started my interest in horror and the macabre. I felt like the series jumped the shark with Resident Evil 4, however, and my interest in the series tanked with its abandonment of horror in favor of schlockey action-shooter gameplay. I played through Resident Evil 5's co-op with a friend, but didn't really enjoy myself, and after playing the abysmal demo for RE6, I skipped that one entirely.

So I was genuinely excited by Resident Evil VII: Biohazard. The popularity of first-person horror games, and the phenomenon that was P.T. / Silent Hills (not to mention the success of Resident Evil REmastered on Steam) obviously seems to have kicked Capcom in the butt and reminded them that there is still an audience for genuine horror games - an audience that mainstream gaming has neglected for most of the last decade. I'm not sure if development of REVII started as a response to P.T., or if it was already in the works following the success of games like Amnesia, Outlast, and Alien: Isolation. Either way, it's good to see major publishers embracing the genre again.

The family's new - but familiar - mansion

This new Resident Evil really does go back to the franchise's roots. The early hours of the game actually feel a lot like a combination of the original Resident Evil and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, but updated with a first-person camera and a lot of modern horror contrivances. Long-time fans of the series will recognize the safe rooms and item-boxes. The classic health status indicator is now part of a watch on the character's wrist that you can see whenever you pull up your inventory. There's a foyer with a balcony. Doors are locked by silly, esoteric puzzle mechanisms that require themed keys, crests or various other stand-ins for keys. There's even a booby-trapped shotgun to tease you at the start of the game. Some of these elements of design feel appropriate, while other ham-fisted call-backs admittedly feel like the developers were trying too hard.

Resident Evil 7 - main hall
The mansion is new, but has many call-backs to the first game.

The map is well-designed, with its claustrophobic hallways, shortcuts, and lots of visual detail. Lighting is excellent, though the game is a bit too dark at the recommended brightness level (at least without a flashlight), and it becomes washed-out at higher brightness settings. Sound design is also quite exceptional, with the game giving great audio feedback (especially for the pursing stalkers). I also like a lot of the little details, particularly how using a key to unlock a door takes a small amount of time, during which you are vulnerable.

The family also makes for some excellent antagonists, especially compared to the likes of stupid, campy villains like Albert Wesker and Salazar. These villains have a lot of character, and there's enough detail in the mansion to give a sense of who these people might have been before they went off the deep end: the collectible football bobbleheads, for example. And on top of that, they are genuinely disturbing and threatening, and the whole game would probably be scary enough if you just spent the whole time avoiding them and trying to escape their murder house.

Resident Evil 7 - the family
The family makes for genuinely disturbing villains that put RE's earlier villains to shame.

The save system is kind of an odd hybrid of the classic save system and more modern checkpoint systems. The logistics of the classic system have been scaled back, as you no longer require a consumable item (ink ribbon) to manually save (at least not on the default difficulty). But the game will also checkpoint you at certain points, and it maintains a single autosave slot with your checkpointed progress. So if you die to one of the obnoxiously-hard bosses, you don't have to go back a whole hour to your last manual save; instead, you get to restart at the most recent checkpoint.

However, the manual saves still have value, because Biohazard is structurally very similar to the original Resident Evil - both superficially and in terms of gameplay...

[More]

The Last Guardian - title

Being the follow-up to a masterpiece is no small order. Being the follow-up to two masterpieces is a Sisyphean task. Ico is a masterpiece of its time. Fumito Ueda and SIE Japan managed to follow that game with Shadow of the Colossus - a masterpiece of even higher order. The bar was set tremendously high for the team's third project: The Last Guardian. Multiple delays, a change in platform from PS3 to PS4, and Fumito Ueda's departure from Sony squashed a lot of the hype for the game. Might the game turn into vaporware? Or might it release in a condition analogous to Metal Gear Solid V?

On the surface, The Last Guardian comes off as being a mash-up of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Superficially, it's much more in-line with Ico: you play as a small boy who must guide a companion through a maze of environmental platformer obstacles and adventure puzzles. The catch this time around is that the companion happens to be a giant animal that you can climb and ride on.

The Last Guardian - riding Trico
The Last Guardian share more with Ico, but your companion is a giant creature that you climb and ride on.

The big difference though, is that The Last Guardian is sort of an inversion of the gameplay of Ico. In Ico, the player character had to guide a helpless (some even speculated she is blind) princess through a castle and defend her from shadow monsters that try to drag her away. In The Last Guardian, however, it is the player character - the boy - who is mostly helpless. True, you have most of the agency and are guiding Trico through the maze. But Trico is the one with all the power, and your progress is often dependent on Trico getting you past obstacles.

This point is most hammered home by the game's combat mechanics - or rather, its almost complete lack thereof. The boy can't fight off the stone knights that hunt him down. You can only run away, or let Trico smash them into dust for you. If they catch you, they drag you off to a nearby mysterious blue doorway (a parallel to the smokey portals that the smoke monsters dragged Yorda through in Ico), and all you can do is mash buttons to kick and squirm. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus experimented with player agency by making the player question the motivations of the character and wonder if maybe you're doing more harm than good. The Last Guardian toys with agency in other ways. In this game, you, the player, are the helpless tag-along character in an escort quest. You get a glimpse through the eyes of Yorda from Ico or Ashley from Resident Evil 4.

The boy can't fight back, he can only kick and squirm - much like Yorda from Ico.

Not entirely though. The player and Trico make mutual contributions to progress, and their contributions are shared much more than Ico and Yorda. Much like how Yorda could occasionally open the magically-locked doors, the boy in Guardian also has to pull levers and open doors for Trico to pass from room to room. The boy also has to destroy glass eye murals that mesmerize and terrify Trico to the point of paralysis. The boy also hunts down barrels of [supposedly] food for Trico to eat whenever Trico is tired or wounded. But then there's also parts of the game in which the boy simply hops on Trico's back, and Trico leaps away to the next puzzle area without the player having to do anything...

[More]
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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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