Gone Home

I'm very late to the Gone Home bandwagon. It's a game that has been available for well over a year and a half. I've had it sitting in my Steam library for quite some time, but only just now got around to playing it, since I've been busy with other games and projects.

The game has already received piles and piles of critical acclaim, awards, and accolades, and I can't imagine that I have anything new to add to this conversation. It was very hard to go into this game without a bias considering that I already knew a bit about how it would play out, and that it's received overwhelmingly positive praise. But now that I've played it, I can say that Gone Home deserves every bit of praise that it receives!

Gone Home - family photo
The inclusion of real family photos
adds to the sense of realism.

The premise of Gone Home is that the player assumes the role of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a young woman returning home after a year abroad. She finds the house empty. Her younger sister apparently got into a fight with her parents and has run away. The player must explore the house to discover clues as to what happened in the family, why Sam ran away, and where she is now.

To discover the details of the situation, the player must explore the house, reading hand-written notes, looking at journals, looking at photographs, and picking up cues from the environment in order to piece together the story. Each note has distinct hand-writing, and by the end of the game, you'll even start to recognize the handwritings and know who wrote a particular note before you even pick it up.

By observing the house, reading notes, and hearing journal voice-overs, the player begins to piece together the family's story. The primary narrative revolves around a budding romance between Sam and a friend at school, and the conflict that comes from her parents' disapproval of the relationship.

Anyone who has ever had a crush or been in love (which is almost all of us) should be able to recognize and relate to elements of Sam's story, even if your situation doesn't mirror hers. The early notes depicting the excitement of getting to know someone new and falling in love were particularly powerful. Reading about Sam being shy in approaching her crush, and then finally having the feeling reciprocated is heartwarming. And the eventual roadblocks in the relationship are then equally heartbreaking.

Gone Home - Sam's room
The game is loaded with personality that makes the characters more substantial and real.

This story is made even more powerful by the absolutely perfect voice-over narration ...

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Miasmata

While looking for new survival horror games on Steam, I stumbled onto a very intriguing title: Miasmata. During my holiday break from work, I decided to boot up the game and see if it scratched my survival horror itch.

It didn't, on account of not actually being a survival horror game. But what I found instead was an equally interesting premise that immediately caught my attention and piqued my curiosity.

The Johnson brothers kept this game about as simple as it could possibly be (perhaps to its detriment). They had a core concept, and they stuck to it. As such, Miasmata is a very novel game. It is probably the only game that I've ever played that is solely about scientific research.

The end goal is to cure a disease that the character has contracted and then escape the island. This disease acts as the central challenge to the game: you have to periodically medicate yourself in order to control the symptoms, but all medications must be derived from the local flora. Failure to do so can slow you down, blur your vision, and eventually kill you. A sheer majority of the game, thus, consists of wandering around the island collecting samples of plants, and then returning them to the nearest laboratory to examine them and use them to concoct various potions. In addition to medicines, you can also create potions to enhance your physical strength and perception. Doing so will allow you to run and swim further, and allow you to always know your location on the map (respectively).

Miasmata - doing science
Stand back! I'm about to do SCIENCE!

Unfortunately, the process of analyzing the specimens is automated (via a skip-able cutscene). You don't actually have to do anything in order to figure out what the plant's effects are going to be, and no actual scientific knowledge is required by the player. Each plant also only has one effect, so the potion-making mechanic (which is the core of the game) is pretty shallow.

The effects of each plant will be noted in your journal, which is one of the best journal features of any game that I've ever played. It has a handy status page that includes pockets for storing your medicines, as well as holding your water flask. It also shows your objectives and has tabs to collected notes, your research results, and the map. The journal is also populated with hyperlinks that take you to the journal page with the relevant information. For example, if you find a note with ingredients for an objective drug, the status page will add a hyperlink to that note underneath the objective. It's every bit the journal that Silent Hill: Downpour wanted to have!

As you explore, you'll also find camps left behind by the deceased research team. These camps can contain notes that can reveal bits of backstory, provide recipes for various potions, or point you in the direction of key plant specimens. The camps also act as safe places for you to restock your supplies (including water), rest, and save your progress.

Keeping yourself hydrated and rested is important, as failure to do so can aggravate the symptoms of your illness and potentially kill you. Unfortunately, the feedback for this isn't terribly great. You'll get a notification when you're thirsty, but the game doesn't bother to tell you that you're tired. Instead, your health just starts rapidly deteriorating for no apparent reason. It took me a while to figure out that it was due to a lack of sleep.

Miasmata - pointless weapons
Combat mechanics are present,
but they don't have any affect.

A curious omission is that you don't have to eat. The game even includes various weapons scattered around the island, and there is an attack and throw command. But you can't attack the hostile panther-like creature that occasionally appears to hunt you, nor can you hunt and kill any of the game's various wildlife (beetles, squirrels, birds, and so forth). So you can only run and hide from the creature, and you only collect plants, which don't need to be attacked in order for specimens to be collected. So why are the weapons and attack mechanic even in the game?

Probably the second most significant mechanic is the map triangulation feature. Instead of revealing the map passively as you walk through it, the player must actively identify the location of landmarks ...

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Civilization: Beyond Earth

I was finishing up my Civ V: Brave New World strategies this fall, and thought that I'd finally have some time to play other games besides Civilization. Firaxis and 2K, however, had other plans. Instead of being able to play other Steam games and getting back to my PS3, instead, I now have Civ in SPACE!

I guess I can't escape Civ so easily...

So is Beyond Earth going to hold my attention, keep me up till 3 in the morning playing "one more turn", and monopolize my PC gaming? Or will it be a short diversion before being shelved in favor of other games?

Table of Contents

Most of the gameplay mechanics of Beyond Earth are variations of equivalent mechanics in Civilization V, with more or less complexity. This makes the game very accessible and familiar for most Civ players, but it also means that Beyond Earth isn't really pushing any gameplay boundaries. Whereas Civ V's transition to a hex grid revolutionized the series, Beyond Earth just feels like more of the same.

Most of the added complexity works in the game's favor, but some mechanics have been simplified such that they almost feel pointless.

Beyond Earth's extraterrestrial setting does play a small factor in the gameplay and differentiates this game a bit from Civilization V. The most prominent displays of this are in the alien life forms and the terrain of the map. The inclusions of canyons as a geography characteristic is mostly superficial, as they function almost identically to mountains. The biggest change is the inclusion of toxic "miasma". Miasma tiles cause damage to units that end their turn on it, and trade units cannot pass through miasma at all.

Civilization: Beyond Earth - miasma
Miasma damages units and blocks trade routes until you unlock the ability to remove it or survive it.
This adds a satisfying challenge and sense of having to deal with a hostile alien environment.

This adds some challenge to the first half of the game, since miasma can force the player to explore and expand differently than they would in Civ V. Miasma can force your workers to have to avoid improving certain terrain, and may prevent explorers from accessing certain regions of the map or completing some expedition sites. It can also prevent your trade units from following direct routes between cities, which can cause them to follow winding paths far outside your inherent zone of control, making them harder to protect.

Contrary to the developers' claims prior to release, the aliens really are just reskins of Civ V's barbarians. They are counted as "enemy" units to every civilization and inflict zone of control automatically. They spawn randomly from nests that function identically to encampments, and even offer monetary rewards for entering the tile and destroying the nest. The only major difference is ...

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Madden NFL '15 - title

Regular readers of my blog who happen to be football fans may have noticed that I never reviewed last year's EA Sports football games. I had played and reviewed the games every year for the previous three years, but not last year. The truth is: I didn't play last year's games. There were a few reasons for this.

For one, I was kind of burnt out on football games, and was neck deep in RPGs like Skyrim and Dark Souls, as well as Brave New World and some modding. So my plate was rather full. I was somewhat curious about the next-gen football games being released on the PS4 and XBox One, but I had neither system, so couldn't play them. And I wasn't really sure that the PS3 version would be worth playing, since EA's focus was probably (and hopefully) on improving the next-gen games. I didn't want to waste my time on an inferior version of the game that may have been "incomplete" compared to its next-gen counterpart. So I skipped last year's football games entirely.

I still don't own a PS4 or XBox One, and don't have any immediate plans to buy either. But a friend granted me the use of his PS4 so that I could try the P.T. demo. I figured while I have the PS4, might as well try the new Madden, so I picked up a used copy on eBay fairly cheap.

Since I was borrowing a friend's PS4, my time with the game was limited. As such, this review can't be as in-depth as some of my previous football game reviews have been.

EA is continuing to make small, iterative changes to the game's mechanics, as well as recycling mechanics and features from earlier iterations of the game. This year's focus was on defensive control and line of scrimmage play, both of which are areas that were in desperate need of an overhaul. Unfortunately, EA's changes were mostly superficial.

Madden '15 - defensive controls
"New" defensive controls are just prompts for commands that already existed. At least they work better now...

The game advertises new defensive controls for breaking blocks and tackling. The only thing that is really "new" is the ability to steer blockers in order to fill gaps or maintain containment. This helps to give defensive linemen a greater sense of presence, as they aren't run out of the play by blockers quite so easily, and gap control is actually possible.

The other new defensive controls are really just fluff features...

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Demon's Souls - title

With a new generation of consoles coming into their own, the lifespan of the PS3 and XBox360 is rapidly coming to an end. It's not quite as monumental as the end of the PS2's lifecycle, which is arguably the single best gaming console ever made! With the PS3 and XBox360, our console games started to have consistent online functionality, and with online functionality comes a sad side-effect: a game's life-span is finite. I can always go back and play my favorite PS2 games (like Silent Hill 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, Ace Combat 4, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Gran Turismo 3, and Devil May Cry) and have pretty much the same experience that I had the first time I played. But I won't be able to do that with some of my favorite PS3 games, because some of them have online features that won't remain active forever.

favorite PS2 games
As long as my PS2 is functional, I can always go back and re-play my favorite PS2 games.

PC gamers have been dealing with this problem since the dawn of the internet, but they have work-arounds. PC Games can be modded to support direct TCP / IP connections in order for their online communities to stay online. Hypothetically, you could keep your favorite MMO alive for yourself and your circle of friends in this fashion. But with console games, there are much more significant technical hurdles to overcome, and when the producer shuts down the servers, that is basically the end of that game.

And that is exactly what is going to happen some day with my favorite PS3-exclusive: Demon's Souls.

Every console has its defining games - those games that are reasons for owning the consoles. The original PlayStation had Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, the Nintendo 64 had Goldeneye, the Dreamcast had Shenmue and Soul Calibur, the XBox had Halo, GameCube had Resident Evil 4 and Eternal Darkness, the PS2 had Shadow of the Colossus. For me, Demon's Souls is that game for the PS3: the game that makes owning a PS3 worthwhile.

Demon's Souls is a game that completely redefined the way that I think about gaming. My ideas about how a player can interact with a game world and with other players were completely turned on their head with this game. So I want to take a moment to pay tribute to this masterpiece of interactive art with a full review while its servers are still up and running. And maybe - just maybe - I can sell a copy or two to some new players.

The gameplay is based on a simple control configuration in which weapons are mapped to the left and right hand and controlled with the left and right shoulder buttons (respectively). The design is reminiscent of a simplified version of FROM's other major game franchise: the mech-combat sim Armored Core. Weapons equipped in the right hand have a basic attack and a heavy attack, and weapons or shields in the left hand have a block and heavy attack (sorry, lefties, no left-handed characters for you!). These basic controls are very simple, and any player can start hacking and blocking away as soon as they pick up the controller. But more advanced controls and variations in weapon functionality make this seemingly-simple combat system very deep.

Each weapon class has different movesets, ranging from the slashing of a sword to the thrusting of a spear, to smashing of a giant hammer. And shields (and some off-hand weapons) have an advanced parry feature that allows you to stun and counter an attacking foe to land a critical hit. You can also attack while running or out of dodges in order to keep a foe guessing. Mastering these various features takes a little bit of time, but it is immensely rewarding when you finally have the skills to go toe to toe with a giant, butcher-knife wielding skeleton with confidence. But don't get overconfident, because this game will punish you for every mistake!

Demon's Souls - Vanguard rematch
With patience and practice, you'll soon stand confidently before the Vanguard that killed you in the tutorial.

If you die, you lose all your accumulated souls (i.e. "experience"), and must restart the level from the beginning! But there is a shining glimmer of hope: you have one chance to reach the spot where you died in order to recover your lost souls. If you get there...

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Gaming for life...

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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Humble suggestions for improving Dark Souls II onlineHumble suggestions for improving Dark Souls II online09/22/2014 I recently posted my much-belated review of Dark Souls II. In it, I criticized the game for having lackluster online components, but didn't go into much detail other than to say that Soul Memory seems like a non-optimal matchmaking method and that invasions are rare and reserved for elite players. I wanted to take a moment to...

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Extended cut of TNG Season 2's "The Measure of a Man" may finally sell me on the blu-raysExtended cut of TNG Season 2's "The Measure of a Man" may finally sell me on the blu-rays11/30/2012 I had the opportunity last night to attend the Fathom Events Celebration of Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 2 movie event. I attended the first season event as well, but wasn't terribly impressed with what I saw other than the simple nostalgia factor. I'm not a huge fan of the first two seasons of Next Gen, but I was really...