Layers of Fear 2 - title

I played the first Layers Of Fear a couple years ago (just prior to the release of Blair Witch). I didn't bother reviewing it at the time because

  1. The game had been out for years, so I didn't think there was much desire for a late review, and
  2. I honestly didn't know what to make of it at the time.

I wasn't sure if it was an auteur masterpiece, or a boring walking simulator. As time has gone on, and I've played other "walking simulators" that I've enjoyed much more, I've leaned further and further towards the later. In either case, I didn't find the game particularly scary. I was skeptical to bother with the sequel, but I liked Blair Witch just enough to pick up Layers Of Fear 2 on a Steam sale. I think I might have actually liked the first game better. I found it much easier to follow along with what was happening in the first game, and its simpler, more streamlined gameplay (and shorter length) made it less tedious.

Most of the game is walking through a door into a room, looking at what's in the room,
then walking out the same door into a different room or hallway than the one you came in from.

Pretty much the whole of Layers Of Fear 2 is still just walking into a room, looking at what's in the room (often some weak jump scare), then turning around and walking out the same door into a different place than where you came from. It's the exact same stuff as the first Layers of Fear and the last couple hours of Blair Witch, but without feeling like a novel technical accomplishment. Blair Witch at least had the forest setting to play up the idea of being lost in the dark, and also had some more varied and unique puzzles and set pieces. Though to Layers Of Fear 2's credit, it doesn't repeat the same gags over and over again the way that the first game does, and more of the rooms have atmospheric set decorations to help establish a mood, instead of every one having some silly jump scare. So the sequel is a bit more restrained in that respect.

I have no idea where I am on this ship,
or where I've been.

Both the first Layers Of Fear and Blair Witch also do a slightly better job of establishing a sense of place before the reality-warping effects start happening. Having a little bit of time to explore a relatively normal house or forest makes the surreal environments more jarring. Layers Of Fear 2 pretty much just jumps right into it, never giving the player an opportunity to get a feel for how the ship is structured, where you are on the ship, or where you are trying to go. Right from the start, you're meandering through abstract corridors.

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Final Fantasy VII Remake - title

Well I think I waited long enough before playing and reviewing this game that I'm probably not spoiling anything by saying that Final Fantasy VII Remake takes some interesting creative liberties with the original's story. Those hoping for a one-for-one re-telling of the 1997 PlayStation classic might be disappointed that Remake only covers the early half of the original's first disc. It doesn't even make it as far as the emotional sucker-punch (and ludic shake-up) that was the conclusion of the original's first disc. But then again, that opening act is very faithfully recreated and expanded here, and the narrative curveball that this remake throws is bold, creative, and an interesting artistic statement about the reverence for the original masterpiece.

The decision by Square-Enix to put the word "remake" in the title is a deliberate, and important choice. This game isn't simply Final Fantasy VII (2020) in the way that the remakes of Shadow of the Colossus, Demon's Souls, Resident Evil, or even Resident Evil 2 are. Resident Evil 2 takes dramatic creative liberties with gameplay feel by ditching the static camera in favor of an over-the-shoulder shooter, but despite the wild deviations from the original's fundamental game design, the remake is still an effort to recreate the original game's story, environments, and game strategy in all the ways that matter.

No, Final Fantasy VII Remake puts the word "remake" in its title because at the same time that Square-Enix is remaking the original Final Fantasy VII, the game itself is remaking the story and continuity. Final Fantasy VII Remake does not seek to be an upgrade that replaces the original game. The story of the original game exists within this new game's canon, and is being remade within Remake's own fiction. In so doing, it plays with the ideas of fate and destiny. The sky is the limit for where the sequel(s) go from here.

Square imitated Paramount's attempt to keep the original Star Trek's existence as part of the reboot's continuity.

Square-Enix is trying to do with Final Fantasy VII Remake what J.J. Abrams and Paramount tried to do with the 2009 Star Trek reboot: write the original's existence into the continuity of the reboot. Yet Final Fantasy accomplishes this so much more successfully because, unlike Star Trek (2009), Final Fantasy VII Remake tells its revised story while still remaining faithful to the ideals, themes, and spirit of the original. Star Trek (2009) and its sequels (with the possible exception of Beyond) only took the campy space-adventure aspect of the original Star Trek, but did not replicate the thoughtful science fiction and character drama that the original was known and beloved for.

Final Fantasy VII Remake on the other hand, replicates the ludic complexity, strategy, and versatility of the original's character-development and materia systems, and retains all of the original narrative's themes of classism, environmentalism, and the fuzzy line between "protest" and "terrorism" (a question that has become increasingly relevant in recent history). Its expanded length even allows it to explore some of these topics in much greater detail. It also allows the game to further explore some of the relatively minor side characters from the original, giving them more depth and significance in the story (some more successfully than others). It does all this while re-creating the original characters almost exactly as they were. Eat your heart out, J.J. Abrams...

Remake probes the limits of the fuzzy line between "protest" and "terrorism".

It's an idea so crazy that it just might work; an idea both ridiculously dumb, but also ingeniously subversive. I just hope that it doesn't fall into the same trap of ridiculous self-indulgence and pretentiousness that killed my interest in Kingdom Hearts by the time the end credits of Kingdom Hearts 2 were rolling. I had lost all interest in Kingdom Hearts 3 about a decade before it released, and never bothered to play it. I hope the same does not happen with the final installment(s) of Final Fantasy VII Remake.

I hesitated to buy this remake when it released because Square had announced that it would be broken up into episodes. I wasn't sure if I would have time to play through three or five acts of a remake of Final Fantasy VII if each act was going to be 40+ hours long (and $60 each). With a new console generation coming out, I also wasn't sure if I would be needing to transfer my save file for the sequels, and if a PS4 save file from episode 1 would be compatible with the PS5 to which episode 2 is certainly going to be exclusive.

If the content offered in this first episode is indicative of the plan for the whole series, then the complete remake looks like it would need to span eight or nine episodes, and take another 20 years to be released. But that might not necessarily be the case, since the end of the first episode implies that the sequels are going to diverge considerably from the original game, such that every scene and plot beat from the original may not need to be recreated. So maybe my concerns will be vindicated, or maybe they won't.

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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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Crusader Kings 3 - title

My blog readers know that I'm a fan of historic strategy games. Two of my favorite PC game franchises are Civilization and Total War, and I've dipped my hands into plenty of other historic strategy games ranging from the prehistoric Dawn of Man, all the way to Ultimate General: Civil War and Company of Heroes. But there's one prestigious set of historic strategy games that I've yet to get into. That is Paradox's historic strategy lineup of Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, and Hearts of Iron. I own Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV on Steam, and I've always wanted to get into them. I have a friend who plays them a lot, and the game looks really fun, but I was just never able to figure either of them out.

I tried booting up both a couple times and was just immediately overwhelmed. I tried the Crusader Kings II tutorial twice, and still didn't feel like I had a firm enough grasp on the game to feel compelled to keep playing. Part of that is because both games have myriad expansions and DLC that have just further complicated the games and repeatedly raised the bar of entry for newcomers. The only one of Paradox's tutorials that I felt gave me a reasonable grasp on the game was the tutorial for Stellaris.

When I saw previews for Crusader Kings III, I immediately put it on my watch list and committed myself to buying it day one, so that I could get in on the ground level in the hopes that it will be easier to grasp before Paradox starts releasing countless DLCs. It seems to have paid off, as I've been hooked on the game on and off since launch, and that addiction has cut into my Civ playing time, as well as delayed many of my blog projects and YouTube content. So for those of you eagerly awaiting new Civ strategies or the next installment of "How Madden Fails to Simulate Football", you can blame Paradox Interactive for the delay...

I am not the state

As someone who was never able to get into the previous game, I cannot say if Crusader Kings III is "dumbed-down" compared to its predecessor. It is, after all, still insanely complicated. But I definitely feel like it has a gentler learning curve and a much more effective tutorial compared to its predecessors. The hand-holding of the tutorial really did help me get a better understanding of how the various mechanics were working, and I've also found it much easier to navigate the revised U.I. and find the information that I'm looking for. I still feel like I have no idea what many of the U.I. panels mean, but I at least understand enough of the basics this time around to actually feel comfortable playing the game.

If you're unfamiliar, Crusader Kings is a medieval grand strategy game in which you play as the king of a small, European (or Middle Eastern or African) kingdom. You engage in diplomacy and court intrigue to increase your wealth and power, fight wars to conquer territory, and manage your growing holdings. But unlike a game like, say Civilization, you do not play as an abstraction of the state itself. Instead, you play as a line of rulers in a single family dynasty. You play as a single king (or queen) character at any given time. This king grows old, and eventually dies, at which point, you take control over you chosen heir and continue playing the game as that character. If you ever get to a point in which you have no family heir to carry on when you die, it's Game Over.

When your player character dies, you take over as that character's primary heir.

As much improved as the tutorial is, I do feel that it has one glaring weakness: it doesn't really cover succession. The tutorial basically puts you in control of a 40-year-old king in Ireland. It shows you how to press a few claims, use a casus belli to press those claims, create a title, deal with vassals, marry off a child, and then it basically just hands you the reigns and says "OK, now keep playing". And yeah sure, these are all the things that you spend most of the game doing. But I would say that arguably the most important part of the game is declaring your heir and setting up your inheritance to maximize the territory that your primary heir retains power over. I think succession is the single most important part of the game, and the tutorial doesn't cover it at all. When it finally happens, there's a tool tip that pops up to explain some stuff, but it didn't really help me all that much to understand what was happening, and a tool tip popping up after the fact certainly didn't help me to prepare for my king's inevitable death and inheritance.

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A gamer's thoughts

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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