Soma

Now that I've gotten through the gauntlet of massive AAA releases like Metal Gear Solid V and Dark Souls III, I wanted to take some time to clear out some smaller games that have been collecting dust in my Steam library before diving into any other massive, time-sucking games. One of my highest priorities was the Indie sci-fi horror title Soma, developed by Frictional Games - the same company that made Amnesia: the Dark Descent. I had heard pretty good things about this game, and I liked Dark Descent, so I was eager to finally have a chance to dive into this one.

Learning from failures and forgetting successes

Soma show signs of learning from the weaknesses of both The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs (which was actually developed by a third party), even though it still doesn't necessarily nail the mechanics this time either. It's a far better experience than Machine for Pigs, and shows the level of quality that helped make Dark Descent such a hit. The most notable improvements from Machine for Pigs is in the depth of gameplay and monster encounters; and the most notable improvements from Dark Descent are in puzzle design and narrative.

Second chances

Soma - monster
Monsters sometimes appear in where you get important story bits to incentivize you to not just walk away.

Monster encounters do still feel very un-threatening for the first half of the game. The first few monster encounters even seemed scripted to catch the player. This was possibly done in order to tutorialize the game's healing mechanic, but it also serves to desensitize the player to the monster and the threat of death right out of the gate. Unlike The Dark Descent, you don't start out terrified and cowering in fear from a mysterious and ominous enemy that can kill you in a heartbeat, and then gradually grow desensitized to it as it kills you and you realize that the consequences of death are pretty minor. Instead, you're taught right from the start that dying is virtually consequence-free, and that it isn't really worth the time and effort to try to avoid the monster by sneaking around, or to try to hide from it. The monster's appearance is never even surprising either. There's a screen-tearing effect and static noises to indicate that the monster is near, even if you can't see him. It's the same kind of effect that Slenderman played with. So even while you're walking around, you never feel the need to peek around corners or glance over your shoulder to make sure nothing's stalking you. This kills any potential for horror that the game might have been able to establish...

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The Swapper - title

Since I have some extra time off for this holiday season, I'm trying to go through some of my backlog of shorter indie Steam games in between bouts of Cities: Skylines and Beyond Earth: Rising Tide. One such game is Facepalm Games' 2013's sci-fi indie hit, The Swapper, which I picked up in a Steam sale like a year ago. The game has also been ported to many consoles, including the PS3, PS4, Vita, XBox One, and Wii U, and the ports were developed by Curve Digital.

Making my clones do the deadly work

The Swapper seems to owe a lot to Valve's mega-hit Portal. Both games' central mechanics revolve around the player character using a futuristic non-weaponized gun (with 2 settings) to solve platforming puzzles and explore an environment. Portal is in full 3-D, whereas The Swapper is a more traditional 2-D side-scroller. The bigger difference however, is that the gun of The Swapper doesn't fire portable wormholes; instead, it allows the player character to instantly create clones of herself, and to swap her consciousness into one of the clones. Once created, these copies move in tandem with the copy that is currently being controlled by the player. The key to the puzzles is to maneuver yourself so that your clones can reach otherwise inaccessible areas or activate switches.

The Swapper - synchronized movement
All your clones move in synchronization, making relative spacing very important for solving puzzles.

The space station is laid out in an unbelievable, but serviceable, series of puzzle rooms joined together by modest platforming sections. At first, the platforming between puzzles is interesting because it kept me thinking along the lines of solving puzzles rather than just moving from place to place. But there's a lot of exploration and backtracking, and having to navigate the corridors between puzzle rooms quickly became tedious once using the swapper gun became second nature and automatic. Fortunately, the game provides handy teleporters to allow you to quickly move to key sections of the station, so the backtracking never became as problematic as it could have been.

The puzzles themselves start off fairly simple, requiring that the player simply point the gun and clone herself in order to reach a platform or cross a gap and collect alien orbs that you use to unlock new areas of the space station. The challenge quickly escalates. Soon, obstacles start getting thrown at you, such as colored lights that prevent certain operations of the swapper gun, forcing you to have to find more elaborate ways around the lights in order to reach your destination. You have to start using careful positioning, choreographed movement, gravity, momentum, and inertia in order to successfully solve the puzzles. And all this escalation seems to happen naturally based on the increasing complexity of the levels, rather than through the introduction of new mechanics or controls.

The Swapper - difficult puzzle
About an hour into the game, I ran into a puzzle that took almost an hour of trial-and-error for me to solve.

About an hour into the game, the difficulty suddenly spiked, and I ran into one puzzle in particular that took me quite a while to figure out. I even had to leave it and come back to it later with a fresh perspective. I thought maybe I was missing some kind of upgrade or needed to learn some technique that the game hadn't tutorialized yet, but that wasn't the case. Eventually, I figured it out, and the solution seemed head-smacking obvious, but I probably spent a good hour on that one puzzle (approximately half of my time with the game, up to that point).

There are also some other sci-fi mechanics such as the occasional zero-g spacewalk, gravity inversion (allowing you to "fall" up and walk on the ceilings), and so on. These all flow fairly seamlessly into the game; although, I did feel that the gravity inversion felt a little unnecessary when it was introduced. After all, the game teaches you fairly early how to use the swapper gun to effectively fly by repeatedly swapping to clones created above you. This "flying", is, however, limited by the number of clones that you can create, and it's still subject to being blocked by colored lights. So gravity inversion felt superficial when introduced as a means of navigating the station. Once the gravity inversion was introduced into the puzzles, though, I recognized its value.

The Swapper - zero-G spacewalk
You'll also perform the occasional zero-G spacewalk or invert gravity.

Any problems that I had in solving a puzzle were purely intellectual. Every control and mechanic is intuitive and comfortable, movement is responsive, and I almost never struggled with making the character do what I wanted her to do. All in all, the game plays near-perfectly. The puzzles are appropriately challenging; although, the exploratory nature of the game means that difficulty can wobble back and forth a bit depending on which puzzle rooms you reach first...

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This War of Mine - game title

Games have an awkward relationship with war. Most games embrace violence and conflict because they are very easily simulated by computers and mapped to a set of easy-to-understand mechanics. Computers aren't as good at understanding or reacting to speech or emotion as they are at allowing a character to move around in a space and at tracing the path of a bullet or artillery shell. So when a game is about war, it's almost always told from the perspective of a soldier, someone actively participating in the war. And that character's participation is usually presented as noble and honorable, with the people that you are shooting being given little - if any - humanization at all. In many cases, the games will go out of their way to de-humanize the player's opponents by presenting them as literal demons, aliens, or the so-easy-to-hate Nazis.

While there are plenty of examples of games that deal with the behind-the-scenes causes and effects of a war, or the politics of conflict, these elements very rarely appear as central gameplay elements (outside of grand strategy games like Civilization, Total War, or Europa Universalis). Usually, the player plays on the battlefield, and any politics or effects beyond the battlefield are just material for non-playable cutscenes. At best, you might end up with a game that puts the player in the middle of the battle, but which has civilian characters that play a large role in the story.

One of my favorite games of the PS2-era is Ace Combat 4, which is a jet fighter combat game that found a comfortable middle-ground between flight sim and arcade shooter. Its narrative revolved around a child living in an occupied city, who befriends the ace fighter pilot of the occupying nation's air force. The player, however, takes on the role of a nameless, faceless ace fighter pilot belonging to the opposing liberation force. This created a fascinating dichotomy in which your success in missions resulted in defeats for the enemy ace who was the focus of the narrative. He falls into depression and alcoholism as the player systematically shoots down his wingmen and friends, and it served to humanize both sides of the conflict and exposed the human cost of war. One man's victory is the other's defeat. Your own victories became increasingly bittersweet as the game neared its final mission. It was a beautifully constructed scenario that has stuck with me to this day. I suspect that This War of Mine will leave a similar impact on me.

This War of Mine - stockpile
The logistics of keeping your shelves stocked with food and medicine is the primary challenge.

This War of Mine also reminds me of my visit to the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, U.K. this past January. I was really surprised by the difference in presentation that museum had as opposed to most museums that I visit in the United States. Whereas a museum in the U.S. will focus on exhibits of weapons, uniforms, vehicles, battle tactics, and politics behind wars, the IWM was focused primarily around the civilian costs of the two World Wars. It featured exhibits about food and material shortages, how women had to work as battlefield nurses and in factories, and how supplies were moved between cities under siege. It presented the wars as much more personal and ignoble and focused on how it affected people's day-to-day lives, and how the majority of people simply had to live through it. That's the same approach that the Polish studio behind This War of Mine took for their survival game.

Behind the lines

This War of Mine doesn't take place on the front lines or the battlefields. Instead of controlling a soldier, you play as a group of survivors in a rebellious city under siege. You have found a shelled building that you have claimed as a shelter, and every night, you must send one of your group out to scavenge one of various sites around the city for food, medicines, and other supplies to enable your group to [hopefully] survive till the end of the war. In the meantime, those who stay in the shelter must contend with the risk of being raided by other survivors during the night and having your hard-earned supplies stolen from under your own nose - or worse: somebody being hurt or killed.

This War of Mine - shelter
Your close-knit group of survivors must build and defend a shelter and scavenge for supplies.

The result is a game loaded to the brim with choices and consequences. How do your survivors spend their daytime hours? What items do you attempt to craft from your middling inventory of supplies? How do you defend yourself from raids? Do you send your one gun out with your scavenger in case he runs into hostile bandits, or keep it at home to defend your shelter from raids? Who do you send out each night to scavenge? Where do they go? And what do they bring back with them? The "rogue-like" fashion of the gameplay means that there's no undoing and no retries. This, combined with the scarcity of resources, makes every choice, every action, and every death is permanent. This gives a great deal of weight to all those choices that the game gives you.

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Lifeless Planet

Being someone who appreciates good science fiction and has an interest in real-life space exploration, it's easy for me to become intrigued with any game that promises to let me explore an alien world. Lifeless Planet promised to let me do just that, so it was a no-brainer Steam Summer Sale purchase for me last year, despite the mediocre critical reviews.

The basic premise of the game is that you play as a colonist sent to alien planet thought to be rich in life and habitable for humans. You wake up from cryo-sleep to find your ship has crash landed and your two crewmates are missing. Worse yet, the planet you crashed on seems to be a desolate wasteland devoid of life.

Are you even on the right planet? If so, where's all the life?

Lifeless Planet - badlands
And we're off to find our missing crew-mates and figure out why the planet is lifeless.

From here, you set off to follow the tracks of your fellow crew mates in an attempt to find them and figure out where you are. Things get complicated very early on when you find a long-abandoned Soviet village. Wherever you happen to be, the Ruskies beat you to it!

But this just opens up even more questions: how did the Russians get here? And where did they all go? The mysteries behind these questions are supposed to be the driving force behind the game.

The bulk of the game, thus consists of wandering around the various alien landscapes in search of answers. This exploration requires a moderate amount of fairly trivial platforming, and you stop occasionally solve an elementary puzzle.

Platforming is mostly comfortable and works adequately. You have a malfunctioning jet pack that allows you a small boost to elevate you to higher platforms, jump longer gaps, or soften your fall. I had some occasional problems with the character sliding off of the geometry, and there were a couple areas late in the game that required multiple jumps without stopping that were difficult to control accurately. But other than that, the challenge of the platforming was minimal. The intended route is always obvious, so there was never any question about where I was supposed to go.

Lifeless Planet - jet pack
Your jet pack allows you to clear pitfalls and jump over large obstacles.

Puzzles aren't much more of a challenge. They are almost all environmental or physics puzzles that vary from "find the key" to "put the rock in the hole" to "push the boulders". There's nothing here that a grade-schooler couldn't figure out.

The rest of the game is just a steady walk along the linear paths ...

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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 arriving at her family's new house for the first time after a year of university 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 Kate's younger sister, 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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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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