Observer - title

Once again, it is spring time. All the big holiday releases are out, and I didn't need to bother playing them because they were all crap. So I spent all my time on the indie football games. Well now football season is over too, and I'm done with my critique of the indie football games. So it's time to dig into my Steam backlog and try to play some of the games that have been sitting around for years without being played.

I've been on a Bloober bender lately, playing through Layers of Fear 2 and The Medium, so I decided I'd check out their other game: the cyberpunk horror >Observer_.

Dialogue trees and player-driven exploration gives the player a greater sense of agency than in Layers of Fear.

Bloober seems much more cynical about trans-humanism compared to Frictional

Having played a few of Bloober's games, I was expecting a visual treat. If nothing else, Bloober's games are technically impressive in the ways that they depict surreal environments. I was curious how this would translate into a cyberpunk setting. It doesn't disappoint, as the game is a visual and technical treat from start to finish. But much like Bloober's other games, Observer is a technical treat, but as a game, it has definite shortcomings.

Observer lags behind other stand-out sci-fi games like The Swapper, Soma, and Outer Wilds by not really using the gameplay mechanics to convey its sci-fi concepts. Soma is an especially apt comparison because both games deal with transhumanist themes. I feel like Soma is a lot more thoughtful, thorough, and laser-focused on its singular main idea; whereas Observer is a bit more scatter-shot and surface-level with its various cyberpunk dystopian ideas.

You're given a few moral decisions that relate directly to the game's themes of transhumanism.

Observer also never really challenges the player to think too hard about the moral, ethical, or metaphysical consequences of your choices. There's a decision at the end of the game that determines which of two endings you get, and there's a couple optional side quests that culminate in the player making a moral decision based on what you've learned about how this world operates, and whether you think the technology is being mis-used. There's also dialogue trees that give the player the opportunity to poke and prod at how the other characters perceive this world, and to imbue a little bit of your own characterization on the protagonist. So yes, it does engage the player with the story's subject matter a little bit, which is certainly a heck of a lot more than Layers of Fear ever did.

It does fall apart a little bit in practice because the whole game is so cynically distrustful of the technology and institutions that employ them. The game only ever shows the pain, suffering, and degradation of human dignity that the cyberpunk revolution brought, but it never bothers to show any redeeming qualities of the technology. We're told that there are wealthy "A" and "B" class citizens, but we never see how they live, nor are we given any real hint at how much of the population is trapped in the disgusting squalor of these tenement buildings, or if this lifestyle is common in the rest of the world outside of Poland. By choosing to only show the heavy human toll that this technology has taken, and not giving the player any additional background knowledge or context, I feel like Bloober kind of makes the player's decisions for us.

Bloober is a bit cynical and heavy-handed in its depiction of cyberpunk dystopia.

It pales in comparison to the other games I mentioned (Soma in particular), which actually had me stopping dead in my tracks and really thinking about my choices. It's not "bad" story-telling per se (and in fact, the visual aspect of the story-telling is superb!); it's just not particularly interactive story-telling. Beyond Bloober leading the player towards these specific moral choices, there's not much else in the way of decisions or opportunities to apply the ideas towards any particular challenges or obstacles.

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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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Blair Witch - title

In my review of Blair Witch yesterday, I mentioned that "there's a genuinely clever video game construct that re-contextualizes much of the game and has an interesting point, but which gets buried under all this convoluted plot spaghetti.". It was hard for me to explain that without going into very explicit and severe spoilers. I could have just put it all in a collapsible "spoiler" section, but I decided to split it out into a separate blog post so that I could publish the review more promptly, keep it more concise, and also give myself more time and space to explain my thoughts on this game's ending(s).

This post will be explicitly about the overall story of Blair Witch and the final couple hours of gameplay. It will be nothing but major spoilers ahead! So consider yourself warned if you haven't played the game yet.

Major spoilers follow for Blair Witch game.

Proceed to Spoilers

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Blair Witch - title

Blair Witch, as an intellectual property, is in a frustrating place similar to the Alien franchise. Both were innovative horror films that set numerous standards and conventions within their sub-genres, and which have been copied and ripped-off numerous times. Sci-fi games from Starcraft, to Metroid, to System Shock, to Dead Space have all taken heavy inspiration from Alien and Aliens. So much of the iconography of Alien and Aliens have been borrowed by these games, that when someone comes along with a game based on the Alien intellectual property, it's hard for that game to not feel like it's derivative of one (or all) of the myriad Alien impersonators.

the Blair Witch Project has similarly left a mark on the horror landscape. It single-handedly popularized the "found-footage" genre against the backdrop of a creepy, supernatural forest. Games such as Outlast, Alan Wake, and even Resident Evil VII all have a little bit of Blair Witch in their DNA. So when a game comes out that actually bears the "Blair Witch" name, it's kind of hard for it to stand out in the larger horror landscape.

Plenty of games (such as Outlast [LEFT]) have used tropes inspired by The Blair Witch Project.

This is the case with Lionsgate and Bloober Team's new Blair Witch game, exclusive to Microsoft platforms. Nothing that Blair Witch does feels particularly new or creative, even though most of the game's ideas are competently executed. Using a camcorder as a tool for navigation, exposition-delivery, and puzzle-solving feels pulled straight from Outlast or Resident Evil VII. Wandering through the woods and defeating monsters by pointing a flashlight at them gives me flashbacks to Alan Wake. Navigating the forest and occasionally picking up other people's trash also reminded me of Firewatch. Eventually, the whole game descends (rather predictably) into P.T. territory -- but, you know, without all the nuance or careful pacing that made P.T. so unnerving.

Who's a good doggy?

Blair Witch's most innovative feature is probably the dog companion (named Bullet), but even that feels pulled straight from Fallout 4. I probably would have been a bit more impressed if not for the fact that Bullet seemed to lose relevance as anything other than a monster compass, for a large chunk of the middle of the game. Without having healing items or ammunition or any other consumable supplies, the ability to send the dog out to find things feels like a sorely under-utilized mechanic.

Bullet is very well-introduced, and is integral to the early levels of the game. He finds clues for you, fetches key items, guides you to the next objective, and warns you of potential danger, all completely organically and without breaking immersion. But after a couple of hours, he just runs out of things to find and things to do. The puzzle shift away from using the dog, and more towards using the camera to do everything from manipulate the environment, to navigate mazes and looping paths, and even spotting monsters.

Your emotional support dog, Bullet, serves an integral role throughout the game.

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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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