Outlast - title

I have one more game in my spring "walking sim" research. That game is the 2013 first-person horror game, Outlast, which (along with Amnesia: The Dark Descent) was instrumental in popularizing the "hide-and-seek" brand of horror gaming that became very popular in indie and low-budget horror games over the ensuing decade.

I liked Amnesia, and was interested in playing Outlast back around its release. I bought it years ago, and it ended up sitting in my unplayed Steam backlog until I installed it about a year ago, with the intent of playing it during the pandemic. But then I played other games, and Outlast sat around on my desktop this entire past year until I finally got around to playing it last month.

So was it worth the 8-year wait? Meh.

A haunted house permeated with uncertainty and surprise

At a very fundamental level, Outlast wanted to be a game that shocked and horrified players. In many regards, it's very successful at this endeavor, and it holds up pretty well in the 8 or so years since it released. The game starts off with a slow, ominous build that helps create an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty. But once the horrors start coming, it's a barrage of shockingly horrific violence and inhumanity. I was never quite sure what I was going to find on the other side of a door or at the end of a hallway.

Sadly, the over-the-top violence did turn out to be desensitizing. By less than halfway through the game, the mutilated bodies of inmates and guards just wasn't scary anymore. Thankfully, there's a few other shocks and surprises in store for the player that helped keep me from becoming too comfortable with what's going on around me.

I actually had plenty of spare batteries
at the end of the game.

Like with most good survival horror games, Outlast sets up an expectation of scarcity that makes players anxious about using supplies that are actually in fairly generous supply. Just like how Resident Evil provides more than enough Ink Ribbons to let you save whenever you come across a typewriter, and Silent Hill gives enough ammo and healing supplies to let players stand your ground against most enemies, Outlast provides plenty of batteries. I thought I was using the night vision fairly liberally throughout the game, yet still had 6 or 7 spare batteries on me at almost all times throughout the game, without ever feeling like I was going too far out of my way to search for them.

The only exception was going through the courtyard and female ward, which is basically just a resource sink. The courtyard itself is a pain in the ass to navigate, but it looks really cool. The blowing wind and lightning creates lots of visual and auditory tricks that kept me tense throughout the entire time. I thought I was seeing ghosts all over the place, but could never really be sure that it wasn't just a trick of the light. I came out the other side of the courtyard with like 2 or 3 spare batteries, which made me nervous whenever I saw a dark hallway or room in the ensuing level. But it didn't take long to get my battery reserves back up to a comfortable level.

The dark courtyard perhaps the most tense and frightening (and battery-consuming) level.

In fact, by the end of the game, the night vision seemed to become less critical to progress, as the final level or two of the game are very well lit. I got to a point where I wasn't able to pick up new batteries because my stock was already full. So perhaps Red Barrels could have been a bit more stingy with how many batteries it provides? Or maybe they could have made a few more levels of the game a bit more dark? As it stands, most areas in the game are either completely lit and do not require night vision at all, or they are pitch black and absolutely require batteries to see anything at all. This means that the game has to provide more than enough batteries; otherwise, progress becomes impossible.

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Virginia - title

I spent a large chunk of my gaming time since last August playing football video games. With the season over, I wanted to spend a couple months playing other games before diving back into to football critique videos with the next installment of my "How Madden Fails To Simulate Football" series. I also recently played Outer Wilds, which gave me an idea for a new video essay about the evolution of walking simulators (video will be published soon, and I'll post it to the blog when it's released). So I spent pretty much all of March diving into my Steam backlog of walking simulators, replaying ones I'd played years ago, and spending some Patron funds to purchase ones I had never played.

One such game sitting in my Steam backlog for years was the divisive indie noir thriller Virginia. Players take on the role of a freshman FBI agent tasked with performing internal affairs oversight on her partner, who is currently investigating a case involving a missing teenager in a small Virginia town. The game shows its X-Files and Twin Peaks influences proudly on its sleeve, including a scene of lounge musicians performing a song that is a blatant homage to the title theme of Twin Peaks.

Virginia is heavily inspired by 90's thrillers X-Files and Twin Peaks.

What makes Virginia interesting as a game is its unique presentation. It uses very cinematic editing, with sudden cuts and montages during gameplay. I might start walking down a hallway on the first floor of the FBI building, then suddenly cut (mid-stride) to the hallway leading to my partner's basement office (just like the office of Agent Mulder in X-Files). This can be convenient because it spares the player from the unnecessary legwork of tediously walking through such a large building. This keeps the game focused on telling its story at a brisk, cinematic pace. When combined with the context of the situation, and the movie-quality soundtrack, this editing can build a lot of tension and suspense. Who would have thought that a montage of walking down empty hallways for less than a minute could be such a tense experience?

Furthermore, the levels are designed such that these edits sync up with player inputs so as to create a surprisingly smooth and purposeful stream of inputs. These aren't cutscenes. I remain in control of the character, and these sudden cuts rarely, if ever feel jarring. They might be surprising (especially the first few times they happen), but I never felt like I had no idea what was going on (with maybe a few exceptions late in the game).

Cinematic edits cut down on tedious travel and keeps the story moving at a brisk pace.

This style of carefully-paced editing can also be problematic. Scenes will sometimes transition without player input, creating frequent points of no return, even if I wanted to go back and examine something else or try another interaction. Even though the player remains in control throughout, I still had virtually no agency in how scenes would progress -- let alone how the larger story unfolds. This probably could have been a first-person animated film and wouldn't really lose much in the translation.

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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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Axis Football 20- title

Compared to messy launch of Maximum Football 2020, the release of Axis Football 2020 went pretty smoothly. Maximum launched with some signs of regression from its 2019 iteration. Canuck Play has since patched out most of those bugs and issues, but those weeks spent fixing bugs that shouldn't have been in the game to begin with, are weeks that weren't spent improving the game in other areas. Axis 2020, on the other hand, is a small, but noticeable, upgrade to its 2019 counterpart.

This tweet may have oversold 2020 a bit.

Not the overhaul I expected

I may have set my expectations a little high with Axis 2020. Axis Games had posted to Twitter that they planned to completely redesign their locomotion and tackling system. I got my hopes up for something more robust and realistic. The end result still shows some steady progress, but it isn't the complete overhaul that I was expecting and hoping for.

I don't want to discourage Axis from tweeting promises of gameplay improvements. I really like having the transparency of knowing what the developers are working on, and I also understand that it can be easy to over-promise sometimes. I work as a software engineer. I know how it goes. That being said, I really don't feel like 2020 constitutes a "complete rebuild from the ground up", and the tweet in question definitely oversold 2020 by a lot, in my opinion. I don't know what was done under the hood. Maybe they did make extensive changes. It just doesn't feel all that different.

Movement hasn't been completely overhauled,
but there are some new animations.

There was some noticeable work done to animations and player movement. Tackles do look a lot cleaner most of the time. There are also a few new animations, such as animations of players bending over to pick the ball up off the ground on fumbles or un-fielded kicks. But that's about it. I would have liked to see more animations of players falling on a lose ball, especially the less athletic linemen. Other than that, most of the player movement, ball-carrier evasive moves, catching animations, blocking animations, and so forth look pretty much identical to last year (and the year before).

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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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