35mm - title

December, January, and February is usually a time when I try to make a dent in my ever-growing Steam backlog. I buy lots of games on Steam sales, and then end up not playing most of them. So when I do go into the backlog, I always try to emphasize some of the shorter, indie games in the hopes that I can power through several before the big spring game releases start rolling in. This time around, I loaded up an independent Russian game from developer Sergey Noskov, which was very well-reviewed back when I bought it in 2016. Apparently, it's going to be released on PS4 soon, so this review is sort of topical. It hasn't really held up as well as I hoped it would in the almost-5 years since its release.

Ironically, this game is set during a fictional ebola pandemic that has turned Russia into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and I'm playing it during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The game was released back in 2016, long before COVID.

35mm is a hard game to classify. It's not quite a shooter. Not quite a survival game. Not quite a horror game. And not quite a walking simulator. It straddles the line between all of these sub-genres, shifting from one to the other at the drop of a hat, but without ever feeling jarring about it. There's even a few little mini-games thrown in for good measure. As such, there's plenty of variety that helps prevent this game from ever feeling stale. Regardless of whichever genre 35mm is currently residing in, its slow pace, subdued, aesthetic design, and melancholy tone remains consistent. It is this pacing and tone that defines the game much more than any one genre.

35mm straddles the line between walking sim, shooter, survival game, and horror.

We play as a mysterious protagonist travelling across a post-apocalyptic Russia, presumably to get home to see his family. He is accompanied by a travelling companion for most of the game. The history of these characters and the relationship between them are never clearly defined, which feels like its setting up for some kind of narrative twist right from the start. Nevertheless, the companion character acts as a sort of guide through the first half of the game, telling the player where to go and what to do. Unfortunately, since these characters are never very well-developed, any potential tragedy or impact of the final twist (regardless of which ending is achieved) is severely neutered.

What's the deal with the camera?

Even though I can't quite put my finger on what genre to classify 35mm, one thing that I can definitely say is that it is not a game about photography. Given that the game is named for the type of film in a camera, and the camera is featured in the game's title screen and promotional material, I would think that the camera would feature heavily in the game. But this is not the case. The camera is never necessary. It isn't used to progress the plot. It isn't used to solve puzzles. There isn't even a recap of the photos I took at the end of the game. Photographs become a major part of the game's finale, but they aren't the pictures that I took during the course of the actual game.

The camera is not utilized, despite inspiring the title of the game and being featured on the title screen.

So I'm really puzzled as to why the game is named "35mm". It kind of set my expectations a little bit higher than they probably should be. I thought I was going to get something a little bit more artsy and creative. But instead, what I got is a pretty straightforward, linear game.

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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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Observation - title

It's real refreshing to come across a science fiction game that isn't just about shooting aliens with laser guns or blowing up space ships. If you're in the market for a thoughtful, well-presented science fiction experience, then I highly recommend that you check out Observation. If you're also into horror, then even better, because this game definitely has some horror elements as well. They're much more subdued, but this game does do a fantastic job of creating a building sense of tension and intrigue as its over-arching mystery is slowly unfurled.

The gimmick here is that you play as a malfunctioning artificial intelligence on a near-future orbital research station. The game is presented as a sort-of found-footage narrative (think along the lines of the Apollo 18 horror movie) told entirely from the point of view of the on-board A.I. Something goes wrong, the crew are all missing and possibly dead, and you help the sole survivor try to find the remaining crew and piece together what happened to the station. Think along the lines of playing as the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or as Kevin Spacey's character in the [fantastic] movie Moon. You do this by jumping between different surveillance cameras (a la Five Nights at Freddy's, but, you know, with ambitions of being more than just a random jump-scare-generator). Through the cameras, you interact with various technology and station systems within your line of sight. You'll occasionally be asked questions or given commands by the surviving astronaut, and you chose how to respond.

You are an unreliable A.I.?

From the start, there's a certain degree of unreliable narrator going on. One of the very first actions that the game asks you to do is verify the identify of the surviving astronaut via her voice print. You are initially told that her voice print does not match, and you're given the option to accept or reject her voice print. If you reject, she'll repeat her authorization code, and you'll be told that it matches this time. Is she not who she seems? Are your own systems providing you with misleading information? Are your systems merely damaged? This creates an immediate sense of distrust. You (the player) don't necessarily trust the survivor, the survivor doesn't necessarily trust you, and you can't even trust your own perception and judgement.

From the start, it's unclear whether you can trust Emma, or whether she can trust you...

This immediately creates a dense atmosphere of intrigue and mystery and sets a level of tension that persists through the entire game.

This atmosphere is helped by the richly-detailed near-future space station that you inhabit. The visuals are immaculately detailed, and the station looks and feels like it could be modeled after the real-life International Space Station. The spaces are tight and claustrophobic. Accessories and stationary are strapped or velcroed to the walls, floors, ceiling, and desk surfaces in order to prevent them from floating off in the zero-gravity environment. Everything is believable.

The game further builds its atmosphere with its immersive U.I.. Every button press, command, and interaction has some in-universe context behind it that helps to keep you in the mind-space of your A.I. character. The U.I. is mostly easy to use, and most actions feel intuitive.

This game hooked me in with its setting and atmosphere, and I just had to keep playing to find out what happened and where this would go!

The space station and U.I. are believable and immersive.

...

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Dark Souls III

The best strategies for defeating bosses in the Souls games typically involves staying as close as you possibly can to the boss, circling around to their backside, stabbing them in the butt, and rolling under their attacks when necessary. A few bosses in the series will break this convention and force the player to have to find different ways of defeating them. Dark Souls III has one particular boss that makes this go-to strategy almost completely futile. If you're able to circle-strafe around the feet of the King of the Storm boss in Archdragon Peak and then still beat it, then I am impressed.

Dark Souls III - The King of the Storm
The Nameless King and his storm drake require a different strategy than the typical Dark Souls boss.

Why you should keep your distance

The King of the Storm is one of the rare bosses in the series that actually requires the player to keep your distance from the boss and avoid getting in too close. There are actually quite a few reasons for this, but there are two that stand out as making this boss particularly frustrating for any player who tethers themselves to the boss's feet. The first is that you'll end up forcing yourself into battle with the most ever-present of Souls games' most formidable foes: the camera. Locking onto the enemy is impossible when directly below him, and so you won't be able to see any of what he is doing. He also moves very quickly and can cover a lot of space, so you'll end up spending a lot of time having to micro-manage the camera as you try to manually keep it focused on the dragon.

The second reason is that the dragon has a potent defense against this sort of strategy: its fire breath. If you hang around under the dragon's belly, it won't wait too long before flying up into the air and unleashing an area of effect fire breath attack that can often mean certain death if you get caught in it. Even a health bar that stretches most of the way across the screen can be more than halved simply by being hit with this attack. But that isn't the worst of it. The attack will also knock the player prone, but the fire spray also persists long enough that it can frequently trigger a second hit once you stand up. This second hit will almost certainly kill you.

Dark Souls III - flying fire breath
Getting caught in this flying fire breath attack means almost certain death.

These two reasons should be enough to keep you out from under the dragon, but there are other reasons why keeping your distance is the better option....

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DreadOut

The opening moments of DreadOut set the bar pretty low for what was to come. The visual quality varies wildly. The main character, Linda, looks and animates decent enough, but the other characters all look incredibly stiff and robotic. And they sound almost as stiff and robotic. I'm not sure if it's a matter of poor translation, cultural disconnects, or if it's a deliberate attempt by the developers at camp, but the dialogue and voice acting is cringe-worthy. It wasn't even laughably bad. It was just bad. Don't worry though, you won't have to put up with them for long. They'll disappear for the majority of act 1, rendering the game's futile attempts at early character-building moot, and likely leading to you forgetting that they ever existed until they reappear later. The ghosts and monsters themselves actually get better development and depth, as each one is given a thematic backstory, and its aesthetic design attempts to represent that theme - with varying degrees of success.

DreadOut - camp
Dialogue and voice-acting might have been going for deliberate camp, but ends up just being bad.

It's an indie game, so I don't expect its graphics to impress on any technical level. But what's presented on screen is often only passable for a PS2-era game, and there's very little artistry or detail in the majority of environments. Some of the environments are decent, and there's the occasional well-placed lighting or particle effect that helps to set a mood. That mood rarely lasts though, because you'll turn a corner and find repetitive environments and flat textures. It is very easy to get lost in a few areas of this game because so much of the environment looks the same. The school building was particularly bad, as all the classrooms had the same desks, chairs, and backpacks sitting around. Only two rooms in the entire building had unique decorations (a teacher's office and what appeared to be a biology lab). The difficult-to-read signposts and lack of any sort of in-game map just exacerbates the sameness of the game's environmental design.

DreadOut - black cat
"Aw, hello Mr. Kitty!"
Oh, you're a black cat and are
supposed to be scary. My bad..

Gameplay is less a mixed-bag, and is more universally terrible. Movement is very clunky. The camera loves to pivot around when you go through doors, leading to temporary disorientation as you try to figure out which direction the character is facing. It doesn't help that so much of the game looks the same, so it's easy to get turned around and confused (or outright lost) when the camera wigs out on you.

There's a blue vignette effect that indicates a nearby item that is designed to work as a player aid, but sometimes it can be a hindrance. It works through walls, which I guess is fine since it can let you know that you need to go into a nearby room. What isn't fine is that it also seems to work through floors and ceilings. So the game will nag you that a useful item or clue is nearby, but it might be on a different floor of the building. So you end up wandering back and forth trying to find it - which you never will because it's not there...

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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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