When I booted up my PS5 for the first time and signed into the PSN, I immediately downloaded a few of the must-have games. You know, the Demon's Souls remake, Miles Morales, and Returnal. I also downloaded some other ... shall we say "less high profile" games that piqued my interest, including the [ultimately very impressive] World War II shooter Hell Let Loose and a little indie game that claimed to be a sequel to H.G. Wells' classic sci-fi novel The War of the World, called Darker Skies.

Darker Skies takes place during the aftermath of H.G. Wells' classic novel The War of the Worlds,
but the visual and sound design is clearly pulled from the 2004 Steven Spielberg movie starring Tom Cruise.

Budget "Last of Us"

I didn't have high hopes for this budget indie title, but I was curious what a game developer would even do with a property like War of the Worlds. As soon as I saw the first enemy, a zombie shambling around just like a Clicker from The Last of Us, my heart sank. With all the potential of the source material, Steel Arts had to go with a zombie game?! The War of the Worlds is a classic sci-fi novel about a Martian invasion of Earth. My expectation for a video game adaptation of The War of the Worlds would either be some kind of survival horror game about surviving against Martians who survived exposure to Earth's microbes, or an action shooter about humans counter-attacking the Martians on Mars, or something akin to XCOM. It absolutely would not be a total knock off of The Last of Us, right down to having infected zombie humans.

And when I say this is a knock off of The Last of Us, I'm not just talking about the presence of Clicker-like zombies. The protagonist has an X-Ray "focus" vision, he scavenges random supplies in order to craft consumables supplies, and most encounters with enemies are intended to be dealt with by various throwable tools. There's even areas of the map that are overgrown with red Martian tendrils, similar to the spore-infested areas of The Last of Us, except this time around, the character doesn't need a gas mask to get through.

The character can use X-ray vision to detect enemies through walls, but only if they are moving.

The only thing missing is the tag-along NPC child character -- which is a big problem because the interactions between the two characters is a huge part of what makes The Last of Us a great game. That's where the heart and soul of that game was. If you played The Last of Us, and you thought the best thing to emulate is the crafting system, then I feel like maybe you missed the point...

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Letters to a Friend: Farewell - title

When I saw Errant Signal's video essay about Letters To A Friend: Farewell, I was instantly intrigued. Even watching someone else's footage, and not actually playing myself, the exceedingly grainy camera had me seeing things that weren't there, constantly wondering if something was going to pop out of the shadows. In a slow-burn psychological horror title like this, that kind of constant tension really helps to set a mood and elevate the emotional response to the game, and I wanted to experience it for myself.

Letters To A Friend is a short, 30 to 40-minute indie horror game with a unique silent film aesthetic. Aside from ambient background music, there is no dialogue and no sound effects. All the spoken dialogue and inner monologue of the player character are conveyed through text displayed on static title cards. The entire game is played in monochrome, with a heavy vignette and film grain effect.

Letters To A Friend is absolutely committed to its grainy silent film aesthetic.

The plot is about a notary who goes to a house so that the owner, Markus, can sign away his rights to inherit the property after his father had recently passed. Markus begins rambling, claims he can't find the key to the locked attic door, the time grows late, and the notary is asked to stay overnight in the study, so that Markus can find the key and sign the paperwork the next morning. The notary agrees, only to have his sleep disturbed by weird noises and odors, which are all described in text on title cards. Something is not as it seems.

I don't want to go into further detail right away because speaking any further about the plot or themes of this 40-minute story would completely spoil it. This game is short even by walking sim standards, but on the upside, at least it gets straight to the point without burying its meaning in layers of confusing metaphor and symbolism, as many walking sims are prone to do. This game is only available on itch.io, and its recommended price is $5.99 USD, but since it's on itch, you can opt to pay more if you want to help support the developer. Personally, I paid an even $7 USD. If you don't mind short, indie walking sims, and the silent film aesthetic looks interesting, then I recommend checking this game out and playing for yourself. Then feel free to come back and read the more spoiler-y details of the review and analysis.

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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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Resident Evil VIII Village - title

Village seems to be positioning itself as a sort of "greatest hits" of earlier Resident Evil games. I'm not sure it all comes together as well as Capcom must have hoped it would. Resident Evil VII Biohazard did an excellent job of modernizing the design philosophies of the original Resident Evil game. Map design, inventory and resource constraints, and the "fight or flight" nature of enemy encounters all perfectly re-captured the feel of the original PS1 classics, without all of the clunkiness.

Village maintains the exploratory map design of the original Resident Evil and of Resident Evil VII, but it also tries to port concepts and aesthetics from the Resident Evil 2 remake and from Resident Evil 4. The RE2 stuff fits well enough, but the RE4 influences just don't feel compatible with classic design philosophy.

The setting instantly reminded me of Resident Evil 4.

Clash of philosophies

Right off the bat, the general aesthetic screams "Resident Evil 4". The game begins in a small, rustic, eastern European village at the foot of a gothic castle. Just like in RE4, you're quickly ambushed by the monstrous villagers and have to desperately fight your way out. Resident Evil 4 replaced the traditional zombies of the series with semi-aware "ganados"; Village similarly breaks away from the traditional zombies, but this time, the monsters are werewolves.

Not long into the game, you'll start smashing crates to reveal hidden loot, and pixel-hunting along the walls and ceilings for obnoxious sparkling gems to shoot down and collect. Also just like in Resident Evil 4, you'll routinely get rewards of items and money from defeated enemies. That money and loot is used to buy items or upgrade your equipment at a shop, just like in Resident Evil 4. This is where the game started to break down for me.

Loot, ammo, and cash can be recovered from smashed crates or defeated enemies.

Giving the player rewards of in-game cash for defeating foes (and for wasting bullets to shoot glowing gems off of walls) completely changes the motivations of the player in how we deal with enemies. I'm no longer carefully considering whether to try to sneak past an enemy or run away, nor am I ever firing off a single round at an enemy's knee to stun or cripple it so I can get away without consuming more resources, the way I might in REmake2. Since every defeated foe returns some of the resources that I invest into killing it, there is no "fight or flight"; only "fight". The enemies stop being threatening or frightening, especially on the standard difficulty setting, in which ammunition is readily available and the monsters patiently await their turns to charge and attack.

Even inventory management is mostly thoughtless. The more linear, more action-oriented, and less puzzle-oriented design of the game means that key items and treasures are not put in your limited inventory, and there isn't even a storage box to keep excess weapons or supplies. Only weapons, ammo, and healing items go into your briefcase. Everything else has unlimited storage. Even crafting components have separate, unlimited storage (the only exception being the animals meats needed for the Duke to cook meals -- more on this later).

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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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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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