Proteus Review

I’ve dreamt of a game like Proteus for many years. A game that plunks you down in a virtual world where your only task is to just exist. You look, listen, and just exist. No violence. No shooting. No context or explicit story arc. Just a little place that you get to observe and enjoy. This is arthouse gaming at its finest, taking up only as much time as it needs and nothing more.

In Proteus you experience the course of a year on a small, randomly generated island. Each season only gives maybe ten minutes of gameplay each, with weather, ambient music, and wildlife all changing as you progress. The natural beauty, if digital representations of nature and animals can be called natural, of this game is minimalist but profound. Chasing small pixelated frogs, listening to the digital plink plonk, plink plonk of a group of chickens, and gazing at a deep-blue, night sky are the kinds of little joys that Proteus has to offer. It is magical realism at its finest, evoking a sort of childish wonder at the strange details of this small biome of a world.

Saying anything more about this game would spoil it, so I’ll finish with this: play it. Take a trip into this enchanting space and see if you feel the same way that I do about it. It shows how far the indie scene has come that we can finally have these kinds of ambiguous, interactive experiences as well as the usual genre fixtures.

 

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The Top 10 Games of 2012

A few months late, but I couldn’t resist posting the list of games that I loved the most this past year. Cheers!

2012’s 2011 Game of the Year:
Dark Souls: Beating this game filled me with triumph like few other things have, but that feeling wasn’t lasting. Upon being thrust into the New Game + mode directly after beating the final boss in Dark Souls, I promptly put down the controller and mourned the fleeting closure that had been given to me just moments before. I love this game, but fuck this game. One of 2011’s best for sure.

Honorable Mention:
FTL: I can’t really put FTL on my list because I simply haven’t played enough. It seems like a superb rouge-like space simulator, but I haven’t even come close to even getting halfway to the end yet. Perhaps this will be a contender for 2013’s 2012 Game of the Year if I get around to playing more of it.

And now, the list:

  1. XCOM: What a game. What a game-ass game. Managing an alien-war task force from top to bottom is appropriately difficult in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. But it can also be incredibly rewarding when your squad of elite soldiers (named after your friends and family in real life of course) take down half a dozen arachnoid Chrysalids due to your tactical decision making. I never thought this style of strategy gaming would work on consoles; surely the now defunct XCOM shooter would’ve been a much easier sell in the shooter rich environment that is AAA game development. But no, Firaxis made a hell of a game that totally eclipses that other project. Play this is if you haven’t already.

 

  1. Spelunky: Almost 500 deaths in, and I still haven’t seen every secret in Spelunky. From icy caverns to alien motherships, this seemingly cutesy platformer has some true replay value and extras that will keep me coming back well into 2013.

 

  1. Trials Evolution: What can I say? It’s Trials HD with user created levels that often surpass the developer created ones in quality. I couldn’t ask for anything more from a Trials game.

  1. Fez: I eagerly waited nearly five years to play this game, and I think it surpassed my wildest expectations. I thought I was getting a pretty, retro styled platformer and nothing more. But so many enigmatic systems lie beneath, and decoding them all was a real joy. Not to mention it was just a pleasant virtual world to exist in, with beautiful ambient/chiptune songs often playing in concert with a sunset that I just sat and watched.

 

  1. Mark of the Ninja: This is a gamer’s game in almost every sense. The visual cues that display sound waves and vision cones are in complete service of the great stealth gameplay. I liked this game better than I liked Dishonored, and I never expected that to happen.

  1. Thirty Flights of Loving: This game may only be 15 minutes long, but it is an intense and oddly experimental 15 minutes. I’ve never played a game that was confident enough to use jump cuts to expedite action and use montage to create such strong characters. Seriously, it’s only $5.00, and goes on sale for $2.49 fairly often. And it comes with Brenden Chung’s 2008 mod Gravity Bone too!

  1. Mass Effect 3: I wanted to like Commander Shepard’s final chapter much more than I ended up actually liking it. Many of the dialog options that were so fun to choose amongst in Mass Effect 2 are streamlined for a more developer directed character arc, but there is still enough there that made me feel like I was still controlling large portions of the story. And it was good to see all those characters that I spent two games getting to know again.

  1. Need for Speed: Most Wanted: Multiplayer is the only reason that Criterion’s latest racing game made it on this list at all. The fiercely competitive mix of skill challenges, group goals, and straight up races hasn’t ever been done this well since Burnout Paradise.

  1. Walking Dead: While I don’t think The Walking Dead is a revolution for games, I do think that it told an emotionally complex and mature story. That’s more than most games can even hope to achieve.

  1. Far Cry 3: While I can’t say that Far Cry 3’s story succeeds in being satire, I still think the game has some of the best open world design this generation. Attacking pirate camps only with a silenced rifle and machete takedowns is serious fun. Don’t worry about the nonsensical story that only occasionally manages to parody FPS tropes and you’ll likely have a good time with it too.

2012 was a weird year for video games. I played more downloadable titles than I did boxed releases, which has never happened with me before. At the same time as new console rumors start to rev up, the new methods of digital distribution are making me question whether I’ll even purchase a console from Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft in the next few years. Building a PC seems to have a higher initial cost, but Steam sales cut game prices down by 50 or even 75%. But I’m getting ahead of myself here; for the next year I’ll continue to enjoy my Xbox 360 and hope to see exciting titles come out not just in stores, but on the Live Arcade as well. It’s going to be interesting to see where all this stuff goes in the next generation for sure.

Dishonored Review: Curing Regicide with Tyrannicide

It seems only fitting that the latter years of this console generation would foster a resurgence of the stealth genre. Bellyaching about the Call of Duty and Battlefield style of extremely strict gunplay has only increased in recent times, giving titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mark of the Ninja, and Hitman: Absolution the chance to show that there is still plenty of interest in more open game design.

Dishonored is one of the more anticipated titles to ride this new wave of RPG, stealth hybrids, and it is by far one of the most ambitious. Arkane Studios has succeeded in crafting a great bunch of meticulously designed missions set in an intriguing setting that is equal parts steampunk and Victorian-era England.

They wisely focus on giving players incentive to fully explore the wildly original city of Dunwall using a trim selection of weapons, powers, and collectables. It is sad that some of the surrounding systems and the storyline aren’t nearly as supportive to this end, instead creating dissonance and dragging down what could have easily been a classic of this generation.

In Dishonored, players inhabit the silent royal protector Corvo Attano just after he returns from an important mission to find a cure to a rat plague that has nearly crippled Dunwall. Just as Corvo reports to the Empress, a group of mysterious assassins kill her and take her daughter Emily hostage. Corvo is conveniently blamed for the murder and sent to jail to await execution.

Corvo gets sprung out of the big house by a group of Loyalists soon after, and a plot of betrayal and the thirst for power becomes clear. The Loyalists enlist Corvo to become an assassin himself and eliminate the new government leaders that seized the empire in the absence of the rightful heir to the throne.

After setting up this initial conflict, the writers are in the perfect place to spin a great narrative as they play with themes involving the relationship between corruption and power, spirituality and superstition, and mercy and cruelty. Plenty of books and other readable texts expand on the culture of Dunwall, delving most often into whale oil harvesting, bourgeois extravagance, and religious superstition.

This builds Dunwall as a simultaneously artistic, yet scientifically crude place; its inhabitants well cultured, yet credulous people. The city itself is beautifully rendered, with bold, geometric architecture that shows it was built by a strong people. The sense of setting is amazing and sometimes a little overwhelming. The dozens and dozens of books are interesting, but delve into almost too much minutia.

Dishonored gets much more mileage out of its art style–full of exaggerated features, almost visible oil-paint brush marks, and a wide color palette–than any technical proficiency. In fact, much of the texture work on buildings and landscapes is flat and bland. At least on the Xbox 360 everything is kept at 30 fps even when a dozen guards, a pack of plague rats, and a few explosions are on screen at one time.

The focus on setting seems to have taken time away from the actual story and main characters of Dishonored. Small little tidbits of character work are sprinkled amidst a sparse, poorly acted script. This is particularly surprising considering how star studded this cast is: Brad Dourif, Susan Sarandon, Chloë Grace Moritz, and Lena Headey all lend their voices to the game. Perhaps it’s just that these actors didn’t have enough to work with, or perhaps they just didn’t fully invest in their characters; either way, most of the dialogue is delivered in a stiff, “I’m just reading a script here, guys,” sort of way.

This is further compounded by a lack of characterization in general. Exploring the Loyalists’ rooms gives plenty of insight to their quirks and some underlying vulnerabilities and vices, but its never connected into the main story. The Loyalists simply exist to dole out assassination targets to the player and move the story along. They don’t make themselves out as very likeable people, and ultimately their motivations aren’t known either. Why are they loyal to the dead Empress? What were her political ideals? What do they plan to do after reinstating Emily on the throne? Most of these questions are never answered, or kept vague for a late game twist that isn’t telegraphed in a reasonable way.

The developers also made a grave mistake when they decided to make Corvo a silent protagonist. Without any sort of personality, it is hard to connect to Emily or any of the other characters. The game tries to make you feel compassion and companionship for these people, but you have literally no reason to feel these things without a voice in the narrative. If you need reason to put the mute-hero trope out to pasture, look no further than Dishonored.

Even without a great cast or storyline, Dishonored manages to be one of the most satisfying gameplay experiences this year. As Corvo, I felt powerful even without using lethal means–though there are plenty of those. The toolset at your disposal isn’t very large, but each and every power, trap, and weapon can be used in multiple creative ways and in tandem to create amazing chain reactions.

You could take out a hallway of guards by carefully sneaking up behind each one and either knocking them out or slitting their throats, or you could stick a razor-wire mine at the end of hallway, lure one guard through it, slow down time and teleport behind the other two and tranquilize them both. Or perhaps just circumvent the entire area by possessing a rat and running past them all. And if all else fails, just throw a grenade around the corner while using the time-stop power and watch the bodies fly.

These are just simple examples of the variety of ways encounters can be managed. The different levels that you explore in Dishonored are never very large, but they are dense with pathways and secrets. The verticality of Dunwall is impressive, and easily traversed by the teleporting ability, Blink. Mastering that ability in particular is enough to make the game almost unfair. Enemies are not the brightest bunch on Normal difficulty, and effective Blink maneuvering outsmarts them nearly every time.

Still, it’s hard to deny the tactical joy that comes with outfoxing enemies by pure stealth and clever exploitation of the level design. Arkane really stacks the deck in the player’s favor, giving plenty of options at every point of the 6-10 hour story. Going in with reckless abandon, or just incredible Blink utilization, will definitely make your experience shorter and less impressive.

No, the way to play Dishonored is much more methodical. This is a game that begs you to turn off several of the user interface elements and waypoints and play on Hard. Feeling your way through the city, watching guards complete patrol paths before acting, and really planning out traps and attacks is the way to get the most out of the gameplay systems.

Oddly enough, Arkane created a morality system for the game that appears to limit the very openness of the gameplay. Killing creates “Chaos” around Dunwall; the more guards you kill, the more plague victims and reinforcements you’ll have to deal with. Other characters will also talk to you curtly and generally act rude towards you. The problem with this system is that it limits you to an even smaller amount of weapons and powers than you already have. If you want the good ending, you can probably get away with using lethal means every once in awhile, but don’t expect to be regularly setting up razor-wire traps.

This wouldn’t be an issue if there were more non-lethal options, but there are literally only three: tranquilizers, sleeper holds, and possession. Meanwhile, there are easily over half a dozen lethal choices. I didn’t feel held back by other games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution nearly as much as I did by Dishonored.

That was my unfortunate final impression when I finished the game. I felt restricted despite a wealth of options, unconnected to all the characters, and unimpressed with the narrative as a whole. Dunwall is an amazing set dressing, but without a great story to support it, Dishonored ends up feeling half baked in many ways. If you loved the Thief, Deus Ex, or stealth heavy games in general, then you’ll find something to like here. But you’ll have to deal with a host of caveats in order to find the core embedded within.