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.

 

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon Review

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is a standalone expansion to 2012’s tropical island survival romp, Far Cry 3. But beyond the name and a few core mechanics, Blood Dragon shares almost nothing else with its namesake. Instead of following a group of angsty, privileged white kids through hell and high water, this set of missions puts players in the role of Rex Power Colt. Rex spits the same kind of one-liners that you’d expect from Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China, and the world around him is bathed in CRT scan lines, nuclear fallout, and explosions. Blood Dragon is just the kind of unexpected project that I want to see more of in gaming, but it could have been much more focused and impressive with more development time.

In an alternate 2007 that could only come from a B-film of the 1980s, cyber soldier Rex is sent to an unnamed island to stop his former commander and his army of cyborgs from launching a host of nuclear warheads on the United States. But really, who gives a damn? This is action flick schlock; full of awful dialogue, cheesy synth-rock, and absurd humor. The aesthetic, while ridiculous, is Blood Dragon’s greatest strength. Jamming out to a bumping beat in an underground base, mowing down dozens of cyborg enemies with RoboCop’s pistol while Rex’s partner Spider yells, “Fuck yeah!” works surprisingly well. You can’t take any of it seriously, or else you’ll see just how nonsensical it all really is.

That is sort of a double-edged sword though, as examining any individual design choice or joke too closely threatens to fold the entire facade. Why exactly does Rex throw a D20 to distract guards? Why did the female lead just try to make an acronym for the word “fuck”? Why is Rex seemingly confused about everything anyone ever tells him? And what about the titular Blood Dragons? Why in the world did the designers decide that laser shooting cyber-T-Rexes would really mesh with a 1980s action theme? I just don’t know. The sense of humor present in Blood Dragon feels half baked at its best, completely unfunny at its worst.

Despite the particulars of the story and characters not really gelling with the overall premise, Blood Dragon iterates on enough of the core Far Cry 3 mechanics to make the 6 hour experience interesting. Now instead of unleashing Bengal Tigers on unsuspecting pirates, you can lure Blood Dragons to enemy encampments to do the dirty work for you. Or you can waltz in the front door with a minigun and mow everything down in a hale of hot lead and explosions. Oh, but you’re not the explosive type? Well you can always use the fantastic stealth takedown system that Far Cry 3 so ingeniously introduced. Having this many ways to interact with encounters reinforces just how much variety the folks at Ubisoft Montreal packed into both the original game and Blood Dragon.

As long as you don’t question Blood Dragon’s schizoid sense of humor, you’ll find plenty to like in this homage to 1980s home VHS action. I just wish the developers had taken a few more months to revise and edit some of the questionable dialogue and humor. But I can’t complain too much when I consider the fact that this could have been a crappy multiplayer expansion that required the original game to run. More big developers and publishers should learn from the risks taken here, and improve with just a bit more time and consideration.

All image credits go to the respective Giantbomb community members who posted them to Giantbomb.com. 

A Short Review of Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving

“Cinematic experience,” is a common phrase in the game critic’s repertoire, but I’m not convinced that it should always be connoted with merit. For example, the Metal Gear Solid series has deep roots in anime and action movie cinematography, but often at the expense of player control. Cutscenes can go on for nearly a half hour without any player input, which often makes me wonder why the game wasn’t just a CGI film.

Brendon Chung’s Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving are the antitheses of that design philosophy; shining examples of how to pull off cinematic qualities in a video game without compromising player agency. Chung experiments with jump cuts, montage, on-screen text, and nonlinear narrative in ways that some bigger studios could benefit from.

From the first greeting horn blast of Xavier Cugat’s “Maria Elena”, Gravity Bone presents itself as a sort of 1960 spy flick crossed with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Though the visuals are based in the Quake II engine, Chung’s modding resulted in an amazingly simple, but gorgeous art style. Characters all have the same cheese-cube on a stick physique and the color palette is predominantly golds and browns. Despite the abstraction, this wood panel filled throwback feels appropriate to the time period it is trying to evoke.

It’s a world where everything looks like it was made from wood and metal, not plastic. It’s a place where a tape recorder with actual film stock gives you instructions on how to carry out your mission, and works well to steep players in the vibes put out by Mr. Cugat’s Latin swing. This is also a technically good looking game of its time, with plenty of lighting tricks that bathe the world in plenty of colors and contrast.

While the art style and audio are immediately in your face and bombastic, the narrative remains minimal and purposefully vague. More is learned through flashback montages than any exposition. In fact, most of story is something the player gets to kind of fill in with their own imagination.

You’ll probably wonder, “Am I supposed to be playing as some sort of corporate espionage agent?” Well I certainly felt so, but Brendon Chung never programmed anything in the game to make me outright know that I was. All I knew was that a cutscene (appropriately shown as a slide projector series) told me that my first mission pleased my “clients”, so I knew I had to be a fix-it man of some sort.

This is something that some people are going to hate. They are going to hate that the game is only about a twenty minutes long, and they are going to hate its experimental, art-house energy. And it only gets worse in Thirty Flights of Loving, which is about half as long and twice as willing to take risks.

Which makes it the better of the two in my opinion. For all its amazing atmosphere, plethora of unique art assets, and mysterious story beats, Gravity Bone has one platforming section that I kept messing up because I didn’t know where exactly the edge of the platform and my feet met. It feels much more like a traditional first-person-shooter (not that you’ll be shooting anyone) with some unorthodox story beats packaged around it. Thirty Flights makes no such mistake, instead making jump cuts, montage, and uncertain narrative the main feature.

Instead of forcing players through long walkways and platforming sequences or backstories that are relegated to “quest logs” that you’ll never check, Chung cuts out most traversal–which is crazy if you consider that first-person shooter lineage practically demands plenty of time spent in corridors full of nothing–and there is nary a dialogue interrogation ala Mass Effect in sight. Any part of the game that could be considered slow, or god forbid boring, is simply made into a jump cut, and players simply jump forward in time. And player interaction with the two supporting characters is told through flashback and small character moments.

Short montages let you know that your female companion is a sharpshooter, but what is she sharpshooting? And for whom? Likewise, your other buddy is the best man at a wedding, but you only see the after party (which is one of the game’s highlights because of its great use chronology) and you don’t really know anything that’s going on. Again, like Gravity Bone, you are set loose in a set of often non-linear events that give you just enough to make a story out of it.

Thirty Flights is a much different looking game than Gravity Bone as well, if only because of the color palette. Pinks, reds, oranges, blues; this is the kind of stuff that makes you balk at Unreal Engine titles like Gears of War (which I do enjoy despite its gray tones). Technically, perhaps this isn’t quite as stunning as Gravity Bone was back when it was first released in 2008. Still, Chung gets plenty of mileage out of the quirky design.

To continue detailing both these games would be getting into dangerous spoiler territory considering that they are both only about a half hour in total length. So I’ll leave this review with this: buy these games. Soak in the collective 30 minutes of gameplay and enjoy the feeling of existing in these rich vignettes. If you aren’t into the whole, “games as art,” thing, then perhaps you won’t enjoy you time with Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving. But if you are that person, you probably aren’t searching WordPress for blog reviews of them anyways.

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.

Dark Souls Review: Memento Mori

Talk to nearly anyone about a video game, and the ever-present question will come up: is it fun? For some, the answer may be a simple yes or no. Others may delve into details and the nerdery associated with such in-depth analysis (myself included). But how many times has someone told you that a game was painful? That for every moment of joy exists orders of magnitude more suffering?

Dark Souls is that game. Dropped into an unforgiving world with only steel and shield, the player soon realizes just how bleak a virtual world can be. Developer From Software has constructed some of the most harrowing, but austerely beautiful castles, caverns, and creatures ever to grace a video game. Conquering these obstacles results in some of the purest satisfaction that interactive entertainment offers, but doing so will take a toll on your patience.

As a chosen undead warrior, you are tasked with rekindling the flame of the Lordran realm by eliminating arch-demons and ringing the Bells of Awakening. Outside of an opening cutscene telling you all this, there is hardly any plot in Dark Souls, but there is plenty of atmosphere. Dialogue is delivered with a distinct creepiness by nearly every NPC, making the world feel unwelcoming. Music is eschewed for sounds of enemies breathing heavily around corners. You start to feel a sort of dread in every area of the game.

This mood mixes well with a running theme permeating Dark Souls: restriction. Using a precious health potion? Well don’t plan on moving out of the way of an incoming attack while you do so. Resting at one of the game’s sparse checkpoints? Have fun fighting through the enemies that just respawned. Summoning in another player online to help you through a tough boss fight? First you’ll have to deal with mercenary players known as “phantoms” who can invade your world to take your souls (experience points).

This Newtonian “equal and opposite” design can be immensely frustrating, but establishes a pace that just isn’t seen in many video games. You must slow down, observe what is around you, and take into consideration how your actions are going to both negatively and positively affect your character. It is very refreshing compared to the usual kill-everything-that-moves-right-now design that too many games follow.

The driving currency that you’ll chase is souls. Souls double as both money for buying much needed weapons, shields, and consumables and experience points to level up with. Leveling up is of paramount importance and always feels like it is pushing the scales back in your favor. After slogging through dozens of undead soldiers and massive bosses, plugging some points into your health, stamina, or any of the other stats gives a very slight advantage. Unfortunately, dying sends you back to the last bonfire checkpoint and you drop your souls where you perished. Die again without picking them up, and they’re gone forever.

Designs like this show how From Software is more than willing to slap the player around and make them uncertain. Another example: much of the game’s loot is stashed in wooden chests. Sounds simple enough, until some chests snap you into their jaws as you open them.

The developers also had a heyday with enemy and boss designs. The farther you get into this seemingly dulled world, the bigger and nastier enemies seem to get. A huge taurus monster swings a hammer with a tornado-wake of debris, smashing even the stoutest shield aside. Colossal dragons and demons are even worse, with one shot kill attacks that can only be dodged with skill and a bit of luck. This is one of Dark Souls’ greatest problems. I understand that hideous monsters are powerful, but getting killed over and over only to respawn twenty minutes back at the bonfire (read: checkpoint) is egregious.

Some of the frustration of dying is alleviated by the wonder imbued into the ruins and caverns of the land. At first, the grayish green hue of the world and simple castle walls don’t inspire much exploration, but Dark Souls really does has a surprisingly large color palette and architectural aesthetic: an otherworldly, blue crystal cave and a massive, winding library being examples of both. The sense of scale in the realm of Lordan is also amazing, with wide vistas showing the interconnected areas that lie ahead. Looking over an entire area that I’d already fought through from a high parapet was very satisfying.

Unfortunately, the journey to get to these high places is often not so satisfying. Again, death comes swiftly, and Dark Souls’ combat is going to polarize players. You’ll either get into the hard swinging, shield banging melee, or you’ll just hate having to block all the time. Me? I stand on the side that enjoys the methodical brutality of this game. Weapons swing out slower than in other action games, but they also hit harder. Get the right weapon in your hands and you’ll find that you are incredibly capable of taking out lesser and even some greater foes. An awkward looking dodge roll seems silly at first, but proves crucial in keeping your health bar intact.

All this is great until you encounter some of the more boneheaded designs that the developers came up with. Too often you’ll run into unblockable attacks, enemy grapple moves that drain far too much health, and some demons that can semi-permanently curse your health bar down to half. They all drag down Dark Souls with needless frustration, but he first two feel particularly cheap. I had several boss fights end within ten seconds because I got locked into a grapple that ripped all my health away instantly.

So can I recommend this insanity to people? I don’t know. I was hooked on the game for over 30 hours, but I often ended play sessions with cursing and yelling. Stress and satisfaction are intertwined into the very design of Dark Souls, and your triumph at conquering an area will probably be preceded and followed by plenty of cheap deaths. A rental may help you decide if you are ready for the task.