Month: February 2016

Days Under Custody

Z

Elude a serial killer and discover why he’s after you.

PC Release: November 23, 2015

By Ian Coppock

I haven’t had good luck with video games these past two weeks. From a Batman adventure gone awry to a deer game that indicts both hunting and my intelligence in one fell swoop, I seem to have hit a rut. A buddy of mine who bore witness to the golden age of adventure games suggested I try an old-school puzzle game to cleanse my palette. Because horror-themed games are my favorite, I decided to start exploring this sub-genre in earnest with the recently released Days Under Custody.

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Though Days Under Custody was released only a few months ago, it goes for the scene-by-scene adventure game formula that I was too young to appreciate in its heyday. I don’t think I even existed when Operation Stealth and Future Wars were released, so it’s not a type of video game that I have a lot of experience with.

Days Under Custody is a horror-adventure game starring a man named Duc Parkings. Haha. Hahahaha. Hahahahahahahahahaha. DUC PARKINGS.

Z1

Our reluctant hero.

As it turns out, English is not the first language of Days Under Custody‘s developer, which is fine. I don’t know how well I would do coming up with a name in a foreign language, but I would at least double-check that the name didn’t sound like a species of timid waterfowl.

Anyway, Duc wakes up in the night to horrible shrieks coming from his neighbor’s apartment. Turns out that his neighbors were diced up by some crazed serial killer, and the dude is still on the loose! As Duc, it’s your job to explore the apartment complex and investigate the goings-on, all while avoiding the murderer who stalks the shadows.

Z2

Days Under Custody seeks to emulate the item-seeking, room-exploring vibe of yore.

Duc can explore environments by moving from one end of the scene to the other and going through doors, which really sums up just how exciting exploration in these old-fashioned games is. Again, as with older games, you achieve your goals primarily by finding keys and unlocking doors to new areas. Duc can’t seem to remember where he left about 99% of his keys, so players have to be very thorough with searching entire scenes.

Most rooms in the game are also littered with notes that give further exposition to whatever’s going on here. We see written accounts from Duc’s parents and vague descriptions of the serial killer who’s prowling around outside. Sometimes the dude himself shows up to cut a bitch, but don’t worry; the nearest person-sized wardrobe is never too far away.

Z3

Tum-tee-tum, just walking around…

The meat of Days Under Custody‘s gameplay is this simplistic search for keys, and honestly, it’s not that difficult. The game world is pretty small, and there are few places the keys can hide if you’re a reasonably thorough searcher. Duc also drops hints that give players the exact location of the keys, which is probably another accidental product of the developer’s lack of English comprehension.

Let me say again, I don’t care if English isn’t someone’s first language. I’m not a right-wing xenophone who wants everyone to, in the immortal words of Sarah Palin, “speak American”. But, if you’re going to market a game to an audience, it helps if you have a pretty good grasp of how the writing and comprehension in their language works. We’ll be getting into that again and again as we go along.

Z4

“Enter on department 304”. Case in point on the poor translation.

Despite the writing errors and simplistic gameplay, Days Under Custody does have a pretty decent horror atmosphere. Not great, but the eerie strings of the soundtrack and the sudden crashing of something downstairs will keep you engaged. When the serial killer does show up, you have seconds to hide before he runs past and into another part of the house. These encounters can happen anytime, and though they’re easy to avoid, that initial appearance is surprisingly frightening.

After slinking through the apartments, Duc makes his way onto the street, where Days Under Custody begins taking turns for the worse. Until now, the poor English writing really only betrayed item locations and a few important lines of dialogue. Now, they’re muddling up the instructions for puzzles.

Z5

Where am I going?

Now, again, I don’t care if you can’t speak English that well. I’m quite lenient toward grammar and comprehension mistakes when it comes to exposition, but not to puzzles. If you’re going to create a puzzle, and the rules for that puzzle, you’d better make damn sure your instructions on how to proceed are crystal clear. Telling me that the door code I’m after is “the number of pictures you saw” is neither clear nor concise. Considering that I saw no pictures on my way to the door code, it’s basically gibberish. Puzzles are difficult enough without being unable to discern what we’re supposed to do.

Things only continue to go off the rails from there. After Duc punches in the door code, you get into an apartment building full of nonsensical hidden wall puzzles. The final puzzle, one that I solved through sheer luck, involved putting four gemstones in front of four paintings. I tried looking for corresponding colors between the stones and the paintings, and then tried randomly putting them in. The latter strategy worked.

This touches on a larger problem that I have with old-school adventure games. A lot of their challenges have absolutely nothing to do with skill. Instead, they have everything to do with happening to find random objects, or investing hours of my time into guesswork. Puzzles should not be a matter of luck, they should be a matter of logic. You don’t have to tell me the exact solution, but at least tell me the rules that I’m working with so that I can make my way there. Days Under Custody, and many older games like it, assumes that randomly guessing shit is fun. Maybe I’m just too hip and far out for the older games, but randomly guessing shit is not fun. It is boring. It is frustrating. It is bad game design.

Z6

Okay, seriously, how the hell is this supposed to be fun?

Days Under Custody, though, misses something that even tedious old-school games might have done well: the narrative. Between the poorly written dialogue and the bad puzzle design, I had no clue most of the game what my long-term objective was. I pack my shit and get the hell out of dodge whenever a serial killer’s on the loose, but ol’ Duc is just too brave for that nonsense.

I was able to discern the plot twist long before it happened, and I’m just going to spoil it because anyone who wastes time thinking this game’s story is good deserves no quarter. Turns out, the serial killer looks a lot like Duc. Some might say… almost identical, and the game descends into the stereotypical it-was-me-this-whole-time plot twist. The sort of psychological spin-doctoring that’s become endemic to thrillers since Fight Club. I was also able to discern this because the writing, bad as it was, let on much more information than the developer probably intended. Subtlety is probably the hardest thing to grasp about any language. English is no different.

Z7

Aaaaand we’re back at the menu screen already? I just sat down a half-hour ago!

I don’t know much about old-school scene-by-scene adventure games, but Days Under Custody was a bad place to start. It has some decent artwork, and some okay music, but everything else about it is meh or worse. The writing is inexcusably bad even for someone who doesn’t speak English as their primary language. This has Google Translate written all over it.

The narrative is as run-of-the-mill as can be, and the luck-based puzzle design is something that I cannot condone. I also can’t condone you, dear reader, wasting your time with a half-hour exercise in failed horror. If you never read anything else on this blog that I write, DO NOT BUY DAYS UNDER CUSTODY. Just don’t even bother, even for shits and giggles. But I’ll leave the link up, just in case you need to exercise your self-hatred.

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You can buy Days Under Custody here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

The Deer God

E

Redeem yourself for past transgressions by living life as a deer.

PC Release: February 27, 2015

By Ian Coppock

It’s been too long since I played a video game that brought about deep emotions. I was scrolling through platformers about a year ago and found a game that promised to “challenge your religion and your platforming skills”. I have no religion, but my platforming skills can always use work, so I decided to see if The Deer God is the philosophically vibrant game it claims to be. After all, marketing materials NEVER exaggerate things!

…Right?

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The Deer God begins with a hunter getting mauled to death by wolves. Right as the rabid beasts attack, he accidentally shoots a fawn that strays between his bullet and the adult deer he was aiming for. He then succumbs to his wounds.

Our hero wakes up in an ethereal sky-court presided over by a sentient deer, who tells the hunter that because he’s slain a baby deer, he must become one himself. This court order is backed up by the hitherto unknown fact that deer are “pure” animals, and the most beautiful creatures on earth. Becoming the very thing he killed is the only way this hunter can redeem himself.

E1

This indictment seems a little unfair, considering that the baby deer was shot by accident.

First of all, deer are not “pure”. They have ticks and lime disease. When I was a kid, they’d wander into my yard, eat all my mom’s flowers, and take a group shit on the driveway. You could trick the idiot kid from up the street into thinking that deer poop was just a pile of re-fried beans.Right now I don’t have a whole lot of empathy for this stern deer deity.

Anyway, the hunter is reborn as a fawn in a heavily pixelated forest. From there, The Deer God throws away its redemption story in favor of meeting the “elder” deer, who can give you superpowers. Because we all know deer can jump thirty feet in the air, and shoot fire from their antlers.

E2

For the grief I’m giving The Deer God’s narrative, at least it’s a beautiful game.

The Deer God‘s platforming contains almost as many misfires as its narrative. Right off the bat, the game has no tutorial, which is a lazy and irritating design flaw. You’re given no clue which button does what until you’ve tested them all. I can guess that the arrow keys are for movement and jumping, but I have no clue how to use my powers or even what powers I have available. You attack things by charging at them (like that one time a deer blew out the windows in my mom’s car).

You also have an inventory for carrying items, but you’re given no indication of what the items do, much less how to use them. It took the better part of 10 minutes to find the mushroom I’d picked up, deploy it, and figure out it was used for bouncing. All of that could’ve been avoided with an on-screen bullet point.

E3

What the hell does all of this MEAN?

The Deer God is not divided into clearly defined levels. You just keep running to the right, and if you’re not picking up on how to progress, you’ll just keep looping through the same area until you figure it out. Most of the time these puzzles are pretty straightforward, like pushing a block onto a switch. Sometimes you also need to find items or, you guessed it, trespass onto people’s yards to eat all their flowers,.

Just like a real deer, you get bigger the more food you eat. Stopping to eat fruit on trees will cause you to grow from a tiny fawn into a huge… stallion? Colt? Whatever you call a male deer. Your health and attack grow accordingly, which is handy when every goddamn animal in the forest is attacking you. Yep. Not just the foxes or mountain lions; the eagles and badgers are out for your blood too.

Now, I’m no zoologist, but it’s said that animals can sense malicious intent. If everything in the forest is attacking me, it’s yet another indicator that deer are indeed Satan-spawn. I’m just saying.

E4

The Deer God could only challenge my religion if my religion consisted of being patient with bizarre game design.

Now, I will give The Deer God credit where credit is due; its environments are gorgeous. Everything is made of huge, crunchy pixels, and done out in a riot of dazzling colors. The Deer God amplifies its beautiful worlds with an ambient soundtrack. These tracks of light synth add a delicate flavor to the worlds you travel through. It’s all very pretty to look at and listen to.

As for sound design, well, it’s hit-or-miss. Generally speaking, the sound effects having to do with spoken words and weather effects are great, but the animal noises come through distorted. The music takes most of the focus away from these problems and gives The Deer God some much-needed atmosphere.

E5

IT’S SO PIXELY!!!

I suppose the game designers also wanted atmosphere to stem from the game’s narrative and spoken word, but The Deer God contradicts itself on several counts. The game casts itself as a hardcore platformer; you have a limited number of lives with which to get through the whole game.

I played this game, and I died a lot. The deer god who turned me into a deer even said “one life left…” and just kept saying it even when I died like five more times. I can only speculate, but my guess is that the developers saw that the game’s high difficulty was not taking well, and changed its format without changing the dialogue. Even if the deer-goddess-thing says “one life left”, don’t worry. You have unlimited numbers of them. It seems like a lazy fix to just remove the game over screen and not change anything else.

E6

The Deer God’s premise and marketing are both directly contradicted by its gameplay.

It’s rare when I write about a video game whose content and premise are completely different, because even some of the shittiest games I’ve ever played had the good grace to be synonymous in that regard. I’m not talking about when a marketing person says that a terrible game is great; I’m talking about when the game tells you one thing but executes it in a completely different way.

I have one life left, but you give me infinity of them? Seeing something like that is just such a…. novelty. I’ve overextended my commentary on it just because I’m so vexed by it. The omnipotent threat of the “game over” screen just never comes, despite its heralding.

E7

I’m never going hunting if there’s even a remote chance of this game’s events happening to me.

Again, to be fair, it was good of the developers to put unlimited lives into The Deer God, because the game is hard. There are lots of obvious dangers from animals, but you also need to watch out for spike traps, which are everywhere. The game will also pit you against huge bosses whose defeat will hinge on your patience and your willingness to endure grinding battles. If you’re a millisecond too late on jumping out of the way, you’re dead.

All in all, I’m just not really sure what I’m looking at here. The Deer God is a game that casts itself as the deeply emotional narrative that transforms how mankind looks at nature, only to throw that premise away five seconds into the game. Instead of discussing transcendent themes or how all life is connected, we’re just running through the forest attacking badgers and impaling ourselves on spike traps. This isn’t a game that tests religion… only patience.

E8

I just don’t know what this game wants from me. I don’t think IT knows what it wants from me.

The Deer God is just a weird little game. I don’t think I’ve ever characterized a game as such, but I don’t know how else to put it.

It’s like the cheerleader you take out for dinner in high school; she looks and smells amazing, but dig even an inch beneath the surface and there’s just… nothing. An empty void disguised by a sugary glaze. Certainly not the spiritual or emotional experience I was hoping for. As such, I would give The Deer God a miss. Its story is nonsensical and what few platforming mechanics it does well can be found a dozen times better in a dozen other games.

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You can buy The Deer God here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

 

 

Anoxemia

A

Explore the remains of an undersea war zone, and the terrors hidden in the deep.

PC Release: January 16, 2015

By Ian Coppock

 I love being chased around by monsters and serial killers as much as the next guy, but atmosphere makes or breaks a horror game as much as tense survival gameplay. Though the latter format makes for some fun stuff, I also enjoy games that explore other horror forms so long as the atmosphere remains intact. Anoxemia is a game that succeeds in exploring other ways to scare you, but, as we’re about to learn, atmosphere can’t save a game from even one fatal flaw.

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Anoxemia is a side-scrolling platformer set after an apocalyptic future war. Player character Dr. Bailey and his robot ATMA are dispatched to the remnants of an underwater war zone to collect mutated plants. The area he’s to explore is located at the very bottom of the ocean, in a region that’s been heavily irradiated by past battles.

At the outset, the job sounds simple, but Bailey loses contact with his team and then has to eject from his submersible shortly thereafter. Players must guide Dr. Bailey and his robot through a hazardous and morose underwater world to both complete the mission and find a way back to the surface.

A1

Thank God for flashlights.

The game blurb’s assessment that you control Dr. Bailey is technically incorrect. You’re actually in control of ATMA, his little drone, and have to guide him through this haunting seascape. It makes for a challenging game; enemies are more likely to chase Bailey than you, and you have to make sure that any passages you find are big enough for him to also squeeze through. If you drift too far ahead of him or he gets struck down, the level is over.

And yes, there are enemies down here. Robots left behind from whatever war this game postdates will attack the pair of you on sight. This forbidding zone is also home to a variety of unfriendly sea critters and a sea within a sea of sea mines. Combine this with Anoxemia‘s fondness for narrow caves, and we’ve got ourselves quite the difficult little game.

A2

Anoxemia is the most challenging platformer I’ve played in years.

You have a few tools at your disposal for dealing with enemy threats, though in the style of a true horror game, no direct weapons. You can stun enemies for brief periods of time or jet away from them as the situation allows. Eventually you’re also given access to a little blade-cable thing that you can use to tether onto rocks and cut sea mines free. Ultimately, though, your best chance for survival in Anoxemia is deftness with the swim-the-hell-away keys.

Though Anoxemia‘s enemies are formidable, there are only, like, three kinds. Once you’ve survived the first five levels or so, you’ve seen pretty much all the enemies the game has to offer. A robot, a jellyfish, and some little homing mines.

A3

SWIM AWAY, SWIM AWAY!

Anoxemia compensates for its lack of enemy foes by infusing more danger into the environments. Most levels have their own environmental hazard; caves, for example, feature hidden clumps of rocks that can fall on you at a moment’s notice. A few levels feature laser-triggered missile traps that will gut you with a sidewinder if you try to swim too high. You’ll also face less direct threats, like navigating a maze of sunken ship corridors with little light and even less oxygen.

So yeah, for anything that can be said about the lack of variety in Anoxemia‘s corporeal enemies, the game more than compensates by upping the environmental hazard factor.

A4

Anoxemia has some creative environmental dangers. The irradiated sea cave pictured here can flash-fry you with a sudden gush of acid.

So what exactly are we navigating all of these hazards for, again? Well, Dr. Bailey is a botanist, who apparently specializes in extracting flora from irradiated submarine battlefields. Quite the sub-focus. Anoxemia is divided into over 20 levels, and you can’t proceed to the next one until you’ve found every hidden plant sample.

Anoxemia paces itself well, putting 2-3 short levels between much longer gather-fests. Each set of levels has its own theme, though they don’t necessarily all share the same dangers. As you can see from the screenshots, the game’s beautiful aesthetic pits a dark foreground against vividly colored backgrounds.Some areas have no background pictures to speak of, just the darkness of the open ocean. But, most give you lots to look at. Submarine bases, sunken ships, sea caves and underwater canyons form most of the artistic themes present in Anoxemia.

A5

I don’t care how many nukes went off in here, I’m ready to go. Let’s James Cameron this shit.

The aforementioned horror elements come out in Anoxemia‘s art design as well as its sound. I’ll keep saying it ’till I’m blue in the face, sound design is vital to crafting a quality horror atmosphere.

The enemies you face in this game are not super-scary, by any means. But the sounds of creaking ships and the distant moans of ungodly deep-sea creatures will have you on edge throughout the game. It indicates an impressive attention to detail, and as we all know, the details are what people remember.

A6

Finding Nemo taught me to stay on the jellyfish tops. It actually worked!

So what are these fatal flaws that I alluded to up top, you might ask? So far this game sounds great. Great art, great sound design, challenging gameplay…. what’s not to love?

Well, before you rush off to Steam with wallet in hand, let’s circle back to that narrative premise real quick. Dr. Bailey’s down here to gather plants, as we know, but that’s about as far as the narrative goes. Occasionally the screen will short out and then show Bailey swimming in a sea of dead bodies, which, while scary, doesn’t really have any sort of follow-up. He just keeps swimming like nothing happened, which is a damn shame, because it made me jump the first time.

A7

Bailey will occasionally comment that he seems to remember coming this way before, but does nothing more to address those concerns, instead contenting himself with plants.

The Achilles’ Heel of Anoxemia is one seemingly small design flaw that ended up ruining the game for me. Throughout each level, you need to find Dr. Bailey enough oxygen to keep him alive while he looks for plants. Problem is, whatever amount of oxygen you end the level with is the same amount that you’ll start the next one off with.

See what I’m saying? If I finish a level with five seconds on my air meter, that means I start the next level with only five seconds to find more. What the developers of this game failed to take into account is that oxygen is never five seconds away from your starting point. Ergo, you’re screwed. I can appreciate a good challenge, but I can also only try to redo a challenging level so many times before I lose my shit.

A8

Anoxemia spends much of its time on the fence between challenging and broken, before descending into full-on broken.

The thing that surprised me is that the developer is apparently A-OK with this type of design. I made a post on Anoxemia’s Steam forum about this flaw, and he and I went back and forth a few times without him understanding why this would be a problem. “Just do the preceding five levels over and hope for more oxygen!” was his conclusion to the discussion.

No can do, sir. I don’t hate myself enough to play ten levels over just so that I might beat the eleventh. I don’t care what plot twist this game is building up to, I just don’t have the time, patience and self-loathing required to perpetually replay entire swaths of the game in exchange for crumbs of progress. The developer should’ve designed the game to just start off with a set amount of oxygen; it’s still plenty challenging even if that suggestion had been implemented.

A10

Also, this guy has a pink mustache… for no apparent reason.

Anoxemia is a great example of how one design flaw can upend an otherwise great game. I give this atmospheric platformer full marks in art, sound design and atmosphere. The story, while weak, is workable. It’s just that one little thing that only those of you with masochistic tendencies will have the fortitude to surmount. I refunded the game and moved on to other things. Spend your time and money elsewhere.

Oh… look at that. Anoxemia is a scientific term that means “out of oxygen.” How ironic.

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You can buy Anoxemia here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate

B

Stop the Joker and other villains from destroying Blackgate Prison.

PC Release: October 25, 2013

By Ian Coppock

I was surfing my Steam library the other day when I came upon this game, which I’d never purchased, sitting alongside my other Arkham games. Thinking that Warner Bros. was pulling that same perennial trial nonsense that we’ve seen with Orion: Prelude, I checked the community page and found out that all owners of Batman: Arkham Knight received a free copy of this game. Ostensibly, this gift was made as a peace offering for putting up with Warner Brothers’ bullshit for four months while they fixed up Arkham Knight.

Oh boy. A PC port of a handheld game, given to me for free? Truly, Warner Brothers knows how to treat its customers. Sure, their games don’t work on launch day and none of Arkham Knight‘s DLC was free, but at least we have this thing. The question is…. is it any good?

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Arkham Origins Blackgate is a companion game for Batman: Arkham Origins, as one might guess by the titles’ similarity. AOB takes place three months after the Christmas Eve incident of Arkham Origins and follows Batman’s first encounter with Catwoman.

After a thrilling, varied chase across the rooftops of Gotham City, our hero finally kitty-corners (ba dum pssh) Catwoman and sends her behind bars. Within weeks of having done so, the Blackgate prison facility Batman has consigned her to erupts into chaos.

B2

I’m a beautiful bat-arina!

Batman arrives to the crime scene and learns that the prison’s been divvied up between three super-villains. Penguin’s made a nest for himself in the armory, Black Mask is busy breaking things in the power plant, and Joker’s holed up in the admin wing with lots of hostages. It’s up to Batman to clear each wing of baddies and send their bosses back to their cells.

In addition to our three leading antagonists, Batman encounters a few other villains in Blackgate. The Bronze Tiger makes his Arkhamverse debut in a high-stakes cage match with lots of electric fences. Paradoxically, Batman also encounters Solomon Grundy, who’s supposed to be buried beneath Arkham City and at this point unknown to our hero.

B3

It’s never a good sign when a game breaks its own series’s continuity.

The biggest shakeup AOB makes to the Arkham formula is tying Batman into a 2.5D format. Yep, the entire game is a side-scrolling platformer, with all of the main games’ mechanics reformatted to fit the new style.

For all the horrible things I’m going to say about this game a few paragraphs from now, Batman’s crime-fighting mechanics are spun into the side-scrolling format with surprising smoothness. Enemies can come at you from either side, but you can still pull bat-stunts and counter-attacks to floor them. Detective mode has been re-engineered as a scene-searching tool where you cursor over the item of interest. The predator encounters take some creative license from Mark of the Ninja; just ascend or descend onto whatever platform the enemy’s not on, and you should be good.

B4

I was honestly surprised that the devs put Batman into 2D mode so well. The core mechanics of the 3D games remain fluid in Arkham Origins Blackgate.

If the mechanics do a good job of making players feel like the Dark Knight, the artwork isn’t half-bad at it either. Because this is a handheld port, the graphics are blockier than this game’s bigger-budget brothers. But, it runs well, and has some surprisingly powerful lighting and atmospheric technology for a game of its class.

The music further reinforces the dreary mood endemic to Gotham, with low, mournful strings and hopping sections reminiscent of Han Zimmer’s Dark Knight score. Arkham Origins Blackgate borrows most of its sound effects from the other Arkham games. No problem.

B5

Arkham Origins Blackgate’s cutscenes are stylish motion graphic sequences.

Although Arkham Origins Blackgate‘s gameplay is much better than I expected, and its art direction is in lockstep with the mainline Arkham games, it suffers from a few flaws that ultimately killed the project for me.

First off, the boss battles are awful. You’re typically facing your foe from a series of linear platforms, in a giant, difficult-to-maneuver predator encounter. You have to take down waves of baddies before you can get to the main villain, and any one of them can shoot you from the other side of the room just like that. If you bat-fart too loud, the whole room becomes alerted to your exact location and will pump you full of lead not a split second later. It’s a frustrating grind that was a few lucky swoops away from causing me to rage quit.

B6

Arkham Origins Blackgate attempts to marry brawls to stealth encounters, with disastrous results.

Another thing making this game quite tiresome is its tendency to turn into a pixel-hunting game. I’ve never played a hidden object game that I didn’t feel to be a massive waste of time, and sweeping every scene with detective vision irked that same cynical heart string. It’s not fun to retrace your steps for two hours because you missed a tiny button in the janitor’s closet.

Because Arkham Origins Blackgate is played on a much smaller scale than its big brothers, it has no Most Wanted missions or other side quests. Finding side villains is relegated to these hidden-object puzzles, where a few objects that you might happen to scan over will give you a bio on some minor villain or another. Problem is, we’re given no indication as to what to look for or if it’s relevant to the main story or not. The villains themselves also don’t appear.

The main story, by the way, is pretty weak, as evidenced by the fact that I forgot to bring it up until now. It’s mostly a storyless grind through each wing of Blackgate Prison, with an underwhelming plot twist at the end. Every character stays exactly in their assigned niche and differs little from their counterparts in Arkham Origins. I appreciate the attempt at a new concept, but it doesn’t help that the battle at the game’s end has absolutely nothing to do with the other 90% of the story.

B7

This is infuriating.

The worst of Arkham Origins Blackgate‘s sins and the final piece of its poor design triumvirate is how it pads out its playtime. Arkham Origins Blackgate has an absolutely horseshit tendency to let you spend three hours clearing out a wing of the facility, spend three more hours clearing out the next one, and then spend six hours going through both wings again because an item you need to finish the second wing is at the very beginning of the first wing.

See what I’m saying, here? After I put Penguin back on ice, I set off for Black Mask’s part of the facility. I got to the door that Black Mask was hiding behind, only to be informed that I needed a hitherto unknown item to bust it open. That item happened to be located at the very beginning of Penguin’s wing… the very wing I’d just spent three hours clearing.

Let me get this straight; you, dear developers, are tasking me with fighting all the way back out of the second wing, all the way back to the end of the first wing, and then back through both wings in order to finish one goddamn wing?

Nope, not gonna do it. Instead, I’m going to introduce you to my old friend, Steam Refund System. I think you two will get along swimmingly.

B8

Not to beat a dead inmate, but this game’s repetitiveness is unacceptable.

The real tragedy of Arkham Origins Blackgate is that it’s a PC port of a handheld game that actually runs well. Most people outside of the PC world have no clue how rare this is. But rather than not recommending this game to you because of any bugs, I am not recommending it to you because of a small number of big design problems.

Arkham Origins Blackgate does an admirable job of creating the same dreadful, engrossing atmosphere we see in the main games, but a few combat design flaws and a cynical attempt to artificially inflate its playtime are what brought the game low. Even hardcore Batman fans would do well to stay away from this game. You might be thinking as I did, that the game can’t be that bad and that you can soak up all the Bat-mosphere you want.

Please. Don’t buy this. I’ll still post the link for those of you who hate yourselves, but don’t buy it.

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You can buy Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

ARK: Survival Evolved

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Do whatever it takes to survive on an island teeming with dinosaurs.

PC Release: Early Access (development ongoing)

By Ian Coppock

ARK: Survival Evolved is one of the biggest things happening on Steam right now. A giant online survival world where people team up against dinosaurs, woolly mammoths and all types of other creatures? It sounds like the progeny of Michael Bay and Steven Speilberg and holy shit, just too good to be true!

TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE!

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According to the Steam store page, ARK: Survival Evolved is an open-world survival game. Players get stranded on a big island and must grow crops, hunt for food and avoid being eaten by the island’s prehistoric denizens. I’m told that the game is packed with dozens of dinosaur species and huge worlds to explore. Since this is an online game, players are best off (in theory) teaming up into tribes, both to combat the island’s savage wildlife and to stave off getting killed by other tribes.

According to the screenshots I saw, ARK looks like the big, beautiful adolescent adventure fantasy we all want it to be. The environmental effects are stunning, the body movements are amazing, and the graphics are absolutely stupendous!

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Just LOOK at this shit! LOOK AT IT!

“Wait a minute,” I hear you thinking, “According to? I’m told that? Ian, did you actually play this game or are you just trying to bedazzle me with the game’s own marketing material?”

The answer is B, I’m trying to bedazzle you with ARK‘s own marketing material. The truth is, I haven’t actually played ARK: Survival Evolved, and I will tell you why.

About a month ago, I was looking into buying this game because yeah, it looks fun. However, reports that Chinese hackers have corrupted the game and are commandeering entire servers gave me pause from doing so. So, as most reasonably intelligent people would, I decided to pose some questions directly to ARK: Survival Evolve‘s community and Steam moderators. Should I buy this game? Are the reports true?

This was the response I got from ARK: Survival Evolved‘s official Steam page:

Seriously

Yup. I asked if ARK was being taken over by Chinese hackers, and the game developer called me a racist and banned me from the forums. This image is not altered or photoshopped in any way; this is the actual visual record of my conversation on ARK‘s page.

Pardon my French, but…

WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SHIT.

Are you for real, Studio Wildcard? I ask an honest question about your early access game, and this is how you treat a potential customer? By banning me for a nonsensical reason and turning me away?

This is a fine example of Steam’s moderator system being abused. I sought some sort of recourse, but the only way I can address a grievance with a video game forum is by complaining to that forum directly. Somehow, I don’t think that the people who banned me will take punitive measures against themselves.

I would hope that not all of Studio Wildcard is behind this type of behavior. For the people in Studio Wildcard who DO condone censorship and treating new customers like garbage, I have this message for you:

MF

I don’t anticipate buying and reviewing ARK: Survival Evolved anytime soon.

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Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Dead Island

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Experience a tropical paradise overrun by zombies.

PC Release: September 6, 2011

By Ian Coppock

About five years ago, a heart-wrenching, beautifully rendered trailer was released from a Polish developer called Techland. The trailer depicted a young family, having embarked on a tropical vacation, trying to keep a horde of zombies out of their swanky hotel room. It plucked the heartstrings with its morose music and the climactic death of a small child. The game for which this trailer was advertising, Dead Island, came out in the autumn of 2011 and…. felt completely different from what the trailer had stirred. Of all of the examples why the E3 hype train is 99% bullshit, that trailer is perhaps the most prominent.

But what of the game? Even if its feel differed from that of the trailer, is it any good? A complicated question. One that I’m prepared to answer.

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Dead Island launched amid significant fanfare and amazed audiences with its combination of eye-catching tropical environments and gory, gory zombies. The game starts off as a zombie virus ravages the tropical paradise of Banoi. A washed-up football player, a shitty rapper, a Chinese concierge and an Australian bodyguard are forced to team up and combat the threat after inadvertently discovering that they’re immune to the virus. Players spend most of the game helping enclaves around the resort fight off the zombies, all the while trying to discover the outbreak’s murky origins.

Dead Island is at heart a co-op game, but I decided to go it alone as Purna, an Aboriginal ex-cop. The game’s main narrative assumes that all four characters are present, but you won’t see your compatriots in the actual game unless you’re in multiplayer. For her part, Purna is an expert with firearms and with creatively swearing in an Australian accent, so obviously she’s the best choice.

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Each character has his or her own strengths to suit your preferred method of zombie-hunting.

Dead Island is an open-world FPS game with a mix of melee and ranged combat. You’ll start off from humble beginnings wielding cricket bats and paddles, but take heart; revolvers and AKs are just around the corner. Dead Island‘s focus on melee combat allows for some head-bashing, zombie-smashing fun as you take the fight to them with anything at hand. The game’s hitboxes are surprisingly decent, allowing for fluid melee attacks against any body part you happen to be facing, rather than general damage. You can even decapitate charging zombies if you time your strikes right.

Dead Island‘s gunplay is decidedly more pedestrian than the melee combat. It’s easy to see why the game focuses on melee, as all zombies will go down in 1-2 head shots. Human enemies out to scavenge your stuff make the occasional appearance, but their AI is so poor that they’re little better at dodging bullets than their undead counterparts.

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Melee combat is where it’s at.

Even the most badass baseball bat, though, will give you only so much power against the zombies. Dead Island is presented in an open-world format, and you’d better believe that the whole resort is crawling with the undead. There’s something comical about a gymnasium douchebag zombie lurching at you in pink shorts, but do you focus on him, or on the bellboy zombie lurching at you with a cart? Melee weapons degrade over time, but this challenge is mitigated by the sheer number of them lying around.

As is common in video game media these days, zombies come in different types and options. You’ve got your typical “walker” zombie, your “infected” runner zombie whose viral strain had some Sriracha added to it, and your hulking “thug” zombie that acts as a mini-boss. I appreciate the variety here, but some zombie variants are flat-out weird, like the “ram” zombies bound up in straightjackets. That’s a terrifying foe, but why are there so goddamn many of them? Is this resort right next to an insane asylum?

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A zombie with its forearms filed into blades? It would take extraordinary circumstances to produce just ONE of these, let alone an entire army.

Anyway, special zombie silliness aside, the combat in this game is satisfying and reasonably well done, though a bit broken if you master the kicking ability. You can kick zombies away to keep yourself from getting mobbed, but the game inadvertently lets you kick multiple foes and makes showdowns with one enemy a breeze.

Besides zombies, the other thing Dead Island‘s open world has in plentitude is quests. Talk to the survivor, go to the store to get some some gasoline and Capri-Sun, take it back to the survior to hand the quest in, get some money and trinkets, repeat ad nauseum. Seriously, every goddamn quest in this game is a boring, ho-hum fetch quest. Even the story missions: talk to this dude, drive over to this power station or lesbian bathroom or changing station or wherever the shit the shit is, get in, get out, get your reward, and move on.

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I get that in a survival situation you’re probably fetching a lot of stuff, but can we make this game a bit more fun at some point? Does this guy look like he’s having fun?

Lots of quests means a lot of, you guessed it, RPG elements! Kill a sufficient number of zombies and level up for even more ridiculous zombie-killing! It’s so zombielicious you’ll zombie your zombie.

Zombies.

Facetiousness aside, it doesn’t take very long to get the long view of how Dead Island works. Once you’ve gone on a few missions to fetch breakfast cereal, or the necklace that hot tourist’s secret boyfriend got for her, you’ve gone on them all. Each quest is also named after a pop culture reference… for some reason.

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Wooooaaaaah… what is going on in here?

I suppose it’s only fair to dive a bit more into the main story of this game since the side quests are trivial time-wasters. For a start, the game’s dialogue is ridiculous. You know how people who are insecure about how tough or masculine they are will try to compensate for it by swearing as much as possible? Listening to this game is like having a conversation with a dozen of these people.

Swearing is an art, not a science. You put swearwords in places where it makes sense, where there’s a flow. The phrase “I’m going to go get the motherfucking goddamn truck” does not take heed to this lesson, and instead of inspiring fear or resolve, inspires laughter.

I suppose that the game’s unspoken background information is pretty interesting. It’s becoming more difficult to find original zombie outbreak concepts as the undead saturate our media, but this one takes a little bit of Pacific islander folklore and a little bit of obscure science to come up with something surprisingly workable. I won’t spoil it, but I’m glad the developers understood the word “subtlety” at SOME point during development.

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The reason behind Dead Island’s zombie outbreak is more creative than the rest of the game combined.

To be honest I’m having a hard time coming up with what else to expect in this game’s narrative. Everything is basically a long line of fetch quests culminating a single battle atop a building and the threat of impending doom to light a fire under your ass. This game’s characters do not budge one iota out of their predetermined niches. The black guy is of course a rapper who grew up on the streets and the Chinese waitress speaks in the same stereotypical overtures we’ve seen in the media for years.

I was also disappointed to learn that Techland, the studio behind Dead Island, referred to Purna as a “feminist whore” during development. Here we have perhaps the only Aboriginal character in the whole of gamedom and Techland treats her like trash. But, I shouldn’t be surprised; this is the same studio who thought that THIS would be a good item to ship with their games:

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Tasteless to the point of being anti-art. Techland marketed this bust as a “conversation starter”. I won’t dispute them that statement.

Techland. They won’t make a decent game, but they will ship you something they found in Errol Childress’s sex dungeon.

As long as I’m giving this beautiful-looking but utterly derivative game the indictment it deserves, I should warn PC players about Dead Island‘s plethora of bugs. I played the Xbox 360 version of this game almost half a decade ago and got through it no problem. The PC version, by contrast, has dozens of bugs, lots of them game-breaking.

The first bug I noticed was one that stopped the game if you got all of your fruit juice from one gas station, instead of half from one station and half from another as the quest suggests. I tried to hand the quest in but the fruit juice paradox kicked in and caused the game to crash.

The second and most God-awful bug was one that teleported me from the end of the game’s first chaper into somewhere in the third. After poking around inside a Russian cafe during a late evening, I booted the game back up the next day after work to find that I’d been teleported to a jungle with a cell phone and no guns. That bug was what prompted my first test of the Steam game removal system.

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From beach balls made of lead to animorphing zombies, Dead Island’s bugs are deadlier than its bite.

Dead Island includes a prequel DLC that follows an army colonel’s efforts to save his wife, but the entire affair is so linear and buggy, that it’s barely worth mentioning beyond this sentence. Except perhaps to mention that it’s packaged into the main game.

So, let’s review real quick: what have we learned? First, we learned that great E3 trailers can be used to advertise shitty games. Second, we learned that gorgeous graphics that look competitive even five years later aren’t enough to save a game. And third, we learned that Ian wasted his time on Dead Island and hopes to prevent his fellow PC players from doing the same. I’m told that Techland did nothing to fix Dead Island‘s bugs in the game’s direct sequel, Dead Island: Riptide, and I therefore have very little interest in playing that or the upcoming Dead Island 2.

Dead Island 2 also seems to be under the impression that California is an island.

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You can buy Dead Island here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

The Half-Life Hodgepodge

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There are hundreds of Half-Life mods floating around, so I played a few of them.

By Ian Coppock

Remember earlier this very evening when I discussed some mods for Amnesia: The Dark Descent? Desura, the game client hosting these mods, has a massive mod section devoted to Half-Life, one of the greatest games ever made. Even today, this exceptional shooter is a legend among its peers, and new mods are constantly being made for it. I’ve played a lot of Half-Life mods over the years and have compiled some of them for your consideration.

-Other World-

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-Other World- is an abstract puzzler that bears many visual and level design similarities to my favorite puzzle game, Antichamber. It was for these reasons that I decided to download it and give it a go.

The goal of -Other World- is to navigate a series of floating blocks and touch the key block at the end of the level. This mod has a lot of bold color going into it, but is essentially story-less and lacks any ambient sounds. Even if both of these issues were rectified, the mod requires players to type in console commands in order to reach the next level. I found that I was able to type in these commands without having to beat the level, and advance to the next area. Sometimes the mod would crash when I put in a code, whether or not I actually completed the level.

So yeah, -Other World- has some decent color and level design, but its instability makes it a must-avoid on this list.

Affliction

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Affliction is a 20 minute-long map set during the Black Mesa Incident of Half-Life fame. Your character wakes up at the top of a body pile and sets off to kick some ass. The mod is little more than an assortment of rooms with enemies in them, followed by a big tank battle at the end.

Pretty fun stuff, but the mod is so safe and uniform that it has a hard time standing out from its more adventurous peers. On top of that, you don’t seem to actually be afflicted by anything, despite the name of the mod. Affliction is a good little map, and not one iota more than that.

Afraid of Monsters

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Afraid of Monsters is the second-most famous Half-Life horror mod (we’ll get to the most famous in a second). Players are cast as a drug addict named David, whose world gets turned upside down when he takes a bunch of hallucinatory pills. It’s up to you to navigate a pitch-dark urban environment where twitchy monsters and blood-covered psychopaths lurk around every corner.

Though Afraid of Monsters made me jump a few times, it has some undeniably cheap design elements. The same jump scares are used over and over, and resources are very, very scarce, meaning that you’ll end up spending hours quickly killing a monster, quick-saving, and then retracing your steps if the next battle takes away too much health. Easy mode on this game is normal mode on other games.

Afraid of Monsters also ruins its own plot twist at the very start of the game. David receives these pills from an anonymous company, and, because he apparently has nothing better to do, begins taking them regularly. He laments that the pills cause wild hallucinations, meaning that the monsters you think you’re butchering are actually innocent people. A shocking and depressing plot twist on its own, but the modders behind this game didn’t give their audience much credit, name-dropping the twist at every. Freaking. Opportunity. Overall, despite some good level design, this mod isn’t all that great. A director’s cut remake of the mod released a few years later proved little better.

Big Lolly

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Yup. This is a thing. And yup, I totally played it.

Big Lolly is a platformer in which you’re some kind of candy-warrior-thing. You can beat evil gingerbread men to death with your lollipop (if you know what I mean) or shoot them with a banana gun (also if you know what I mean).

Big Lolly features visuals that don’t appear in Half-Life; ain’t no giant candy canes in the research labs. Unfortunately, the mod is only about ten minutes long and spans two easy levels. You kill like three evil cookies and you’re done. This mod is better enjoyed as a curio, preferably while shitface drunk and in the company of similarly sozzled friends.

Crack-Life

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I don’t even know where to begin with Crack-Life. It’s the entire game of Half-Life dressed up in the most cringeworthy humor you’ve ever seen. From guns that scream racial slurs to the sound of Gerard Butler yelling “SPARTA!” every time you open a door, this mod is an audio-visual assault upon your senses. The story of the original game has been twisted into a race to stop an army of homosexual time-traveling Nazis from taking over the world. As you can see in the title screen, the character models have been similarly souped up to rain ridiculousness upon your frontal lobe.

Crack-Life is a mod that defies classification. Everything about it has been tweaked for absolute absurdity. Did I mention that your health and ammo is listed in wingdings? Or that “Anal Fisting” is your first usable weapon?

Much like Big Lolly, Crack-Life is a peerless oddity best enjoyed with strong drink. I won’t deny that it had me laughing pretty hard, whenever I wasn’t busy weeping for the people who have managed to soldier through the whole thing. Your brain will only be able to take so much.

Cry of Fear

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Oh man… everyone and their dog told me I needed to play this mod after it came out. Unlike most of the mods on this list, Cry of Fear is a total conversion mod, using no assets from Half-Life. It’s also the spiritual sequel to Afraid of Monsters and the aforementioned scariest Half-Life mod on the market.

Cry of Fear follows a Swedish teenager named Simon, who gets hit by a car and wakes up in a Silent Hill-like facsimile of Stockholm. The game is a lonely slog through a cold winter night, as you battle some admittedly scary-looking mutants.

Unfortunately, that’s about all there is to it. Cry of Fear isn’t a horror game so much as a tired march through hordes of enemies. Combat is so clunky that you’re as likely to stab yourself as an enemy. Resources are also far too low. As with Afraid of Monsters, you’ll spend most of your time micromanaging each encounter with an enemy in order to survive, which is not at all tedious, right?

Cry of Fear does have some heart, touching upon themes of depression and loneliness, but everything this game does right is too obscured by waves of enemies and repetitive level design. I got about 75% of the way through the mod before abandoning it due to boredom. I likely won’t return to it, but you can download Cry of Fear if you really want to. Word to the wise, though: I play a lot of horror games and I wouldn’t call this a good horror game. It’s just too tedious and the modders corrected none of the mistakes they made with Afraid of Monsters.

Edge of Darkness

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Edge of Darkness is a short mod that re-imagines Gordon Freeman as a secret agent instead of a scientist. In a plot that IN NO WAY was inspired by James Bond films, Gordon must take a lift car up to a secluded mountain fortress, stop the evil organization conducting experiments there, and escape in a massive explosion that would make Michael Bay cry.

Edge of Darkness is about two hours long, and features custom objects and environments to reinforce its spy movie feel. The modders took Half-Life‘s spoken dialogue and cleverly rearranged it to make it sound like an action movie script. The level design is tight and interesting; you’ll find yourself shooting your gun as much as leaping between roof tops and swimming in shark tanks. To top it all off, there’s an epic boss battle against a custom-designed alien creature. Edge of Darkness is a fun game with professional design value. Definitely pick this one up from Desura.

Half-Life: Zombie Edition

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Half-Life: Zombie Edition is my favorite Half-Life mod. You get to play as a headcrab, one of the pudgy little bastards well-known for their insidious head-latching. The mod allows you to crawl through vents, jump through the air, and of course, take control of unfortunate human hosts. Once you’ve latched onto a human, you can evolve into one of several kinds of zombie, complete with RPG-esque perk trees.

Half-Life: Zombie Edition is maddeningly fun. There’s a primal thrill that comes with turning a host into your own killing machine, and slaughtering the human denizens of Black Mesa one by one. Though some of its puzzles are too obscure, and the mod far too short at about three hours, it’s an outstanding little game. If you play nothing else on this list, play Half-Life: Zombie Edition. The headcrabs compel you!

Radix

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Radix is inspired by classic sci-fi shooters, and unashamedly so. Borrowing a bit of Doom and a spritz of Halo: Combat Evolved, Radix is an hour-long firefight through the hallways of a research spaceship. Though the level design and combat are top-notch, the mod inhabits an awkward dichotomy when we introduce the forced comedy of a sentient headcrab, who has masterminded the shipboard disaster.

You’ll battle a mix of alien and human foes as you make your way through the ship, which boasts some impressive visual design and uses custom objects to round out its atmosphere. Just don’t expect anything super-amazing; this mod is a step above Affliction in terms of originality but not in terms of fun.

Smart Decoy

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Our tenth and final mod of the evening is a short shooter-thriller set in an underwater base. Player character Alex Freeman, purported nephew of Gordon Freeman, leads a team of spec ops soldiers into a submerged laboratory, where alien experiments are being performed. Smart Decoy is the same short linear shootfest we’ve already seen tonight, gussied up with some custom assets and a bit of water.

I’ve played worse mods, but don’t go in expecting this story to make any sense. You end up fighting the soldiers you traveled down here with for no apparent reason, and that’s for starters. It’s unclear whose side you’re on as you progress through the level, and Alex’s surname appears to be nothing more than an isolated name drop for fans of the base game. Smart Decoy has some clever dialogue manipulation and its levels are expansive, but I wouldn’t call the mod a true standout like Zombie Edition or Edge of Darkness. Play both of those and then this one if you’ve caught the mod itch bad.

Thank you all for indulging me on this two-part journey into the world of mods. You can download all of these Half-Life mods right here. Just start up a Desura account, log in with Steam, and you’ll be able to quickly download and play whatever you want. There are dozens more mods on this menu that I’ve never played; try a few out and let me know if you’d like to see them reviewed.

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Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.