Month: September 2016

Event[0]

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Discover what happened to a derelict spaceship and interrogate its sole crew member: a computer.

PC Release: September 14, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Everyone knows the real reason why appliances have power cords, right? It’s not simply so that they can hook into conveniently placed wall sockets; it’s so that they can only chase human prey so far when they gain sentience and come alive. The robot apocalypse is a very real concern, especially as scientists the world over continue building more and more sophisticated artificial intelligence. The phenomenon is explored to a massive degree in video games, but there’s yet to be a title wherein players can have a truly organic interaction with a sophisticated AI. Until now.

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Event[0] is a first-person exploration game created by Ocelot Society, a small indie developer and Sterling Archer’s favorite charity. Event[0] emphasizes exploration and investigation over combat, making it less like The Terminator in terms of its AI gameplay and much more like Her, sans Joaquin Phoenix.

Event[0] takes place in an age when humans mastered commercial space travel in the 1970’s, far earlier than, well, whichever date we will eventually master it. Players can craft their own character in a series of menus similar to those of Mass Effect, choosing from a variety of childhood backgrounds and career histories. No matter what players pick, the character is generally a crewman on a space mission to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. The theme of leaving earth to explore space and escape turmoil back home is present in most of the backgrounds players can pick for themselves. Additional exposition is presented through a series of clickable text boxes, like in the prologue of Firewatch.

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Event[0] also espouses retro-futurism.

As the player’s vessel inches ever closer to Europa, a catastrophic systems failure causes their ship to blow apart. The player is able to fly free in an escape pod, but soon realizes that they were the only one to do so. While the hero looks around the deep void of space for any chance of escape, he/she/they notices a derelict spaceship floating not far off the bow. With no other hope of rescue or survival, the player can only jet toward the space hulk and pray that someone is on board to help them.

It doesn’t take long to dock, but the first and only crewman present to greet the player is not a pilot or a soldier, but a computer named Kaizen. Kaizen explains that the derelict ship is called the Nautilus, and that it, and he, have been floating in space for decades. The player is a bit nervous that there are no other humans aboard, but Kaizen is overjoyed. There’s a device called the singularity drive inside the ship that can propel them both toward earth. Kaizen’s been unable to activate it himself due to his lack of a body, but explains that with a human’s help, it’s possible for both of them to be saved. With that in mind, the player ventures into the ship to find a way home.

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Hey buddy.

As the wayward astronaut, players can look around the ship, examine objects and open doors. The primary mechanic and novelty that Event[0] brings to the table is the conversations with Kaizen. Players can type their own questions and talking points into the computer, and Kaizen will respond in an organic way. Survival in Event[0] depends on building a healthy relationship with the computer, who has the ability to operate all sorts of machines on the ship, and seems to harbor some human emotions.

The player’s relationship with Kaizen is also a major source of tension in the game. Like a human being, Kaizen is selective about the information he shares with the player, and coaxing some of the facts out of him can take work. Kaizen has born silent witness to decades aboard the ship, and may know a lot more about why it’s abandoned than he lets on. This subtle tug-of-war for information is the main driving force of Event[0]Players have to be careful, and clever, in gaining this old computer’s trust in order to survive.

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Kaizen is quite the chatterbox.

The presence of organic, unscripted conversations with in-game characters is still a rarity in the world of video games. It’ll undoubtedly be included in future games as the technology becomes more sophisticated, but there’s been no other video game in recent memory that allows as much conversational freedom as Event[0]There are a few programs out there that allow people to chat with simple AI (the website Cleverbot is one such example) but not full, immersive game worlds like Event[0].

The fact that players can type whatever phrases they want into the computer gives Event[0] one of the largest ranges of narrative freedom in gaming. Games like Mass Effect and Deus Ex have branching storylines, but all of the conversations precipitating said storylines are scripted. In Event[0], players can type whatever they want and have whatever conversations they want with Kaizen, for better and for worse. These conversations shape the story line in unexpected ways, and force players to rely far more on intuition than most other games.

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Players have an unprecedented amount of freedom in how they interact with an NPC in Event[0].

Even though the freedom in shaping relationships in Event[0] far exceeds that of most other games, that freedom is not absolute. AI programming has only gotten so sophisticated thus far, and it shows in Kaizen’s design. The computer will occasionally give random answers to specific questions, like telling players the circumference of Europa when they ask where the food is. Some of these responses are far too random to come off as artful deception. Most queries have to be typed with a question mark and certain phrases, like “activate” in order for Kaizen to comprehend them. The conversations that players can have with this computer are still fascinating, but these occasional breaks in conversation are in fact breaks in immersion.

Other times, though, there’s a real chance that Kaizen is only telling half the truth. Spaceships as big as the Nautilus aren’t abandoned for no reason, and it doesn’t take too many brains for the player to notice that everyone left in a hurry. Kaizen’s the only one who could know what happened, and though he’s bound by AI laws to tell the truth, truth is usually subjective. The writing underpinning these conversations is superb. There are few to no spelling errors, and, most important of all, the prose is believable.

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Whatever the reason these people left, they left a sweet setup behind.

Event[0]‘s visuals and lighting bear sophistication comparable to that of Kaizen’s programming. The game’s graphics are wicked sharp, and the developers skipped no beats in polishing up the textures and adding lots of bright colors. The Nautilus espouses a retro-futuristic theme similar to that of Alien: Isolation and the more recent Headlander. As a result, the ship bears a signature look, combining high-tech wall panels with lots of neon and hideous shag carpet. The Nautilus even includes organic areas in its hull, such as a beautifully designed space garden that allows players to gaze at Jupiter from a park bench. Players will also have to go on a few spacewalks outside the ship, allowing for some great views into a decent rendition of the void.

Complementing the graphics and bright colors is a surprisingly sophisticated lighting setup, with a ton of atmospheric effects that seamlessly integrate into whatever area of the Nautilus the player’s exploring. If the player is out in space, a well-blended fog effect will rise and recede inside the helmet to simulate breath. Airlocks and living quarters are accented with a few drops of moisture on the camera. The ship’s powerful lights let off a range of lens flairs reminiscent of an 80’s sci-fi film. The graphics requirements are a bit on the high side, but the attention to detail is excellent. The only bug encountered in the copy of Event[0] used for this review was 2-3 instances of hitching. This game goes down smooth.

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The breath fog on the helmet was a nice touch.

As for what Event[0] feels like during gameplay, it’s quite suspenseful. There’s something about an abruptly abandoned spaceship that causes the neck hairs to stand straight up. Indeed, this is one of the tensest games released this year since Firewatch. Remember Firewatch, when Henry had to explore a forested area teeming with secrets and threats? That’s what Event[0] feels like. It’s not a horror game, but exploring the vacant corridors of a decades-abandoned spaceship causes no small amount of trepidation. In addition to chats with Kaizen, players also advance the plot by looking for clues and solving simple puzzles. Some of these puzzles are a bit too obscure, like playing a picture game to get a retina scan, but most are easily passable.

As previously mentioned, this exploration can also make talking to Kaizen unnerving. The computer’s only expressed desire is to get back to earth, just like the player, but something doesn’t feel quite right. The computer’s reluctance to talk, combined with a host of evidence pointing to more than a few problems, is the icing on the dead-spooky-spaceship cake. Kaizen’s tendency to pose deep philosophical questions at key moments in the story is also something to look out for. It demonstrates a great eye for detail on the part of the developer, but it may cause players to achieve Stalin-esque paranoia.

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Is there no safe way home?

The simple way to summarize Event[0] is that it’s a short, well-polished exploration game. The truer and more long-form explanation is that it’s a sophisticated exercise in trust. The motions of physical exploration are present in the game, but it’s the social exploration that Event[0] truly emphasizes. The challenge inherent in Event[0] is knowing not only what questions to ask, but how to ask them. It provokes players into learning the nuances of a machine, and taking advantage of those nuances to advance the narrative and find a way home. Kaizen’s programming is not perfect, but Event[0] represents the most significant advancement in dialogue choice since Mass Effect debuted almost a decade ago.

On top of all of that, the game runs well, and it looks fantastic. More than a few players have complained that the game’s two-hour length is too short for its price. At the risk of sounding like an apologist, what if length isn’t the only determinant of a game’s worth? Is it not better to play a two-hour game with a great story than an eight-hour game with a mediocre one? Ultimately, it comes down to a preference between narrative and gameplay, but the narrative is ultimately what sticks with us long after we’ve shot all the bad guys and saved all the worlds. As such, Event[0] is more than worth everyone’s time. Give it a try and craft a truly one-of-a-kind relationship with Kaizen. Who knows? Maybe Earth really is on the horizon.

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You can buy Event[0] 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.

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

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Discover the secrets of your past and travel a dangerous, frozen road.

PC Release: June 26, 2007

By Ian Coppock

Oh God. Oh God, no. No! Not Lost Planet! Well, this day was bound to happen eventually. I’ve been putting off reviewing this game for the better part of 10 years. By now, any reader casually acquainted with the English language will know that this review may not be kind to its subject matter, but it will be fair. There’s a lot to discuss with a game like Lost Planet; a decent chunk of it has to do with delaying this review, and the rest has to do with a recent re-examination of the game for just this review. Fasten those seat belts, folks. We’re in for one heck of a ride.

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Lost Planet: Extreme Condition is a third-person shooter developed by Capcom, a company better known in recent years for its bizarre, schizophrenic behavior and less as the pioneer behind the original Resident Evil. From abruptly cancelling anticipated games to refusing to sell a good chunk of its catalog outside of Japan, Capcom produces no shortage of odd behavior (though it’s no Konami). It also produces no shortage of odd video games, Lost Planet: Extreme Condition being one of the oddest in the last decade. Though it presents a few novel concepts, Lost Planet: Extreme Condition ultimately leaves players with more questions than answers. Usually, the primary question is “Uh… what just happened?”

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition takes place in a sci-fi future, wherein humanity has exhausted earth’s resources and taken to the stars to find more. E.D.N. III, a planet rich in raw materials, is one such planet that humans settle. Despite being locked in an eternal ice age, E.D.N. III provides an ample bounty of resources for its colonists to enjoy. However, just like when the dwarves of Moria awaken the Balrog in The Lord of the Ringsthe colonists delve too greedily and too deep, unleashing a swarm of hibernating aliens called the Akrid. These monsters reduce the planet’s population to ragged bands of snow nomads, turning once-prosperous colonies into war-torn husks.

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The Akrid awaken and retake their world by force.

It is against this backdrop of snowy apocalypse that Lost Planet‘s story begins, honing in on a nomad named Wayne. In the game’s prologue, Wayne and his father Gale attempt to destroy a massive Akrid nicknamed Green Eye, but Gale is killed and Wayne barely escapes with his life. Getting lost in a snowstorm, Wayne loses consciousness and wakes up in the company of three new nomads, a stoic explorer named Yuri and brother-and-sister pair Rick and Luka. Yuri informs Wayne that he’s been frozen solid for 30 years, and that the mysterious device latched onto his arm was probably the only thing keeping him alive. It’s definitely kept him from aging. With only scattershot memories of his past life to guide him, Wayne embarks on a new mission to slay the Green Eye and avenge his father. His new friends, apparently having nothing better to do, join him.

Wayne’s monster hunt is not the only goings-on on E.D.N. III. A mysterious organization called NEVEC appears out of the shadows, and they sometimes board the team’s trailer to speak privately with Yuri. After Yuri vanishes, Wayne realizes that NEVEC intends to warm E.D.N. III to make it more habitable. Because he’s apparently insane, Wayne decides that this project needs to be stopped, and that continuing to freeze his butt off is the only way to save mankind… or something.

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To quote Nigel Powers from Goldmember, “I think being frozen damaged your brain.”

That sentence is not a typo, folks. The big bad guys in Lost Planet: Extreme Condition are the people who want to make E.D.N. III warm, so that people can actually live on it. And for some reason, the game expects players to think that’s a bad thing. The only organism that could sanely prefer ice-cold weather to habitable temperatures is a polar bear. Lost Planet: Extreme Condition has no polar bears.

So yeah, almost immediately, it becomes clear that the narrative of Lost Planet is comically ridiculous. There’s a whole host of other problems that’ll be delved into later in this review, but the premise of the game is literally to stop a group of scientists from making the planet habitable. There’s no advantage, at least that the game divulges, to keeping E.D.N. III a ball of ice, and the only rationale that Wayne presents for stopping NEVEC is “They’re bad! And I’m good! We must fight them because reasons!”

To be fair, expecting a coherent narrative from Capcom is like expecting compassion from a student loan debt collector, but this is just stupid.

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Hey guys! I got a fire going!

Wayne’s crusade across E.D.N. III is carried out in third-person. He can wield any number of guns found in the frozen landscape, including the standard fare of pistols, shotguns, assault and sniper rifles. Wayne is also able to somehow wield weapons several times bigger than his person, lending credence to the theory that his physiology is part-ant. He has a grappling hook that can be used to vault onto out-of-reach surfaces, and is a crack shot no matter the weapon he’s wielding.

Wayne can also hop aboard any number of Vital Suits, also called VSs. These powered exoskeletons are heavy-duty fighting machines, sporting over-sized weaponry and allowing Wayne to reach out-of-place areas. There’s an impressive variety of these machines in Lost Planet, from skinny one-man scout walkers to much bigger war-bots. Piloting these mechs can be a lot of fun, and it also makes slogging through the snow and ice a lot easier. To ensure variety, Lost Planet‘s levels provide a mix of on-foot and behind-the-wheel combat.

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Vital suits are a great, and deadly, way to get around.

Guns and mechs are all well and good, but Lost Planet‘s most novel mechanic is its thermal energy system. An admittedly interesting and well-implemented piece of the game, the thermal energy counter is a device that keeps Wayne alive in the cold. Thermal energy can be picked up from alien corpses and destroyed machines, and the counter will steadily decrease as Wayne moves about the level. Players therefore have to manage not only their health and ammo, but also the amount of time they have before they freeze to death. It’s a novel mechanic, but the sheer amount of thermal energy lying around usually keeps frostbite at a distance. Thermal energy is also needed to power the various machines that Wayne can drive.

As for combat, Wayne will face a huge mix of Akrid and human enemies throughout Lost Planet. The game starts players out on the easy side, battling against small Akrid monsters and a scattering of snow nomads, but upgrades to much bigger Akrid and NEVEC’s professional military as the game progresses. The firefights in Lost Planet are fun, but they’re nothing that shooter fans haven’t seen before. The true combat spectacles in Lost Planet are the titanic Akrid monsters encountered at the end of some levels. That said, the boss fights in Lost Planet are usually frustrating, drawn-out affairs, where creatures have multiple stages of weakness and repetition. The very last boss battle in particular is an exercise in patience, springing entirely new mechanics on the player instead of what they’ve been practicing with throughout the whole game.

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The combat in Lost Planet is alright.

Lost Planet‘s environments offer a lot more variety than one might expect from a frozen planet. Wayne spends most of his time on lonely slogs throughout the blizzard-ridden landscape, but he’ll also venture into ruined cities and underground hot spots. Most levels follow a predictable pattern, beginning with Wayne in a snowy valley and ending with him having descended underground or into a cave. The snowy, industrial and underground palettes are the three main types of areas encountered in Lost Planet, and all of them are replete with enemies. Though these terrain sets give the game some diversity, they’re usually encountered in the exact same sequence, making the game feel repetitive.

The other problem with Lost Planet‘s environments is that they all feel so empty. There’s so much space for interesting backstory or visuals that goes completely unfilled throughout the game. In some levels, Wayne will spend upwards of 20 minutes walking through empty warehouses, giving the game a hollow atmosphere. There is a slight sense of desolation that comes with traversing these empty areas, but it could’ve been so much stronger with some well-placed visuals and backstory.

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The potential of E.D.N. III as an environment goes unfulfilled.

The narrative that this game informs only gets more confusing after its paradoxical premise. The dialogue writing in this game is terrible; the cutscenes are cheesy, and the conversation feels forced. The voice acting is hilariously bad, sounding more like the English dub for an anime than professional voice work. This makes most cutscenes that the game presents come with a heavy dose of cringe. Again, this is a Capcom game, so it’s hardly a surprise that the dialogue is awful, but it’s not any less awful in Lost Planet.

On top of that, the actual meat of the story makes Lost Planet one of the most confusing video games in years. The plot lurches wildly between Wayne’s pursuit of the Green Eye and his pointless journey to stop NEVEC from warming up the planet. Supporting characters come and go without warning, over-stuffing the cast and changing entire facets of their personality with no warning or buildup. The game’s story lurches back in forth chronologically as well, jumping forward a year, jumping back a decade, jumping forward again a few days. It’s just a complete crapshoot. Even the worst video game narratives usually have at least one redeeming or interesting factor, but not Lost Planet: Extreme Condition.

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This game probably makes more sense if the cutscenes are skipped altogether.

There really isn’t much more to say about Lost Planet. Its mech-driving is pretty fun, and its thermal energy mechanic is pretty interesting, but it’s impossible to sell this game on those two points alone. The environments feel pretty uninspired, and the narrative, if this point somehow hasn’t been hammered home yet, is pretty bad. Granted, this game isn’t at the Resident Evil 6-level of Capcom failure, but it’s not much higher up the ladder. To add insult to injury, this game’s PC port suffers more than a few bugs, including desktop crashes and occasional stuttering. Lost Planet, like a lot of mediocre games, starts out with great ideas, but its schizophrenic execution leaves players out in the cold.

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You can buy Lost Planet: Extreme Condition 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.

Unbox

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Save the world of packaging from a boxy menace.

PC Release: September 5, 2016

By Ian Coppock

The smell of revolution is in the air. Across cyberspace, gamers weary of generic first-person shooters and buggy triple-A releases are throwing down their computer mice in frustration. A return to an older form of gaming sits on the horizon, specifically, the open-world collect-athons that were so popular in the 90’s. The promise of their return has been made manifest with the announcement of Yooka-Laylee, the spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, as well as the release of Unbox. It, like a few other games, seeks to help return gaming to a simpler time, one in which game worlds had treasure everywhere, and one in which games actually functioned on their release day.

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Unbox is an open-world platforming game inspired by Rare, the company behind most of the 1990’s most popular video games. The game takes license and creative guidance from such 90’s greats as Banjo-KazooieDonkey Kong 64Super Mario 64, and Spyro the Dragon. Each of these games espouses a series of open worlds with lots of collectibles to find, as well as an epic (and usually humorous) narrative to tie it all together. The open-world collect-athon archetype rapidly died out at the turn of the century, but it looks poised to make a strong, and direly needed, comeback.

Unbox is set in a cute, cartoony world populated by sentient cardboard boxes, most of whom are in the employ of the Global Postal Service, or GPS. The game begins when the player character, a new box named Newbie, emerges from his box-printing apparatus and into the world of sapient delivery systems. Newbie is quickly given the GPS tour by Bounce, a cheerful red box with a permanent grin, and Dash, a British box who thinks he’s too cool for school. There are a few other named boxes with their own quirks and signature looks, who appear throughout the game to give out missions and challenges.

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WOOOOOOOO!!!

Although GPS is the largest postal service in the world, its operations are under threat by a gang of rogue boxes called the Wild Cards. These cardboard villains, most of whom are former GPS employees, believe that cardboard boxes should be free to do whatever they want and that GPS has enslaved them. The Wild Cards are led in this endeavor by the dastardly Boss Wild, who seeks to defeat GPS and destroy the world… of packaging!

With the threat of postal annihilation looming ever nearer, Newbie’s postal assignments are put on hold as he and his friends journey across the world. From the frozen slopes of Parcel Peaks to the jungles of Paradise Isles, Newbie must defeat the Wild Cards and save GPS. Otherwise, mail as we know it will be gone forever. Oh no!

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Boss Wild and his gang will do whatever it takes to destroy GPS.

The premise of Unbox takes obvious license from the narratives of Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64. Just like in those classic games, the protagonist must face off against a comical villain with a grandiose plan to destroy or rule the world. It becomes clear that Unbox is not a narrative with much emotional brevity. It’s probably on the opposite end of the scale from, say, The Last of Us. But, Unbox isn’t here to pluck the heartstrings so much as to burst the lungs, and that’s okay. It’s refreshing to find a game that’s so confident in just having fun. Every character’s dialogue is chock-full of little jokes and puns that are actually well-written and not cringe-worthy, which is a rarity in video game humor.

Because of its simple, humorous premise, Unbox is one of the most upbeat games to come this way in a while. Every level is replete with bright colors, sun-shiny music, and funny dialogue. These don’t make the game flawless, but they do demonstrate a mastery of the same atmospheres present in 90’s Rare games. Because the focus is drawn away from story and toward unadulterated open-world glee, Unbox‘s characters stay squarely (no pun intended) in their own niches. The narrative includes a few little twists here and there, but there’s really not much more to it than defeating the big bad boss. Just like in games from back in the day.

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This game isn’t afraid to cut loose.

Even more than the humor-filled writing and the bright atmosphere, the 90’s game trait that Unbox emulates most fervently is its level design. Just like Banjo-KazooieUnbox is comprised of several huge, open-world levels replete with missions and hidden treasures. Each world revolves around a certain theme. Paradise Isles, for example, is tropical, while Parcel Peaks is a winter wonderland. Players can wander these worlds in search of treasure, like rolls of golden tape, with rewards for finding certain amounts. Each world also contains magical stamps, Unbox‘s analogue of stars from Super Mario 64 or golden jigsaw puzzles from Banjo-Kazooie. Players must collect enough stamps to unlock the final boss battle, which will advance the story and unlock more worlds to explore.

In order to acquire these stamps, players must engage in a combination of exploration and completing missions. Some stamps can be found freely throughout the world, albeit in obscure areas. The rest are held by Newbie’s fellow boxes, who will surrender their stamps in exchange for services rendered. Missions vary depending on which box Newbie is working for. Dash, befitting his name, will hand out racing challenges. Superbox, GPS’s resident superhero, will challenge Newbie to defeat a given number of boxes, while Hop will give players missions that typically involve, well, hopping, over dangerous terrain. Worlds that appear later in the game will require higher numbers of stamps to challenge Boss Wild.

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Players won’t want for random activities in Unbox.

Although Unbox represents a fantastic return to form for the open-world collect-athon, one has to wonder if it isn’t a bit too derivative of its elder peers. This game is very similar to Banjo-Kazooie, especially in how it structures its collectibles. Banjo-Kazooie had magical music notes around the landscape, golden jigsaw puzzles to collect, and little creatures called Jinjos to free from the bad guys. Unbox has golden tape around the landscape, magic stamps to collect, and little boxes called Zippies to free from the bad guys. Coincidence?

Granted, this will give Unbox a lot of nostalgia value for Nintendo 64 fans, but it also makes this game feel a teeny tiny bit like a rip-off. Sure, anthropomorphic animals have been swapped out for intelligent boxes, but the structure underlying the scenery change is virtually identical to Banjo-Kazooie. The game’s music is also similar to that of Banjo-Kazooie, with lots of unconventional instruments and poppy, upbeat sounds. It’s great music, but any Banjo fan who listens will be reminded of Treasure Trove Cove and Freezeezy Peak pretty much instantly.

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Unbox is unabashed in its mimicry of Banjo-Kazooie.

All of that said, though, Unbox‘s movement controls are a far cry from that of older games. Contrary to popular belief, cardboard boxes can tumble their way to incredible top speeds, and leap between platforms with gusto. Newbie is also unique in that he has the titular ability to “unbox” meaning that he can jump up to six times through the sky to clear huge distances. This ability allows players to cross worlds in very little time, though it costs health, and Newbie will have to find health packs to regenerate his jumping ability. Of course, if he gets jumped (again, no pun intended) by the Wild Cards after leaping too far and expending too much health, he’ll be vulnerable. Newbie can also attack enemy boxes by ground-pounding the floor.

The worlds Newbie explores are fairly big. No matter if they’re in the tropics or in the taiga, Unbox‘s levels are large worlds full of hidden nooks and crannies. Though expansive, the fact that Newbie can cross terrain so quickly works at cross-purposes with making the levels feel big. Their initial grandeur is muted by Newbie’s ability to spring from one end of the map to the other in very short time. However, they contain a decent variety of terrain, including lots of rugged peaks and hidden paths. Newbie can also drive vehicles to get around the worlds, but the vehicle controls are slippery. He’s better off bouncing.

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Uber’s really gone downhill.

Although the worlds in Unbox are colorful and fun to explore, they’re in limited supply. Indeed, Unbox is rather short, clocking in at three worlds to explore and about 6-8 hours of gameplay. Its $15 price tag is a fair wage for such an odyssey, but it doesn’t stop the game from feeling a bit short. The feeling of shortness is further amplified by the fact that two of the three worlds have nearly identical terrain, the only real difference being that one has Mesoamerican ruins in it. It’s still fun to run around in these disparate landscapes, but there’s only so many of them.

The worlds of Unbox have a color palette second only to Newbie’s customization options. With each challenge completed, players can earn colors and accessories for their cardboard box. This helps add some personality to Newbie, especially since he’s a silent character, and he can be adorned with everything from sushi chef hats to a gigantic mustache. Though the embellishments are cool, Unbox will occasionally fail to load them properly, making Newbie’s textures look extremely muddled. Only cutscenes seem to fix this problem.

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Completing challenges allows players to deck out Newbie.

Unbox seems to do quite well in the technical department. The game was built on the Unreal 4 engine and looks quite beautiful; the visuals are sharp and the colors are strong. The game comes with a decent customization menu to allow players to further tailor Unbox. The only technical hiccups encountered in the copy used for this review were the vertical sync and anti-aliasing options occasionally not working. Usually, these functions will knock themselves out during in-game cutscenes and then pop back up once players regain control of their character. Otherwise, the game is pretty much bug-free and runs at 60 framers per second or higher.

Even though Unbox is occasionally too endearing toward the Rare giants of the 1990’s, it’s a dang fun little adventure and a heartening throwback to that era. Whether the genre can make a true comeback depends on Yooka-Laylee and its release next year, but Unbox is an indicator that other studios are following suit with the design idea. Nintendo 64 fans who’ve since migrated to PC, as well as platformer lovers, will want to purchase Unbox immediately. Its lighthearted tone, decent humor, and emphasis on joyriding across big worlds makes it one of the funnest indie games of the year.

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You can buy Unbox 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.

Titan Quest: Anniversary Edition

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Stop the Titans from annihilating the peoples of the ancient world.

PC Release: August 31, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Mythology is an easy source of inspiration for video game developers. Rather than coming up with an entire universe themselves, they can simply borrow one from the rich religious and mythological folklore found the world over. This isn’t to say that said developers are lazy; indeed, their attempts to bring ancient mythology to life are usually roaring successes. But isn’t it interesting to wonder if the digital recreations of ancient legends are anything like what people millennia ago imagined. Titan Quest presents a collage of such legends, aptly bundled together into one adventure, for mythology and gaming nerds alike to dive into.

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Titan Quest is a top-down, dungeon-crawling RPG that was originally released in June of 2006, making it a little over 10 years old. The anniversary edition used for this review includes updates for modern gaming, including the usual visual remastering but also co-op multiplayer and system optimizations. Titan Quest: Immortal Throne, a large expansion pack released in 2007, has been rolled into Titan Quest: Anniversary Edition and enmeshed into its main campaign.

Titan Quest is set in a fantastical rendition of the ancient world, where mythological creatures from Greek, Egyptian, and other old myths are very much alive. The player character, a nameless male or female hero, arrives in a small Greek village just as it’s being beset by monsters. The creatures of this world usually stick to the wilds and avoid humans at all costs, but now they’ve launched a full-scale war on mankind. With apparently nothing better to do, the hero takes up his or her weapons and helps the townsfolk beat back the beasts.

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The best offense is arrows. Everywhere.

The central narrative of Titan Quest is not difficult to understand. After saving the village from the monsters and traveling north to meet up with the Spartans, the hero learns that armies of monsters have started attacking communities all over the Hellenic world. From the slopes of Greece to the deserts of Egypt, humanity seems to be imperiled by the sudden monster scourge. The hero later learns that the monsters move at the will of the Titans, the ancient beings that the Greek gods usurped and imprisoned, and that the Titans seek to reclaim their divine thrones. If the monster attacks are any indication, the Titans are also not too keen on keeping humans around.

So begins one of the most expansive dungeon-crawling adventures of the mid-2000’s. Armed only with what weapons and armaments they can carry, as well as a slate of magical powers, the hero must travel across the world to stop the titans from returning. The Immortal Throne expansion, set after the main narrative, sees the hero off to the Greek underworld of Hades to deal with yet another threat, one that’s no more merciful to the humans living in the world above.

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Seriously, folks. Arrows. Even zombies hate them.

Like most dungeon-crawler RPGs, Titan Quest is played from an isometric perspective. The hero character can be equipped with all manner of weapons and armor found out in the world, as well as magic jewelry and even spell scrolls. In the same tradition that’s endemic to virtually all dungeon-crawlers, items become more valuable and more powerful as the player progresses, leaving the hero character with a very fluid arsenal. Good items are usually pretty simple to find, but the best loot can only be found on the bodies of boss monsters. Heroes have to manage their health and mana while battling said monsters, as well as their numerous, numerous underlings.

Similarly, player characters can choose between various skill sets, referred to in-game as “masteries.” Each mastery can allow for radically different play styles, and the hero can add to his or her powers by killing monsters and leveling up. Masteries can be divided into roughly two categories: the first is weapon masteries, becoming proficient with swords, or bows, or any sort of physical attack item. The second category comprises arcane masteries, allowing players to learn fire, lighting and other elemental attacks. Players can take on up to two masteries, but sticking with a single mastery makes it easier to get high-level powers early in the game.

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Art as Games not-so-subtly endorses the archery mastery.

So, what are all of these fantastical weapons and powers used for? Why, for fighting monsters, of course! Thousands of them. Indeed, most Titan Quest players will have killed upwards of 15,000 enemy creatures by the time the game is over. The combat in Titan Quest is, again, fairly conventional for a dungeon-crawler. Players are expected to slog through stretches of terrain that are rife with enemy creatures, dispatching hordes of monsters by carefully managing their health and mana. Most masteries allow players to summon pets to aid them in battle. The invincible Storm Wisp creature is particularly helpful.

Each area the player visits has its own cadre of monsters, some of which are based on the mythology endemic to that region. Greece, for example, is chock full of satyrs, centaurs and other fantastical creatures of Greek tradition. Egypt just has giant scarabs everywhere. This enemy diversity gives Titan Quest‘s gameplay some much-needed variety. Slaying monsters is all well and good, but doing it for hours on end can be tedious. By constantly introducing new breeds of enemy creature, Titan Quest keeps players on their toes and new surprises around every corner.Unlike the original game, the anniversary edition features multiplayer capabilities, further rounding out the potential for great adventures.

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No area of Titan Quest is safe from monsters.

For a game that’s 10 years old, Titan Quest has some impressive visuals. The updates made in Titan Quest: Anniversary Edition only serve to reinforce the game’s gorgeous environments. Every area the hero visits is minutely detailed, from the grassy mountains of Greece to the endless deserts of Egypt. The player’s journey will also take them through other locales, including Babylon (modern-day Iraq) and even ancient China. The Greek underworld region originally introduced in the Immortal Throne expansion is, while bleak, comprised of environments that have been manicured to a T.

Aside from the minute attention to item placement, like foodstuffs in a crowded market or crumbling stones in an ancient temple, Titan Quest boasts strong color to make its environments stand out. Even the relatively washed-out-looking tombs and crypts look shades brighter than in Diablo III or Torchlight. The human characters look a bit ugly up-close, but the monster animations are smooth and the attention to their details is outstanding for a game originally released in 2006. For anything that can be said about the occasional monotony of monster-slaying, Titan Quest won’t leave players with sore eyes. Each area of the game is beautiful.

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Nothing says romantic sunset like a horde of scorpion-men.

Though pretty to look at, the world of Titan Quest isn’t without some eyesores in the bugs department. The game runs perfectly well on most any system, but its ragdoll physics leave a lot to be desired. Far more often than necessary, the corpses of slain monsters will contract and expand in ridiculous ways, like a dead Satyr’s arm suddenly stretching off past the boundary of the screen. Some corpses will shake and convulse uncontrollably as if they’re extras for The Exorcist. It doesn’t break the game, and it can make for some entertaining buffoonery, but it does break the immersion. Quite a bit.

That said, the rest of Titan Quest is pretty competently laid out. The anniversary edition’s menu has been upgraded with resolution and graphics options befitting a modern machine. This behind-the-scenes overhaul makes Titan Quest: Anniversary Edition a breeze to run on most computers, even more so than the original version of the game. The fact that Immortal Throne has been included in the main game means that the expansion’s improvements are retroactively applied to the main campaign, like a bonus mastery and the addition of storage carts. Sans the character bugs, the production on Titan Quest is clean as a whistle.

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The dungeon boss lit the torches for us! How thoughtful.

If Titan Quest has a flaw, it’s that it does little to advance the dungeon-crawler’s storytelling formula outside of taking fetch quests from NPCs. From the beginning all the way ’till the end, the sole means of moving the story forward is talking to a non-player character and retrieving some ancient item or stick aforementioned non-player character needs. Usually, the NPC in question is a priest or scholar who performs a ritual that the hero is too stupid to do himself or herself. The hero is a silent character, and the NPCs he or she meets don’t venture one inch outside of predetermined niches. King Leonidas is no less gruff and loud without Gerard Butler to portray him, and the Egyptian priest Imhotep (a nod to The Mummy?) is the embodiment of the convenient inventor archetype.

Outside of characters, Titan Quest‘s most redeeming story quality is its references toward ancient world lore. Most of these are encapsulated in monologues delivered by town criers, the ancient forebears of the modern hipster. The main plot being driven forward by the hero’s fetching of ancient items and slaying of ancient monsters is nothing that dungeon-crawler fans won’t have seen before. It’s not a terrible tale, but it’s not told terribly well. Still, one could do a lot worse for a mythology lesson, and Titan Quest does an admittedly good job of weaving the mythologies of many different cultures together into a single story. Of course, Titan Quest features the usual side quests of “kill 10 monsters here” and “retrieve an item from that cave there.” The rewards are okay, but the narratives are… rusty.

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You want me to do what?

Titan Quest doesn’t set out to break any molds with its game design. It’s a pretty conventional embodiment of the top-down RPG, utilizing the same quest and leveling mechanics done dozens of times before it. However, the true novelty of Titan Quest lies in its ancient world setting, which artfully appropriates the lore of ancient peoples and turns it into something fun to play. Dungeon-crawler fans looking for a challenge need not shy away from Titan Quest either, as the game features plenty of long slogs through literal armies of monsters. Some of these can be a bit long, but war usually is.

Newcomers to dungeon-crawlers, or casual gamers in general, will also stand to benefit from Titan Quest‘s simple design. Much like Torchlight, the game does a great job of breaking the dungeon-crawler down to its most basic, easy-to-understand level. The leveling and power selection system is intuitive, as is just about everything else in its design. Titan Quest‘s narrative is nothing to write home about, but it’s one Hades of a ride through the ancient world. Give the anniversary edition a try alone or with friends and experience the might of the gods firsthand.

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You can buy Titan Quest: Anniversary Edition 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.

Four Sided Fantasy

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Attempt to reunite two wayward lovers through screen-wrapping puzzles.

PC Release: August 30, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Ah, autumn. The changing of the seasons. The onset of fall colors, the coming of the winter winds, and the merciless onslaught of the pumpkin spice lattes. Autumn represents a unique time in the year to reflect on how things have gone so far, and prepare to take cover once the snow hits. This meditative experience isn’t found in many video games, but Four Sided Fantasy, a game as much about introspection as the seasons, is here to upend that notion.

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Four Sided Fantasy is the debut project of Ludo Land, a small indie developer and self-avowed fan of puzzle games like Portal and Braid. The studio claims to have taken a few notes of inspiration from Portal in its creation of Four Sided Fantasy, and the game’s been released just in time for the kickoff of the autumn gaming season. Although, to be fair, Four Sided Fantasy‘s diverse environments could make it the kickoff of virtually any gaming season.

Four Sided Fantasy is, at its most basic, a love story. The player assumes the role of a man and a woman, both of whom spend the entire game trying to reach each other. The game is a side-scrolling puzzler that makes use of screen-wrapping; ergo, players can walk off of one side of the screen and pop back up on the other. Similarly, players can hop through any gaps in the terrain and expect to come falling through the top of the screen, a party trick that takes obvious inspiration from Portal, but is no less funny here. Also like Portal, Four Sided Fantasy can be completed in two hours or so.

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Apparently, marital estrangement can defy time and space.

One area of game design that Four Sided Fantasy does not mimic Portal and Braid on is narrative, namely… that this game doesn’t really have one. Outside of the game’s premise that two people are trying to find each other in a (literally) topsy-turvy world, there is absolutely no spoken dialogue or character development. There’s the occasional implication that things are much more than they seem, like video cameras sticking out of the world’s walls, but these hints are never expounded upon throughout the game. This doesn’t make Four Sided Fantasy a bad game, by any means, but puzzler fans looking for a deep, well-written narrative like the ones in Portal and Braid are going to be sorely disappointed.

That said, Four Sided Fantasy does possess a quality that many other puzzle games lack, and that’s an acute focus on relaxation. The game’s charming aesthetic, low-fi screen backgrounds, and soothing music combine to create one of this year’s most relaxing escapades. In this regard, Four Sided Fantasy is at least partially a member of the “zen” video game genre, one of the medium’s most nebulous categories. Generally, a “zen” game has to feature relaxing music and atmosphere as its centerpiece, as in Mountain or The UnderGarden. This quality also seems to be the case for Four Sided Fantasy, intentionally or not.

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Things are about to get weird.

The reason why “zen” relaxation is proposed as Four Sided Fantasy‘s chief quality is that its puzzles aren’t particularly difficult. All of the conundrums revolve around some form of going out one end of the screen and popping back in on the other. Players traverse a handful of worlds that each reflect a different season of the year, and each season presents its own twist on the screen-wrapping mechanic. Summer puzzles, for example, feature nothing more than simply appearing on the other side, but autumn puzzles will spawn players both on the other side of the screen, and upside-down.

Even though these mechanics become more and more elaborate as the game goes on, they never build up to any level of serious difficulty. Even the toughest puzzles in Four Sided Fantasy require only a few minutes to figure out and breeze past; this game doesn’t contain anything of the big brain-blockers found in Portal or Braid. The screen-wrapping mechanic is interesting and fun to play around with, but it also inadvertently restricts the puzzles to only so high a level of difficulty. There’s only so much that can be done with leaving the screen and popping up on the other side, even if the game gets creative with the idea.

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Even this puzzle is pretty simple to figure out.

There isn’t much more to Four Sided Fantasy‘s gameplay than the screen-wrapping. Players can run and jump just like in virtually every other platformer, and have no means of self-defense. The world they inhabit isn’t that dangerous, but there are fields of static that can evaporate either character pretty quickly. Players will automatically switch between the man and the woman when their character leaves the screen; it’s actually their counterpart that will show up on the other side. These alterations have absolutely no bearing on the gameplay, though there are a few levels where the man and woman are completely separated from each other and still have to work together.

Four Sided Fantasy only has one bug, but it’s an annoying one. Occasionally, while running, the player character will fall through the ground and into blue hell. Sometimes, he/she will get stuck on some ledge beneath the proper walking path, necessitating a do-over. Four Sided Fantasy‘s levels are not that long, but they don’t have checkpoints, and having to start over because of a bug like this can be frustrating. Most times, the character will fall into the sky and respawn on the proper path, but not every time. Not often enough to omit mentioning getting stuck on a ledge.

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BEWARE THE STATIC!

Even though Four Sided Fantasy‘s narrative is weak and its puzzles simple, the artwork in this game is fantastic. Each of the four seasonal environments is decked out in eye-popping color, with tons of objects and intricate details in the background to retain the eye’s attention. The art style espouses a combination of old-school, low-fi colors and hand-painted designs that players will get lost in. The autumn season level in particular is gorgeous, with groves of red trees and picturesque rural scenery. Even if Four Sided Fantasy doesn’t quite hit the mark on the puzzles, it is more than easy on the eyes.

Just as Four Sided Fantasy does a great job of visually appealing, so too is the game pleasant to listen to. The soundtrack is a selection of soft synth tracks with various distortion effects, each set to the different seasons of the game. The songs are all relaxing and beautifully composed, as is the birdsong and other sound effects included to round out the game world’s vitality. It’s a game that won’t be revisited for its puzzles so much as its invigorating imagery.

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Is this Cooper Station?

Ultimately, Four Sided Fantasy‘s lack of a narrative is easier to forgive in the face of how darn pretty it is, but there was a lot of potential here for an interesting story. Not even at the end of the game are its many questions answered, from the presence of security cameras on the walls to how and why this couple became estranged in the first place. The floor-falling bug mentioned earlier can further cement the sense of purposelessness.

However, despite the bug, the easy puzzles, and the lack of a narrative, Four Sided Fantasy is still a game that every puzzle and platformer fan should try. Its environments and music create a soothing experience that will placate the mind when its puzzles aren’t challenging enough. Four Sided Fantasy swings for the brain, but ends up hitting the heart instead. Its conundrums are nothing to write home about, but its breathtaking artwork and gentle music make it an acceptable swan song for the summer gaming season. It’s certainly more novel of an autumn introduction than another pumpkin latte.

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You can buy Four Sided Fantasy 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.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

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Explore a radioactive wasteland in search of a dangerous quarry.

PC Release: March 20, 2007

By Ian Coppock

A decent horror game is rarer than gold dust. Rarer still are decent horror games that try to take the atmosphere and gameplay endemic to linear horror-fests, and scatter them across an insidious open world. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or (STALKER) series is perhaps the best-known group of open-world horror games in the PC world. They deal with everything that is to be feared; radiation, mutants, lack of food, and Russian swearwords. There hasn’t been a true follow-up or spiritual successor to this series since its inception back in 2007, but how well does it hold up for a horror gamer looking for something a bit more open? With months still to go before the release of Outlast 2, now’s as good a time as any to find out.

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STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl takes place in “the Zone”, which, rather than being the anomalous area that pretentious athletes aspire to be in at all times, is actually a nuclear wasteland in and around Pripyat, Ukraine. The game revolves around the infamous Chernobyl disaster of 1986, in which a catastrophic nuclear meltdown bathed a large chunk of Ukraine in lethal radiation. To this day, the Chernobyl plant and much of the surrounding countryside remains uninhabitable, and not even the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 tops Chernobyl in terms of life and resources lost.

In the STALKER universe, the Chernobyl accident is successfully contained, but a second, much worse explosion occurs in 2006. This one is waves and magnitudes worse than the 1986 blast, widening the unlivable radiation zone and mutating the local flora and fauna. The player character is one of many scavengers who’s arrived to this part of Ukraine in search of valuable salvage after the accident, a stalker, as they’re known by the locals. The word stalker is also an acronym for the various gameplay elements to be found in the game. Shooting, looting, getting drunk and singing Ukrainian folk songs, things like that.

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The real estate value here must just be… sky-high.

Shadow of Chernobyl begins when one of the player’s fellow stalkers finds the protagonist knocked out in the middle of nowhere. Initially assuming the poor fellow to be dead, the stalker drives him and all his other loot to the nearest trading post, wherein he awakens. The stalker, called “The Marked One” by the locals, has no memory of his identity or how he wound up injured in a field. The only shred of remembrance he still has is an order on his mini-computer (read: Pip-Boy) to find and kill a man named Strelok. With nothing better to do, he sets out to do just that.

In a stunning rendition of contemporary Ukraine, the stalker finds the Zone to be an entangled mess, where dozens of ordinary people uneasily coexist divvied up between several factions. Officially, the entire mess is closed off by the Ukrainian military, but that hasn’t stopped scavenger settlements from popping up all over the wasteland like radioactive tumors. Other, deadlier factions stalk the wasteland as well, but these seem to cover their tracks too effectively to be found, much less reliably identified. Most people in this region are Ukrainian, but there are scavengers and soldiers who’ve arrived to this little piece of cancer from all over the world.

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The Zone is home to dozens of people just trying to get by.

The Marked One emerges from the hovel he woke up in and starts working for the region’s local factions, who, much like the factions in Far Cry 2 and Borderlands, agree to point him toward his target in exchange for help dealing with a whole mess of problems. Whether it’s repelling a bandit raid or rescuing a merchant from radioactive dogs, there’s no problem The Marked One isn’t called in to handle. The Zone is rife with danger; most of the bandit clans operating in the region are hostile to outsiders, and there’s all sorts of nasty mutated creatures prowling around in the rainy grasslands. More dangerous still are the various radioactive anomalies in the area, which warp time and space in a very small area to devastating effect. Players can short these anomalies out with a sparkler-like shorting device, if they can find any.

STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl‘s gameplay can be best approximated to that of the Deus Ex games, being played from a first-person perspective and encouraging a mix of stealth and gunplay. The Marked One can wield any number of pistols, shotguns and assault rifles found throughout the world, as well as combat knives, grenades, pretty much everything and more in the usual FPS weapon lineup. Navigating the Zone safely requires much more specialized equipment, but The Marked One comes equipped with a handy dandy map and a Geiger counter to protect himself from especially lethal patches of radiation. More advanced equipment, like gas masks, goggles, and experimental weapons, is out there to be found just like the standard gear.

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Being a good stalker means being a good shot.

At first glance, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl sounds like a horror fan’s dream. The game is drenched in an absolutely dreadful atmosphere that permeates every abandoned house, every twisted glen. The entire world is overcast with dull clouds and usually subject to stormy weather. The use of lighting in this game is strong, from dour bunker lights to the flat light used throughout the open world. Much like in DayZ, players have to be very careful in moving from building to building, tree to tree. No one ever knows what depraved pack of bandits or horrifically mutated monster lies in wait around the corner. The Marked One has guns, sure, but ammo is a pretty precious resource in the Zone, necessitating the same type of caution needed in more traditional survival-horror video games.

Assisting the game’s strong use of lighting is its mournful soundtrack and cadre of spooky sound effects. The game’s score is a selection of low, spooky strings and uneasy synths that cause the neck hairs to harden just as much as the sight of blood or the sounds of combat. Spookier still are the distant gunshots and cries of the region’s warped wildlife, some of which will suddenly occur far too close for comfort. The Zone is also overridden with packs of wild dogs; their barks and roars are easily the game’s most signature audio companion.

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STALKER’s slow-burning dread is the stuff of nightmares.

At a closer glance, however, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl is rife with some fatal problems. This is one of the buggiest games on the PC market, and that has changed little in the near-decade since its release. STALKER suffered an embarrassing slate of glitches when it debuted in 2007, and getting the game to run in the modern era requires a combination of multiple mod downloads and sheer dumb luck.

One might ask what bugs, specifically, cause this game to be such a headache? Well, even on modern systems, STALKER is subject to frequent hitches, sometimes pausing for upwards of five seconds before the game allows itself to continue. Other times, the game will crash to desktop for no reason, apparently no matter the Windows or Linux platform that it’s being run on. In the copy of STALKER used for this review, the game crashes every time The Marked One tries to heal himself, and it also sends the player back to desktop for trying to adjust the options menu. Disabling the Steam overlay or trying to run the game in compatibility mode does nothing to solve these issues. For any promise offered by STALKER‘s intoxicating atmosphere, its sheer amount of problems is a huge turnoff. It’s safe to say that mutants are not STALKER‘s only abnormalities.

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Most gamers would take mutated cows over desktop crashes any day.

STALKER‘s gameplay also suffers its own plate of issues. The game feels quite clunky, just as it felt quite clunky back when it was released. The controls are not intuitively mapped, and navigating everything from the menus to the mini-map is a much more punishing task than it should be. Solving these issues should just be a matter of rebinding the keys, but, (and this shouldn’t surprise anyone by now), the game crashes every time the player attempts to do so. It is worth noting that the game looks quite good for being almost a decade old, but that’s little comfort when said visuals are so hard to enjoy.

The gameplay that these mechanics inform is pretty decent. It’s standard fare for the FPS genre; aim the gun, shoot the gun, take cover if the enemy gun happens to shoot back. STALKER also has that really archaic inventory system in which items have to be fitted into an evenly spaced grid, which can be a tremendous pain during inventory management. The most anomalous thing at play in STALKER‘s gameplay is its enemy AI; the animal AI in this game is remarkably intelligent, with realistic pack and hunting behavior, but the humans are dumb as rocks. In most firefights, the enemies will simply conga-line right into The Marked One’s iron sights. The human enemies in this game are deadly accurate and have a bullet sponginess comparable to the bosses in Tom Clancy’s The Division. Head shots are really the only recourse for surviving human foes, but luckily, most are too stupid to dodge them.

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STALKER’s gameplay leaves a lot to be desired.

On top of all of this, the central narrative driving STALKER‘s gameplay forward is just… bad. The narrative lurches back and forth between various factions, eventually building up to a plot twist that can be seen from miles away. The side missions are forgettable, and the game’s conclusion seems to have been ripped from the playbook of B-rate action movies. There’s no character development to be had with either The Marked One or the various NPCs. The writing is nothing special either, though, to be fair, the developer’s first language is Ukrainian and many of the problems were probably caused by translation discrepancies rather than outright laziness.

The narrative is also impaired by the game’s incoherent branching storyline design. STALKER technically has several “bad” endings and one “good” ending, but achieving one or the other depends on the order in which several NPCs are talked to. A little ambiguity is fine in choice-and-consequence-based gameplay, but STALKER suffers a massive disconnect between the people The Marked One talks to and the influence that has on the game’s ending. There’s no indication whatsoever as to which NPCs will trigger which ending, and absolutely no connective tissue between the two phenomena. Getting the good ending isn’t a matter of intuition or detective work. It’s a matter of happening to talk to a random number of NPCs in an equally random order. There’s also no indication of which NPCs are essential for the plot, meaning that if one dies, the player will be left guessing which person to talk to in lieu of their now-deceased point of progress.

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“Excuse me sir, I’m trying to get to the next town, do you know which road I take?

STALKER is not a terrible game across the board. Its deep atmosphere and terrifying monsters promise a lot of thrills and chills throughout northern Ukraine. Those promises, though, are undercut by one of the biggest slews of bugs in recent PC gaming memory, and a storyline that’s so incoherent it might as well be passed out in the gutter. It’s a shame, because open-world horror games are even rarer than their more linear counterparts, but the only player who will want to get this game must also want to spend hours configuring menus, downloading optimization mods, and putting up with a weak narrative that makes little sense in the best of times. Maybe STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl‘s prequel and sequel games are better, but this review is about Shadow of Chernobyl, a game that’s as messy as the nuclear explosion from which it spawned.

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You can buy S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl 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.

 

Obduction

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Find your way home amid mismatched worlds and an unknowable alien mind.

PC Release: August 24, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Love them or hate them, the Myst games are arguably the most famous puzzle games available on PC. They’re well-known for a variety of good and bad reasons, including their beautifully designed worlds and their fiendishly – sometimes impossibly – difficult puzzles. The series concluded on a sour note with 2005’s Myst V: End of Ages, and developer Cyan Worlds entered a prolonged state of relative inactivity. That all changed a few years ago, when it was announced that the studio would return to develop a spiritual sequel to the original Myst. That game, Obduction, has long been coveted by the Myst series’s small but religiously fanatical fanbase. Now that it’s here, it’s time to assess what, if anything, these fans will find in a title that seeks to bring Myst‘s puzzle-laden worlds into the modern age.

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Obduction was developed over a period of several years by many of the same people who worked on Myst back in the early 90’s. After a successful Kickstarter campaign (how often do those happen anymore?) studio head Rand Miller announced that Cyan Worlds would be developing a puzzle game in the same vein as MystObduction would seek to emulate many of the same themes and gameplay mechanics as Myst, but with some refinements and changes to the original formula that would hopefully allow for a broader audience.

Just like MystObduction is a first-person game that dumps the player in a large world riddled with riddles. The game opens with the player, an anonymous male or female soon-to-be explorer, making a nighttime visit to a small park in 1980’s America. As they take a winding, beautiful trail along the edge of the lake, the player is stopped in their tracks by a massive seed that falls from the sky. Before they can react, this alien-looking acorn teleports the player away from this world and into another one. Or perhaps more accurately, a fragment of another one.

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Since when did taking a stroll become so dangerous?

The player opens their eyes to find themselves standing in a desert, with buildings and items from all over human history just plonked down in the sand. The area they’ve landed in appears to be abandoned, and there’s a magical bubble shield separating the town from an alien-looking landscape outside. There isn’t much left in the local area, but it becomes clear that if other people did live here, they left in a hurry.

After a few minutes of traversing the dunes and trying a bunch of locked doors (of course they’re all locked, this is a Cyan Worlds game), the player befriends the town’s sole remaining inhabitant, a gruff cowboy named C.W. C.W. explains that the player is merely the latest in a long line of abducted humans who have ended up here, and that the massive tree in the middle of town is somehow responsible for it all. The tree is capable of taking anyone from anytime, making the town home to everyone from 1940’s war refugees to patrons of a ski resort in 2052. C.W. doesn’t know any more than the player why the tree does this, but he does feel like he’s closing in on undoing its power. Together, the pair agree to reverse their fates and get back home.

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Not everyday that a Wild West town is across the street from a 1950’s gas station.

Obduction gives players a decent menu of options for embarking upon their quest home, including, thankfully, the option to do away with point-and-click in favor of moving about the world freely. The point-and-click mechanic made sense back when 3D-rendered games  didn’t look that great, but especially in Obduction‘s case, when it does nothing to make the environments prettier, picking it seems masochistic. Roaming around the worlds of Obduction freely is not just more time efficient, it allows for more freedom. And in a game this gorgeous, freedom is everything.

Obduction‘s gameplay is largely the same as Myst‘s. Players walk (or sprint) around a big world looking for clues and pushing buttons. The player character can operate machinery and scour world spaces for keys and valuable items. Obduction does make some valuable improvements to the Myst formula, though, like highlighting important items with a distinctive glimmer, and allowing players to pick up and closely examine items just like in Gone Home. This is a far cry from Myst, which usually demanded lots of pixel hunting and looking for tiny objects with no clue as to their importance.

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Obduction’s gameplay is a tremendous improvement over Myst’s.

Obduction’s puzzles are also much more fun and better-designed than those in its predecessor. Old-school fans might take offense to that statement, but let’s be fair; the puzzles in Myst and Riven are difficult to the point of being impossible without a walkthrough. Riven in particular had some nasty, nasty conundrums that were both nonsensical in their logic and wasteful in time required to solve them. Myst III toned down the difficulty of the puzzles, Myst IV ramped it right back up, and Myst V just lost itself in nonsense about drawing on stone tablets.

Make no mistake, Obduction‘s puzzles are still quite difficult, but unlike Myst’s puzzles, they’re intuitive and run on common sense. Part of Myst‘s problem is that its puzzles require chance combinations of random items, or experimenting on an item in the world for hours hoping that the next combination would work. Obduction demands experimentation and meticulousness as well, but players won’t need to break their brains to reach that point. The key to successful puzzling in Obduction is paying attention to detail. There’s an in-game camera that allows players to take pictures of door codes and important journal entries, because this is a Cyan Worlds game, and all those locked doors aren’t going to open themselves.

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Just because Obduction’s puzzles are better designed doesn’t mean they aren’t still difficult.

The central plot of Obduction contains a lot of the same narrative threads that were in Myst. The player character has to solve a problem in the first world they arrive to, and have to visit additional planets in order to do that. The player learns that there’s more than one tree, and that the other trees are responsible for abducting members of alien races. These abductee communities have coexisted in a fragile peace for some time, but that peace broke down shortly before the player’s arrival. It’s up to the player to bend the trees of these other worlds to their will, much like the Stranger had to successfully navigate each Age in Myst in order to succeed on the titular island. Rather than visiting Ages, though, the worlds the player visits in Obduction are fully realized alien planets, accessed by cool-looking teleportation devices instead of magical books.

Even though Obduction has preserved the central notion of journeying between four worlds to solve a problem involving all of them, the game presents a streamlined, simple narrative to follow with just enough backstory. Another one of Myst‘s problems was that its central story got bogged down in some seriously convoluted lore. Obduction nixes lore in place of a show-don’t-tell vagueness akin to that of Half-Life 2, where the player is left to infer much of the backstory instead of being drowned in it by countless anecdotal journals. Obduction has much more of a sci-fi thriller feel to it than an ambient magical journey, which is good not only for reinforcing expediency in the plot, but also for reinforcing the notion of an inter-racial conflict between the abductee communities. It helps drive the game and add incentive for solving the puzzles. The mystery around every corner is surprisingly compelling, and the lack of abundant backstory only drives the player to play more.

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Cool! Jungle igloos!

Like most Cyan Worlds games, Obduction is an exceptionally beautiful title. Each of the four worlds that the player travels to is meticulously detailed and built on an inspiring scale. It’s clear that the world modelers at Cyan are still in touch with their inner children, because that exact sense of wonderment is what will greet players when they visit each planet. From the lush jungles of Maray to the titanic stone citadels of Kaptar, each planet contains more than a few things to drop the jaw at. At the least, Obduction is perhaps the prettiest game to come out so far this year. At best, it’s a shining continuation of the impossible dreamscapes Cyan pioneered in Myst.

Even though Cyan is impeccably talented at designing game worlds, the same cannot be said of their character design and programming. For some reason, the folks at Cyan Worlds decided to once again go with live-action characters transposed onto a video game background, and holy crap does it look flat. C.W. is acted out by Rand Miller’s younger brother Robyn (who also composed Obduction‘s score) and though he’s not a terrible actor, the transposition of a live-action shot onto a 3D world just looks awkward. He doesn’t look like a real person, he looks like a hologram. What few, actually rendered models the player encounters out in the world don’t look much better, though. The environments are where it’s at- the characters, not so much.

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Bleh.

Far more impressive than Obduction‘s attempts at human characters is its atmospheric effects. The game relies on a diverse palette of lighting and an impressive assortment of atmospheric effects to make each world truly come alive.  This game is on the opposite end of the lighting scale from Watch Dogs, which featured a single shade of pale light that made everything look awful, and right next to Alien: Isolation, one of the best-lit video games in recent memory.

The sound design is also quite competent, with an array of animal and machinery effects accompanying every area, large and small. The soundtrack of Obduction is a significant departure from the Myst games, trading out Gregorian chant and delicate orchestral sounds in favor of a more contemporary guitar-and-synth-driven sountrack. Old-school Myst fans may not be huge fans of it, but it reinforces the game’s sci-fi theme and it’s quite well-composed. Let’s just say that Robyn Miller is a much better musician than actor. No offense, sir.

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Plus, who doesn’t love lasers?

All in all, Obduction is a sterling video game that lovingly improves on what Myst pioneered in every way. Its puzzles are challenging, but not unfair. Its sci-fi narrative resurrects the essence of Myst without being too derivative. It contains gorgeous, imaginatively designed worlds that players can lose themselves in for hours (literally and figuratively). The game is refreshingly bug-free, which is becoming a rarity for PC gamers in this day and age, and it asserts that the conundrums and world-building of Myst are sorely needed in the modern age. Everyone, Myst fans and newcomers, should at least try Obduction. It doesn’t hit every note perfectly, but there’s no doubt that the ones it does are with both love and imagination.

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You can buy Obduction 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.