Horror

Outlast 2

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Rescue your wife from a town full of insane cultists.

PC Release: April 25, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Grab a pitchfork and propose to a cousin, because Red Barrels’ long-awaited hillbilly horror game has arrived at last. After Outlast stormed the boards in the fall of 2013 with its eerie green-tinged environments and flat-out terrifying enemies, Outlast 2 was a foregone conclusion for many fans. Sure enough, Outlast 2 was announced a few years later, and much like a Mount Massive Insane Asylum patient barging through a door, could not be restrained by delays and obstacles. Now it’s time to delve once more into what could very well be the scariest universe in contemporary gaming.

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Like its predecessor, Outlast 2 is a first-person survival-horror game that emphasizes careful exploration and avoiding crazed monsters. The game is set some time after the events of Outlast, but features a new cast of characters and a setting far away from the original’s Colorado crazy-house. Players assume the role of Blake Langermann, a cameraman who along with his wife Lynn has been investigating the murder of a pregnant woman in Arizona. The couple’s sleuthing leads them to the state’s remotest desert region, and to what could be a big break for Lynn.

As Blake and Lynn prepare to touch down in the desert, a strange blast of light forces their helicopter to crash. Blake regains consciousness and finds his trusty video camera, but cannot locate his wife in the wreckage. He follows a spine-tingling trail of screams to what looks like a town… only, there’s not supposed to be a town so far out here. The word “town” is also quite generous. “Dilapidated village from Hell” is a more apt descriptor of this place.

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Oh boy.

It doesn’t take long for Blake to discover that the town is inhabited… by a vicious cult that believes the end times are upon the world. Barely managing to stay one step ahead of the zealous cultists, Blake also realizes that the townsfolk have captured Lynn, and are preparing to cart her off to a fate worse than death. Armed only with his camera, it’s up to Blake to rescue his wife and find a way out of this hellish little corner of the desert.

That camera is players’ only hope for survival in Outlast 2, as Blake is unable to fight back against the cultists (despite the entire town being full of farming implements). Blake’s camera is far more sophisticated than the one Miles Upshur used in Outlast, with improved zoom, night vision, and even microphones that can pick up distant footsteps. Blake can run, jump, and slide his way out of trouble provided his reflexes are quick enough, but the town’s inhabitants are armed to the teeth and none too shy about attempting a murderous 50-meter dash.

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I suddenly have a lot more respect for adult diapers.

Although the basic run-and-record gameplay of Outlast 2 is nothing that fans of Outlast won’t be familiar with, the sequel does make a few crucial tweaks that refine the first title’s gameplay. For instance, the player can now look behind themselves at any time instead of just when sprinting. Additionally, the retinue of hiding spots has increased dramatically, and the player now has a wide selection of barrels, troughs and ponds to hop into when Cousin Cletus comes knocking. The whole camera setup feels a bit too derivative of the first game, but it remains a fluid setup indeed.

Outlast 2 also makes some rather malicious modifications to the game’s survival systems, doing away with the health regeneration of Outlast in favor of limited health and bandages. This mechanic is a great way to up the tension. Players can still expect to find batteries lying around, but Outlast 2 demands far more usage of the night vision mode than the first game did, so players have to be resourceful when whipping the camera out. Outlast 2 also does a much better job than the first game did of hinting to players when an event is worthy of recording, and allows players to review footage they’ve taken for clues and Blake’s insights.

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There’s no “Killbilly” Instagram filter.

The enemies that Outlast 2 throws at Blake are even more terrifying that the mutated inmates at the first game’s insane asylum. Something malicious has clearly driven these townsfolk over the edge, and as an outsider, Blake is the unlucky recipient of the village’s collective ire. The villagers are smarter and more thorough than the monsters in Outlast, using more intricate search patterns and working together in teams to hound the player. It’s an impressive AI upgrade over what Outlast provided, though the villagers are little less oblivious to when the player is walking right behind them.

Outlast 2 also succeeds in providing a greater variety of foes than the first game. For all their admitted scariness, the inmates in Outlast constituted a single enemy type. As Blake progresses through the village, he has to put up not only with angry villagers, but sickened outcasts that crawl around and stalk the player from a distance. The heretics, a splinter faction opposing the town, are little friendlier to Blake than the villagers but are brutal ambush predators. None of this is to say anything of the game’s unique and particularly gruesome villains, like the 8-foot-tall pickax lady.

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Nothing to see here ma’am, just a metal drum minding its own business… (whistling).

Outlast 2‘s most dramatic change over the original Outlast is in the level design department. The game abandons the constricting linear environments of the insane asylum in favor of open hamlets and corn fields. This shift in level design is a refreshing change, but it certainly doesn’t stop the monsters from being thorough with their patrols. The corn fields represent the zenith of this transition, as players have to adjust from creeping down asylum corridors to blindly pushing through corn stalks while who knows what waits in the next patch over.

Unfortunately, this transformation to a starkly open environment makes it difficult for players to know where to go next. A few areas here and there are marked with telltale lights or a pushed-over cart pointing toward a door, but too often finding the path forward becomes an obnoxious spate of trial-and-error. Players have to run around an environment hoping that they blunder into the exit, but might very well blunder into Billy Jean’s ax and have to start all over again. For the visceral new sense of terror afforded by Outlast 2‘s much more open design, the game loses a lot of structure in the process.

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An actual haunted corn maze is pretty terrifying.

The real heart of the problem with Outlast 2‘s format change has less to do with the change itself and more to do with how enemies act in it. This game is rife, absolutely rife, with scripted chase sequences, which the player is still expected to navigate even while in an open area. It becomes dull and frustrating to endure a chase scene over and over again because the player can’t find the direction the game wants them to run in. There’s something inherently dysfunctional about applying a linear chase sequence to an open environment. It happens a lot in Outlast 2, and it’s less scary than irritating.

Despite the drawbacks of Outlast 2‘s world, it remains one of the scariest game settings developed in years. This spooky Arizona backwater is intricately detailed with decaying buildings and ghoulish religious iconography, all of which gives it a dreadful atmosphere. The game certainly doesn’t let up on showering the town with (literal) buckets of blood, bodies, and gore, all of which is carefully arranged to show, not tell, additional little stories. These details, plus a heap of sophisticated lighting and weather effects and outstanding PC performance, make the town even scarier than the setting of the first game. Outlast 2‘s comprehensive options menu doesn’t hurt the game either.

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Mount Massive’s been given a run for its money.

The other thing that makes Outlast 2‘s setting so scary? The horror. The pure, visceral, unleashed, unrestrained horror. The horror of watching the pickax lady murder someone for not muttering Biblical phrases properly. The horror of being licked by an all-too-amorous cultist who really wants to feel the spirit. The horror of watching townsfolk get stretched on the rack, flayed alive, and then burned at the stake. The horror of being vomited on by a plague-ridden cultist before watching him retreat to a cabin half-sunk in his own feces.

Yeah, Outlast 2 does not hold back in its portrayals of graphic violence. Indeed, it might be one of the most violent games ever made, and for this medium that’s saying something. Red Barrels’ decision to go full-throttle on portraying the very worst excesses of the human mind means that most players will experience the game while under the duress of a perpetual heart attack. Even iron-hearted horror aficionados may find themselves flinching at some of the torture and assault portrayed in this game. For better and for worse, Outlast 2 digs its adrenaline-tipped barbs into players’ hearts and doesn’t release itself for most of its 8-9 hour playtime.

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I do not want to watch how this shakes out.

This constant cringe also creeps into the main narrative, thanks to some talented writing and horrifyingly brilliant voice acting. Unlike Miles Upshur, Blake can talk, and usually gives very realistic reactions to the awful things he witnesses. As Blake makes his way through the village, he also begins having flashbacks of unpleasant events at his Catholic elementary school. These scenes are wound together with the main game into a foreboding miasma, one with implications of unspeakable acts whose portrayal in media is usually taboo.

Forsaking nuance in favor of ramming through as much brutality as possible is not as foregone a horror game strategy as many gamers might think. It’s easy to look at games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or the Doorways saga and automatically assume that they pack all sorts of unspeakably atrocious things into its production. While it’s true that both games have plenty of content that’s terrifying more for its implication than what it is, horror games usually still have at least some restraint when it comes to portraying things like sexual assault and child abuse. Outlast 2 doesn’t. And that bestial lack of restraint is all that the game seems interested in.

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This game has some truly gnarly stuff in it.

For better and for worse, Outlast 2 seems interested purely in being scary. In cramming as much gruesome stuff and shocking subject matter into its audience’s eyeballs as possible. In so doing, Outlast 2 forsakes the narrative that’s supposed to hold this all together; the reason that all of this horror is being experienced to begin with. Even more than the level design, the game’s focus on overwhelming terror in place of a terrifying story is where the whole production really starts to fall apart. Outlast 2 is uninterested in answering the questions that its own narrative raises, which is a major problem.

It’s difficult to say much more without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that Outlast 2 starts the player off with a lot of questions and ends without having answered virtually any of them. Everything from why the rednecks have kidnapped Lynn to why Blake is having these flashbacks goes unanswered by Outlast 2. At one point Blake actually spots the source of a major plot point, but doesn’t investigate or otherwise comment on it, content to just leave it hanging. Outlast 2 prefers to focus on pure scares instead of why the scares are happening. This game’s plot holes outweigh its plot.

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Why is any of this happening?

It may seem paradoxical to take a horror game to task for focusing exclusively on being scary, but that approach transforms Outlast 2 from a great horror game (like Outlast) into a tacky scare-house. The game’s idea of throwing constant scares at the player without rhyme or reason smacks more of desperation than competency. Outlast 2 isn’t interested in why the cultists hate Blake, or why it might suddenly start raining blood… it only expects the player to be awed by the spectacle. It’s only interested in getting a reaction from the spectacle.  Anyone can make a game full of spectacle, but few can make a game full of substance. Outlast 2‘s lack of substance makes it a bitter disappointment, and patently unworthy of the asylum adventure from whence it spawned.

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You can buy Outlast 2 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.

Prophour23

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Grow body parts and defend them from hordes of insects.

PC Release: October 22, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Prophour23 is the discerning gamer’s go-to title for killing insects with internal organs. If that statement isn’t attention-grabbing enough, what about the notion of a horror real-time strategy game? Or a game played out in an art style inspired by the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci? If all of those things, niche as they may be, sound interesting, imagine them cobbled together with blood vessels and a bit of gristle. Imagine Prophour23, a gruesome entry in this month’s strategy game lineup and the subject of tonight’s review.

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Prophour23 is a game whose bizarre premise lends it a great deal of novelty. The game is a top-down strategy title that faces players off not against columns of enemy troops, but swarms of insects. Ants and cockroaches, to be precise. And what is the player attempting to prevent these baleful bugs from eating? An intricate and awesomely gross web of internal organs. It’s difficult to discern what inspired Prophour23 if not nightmares of being eaten alive by bugs, or the scarab scenes from The Mummy.

Unlike most strategy games, a round of Prophour23 is quite short, usually about 15-20 minutes. The goal of the match is to prevent the insects from destroying the player’s heart, which is positioned at the very center of the field. Players can grow other organs around the heart using blood, which pops up on the screen at regular intervals and must quickly be gathered before it dries up. Each body part serves a different function: eyes allow players to see at night, while rib cages, believe it or not, make for great protective walls.

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Nukes can’t kill roaches, but maybe a mouth covered in thorns can.

Prophour23’s gameplay is a bit more complicated than building walls to keep out bugs. The game features a rapid day-night cycle that can render the player blind to the insects, so be sure to grow some eyeballs around the heart (bet no one expected to ever hear that piece of advice). Some organs can only function if they’re powered by a muscle, and the two have to be tethered together by a tendon. Though most structures are good for keeping the bugs out, the best way to truly destroy them is to grow thorns. Harden the heart, as it were.

Similarly to most real-time strategy games, players can grow more elaborate organs the longer they can last in the match. These higher-tier organs serve more sophisticated purposes than their mainline counterparts. Growing a stomach, for example, is a great way to harvest extra blood. However, even as the player’s organ network becomes more formidable, so too do the waves of insects that ooze in from the screen’s edges to eat the player’s heart. Organs can sometimes cease functioning or even become diseased, and maintaining all of them is one of the game’s biggest challenges.

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Ohhhhhhhh gross gross gross gross GROSS!

Prophour23‘s bizarre world can be a lot to take in. Players with strong stomachs probably won’t get queasy, but if the visuals and oozing animations weren’t enough, the game also comes with some super-squelchy sound effects to round out the grossness. These various elements combine to give Prophour23 a sickly, nigh-bubonic atmosphere consistent with similarly repulsive survival horror games. Fighting off rounds of cockroaches with diseased eyeballs just seems to have that effect… for some reason.

No matter the strength of the player’s stomach, though, Prophour23 seems to have a hard time stomaching its own gameplay. The game’s tutorials, while extensive, do a poor job of explaining how exactly to play the game. There’s a difference between illustrating the function of each organ and illustrating how best to use it in-game. There’s also scant inspiration for how the organs are supposed to function together, which is an obvious problem for a game that casts itself as being built up on strategy. Each tutorial is also played in a far, far shorter round than that of the main game mode.

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Aaaand the armbone connects to the, uh… eye… bone?

It’s especially unfortunate that this game’s tutorials don’t quite do their job, because Prophour23 is a difficult game. That 15-20 minute round seems short on paper, but when constant streams of cockroaches come pouring in from around the map, it seems quite a bit longer. Much like a night at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, success in Prophour23 requires constant and meticulous micromanagement. That’s hardly something to be missed in a strategy game, but multitasking on a jacked up difficulty without an adequate tutorial? Not great.

Yes, the secret to success in Prophour23 is to “git gud” and endure the sight of countless hearts exploding before getting anywhere decent. Though the game’s high difficulty may be a turn-off to casual strategy fans, it provides an inadvertent boon to someone who’s conquered all the things in other RTS titles and is looking for something fresh. There’s an innate satisfaction in crushing a bunch of cockroaches with the force of pure screaming, and then going home and playing Prophour23.

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Medieval warfare as imagined by a Bodyworlds exhibit.

Although Prophour23 makes itself difficult to get into and is then (literally) bloody challenging, its gameplay is truly one-of-a-kind. It’s no hyperbole to say that Prophour23 is the only game out there where players grow organs to fend off bugs, and the novelty of that premise means that, for all its flaws, the game is quite creative. It envisions a gross world of homeless human organs protecting themselves from pestilence, and excels at carrying that hair-raising atmosphere endemic to other horror-themed titles.

It’s also not unfair to also say that Prophour23 is as much a tower defense game as a real-time strategy title, what with each organ serving a distinct purpose and endless foes to beat back. Prophour23‘s RTS elements come primarily in the form of gathering resources, and paying lots of attention to how structures are laid out and the battle is being fought. Organs can be moved around to defend against new streams of insects, which is handy, and players can use organs to activate additional combat abilities.

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Ew…

Prophour23’s gameplay and atmosphere found a perfect match in the title’s art style. Inspired by the anatomy drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, each background in Prophour23 bears the appearance of a weathered page from one of his sketchbooks. The organs themselves are drawn out in a style similar to da Vinci’s, and everything from the game’s gorgeous font to illustrations of medical implements is pure Renaissance. The options menu underpinning these features isn’t great, but Prophour23 runs well and its visual simplicity precludes processing issues. The game’s performance is much more bug-free than its matches (ba dum tss).

The soundtrack is also awesomely gross, with a collection of sickly sweet violin strings and deeper, darker tones that accompany each match. If Prophour23 demonstrates difficulty with welcoming new players, it compels them to stay with its beautiful and highly original artwork. It isn’t quite pretty enough to make players forget that they’re growing body organs to fend off bugs, but it’s not supposed to; it reinforces the game’s diseased vibe and novel premise.

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“Enough blood to grow thorns” sounds like the title of a book of poetry.

Prophour23 gouges itself in the eye with its underwhelming tutorials and high difficulty, but players who can surmount these design flaws are in for a memorable strategy experience. It scratches that resource management itch as only an RTS game can, while also providing a deeply unsettling atmosphere endemic to the horror genre. All of this is played out against a smart backdrop: a living anatomy sketchbook. No other visual setting would’ve fit this game’s premise so perfectly. Prophour23 won’t suit all tastes but it’s definitely worth at least trying. See how managing columns of troops translates to growing body organs and experience a whole new kind of bug repellent.

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You can buy Prophour23 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.

Kona

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Investigate a deserted town and the whereabouts of its inhabitants.

PC Release: March 17, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Horror games can be a great way to beat the heat. That assertion may seem premature with the first day of spring having only been a few days ago, but between summer’s rapid approach and the appalling disinterest in combating global warming, hot temperatures will be here quicker than split infinity. Ideally, though, a horror game’s thrills and chills should be much more than a means of temperature control. They should be the result of a spooky world with a thick atmosphere, something that gamers can get rapidly sucked into. It’s time to see if Kona, the subject of tonight’s review, has a spooky world going for it.

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Kona is a first-person mystery horror game developed by a small French Canadian studio called Parabole. It’s the rarest of video games in that it started out in Steam’s Early Access program and was actually seen through to completion. Few are the Early Access games that actually make it through the front door instead of being left to languish in a half-completed state. The first 30% or so of Kona was available in Early Access for the better part of a year, but with the finished product now on the market, it’s safe to review.

Kona is set during the winter of 1970 and casts players as Carl Faubert, a private investigator. The game begins as Carl makes his way to a remote village in northern Canada at the behest of local businessman William Hamilton. Someone has been vandalizing Hamilton’s businesses, and Carl’s been hired to catch the culprit and bring them to justice. Carl eventually makes it to the town, but when he gets there, he finds it abandoned. The townsfolk have vanished from their village and from what Carl can tell, they left in a hurry.

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Helloooo? Bonjouuuur?

As he travels around the village, Carl makes a far more disquieting discovery: a few villagers flash-frozen in ice as they were fleeing from an unknown threat. Indeed, unnatural formations of glowing ice dot the entire village, and are incredibly cold to the touch. With his investigation into vandalism having grown into something much more serious, Carl sets out into the fierce Canadian winter to solve the mystery of the missing townsfolk, and what they were fleeing from.

Kona‘s icy tale is a suspenseful story that combines elements of adventure, horror, and survival gameplay. Players progress in Kona by exploring the village, gathering clues, and solving simple puzzles. It’s up to Carl to figure out why the town is abandoned and how the flash-frozen villagers he encounters met their fates. He can also spend time learning the villagers’ stories and investigating buildings off the beaten path. Carl doesn’t talk much, but the story is narrated by a grandfatherly Canadian whose wit and suspense-building are well-written.

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You have a dead body, but no jerky or Crown Royal. Worst Canadian convenience store ever.

As one might expect of a game that has such an eerie premise, Kona is a spooky title. The entire production is cloaked in an atmosphere as claustrophobic and foreboding as the blizzard that rages through its town. The game’s horror comes from investigating the blacked-out buildings and who knows what awaits inside, as well as avoiding the ravenous wolves that patrol the wilds outside town. Of course, wolves can’t freeze people in ice or drive an entire town to flee, so players can bet that there’s something far worse skulking around in the trees.

Kona also incorporates light survival elements into its production. Players have to stay alive by lighting fires and scrounging for supplies, as Carl can easily freeze to death or succumb to injuries if players aren’t careful. Supplies are usually pretty close at hand, though, so while playing Kona does require some survival aptitude, the game isn’t a hardcore wilderness simulator like The Long Dark. No, Kona‘s focus is much more on story and atmosphere than ransacking cabins for granola bars (though players can do that too).

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I’m going to be honest for a sec, I don’t want to go in there.

The meat of Kona‘s gameplay comprises exploring the village for clues. Kona is set in a small but vibrant open-world map, about the same size as that of Firewatch. It’s easy to get lost or freeze to death out in the snow, but luckily players can also drive from house to house in Carl’s truck (be sure to gas it up first). Investigating surroundings is usually pretty simple; just walk up to the item of interest and touch it or take a photo. It’s not the most interactive of gameplay setups, but similarly to Firewatch, the point is more what the item or narrative step represents than the gameplay involved.

That said, Kona still has lots of gameplay to offer in and around the story points. The exploration of abandoned homes is definitely the tensest part of the game, especially when Carl’s in the bedroom sifting through drawers and hears a loud crash from the kitchen. Carl has an inventory that players can slowly fill with the tools and weapons necessary for getting around, and can store excess supplies in his truck. Combat in the game is pretty straightforward; pull out a weapon, pray hard, and aim low. Usually, it’s best to avoid confrontations with wildlife and… whatever else is out there. Apart from these core components, players can also expect to have to solve a few puzzles.

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And people wonder why I’m a cat person.

Kona‘s exploration-heavy gameplay will sate fans of open-world and mystery games, but there’s something a bit tedious about how it’s all set up. As the game unfolds, players may need to return and re-comb the same areas over and over to pick up items they now need. It’s a bit dull to get to a certain point, realize Carl needs a previously overlooked item, and then spend hours combing houses the player already spent hours combing to find that now-essential item. The best way to head this little issue off is just to be as thorough as possible and leave no stone unturned. Don’t have room in Carl’s pockets? Pop the extra item in the truck.

Apart from that potential snafu, exploration in Kona makes for some spooky fun indeed. There’s an unbeatable tension in driving through blizzard weather, pulling up to an abandoned house, quietly opening the door, and creeping from room to room in search of supplies while wind and wolves howl outside. More than that, Carl’s after a story, and the game does a good job at leaving tantalizing clues behind. Carl picks up on everything from the minutia of everyday life to major clues about the mass disappearance, and all of it is masterfully narrated by the aforementioned grandfatherly Canadian.

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Oh God. I’m not going in there.

Kona‘s mysterious atmosphere is further reinforced by smart art direction. The entire game was built in the Unity engine, but it has an actual in-depth options menu instead of that pitiful little resolution panel players usually get when booting up a Unity game. Some of the visuals look dated, especially the clone-stamped patches of dirt, and the textures could be sharper, but the game’s blizzard weather is absolutely beautiful. Parabole’s designers did a good job of creating a foreboding winter landscape, where winter winds rip realistically through pine trees and one can almost “see” the cold inside every abandoned building. The interior and exterior lighting are both very well done, though character animations on both animals and… other things… need a touch of work.

The open-world map sports a mix of buildings and open wilderness, both teeming with dangers unseen. Carl can make his way up and down the map and weave through both deserted houses and copses of pine trees in relatively quick order. Straying too far from the road can be hazardous, what with all the wolves running around, but there are rewards out there for the discerning private investigator. In addition to the plot-essential areas needing exploration, Carl can deviate to “side locations” and uncover optional treasures and story points. The map is in pretty good shape; the one drawback is that it seems to have an awful lot of loading screens. Four or so loading screens over a relatively small open world isn’t exactly seamless.

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I feel colder just playing this.

Despite ending on a rather abrupt note, the central narrative of Kona does an apt job of tying several subplots into an overarching, terrifying story. Carl doesn’t exactly abandon his original assignment of investigating vandalism when he arrives, as it seems to be tied up in the disappearance of the townsfolk. As Carl makes his way through the village, Kona introduces more characters and plot threads at subtle, well-paced intervals. Even though these characters are being introduced post-disappearance by the narrator, Kona ensures that the player feels some remorse for their disappearance through a combination of well-written documents and more physical show-don’t-tell exposition.

Kona also provides a plethora of exposition on the local area. The village holds a lot of history on Quebec, and makes most of it relevant to the plot in some way (especially the spate of Quebec independence movements that were active at the time). Much like the documents and other exposition helps tie players to the characters, this material similarly provides some endearment for the setting (even though it’s a grim, forbidding, cold, and quite possibly haunted setting).

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WTF IS THAT

In the end, Kona largely succeeds at providing that grim atmosphere that both delights and terrifies. It offers a haunting setting and forbidding central mystery to chase after, and it taunts players with deathly obstacles all the while. Cap it all off with a heart-pounding, climactic encounter with an insidious foe, and Carl’s assignment to investigate graffiti becomes one of the most suspenseful capers since last year’s Firewatch. Horror, mystery and adventure gamers alike will find much to enjoy in Kona. In an industry teeming with developers who misunderstand subtlety, Parabole’s new game (and future productions) bear watching with great interest.

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You can buy Kona 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.

Dead End Road

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Elude monsters and other frights on your way to see an old witch.

PC Release: July 8, 2016

Ian Coppock

Too often, the Sunday retro review is offered up as a reprieve from the terrors of a horror game review on Wednesday. A chance to sit back and relax on the last day before the workweek. But maybe some readers don’t want a lazy Sunday. Maybe a reprieve is needed from the charming puzzle game, and the shape of that reprieve should be a horror game. Yes! Maybe things need to be shaken up a bit around here. And maybe, just maybe, it’s time to take a trip down Dead End Road.

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Dead End Road is a horror driving game (you read that correctly) from the folks at DDD Wares, a small indie studio. Dead End Road is a rogue-like game with permadeath and procedurally generated levels, but, whether intentionally or not, it’s also an homage to the games of the original PlayStation. Each round of Dead End Road is relatively short, but each one is also potent and brimming with surprisingly visceral terror.

Dead End Road takes place in an autumnal English countryside. The game begins as the protagonist, a nameless down-on-his-luck Brit, is wrapping up a visit to a strange old woman. The old crone’s given our leading character an artifact that can grant wishes, provided he/she/they also perform a ritual in their house. A granted wish sounds phenomenal, but there’s something just a little off about this old woman. Could it be that she lives alone in a creepy old house? Or that that house is in the middle of nowhere? Oh well. What have details ever done for horror game protagonists?

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Oh yeah, THIS seems legit.

Anyway, the main character returns to their house on the other side of the countryside from the crone’s place and begins the ritual. Things don’t go quite according to plan. How so, one might ask? Well, the player initiates the arcane ritual expecting a granted wish, but instead gets a giant screaming monster with huge jaws bursting into their house. Scared witless, the protagonist does what few horror game protagonists seem to think of: leave the house, get in the car, and drive as far away as possible. Unfortunately for the would-be ritual performer, getting away from the monsters isn’t as simple as driving.

Did the old woman mention what to do if the ritual didn’t go as planned? Actually, yes. Buy three items (randomly determined in each playthrough) and bring them to her house. With them, she can cast a counter-spell to banish the monster and save the player’s life. Thus begins a harrowing odyssey through the nighttime English countryside, as the player braves unforeseen horrors on the road and in their mind.

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See? Just a delivery truck. We’re fine, everything’s fine-WAZZATNOISE

In Dead End Road, players have to drive back to the old woman’s house visited at the very start of the game. The game is played from behind the wheel of a souped-up old car, which the player has to use to drive across the countryside. Getting to the crone’s place isn’t as simple as a nighttime drive, though. The player’s most immediate problem are the ghouls, ghosts and other obstacles that are suddenly haunting the road. Dodge the obstacles, and the player might make it to the old woman’s hovel in one piece. Run into things, and, well… hopefully the protagonist has good auto insurance.

Now, the phrase “suddenly haunting the road” is quite literal, as all sorts of things suddenly appear on the road for the player to swerve past. These threats alternate between something relatively banal, like a car suddenly speeding toward the player, to something much more heart-stopping, like an eyeless demon suddenly riding shotgun. Players’ only hope for survival is to drive carefully and have quick reflexes. These events are tricked out with sudden flashes of light and loud noises, so, yeah, pretty startling.

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This is what happens without careful driving.

The monsters and bad drivers aren’t the only things players have to watch out for. Terrified drivers can’t get far without fuel or an intact car, and so Dead End Road forces players to maintain their vehicle throughout the game. Players do start out with some spare cash for buying gasoline (or petrol, as it’s called on that side of the pond) and paying for car repairs. Players can also buy stimulants to help keep them alert, but don’t go too crazy; some of that money will be needed for the three items the old lady needs for the counter-ritual.

If the player is buying items, that must mean not all of Dead End Road is spent on, well, the road. The game’s twisting road of darkness is broken up by small English towns at which the player can stop to recuperate for a spell before hitting the highway. There are about two dozen such towns in Dead End Road, but the player needn’t visit all of them; just pick whichever route to the old woman’s house best suits the protagonist. Each town is also pretty much identical, with a slightly tweaked mix of stops manned by dead-eyed misers.

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Yes, thank God the dark alley is open this late at night.

After filling the tank and buying whatever the crone needs, the player gets back on the road to spend a few tense minutes avoiding baby carriages, other cars, and whatever else might show up in the dead of night. The driving sections are tense, as these threats show up unnaturally quickly and can turn a nighttime sortie into a front-page auto accident. Driving might also be made more difficult by adverse weather, demonic apparitions, and other effects. Players can track how much further they have to go between towns; this relieves some of the anxiety about hitting something, but it can also make some driving segments seem unnaturally long. Then again, this is an unnatural night.

Avoiding obstacles is the name of Dead End Road‘s game. It makes for a meaty (literally) challenge, and it also has a decent, gradual difficulty climb. This should sate horror players and twitch speedsters looking for a new challenge. The game does have permadeath, though, meaning that if the player dies anywhere on the journey, they have to start the entire game over. Some players might be turned off by this notion, especially if they die close to the end of a run, but it heightens the horror tension to know that this is the one chance to get to the crone’s house intact. No checkpoints, no hand-holding. Just try to get to the crone’s house in one piece.

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Those raindrops in the distance are red… I’m sure it’s nothing!

For better and for worse, Dead End Road honors the PlayStation era. The “better” portion of that homage is the game’s aesthetic, a colorful low-fi design that looks right at home alongside Spyro the Dragon and Fighting Force. It’s a tastefully done representation of games from that era, with cars that look straight out of Toad’s Turnpike from Mario Kart. Character models and other in-game objects are likewise low-fi, but not so much as to be inscrutable. Any PlayStation OGs or players yearning for simpler times will find a decent world in Dead End Road, sans some of the jumpscares.

The only issue with emulating the low-fi era of video games is that Dead End Road also inherits that era’s less-than-stellar sound design. A few characters in the game speak out loud, but the soundbits are so garbled that they’re basically unintelligible. This is a particular problem with the demon jumpscare, when a demon pops into the player’s back seat and gives instructions on how to make him go away. Problem is, he sounds like his mouth is full of static and peanut butter, and if his will isn’t done, he kills the player. All of the game’s sound effects are similarly muffled by static. It’s a nice touch for players seeking the nostalgia factor, but logistically it’s a bit of a problem.

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This is one of those games where a passing train sounds like a surround sound system getting tasered.

Really, though, the sound design is Dead End Road‘s only serious flaw. Everything else is a well-implemented piece of a greater horror atmosphere. There’s no beating the tension of driving along the road, never knowing if Satan will hop in the car or if another vehicle will suddenly come roaring into your windshield. Things are little calmer in the towns, where creepy, unfriendly shopkeepers follow the player’s every move as they peruse old shelves. The permadeath risks being too frustrating for players to enjoy the atmosphere, but it’s a roundabout way of making Dead End Road even tenser.

With such a heavy emphasis on driving, there’s not much room for character development or an intricate plot. Inveterate horror games might have a few guesses as to what the crone can do to break this unfortunate protagonist’s spell. Maybe it depends on the items she wants, or perhaps the condition of the player’s car when and if they arrive. Dead End Road becomes even more compelling in that way, as the player is driven as much by the terrors on the highway as the hope of breaking whatever hell he/she/they has unleashed.

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NO! GET AWAY FROM ME!

In closing, Dead End Road is a delightful little jaunt onto a monster-infested highway, complete with the management of very finite resources and the need for quick reflexes. Its old-school aesthetic fits the game’s dark theme well, and its sound design does a hit-or-miss job of rounding out the atmosphere. It’s not often that horror and racing fans find common ground, but Dead End Road aptly blends both genres into a novel horror adventure. Take off onto the roads of nighttime Britain to see if the curse can be broken. Surely, the backfire of the old crone’s gift was an accident…

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You can buy Dead End Road 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.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard

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Brave a mutant-infested swamp to find your wife.

PC Release: January 24, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Ah, Resident Evil. A franchise that was once the pinnacle of the survival horror genre, reduced to rubble by removing the terror that made it unique and adding the action that made it just like everything else. Resident Evil has undergone a remarkable journey, starting out as something spooky with Resident Evil and ending up a touch too shooty by the time 2012’s Resident Evil 6 rolled around. With Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, developer Capcom is aiming to bring the series back to the spooky. Let’s see how it did.

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Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is a survival horror video game and, well, the seventh installment in the legendary Resident Evil franchise. Believe it or not, this series was once the talk of terror-town, with 1996’s Resident Evil considered one of the greatest horror games ever made. The series continued making strides with Resident Evil 2, not so much with Resident Evil 3, and again with 2005’s Resident Evil 4. The games are strung together by a smattering of recurring protagonists and a motif classic to horror: big corporations messing around with evil stuff. The result? Zombies. Monsters. Mind control. All sorts of cool stuff.

Things changed with the release of Resident Evil 5, though. The series took a drastic turn away from survival horror and toward pure action, becoming as generic a third-person shooter as generic third-person shooters get. Things only got worse with Resident Evil 6, a bloated disaster of a game that tried to please everyone and, in so doing, pleased no one. Eager to revive its beloved franchise, Capcom got its marketing department out of the studio and focused on returning Resident Evil to the survival horror from whence it spawned. The result of that effort is Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (called Biohazard 7: Resident Evil in some territories).

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Back to basics.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is set in 2017, putting it a few years after Resident Evil 6 and nearly 20 years after the titular original. The game follows the story of Ethan Winters, an American civilian whose wife Mia disappeared without a trace three years prior to the start of the game. Ethan’d given her up for dead until, one day, he gets a video message from Mia asking him to come find her in the swamps of Louisiana. Ecstatic that the love of his life might still be alive, Ethan gets in his car and sets off for her last known location.

Ethan eventually reaches his destination, stumbling through underbrush and swamps to find a deserted plantation house smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Though the house seems abandoned, Ethan can’t shake off a feeling of absolute dread as he ventures deeper inside. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that his wife is here, or that the house isn’t abandoned after all.

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Soooo…. what do y’all do for a living? Besides eat people?

Yep. Not long after setting foot in the creepy old house, Ethan wakes up in the company of a family of homicidal swamp-billies. Although Ethan expects some eccentricity from folks this far away from civilization, something seems profoundly wrong with the Baker family. Not just the cannibalism, or the screaming psychobabble, but that they claim to hear voices coming from someone Ethan can’t see. They also have heightened senses and regenerate even the most grievous wounds, which is the player’s more immediate problem.

Ethan spots a chance to escape and takes it, venturing deeper into a house that’s been twisted by an unknown force. The Bakers, compelled by voices unheard, stalk the halls, looking to make a quick meal out of careless players. All the while, Ethan remains determined to find his wife and get the hell out of this swampy dungeon. Who knows? He just might escape with his life intact. As for his sanity, well… those are longer odds.

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I haven’t seen this many killer swamp-billies since Mafia III.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard makes several major breaks from its predecessors. For a start, the game is played in first-person, whereas all the game’s main titles have been third-person shooters. The shift to first-person is excellent for any horror game that wants to be taken seriously; the feelings of dread and danger are much, much more immediate in that perspective. The over-the-shoulder third-person angle is not impossible for a survival horror game to pull off and still be scary, but it’s much less frightening. The overwhelming bulk of the game is played from Ethan’s perspective, but players will also see the Baker house from a few other perspectives, including that of a haunted house TV show crew and a truly unfortunate birthday guest.

The gameplay also shifts focus away from combat and toward survival stealth. Unlike past protagonists like Chris Redfield and Leon Kennedy, Ethan is a civilian with no combat skills. He can run, but no faster than your average Joe, and he can fight, but only with what very few weapons are scattered around the Baker estate. Between his middling physique and the limited weaponry, Ethan’s only true recourse is to run and hide. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard forces players to choose subtlety over bravado in order to survive.

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Two whole bullets?! What a steal!

To expand on the gameplay a bit more, players can find a small handful of guns and other weapons around the Baker house. The Bakers themselves are practically impossible to kill, and they also keep a retinue of weird vomit monsters that shamble around and chomp at things. These latter enemies can die, but they’re still dangerous. Couple this with the game’s finite amounts of ammo, health and other resources, and the result is a decent survival challenge. Resident Evil 7 also features a small crafting system, allowing players to make a few items out of scavenged components. Players can store items and save the game in a few safe rooms around the estate.

The world of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is also chock full of collectibles for the discerning swamp hunter. Similarly to previous games, the player can find sets of items scattered over the game world, as well as lots of background exposition in the form of letters and newspaper articles. These artifacts aren’t essential to understanding the story, but they do flesh out (no pun intended) Resident Evil 7 quite nicely.

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“Ghosts Spotted in Bayou.” Probably should’ve been my first clue.

The nice thing for a game that’s trying to be scary is that Resident Evil 7‘s monsters are absolutely terrifying. Jack Baker, the patriarch of these invincible swamp-billies, is one of the most sadistically calculative foes in a horror game since Outlast‘s Richard Trager. He’s relentless, brutal, and isn’t afraid to scream all the terrible things he wants to do to Ethan while the player hides. Similarly, Jack’s wife Margeurite comes complete with a swarm of killer bugs, while the couple’s son Lucas prefers tormenting his foes by putting them through death trap challenges. That’s to say nothing of the shambling swamp monsters that stalk the halls looking for fresh meat. Inveterate horror fans needn’t worry; there’s a lot to fear in Resident Evil 7.

The other element in Resident Evil 7‘s fear factor is the atmosphere. Capcom hasn’t always been great at producing immersive game worlds (cough*Lost Planet*cough), but the studio did a surprisingly good job of rigging creepy fog effects and dour lighting in the world of Resident Evil 7. In a rare act of self-consciousness, Capcom was patient enough to produce a game that ratchets up tension through fear and stellar sound design, then sets it off with a monster or a Baker shambling around the corner. The final piece to the puzzle is a spooky soundtrack, which, because this is a Japanese game, features a catchy main theme song. Well done, Capcom.

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NO! I DON’T WANNA BE A KEBAB

Resident Evil 7‘s gameplay isn’t without a few embarrassing flaws. The first and most fatal is that this game’s AI can veer wildly between dumb and omniscient. At one point players can slip through a doorway even if a monster’s standing in it, but at another, Jack Baker will come hollering toward Ethan having somehow spotted him from the other end of the bayou. These episodes don’t happen very often, but they’re frustrating and break immersion. Hopefully Capcom patches this issue – that and the occasionally wonky hair physics.

The other issue, much less serious but still annoying, is managing a full inventory. If Ethan’s got a full bag but an empty gun, he can’t load any ammo he finds straight into the gun. Instead, he has to discard an item (read: destroy it), put the ammo in his inventory, and then load the gun. Dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s definitely something that swamp survivalists should be aware of.

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What plant do these herbs come from, anyway?

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard‘s level design can be summed up in one word: claustrophobia. Whether it’s a decaying mansion corridor or a water-filled crawlspace, every nook and cranny of Resident Evil 7 feels deliciously constricting. It heightens the tension, as players only have so many means of escape if a Baker shows up, but it also allows for all kinds of shrieks and spooks as Ethan makes his way through the swamp. Not just the jumpscare kind of scare either… more like “that lamp was over there a few minutes ago” kind of scare.

Visually, Resident Evil 7 is quite stunning. Textures are sharp, lighting is perfect and the variety of color is admirable. Thankfully, Capcom gives players the full suite of visual and audio options to tweak the game however they wish. However, game’s visuals, despite their horrifying beauty, are not problem-free. The biggest headache (literally) is Resident Evil 7‘s short field of view, which allows for up-close objects to look great but makes anything even a bit further away look like an oil painting. There’s no way to ameliorate this problem at the current time. PC players who use AMD cards may also experience occasional lag.

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WHODAT

Anyone who’s played Capcom games knows that storytelling is not this developer’s strong suit. A great deal of the Resident Evil games feature completely nonsensical narratives, and the story of The Lost Planet series doesn’t deserve to be called a story. But, surprising as it sounds, Capcom not only managed to pen a coherent story, but it’s also fairly decent. It does away with the overstuffed casts and convoluted plot points of past Resident Evil games in favor of a simple, stripped-down narrative that invites intrigue instead of burying players in it. Instead of focusing on mega-battles with huge corporations or multifaceted wars for the fate of mankind, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard has a much more personal tone. A man, alone against dark forces, looking for his wife. It’s an enjoyable journey from start to finish, with few wobbly plot points.

Additionally, and again unusually for a Capcom game, Resident Evil 7 avoids the overstretched cutscenes and idiotic dialogue endemic to, say, Resident Evil 6. Even the English version has believable dialogue and decent voice acting. The only problem is that Ethan, the protagonist, is the least interesting person in the game, and part of that has to do with his monotone voice acting. At times, he also seems impossibly comfortable with his surroundings, dryly noting a horrifically mutilated cop with just “Eh. Poor deputy.” Yes, much like Amanda Ripley in Alien: Isolation, the main character’s personality ain’t much to speak of. But the Bakers? Absolutely fascinating.

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Do I hear… singing?

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard isn’t quite the horror opus that Capcom was probably hoping for, but it’s a decent game, and a fantastic return to form for the Resident Evil franchise. Horror fans won’t find many concepts that they haven’t seen in a different title, but Resident Evil 7‘s simple narrative, survival gameplay, and realistic dialogue are a winning formula. The mantra of “back to basics” has saved this series from the mediocrity of Resident Evil 6 and has hopefully laid fertile ground for future horror concepts. Buy it and experience the horror of a midnight monster swamp firsthand.

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You can buy Resident Evil 7: Biohazard 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 Pasture

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Curate a surreal art gallery populated by monsters.

PC Release: January 17, 2017

By Ian Coppock

The Pasture is evidence that video games can never have too many worm-filled coffee cups or amorphous art enthusiasts. It’s also evidence that the stream of “out there” indie games won’t be drying up anytime soon. Unintentional as this year’s surreal motif has been, games like The Pasture present a nice change of pace from big-budget shooters and endlessly massive adventure titles. But that doesn’t let them off the hook from needing to have some kind of point. The Pasture has a point, buried somewhere in its lucid art gallery dreamscape, but like an art gallery, the point is up for debate.

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The Pasture is a weird little horror game created by Mikhail Maksimov, a Russian modern art enthusiast. The game aptly blends curating an art gallery with pure survival horror, a concoction most gamers probably don’t wake up expecting to see on any given day. The Pasture is much more than being chased through an art gallery by monsters, though. Indeed, it’s sometimes hard to know if the player isn’t the monster.

The Pasture is set at a large modern art gallery. Players can choose to explore the yard outside the gallery or the building’s stark white interior. Both areas are populated by streams of shapeshifting, anthropomorphic creatures that wander aimlessly from exhibit to exhibit. They, though, are not stars of the show. The stars are the two monsters that stalk the player throughout the gallery.

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Ahhhhh! WHATISTHATWHATISTHATWHATISTHAT

Yes, because it’s not enough to populate the trippy art gallery with headless white creatures and floating pieces of art, there are also two monsters staggering around the gallery’s halls. To make matters more alarming, each monster is never more than a few steps away from the player, who must always walk backwards to avoid being jumped. The game pauses whenever the player stops walking, and players can pivot the camera to see what they’re walking into. Spend too long walking without stopping for a break, and the monsters will beat the player to death. Given that the monster is always walking toward the camera, perhaps it’s the true protagonist of The Pasture.

While all of this is going on, players can walk backwards around the gallery, stumbling into Russian art pieces strewn about the premises. Each piece is, according to Maksimov, one of the most important sculptures in the history of Russian modern art. Players have to collect as many of these pieces as possible without getting killed by the monster pursuing them. The more art collected, the higher the final score. Players also get props for locating the gathering spot for an art gallery tour.

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WTF is this game…

Okay, so, there’s a lot to unpack with those preceding paragraphs, not one word of which was hyperbole. The player literally spends thirty minutes walking backwards, collecting Russian artwork, all while tall monsters babble at them in Russian. What is the point of an oddity like The PastureIS there a point? It’s easy to dismiss The Pasture as the fever dream of an LSD addict (and it may very well be) but there’s more to this Jodorowsky-esque drug trip than meets the eye.

Unfortunately, The Pasture‘s lack of an in-depth options menu may preclude its weirdness for some players. With a small menu that provides for only the most basic options, players have little recourse if, for whatever reason, The Pasture doesn’t function on their machine. And unlike most indie games with small options menu, The Pasture‘s visual sophistication far outpaces the number of options available. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s not helpful.

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Gather round, my patrons, gather round…

The Pasture‘s aforementioned visual sophistication helps give this game its surreal edge. The game was built in the Unreal Engine, and it has appropriately impressive visuals and textures. The character models are well-detailed and smoothly animated, though some of the monsters’ clothing glitches through itself. Textures are pleasingly sharp, as is The Pasture‘s in-game text. The stark juxtaposition of dark objects in stark white gallery walls also draws the eye, as do the gallery grounds’ combination of blue skies and black walls. The Pasture looks great, especially for a small indie game.

Even though The Pasture‘s environments are bright by default, the game still comes with a few different shades of light. Most areas are bright as day, but the game also includes a few dark corridors that are a bit spooky… especially when a green, 10-foot-tall woman is walking right behind the player. The Pasture is a weird game, but it remembers the impact lighting can have on an unsettling atmosphere.

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Would you care for some worm tea?

The sculptures the player finds scattered around the gallery can make an art enthusiast of even the most ardent anti-hipster. Curios are signified by a floating, glowing box that players can walk over. Doing so triggers a picture and informative paragraph about one piece of art or another, with pleasingly few translation errors. The piece then spawns in the gallery, leaving players free to find more. Art appreciation is one of the game’s strongest arguments (and one of the strongest arguments for playing this game).

Even if there’s quite a disconnect between looking at Russian art and pointing an AK-47 at a shape-shifting Uncle Sam, the pieces players can find around the gallery are interesting. Modern art enthusiasts will find The Pasture a pleasure, but even players who roll their eyes at the idea of subconscious art would be remiss to omit some of these. Finding some of these pieces can be quite challenging, which adds an adventure element to this game. Indeed, something so bizarre as an art gallery populated by these creatures prompts exploration almost by default.

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What in the world…

The Pasture has no narrative beyond the stories its sculptures tell. If there is more of a story to this game, the developer did a damn good job obscuring it behind white sculpture people and floating tombstones. The biggest issue story-seekers might have with The Pasture is that the game’s text is divided roughly in half between English and Russian. Some banners are written in the former, others the latter. The monsters also babble in Russian, so western gamers will likely have no clue what they’re saying. The Pasture never states an intention to tell an in-depth story, but who knows what exposition might be in all that Russian.

In stating its main objective as soon as possible, The Pasture avoids coming off as a pretentious mess, despite its disorienting design. Even from the get-go, even while being pursued by strange monsters, it’s clear that the point of the game is simply to study modern art. The game’s world is an embodiment of the same weird, subconscious motif prevalent in sculpture these days. Because The Pasture has a clear objective, it succeeds in making the player feel like they’re achieving something. That they’re going somewhere. That isn’t always simple in a game that can overwhelm the senses as strongly as The Pasture. But, by making its objective clear and making no attempts to disguise itself as a tamer title, it works.

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Take me to the art.

Obviously, The Pasture doesn’t suit all tastes. It’s a 1-dollar, 30-minute romp through a surreal art gallery while walking backwards and being pursued by a strange monster. Such a smattering of weirdness does not a game for everyone make. However, there is a point to all of its random ideas, and it contains some of the most amazing real-life sculptures in art history. Its stark, bizarre world is also worth experiencing just for the novelty. Gamers who like surreal worlds and unique concepts should at least try The Pasture. It’s a weird little game that leaves the eyes wide and the frontal lobe in disrepair, but it does so with confidence. At the very least, it helps players bone up on their knowledge of both modern art and the side effects of who knows how many hallucinogens.

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You can  buy The Pasture 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.

Zombie Army Trilogy

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Stop the Nazi zombie horde from taking over the world.

PC Release: March 6, 2015

By Ian Coppock

It’s always interesting to see a video game property take on a new tone, and almost always, that tone is zombies. Sometimes this results in comedy, as with Red Dead Redemption‘s Undead Nightmare DLC. Other times, it’s ceaseless repetition, like Call of Duty‘s zombies mode (although to be fair, ceaseless repetition is the motif of all of CoD‘s modes). Whatever the genre, whatever the game, developers seem to love throwing their worlds into the throes of a zombie apocalypse. Today is Rebellion Developments’ turn in that gory hot seat, as they reanimate their Sniper Elite games into Zombie Army Trilogy.

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Zombie Army Trilogy is an episodic horror-shooter and a spin-off of the Sniper Elite games. Three standalone episodes of Zombie Army content were released over the past few years, and then compiled into a single collection with the third and final chapter’s release. Rebellion remastered the first two chapters when they released Zombie Army Trilogy for a single, cohesive experience, though gamers who’d already bought them separately weren’t all thrilled.

Zombie Army Trilogy is set in an alternate Sniper Elite timeline, and kicks off with a Nazi telling Hitler that World War II is all but lost. Refusing to accept defeat, Hitler walks into an especially restricted area of his Fuhrerbunker and begins toying with some spooky-looking artifacts. Suddenly, dead Nazis everywhere begin rising from the grave, and they’re hungry for Allied flesh! Only Karl Fairburne, dashing OSS agent and elite sniper, can stop Hitler’s deathly legions.

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Oh well that’s just great…

Despite the last installment of Zombie Army Trilogy having been released after Sniper Elite III, this game retains the style and gameplay of Sniper Elite V2. Just like in that game, players utilize a sniper rifle as their primary weapon, and can use it to take the fight to the enemy from afar. And, just like V2Zombie Army Trilogy boasts some impressive sniping mechanics, including realistic ballistics and the gloriously gory x-ray kill-cam. That latter feature presents an x-ray view of just how explosively Karl’s bullet tears apart an enemy’s head. Karl can also access the usual gallery of secondary weapons, trip mines, and grenades.

Unlike V2, though, Karl isn’t alone in his fight. Zombie Army Trilogy supports online co-0p for up to four players, giving the lone sniper some badly needed backup against the zombies. Although each character plays about the same, players can pick from a colorful lineup of French resistance fighters, British pot-shooters, and Soviet agents. Delightfully, all eight characters from the Left 4 Dead franchise are also made available for players to pick. Anachronistic? Sure, but that’s pretty tame compared to the presence of Nazi zombies. Now all the game needs is the cast from Zombieland (dibs on Woody Harrelson).

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It took a zombie apocalypse for Karl to make friends.

Zombie Army Trilogy features a few modes for players to sink their teeth into. The game’s main campaign comprises 15 levels split equally between the three titular episodes. Each episode is basically an “act” of the story, following Karl & Co as they fight against the zombies. The first two episodes are basically about Karl running around Berlin looking for occult artifacts, while the third episode contains the team’s final showdown against zombie Hitler. There’s also a horde mode, in which players duke it out against waves of zombies arcade-style.

It should go without saying that Zombie Army Trilogy doesn’t focus on narrative. Neither, to be fair, do the Sniper Elite games, but Zombie Army Trilogy is not a story. It’s a series of objectives with a ton of zombies staggering between them and the player. There’s not much character development, either; each squadmate is just a face with a few lines of combat dialogue. Indeed, Zombie Army Trilogy goes for a campy b-movie aesthetic with its cutscenes, giving the game some bleak humor. And honestly, isn’t the entire Nazi zombies fad a bit campy by now? Was it ever not?

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Tod dem zombies, ja!

Even though Zombie Army Trilogy was built with Sniper Elite V2 assets instead of Sniper Elite III‘s more cutting-edge visuals, this game doesn’t look bad. In fact, Rebellion Developments did a good job polishing up some of what they missed in Sniper Elite V2. Objects look a lot sharper, and the fog (among other atmospheric effects) is tremendously improved over those of V2. This game’s character animations also look a lot less wonky than those of V2, and that’s considering the addition of shambling corpse people.

Although Zombie Army Trilogy doesn’t have a thick horror atmosphere, it does a great job of recreating the feel one might find at a haunted house attraction. The game has an impressive array of thick fog and dour lighting, as well as some spooky, silly props that reinforce the aforementioned camp vibe. Indeed, Zombie Army Trilogy is the haunted house tour of video games, with set pieces that are designed to provoke amusement as much as repulsion.

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This game is fun.

 Zombie Army Trilogy‘s roster of sound effects, while thorough, doesn’t contain anything not also found in other horror media. There’s the usual deluge of distant moans and that one wind sound effect that is used for all wind sound effects everywhere. The zombies moan, but what zombies don’t moan these days, and the guns pop rounds off with the same zest to be found in Sniper Elite V2‘s firearms. Nothing new, nothing fancy, but they get the job done.

Thankfully, being a production with something of a budget, Zombie Army Trilogy also includes a thorough options menu. If this game isn’t quite the apex of zombie entertainment, at least Rebellion made its effects easy to manage. Resolution, draw distance, anti-aliasing, everything’s here. Tinker to the heart’s content.

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Whatever effects help you look like a badass.

Though Zombie Army Trilogy provides a polished third-person shooter experience, there’s something fundamentally flawed about its gameplay. Probably has something to do with the idea of mashing a stealth game with a horde shooter. Yes, though seeing a zombie’s skull explode with the x-ray kill-cam is fun, there’s something inherently paradoxical about pitting a weapon of surgical precision against a mindless mass of foes.

See, the idea at the heart of Sniper Elite V2 is that the sniper rifle is not an assault rifle. It’s a tool of tactical, lethal precision ideally only used a few times per mission. The player’s time is otherwise spent sneaking around, being stealthy, employing strategies and all that. The problem with trying to stick those gameplay mechanics in a zombie game is that zombies have only one tactic: shoot all of them in the head. Okay, so maybe sneak past the zombies? Nope. They can automatically detect the player’s presence. Karl’s only recourse is the very type of blind, up-close wild-firing that the Sniper Elite series is not built for.

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Running and gunning? This isn’t Sniper Elite!

Now, a layman or gamer new to the series might find that assessment a bit harsh, considering that Zombie Army Trilogy also lets players arm themselves with assault rifles and shotguns. Better? Not exactly. Sniper Elite V2 players may remember that though Karl is with a sniper rifle what Mozart was with a harpsichord, that game’s secondary weapons are clunky as hell. Seriously, it’s ridiculously hard to get a headshot with an SMG even at point-blank range. In V2, players have a better chance of shotgunning a lengthwise sheet of paper than an enemy right in front of them. Because a swarm of zombies leaves players little time to shoot everything in the head, they’ll have to break out these clumsy, poorly tooled weapons to fight the zombies. It’s not very fun.

Indeed, this situation makes Zombie Army Trilogy a rather grinding experience. Because players’ sniper positions will be overrun almost immediately, they’ll have to run in a circle firing backwards at the zombies pursuing them. This circular gameplay gets old fast, and it can get frustrating in the game’s most challenging arenas. The bigger baddies Zombie Army Trilogy introduces are fun at first, but even with multiple players, the inherent dysfunction of Zombie Army Trilogy‘s game design comes alive quickly.

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LMG zombies. Because why not?

Compounding Zombie Army Trilogy‘s lack of tactical gameplay is the game’s linear level design. Each level in Zombie Army Trilogy is basically a straight line, sometimes with circular arenas, leading up to the end goal. Though the levels’ varying lengths help keep the pacing unpredictable, everything else about traversing these levels is as foreseeable as clockwork. Run, shoot zombies, blow through gate. Run, shoot zombies, blow up gate. Over and over for upwards of 10 hours.

Does the gameplay get anything right? Well, grenades are handy against zombie hordes, but Karl can only carry so many at a time, making it a temporary stop-gap. The nice thing is that Zombie Army Trilogy lets players choose their load-out before each level, much like Sniper Elite III, though unlike that game, weapons cannot be modified. Each level can also be played independently, so unless you’re a psychotic completionist (awkward hand raise) that’s one measure for getting past the game’s more frustrating levels.

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Ooh! Right in the rigor mortis!

Zombie Army Trilogy is not a terrible game, but it’s not a very good one, either. It tries hard with its campy horror motifs and beefed-up visuals, but it paralyzes itself by trying to combine gameplay built for stealth with enemies built for noise. The two… don’t really go together. It’s a square-peg-in-a-round-hole situation if video games ever produced one. Players can make it work with patience and dedication, but Zombie Army Trilogy doesn’t deserve copious amounts of either. Even the most ardent zombie shooter enthusiasts would do well to stop and think before buying this. Mowing down a horde of zombies is fun. Trying to do so with a sniper rifle is not.

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You can buy Zombie Army Trilogy 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.