Puzzle

Portal Stories: Mel

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Find a way out of an abandoned laboratory that’s under the auspice of a dutiful AI.

PC Release: June 25, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Every so often, an opportunity comes by to review an older game that can still compete with the best of the new stuff… a game that didn’t get reviewed on this page back when it first came out, but now gets a (belated) moment in the sun… a game that, in tonight’s case, takes some of the best that a beloved series has to offer and recreates it with impressive attention to detail, and some love of its own. Portal Stories: Mel is that game, and tonight’s a good opportunity to see how it fares both as its own game and in comparison to its predecessors.

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Portal Stories: Mel is a first-person puzzle game set between the events of Portal and Portal 2. For any Portal fans who are freaking out over apparently having missed a new title from Valve, that’s not quite the case – Portal Stories is actually a fan-made game and the debut title of Prism Studios. Much like the series’ vaunted Aperture Science, Prism Studios seems to be run by a cabal of madhouse scientists who enjoy tricky puzzle chambers and jabs at black humor. This concoction of theirs is an attempt to conjure the same “sciencey” magic that captivated gaming audiences everywhere with Portal and Portal 2.

Though the bulk of Portal Stories: Mel is set between the two main Portal titles, the game actually starts in the 1950’s with the arrival of Mel, a famous Olympian, to the then-brand-new offices of Aperture Science. After walking around the company’s opulent offices and getting an eyebrow-raising welcome from Aperture CEO Cave Johnson, Mel learns that she’s been hired on as a test subject for the company’s suspended animation initiative. Well, she climbs into the chamber, goes to sleep, and wakes up sometime between Portal and Portal 2… decades later than planned.

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Hmm… I might’ve overslept just a smidgen.

As Mel stumbles through the ruins of Aperture, she eventually gets a call from Virgil, an office employee who insists that the decay is all an elaborate test. Well, Mel isn’t fooled for long, and also discovers that Virgil is a personality core who’s also trapped in the bowels of Aperture. She also finds an old timey portal gun, complete with 1950’s warning labels, and promptly begins puzzle-shooting her way back to the surface of the facility. Virgil offers to help however he can- unlike Portal 2‘s Wheatley, he’s a calm and friendly personality core who does a better job of planning ahead. He’s Bing Crosby to Wheatley’s Bob Hope.

As the two make their way ever higher, they encounter another problem; after Chell knocked out the insidious GlaDOS in Portal, GlaDOS’s backup AI, AEGIS, came online to manage the facility in her absence. AEGIS is intent on exterminating all life in the facility so he can rebuild it from the ground up, leaving Mel and Virgil with an unfeeling, unsympathetic adversary. Armed only with her portal gun, Mel will have to stretch her wits to their limits to escape before AEGIS can resurrect Aperture Science.

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Maybe it’s the orange color or the retro decals, but I like this portal gun better than the original.

Despite being identical in plot to the first half of Portal 2, the story of Portal Stories: Mel opens Aperture up for more sci-fi intrigue. Though the game is not considered canon by Valve, Portal Stories presents a believable scenario set between the two titles that, in many ways, acts as a bridge between them. Like her counterpart Chell, Mel is a silent protagonist who offers no spoken thoughts on the chaos inside Aperture, but her perseverance in spite of being a stranger in a new time period suggests a Chell-like tenacity.

Unfortunately for Portal Stories: Mel, the supporting cast of characters isn’t all that interesting. Virgil is a friendly little core, but he serves more as a game guide than a Wheately-esque fountain of gaffes. Sure, he pokes fun at the occasional Aperture absurdity, but most of his dialogue is restricted to giving Mel instructions. It was probably better that Prism Studios not try to fill Wheatley’s guide rail with their new character, but the two personality cores cannot help but be compared. Virgil, while competently written, just ain’t all that interesting. To his credit, though, saying these things about him does elicit feelings of regret.

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Sorry, buddy.

Even though there’s not much to say about Virgil, he’s still leagues and fathoms more interesting than AEGIS. GlaDOS’s substitute laboratory overseer is barely even a character, and is much more an automated computer than a sophisticated, finicky AI. AEGIS’s flatly delivered announcements about laboratory protocol, while done out in an intimidatingly deep voice, can’t hold a handle to GlaDOS’s bleak humor. Here, it feels less like Prism Studios is trying to avoid reinventing the wheel and more like they’re trying to avoid putting a wheel on altogether. AEGIS is about as interesting as a printer, and his dialogue little livelier than a tray 2 lifting error.

No, the most Portal-like bits of humor Portal Stories: Mel has to offer are in the very beginning, when Prism at least manages to capture the likeness of Cave Johnson’s dialogue from Portal 2. Whoever the studio hired to voice the character has an uncanny vocal resemblance to J.K. Simmons, which helps with the game’s immersion. The Cave Johnson impersonation and the occasional funny rule reminder are where Portal Stories: Mel feels most like a Valve-made Portal game, but otherwise its narrative is pretty unremarkable.

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Portal Stories does not a memorable stories make.

Although a Portal narrative is supposed to be the fun, funny glue that binds the game together, Portal Stories‘ absence of a memorable one is this game’s only major flaw. For a start, the game’s level design is excellent, and presents a real challenge even to gamers who have played the two main Portal games. Indeed, Portal Stories: Mel seems to assume that players have already done so, given how difficult even its very first puzzles are.

As with the main Portal games, Portal Stories: Mel comprises puzzle rooms that are solved using the portal gun. Players can fire two portals onto two different surfaces, enter one portal, and come out the other. Some surfaces are resistant to portals, which is one of the Valve games’ most challenging factors. Players may also need to make use of environmental objects, like weighted companion cubes, to move forward. Unlike the main Portal games, which introduced new mechanics and obstacles gradually, Portal Stories: Mel pretty much hands players everything from the get-go.

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Hey! I recognize that death sphere!

To its (great) credit, Portal Stories: Mel actually advances many of the level design innovations that Valve made with Portal 2. It’s not often another studio can take what Valve did and make it better, and that Prism Studios managed to accomplish that feat makes Portal Stories: Mel warrant immediate attention. This game introduces almost no new mechanics or obstacles, but rather scrambles the series’s pre-existing obstacles in new ways. Players might need to oil up a hard light bridge with friction gel, something that Portal 2 never did, or find new ways to get behind the game’s infamous turrets.

All of this, of course, means that Portal Stories: Mel is much more difficult than Portal 2. Even its mid-range puzzles are harder than the toughest conundrums Portal 2 had to offer. This makes Portal Stories unwelcoming to players new to Portal, but it’s a bit unreasonable to expect gamers to play this before playing the main games anyway, so power to Prism for turning things up for the established fans. Any inveterate Portal fan spoiling for a new challenge will love (and hate) Portal Stories: Mel.

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Portal Stories’ level design is most impressive.

Similarly to the level design, Portal Stories‘ art direction manages to preserve what Portal 2 pioneered and add some intriguing innovation. Players can expect to encounter the same derelict puzzle chambers encountered in Portal 2, but Portal Stories adds a few new areas with original textures and objects. These include the 1950’s Aperture labs back when the company was, y’know, alive, and new office and administrative areas under the control of AEGIS. The game also introduces a 1950’s variant of the Aperture turret, as well as dozens of new doodads and decals to spruce up what would otherwise look like a very familiar world.

Because Portal Stories: Mel is built in the Source engine and therefore to run on PC, players can expect few performance issues in-game. No crashes, no glitches, and relatively few physics bugs. The game’s comprehensive suite of options lets players tweak and fiddle with the game how they will until they achieve their desired performance setup. For anything that can be said about Prism Studios’ writing, these developers are ardent students of everything else Valve does well.

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What a beautiful chasm of death this is.

Even though Portal Stories: Mel doesn’t quite create a memorable story, any Portal fan can tell that the game is a labor of love. There are signs here and there that this isn’t a Valve game, like the puzzle chambers’ considerably longer lengths, but Prism Studios still did an impressive job adhering to the atmosphere and level design innovations of the Portal games. The puzzle chambers are still laden with the thick, mysterious atmosphere of Aperture Science, as well as that inescapable feeling of isolation that comes with being within its walls. It provides a hearty morsel of fun for inveterate fans by turning up the difficulty, without sacrificing that tantalizing sense of exploration.

In closing, Portal Stories: Mel is still a must-have for Portal fans despite being light on the dark, absurd writing that made the other two games iconic. It faithfully builds upon the level design and head-scratching puzzles that made titans of the two main games, and scrambles what those games did without losing the atmosphere of Aperture Science. It creates a plausible bridge between Portal and Portal 2, but manages to use its impressive level design to still be its own game. Oh, and uh… has it been mentioned that the entire game is free? That’s right. Prism created an impressive Portal tribute and both it and its soundtrack don’t cost a dime.  So go get it, and take an in-depth journey through the next level of Portal‘s groundbreaking puzzle design.

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You can buy Portal Stories: Mel 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.

Portal 2

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Find a way out of a labyrinthine, robot-riddled laboratory.

PC Release: April 19, 2011

By Ian Coppock

There’s no denying the allure of puzzle games. Players who are put off by their potential difficulty risk missing out on that sweet sense of accomplishment that comes with their completion. Indeed, that sense of accomplishment is arguably sweeter than that of any other genre, since puzzles engage the mind in a way shooting bad guys or motoring down a raceway cannot. Since the game that was originally slated to be reviewed today won’t run, this is an excellent opportunity to write all about Portal 2, one of gaming’s most beloved puzzle-fests.

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Portal 2 is a game that requires little introduction. Like many properties of the almighty Valve Corporation, it’s as much a piece of pop culture as it is a titan of the video game world. If someone hasn’t played the game, they probably recognize the iconic Companion Cube. Or they’ve heard the iconic (and traumatic) line, “the cake is a lie.” Though it released over half a decade ago, Portal 2 remains a staple of fun puzzle gameplay and comedic impersonations the gaming world over. So why isn’t it being reviewed on this page until now?

Well, like many things in life, Portal 2 got lost in the shuffle. But now there’s an opportunity both revisit a beloved classic and plug a serious hole in this page’s back catalog. Besides, with all the surreal and horror games reviewed here recently, a few puzzles thrown together with clever writing and exceptional level design never hurt anyone.

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Ooooh… shiny! Well, hmm, no, not really.

The original Portal was designed and released alongside Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode Two, back when the delay on Half-Life games was only a year or so. Though Valve intended Half-Life 2: Episode Two to be the star of the trio, Portal ended up stealing the gaming world’s heart much more than anyone anticipated. Between its puzzle-platformer gameplay, its intriguing world, and some stellar writing, Portal became one of gamedom’s very favorite odysseys — a title it still holds today. Valve promptly began working on a sequel and released it about four years later, though many fans were irritated that the studio hadn’t spent that time working on Half-Life 3 (ahem.)

Anyway, Portal 2 takes place some time after the events of the original game, in which a tenacious test subject named Chell wakes up in the abandoned labs of Aperture Science and engages in a battle of wits with a sarcastic, sadistic AI named GlaDOS. Though Chell survives the endless test chambers, thanks in no small part to her handy-dandy portal gun, she nonetheless remains trapped in the facility. With nothing better to do, she enters suspended animation, only to be woken up who knows how many years later by a knock at her door.

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GASP, yay!

Chell opens her door and befriends a spherical little robot named Wheatley, who’s woken her up to ask for her help in escaping Aperture Science. He reasons that the two stand a better chance if they try to escape from the labs together, an assessment that silent character Chell apparently agrees with. Together, the two venture out of Chell’s suspension chamber and into the vast, untamed wilderness that the labs have grown into. Portal 2 nixes mentioning exactly how long Chell’s been asleep, but given that there are now forests in the place of break rooms, it’s safe to say… a long time.

It’s not too terribly long before Chell finds a portal gun, the amazing inter-dimensional device that serves as the true star of the Portal series. With it, Chell can create interconnected doorways on most flat surfaces and walk instantly between them, a gimmick that also powers most of Portal 2‘s puzzles. Escaping the lab quickly becomes the least of Chell’s problems, though, as Wheatley accidentally reawakens a vengeful GlaDOS from years of slumber. It will take all of Chell’s wits, and her skill with a portal gun, to outwit Aperture’s malicious administrator a second time.

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No! Go back to sleep, go back to sleep!

With GlaDOS reactivated and the facility turning back to its pristine panels, Chell’s got her mission of escaping Aperture once and for all cut out for her. She’ll usually have only herself to rely on, as Wheatley, while well-meaning, ain’t exactly the brightest of bots. All the while, Chell also has to endure constant taunts and threats from GlaDOS, who intends on exacting her revenge in some unspeakable way. Chell will have to solve puzzles and elude traps in order to make it out. At least, if she wants to be… still alive. (Ba dum tss.)

Just like its predecessor, Portal 2 is a first-person puzzle game that relies on portals as its chief problem-solving mechanic. The game makes a few major breaks from the original Portal, extending far beyond the original’s hour-long length for a full 8-10 hours of puzzling. As Chell progresses, the game also adds a few traps and gadgets not seen in the last game, including laser-redirecting cubes and splashy gels that ignore the laws of physics.

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Oh yes, and we can’t leave out the gravity beams.

In its purest form, the goal of Portal 2 is to solve a puzzle chamber. Usually this entails finding a block to hold down a button to hold open a door so Chell can leave the area. Players can use their portal gun to access difficult vantage points and manipulate the environment around them. Can’t reach that block over there? Pop a portal onto the wall behind it, walk through, and grab it right quick. The game starts players out on a few easy chambers… actually, the exact starter chambers as the first Portal, but they gradually ramp up in difficulty. Chell also has to use her gun to navigate Aperture’s long-abandoned environs in sequences that, while not cordoned-off puzzle chambers, are about as challenging.

It’s Portal 2‘s smooth learning curve and fun with portals that make Portal 2 so endearing. Though few would suspect otherwise of a Valve-made game, Portal 2 really is a well-designed title. The game does a great job at gradually introducing new items, and then new ideas of what to do with those items, over and over until its conclusion. It’s also not afraid to mix those items and situations together to produce a new conundrum. Though Portal 2‘s puzzles get longer and more difficult, the game does well at equipping players for the path ahead. This game’s toughest puzzles are also of a considerably larger scale than Portal‘s, resulting in a longer sequel that preserves the original’s sense of pacing. Overall, the gameplay is a pretty solid package that leaves little room for complaints.

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Ooooooh.

Portal 2‘s visuals have aged a tiny bit in the last six years, particularly in regards to texture detail. The game still manages to impress with its vast color palette, expanding beyond the stark white of the original and incorporating faded colors for Aperture’s older areas. Again, because this is a Valve game, every option and its mother is represented in the game’s comprehensive menu. Tweak this, slide that, whatever needs to be done to get the game to work on PC, Portal 2 can match it.

Even more than the visuals, though, Portal 2‘s excellent voice acting is what completes the game’s curious atmosphere. Ellen McLain reprises the role of GlaDOS, as sarcastic and clinical as ever, while British comedian Stephen Merchant makes Wheatley video gaming’s most lovable idiot. Even more impressive than either of these stellar performances, though, is the voice work of J.K. Simmons, who was brought on to voice eccentric Aperture CEO Cave Johnson. Though Johnson is long dead by the time the game begins, his legacy lives on in voice recordings that play in the older areas of Aperture. Nothing that Simmons voices can afford to be missed, especially Cave’s hilariously inept introduction to decades-gone “new arrivals.”

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Lasers. Why does it always have to be lasers?

Decent visuals and physics puzzles are all well and good, but what truly gives Portal 2 its intrigue is its atmosphere. The game aptly blends some seriously cool sci-fi with some of gaming’s most laugh-out-loud dialogue. Portal 2 uses this mix of ooohs and laughs to strike the same absurdist vein of black comedy that made Portal so iconic. From oddly specific anti-meteorite policies to Cave Johnson’s mantis-man initiative, Portal 2 doesn’t lack for things to laugh at. GlaDOS returns with a more acidic brand of jokes than she had in Portal, lacing threats to kill Chell into gags about her weight and French fashion designers.

Inlaid in the dialogue and humor, though, is a surprisingly poignant narrative that fleshes out what Portal began and adds new perspective to its small but poignant cast of characters. Chell realizes that there’s much more to Aperture when she stumbles into a condemned area of the facility, and learns that there might be more to GLaDOS than a sadistic robot with a flair for cake. Wheatley, expressly programmed to be dumb, is far more than the archetypal village idiot, and undergoes quite a character arc of his own. None of the same can be said for the silent Chell, but that’s okay; the myriad of interwoven subplots and sci-fi lore is plenty sufficient. Similarly to Half-Life, the player is meant to be a silent observer, whose experiences and those of the main character are one in the same.

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Silly, slippery, science-y fun.

Overall, Portal 2 is a watertight title with top-notch production values and that runs bug-free on PC. That last one is a godsend in a world now dominated by broken day-one releases. Six years on, the game remains an avidly competitive and ambitious puzzle game. Other puzzle-y games, like Quantum Conundrum, have attempted to wrest some of Portal 2‘s stardom away with no success. Some players have noted what they see as flaws in the game, like the Cave Johnson section being much longer than the rest of the title, but it’s honestly difficult to find concrete flaws in Portal 2‘s design.

As for those two robots on the cover art, Portal 2 includes a second full-length campaign set sometime after the main story that follows those little guys as they try to make an escape of their own. The kicker is that this campaign is co-op; its story isn’t anywhere near as strong as that of the main game, but damn if it isn’t fun. The puzzles return, but with the added novelty of requiring two bodies to solve them instead of one. Those are fun too, whenever killing your teammate with shifting ceiling blocks gets old.

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I’ve seen some slip’n’slides in my time, but damn!

Portal 2 has little that even the biggest skeptics wouldn’t crack a smile at. It has fun, tightly designed puzzle gameplay, an intriguing central narrative, and some truly memorable voice acting. As a whole, it’s a wicked (and wickedly funny) experience that will leave players truly remiss when the exit, whatever form it takes, finally looms into view. Play the first game if you haven’t already, and then dive into the hilariously absurd scientific madhouse that is Portal 2. As Cave Johnson might put it, the worst that could probably happen with the time put into the game is missing out on a few rounds of Canasta later in life.

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You can buy Portal 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.

Detention

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Escape a remote high school before it sinks into the underworld.

PC Release: January 12, 2017

By Ian Coppock

With the release of Thing-in-Itself, Steam is finally rousing itself from a sluggish start to the year. If this month has been any indication, Steam’s destiny in 2017 is a few thoughtful gems amid a giant mountain of trash. In other words, it’s keeping the course. But what of those thoughtful gems? Well, Detention recently released on the platform to this year’s strongest bout of critical acclaim, at least so far. With its novel visual style (or should that be visual novel style), and penchant for good old survival horror, it warrants a glance or two.

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Detention is a side-scrolling survival horror game and the debut of Red Candle Games, a Taiwanese indie studio. Detention is set in 1960’s Taiwan, a time when the ruling Nationalist party imposed strict martial law and crushed communist sympathizers with an iron fist. From the get-go, this gives Detention a dreary, totalitarian atmosphere, ironically similar to that of the communist regime from which the nationalists fled.

The game opens at the remote Green Mountain High School, where a student named Wei (no, not Sleeping Dogs‘ Wei Shen) wakes up to find his classroom empty and a typhoon raging outside. As he explores the school, he finds that things don’t seem quite right. All the doors are locked, the skies are unnaturally dark, and the only other person he can find is a girl named Fang.

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A tropical storm warning would’ve been nice.

After finding the bridge home destroyed and the river underneath surging with blood, the students return to the high school to find another way out. Most of the game is played from the perspective of Fang, who watches as her school begins to sink into some kind of dark dimension. The walls crumble with sudden decay, and horrific monsters begin roaming the halls. As Fang, it’s up to players to figure out what’s happening to the world and, perhaps more importantly, a way out of the school.

As Fang gets deeper into the school, the beasts she encounters become intertwined with unpleasant personal memories. This inexorable stew of dread drives her fears, her wits, and her determination to survive. She’ll need all of these things to make it out alive, especially with monsters closing in around her.

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Fang is resourceful, but already has a complicated past in her teen years.

As previously noted, Detention is a side-scrolling game that blends chilling survival horror with point-and-click gameplay. When she’s not busy avoiding monsters, Fang also has to solve puzzles to access new areas of the school. Much like Amnesia: The Dark DescentDetention‘s gameplay is informed primarily by these two mechanics: staying away from monsters, and solving relatively simple puzzles.

Because this is also an adventure game, though, Fang moves about the world in a manner true to that style. Players simply point and click to get Fang to walk around and examine objects near her. Fang can add items of interest to her journal, including items necessary to progress and non-essential bits of lore. There’s a lot lying around in the school for discerning adventurers to find.

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I wasn’t kidding about the river of blood.

What immediately stands out about Detention is its gorgeous artwork. Even in a genre loaded with stylized portrayals, Detention‘s delicate character animations and richly colored backgrounds are mesmerizing. Each environment in the game is richly painted with strokes of strong colors and lots of detailed objects. It’s no hyperbole to say that each area of Detention is akin to a masterful painting. A dark, oftentimes grotesque painting, but a painting all the same.

To expand on the game’s use of color a bit more, Detention also excels at creating contrast. Part of this is due to the game’s smart use of lighting, a mainstay of decent horror design, but the game’s artists expertly balance light and dark to create some truly forbidding areas. Oh yes, the game has light in it, but don’t be relieved. Even the game’s most brightly lit areas are done out in a sallow, sour light that feels more like the stench of decay than the veneer of safety. If ever there was a study in how to do color contrast well, Detention would be an ideal candidate.

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Bleh.

Detention‘s smart sound design compliments its artwork well. The game’s background music is a mix of low, mournful tunes decked out with traditional Chinese instruments, but even these spine-chilling songs can’t hold a (red) candle to the sound effects. Seriously, the monsters in this game sound creepy as hell, from the long-tongued demons that phase in and out of reality to the 20-foot-tall lantern monsters that sniff you as they pass. These hideous sound effects stay with the player long after the fact, too. A warning, for players averse to nightmare fuel.

The monsters and nightmare effects used in the game are drawn from obscure sources: ancient Taoist and Taiwanese traditions. Largely unknown to western audiences, the vast body of Chinese folklore has cooked up some pretty spooky stuff, at least if this game is any indication. Fang can avoid most monsters by holding her breath, but more elaborate steps might be needed for higher-tiered monsters. Everything in this game is out to kill her in a gruesome fashion, including a 10-armed monstrosity that rampages through the school. Players who become complacent at Detention‘s adventure game format do so at their peril.

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Oooh. Uh, no. Nope. Uh-uh. Bad. This is bad. Bad room.

Some would argue that Detention‘s adventure game-style format precludes the more intimate horror experience provided by a first-person game, but Detention twists its format into something surprisingly jarring. Monsters popping out of nowhere is still scary from the first or third person, and Detention masters this mechanic well. Still more frightening, though, are the game’s close-up examinations of objects and items, where sudden scares flicker right before the player’s eyes.

All of this is topped off with a thick drizzle of psychological horror, as Fang’s sanity begins to unravel before the darkness of this new world. Rather than assaulting the senses with endless waves of monsters, Detention times out its monster encounters. Don’t fret, though; there are plenty of unsettling sights and sounds packed between the chases, like dice turning into bloody teeth, or grinning ghosts packed into an auditorium. The alternation between survival and psychological horror is masterfully done in Detention, resulting in an exhilarating horror experience.

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Is that… giggling?

Though Detention‘s horror values are up there (like, way up there) the game is not a mere tirade of scares. The terror serves as a latticework for the game’s central narrative, one of the most gripping and suspenseful horror tales released in months. There’s a reason the world is turning to darkness, and there’s a reason Fang is at the center of it. It’s up to players to figure all of that out, but they’ll do so by exploring the stories of several colorful characters. These personal anecdotes are presented against the authoritarian backdrop of 1960’s Taiwan, making Detention‘s atmosphere even more morbid.

Detention‘s writing doesn’t suffer for the lack of voice acting. There are a few spelling errors here and there, but the story is a poetically delivered tale of vengeance and anguish. Rather than flat-out deliver exposition through dialogue, the game artfully obfuscates and leaves details vague. Not inscrutably so, but just blurry enough to leave players wondering for the entire game if what they’re thinking is actually what’s happening. That level of vagueness is a fine line to walk, but Detention‘s writing pulls it off, albeit with a few  grammar errors. Fang is a believable character, and the situations underlying the game’s viscera are similarly human.

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Detention has many subtle layers.

If Detention has a flaw, it’s that the game’s Chinese horror folklore and personal narrative are largely disconnected. Fang’s backstory explains some of the darkness in the game, but it never explains the presence of certain monsters. The monsters in many horror games have backstories and circumstances inexorable from the main plot, but in Detention they’re just sort of… there. The lantern specters are spooky, but they seem to have no reason to be in Detention other than to show off another facet of Chinese folklore. This situation is far from a deal-breaker, but it is rather conspicuous.

All of that said, the folklore still serves as a vehicle for some pretty gruesome horror, unrelated as it may be to Fang’s backstory. Most times, the folklore is tied up in the game’s puzzles. Most of Detention‘s puzzles are simple object-keyhole conundrums, but their level of gore sometimes surpasses the monsters’. Similarly to the narrative, the game’s puzzle clues also ratchet up tension through grim implications.

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Wait a minute… what does this game expect me to do?

The aforementioned disconnect between folklore and narrative is Detention‘s only major flaw. The game is an otherwise masterful work of horror, with an atmosphere so intoxicating it still permeates the frontal lobe days after completion. All of the game’s elements, from the rich artwork to smooth puzzles to beautifully agonizing story, move as one. They produce an experience that any horror or adventure fan would be absolutely remiss to skip over. Buy it, experience it, remember it. Detention is not for the faint of heart but it’s also not for the heartless.

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You can buy Detention 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.

ISLANDS: Non-Places

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Explore a series of surreal and graceful dreamscapes.

PC Release: November 17, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Although the new year has gotten off to a raucous start in virtually all sectors of life, the same cannot be said for Steam. Sure, it’s only day three of 2017 as of writing, but the store has kicked off the new year in a pretty sluggish fashion. With nothing noteworthy yet available on Steam, it’s time to review another game from last year. Something that’s been out for a little bit but that, for one reason or another, didn’t make it onto this page when it released. Something that, in light of how stressful last year was, offers up a much-needed dose of relaxation and reflection. Something like ISLANDS: Non-Places.

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ISLANDS: Non-Places is an hour-long slice of surreal created by Carl Burton, an indie game designer and possible ballet coordinator (we’ll expand on that in a bit). ISLANDS is a somewhat abstract yet decidedly thoughtful game propelled by very simple puzzles. It could also be classified as a “zen” game, if anyone can actually agree upon what that term denotes. It’s relaxing, so zen game fans will have that to agree on, at least.

ISLANDS: Non-Places is presented as a series of interactive scenes, where players uncover the secrets of a colorful little vignette using only their mouse. Players can also use the A and S keys to rotate the scene from side-to-side, though there’s no means of moving up or down. Each scene contains a sequence of lights that must be clicked in a particular order or rhythm. The more lights clicked, the more the area changes.

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Well. This is interesting.

Most every setting in ISLANDS begins as something banal, like a bus stop or an ATM. Though each vignette starts off unassuming, ISLANDS subtly invites players to uncover more by clicking on lights located throughout the scene. Doing so triggers some pretty trippy events, like a series of eggs getting off a bus, or luggage on a conveyor floating in a wave pattern. Each event allows for more events to follow, if the player can find and click on all of the lights.

Although ISLANDS‘ gameplay could be characterized as simplistic by some, it’s not a puzzle game at heart. Rather, it’s meant to evoke a feeling of relaxation. ISLANDS: Non-Places is a very graceful game, because it takes simple visuals and moves them in a masterfully hypnotic fashion. From soda cans floating in the sky to trees ascending elevators, ISLANDS: Non-Places presents some very graceful visuals. It’s dangerous to write them off as weird, and harder still not to get lost in them.

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WTF is happening to my brain…

The primary factor behind ISLANDS‘ grace is how fluidly each animation plays out in the screen. Every movement is gradual, but not slow. These animations start out simple; as jarring as the sight of it is, eggs coming off of a bus is not a complicated animation to perform. However, they become more elaborate with each vignette, evolving from raising and falling lights to streams of letters and clouds of light. Hitting lights secreted throughout the scene will trigger each animation and change the environment, sometimes drastically. The scene is over when all lights have been clicked, all changes made.

ISLANDS‘ visual power also stems from its use of color and fog-like effects. Each scene is painted in shades of a single color that gradually darken as they approach the screen. These vividly monochromatic colors add to the surreal feeling of each vignette, on top of being simply beautiful. These colors also do a good job of setting the mood in each scene. As a consequence of their use, the blue and purple vignettes feel more subdued, while the bright red and orange sets feel more lively. Call it basic color theory, but basic color theory is put to great use in ISLANDS: Non-Places.

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This scene just feels warm.

Equally impressive as ISLANDS’ bright colors and sharply defined objects is Carl Burton’s attention to sound design. It is because of the masterful implementation of music as much as visuals or anything else that ISLANDS: Non-Places has such an intoxicating atmosphere. Each stage in ISLANDS also contains ambient sound effects one would expect to hear in that environment, like conversation around a drinking fountain or, well, rain during a rainstorm. Each of these effects is crystal clear and implemented to complement every stage of the scene. It thus becomes easier to lose oneself in ISLANDS. As has been stated countless times in other reviews, keen audio design is essential to good atmosphere.

Now – it’s one thing to find the proper sound effects for a given scene, but it’s quite another to arrange those in a manner conducive to relaxation. Anyone can play a clip from a rainstorm, but Carl Burton does a good job of bringing in and dimming down each sound effect so that they seamlessly coalesce. One vignette depicting someone getting home and going to bed features a well-choreographed set of driving, walking, and television sounds that evokes the off-screen movements in the player’s mind. Couple this with a few persistent, ambient sounds, and ISLANDS: Non-Places presents an alluring soundscape.

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The wildlife sounds are particularly relaxing.

So what exactly is the point of ISLANDS: Non-Places? What narrative or concept does its imagery present that can’t be replicated by another surreal work, or someone spouting off a list of random objects? It’s true that ISLANDS‘ scenery is far from clear. Even if the player can figure out that a water fountain needs to be fixed, that doesn’t explain the jungle growing under the fountain. The key to a compelling “zen” game or surreal game is not to fill the screen with random objects, but to arrange those objects in a certain way. ISLANDS: Non-Places is relaxing not because of the choice of objects, but because of how those objects move.

Consider one stage of the game in which a maze of roots grows flowers beneath a ceiling fan. As a sentence, that concept is random, maybe even ridiculous. But in the game, the roots and flowers are arranged in a spread pattern that spins gracefully upon the vignette’s completion. The idea of soda cans floating in the air looks ridiculous on paper, but on the screen they’re animated in a gentle, relaxing wave. The sight of eggs getting off a bus only to enter a cooker disguised as a bus stop sounds silly, but is animated in such a way as to be wistful. ISLANDS isn’t surreal just for the sake of being surreal. There’s a purpose to the choice of objects and how they’re all arranged: a feeling of relaxation. And this game provides that feeling in droves.

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Looks pretty ordinary on the surface.

So is there anything that ISLANDS gets wrong? Well, there are a few things it could do a lot better. The options menu is the same pitifully small “good, beautiful, fantastic” Unity menu endemic to many indie games, and it’s heartbreaking. The only options are for resolution and graphics quality, the latter of which is tied together with the game’s anti-aliasing option. A peculiar choice. ISLANDS: Non-Places is not a graphically taxing game, but AA can be much more difficult for some machines to run than visual fidelity. Tying the two together is… different. Better to keep them separate.

Apart from that, it’s hard to find a flaw with ISLANDS‘ gameplay. The controls are simple and smooth, the animations are fluid, and the game runs well on newer and older machines. The game’s graphical simplicity keeps it from requiring a monster rig to run (though the point about tying AA together with graphics quality still stands) and the clickable lights are anything but obtuse.

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(shivers)

The reason why Carl Burton was called a ballet coordinator at the beginning of this review is because ISLANDS: Non-Places is the ballet of video games. It is an elegant, well-polished movement of many pieces that is absolutely mesmerizing to watch. The game’s graceful animations, coupled with its masterful sound design, result in one of the most relaxing gaming experiences of all of last year. It doesn’t have a traditional narrative, but its movements will entice all the same. ISLANDS deserves a spot in every gamer’s library, especially as a change of pace from horror or action-intense video games. The purpose behind each piece of the game is as moving as the surreal final composition.

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You can buy ISLANDS: Non-Places 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.

Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location

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Keep yourself alive in an underground facility full of murderous mascots.

PC Release: October 7, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Well-played, Scott Cawthon. Well-played.

Early last week, the creator of the Five Nights at Freddy‘s series announced that Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location would be delayed because it was “too scary”. Scott Cawthon went on to say that he felt the game was not “kid-friendly” enough, and that he would need a few more months to make the game alright. The PC gaming press, myself included, took the bait hook, line and sinker, but it turns out that Mr. Cawthon was just joking. Sister Location has been released on schedule, with all of its spooky parts and pieces included. It’s time to see how this game stacks up to its predecessors, and what innovations, if any, it contributes to the Five Nights at Freddy’s formula.

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Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location is the latest installment in Cawthon’s twisted universe of demonic mascots. In the original Five Nights at Freddy’s, or FNaF, as it’s commonly abbreviated, players are challenged to survive five nights in an old pizza restaurant while fending off intrusions from garish, bloodthirsty animatronics. The challenge gets more difficult with each passing night, and the game is lost when one of the ghoulish golems pops up on the screen to devour entrails and soil trousers. This fixed-defense mechanic was tweaked and toyed around with in three subsequent FNaF games, all of which were released in the 24 months following the first game.

Just as FNaF has won fans over with its admittedly spooky world and surprisingly rich lore, the series has its detractors. Critics have posited that FNaF‘s flash-based jumpscares are a one-trick pony that, despite being monkeyed around with in the sequels, are not all that innovative. They’ve also pointed out, perhaps fairly, that Cawthon is milking the concept by releasing a new game every 10 months or so. FNaF has sparked a fierce debate in the horror games community about the nature of “true” survival horror. Is it an intoxicating, slow-burning atmosphere, or the split-second shocks that FNaF trades in?  This debate is at the heart of Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location.

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GAAAAAAH!!!

Sister Location is the first FNaF game released in over a year, which is an eternity for the series’s rapid-fire development schedule. Even though it’s set in the same universe as the previous four FNaF games, Cawthon has stated that Sister Location is a spin-off that stands apart from the main, numbered games. It features plenty of spooky content, but none of the animatronics from the previous four games (Freddy Fazbear, Chica, etc.) make an appearance. Just like the four main FNaF games, Sister Location is loaded with references and secrets to the series’s dark subject matter, but it also contains some new surprising new mechanics and material.

Sister Location takes place in Circus Baby’s Pizza World, a family entertainment company and the sister entity to Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. Players assume the role of a nighttime mechanic named Mike, whose name is mistaken by the facility’s klutzy computer to be Eggs Benedict. Eggs has been hired by CBPW to perform maintenance on the company’s animatronic robots, designed by the one and the same builder who put together Freddy Fazbear and company. Unlike Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, Circus Baby’s Pizza World rents out its robots for kids’ parties during the day, and stores them in an underground facility at night. It is this facility that players are challenged to spend five nights in.

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Looks okay so far… sort of…

Despite some mildly helpful advice from Handy, the comically inept AI in charge of the facility, it doesn’t take long for Eggs to realize that all is not well down here. After Handy causes a power outage that unlocks all the doors, the animatronics are set loose to roam free throughout the facility, in search of their human prey. In a first for the FNaF series, the player befriends an animatronic named Circus Baby, who agrees to help the player survive five nights in her titular Pizza World. Circus Baby doesn’t tell Eggs why she’s helping him against her more violent brethren, but her advice does seem to save his life, and so the two form a fragile alliance. Even though Circus Baby is on his side, Eggs still finds plenty to worry about in the facility’s other robots.

So begins a chilling new tale in the Five Nights at Freddy‘s universe, one that manages to stay true to its source material while experimenting with some new concepts. If Sister Location is any indication, video games benefit from a longer development cycle and the innovations that they can produce. Eggs’ journey is testament to this as well, both in terms of increased production value and exploration of horror mechanics outside of filling the screen with noise and light.

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Yeesh….

The first and most obvious benefit Sister Location gained from a longer production cycle is its visuals. The graphics look a little hazy and distorted, as in many Flash-based games, but they’re by far the best that the FNaF series has yet produced. Each environment is well-detailed and replete with ghoulish colors, like sickly yellow lamps. Cawthon also did a good job at making the environments look dated; not to say that previous FNaF games weren’t, but this design element is strongest in Sister Location. For anything else that can be said about this spin-off, its visuals are far and away the sharpest of any Five Nights at Freddy’s game.

The second design improvement that quickly stands out is Sister Location‘s sound design. Rather than a few canned sound effects and Cawthon himself fulfilling all of the voice roles, he expanded the game’s repertoire of spooky effects and hired a full cast of voice actors. Sister Location contains dozens of hair-raising sound effects and the voice work provided by each of the characters is surprisingly strong, particularly that of the actress who voices Circus Baby. Her creepy yet empathetic performance is even more unsettling than the actual jump-scares. All of this is evidence that video games stand to benefit from more time in development. Sometimes they can be left to cook for too long, like Duke Nukem Forever, but players will be far more grateful for more time spent on one good game than two sloppy efforts rushed out in the same period.

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Sister Location benefited handsomely from more time in the oven.

Even more than the visuals and the sound effects, the gameplay in Sister Location has received a full refit from that of its predecessors. Rather than completing the same incrementally more difficult challenge five nights in a row, players have to complete a completely new puzzle each of the five nights in Circus Baby’s Pizza World. The first night is a tutorial that acquaints players with the bare-bones basics of the game, but subsequent nights each contain their own conundrums… and perils. From hiding in a Springtrap suit to crawling quietly across an office floor, each night presents its own flavor to the experience. It’s a welcome deviation from Scott Cawthon’s usual gameplay formula, and it also keeps Sister Location feeling fresh. Each night is also longer than in previous FNaF games because of this element, adding value to the game. Though these elements are new, the inevitability of the animatronic jumpscare is not. Remain frosty.

The only problem with this new approach to FNaF‘s level design is that the difficulty in Sister Location is poorly balanced. Previous FNaF games simply ramp up the difficulty with each passing night, but in Sister Location, there is no sense of progression. The first night is easy. The second night is ludicrously hard. The third night can be passed in one try, and the fourth night is by far the most difficult level that the game offers. The fifth night isn’t a breeze, but it’s still a far cry from the fourth. It makes the game’s pacing feel pattern-less and schizophrenic, which can make its first few hours very frustrating. Scott’s already released a patch making the fourth night slightly less impossible, but Sister Location needs some major re-balancing. It’s also got a small but potent slate of bugs to watch out for, like occasionally being unable to close a desk door on the second night.

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Sister Location’s gameplay is a wobbly, wild rabbit hole.

Sister Location stumbles badly in the gameplay department, but its narrative is the most substantive offered up by a FNaF game thus far. The narrative remains completely separate from those of the four main installments, but it sheds some light on elements preceding all of them, like who built the animatronics. The game is also replete with little subplots, like the origins of Circus Baby and why she wants to help Eggs Benedict instead of scare him silly. There’s not much character development to be had from the mute Eggs Benedict, but Sister Location does an admirable job filling in some of the bigger FNaF universe’s backstory. It doesn’t quite answer some of the most burning questions, like why these animatronics are so evil, but Scott Cawthon gives just enough fuel to keep them roaring hot.

Sister Location also explores FNaF‘s long-neglected potential for comedy. Sure, Phone Guy provided a few chuckles, but the ludicrousness of evil animatronics in a pizza store was never really toyed with in a comedic way. In addition to its scares, Sister Location serves up an ample and surprising helping of humor. Most of it is concentrated in the monologues of Handy, the AI overseeing Circus Baby’s Pizza World, who chimes in with surreal or unhelpful advice the same way that the Announcer did in Portal 2. Handy might be a bit too derivative of that Portal 2 character, but the dialogue in Sister Location is some of the funniest video game writing to come this way in a while. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it makes Sister Location a horror-comedy, but the writing strikes a good balance between being silly and being scary.

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See? Everyone’s laughing!

Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location undoes some of the stale repetition that plagued the series in its main installments, but its journey to being the best FNaF game ever made is cut short by its severe difficulty imbalance. Any joy to be had and scares to be shared from the game’s lore and writing is stunted by its immensely frustrating progression and cadre of bugs. It’s still a much deeper, more polished horror experience than that offered by previous FNaF games, but that damn fourth night is a killer. Hopefully, Scott Cawthon will continue to respond to feedback from the game’s community and rebalance the game to be a bit fairer in its learning curve, but until then, FNaF and horror fans would do well to hold off on buying Sister Location. It’s got good production, and it’s got good potential, but it’s not quite there. Ironically, it probably would’ve made the game a bit better had Cawthon’s hoax been real.

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You can buy Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location 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.

Security Hole

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Help an AI find herself in a cyberpunk spatial awareness odyssey.

PC Release: September 28, 2016

By Ian Coppock

It’s been months since a puzzle game was reviewed on this page. Uplink turned out to be more of a puzzle-adventure game, and Four Sided Fantasy was much more a relaxing platformer than anything containing conundrums. As the fall gaming season kicks off, a few puzzle games have started popping up here and there on Steam. Far too many of them are derivative first-person titles that start with the phrase “inspired by Portal“, but a select few bring more novel qualities to the table. With that in mind, it’s time to take a look at Security Hole, a game that seeks to be part challenging puzzler, part cyberpunk throwback.

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Security Hole is an indie puzzle game created by AnRaEl, an indie studio that has already showcased this game to a few conventions with critical acclaim. Security Hole is set in a dystopian cyberpunk future reminiscent of Blade Runner and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, though it focuses much, much more on computer mechanics than either of those media. It has to be said, though, that the title “Security Hole” is a bit inelegant, sounding more like something a frustrated IT guy blurts out than the title of a sophisticated puzzle game.

Security Hole chronicles the exploits of two people: the player character, an anonymous hacker from whom no computer system is safe, and a female AI that comes running to him/her for help. Security Hole‘s narrative kicks off when this synthetic brain, or Sybry, as she calls herself, enters the hacker’s computer systems on the run from shadowy forces. She pleads the hacker to keep her safe from whomever’s chasing her, and then begs for help in discovering her true identity. She has a hard time remembering much of her early existence. The hacker, apparently having nothing better to do, agrees to help Sybry on her mission.

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Duuuuude…

The hacker executes the entirety of Security Hole from what must be an awesome sci-fi computer chair, while Sybry navigates the world outside via its many, many computers. The meat and potatoes of Security Hole is not its narrative, but its puzzles, which come in the form of spatial awareness conundrums. Players must use a computer virus, represented on-screen as a random shape made out of blocks, and fit each tetrahedron through a series of cyber-portals. These are the game’s titular security holes, and fitting the virus through each hole means that the system has been successfully hacked.

Understanding what the virus looks like is one thing, but rotating it to fit through the security hole is quite another. It’s not as simple as lining up the shape to fit the hole; well, it is, but the angle at which the virus can fit through the hole is rarely simple. For example, players may be presented with a hole shaped like a cross, and have to rotate a large, rectangular tetrahedron at such a horizontal angle as to allow passage through the hole. Finding the correct angle requires quick experimentation, as many of the puzzles are timed. Most levels allow the player to activate a time boost to prolong getting detected and losing the level, but the security holes are arranged in sets of 3-5 puzzles, and a boost can only be used once per set.

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The virus (foreground) has to be rotated to the right angle to fit through the hole in the background.

As most puzzler fans would expect, these conundrums increase in difficulty the longer the game goes. Just like their biological counterparts, computer viruses have to change and evolve in order to survive. With each puzzle completed, the hacker has to add at least one new block to the virus to keep its shape unique. This is also the mechanic by which the game increases in difficulty; the more blocks that are added to the virus, the bigger and more convoluted the shape becomes. In turn, finding the proper angle to fit the virus through the hole becomes more difficult.

Though the spatial awareness puzzles take center stage in Security Hole, there are a few other shape-based puzzles to be found in this game. The second-most common variety is password-based, in which players are presented with a single tetrahedron and have to guess its twin from a menu of four other shapes. More gimmicks and shapes are added as the game progresses over the course of six chapters. Security Hole‘s main campaign clocks in at about five hours with the absolute minimum of puzzles needed to proceed, though this can balloon to upwards of 10 hours if players decide to do all of them. There’s also an endless “survival” mode in which players try to solve as many puzzles as possible without being booted from the system. For ten bucks, that’s a generous amount of gameplay.

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Oh come on. Why can’t the password just be “password”?

Security Hole‘s puzzles are fun, and they grant a special sense of satisfaction upon completion, but they also present two problems that pose challenges to new players. The first and most pressing issue is the game’s dramatic uptick in level difficulty. The first few levels aren’t anything maddening, but Security Hole‘s learning curve becomes quite drastic toward the end of the very first chapter. There isn’t really a sense of difficulty buildup in this game; instead, Security Hole presents a few easy levels and then immediately drops players into the deep end. It’s not a deal-breaker; indeed, for hardcore puzzle game fans, it may sound more like a benefit than a liability. However, new players may find it more than a bit intimidating.

The second problem with Security Hole‘s puzzles lies not in the conundrums themselves, but in the tutorial documentation. The game’s challenges become more elaborate as time goes on, but some of the hints and clues on how to beat the puzzles are a little too vague for the player’s benefit. For example, occasionally the player will come across purple tetrahedrons that the game claims require a “special twist” to get past, but Security Hole does a poor job specifying what the aforementioned twist is. Players can eventually figure out what to do from a few runs of trail-and-error, but it’s an inelegant solution. Hopefully the tutorial messages will become more concise in future updates.

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Wait, what’s happening?

Security Hole‘s narrative is also nothing to write home about. The hacker’s quest to help Sybry is predicated on nothing more than an excess of free time on the hacker’s part, and there’s little character development to be found in either of them. The game’s exposition and dialogue are woven together in a series of chat messages between Sybry and the hacker. These discussions are written well enough, sans a few spelling errors, but they miss a few opportunities to develop the characters or build on the interesting-looking cyber world Security Hole espouses.

These conversations are also interrupted by the puzzles at the most random intervals; the hacker and Sybry will be in the middle of discussing something, and the chat screen will suddenly cut to black for more puzzles. There’s no rhyme or reason to the puzzles’ interjections upon the dialogue. They pop up in random intervals all over the conversations instead of neatly at the ends of them. Maybe it was an attempt by the developer to make the game’s elements feel more blended, but all it accomplishes is making them feel more disparate. It’s very conspicuous when a series of puzzles pops up mid-sentence instead of at the end of a topic.

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“Oh sure, I guess I like the color blue, it-” PUZZLE TIME “-makes me feel good, and-” PUZZLE TIME “-matches my hair.”

Security Hole‘s cyberpunk atmosphere hits its stride far more in the art and music departments than in the story area. The chat screens between Sybry and the hacker are accompanied by a series of beautifully illustrated panels depicting the cyberpunk world Security Hole takes place in. Immaculately decorated cityscapes and futuristic labs are but a few of the well-done art pieces placed throughout the game. Most scenes are dominated by the blue-haired girl featured in the title card, who can be assumed to be Sybry. The in-puzzle visuals pack a hazy combination of bright neon and psychadelic backgrounds, leaving players with no shortage of pretty lights to stare at. Anyone who likes puzzles, shiny objects, and puzzles made out of shiny objects will find a visual feast in Security Hole.

Additionally, the soundtrack for Security Hole is an outstanding cyberpunk medley. There are only a few tracks, but each one is a super-cool and old-school synth composition that sounds a lot like the music from Blade Runner, which, given the cyberpunk setting, is probably not a coincidence. The music’s impeccable composition is a great companion to the cyberpunk artwork and the puzzles themselves.

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Open Sesame!

Even though Security Hole doesn’t hit all its notes flawlessly, at least the game is doing something different. As previously mentioned, the amount of shallow Portal clones in Steam’s puzzle games catalog has reached nauseating heights, and many games aside end up being adventure titles without true conundrums. Security Hole is not interested in treading Portal‘s well-trod path. Spatial awareness puzzles in general are a rarity in video games, and though Security Hole‘s narrative is choppy and its difficulty curve high, it executes these puzzles with searing self-confidence. The game is pretty much bug-free and can run smoothly on both potatoes and high-end machines. Cyberpunk fans looking for a deep narrative might be on the fence about Security Hole, but puzzle fans everywhere will want to pick this game up immediately. At the very least, Security Hole combines the satisfaction of completing puzzles with the euphoria of doing something illegal. At the end of the day, that’s what a lot of great cyberpunk fiction boils down to.

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You can buy Security Hole 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.

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.