Honest Review: “The Solus Project”

I think it says something about me that all my Steam games are creepy, atmospheric survival horror while most of my Xbox library is shoot ‘em ups with a story.

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There was a lot to like about this game. It was creepy and atmospheric, it was simple yet involved and it was engaging and beautiful to look at. But there were a couple things about this game that gave me pause, including the depiction of the alien overlords at the end of the game and the player movement speed, an important game mechanic in an atmospheric walking simulator.

Teotl Studios and Grip Digital did a really good job of introducing a slow build from a strictly survival-based game to one with elements of mystery and horror intertwined. It could have felt really tedious in the beginning (and did, to a certain degree), but instead I was drawn in wondering how the Solus spaceship crashed and who could live on the capricious watery island setting even before the game introduced the concept of a prior civilization.

As I walked beneath the surface of the islands and deeper into the complex cave system, I could feel the constant pressure to survive easing, replaced instead by the burning desire to solve the mystery of who had lived – and died – here before I arrived, who the Sky Ones were and what they had done to the planet’s inhabitants, and how all of it related to the spaceship crash at the beginning of the game.

I got irritated with the game’s mechanics occasionally, but overall I think “Solus” managed to enforce the game’s mechanics in a way that didn’t take too much away from the overall mystery and atmosphere of the game.

solus project wilson skyline
I was surprised by how little the survival mechanics came to matter towards the end, but I honestly didn’t mind all that much as I mostly play games where eating and drinking are secondary to exploration and fighting. (Source: Gamespot.com)

This game really shines in its graphic and epic world-building aspirations. The game world is huge with several large cells of various weather situations and topographic builds and multiple similarly designed cave cell systems.

[READ: Good story vs. good looks in game design]

However, that carefully created world and all its intricate topography, hidden caves and tunnels, and mountainous hills of geometric columns, felt a little too big sometimes. It often drove me to distraction and I spent countless hours roaming the open wasteland of the islands or the claustrophobic insides of the watery tunnels searching for secrets or relics or hidden caches of alien food.

And while “Solus” was no doubt designed for that sort of aimless open world roaming exploration, it often crossed the line between fun discovery into painfully boring walking.

solus project island topography
Incredibly ambitious and beautifully designed, I was really drawn in by the intricate configuration of the islands’ topography and the alien flora, although I would have liked to see just a little bit of fauna — assuming those angry spike balls were more like sentient sea urchins and less truly living animals. (Source: YouTube.com)

Part of that may have been the movement speed enforcing a glacially slow pace. Although there were relics to increase the overall speed, it never felt fast enough to justify a slow trip across the swaying fields of red island grass. The swimming speed was also incredibly slow and while I would have loved to explore under the fickle waves of the various islands, the swimming speed was never fast enough to allow me to do so.

Essentially, I got bored and frustrated with a lot of the exploration mechanics well before I found all the notes and relics. While some might say I just wasn’t determined enough to find all the extras in the games, I think part of my frustration was justified due to the slow movement pace that didn’t really increase no matter how many relics of speed/movement I found.

In addition to my concerns with the speed of player movement, I also had a serious problem with the ending. Not with what happened, exactly, but how everything was wrapped up and all the questions it left unanswered.

[READ: Twelve questions ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’ raised and three it definitively answered]

For example.

  • What exactly did the Sky Ones do to the previous inhabitants of the island?
  • What is the genetic relationship between the humanoid previous inhabitants and the humans of the Solus Project?
  • And what in the flying hell is that black ball of rage and why is it constantly trying to kill me?
solus project smoke monster
To be honest, I never really figured out what this thing was or what it wanted with me. And, because of the slow movement speed, I never really found because I spent more time trying to avoid it at all costs than explore the area it occupied for notes and relics. (Source: YouTube.com)

Some of these questions might have been answered in all the tablets and drawings I know I didn’t find among the giant map cells of the game, but I don’t think all of them were.

Regardless, I think the reliance on such a stereotypically alien image — a giant UFO, a strange green power emanating from a staff held by a cloaked leader, the final survivor being taken away for questioning with strange medical devices positioned around them, etc. — was a little trivial and banal. It felt a little hackneyed, not to mention disjointed at times with the supposedly advanced cloaked aliens carving notes into stone tablets while simultaneously using television screens to monitor the island’s inhabitants.

Despite the rushed ending and its clichéd reliance on alien stereotypes, I really enjoyed the game and I definitely think it merits a playthrough if you like survival horror walking simulators. It’s important to note that this game was designed with VR capability in mind as the game asked me every time I launched it whether I wanted to play it in VR, normal game, or a number of other fancy game modes available through Steam.

[READ: Real talk: A VR skeptic talks future of gaming]

However, as I don’t have and probably will never have a VR system, I played it like another video game and still thoroughly enjoyed it.

In any case, game on, from Prolus Command, and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

creepy as fuck dolls

Honest review: “Firewatch”

This game’s quiet moments are the loudest in a game with a story narrative driven by dialogue and achingly real characterization.

“Firewatch” is the other walking simulator I played recently, one I enjoyed much more than FunCom’s “The Park.” Although this game too involved the death of a child (spoiler alert), the story was less horrific than “The Park” and featured more honest dialogue and engaging suspense than the jump-scares and disturbing interpretations of mental illness in “The Park.”

Full disclosure, the game did manage to lose my interest for a period, but that had less to do with its story and more to do with a stressful school week and the fact that walking across the map and taking in the stunning scenery of “Firewatch” doesn’t provide the kind of visceral stress-reliving pleasure that comes from shooting pixelated people.

That said, “Firewatch” was truly beautiful in every sense of the word: Beautiful dialogue, beautiful setting, beautiful characterization and a beautiful story. At the end, I was both wistful and heartbroken because the game had ended and I wanted to spend more time with Henry and Delilah.

I was also heartbroken because the story had ended and hadn’t answered all of the questions raised throughout the game play, but I’m incredibly hard to please, especially where a good story is concerned.

The game begins with down-on-his-luck novelist Henry who enjoys the happiest moments of his life and endures the worst any person can experience all within the first three minutes of the game. Although we see nothing of his life in those minutes, we read everything in the style of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.

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In the first few minutes of the game we get an introduction to Henry’s personality and the reason he might be running away from the world in a unique but unsustainable format.
Source: Thenextweb.com.

Although interesting, this style is abruptly abandoned after the first couple of minutes of the game as we’re caught up to speed on everything about Henry’s sad, lonely life.

The rest of “Firewatch” unfolds in a series of dialogue and story-heavy choices that follow Henry as he traipses through the Shoshone National Forest with the disembodied voice of fellow firewatcher and supervisor, Delilah, guiding him via the two-way radio gifted to him courtesy of the game’s time period, good old 1989.

Their conversations over the radio are at times unbearably charming and painfully pedantic, but, in the end, they give you the entire story in a format that’s less about what’s actually happening and more about the characters themselves and how they respond to what they see.

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I don’t think I’ve ever been more delighted in a game than in the moment where I made Henry adopt this turtle. It’s moments like these that really made the game outstanding.
Source: Firewatchgame.com.

The game really shines in the way it presents the character of Henry and Delilah. They are ordinary people with ordinary personalities and ordinary character traits dealing with decisions and situations both extenuating (a death, a mystery and a fire that threatens to consume all of the Shoshone) and ordinary (a desire to reconnect, to find a new identity and to run away from the real and sometimes overwhelming problems of our daily lives).

Although all of this ordinary may seem boring, it’s actually quite extraordinary because it gives us, the audience, a chance to play and interact inside a novel-like narrative.

Because “Firewatch” was a novel. It was a visually stunning one with interactive capabilities never seen before in the plain print medium that’s nearly as old mankind, but, at is heart, it was a novel with a lifelike and engaging story and real, connective characters.

Now, this isn’t the first time that games have been compared to the literary medium. Naomi Alderman of The Guardian has compared video games to literature with games like “Journey” and “Kentucky Route Zero.” Robin Burks of Tech Times has also compared the two in titles like “The Walking Dead” and “Mass Effect.”

But “Firewatch” is different in its refreshingly simplistic approach. Although the ending left a little to be desired and the end result (a dead kid) is still something that’s hard for some audiences to grapple with, a lot of “Firewatch’s” redeeming qualities are found in the quiet moments of its story.

And quiet moments are few and far between in the fast-paced, combative gaming world, a fact that may merit further consideration as games get more and more elaborate.

So watch on, dear gamers and firewatchers, and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

Honest review: “Assassin’s Creed” The Movie

I am Ubisoft trash and will be until the day I die. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize the flaws in the recent “Assassin’s Creed” movie.

Video game movies never work out.

And neither did this one.

While it wasn’t particularly terrible – it was very much a Common Core action movie complete with the minimal story and significant plot holes that are run of the mill for Hollywood action – it wasn’t quite what I had expected.

And I hadn’t expected much.

This movie had a very patchwork feel to me. While I’m glad they didn’t try to adapt Desmond and his story for the Silver Screen, instead they took the setting of the most popular set of games – Spain from Ezio’s “Assassin’s Creed II” and “Brotherhood” – and combined it with the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, a setting eerily reminiscent of the Crusade time period of the original “Assassin’s Creed.”

The main protagonist, Callum Lynch, goes from adventurous child to hardened criminal in the span of minutes in much the same way Jyn Erso transitioned in the recently released “Rogue One.” And also like Jyn in “Rogue One,” Callum’s criminal past is never really explained except for a brief mention in the tin man exposition towards the middle of the film.

While I liked the action sequences involving Callum’s assassin ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha, they were admittedly shallow and superficial, filmed simply for the sake of the subject matter with zero to no dialogue included between crazy acrobatic flips and impressive real-life game assassinations.

Despite that, I liked Aguilar’s parts the most because they were scenes that I could have easily seen in one of the games. Not that there weren’t plenty of nods to the game throughout the 2 hour odd long runtime, but a man falling into a haystack and a heavy handed eagle metaphor/transition/cinematography shot were nothing compared to Aguilar’s quest to protect the Prince of Granada, a quest that could have easily been an in-game mission.

However, I hated the death of Aguilar’s partner, Maria. I’m so sick of bad-ass female characters being killed off to further the male man-pain. But that’s an issue for another blog.

the girl is so fucking pretty.jpg

You don’t deserve a girl like that if you’re going to kill her as a cliché plot device ~ Source: Gamespot.com. 

And finally, the finale.

The last few minutes of the movie, while appropriately melodramatic and epic-looking, were underwhelming to say the least. The lore of the AC games is too much to be crammed into one movie and the last scene made that almost painfully clear.

After Callum assassinates Dr. Rikkin and takes the apple, we see his daughter Sophia whisper a few words over her father’s body before she steps out into the London street vowing to bring pain and death upon the Assassin Order.

Setting aside the improbability of the Assassins actually being able to get into and out of the Templar stronghold with the Apple, and the fact that Sophia may or may not have seen herself as an assassin in the shadowy group hallucination after Callum broke the Animus, the ending was a pale imitation of a grand finale.

I had expected something more dramatic from the self-serious movie that “Assassins’s Creed” tried to be. Maybe a final battle for the Apple, or a grand resurgence of the Assassin Order.

Instead I got three people stealing the Apple while Sophia – whose face remained in the exact same expression throughout the entire movie, I might add – shed a few tears and the other Templars screamed and fled their stronghold like civilians instead of the supposedly feared and badass order they are.

All in all, I wasn’t impressed, but when you try to take a video game that, by its definition, is interactive and engaging even when the storyline is pre-determined, it’s hard to properly translate that into a flat, detached movie.

I would even argue that it’s not possible, but that’s an issue for another blog.

All grievances aside, I’m still tentatively on board for an “Assassin’s Creed” sequel, if only so they can expand upon the story they established in this movie and so they can maybe get Michael Fassbender a shirt that he won’t inexplicably take off.

Until then, game on, deadly assassini, and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

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I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the view, I just don’t understand why he took his shirt off in the first place ~ Source: Justjared.com. 

Honest review: Funcom’s ‘The Park’

It’s hard for me to put into words how much I disliked Funcom’s “The Park.” The nature of the story material was incredibly disturbing, but, more importantly, the game’s depiction of mental illness and it’s horrific end were as troubling as they were hard to follow, much like the psychological horror and background narrative of the story.

“The Park” is not a title to take lightly. Although the game is short, the nature of this disturbing, atmospheric psychological horror left me with a lot more questions than answers and a sinking feeling in my gut that only worsened the more I thought about the game’s ending.

Fair warning, I’m not holding back with the spoilers so if you don’t want to know, I suggest you stop reading.

First off, the game’s story material is incredibly disturbing. The focus is on a young mother, Lorraine, and her romp through Atlantic Island Park as she tries to find her lost son Callum who ran back into the park. She calls out for her son in a genuinely sincere and worried voice and at times seems incredibly concerned about her son’s welfare.

This emotion is undercut by a short monologue later on in the game where she reveals her hatred for parents that gush over their children and describes the pleasure it would give her to abandon Callum. According to her, he owes her everything, and to abandon him would serve him right. And from the way she says it, the only thing holding her back is a desire to collect on his debt sooner rather than later.

fuck this game.png

She’s clearly going through some stuff, but I still can’t reconcile the concerned mother at the center of this game with the one who hates her child. ~ Source: Laegrinna.wordpress.com. 

From then on it’s hard to reconcile that dark version of Lorraine with the one calling out for her son and asking a misshapen Nathaniel Winters, the founder of the park and literal Bogeyman of this story, where he is and what he’s done to Callum.

And the fact that the game ends with Lorraine supposedly killing her own son, is something I was not prepared for, nor something that fit with the main narrative: a scared mother looking for her lost son.

My second point of discontent with this game is the background story, one that I didn’t even become aware of until after I finished the game and did some online research to try to figure out what the hell I just played.

Apparently, “The Park” has strong ties to another Funcom title, “The Secret World” which is an online multiplayer set in the same creepy modern-fantasy universe Lorraine finds herself trapped in after she re-enters the park.

Like I said, I only figured this out after the game ended and I was left confused and disoriented as I tried to figure out what was independent of “The Secret World” and what was actually supposed to be connected to the earlier title.

Lastly, as a person who has suffered from mental illness, I found Funcom’s depiction of Lorraine’s depression to be the worst part of the game by far.

Lauren Orsini of “Forbes” magazine writes, “As a person who diagnosed with anxiety and depression, my life is very much like anyone else’s. I go to work, spend time with loved ones, and have hobbies I enjoy . . . The only difference is that I use cognitive behavioral therapy . . . and it has never given me a single hallucination.”

Playing through the game, I didn’t realize that Lorraine was suffering or had suffered from mental illness until close to the end. To be fair, there were hints: a disturbing flash back of Lorraine being shocked on a table in the bumper car pavilion with the accompanying achievement description reading “Learn about shock therapy” and a pill bottle in the Sideshow Alley that Lorraine says is hers.

There are some other telltale signs, but it’s not really until Lorraine enters the witch’s mouth and moves through the house of horrors that Funcom stops dropping hints and starts being almost glaringly obtuse with notes from the psychological service that diagnosed Lorraine with depression and gave her electroshock therapy and drugs as a paltry form of treatment.

From Lorraine’s clothes and car, we can assume that the time period might actually be one in which electroshock therapy was still in use, so the fact that they used it on her isn’t nearly as surprising as it could be. What is surprising is that Funcom treated her depression like psychosis and had her walk through a loop of her hallway and apartment where each time the scenery and notes within got more and more disturbing. It’s hard to parse out whether this was intended to be Lorraine’s mind on depression or whatever demented psychosis the park imposed on her already fragile psyche.

fuck this game part two.jpg

This isn’t the image of depression so much as it is a nightmarish hellscape masquerading as Hollywood mental illness ~ Source: Engadget.com. 

And all this comes to a head when, under the influence of the Bogeyman, Lorraine kills her son and comes back to herself, talking to a detective that, as it turns out, is the same man that let her into the park to begin with before the whole cycle starts over again.

There are a myriad of theories out there and while I think Funcom did a good job of crafting a creepy atmospheric title with an ambiguous ending meant to tease and tantalize our minds, I wish it wasn’t Callum’s death we were trying to dissect.

If I had known “The Park” ended with the death of a child, I wouldn’t have played it. And I certainly wouldn’t have suffered through the confusing background story involving Chad the Chipmunk – the textbook definition of an unnecessary background bogeyman – Nathaniel Winters – the main, but no less confusing villain of this story – and his damn park – which apparently existed for the sole purpose of harvesting energy and making Winters immortal (still not sure about that part).

For my part, I interpreted the ending like this: Callum was the boy found dismembered and discarded behind the cotton candy stand. As a result, Lorraine fell back into depression and is having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that her son is dead. Therefore, she continually returns to the park in her nightmares and imagination where she ends up killing him more because she feels intensely guilty and less because she actually killed him.

But that’s just my interpretation. One that favors innuendo and metaphor over any literal interpretation of the story because I have a hard time reconciling my own emotions with the fact that I may or may have played a character that murdered her own child.

But you can come up with your own interpretation. All my grievances aside, the graphics are decent and Funcom does a good job of making the game hellishly creepy with whispered words coming from the parks’ speakers and discordant music underlying Lorraine’s voice as she calls out for her son in an increasingly distressed tone.

I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you still want to play “The Park,” at least now you’ll have a better understanding of what exactly you’re signing yourself up for, something I wish I’d had going in.

Either way, game on, thrill-seekers and horror fans, and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

fuck-this-game

Honest review of “Batman: Arkham Knight”

The 2015 release of Rocksteady’s “Arkham Knight” wasn’t at all what I had hoped for, a tragic disappointment for me and my wallet.

No one was more disappointed in the 2015 release of “Batman: Arkham Knight” than me.

Especially since I had already bought the season pass which amounted to an extra ten minutes of gameplay with characters that refused to be fleshed out in scenarios that would have been so much more fun if they hadn’t been tacked onto the end of “Arkham Knight” like a sad afterthought.

In my driving games article, I talked about the difficult driving controls and the convoluted gameplay mechanics that had been introduced to incorporate the Batmobile into all levels.

For this blog, I was originally going to post a two-minute video of me driving through around Gotham to illustrate my point, but as I mentioned last week, I think it’s more productive to talk about what we do like about video games rather than complaining about what we don’t.

That being said, I have to address the dead Robin in the room.

To all the comic book junkies that may or may not be reading this, I have to say that while Jason Todd wasn’t my favorite Robin – photographer/stalker Tim Drake takes the number one spot over plucky Dick Grayson and homicidal Damian Wayne – he was an interesting character to be sure.

However, I think the best thing DC may have done for his character was kill him off because they allowed him to come back with a vengeance as Red Hood, the scourge of Gotham’s underbelly, a little bit of an anti-hero who’s not afraid to kill to get what he wants.

In “Arkham Knight” the story of Jason Todd is a little different in that he isn’t killed and resurrected via Lazarus Pit. Instead, he’s tortured and fake-killed off by the Joker, before being brought back as the Arkham Knight, a bat-like villain with a grudge the size of Gotham City.

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Source: Kotaku.com

Part of my problem with this rendition of Jason, is that it left no room for surprises as far as the plot of “Arkham Knight” was concerned. When word got out about the Red Hood DLC, any lingering questions about who the Arkham Knight was and what he wanted with Gotham’s caped crusader vanished in a puff of Batman’s smoke pellets.

Because Rocksteady waited so long to “reveal” the Knight’s identity – almost half a game too long – the impact of his character was left wanting and all his earlier actions came off as bratty and incoherent.

Another thing about the game I really did not like was its treatment of women.

Denny Connolly on Gamerant.com hit the nail on the head when he said that nearly all the women of the game were treated as damsel-in-distress type characters, something that sets Rocksteady apart following the revival of Lara Croft, and not at all in a good way.

From Poison Ivy to Catwoman, nearly all the women of the game were thrown in various distressed situations with Batman acting as the white dark knight in shining armor.

What makes this so sad is that there was so much potential for bad-ass female representation. Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Barbara Gordon, all of them had the potential for greatness, but instead of the royal treatment they deserved, we were given a few cut scenes and some DLC content that amounted to poor character and female representation.

The worst, by far, was the game’s treatment of Barbara Gordon as Oracle. In reviving the controversial comic arc in which the Joker shoots her and relegates her from Batgirl to wheelchair-bound paraplegic, Rocksteady did not do their game any favors.

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Source: Youtube.com

In the comics, Oracle is a member of the elite female team Birds of Prey, an extension of the Bat-family and a set of awesome crime-fighters in their own right.

But in “Arkham Knight,” Oracle is merely a tool to further male angst, something I think we could all do without.

She spends nearly the entire game captured by the Knight and her supposed “death” by suicide only increases Bruce’s man-pain to near staggering levels.

However, I have to give credit where credit is due. The Batman/Joker dynamic really came to fruition in this game with the Clown Prince’s death in “City” and the merging of his consciousness with Batman’s at the beginning of “Knight.”

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Source: Dualpixels.com

His deliberately crazy dialogue, interjecting conversations and general hanging-about was probably the most compelling part of “Arkham Knight” and playing from his perspective towards the end was the most fun I had in the entire game.

So while I could say a lot more about what was wrong with “Arkham Knight,” I’d rather end this post on something Rocksteady did right, a positive note that gamers can point to when we talk about what else we might want from future video games.

Next week, I finish off my own Arkham trilogy with an open letter to Rocksteady and a proposal for a Wonder Woman video game.

For a more comprehensive look at what “Arkham Knight” did wrong, read Paul Tamburro’s post on Craveonline.com.

So game on, caped crusaders, and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.