Monthly Archives: June 2014

Shovel Knight Review – Digging It

Shovel Knight

It’s not quite right calling Shovel Knight throwback, though it certainly borrows a lot from the games of yore. Instead, it successfully cherry-picks the bits that you like to remember, cutting the fat of the parts you’d rather forget, and injecting it with a few modern concepts. The resulting mishmash is something that aesthetically fits in the past but stands tall anywhere.

Developed by Yacht Club Games, Shovel Knight started out as a Kickstarter project with the absolute intent of paying homage to the historic 8-bit games of founder Sean Velasco’s youth (and, presumably, many other people’s childhoods as well). It blew well past its $75,000 goal at $311,502 and now we have the successful release of a 2D side-scrolling platformer featuring a knight with a shovel.

In any given level, your goal is to go from one side of the screen to the other, using your shovel to bash enemies in the face, dig up treasure, and bounce off the top of heads, pillars, and pretty much anything, really. This is where the game draws its most direct comparison to the NES DuckTales, the bouncing mechanic directly analogous to Scrooge McDuck’s pogo stick. (I suppose, though, that the eight bosses of the Order of No Quarter are rather Mega Many.

The difference, however, is that Shovel Knight makes it so much more than simply bouncing. It is your lifeline in many of the more difficult levels (read: any level), inspiring a puzzle game sensation as you try to figure out how to bounce over spikes, up bushes, and onto enemies in a single move. More often than not, however, you will be making these discoveries of survival tactics as you are doing them.

This is, without a doubt, a punishing game. The second level, for instance, has you already jumping against foregrounds only lit for 0.3 seconds when lighting strikes with single space columns to jump to while ghosts chase you as you try to shovel a skull over to a platform so it can sink enough for you to progress. You will die a lot, but it never quite feels dirty like many genuine 8-bit platformers can.

Much of that rewarding demand of precision can be attribute to the fact that the game handles just so god damn well. This is where it harkens back most heartily to yesteryear, an age of gaming where one button was dedicated to jumping and the other to attacking, and both had to work perfectly or the entire game was worthless. Shovel Knight can often be systemically more complex than any game from NES days and still it hits that level of mechanical quality.

Shovel Knight

It’s important to note that sentiment permeates the entirety of the game. It does not attempt to simply steep in referential humor or gameplay as its sole success but instead makes the key references as inspirations towards gameplay and design. This means it’s not afraid to mix it up with more modern considerations.

For instance, when you die, you are zapped back to the last checkpoint, but a rather sizable portion of your gold is dropped as big bags of collectable money. You have the chance to get it all back, but in a Dark Souls-ish twist, if you die again before doing so, it’s all gone. For good. And given that you likely died unintentionally, it’s going to be tough getting it back.

Of course, dying may just not be in your game plan, and in that case, you can simply destroy the checkpoints. It’s a brilliant scheme where the player more or less chooses his own safety net frequency. When you destroy them, you get a hefty reward, but the checkpoint is rendered inert. It’s absolutely brilliant, rewarding skill and punishing hubris.

Shovel Knight

The rewards, however, are quite worth it, earning new secondary weapons and upgrades. The weapons range from a fireball wand to a very Castlevania-esque throwing axe, each one deserving of a period of discovery, learning the what and how of their operations. It’s an old school notion of initial inscrutability, but it’s also part of the charm of the game, forcing you to explore both the physical and the mechanical spaces.

And then the surface-level success of Shovel Knight is also there. Its visual rendition of the nostalgic 80s and 90s is pitch-perfect, somehow surpassing those that settle for pixel art and nothing more. Granted, the animations and color pallet of the game easily surpass the NES’ capabilities, but the otherworldly combinations of purple and green and strident reds reminds you rather faithfully of what it was like when substitute colors took the place of natural hues.

Oh yeah, and the soundtrack is pretty killer. While we often say the core of a retro-inspired game is far more important than its skin, what we see and hear is vital to the experience as well. But in Shovel Knight‘s case, it succeeds both on the surface and far below where exemplary game design and modern innovations sit atop a choice best-of selection of what we’d prefer to recall from the days of single-digit bits. You should most definitely play Shovel Knight.

Shovel Knight

+ Takes a simple mechanic and expands it into an interesting and expandable set of gameplay scenarios
+ Fun world full of intriguing characters and villains
+ Difficult without being frustrating
+ An exceptional blend of old platformer ideals and modern design inspirations
+ Looks great and sounds even better

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Shovel Knight
Release: June 26, 2014
Genre: Side-scrolling platformer
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Available Platforms: PC, Nintendo 3DS, Wii U
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $14.99
Website: http://yachtclubgames.com/shovel-knight/

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BattleCry – Hands-on at E3 2014

BattleCry

Exiting the rather tepid theatre presentation outlining the character classes and fundamental mechanics of the game, anticipation was rather low as I walked towards the hands-on multiplayer demo of BattleCry, the first and eponymous title from Bethesda’s new Austin-based Battlecry Studios. After going through two rounds, however, I came away optimistic, though not as much as I’d hoped.

The set up is quite interesting and lends itself to creative designer Viktor Antonov’s (of Dishonored fame) particular brand of visual flair. It is the early 20th century and the world is in full-on war mode with itself. However, due to a treaty, the countries fight not with guns and bombs but with swords and fists and arrows. More over, they do so in specially sanctioned “war zones,” setting up the idea of citizenless arenas for players.

While eventually you’ll have access to five different character classes (each one mimicked across the different factions), the demo only afforded us three. The first is the Enforcer, a character focused on using its massive sword and its transformative capabilities as a shield to get in close and do tons of damage. The Duelist rocks two quick and snappy blades while the Tech Archer fires arrows from afar and throws daggers in close quarters.

Each character also has a special ability in addition to their regular class abilities. Cooldowns limit the use of skills like the Enforcer’s dashing and smashing abilities but accumulated adrenaline allows for the specials to be unleashed. Adrenaline can also be used to simply amplify all damage output and reduce damage intake, offering a nice counterbalance between amplitude and frequency of devastation.

The key to the game, however, is mobility. While we played in a setup of six on six, the game actually supports 32 total players. And getting around these accommodating maps is important, with automatic sprinting, quicker dodge-rolls with a double tap of the jump button, and hitting grapnel points on and round buildings. Remaining mobile allows you to avoid overwhelming encounters and engage in tactically advisable ones.

It was, though, that the game actually became much easier once I switched to the Tech Archer, the one ranged class in the demo. So long as I was able to keep my distance, I could contend with two or three melee-bound opponents at a time, and keeping my distance was easy with the aforementioned traversal mechanics. Getting in the mix with the Enforcer and the Duelist was novel compared to the usual online shooter experience, but both were far less effective when it came to actually killing other people.

BattleCry

Not to mention that with the reduced number of players on this map, it was a nuisance trying to find where the action was. I’d say about 80% of my time was actually spent running around, simply poking my head into every building and alley just to see if an enemy was there to fight. I’m sure there will be more appropriately sized maps later, but it’s worth noting anyways.

What’s interesting, though, is that there doesn’t seem to be a direct one-to-one correlation of character classes to each faction. Yes, every Enforcer is basically the same as the other, but the implementation seems to differ slightly. For instance, the Tech Archer of the Royal Marines has a longbow while the Cossack Empire’s Tech Archer has two crossbows. Gender, perhaps, could also alter how a class plays per instance.

It’s worth noting, too, that the game is free-to-play, Bethesda’s first of the sort. Playing the game earns iron, and iron unlocks skills and can be used to craft new items like armor and skins. This obviously lends itself to the F2P model, but given the short time with the game, there wasn’t much to glean as to how treacherous this structure goes in BattleCry.

BattleCry

Most interesting, however, is that the game concludes each match with a post-round bit similar to Team Fortress 2, but instead of being based on the idea of shaming your fallen opponents, it is about respecting your battlefield brethren. You’ll run around and salute those that you wish. Some designated MVPs, others just people you had solid scraps with, each time doling out medals as well. Of course, you could not do it at all and leave respect for another day.

Visually, BattleCry looks great and definitely fits the strange pseudo-history of its setting. Mechanically, it’s sound, moving nimbly and decisively and allowing for intuitive and responsive tracking even up close with swords and fists. However, the imbalance of ranged players is worrying, as is the unaccommodating map for our small demo. Both can be dealt with, but it’s not certain they will be.

Find out for yourself when it comes out in 2015 with a beta coming sometime before that.

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Heavy Bullets – Hands-on at E3 2014

Heavy Bullets

Heavy Bullets, while bearing the aesthetics of just another first-person shooter, is quite unique. Sure, you point a gun at things, shoot said things, and watch them die, but one-man developer Terri Vellman has added a fair number of wrinkles that make his game stand out. The question, of course, if whether they are valuable additions.

Entering Early Access on Steam just a couple weeks before E3, Heavy Bullets now has a website replete rather descriptive copy, not least of which includes an incredibly inviting tagline: “Armed with a simple yet stylish revolver and six devastatingly plump bullets, you must reset the security mainframe to restore order and reap the rewards of a job well done.” In reality, you wander through procedurally generated levels with a gun that can only ever fire comically large rounds.

The thing, however, about these bullets is that they are retrievable, which is good because for much of the game, you’ll only ever have six of them. Once expelled, they’ll happily bounce around until you go and pick them up—or abandon them in favor of living to fight another day. This adds a fantastic turn to the traditional FPS where straight dumping often serves you better than precision aiming.

Outside of that, everything about the game is randomized. You’ll wander overwhelmingly tall 80s neon walls in an effort to reach ladder after ladder over the course of eight levels, the internal structures framed as a maze with locked doors, turrets, and strange enemies all intent on stopping you. From the layout to the turret rotation to the enemy placement, it’s all random, feeding into the roguelike appeal of permadeath.

And you’ll learn about death quickly if you don’t have quick and deliberate aim. Most enemies go down in a single hit (there are bosses out there) which makes the straightforward chargers easy to dispose of, but the turrets require faster reaction time and the snakes require greater awareness. I’m pretty sure I was bitten by every snake I encountered. Those assholes.

Throughout the levels, you’ll find various kiosks. Some are banks and some are vending machines, dispensing health and upgrade items. The banks allow monetary carryover between lives while the upgrades allow you to modify your mechanical and simplified play. For instance, a spiked helmet counterattacked anything that made contact with me. Running shoes most obviously boosted your walking speed. And by purchasing (or finding in a chest) a backpack, you can carry two upgrades.

Heavy Bullets

While still in Early Access and under development, there are obvious concerns for the game. Most notably, it’s a tad repetitive, relying on the singular bullet retrieval shtick far too much. Visually and mechanically, it barely lasts even the short eight levels. This holds especially true of the artistic design, which is intriguing as a polygonal throwback, but becomes tiring as all you see are pink, blue, and turquoise walls.

I will say, however, that combat requires a concerted effort and vigilance that evokes a familiar sensation akin to playing Receiver, a game Vellman heard about only after going into Early Access. And when you are in a room full of chargers and turrets, dodging bites and bullets while trying to collect any of your six expended rounds, it can be a titillating experience.

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Yoshi’s Woolly World – Hands-on at E3 2014

Yoshi's Woolly World

If you strip away the wholly charming and unique visual flair of Yoshi’s Woolly World, you are left more or less with the core of Yoshi’s Island. Normally, it’s awfully terrible to reduce a game to “if you liked X, then you’ll like Y,” but by golly does Yoshi’s Woolly World dive full into its divisive lineage.

That being said, it plays an awful lot like the best and worst parts of just about any home console Yoshi game and I’m totally okay with it. You still go from left to right, licking up enemies and turning them into eggs, and collecting coins and flowers, and throwing things at other things. It’s a familiar foundation upon which Nintendo has made a lot of money and fans, and it still works.

Oh yeah, but instead of eggs and coins and all that, it’s all replaced with an irrepressibly cute yarn- and craft-based substitute. For instance, eggs are now literal balls of yarn and their dispensers are little baskets (also ostensibly made of yarn). And instead of coins, you collect yellow and red and white gems, probably to fit into the decorator motif.

The entire visual milieu is impressive and comprehensive. When Yoshi walks along the crowd, it sinks ever so slightly, owing to the fact that yarn has that familiar softness and give. When you hit a Piranha Plant with an egg, it becomes tangled with the untangled ball of yarn. Then Yoshi’s flutter jump is actually his bottom half unwinding into a whirling mess of individual strands. It’s impossible not to love how this game looks.

It is, however, possible to not love how the game plays. While I do land in the camp of people who like the Yoshi’s Island-style games (minus that god damn Baby Mario travesty), the stock quibbles of the haters are still present and becoming more apparent as the rose tint washes from our eyes. The egg-aiming mechanic is consistently not fun and the aforementioned flutter jump has somehow become more frustrating, dipping and hovering lower than your peak height for far too long to be useful.

A new addition, however, is cooperative play. Playing with a non-communicative stranger next to me was less than ideal, especially when the demo person was becoming just as frustrated as me with my partner’s inability to not continually swallow my Yoshi. While the couch co-op aspect seems promising, there are brand new co-op annoyances to contend with as well. For example, you lose all of your eggs if you get swallowed.

Yoshi's Woolly World

It doesn’t necessarily even evoke the same sensation of competitive cooperation as in LittleBigPlanet or any of the modern 2D side-scrolling Mario games but rather one of only frustration. However, much of the rest of Yoshi’s Woolly World seems quite good. Or at least what was shown in the demo. It’s aesthetic is winning in every regard, but its mechanical underbelly is likely to still be divisive.

Look for it early next year.

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Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker – Hands-on at E3 2014

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker

While I’m still not clear on whether Captain Toad and regular ol’ Toad are the same character, I have become increasingly convinced that Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is going to be a good time. Announced and available for play at this year’s E3, it turns that brief respite of Mario-less platforming in Super Mario 3D World into a game in its own right.

You play as the aforementioned Captain Toad, who appears to be Toad but with a dapper kerchief and a ridiculously large headlamp, and you attempt to collect gold stars and coins over the course of many different levels and stages. However, given that he can’t jump all that well, it’s actually a lot more of a puzzle game than a platformer, though you certainly will be engaging in classic Mario encounters, i.e. bopping the top of Goombas to defeat them.

It’s just that instead of jumping, you’ll be falling from up high. The level I played was a haunted mansion of sorts. Each level is supremely isolated from anything else, meaning that here we have a Boo- and Goomba-infested house basically floating in space. The first area serves as a pretty quick-paced introduction to the game because there is, in fact, a lone Goomba patrolling the darkened courtyard.

He chases me and, at my top Toad speed, I barely manage to evade him. When he loses interest in my polka dotted noggin, I use the Wii U’s GamePad’s touchscreen to move one of several white highlighted doors in the level. This one in particular slides back and forth just above this fenced-off garden area, swapping between being just above the one door here on the ground and over to the left and leading to a balcony.

By luring the Goomba into a chase toward the bottom door, I manage to kill him by exiting the moveable door while he’s directly under me and stomping his head. Then I make my way around the balcony and find myself moving more doors to finagle Captain Toad above a large stack of meandering Goombas. By timing my fall, I neatly stomp on one after another in a single move.

All the while, I’m pulling plants to gather gold coins and double pulling others to get diamonds. The level ends with me up on top of the house where two gigantic Boos reside. Luckily, there are also more doors up here that I easily use to teleport behind them and grab the gold star. Simple but satisfying encounter.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker

In fact, those two words largely encapsulate the entirety of the Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker demo. A boss level involved timing movements behind cover in a cylindrical arena while a fire-spitting dragon in the lava pit in the middle tried to torch my delicate shroomness. It’s nothing particularly taxing, which is not to say it won’t be in other demos and in the final product, but even as it stands, it’s an interesting and fun game that left me a little more charmed than when I started.

Look for it later this year.

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Indiecade at E3 2014

Indiecade at E3 2014

While actually attending E3 is quite the trip, leaving it is almost equally exhilarating. I don’t just mean finally departing LAX, leaving the city of millions of broken dreams in your jet engine’s wake, but finding any sort of solace amidst the endless din is both comforting and exciting. Whether it be in a parking lot full of Airstream trailers or a hotel pool that seemingly everyone knows about and ends up at by dawn’s first light, respite is welcome.

Oddly enough, refuge can be found on the show floor itself. In the South Hall where the third party developers and strange booths regarding television ownership and whatnot reside, there’s a borderlands. Quite literally that’s where the Borderlands booth is, but outside of the darkened ring of madness and lights and interminable trailers showing on egregiously large projector screens, you can see. You can see what this place is in its true form.

There’s nothing out here. Only people who fell to the battle of E3 lie here, slumped against walls and paying five to six dollars for shiny, plastic pizza. To the left is a befuddling sight. Apparently the United States Army has set up an obstacle course here, dumbed down for the physical likes of video game fans and journalists it has the appearance of an introductory RC car navigation course. But scanning further, there’s perhaps an even more confounding discovery.

Indiecade E3 2014

There’s a mass of couches, abstract art, and, more importantly, people. In fact, people that are actively engaged in whatever it is they’re doing in front of over two dozen laptop and television screens (and tabletops). It’s a rare sight indeed, as your day is often consumed by huddling in lines with jaded press, going through appointments for coverage and not for joy or interest. Not that what we see under the triple-A guise isn’t good, but it’s rare we get a surprise.

That’s why this little wagon circle is so important. While not everything here is a winner, they’re nearly all refreshing. Whether with a dose of irreverence or indecency or an unabashed disregard for logic and sanity, we are reminded that many creative pursuits often go unnoticed as well as under the radar of focus tests and bureaucratic homogenization. In the open parts of my schedule, I often hid away in this bustling microcosm, and here are some of the things I found.

Tetrageddon

Tetrageddon

“The internet is my homeland!” That’s what developer Nathalie Lawhead has at the end of her Twitter bio, and it almost entirely and succinctly encapsulates the experience of playing Tetrageddon. It is far from a traditional game as it subverts the idea that it should work logically and intuitively. Instead, it opts for a landing squarely in the Ow My Brain land of mental overload.

Tetrageddon is a collection of nine minigames, but it’s really more a cohesive peek into a perfect display of absurdism. More accurately, it’s a brilliant estimation of what would it be like if you soaked up the Internet into a sponge, squeezed it out over cheesecloth, and took what fell through and put it into a game. Some games make more sense than others like one about abducting rabbits via UFO while others involve playing tic-tac-toe against a hamster at the gates of hell.

You can actually experience the game now either through your browser or via the App Store, and if you’re so inclined, you can also muck about with the code since it’s an entirely open source project. Play it. It’s vital you understand what it’s like to not understand what’s happening.

Paparazzi

“Frantic” is how I would describe Paparazzi, a little multiplayer game from Pringo Dingo Games. It’s one paparazzo versus one celebrity, one trying to gain as much cash as possible from his snapshots and one trying to retain as much dignity as possible by remaining elusive. Played on a single screen, one player dashes about as the celeb via a controller and one clicks away on a mouse trying to get him in their sights.

It is deliciously mad. As the celebrity, you can only really slowly trundle about and then press a button to dash, but the walk is so painfully slow and the dash almost comically fast and ridiculous in how far it shuttles you in one go that you never quite feel in control, but in a good way. It encourages you to keep moving, more so than even the camera clicks following in your footsteps.

Crowds of people move up and down over the place as the screen scrolls, helping you obfuscate your movements, as do large static structures like buildings and oversized club speakers. It helps the celeb but hinders the paparazzo, stopping him from making any money. But the viewport of the camera reticle is quite sizable, so combined with the lack of punishment from frantically mashing away at the mouse and the controller respectively, it’s quite the devilishly frenetic and fun game. Check it out on Kickstarter.

T.R.E.E.

T.R.E.E.

Developed by a single person under the studio name 6 O’Clock Games, T.R.E.E. is actually more of an art experiment than a game. There are certainly game-like qualities to it (it tracks how many fruit you’ve collected, for instance, but for no particular reason), but it’s really just about seeing how people interact with a singular instance of digitized nature.

Unsurprisingly, the game is all about a tree. You, as a player or curator or whatever you want to call yourself, go about either adding or removing branches. Then, as time passes, these branches grow and leaves sprout and fruit will grow. From the first day, I just saw an average little suburban-sized tree sporting a few dozen branches going every which way. By the end of the last day at E3, it had become a redwood-sized behemoth with an incredibly artistic and wholly unnatural fractal subset of branches.

While in early stages of development, the ambition to grow it is there. For instance, by placing the tree in a city background, the city will react to the growth of the tree, mimicking its health and responding to its vitality. It’s an eventuality, though, much like its release on its various platforms.

Road Not Taken

Pitched to me as a puzzle game influenced by Don’t Starve, my interest was almost immediately piqued. It turns out there’s quite a bit going on underneath the chipper veneer of Road Not Taken. It’s a puzzle game with an adventure game with a relationship simulator with roguelike tendencies. It’s startling how much is crammed beneath its happy surface.

The passage of time is measured in lifetimes and your actions in grid-based ambulations. Your goal in any given screen, as some oddly magical wizard-type thing/person, is to unite all children with their parents. By pressing a button, you pick up anything around you on any cardinal direction, and with another press you hurl them in that direction. It sounds simple enough, but moving with things in your mystical grip uses energy, and bottoming out on that energy will result in your death.

90-percent of people die in the tutorial, according to this Polygon piece. This is a substantially hard game, largely because it’s procedurally generated, so there are no set solutions for any given puzzle, just a possible solution. And as you add elements like creatures that mirror your moves and those that move opposite you, it gets increasingly complex. Then you toss on the crafting mechanic, which can occur inside and outside of puzzles, which are wholly combined into one giant over world and not discrete screens, it gets to be a bit brain-sweating.

Oh yeah, and you can forge and destroy meaningful, impactful relationships back in town. Sorry about your free time.

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The Talos Principle – Hands-on at E3 2014

The Talos Principle - Hands-on at E3 2014

This is perhaps the first game I’ve encountered where there was someone that could even potentially hold the title of lead philosophy designer. Of course, many games evoke philosophical quandaries. Braid, for instance, harbors a twist that begs the question of what defines a hero, whether perspective matters. But The Talos Principle from Croteam centers itself around the existential.

The mention of Braid is no accident. Much like Jonathan Blow’s upcoming The Witness, The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game that takes place on an island. You take the reins of a robot (something mostly revealed when you press X to restart and you press a button on your own mechanical arm) and go about the world exploring old ruins and solving seemingly artificially constructed puzzles, working your way towards…something.

There’s a lot of unknowns going into the game, especially going into a mildly humid Airstream trailer in a Hooters parking lot at E3, but finding out how it all works is part of the experience. In fact, as narrative/philosophy designer Tom Jubert of The Swapper and Penumbra writing fame says, the experience of uncovering the game’s offerings will be crucial to any revelatory turn you take after finishing the last puzzle.

As the other Croteam members in the cramped trailer nod along knowingly, I have my doubts. While the narrative pedigree certainly is there, this was the team that created (and subsequently and righty milked) the Serious Sam franchise. But I embark nonetheless, approaching a crossroads with posted signage directing me to several puzzles. As I look at each pointed sign, parts of my HUD light up. Apparently each puzzle gains me a needed tetromino, some of which I’ve already acquired.

I approach one hazily digitized wall and enter it. Each puzzle is entirely self-contained and immediately discloses its difficulty. This one in particular is a more difficult one, so I move on to another, the easiest of the bunch. It’s a rudimentary puzzle with the goal in plain sight. The tetromino floats at the top of a platform that, as it stands, is unreachable.

Leading to the stairs that lead to the prize is a path, but along it are two impassable blue light barriers. Luckily for me, however, there is a jammer nearby, which looks an awful lot like a more high tech surveying tripod. I pick it up and jam the first barrier, but the problem becomes quite apparent: those devices can’t jam and move at the same time. Using another jammer, I have to disable the first barrier, bring the second jammer across, point it at the same barrier, and bring the first jammer across to take down the second barrier.

The Talos Principle

It’s a simple puzzle, though it’s at least satisfying to solve while the ominous voice that speaks you to after each solution unsettles you just a bit. The godlike narrator compels you to solve more and more but with little reason to do so. But proceed I do to the second puzzle, which is similarly quite simple, involving additionally an automated turret and a locked door and keys. But then the third puzzle turned out to be quite the challenge.

In it, the tetromino was locked behind a gate, and it could only be opened by a blue laser. The problem was that there was a bunch of red laser connections via gem redirectors needed to be made to get to the blue laser generator. Redirecting lasers is quite tricky, as the puzzle itself is physically laid out to require placement optimization, and laser beams stop once they intersect another laser. The key was to utilize the holes in the wall and reducing your redirector count as you move them to the blue line from the red. There was also a small tetromino puzzle that could afford you an extra redirector, but it proved unnecessary.

As I head across the bridge to the final puzzle, the team members murmur something about a terminal. “Terminal? What, like the one with the Tetris puzzle?” A light comes across their eyes as they realize now, apparently, is the time. They direct me away from the bridge and back down and around the wall that stands between me and that puzzle I just solved.

The Talos Principle

A little way down towards the shore is, oddly enough, a little computer terminal. It’s somehow striking even as I’d just spent the past 20 or so minutes dawdling around scenes entrenched in the juxtaposition of nature and technology. I approach it, and use it.

It appears to be just a computer terminal. It has a few rudimentary functions available, like listing files and accessing help pages and reading files. However, opening and reading parts of the terminal revealed it to be much more than a computer. It was talking to me, asking questions and responding to me in kind. It asked me about the pieces and the narrator. It questioned my ostensible allegiance with it by solving each puzzle.

Though not entirely alarming (way weirder things have spoken to us as gamers), it was a remarkable experience. It’s rare you have a seemingly artificial construct question an omnipresent one within a wholly digitized form of interactive entertainment. It’s stranger, too, that only through unprovoked exploration could this terminal be found. There are no random collectibles and there are no side quests. It appears that these entirely missable elements are just as vital to the game as the puzzles are.

The Talos Principle

That is where The Talos Principle truly intrigues me. The puzzles, sure, show promise for being a tortuous yet pleasing mental exercise (the fourth one across the bridge had me especially stumped for the longest time as fans and grates and whatnot enter the picture), but this idea of a game blatantly questioning its own premise is an interesting and novel one.

Not only that, but I like seeing Croteam step out of its Serious Sam comfort zone to work on a puzzle game and to work with a writer as inventive as Jubert. He cooked up the crux of the atmospheric and eerie The Swapper; he was part of the team behind the mind and nerve-racking Penumbra series; and he even helped gin up the nutso premise to Driver: San Francisco. I’m excited to see where The Talos Principle ends up when it comes out later this fall.

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The Evil Within – Hands-on at E3 2014

The Evil Within - Hands-on at E3 2014

The half hour I spent with Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within felt eerily familiar. While the debut title from Mikami’s new studio Tango Gameworks, the game itself borrows a lot from his past directorial efforts. Most notably, unsurprisingly, is now classic Resident Evil 4. There is, however, enough to make this a new experience, and a rather unnerving one at that.

Preceded by a hands-off theatre demo that functioned more as a collection of quick tips to not immediately be confused with the subsequent hands-on session, we are told that we will be given the choice of two different demos. The two options are offhandedly referred to as level four and level eight, the former of which was Mikami’s recommendation for the best The Evil Within experience. And who am I to argue with the guy who created Resident Evil?

You start off at the inclined walkway up towards a house, darkened by the night, and led by a stranger. From the words coming out of his mouth, it sounds like he’s a doctor because we’re looking for his patient. As we approach the house, I notice two things: 1) there’s a bonfire just 20 yards or so away and there are some angry-looking people circling it, and 2) this game feels a lot like RE4. It controls nearly the same, from the ambulatory systems to the gunplay and the like.

There are some key differences, though. Pulling up the inventory keeps time ticking along much like in Dead Space, though there is mild time dilation as something of a halfway concession between the two stances in action horror inventory. Next, there is a dedicated melee button rather than pulling out a knife and awkwardly aiming it, though melee in this game merely pushes foes away, not kill them.

That is perhaps the sharpest contrast. Enemies go down from gunfire and whatnot, but to kill requires either extreme force via an explosion or fire. A separate inventory tracks how many matches you can hold, which tops off rather quickly in the single digits. When an enemy falls after enough shots, you need to run up and torch them, but vigilance is still required as they have a tendency to lash out from the ground and ding you with annoying but meaningful amounts of damage.

Some things, however, remain the same as I approach the front door and double tap the interaction button to slam it open rather than slowly and cautiously eek it ajar. On this bottom floor, we come across what appears to be another doctor friend, but as he turns around from his mutilated patient on the table, he lunges towards us. (It’s not entirely unexpected as it is nearly beat-for-beat identical to the opening moments of RE4.)

The Evil Within

I drop him with some shots from my pistol and light him up. I poke around the desk and drawers behind the operating table and find an x-ray printout. It shows a chest with a key somewhere around the spine. Turning around to the body, I’m given the option to interact with it and do so. This affords me the opportunity to hover around the scarred, pale chest with a knife. Moving it around makes absolutely no sense as stick direction has no correlation to knife movement. And out of frustration, I keep mashing every button on the controller with little to no feedback.

Eventually I find the right spot and drive the knife into the body and only get some money out of experience. It was disappointing to say the least. But after killing a few more dudes upstairs, I leave and sneak into the next house adjacent to the intensely uninviting bonfire. Very directly the only option is to head down to the basement, which I do reluctantly. How many basements end up being good news in horror games?

However, all we find here is the lost young patient. Rushing over to him, the doctor friend escorts him back down the hall to the stairs while I loot the place for ammo and upgrade gel, the latter of which will be used—according to the preceding tutorial—in weird electrical chair-looking things to improve skills and abilities. But when I catch up with them, there’s a problem: the stairs are gone.

The Evil Within

Bewildered by the blank wall, I turn around and the hall goes all hazy, riddled with static, and then the doctor and patient disappear after the kid gives some sort of creepy psycho premonition speech. The hallway ends at a door that wasn’t there before, and the other side appears to go on interminably. It’s disconcerting to say the least.

I go through the door and I come back into the hallway again. I go down the hall, and the door is still right there. I approach the door again and suddenly a wave of blood comes gushing out and I’m dropped into an impressively dark room, its centerpiece a massive pit of broken metal walkways and hundreds of gallons of blood. Going around, I pick up some ammo and disarm a trap. Spotting more traps and more ammo, this is beginning to look a lot like a battle arena.

Which it is. After fully exploring the area (there’s a stairway that connects where a ladder leads and some platforms and rooms interconnected to the blood pit), I approach the one well lit door and Ruvic, the spooky white hooded fellow that appears every once in a while, appears. He summons a bunch of bad guys for me to kill and then peaces out like a wholesale dick.

The Evil Within

I immediately and unintentionally (but gladly) take out a few dudes right off the bat by tripping an explosive trap, unfortunately damaging me quite severely. No time to heal, though, as dudes are on my tail. I scamper away, though, to the ladder and climb it, seeing if old RE4 tactics hold up. While the other side of the ladder platform is a staircase, the bad guys can’t jump the gap between the two like I can.

So I camp out on the top, letting them stand up one at a time before downing and torching them. Soon, however, I’m out of matches and running low on ammo. Even with the ammo load-up beforehand, I never held more than two full clips for both my shotgun and pistol, and that was the most I’d had for the entire demo. The bigger problem, however, was the lack of matches.

There were, however, some explosive canisters lying around. Two, actually, which was quite fortuitous considering there were only two enemies left. One was easy enough, forcing him to chase me by one and shooting it as he passed it. The other was a bit tougher since the canister was at the top of the ladder and jumping the gap caused him to climb back down for the stairs. In the end, I healed up and exploded it right under both our feet.

The Evil Within

It was a tiring exercise. Not necessarily exhilarating but also not mindless, but the entire ordeal of kiting the last two dudes to make up for the lack of matches was rather boring. But I dip out through the diegetically highlighted door anyways. After a few more discombobulating mind tricks, I end up in another hallway, though this one seems disturbingly sterile.

Walking down the singular path, I end up in what appears to be an operating room. Recognizing it from trailers, the scare of a giant spider-like, multi-armed hair monster emerging from the ground isn’t all that startling. My awareness, however, doesn’t do much to impress the creature, so I turn around and run, recalling in the tutorial that some enemies should just be run from and not engaged. No idea if this was one of those enemies, but I run anyways.

However, with a sealed door at the other end, I figure I might as well try shooting it. It eventually stumbles and I run back into the operating room. I waste more shots into canisters that were apparently not explosive. I dump the last few rounds into the monster before trying to close the door on top of it, hoping it would be chopped in half or something. No dice. Out of ammo and out of options, I just let it kill me.

The Evil Within

Walking out of the blackened demo room, I’m left with quite a few thoughts. First, I wondered what the other level was like. Fellow journalist and Joystiq managing editor Susan Arendt was in the room as well and quite literally NOPE’d out of there. Second, I wonder if the minor changes to the RE4 are enough to set The Evil Within apart, but more importantly if the changes are improvements rather than deliberately breaking what was once working. Find out on October 21 of this year.

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Titan Souls – Hands-on at E3 2014

Titan Souls - Hands-on at E3 2014

Given my record with the game in the past 30 or so minutes, I should have known better, but I ask anyways. “How long do you think I’ll last?” The developers’ eyes flit around, the three of them resisting a wry smile or two. Design lead Mark Foster speaks up. “Three seconds.” Hmm, three seconds, huh? We’ll see about tha—oh fuck I died.

This is Titan Souls, a game from Acid Nerve that originally started out as a part of Ludum Dare 28. Ludum Dare is a game jam competition that gives developers two days to make a game that fits a theme, and the one for LD28 was “you only get one.” In the case of Titan Souls, you only get one hit point and one arrow for your one bow.

It’s an intensely difficult game, often resulting in rapid and accumulating deaths in short spans of time. It’s presents a dude in a The Legend of Zelda-esque perspective and visual milieu but puts you in a Shadow of the Colossus predicament. You must take down several titans, each one unique and powerful and unapologetically bigger than you, with little to no understand of why. At least, in the beginning.

Titan Souls

I’m assured by the developers that there is a reason to all this, an explanation behind you going after these defensive-turned-offensive foes and why you only have the one arrow. Until you fire your single, lonely pointed stick at a titan, they don’t do much except just sit there. In fact, they tell me the most common mistake people make is they attack when they’re standing right next to the titan just because they’re so docile at first.

Luckily, you are mostly well equipped to fight these angry behemoths. You move around with the left stick and dodge-roll with the B button, the sustained pressing of which enables you to simply run around. And then you hold R2 to draw your bow and release it to fire. And to get your arrow back, you hold down R2 again as it magnetically/magically rattles and shoots back to your quiver.

You move impressively fast. Or rather, fast enough to dodge most of what the titans can throw at you. In many cases, it’s just enough to stay alive, and others it’s just enough to get ahead and put the bare minimum distance between you two to get a single haphazardly aimed shot off. It’s an incredibly panicked affair, but it is just as exhilarating as it is stressful.

Titan Souls

And these are just titans, I should say. The first open area is actually comprised of three doors, and each one hides a sole boss in a spacious room that quickly becomes claustrophobic. One is a heart, one is an eye, and another is brain. Once you beat all three, you can open the fourth door and finally attack the real titan, which is more traditionally shaped like an anthropomorphic being would be.

The first boss I attempt is the heart, which really is a heart encased in a blob of…something. It bounces around, trying to squash you, but each time you hit a chunk with your arrow, the chunk splits in half. If you’re not careful, you could end up with over a dozen pint-sized blobs while the heart roams free. But this is also where I’m accidentally introduced to the depth of this game.

When dodging around and attempting to retrieve my arrow, I draw it in just as a blob happens to plop down between my killing implement and me. And it hits. And it splits. And I realize that if I play my cards right, I can make every single shot count for two. I succeed at gaming the encounter slightly, but soon fall folly to my hubris as I deftly expose the heart for the killing blow and stupidly expose myself for a swift restart.

Titan Souls

But in that moment, I understand. I understand that this is a significant and substantial game. It’s overflowing with nuanced mechanics. For instance, rolling up stairs actually results in a halted stumble while rolling down stairs gives you a double roll. And in the brain battle where it is encased in ice, fire will attach itself from the environment to your arrow, opening up the possibility of anything affecting your arrow in any other number of ways.

In that way, Titan Souls is an incredibly fascinating game. It forces you to act quickly and decisively to stay alive but plan ahead and think strategically as if you were playing a puzzle game. For instance, the eye boss is actually a cube that moves solely along the four cardinal directions, stomping along its locked lines as it seeks to squash you. You have to not only maneuver around sufficiently to survive but also plan your moves to expose its single eye-bearing side and fire your arrow into it.

It provides an intellectual rhythm to the combat, if there is such a thing. Every move matters, but it only matters insomuch that you figure out how to keep going and keep killing these titans. No particular action feels wasted or unnecessary, even when you miss a shot, because then it just opens up a new path that leads to your potential victory. Even in death is this game satisfying.

Titan Souls

After I pass the reins to the developers to see what it looks like to succeed at the game with a masterful hand, they lead me into the debug area where four more challenging titans await. They sit behind unguarded doors in a largely empty space (it is a debug area, after all). As I enter the first door, I ask the question. “How long do you think I’ll last?”

It seems they’ve added quite a bit since their initial LD28 version. That one only ever had four titans to begin with, let alone some semblance of a story behind the battles. And movement has opened up, allowing more tactical and tactile rolls and shots. But even then, I never quite made it to the end. Some fun three seconds, though. Perhaps the best I found in all of E3. Titan Souls comes out early next year for PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, and the PlayStation Vita.

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Alien: Isolation – Hands-on at E3 2014

Alien: Isolation - Hands-on at E3 2014

“How was it?” He asked eagerly, already knowing the answer this his hilariously nonchalant query. He stood guard over the curtained hands-on demos Sega was showing off at this year’s E3 convention, watching as people went in slowly, cautiously and came out…different. I had just spent the past half hour playing Alien: Isolation and I knew there was only one answer.

Alien: Isolation is intended to be the Alien game we always wanted. While there have been decent games based on the storied sci-fi franchise (see: 2011’s Aliens Infestation and 2010’s Aliens vs. Predator), many have gone the way of last year’s Aliens: Colonial Marines, which is to say terribly. Granted, Colonial Marines is deliberately more Aliens than Alien and thus more action-oriented, but it’s still pretty awful.

Isolation is, as its name suggests, about being alone against both the Xenomorph and other unsavory threats. In it, you play as Amanda Ripley, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, searching for her mother in the time between the films Alien and Aliens. The alien cannot be killed, forcing you to hide as it begins to learn how to more effectively hunt for you.

However, in this demo, instead of playing any of the game that we were treated to in a hands-off theatre demo just prior, I am dropped into what appears to be a challenge mode. Or at least that’s what it most likely is. In the upper left corner is a clock tracking the time it takes you to complete your objective, and it starts off by listing off three optional goals to take 20 or so seconds off of your final time. This includes collecting ID tags and locking down a stairwell and not using your motion tracker.

That last one seems absolutely ludicrous. Taken directly from the films, the motion tracker is a little handheld device that plots moving objects near you which you can pull up by holding down R1, forcing your focus to slim down to the tracker itself, reducing everything else to a fuzzy shroud of danger and darkness. It’s a neat little addition to the mechanic that really highlights how empowered the Xenomorph is and how little knowledge can do to stop the inevitable.

Let’s talk about the inevitable. The challenge starts off in a single room, completely devoid of anything save for a few supplies and a flamethrower. I end up seeing this room a lot. Like, a lot. Towards the end, as sweat simultaneously fuses my hands to the controller and slips the sticks from my thumbs, I skip picking up even a single item. It’s a fruitless exercise.

Alien: Isolation

Your goal, as far as I could tell without completing the challenge, is to make your way from one area to another, start a generator, and then escape as alarms sound and lights flash all around you. It is a wholly terrifying experience. On cue, every time, the alien crosses your vision as you first exit the safety of the starting room. Immediately, I always crouch behind a crate and wait for it to meander away, intently watching the dot on the motion tracker flicker this way and that way as I unintentionally hold my breath.

The way the first area was laid out was such that it formed something like a squared-off tennis racquet with two small air vents connecting small alcoves around either lower corner and the interior expanse taking the form of a room filled with towering server-like structures. My go-to move here was to dash to one of these air vents (which eerily and automatically open aperture-style when anything moves near it, including the Xenomorph), wait for it to settle into an area, and dash along either side to the middle room.

This worked about 80% of the time with the other 20% resulting in the alien catching sight of me, letting loose a bloodcurdling scream, and smashing and clamoring its hardened claws against the clattering and tinny metal ship interior as it sprints straight for me. It is no less scary the twentieth time than the first. It’s pretty great.

Alien: Isolation

In the room, there’s a chance for you to dash to the next area, but the safer bet is to hide in one of the nearby lockers, offering you one last moment of solace before embarking on the next half of the challenge. Oh, did I say solace? I meant regret. When the alien comes by and you see it snarling—dripping its gloopy drool from its shimmering fangs—through the vents, you can pull back on the stick to move further away, implementing an in-game representation of a natural reaction, one akin to leaning in a shooter to dodge an incoming headshot.

More than that, you can also press a button to hold your breath, something we see in the hands-off demo just before, with your vision blurring and your heart thumping with a vengeance as you keep holding. Unfortunately, there is no tutorial prompt telling you how to do this in the challenge, so I just pull so hard back on the stick that I fear I’ll snap it right off, holding my own breath instead of this unfortunate Ripley’s.

Luckily, the one time the alien chooses to hover around, incessantly crossing back and forth before me, he doesn’t quite smell the probably fragrant human fear emanating from my and Amanda’s body. But crossing into the next area does little to reduce my constant paranoia. There is just about no time to which I am not crouching and not seeking a table or locker or something to hide behind or beneath. It’s a largely open corridor with slightly segmented rooms making up its length, the one furthest away housing the generator (obviously).

Alien: Isolation

Needless to say, I never quite make it to the end. I manage to turn on the generator quite a few times, but then the whole place seems to go into Freak The Fuck Out mode, where every alarm and every light ever made in the history of the universe goes off and draws the alien into what I can only assume is an increasingly soured mood. First he spots me under a table. Then he catches me trying to make a run for it. And then he somehow sneaks up behind me. And then and then and then…

I set the controller down, truly impressed with what I’ve played of Alien: Isolation, which comes out later this year on October 7. The overbearing threat, though singular in its number, is entirely unsettling. You can thrive on the only tools you are given and nothing more, though the supplies will probably come in handy in other encounters. The sound design is crucial, shaking every part of you when you hear that shrill cry and the floor-crunching stomps coming your way.

As I step out from the darkened area, I manage to reply to the sadistic fellow.

“Brutal.”

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