Samurai Gunn Review

Do you know who fights with honor? Dead people. Life is fragile in Samurai Gunn, too fragile to worry whether your unsavory tactics might blemish your stellar reputation. An honorable person wouldn’t lie among the fallen fighters, ready to surprise enemies with a flourish of sword slashes and gunshots, nor would someone who has dignity position himself near respawn points, eager to vanquish foes with little chance for retaliation. If feigning death keeps you alive one more minute, then be as still as possible, and let your defeated friends bicker about the right way to compete. You may have played dirty, but don’t be ashamed; you alone are left to enjoy the spoils of victory.

Samurai Gunn is a two-dimensional brawler with a dark heart. Four local friends take part in frantic fights to prove their quickness with a sword, deftness with a gun, and their shrewdness in the heat of combat. One screen reins everyone into a diminutive arena, and as you leap up walls and dash through bamboo paths, you’re never far from bursting into a bloody mess. Because just one strike ends your life, you learn to accept your failings. Your friend may have slain you with one perfectly timed shot as he plummeted toward the bottom of the screen, but next time, you may reflect that bullet right back at him, or rush toward him before he can pepper you from afar.

Tactics are thrust to the forefront once you master the basic controls. With three other players dancing around you, death comes quickly to the unprepared, so a little bit of thought goes a long way toward ringing up the kills. If trickery is your desire, just kneel down near dead bodies or deep in spike-laden pits, hoping to blend in to the environment to surprise a distracted foe. Or maybe long-range attacks are your specialty. Slide up and down walls, and use platforms to your advantage, as you keep your distance while bringing pain. Of course, such a strategy won’t last long, given that you have only three shots per life, and if you should fall into a pond, your ancient gun sprays only water. Samurai Gunn swallows anyone who lacks versatility. Rely on any one plan for too long, and your friends will catch on, and your run at the top will end.

Victory is achieved in one of two ways, depending on which option you choose–by killing the most or being the last to use up your stock of lives. With the former goal, offense is emphasized. You must continually stalk your friends or else you’re left with nary a point to your name. Samurai Gunn is fast and deadly in this mode. Blood splatters as each character dies, respawns, and then dies again, and any setback must be brushed aside as you rush once more into the fray. The kinetic excitement leads to moments of pure joy–such as when the person in last place goes on a killing spree to wrest away victory–and the ending of a match only makes you eager to jump into another round on a different map. Maybe you want to test your mettle on the icy mountains, where icicles can impale you from above, or crawl upon the sticky ceiling of the graveyard to laugh in the face of gravity.

The moving platforms can be just as deadly as the hunter below.

Stock matches have an entirely different feel. Here, death matters, so rushing pell-mell into fights means you’re going to end up sad and bruised. So you play with patience. Watch as two players square off, and then fire a shot into the back of your distracted friend. Or wait until that moment after one friend kills another, that second of celebration that invariably comes after a successful fight, and then show why you’re the only real samurai of the bunch. Matches where living takes precedence over killing are so deliberate, so full of cunning, that your stress is on the same level as your excitement. The energy builds in your chest, ready to be released in a storm of slashes and blasts, but you must hold back. Taunt your friend, get him to rush at you or stupidly turn his back, and then release the wrath that has been building inside of you. When the match comes to a close, and the scores are tallied up, there may be just one point separating the victor from the losers. In such a situation, there’s a showdown. One flat stage, one life, winner takes all. And you thought stock matches were stressful.

Are you by your lonesome? There are single-player matches as well that mirror the rhythmic conquests of multiplayer duels. You compete on the same maps with the same attacks as before, and if you forget that you’re going against AI foes, you could be tricked into thinking that you’re facing off against friends. But it’s not the same. That triumphant yell when you best a person next to you, whom you’ve joked with and plotted against, can’t exist when you’re sitting by yourself, matching wits with a computer. It’s a shame that Samurai Gunn lacks its maniacal edge when played without friends, because there’s no online option to take on faraway people. Thankfully, you can take on AI enemies if you don’t have three friends nearby, and trying to kill the computer samurais but not each other adds a whole new layer of strategy. And if you must slay alone, you can practice your techniques, and the volatile back and forth is so enticing that you still get lost in the bloody rhythm, but the matches can’t live up to the multiplayer escapades.

Samurai Gunn revels in its own simplicity. The selectable characters are identical save for their outward appearance, and there are only a handful of moves in your repertoire. There are no unlockable skills, no stages to earn, or any other distractions. And all of that is to this game’s benefit. The battles are all that matter, letting you focus entirely on the exciting conquests. When you play with a trio of like-minded friends, everything comes together in such an enticing way that you scream and laugh and taunt and growl until you have to pull away to do other life duties. Samurai Gunn makes excellent use of its simple nature to keep you invested in the bloody life born warrior.

Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse Review

A murdered art gallery owner, a helmeted assassin, and a missing painting. It’s just another beautiful day in Paris, and for George Stobbart and Nico Collard, a brand-new case to be solved. After a seven-year hiatus and a successful Kickstarter campaign, the best-selling Broken Sword series has reemerged. Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse ushers the return of the franchise’s protagonists, along with a host of favorites.

It has been quite a while since George and Nico have joined up to solve a case, and in that stretch of time, the two seem to have pursued their own ventures: George has become an agent for an insurance company, and Nico is continuing her career as a globetrotting journalist. But a tragedy strikes, leaving a man murdered for a painting that was worth considerably less than others in the gallery. Since it was George’s company that insured the showcase, he feels obligated to uncover the reason behind the theft and find out what makes this painting important enough to kill for. The crime-solving duo are soon reunited and thrust into a murderous conspiracy, armed only with George’s astute problem-solving skills and Nico’s feminine charm and sharp wit.

You mainly play as George, but you switch between him and Nico while investigating.

The story weaves a smart, fascinating, and often humorous tale. George and Nico’s latest adventure is fraught with murder, sabotage, and a seedy love affair, with just enough room for an ex-Russian mobster and an assassin or two to be thrown into the mix. You switch between the two characters as they follow a trail that has them trekking through France and London chasing down leads. As you progress, the plot begins to revolve around an age-old conflict between Gnostic and Dominican Christians, and at its epicenter is the painting: La Malediccio. The painting hides more secrets than what can be seen on the surface, and may be the key to an impending epidemic that threatens all life.

Broken Sword 5 follows the series’ roots as a point-and-click adventure; you use the mouse cursor to control movement as well as to manipulate objects in an area, speak with people, or use items in your inventory to solve a puzzle. Like in many games in the genre, you pick up items and bits of evidence and store them. You use evidence to drag the truth out of people or suspects, while other items, even the most miniscule, such as a paper clip, 1970s cologne, or nail clippers, can be used or combined to solve puzzles down the line.

The two sleuths hop back and forth between Paris and London.

The order in which you procure these items is up to you. At times, you may only have a few clues, leaving you to scour the environment for more evidence necessary to drag information out of your target. Typically, all the evidence required to move the plot along is in your vicinity, if not already on hand. Any and all items in your inventory can be used in a conversation, sometimes to humorous results.

The puzzles in Broken Sword 5 are not too strenuous. Most of the time you already have everything in your inventory needed to complete a puzzle; otherwise, a quick hunt around the area yields what you need. The game plays a musical note when you’re making progress in a puzzle or in your interrogation, cluing you in on when you’re on the right path. The plot doesn’t advance until you find every item or piece of evidence in the area, press the right series of switches, or receive an answer to all questions available. But if you do find yourself stumped, there’s an optional hint system. The first hint or two gently nudge you in the right direction. If you still come up empty, the final hint presents the puzzle’s full solution.

The various settings are designed with colorful, hand-painted graphics, and the cel-shaded characters blend effortlessly into the gorgeous scenic backdrops. Though Broken Sword 5 is aesthetically pleasing, it’s hard not to notice the stiff and somewhat primitive animations, which are distracting compared to the game’s overall beauty. Broken Sword 5’s rich and vibrant world is complemented by characters who are interesting, entertaining, and often hilarious. The subtle nuances of their personalities shine through every conversation, and a great vocal cast makes each character believable and memorable.

George and Nico’s latest adventure is fraught with murder, sabotage, and a seedy love affair.

Some of the standout characters include the returning Sergeant Moue, who plays lapdog to the bumbling Inspector Navet. There is also a stereotypically snooty Frenchman who stands guard at an empty cafe while quoting philosophical advice. Also starring are a lecherous art critic and a young man who needs presentation advice for his mobile shop of trinkets and collectibles. The many varied and unique characters reinforce the depth of the game’s narrative, and the two protagonists demonstrate a particular chemistry that makes their longtime history feel convincing.

You are provided with an in-game map, but Broken Sword 5 keeps aimless wandering down to a minimum. There was never a moment when I stared at the map screen not knowing my next destination. Even when you choose the wrong direction, the game comes up with a reason for you to turn back and try the opposite route. Some adventure game fans may be turned off by the linear focus, but I felt the design allowed the narrative to move with a strong pace and clear direction.

George Stobbart is back with a new mystery to solve

Just how deep the rabbit hole goes is the one mystery Broken Sword 5 doesn’t shed light on. After about six hours, the game abruptly ends just as things start heating up for our stalwart heroes, leaving more lingering questions and theories than hard answers. The game is the first episode of a two-part adventure, meaning we won’t get to the bottom of the conspiracy until sometime early next year.

Smart, occasionally funny, and immediately charming, Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse is easy to recommend based on its strong narrative, memorable characters, and artistic merit. The game is a vibrant return to form for the series, and should easily please the series’ and point-and-click adventure game fans alike. The answers to the most pivotal questions remain on the horizon, but it’s still good to see George and Nico back in action–they have been missed.

Ys: Memories of Celceta Review

Ys (pronounced “ease,” no apostrophe!) is a legendary, highly influential Japanese action role-playing game franchise with a long, strange history of development and releases, both overseas and abroad. One of the strangest things about the series is that its original developer, Falcom, didn’t make an Ys IV, instead giving the story concepts to different developers and letting them run with them individually. As a result, there are multiple Ys IVs, but none have been considered a true part of the series. Until now, that is: Falcom decided to make an “official” Ys IV as its debut Vita game, calling it Memories of Celceta. The result is one of the best action RPGs yet released on the platform.

Celceta puts us back in the shoes of the fiery-haired Ys series hero, Adol. Adol has just wrapped up what seems to be another adventure, but he’s got a serious problem: he doesn’t remember any of it. In fact, he doesn’t remember anything about his life. Fortunately, he runs into an old acquaintance, an “information dealer” named Duren, as he’s recovering at a tavern. With Duren’s help, he remembers that he is a traveling adventurer who had set out into the great forest of Celceta–uncharted territory that is fabled to consume the memories of those who enter. The pair is offered compensation from the local government if they can create a map of Celceta, but will Adol be able to conquer its dangers again and recover his lost memories in the process?

Cleverly designed bosses challenge you with unusual patterns and devastating attacks.

Memories of Celceta is filled with strange and intriguing locales

The first thing you’ll most likely notice about Ys: Memories of Celceta is that it looks dated. The low-resolution character models and textures look more akin to a PSP game than a high-resolution PS Vita game, and the frame rate has an odd tendency to drop at certain points where you wouldn’t think the game would be taxing the hardware. Celceta isn’t ugly by any stretch–it’s refreshingly colorful, has some beautiful settings and architecture, and features very cool character and enemy designs–but it could have looked significantly better. Fortunately, you get over the disappointment of the graphics pretty quickly.

Memories of Celceta is an action RPG through and through, and does little to stray from the established formula of that genre. You travel to a town; exit to explore the unfamiliar territory of Celceta; encounter a maze, cave, or dungeon; solve some puzzles; reach another settlement; get plot details and/or a new party recruit; and continue forth. The idea of being asked to map out all of Celceta works well in context, since exploring the various non-town areas is one of the most fun parts of Memories of Celceta. The forest is vast, filled with treasures, artifacts, hidden areas, and natural resources, and the process of finding everything, using newfound abilities to connect areas, and seeing your map gradually expand is immensely satisfying. Ys, as a series, has always used “the spirit of exploration” as a motivation for hero Adol, and it’s nice to see that spirit captured so well. While the “amnesia as plot impetus” trope is almost comically overused in games, Celceta manages to do more with it than you might expect. Every so often, the screen grows fuzzy, indicating that a lost memory for Adol is nearby. When he touches the memory, he sees a brief glimpse of his youth or his previous travels. There are hints and stat boosts scattered throughout his fragmented memories, so seeking them all out is beneficial from a story and a gameplay standpoint.

Hearing a sweeping synth-rock melody punctuate a flurry of sword strikes, mace combos, and stalagmites exploding into a shower of loot is a delightful event that you’ll experience countless times.

She’s stunned by the lack of detail in her character model.

But the wilderness is also teeming with creatures, all of which view Adol and company as a threat. Almost every area has a pack of vicious beasts to beat down. Thankfully, combat is one of the best parts of Celceta. Long gone is the antiquated early Ys combat that had you running into enemies and hoping for the best; it has been replaced by more traditional combat that is fantastically fast, skillful, and highly rewarding.

A team of up to three of your party members can be onfield at any time, and they all participate in combat. You control one of these characters while the CPU handles the other two. You’ve got a pretty solid arsenal: basic combo strings you can use to pummel enemies, charged attacks you can store by not pressing attack buttons for a few seconds, and Tales-style special attacks that cost skill points (which you recover by using basic strikes). While there isn’t a magic system, some characters’ special skills make use of attacks like fiery explosions and gravity spheres. Instead of the typical RPG elemental weakness/resistance, enemies have vulnerabilities and resistances to striking, piercing, and slashing physical attacks. Since every character wields only one weapon type, you may find yourself wanting to switch whom you control when you run up against a group of foes with a weak point to exploit or a pattern that makes certain weapons more advantageous.

Foes aren’t just going to sit back and take your punishment, though, and they can perform some pretty nasty attacks that take you down if you play carelessly. Dodging and guarding are as easy as a button press, but performing them with perfect timing yields additional rewards: dodging at the right time slows the enemy down for a precious few seconds, while a well-executed flash guard not only nullifies damage, but guarantees a few critical hits afterward. Finishing off enemies with skills and using their weaknesses against them also results in greater rewards upon their defeat. Combat in Celceta is easy to understand and fun to engage in, and it rewards you for playing well, but it’s not a total cakewalk. Some enemies are made to give and withstand punishment, leaving you to decide whether it’s worth the risk to engage them or not, and the cleverly designed bosses challenge you with unusual patterns and devastating attacks, and you must employ less obvious strategies to take them down.

The forest is vast, filled with treasures, artifacts, hidden areas, and natural resources.

There’s a lot to love about Memories of Celceta: the thrill of exploring, the rush of combat, and the trademark Falcom synth-rockin’ soundtrack. The complaints that can be levied against it are fairly minor: the visuals aren’t so hot, your teammate AI can be questionable at times, and there are a few frustrating spots, such as a sequence where you must dodge instant-kill lightning bolts in a field. But perhaps the biggest complaint could be its relative lack of innovation: when it comes right down to it, there really isn’t much new here. Celceta is a fairly standard action RPG that takes many of the best elements of the genre and assembles them into a single terrfic game. Those elements are assembled quite skillfully, but everything you’ve seen in Memories of Celceta–even nonessential features like weapon enhancement and side quests you accept at town pubs–is something you’ve probably encountered before. If you’ve only heard of Ys as an amazing, genre-defining classic series (which it most certainly was when it first hit the scene), you might find yourself disappointed at how familiar the gameplay and story progression are.

Taken strictly on its own merits, however, Ys: Memories of Celceta is a wonderful adventure. It’s great fun to wander in the forests and dungeons, bashing foes and finding lost treasures to uncover ancient secrets. Hearing a sweeping synth-rock melody punctuate a flurry of sword strikes, mace combos, and stalagmites exploding into a shower of loot is a delightful event that you’ll experience countless times in the journey through the mysterious forest. Memories of Celceta is an adventure well worth embarking on for any Vita owner.

Tiny Brains Review

Given the relative dearth of absorbing cooperative journeys for modern adventurers, Tiny Brains is an appealing consideration, asking as it does for you to lean on your friends in-house or across the country to solve its various conundrums. It’s unfortunate, then, that this is a game you’ll complete on your own in a matter of hours, possibly even quicker when you bring friends along for the ride. Tiny Brains’ colorful assortment of cartoony rodents makes the game momentarily interesting, but Tiny Brains quickly spirals into a repetitive mixture of similar puzzles.

Jump into the bodies acting as vessels for the titular “tiny brains”: Minsc, a blue hamster; Stew, the rabbit; Dax, the bat; and a mouse named Pad. You don’t need to rely on remembering their names so much as their telekinetic powers, which are put to good use as you lead the troupe of creatures away from the evil scientist who wants to continue conducting experiments on them. Minsc can summon forth blocks of ice, Dax can push items, Stew can pull items, and Pad can swap positions with other set pieces. To escape to freedom, they must work together, combining their powers to break out of the nefarious “fortresses” of the scientist’s facility.

You can play alone, swapping between each animal as necessary, or enlist the help of friends to see you through trying quandaries. Fortunately, there are a set of reliable maneuvers to fall back on here and there in order to progress. While this cuts down on the amount of confusion you might feel when playing alone, if you enlist friends for the ride, things undoubtedly become predictable as you continually implement the same strategies over and over. An earmark of a great puzzler is the perpetual exhibition of brand-new challenges, and while fun in bursts, Tiny Brains doesn’t deliver in that regard.

There’s plenty of fun to be had, especially with a group of friends to control the various animals. It just doesn’t last.

For instance, you might need to move a battery to the other side of a passageway or manipulate balls that float along in the air. You might need to use the hamster’s ability to create a block of ice to reach a higher ledge, and then use another rodent to stand on top of it in order to travel to the other side of a prolonged gap. A battery could wait at the other side of the gap, so you might choose to teleport with the mouse to reach it or try an alternative method to complete your objective. Then, at some point in one of that level’s four areas, you might be asked to repeat a similar maneuver in a different order. It’s not always batteries or floating balls–you’re faced with a multitude of roadblocks that the mad scientist has set up to deter the Tiny Brains crew from escaping–but you often know what’s coming and how to best approach it, removing an important element of surprise that enables you to keep chugging along and recharges you to keep you ready for each subsequent puzzle.

There’s still fun to be had, especially with a group of friends to control the various animals. It just doesn’t last. You also face off against an army of chickens that cluck about, conveniently in the way of what you’re doing at the moment, be it moving blocks or pulling items, so you need to smash them. It’s violent, yes, but it’s one of the only ways to take care of them so you can go about your business. They play a larger role in the game later on, but by then, Tiny Brains is content to all but fizzle out, having exhausted its supply of rollicking brain teasers early on before it can properly mix the chickens and other elements into the fold.

The slow, deliberate movements of each character while you’re controlling and swapping between each member of the team can be frustrating, especially with segments that require speedier response times than others. The action also seems to be at odds with a capricious accompanying soundtrack that sounds as though it’s mocking you when you fail to progress during a puzzle. It’s unobtrusive for the most part, but when you’re stumped, a rollicking tune isn’t exactly what you want to hear.

A two-hour story mode isn’t much to come back to over and over, but the game’s life is extended by the Tiny Trolls and Jules modes. Jules mode lets you take control of a new character with one life, and you’re forced to control all four powers at once. Tiny Trolls transforms each level into a tug-of-war battle that’s best enjoyed with friends. This mode is highly entertaining, especially if you’ve got a group of friends to invite for the purposes of wreaking absolute havoc on each other. Tiny Trolls turns into a Worms-esque battle royale from there, which makes for a rowdy good time. Alternatively, you can opt for Tiny Soccer or various challenges, which can tack on an additional few hours of content if you take your time. Overall, this isn’t a purchase with much longevity, which you should consider if you’re looking to add Tiny Brains to your budding PS4 library.

Tiny Brains might look adorable, but its short length and lack of imaginative puzzles will turn your wide grin into a questioning smirk. However, if you’re dying for a weekend’s worth of solo or cooperative puzzle-solving, Tiny Brains is serviceable–though more tiny than brainy.

Vector Review

The desire for freedom is common in stories in which control and oppression are law. In Vector, you play as a man in an Orwellian dystopia, no longer able to bend to the will of his masters. He casts aside his mind-control device, and apparently his shirt, and leaps from his skyscraper prison, sprinting across rooftops toward the distant horizon.

Vector is a celebration of artistic freestyle running, where you are awarded for pulling off parkour tricks such as barrel-rolling over edges or spinning through the air over office desks. This free-running platformer relies on expert timing to vault over–or slide under–obstacles, leap into the air, and wall jump, all the while being chased by a hunter displaying similar athletic prowess. The characters are stark black silhouettes that stand out cleanly against the gorgeously rendered urban backgrounds.

Escape your corporate masters and embrace freedom.

Vector’s protagonist and his pursuer are beautifully animated and demonstrate realistic grace as they nimbly vault over objects. The goal of the game is to navigate each stage to a safe zone, before your pursuer catches up. The game is brimming with exciting moments. Your pursuer creates an inherent and constant sense of danger as you move through a stage. Leaping off high-rises into the air as doves dart out of your way like in a scene from a John Woo film, all to the rhythm of a pulse-pounding soundtrack, is an adrenaline-charged thrill.

Earn rewards by performing tricks.

Hitting an action key at the wrong time yields dire consequences. Mistiming can cause a momentary disruption in pace, forcing you to stumble and slow down as you struggle to regain footing, allowing your burly pursuer the opportunity to close the gap. As the hunter draws near, the camera zooms in, and deadly electricity arcs from his gauntlets, vigorously increasing the tension. In these moments, the game demands all of your focus, because one false move means the end of your shirtless dash to freedom. You get a rush of relief and satisfaction upon reaching the goal when death is so near, and seeing the exasperation on the hunter’s face as the door that seals your safety slams down makes your victory all the sweeter.

Your performance in a stage is rewarded in stars. Surviving until the end earns you one star, but to gather all three, you must perform every trick in the stage as well as collect all the floating bonus cubes scattered across the level. Stars and the occasional coin grant in-game currency you can exchange for tricks, which can be purchased just before the level starts. Also available for purchase in the in-game store is the force blaster, which temporarily stops the hunter, giving you some much-needed breathing room. But even with the weapon, it’s still all on you to maneuver through the stage with expert precision in order to nab that three-star rating. One major slipup, and it’s back to the start minus one potentially life-saving item. You can also buy clothing items such as a hat or a scarf, if you’re into accessorizing. Later stages branch out into multiple paths. While all given paths eventually lead you to safety, only one includes every trick and bonus. Practice and exploration are highly encouraged, and it may take multiple replays to discover and master the best route.

Don’t slow down: the hunter is tenacious in his chase.

The game is short, and can be completed in around three hours. However, there are plenty of reasons to jump back into Vector. Levels generally take only minutes to finish, making quick visits to nab stars during breaks appealing. Collecting stars unlocks difficult bonus missions that test your parkour skills to the limit. To progress through the stages, you need to collect stars to unlock two of the game’s main sections. The number of stars necessary to unlock these areas is high, meaning you need to purchase many tricks and master multiple stages just to proceed. In time, earning the necessary stars to increase currency and purchase moves becomes a slow grind. Mistakes get frustrating, and the game soon has you pounding away at the restart key, sometimes even moments after starting a stage. But when everything goes right, Vector is a fast-paced joyride that earns your attention.

Darkout Review

The world of Darkout is not inviting. Everything is bathed in darkness, monsters roam freely, and your initial resources are scarce. Worse, though, is the initial hump you must get over just to come to grips with confusing menus, a bad tutorial, and crafting systems that aren’t explained–and all for a 2D sandbox game that feels overfamiliar.

It’s hard not to compare Darkout to Terraria when the influences are so obvious. So many of the elements, especially early on, are the same click for click. After crash-landing on a procedurally generated world, you are instructed to chop some wood and use that wood to build a shelter (complete with blocks, background walls, and a door). Then you are told to craft a bed (where you respawn if you die) and are invited to take your axe, shovel, and pickaxe to explore the world and all the resources it has to offer. Stop me if this sounds familiar, and I won’t have to go into detail about the islands floating in the sky or the fact that torches can be your best friends in caves.

The builder difficulty setting lets you build anything without worrying about resources, so your base can look really advanced really fast.

It’s tempting to simply write, “Here are the ways Darkout and Terraria are the same. Here are the ways in which they’re different.” This is because Darkout doesn’t do quite enough to differentiate itself, making it harder to discuss Darkout as its own entity. But at least it tries. Darkout is, as you might guess, a much darker game in both tone and aesthetic.

Of course, this is far from the first game to clone the success that was Terraria (which you could say was itself a 2D clone of Minecraft), but it doesn’t help that Darkout makes a bad first impression. For the first hour at least, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Darkout’s best elements were borrowed and that the game they were borrowed from did everything better. With a few wrong clicks, you can accidentally toss or squander resources that are imperative for your early survival, especially if you happen to miss the small window of tutorial text that awkwardly (and poorly) teaches you the basics. As the game teaches you how to craft items, you have to deal with inconvenient and hard-to-use menu sliders, making it difficult to choose the exact number of items you want. There isn’t even any music to properly set the mood.

The excitement of “What will I discover next?” is diminished when you know the answer is something like “More dark, rocky environments.”

Early on, you do a lot of exploring in the dark.

Fortunately, there are some elements of Darkout that immediately feel well-thought-out and well-executed, chief among them being a single item on your hotbar that automatically uses the appropriate tools when you’re exploring. With this selected, you never have to manually switch to your axe to chop a tree and then to your shovel to dig at the spot where it was. Tools are automatically used based on where your cursor is, which is a terrific time-saver.

Unlike many 2D sandbox games that leave you to your own devices (Terraria included), Darkout tries to add a sense of purpose to this formula with the introduction of a story. While exploring, you might find data logs hinting at the world’s disastrous past or warning you of danger that lurks in the dark. You might also get a few hints about what to do next, starting with deploying a distress beacon. Sadly, this story is easy to ignore, even on accident. Close a text box before looking at it closely enough, and you might spend a dozen hours not realizing there is a story at all, much less anything resembling a goal or quest. So what could have been one of Darkout’s bigger differentiators instead becomes something that doesn’t matter at all. It’s executed too poorly to make you care.

Exploring becomes much easier when your suit has lights.

So you spend hours upon hours exploring, mostly mining the same materials and fighting the same enemies wherever you go. Even on a “small” world, different environments are far apart with few things of interest in between, and many look too similar to each other. The excitement of “What will I discover next?” is diminished when you know the answer is something like “More dark, rocky environments.” And don’t bother diving deep into the large oceans you may find, because there is nothing in them. The developers say they’re planning more environments for a future update, but right now there is too little variety.

The one area where Darkout tries to innovate most is research. Beyond simply crafting materials, you can spend resources and points (earned by exploring, collecting, and crafting) on new items and technologies via a research tab. Researching new light sources is especially important, because enemies are more vulnerable to your attacks when exposed to light. Of course, advanced lights demand power, so you soon find yourself researching wires and sockets so you can power up your buildings in true high-tech fashion. Like the rest of the game, wiring can be needlessly confusing at first, but it can also be incredibly satisfying when everything comes together in a base that feels futuristic. Crafting becomes more interesting when you create objects like elevators and jetpacks.

The thing is, for as many flaws as it has and as mundane as many parts of it can be, I found myself hating the game less at hour 12 than I did at hour two. Once I had mastered the controls and gotten a grasp of the crafting and research systems, I started getting excited about what I might be able to build next. New suits were particularly enticing goals to work toward, because their ability to give off their own light made exploring below the surface much more efficient and enjoyable. I started to take more pride in my base, which was slowly being converted from a wooden shack to a sci-fi lab of copper walls and titanium doors. The more I invested, the more Darkout offered, and after 20 hours, I still haven’t built every item and read every data log. The content is there; it’s just awkwardly spaced.

Enemies are more vulnerable in the light, but their “run straight at you” approach doesn’t make them very difficult even in the dark.

But for as many hours as you can spend with (and enjoy) Darkout, too many elements are incomplete. There are even items with flavor text that simply reads “Coming soon!” It’s great to know more content is coming, but it’s needed now.

Lots of little annoyances add up to make Darkout less than than the sum of its influences, though they’re not enough to ruin the entire experience. Once you’re over the initial hump, there are things to like about the game, and it’s clear the developers are digging toward something more ambitious than is initially available. Hopefully more light can shine on the good parts in the future, because right now too much of the experience is just too dim.

Doki-Doki Universe Review

At various points throughout Doki-Doki Universe, you might find yourself flying through space on a wedge of Swiss cheese, blowing kisses at a hulking sumo wrestler, or resolving a dispute between a toilet and a magical tree. But beneath that absurdist veneer lies a story of surprising warmth and emotional resonance. This is a simple game that tackles heavy themes, using its whimsical humor to extol the virtues of empathy in an earnest and entertaining way.

That goofy charm is immediately apparent in the game’s vibrant art style. Doki-Doki Universe is a middle school textbook sprung to life, all doodles of stick figures and dragons and anthropomorphized carrots. It’s a playful 2D aesthetic where adorable animals and winged beasts made of poo exist side by side, disarming you with its whimsy before revealing its broader narrative ambitions.

That story revolves around QT3, an oblivious little robot with problems connecting to those around him. As if being socially awkward weren’t bad enough, QT3 is facing the prospect of being discontinued by the company that created him. That is, unless he can learn enough about humanity–the game’s shorthand for understanding others–to prove his worth as a household companion.

Thus begins your journey through the bizarre world of Doki-Doki Universe. You’re free to travel between any of the game’s 20+ planets, getting to know the oddball residents that populate these worlds as you help them out with favors large and small. The medieval fantasy planet of Gunite is home to a princess who longs for a spaceship to leave her pampered life behind, for instance, while the undersea world of Aquariumland houses a giant sea monster who’s ostracized purely because of his looks (his name is Matthew and he secretly loves to dance). Other worlds are full of equally bizarre characters: talking sushi rolls who are terrified of being eaten, a penguin couple looking to put the spark back in their relationship, and a bunny suffering from crippling self-esteem issues. There’s a huge breadth of personalities for you to interact with, each encounter brought to life by sharp dialogue and a strong undercurrent of eccentric humor.

The denizens of Doki-Doki Universe suffer from interesting problems.

Indeed, simply talking to people is a big part of Doki-Doki Universe. There’s a real focus on breaking down barriers, using conversation to reveal the human qualities behind those screwball caricatures. You might greet these strangers with their favorite gesture (some people like a nice wave, while others are fond of blowing kisses) before chatting with them to find out what their likes and dislikes are. Some are forthcoming with that information, while others play it so close to the vest that you’ll need to find out about them through the proverbial grapevine.

That knowledge is important, because in order to really win people over you need to ply them with gifts. The game’s inventory system adds a light puzzle element by giving QT3 the ability to summon various objects out of thin air. This system is generally flexible, letting you choose from a broad selection of objects for a given task. Does King Pink on the planet of Gunite want food for a party he’s throwing in his own honor? No need for a massive spread; he’ll think a bottle of ketchup is the most exotic thing in the world. You know that kangaroo in need of a shelter for his pet humans? Sure you could give him a regal castle, but a burning building surrounded by firefighters will do the trick just as well. There’s a lot of room to goof around when it comes to gift-giving, and seeing everyone’s wide-eyed responses is almost always a delight. It can be tedious when the game calls for something specific and you have to go hunting through the clunky inventory system, but fortunately, those issues are quite rare.

There’s a huge breadth of personalities for you to interact with, each encounter brought to life by sharp dialogue and a strong undercurrent of eccentric humor.

It’s a clever, self-propagating system: the more you get to know characters, the more they’ll open up to you and reward you with gifts, thereby expanding your options for winning over other characters on different planets throughout the universe. On top of that, you can always return to your home planet and use those objects to decorate the place however you wish. Viking ships and mariachi bands? Sure. Killer robots and adorable penguins? You’re the designer here.

Merely pressing the X button to begin a conversation is about as much of a challenge as you’ll find in all of this, which can make Doki-Doki Universe drag on as you sink more and more time into it. But there’s a touching quality to those interactions that makes you want to continue exploring each strange new planet. Beneath those quirky exteriors are universal themes like bullying, lost loves, and the dangers of marginalization. You enter worlds in turmoil and leave behind smiling, appreciative faces using little more than communication and generosity. You get the sense that QT3 is learning about humanity because, in some small way, so are you.

Doki-Doki Universe is nothing if not enthusiastic.

That’s good, because Doki-Doki Universe doesn’t offer much overarching sense of progression outside of new unlockables like costumes and flying mounts. Its freeform structure means you’re free to travel wherever you like and chat with anyone you take a fancy to, but it’s hard to feel like you’re working toward any tangible end state.

A better sense of progression can be found in the game’s abundance of quiz asteroids. These are ostensibly designed to gauge QT3’s progress in learning about humanity, but in practice they’re there more for you to have a laugh at yourself over the course of a few dozen humorous quizzes. A typical example presents a ludicrous image of a bulldozer fighting a giant wine glass, asking you whose side you’d take in the fight. Choose the wine glass and the game explains how you’ve chosen idealism over security, selecting the clear underdog because you’re the type to “fight for what you believe in even if it means you will probably lose.” Do enough of these quizzes and you can return to your home planet to get a broader evaluation of your personality, which more often than not tends to be an eerily accurate encapsulation of your chosen play style.

And yet, even as a bearded stick figure named Doctor Therapist describes your inner-psyche in thorough detail, Doki-Doki Universe never feels heavy-handed. It guides you along with a light touch, wrapping its warmhearted message in layer after layer of absurdity and humor. This is a strange and wonderful game, one that’s equally comfortable exploring the nuances of human interaction as it is sending you through space on a flying piece of poo. Such experiences are rare in games. Then again, there’s nothing commonplace about Doki-Doki Universe.

Two Brothers Review

Two Brothers is one of the oddest games I’ve played in a while. As a game touting fairly accurate Game Boy-era monochromatic visuals, it exists as a curious pastiche of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and countless other classics. It takes for granted that you’re familiar with their aesthetics and constantly plays off of those expectations to create an unnerving second look at life, death, and the magic of that which we can’t fully explain.

Roy Guarder and his brother, Braville, are the eponymous protagonists. In the first few moments, Roy and his wife die on an expedition in the Cursed Lands. Roy crosses into the afterlife, where he experiences color for the very first time before being told that it’s not his time to die yet. He’s dropped back into the mortal world with a sort of tempered fatalism, and a new life goal: to discover the source and the nature of color. It’s a jarring sequence specifically because Two Brothers plays itself off as just an average-looking Game Boy game in all of its sepia-tone glory.

Well, this is certainly unusual.

Much like with the Game Boy, you have only four buttons and some movement controls to do everything. Besides select, which opens up your item bag, you have one projectile attack and one melee attack. The game also auto-saves at every screen transition, so start only pauses; it doesn’t bring up any sort of menu. It’s all very straightforward. That said, many puzzles push those limited mechanics as far as they can possibly go. For example, while picking things up and carrying them isn’t possible until you get an item bag, you can push people to different places to trigger new events. And shooting arrows can trigger switches and in some cases cause you to switch places with a block, allowing you to cross gaps or reach new areas.

This is a game that ruthlessly jerks back and forth between helping you empathize with and embody Roy and utterly confusing you as to just how this world, or any gameworld, really works.

Unfortunately, that cleverness doesn’t always work out. The combat isn’t on par with the puzzles. Some ways into the game you’re introduced to combos and power attacks, neither of which amounts to anything substantial. Occasionally, bombs and other objects enter the mix, allowing you to set up some devastating ambush attacks, but the AI is too terrible to do anything more than wander around aimlessly. Enemies don’t rigorously pursue you, and I recall an entire boss fight that I won simply by using the power attack over and over again and waiting for the boss to impale itself on my blade. The best battles add bits of puzzle here and there, but this tendency often goes too far the other way. Some puzzle bosses are unforgiving in terms of where you need to be and when. Combat can come across as a bit of a mess at times, and it goes a decent way to reminding us all why turn-based combat was so common in the early days. It allowed for a lot of options and strategy that rudimentary controls couldn’t bring to real-time play.

Besides the haphazard attempt at combat, mechanically Two Brothers doesn’t do much to shake up the conventions of 8-bit game design. Instead, its real innovation is in its writing, world, and story. This is a game that requires some fluency with older games. Throughout, Two Brothers relies heavily on your understanding of tropes and cliches of the late ’80s and early ’90s. For example, in the Zelda series, cutting down enemies or grass with your sword often caused hearts to pop out. These could be picked up to restore a small amount of health. Two Brothers does the same thing, but instead of being heart-shaped video game power-ups, hearts here are actual, physical hearts–blood and all–that you eat to gain power. The game is brutally self-aware, and while complete fourth-wall breaks aren’t common, it tends toward this strange approach to pseudo-realism that attempts to play all of its bizarre quirks completely straight.

There’s a mistake here. Take all the time you need.

The total package is often unnerving. One moment has Roy crossing paths with a stranger that refuses to identify himself. Several times, the unknown man causes the screen to glitch and reset. Roy’s memory was never fully wiped, however, and his growing confusion and anger closely matched my own. Later, an ancient, sacred beast trusts Roy simply because his name is Guarder, which sounds a little like “guardian.” This is a game that ruthlessly jerks back and forth between helping you empathize with and embody Roy and utterly confusing you as to just how this world, or any gameworld, really works. As uncomfortable as it all sounds, it really works.

Two Brothers never gets so bogged down in its witticisms that it becomes a game about games, but it does trigger a lot of questions about the nature of death and how we value life. There is a message here, and while the world itself is jittery and frenetic, the theme doesn’t get lost in all the weirdness.

Where this weirdness does sometimes break down, though, is in the game’s actual glitches and bugs. Because Two Brothers tries too hard to be subversive and odd, it’s not always clear when the game is broken or when you’re just not understanding what’s happening. For instance, the second time I started up the game, I began to float above the world unable to interact with or do anything. It was weird, but it was very similar to the scene where Roy first ascends to the afterlife. I couldn’t tell what was going on, and I ended up spending about an hour trying to look for clues before frustration set in and I gave up. The next time I started up the game, everything worked as normal. I didn’t notice any severe bugs beyond that one, though I sometimes found myself moving through walls to other areas, but I couldn’t control it or find any pattern to it.

If this shot doesn’t remind you of a certain professor, you clearly didn’t play enough Pokemon.

Even without the bugs, Two Brothers could definitely use another round of editing. There are a number of typos and graphical oddities that can take you out of the moment from time to time. It’s possible that they could all be part of the pastiche aesthetic, referring to poorly translated games of yesteryear, but that’s never made clear, and given my experience with bugs, I was more ready to attribute them to carelessness than purpose.

When Two Brothers works, when it lines up whole scenes that bounce between funny, disturbing, and touching, it shows just how powerful the ideas it’s working with are. The human experience is one that’s dominated by our fear of death, our pursuit of love, and the belief that the world, more or less, makes sense. But what if death was really the secret to life? What if we didn’t love what we thought we did? What if the world only makes sense because we’re delusional? These are fun questions, and they are deep ones that we’ll all probably wrestle with at one point or another, and mediocre combat and bugs aside, they’re subjects that Ackk Studios manages to treat with a surprising amount of respect, bringing with them a clever twist on the tropes we expect to see.

Gran Turismo 6 Review

Gran Turismo 6 can be a wonderful thing. It’s hard not to admire its intuitive handling, the obsessive attention to detail, and its steadfast dedication to simulation, even though some of the fun is sucked out in the process. It’s an impressive piece of work in some respects, but for a series with such a legacy behind it, you can’t help but feel it’s forever doomed to a life of quiet predictability to keep the diehards happy. GT6 is all about small, incremental changes over grand reinventions. While it is–in my mind at least–the best true racing simulation available on consoles, so much of the game feels antiquated and quaint when compared to its rivals. Everything that’s good about Gran Turismo is here, and so too, unfortunately, is the bad.

Things start off well, though. GT6 gets you straight into the action with a Trackday lap–a first for the series–by putting you at the wheel of a Renault Clio RS at the new Brands Hatch circuit. There, you’re taught driving basics, such as how to use a racing line and zip around the track. The pacey Renault isn’t going to smash any lap records, but it’s great fun to drive, and the Trackday certainly gets you geared up for some proper racing. And then, as soon as the tutorial is over, Polyphony Digital falls back into 15 years of horribly bad habits.

Powerful supercars still sound like lawnmowers and hairdryers.

Career mode begins without even giving you a choice of your first car; you’re forced into the tepid Honda Fit for around the first 90 minutes of the game. Progress is slow, with credits being handed out at a paltry rate early on, and you’re rarely rewarded with new vehicles for race wins. The first vehicle you unlock without having to spend any of your hard-earned credits is only a go-kart. Gran Turismo purists will probably be expecting this kind of grind, but newcomers will quickly be alienated by GT6 when other racing games are happy to put you behind the wheel of a kickass sports car within minutes.

Progress through your career is gated by a new star system and by the traditional GT license tests. There are six categories of races, each requiring a certain number of stars to unlock. Once you have enough stars to unlock the next category, you then have to complete a series of license tests. It’s a long, drawn-out process that feels very old-fashioned. If you’ve played a lot of racing games, then the license tests are completely pointless; not everyone needs to learn how to drive from scratch with each new GT game. The fact that the tests are now mandatory again after being optional in GT5 is a total kick in the teeth.

GT6 maintains the series’ famous variety of models and events, and adds to its heritage in meaningful ways.

Thankfully, your progress isn’t further hindered by the user interface as it was in GT5. The menus are a vast improvement over the previous game’s muddled design, borrowing heavily from the tiled layout of Microsoft’s Metro UI. Everything from buying and upgrading cars, to Career mode, online play, and community features is accessed from a single screen. It sounds like a simple upgrade, but compared to GT5, it’s light years ahead.

GT6’s handling is nearly flawless. The updates to the driving model seem subtle at first, but the little tweaks combine to make vast improvements. Cars spring to life, demanding precision and concentration from even the most experienced drivers. The changes to the physics are the claimed result of partnerships with several automotive parts makers, from aftermarket suspension companies to tire manufacturers. The suspension modeling is the most immediately noticeable change. You can feel the body roll and yaw as you change direction, making it natural and instinctive to correct tiny slides as you sense the car’s weight shifting, rather than relying on visual feedback.

Stock road cars are livelier too. In the past, they had very neutral and unresponsive handling, but in GT6, you can sense much more movement through these less-high-end machines, particularly when the nose dives down toward the asphalt under heavy braking. You can anticipate the limit of grip even on standard street tires, giving the best drivers the opportunity to extract more performance than usual from slow cars. That might all sound intimidating, particularly if you’re not a seasoned driver, but there’s a whole suite of assists that keep GT6’s realistic physics accessible to less-skilled players. Traction control and other settings have 10-point sliders that can be adjusted gradually as you improve your driving, starting you off with basic control and easing you into a more realistic experience.

However, while the driving is executed beautifully, there are other areas of the GT6 experience that fare less well. New circuits like Brands Hatch, Bathurst, Goodwood, and Ascari all look superb, but older tracks are sorely in need of a fresh coat of paint. Some of the environment art leaves a lot to be desired too, and is in danger of falling far behind the rest of the racing pack. Many of the grandstands are filled with cardboard-cutout fans, and some locations have some horrible-looking trees and rock textures that look like they haven’t been updated since GT4 on the PlayStation 2. Rain effects are disappointing too, with water falling from the sky in jagged lines, and spray from cars looking like a decal glued to the back of each vehicle.

Night racing, on the other hand, is spectacular, with gorgeous lighting and detailed star-filled skies. There is, however, an unfortunate side effect to the entire simulation: the frame rate. It’s stable most of the time, but it suffers on some of the more detailed courses, and load times are inconsistent too.

Then there are the differences between the cars. The hotly debated issue of premium versus standard cars that was a big problem with GT5 was supposed to have been solved for GT6. In practice, the situation has improved, but it’s far from resolved. For the most part, cars are stunning, both inside and out, but on the track, you can definitely tell which of them are updated versions of GT5’s standard models. These cars have lower-resolution textures and significantly fewer polygons in addition to their featureless black cockpits.

In a weird twist, GT6 no longer separates standard and premium cars on the dealership screens. This can lead to spending your hard-earned credits on a new ride, only to get onto the circuit and find that it looks jagged and blurry next to the other pristine cars. Car audio is still a problem too. This is one of the worst parts of the series’ long legacy and is crying out to be updated. Powerful supercars still sound like lawnmowers and hairdryers. Changes have been promised for future patches, but at the moment, the audio has been lapped by the competition.

The AI needs a big upgrade as well. Despite promised improvements, Gran Turismo 6 feels much the same as past GT games. Opponents adhere to a rigid racing line, behaving more like slot cars than real racers. They show almost no awareness of either you or the other AI drivers, clumsily turning into other cars, stamping on the brakes way too early, and failing to power out of corners. In this regard, GT6 feel hugely dated in comparison to its competition and sucks the fun out of the racing. The driving itself is hugely enjoyable and rewarding, but racing with the AI is more like an elaborate obstacle course than a motorsport event.

If you want some competitive racing, you need to head into the online lobbies. Multiplayer racing can be a minefield at the best of times, and GT6 similarly makes getting into a race an awkward process. For some reason, the day-one patch removed the Quick Match option from the menus, meaning that the only way to race is to scour pages and pages of custom lobbies until you find one that you like. Users can flag events as racing for fun, for realism, or for drifting, but that’s about as helpful as it gets. Icons show you whether a lobby restricts assists or car performance, but there’s nothing to tell you which assists will be locked out, or exactly how car performance is restricted. You’re left with no choice but to connect to a game and hope for the best. This is yet another area where Polyphony Digital promised big changes from GT5 but has failed to deliver.

Despite its many problems, GT6 still has vast appeal for gearheads and car collectors. Polyphony Digital claims that the game has more than 1,200 cars, so there are plenty of new machines to experience and customize. The possibilities for automotive customization have been dramatically expanded in GT6 with huge amounts of visual upgrades available. There are dozens of wings and other aerodynamic enhancements and hundreds of wheel designs, but sadly, no options for custom painting. On the mechanical side, the tuning shop has been significantly streamlined, making it much easier to see the effects of each new part before you spend your credits, although there’s still no way to share setups with other players.

So much of the game feels antiquated and quaint when compared to its rivals.

As well as the sheer number of cars, GT6 maintains the series’ famous variety of models and events, and adds to its heritage in meaningful ways. In a first for the series, the game includes a long list of European racing cars from the FIA GT3 class, so you can take to the track in the ultimate versions of the world’s most desirable cars, like the Mercedes-Benz SLS-AMG GT3 and the Audi R8 GT3. There are more Le Mans prototypes than ever before in a GT game too, and rally makes a welcome return, albeit with no new dirt courses. Polyphony is promising plenty of cars and tracks to come, much of it via free downloadable content, including the Vision GT cars, which are unique concepts developed by the world’s top carmakers specifically for Gran Turismo.

Unfortunately, if you want to build up a big car collection, you’re going to need either a lot of spare time or a lot of spare cash. GT6 is designed to reward its most dedicated fans by keeping the very best cars exclusive. Classic racing cars have high credit price tags, meaning that you’re going to have to grind out a lot of career events to afford them. In GT5, you could get around this by taking part in the weekly updated seasonal events, which differed little from Career races but offered massive payouts, sometimes upward of half a million credits. In GT6, the first batch of seasonal events offer a top prize of only 12,500 credits. This leaves the newly introduced microtransactions as the only option for busy players to acquire the best cars. One million credits cost £7.99, but the most expensive cars in the game are worth around 20 million credits, costing upward of £100 in real money. Spending money is entirely optional, and you have to actively go looking for the store to do so, but the choice to add microtransactions instead of addressing the grind leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

GT6 takes another bizarre turn in the game’s Special Events. These side missions place you in specific cars and locations with unique tasks. My favorite of these is the Goodwood Hill Climb, which puts you behind the wheel of a variety of classic cars at this famous British motorsport festival, and is a neat bit of nostalgic fun. At the other end of the spectrum is the gimmicky lunar exploration task. That’s right, you can drive on the moon. In this event, you drive supposedly accurate lunar rover missions from the 1970s. These are slow, tedious events that are only remarkable for the setting and the fleeting novelty of driving in low gravity.

Career mode also features optional coffee break events designed to add more variety to the racing format of the single-player game. These are usually drifting challenges or cone challenges in which you have to knock over a certain number of cones in a given time. They’re more of a pleasant distraction than a meaningful addition, but they break up the pace nicely.

The rest of the presentation is pure Gran Turismo, for better and for worse. The music is the now-notorious mixture of lounge jazz and heavy metal, and none of the game is voiced, so you read a lot of text tutorials in the early going. Other areas have been given a bit more attention. Races are introduced with some cool TV-style graphics with details about weather conditions, temperatures, and starting grids, which creates a nice sense of atmosphere that has been missing from previous GT games. Damage, on the other hand, has not been changed at all since GT5. The vast majority of cars show barely any damage. Even 100mph head-on collisions cause only tiny dents and scrapes, and they have no impact on car handling or performance.

It’s those little niggles that make Gran Turismo 6 feel so incredibly dated compared to its rivals. Yes, it’s nice to have that attention to detail poured into the physics simulation itself, but when the likes of Forza are heaping on the features, it’s hard not to feel shortchanged by GT6’s lack of vision. Maybe we’ll see the makeover the series sorely needs when it inevitably hits the PS4, but until then, Gran Turismo 6 remains a fantastic simulation; it’s just not a great game.

The Novelist Review

Things are never as simple as they should be. The Kaplans have come to a secluded house in the Pacific Northwest for a summer getaway–a chance for Dan to focus on his book, for Linda to reignite her painting career, for the two of them to work on their marriage, and for their son Tommy to make some progress in coping with his learning difficulties. That’s an awful lot for a family to tackle over the course of a single summer, and as it turns out, for the Kaplans as for many real families, not everyone can have all their needs met all the time.

The Novelist doesn’t hold together as well as you’d hope, but the challenging situations the Kaplans find themselves in, and the burden of having to decide how the Kaplans respond to those challenges, make it a gripping game that causes you to reflect on the often-competing forces that are at play in our real-world relationships, and the difficulty (if not the impossibility) of finding a successful balance that’s fair to everyone involved.

At the end of each chapter, you see the consequences of your decision.

You impact the lives of the Kaplans not as a member of the family, but as a ghostly presence who inhabits the house they’ve rented for the summer. There are two difficulty settings in The Novelist, “stealth” and “story.” If you select stealth, you can be seen by the Kaplans as they wander about the house, and spooking a family member limits your options in that chapter where he or she is concerned. But it’s easy to avoid being seen given your ability to zip from light source to light source, a speedy and fun way to navigate the two floors and multiple rooms of the house. If you choose story, the gameplay is exactly the same, only without any need to worry about spooking the Kaplans; you can wander the house openly. The Novelist isn’t a game about moment-to-moment gameplay but rather about the impact of decisions over time, so the choice of whether to play in stealth or story mode is ultimately the least meaningful decision you have to make in the game.

In The Novelist as in life, disappointment is inevitable.

The much more interesting decisions start confronting you immediately. In each chapter, you explore the house looking for clues to the current desires of each family member. These can be letters Linda has written to her sister, sketches Tommy has drawn, notes Dan has scrawled about the book, and the like. At one point, Dan is feeling pressure from his publisher to get some chapters submitted on his new book, while Linda really wants to get some quality time with Dan, and Tommy wants his daddy to play with him for a while. In another chapter, Linda’s grandmother’s funeral is happening at the same time as an opportunity for a public reading that could save Dan’s career, and there’s an air show that Tommy, feeling lonely at the isolated house, would love to attend.

Tommy is a visual thinker.

Before you can make a choice about what the family should do, you need to both investigate the house for clues, and investigate the memories of the characters. When you approach them from behind, you can zip into their minds and see frozen tableaux in the house of moments that have happened recently. By clicking on the figures, you hear exchanges between them, such as Dan asking Linda, who is gazing longingly out a window, “Is there something out there?” and her responding, “The entire world’s out there.” But these remembered interactions and solitary moments rarely provide much real insight into the characters; the process of entering memories and witnessing them feels more like a hollow, predictable routine that pads out the game than like actual investigation into the hearts and minds of the characters. However, the written words of Linda and Dan change to reflect decisions you made in the previous chapter, and these are more effective at bringing the characters to life.

After you’ve completed the investigation routine in each chapter, it’s time to make your decision. You can totally fulfill one character’s desires and have another character find an unsatisfying compromise for his or her wants, while the third character’s desires will go completely unfulfilled in that chapter. I almost always felt conflicted about my decisions, my heart aching for the character whose desires I’d decided to ignore for the moment. And the situations the characters faced made me think about situations in my own life, about how life is a balancing act, how sometimes we need to make sacrifices for the people we care about, or soldier on with work in the midst of personal crises, how not all of our needs can be met all the time. In The Novelist as in life, disappointment is inevitable.

The Novelist isn’t immersive; the behaviors of its characters as they wander about the house aren’t convincing. You never see them interact with each other in meaningful ways (aside from the frozen moments you see in characters’ memories) and you might sometimes see a character walk right through a closed door. The narrative structure also fumbles in its attempts to create an engaging and believable arc. For instance, one chapter might end with Linda tossing a shoe angrily at Dan because of the decisions you made in that chapter, suggesting their relationship is in real trouble. But then the month-end recap that immediately follows and shows how the Kaplans are doing as a result of choices from the past several chapters might have the pair spending a very happy night together at a bed-and-breakfast.

The Novelist’s environments aren’t terribly detailed but they have a pleasant painterly look.

And it’s frustrating that a game about the struggle to find balance in a family is subtly skewed to put more focus on Dan. You always whisper your choice about what the family should do to Dan and Dan alone, as if he, as family patriarch, is single-handedly responsible for the directions the family takes. It’s equally disappointing that, while there’s a lot of focus on Linda’s career throughout the game, in the final summary of how the decisions the Kaplans made that summer affected their future, the game comments on Dan’s career, on Dan and Linda’s marriage, and on Tommy’s future, but not Linda’s professional future.

But as a game of ideas, The Novelist works. It’s not a challenging game, but the choices you have to make are. I played through the game twice, and was surprised to see how differently things were for the Kaplans in the end based on the different decisions I’d made. When a family member was left struggling or failing in the end because of the choices I’d made, I felt a kind of guilt that moral choices in games rarely make me feel. The Novelist knows that when it comes to the people we love, there are no small decisions.