Friday, October 23, 2015

The Evil Within - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Trapped somewhere between Silent Hill and Resident Evil lurks The Evil Within. It's a game that feels very torn on what it wants to be, featuring dozens of high action set-pieces confusingly combined with ammo starvation and psychological ruses. Many contest that these elements form a cohesive and varied experience, but the game felt like it had split personalities for me: too often it left me warm and then cold. Despite whatever gripes I may have, it is competently put together and has some really clever ideas implemented into it—it just wasn't to my tastes, unfortunately.

The best thing the game has going for it is tension. In The Evil Within, you almost never feel safe—either your health is low, your ammo is dry, or you have a boss that can instantly kill you breathing down your neck. This isn't a game like Resident Evil where you can easily end up with a stash of green herbs and magnum shells to steamroll the end of the campaign with; at all times, The Evil Within is out to drain you of your munitions and make you fight to get them back. It's definitely a cool motif that you don't see in a lot of games these days—even in The Last of Us I had enough ammo stockpiled to feel comfortable, while here I rarely had more than what was loaded into my guns.

But the way the game goes about draining your ammo is obnoxious. There are segments where you're locked in a room and must fight off waves of enemies, and these occur semi-frequently. The stealthy playground chapters of the game (3, 13) are among my favorite because it's the game at its best—giving you a wide variety of tools but few instances to use them, forcing you to use your wits and make hard choices on when to expend your bullets & bolts. The singular room skirmishes are none of that: they're more twitchy than strategic, where whatever weapon has the most ammo dominates the field, and staying mobile is your top priority. Then you have sections like the one on top of the bus in Chapter 12, where you're just standing around shooting at guys with guns and dynamite, praying the wonky pistol accuracy doesn't screw you over.

Speaking of the dynamite, the instant death attacks in the game are also vexing. I do agree that they add to the tension (Laura in particular is probably the most menacing creature), but they're also so sudden that they teach you very little. For instance, in the chapter where Ruvik chases you, it's a terrifying reveal that works well within the framework of the game—but Ruvik himself is not fun. He teleports around and since your perspective is limited you can easily lose track of him and get killed instantly. When I tried to hide he found me (and killed me), so I resorted to just standing in the corner of a room and juking him as soon as he got close. This boiled our encounter down to a very simple tactic, and whenever an ominous tone would augur his arrival I felt like sighing out of frustration, solely because I didn't want to lose my precious progress. Again, it is tension, but it's not fun when it happens to you enough times that the fear factor is drained and all you're left with is the agitation of starting over.

The chapters themselves go on a bit of a roller coaster of length and quality, ranging from great to "isn't this over yet?" Chapters 11 and 12 are considered the nadir of the experience, and for good reason—centering the action around fighting zombies with guns is another "tense but not fun" situation. It was a damn shame having to grind through all these guys when the game had recently introduced its coolest and most intimidating enemy yet—Trauma—but only used it for a scant total of three encounters (one of which is stealth-only). This was another case where the game felt like it was artificially inflating the difficulty to increase adrenaline, whereas using more creative scenarios (like those seen in Chapter 10) would've worked wonders.

Gameplay aside, the visuals are utterly fantastic. It does lead to some lag and dropped frames (on my PC at least) but I didn't mind as I was too busy running for my life or staring at some nicely detailed grimy walls. The art direction here is positively captivating, as the Silent Hill-esque deformation of interiors and enemies is both jaw-dropping and revolting. The ruined Krimson City is one of the most impressive landscapes I've seen in a while (probably my favorite thing in the game honestly), and the grotesque, revolting viscera imagery is unapologetically gnarly. The final battle in particular is astoundingly creative... from a visual standpoint at least (playing it was unmitigated dreck).

It's a pity that the story doesn't support this nightmarish dreamscape better. Sure, what's there isn't awful, but it really doesn't lean into its potential either. Ruvik's mind is corrupted beyond repair but other than being the subject of bullying and an unfortunate incident, it doesn't logically lead to the vile imagery you see in Chapter 15. On top of that the protagonists are pretty boring and stale—I can't name a single interesting trait about Kidman—and all the journal entries you collect about Esteban don't lead to anything interesting. Since you're shuffled around to areas and places instantly there's no sense to the progression and it's hard to care about the plot, as the characters are senselessly whisked off to different attractions. The entire game suffers from "why did/didn't Ruvik just do X"; honestly, reducing the story to a quarter of its size would've helped quite a bit.

Coming out of The Evil Within, I felt really torn on it. I thoroughly enjoyed some ideas it had (stealth, ammo starvation, lurid imagery) but found myself detesting other sections (arenas, guys with guns, insta-deaths). You feel on edge while playing the game, partly because you never know what to expect, and partly because you know it doesn't care about playing fair (Oh I'm supposed to kill the Keeper now in Chapter 13? And three dynamite guys in Chapter 5? Really?) To a degree I noticed that a lot of my gripes are minor annoyances, which I can admit is usually the earmark of a decently-made title. The Evil Within is what it is, and I'm glad that it found an audience that appreciates it... but for me, I'll likely slide it next to Halo in my mental archive.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Vlad the Impaler - Thoughts

Vlad the Impaler has a lot going for it. The austere, grayscale art style is what drew me in and the low price point is what prompted me to buy it; I don't have many "choose your own adventure"-type of games in my Steam library and wanted to give this one a shot. What's here is quite competent—though notably flawed—and I can't help but adore Vlad's unabashed charm. Something like The Yawhg is obviously superior, but I'd be lying if I didn't confess that I think Vlad the Impaler is pretty cool too.

As this is a particularly niche game, I'll give a brief rundown of Vlad the Impaler's general flow: the player chooses from one of three classes and is tasked to discover the source of Istanbul's looming evil before the city is consumed by bloodshed and violence in 15 days. Every day you'll choose an action to do in one of six areas you have to investigate, and the outcome of these encounters will either add to your stats or diminish them. Your class will level up based on the general morality of your decisions, and at the end of the game you'll have an epic battle with the Lord of Darkness himself, forced to use your accumulated skills and weapons in order to survive. Sounds interesting, right?

Well, here's the catch—Vlad botches the gameplay part of its execution. While the outcome of each event is predetermined, the pending results are difficult to predict your first time around. For instance, mercy killing tortured prisoners increases your Strength, and saving someone bitten by a ghoul will increase your Charm but decrease your Intelligence. There is a method to the game's madness if you think on its reasoning, but trying to capitalize on your class's highest stats is impossible to do and you're basically forced to roll with whatever stats get the highest by the end of the game. Therefore the different classes and abilities are purely a superfluous coating, completely unnecessary to the central mechanics except for making pivotal decisions.

And those decisions may not always be clear at times. For instance, if you have the choice to "cut an assassin's head off" or "throw a dagger at her", which stats do these use? Strength and Dexterity? Does Agility contribute to either of these? Does casting a spell use my Magic or Intelligence stat? If it uses my Magic, then what is my Intelligence used for? Since the game clarifies nothing, you're left to assume what your stats do, and that can be detrimental to your playthrough—I thought having high Constitution would allow me to use my physique to push an attacker off a roof, but instead I was the one that fell to my death. Fortunately there's not many situations where choosing between your stats means life or death, but at least indicating what they contribute to would be helpful.

Luckily Vlad doesn't need to rely on its gameplay to be enjoyable. The best thing the game has going for it is the clean, evocative art. Each of the game's instances are carefully drawn, aiding the gruesome text written below. Corpses and beasts are exquisitely embellished; Vlad's true form that you'll face for the game's final (and only) battle is probably the most awesome depiction of Dracula I've ever seen, and I say this as a massive Castlevania fan. The music is also moody and helps to establish the tone, though the soundtrack during the investigation section is far too short—it's basically a two minute loop that plays over and over.

The text itself is the meat & potatoes of the game and there's a bit of a quirk to it as well: the grammar. Conjunctions are routinely missing from sentences and occasionally entire words too... I'm quite surprised given the number of people that worked on the game that there wasn't a natively English-speaking editor that flipped through the script, as the game definitely needed one. Beyond that, the plot likes to throw you in medias res a little too often and doesn't have much consistency; all pathways are unlocked by the end of the game, meaning that even if you've never interrogated people that know about the King of the Catacombs or the Ship of the Damned, you can still encounter these phenomena as if you've been tracking them the entire time.

These irritating gripes aside, the game does something tremendous by infusing Lovecraftian dread into its text. Istanbul is a grim, terrible place filled with unspeakable horrors, and almost every adventure in it has a surprising outcome. Underpinning your mission is a sense of futility and disgust, the people of the city either doomed to a sanguinary death or secretly monsters themselves. It feels as though there is no reprieve for the world, try as you might to save it. My absolute favorite encounter is with the lady under the docks, who drags those that kill her worshippers down into the briny depths of the Bosphorous by strands of seaweed being endlessly vomited from their mouth. It is a deliciously dark and horrifying game with a plot that is far more interesting than one might think—the source of Istanbul's evil is both clever and captivating.

Perhaps it's damning praise, but pricing this game so low is an excellent idea. Vlad the Impaler has a fascinating blueprint but it's built on shaky ground, not giving much support to the systems in place. Vlad doesn't have very long legs to support itself, but it doesn't really need to—the eerie atmosphere, tense situations, and enigmatic world benefit most from remaining unknown and uncovered. Trying to optimize a build and earn all of the achievements is sadly counterproductive to the title and only serve to accentuate its flaws; the best way to play Vlad is to go in blind and attempt to see the end before the end sees you.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Lords of the Fallen - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

The Souls titles are undoubtedly my favorite games from the seventh console generation, and one of my favorite series of all time. I adored Demon's Souls when I played it back in 2010, but my true love affair with the series began with Dark Souls, the massively varied fantasy world spurring my interest over its muted and macabre brethren. Therefore you can see how I would approach a non-From Software effort with some trepidation—I've been so groomed on the Japanese titles that it felt weird merely browsing the unfamiliar menus in Lords of the Fallen. Despite that, I wound up completing the campaign and my conclusion for CI Games and Deck13's attempt at making a Souls game is that it turned out... alright.

Perhaps the easiest way for me to write about this is to first talk about the things Lords got right, and then the things it got wrong. One of the benefits of creating a game in the Souls' action/rpg genre is that there's no definitive formula for the games yet, so variations to some core mechanics are a welcome change. Lords isn't afraid to mess around either, as it slows the pace of combat down, eliminates shopkeepers, simplifies spell-casting and ranged attacks, and focuses on three "core" builds. And the change is good!... once you get used to it. I must confess that I grumbled my way through the first hour or so of the game, solely lamenting everything that felt weird (combat is weird! Shields are useless! Bosses can summon minions!) until I found myself getting into the groove of the game.

Right around the point where I jumped into the Keystone Portal is when I finally learned how Lords wanted me to play and respected the game for it. I had been trying to dodge and counter a lot, angry that my character wasn't as nimble as I wanted him to be... before I realized the usefulness of the spells. I would argue the make or break aspect of the game relies on how much you enjoy your handful of spells and their situational applications, as without them fights can seem unfair in medium/heavy armor. However with them, you realize you don't need to be nearly as dexterous or cautious about your stamina/health management; the flow of combat is dictated by which spell you use and finding an ample opportunity to get the cast off. I played as a Cleric, which gave me plenty of options to steamroll through the game as long as my spells went off (thank you regen!).

The best way I can describe the change in combat (and this may be a damning statement to some) is that it followed the same paradigm as 2012's Ninja Gaiden 3. Combat is streamlined as there's a noticeable flow to encounters, medium-low difficulty, and some satisfying action that you never have to think too deeply about. Sure there are some enemies you have to be wary of, but there's nothing demanding like Sen's Fortress or Shrine of Amana here. The bosses deserve a special mention for being pretty fun too—most of them unfortunately have a bit too much health and noticeable "phases" they go through (I groaned every time Annihilator would go into his lighting beam animation), but a couple of them (Champion, Guardian) were worthy opponents, turning our battle into a thrilling death tango.

Despite the generally good time I had, there's still a bunch of things that stick out as erroneous to me. The game is surprisingly short (10 hours) and hosts a meager five areas for you to explore, almost all of them featuring the same color scheme (blues and grays). The areas aren't really too different from one another (besides the Catacombs and its narrow corridors) and there weren't a lot of places where I was "wow'd" by the design. Backtracking is also pretty prevalent despite the brevity of the game, and while I don't mind it in most games, I feel the lack of variety here made traveling through old areas quite dull.

Enemies—while distinct—are also of a similar variety: hulking humanoids with burning skin. There are some exceptions to the rule of course, but most of them looked so similar that I wasn't sure if I was fighting a new variant at times or not. The weapons and armor for the game look really nifty as you collect more of them (the Griffin set is the best), but since you can't upgrade sets (beyond placing runes in them), you're entirely at the whim of find and collecting loot. That may not seem so bad to some, but as a Cleric I only had access to maybe six different Faith-based weapons the entire game, while Strength and Agility builds constantly got different equipment at almost every turn.

Lastly I should briefly mention that the story is far more prominent than in any of the Souls games, yet happens to be entirely insipid. The struggle of choosing between God or Man is an interesting platform to stand on, but the game doesn't seem to do much with it or even attempt to make any of its characters likable. Being given certain choices to make throughout the journey is cool but is hampered by how unremarkable the world feels, and by the time the credits rolled all I felt was indifference looking over my actions. The plot isn't offensive mind you—it's just utterly unambitious.

Make no mistake—Lords of the Fallen is not a Souls substitute. But rather than simply mimic its more successful predecessor, Lords honorable tries to alter the formula in a handful of ways. Some parts are a hit while others are a miss, but at least it felt like a different type of game by the end. While the combat is sluggish and the story is nothing to write home about, if you push past the awkward opening you'll find a pretty fun title you can spend 10 hours on. If nothing else, I'm glad there's another game in this barren genre, even if its quality falls a little by the wayside.