Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Monday Review: Mirror's Edge

Mirror's Edge has been on my radar for a while. Steam put it on sale last week for a ridiculous price so I decided to finally buy it; I do not regret that decision. It's an interesting first-person platformer with qualities that are hit and miss for me.

In Mirror's edge you play as Faith, an astonishingly athletic runner that vaults across rooftops to deliver information between underground resistance groups. The story is set a little after a decade since the government started oppressing its people. I felt as though the police-state could have been explored more. It's never explained why there's cameras everywhere and the police shoot first and ask questions never. Rather, the story focuses entirely on Faith's struggle to prove her sister innocent of a murder she didn't commit.

Before I write anything else, you should know that Mirror's Edge is fun. Performing a perfect chain of moves to leap off a building at top speed gave me an adrenaline rush that I haven't had in a while. The game equips Faith with an arsenal of manoeuvres that she performs to navigate the urban landscape. She can jump, climb, slide, roll, run across walls and turn 180 degrees. If she does all these actions uninterrupted, she builds momentum and increases in running speed to make, sometimes superhuman, leaps of faith. The game helps Faith find the best route by highlighting key objects and obstacles in a vibrant red color, referred to as 'runner's vision'.  Runner's vision did fail me a few times in the game. I was forced to stop, find my bearings and figure out the next manoeuvre. However, for the most part, I progressed through each chapter at a comfortable speed.

The game does a great job of making you feel like you're running, despite controlling Faith through a first person perspective. The camera shakes as if your head is moving up and down, and this intensifies as you gain speed. Your legs and arms appear in your vision as you're running, climbing, sliding and performing other actions that would require your limbs. It was odd the first time I made Faith tumble forwards into the concrete and the entire world rotated upside down and all I could see was Faith's legs, before rotating right-side up again. It's also more than satisfying reaching top running speed and noticing the corners of your vision blur, as the world whistles past your head. Mirror's edge makes you feel like you are embodying a human being.

The plot of Mirror's Edge follows a fairly standard cycle: Each chapter begins as Faith investigates a lead. This almost always requires her to infiltrate a building and look for a specific person, overhear a conversation or just look around for evidence. Halfway through the chapter, Faith discovers a new piece of information to follow and she has to escape because the police are closing in on her location. I wouldn't say that Mirror's Edge is predictable because there are some twists in the story; I just didn't care about them. The character's motivations are simple and completely unexplored. The interactions between the characters were awkward because the dialogue felt unnatural and forced. Most of these interactions take place in cartoon-ish cut scenes that interrupt and detract from the beautiful environments that you play through. Despite all these negative attributes, the plot is solid. Mirror's Edge presents you with a government, organisations and people that all fulfil a purpose that guides Faith. I found the journey down the rabbit hole to be effective enough to not make me cringe.

The combat in Mirror's Edge was another weak element. The loading screens between each chapter show a silhouetted Faith acrobatically beat down silhouetted policemen. My experience with take downs - punching and kicking policemen that all look the same - was far from acrobatic. You are given the option to hit the people that are shooting at you while standing still, jumping or sliding; the latter are slightly more effective. If you get up close to an enemy, they swing the butt of their gun at you, as their gun turns red, you can counter and then take their weapon in a quicktime event by just clicking one button. This is great in theory, but the window of opportunity is so small that most of the time I just found myself standing still as policemen beat me into the ground, as I desperately grabbed for empty space. If I finally managed to get hold of a gun, it's not that impressive. The controls are sluggish and the shooting is disappointing; the police just stand still shooting at you as you fire shotgun shells into their chests. If you're anything like me, you'll be happy to know that you can avoid most of the fighting in Mirror's Edge just by running past the people shooting at you.

It's fortunate that this game shines, literally and metaphorically, with its visuals. The city landscape that Faith sprints across is stunningly white. On Faith's journey to free her sister, she runs mostly on the tops of daunting skyscrapers, but also sprints through train stations, office buildings, sewers and even the long corridors of a ship. You'll also notice that vibrant primary colours contrast the environment. It's a unique way to portray a city that's controlled by corrupt politicians and an oppressive government, but it works. It feels as though every corner of this city is clean, structured and maintained, along with the routine of everyday life that Faith is resisting against.

This game really confused me. I could write so much about what makes the game frustrating, but I still want to play this game again and again. Mirror's Edge's brief campaign was so enjoyable that I played through it about five times, each play-through becoming more engaging than the last. Mirror's Edge isn't for everyone, but it's definitely for me.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Monday Review: Bastion

I'm sorry. I apologise. I know I have a severely loyal audience that expected me to write a review of a game once a week. I decided to challenge myself and I immediately failed. I wrote a review and posted it last Monday and I couldn't even write another review in seven days. Anyway, here's a week-late review of Bastion.

Bastion, a lot like Limbo which I reviewed last week, made me want to keep playing with its aesthetics. I don't know what art direction is, but I can tell that this game perfected it. I heard it was good, but I didn't think it was this good. It's difficult to describe exactly what Super Giant Games made. It's a fantasy RPG with a western 'twang' to it - I hope I used that word right. In Bastion, I controlled 'The Kid', an unnamed child who wakes up in the aftermath of the 'Calamity', an apocolyptic event that shattered Caelondia. The Kid must fight his way through a variety of levels and enemies to find Cores to restore the 'Bastion' - the central hub of the game - and gain access to structures that gives you access to weapons, upgrades, abilities and other ways to alter how you approach the game.

When I say shattered, I mean it literally. Pieces of the ground float aimlessly through space and paths to large chunks of land comes together underneath you whilst you run. It's an interesting element to say the least. It makes sprinting away from enemies trickier when you don't know if the world is suddenly going to change direction without you knowing. It certainly made me feel like I was always teetering on the cusp of existence.

The centrepiece of Bastion is the narrator. The smooth and sultry voice of a wise, old man guides you on your journey the entire playthrough. The narrator provides brilliant exposition, gives you hints, and comments on your actions - never once repeating himself. Do not play this game with the sound turned down. The game would not be the same without that powerful voice because it's where Bastion's personality resides. You would also miss out on hearing an incredible soundtrack. The music matches the game play perfectly. For the most part, the music is fast-paced, which suits the break-neck speed that you fight at. However, the music also becomes solemn and withdrawn at times to enforce just how bleak Caelondia has become. Seriously, listen to this song. I'm listening to the soundtrack as I write this review. 

Bastion sets itself apart from other independent games I've played by having an interesting story and a fully realised world. The Kid comes across less than a handful of survivor's between the hack-n-slashing and tumbling. The narrator provides exposition of each character; he ranges from subtle to obvious without ever becoming boring. There are impressive sections of the game called Who Knows Where which are basically dream sequences where The Kid fights waves of enemies while the narrator tells the back-story of a character - they are not happy stories. I had to take a break after the first one.

While Bastion was making me care about its characters, it was also daunting me with the complete tour of Caelondia. You travel to lands, meet people and encounter things that all have a place in that world. It's a little bit hard to explain but Caelondia is a connected ecosystem rather than a disjointed collection of levels. Simply put, it's immersive.

Combat in Bastion is simple. The Kid is able to hold two weapons and perform a 'secret skill'. You are also given a shield and an evasive roll for defensive purposes. As the player, you are able to pick and choose from a variety of weapons and secret skills to suit your play style. I specifically fought through most of Bastion with a Breaker's Bow and Dueling Pistols. Whenever I have the option to fight with ranged weapons in a game, I do. 

You will come across more than a dozen weapons as you progress, all the way up to the ending. The weapon types are diverse enough for anyone to find a desired combination, but combat is essentially hack-n-slashing. I found myself clicking frantically just trying to clear the room with no clear strategy in mind. Pressing the shift key also generously locks onto target enemies for easy massacres.

The true strategy in Bastion is tied to the suprising number of options available that affect how you fight. Each weapon can be upgraded five times in total at the Forge. An upgrade allows the player to choose between two possible improvements for that weapon. Fear not though, the player can always change his mind and tinker with the upgrades while inside the Forge. The first time I upgraded a weapon was straightforward. However, it became a increasingly more difficult to accrue the materials and gather the fragments - the games form of currency - to upgrade them further. It was easier to just decide on my two favourite weapons and work towards making them as deadly as possible, rather than experiment with the other weapons.

The Kid can choose between an array of passive bonuses, called spirits, that go a long way in combat. As you level up in Bastion, spirit slots are made available to garner more spirits - you're given a few at the start and like everything else in Bastion you either find it through exploration or you buy it. Also, if for any reason the game becomes too easy, you can invoke an array of gods to make the enemies harder for more fragments and experience.

Bastion is a gorgeous game. The story is captivating, the characters are solidly human and the art direction is beautiful. Weirdly enough, I found the fighting and killing hordes of enemies boring compared to learning why I was fighting and killing hordes of enemies. I recommend you savour this game.

By the way, next week I'm going to review Mirror's Edge. The week after that will be decided by the poll in the top right hand corner of this blog. 

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Monday Review: Limbo

If you are looking for a puzzle-platformer about an unidentified boy lost in a mysterious forest for unknown reasons, look no further than LIMBO. Without text, speech, and music, this game kept me enthralled for hours. The designers of Limbo focused on refining game play and aesthetics rather than creating context. The people at Playdead games created something that made me want to play from start to finish. Limbo is more of an experience than anything else.

I was interested in Limbo since I first saw it's trailer. It's approach to death was new and intriguing to me. There is no punishment for death; you simply respawn back at conveniently placed checkpoints. Trust me, you're going to respawn often - at least I did. It's much easier to dive head first into each puzzle and learn how the world is trying to kill you, as opposed to sizing up the situation from afar. I learned early on that cautiously approaching anything led to unkind dupes - and ultimately entertaining deaths. In Limbo, death is a learning tool. 

I explored the carefully constructed world of Limbo for hours. I had never imagined a game could be so stunningly beautiful. The atmosphere is somewhere between a disturbing nightmare and a terrifying nightmare. The black and white silhouettes are smooth and effective. The lighting is halfway between fuzzy and hazy; objects drop in and out of focus seamlessly. Throughout the game you travel between a forest, factory and cityscape, each more mindbogglingly unsettling. Everything is accentuated by an impressive soundscape. It's obvious that sound in Limbo serves a purpose to isolate and disturb. Ambient tones build upon important moments of the game. However, most of the time, the only thing you can hear is the the sound of your footsteps coupled with the whistle of the forest or the humming of a factory. If you're anything like me, you will feel some chills while playing this game.

What's a puzzle-platformer without puzzles to solve and platforms to traverse? Limbo exceeds in both these aspects. The puzzles in particular are refreshingly difficult. There's no tutorial in this quirky horror. The designers of the game encourage you to experiment with the environment. Early on in the game, I jumped, pushed boxes and swung on ropes to avoid pitfalls and bear traps. It wasn't before long that I had to overcome giant spiders, electricity and even gravity to survive. There's no real 'trick' to each puzzle. All the tools are out in the open; you just have to use them to keep moving forward. Despite that fact, it took me an embarrassingly long time to solve more than a few puzzles.

Limbo didn't hold my hand when it came to platforming either. I needed quick reflexes and precision timing to survive most of the puzzles later into the game. Some moments took me back to the days of Crash Bandicoot - those were tough days. Limbo definitely kept me on my toes; at one point I had to dodge buzz saws and boulders while the factory around me turned upside down. 

Limbo isn't without shortcomings. I still don't know what it was trying to achieve. It obviously wasn't trying to tell a narrative. While the environment changes atmosphere fluidly, I feel as though it would be more effective if it had tried to achieve one specific tone. The beginning of the game felt uniquely morbid; I was a little bit impressed when I used a child's corpse to solve a puzzle. However, that was the weirdest thing I had to do in the game. That moment was so early on I thought that the game's only option was to build from there. I was disappointed when all the puzzles became familiar factory mind-benders. You'll find the usual giant gears, conveyer belts, floor buttons and electrified surfaces like in other puzzle games.

I seriously recommend that you just ignore the last paragraph and buy this game.