LawBreakers

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Fight across colorful arenas in high-tech rounds of cops and robbers.

PC Release: August 8, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Overwatch has enjoyed a healthy reign as king of the zany multiplayer shooters since it released just over a year ago. It’s no hyperbole to say that the game is a cultural phenomenon; no comic con in this day and age is complete without a legion of Tracer cosplayers. Many, many games have tried to unseat Overwatch only to end up adding to the pile of dead competitors propping up its throne (oh Battleborn). LawBreakers is now swinging for that throne; time to see how hard.

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The reason why this review opened with Overwatch grandstanding is because LawBreakers is Overwatch. It is hilariously Overwatch. It is so blatantly Overwatch that one could be forgiven for mistaking it for Overwatch from a distance. Even at a closer glance, the two games share obvious similarities: they’re both set in bright, futuristic worlds and star a cast of colorful characters armed with all manner of exotic weaponry.

LawBreakers doesn’t bother with giving its characters any sort of exposition; all players really need to know is that theft is alive and well in the future. Two teams, the Law and the Breakers (ba dum tssss) duke it out for glory in glossy environments. Though LawBreakers bills itself as a futuristic cops-and-robbers game, none of its modes really have anything to do with robbery (or at least their objectives don’t).

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I’ll say this, the law looks way more badass in the future.

Like OverwatchLawBreakers is a class-based shooter whose characters each occupy a specific niche on their teams. Both teams have the same classes of characters occupied by physically different (though functionally identical) characters. Unlike OverwatchLawBreakers gets more specific with defining the roles of each character, labeling them “medic” or “assassin”, etc. It wouldn’t be difficult to discern each character’s role without these labels, but they do help, especially since some classes share conspicuous overlap (especially the wraith and the assassin).

LawBreakers‘ penchant for Overwatch-style character design goes beyond the colorful clothes, oversized guns, and ethnic and gender diversity. Each character in this game comes with a streamlined handful of abilities designed to be as easy to use and understand as possible. Characters have a primary weapon, a movement ability, and a few secondary powers like grenades or increased movement speed. These powers vary depending on the weight and class of the character (assassins move quickly, juggernauts not so much). Even though the game doesn’t say so, characters can shoot behind themselves as they run (Ctrl).

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Prepare for takeoff!

Unfortunately for LawBreakers, it doesn’t succeed in implementing its gameplay mechanics as fluidly as Overwatch does. As in Overwatch, each characters’ powers are on a cooldown timer, but the cooldowns in Lawbreakers take forevvvver. Some characters’ abilities take upwards of an entire minute to recharge after use, which is an eternity in a game as fast-paced as this one. These cooldowns vary from character to character but are always shockingly slow; usually too slow to be used before the player gets killed and has to respawn.

There’s something inherently dysfunctional about how slow LawBreakers‘ cooldowns are in comparison to the rest of the game. True to developer Boss Key’s marketing material, matches in LawBreakers are fast-paced. Players can quickly move around maps taking out foes and completing objectives at a speed far outstripping the recharge of character abilities. This unbalanced dichotomy forces players to ration each character’s power, making LawBreakers a lot less fun than it could be with quicker cooldowns.

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Alright, there goes my once-per-match gravity bubble; back to shooting.

Some folks might say that LawBreakers‘ slow cooldowns aren’t a big deal in the face of the game’s most marketed novelty: anti-gravity. Yes, it’s true that characters can shoot into the sky to take each other out… but only in certain areas of the map. It turns out that LawBreakers‘ marketing depicting each battleground as a purely vertical gunfight was quite hyperbolic. On top of that, trying to move around in anti-grav is pretty clunky. Players have to jam shift and space to attain altitude, and can only do so on a limited fuel bar. When that runs out, it’s just floating around in space and praying for a lucky shot.

LawBreakers‘ missteps with anti-gravity seep into more than just the gameplay; they also homogenize the game’s map design. Though each map in LawBreakers bears its own aesthetic, the design structure underlying those bright colors and sharp textures is the same in most of the title’s eight maps. Whether it’s a futuristic boardwalk or a high-altitude weather station, players can expect the majority of LawBreakers‘ maps to be circular perimeters of corridors around single anti-grav rooms. This sameness in level design makes LawBreakers‘ already small supply of maps even more redundant.

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(sigh)

There may not be much variety to be found in LawBreakers‘ maps, but the same thankfully can’t be said of the game’s modes. As of writing, LawBreakers features a few diverse modes for players to shoot up: there’s Overcharge, a capture-the-flag mode in which players take batteries back to their base, as well as a king-of-the-hill analogue called Turf War. Uplink is pretty much the same as Overcharge except that progress is measured by how well the team defends the collectible instead of how much time it’s spent at their base. Finally, there’s Blitzball: grab a glowy ball and deposit it in the enemy base to score.

For any drawbacks LawBreakers suffers with its slow cooldowns and clunky anti-gravity, these modes do make for some fun gunplay. Each match is a fast-paced bout of first-person shooting and stabbing. The modes have all been done in one form or another in other video games (who hasn’t heard of capture the flag or king of the hill) but Blitzball is arguably the most original… and fun. Matches are usually pretty easy to find in LawBreakers, but be warned: as of launch, it’s not uncommon to spend upwards of 10 minutes waiting for one.

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I guess we’ll just stare at each other while we wait for more people?

LawBreakers manages to avoid any major design flaws when it comes to visual fidelity. The game looks absolutely gorgeous; every environment is brightly lit and brightly colored. The game masterfully mashes different textures and materials together into a composite without making the larger map they’re in feel random. Players can expect to encounter a riot of different shops and establishments aptly blended together into each map, which can draw players’ eyes even as they’re avoiding bullets. Between its detailed textures and bright colors, LawBreakers leaves little to be desired in the visual design department.

Not only does LawBreakers look pretty, it actually runs quite well. The game is refreshingly bug-free and glitches during actual gameplay are rare. Plus, LawBreakers has a ginormous options menu; players can use the game’s comprehensive list of options and toggles to adjust everything from the sharpness of shadows to whether a character speaks. The game’s other menus, from character customization to player profiles, are also quite streamlined. The sound design is competent… the guns could sound a little louder, but no big deal.

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Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen it… (evil cackle).

LawBreakers can look and sound pretty ’till the cows come home, but its aesthetic only does so much to conceal its many gameplay flaws. As previously mentioned, the length of the characters’ ability cooldowns needs to be shortened… well, not “shortened” so much as “cut in half.” Even the coolest character powers aren’t that cool when they can only be used once per minute, and a lot can happen in 60 seconds (deaths, rebirths, existential crises, wins, losses, eating an entire pizza, all kinds of things).

Additionally, LawBreakers‘ anti-gravity controls need to be overhauled; randomly pressing the shift and space keys while praying for upward movement doesn’t cut it. A tutorial devoted entirely to moving around in anti-gravity would also not go amiss. Honestly, it feels a bit cheap that a game that made so much noise about being able to fly around in anti-gravity confines that feature to one or two relatively small areas within each map. Trailers and marketing material should never be trusted as a general rule, but LawBreakers‘ own teaser now feels especially inflated.

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Quick! We have five seconds to do something novel!

LawBreakers gets credit for its bright world and decent PC performance, but it feels like a mere Overwatch clone without a greater, smoother emphasis on anti-gravity gameplay. At this point the title is less a game trying to establish its own identity and more an “Overwatch plus anti-gravity sometimes.” If Cliff Bleszinski and the folks at Boss Key don’t take steps to re-balance character cooldowns or refine the anti-gravity comprising LawBreakers‘ key selling point, this game will probably be dead in the next 4-6 months. Hopefully the studio gets cracking on these drawbacks, because Overwatch doesn’t need any more fallen competitors in its body pile.

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You can buy LawBreakers here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

The Evil Within

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Escape from a terrifying, ever-changing nightmare world.

PC Release: October 14, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Welp, there’s no more putting it off; it’s finally The Evil Within‘s turn for a review. I’ve been getting bombarded with requests to review this game for years (and given my oft-professed love for horror games, it’s no surprise), but with The Evil Within 2 right around the corner, what better time to finally visit this most curious horror-verse than now? The Evil Within bills itself as a horror game that focuses more on action than survival; it’s time to evaluate that and other claims right here, right now.

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The Evil Within is a third-person horror game directed by Shinji Mikami, the creator of Resident Evil. Released as the debut title of Mikami’s studio, Tango Gameworks, The Evil Within‘s stated mission is to return horror games to being about survival instead of action. Tango Gameworks is wrong to imply that no one makes survival-horror games anymore, but to be fair, nearly all of the proverbial Amnesias and Outlasts are indie productions. If games like Dead Space 3 are any indication, bigger-budget devs have indeed forgotten how to do horror. So go forth, The Evil Within; go forth.

The Evil Within casts players as Sebastian Castellanos, a down-on-his-luck police detective who couldn’t be anymore the stereotype of the hard-drinking noir gumshoe if he tried. The game begins when Sebastian and his partners get a call about multiple homicides at the local insane asylum; when they arrive, a disfigured man in a white robe teleports behind Sebastian and knocks him out cold. When Sebastian wakes up, he beholds an unfamiliar world teeming with blood, gore, and all sorts of creepy monsters.

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This I did not sign up for.

After eluding a particularly tall butcher who has a particularly strong enthusiasm for chainsaws, Sebastian realizes that his partners and a few of the asylum staff have ended up in this world as well. Between him and them stand an army of horrifically disfigured ghouls that are only too happy to try to take a chomp out of the detective. Armed only with his wits and what few weapons can be found in this nightmare world, it’s Sebastian’s mission to find out what this place is and, more importantly, how to escape from it.

As Sebastian sneaks his way through the world stabbing monsters and avoiding danger, he can’t help but notice that certain portions of the place seem familiar. What few friendly faces he does find make similar observations. They all agree, though, that this world is not a realm friendly to them. Meanwhile, the aforementioned man in a white robe watches from a distance as Sebastian and co. try to find a way out… if there’s even such a thing.

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‘Scuse me, ma’am, I—please stop hissing—I’m looking for an exit?

Like most of the Resident Evil games, The Evil Within is a third-person shooter. As Sebastian, players can run (or sneak, sneaking’s better) around a foreboding landscape in search of resources and in avoidance of enemies. Sebastian can find guns and grenades out in the world but ammo is a finite resource, so it pays to either avoid enemies entirely or, if that’s not possible, be a headshot afficionado. When weapons aren’t an option, Sebastian can always find a bed to hide under or a wardrobe to silently weep in. He can also heal himself with syringes, but players are best off saving those for when he’s seriously hurt (they don’t exactly grow on trees).

The Evil Within also incorporates featherweight role-playing elements. Every so often, Sebastian can whisk himself away to a medical ward not unlike the Hunter’s Dream in Bloodborne. Players can use this hub to heal themselves, upgrade their weapons, and strengthen Sebastian’s abilities. Everything from Sebastian’s sprint duration to the damage he does with certain weapons can be beefed up using this system, provided players can find enough jars of brain goo. Brain goo can be found in everything from ceramic jars to the heads of monsters, so go wild for those upgrades.

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It pays to be stealthy.

A lot of critics are quick to point out how similar The Evil Within is to Resident Evil 4, and with good reason: the game features similarities ranging from the over-the-shoulder camera down to the creepy doctor with a Hispanic name. For all those similarities, though, The Evil Within actually feels much more like The Last of Us. Think about it; the protagonist sneaks around, has limited ammunition, and can throw bottles or bricks to distract monsters so that he can stab them. The resemblance is uncanny, and given The Last of Us‘s huge success, it’s probably not a coincidence.

Funnily for a game designed by the creator of Resident Evil, The Evil Within also shares many design similarities with RE‘s arch-rival, Silent Hill. Creepy nightmare dimension? Check. Worlds that shift randomly between different paradigms? Check. Monsters that, for all their spookiness, have a grotesque beauty to them that is worthy of appreciation? Check. There’s even a metal-headed creature wielding an over-sized weapon that pops up every so often to chase our hero around.

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Oh no! It’s Pyramid He—I mean—Trapezoid Head!

Even though The Evil Within doesn’t really pioneer any new horror mechanics, it can be a fun package for players who like The Last of UsResident Evil 4, or the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. There’s nothing new in The Evil Within‘s tourney of third-person shooting and sneaking, but the game does manage to clothe those old bones in silky smooth new flesh (don’t cringe at that metaphor, this is supposed to be a horror game review). The Evil Within is also quite a challenging game; players can expect plenty of bullet-resistant foes and to be introduced to new, scarier monsters at a steady clip.

Unfortunately, players can also expect some much more frustrating design decisions that The Evil Within 2 will hopefully correct. The first is the game’s camera, which is god-awful. The Evil Within takes the over-the-shoulder camera to a whole ‘nother level, putting it so close to Sebastian that it feels like the player is resting their chin on his shoulder. Not only can this make the game nauseating to watch; it’s often difficult to tell where Sebastian is whenever he gets mobbed by enemies. Over-the-shoulder camera? More like over-the-ear camera.

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Danger (camera) close, danger (camera) close!

The next fumble in The Evil Within‘s lineup of design missteps is its frustrating placement of traps. This game is absolutely lousy with trip wires and bear traps, to the point where players have to maintain a schizophrenic level of vigilance to avoid getting blown to smithereens. It’s a prime example of the “bulls***t death” phenomenon, in which the game tries to create environmental tension but ultimately ends up punishing even reasonably careful players. Dark Souls fans will do well in this game.

Finally, there’s the boss battles. Japanese games have an unfortunate habit of including overly long boss fights whose order of difficulty is completely scrambled, and The Evil Within is no exception. Sebastian faces giant creatures with several bars of health and a retinue of frustrating attacks, making such confrontations in The Evil Within a test of patience rather than skill. What’s more, this game’s boss battles are arranged in a random order of difficulty; one big baddie toward the middle of the game is teeth-gnashingly difficult to kill, while the game’s final boss is basically a glorified cutscene.

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Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

A lot of Japanese games also tend to skip out on essential story details. The Evil Within‘s plot is only barely comprehensible; as a study of how people would navigate a series of horror environments, it’s not bad, but as a coherent story it’s pretty messy. There’s no meaning behind most of the environments that Sebastian visits. Indeed, The Evil Within‘s levels could be shuffled into any order and the game’s plot would not suffer for it. Not to get too spoilery, but The Evil Within doesn’t even really explain why Sebastian is in this world to begin with! Sure, it explains why some other characters might be there… just not the main one.

Oh well; it’s not like any of the characters in The Evil Within are all that memorable or interesting anyway. Sebastian’s character has the alcoholic cop stereotype down to a T. He spends most of his time musing about the weirdness of the world or kicking back whiskey instead of developing as a person. Even the voice talent of Anson Mount (Cullen Bohannon on AMC’s Hell on Wheels) can only do so much against such mediocre character writing. This game’s other characters fill similarly stock niches; Sebastian’s partner Joseph, for example is the stereotypical straight-edged detective keeping his partner afloat.

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In a world… where cops drink alcohol… and talk in movie trailer voices…

If The Evil Within can’t provide memorable characters or a coherent story, at least it looks cool and runs pretty well. The game’s visual design presents a steady series of hauntingly beautiful worlds ranging from destroyed cityscapes to bleak countrysides. Since this is a horror game, players can also count on finding plenty of gory laboratories and an antiquated church or two. The Evil Within relies on a diverse palette of muted colors to telegraph its haunted atmosphere, as well as some admittedly well-placed lighting and fog effects.

The Evil Within runs pretty well on default options, but players can always tweak any performance problems with the game’s outstanding options menu. Some players may find that The Evil Within has an unsteady frame-rate, no doubt a by-product of porting this game to PC and doing away with the 30 frames-per-second cap endemic to consoles. The Evil Within also features those stupid black widescreen bars for a more “cinematic” experience, but players can learn how to turn those off right here.

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Come on, I just wanted to admire the tessellation on your chainsaw!

The Evil Within is not the horror opus that its small but dedicated fan base claims it to be. It has fluid third-person shooting and an interesting world, but its boss fights are awful and its story is incomprehensible. None of this means that that game doesn’t have its moments of fun or an absorbing atmosphere, but the title is ultimately brought down by a handful of massively consequential design mishaps. It’s a game that’s bursting at the seams with interesting ideas… but those ideas have no organization whatsoever.

Additionally, players who are interested in The Evil Within but want Amnesia-style survival should check out The Assignment and The Consequence, two DLC packs that force players to sneak around sans weapons. Starring character Juli Kidman isn’t all that interesting and it’s cringe-worthy to watch her run around this nightmare world in six-inch heels, but the DLC’s gameplay is much more in line with hardcore survival horror games. Meanwhile, players in the mood for something a bit more lively should check out The Executioner, a DLC that lets players smash heads and take names as the aforementioned Trapezoid Head.

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Now THIS is what I call Hammer Time!

To recap, The Evil Within is a meh game, one that horror fans won’t be lesser for missing out on. The universe that the game presents is fascinating, but it’s just so… jumbled. Hopefully The Evil Within 2 will introduce some much-needed refinements to the series: putting the boss battles in a gradually ascending order of difficulty wouldn’t hurt, and neither would including some more interesting characters and a more focused plot. That over-the-shoulder camera also needs to be pushed back; way back. And please, Shinji, for the love of Cthulhu… cut back on all those damn bear traps and tripwires. Please?

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You can buy The Evil Within here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Rayman Origins

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Stop an army of monsters from fouling up the world.

PC Release: November 15, 2011

By Ian Coppock

Ah, it’s nice to finally return to the fold of everyone’s favorite limbless hero. It’s been a while since a Rayman game was reviewed on this page; Rayman 2: The Great Escape and Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc were both covered in… what, January of 2016? So yeah… it’s been a while. The time is ripe, though, to turn to one of video gaming’s zaniest worlds: a world where the colors are as bright as the prettiest summer days and fun platforming is in abundance. Obviously, we’re talking about Rayman Origins.

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The Rayman series has had a strange journey. The franchise debuted in 1995 with a self-titled 2D platformer before swapping over to a 3D action-adventure format in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. After that, the property got lost in the weeds, with Rayman hanging up his platforming chops to go party with a bunch of goggly-eyed bunnies in 2006’s Rayman Raving Rabbids. Rayman went dormant for the next five years (sans the occasional handheld game) before roaring back to life with Rayman Origins in 2011.

As its name implies, Rayman Origins is a reboot that takes the series back to its original side-scrolling roots (though it doesn’t disclose the actual origins of everyone’s favorite limbless hero). The title also marks the return of series creator Michel Ancel, who hadn’t directed a Rayman game since 1999’s Rayman 2: The Great Escape and played only minor (if any) role in the development of subsequent Rayman titles.

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This way to the adventure!

Rayman Origins begins with the titular hero soaking up some peace and quiet… until his buddy Globox’s snoring wakes up an army of evil Darktoons. Because snoring is apparently a felony in the underworld, they put Rayman & co. behind bars and start trashing the Glade of Dreams. To make matters worse, they lock up all of the cutesy little Electoons and give one of Rayman’s friends nightmares about becoming a chicken (oh the horror). Once again, it’s up to Rayman to save his friends and the world.

As Rayman, players can save the Glade of Dreams by journeying to each of its eight eye-popping worlds and rescuing the Electoons from the monsters. Electoons can be found in cages hidden throughout each level and are also given out as prizes for scoring enough points. The more Electoons Rayman collects, the more worlds he can unlock. Rayman Origins also features co-op, in which teams of up to four players can seek out Electoons together. Origins‘ gallery of sidekicks includes Rayman’s best friend Globox, a couple of Teensies, and various re-skins of all four heroes.

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Whee!

Rayman Origins‘ gameplay is pure side-scrolling platformer, and damn if it doesn’t run on a hardy diet of running, jumping, and punching. Players can sprint through levels punching foes and discovering secrets, or use Rayman’s trademark helicopter hair to hover to hard-to-reach areas. Rejoice, classic platforming fans; there’s a whole lot of jumping around on floating platforms and kicking the crap out of cartoony foes to be had in Rayman Origins (not to mention lots of hidden treasure).

Origins also benefits from intricate level design. Though each level in Rayman Origins is played from left to right, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of hidden alcoves and alternate paths to find. As Rayman, players can venture into dark caves and through curtains of vegetation in search of more treasure. Indeed, being up for some exploring is a must in Rayman Origins, as the amount of Electoons needed to get to the next area is usually too high for players to obtain by just by speeding through stages. The game’s level design varies from world to world; players can expect to spend one world swinging through trees and the next swimming to the deepest depths.

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Running and jumping and running and jumping and running and jumping…

Rayman Origins‘ apt combination of fluid gameplay and multilayered level design is what gives the game its platforming punch. The fact that it took the platforming world by storm in 2011 is evidence that, while platformers hadn’t necessarily forgotten how to do good platforming, they’d still simplified their level design and removed the intricacy once endemic to the genre. Most Mario games, for example, feature only a single path forward in their levels while Rayman Origins has several.

The other gameplay element that Rayman Origins recaptures from the golden days of platforming is its high difficulty level. Rayman can only take a single blow before it’s back to the beginning of that segment of the level (though he can sustain two hits if he finds an extra heart). Couple Rayman’s fragility with Rayman Origins‘ plethora of enemies and obstacles, and it makes for a challenging game. Its high learning curve won’t suit everyone, but old-school platforming fans looking for a new challenge will absolutely relish this design element. 

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More friends equals more adventures.

Before anything else can be said about Rayman Origins, hows about that eye-popping artwork? If Rayman Origins wasn’t celebrated for its fluid gameplay or back-to-basics design philosophy, it won gamers’ hearts with its colorful aesthetic. Comprising hundreds of in-game objects and thousands of shades of color, Rayman Origins‘ take on the Glade of Dreams is one of the most vibrant platforming landscapes of the decade. The game is unafraid to use bright colors in every environment from jungles to giant Mexican kitchens. Rayman Origins also has fun with a wide palette of textures.

Additionally, Rayman Origins features fantastic character animation. Everything from Rayman’s punching to his running is fluidly animated, as are the movements of the worlds’ flora and characters. The only problematic element of Origins‘ character design is how sexualized the Glade of Dreams’ nymphs are. Not only is this an obnoxious design choice on its own, but these busty fairies draw a conspicuous contrast with how cute and innocent the rest of the game looks.

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Suddenly this game feels dirty..

Even though Rayman Origins‘ world is visually and musically complex, the game’s 2.5D setup and visuals means that it has little trouble running on PC. The options menu could stand to be better (as always) but players should have no problem running Rayman Origins on monster rig desktops or little potato laptops. As is common with platformers ported to PC, the game’s keyboard & mouse controls are a little… unrefined; not so much as to make the game unplayable, but just enough to warrant using a gamepad if possible.

If Rayman Origins has a flaw, it’s that Michel Ancel invested much more effort into the game’s art and music than he did the story. Sure, each character has some cutesy dialogue, but the game is much more about completing levels than following along with a narrative. That’s not a bad thing for a game to do if it’s fun enough (and Rayman Origins certainly is) but the property has proven to be an ample storytelling franchise in games past, especially Rayman 2. Players shouldn’t come to Rayman Origins for an involved narrative, but they should stay for how fun and funny the characters are despite the lack of one.

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Swim away, swim away!

Rayman Origins is a fun game; it’s a challenging title, but it’ll love players that brave depths and heights to find those Electoons. The game is solid evidence that love for old-school platformers is still alive and well today, even though most modern platformers have moved away from difficulty and intricate level design. Rayman Origins espouses both of those things, though, and players who do the same should pick this title up and give those nasty Darktoons a (literal) run for their money.

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You can buy Rayman Origins here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Tacoma

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Discover what happened to the crew of an offline space station.

PC Release: August 2, 2017

By Ian Coppock

At first glance, Tacoma‘s premise of investigating the whereabouts of a missing space crew doesn’t sound novel for a sci-fi narrative. Hell, how many dozens of other video games begin with the protagonist following up on a distress signal? Even though Tacoma‘s starting point sounds as pedestrian as can be for a science fiction story, that doesn’t mean that the game should be overlooked. A studio that picks a common story starting point can still breathe fresh life into the concept by changing its conventions. Tacoma is many things, but conventional is not one of them.

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Tacoma is the sophomore effort of Fullbright, an Oregon-based studio that debuted onto the indie scene with 2014’s Gone HomeGone Home remains one of gaming’s most polarizing titles (both for its design and its taboo subject matter), but Fullbright still succeeded in creating an alluring mystery game. Gone Home had a strong atmosphere, masterful voice acting, and is arguably the most refined “walking simulator” on the market.

Fullbright has built upon what it innovated with Gone Home in its production of Tacoma. Like its predecessor, Tacoma is much more focused on story and atmosphere than action, and also prioritizes letting players explore every nook and cranny of the game world (kleptos take note). Unlike Gone HomeTacoma is also more focused on science fiction than nostalgia (what with its rather conspicuous, super-cool space station) but is no less adamant in its attempts to evoke emotions from the player.

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Space…? Space! SPAAAAAAACE

Tacoma begins when player character Amy Ferrier arrives to the titular space station Tacoma to investigate the whereabouts of its crew… all of whom seem to be missing. Her main objective is to explore Tacoma and retrieve the brain of ODIN, the station’s resident AI. Because ODIN doesn’t really feel like talking to strangers, the only way for Amy to find out what happened to Tacoma’s crew is to look for clues in each of the station’s modules.

At first glance, players could be forgiven for labeling Tacoma as “Gone Home in Space.” Like Gone Home, Tacoma begins with the player character arriving to a new location and discovering that its usual inhabitants are missing. Like Gone Home, it’s up to the protagonist of Tacoma to explore her surroundings in a particular order and piece together the story of why no one’s around. For all of the visual difference afforded by Tacoma‘s shift to space, the Fullbright formula is still at this title’s heart.

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Apparently Cali will be its own country in 2088.

Amy’s main means of Sherlocking around the station are to tap into its surveillance tools and listen to recorded conversations. Most rooms on the station allow players to see a past conversation between Tacoma’s crew and pause, rewind, or fast-forward the chatter as necessary. Amy can also hack into each crew member’s holo-smartphone device to retrieve documents and private messages. Once Amy’s gathered as many past conversations as she can find, players can move on to Tacoma’s next module.

The conversation tool is a neat little novelty for witnessing past interactions. Crew members show up in the tool’s viewfinder as neon mannequins, and players can find out what they need to know by following them around and listening in. Sometimes players will need to witness several conversations happening simultaneously. The only drawback to this mechanic is that because Amy is apparently deaf in one ear, any character she’s listening to will immediately mute if she’s not right behind them.

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Past interactions between crew members, a.k.a. the progeny of EDC and the Blue Man Group.

Tacoma‘s voice acting is legendary. As with Gone Home, Fullbright succeeded in finding some top-notch voice talent for each of the game’s characters. Between the game’s voice acting and its solid character writing, each of the station’s six characters feel quite human (despite showing up in Amy’s viewfinder as glowing golems). Players who also feel like doing a little gray hat gumshoe-ing can learn the secrets, hopes, and fears that each character hides behind their high-tech veneer. The Tacoma’s crew is not video gaming’s first space crew, but it’s an especially lovable bunch of humans.

The one voice acting decision that’s surprising about Tacoma is how the game uses the talents of Sarah Grayson, who returned from voicing Sam in Gone Home to lend her voice to Amy in Tacoma. Unfortunately, she gets, like… three lines of dialogue in the entire game. Perhaps that’s all she wanted to do or had time for, but it’s a shame that the actress who delivered such a tear-jerking performance in Gone Home didn’t get more audio time in Tacoma. Oh well. Good thing the rest of the cast is still stellar.

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“I believe I can flooooat…. anti-gravityyy makes me blooooat…” (TM)

Besides listening in on conversations between space ghosts, the other leg of Tacoma‘s gameplay is good ole’ rifling through drawers and reading embarrassing anecdotes from personal diaries (y’know, the usual for mystery games). Tacoma is not the biggest space station in the galaxy, but each of its environments are flooded with interactive objects and hidden notes. Tacoma borrows Gone Home‘s item mechanic of being able to examine an item and then let it snap back to its resting place, rather than having to throw it and hope that it doesn’t break a lamp. Item physics; who needs ’em?

Each environment in Tacoma is also replete with bright colors and well-honed textures. The game looks sharp and sleek; not just because it’s a space station, but also because Fullbright successfully leverages contrast and gorgeous lighting. The game’s level design is the International Space Station on steroids; sure, there are some constricting corridors, but players can also explore neatly packed complexes of offices, living quarters, and even a tea garden. For all the talk that’s been made of Fullbright borrowing from Gone Home for this game, the studio succeeds in leveling up its level design.

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Solid break, Ms. Ghost.

Tacoma looks nice and its level design makes for a fluid package that no player will get lost in… but the options menu underlying all of that niceness could stand some fleshing out. There are some token options for resolution and graphical fidelity, but they make the error of tying several visual elements together under one option. These options don’t stop players from having a backup plan in case Tacoma doesn’t run, but they may also experience the occasional crash while playing the game; especially during the transitions between modules.

Crashes and limited options are about all that can be said against Tacoma‘s performance on PC, though. The game runs well. It keeps an even-keeled framerate and its module transitions (conspicuous as they may be) are pretty quick. Hopefully Fullbright has been quick to patch any other issues that have come up; the company has been active on Tacoma‘s Steam community page and worked diligently to bring the title to Linux (rejoice, Linux Ultra Race).

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The only thing missing is the Mass Effect elevator music.

Between Tacoma‘s dialogue design and its strong emphasis on exploration, the game is an exemplar of what Fullbright calls “environmental storytelling.” Rather than playing an active role in the narrative, players get to explore its aftermath and piece together their own conclusions from the many clues strewn about. It’s a design style that initially flies in the face of the idea that players are at the heart of video game narratives, but ends up still letting them be a part of the story after the bulk of it has played out.

This style of storytelling doesn’t suit all tastes. It can invoke the feeling that the player is just a passive observer rather than the driver of the story. Something to consider, though, is that players can still piece together a played-out story at their own pace, which can alter what conclusions are drawn about the narrative. Besides, especially in the case of Tacoma… who’s to say that the entire story has already played out by the time Amy’s arrived? The narrative certainly doesn’t hurt for emotional weight, either.

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I’ll have a Holo-Libre, please.

Because of its ambitious voice acting, believable character development, and preference for environmental storytelling, Tacoma successfully shakes up the distress call trope endemic to so many other games. It stands out from its sci-fi peers because players still get to make their own conclusions about the narrative even though they’re arriving after the bulk of it has already played out. Tacoma‘s storytelling style also lends it a thick mystery atmosphere, one that players everywhere would be remiss to not try for themselves.

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You can buy Tacoma here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Life is Strange

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Investigate weird happenings around town and in the lives of your loved ones.

PC Release: January 30, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Life is strange. That’s both a fact of human existence and the name of the subject of tonight’s review. Most games that bill themselves as a critical examination of life spend more time lost in nostalgic musing than actually delivering the hurricane of emotions that life throws at every person. Life is Strange is different; it pines for simpler times just like all the proverbial Dear Esthers and Gone Homes but is much more visceral in its presentation of human emotion.

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Life is Strange is the rarest of creatures: a modern episodic adventure game that wasn’t developed by Telltale. Rather, the game was made by Dontnod Entertainment, a French studio with a rather eccentric pedigree (including 2015’s less-than-memorable Remember Me). After Remember Me tanked, Dontnod decided to adopt the guise of an indie studio and focus on smaller, more narrative-driven projects. Life is Strange is the first product of that shift.

Life is Strange stars Max Caulfield, a photography student attending high school in the fictional hipster hangout of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. Max discovers that she has the ability to manipulate time when she inadvertently rewinds a shooting in the school’s bathroom; she uses her newfound abilities to prevent the shooting from occurring at all and then continues testing her powers on the people around her. Max realizes that she can use her ability to undo mistakes and learn valuable info; the downside is that she periodically passes out and has nightmares about a hurricane wiping out Arcadia Bay.

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Wish I’d been able to undo faux pas in high school…

As if discovering these powers wasn’t disorienting enough, Max is also unexpectedly reunited with Chloe, her best friend of five years ago. Chloe still resents Max for having moved out of Arcadia Bay and then ghosting her for half a decade, but agrees to hear Max out on the discovery of these new powers. Meanwhile, Chloe’s been busy searching for her best friend Rachel Amber, who suddenly vanished six months ago. To help make amends, Max agrees to help Chloe find Rachel.

In addition to searching for Rachel, Chloe and Max have their work cut out for them interacting with the various denizens of Arcadia Bay. Chloe’s home life is strained by an antagonistic relationship with her stepfather, while Max’s ability to rewind time can only do so much against the pressures of high school life. She still has to deal with an alcoholic principal, a paranoid security guard, a crappy dorm… and the popular kids. Those nightmares about a hurricane destroying Arcadia Bay don’t seem to be going away either.

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I’d take Outlast’s Chris Walker over the popular kids any day.

Life is Strange is played from a third-person perspective and the meat of its gameplay is conversation. As Max, players can advance through the game simply by talking to people. Some conversations require using Max’s rewind powers to trick confessions out of characters or getting a certain reaction out of them. Much of Life is Strange‘s story is determined by Max’s relationships with these people; does she make nice with the popular kids, stand up for the nerds, or have nothing to do with either tribe?

Periodically, Life is Strange also forces players to make keystone choices that can significantly alter the course of the story. Max can use her powers to evaluate the immediate reaction of either choice, but Life is Strange is careful to put that choice’s ultimate consequence down the road a ways. As a result, players still have to take care when evaluating their decisions, especially since Max can only rewind or fast-forward so much.

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Netflix or Hulu?

The second leg of Life is Strange‘s gameplay is searching for clues in the game world. Keen attention to detail is a must in this game, as many hints about Rachel’s disappearance are hidden in plain sight. Of course, because many characters in Life as Strange will only divulge so much through conversation, finding their proverbial closet skeletons is the second best way for Max to find the information she needs. It also pays for Max to cover her tracks, so players who trash the place looking for clues are best off rewinding time to make it look tidy again.

Finally, Life is Strange comes packed with environmental and conversation puzzles. Max can use her abilities to manipulate items and open up pathways, be that tricking a drug dealer into giving her his keys or something more audacious like dropping farm equipment on a door. The best of these puzzles are the ones where Max has to trick information out of several characters in order to force an admission from a key person. Learn a compromising bit of info, rewind to make it seem like Max knew all along, and trick the suspect into spilling the rest of the beans.

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Time to get shifty.

The conversations in Life as Strange are much more than simply a means of progressing through the game: they’re among the best video game writing of the last decade. Max is eloquently characterized as a shy yet kind girl unsure about her new powers, while Chloe’s pain over her father passing (and subsequent punk rock attitude) are written with no less attention to character building. Both characters evolve believably over the course of Life is Strange‘s five-episode run. Players can influence Max’s evolution through conversation choices and, subsequently, her relationship with Chloe.

Dontnod’s writing skill extends to the other characters in Arcadia Bay as well. Every character (even the ones with only a few sentences of dialogue) is given multiple dimensions for Max to explore through conversation. Dontnod succeeds in fleshing out each character, taking them beyond stock NPC niches and making them believable people under the surface. Few games make characters as believable as Life is Strange does, and it’s thanks to both good dialogue and evenly paced development.

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Life is Strange excels at replicating getting to know someone.

Although Life is Strange represents an achievement for dialogue in video games, its visual design is much more problematic. By Dontnod’s own admission, the bulk of the budget for Life as Strange went into voice acting and writing instead of visuals. That’s hardly the worst thing in the world, but it does result in Life is Strange suffering some embarrassing visual problems. The game’s lip syncing is robotic, and at some points it doesn’t kick in at all. Character animations vary wildly between being fluid and being stiff, the latter of which draws a stark contrast with the well-delivered voice acting.

Additionally, Life is Strange‘s game world is rife with blurry textures. The game attempts to write these off as a cutesy aesthetic not dissimilar to the pastel-like imagery in games like The Long Dark, but it’s an attempt that’s not difficult to see through. All is not lost, though; Life is Strange‘s world is brightly colored even if it’s muddily textured, and the resulting look is charming if somewhat primitive. The options menu underpinning all of this is decent, but could be more comprehensive.

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Lighting ain’t bad, though.

Life is Strange‘s dated visual design still can’t hamper the game’s tense atmosphere. The story at the game’s heart is deliciously suspenseful, as Max and Chloe’s search for Rachel leads them to some dark secrets. The town of Arcadia Bay is chock full of ’em, hidden in old parts of town and behind the veneers of certain characters. The story is apt at delivering chills and thrills at an even pace, even if Life is Strange‘s episodes are uneven in length (episode four is at least twice as long as its predecessors).

Indeed, Life is Strange can be quite the heart-stopper, dropping surprising twists and tense conversations at just the right moments. In some places the game verges on being a horror title, but its suspense is much more in the vein of Firewatch than Outlast. As Max and Chloe get closer to finding the truth about Rachel, they also devote time to working out their own troubled relationship and those of characters around them. Life is Strange is a curious study in how so many seemingly disparate phenomena can be connected, which is certainly true of Max’s own experience in the game.

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Max is life. Life is Max.

Life is Strange‘s narrative weight is also lent some heft by the game’s willingness to explore taboo subjects. The game examines bullying, suicide, and sexual assault with a more daring hand than other games that bill themselves as surveyors of those topics. Though these things are nothing to smile about, Life is Strange presents them in a tasteful manner, pulling no punches in its presentation of those motifs but also knowing when to pull back on them to give players some emotional breathing room. They serve to make the characters’ feelings more real instead of merely to provide shock value.

At the same time, Life is Strange‘s story does suffer a few design mishaps. The game contrives sudden rules about Max’s time travel with irritating frequency, a habit that may not sound all that bad on its own but has a detrimental effect on the game’s ending. It’s difficult to elaborate without spoiling; let’s just say that Max has an arbitrary realization about her abilities that feels like it was shoehorned into the story at the last second instead of having evolved naturally. Story-driven games have a nasty habit of doing that these days.

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I’M NOT CRYING YOU’RE CRYING

Life is Strange‘s narrative doesn’t hit every structural note, but boy is it a tear-jerker. Few are the games that can bring the visceral reality of human emotion to the small screen as effectively as this game does. Life is Strange‘s ability to do so hinges on the game’s stellar character writing and voice acting, as well as narrative pacing that delivers levity and heaviness at just the right tempo. This is a game that everyone—even gamers who normally avoid adventure games—should try. It’s one of those rare games whose emotions stick with gamers long after they’ve finished playing it.

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You can buy Life is Strange here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Shadow Complex Remastered

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Save your girlfriend from the clutches of a terrorist organization.

PC Release: December 3, 2015

By Ian Coppock

What is it about spy flicks that makes them so endearing? Is it the mystery of uncovering a terrorist’s evil plot, or is it the thrill of watching a fluidly choreographed action sequence? Both elements have driven such film franchises as Mission: Impossible and James Bond to fantastic (financial) heights. Despite doing well on the big screen, spy thrillers have become disappointingly rare in the world of video games. They’re not extinct, though, as evidenced by Shadow Complex Remastered.

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Shadow Complex Remastered is a platformer developed by Chair Entertainment, a Utah-based studio best-known for making the Infinity Blade trilogy. Shadow Complex was originally released as a digital exclusive for the Xbox 360 back in 2009 and, to the delight of many fans, was re-released on PC as a free digital download in 2015. The full re-release, Shadow Complex Remastered, launched on Steam the following spring with a variety of touched-up visuals and added content for the die-hard Shadow Complex fan.

Shadow Complex Remastered is a side-scrolling shooter that places itself firmly in the “Metroidvania” sub-genre of platformers. Key characteristics of that sub-genre include lots of hidden rooms to explore and backtracking through previously visited areas once armed with new equipment. Shadow Complex Remastered has both of these things in spades, as well as a story that wouldn’t look out of place in a lineup of Mission: Impossible films.

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Hi-ya!

Shadow Complex Remastered stars Jason Flemming, a charming every-man whose sarcastic jokes and dry observations are given life by the voice of Nolan North (is that guy in everything?) Jason and his new girlfriend Claire stumble upon a cave while out hiking, and when Jason follows her inside, he finds himself on the doorstep of a secret base. Claire is captured by the base’s well-armed occupants, forcing Jason to launch a rescue mission all while discovering who this organization is.

Luckily for Claire, Jason happens to be an expert marksman, trained by his father for a military career he was never interested in. Reluctant to incite violence but even more reluctant to let Claire die, Jason picks up a pistol and ventures into an ever-larger military complex in pursuit of his girlfriend. The foes he’s up against sport futuristic technology like robots and laser guns, and what they plan to use these weapons for might be even more alarming.

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Uh-oh.

As Jason, it’s up to players to explore the enemy base and defeat foes wherever they can be found. Jason has an infinite amount of ammunition but must reload frequently, making crouching behind barriers a must for surviving combat. Jason starts out with a pistol but acquires larger guns as he gets deeper into the base. Players can also take advantage of an expansive arsenal of secondary weapons, including grenades, rockets, and purple foam that can turn enemies into silly string snowmen.

In true Metroidvania style, players will often be unable to access certain areas until they can come back with the proper tools to do so. Shadow Complex Remastered revels in re-contextualizing areas that players have already explored. Can’t open that grate? Come back when Jason has the right weapon. Shadow Complex‘s map is presented as a series of grid squares, and many of those squares have hidden secrets for players to find. Players up for a bit of exploring can find hidden health and ammo extenders, and can also level up to gain access to automatic perks like bonus damage.

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This is your brain on arachnophobia.

A good Metroidvania can only pull off all of this backtracking and hidden rooms with decent level design, and Shadow Complex Remastered accomplishes that brilliantly. The game’s world is an intricately connected labyrinth of rooms whose arrangement is fluid; so fluid that players will have little trouble traversing from one end of the base to another. Even though Shadow Complex‘s grid is both vertical and horizontal, players can easily backtrack to previously explored areas and find secret rooms.

It’s because of its secret rooms that Shadow Complex Remastered is a delight for explorers. It’s fun to ransack the base in search of hidden alcoves and vents, most of which lead to handy dandy upgrades. Shadow Complex Remastered‘s map marks secrets with a question mark so that players can have some idea of which rooms pack hidden goodies. Like in all of the great Metroidvania games, players can highlight what material a locked door is made of and come back once they’ve got the weapon to blow it open.

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Gotta love special ops-brand silly string.

Exploring the world of Shadow Complex Remastered is all the more fun for how well its gameplay is implemented. The game encourages exploration by making Jason immune to fall damage, but balances that out with punishing enemy attacks. Shadow Complex Remastered also shakes up its traveling by introducing mysterious underwater environments (bring a swimsuit). In addition to finding more sophisticated weapons, Jason also gains access to some cool spy gadgets to make getting around Shadow Complex Remastered more fun (yes, that includes a jetpack).

Though gadgets are fun to find and use, some of them could stand better gameplay implementation. The grappling hook is a particularly finicky device that does a poor job of indicating to players which ledges are close enough to grapple and which ones are too far away. Same goes for the super-speed boots, whose controls for wall-jumping are basically nonexistent. These are small nicks in an otherwise solid core of gameplay, but they’re nicks that players would do well to watch out for.

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The progeny of a War of the Worlds tripod and a Star Wars AT-ST.

Despite the subtitle “Remastered” Shadow Complex Remastered also has its struggles in the art department. The game’s character animations, a holdover from the design conventions of the late 2000’s, are quite shaky. Whether it’s during a cutscene or in actual gameplay, the characters often move as though they’ve got dozens of little earthquakes rocking their joints. The scene at the beginning of the game in which Jason’s arm spasms as he puts on a backpack is particularly painful to watch.

Having said that, Chair Entertainment did a great job of updating Shadow Complex‘s other design elements. The game’s textures look a lot sharper in the Remastered edition as opposed to the Xbox 360 original, and the lighting and shadow effects have much more volume to them. Facial animations, while still a bit stiff, look quite good. Shadow Complex Remastered also fixes numerous bugs that plagued the original edition, like enemy corpses suddenly careening off-screen. The game runs quite well even for a PC port of an older game and its options menu is… acceptable.

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The Remastered edition does look a lot better.

Shadow Complex Remastered shakes up the original game’s visuals and aversion to bugs, but one element that it leaves alone is the narrative. The story is a crisp, concisely written action-thriller driven almost solely by dialogue; it features just the right amount of exposition woven into conversations between characters and answers questions at an even pace. Neither the game’s concept of homegrown terrorists nor its notion of the novice hero is anything new, but Shadow Complex‘s neat writing and old-school Metroidvania vibe make both elements feel fresh and fun.

For his part, Nolan North does a good job voicing the character of Jason Flemming, whom he aptly brings to life as an everyday guy thrust into a bad situation (and whose name is almost certainly a shout-out to James Bond author Ian Flemming). The character of Flemming draws heavy inspiration from North’s previous projects; it’s no hyperbole to say that Flemming is basically one part the sarcasm of Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake and one part the bewilderment of Assassin’s Creed‘s Desmond Miles. The character’s quips and jokes reinforce the aforementioned everyday joe vibe pretty well.

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“Let’s go hiking,” she said. “It’ll be fun,” she said.

Shadow Complex Remastered is a game that no platformer or shooter fan should miss. Its presentation aptly combines a well-paced story, pretty visuals, and some of the best Metroidvania level design of the last 10 years. Chair is to be commended for smoothly porting this title to PC (something most devs seem to have a lot of trouble doing these days) and the game plays fine with either a keyboard and mouse or a gamepad. Hopefully the game having been remastered is a sign that Chair is working on some kind of follow-up, because Shadow Complex Remastered contains a lot of what the gaming industry is missing these days: masterful level design, spy thrills, and, simply, fun.

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You can buy Shadow Complex Remastered here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Pyre

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Lead a team of exiles from the brink of collapse to the cusp of victory.

PC Release: July 25, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Has anyone seen the new Gatorade ad urging viewers to “make defeat your fuel”? As much as bringing that ad up may seem like a cynical attempt to boost this review’s search rankings (and as much as Gatorade is a mediocre beverage), the ad does raise an interesting point about defeat. Setbacks can be crushing, but they can also spur people to make a roaring comeback and surpass their personal demons. Just as that sports drink advertisement is unusual in its examination of defeat, so too is the subject of tonight’s review: Pyre.

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Pyre is the latest creation of Supergiant Games, the indie studio behind universally acclaimed titles Bastion and Transistor. Like its two predecessors, Pyre is a game that puts players in a vibrant world and sets out to tell a compelling story with as much showing and as little telling as possible. Unlike Bastion and TransistorPyre is a party-based role-playing game that challenges players to manage an entire group of novel heroes instead of just one.

Pyre is set in the Downside, a world whose magic, monsters, and audacious battles all make for a much livelier place than the name “the Downside” implies. The downside of the Downside is that it’s a purgatory; a place where a government called the Commonwealth sends those it deems criminals. Players take command of one such band of exiles on a quest to find a way out (if such a thing exists) of the Downside and back to the Commonwealth.

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A round of applause for the hipster, the talking dog, and an angry lady with horns!

Pyre‘s story begins when the aforementioned hipster, talking dog, and angry horned lady fish the player character out of a desert. The character is an anonymous female scholar nicknamed the Reader, so labeled because of her ability to, well… read (from this it can be inferred that the Downside’s literacy rate ain’t all that high). The exiles who rescue her have a bunch of old tomes sitting in their wagon; from them the Reader learns that escape from the Downside might be possible if the exiles participate in the Rites.

The Rites are both the main plot device and the primary gameplay mechanic of Pyre; a series of magical games in which teams of three face off for a chance at escape from the Downside. The exiles agree to form their own squad and set off in their trusty wagon, intent on confronting other triumvirates of castaways and getting the hell out of hell. It’s up to players to manage their team of Rite participants, decide which routes to take between battles, and see their companions through the perils of the Downside.

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For freedom!

Pyre‘s gameplay marks a significant departure from the isometric adventuring of Bastion and Transistor. Players navigate the world of the Downside in a visual novel-style interface where animated action plays out in the background and important info is presented in the foreground. Players can chat up characters and make important decisions regarding their journey, like which path to take through the wilderness. The Reader can also access the wagon’s interior during pit stops or visit the slugmarket (so named for the physiology of its proprietor) to trade goods.

The Rites comprise Pyre‘s other piece of gameplay. Once the exiles have arrived to the next battle site, it’s up to players to select a team of three companions to face off against a triumvirate of opponents. Each team is given a pyre (hey!) to defend. Once the match begins, a magical orb is dropped onto the field for players to jockey for. The goal of the game is to carry that orb past the opponent’s defenses and slam dunk it into their pyre, weakening its flame. Whichever team can extinguish the enemy’s pyre first wins the match. Each round is narrated by a sarcastic, condescending wizard who’s as likely to chide the player for being a screw-up as he is to laud their inventiveness.

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Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for the Downsiiiiiiide Exiiiiiiiiles!!!

Rites in Pyre play like a combination of Rocket League and Interloper. Characters exude a circular aura that functions like a shield, and when two opponents’ auras overlap, the character with the weaker aura will disintegrate and be banished from the field for a few moments. Characters can also cast a deadly spell that carpet bombs a straight path ahead of them, eliminating any foes that get caught in the blast. Both of these perks are rescinded when a character grabs the orb, making them vulnerable.

Characters in Pyre can roughly be divided into light, medium, and heavy weight classes. Light characters are fleet-footed on the battlefield but only do so much damage to the enemy pyre. By contrast, heavy characters move across the battlefield at a slow lumber, but their attack spell does much more damage to foes and they can take twice as many life points away from the enemy pyre as light characters. Each character also has his or her own abilities useful for getting around faster and dodging enemy attacks.

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It’s time to duel!

Although these magic-ball matches are fun and make for quite a little adrenaline rush, they’re not without their clunkiness. Players can only control one character at a time; sure, it’s not hard to rapidly switch between contestants, but it’s awkward to take one character out onto the field and leave the other ones idling near the pyre. Additionally, some character classes just ain’t all that great at magic-ball. The aforementioned heavy character is a beast at taking out foes, but getting her to the enemy pyre is difficult.

Then again, getting the characters to work as a team is one of the main points of Pyre. Perhaps it’s better to use the heavy character to wipe out enemies and then switch over to the light character to deliver the orb-dunk. Combatants also gain experience after each match whether it ends in victory or defeat, and can learn valuable new abilities with each level-up. Players can also equip their athletes with ability-enhancing trinkets found out in the game world.

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Three points? More like THIRTY POINTS!

Though Pyre‘s gameplay is quite different from that of Bastion or Transistor, the game is in lockstep with its predecessors when it comes to the quality of its writing. Once again, Supergiant has succeeded in creating a vibrant, alluring world with its own original lore. Unlike its two predecessors, though, Pyre comes loaded with exposition. Players can consult the history of the Downside in their tome or by mousing over highlighted words in characters’ dialogue.

The character writing in Pyre is the best that Supergiant has ever penned. Each participant in the Rites is far more than just a magical athlete; they’re people with checkered pasts and their own hopes and dreams for lives outside of the Downside. They evolve in response to the journey and in reaction to the actions of their teammates; as the journey wears on, players’ affection for these characters swell. Pyre starts off with the three characters pictured above but lets players acquire more of them, including a sultry bird lady and a heroic worm clad in armor.

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Players can know their characters as both warriors and people.

Pyre also represents the zenith of Supergiant’s skill with a paint brush, somehow being even more gorgeously colorful and detailed than either of the studio’s previous two games. This isn’t to say that Bastion and Transistor aren’t also lovely; only that Pyre includes more sophisticated object detail, character animations, and a brighter swath of colors. The Downside has a bad rap because of its status as a prison, but that sure doesn’t sour its many beautiful regions, all of which the player travels through on their road to freedom.

Additionally, whereas the musical scores in Bastion and Transistor both followed singular themes (the former being string-driven and the latter being jazzy), Pyre‘s soundtrack is much more eclectic. From R&B keystrokes to acoustic guitars, each track in the game seems to be an ode to each genre of music. This can leave the placement of some songs sounding random, but they’re all so good that that randomness is moot (this is a game whose soundtrack is as much a must-own as the game itself).

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The in-game sound design ain’t too shabby either!

As mentioned earlier, Pyre is a novel study of defeat and how a person comes back from it. All of the game’s visual and written design elements inform that motif. Players can learn why characters were banished to the Downside and see the effects of that banishment made manifest on the land itself. These nods toward a quest for redemption give Pyre a somber, sadly beautiful atmosphere. Everybody, even the smack-talking enemy team captain, is a sympathetic character, as they all just want to get out of this awful place and get home.

It’s that sympathy that makes Pyre such a heart-breaker. It’s difficult to elaborate without spoiling, but suffice it to say that some characters might get to go home before others. Who goes and who stays? Who will be missed the most? How will one character’s absence affect the rest of the group? No two decisions play out the same way, and Pyre masterfully telegraphs the impact of each choice to the rest of the narrative. The chance at freedom becomes as bittersweet as the backstories of the Downside’s exiles, and that’s what makes Pyre such a masterclass in studying tragic characters.

Pyre10

What a world.

Although Pyre‘s Rites need some refinement and the magic-ball competitions feel mechanically disjointed from the rest of the game, the title is Supergiant’s best work. The game aptly combines charming writing and gorgeous visuals to produce an unforgettable world. Each character is a fascinating piece of the Downside to whom players quickly become attached, and the world itself is a treasure for any fantasy fan. The icing is that the game runs bug-free (at least in the run for this review) and its options menu is competent. Defeat can be a great teacher, and no game explores that motif in a more eloquent manner than Pyre.

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You can buy Pyre here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

UBERMOSH & The Desktop Distortions

Ubermosh

Swords and bullets and vines, oh my!

PC Release: August 13, 2015

By Ian Coppock

As much as UBERMOSH & The Desktop Distortions sounds like the name of Josie and the Pussycats’ dubstep knockoff, the name actually refers to the collected works of Walter Machado, one of indie gaming’s most sublime (and underrated) developers. Putting all seven of his games into a single review is not an attempt to rush through an artist’s work, but rather a mirror of his games’ format: short, sweet, and no lesser for their furious blips of activity. Let’s start with UBERMOSH.

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UBERMOSH is a game about a female cyborg who spends time in the desert killing aliens and cutting bullets in half. That premise begs—no, screamsfor more detail, but UBERMOSH is frustratingly mum in that regard. The only other tidbits the game gives are that the woman is known as the Blade Saint and that her victims seek her out so that they can be ritually sacrificed (or so it’s implied). The Blade Saint can cut enemies and their bullets in half with a swing of her sword… but she can also pick up her fallen foes’ guns for a little wildfire of her own.

UBERMOSH is played from an isometric viewpoint and, as its name implies, is accompanied by some head-banging electronica that wouldn’t sound out of place at a rave. Guns sound so forceful that every shot fired is a bass drop. Additionally, the game leverages Starcraft-looking graphics in its design, going for a dark retro aesthetic that looks both beautiful and rough around the edges. The goal of UBERMOSH is simply to survive the alien horde for as long as possible; get hit once and it’s back to the main menu.

Uber2

COME AT ME BRUH!

UBERMOSH runs and plays like silk. The game’s aesthetic of crunchy pixels means that its system demands are low, while its gameplay is fun, fast-paced, and easy to pick up. The base game comes with a short tutorial that lets players acquaint themselves with the basics before they jump into arena mode. The more monsters players manage to slay, the higher their spot on the leaderboards. Most rounds in UBERMOSH last only a minute, so the game is usually played in short bursts.

UBERMOSH enjoyed moderate success when it released on Steam and acquired a cult following. Six months after UBERMOSH‘s debut, Walter Machado released a new version of the game on Steam called UBERMOSH:BLACK, which includes some new visuals and a much higher difficulty level. UBERMOSH:BLACK features little new exposition on the tale of the Blade Saint but adds class mods that grant specific perks like multiple respawns. Machado was careful to leave the original UBERMOSH‘s controls and music unchanged but added a new psychic ability, Brainclap, to the Blade Saint’s arsenal.

Uber3

I haven’t seen this many bug guts since the moth zapper fire of 1832.

Machado’s next release was UBERMOSH Vol.3, which adds a few more enemy types and trades in the previous two games’ hemmed-in arenas for an endless battlefield. The Blade Saint can roam as far in any direction as she chooses; it matters not, as the enemies will come spawning no matter where she runs. UBERMOSH Vol.3 also features slight tweaks to the enemies’ visuals and a morsel more story read out at the beginning of the tutorial… but not nearly enough to fully explain a cyborg who sacrifices robots to the anthem of a mosh pit.

UBERMOSH:WRAITH, the fourth title in the series, gives players the ability to unleash lightning on foes Emperor Palpatine-style. It retains the endless map of UBERMOSH Vol.3 but enemies spawn in much quicker, resulting in a harder challenge. The game also features more music to keep players’ hearts pumping as they cut down aliens left and right. Finally, UBERMOSH:WRAITH expands upon its predecessors’ penchant for class mods, letting them choose new perks at the expense of certain restrictions. For example, players can pick the ability to respawn multiple times but at the expense of being able to pick up guns.

Uber4

Fear the wraith!

UBERMOSH:WRAITH was marketed as the final volume of the UBERMOSH series, but Machado surprised the community by releasing UBERMOSH Vol.5 back in May. The fifth installment in the series is apparently set 1200 years after the first game and features the Blade Saint at her zenith. Players can wield two swords in UBERMOSH Vol.5, and all of the abilities introduced in the previous games, against an even more aggressive slew of foes. This time the exposition features subtitles, but it says little beyond that the Blade Saint can grant the titular Ubermosh phenomenon.

Walter Machado’s method of improving the UBERMOSH experience is unique even in an industry with endless sequels. Rather than simply rework the original game, Machado releases a new title every six months or so that incorporates feedback from the UBERMOSH community. On the surface this model makes Machado look like a Machiavellian profiteer, but each UBERMOSH game is only two dollars and owners of the previous games in the series get the next release for free.

Uber5

Feel the power of the dark side!

Machado’s method is also a novel way to demonstrate how a game can change over time. Each iteration of UBERMOSH features a small handful of improvements, but those iterations are preserved for players to enjoy while Machado works on the next title. UBERMOSH games don’t differ that much from title to title, but the first UBERMOSH and the fifth are very different animals. Players can experience that evolution for themselves instead of seeing the original experience replaced by an update.

Mechanically, all five UBERMOSH games present the best of the fast-paced arcade era. The games’ pixelated graphics and crunchy static are deliberate callbacks to the golden era of arcade gaming. The gameplay is challenging but fair, requiring players to watch their flanks as they slice and shoot their way through hordes of alien foes. Players who make especially effective Blade Saints can see their high scores posted on leaderboards for all to fear. UBERMOSH throws defeated players back into the fray at the clip of Hotline Miami, encouraging players to keep trying for that high score.

Uber6

A high score as measured in gallons of blood.

The UBERMOSH games present smooth, fast-paced arcade experiences that everyone should try, but they all suffer from a few common issues. The first is introducing new players; each UBERMOSH title has a tutorial but it’s basically the same as the main game, albeit with reduced enemy spawning. Sure, the controls are posted in the lower left-hand corner, but the game could do with a few tips on how to stay alive longer. Contrary to what the game’s breakneck pace implies, there is a strategy to UBERMOSH: circular running.

The other facet of the UBERMOSH series’s design that could stand some polish is the story. UBERMOSH isn’t built for an in-depth narrative but a bit more exposition on this fascinating “moshpunk” universe that Machado has created would not go unmissed. The only bits of story to be found are some quick announcements at the beginnings of some of the game’s tutorials (and only the fifth game has subtitles in its tutorial). UBERMOSH games also lack an options menu, but they auto-adjust to screen resolutions and their visuals are too basic for serious problems. The games run bug-free.

Uber7

This is your brain on lasers.

In addition to the UBERMOSH series, Machado has made two additional titles with different gameplay but a similar emphasis on short bursts of activity. The first, SWARMRIDERS, is a prequel to the UBERMOSH series that follows the Blade Saint before she became the Blade Saint. Rather than cut bullets in half, players shoot at a pursuing swarm of aliens from the back of a speeding motorcycle. The Blade Saint’s gun never stops firing, so all players have to worry about is aiming at the aliens before they touch the motorcycle. One hit and it’s game over.

Like UBERMOSHSWARMRIDERS features an aesthetic made up of crunchy pixels, but the characters and their animations are much more sophisticated. The game has music that is about as fast-paced as that of the UBERMOSH games but that’s almost exclusively driven by percussion rather than guitars and heavy electronica. It’s a challenging little gem that, like the UBERMOSH games, could do with more exposition, but provides lots of entertainment in little chunks of gameplay.

Uber8

Does anyone cover alien damage on motorcycle insurance?

Machado’s other non-UBERMOSH title is Trip to Vinelands, a trippy (hehe) running game in which players have to escape a claustrophobic array of hedges as quickly as possible. Trip to Vinelands spawns players onto a screen of spike-covered walls that shift and collide into each other constantly. Players have as little as two seconds to spot the way out of the map, only to spawn into yet another tumble of moving hedges. Players can increase their score by quickly navigating multiple screens of deathly vineyards, but get crushed and it’s back to the main menu.

Unlike the UBERMOSH games and SWARMRIDERSTrip to Vinelands features sickly sweet background colors and rapidly shifting environments. Though its gameplay involves escaping a collapsing room instead of killing aliens, Trip to Vinelands is no less dependent on quick reflexes than Machado’s other games. Indeed, Trip to Vinelands is even more of a reflex challenge than UBERMOSH or SWARMRIDERS, as players have to sprint long distances with only a second or two to evaluate their surroundings.

Uber9

Ohhhhhh mah God…

Even though Machado’s games are light on story, they’re heavy on concision. The gameplay in each of his seven Desktop Distortions—as he calls his collected works—is both fluid and frantic. Whether it’s slicing bullets fired from an alien or dodging an incoming wall of spikes, Machado’s games demand frantic attention from players, which makes them deliciously challenging.

Each of Machado’s games doesn’t suffer for having minute-long rounds… because they’re furiously fun. On top of that, each title is highly stylized with details hearkening back to the golden age of arcade gaming. Desktop Distortions is an enticing package that succeeds in delivering art in a minute. Each game in the collection is worth getting, and Machado is a developer worth watching.

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You can buy Ubermosh and Desktop Distortions here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

The UnderGarden

Garden1

Drift, soar, and relax your way through a vibrant garden.

PC Release: November 10, 2010

By Ian Coppock

The definition of playing video games to relax has changed in the last decade. It used to be that relaxing with games simply meant popping any title (be it a shooter or an arcade game) into the slot and losing oneself for a few hours. In recent years, though, a large number of gamers have sought to take that relaxation to a more literal level, playing explicitly tranquil video games in the hopes of achieving that tranquility themselves. The UnderGarden belongs to that “zen” sub-genre of games: a category of titles that seeks to provide a relaxing counterbalance to the stresses of an ever faster-paced world.

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“Zen” games comprise arguably the most amorphous game genre because they take many forms. Some, like Viridi, are abstract simulators, while games like The UnderGarden are side-scrolling platformers. Regardless of their guise, “zen” games share a common goal of providing a relaxing sound-and-game-scape for stressed out players to lose themselves in. The UnderGarden sets out to achieve that goal by giving players a delicate world whose loudest component is bright color.

The UnderGarden allows players to float around vibrant cave gardens as a cutesy space koala (that’s a sentence no one wakes up expecting to hear on any given day). The goal of The UnderGarden is simple: make it from one side of a side-scrolling level to the other at whatever pace the player deems fit. Along the way, this little Lilo and Stitch-looking creature has the ability to pollinate dormant flowers and make them spring to glowing life. The more flowers players pollinate, the higher their score.

Garden2

Ooooooooo….

In addition to bringing these flowerbeds back to life, players are expected to solve the occasional physics puzzle. These puzzles aren’t remotely difficult even on later levels, as the point of the game is to provide a relaxing environment rather than a challenging platformer. Using their pollination abilities, players can grow and use special fruits essential for progressing further in the level. Bomb fruits can make short work of stone walls, while anti-gravity fruits allow players to lift obstacles out of the way. The UnderGarden adds more fruit varieties as players progress.

Finally, players can also choose to have some little musicians accompany their space koala. These dwarf koalas can be found contentedly playing away on musical instruments in rhythm with the game’s background music. They don’t really do anything practical for gameplay but the beats and tunes they add to the music can change flowers’ colors. Players can carry the musicians and other items around using the space koala’s telepathy ability, which causes nearby objects to tether themselves to the player.

Garden3

Whee!

There are several design elements informing The UnderGarden‘s attempt at relaxation, and the most prominent one is visual design. Though the game’s background imagery of rock walls isn’t all that remarkable, the multicolored arrays of glowing plant life are absolutely delightful. Players can easily cause these flowerbeds to spring to life by absorbing pollen particles and then floating over the roots. The plants add a soft glow to the game’s hazy world and their colors span the rainbow. It makes for a pretty display.

To compliment its color power, The UnderGarden comes equipped with sharp textures on its character models and environments. All of this game’s visual elements look gorgeous even at a close distance, though the game’s lack of anti-aliasing also makes everything look somewhat serrated. Couple this textual fidelity with a smooth framerate and the result is a world that’s easy to get lost in.

Garden4

(contented sigh)

The second element underpinning The UnderGarden‘s “zen” vibe is its sound design. The game features a relaxing selection of atmospheric music; echoing piano chords and single electronic keystrokes form a genuinely soothing foundation of sound. These ethereal sounds are occasionally built upon by the aforementioned musicians but sound relaxing enough on their own. By the same token, though, the music changes very little throughout the course of the game.

The UnderGarden‘s in-game sound design is quite calming as well. The birth of plant life is accompanied by a quick-fire medley of strings and flutes, while the space koala’s floating makes a little whoosh noise. Developer Artech Studios also took care to mute harsh sounds like explosions to preserve the game’s focus on audio tranquility. When combined with the music, it makes for a nice package. The UnderGarden might very well succeed in providing a relaxing vibe through sound alone.

Garden5

Some crickets would be nice.

Though The UnderGarden succeeds at soothing the eyes and the ears, its gameplay is simplistic. There’s no real challenge to the title; players simply float around in spacious underground caverns and occasionally have to blow up a wall to proceed. Because The UnderGarden requires so little challenge, the experience can feel cheap. Challenge doesn’t necessarily preclude relaxation, but The UnderGarden apparently disagrees, since aiming a plant cannon is the most work the player’s ever going to have to do.

Then again, The UnderGarden never bills itself as a challenging platformer and wears the “casual” label like a badge of honor. Indeed, the word “casual” appears twice in the game’s description box on Steam. The UnderGarden isn’t interested in providing a challenge so much as giving players something pretty to look at. That can mean that the gameplay comes up feeling shallow… but the game’s beautiful visuals and sounds don’t hurt for that.

Garden6

Behold! The Stonehenge of Omnipresent Supergalactic Oneness!

Though players indifferent to shallowness may shrug The UnderGarden‘s gameplay off, they might not have such an easy time doing so to with the game’s options and PC performance. The UnderGarden is a stiff PC port whose options menu is a joke; a few token options for audio levels and screen resolution and that’s about it. Like most games with limited options menus, The UnderGarden‘s system demands are not taxing (especially by 2017 standards) but the lack of options is still disappointing. Players should be able to have all sliders and toggles available in the event of a problem, such as the game’s tendency for disappearing audio.

In addition to its music sometimes vanishing, The UnderGarden has a few other curious issues. The game’s PC controls are… not great, requiring players to point and click where they want to float instead of just holding the mouse button down or using WASD keys. Thanks to the aforementioned limited options menu, none of these controls can be rebound. Furthermore, while The UnderGarden works with a gamepad, it only does so if the gamepad is turned on first. In other words, players who decide to switch to a gamepad mid-game have to exit out of the game, turn the controller on, and start it back up. Otherwise the game won’t recognize it.

Garden7

Hyacinth, we have a problem.

Setting aside The UnderGarden‘s problems for a moment, does the game succeed in its mission to relax players? The answer, like the definition of a “zen” game, depends on players’ tastes. Some players might find The UnderGarden a relaxing title thanks to its sophisticated visuals and ethereal music. Others might find its gameplay too shallow and its aesthetic to be a skin-deep distraction. Regardless of preference, The UnderGarden is an admirable study in the interplay of sound and visual design, aptly combining relaxing music and bright colors to provide a soothing world. It’s a shrewd combination of color and music theory.

The format fluidity of the “zen” genre makes it difficult to pinpoint where The UnderGarden fits in that landscape. The sub-genre doesn’t have a dedicated audience the same way first-person shooters and puzzle games do, making assessing The UnderGarden‘s impact on “zen” games, if any, hard to assess. The game remains little-known in the wider gaming world, especially since the closure of Artech Studios back in 2011, and its amateurish PC port precludes a wide fan base on Steam. The UnderGarden, like the world it presents, is its own little bubble.

Garden8

I’ve heard of soft lighting, but soft lightning?

The UnderGarden is indeed a relaxing experience, but relaxing isn’t necessarily the same thing as enjoyable, as the game’s control and gameplay issues demonstrate. It’s a soothing little game that provides a world easy to get lost in at the expense of wonky controls and performance problems that seldom happen but are frustrating when they do happen. Players can weigh those pros and cons while considering the title, but The UnderGarden still at least deserves a place in “zen” game orthodoxy for its exploration of video-audio concoctions.

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You can buy The UnderGarden here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Westerado: Double Barreled

West1

Sniff out the outlaw who killed your family.

PC Release: April 16, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Wild West media is easy to spot because of its rustic setting, but there’s a motif even more endemic to that genre than saloons and gunslingers: vengeance. Many (maybe even most) stories set in the Wild West feature a similar pattern: a young man seeks bloody revenge for a wrong dealt to him or a loved one. That motif has made it into every Wild West video game from 12 is Better Than 6 to Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, but no title exhibits it more thoroughly than Westerado: Double Barreled.

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Westerado: Double Barreled is a Wild West whodunit that challenges players to find a murderer in a bustling town. The game begins when the player character returns home from a long day of bison-chasing to find his ranch burned down and his family killed. The young man follows a trail of clues to the nearby town of Clintville and must discover who the murderer is by gathering hints about his appearance. Players can collect these hints by completing quests and exploring the environment.

The player’s journal contains a composite sketch of the murderer that gradually fills out as players learn more about his appearance. Does he wear a 10-gallon hat? Does he flaunt a big ole beer gut? Townsfolk will disclose details like these once the player has completed a quest or two, like shooting up the local bandit clan or escorting a stagecoach to safety. All told, there’s probably two dozen such clues, and the fun of Westerado is getting out into the world to find them. Each quest is structured the same; talk to a character, complete their assignment, and come back for a hint.

West2

This varmint seems to be feeling rather… blue.

Westerado is presented as a side-scrolling game set in a small but vibrant open world. Players can explore the town of Clintville or head out into the wilderness to search for clues. During their journey the player becomes acquainted with a colorful gallery of characters, most of whom have at least one clue to give about the murderer’s appearance. Sometimes players have to complete missions before characters will talk to them; that wealthy oil baron doesn’t take time out of his schedule for just anybody.

What do those missions entail? Sometimes they’re as simple as talking to someone. Players can approach NPCs and engage them with a few options for conversation. Some characters are more talkative than others while some are there just to add bodies to the town of Clintville. Players can ramp up the charm and form alliances with locals or be a bit more bullish in Sherlocking their way around town. Either way, being amicable to the townsfolk is usually the better way to complete a quest.

West3

This right here is an example of NOT being amicable.

Of course, players can always count on their trusty revolver when words don’t do the job. Combat in Westerado: Double Barreled is simple, if clunky: everybody shoots in a straight line and players dodge bullets by being out of their foes’ line of sight. This means a lot of skipping up and down all over the screen, which can be difficult to do if the player’s fighting a lot of enemies. Players can extend their health by buying a hat, which will fly off after a few shots but is still better than nothing. Players can also sink their hard-earned cash into other items… like a shiny new gun.

What’s great about Westerado is that combat and dialogue are both just options. Players are free to complete most assignments however they’d like. Maybe it’s better to talk those bandits out of occupying the railroad instead of gunning them down… then again, shooting and killing all of them would probably be the faster option. However players want to complete the job, Westerado offers that flexibility. Players can gain a violent or pacifist reputation depending on their actions, which can impact gathering clues and challenges them to find out if it’s better to be feared or loved.

West4

Gimme the whiskey and nobody gets hurt!

If talking through a quest is a better option in Westerado, it’s thanks to the game’s funny writing. Players begin most sentences with “Ah’m lookin’ fer” as a tongue-in-cheek homage to Texan accents, and the dialogue is riddled with little jokes and innuendo. Seducing the oil baron’s wife is not adultery, it’s simply her being interested in the player’s “hat-making skills.” The dialogue satirizes Wild West one-liners in as loving a manner as possible, which is both funny and its own right and helps compensate for the relative lack of character development.

Players who are less interested in talking than adventuring can still find plenty of fun in exploring Clintville’s environs. Westerado‘s map, while not huge, allows players to explore a disparate palette of environments ranging from the town proper to the wilderness on the outskirts. Players can also descend into mining tunnels (bring a light), cross the desert, or head up into the mountains. There’s lots to find out in the world (especially money), making exploration in Westerado a must-do for the discerning cowboy detective. With each new area explored, players can fill out another square on their map.

West5

All that remains of the Texas Chili Fire of 1868. No survivors.

Westerado‘s environments and indeed the entire game benefit from a gorgeous retro-style aesthetic. The game’s world was built from the ground-up with, to hear developer Ostrich Banditos put it, “the grittiest pixels this side of Montezuma.” Each object in Westerado is finely detailed with tons of pixels, resulting in a bustling Wild West town and natural features like groves of autumn trees. The game’s visual style is reminiscent of old desert paintings, especially in its use of strong colors, which produce a vibrancy on par with the most sophisticated 3D games.

Even though the environments in Westerado are pretty, the character models look rudimentary by comparison. The pixels used to build the game’s characters are much larger than the ones used in the environments, which helps draw a bit of contrast at the expense of the characters looking primitive. Their animations are also pretty stiff. None of that stops Westerado from being an excellent game but it does make it obvious which element of the game’s visual design got the most time and attention.

West6

Glorious.

Even though Westerado treads no new narrative ground in its presentation of the Wild West revenge story, the game is unusual for its genre in how much free reign it gives players. Rather than confining them to a linear story and world, Westerado allows players to explore a vibrant Wild West at their leisure. The game also maintains a much lighter tone than most stories in its vein thanks to a combination of humorous writing and subtle encouragement to explore the environment. This vibe is further reinforced by sweet violin-and-harmonica-driven music.

The heart of Westerado is not its writing or sleuthing, but its replayability. A single round of Westerado can last anywhere from 2-4 hours. That’s not very long, but the appearance of the murderer is randomized with every playthrough, giving players an incentive to come back and commence their investigation again and again. Plus, players can unlock new protagonists with every playthrough, leading to a near-infinite number of quest and story combinations. It makes for a lean, mean replayability machine, one that leverages Westerado‘s charming world to the max.

West7

For vengeance!

Westerado: Double Barreled is a great title, one that players who love adventure games and side-scrolling shooters should purchase and play right away. Indeed, it’s not hyperbolic to say that Westerado is one of the greatest Wild West games on PC. It’s a great game not just because it runs well or because of its old-school aesthetic or even its charming writing… but because its apt attention to replayability results in a world of endless charm. Get the game and set off into the sunset in pursuit of that most Wild West of goals: vengeance (maybe with a side of bison).

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You can buy Westerado: Double Barreled here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.