Doorways: The Underworld

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Apprehend a psychotic scientist who’s turning men into monsters.

PC Release: September 17, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Sometimes video game developers don’t quite get it right the first time. Devs who put out a mediocre debut have a few options: they can either call it quits or try the same thing again. Alternatively, they can try a third, tougher option: making a meaningful improvements to what they pioneered. Argentinean developer Saibot didn’t hit all the right notes with Doorways: Prelude, but made a second attempt at visceral survival horror with Doorways: The Underworld. Whether that game is the same thing again or an improvement for the series is the question at the heart of tonight’s review.

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Doorways: The Underworld is the second in a series of episodic survival horror games. Like its predecessor, Doorways: PreludeDoorways: The Underworld emphasizes avoiding horrific monsters and solving puzzles. Players once again assume the role of Thomas Foster, a paranormal agent who went toe-to-toe with a sadistic history professor and an insane sculptor in Doorways: Prelude. This time, horror gaming’s grimmest detective is out to arrest a German scientist who spends her free time transforming innocent people into fleshy war machines. Fun fun.

Thomas is dispatched by the titular Doorways agency to The Underworld, a realm of rocky tunnels and sterile, uncaring laboratories. As in the first game, it’s up to players to avoid or overcome whatever obstacles the suspect throws at Thomas and place that criminal under arrest. All the while, players are challenged to solve puzzles, read up on the case, and most importantly… stay alive. With a name like The Underworld, players can bet that there’s some nasty stuff up this scientist’s sleeve.

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Alrighty, so we’ve got her on one count of performing involuntary surgery and one count of involuntary surgery with intent to turn the patient into a monster.

Doorways: Prelude‘s most immediate problem was its poor system performance, but Doorways: The Underworld kicks that right in the teeth with silky smooth optimization. Whereas the first game struggled to hit 30 frames per second even with the film grain off, The Underworld can maintain a solid 60 fps. Props to Saibot for apparently sorting out Prelude‘s optimization issues, because they’re not to be found in The Underworld. The result is a game that runs almost completely free of bugs.

Players who do encounter a bug can probably sort it out in Doorways: The Underworld‘s options menu, which offers an admirable cadre of toggles for visuals and audio. The game shares its predecessor’s affinity for film grain, but this time the grain’s been applied with a much defter hand. That and other visual facets can be adjusted as needed in the options.

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Ah, much better!

Doorways: The Underworld also looks much better than the previous title. Whereas Prelude suffered from blurry textures and environmental setups that were a tad too samey, The Underworld benefits from sharp textures and more interesting object detail. The game swaps out Prelude‘s threadbare environments for areas rife with details. Labs and tunnels in this game are chock full of items like discarded equipment, both to give the player more to look at and to give the environment a touch of immersion.

Before going any further, it’s also worth pointing out that The Underworld has an actual lighting setup. Prelude was too dark too often, giving players a limited field of vision and shrouding an otherwise intriguing world in darkness. The Underworld‘s environments are well-lit; not masterfully, but enough to let players actually see the world around them. The only areas that are too dark are the ones that are supposed to be dark, and Thomas has a headlight for those. His field of vision is also massively expanded.

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Hey! I can see!

The result of all of these visual improvements is more than just a sum of, well, visual improvements: it’s a game world that feels more sinister and more alive. Saibot’s closer attention to object placement, lighting, and textures makes The Underworld feel far deeper and far scarier than either of the environments in Prelude. It also lends the titular Underworld a sense of visual unity, like all of its parts were placed with careful consideration.

Players aren’t the only ones who are able to pay more attention to the environment. This time around, Thomas reacts realistically to phenomena around him. He gets startled when he lands in a pile of bones and lets out a muffled shout when a creature looms in the darkness ahead of him. Those reactions help give some breadth and depth to the character; they certainly do a good job of compounding the player’s own sense of fear when a giant sewer ogre comes lumbering toward them.

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BACKUPBACKUPBACKUPBACKUPBACKUP

What’s that? A giant sewer ogre? Oh yes, that scientist isn’t just keeping her creations in test tubes; she’s let them loose in the facility to dissuade Thomas from trying to arrest her. Each of the creatures players encounter in the facility is unique and has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some monsters are nimble but frail, while others are slow but powerful. One creature encountered toward the very end can only be described as a hungry face lift gone terribly wrong. Saibot didn’t hold back on getting creative with its creature designs, and the monsters look (and sound) pretty frightening.

These monster encounters are also much more visceral than the ones in Prelude; monsters in that game usually only chased Thomas if he strayed too far from a linear path. This time, the inmates have free reign of the asylum, and will chase the player as much as they damn well please. Players who enjoy the hide-and-seek tension of titles like Outlast will find a similar experience in avoiding the good doctor’s “patients.”

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Hope you have good malpractice insurance, buddy.

Doorways: The Underworld‘s most sizable improvements over its predecessor are in its world design and system performance departments. The Underworld‘s narrative is also better than that of Prelude, albeit not by a whole lot. While Thomas does spend less time pontificating about the nature of existence, the writing still suffers from awkward phrasing and run-on sentences. It’s probably for the best that The Underworld focuses on the details of Thomas’s investigation, but it does so at the expense of providing little to no additional exposition on the Doorways universe.

Thomas also remains an enigma. Despite providing more details on his assignment as well as a masterful voice acting performance from Sam A. Mowry, The Underworld stays frustratingly mum on who this detective is. Where did he come from? Why does he pursue the wicked? Mowry’s voice acting is the only thing that keeps Thomas from being a vacuous shell for the player to occupy (though the aforementioned reactions to in-game events also add some humanity to the character).

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Another day at the office, eh Thomas?

The Underworld represents a rousing game design improvement for Saibot Studios in all ways but one: the puzzles. Doorways: The Underworld has a frustrating affection for logic-free puzzles, hiding tools inside of bodies and stamping door codes onto the corners of x-rays. These ridiculous riddles are when The Underworld is at its worst, and the solutions are so opaque that they nullify any shame in consulting a walkthrough.

The Underworld is also one of those games that’s made or broken by its last 10 minutes. Players have to spend the game’s final challenge memorizing and navigating a maze, and damn if it doesn’t get frustrating. What’s more, a monster that’s supposed to spawn behind the player occasionally spawns ahead of them, making advancement impossible and usually resulting in a bloody death for Thomas. It’s a creatively designed puzzle, but just because a puzzle is more sophisticated doesn’t mean it’s automatically better. There should be a name for that axiom… how about The Doorways Rule?

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What even am I doing?

Horror fans will enjoy Doorways: The Underworld‘s terrifying monster encounters and unmistakably grim atmosphere, but not everyone will get the same kick out of its ludicrous puzzles or tedious final encounter. Even if those two factors mean that The Underworld isn’t every horror junkie’s cup of tea, the game still represents a tremendous improvement in Saibot Studios’ game design. Rare are the developers who make meaningful sequels; rarer still are the developers who pay this much attention to what they got wrong the first time.

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You can buy Doorways: The Underworld 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 2

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Risk life and limb in a world of nightmares to rescue an innocent girl.

PC Release: October 13, 2017

By Ian Coppock

The 2017 holiday release season is off to a pretty good start. Games are not only being released in working condition; they’re actually optimized for PC! Granted, the Q4 release period still has a ways to go, but so far things are looking okay for players who game on PC. Now that Dishonored: Death of the Outsider has come and gone, Bethesda is taking another swing at gamers’ wallets with The Evil Within 2, the second installment in Shinji Mikami’s newest universe of nightmares.

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The Evil Within 2 is a third-person horror shooter and the sequel to 2014’s The Evil Within, a title created and directed by Resident Evil godfather Shinji Mikami. Like the first game, The Evil Within 2 is a big fan of putting players in a scary world and seeing how long they can survive (and go without crying). Mikami elected not to direct the sequel, though; he stuck around as an executive producer but handed directing duties to level designer John Johanas, who directed the first game’s story DLC.

The Evil Within 2 picks up three years after the events of the first game, in which grizzled detective Sebastian Castellanos battled an ethereal world full of nightmarish creatures. Sebastian’s efforts to share his story with the world only resulted in him being labeled a kook and getting fired from the force. Since then, he’s spent his time trying to drown his memories of the evil world of STEM in the bottom of a bottle.

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Sebastian’s had it rough.

Things change when Sebastian gets approached by Juli Kidman, his old police partner and a covert operative for the sinister Mobius organization. Juli reveals that Sebastian’s young daughter Lily, thought to have died in a house fire years ago, is actually still alive and being used as a host for a new STEM world of Mobius’s creation. Lily’s stopped responding to communications from the outside world, though, and Mobius believes that only her father can find out why. Though he’s still traumatized by the events of the first game, Sebastian agrees to dive into another world of nightmares to save his little girl.

Despite Mobius’s assurances to the contrary, Sebastian enters this new STEM and, of course, discovers that it’s every bit as creepy and horrifying as the world he explored in The Evil Within. This realm’s denizens have all devolved into zombie-like creatures and a small cadre of psychopathic inhabitants seems to have run of the asylum. STEM’s newest lineup of psychos includes (among other characters), a psychotic priest with a god complex and a photographer who gets off on filming people as they die. All of them want to use Lily to shape STEM as they see fit.

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Damn hipster artists. Always trying to be so edgy…

The only way for Sebastian to stay alive in STEM is to use his head, and The Evil Within 2 does a good job of letting players do that. As in the first game, Sebastian is often outnumbered by monsters and must rely on tactics to survive. Players can find guns but ammo is pretty limited, so hiding behind corners and using stealth kills is a must-do. Players can gather ammo and medical syringes in the game world, both of which are a bit more plentiful in this title than in The Evil Within.

The Evil Within 2 is perfectly happy to borrow its predecessor’s sneak-and-stab gameplay, but not without a few shakeups. The sequel introduces a crafting system, allowing players to gather materials and use a workbench to make everything from ammo to medicine. Sebastian can also find gun parts and use them to upgrade his equipment. The creepy green gel upgrade system returns from the first game, and thankfully it includes stealth upgrades (for some reason The Evil Within didn’t have those).

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Try not to burp.

It’s good that The Evil Within 2 lets players beef their stealth up, because this game emphasizes sneakiness a lot. The first Evil Within had its occasional stealth encounter but by and large expected players to simply shoot the monsters out of the way. This time there are more, tougher monsters, so sneaking around is much smarter than going down guns blazing. The monsters aren’t necessarily brainier, though. They seem content to use the same patrol patterns as their shambling predecessors.

Additionally, John Johanas seems to have tamed Mikami’s enthusiasm for boss battles. Whereas most levels in the first game ended with a prolonged boss fight, The Evil Within 2 features far fewer such encounters… and that’s a good thing. Horror games are supposed to be about making players feel powerless in the face of an overwhelming force, and giving them the chance to fight that force head-on is a dysfunctional design choice. This time around, Sebastian is challenged to sneak past big baddies instead of deplete their many life bars, which is how a horror game should be.

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CLOSE THE DOOR CLOSE THE DOOR CLOSE THE DOOR

This increased emphasis on stealth and powerlessness makes The Evil Within 2 feel more like a horror game than its predecessor did. Sebastian still has his guns and his abilities, but The Evil Within 2 remembers to reward players for also using his wits. This shift is ironic considering that The Evil Within 2 marketed itself as more of a psychological horror game than a survival horror title… it would seem that the opposite effect was achieved, and what a happy accident that was.

The Evil Within 2 is also made to feel scary by its grotesque monster designs. Like a lot of Japanese horror media, The Evil Within 2 features creatures that could be politely described as creative and bluntly described as horrifying. Sebastian can expect to go up against a rogue’s gallery of ghouls during his second trip to STEM, and the fact that most of them are impossible to confront directly only makes them scarier. What do some of these contorted ghouls look like? Two words: living tripod.

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Nah, I don’t need my photo taken, thank you.

The Evil Within 2 is also scary because of its world, which feels much more cohesive than that of the first title. For all the scariness afforded by The Evil Within‘s individual levels, each was a completely segregated world that disjointed the larger production. Players would go from traipsing through a church to sneaking through a cityscape, often with absolutely no transition. The Evil Within 2‘s levels are each part of a larger, singular landscape. The result is a game whose world feels more focused and less random.

While on the subject of the game world, The Evil Within 2 meddles with the first game’s conventions by offering a mix of open-world and linear levels. Occasionally, Sebastian is forced to sneak around a small town rife with buildings to loot and side missions to complete. Though the open world design feels pedestrian and uninspired, it’s still fun to sneak around a monster-infested town in search of ammo and coffee. The game’s linear levels are much more in line with those of the first game: lots of doors, lots of hiding places, and lots of scares.

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“I’LL TEACH YOU NOT TO FLOSS, HOOMAN!”

The Evil Within 2 makes great strides with its heavier emphasis on stealth and by switching up its level design, but by far the best improvement the game makes over The Evil Within is its narrative. The Evil Within introduced an intriguing universe full of delectable lore, but the story that was supposed to bind it all together achieved no such goal. It was less a cohesive narrative than a tour of Shinji Mikami’s Super-Fun Horror Carnival: a magical place where creativity was abundant but was also recklessly thrown at players like snowballs.

By contrast, The Evil Within 2‘s story has some actual structure. It remembers to tell players why Sebastian is motivated to do what he does instead of just using him as a pair of eyes to purvey horror curios. Whereas the original game never really even explained why this person was in STEM in the first place, this title fleshes out motivations, exposition, and narrative in a thoughtful way. The pacing is nothing to write home about but both the dialogue and the plot are significantly better written. The game still has a few plot holes, but certainly nothing essential to understanding the story.

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There can be beauty in despair.

Sebastian’s exposure to all of these narrative changes is more of a mixed bag. The character gets much more dialogue, but all that’s to be found is the same gravely voiced horror hero present in other games. He’s likable, but part of the fun of The Evil Within was playing as someone who was profoundly unlikable. Side characters also get much more screen time, particularly Juli Kidman, who might just be the most fascinating character of all. Even though he risks being a Rick Grimes clone, Sebastian’s character evolution over the course of the game is both believable and deeply satisfying.

There’s a common theme in all of this talk of streamlined gameplay and a structured narrative: organization. Unlike its predecessor, The Evil Within 2 is more interested in offering a cogent horror experience to the player than just slinging endless spectacles at them. For all the amazing things that Japanese game design has pioneered, masters like Mikami have an unfortunate tendency to focus on creativity so completely that structure gets ignored. John Johanas’s game direction seems to have tempered this tendency, allowing Mikami’s creativity to flourish but not at the expense of structure.

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I am now deathly afraid of hide-and-seek.

It’s also worth pointing out that The Evil Within 2 runs well on PC. True, its system requirements are steep, but the game runs at a fluid framerate for any machine that can meet them. The game wasn’t without its launch day woes (including a bug that prevented Sebastian from walking into the third level), but Tango Gameworks has been rolling patches out at a breakneck pace, squashing most bugs wherever they can be found. Thankfully, The Evil Within 2 also does away with those stupid black bars that the first game paraded around. Get out of here with that “cinematic experience” crap.

The Evil Within 2 has some tired level design here, a plot hole or two there, and certainly isn’t without its occasional instance of hokey dialogue. At one point the game implies that all mentally ill people are destined to become murderous psychopaths. Despite all of that, its effective union of creativity and structure makes it one of the best big-budget horror games since 2014’s Alien: Isolation. The game moves its universe forward in a meaningful way and more effectively adheres to the conventions of good horror design. The result is a thrilling game worth sinking teeth into, and not just because it’s a dramatic improvement over its predecessor.

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You can buy The Evil Within 2 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.

Doorways: Prelude

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Track down and arrest two serial killers before they can take any more lives.

PC Release: September 20, 2013

By Ian Coppock

Mystery is the reason that ghost stories are always in vogue. With Halloween just around the corner, print and digital media have become especially rife with thrills and chills. That feeling of suspense that comes with reading about an unknown force (supernatural or otherwise) is quite thrilling. The story of a single protagonist pursuing that force, or running away from it, is equally thrilling. That motif made its way into video games years ago, and few titles chase it more eagerly than Doorways: Prelude.

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The Doorways games are a series of episodic survival horror titles developed by Saibot Studios, an Argentinean outfit. The series consists of four episodes that cast players as a mysterious agent who makes a living apprehending dangerous men and monsters. Doorways: Prelude covers the first two episodes of the series and introduces players to a weird world of dreams, nightmares, and bloodthirsty creatures.

Doorways: Prelude puts players in the shoes of Thomas Foster, an investigator who works for the titular Doorways agency. Doorways is a covert organization dedicated to hunting down and snuffing out malicious threats, be they monsters, ghosts, or unhinged serial killers. Foster is voiced by Sam A. Mowry, whom longtime horror fans might remember as the voice actor of Baron Alexander in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It’s weird to hear him voice the good guy this time, but damn if he isn’t good at it.

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Time to do some sleuthing.

Doorways: Prelude begins as Thomas receives orders to hunt down and apprehend two criminals: a history professor suspected of kidnapping and torturing his students, and a Swedish sculptor who fashions corpses into his newest works of art. Both criminals reside in spooky worlds implied to be of their own creation, but Foster dives in undaunted and determined to bring them to justice. Players have no weapons and can only run and hide if a monster shows up.

In that latter regard, Doorways: Prelude draws clear inspiration from survival horror titans. Whenever players aren’t busy avoiding monsters, they’re solving puzzles and exploring environments to find the way forward. Occasionally, Thomas will also stumble upon notes that shed light upon his investigation. Sometimes they’re his own musings about his rather “unique” job, other times they’re interesting details about the criminals he’s pursuing.

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Freeze! Ghost police!

To expand upon the puzzles for a moment, Saibot Studios makes the audacious claim that Doorways: Prelude‘s puzzles are “ingenious.” Not really. Players can expect the same mix of key-hunting and machinery-fixing endemic to Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the Penumbra games. It’s a perfectly serviceable mix of puzzles, but hardly ingenious. They’re certainly not puzzles that haven’t already been done a dozen times in a dozen other horror games.

Additionally, Doorways: Prelude is only a survival horror game in the most liberal sense. Players are only in mortal danger if they stray too far from the lit path. Sure, it’s scary when a monster shows up in the darkness, but that only happens at the player’s discretion (or carelessness). There’s only one segment in which players truly have to elude a monster, and the thing moves so slowly that doesn’t make for a challenging encounter.

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Got a little dust in your joints, buddy?

Doorways: Prelude doesn’t suffer all that much for keeping the monsters at arm’s length. The game has a delectably spooky atmosphere, reinforced by lots of low, forbidding sounds. The entire game is also done out in a muted color palette; even the forests that Thomas traverses feel lifeless and morbid (which is to say nothing of the Moria-like marble halls that the murderous sculptor is hiding in). Doorways: Prelude also hems players in with claustrophobic level design, leaving them few places to hide.

Doorways: Prelude makes a few steps forward with its level design and ambiance, but takes more steps back with amateurish missteps. The game is way too enthusiastic about film grain, applying it thickly across the screen under the misguided notion that more film grain equals more spooky. Thankfully, the film grain can be scaled back in the game’s options menu, which is surprisingly in-depth and gives players a lot of performance leeway.

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I hate flash mobs.

Despite having a decent options menu, Doorways: Prelude doesn’t run very well. No amount of tinkering in that menu seems to help the game achieve a consistent framerate. Most players can expect to land somewhere in the 30-45 FPS zone with this title, no matter if they’re running it on an old laptop or a monster rig. Reducing the film grain definitely helps a bit… but only a bit. For some reason this game isn’t all that well optimized and chugs pretty hard.

Poor optimization must be the reason for Doorways‘ sluggishness, because to be frank, the game isn’t all that visually impressive. The environments’ textures are alright but could stand some sharpening, while character animations are lanky. The title’s biggest visual issue, though, is that it’s simply too dark. Most areas are lit so scantly that players are lucky to be able see a few feet ahead. Meddling with the contrast only does so much to ameliorate this situation and serves more to whiten the screen than to brighten it.

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Case in point.

Doorways‘ darkness does more than obscure the game’s environments; it makes the entire production more difficult to play. It makes it more tedious to spot puzzle elements, especially in sections where players have to step on certain floor panels a la Indian Jones: The Last Crusade. The overuse of shadows also makes it difficult to spot monsters, which can suddenly loom out of the darkness two feet ahead of the player. This makes them inadvertently scarier, but unless Thomas is legally blind, there’s no reason the game’s field of view should be this short.

This problem also represents a missed opportunity to give Doorways some spooky lighting. Using lighting effectively is one of the best ways to give a horror title some atmosphere, but Doorways‘ near-complete lack of lighting gives the game a samey, distracting look. It’s damn lucky for Saibot that the game still gives off a spooky vibe because of its level design, because sans that, Doorways: Prelude wouldn’t be all that terrifying.

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What on earth is happening?

Tragically for Doorways: Prelude, there’s something about the game that’s even more difficult to see than its poorly lit environments: its narrative. Doorways‘ exposition is more a series of existential ramblings than concise details about Thomas or the criminals he’s pursuing. The character is more content to talk at length about abstract emotions than, well, the story. While Sam A. Mowry does an exceptional job voicing the character, the writing is opaque. The exposition often contradicts itself, implying at various points that the game takes place in the real world, an ethereal realm, or some combination of the two. It’s really confusing.

In the end, players are left with little concrete information other than the case details they receive at the very start of the game. Every other detail that the title tries to give players is either buried in a heap of run-on sentences or poorly written. To be fair to Saibot, English probably isn’t this Argentinean dev’s first language, but that consideration does little to improve the final product. It certainly leaves players wondering what story direction future episodes will take.

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What now?

At the end of the night, Doorways: Prelude‘s charm is too scant to outweigh how rough around the edges it is. The title presents an interesting concept of bringing monsters and murderers to justice, but loses itself in a string of bad design choices and vague, obtuse writing. There are worse horror games with which to kill a few hours this Halloween, but there are sure as hell much better horror games, too. Give Doorways: Prelude a miss.

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You can buy Doorways: Prelude 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.

DISTRAINT: Deluxe Edition

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Decide how far one man is willing to go for that promotion.

PC Release: September 29, 2017

By Ian Coppock

The cutthroat world of corporate ladders inspires as much depression as it does opportunity. For every person who’s willing to ascend that ladder through honesty and hard work, there are ten more who are willing to do it by any means necessary. DISTRAINT is unusual in its psychological examination of corporate culture and the pursuit of that almighty promotion. Whereas the media and pop culture tend to see unabashed ambition as a moral good, DISTRAINT is decidedly more… unsettling in its own portrayal of that ambition.

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Single-handedly created by indie dev Jesse Makkonen, DISTRAINT is a side-scrolling horror game that puts the psychology of greed under a microscope. The title was originally released in October of 2015, but the recently unchained Deluxe Edition of DISTRAINT packs the game with a streamlined UI, improved environmental lighting, and better animations. DISTRAINT is all about psychological horror, with a few adventure game elements thrown in for flavor.

DISTRAINT casts players as Price, a young attorney who makes his living evicting people from their homes. Though Price empathizes with the people he’s come to throw out, he keeps going in the hopes of making partner at his superiors’ law firm. DISTRAINT follows Price as he meets the last three people on his list, each of whom have a different reason for being thrown out and none of whom are too keen on meeting the attorney.

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Welp, I feel like a dick.

DISTRAINT is a side-scrolling title, but it isn’t a platformer. Players progress through the game primarily by solving puzzles. Getting to some of the residences on Price’s list is surprisingly difficult, and because he has at least a bit of a heart, he’s willing to help people out with the odd job or two in exchange for a slightly clearer conscience. DISTRAINT‘s puzzles are a throwback to the golden era of adventure games; got a locked door? Try using that coat hanger in the inventory.

The other, much more unsettling gameplay element informing DISTRAINT‘s design is gruesome psychological horror. As Price sacrifices more and more of his soul for that promotion, he suffers an onset of horrifying hallucinations and exhausting nightmares. These sequences are rife with all sorts of unpleasant sights and sounds, and sometimes put the player in mortal danger. Price can’t hide from the demons inside his own head; all he can try to do is run.

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Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

Because puzzles are the means by which players advance through DISTRAINT, it’s best to tackle them first. For the most part, DISTRAINT is refreshingly good at offering up logical puzzles. Unlike so many adventure games that chide players for not thinking to combine the spaghetti and the body powder into a key, DISTRAINT‘s puzzles follow a logical order. Got a locked door? Find the key! The most opaque option players might be confronted with is thinking to use a hanger as a TV antenna.

Not all of DISTRAINTs puzzle sections are so cut-and-dry, though. There’s a rather ludicrous puzzle toward the end of the game that involves getting high, tearing pieces of paint off of paintings, and using them to make a door. That Price is huffing mushrooms during that part of the game only does so much to make the challenge less outlandish. Fortunately, puzzles like that are the exception rather than the rule, as players can expect almost every other challenge to follow some order of logic.

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Mkay… how do I MacGyver my way outta watching TV with old people?

DISTRAINT‘s horror is as terrifying as its puzzles are satisfying. Players can slip into one of Price’s fierce visions at any moment, which alter the game world in unsettling ways. Apartment complex corridors might suddenly become full of bodies, or that chair that was empty a second ago might now have a headless corpse occupying it. These sections are almost purely psychological and rarely place the player in actual danger, but that sure doesn’t make them any less startling.

DISTRAINT accompanies its macabre visuals with equally morose audio, including industrial-sounding grinding noises and distant screams. Occasionally, though, the game is a little too enthusiastic to leverage jumpscare violin strings. Those same strings can also screech at unbearable heights, going beyond being scary and indicating unbalanced audio mixing. It pays to keep the game’s audio at a manageable level, which players can only do so much to accomplish with DISTRAINT‘s limited options menu.

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What was that noise?

DISTRAINT‘s visual morbidity is at its most acute during the horror segments, but the game also gets a lot of help from its general aesthetic. The entire game world is built out in crunchy, fluidly animated pixels that convey a strong sense of creepy to the player. Maybe it’s that all the characters have spooky facial features or that the backgrounds’ pixels make environments look murky, but something that Jesse Makkonen did makes the world of DISTRAINT forbidding as hell. Even DISTRAINT‘s most brightly lit sections feel morose.

Speaking of lighting, Jesse did a great job leveraging that in the Deluxe Edition of DISTRAINT. The title is one of the few horror games that’s lit in almost every color of the rainbow… yet still feels unwelcoming. Jesse’s use of near-monochromatic background colors also helps set the mood of each scene. The cabin that Price visits is made scarier with its palette of dour yellow lights, while the nursing home is done out in sterile, uncaring tones. This close attention to lighting does wonders for DISTRAINT‘s heavy atmosphere.

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(shivers)

A lot of games have fluidly animated pixels and good lighting, but what truly sets DISTRAINT apart from its peers is its narrative. Price is a fascinating character: a person whose regret makes him sympathetic but whose greed makes him morally repugnant. He’s one of the most complicated characters to pass through the horror-adventure subgenre in recent years. The character is pushed to his breaking point over the course of the game and reacts convincingly to events in both his waking and nightmare lives.

DISTRAINT‘s plot also benefits from good pacing. The game is patient enough to not throw all of its terrors at players at once, preferring to let the horror simmer in tense inter-scare dialogue exchanges. Price’s moral dilemma is instantly relatable to any players (especially young ones) who have had to tow the corporate line at someone else’s expense. The resulting drama is potent and the dialogue feels organic despite having the occasional spelling or grammar error.

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Heh, well, at least Price has THAT going for him.

DISTRAINT‘s frank examination of ambition and morality makes it one of gaming’s keenest studies of those concepts in a workplace context. They illustrate how cutthroat and, frankly, depressing the working world can be. DISTRAINT shows that many opportunities for advancement are more Faustian bargains than anything else, especially in the case of Price. That game-long existential crisis is where the title’s true horror resides; the hallucinations just give it a face.

Because of its uncommon attention to moral crises and its fluid adventure gameplay, DISTRAINT deserves a try from every gamer. It’s a curious odyssey into the mind of someone who has a weighty decision to make, and it’s written organically enough to feel pertinent to any working stiff. The game’s terror is also brought to life in more literal ways, with unsettling imagery and sound design straight out of a slasher film. With Halloween right around the corner, there’s no better time to give DISTRAINT: Deluxe Edition a try.

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You can buy DISTRAINT: Deluxe Edition 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.

Malebolgia

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Find a way to escape from the deepest circle of Hell.

PC Release: May 6, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Winter nights can be beautiful, but they’re also dark and cold. The hoary chill of a winter evening can exude a forbidding atmosphere (they don’t say the night is dark and full of terrors for no reason). Some game creators recognize the cold of a winter’s night and develop games that capitalize on that feeling. Some of them even add a light bit of horror on top of the wind chill, just in case said chill wasn’t isolating enough. Malebolgia is one of those games, and it also seeks to be the herald of doom.

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Malebolgia (not to be confused with last week’s Miasmata) is a third-person horror game created by Belgium-based developer Jochen Mistiaen. The game borrows heavily from Dante’s Inferno and other works, depicting Hell as a frozen wasteland instead of the stereotypical fire-and-brimstone realm of Not-Mordor(TM). Malebolgia also emphasizes themes of sin and crime, carrying that motif in everything from its lonely storyline to its intoxicating atmosphere.

Malebolgia begins when Leopold, an old European nobleman, wakes up in a dark palace. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that the palace is on the shores of an icy lake, which itself is at the very bottom of Hell. Leopold can’t remember how he ended up here, but he resolves to find a way out of the palace and, God willing, a path out of Hell. With nothing but a small torch and his trusty halberd, Leopold sets off into the solemn halls of Palace Malebolgia.

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Ah hell. No pun intended.

Leopold quickly discovers that he’s not alone; the palace is inhabited by a lively mix of demons and undead souls. The latter have rebelled against the demons for control of the palace, leaving Leopold in the middle of a war for supremacy. Some of these souls Leopold knew in the mortal world, while others have as few compunctions about trying to kill him as the demons do. Perhaps most mysteriously, Leopold keeps catching glimpses of a beautiful young woman whom he swears he’s seen before.

The only way for Leopold to get out of the palace is to fight his way through its creepy denizens. Malebolgia challenges players to take on hordes of hideous creatures and find a way out, even if that means also confronting uncomfortable truths about Leopold’s past. Malebolgia‘s dungeon gameplay closely resembles that of the Legend of Zelda series (ironic, considering that the game’s cel shaded aesthetic looks just like The Wind Waker).

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STRANGER DANGER!

Malebolgia‘s movement controls are fine enough, but the game stumbles out of the starting gate with some tragically clunky combat. As Leopold, players have to judge when an enemy is winding up for an attack and make sure to either dodge or parry when it happens. That sounds okay on paper, but Malebolgia‘s fighting controls are both slow and occasionally unresponsive. Leopold has a similar setup for his own fighting style, making most encounters in Malebolgia a tedious game of chicken.

Additionally, Malebolgia suffers from sparse save points. Some of the boss battles in this game are quite difficult, but the title foregoes putting checkpoints near boss rooms. Instead, players have to fight through crowds of minions or jog down long corridors as penance for having failing their last attempt at a big fight. Fortunately, most bosses can be dealt with once players memorize their attack windups. Tease an attack out of them, bounce out of the way, then launch a devastating counter-attack with the halberd.

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Huh. Apparently decapitation didn’t work the first time.

Astonishingly for a dungeon-style adventure game, Malebolgia doesn’t provide a map. Players who find a key have to remember which locked doors they might have passed and how to get back to those parts of the palace. Most of the palace’s rooms are laid out in symmetrical patterns, but the basement and a few other locations are much easier to get turned around in. Malebolgia‘s omission of basic navigation tools is… eyebrow-raising, to put it politely. It certainly doesn’t help players who have short memories.

Malebolgia‘s gameplay shortcomings make the game feel shallow, and it’s regrettable that such basic facets of third-person adventuring weren’t implemented in the title. Though the game runs well enough, Malebolgia also features a limited options menu. It opens with the standard Unity resolution and graphical quality options upon starting the game, followed by a few token toggles in-game. Occasionally Malebolgia‘s achievements may not activate, but achievements are a complete waste of time anyway, so… meh.

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(sigh)

It’s a shame that Malebolgia doesn’t have better gameplay, because its art direction and atmosphere are on point. The palace is one of the creepiest environments to be featured in a recent third-person horror game and comes complete with ghoulish white walls, dimly lit ballrooms, and hidden basement catacombs. Players will still want to explore this dismal place even without a map. It’s a creepy joint not unlike Beast’s castle in Beauty and the Beast: a lair that juxtaposes towering beauty with unsettling sights. The game’s cel shading also adds a nice touch.

Likewise, Malebolgia‘s music is morbidly beautiful. Leopold is seldom accompanied by music as he explores the palace, but occasionally gets mournful piano melodies as he walks around. Boss fight music gets pretty spooky, with frighteningly high strings and sharp, acidic vocals that heighten the sense of danger. For anything that can be said about Malebolgia‘s gameplay, its artwork, level design, and lighting demonstrate a much keener attention to atmosphere.

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(shivers)

The most sophisticated aspect of Malebolgia‘s game design is its narrative. As previously mentioned, Leopold can’t remember how he ended up in Hell but wants desperately to escape the palace and its cold-blooded denizens. He spends most of the game on his own, but occasionally meets up with characters who claim to remember him from times past. The dialogue in these interactions is written to provide just enough of an unsettling implication without going into full spoiler territory. The exchanges make artful use of hints to keep players guessing what’s really going on.

Additionally, Malebolgia‘s story is heavily textured with themes of sin and remorse. Most players can probably infer that Leopold didn’t end up in Hell for no reason, and the tale of his being in the palace is a dark one. Some of the characters that Leopold meets are representative of remorse or punishment, and the story gets additional exposition in the form of the occasional poem-laden cutscene. Suffice it to say that Malebolgia‘s ghostly story is a beautiful, sad piece of writing. It wouldn’t look all that out of place in a 19th-century treatise on Dante’s Inferno.

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What did you do, Leopold?

In essence, Malebolgia is a journey to discover the truth in a hostile, depressing world. It’s a game that runs on a combination of sub-par hack’n’slash gameplay and dramatically higher-par (?) storytelling. The game is a study in extremes, challenging players to uncover a genuinely good story but also admonishing them for it through clunky gameplay. It’s a game that looks beautiful and feels forbidding as only good horror games can, but is also mired in needless frustration.

Like its protagonist, Malebolgia is tragic. It has a decent story and great art direction that gets muddled by poorly implemented gameplay. Players on the lookout for an uncommonly good horror-tragedy might be able to stomach Malebolgia‘s gameplay, but anyone disinterested in narrative or atmosphere should give it a wide miss. Developer Jochen Mistiaen has story and atmosphere down pat in his game design; if he becomes equally proficient at gameplay, his next title could be incredible.

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You can buy Malebolgia 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.

Project CARS 2

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Blast down realistic tracks in fine-tuned super cars.

PC Release: September 22, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Coming down the track now is Automobilista, a Brazilian racing sim that—oooh, right into the barriers! Coming up behind Automobilista is Assetto Corsa, an Italian competitor that looks to be doing quite well and—agh, it looks like the driver’s AI has shorted out! That’s okay, because Gran Turismo Sport is speeding down the track and… oh. Looks like it’s a PS4 exclusive. Disqualified! What’s this new vehicle sneaking up and stealing first place, though? It looks like Project CARS 2!

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After two years in the body shop, Project CARS 2 has finally released onto the racecourse. Created by the one and same Slightly Mad Studios that developed Project CARSProject CARS 2 is the developer’s latest attempt at snagging first place in the world of racing simulators. Like its predecessor, Project CARS 2 is a glossy title that lets players get under the hood (literally), and race dozens of super cars across a plethora of detailed tracks. Project CARS 2 emphasizes both customization and close attention to realism.

Project CARS 2 is a right and proper racing sim; anyone looking for a stunt racer or an experience more akin to, say, Trackmania 2 is in the wrong place. Trackmania is a great game, but it’s an arcade racer. Project CARS 2 is a game for the hardcore motorhead. The title boasts advanced car physics and features a lineup of real racing machines from prestigious manufacturers. The game also makes quite a few upgrades over the original Project CARS.

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Let’s do this!

Before going any further on Project CARS 2, the answer is yes: the sequel has Ferrari cars. For all the amazing driving that Project CARS offered, the title also offered a conspicuous lack of famous manufacturers. It’s hard to picture a racing sim that shows up to the track without the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche in its motor pool. Project CARS 2 rectifies that issue right away, sporting cars from all three of those companies as well as Nissan, Jaguar, and other new additions. It makes for an impressive gallery of cars.

Of course, this also means that players have more vehicles to choose from in Project CARS 2 than most other racing sims out there. With all of these manufacturers each featuring diverse classes of vehicles, Project CARS 2 offers up a delectable (and enviable) garage of possibilities. Players can access these vehicles at any time for offline test runs or multiplayer matches. It’s worth testing each vehicle out on the track first; no use getting into a high-stakes race with a vehicle that has unfamiliar handling.

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(creepy drooling noises)

Another improvement that Project CARS 2 makes over its predecessor is that it has even more customization options. In Project CARS, players could make a few suspension and tire pressure adjustments, but Project CARS 2 flings the toolbox wide open. Players can continue to customize tire pressure but can now make new adjustments to their car’s suspension, dampeners, and gearing. The amount of customization available in this title marks a significant improvement over that of the original Project CARS. Players who mouse over different functions can get a pop-up window explaining how they work.

Additionally, Project CARS 2 features a new “Race Engineer” utility that allows players to select queries about car performance and get the game’s take on them. The feature is a thinly disguised troubleshooter, but it’s a great way for players new to racing sims to get the facts on car performance, as well as recommendations for fixes and improvements. The Race Engineer is a great olive branch for both newbs who have no clue what they’re doing (ahem) or vets that want the game’s opinion on their setup.

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‘Scuse me, how do I activate the cup holders?

Though Project CARS 2‘s customization improvements are a boon for all racers, the game’s willingness to provide information makes it one of the most user-friendly racing simulators on the market. Racing sims can overwhelm and unsettle players new to the scene with all the customization options, but Project CARS 2 circumvents intimidating newbs by going the extra mile to provide detailed, concise information on how race cars work.

Project CARS 2 also makes itself user-friendly by streamlining its menus. The menus in Project CARS were a bit of a jumble, but Project CARS 2 benefits from a simple, clean UI. Race modes and configuration options are all neatly arranged inside just a few menus, making it simple to navigate the game, pick modes, or tinker with system performance. Like Project CARSProject CARS 2 features an incredible options menu with dozens of in-depth toggles. Just don’t try to run this game on anything but a big rig.

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This is a well-oiled machine.  So is the game!

After selecting a car, a paint job, and a racing setup, players can take to the track. Project CARS 2 features a variety of race courses from all over the world. A few, like the Azure Coast track, return from Project CARS, but the game also features entirely new courses. In addition to customizing weather, players can now choose which season to drive in, among a few other new toggles. The courses are where players can see Project CARS 2‘s most dramatic graphical improvements, as the photo-realism (especially of the tracks’ backgrounds) is stunning.

Less dramatically improved are the cars themselves. Project CARS 2 doesn’t look all that different from the original Project CARS, but let’s be far; the original is a gorgeous game. Project CARS 2 doesn’t feature dramatic graphical improvements on its vehicles, but that’s not a big deal when the first game was already one of the most graphically sophisticated racing simulators. Players can expect more lighting, more gloss, and more impressive weather effects.

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Game? Or real life?

Project CARS 2‘s vehicles also don’t handle all that differently from their counterparts in Project CARS. Players accustomed to arcade racers might have some trouble getting used to this game’s more realistic driving, but few feelings are more rewarding than nailing down a super car’s handling. Project CARS 2 pays close attention to how a vehicle would handle in real life, and players should also remember that tire pressure and physical damage can alter its performance. Different tire pressure affects driving, different damage affects steering and alignment, so on and so forth.

One of Project CARS‘ biggest drawbacks was its draconian penalty system. Project CARS was infamous for having a system that would commonly ignore players totaling each other’s vehicles but bestow life bans for brushing against a barricade. Project CARS 2‘s penalties are a bit more consistent; players now get disqualified no matter what object they brush up against. Additionally, players that execute an illegal move like cutting through grass are now given the chance to return to their position in the race instead of being disqualified outright. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s definitely a bit fairer.

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You can’t put my car in the corner! LOOK AT IT!

Even though Project CARS 2 runs well on high-end PCs, the game is not without a few conspicuous issues. One of the silliest bugs causes cars to clip through race handlers as they emerge onto the track. Another issue is long stretches of time spent waiting for a game when a server is visible. There are also allegations that the game doesn’t register tire heat, but thus far these accusations are being made infrequently and by forum posters who are angry that they just lost a big race, so… take those with a grain of salt.

By and large, though, Project CARS 2 runs like one of its high-end vehicles. Even the most jam-packed races still achieve a silky smooth framerate. Players also won’t spend all that long waiting for a race to load, even if they front-load events with all sorts of changes and specialized adjustments. Running Project CARS 2 on a potato machine is still not recommended, but players who have a decent rig can expect decent performance.

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Woot!

Project CARS 2 distills all of this racing awesomeness into a few simple modes. Players can create a Custom Race, choosing everything from the number of opponents to the number of laps, or give different vehicles a spin in the Private Test mode. Most players are going to be found tearing it up in the Online mode, where racers from all over the world can gather. Players can also create their own events and make them public or private as they see fit. All of these modes are neatly arranged and concisely explained.

Project CARS 2 also features the return of the single-player Career Mode, in which players create a racing persona and take part in tourneys on behalf of fictitious driving clubs. The mode gives players more flexibility in choosing a starting point for their career, but otherwise remains about as dry as Project CARS‘ Career Mode. Indeed, it could be argued that the sequel’s Career Mode is even drier, as the game strips out the names and personas of the player’s racing crew (shallow though they may have been). Still, the driving AI is greatly improved, and players can now adjust its aggression.

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Coming up behind ya!

Project CARS 2 is best enjoyed with friends and human opponents, both of whom are plentiful as the game basks in the glow of its release honeymoon. Project CARS 2 represents a significant improvement over the original Project CARS and is one of the most customizable, user-friendly racing sims available. Players of all skill levels can expect to attain some success in the game thanks to its emphasis on fair penalties and thorough explanations of car functions. Get the game and enjoy some of the most fun high-gloss racing this side of PC gaming.

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You can buy Project CARS 2 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.

Miasmata

Miasmata1

Discover the cure to your illness on a dark and dangerous island.

PC Release: November 28, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Tonight’s review marks the final installment of September’s survival game lineup. FarSky was a game about finding tranquility in survival, while Adrift examined outlasting a disaster of one’s own creation. Sky Break was an attempt at surviving for the sake of others rather than just the self. Miasmata is about none of these things: it is the basest of survival games in that the player is out for their own skin and nothing else. If they’re not careful, that skin will get ripped right off.

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Miasmata is an open-world survival horror game created by brothers Joe and Bob Johnson, who also work under the moniker IonFX. The title was released in November of 2012 in a state unlike virtually any other survival game on Steam: complete. Yes, just like FarSkyMiasmata forwent being an early access title and skipped on over to finished product. Hell, FarSky and Miasmata might be the only two open-world survival games to do such a thing on Steam.

Anyway, Miasmata is implied to take place in the early 20th century and stars botanist Robert Hughes as its player character. Robert has fled to the mysterious island of Eden to discover a cure to his illness: a debilitating plague that has physically weakened him and will probably kill him sooner rather than later. Robert has arrived to Eden hoping that he can synthesize a cure from the island’s native flora. That mission is the goal of the game: explore the island, study its flowers, and make a cure if possible.

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Time to put all that work in my mom’s flowerbed to use!

Even though Robert is an expert botanist, he has his work cut out for him finding the cure. Eden is home to dozens of flowers and fungi, all of which could help bring about a cure but need to be carefully studied first. Each region of the island is home to different flora and demands careful exploration. Some plants only appear in hard-to-reach areas or during specific times of day, making exploring the entire island a must for players who hope to find the cure.

Fortunately for Robert, he’s got the equipment he needs to succeed. Eden was once home to a thriving community of scientists, all of whom conveniently left a string of houses and laboratories for players to make use of. Being scientists, most of them also left a ton of notes behind, so players who are up for a bit of reading can speed things up by plagiarizing from their peers’ observations. Players can use these labs to study plants and recover from the rigors of exploration.

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Ah, perfect!

Because Miasmata is a survival game, players have to take care of themselves while out in the wilderness. Robert apparently photosynthesizes his food, but still needs to drink water every so often before becoming dehydrated. Additionally, Eden is riddled with cliffs and hidden pitfalls for players to watch out for. Robert’s also not a very good swimmer, so don’t go out too far on those sunny beach days. Better to stay on the shore and just glance at the sea from afar.

There’s another, much more sinister danger to Eden. Though a game about gathering plants may not sound scary at first glance, Robert is being hunted. A monster stalks the forests of Eden looking for human prey, and will kill Robert if it so much as sniffs the botanist. Robert has no means of self-defense should the monster show up, so players who hope to survive can only do so by hiding until it passes. Who knew picking flowers could be so dangerous?

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There’s something in the trees…

Miasmata starts out with the same conventions as many other survival games, giving players a first-person perspective and a handful of meters to manage. All players really need to do to stay alive is stay hydrated; Robert carries a canteen that he can refill at most camps and there are plenty of sources of fresh water on the island. Some players might prefer calling this system “survival-lite”, but they’re are still being challenged to maintain their character’s health in a wild environment. Close enough.

Miasmata forks off on its own path by attempting to model realistic movement physics. Robert doesn’t stop or turn on a dime, moving more like a real human would in a wild environment. The game also attempts to simulate momentum; players that run toward a slope too quickly may tumble and fall to the ground. The system sounds neat on paper but often feels clunky while actually moving around. Robert has to take wide turns to get around, and it’s surprisingly easy for him to hurl himself off of a cliff. This is one of those titles where a few small, deliberate movements are better than mindless running, even if it’s only because Robert sometimes feels like he’s walking on jelly.

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Geez, is this dude drunk?

Robert’s lack of coordinated physical movement could be chalked up to his illness, but Miasmata‘s clunky controls feel more like a gameplay shortcoming than a story point brought to physical life. Robert’s character animations are similarly amateurish; his arms and hands are visible in the shot and sometimes bend at… interesting… angles when he’s refilling his canteen or doing some science. The character is quite frail, so take it easy when walking near precarious drops. Miasmata also allows players to map the island via triangulation; this mechanic too is clunky, but the attention to realism is nice.

Far more interesting than Robert’s movement is Miasmata‘s focus on botany. In order to find the cure, players have to gather plant samples and bring them back to a nearby laboratory. They can use the equipment therein to study different plants and their properties. Some plants are necessary to craft the cure, while others are useless. Still other plants can be synthesized into lesser kinds of medicine, allowing players to restore their health or gain temporary buffs like increased movement speed. Miasmata‘s lab work is some of the coolest science-ing in video gaming.

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From this daisy I shall create… ibuprofen!

As fun as it is to stay in the lab playing mad scientist, Miasmata truly comes alive through exploration. Eden’s environments are verdant and vary considerably from region to region. Some parts of the island bear tropical coasts while others are rainy groves reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. Still other regions encompass swamps, plains, and canyons. All of these areas are meticulously detailed with doodads like fallen logs and thick undergrowth. When paired with wildlife like birds and butterflies, these details help Miasmata‘s world feel alive.

Miasmata successfully conveys that vibe even though its visuals are basic. The Johnson brothers can work wonders with object placement, but that doesn’t stop those objects from being rough around the edges or bearing noticeably aged textures. The textures on flowers are particularly rough. Miasmata shouldn’t be glossed over because it looks a bit old (even by 2012 standards), but the game’s proprietyary MILO engine was definitely built on a budget.

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Hmm…

Miasmata also has one of the kookiest lighting setups in recent gaming memory. Seriously, this title’s lighting is all over the place; players can be walking around in the sunlight but the area around them will be lit with flat light. Contrary wise, it’s not uncommon to see areas that should be shadowed lit unnaturally brightly. The lighting also seems to change when players glance at the sun; one look toward ole big blazey and the environment suddenly becomes pitch black. It’s a strange setup.

Fortunately, neither dated visuals nor wonky lighting can stop Miasmata from looking pretty. Despite the smudgy textures, the game still looks like a verdant island paradise thanks to its use of bright, strong colors. Additionally, the game’s water and sky boxes look impressively realistic even by contemporary standards. Miasmata’s environmental features are a mixed bag, but the negatives don’t stop the game from giving off a wild, unexplored vibe.

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Ooooooh…

That vibe of being on an uncharted island is part of what lends Miasmata its intoxicating atmosphere. It’s easy for players to get lost (both figuratively and literally) in Eden’s wilds while out looking for the cure. Miasmata builds its atmosphere by foregoing music; what few tunes the game has are pretty, but the title is usually content to leave players alone with the sounds of nature. This design choice reinforces the game’s nature vibe and makes the environment all the more engrossing.

Of course, leaving players alone in nature also makes Miasmata more tense. Players never know when the monster is going to show up, and there’s nothing more terrifying than wondering when the sound of birds chirping will be shattered by a distant roar. Avoiding the monster isn’t all that difficult, but wondering when it’ll show up and making sure that Robert is close enough to a hiding spot keeps players on their toes. The sight of Miasmata‘s wilderness inspires both awe and fear.

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Yeah, no, I ain’t going in there.

The capstone of Miasmata‘s chilling atmosphere is its storytelling. Robert doesn’t talk and there’s no truly active storyline that exists outside of gathering flowers, but there’s plenty of exposition to be found in the scientists’ settlements. Players can expect to find bits and pieces of conventional world-building, but there’s also a hidden story about previous events on the island and their implications for Robert’s quest for a cure. Sans the occasional spelling or grammar error, it makes for interesting reading.

What’s more, Miasmata structures its exposition and environments to tell a story. As Robert makes his way around the island, it’s implied that his trip to Eden is more than just a quest to find the cure. Miasmata makes chilling use of environmental storytelling, leaving corpses and telltale signs of destruction around the island. Funny thing about the dead scientists; a lot of them seem to have been killed with a knife, not the beast’s claws. What’s going on out there?

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What happened here?

There’s no denying that Miasmata is rough around the edges. Its visuals are dated, its movement is spongy, and its lighting is on drugs. None of these things, though, stop the game from being one of the best survival experiences available on Steam. The title has a thick atmosphere befitting a horror game and an engrossing world that players will want to explore every inch of. It runs well on computers new and old and comes complete with a decent options menu. More than that, though, Miasmata confers the tension of surviving in an uncertain, dangerous environment in a way that few survival games (Early Access or not), can. It delivers tense exposition and environmental storytelling that, at times, are as frightening as its monster. That’s why everyone should buy it.

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You can buy Miasmata 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.

Zeno Clash 2

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Put ’em up against dozens of enemies on a quest to discover the truth.

PC Release: April 30, 2013

By Ian Coppock

Few feelings match the anticipation of the final encounter. There’s something special about waiting in the wings for one last battle… and a chance to overcome an enemy. Those who are truly lucky may even discover higher truths about the world around them, sometimes as a direct result of defeating that foe. This is the motif and the final rallying cry of Zeno Clash 2.

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Zeno Clash 2 is the direct follow-up to Zeno Clash,  a first-person puncher and ACE Team’s debut title. After taking a break from Zeno Clash to develop the fabulous Rock of Ages, ACE returned to the fold of its weirdest world to continue the story of Ghat. Like its predecessor, Zeno Clash 2 takes place in a surreal land full of anthropomorphic animals… and emphasizes punching, kicking or throwing any that stand in the player’s way.

Zeno Clash 2 begins shortly after the end of the previous game, in which protagonist Ghat returned to his home city of Halstrom and defeated its baby-snatching ruler, Father-Mother. Ghat didn’t come home alone, though; he brought with him a blue-skinned Golem intent on giving law and order to the city. “Law” and “order” being foreign concepts to Halstrom’s colorful inhabitants, Golem’s arrival has sparked unrest in the city and made Ghat rethink his decision to bring him home.

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Anyone else getting a “Dr. Seuss meets Alejandro Jodorowski” vibe?

After punching his way out of the local watering hole (since punches count for currency in Halstrom), Ghat bumps into Rimat, the woman who led the effort to hunt him down in Zeno Clash. Rather than put him in handcuffs, though, Rimat proposes teaming up with Ghat to investigate what Golem really wants in Halstrom. The pair do a little detective work and discover that, yes, Golem’s mission to provide law and police to Halstrom is much more than a random act of philanthropy.

Golem doesn’t take too kindly to snooping, though, forcing Ghat and Rimat out of Halstrom and back into the wilds of Zenozoik. Once again Ghat is forced into exile, and once again he must punch, fight and headbutt his way to the truth of a grand conspiracy. This time, though, he’s got Rimat by his side, a woman who may have once been his most persistent enemy but is now intent on exposing that same truth. Together, the pair strike out to fight their way across Zenozoik.

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Ah, good to be back in the land of freaks.

Like its predecessor, Zeno Clash 2 is enthusiastic about first-person fighting. Ghat is an accomplished pugilist, and solves most of the problems thrown his way with a pair of bare fists. Players can also use guns and other ranged weapons on occasion, but they’re pretty rare; Zeno Clash 2 scales back Zeno Clash‘s enthusiasm for firearms to focus more on punching. Players can also use grenades if they want to make a real show of force (and if the opponent is too slow to move out of the blast zone).

Zeno Clash 2 is also more faithful to ACE Team’s original vision for the series. The developer initially planned to make Zeno Clash an open-world title but didn’t have the resources to do so. It would seem that ACE found the cash to make the Zeno Clash experience that they always wanted to, because Zeno Clash 2 is set in a small but vibrant open world. Players can tackle the main story or take on side quests at their leisure. There’s all sorts of fun to be found in Zenozoik.

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What even is that thing?

Zeno Clash 2 is chock full of refinements for the series, including some meaty improvements to the fighting system. The original Zeno Clash‘s arsenal of punches and kicks was serviceable, if simplistic, but Zeno Clash 2 streamlines Ghat’s abilities to allow for more advanced combos. Ghat can more quickly string up combos, and it’s also easier for players to throw punches of varying power. The controls are smoothly implemented on a keyboard and mouse as well as Xbox gamepads, so swing away.

Additionally, Zeno Clash 2 throws a wider variety of foes at the player. Enemies of the same weight class often have different attacks; a far cry from the original Zeno Clash giving each weight class the same roster of moves. Ghat also encounters these foes in a much more random variety than in the first game, which keeps the combat feeling fresh and keeps players guessing what malformed bird-creature will jump out of which oddly colored tree.

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Put ’em up, lobster-man!

Even more dramatic than Zeno Clash 2‘s improved fighting is the game’s visual upgrades. Whereas the original Zeno Clash benefited from strong colors but suffered from rough graphics, Zeno Clash 2 kicks Zenozoik into overdrive with exquisitely rendered objects. Everything the game throws at Ghat from environments to characters look wonderfully detailed; certainly much more so than in Zeno Clash. ACE Team made these improvements while preserving the weirdness that gives the series its kick.

Zeno Clash 2 also runs well on PC. The game allows players to punch to their hearts’ content without throwing bugs or glitches into the gears. Zeno Clash 2 has a great options menu for addressing any potential concerns and, unlike the original game, it can run at a standard 1920 x 1080 resolution. Occasionally players may see a bit of texture pop-in, but it’s a are phenomenon. It certainly doesn’t obstruct Zeno Clash 2‘s bright visuals and smooth performance.

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The hills are aliiiiive with the sound of puuuunchiiiiing…

As previously mentioned, Zeno Clash 2 abandons its predecessor’s linear format in favor of an open world. Players can visit regions over and over to find hidden items or take up side quests for Zenozoik’s eccentric inhabitants. Some regions are entirely optional to explore and contain only side quests. Finding all of the corners of Zenozoik (both for the main narrative and side missions) is highly recommended. It’s an open world that features Zeno Clash at its best, with a range of diverse environments and even more diverse (and crazy) characters.

The liveliness of Zeno Clash 2‘s environments goes beyond their being bright and open. Each region is inhabited by its own brand of crazies, most of whom are happy to get into fisticuffs with Ghat if the player gets too close. Additionally, though Ghat starts out with Rimat at his side, players can accrue a small but deadly pool of other side characters to tag team wrestle with. A handful of these are returning characters from the first game, including Ghat’s original companion Deadre. The voice acting and music are hit-and-miss, but both are better than the first game’s.

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Damn. Someone filled the sky with fruit punch again.

Even though Zeno Clash 2‘s fighting improvements and transition to an open world are where the game gets the most fun, the narrative is perhaps the title’s most important improvement for the series. Whereas Zeno Clash‘s narrative was a scattershot collection of flashbacks and stilted dialogue, Zeno Clash 2‘s plot is infinitely more cohesive. Ghat’s new quest to discover the origins of Golem is much more cleanly written than his flight into exile in the first game. The dialogue inevitably benefits from much better storyboard organization.

Zeno Clash 2 also does what all good sequels do by massively expanding the scope of its predecessor’s lore. The world of Zenozoik is given much more backstory and mystery than it had in the original Zeno Clash; the result is a world that recontextualizes the original title and makes the story of Ghat feel more epic for doing so. Zeno Clash 2 drops its hints and its climaxes at an even tempo (despite a slow start), culminating in an ending bout much livelier than a Mayweather-McGregor matchup.

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Guess I’m not allowed to go to the rave.

Zeno Clash 2 is more than a sum of improvements to the original Zeno Clash. It’s one of the most novel beat ’em up games of the last five years and a shining example of what a sequel should do. A sequel shouldn’t just retread paths trod by a preceding game with little to no change; instead, a sequel should strive to expand the scope of what the previous game set down. It should use the preceding installment’s narrative and world as a springboard for a new, grander experience.

Zeno Clash 2 accomplishes that in spades. It’s a game with streamlined, fun fighting set in a world that players want to explore. Its story is a cogently arranged saga of fighting and  truth-seeking with interesting characters. Its dialogue, while occasionally awkward, carries itself with more passion and enthusiasm than that of the original game. For all these reasons, it’s a game worth picking up,  and not just by fighting fans. Its trippy visuals and world may also very well serve as a viable substitute for acid.

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You can buy Zeno Clash 2 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.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

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Join your former mentor on a mission to kill a god.

PC Release: September 15, 2017

By Ian Coppock

The standalone expansion is back in vogue, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. In an age when devs hack pieces out of their own games to sell separately and studios launch their titles with hundreds of dollars’ worth of skins (*cough*Evolve*cough*), a more substantial piece of additional content is a welcome change. Bethesda seems intent on leading the expansion pack charge, first with Wolfenstein: The Old Blood in 2015 and now with Dishonored: Death of the Outsider.

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Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is a standalone title that started out as a piece of DLC for last year’s Dishonored 2. Plans changed when Dinga Bakaba, Dishonored 2‘s lead designer, advocated for making Death of the Outsider its own title instead of an add-on. That decision proved to be a good idea because it gave Death of the Outsider the chance to foster its own identity that’s independent of Dishonored 2.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is also meant to serve as the end to the “Kaldwin era” of Dishonored titles, wrapping up the Dishonored world’s current plot threads and character arcs. According to industry scuttlebutt, if Arkane elects to make more Dishonored games, they’ll feature new characters and storylines. Death of the Outsider is thus intended to be an encore, a final hurrah of the Corvo Attano/Emily Kaldwin arc (even though neither of those characters feature in this title).

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Dance, you ruffians! Dance, I say!

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider takes place a few months after the end of Dishonored 2 and stars Billie Lurk, former assassin-turned-boat captain. Having helped Emily/Corvo on their journey in Dishonored 2, Billie turns her attention to finding her old mentor Daud, the guy who killed the Empress in the original Dishonored. Daud hasn’t been heard from in over 15 years, but Billie has it on good authority that he’s in Karnaca, the one and same city Dishonored 2 took place in.

Sure enough, Billie finds Daud in the city’s least reputable corner and watches him use the same awe-inspiring powers he wielded in Dishonored. It turns out that Daud has been out and about studying the Empire of the Isles on a deeply personal mission, one that he needs Billie to help him execute. Daud’s noticed that a lot of the bad stuff that goes down in the world of Dishonored is due in no small part to the Outsider, and makes Billie a bold proposal: kill him.

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You out of your mind, old man?

Wait, the Outsider? That black-eyed supernatural entity who floats around in the void, bestowing terrible and amazing powers upon whomever he sees fit? The guy who can see into the past, present, and future? The kid who’s basically a god? Yep, that Outsider. Billie is rightfully skeptical that it’s possible to kill him, but Daud thinks that he’s found a way to do so deep in Karnaca. Billie decides that she’s willing to risk her life to see the Outsider gone, and picks up her old assassination tools for one last job.

Like previous Dishonored titles, Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is a first-person game that emphasizes stealth and subterfuge. Even though Billie’s out to end his life, the Outsider decides to give her her own set of deadly powers to use. Players rely on a combination of skill with a knife and supernatural abilities to navigate levels and complete objectives. Usually those objectives involve ending the life of some heavily guarded fat cat, but Billie can perform other missions too.

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Billie’s out to hunt the devil himself.

Unlike previous Dishonored titles, Dishonored: Death of the Outsider gives players all the powers, all at once. Billie is given a small but potent set of abilities that are all fully upgraded and ready to use from the get-go. These include a Blink-like ability called Displace as well as a much more novel power that allows her to assume the guise of any unconscious NPC (for a limited time). Players can also use a magical scout wisp to scope out the area ahead.

Death of the Outsider also features an even more far-reaching formula shakeup than immediate power: removal of the chaos system. The endings of previous Dishonored games were affected by how many NPCs the player murdered; no such penalty system exists in Death of the Outsider. Players are thus free to sneak or kill as they see fit. Billie’s story gets the same ending no matter whether she sneaks past everyone or leaves a trail of corpses.

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THE GLOVES ARE OFF, GENTLEMEN!

Both of these fundamental changes to the Dishonored formula are quite refreshing. Getting all of the powers at once conveys the fun of the new game plus mode onto Death of the Outsider, which doesn’t feel all that out of place considering that this is an expansion to Dishonored 2. The design change gives players as much freedom as possible to traverse maps and kill enemies, and emboldens them to experiment with different abilities. What’s more, Billie’s mana recharges over time instead of relying upon elixers, so magic away.

Additionally, it’s nice to see an end to the chaos system. Sure, it served as a way for players to challenge themselves and make as little noise as possible, but a game about assassination shouldn’t give players an adverse narrative because they, well, assassinate people. Dishonored: Death of the Outsider recognizes this and makes the narrative and gameplay two separate entities. Some might say that the chaos system’s removal negates the player’s impact on the story, but Billie is still doing plenty of story-moving stuff.

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I summon the powers of a contemporary sculpture!

Another refreshing departure that Death of the Outsider marks from Dishonored 2 is that it actually runs well. Even though almost none of the big-budget titles that released last fall ran well on PC, Dishonored 2‘s PC performance was particularly dishonorable. Between the crashing, the stuttering, and the FOV bugs, there weren’t many facet of Dishonored 2‘s performance that didn’t need patching. Luckily, Death of the Outsider runs just fine. Arkane managed to sidestep all of the performance issues plaguing Dishonored 2 and Death of the Outsider is much, much better for it.

Additionally, players who do experience performance issues while running Death of the Outsider should check out its comprehensive options menu. The menu allows players to adjust virtually everything about the game from key bindings on up to visual effects like shadows. The result is a title that, even if by chance it doesn’t run well the first time, actually allows players to try to remedy issues. Props to Arkane for including an in-depth options menu.

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“My… look at that DASHING options menu!”

Death of the Outsider‘s decent system performance does more than make the game playable; it also makes it more beautiful. Dishonored 2‘s rendition of Karnaca was always marred by the poor performance, but players can now experience the city in all its proper glory. Karnaca espouses beautiful Greco-Roman architecture and bright colors, giving players no shortage of things to gawk at even as they’re slitting throats and stealing purses. Objects are well-placed and the game’s Void Engine-powered textures are sharp as ever.

Death of the Outsider also benefits from more varied level design than past Dishonored games, sending Billie through the customary multi-leveled city streets as well as more constricting spaces like caverns. Levels in Death of the Outsider are sizable, and though their design isn’t all that different from past Dishonored games, there’s still lots to find. Death of the Outsider also adds a contract system in which players can complete side jobs for extra coin. Just take care to read the job postings carefully.

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You want me to cook WHAT for dinner?

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider succeeds in creating the series’s most fun gameplay experience to date, but the same can’t be said of the story. The narrative sounds like compelling stuff at face value: find a way to kill a god and bring an end to an era of Dishonored. The problem with Death of the Outsider‘s narrative lies not in its jaw-dropping backstory nor its lore, but in how breakneck of a pace this story is delivered at.

Worse still is the game’s ending, the most rushed and anticlimactic of any Dishonored narrative. It’s difficult to elaborate without spoiling, but suffice it to say that the ending does not befit the premise of setting out to kill the Outsider. The narrative just quickly peters out with a vague epithet about the future and leaves it at that. It’s not quite Mass Effect 3-levels of abrupt, but that example’s mere usage is not a good sign for Death of the Outsider‘s ending.

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What the hell is this place?

Luckily, Death of the Outsider saves its story’s mediocrity from seeping into the gameplay by keeping the two untethered, resulting in a title that has the series’s most meh story but also its most fun gameplay. It’s a shrewd use of the expansion format, as Arkane was able to shed the mediocrity of Dishonored 2 and still have enough elbow room to try new things. Death of the Outsider is the Dishonored saga’s gameplay at its purest, giving players the most freedom of any Dishonored game to sneak and to stab. Players who enjoy both of those kinds of gameplay should pick the title up, and series fans keen to see how the Kaldwin era ends should as well. Happy hunting.

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You can buy Dishonored: Death of the Outsider 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.

Sky Break

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Search a storm-ridden planet for the cure to a deadly plague.

PC Release: October 21, 2016

By Ian Coppock

The next title in this month’s pack of survival games is Sky Break, a game about staying alive more for the sake of others than the self. Unlike FarSky, a game about tranquil survival, and Adrift, a game about outlasting a disaster of one’s own creation, Sky Break is a game about pegging the fate of millions to the survival of a single person. It presents the need to save others as being just as much of a pressure as finding food or shelter. Where the game goes from that premise is the subject of tonight’s review.

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Sky Break is a third-person adventure game and the sophomore effort of FarSky Interactive. With Sky Break, FarSky swaps out the underwater setting of its titular debut with that of an alien world far, far in the future: a future in which humanity has been driven to the brink of extinction by a deadly plague. The player character, an anonymous explorer, is sent to the stormy planet of Arcadia to find and synthesize a cure. If they fail, so too does the human race.

The character starts Sky Break out being one of many explorers sent to Arcadia, but the planet’s aforementioned stormy weather wreaks havoc on the fleet and leaves the player the sole survivor. Bereft of their colleagues and armed only with what they can scavenge from the world around them, it’s up to the player to find a cure, repair their ship, and avoid falling prey to Arcadia’s fierce storms and killer robots.

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Wait, WHAT?!

What’s that? Killer robots?! Yes indeed, Arcadia’s fierce storms are hardly the only obstacle players have to keep an eye out for. The planet is also swarming with animal-like robots that exhibit all the feral ferocity one might expect of actual animals. It turns out that Arcadia was settled by humanity long ago, but had to abandon the planet when these mechs turned on their creators. Before anyone starts screeching that Sky Break is a Horizon Zero Dawn clone, bear in mind that this game released about four months before HZD. Checkmate, fanboys.

Luckily for the player, killer animal robots weren’t the only things the colonists left behind on Arcadia. They also happened to leave behind chests full of supplies and, oh yeah, a fully functional sky base that can move wherever the player needs it to go. This high-tech sky-loft comes packed with a medical room, a greenhouse, and other necessities for surviving on Arcadia. The station also comes with a landing pad for the ship… if players can fix it.

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Now THIS is what I call moving on up!

With all of these resources at hand, players are well-equipped to explore Arcadia and find the cure. Sky Break is played from a third-person perspective and outfits players with a laser rifle, a repair tool, and other devices useful for navigating Arcadia’s wilds. Players are also accompanied by a drone that can emit sonar pings and reveal nearby items. Finding the cure is pretty simple: just walk up to a nearby plant, gather a sample, and the let the character’s built-in synthesizer start cracking away at it.

Of course, Sky Break doesn’t actually tell players most of this. The game gives general directives like finding the sky base and locating nearby islands, but doesn’t otherwise inform players how to proceed. It doesn’t divulge that having gathered plant material sit in the inventory is sufficient for making a fraction of the cure. Sky Break‘s abject lack of hints is a needless frustration that can make it difficult to discern what to do next or how best to explore Arcadia.

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A wild robo-tiger appeared!

Apart from its lack of detailed information, the other wearisome element of Sky Break‘s gameplay is, well… its gameplay. The only way to complete the game is to collect plant samples for the cure, but each sample only yields about .20% of the final product. Sky Break attempts to dilute the botany monotony by splitting the world into islands and across wilderness, but the end goal is the same no matter which chunk of rock the player is traversing. Occasionally the player may try to reclaim a signal tower and fight off hordes of robots, but those are by and large the only instances that things shake up.

Not that Sky Break‘s shooter gameplay is all that remarkable either. There are lots of robotic animals prowling the wilds, but they all go down the same way: just shoot until they die. The enemies in Sky Break have rudimentary AI, typically only barreling straight toward the player much as the sharks do in FarSky. Unlike FarSky‘s sharks, though, these enemies can at least be dodged. Far more novel than shooting the robots is the ability to tame and upgrade them, making them valuable wilderness companions.

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Down, boy! …Or girl? Or it? Down, thing!

Sky Break‘s most novel gameplay feature is the weather. As previously mentioned, Arcadia is perpetually rocked by thunderstorms, and the severity of those storms affects finding the cure. Most times the storm is reduced to rain and light wind, which is hardly a bad thing. Other times, though, the storm kicks up to a fever pitch, unleashing deadly tornadoes and frequent lightning strikes. Sometimes the storms can get so bad that the player’s minimap can short out, forcing them to take shelter until it passes. Fortunately, players can usually reduce the storm’s ferocity with a nearby lightning rod.

Sky Break‘s weather gameplay is cool, but its other gameplay elements leave much to be desired. Players can bet that most of their time will be spend gathering plants and shooting any robots that attempt to obstruct them from gathering said plants. Compound this with the fact that players don’t have any resource needs, like food or water, to maintain, and Sky Break feels less like a survival game and more like an adventure demo.

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Heel, catdog!

To Sky Break‘s credit, the game attempts to break up the routine of alien gardening by featuring several different biomes. Players start out in a lush forest but can go on to explore a scorching desert and an unforgiving arctic wasteland. Each of these environments is brightly colored, but the game’s object design and graphical rendering are… rudimentary. Likewise, character animations for both the player and the robots are painfully stiff.

Sky Break also suffers from several interesting notions of how to render weather. FarSky Interactive did a good enough job animating wind-rustled tree leaves and grass, but for some reason elected to animate gales of wind that shoot upwards from the ground. It’s a bizarre-looking eyesore, one that suggests either lazy effect implementation or that the wind was animated to flow in the wrong direction. Sky Break does marginally better with its world’s sound design; a lot of the effects are muffled but the music is pretty.

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WHAT IS HAPPENING

The nail in Sky Break‘s coffin is its large load of bugs. Robot animals will simply glitch through physical obstacles if they charge the player hard enough. The game is subject to random crashes that no amount of tinkering in its options menu seems to fix. Why Sky Break is so prone to this performance issue is a mystery; its graphics constitute a minimal system performance burden.

Finally, Sky Break is also prone to some of the worst character and object pop-in of any game reviewed on this page… even the Ubisoft ones. This problem is at its most dire when players fix their ship, which they can fly around the world much like they could the mini-sub in FarSky. Astoundingly, the ship can fly faster than the world around it can load, meaning that players have to wait for the world to spawn in around them once they reach their destination. If the player is waiting in a space that’s supposed to be occupied by a landmark like a rock formation, that cliff or butte will spawn around the player and trap them (and their ship) inside it. What a farce.

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Faster! But not TOO fast!

There’s not a whole lot else to say about Sky Break. Its sound design is muted, its world is scattershot… the entire production feels more like an Early Access build than a finished product. The game presents an interesting world and concept, but its execution is slipshod in almost every game design department. As such, it’s better off avoided. Sky Break represents a surprising step back for FarSky, whose eponymous debut was a much better game. Hopefully the studio can recapture FarSky‘s sense of fun with The Free Ones, its upcoming island escape adventure, but until then… skip Sky Break.

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You can buy Sky Break 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.