Monthly Archives: July 2016

Psychonauts

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Enter the minds of strangers and freaks on a quest to become a Psychonaut.

PC Release: April 19, 2005

By Ian Coppock

The video game medium allows for some truly eccentric creations, ranging from something as novel as Super Mario 64, to something as horrific as that Crack-Life mod that was reviewed a few months ago. Though video games are rife with kooky characters and strange worlds, there is perhaps no game more quintessentially weird than Psychonauts, the proudest creation of the venerable Double Fine studio. With the long-awaited Psychonauts 2 now underway after over a decade, it’s time to go back and evaluate the original title. What has made it so endearing, and so weird?

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Psychonauts is a third-person adventure game set in a world of strangers and freaks, where certain people possess the gift of telepathic potential. The United States government identifies these individuals when they’re still children, and trains them to be secret agents at the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. It is the aspiration of these cadets to become Psychonauts, telepathic agents who can use their powers to enter the minds of other people and battle the evil within.

Razputin, a young boy and the hero of this tale, infiltrates Whispering Rock to attend the camp even though he wasn’t invited. The camp’s administrators are set on sending him away, but relent after testing the boy’s impressive psychic potential. Though Razputin is allowed to stay, he’s challenged to complete the grueling Psychonaut training in just one night. Otherwise, he’ll get sent back to the abusive father he ran away from. Only by getting his Psychonaut certification will he be truly free.

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Razputin, or “Raz” as he prefers, is determined to become a psychonaut in record time.

Raz settles in with the gaggle of bizarre psychic children who also inhabit the camp, and sets about earning various Psychonaut merit badges. Psychonauts is nominally open-world, with Whispering Rock serving as a central hub for side activities and getting supplies. Each of the game’s levels takes place inside the minds of Raz’s friends and foes, and though they can be quite expansive, they’re usually linear. Just like the dungeons in The Legend of Zelda, each level in Psychonauts requires a new power or tool to proceed. Raz adds a new ability to his psychic arsenal with every mind he conquers.

Despite having no formal training, Raz rapidly outpaces the other students at the camp, earning the admiration of some and the enmity of others. Although Raz does well under the watchful eyes of the Psychonauts, his arrival coincides with strange happenings (well, stranger than usual) at the camp. Children begin disappearing for hours, only to reappear with their brains taken away! Raz realizes that a mad scientist on the other side of the lake is gathering the students’ psychic minds to create something new, something horrible, and his training to become a Psychonaut turns into a race to save his fellow campers from the evil… the horrible… Dr. Loboto!

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Every summer camp should have telepathy training.

At the outset, Raz’s adventure to save his friends looks little different than any other third-person adventure game from the mid-2000’s, but part of what has made Psychonauts such a long-lasting hit is its sheer variety of gameplay. Raz has access to a wide range of psychic powers that allow him to do almost anything, from flying to shooting to setting things on fire. He can get around faster on a glowing orb, or swat the camp’s psychic wildlife away by more physical means. Each of these powers has the potential to pull Psychonauts in lots of different directions, but they’re streamlined remarkably well, and make the gameplay much more diverse than just hopping platforms.

Raz can also pick up a few things around the camp to enhance his psychic abilities. There are shards of psychic crystal buried deep in the ground, and collecting enough of them can unlock new tiers of psychic energy. A few items scattered around each of the levels, like luggage bags with eyes, and lots of colorful “mental cobwebs” also help in this regard. Pretty neat, but hardly anything unusual for a platformer.

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There’s treasure everywhere!

Psychonauts‘ visuals have aged pretty alright for a game that’s a decade old. The game is clearly a product of the mid-20oo’s, but its visual fidelity to the game’s narratives and themes is still sound. That, rather than 4K resolution, should be the true test of whether a video game’s visuals are “good”. Sure, Psychonauts isn’t as sharp as games that came out four seconds ago, but its good enough. The character animations can be a bit stiff, but the game will never leave players wondering what emotions certain motions were meant to convey.

Far more impressive than Psychonauts’ gently dated visuals is its strong use of color. Any game that deals with the eccentricities of the human mind is bound to have some bright colors, and Psychonauts is no exception. Each level and world in the game is decked out in different colors and different graphical styles. One level set in a spy-ridden suburban neighborhood looks animated and cartoonish, while another set in a dark Spanish town is surreal and neon. Each of Psychonauts‘ worlds carries enough visual novelty that they could almost be considered their own games. It certainly doesn’t leave the player begging for visual variety.

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Psychonauts’ gorgeous coloring still looks great after over a decade.

Far more than the colors, though, what truly gives the levels in Psychonauts so much staying power is their novel gameplay. Each level is almost completely different from the last, with a unique style of gameplay, a unique aesthetic, and a backstory to accommodate each mind Raz enters. The famous “milkman” level, in which Raz explores the thoughts of a paranoid delivery man, sees him infiltrating cabals of secret agents populating a suburban neighborhood. Another, set in the mind of a crazed descendant of Napoleon Boneparte, forces players into a life-sized strategy game with board pieces and manageable resources. There’s even a level where Raz is blown up to the size of Godzilla, and rampages around a metropolis inhabited by sentient lungfish.

Now, at this point, all of these settings and gameplay styles may seem completely random, and Psychonauts makes no secret of that. Though each level feels disparate in its design, from eluding a giant bull, to performing circus tricks in a tent made of meat, this randomness gives Psychonauts the novelty that’s kept it alive all these years. The aforementioned milkman level is often cited as one of the most brilliant video game levels ever made, and though it has its drawbacks, there’s certainly nothing else like it in the world of video games. Each level’s design reflects the psyche of the characters Raz encounters, and are as different and vivid as can be.

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Each level in Psychonauts is a treasure, and a pleasure to play.

The main factor that keeps the levels of Psychonauts from feeling like 10 separate games, despite their vast differences, is the strong narrative underpinning them all. Despite being as garishly cartoony as the best platformers of its age, Psychonauts is a surprisingly mature story. Though the characters in the game look goofy, the psychological issues underlying each one are very frank. Raz makes little secret of the abusive environment that he escapes from, and he unearths similar tragedies in each of the minds he explores. An insane actress he encounters has her depression traced back to being abandoned as a child, and the entire affair is demonstrated like one of the stage productions she starred in. Psychonauts still packs a lot of comedy and lighthearted humor into its running time, but it’s not afraid to paint sadness and mental illness.

The narrative is not without its backdrops, but these mostly have to do with pacing. A great deal of the game is squished into the last area, where Raz has to infiltrate several minds just to assemble a disguise. Until then, Psychonauts feels a lot more long-winded, with lots of open-world exploration between levels. This pacing of stretching out the levels in the first half of the game, and then squishing a bunch together in the last half, is definitely noticeable.

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RUNRUNRUNRUNRUNRUN

Although Psychonauts‘ gameplay is smooth, the game’s age means that it can create some headaches on modern systems. The version of Psychonauts used for this review was run on Windows 7, and the game frequently features textures popping in and out of existence throughout the summer camp overworld. The game occasionally crashes for no discernible reason, and sometimes even the character models can suffer texture errors. But, if that’s the worst to be said for a game this old, Psychonauts is more than definitely worth risking a few bugs to experience.

Psychonauts‘ poignant narrative about the nature of the human mind is one of the most intimate stories out there, despite its admittedly ridiculous-looking exterior. The different gameplay in each level guarantees keeping the game fresh, the visuals succeed in conveying the game’s aforementioned emotional themes, and the voice-acting is top-notch. Modern gamers risk a tremendous deal by giving this classic a miss. Its graphics may be clunky, and its jokes might be a bit stale by current standards, but Psychonauts is one of the finest adventure games ever crafted. Its worlds are intriguing, and its core concept is soundly executed. Get and play it while waiting for the next big game to come out.

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You can buy Psychonauts 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 Real Texas

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Explore a surreal Texan landscape and help its trapped denizens.

PC Release: June 12, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Yearning for simpler times is both a fact of life and a fact of video games. These days, indie games that label themselves as “old-school” can be found on PC game storefronts by the literal hundreds. It’s great to see that nostalgia for retro-style video games is so alive and well, but rarely are these types of games truly exceptional, and not just a shallow clone thrown together for a quick old-school buck. Luckily, The Real Texas may prove to be such an exceptional game. It embodies the best and worst that the adventure games of yore have to offer, but what makes it stand out is what makes any decent game stand out: narrative. Although The Real Texas was originally released in 2012, the focus of tonight’s review will be the Dusty Skies edition that was recently released on Steam.

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The Real Texas is a top-down adventure game that takes inspiration, by the designer’s own admittance, from The Legend of Zelda and Ultima series of games. The star of The Real Texas is Sam, a true blue Texan cowboy who decides to take a break from the ranching life. His wanderlust takes him to England for a relaxing vacation at a remote chateau.

Problem is, there doesn’t seem to be anyone at the hotel when Sam arrives. After a few minutes spent bumbling around a magnificent castle, Sam finds a mysterious portal linking to another world. Of course he steps through it, as is the protocol for when one finds a giant, glowing portal, and it lands him in a surreal mirror image of his beloved homeland. Sam arrives to the town of Strange, Texas, a purgatory-esque realm where people from all over time and space live together in the prairie.

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The residents of Strange come from all over.

Not long after Sam’s arrival to Strange, he’s hired by a grouchy witch named Mathilda to help her return Strange’s residents to all their homes and time periods. She explains that Strange is basically purgatory, and enlists the cowboy’s aid in rescuing them all from its clutches. Two sinister figures, a shifty crime boss and a mad wizard, stand in the way of the townsfolk’s return to freedom, and only Sam, with his wild west charm and deadly aim, can restore the peace.

So begins one of the strangest, but also most charming, indie adventures in recent memory. It’s an old-school romp that combines folksy Texan culture with the conventions of fantasy RPGs. The resulting blend is both fun and fascinating, and it gives The Real Texas some novelty to stand out on in a very, very over-saturated genre. Add a decent options menu and a gorgeous synth-and-chiptune soundtrack, and The Real Texas is off to a strong start.

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DRAW!

Players explore the world of The Real Texas from a top-down perspective, as Sam bumbles around a strange, rugged land. The world is parceled up into square patches of land that Sam can traverse through, though they require a brief transition for even adjacent panels. As Sam, players can explore everything from the gnarliest cactus stands to the houses of Strange’s residents. As with the old-school adventure games that The Real Texas seeks to emulate, players can open chests, look for keys and explore labyrinthine dungeons. Strange is rife with the cornerstones of classic RPGs, such as boss battles, hidden rooms and lots of quirky characters. Sam can equip gear found out in the prairie; always go with the robber baron outfit if possible. A top hat and tuxedo can go a long way in battle.

Dealing with bosses and beasties is usually a simple affair. Sam quickly finds a trusty Texan revolver and can use it to dispatch Wild West-style justice against Strange’s less amicable denizens. Some creatures, like evil jelly monsters reminiscent of the Chus from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker do not respond to bullets, forcing Sam to use other weaponry. Most combat situations comprise simply finding the weapon that will work best against a given type of enemy. It’s simple, but it packs just enough variety to keep players from getting complacent. Most dungeons in The Real Texas contain a mix of enemies all necessitating different solutions. Thankfully, combat in The Real Texas is not turn-based.

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RPGs are the klepto’s game of choice.

Although the main quest to free the residents of Strange takes center stage, Sam can embark upon side quests all over the town. Many of them factor into the main quest itself, forcing players to explore around town and see what lies beneath. Most of the world is interconnected by a big dungeon full of further surprises. Sam can also return to the decrepit English hotel, where a few additional puzzles can be found. Most puzzles stick strictly to one area or the other, but a few cross between this world and the world of Strange. The clues are usually pretty evident.

This sort of explore-a-thon is a rarity in today’s gaming landscape. Sure, there are tons of games that encourage players to explore an open world, but usually the side quests and the main quests are strictly segregated in the journal. In The Real Texas. side and main quests are thrown together in a big, messy bowl of fun. Players who prefer linearity in their games may feel overwhelmed, but The Real Texas measures out its side and main quests appropriately. One batch of side quests only becomes available after a segment of the main story has been completed, so players needn’t worry about doing dozens of quests just to get an iota of the narrative. It’s a definite throwback to older game design, and a facet sorely missing from modern game design. Skyrim, for example, makes no secret of its emphasis on the open world over a story, but the two are not combined. In The Real Texas, players are compelled to get the best of both.

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The Real Texas elegantly blends open-world with story. There’s treasure everywhere!

Although The Real Texas has a lot of decently made content, its adherence to old-school video game orthodoxy leaves something to be desired. Many of the quest clues in The Real Texas can feel frustratingly obtuse, both in terms of spoken dialogue and in looking around the physical world. Clues given out by characters can be far too vague, like when Sam has to help a group of small children release ghosts that are following them around. No one likes to waste hours clicking everything and trying every combination of items, but The Real Texas inadvertently provides the opportunity far too often.

The other issue at play with finding the way forward is that in-game objects can be too well-hidden, or too vague. There’s one segment toward the beginning of the game where Sam has to find radishes to feed an angry jelly monster, but the diary explaining the radishes’ location looks nothing like a book in the actual game. It takes far too much pixel-hunting and random clicking to find some of the items Sam needs to progress. That element of game design is certainly yet another throwback to the old school, but it’s a throwback that was abandoned by modern game design for very good reason.

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Searching the world of The Real Texas can be a frustrating affair.

Despite the clunk of its clue-hunting, The Real Texas has some excellent bits of narrative for gamers willing to go the extra mile. Every character in this game, even the little girl who can barely talk, has multiple facets to their personality. Each person in Strange has a lot more personality than their penny-pressed aesthetic would suggest. The dialogue is believable and well-written; everyone has an authentic voice, and a backstory that can be explored simply by looking around the town. Most characters factor into the main and side quests, of course, but the strength of the dialogue writing also aids The Real Texas‘s cute, folksy atmosphere.

The character dimension of The Real Texas that is less noteworthy, is that the game can’t decide if it’s a text adventure or not. As yet another emulation of game design gone by, players can type phrases into the dialogue panel to elicit certain responses from non-player characters. For example, typing “help” in a conversation box with a mechanic might prompt that guy to give out a tool needed for the next mission. The problem is that The Real Texas does not implement this system with all of its characters. Some characters require the player to type a phrase of interest, other times that phrase is already presented as a topic of conversation. There’s no clear reason why some characters are text adventure-based and others are conversation-based, but this can make it easy to forget trying one or the other when Sam’s getting nowhere. It’s a bit frustrating, to say the least.

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The Real Texas randomly alternates between the tools players need to interact with NPCs.

The main quest that Sam embarks upon in The Real Texas builds upon all of this rather well. It borrows themes and elements from most every emotion. There’s a bit of sadness, a bit of humor, a bit of life. As stated at the beginning of the article, the blend of rural Texas and fantasy RPG themes is a winning combination. It’s humorous to see a cowboy wielding a magic wand, just as it’s humorous to listen as a witch tells Sam where to pick up a revolver. The two go together remarkably well.

The narrative itself isn’t anything that fans of old-school RPG games haven’t seen before. There’s an epic quest to help a population of people rid themselves of a curious evil. Strange isn’t evil, per se, but the town conceals a lot of pain beneath the surface, and The Real Texas does a good job at bringing that out in subtle ways. It can be a frustrating process to actually reach some of those tidbits, but they are engrossing. They certainly make for one of the most memorable lite RPGs to have been released thus far in 2016.

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What is a dungeon without an upward-facing portcullis?

The Real Texas will not be everyone’s cup of tea. A fair number of players will be turned off by the game’s utter lack of direction, and the attention to detail needed while scouring every inch of the town for clues and items. The aforementioned ambivalence between text input and selected conversation options is also a glaring design flaw. The Real Texas is a beautiful game, but in its quest to emulate the adventure games of days gone by, it exhibits many of the best and worst traits of that genre in that time period.

At the same time, though, perhaps the frustrations of The Real Texas are less an indictment of the genre and more an indication of modern game design. Games these days are typically so guided, so linear, that players can forget how to explore and be free when confronted with an older game. The Real Texas unashamedly reminds modern gamers of this idea, to just go on a random adventure and watch as the pieces of the story fall into place instead of along a rail track of quest log entries. Gamers who yearn for that type of game design, that type of narrative structure, will absolutely love this game.

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I miss them wide open skies…

The Real Texas is available for digital download through a few platforms, but the Dusty Skies edition recently released on Steam and GOG includes a newly made DLC called Cellpop Goes Out At Night. It’s a nice addition to the main game, albeit being set in an entirely different time and place, and it’s rendered in the same engine used to make The Real Texas. Any gamer tired of short, linear romps will want to get this game and have a strange Texan odyssey of their own. It can be obtuse, and it can be withholding, but The Real Texas‘s strong writing and subtle self-confidence make it a great little game.

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You can buy The Real Texas 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.

SiN Episodes: Emergence

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Save the city of Freeport from a power-hungry scientist.

PC Release: May 10, 2006

By Ian Coppock

In 1998, the video gaming world was on the brink of revolution. Half-Life was about to be released, and not even the developers at Valve could predict what an effect it would have on the genre. Even before its release, though, there were rivals waiting to prey on one of gaming’s most venerable titles, and were given one last chance to stop Valve from taking over the world. All of them failed. However, the subject of today’s review is the legacy of the game that, given more care, could’ve challenged Half-Life for supremacy. SiN Episodes: Emergence is the first and last scion of a series that always sought to challenge Half-Life, but whose effectiveness at actually doing so remains a subject of debate to this day.

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 SiN Episodes: Emergence is the sequel to a game called SiN, a first-person shooter released in 1998. Well-aware of Half-Life‘s impending release, the developers at Ritual Entertainment rushed to create a first-person shooter that could compete with and surpass Valve’s flagship title. The game was developed in the engine previously used for Quake II, and featured a lot of the same gameplay and basic mechanics as Half-Life.

Unfortunately, Ritual’s rush to finish SiN proved to be the game’s undoing. Upon its release, SiN was critically panned for its high amount of bugs, and was one of the most unpolished and glitch-prone shooters released in living memory. Some copies of the game even contained a computer virus. Whatever potential SiN might have brought to the table was overshadowed by its sheer number of bugs. The game has since been patched, and some versions exist that are fit for modern systems, but most memory of SiN has disappeared outside of its tiny cult following.

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SiN was a disaster.

Despite SiN‘s rocky release and subsequently low sales, Ritual decided to continue the franchise. In 2006, they released the first of nine planned episodes to continue the SiN saga. Ironically, the games were to be made available only through Steam, the service put up by Ritual’s old rival, Valve, and the games were even built on Valve’s proprietary Source engine. This marked the first time in gaming history that a major game developer delivered their content over the Internet without the aid of a publisher.

SiN Episodes: Emergence is the first of these nine episodes, and the only one that was ever actually released. Ritual Entertainment was bought out a mere year after Emergence‘s release, and the remaining eight episodes of the series were cancelled. These events were propelled by a myriad of causes, all of which will be explored in this review.

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Uh… hi!

The SiN games take place in Freeport, a futuristic city under the dominion of several corporations. With the dissolution of the city’s police force years ago, Freeport security now falls to a group of private firms that have each staked out their own fiefdom within the metropolis. The original SiN honed in on an epic struggle between Elexis Sinclaire, the psychopathic leader of the SiNtek corporation, and John Blade, player character and leader of the HardCorps private security firm. Blade bested Sinclaire in the original game, but Emergence opens sometime after SiN, as he wakes up in Sinclaire’s laboratory.

John Blade has been put under the knife for reasons unknown, but Sinclaire’s experiments are interrupted when new sidekick Jessica Cannon breaks into the lab to bust him out. The pair fight their way out of Sinclaire’s laboratory, and high tail it onto the freeway in her shiny car. Sinclaire escapes before either can apprehend her.

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Jessica is the deuteragonist of SiN Episodes: Emergence. Funnily enough, she’s voiced by Jen Taylor, who voices Cortana in the Halo series.

As Blade and Jessica tear across the city, Jessica learns that Freeport is descending into chaos, as Sinclaire’s criminal lackey Radek deploys cyber-mercenaries across the metropolis. Sinclaire is up to something, something very bad, for the citizens of Freeport, and only Hardcorps stands in her way. Jessica drops John off in the city before pursuing her own goals, leaving the gun-slinging hero to combat Sinclaire and her army alone.

Right off the bat, Emergence‘s premise and opening are all over the place. The game almost seems to begin in medias res, as Blade falls in with characters that the player is supposed to know. The ending of SiN doesn’t exactly warrant such a bombastic beginning to Emergence, and the game acts as though everyone knows who the main characters are supposed to be and what’s going on in Freeport. The game only starts to make sense much further along in the narrative, which isn’t exactly befitting of the sequel to an obscure, poorly released video game.

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Emergence hits the ground running. 30 seconds in and the player is supposed to know who everyone is and what’s going on.

Blade arranges a meeting with a low-level crime boss in Freeport, who explains that Sinclaire and Radek have made a base for themselves inside the hull of a derelict cargo freighter. The boss’s men have heard strange noises coming from inside the ship, but can’t get any closer without risking SiNtek noticing them. John grabs a gun and prepares to shoot his way through hordes of enemies to get at the ship, and the secret it hides.

Thus far, SiN Episodes: Emergence‘s plot doesn’t really contain anything that sci-fi and shooter fans haven’t seen before. A mad scientist is plotting something mischievous, and only the big, burly hero can stop them. Sinclaire’s alliance with organized crime contains some small element of novelty, but the plot of this game is pretty conventional fair for a sci-fi first-person shooter.

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SiN’s story is a bit shallow and a bit too familiar.

Anyone who played the original SiN game will also notice that Emergence‘s plot sounds very, very familiar. In the original game, John Blade is trying to investigate Elexis Sinclaire’s mysterious activities and finds an insidious plot to take over Freeport. Emergence takes this plot structure and applies it once more. In the original game, Elexis uses a deadly mutagen to turn the city’s inhabitants into monsters. Guess what? Elexis is once again using that deadly mutagen to once again turn the city’s inhabitants into monsters.

It becomes clear at this point that Emergence is intended to be a reboot of SiN, but a decent reboot won’t just rehash the story of the original media. A decent reboot borrows the concepts that made the first game great and points them in a new, better direction. SiN Episodes: Emergence‘s shameless repetition of the original game’s plot means that there’s nothing new here for fans of the original game, but Emergence also does nothing to introduce newcomers to the Freeport universe. It demands excitement from old-school fans and understanding from new players, but is vastly overconfident in its ability to procure either.

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Emergence’s plot is nearly indistinguishable from that of the first game.

With Emergence‘s plot almost entirely comprising rehashes and cliches, story-driven gamers will look elsewhere for a saving grace within the narrative. The issue is that this story’s saving grace is nowhere to be found. The voice acting is okay. It’s not great. Jen Taylor channels her inner Cortana in voicing Jessica Cannon, but doesn’t venture far outside of that advisory niche. All of the enemies in the game shout repetitive lines about killing John Blade, i.e. “I’m gonna get you, BLADE!”, and “This is it, BLADE!”

These lines are repeated so many times that firefights quickly become obnoxious. It doesn’t help that almost every human enemy will spout this canned rhetoric no matter their class or what weapons they use. Indeed, within SiN‘s tiny community, the lines about John Blade are to SiN fans what the “arrow in the knee” meme is to fans of Skyrim.

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“My dialogue will annoy you, BLADE!”

The icing on the cake for SiN Episodes: Emergence‘s narrative is that the game cannot decide whether it’s a sci-fi comedy or a serious first-person shooter. Names like John Blade and Jessica Cannon imply comedy, but what scant humor the game contains is confined to a few cliched one-liners. The rest of the game is a grim-looking FPS whose aesthetic does nothing else to imply comedy. It begs the question of whether a name like John Blade is supposed to be ironic. Hopefully so, because if SiN is actually trying to be taken seriously, the name “John Blade” does not inspire seriousness.

On top of all of this is the fact that the game is unafraid to hyper-sexualize its characters. Elexis Sinclaire is one of the most sexualized characters in all of gaming, which, in the world of video games, is no small feat. It makes Elexis Sinclaire impossible to take seriously as a villain. If Ritual Entertainment had put half as much effort into the rest of Emergence as they had her breast physics, this game might have turned out better.

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“No but really, I’m the bad guy and you should take me as seriously as I take myself. Be afraid!!”

Far be it from Art as Games to declare that a woman in a bikini is the end of the world, but this is ridiculous.

Emergence‘s plot, while uncomplicated, is nothing new, and it’s entirely too derivative of the game that came before it. Is there anything good to be said about the rest of the production? Well, the gameplay is pretty good. It’s nothing that fans of Source mods and Half-Life haven’t seen before, but it’s serviceable. Controlling John Blade offers the same smooth experience as that of Gordon Freeman in Half-Life 2. Blade can run and jump around the environment and the gunplay offers enough smoothness to pair well with the movement.

Like Half-Life 2, though, the enemies in this game are not too bright. Most will stand completely still as they shoot at Blade, allowing him to dispatch head shots with ease. The dumbness of the enemy AI makes Emergence an easy game, even on higher difficulties. Enemies display no creativity in using the environment, although to be fair, creative enemy AI is a relatively recent development.

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The enemies in this game are about as intelligent as a scarecrow with a pistol taped to it.

The level design in which these firefights take place is, like everything else in this game, pretty alright. Not good, not great, just… alright. It’s the standard FPS fare of linear corridors and open areas, taking more than a few nods from trends established by the Half-Life franchise. The environments are reasonably detailed, and the city of Freeport is a colorful place, but not nearly enough of the game’s more interesting central environments are explored. Most everything takes place in a series of tunnels, labs, and warehouses.

Sound design? Adequate. Game length? Adequate. Options menu? Adequate. Everything in SiN Episodes: Emergence is so perfectly conventional that it almost seems intentional. There are no innovations, no great plot points, no memorable scenes from throughout the production. It’s a flawlessly average video game that arrogantly assumes much more than what it ultimately amounts to. There’s no character development, the dialogue is the standard “get to the chopper!” routine replete in first-person shooters, and nearly all of its gameplay elements were already pioneered by Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Combine this with its rehash of SiN‘s questionably interesting plot, and, well… yeah.

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So long, Freeport.

Upon its release, SiN Episodes: Emergence received “meh” reviews from the press and fans. The game barely broke even with its production costs, and the other eight episodes of the planned series were cancelled. Fans of Source mods might enjoy what gameplay Emergence borrows from Half-Life 2, but gamers looking for something more substantive will want to seek a different pasture.

Like so many games, Emergence had some potential. It had the potential to rise from the ashes of the original SiN and make the series a true contender in the world of first-person shooters. But what the game lacks is confidence; confidence in its abilities as a shooter, confidence in its choice of narrative tone, and confidence in the design of its shallow, sexualized characters. Consequently, gamers everywhere should have little confidence that SiN Episodes: Emergence contains lasting entertainment.

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 You can buy SiN Episodes: Emergence 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.

Inside

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Elude the terrors of a dystopian world and uncover the secret it hides.

PC Release: July 7, 2016

By Ian Coppock

The tourney of morose platformers that began with Limbo continues today with InsideLimbo developer Playdead’s newest project. Limbo is a great platformer because of its incredibly strong atmosphere and challenging but fair puzzles. Now that six years have gone by since Limbo‘s release, it’s time to see how Playdead adopted the lessons of that game into their new title.

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This review will be rife with comparisons between Limbo and Inside. As readers will soon see, not comparing the two games is, for better and worse, impossible. Just like LimboInside is a side-scrolling platformer, and just like LimboInside stars a small boy who starts off the game lost in a forest. Inside also features a variety of environmental puzzles and advertises itself as having a strong, spooky atmosphere… just like Limbo.

Already, Inside runs the risk of being far too derivative of Limbo. Sure, the game is marketed as a “spiritual successor” to the 2010 platformer, but Inside‘s unwillingness to venture even one iota outside of its predecessor’s premise is a bit worrying. It certainly cast initial doubt as to whether the game contains anything new for fans of Limbo. A premise is just a premise, though, and many games with the same beginning can turn out to be quite different. It’s time to dig deeper.

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Huh. This seems familiar.

Anyway, Inside kicks off with a young boy appearing in a big, spooky forest. As he ventures deeper into the woods, the boy begins witnessing some worrying sights, like people being loaded into trucks and driven off to God knows where. It becomes clear that the men behind the roundup are no friends of the boy, and the child has to avoid and outrun these patrols as he ventures deeper into the wild.

In addition to avoiding armed patrolmen and their vicious attack dogs, the child has to solve a few environmental brain-benders in order to proceed. These puzzles, much like Limbo‘s, revolve around making use of environmental objects to create a path forward, be that a bridge or a gate or whatever. The boy has no weapons, but he can pull and push objects and interact with buttons to get along on his way.

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The boy’s journey through this Orwellian landscape is as solitary as it is scary.

At this point, fans of Limbo might be a bit wearied by all the samey-sounding gameplay points that are in Inside, and that’s fair enough, but it’s worth pointing out that this new game takes what Limbo did and makes it more effective. For example, though the monster encounters in Limbo are hair-raising, they rarely present immediate danger like the encounters in Inside do. Being pursued by a slow-moving spider is certainly cause for concern, but being chased by murderous patrolmen and their Ramsay Bolton-esque attack dogs is much more visceral. Playdead took what made the enemy encounters in Limbo work and bumped them up to greater heights.

Playdead is to be commended for their understanding of survival horror, which is a rare accomplishment in a genre that’s over-saturated with cheap jumpscares. There’s a particularly tense scene toward the beginning of the game in which the boy attempts to sneak past a truck left running with its lights on, and is suddenly shocked by the appearance of several more flashlights as he tries to make his way through. Inside is much more suspenseful than Limbo, and adrenaline junkies will appreciate it.

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The world of Inside is not the most child-friendly place…

After making his way through a morose countryside not unlike that in a Tim Burton film, the boy ends up in a sprawling city. It’s at this point that the snippets of terror presented in the woods transition into full-blown psychological horror, as the boy makes his way through a city straight out of 1984. From rows of derelict buildings to hordes of mind-controlled slaves, there’s no shortage of grim sights to be had in Inside‘s urban environments.

Once again, Playdead took something that they toyed around with in Limbo and took it further in Inside. In Limbo, some great calamity was always implied, but left quite vague. In Inside, the implications of a dystopian society are unmistakable, but the game is still mum on how all of this happened. The game features no dialogue, though the boy does react with shouts and gasps to the terrors of the world around him. This is an improvement over Limbo, in which the small child didn’t react at all. In Inside, the boy’s reactions to the world are much more realistic, like running faster ahead of savage dogs and gasping in panic at the sight of a monster.

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The boy’s interactions with the world of Inside are subtle, but powerful.

Inside‘s sound design complements the game’s aesthetic quite well. There’s no music, per se, so much as a series of ambient sounds that will play loudly when something dangerous or disturbing is encountered. Most of the game’s sound design is devoted to the natural sounds of the world of Inside. Grinding machinery and the march of brainwashed slaves are but a few sound elements that reinforce the game’s oppressive atmosphere.

The richness of this sounds is a crucial element of Inside‘s horror. Everything from the tiniest splash to the loudest machine is designed to produce a full, lasting sound effect that makes the world feel spookier and more real. They’re done well enough to make the player forget about the lack of dialogue, for one thing.

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Inside’s sounds are well-placed.

For anything that can be said about Inside‘s narrative and gameplay similarities to Limbo, there’s much more divergence between the two in Inside‘s visuals. Whereas Limbo was done out in a series of animated environments that were entirely monochromatic, Inside is a fully 3D world featuring actual, if muted, colors. The game is absolutely gorgeous, espousing a style that looks like something between a Pixar film (if Pixar was run by Tim Burton) and a top-of-the-line modern game. Each environment, like those in Limbo, is almost ludicrously detailed with objects and debris to give a strong dystopian impression. It’s an enthralling world that will suck gamers in almost from the get-go.

Additionally, unlike LimboInside features more colors than its monochromatic predecessor. Instead of doling everything out in various shades of grey, Inside features fully colored objects that are instead dulled by the game’s lighting and shadows. Colorful environments are muted down not by a slim selection of colors, but by Inside‘s powerfully rendered palette of light. From bleak, indifferent sunlight to sterile industrial electricity, there are dozens of lighting and shadow effects at play in Inside. They work spectacularly with the detailed environments to create a world that is bleak, but not dull. Unwelcoming, but not uninviting.

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Inside is a masterwork of atmosphere.

The gameplay by which players navigate this powerful world is little changed from that of Limbo. The boy can run and jump to get around, and will automatically speed up if an enemy starts to give chase. Running and jumping is also the boy’s only recourse if an enemy does show up, as he has no weapons or deterrents. Just like LimboInside tries to dissuade players from getting killed by using gruesome death animations. Inside does not hold back in its depictions of untimely demises, like getting eaten alive by a pack of dogs or bisected by thunderous machinery.

The puzzles in Inside are fair, and usually not too difficult. They reward intuition and logical thinking much more than the random clicking that far too many puzzle games prefer to employ. Some puzzles, though, are far too similar to those of Limbo. There are a few puzzles throughout Inside that seem to have been copy/pasted straight out of Limbo, which was disappointing to see. Inside‘s puzzles are not that challenging, but they haven’t been as dramatically improved over Limbo as other aspects of the game design.

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Inside’s puzzles can be long, even labyrinthine, but they’ll rarely truly stump players.

As for Inside‘s central plot, well… there really doesn’t seem to be one. With Limbo, the boy’s goal is to find his sister. That goal is made known even before the game starts up. With Inside, there’s no indication of what drives the boy to risk life and limb as he makes his way deeper into this spooky world. There are one or two implications, to be sure, but those aren’t made known until the final goal is actually reached. Even more so than LimboInside prefers to avoid a strong narrative in lieu of its admittedly intoxicating world.

At the same time, this prevents gamers from connecting to this boy more personally. The fact that his motivations are an enigma works against wanting to keep him alive or caring about his ultimate fate, even if he is just a small child. The train of thought for most gamers who try Inside will be “this game is awesome, but why am I here?”

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Inside’s attempt to supplant a narrative with pure world exploration is ambitious, but ultimately imperfect.

Ultimately, Inside is a study in the horrors of vulnerability and isolation. Sure, most horror games aim to do the same, but Playdead makes a few subtle changes to the formula that ultimately make Inside an effective adventure game. The fact that the character is a small child just automatically makes the world around him feel more unfriendly and more severe. The long bouts of walking and puzzling through abandoned zones make the player feel more alone than ever. Add the severity of the game’s enemies to the mix, and Inside becomes a dark journey with surprising emotional exhaustion.

In the end, that emotional exhaustion is what makes Inside an endearing game, in spite of its near-total lack of a narrative. It’s a journey about survival more than anything else, as pronounced story takes a backseat to the boy’s effort to merely stay alive. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an Orwellian world, a world whose sole hope is the boy pressing forward into the dark.

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What is that?

Although Inside risks being too derivative of Limbo, and its lack of a central narrative may turn off story-obsessive gamers, it’s one of the best platformers to have been released in years. Its entirely new innovations are few, but it takes the design elements that made Limbo great and raises them to dramatic new heights. The monster and enemy encounters are more visceral. The puzzles are more intuitive. The art style is more beautiful. And, most importantly, the grim world that Playdead has all but trademarked returns even more somber and more terrifying in Inside.

Inside contains about five hours of content and is available on Steam for PC gamers. It’s a game that challenges players to brave a dark new world, and confronts the mind on an emotional and a psychological level like few other games can. This game deserves a spot in every PC gamer’s library. It is not only a worthy spiritual successor to Limbo, but a fantastic, well-made video game in its own right.

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You can buy Inside 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.

Limbo

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Guide a small boy through a gloomy world as he searches for his sister.

PC Release: July 21, 2010

By Ian Coppock

Summer is traditionally a time for lots of sunshine and time spent outdoors, which also makes it the best time for a plethora of horror games. Sure, the autumn season will bring its share of terror, but barring an AC unit, horror games are a great way to stay cool in the summer. For the economically minded consumer, there’s nothing better for saving some AC money than getting thrills and chills from one of the games reviewed here. With only the best intentions in mind, let’s now examine Limbo, a creepy horror platformer.

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Limbo is one of the most iconic platformers ever developed, legendary in the gaming community for its gloomy aesthetic and hair-raising creatures. The game was released in 2010 by Playdead, a small Danish studio whose most recent product, Inside, released week before last. Inside will get its own review soon, but in order to fully appreciate that game, it’s necessary to understand Limbo and the motifs that it gave rise to.

Limbo is a side-scrolling platformer set in a morbid, monochromatic world. The player character is a nameless little boy who wakes up one evening in the world’s spookiest forest. Although it’s never stated in-game, the boy’s goal is to locate his sister, who’s somewhere out there in the big gloomy beyond. He gets up, dusts himself off, and sets out to find his sibling.

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Here we go!

The bulk of Limbo‘s gameplay comprises simple environmental puzzles, usually requiring the boy to move things around or activate machinery. One of the earliest puzzles entails breaking down an old growth tree, and using the snag as a bridge to safely cross a deep pond. Some of these conundrums can get quite intricate, especially as the game goes on, but all of them generally deal with using a combination of items in the environment to create a path forward.

The other half of the game’s mechanics all deal with the environment, and the creepy denizens it hides. Though it feels quite the opposite, the boy is not alone in this big, dark world. There are a multitude of creatures, some friendly, some not so much, secreted throughout the landscape. The boy encounters everything from a giant spider to a savage tribe of children on his quest to find his sister, and both their mechanics and presentation leave a lasting impression.

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The boy faces constant danger from the world’s many predators.

As can be surmised from these screenshots, Limbo is a very dark game indeed. Not just in terms of its enemies or its motifs, but its aesthetic, which is arguably its most identifiable asset. The entire game, from start to finish, consists only of black, white, and gray, with admittedly lots of shades between the three but absolutely no other colors. These visuals are further enhanced with a grim film grain and brilliantly designed interplay between light and shadow. It makes the entire world look like something out of a morose silent film.

Though the game is monochromatic, it remains packed with detail and lots to look at. As the boy travels, he traverses environments ranging from the aforementioned nightmare forest to an abandoned city and locales beyond. All of them are rife with objects, which lets the scenery slowly soak in instead of being over as quickly as monochrome might imply. The city environments in particular are amazingly detailed, with hundreds of discarded artifacts to create a true sense of postapocalypse.

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Limbo’s appearance creates a strong sense of dread and isolation.

The final component that has given Limbo so much staying power in an over-saturated field of indie platformers is its sound design. Throughout the entire game, there are perhaps half a dozen pieces of music, and all of them are ambient, swelling horns and synths that are not at all reassuring. The music is darkly beautiful, with the occasional sad melody, and it’s all timed to the environments the boy visits remarkably well.

Aside from these very scant instances, Limbo features no music. Instead, the game relies purely on environmental sounds to convey its atmosphere. The only sounds to be heard in the forest are a dry wind and the distant cries of wildlife, while the city contains the patter of rain on tin roofs. It is against this backdrop that the boy is expected to move, furtively, as a tiny insect might race through a decrepit tree.

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Limbo’s lack of music makes the world feel even more foreboding.

The reason why the visuals and the music are being listed off like this is because they create Limbo‘s atmosphere, which even more than its aesthetic might be the novelty for which it’s remembered. Even though Limbo is not explicitly a horror game, it contains an atmosphere whose claustrophobic, existential dread is matched only by Amnesia, Outlast, and Soma. A remarkable feat, to say the least, especially for a game that doesn’t try to be a hardcore survival horror adventure like those three titles.

Limbo accomplishes this atmosphere through the perfectly synchronized blend of the aforementioned monochrome and its ghastly lack of music. It makes the journey through the game suspenseful from start to finish, as the player always strains to listen for what might be around the next corner. Even if a monster isn’t chasing the boy, the creepiness implied by the larger environment around him is just as unsettling.

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Limbo has one of the spookiest atmospheres ever created in a video game.

Of course, it’s worth revisiting the gameplay for a moment to figure out why this game is so unsettling. The boy has no means of self-defense if trouble shows up, as it often does. The first half or so of the game is where these ghoulish threats are to be found. The boy spends most of his time in the forest being chased by the aforementioned giant spider, but the beast is slow and methodical, almost inevitable, in contrast to a fast-chasing maniac in Outlast. Indeed, Limbo‘s horror stems from apprehension more than outright violence, as the solutions for outwitting the game’s hostile creatures are usually not apparent until the last second. The game makes use of gruesome death animations to dissuade players from killing the boy on the next round, a very effective, very clever design tactic.

The scenery within Limbo rounds off its horror vibe. The game’s world is rife with objects whose origins are shrouded in mystery, but that are no less terrifying for it. The boy will encounter savage machinery, piles of corpses, and bizarrely methodical death traps along his route. Their origins and purpose are never explained, but the boy gets up close and personal with most of them as he tries to rescue his sister. That sense of sick mystery has further deepened Limbo‘s impact over the years.

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Oh God…

The machinery and obstacles the boy encounters are far more than an aesthetic; they form the basis of the game’s puzzles and environmental obstacles. None of these puzzles are all that taxing, even toward the end, but they are cleverly designed. It helps that the controls are tight and responsive, and the options menu is competently designed. Players are given maximum control over the boy’s movements, and they’ll need it; the world of Limbo is a dangerous place.

Although Limbo is both a masterfully designed platformer and an exemplar of horror atmosphere done right, its narrative does leave something to be desired. The narrative’s main plot point is only made known to the player because of Limbo‘s marketing material, and there’s no kind of character development to be had in this very nonverbal game. A few critics also pointed out that the game ends on a very abrupt note, which won’t be spoiled here, but an abrupt ending that leaves questions unanswered has more lasting power than an ending that satisfies all questions.

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Limbo is an incredible journey.

The final word on Limbo‘s success as a video game is that it proves that games don’t need narratives to be emotionally exhausting. Even though the boy never speaks and has no goals beyond finding his sister, he’s a character that the player becomes attached to. He becomes an endearing part of the game, a beacon against the horrors of this depressingly dark world, and his journey is still emotionally exhausting without the help of dialogue.

Because of this, and because of its finely tuned atmosphere, Limbo is an outstanding platformer that everyone, not just horror gamers, will appreciate. Its morose aesthetic may not be pleasant, but it’s surprisingly deep, and it sets the backdrop for one of indie gaming’s most perilous adventures. Get this game, and get it immediately. It’s one of the best platformers this decade has produced.

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You can buy Limbo 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.

Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Experience the events of The Force Awakens as told by Lego toys.

PC Release: June 28, 2016

By Ian Coppock

The recent happenings in the Star Wars universe have had a tremendous impact upon the whole of geekdom. For anything that can be said about Disney’s monopolistic tendencies and imperialistic business practices, at least they got the Star Wars vehicle up and rolling against. The dissolution of the Star Wars Expanded Universe was a shame, to say the least, but there’s no question that George Lucas had left Star Wars in some kind of limbo after the less-than-stellar Star Wars prequels. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has injected new life into the world’s most venerable sci-fi universe, and so have the film’s various spin-offs and associated projects. Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the latest such media, here to make an impact that only a Lego game can.

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Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the latest in a long series of games that retell big movies with animated Lego toys. Thanks to generous publishing deals between The Lego Group and various media holdings, developer Traveller’s Tales has made goofy Lego games based on everything from Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The series got its start in 2005 with Lego Star Wars: The Video Game, which Lego-ized the three prequel films, and has since delivered a steady stream of fun, if repetitive, Lego adventure games.

Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens is both the latest game of the series and the latest Star Wars-themed Lego game. It retells the events of The Force Awakens film, featuring levels and locations based its content. Because any game based on just one movie would be relatively short, Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens also features a plethora of side content, as well as missions set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.

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The cast and content of the film returns in Lego form.

As with virtually all Lego games that have come before it, Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens divides its content into large levels. Each level is based on a scene from the film, like Finn and Rey’s escape aboard the Millennium Falcon, or the climactic battle at Starkiller Base. Each level is played from a third-person perspective and allows players control over a party of at least two Lego characters. The game can be played co-op, which is always fun, or solo, in which other characters are controlled by the computer. Players can effortlessly switch between characters with the press of a button.

Although each level in these Lego games is fairly linear, each one contains a bunch of hidden collectibles. Golden bricks, mini-kits and the like are used to unlock additional content outside of the levels. Most characters in Lego games have a particular skill that makes them essential to finishing the level. Finn, for example, has a grappling hook useful for pulling down obstacles, while BB-8 and R2-D2 can access computer systems. Most characters also come equipped with weapons, to take the fight to the First Order.

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Each character has a special ability and will have to work together with other minifigures to finish the level.

Gameplay in Lego games is always simple and easy to pick up, no less so with this installment. Players push a button, and the character shoots their blaster. Players push another button, and the character uses his, or her, or its, special ability. Bam. That’s it. For anything that can be said about Traveller’s Tales’ penchant for repetition, they excel at making their games available to players of all ages. Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ open-world collectathon will sate older, open-world gamers, but the game’s charming aesthetic is also great for children.

By the same token, any gamer looking for something deeper or remotely resembling an RPG will get bored with this title quickly. Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens is cute as an adventure game, but quite shallow as anything else. Move through the level, collect items, shoot bad guys. Side missions accessed outside these main levels do allow for more content, but there’s little depth in terms of character ability development. Still, Lego games have never tried to be RPGs, and this one is no exception.

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Lego games are not complicated affairs.

Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ level design takes some significant liberties with what was seen in the movie, both to extend the game’s length and to allow for additional gameplay. Poe Dameron’s escape from Kylo Ren’s Star Destroyer is extended from a five-minute scene in the movie to its own level, with puzzles and firefights across the giant battleship. Most movie games that extend their content this way do so very poorly, adding strange plot devices or “uncut” content, but Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens manages to get away with it because the gameplay is enjoyable. The fact that it’s a Lego adaptation means that the game already has no intention of being in lockstep with the film.

The level design, like the gameplay, is simple but effective. Most levels are a series of open firefights and puzzle areas, divvied up by corridors. There are lots of hidden areas for players to access, but most of them contain only hidden collectibles. Hidden areas crucial to the level’s completion are not nearly as well-hidden, and their presence is usually easy to spot. Each of the game’s 10 levels is generously paced, taking about 30-45 minutes to complete, which is great for a Lego game that’s trying to cover only one film.

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For a game that has a single movie to work with, Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens provides a surprising amount of gameplay.

The only thing Lego games are better known for than simple levels and gameplay is comedy. For most of its existence, the Lego series has retold films and TV shows with quirky, nonverbal humor. In Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga, Darth Vader reveals that he’s Luke Skywalker’s father by showcasing a series of baby photos, in lieu of the legendary “I am your father” line. In Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures, Sean Connery’s Henry Jones Sr. is shown skateboarding down staircases on an ancient shield. Nonverbal humor became as endemic to Lego games as the actual Lego toys.

In 2012, though, that all changed. Starting with that year’s Lego The Lord of the Rings, Lego games started featuring the dialogue of the film or TV show they were emulating. The transition to talking Lego characters was strange, to say the least, and it doesn’t work all that well on several levels. For one thing, it’s uncomfortable to hear dramatic dialogue exchanges being belted out by cutesy Lego toys. Legos are by their very nature supposed to be light and trivial, and seeing a Lego Luke Skywalker emote the downfall of his father is just… no.

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The need for verbal dialogue in Lego games is an enigma, especially since the nonverbal comedy was already pretty good.

The irony with all of this is that the nonverbal humor in Lego games that feature talking is still better than any amount of borrowed dialogue from the film. For one thing, players who buy this game and hear the spoken jokes aloud have probably already heard them in the theater. Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens does feature some additional voice work from some of the cast, but it all pertains to in-game hints as to what to do next.

No, the parts that will make gamers laugh the most are still the parts that involve no talking. The torture scene between Kylo Ren and Poe Dameron is portrayed as the former tickling the latter’s feet with a feather duster. Later, players can see that Kylo Ren has a child’s bedroom decked out with Darth Vader posters and action figures, which is a hilarious nonverbal dig at the character’s obsession with his grandfather. If this point hasn’t been beaten to death by now, the presence of talking in a Lego game is not only strange, it’s unnecessary.

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Ha. Hehe. Heheheheheee.

The other issue with Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens is its visuals. Make no mistake, they look great, but they’re substantially less impressive in-game than they are as advertised. To be fair, Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens is far from the only game that’s actually less impressive than it looked at E3, but this game’s drop in visual fidelity from what was in the trailer is perhaps the most dramatic since the Watch Dogs fiasco two years ago. The differences are so immediately noticeable that it’s a bit disturbing.

Still, Lego games have come a long way since 2005, with improved lighting and depth of field in each level. Character animations are pretty smooth, both in game and in cutscenes. Weather effects, while not exceptional, are good enough. This game will run on any decent rig and doesn’t require a warp drive to run well. It’s just a shame about the deceptive advertising.

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This image is substantially less impressive in-game.

The final and most pressing problem with Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens is how buggy it is. Most Lego games suffer few to no bugs upon launch, but this one, oh boy, is a doozy. There’s the usual physics bugs and the usual object clipping bugs, but far more spectacular is a bug that sends players all the way back to the beginning of the game. There’s no way to exit back to any sort of hub or menu, even if the player is actually much further along in the game, forcing a start-over of all content and levels. Many copies of the game, including the one used in this review, suffer this issue. A bug that spectacularly destructive should never have been allowed to remain when the game shipped. Because of it, Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens is unplayable for far too many gamers.

It doesn’t help that Warner Bros., the game’s publisher, has been tone deaf on the issue of resolving the bug. The forums on Steam are rife with bug reports, including one started by Art as Games, but Warner Bros.’ customer service has been… not great. The publisher has a curious policy of not returning any bug reports, but promises that “they’re being taken into consideration”. That’s not very reassuring, especially since it’s almost the middle of July and the problem still hasn’t been fixed.

Still, after the disastrous PC release of Batman: Arkham Knight last summer, no one should be surprised that Warner Bros. sucks at customer service.

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See? Even Rey doesn’t know how to fix it.

The final word on Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it’s a fun tourney of the film with Lego toys, but it doesn’t contain anything new for inveterate Lego game fans. the game is fun, but shallow. Funny, but not terribly clever. It’s very colorful and has lots of big sound effects, but does nothing to advance the Lego game formula outside of the occasional new collectible. It feels like the same Lego game everyone’s known for the last decade, gone in to swap its clothes out for a new outfit.

Of course, players considering this game should also take extreme caution at the aforementioned game-breaking bug. Nothing’s worse than seeing 10 hours of gameplay wiped out and the publisher doing jack to stop it, so please be mindful of Steam’s refund policy. Gamers who enjoy Lego games should buy the game, play a few levels, log out, and see what happens. It’s unfortunate when such a colossal bug is allowed out the gate, but barring that, players could do much worse in terms of cutesy adventure games.

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You can buy Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens 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.

Shadowgrounds

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Investigate a base gone dark and repel an alien infestation.

PC Release: November 11, 2005

By Ian Coppock

 From The War of the Worlds on through to Alien, people have been enamored with the idea of an alien invasion. The concept has become pretty routine; unsuspecting people trip into conflict with extraterrestrial invaders, insert fights for mankind ad nauseam. The idea has become no less ingrained into video game culture, though like books and films, it’s executed with varying degrees of competence. The XCOM series is what most gamers probably think of when presented with the phrase “alien invasion” but Shadowgrounds sought to add its own concepts to the mix when it released over a decade ago. It’s time to see if those concepts have withstood the test of time, as well as the game’s overall quality.

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Shadowgrounds was released in 2005 by Frozenbyte, a studio better-known today for the excellent games Trine and Trine 2, and the markedly less excellent Trine 3: Artifacts of Power. Unlike those medieval fantasy games, Shadowgrounds is a top-down shooter created with a sci-fi setting in mind. Shadowgrounds is one of a slew of spooky top-down shooters released in the 2000’s, that emulates core concepts of the genre while also trying out new mechanics.

Shadowgrounds takes place far in the future, when mankind has expanded beyond Earth to colonize the rest of the solar system. The game takes place on Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, and follows a space mechanic named Wesley Tyler. The game starts out conventionally enough, with Wesley minding his own business in the garage, when a power outage suddenly drowns most of the base in shadow.

Shadow 1

Everyone knows that miniguns are great for fixing cars.

Wesley immediately receives a transmission from his boss, who not so politely orders him to go to the other side of the base and fix the generators. It’s during this introduction that the player learns of Wesley’s past, including that he was once a soldier until being discharged due to a mysterious incident. He was reassigned to mechanical work as punishment, and the aforementioned rude boss was stuck cleaning up much of the mess.

Anyhoo, Wesley finds the other side of the base readily enough, but also realizes that none of the power plant staff are anywhere to be found. Upon hitting the lights, he finds the base infested with small, insect-like creatures, which begin to get bigger and bigger the closer he gets to the base’s laboratory. It’s up to Wesley to pick up a gun, investigate the source of the alien infestation, and wipe it out before the whole base is destroyed.

Shadow 2

DIEDIEDIEDIEDIEDIEDIE

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of science fiction tropes will notice that Shadowgrounds hits almost all of them, almost right away. The protagonist of the game is a low-level dude with a shady past. Something’s gone wrong on the base that’s assumed to be a routine problem. Finally, whatever’s happening seems to be stemming from the heart of the base, which is in no way suspicious. Shadowgrounds breaks little new ground with the premise of its narrative, relying on cliches that are as endemic to sci-fi films and games as laser guns or spaceships.

Despite the fact that Wesley’s a mechanic, he has uncanny skills with a gun. Once again, much like many horror and sci-fi media, the protagonist is an everyman who learns how to survive through sheer adrenaline and luck. It’s a great way to make the audience feel some sort of connection to the character, but that connection is lost when said character seems innately talented with all manner of overpowered weaponry. Wesley falls into this category hook, line and sinker.

Shadow 3

Outstanding.

As Wesley moves deeper into the base, the creatures that he’s fighting against seem to be growing larger. He moves through mazes of body-filled rooms and past corridors slicked with blood, all on a quest to discover what the aliens are and why they’re attacking. Along the way, Wesley’s guided by a sequential lineup of gruff military officers, who boss him around as he moves through the base kicking alien hiney and turning essential systems back on. The character is given little opportunity to voice his own opinions and no one seems to feature any sort of development.

It’s a shame that there’s no character development to be had in Shadowgrounds, because there’s little else in the game to save the cast for the player. For starters, the voice acting in this game is awful. Everyone delivers their dialogue with either the faintest hint of interest or the most painfully forced of fake terror. There is no middle ground in Shadowgrounds; everyone either sounds too bored or too crazed. Wesley himself is voiced with no enthusiasm and is fazed by nothing. Wesley is voiced by Chad, the chief dude at the computer support center, who responds to every request with “No problem man. I got this, bro.”

Shadow 4

Dude, bro, dude, this gun is sick, bro. This gun is wack, broheim.

Some video games’ stories are worth suffering through bad voice acting to experience, but Shadowgrounds plays it too safe with its core story as well as its premise. When Wesley finally reaches the core of the base and the climax of the narrative, he discovers that humanity has been experimenting on the aliens and now they’re really mad. That plot point is one of the most timeless cliches of sci-fi films and movies. The plot twist of humans secretly messing around with things they shouldn’t, culminating in an alien rebellion, that can only be put down by a hero inexplicably invincible to everything. To be fair, it’s true that many video games borrow this premise in one form or another, but Shadowgrounds’ naked disinterest in an ambitious storyline is not only disappointing, it’s boring.

So there’s little to be said for narrative or character development; what of gameplay? Shadowgrounds is a competent enough top-down shooter. The controls are quick and responsive, and it’s easy to move Wesley through various sections of the base to turn the lights on. Gunplay is a simple enough affair; move through the game, collecting bigger weapons as you go, point said weapons at the aliens, and repeat the procedure until the things are dead. There are weapons and health packs scattered around Ganymede, and upgrades can be salvaged from the bodies of Wesley’s dead enemies. Occasionally, an NPC will show up to help Wesley, but most of Shadowgrounds is spent in linear, gory seclusion.

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Wesley is occasionally helped out by other members of the staff.

Although Shadowgrounds‘ narrative treads no new paths, and its gunplay is effective but rote, its visuals have aged surprisingly well in the 11 years since its release. The environments sport a lot of good textures and attention to detail for a game this old. Shadowgrounds experimented with dynamic lighting and shadows, back when that was a big deal, and it does help lend the game some semblance of a horror atmosphere. Granted, with all the weapons Wesley carries, he has no reason to fear anything, but the artwork of Shadowgrounds does deserve some credit. It’s not enough to carry the game, unfortunately, but it does make the base at least look interesting and give some variety that the other design facets omit.

Ultimately, though, what Shadowgrounds does poorly is done spectacularly by other top-down games, and what it does well is done even better, usually by those same games. The world of Shadowgrounds certainly looks interesting, and its experiments with light and shadow were novel a decade ago, but the game’s lockstep adherence to every orthodox top-down shooter ever makes the game quite bland. Its story is a soup-thin affair, and what little narrative the game does provide is nothing that a thousand other games haven’t done a thousand times better. The narrative’s tropes and cliches are buried further by the voice acting, which, even by video game standards, is pretty bad. If Shadowgrounds failed to make that big a splash when it was released in 2005, it certainly won’t make much of a splash now. Give it a miss.

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You can buy Shadowgrounds 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.

Welcome to the Game

W

Explore a hidden section of the Internet devoted to terrifying content.

PC Release: June 15, 2016

By Ian Coppock

The Internet has done a lot of remarkable things for mankind, propagating an exchange of ideas and commerce that would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible. It also allows for some exchanges that are not so good, like the proliferation of pornography and other controversial media. Love it or hate it, the Internet has had a profound impact on societies worldwide, but there aren’t many video games out there that are about the Internet. One game in particular, Welcome to the Game, experiments with some fresh concepts and discusses the part of the Internet few people know, and fewer dare to tread.

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Welcome to the Game is a game about the deep web, the part of the Internet that can’t be found by using a search engine. Websites on the deep web are not indexed by Google, Yahoo or other services, meaning that they can only be accessed by people already aware of their presence. The only way to reach these websites is by typing their URL into a browser directly, since a search engine won’t pick them up or link to them. Some deep web pages even require typing this URL into an illicit browser program; these even deeper sites are sometimes called the dark web or darknet.

With this much security going into hiding the deep web, it comes as no surprise that this part of the Internet is used mostly for illegal activity. Some users frequent the deep web to exchange emails or torrent movies, but it’s also used for much worse activities, like illicit drugs, child pornography, and human trafficking. It is against this backdrop of skeeziness and terror that one man decides to brave the deep web, in search of a special type of website called a Red Room.

W2

Oh God, why is this happening?

According to legend, a Red Room is a special website where visitors can participate in interactive torture and murder, making it safe to assume that this protagonist is a psycho. He’s aided in this endeavor by his buddy, who reluctantly imparts a special browser to help him access the deep web. In order to reach the Red Room, players have to scour various pages on the deep web and find fragments of the room’s URL on each page. The game is over once the fragments have been gathered and entered correctly.

Finding the fragments is not as simple as scrolling down a list of illegal websites. There are far more sites than fragments, and players must search each page carefully for clues as to its location. Once the fragment has been located, it’s usually locked behind a puzzle that must be solved. All the while, players can use Notepad to chronicle their journey into the deep web. Some pages are only active during certain times of the night, requiring players to check back often if a link doesn’t open the page.

Welcome 3

Geez…

The puzzles on each website are far from the player’s only concern. The deep web is rife with hackers, who will attempt to take over the computer and steal notes if they’re allowed to. Players have to fend off these cyber-demons by playing a quick puzzle that flashes on the screen. Some require the player to type in a complicated series of numbers, and others require directing a computer virus away from the system. If the player reroutes the attack, no problem. Failing to do so can cause the player to lose notes and even gathered key fragments. Fast typing skills are a huge help in this regard.

It’s at this point that Welcome to the Game introduces unintended hilarity. The aforementioned deep web buddy warns that spending too long on the deep web will incur the wrath of local kidnappers. These Russian-speaking raiders will literally break into the player’s house and carry them away, which sounds terrifying, but in this context makes absolutely no sense. The mechanic is supposed to serve as an incentive to keep players on their toes, but seriously? Kidnappers? The terror of such a prospect is ruined by the absurdity of their implementation into this game, made funnier by the fact that players can drive them away by turning the lights off. Why are Russian agents in this small American town to begin with, and why do they get mad if you’re looking at naughty websites? Who knew Siberia had Puritans?

Welcome 4

Hackers and Russian kidnappers. Two things that can ruin a picnic.

Anyway, barring the occasional puzzle and a nighttime visit from the KGB, Welcome to the Game‘s spookiness comes out in the websites the player character visits, created to mimic actual pages on the actual deep web. From chat forums about BDSM to a storefront for heroin, the seediness of the deep web is represented well in Welcome to the Game. The game doesn’t feature nudity, images of torture, or anything like that, but whatever is not directly presented is strongly implied. This makes touring the deep web in Welcome to the Game a fearful, nauseating tourney of horror gameplay. The full weight of the game’s psychological horror is reinforced by the novelty of its presentation.

Compounding the slow tour of seedy websites is Welcome to the Game‘s startling lack of music. The room the player is in is completely silent, save for the occasional mouse click and the soft whir of the processor. This stark, minimalist sound design gives Welcome to the Game a tense atmosphere, as the player will never know when something scary will suddenly screech on the screen. It keeps the neck hairs rigid and the eyeballs wide.

Welcome 5

The isolated farmhouse motif is really not helping…

The problem with Welcome to the Game is that although it’s a spooky environment to sit in, it’s not a very fun game to play. Indeed, it is one of the most tedious horror games to have been released in recent months. Though the game possesses unmistakable novelty in its presentation of the deep web, that’s also where it starts to tear at the seams.

The first element of Welcome to the Game‘s tedium is also its most essential: websites. As was mentioned a few paragraphs ago, each website is only open for a short time during the night, leaving players with a slim window to get in, look for a key fragment, and get out. The game will run for as many nights as needed to find all the keys, but there are dozens of websites for the player to visit and scour. Even with the help of Notepad, keeping track of when all of these websites are open is a challenging task, and failing even a single hack attack can cause that information to be erased.

Welcome 6

Bleh.

The puzzles in Welcome to the Game can also be frustratingly difficult. The hacker attacks are swift and constant, requiring players to abandon the hunt for keys in order to fend them off. Even if the puzzle is successfully solved, the website might close while the player was busy fending off the hacker, necessitating waiting another night to grab the key fragment. The puzzles to get the key fragments themselves can be obtuse, like clicking a chat window a random number of times and suddenly being presented with a key. Puzzles that neither make sense nor explain the rules are not very good puzzles. Welcome to the Game is also much more difficult for players who can’t type quickly, although to be fair, this warning is stated clearly on the game’s Steam page.

Welcome to the Game‘s in-game information about the deep web is interesting, but its presentation is very dry. The game’s dialogue is stuffed with a lot of computer science jargon, which makes sense for a game about the internet but also makes it sound like a recited computer manual. It doesn’t help that the game’s narrator, the player’s aforementioned buddy, speaks in a soft monotone and sounds so bored that he can barely stay awake. His underwhelming warning about the threat of kidnappers is absolutely hilarious, i.e. “Like… kidnappers might come by… or whatever… I guess…”

Welcome 7

Welcome to the Game teeters between computer entertainment and computer education. Both have their place, but one should be more the goal of a video game than the other.

To revisit the kidnapper mechanic one more time, it makes perfect sense why something like that would be put in there. The developer wanted the game’s fear to come out in more ways than a website. The issue is that the mechanic is set up in the exact same way as that of Five Nights at Freddy’s, making Welcome to the Game feel derivative of that game. It’s also difficult to feel sympathy for the protagonist; if someone looking for a way to torture and kill people over the internet is carted off into the night… good. Great. No one wants that kind of person as a neighbor, and it feels weird to have that sort of person as a video game protagonist.

All of this is not to say that Welcome to the Game had some sterling potential. There are no video games out there showcasing the horrors of the deep web, and this game’s atmosphere and presentation of deep web facsimiles is commendable. However, the terror of the deep web pages in this game is sufficient to make that its central horror element. The developer should’ve eliminated the kidnapper mechanic altogether and let the creepiness of Welcome to the Game‘s web pages speak for itself. Barring that type of revamp, or streamlining the puzzles a little bit, Welcome to the Game joins a long list of games with great ideas and wobbly execution. It showcases the deep web for the wretched hive of scum and villainy that it is, but it’s bereft of a deft touch that would’ve made it worthy of recommendation.

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You can buy Welcome to the Game 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.

Neon Struct: The Dulce Archives

NEON 1

Investigate a secret government facility in the New Mexico desert.

PC Release: August 14, 2015

By Ian Coppock

 In 1979, an Albuquerque businessman named Paul Bennewitz alleged that he was receiving alien signals and secret government communications on his radio. Over the next decade, Bennewitz went on to reveal that he’d discovered the location of a secret government facility called Dulce Base in the New Mexico desert, though this claim has yet to be substantiated by hard evidence. Nonetheless, the UFO community took to the Dulce legend with the same passion as they’d done with Area 51, and it remains a staple of their lore to this day. Dulce Base has been discussed in books and on television, but never in video games. That changed with last summer’s release of The Dulce Archives, an expansion for Neon Struct.

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Neon Struct is an indie stealth game released last spring. Though the game’s core audience is tiny, it was praised by several PC gaming publications for its simple yet engaging stealth mechanics and intriguing, neon-powered world. Neon Struct is one of the better stealth games to have been released in recent years, even though the game’s writing is sub-par, and leading lady Jillian Cleary is about as interesting as a pebble. Gamers were still impressed by Neon Struct‘s all-stealth approach to fighting enemies. Additionally, the game’s central message about government surveillance programs subverting personal liberty is very relevant right now.

Neon Struct: The Dulce Archives seeks to preserve Neon Struct‘s conspiratorial atmosphere, but moves it away from the intrigue of federal agencies and into the world of science fiction. Though this is a significant diversion from the themes of the main game, The Dulce Archives relies no less on stealth and subterfuge. The expansion takes place in 1997, 18 years before the events of Neon Struct, and follows an anonymous private eye as he breaks into Dulce Base. The desert facility of UFO legend is alive and well in the Neon Struct universe.

Neon Image 1

Detective One is the protagonist of Neon Struct: The Dulce Archives.

Detective One has entered the grounds of Dulce at the behest of a mysterious client, who wants him to break into the main facility. The client is convinced that the federal government is hiding something incredible, something dangerous, beneath the sands of New Mexico, and that it needs to be exposed. To that end, players are to infiltrate Dulce Base, descend beneath the surface, and find out exactly what the government has hidden away in the dark. No small task.

Detective One has no weapons or armaments on his person; a pity, considering that the base is crawling with soldiers and secret agents who are armed to the teeth. Just like Jill Cleary in the main Neon Struct game, Detective One has to rely on stealth and subterfuge to get around. Players can knock enemies out from behind, but guards will sound the alarm if they find one of their buddies out cold. Detective One can move unconscious guards away from the main patrol paths, and make use of several gadgets to disarm foes. A lot of these items are returning gadgets from Neon Struct, such as the Rubik’s Cube-looking stun grenade.

Neon Image 2

Dulce Base is crawling with enemy troops, and taking them out requires a deft touch.

Although Neon Struct: The Dulce Archives takes place in a different time and setting than the original Neon Struct, players would never guess that from looking at the game itself. The Dulce Archives imports the exact same facade and items as the main game; in no universe did 1997 look identical to 2015. Not to say that the game looks bad (the visuals are colorful if a bit repetitive) but veterans of the original Neon Struct will immediately notice no change in visage. It would’ve been more interesting to deck out The Dulce Archives in a more retro style, to make the expansion feel distinct from the main game.

Having said that, Neon Struct‘s visual style is not without some merits. The entire game comprises a world of crash test dummy-like humans, with few facial features and no voice acting. The abstract design choice won’t suit all tastes, but it compensates for its lack of detail with bright colors. The Dulce Archives’ textures retain the cyberpunk aesthetic of the original game, and the entire expansion is accompanied by an eerie film grain. This, along with The Dulce Archives’ sunset setting, helps to reinforce a gloomy feel of conspiracy. There are a few new soundtracks accompanying the game, but they’re a lot less endearing than the soundtrack The Home Conversion made for Neon Struct.

Neon Image 3

The Archives at sunset. Note the film grain on the screen, and the extreme lack of money on the bottom left. Both are hard to ignore.

It’s also worth noting that The Dulce Archives‘ gameplay is identical to that of the main game. Players are at the helm of a different protagonist, but the methods and tools all remain the same. It’s a bit of a disappointment for returning Neon Struct fans, because there’s nothing new to experience in a game mechanics sense.

At the same time, though, there’s something to be said for Neon Struct‘s minimalist stealth gameplay, where danger is around every corner and being quiet as a mouse is the only way to succeed. Neon Struct‘s heavy emphasis on stealth is what made it a sleeper hit last year, and it’s also what gave the main game some of its novelty. Players who enjoyed that aspect of Neon Struct will find plenty more in the expansion.

Neon Image 4

Stealth is not just a matter of style. It’s a matter of survival. Some enemies in this game are simply impossible to defeat, and must be avoided.

The biggest change that The Dulce Archives made in terms of gameplay, indeed the only change, is the intelligence of its enemies. The artificial intelligence in the main game is wildly inconsistent; players can sneak right past a forward-facing enemy in one level, and alert the entire NYPD from the opposite side of Manhattan in another. It’s frustrating to spend ten minutes sneaking through a parking garage, only to somehow be spotted by a cop who was ten skyscrapers away. The difficulty level didn’t seem to affect the AI’s propensity for clairvoyance.

This time, the AI feels a bit more consistent. All enemies have the same ability to detect and chase Detective One, depending on the set difficulty. It eliminates the frustration that the original game occasionally inflicted. No one should have the cops on their rears just for ordering a hot dog.

Neon Image 5

The enemies in this game are formidable enough without psychic powers.

After avoiding some surface guards and a pair of nasty robots, Detective One finally makes into the base proper. He discovers that, per his client’s prediction, this sleepy-looking garrison is actually a hive of activity. He tries to blend in among the soldiers and officers on the base, and learns that the secrets he’s after are one level deeper. It’s at this point that the expansion shifts from stealth gameplay to open-world detective work, which was also present during certain levels in Neon Struct.

Asking around the base and exploring the area leads Detective One down the same narrative threads that Jillian Cleary will walk 18 years later. Though The Dulce Archives covers a science fiction topic instead of the more immediate threat of government surveillance, the expansion is able to carry the same gloomy, conspiratorial feel that the original game captured. Both games are highly reminiscent of the original Deus Ex in this regard, because just like when JC Denton uncovered a conspiracy in that game, players are following the same types of clues in The Dulce Archives. Detective work makes for a natural counterpart to stealth.

Neon Image 6

Don’t be fooled by the cheerful sign. This place is a den of lies and scariness.

As for Detective One, the developers over at Minor Key put a bit more effort into fleshing out his character than they did Jillian Cleary. In Neon Struct, Jillian is little more than an avatar for the player to use in following other people’s orders. Detective One is on a mission, but he comes up with his own means of advancing those goals instead of being yelled at through an earpiece. A few more bits of exposition on our leading man are scattered through conversations he has on the base.

The main narrative itself is quite short, clocking in at about an hour of gameplay, but it carries the same theme as that of the main game. Governments cannot always be held accountable for their actions. Incredibly brave people have had to step up and unmask the decisions being made for citizens, but not by citizens. Though The Dulce Archives‘ revelation is quite different from that of the main game, that idea is still held closely throughout the expansion. The Dulce Archives contain some strong narrative ties with Neon Struct, but none that will be spoiled here.

Neon Image 7

Neon Struct’s central message of government subversion of rights is front-and-center in The Dulce Archives.

Despite its short length and offering almost no new gameplay elements, Neon Struct: The Dulce Archives is a worthy addition to the main game. Though it contains only an hour or so of content, the expansion can be downloaded for free from Neon Struct‘s Steam Workshop page.

Regardless of The Dulce Archives‘ simple narrative and underwhelming character development, the game is admirably adhesive to a discussion about government power. In light of recent developments, especially Edward Snowden’s document leak, The Dulce Archives champions a discussion that citizens everywhere should be having, without being nearly as dry as, say, C-Span. Players need to own Neon Struct in order to play this installment, but get it all and enjoy it all. Stealth fans will be delighted, and conspiracy theorists will feel vindicated.

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You can buy Neon Struct: The Dulce Archives 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.