Friday, 20 February 2015

The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 Review

The Book of Unwritten Tales, developed by German studio KING Art Games, was a traditional point and click title set in the world of swords and sorcery. What made it stand out from the many cookie-cutter adventures on the market was the plethora of pop culture parodies and references contained within, and the genuinely witty dialogue. Central Europe has long been a hotbed for development in the genre, but many releases have been criticised for their poor localisation and humour that was inevitably lost in translation. The Book of Unwritten Tales was a pleasant surprise that marked a coming of age in this respect.
It is no surprise therefore that a sequel was put together. After the success of the first title, we had already been treated to The Critter Chronicles – a seemingly fast-tracked prequel following the exploits of the strange pink, fluffy sidekick of Nate the adventurer – but that spin-off didn’t reach quite the same heights as its predecessor. The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 is a proper follow-up, however, promising over twenty-five hours of playtime, more locations to explore than ever before and a return of the multi-character gameplay that allows players to hot-switch between the four heroes to approach puzzles in the order and method that they wish.
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Monday, 16 February 2015

Dead Synchronicity: Tomorrow Comes Today Preview

Ten years ago, the games industry was lamenting the lost art of the Graphic Adventure. But now, thanks to platforms like Steam and crowd-finding via Kickstarter, small-scale adventure games are a dime a dozen. Whereas gamers once had no options, now there is the problem of picking out the titles worthy of your attention. Dead Synchronicity immediately stands out as one that you shouldn’t miss.
First-time developers Fictiorama have eschewed the common route of cartoony, humourous adventure games, focusing on a much more serious, adult storyline. Shades of classic science fiction such as the work of George Orwell and Philip K Dick abound in this dystopian future. Players take on the role of Michael – an amnesiac who has awoken in a world ravaged by disaster and struggling to maintain a semblance of modern society. This isn’t just a cheap use of that old memory loss premise however, as the cataclysmic events happening around the world have not only caused some residents to lose their memories, but others to lose their minds completely.
 
 

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Grim Fandango Remastered Review

I certainly experienced mixed feelings when playing through Grim Fandango Remastered. Whilst it’s still an epic adventure that is equally adept at making one laugh as it as at jerking on your heartstrings, the high definition makeover feels distinctly lacking. This new version will allow a new generation to play through one of the greatest adventure games ever produced – with some much needed changes made to the control system and interface – but don’t expect to be blown away by the graphical upgrades.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing Grim Fandango before, it is a traditional point and click-style adventure with direct controls, that follows the story of Manuel Calavera – a travel agent who helps lost souls on their journey through the Ninth Underworld. The story spans four years and draws inspiration from Mexican culture and the Day of the Dead festival, mid-twentieth century Film Noir and Casablanca in particular, and Art Deco design. Pulling ideas from such a disparate range of influences could easily create a real mess, yet Grim fandango ties it all together into one strong vision of life after death, and tasks you with uncovering the corruption therein.
 

The Rise (and Fall?) of Tim Schafer and Double Fine Games

If I were to put together a list of my all-time top ten games, there would be at least three that Tim Schafer had a hand in. During his time at Lucasarts in the nineties, Schafer was one of the main creative forces behind the golden age of adventure games, being involved in seminal releases such as Maniac Mansion, The Secret of Monkey Island and, of course, his magnum opus, Grim Fandango. However, while his time since leaving the house that George built and establishing his own games company, Double Fine, has been full of creative promise and critical adulation, his past successes have never quite been replicated.
Indeed, such was the popularity of the graphic adventure games coming out of Lucasarts in the late eighties and early nineties, it seemed like the company could do no wrong. Eschewing the “save early, save often” mantra held by Sierra – where death and disaster lay around every corner – the team at Lucasarts created a solid string of hits where comedy and great writing were prioritised over punishing the player for every mistake they made. This didn’t mean that their puzzles were any less tricky, either; in fact, Lucasarts games tended to involve some of the most complex and technically interesting puzzles ever found in the genre, including time travel, cause and effect, puzzles based upon the writings of Greek philosopher Plato and, lest we forget, the noble art of insult sword-fighting.
But the lack of dead-ends and multiple death scenes did seem to allow the writers and designers more time and freedom to focus on crafting really original, creative and absurd characters and worlds for them to inhabit. As Tim Schafer moved up the ranks at Lucasarts, he was clearly afforded more and more rope to express his personal interests and influences, which culminated in the title that many believe is both the pinnacle of adventure game design and the the one that hammered home the final nail in the coffin for the golden age of the genre.
Grim Fandango combined art-deco design, Mexican Day of the Dead imagery and many cinematic references (most notably a large portion of Casablanca) into a truly epic four-year story. Despite the myriad different influences, all the different aspects of Grim came together to form an adventure full of intrigue, humour and suspense – which was probably the most cinematic gaming vision realised at the time. The production values were obviously very high, with great voice acting, a fantastic musical score and a massive story that kept you hooked for hours upon hours.
Critics adored Grim Fandango and were instantly taken with its fifties cinema sensibility. Protagonist Manny Calavera was the Humphrey Bogart of gaming, and Tim Schafer was being hailed as Orson Welles. It seemed that after his huge success with Day of the Tentacle, he was the golden boy, and even though biker-themed adventure Full Throttle didn’t set the sales charts alight, Grim Fandango was backed to go far. Sadly, the reception at retail got nowhere near matching the high levels of critical praise. A decline in the adventure genre coupled with the fast ascension of first-person shooters and fully 3D games were partly blamed, and the unusual subject matter only compounded issues, making Grim a difficult title to market. It suffered heavy losses and marked the end of big-budget graphic adventures for around a decade.
With Lucasarts cancelling their story-driven games left, right and centre, such creative minds as Tim Schafer realised it was time to move on, and just a year after the release of Grim Fandango he set up Double Fine, his own development studio. Aiming to focus on creative titles, it would be five years of development and broken publishing deals before their first game Psychonauts hit retail shelves. Being a 3D platformer where each level is set inside the deranged mind of an unstable individual, the game is packed with both exciting visual and gameplay ideas. Some of the characters and mental afflictions that are brought to life in each stage are really unique and each stage is distinctly memorable.
Sadly however, shoe-horning all of these great ideas into a platform game engine – especially a fairly buggy one – did no favours to the game. The 3D camera was difficult to control and keep aimed at the action, and there were far too many sections where some really precise platforming skill was needed – something that has never been easy since games switched from two-dimensional visuals. On top of that, Psychonauts was a new IP that no-one had heard of, and it received no discernible marketing push as it was only picked up by the relatively small publishing house, Majesco. As such, Psychonauts floundered at retail – once again being the darling of the critics, but almost untouched by the general gaming public.
Double Fine have sadly suffered from several similar setbacks over the years, and oftentimes something that sounded like a sure-fire hit ended up being somewhat of a disappointment. Brutal Legend would be the most obvious of these: an action game set in an alternate demonic dimension ruled by Heavy Metal gods. Featuring an all-star cast of metal icons and Hollywood comedian Jack Black, this game was expected to really strike a chord with players. However, the baffling choice to play out most of the game as a poor Command & Conquer real-time strategy immediately turned off many gamers. It just wasn’t a fun title to play, despite all its audiovisual bells and whistles, and a slew of decent review scores couldn’t persuade them otherwise.
This definitely suggests the idea that Tim Schafer is more of a writer than a games designer. His ideas sound great – and would probably make a fine cartoon series – but a lot of the time building a gameplay system to fit around such ideas is unsuccessful. Psychonauts and Brutal Legend both suffer from this affliction, as did Full Throttle, the biker point and click game from his time at Lucasarts, which never quite felt right being a puzzle driven title, spliced with hog-riding road fights and a demolition derby action set-piece.
Indeed, Double Fine have perhaps had better success with titles that Tim hasn’t designed. Stacking was a charming and intuitive Russian Doll puzzle game, while Costume Quest applied an American Halloween makeover to classic JRPG gameplay – these games were small-scale, inventive and fun to play: they just worked. The poor retail performance of Psychonauts and Brutal Legend actually did Double Fine a favour, in that they began to focus on smaller, self-published projects, rather than games that would be competing with triple-A releases. These games are cheaper to produce, quicker to turn around and can be tested on their target audience through events like the Insomnia Fortnight, where Double Fine designers write game treatments for fans to vote for. As a smaller, tight-knit development team, Double Fine can be more reactive and have even greater freedom than before.
Sadly, just when things were looking up, the reputation of Tim Schafer and his whole company was sullied further by the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter debacle. All seemed well to begin with, when their project was funded within hours and several stretch goals were smashed into oblivion several times over. This was a true Kickstarter success story. But then delay after delay occurred, and we were told that the team couldn’t finish the game as they were out of money. A project that more than quadrupled its target was out of funds?! Rather than the embarrassment of asking for more money however, the game was hastily cut in two, with sales of the first episode earmarked to fund the second. Yet here we are, almost two years later, still with only half a game. Double Fine lost the faith of a lot of their long-time fans through this whole disaster.
Perhaps some of these different failings are behind Double Fine deciding to now fall back on the very same success stories that gave them notoriety to begin with – what with the upcoming release of Grim Fandango Remastered and the announcement that a Day of the Tentacle re-master is also on its way. Having suffered from several of these less-than-stellar releases and the goodwill-killing Kickstarter mess, the company could be forgiven for wanting to back a less risky project this time around. A re-master of a popular title with a proven track record is a less costly endeavour, and already has an established fan base who will likely back the project no matter what.
And so it is a little upsetting that – despite the joy I will feel at being able to play through Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle in high-definition, and the fact that a whole new generation of players will be exposed to these classics of story-telling and humour – Double Fine are no longer working on the new, creative titles that they set out to. Although not all of their ideas will be success stories, I would much rather see two brand new games from a team of such great designers than two re-mastered classics. I will play them both of course, but I will be looking forward to their future projects with greater anticipation. One day, Tim Schafer will find the perfect medium with which to turn his fantastic visions into a video game, and I want to be there when that happens.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Resident Evil Review

Resident Evil is the undisputed granddaddy of survival horror. It may not have been the first game in the genre, or the most realistic, but it was the title that really captured the imagination of so many gamers and laid down most of the foundations that shaped all the other releases that followed in its wake. That isn’t to say that Resident Evil was perfect by any means. In fact, it had its fair share of issues and idiosyncrasies that make playing that original version today a pretty painful experience.
It is lucky then, that when Capcom decided to re-master Resident Evil in high definition, they chose to base this on the 2002 Gamecube release, which had already improved on the original in many ways. Whereas the 1996 version arrived just when 3D games were first becoming en vogue (and as such have now dated horribly), the Gamecube edition delivered beautifully rendered new character models, hand-drawn backgrounds and much more atmospheric and moody environmental effects that set the tone more effectively than bright, blocky polygons ever did.
 

Monday, 29 December 2014

The Return of Sierra

When Ken and Roberta Williams were awarded with their honorary award at the video game awards at the start of December, it is likely that the vast majority of modern gamers asked a collective “who?”. The same could sadly also be said for many gamers earlier this year when Activision announced that hey would be reviving Sierra as a publishing arm of the company. Many who actually did recognise the name of Sierra were more likely to associate it with such forgettable titles as Timeshift, or the terrible Leisure Suit Larry console games that were released in the early 2000s – a publisher responsible for out-sourcing unsuccessful titles.
But the Sierra On-Line that I (and many other longtime gaming fans) remember was a very different company. Founded by the aforementioned husband and wife team back in 1979, Sierra became synonymous with the graphic adventure genre – being the first company to actually combine graphics with traditional text-based adventure games. The company was built on the success of King’s Quest – the brainchild of Roberta – although many more hits followed in its wake, such as the Police Quest series, many Space Quest titles and the risqué Leisure Suit Larry series.
By adding an on-screen character sprite to a graphic adventure game for the first time, King’s Quest revolutionised the genre. It was a death knell of classic text-based adventures, and that sub-genre was soon forgotten. The SCI game engine Sierra developed especially for King’s Quest allowed players to directly control the movement of their protagonist through different scenes in the game world, gathering items, speaking to other characters and solving puzzles using a simple text parser system. USE BROOM, GET SWORD or LOOK AT MAN was about as advanced as it got, but this was the most interactive adventure that gamers had ever experienced at the time.
Sierra logo
The titles published by Sierra were full of humour, suspense and action, whether that be trying to silently escape from a band of Space Pirates, attempting to win the heart of the girl of your dreams, or writing up a speeding ticket for a small-time criminal. These games immersed the player in another world and let you take on the role of hero, wannabe-lothario or beat cop, for instance. They were also really challenging titles. The company garnered a reputation for creating difficult games where death lurked around every corner if you weren’t careful (often even if you were).
The idea of save early, save often was spawned – whereby players knew they should create multiple save games throughout a game, just in case they made a mistake and didn’t want to lose too much progress. There were a lot of irritating sequences and painful dead-ends in Sierra games, that not only became their trademark but also one of their selling points. Players wanted to see how many crazy ways their character could be killed and what humorous reprimands they might be treated to as they failed yet again. And the protagonists were so likeable – even when they were losers – that gamers cared what was going to happen in their story, and wanted to play the next chapter.
Sierra were innovators, and never wanted to stay still. Their adventure games moved to point and click mouse control shortly after the technology caught on, and were one of the first development studios to create games entirely using entire voice casts, or full motion video (back when FMV was thought of as impressive and new, rather than clunky and silly) with titles like Phantasmagoria – the first million-selling video game ever made. Even when the rise of 3D gaming seemed to cause a decline in adventure games in the late nineteen-nineties, Sierra tried to evolve and threw themselves into developing fully three-dimensional adventures for the first time. They may not have achieved the same success as previous releases, but showed that Sierra weren’t afraid to embrace new technologies.
Kings QuestIn fact, the name Sierra On-Line was very apt as the company was one of the very first to embrace internet connectivity. Sierra ran chat rooms and gaming lobbies long before most gamers even knew what that meant – with their early card game collections and such including network play years before it was in vogue. The company was sadly crippled by over-expansion, repeated buy-outs and a major fraud case throughout the late nineties and early 2000′s, which led to their early extraction from the development side of gaming, to become a publishing house. Even then, they knew how to pick a hit, with Homeworld and Half-Life two of their publishing success stories.
It was incredibly sad to the collapse of this company who helped forge new paths and bring so much innovation to the table. Slowly they were marginalised by and more by successive buy-outs and mergers, until they were inevitably closed completely in late 2008. Not only did that signal the end of an era for the company, but also for such iconic games designers as Roberta Williams herself, Al Lowe, and the two Guys from Andromeda, amongst others – people who really shaped the point and click genre radically and had more to give, were it not for the untimely demise of the company.
And so it is with mixed feelings that I greet the first footage from King’s Quest: Your Legacy Awaits – the new re-imagining of the classic series by indie developers The Odd Gentlemen (of P.B. Winter bottom fame). Happiness because of the re-birth of a company that I grew up with, and which provided me with some of my earliest – and best gaming memories. But also with sadness and trepidation, that the iconic graphic adventure seems to have been turned into an action-adventure, platforming title. It looks graphically impressive, but remains to be seen whether it will recapture the core exploration and puzzling gameplay elements, or the spirit and atmosphere of those early, ground-breaking games that came before it. Ken and Roberta Williams really did give a lot to the gaming industry, and I only hope that the re-launch of the Sierra brand can do at least a little justice to their legacy.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Remix Review

A strange combination of Final Fantasy and Walt Disney, Kingdom Hearts was always bound to stand out from other video games on the market. Although the action-RPG gameplay may not have been anything revolutionary, the two PlayStation 2 releases were big hits and a whole lot of fun to play through. It has been around twelve years since the first Kingdom Hearts was released now though, and despite there being a third game on the horizon (albeit perhaps a far 2017 horizon), there will be a good portion of console gamers who have lost track of the series, or never played any of it at all.
It is safe to say that, even if you thoroughly enjoyed both of the PlayStation 2 titles, you probably didn’t own every platform necessary to have played each and every game in the series. With editions released on PS2, DS, PSP, 3DS and mobile phones, the over-arching story has become difficult for the average gamer to follow – so it is definitely helpful that Kingdom Hearts fans can now experience the entire back catalogue (or nearly anyway) on PlayStation 3 alone.
 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Randal’s Monday Review

You may be forgiven for thinking that Randal’s Monday is linked in some way to the Clerks films by Kevin Smith. The titular character Randal is a wise-cracking layabout, just like Randall in the Clerks series. The characters, activities and locations in the game constantly reference Star Wars and other cult movies and comics (just as in many Kevin Smith films), and the voice actor performing the character of Randal actually played Randall in Clerks. It is confusing therefore that the game has nothing to do with any of that.
Randal’s Monday is, however, a call-back to the classic adventure games of the nineties. Controlled in a point and click style, players can choose between a more traditional control method or a simplified user-friendly one. The game begins after your best friend “finds” a mysterious and seemingly-magical ring, when things start to go drastically wrong and Randal finds himself in a Groundhog Day time loop where he is trying to atone for his actions and to put right what once went wrong, one day at a time.
 

Monday, 3 November 2014

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers – 20th Anniversary Edition Review


When Jane Jensen created the first Gabriel Knight game back in 1993, it was rather unique. Whereas most point and click games of the time were comedies or fantasy adventures, Sierra took a chance with Sins of the Fathers, a horror thriller, grounded thoroughly in the real world. Jensen offered up a gritty, historically-rich tale, which captured the imagination of gamers and later spawned two sequels.
It is no surprise then, that the game has received a high definition makeover. The current trend in adventure gaming seems to be for re-releasing and re-mastering genre classics, making them available both to long-time fans and to a whole new audience. This time thankfully, the original creative forces behind the game are behind the new version too, so at least the project was in good hands.

Monday, 27 October 2014

The Shopkeeper Review

Interactive story-telling is somewhat en-vogue in gaming right now. In a title like The Wolf Among Us or The Walking Dead, for instance, there is a focus on storytelling and decision-making rather than traditional gameplay mechanics. The Shopkeeper takes that idea and pulls back even further in terms of interactivity, becoming a short-form choose your own adventure, where just a handful of different choices will guide the story in one direction or another.
The Shopkeeper presents us with a young businessman looking for an Antique to impress his Mother-in-Law. The titular Shopkeeper tells the story behind each item for sale in his store, and through a series of dialogue choices will explain the consequences of choosing one gift over the other. Pick the incorrect gift and the story will repeat itself, until the correct gift and conversational choices have been made and the credits roll.