2064:Read Only Memories

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A pleasant if somewhat twee game that uses its cyberpunk setting as a lens for advocating a socially progressive message.

2064: Read Only Memories is a point-and-click adventure game set in the retro-futurist city of neo-SF in – you guessed it – 2064 (the reason for the neo-prefix appellation is never really clearly explained). You play a down-on-their-luck investigative journalist, who, one day, is visited by an intrepid robot (ROM, in the game’s parlance) named Turing. Turing turns out to be the world’s first truly sapient artificial intelligence, and enlists your help to locate their creator, who has gone mysteriously missing. In true cyberpunk style, this lead rapidly escalates into a conspiracy involving shadowy corporations, rogue AIs, and killer androids.

 

ROM is less of a game than it is a kind of interactive visual novel – a point and click game where all you do is choose conversation paths, solve absurdly simplistic puzzles from time to time, and generally follow the story along a linear path to one of a few branching conclusions, based on how you’ve treated your compatriots along the way. Such games stand and fall on the strength of their writing. Luckily, there is an intelligence to ROM that is belied by its somewhat cartoonish presentation. Its characters are your standard cyberpunk tropes – genius kid hackers, shady corporate billionaires, murderous androids – and they all play their roles to the hilt, sometimes almost to the level of caricature. But there are underlying threads and bits of lore and worldbuilding that you can find if you take enough time to talk to characters, and they paint a compelling portrait of a 2065 San Francisco.

A large part of this is the game’s abiding mission to present a socially progressive vision to the player through its characters. ROM features a plethora of LGBT characters for whom their sexuality is just one unremarked-upon facet of their identity. In fact, most of the characters in ROM are either gay or genderqueer in some way. The game uses gene-modified human animal hybrids as a stand-in for the latest discriminated-against minority, and leaves it to the player to show solidarity or not, which has some small bearing over the eventual conclusion you get. The allusion is a bit strained – because hybrids, after all, choose to be hybrids – so the narrative makes it so that many hybrids don’t become hybrids voluntarily, but it’s supposed to be a part of wide-ranging gene therapy. It’s a bit of a convoluted metaphor to generate some degree of social commentary on privilege. The game is better at being just a kind of safe space for LGBT players, who can experience a story in which there are many gay people and that’s that – no thematic significance to that part.

Turing’s character is also a way for the game to expound on its calls for greater tolerance and diversity. As the world’s first sapient robot, Turing is an unknown, an “other” – whose charm and humane nature shine out beyond their chrome exterior. The game is a journey of sorts for Turing, who tries to fashion human-equivalent identities, such as gender, age, or the right of autonomy. It’s up to the player to embrace Turing rather than push them away to get the better ending.

To sum, ROM is a short, simple, at times tacky – but ultimately intriguing cyberpunk adventure with a progressive message to bear. While hardly a game, ROM thrives on the strength of its writing and the surprising depth of its cyberpunk setting. Just make sure you check your non-hybrid privilege at the door first.

I give this: 4 out of 5 milk cartons

 

Obduction

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Obduction is the rare puzzle game that manages to make its narrative a vital part of its core puzzle-solving experience.

The puzzle game genre is an expansive one, and contains all sorts of mechanics, but the unifying principle that makes a puzzle game is the application of deductive logic to manipulating game mechanics, in order to accomplish objectives in the game.

In The Witness, there was only one mechanic – drawing lines that connect two points in a maze, repeated in various forms across the entire span of the game. In The Talos Principle, there were a few well defined ones – lasers, boxes and disruptors – that interacted with each other to create complex puzzles, often requiring emergent thinking. Both games were sterling examples of the craft, but their mechanics were decidedly synthetic – they were orthogonal to environment and plot. Swap the island of The Witness for another environment, or the Greco-Egyptian setpieces of The Talos Principle for Medieval castlery, and the games would fundamentally be the same, because their mechanics are the same.

In Obduction, by contrast, the mechanics are part of the environment and the narrative of the game space. The puzzles and conundrums in Obduction are diegetic – they require you to observe how the world is laid out and understand how things in the world affect each other. A diesel engine lies dormant and there are switches and dials and a long snaking cable that extends to something that vaguely looks like a gas station. It’s up to you to figure out the logic of starting the engine with the visual and environmental clues laid out before you. While the inventory of actions that you can undertake is limited – pushing buttons, pulling levers – the challenge is to operate those buttons and levers in ways that make mechanical sense, and to find clues and context while exploring that enable you to piece together the required constituents to find a solution.

That’s what makes Obduction stand out as a puzzler – its gameplay is inextricable from its setting. And in turn, its setting is inextricable from its narrative. And the act of piecing together its narrative from the clues is the crowning meta-puzzle of the game. Swap out the environments for other ones, and you swap out the puzzles and the narrative, and you end up with another game – a spiritual cousin, but not the same.

And the narrative is brilliant – once you make sense of it all. As you start the game and get past its enigmatic opening sequence, and first stumble into an inexplicable world – an Arizona ghost town seemingly scooped out of the earth and plonked in the middle of a vast, purple alien landscape – you would be forgiven for being utterly nonplussed. The game’s only clues are environmental in nature – old recordings from vanished people, paper signs posted on walls, and the idea is to begin to look around, read the clues, and understand what on earth is going on in this fantastic landscape.

Solving each puzzle in the world gets you another narrative clue – and slowly, you piece the pieces together. Despite its seemingly nonsensical premise, Obduction is undergirded by an intriguing, utterly original science fiction premise – which I won’t go into because explaining it would ruin the experience of going into this game blind, as the protagonist does, and experiencing that sense of initial confusion that blends into a greater surety of purpose as you feel your way around the world.

The narrative isn’t perfect, by any means – there is still a bit of ludonarrative dissonance. Everything is just cryptic enough to be challenging to decipher, and yet clear enough that the clues are all there. The one or two actual speaking humans that tell you to do stuff are almost irritatingly stingy with giving clarifications to their enigmatic statements. Of course, if they were to tell you how to do everything step-by-karffin’-step, that’d be no fun at all, would it. And so it goes.

The beauty of Obduction is in how it gives the act of puzzle-solving a narrative significance. In The Witness, there was no narrative to speak of, only the inherent appeal of puzzle-solving to get you through the game. In The Talos Principle, the overarching narrative existed on a different plane than the puzzle-solving. In Obduction, the story is the puzzle – and to figure out its many moving pieces to form a coherent and satisfying storyline is the chief pleasure of the game, and possibly the most challenging – and high-stakes – puzzle of all.

I give this game: 4.5 out of 5 batteries

Titanfall 2

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Titanfall 2’s kinetic verticality and the variety of mechanics afforded by its Titan-Pilot dynamics make this an FPS of rare innovativeness and charm.

Titanfall 2 is Respawn Entertainment’s sophomore effort in fulfilling every gamer’s power fantasy of putting on giant mechanical exosuits and duking it out with other giant mechanical exosuits. But it’s a lot more than that. Titanfall 2 makes you spend a lot of time out of that suit, but the resulting gameplay is anything but unsatisfying. As a Pilot, you double-jump and wall-run your way around the environments, flanking your hapless enemies and employing an arsenal of creative weapon concepts. Titanfall 2 is a floaty FPS in terms of movement, but a satisfyingly meaty one when it comes to shooting, and while it’s not nearly as gritty and realistic in its combat, movement, and animations as Battlefield One, it nevertheless feels like it’s really nailed satisfying gunplay. And then you get into the Titan and the game just changes into a floaty affair into a high-octane bullet-hell sort of a affair, which brings with it its own primal appeal.

I got into Titanfall 2 because of the single player campaign, which I’d heard was an absolute blast. Some reviewers compared it favorably to the Half Life 2 campaign in terms of sheer inventiveness. While I still think the HL2 campaign is unbeaten in terms of its seminal influence over video game storytelling, I have to admit that the campaign does exceed all expectations I had going into it (even with the hyperbolic praise heaped onto it), at least for a game that seems to have been built up as a multiplayer shooter first and a narrative experience second.

The plot itself is generic cookie-cutter military sf, but it’s not really what sets the campaign apart. It’s an impeccably choreographed theme park romp through the game’s beautifully crafted environments, full of visually interesting setpieces that serve to put the game’s various mechanics through its paces. Other than the usual wall-running, double jumping shenanigans and the titan brawl boss battles, the game has a couple of other plot-related mechanics up its sleeve, which, if not quite Portal‘s portals or HL2’s gravity gun, are at least in a similar spirit (coincidentally, Titanfall 2 runs off a very heavily modified Source engine). The Titan loadouts are fun too, and the player gets to try them over the course of the game, with different loadouts more well-suited to tackle different types of enemies.

The campaign’s chief virtue is that it gives the player a sense of empowerment amidst challenge. There are your usual challenging boss battles, locked-room fights, and frantic gauntlets to double-jump out of, but there are also those sequences where you’re in a Titan and mowing down the hapless bad guys with lock-on missiles. Many games think that the level of challenge needs to be uniform, but Titanfall 2 shows that single player campaigns can always benefit from a bit of a break from unrelenting difficulty, as long as the diversionary activity can leverage on deep mechanics to be engaging and fun (in other words, not QTEs).

It’s just too bad that the campaign’s a little short, but Respawn’s success with its campaign gives me hope that its incoming Star Wars game will also deliver that vaunted Star Wars narrative videogame experience I’ve craved since KOTOR 2.

I give this game 4 out of 5 Arks

Battlefield 1

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This review only focus on the Battlefield 1 single-player campaign.

I don’t usually play competitive FPS games, on account of their time-guzzling nature and the fact that I’m somebody who really only plays games for immersion and story. Having heard that Battlefield 1 had an atmospheric, well-crafted single-player, however, I decided to try it out.

The campaign is not a cohesive one as such, but more of a series of unconnected war stories or vignettes: self-contained stories featuring combatants in the many different theatres of this global conflict.

Even though the core mechanic is singular – point a gun at the enemy and shoot – the different stories introduce some degree of variety into the experience, enabling the player to explore different modes of combat and immerse themselves into different historical milieus.

There is tank warfare in the later war years, aerial combat over the Alps, intense, meat-grinder style fighting between Italian shock troops and the Austro-Hungarian army in the Dolomites, storming the shores of Gallipoli, and guerilla warfare against the Ottomans as a member of Lawrence of Arabia’s insurgency.

Of these five main stories, Through Mud and Blood and Friends in High Places stand out as the most well-told and well crafted. The former is the tank warfare story that sees a tank crew caught behind enemy lines, trying to navigate their way through enemy territory to get back to the Allied positions. I found this story the most evocative of the awfulness of war at the personal level, but also of its capacity to bring out the heroism and self-sacrifice of the human spirit.

The latter is set in the skies, and uses volumetric clouds and lighting to paint one of the most beautiful settings for a single player campaign that I’ve ever experienced, accompanied by a rousing, triumphant battle score composed by the underrated Johan Söderqvist.

For some strange reason, the stories all feature Allied characters and Allied-centric plots – despite the fact that WWI didn’t have the moral clarity of its successor war. In the first World War, countries rushed into war but found themselves bogged down in an interminable grindfest due to the fact that their battle doctrines had not caught up with their technology. There is no compelling moral or ethical reason not to feature some stories from the point of view of the Central Powers. But there you have it.

Some of the stories also make the soldier out to be an unkillable action hero, which also detracts from the initial premise, evoked in the game’s tutorial, that you are just one of many soldiers pushed into battle, with a life expectancy of a few days. But I suppose that boils down to the fundamental requirements of a satisfying single-player experience.

So, does Battlefield 1’s single player do a creditable job of depicting the ambiguity, pointlessness, horror and heroism of World War I? I think there are brief flashes where the clouds part and that essence shines, and for a moment there is that feeling of empathy and understanding of what it must have felt like to be a soldier on the front. By and large, however, the campaign is still, at its heart, an (albeit beautifully crafted) arcade romp through set-pieces designed to still give the player a sense of agency and empowerment. And there’s nothing wrong with that – but, if the objective were to provide a level of immersion and narrative insight into the lived experience of combat, Battlefield 1 could do more.

I give the single player campaign: 3.5 out of 5 doves

Homeworld Remastered Collection

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Homeworld Remastered embodies the space opera genre at its most sweeping and epic, even if its story and characters are a little half-baked, and some of its gameplay mechanics are a bit unbalanced.

The collection is made up of the remastered versions of two distinct games with four years in between their respective releases. 1999’s Homeworld  and 2003’s Homeworld 2 were very different games, but Gearbox has done an admirable job in modernising their UIs, graphics, and controls to make them seem like a game in two parts.

Homeworld, in its day, was feted for its innovative three dimensional approach to real time strategy, but also for its involved lore and sweeping galactic scope. The narrative scaffolding of the campaign is a by-the-numbers space opera, with galactic empires, generations-long interstellar voyages, enigmatic alien civilisations, ancient relics from progenitor races long vanished, and a central quest for a lost home planet.

Honestly, it isn’t a particularly novel premise for a space opera. And the characters and plotlines, such as they are, are paper-thin abstractions, like the bare-bones elements for a coherent campaign than fully-fleshed elements for any literary purpose. But what this narrative structure does is provide the structure for gameplay moments that feel positively gravid with operatic importance.

A powerful example of that sort of feeling is in an early Homeworld mission, in which the mothership of the player-led Kushan species, built as an exploratory vessel to search for that species’ lost homeworld of Hiigara, returns back to their current planet to find it a burning, lifeless cinder, bombarded to oblivion by in a seemingly capricious act by a previously unknown antagonist. Adagio for Strings plays as the player surveys this almost existential ruin, keenly aware that the mothership is the last remnant of the Kushan species and culture.

The player finds that floating cryo-trays containing the cryogenically frozen would-be colonists for the expedition have survived the bombardment, and the mission is a race to collect the cryo-trays and return them to the safety of the mothership before the enemy finds and destroys them. The mission requires that 4 out of 6 pallets are returned to ensure success. But every time a pallet is destroyed, the player is told that 100,000 Kushan colonists have perished. By creating this moral and emotional impact through spare storytelling, the game turns the simple act of rescuing trays to succeed in a mission into an almost moral imperative.

Later on, as the player builds up a fleet and marshals huge capital ships and cruisers to bear on the enemy, you are still keenly aware that each loss of a ship is the loss of a significant proportion of the species’ people. Amidst the epic battles with clouds of fighters and capital ships slugging it out in the pastel beauty of the Homeworld cosmos, I found that I had the compulsion to play conservatively, in order to protect the Kushan people.

This narrative compulsion is also exacerbated by gameplay requirements, at least in the first Homeworld campaign – where resource scarcity and fleet persistence between missions ensured that the player had to play conservatively to ensure that as much of their fleet survived each mission to make it to the next. The campaign was cleverly constructed to emphasise this principle, not least in the use of salvage as an important mechanic. The best way to beat the campaign is to employ salvage corvettes to capture enemy vessels and convert them into player units, in keeping with the narrative of scarcity and privation in the face of the massive numerical advantage of the enemy.

Both the campaigns of Homeworld and Homeworld 2 contained this element – of narrative informing gameplay conditions and hence gameplay choices – but Homeworld was probably the better campaign. Resource scarcity was not an issue in Homeworld 2, and this led to missions devolving into epic engagements of attrition with the enemy. Homeworld 2’s plot was also a little bit less compelling than the first, with the plot embracing more mystical, macguffin-powered elements that departed from the more stolid, primal themes of the original.

That said, Homeworld Remastered isn’t without its problems, mostly in the gameplay and mission design. Chief among these is the annoying enemy scaling system, in which the size of the enemy fleet scales with the size of your own. In the Homeworld campaign, I spent many hours painstakingly capturing ships and carefully building a huge fleet, only for the subsequent missions to quickly become impossible due to the size of the enemy fleet that grew commensurately to my own. It’s a state of affairs in which player effort is not rewarded by the satisfaction of bearing down on one’s opponent, but is instead punished by making missions impossibly difficult.

The AI in both games is also somewhat abysmal, like the computer was playing on autopilot. There is almost never any strategy to the enemy’s actions, just a series of pre-canned actions that the player just needs to memorise to beat. The computer can also be easily tricked by feints and other simple gambits, sending out their fleet in a disorganised stream to chase a single scout and perishing slowly in the grinder maw of the ambush you’ve set up. It feels less like outsmarting your opponent and more like what it is – exploitation of a very simplistic rules-based system once you know its few organising principles.

These are issues that have persisted through the remastering process, and feel a bit out of whack with more modern game design philosophies and tech. But, after everything, these problems pale in the face of the sense of import and anticipation I felt when playing the collection. Strategy has a certain way of seizing your thoughts away from the computer screen – I had moments doing everyday, real-world things where I suddenly found myself thinking of ways to tackle the next Homeworld mission, and finding myself in anticipation of going home to try out my gambit. In a way relatively few games have, Homeworld has that slightly addictive element to it, one that compounds itself with its narrative-driven gameplay to provide a classic space opera RTS experience that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 ion frigates

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oxenfree

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A midway interesting narrative stymied with utterly numbing gameplay.

Oxenfree is a 2D narrative adventure game developed by the indie Night School studio. It puts the player in control of Alex, a high school student who inadvertently opens a mysterious rift into a spectral plane while on an escapade to an out-of-the-way island for an overnight drinking party.

Oxenfree is in spirit a classic ghost story with a science-fiction twist, and it succeeds on this front, both on an atmospheric and narrative perspective. The environments are beautifully rendered 2-dimensional canvases that seem gravid with a creeping sense of foreboding. The narrative has all the elements of the best ghost stories – in which the protagonist isn’t just hiding from the external threat of the paranormal, but also grappling with her own personal demons. The mirroring of the internal and external gives the best ghost stories their particular capacity to disturb.

The game excels at making the player feel boxed in and threatened at every turn. There are events that might have been called jump scares in other horror games, but are deployed every so often in the narrative to keep the player on their toes, always tensely on the lookout for them. Alex is usually accompanied by an NPC, either her step-brother Jonas or her best friend Ren, and the dialogue between them provides a kind of normalcy to the situation, so when the game contrives to suddenly take them away, the player is discomfited.

But this is where the game’s greatest weakness – the lack of gameplay – comes in. Oxenfree relies on the conceit of gameplay challenge to sustain the dread the player feels. When weird things happen, the game usually has Alex complete some sort of task to bring things back to normal. However, the vast majority of the time these tasks have no intrinsic challenge – mostly performing some rote action or locating a frequency on a radio. The game has very little in the way of gameplay to sustain itself.

This would generally be okay if the game played well in general – if it was responsive and fluid in its controls, like Tales of the Borderlands, it might have seemed like playing an interactive movie. But Oxenfree can’t simulate that immersive feeling because it’s a 2D platformer. Navigating the gamespace is a chore and feels like busywork – the characters move slowly, there are a lot of climbing sections, and Alex doesn’t always go where you want her to. It discourages exploration because it feels like it takes forever to go from point A to point B.

The other thing I found frustrating was the dialogue system. You can choose what Alex says by clicking speech bubbles over her head when they appear. But when you click them, she interrupts what someone else is saying, cutting them off and preventing you from hearing what they wanted to say. Wait too long to click, however, and the bubble disappears. This is compounded by the fact that it’s hard to tell when people are done talking, so a character might say something and pause, and you click the speech bubble, then the character starts speaking again but is cut off by Alex’s dialogue. It’s an unintuitive and clunky system that compromises the delivery of the game’s most important asset – its narrative.

Ultimately, the game’s a short, 4-5 hour adventure that offers some, but not particularly compelling, replay value due to a narratively-justified game plus mode that allows you to test alternative narrative choices. While I liked the story, the clunky gameplay was a big factor for me in not replaying the game.

I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 radio keys

Dreamfall Chapters

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Dreamfall: Chapters doesn’t quite get away with its audacious attempt to tie together the disparate and chaotic narrative strands left open by its predecessor.

Chapters is the five-chapter, long-awaited conclusion to the Longest Journey series of games, but in a way, it was my entry into the series. I’ve long had a soft spot for narrative-driven adventure games, and having heard of Dreamfall: Chapter’s Kickstarter success, I decided I’d play the first two games in order to play the third.

The Longest Journey was a charming but slightly twee point-and-click adventure games with fiendishly illogical puzzles and a MacGuffin-powered story about restoring Balance and finding powerful and hidden Draic Kins (a wilful misspelling of dragons) to stop a conspiracy from reshaping the universe in its image. The second, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, had some terribly unpolished gameplay but (I thought) a more grounded and compelling narrative. I finished the two games and then waited over a year for all the chapters in Dreamfall: Chapter to come out so that I could play the game in one go.

I’m glad I did. Dreamfall:Chapters is such an involved narrative maze that it would probably be difficult to remember its various plot contrivances if I had to wait a few months in between.

Mechanically, it’s a great leap forward  from its predecessor Dreamfall. The animations are smooth, the characters look great, the third-person camera doesn’t get itself in a twist – although these are things that I would expect from a modern video game. There’s no wonky combat, which is a plus, although there are still terrible stealth sections which, in their contrived nature, really take you out of the story every time you get stuck in one.

The two previous games created an interesting dual world of Stark and Arcadia, and one of Chapters’ great strengths is that it kicks the worldbuilding up several notches. Where the previous games sported constrained environments and broad strokes that hinted at the worlds they were set in, Chapters has more expansive setpieces with much more in the way of peripheral interest. The district of Propast in the city of Europolis, which Zoe spends much of the first few chapters running around in, is a stand-out example of Chapters’ compelling worldbuilding. It is a post-cyberpunk metropolis of incredible ethnic diversity, one of the few worlds that doesn’t portray an unrealistically whitewashed future. Marcuria, the city of Arcadia, has also been given a facelift – where it used to be a few small levels, a fairly large section of the city has been developed for the player to roam through, and there is a real sense of scale. It’s a vast improvement over the toy-like levels of TLJ and Dreamfall.

Thematically, Chapters take a  more grounded stance than its predecessors, with the first few chapters dealing with a political crisis in Propast that strikes a clear parallel with contemporary goings-on in Europe – the fight between far-right ethnic nationalism and social-centrism and liberalism. In Marcuria, we have a fascistic dictatorship of foreign invaders – the Azadi – who commit ethnic cleansings on segments of their subjugated populations.

Unfortunately, there is a tension between these more grounded themes and the original raison d’etre of the game – to wrap up the disparate plot threads of the previous offerings.

It really seems like the two are at cross-purposes with each other. The early game takes its time in carefully developing the building political tensions in Propast, or detailing the guerilla war against the Azadi, and these are interesting stories and conflicts. These early chapters, however, do comparatively little to begin to address the key conflicts that were left unresolved in the previous game.

It’s only in the final chapter that the plot suddenly lurches in the direction of culminating towards a denouement, and that’s where the game’s quality starts to degrade. Earlier plot threads are hastily resolved and forgotten, and the groundedness of the earlier chapters gives way to the floaty, macguffin-centered fluff of the central plot – an attempt by the Bad Guys to reshape reality by collecting dreams and using them to feed a giant steampunk computer.

In doing so, the plot seems to take some liberties with characters and conventions from the previous games. Take the character of Roper Klacks, for example – he was a side-show antagonist in the first game, a reformed seller of potions in the second. The third game, however, retcons his apparent redemption and fashions him back into a villain, which is jarring given his lack of rancour towards April Ryan in the second game.

And most egregious of all, the plot basically resolves itself with a deus ex machina character that appears in the first chapter as a baby and grows up in an interdimensional house just in time to step into the timeline and tweak a few things to allow the good guys to win. But her powers, and the agents that guide her in her mission, are never identified, and we’re expected to be okay with the plot intervention just because it was introduced as a Chekov’s gun in the first chapter. While the introduction of this character does kind of address a long-standing plot thread that was never really addressed in the first game, her inclusion brings up far more questions than it does answers, and avers to an even greater conflict that sets the stage for a subsequent game that will, unfortunately, probably never see the light of day.

I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 new-style Dreamers