Tag Archives: exploration

Psychological horror Layers of Fear is surprisingly one note

Well, here it is, my requisite playthrough of a single super scary game for 2017–Layers of Fear. Actually, that’s not true. Earlier this year, I ran at full speed through the darkness with a video camera quickly losing battery life in Outlast. I also played a less effective thing called Blameless. Still, I can usually only do one of these every year because they stress me out like nothing else. Actually, this is all a lie, as I can’t seem to find any proof I played something similar last year, though 2015 saw me tackling the Cordyceps fungus in The Last of Us, which I totally consider a horror game, thank you very much, and 2014 was all about the Deep Sleep point-and-click series and The Swapper. Whatever, man. It’s not like I’m on trial here.

Let’s see. Layers of Fear is about art, specifically a painter who has returned to his studio to complete his masterpiece. It’s up to you to figure out how this task should be accomplished. Gameplay involves exploring an old, spooky house, searching for visual clues and memory-jarring items, while solving a puzzle or two to keep things moving forward. Or backwards. Inwards and outwards and downwards–it’s messy. At first, the house appears to be pretty normal, Victorian-esque, but you’ll quickly learn that there are no rules here, and anything and everything can change in an instance. For example, you open a door, walk down a hallway, spin around to find the door behind you gone, and spin around again once more to find a wall now where the hallway was–this is what Layers of Fear revels in, pulling the rug out from under your feet, and it does it quietly, effectively. It reminded me a lot of the way Oxenfree played with its scenarios, remixing them on the fly.

The prominent challenge comes from environmental puzzles which require the player to search the immediate area for visual clues or things to interact with, such as paintings to stare at or candles to light. There are a few locks too that require a specific code to open, but the answers are generally in the immediate area. Layers of Fear is divided into six chapters and extremely dark–not just in tone, but in lighting. At one point, I got stuck in an area of dense in blacks and charcoals that I had to turn the brightness up to figure out where I was looking. Along the way, you’ll find articles or scraps of paper to read, as well as notes from…rats to collect. As you gather up these items, the origins of your masterpiece and methods will slowly be revealed. 

As a horror game though, Layers of Fear is jump scare after jump scare after jump scare. It is exhausting, and maybe for some players, this is what they want from an experience, but I prefer milder scare tactics and more emphasis on emotional distress and haunting images. We don’t get that here, except for a painting of a man-baby with fur on his face. Due to its nonlinear storytelling, it is difficult to be truly horrified before knowing what was at stake other than this mad artist’s goal to finish the job, and I found myself bracing for each jump after figuring out, kind of, where and when they might happen. There’s also a reliance on age-old tropes, such as baby dolls and rocking chairs and a bathtub full of blood. The variety of paintings hung throughout the house at least made each room and hallway stand out, and the effect when they’d melt was eerily pleasing.

Perhaps the aspect I liked most about Layers of Fear is how the player opens doors, cabinets, and drawers. I know, weird, but after dealing with angry ghosts, distorted hallways, and rotten fruit, this is what I’m taking away as a highlight. See, when an item is interactive, a hand icon appears, and you press the right trigger down and hold it; then you use the analog stick to perform the necessary action for the desired results. For instance, if you want to open a drawer towards you, hold down RT and pull the analog stick down. Some doors swing away from you, which means pushing up on the stick. It’s an effective way of making you feel like you are there, performing the action, because you open the door at your own speed.

Well, that might be the last horror game I touch in 2017. Oh well. Sorry, Silent Hill 3, I will continue to ignore you. I’m sure I can find others in my Steam library too to also not play. I’m really good at not playing horror games, and yet the curiosity about them remains within me, bubbling just below the surface. So long as they are not jump scare marathons, I can probably enjoy a few. But for now, it’s back to less spooky things, such as Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Slime Rancher, and the ultra bubbly, goofy Miitopia.

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2017 Game Review Haiku, #112 – Layers of Fear

A disturbed painter
Striving for his masterpiece
Will do anything

I can’t believe I’m still doing this. I can’t believe I’ll ever stop. These game summaries in chunks of five, seven, and five syllable lines paint pictures in the mind better than any half a dozen descriptive paragraphs I could ever write. Trust me, I’ve tried. Brevity is the place to be. At this point, I’ve done over 200 of these things and have no plans of slowing down. So get ready for another year of haikus. Doumo arigatou gozaimasu.

Gone Home, where happiness doesn’t have just one address

It’s been a few years since I first played Gone Home. This was back in 2014, when my life was wavering, changing into something new and different. I was, at that time, drawing small, teeny-tiny comics for each game I completed instead of my now much more popular standard of haikus, and the one I did for The Fullbright Company’s first-person adventure exploration debut remains one of my more popular pieces on the photo-sharing site Tumblr. Which I have always found interesting because all I did was use Sam Greenbriar’s words about her girlfriend with a few crude illustrations to accompany them. Art is odd.

A quick Gone Home plot summary for those that don’t remember what is going on here: 21-year-old Katie Greenbriar returns home in 1995 from being overseas to her family in Oregon only to discover the house is completely empty of life. As she begins to explore the house, she’ll discover clues and notes left behind that explains where everyone went. It’s a story about love and loyalty, abuse, friendship, religion, dedication, confidence, neglect, connections, mental health, and more things than I can list out here. The easy joke to make would be that this is one full house. I’m not going to re-hash what I previously wrote some years back, so please click here for a deeper dive into the game’s narrative and theme, among other topics.

Right. For the console version of Gone Home, not much has changed in terms of gameplay, though I do enjoy using a controller to navigate and examine neon-colored highlighters more this time. Also, there’s Achievements, and this is where I found new life in the rummaging simulator. A couple of them, specifically “Homerunner” and “Speedreader,” are all about completing the game quickly with next to no room for error. Another has you going through the Greenbriar house slowly, methodically, pausing with curiosity and searching every nook and cranny for the chance to learn more. I loved both plans of attack and want to talk about them individually below.

It’s official–Gone Home is the first game I’ve spedrun. Speed-runned? I’ve done a speedrun of? Ugh. There’s really no graceful way of saying it, I guess. Look, I beat Gone Home in under a minute. I never even knew this was possible. The “Homerunner” Achievement asks that the player complete the game in less than 1 minute with no modifiers enabled. That might sound crazy difficult until you realize that you can access the secret room by the front staircase at any point when playing to grab the attic key. After that, it’s all about cutting corners and navigating down a dark hallway to click on Sam’s diary. It took me a few tries, but I eventually did it, and that felt pretty cool. The next game I plan to speedrun is Animal Crossing: New Leaf, 100% catalog, all fossils, fish, and bugs. Just kiddin’.

For the “Speedrunner” Achievement, you need to complete the game having found all 24 journal entries, without any modifiers turned on, in less than 10 minutes. Hmm. Again, it sounds tough, and there is little room for wasting time, but once you know the best path to take and make a b-line for every audio journal trigger, it’s not too bad. I didn’t personally time myself, but the Achievement popped on my first go after thinking about where everything was for a moment, so it was obviously under ten minutes. Now, before I did this one, I also learned about the secret journal entry you get by bringing a tiny ball from the garage up to Sam’s room and dunking it in the basketball hoop, which I never did initially. The reveal is purrfect. So that was another fun treat to learn about, as well as the task of bringing Christmas duck to its rightful abode in the attic.

Lastly, there’s the “Behind the Scenes” Achievement, which wants you to find all the commentary nodes in the house after turning them on via a modifier at the start of a new game. Commentary in games, much like on DVDs, is something I find neat and cool from afar, but rarely digest. I don’t know why that is. Certainly, when it comes to a movie or TV show, I’d rather just watch the original material and read an interview with the director or actors later. However, games can be more interactive than this, which gives new life to the idea of re-exploring these environments. I enjoyed it in Blackwell Deception and Even the Ocean, and I greatly enjoyed it here, though some nodes offer more stories and details than others. The truth is, as an Idle Thumbs fan, I could listen to Chris Remo go on for days about composing music. Still, I learned a lot about hidden secrets and design choice from Steve Gaynor, Karla Zimonja, Kate Craig, and Emily Carroll, as well as got Sarah Grayson’s take on her character Sam, who drives the game forward with her painfully heartfelt narration. Finding each one was rewarding, and I refused to leave the area I was in until the recording was done playing.

Basically, in the last week or so, I ended up beating Gone Home several more times, all via different types of playthroughs, and I still think this is one of the more important games of the last decade. Play it, please. I suspect I’ll return to it again down the future road; until then, I really need to check out Tacoma.

Waking Mars educates one about an alien planet’s ecosystem

I’ve never been to Mars and probably never will in my lifetime, but I’ve both read and seen a lot of hot takes on the red planet, such as Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, The Martian by Andy Weir, and 1990’s Total Recall. I’ve even played a few games set there, like all the Red Faction joints. Chances are I wouldn’t survive long, knowing only how to make hot dog rice and a slumber party tent using two chairs and an old bedsheet, but that’s expected. Also, if hostile alien lifeforms exist, I wouldn’t know what to do to keep them from eating my Earthly flesh. Related to that, one is still trying to survive the harsh landscape in Waking Mars, but the true focus is on study and education, on discovering what makes this world alive and function.

Tiger Style put out Waking Mars in early 2012, but I only discovered it the other night in my Steam library, way at the bottom of the list. I honestly have no recollection of how it got there, but I’m going to assume it was through a Humble Bundle of sorts. Without knowing too much about the game other than some of the Achievement descriptions, I loaded it up and was surprised to discover that it is…a science-fiction adventure game with light platforming in the veins of a jetpack. Also, it’s totally about gardening. The year is 2097, and life has been discovered on Mars. Your mission of first contact takes a real bad turn, with American astronaut Liang becoming trapped by a cave-in. He must master the alien ecosystem to better survive and progress, as well as discover the secrets of the planet’s past.

Right. First off, instead of shooting your way to safety, Liang must grow a lively ecosytem to open passageways and redirect water to the areas that need it most. This was a great surprise. Much like The Swapper, combat is not the focus; instead, exploring your surroundings and puzzling out what to do next is the main mechanic fueling progression and storytelling, and that has actually made the jet-packing all the more fun because you are not trying to fire a blaster and dodge acid bombs at the same time, but rather zip around in search of places to grow some local life. Instead, you are looking for plant seeds and fertile ground, as well as scientific remnants of a co-worker that has gone missing. Each area has a Biomass rating, which you must raise to open up new areas to explore, and you do this by making life thrive. Plant seeds in the right spot, cultivate them, mix seeds with other seeds, avoid dangerous plants, and watch how everything interacts.

Waking Mars, so far, has a somewhat compelling story, but I’m more interested in the diversity of its cast, as well as the strong voice acting, which gives more meaning and urgency to the search for alien life and a way back to the headquarters. Liang is quiet and curious, but also physically alone in these Mars caves. In his ear are two support team members: Armani, an upbeat scientist, and ART, a humorous and glitch AI (think TARS from Interstellar). At different points, you’ll stop for conversation and figure out what to do next. These are linear moments, but they do reveal a lot about each character and provide hints at what is really going on here.

The gardening is fun. I generally always have fun growing digital plants, but the fact that everything interacts with each other to either raise or lower your Biomass rating is fascinating and much different than other games. Makes me feel like a scientist doing scientist-y things. You are also encouraged to get creative and research each plant fully, figuring out how it reproduces or reacts to prey. Once you know more about each respective plant, you can create a highly efficient zone, one that almost takes care of itself. It’s difficult but not impossible to reach five-star Biomass rating, and I suspect doing so will have a unique result on the current environment; alas, I’ve not been able to do this yet.

According to the Internet, Waking Mars takes about six to eight hours to complete. I’ve only put in two hours so far, which means there’s plenty of Mars left to explore and turn into my personal zoa garden. We’ll see if I have a green or red thumb.

Get it?

Y’know, because the iron oxide prevalent on the planet’s surface gives it a reddish appearance?

2017 Game Review Haiku, #74 – LUZ

Walking through the void
Of black and white, static grays
Sanctity exists

I can’t believe I’m still doing this. I can’t believe I’ll ever stop. These game summaries in chunks of five, seven, and five syllable lines paint pictures in the mind better than any half a dozen descriptive paragraphs I could ever write. Trust me, I’ve tried. Brevity is the place to be. At this point, I’ve done over 200 of these things and have no plans of slowing down. So get ready for another year of haikus. Doumo arigatou gozaimasu.

2017 Game Review Haiku, #72 – Observer: Edge of the Earth

Leave elevator
Pull levers, ruined castle
I saw a sky whale

I can’t believe I’m still doing this. I can’t believe I’ll ever stop. These game summaries in chunks of five, seven, and five syllable lines paint pictures in the mind better than any half a dozen descriptive paragraphs I could ever write. Trust me, I’ve tried. Brevity is the place to be. At this point, I’ve done over 200 of these things and have no plans of slowing down. So get ready for another year of haikus. Doumo arigatou gozaimasu.

2017 Game Review Haiku, #61 – I’m Still Here

Brand new apartment
Haunted, fish out who it is
Delightfully quick

I can’t believe I’m still doing this. I can’t believe I’ll ever stop. These game summaries in chunks of five, seven, and five syllable lines paint pictures in the mind better than any half a dozen descriptive paragraphs I could ever write. Trust me, I’ve tried. Brevity is the place to be. At this point, I’ve done over 200 of these things and have no plans of slowing down. So get ready for another year of haikus. Doumo arigatou gozaimasu.