Tag Archives: Games with Gold

Running out of batteries is Outlast’s darkest horror

Outlast is most certainly and without a doubt not a game for me, but at least it was only a couple hours long and a “freebie” from Xbox One’s Games With Gold program several months back. I have one more Achievement I’d like to pop, which is thankfully right at the beginning of the game before everything is plunged into murky darkness, and then I’ll be waving goodbye to this sliver of nightmare meat from my console with boyish glee. Unfortunately, I still have a couple of other horror games in my various collections left to tackle, such as Layers of Fear, Anna, and Siren: Blood Curse, and I’m just the worst at these. Y’all remember when I promised to play Silent Hill 3 two years ago? No? Okay, good. Well, we’ll see if I can, ahem, outlast a few more.

So, moving right along to Outlast‘s plot. Freelance investigative journalist Miles Upshur is off to the Mount Massive Asylum, a private psychiatric hospital, after receiving an anonymous tip about inhumane experiments being conducted there. Because of course. Still, once there, Miles is shocked to discover the hospital’s halls destroyed and brimming with the mutilated corpses of the staff. A dying SWAT officer reveals that the asylum’s patients, known as “variants,” have escaped and are freely roaming the grounds, butchering employees left and right without mercy. Alas, Miles is unable to leave the way he came in and, besides looking for a new way out, soon finds himself deep in the mix as he comes face to face with those that roam this madhouse. It’s a somewhat straightforward story with loose details that won’t surprise you once you see what it is doing, and that’s okay. I saw that second season of American Horror Story and have enough unique and terrible images in my head to last a lifetime.

Gameplay is broken down into several distinct elements: exploration, platforming, chase sequences, and stealth. There are a few cutscenes to watch as well, but don’t expect much out of Miles Upshur other than labored breathing, as the man is nothing more than a vessel for the player, a host to see these horrific things through and breathe a sigh of relief when push comes to shove and events take a turn for the even worse. I enjoyed exploration the most, and really enjoyed it at the very beginning and end of Outlast, in the most well-lit areas of the asylum where you don’t have to bother with the video camera, and disliked all things related to chase sequences. Early on, you learn a move that allows you to run forward and then also quickly glance over your shoulder; I never used it. I hated being chased in Super Mario 3D Land, most likely would hate it in real life, and did not enjoy the pursuits here. Too stressful. Puzzles revolve around finding valves to turn or levers to pull or a specific key, and they aren’t about figuring out how to do these actions, but rather getting to them alive by sneaking around in the dark and avoiding violent asylum patients. The platforming, while not the greatest considering this is first-person platforming we’re talking about, is infrequent enough to not be a bother though I still missed a number of easy jumps.

I think I played the first five or ten minutes of Amnesia: The Dark Descent many moons ago and knew then that it was too terrifying for my weak skin to handle. Outlast is pretty similar, with a focus on carrying around a light source (lantern versus video camera with night vision mode on), being in first person, and a lack of combat, but also completely different. Whereas the former seemed to go for quieter scares and ramping up the tension, Outlast brings out all the big guns, with swelling music, screaming, jump scares galore, and a large monstrosity to chase after you down dark halls where you have to both run and create roadblocks in the manner of shut doors and barricades. There are, of course, occasions where things are quiet and uneventful, which is unnerving, but I quickly learned to not trust these sequences for too long. Eventually something’s going to grab you.

All right, lastly, or rather outlastly, there are some more things that I’m just not a fan of and found severely off-putting because I’m in a complainy mood, but your mileage may vary. A large portion of Outlast boils down to basically managing the number of batteries you have and when and where to turn on the camcorder. They drain quickly, and though I never did run out of them entirely during my playthrough, I always felt like I was close and preferred to have more in my inventory than not, just in case I needed them. This stressed me out greatly. For collectibles, there are two types–notes and documents–with notes referring to handwritten notes by Miles after witnessing something, and documents being, well, printed papers of exposition left behind for players to find. They aren’t all that interesting to read, and, more annoyingly, when you get a new one, it appears at the bottom of the collected list, which means as you collect more and more, it takes longer and longer to scroll down and read the one you just unlocked. Lastly, because I’m a wuss and scared of the dark, I spent probably something like 85% of this game behind the camcorder’s lens with night vision mode on; I’m sure Outlast looks sharp and amazing in spots, but all I ever saw was grainy blurs of faded neon-green and blinding puffs of white light.

Outlast isn’t fun. It’s kind of designed that way, but maybe a special type of person exists somewhere on this batty planet that looks at all these cruel limitations and unfriendly setting and thinks, “Aw yiss!” The developer’s main goal is to fill you with fear, and the player’s main goal is to escape scare-free. I’d rather live safely on my Stardew Valley farm with Maru and our first child Mauly, tending to my crops and searching for those rare starfruit and upgrading my tools. I’ll never run out of batteries there because, thanks to my lightning rod, I get a freebie every time there’s a thunderstorm. Take that.

2017 Game Review Haiku, #32 – Outlast

Asylum in woe
Hate battery management
Not my kind of fun

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.

The Wolf Among Us is where wolves fear to prey

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I got through a decent chunk of The Wolf Among Us last year during my Extra Life event, sleepily playing it in the wee hours of the morning after I found myself walking off ledges too frequently in Dark Souls. Part of me suspects the reason I picked it is because, if I nodded off momentarily during a conversation scene, the scene can keep going, selecting “…” as Bigby’s appropriate response. I guarantee this happened a few times. I gare-run-tee it. I’m also fine with my Bigby being a bit shy or passive in his interactions with some people, even if later I made him ultra assertive and demanding when push came to shove. You gotta break a few eggs to make an omelette, y’know.

The Wolf Among Us, which I constantly wrote incorrectly as A Wolf Among Us in its game review haikus, is a prequel to Bill Willingham’s Fables comic book universe, of which I’ve read not a single page. Bigby Wolf, formerly known as the Big Bad Wolf, is the Sheriff of Fabletown, which is a hidden community of fairytale characters located in New York City in the 1980s. After receiving a phone call from Mr. Toad, Bigby saves a young prostitute from an intoxicated and extremely vulgar Woodsman. He escorts her away to safety. Alas, later that night, Bigby is shocked to find the woman’s severed head left on the doorstep of the Woodland Luxury Apartments. Deputy Mayor Ichabod Crane orders him and Snow White to investigate her death.

I’ve had problems with these adventure romps from Telltale Games since basically the first mainstream one I touched: season one of The Walking Dead. I enjoyed that one a great deal, even if I saw that it was more adventuring than pointing and clicking and had a couple complications, but this was a different beast, playable first on a console and designed for a controller and distinctive pace. I’ve stopped referring to these as point and click adventure titles. They are dialogue adventures. Season two of The Walking Dead was a whole lot less game, and this carried over to Game of Thrones. I’ve not tried Tales from the Borderlands, Minecraft: Story Mode, or Batman: The Telltale Series yet, though I do have their first episodes downloaded and ready to go, but I suspect I won’t find anything new to love there.

In The Wolf Among Us, players control Bigby Wolf, who is investigating a murder. You’ll “explore” various environments throughout Fabletown, such as apartment buildings, a bar, a butcher’s shop, etc. I used quotation marks because you are extremely limited in where you can walk, and there are only so many things to interact with. Many are just there for lore and to unlock entries in your Book of Fables guide. Occasionally, items of interest are stored in an inventory on the side, but you don’t access this like you would in a more traditional point-and-click title; instead, if you have the item, it can come into play at a later time automatically. Gameplay ultimately boils down to talking with a host of pretty memorable characters, with conversations presented in the form of dialogue trees and responses on a timer. Depending on your choices, these will have a positive or negative effect on how people view Bigby, as well as larger plot-points down the road. Many scenes are heavy on action, requiring players to respond rapidly through QTE prompts, such as fighting off bad dudes or chasing after a vehicle speeding away. I failed a couple of things here and there, but unlike Shenmue the story thankfully moves forward regardless.

Here’s where The Wolf Among Us shines, obviously: the writing. It’s an entertaining, complex story, with a cast of characters that are fun to recognize and see how they fit into this alternative realm. Bigby is a villain trying to live a better life and help who he can, struggling to shed his past skin. That comes through strongly in the story, and his interaction with Snow White, at least the ones I saw and decided on, spoke volumes without every directly saying what each person thought of the other. I also liked the interaction between the fairytale characters that could pass among humans versus the ones that couldn’t without using expensive treatments called glamours, such as Mr. Toad. The real villains are villainous, and I found the Crooked Man to be profoundly striking, using his smarmy, distrustful words and loyalty of his goons to get his way. Spoilers: I let him talk for a good while before deciding to alter his form for good. That said, I think the end conversation between Bigby and Nerissa was meant to be more profound, but it came off as plain ol’ confusing. If you want to read some theories, here’s a good starting place.

I had the luxury of playing The Wolf Among Us mostly back to back after getting the whole thing at once from Games with Gold in April 2016, but for those that experienced it episodically, spread out over nine months, I can see some episodes not really satisfying or feeling like enough. The action scenes are few and simply a bunch of button presses, and I found it hard to sometimes see what was going on because I was more concerned with which button to hit next. That’s the most gameplay you get, and the rest is Bigby lone wolfing it on the streets of Fabletown, talking to people and responding accordingly. There are parts of the game where you can only go one way or another due to time restraints, which theoretically leads to replay value, but I don’t like replaying these things from Telltale Games because, to me, my first go-through is my only go-through. The decisions I made, the words I spoke–like real life, there’s no do-over.

Wait, remember earlier when I said that the writing was the best part of The Wolf Among Us? I was wrong. I forgot that the intro title sequence is amazing, using shadows and purple neon and deep, pulse-laden electronica music to set mood like nothing before, save for maybe Stranger Things. Even if that feeling doesn’t last for the entire episode, it certainly kicks things off on a great, furry foot. Let’s end this post on a highlight, on that. If Telltale Games doubles down on ambiance and atmosphere for season two, if there is to be one, I might return. I might.

Grinding Down‘s readers will remember that.

Another garden to tend to in Earthlock: Festival of Magic

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Currently, I’m juggling a lot of gardens. There’s the one in Disney Magical World 2, which is where I’m looking to harvest some rarer fruits, vegetables, and flowers, such as spooky carrots and solar sunflowers. There’s the one in Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s Skyhold castle, which seems to only grow plants after I’ve traveled between a set number of regions to recreate some actual passing of time. There’s the one in Stardew Valley, which is your biggest means to making money through the four seasons, and I now have the game also on Xbox One, resulting in double the work if I plan to continue with my PC save as well. All of that is to say that there’s now one more place to grow and cultivate plants in Earthlock: Festival of Magic, a colorful RPG from Snowcastle Games, as well as a monthly freebie back in September 2016.

I’m about nine to ten hours into Earthlock: Festival of Magic, just around the 50% completion mark, and, alas, I don’t think I can sum up its plot easily from the top of my noggin. Not because it is extremely deep and layered, like multiple seasons deep into Game of Thrones, but more that it is not extremely clear or focused. I’m going to have to resort to the developer’s own words and see if it stirs anything new from me:

Embark on a journey to save the beautiful world of Umbra, a harsh planet that stopped spinning thousands of cycles ago. What started as a mission to rescue Amon’s uncle from the clutches of an ancient cult, soon spirals into an adventure that was centuries in the making. You must bring together this group of unlikely heroes to stop the ruinous past from repeating itself.

Yeah, sure. That’s kind of being descriptive without providing any actual details. At this point in the game, I’m in a town called Suvia, lurking through sewers after the bad dudes that stole some machine. A machine that may or may not be connected to a relic that Amon and his hammerhead uncle stole at the start of the game. I don’t know. I’m kind of moving from place to place, fighting enemies every few steps and talking to a minor amount of nonplayable characters for some background lore. Oh, and there’s a boy in a frog suit that has given me a special, magical area, almost like Bastion‘s Bastion, to grow plants, craft ammo, and create talent upgrades for my team, and it’s where I have been hanging my hat the most, as the actual towns in Earthlock: Festival of Magic are not many, nor are they all that interesting to explore.

This is very much a throwback to the adventure RPGs of the late 1990s with a heavy focus on turn-based combat and character progression, such as Chrono Cross and Tales of Phantasia. I’m going to dig into the combat first. Speaking of first, enemies are always present on the field, and you can gain the advantage of attacking first if you press “A” before the enemy runs into the party. I don’t know if I’ve missed this chance once yet. It’s probably hard to miss. As previously mentioned, combat is turn-based, with a list of turn order on the far right of the screen. Each character has different stances, which determines what attacks they can do, such as ranged or up-close melee or dancing between support spells and attack magic. For instance, Alon, the protagonist–or, at least, my assumption is he is, though you can switch to play any other character if you want–can either get intimate with a knife or use a gun to attack from a distance. Switching stances costs a turn, which I personally think sucks, and so I’ve been sticking to one stance per character for most of the fights unless the scenario obviously calls for a change.

Upgrading each character reminded me of how it worked in Final Fantasy XII with the License Board, which consisted of a tiled board with hundreds of squares. Each square represented an ability, spell, equipment piece, or augment, and these could be unlocked after earning LP. Here, in Earthlock: Festival of Magic, you have a similar board for each character, with some predetermined abilities (passive and active) locked in place. As you level up, you’ll earn Talent Points (TP–hee hee), and you can build each character’s skill tree as you wish using a mix of talents to boost stats like strength, defense, accuracy, magic, and so on. Defeating bosses gets you access to special tiles that do things like help reduce the time it takes to switch stances or even see hidden ghosts on the field. I really like this system as it does offer a lot of control and personalizing for each character. Also, you can pair each party member with another to grow a stronger bond between the two to unlock more stat upgrades and abilities. Phew. There’s actually quite a lot going on with the combat, though to be fair, it doesn’t go much deeper than this, and the secret to beating tough bosses like GobKing and Mushriga is simply grinding.

In terms of graphics, I’m conflicted when it comes to Earthlock: Festival of Magic. Everything is cartoony and colorful, with a looseness that is both stylish and on purpose, reminiscent of Broken Age and Tales of the Abyss, which I’m all about. In fact, its look, from the few screens I saw of it and not knowing much else about the title, was enough to get me to install it. Unfortunately, the overworld map is severely dull and bland, and by that I mean it is lacking textures for the ground you are running on, which makes it feel unfinished. I also think some more love and pizzazz could have gone into the location titles (see Final Fantasy IX for inspiration). Sound is a different subject, and the soundtrack is quite good, a mix of upbeat, battle-appropriate tunes and relaxing notes for watching plants grow, though I did notice a lot of effect noises missing during a few battle sequences. See, conflicted.

Earthlock: Festival of Magic is an indie RPG with dreams of being big. Extremely big. You can see what it wants to be by noticing where it is lacking. For instance, there’s not a lot to discover in this fantasy world, other than a hidden treasure chest or two. Towns are tiny and only hold a limited number of people/things to interact with, and the interactions are slight at best. The story seems to have fun, unique characters, but no one is really standing out currently as somebody to champ for, except maybe the hogbunny Gnart. I plan to finish it and hopefully pop every Achievement–most of which are labeled rare because not many people are playing–but thankfully this RPG is only as big as Costume Quest 2 and Dragon Fantasy…and not Dragon Age: Inquisition, which might not ever end at the pace I nibble on it. As always, that’s a different post.

2016 Game Review Haiku, #50 – Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments

2016 gd games completed Sherlock Holmes Crimes and Punishments loading

Six cases to solve
Here comes detective Sherlock
Can’t clear up loading

Here we go again. Another year of me attempting to produce quality Japanese poetry about the videogames I complete in three syllable-based phases of 5, 7, and 5. I hope you never tire of this because, as far as I can see into the murky darkness–and leap year–that is 2016, I’ll never tire of it either. Perhaps this’ll be the year I finally cross the one hundred mark. Buckle up–it’s sure to be a bumpy ride. Yoi ryokō o.

Forget pirating, there’s shanties to chase in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassins Creed IV Black Flag gd early impressions

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was given out to Xbox 360 players for free as part of the Games with Gold program back in…oh my, late April 2015. For some reason, I thought it had been sitting in my digital library for longer than that. At some point, it was also given out to peeps on the Xbox One, but I didn’t have the console yet and wasn’t smart enough then to know that I could still click download and tie it to my account for future use, which means I’m stuck playing the previous generation version. It is serviceable, though I’m sure facial expressions are a bit more lifelike on the newer consoles.

A reminder for any new readers here at Grinding Down on my history with the Assassin’s Creed series, which I enjoy from a somewhat casual perspective. Once I’m into one, I’m into it, unable to not climb to every rooftop and take care of each icon on the map until all that is left is a clutter-less picture. I got into the series like many did at the start, finding the first Assassin’s Creed impressive, but repetitive. Then, for some reason, I next played Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and absolutely loved it, both the single player campaign and the multiplayer, which is an aspect of gaming I generally steer clear of. Last year, I went back and played Assassin’s Creed II, which helped to make more sense of story details in Brotherhood though that’s on me for playing them out of order. And now here we are, skipping Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and Assassin’s Creed III to do some hardcore pirating. Fine by me.

Black Flag‘s main story is set in the 18th century Caribbean during the golden age of piracy, people being smarmy, and lots of ships sailing to and fro. The plot follows notorious pirate Edward Kenway, the grandfather and father of Assassin’s Creed III protagonists Ratonhnhaké:ton and Haytham Kenway, respectively, who stumbles into the conflict between assassins and Templars after he is shipwrecked. In the present day scenario, you are a new employee working at the Montreal offices of Abstergo Entertainment—a subsidiary of Abstergo Industries—exploring its cubicles, eavesdropping on conversations, and hacking computers to uncover secrets about the sinister company. To be honest, I don’t care a lick about the storyline so far, in both realms; thankfully, the gameplay provides plenty to draw enjoyment from, and never demands you get on with the ruddy campaign.

In terms of gameplay, there’s all the usual elements from previous Assassin’s Creed games here: climbing, stealth assassinating, syncing, looting, running, hiring groups of people to hide among, trailing guards, and so on. The new stuff is mostly ocean-bound, with Kenway able to sail a ship, plunder and loot other ships, and explore numerous islands on the map that may house treasure and other goodies, like rare animals to murder for your fancy pouches and outfits. By far, my favorite advancement in this series is that everything is now available on your map after syncing a high view point, and then you can spend the next hour or so collecting each and every thing before moving on to do the actual story mission. Or collecting more from another synced view point. There’s little hand-holding, with the game treating you as an actual, capable adult–these decisions are yours to make. Plus, to catch shanties for your pirate crew to sing while sailing the ocean blue, you have to chase them down in the environment, which is way more fun than simply chasing a dude down in a race or for a few coins.

Still, it’s another Assassin’s Creed game from Ubisoft, and some stuff never changes. Like having your character leap from a building’s rooftop and lose half his health when really you meant for him to move a little to the left and travel along that rope tied to another rooftop. Also, and I want to do some more research into this, but the subtitles follow a strange style related to capitalization, where most words in a sentence are uppercase, but not all of them. Like so: “Avast, Kenway! Do you have Time to Make your crew a Large Plate of Scrambled eggs? We are Totes Hungry.” I don’t know, it’s very strange and hard to not notice since I enjoy reading words. Missions where you trail dudes and have to maintain a specific distance with them, but not be spotted return, though at least you can rate them one star at the end through Abstergo’s feedback forms. I still think combat is fairly button mashy and annoying, which is why I try to go for the stealth kills if I can.

The stats screen at the start says I’ve completed 15% of Black Flag so far, and in terms of story, I’m somewhere in sequence 3. That’s fine. I’m in no rush, especially when there are so many glyphs, treasure chests, and shanties to grab, as well as assassination targets and pirates to rescue and kitty cats to pet. Did I not yet mention you can press a button to pet a cat as it moves between your legs? And that it purrs affectionately? The best Assassin’s Creed game yet.

The Raven’s old-fashioned mystery is not enough to captivate

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The truth is this–it is way easier to write about a bad game than a good game. Also, much more fun. Gushing over fantastic gameplay mechanics or a clever story is all well and good, but nothing makes the eyes dilate or lips quiver like venomous prose, the kind that pins its prey to the wall and tortures it into unconsciousness. See, already enjoying this opening paragraph greatly.

Which brings us to The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief. Well, at least the first episode (of three), developed by KING Art and published by Nordic Games Publishing, which stars Constable Anton Jakob Zellner, a soft-spoken but determined man of the Swiss police force, as he solves the mystery of The Raven, an art burglar who has stolen one of the legendary “Eyes of the Sphinx” from a British museum in London in 1964. It’s a point-and-click adventure game, though the version I played was on a console–specifically the Xbox 360–which means it is more accurately described as a control-a-character-and-move-around adventure game since there is no cursor for pointing.

The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief‘s story is middling at best. I will give the game credit for presenting us with a non-typical protagonist; in an industry built upon the burly shoulders of rugged, frowny face men wielding shotguns, Zellner comes across as a for-hire mall Santa Claus during the off-season. He’s soft-spoken, observant, and always up for a conversation. Later on, when aboard a cruise ship, it appears that he is cosplaying as the leader of a local bowling team. There are moments that I’m sure the developers would like to think of as “twists,” but they can be seen coming from a good distance away, and this first episode ends on the reveal of a character that clearly didn’t try to hide their true identity along the way.

To move the story forward, you must solve puzzles, all of which are grounded in logic and reality. They are not hard, save for a few instances where the developers try to mix things up, like introducing a one-off lockpicking puzzle or a game of shuffleboard. Truthfully, the most difficult part of solving these puzzles is finding the required items, as controlling Zellner is about as graceful as maneuvering a drunk tree. If I was playing on a PC, one could simply navigate the cursor over the desired item and click on it to have Zeller investigate; here, instead, one must walk him, using everyone’s favorite tank control scheme, over to the item, which is not as simple as it sounds. Actually, once he is close enough, the item will highlight itself with a button prompt, but only if Zellner is looking in its general direction. Something else to remember is that examining an item more than once will provide further details and clues.

Now let me tell you about the most frustrating part of Episode One for The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief. It’s around the middle, right after, spoiler, something causes the train everyone is on to crash. This plunges the game into chaos and darkness, with your first goal being to make a torch of some sort. That way you can see who needs help and what to do next. That’s all well and good, but the game, at this point, becomes so dark it is nearly impossible to tell where Zellner is walking and what items are around him. Eventually, I blasted the brightness on my television screen to full in order to see what was where, which just made everything seem extra ridiculous.

There are also a huge number of technical issues throughout, ranging from audio clipping, silly path navigation, and way too lengthy loading screens, which become a huge hassle during the third act. There, you can visit a number of screens and must do to backtracking, but going from one to another requires a long load–each and every time. The graphics certainly seem at home for an early Xbox 360 game except until one realizes this came out in 2013. Also, the dang thing froze on me once when I tried to pull up my inventory immediately after some dialogue tree. Lastly, there is an entire hint/score system that is never introduced or explained, but there none the less, like some strange afterthought.

Unfortunately, while this first episode of The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief was a Games With Gold freebie, I won’t be spending any money on the additional two episodes. Not even the crazy quick cliffhanger ending got me by the wallet. If anything, I may watch them on YouTube to see how things unfolded story-wise, but I don’t expect the gameplay or puzzles to change wildly, which is where the game truly lost me. Oh well. At least deleting this off my Xbox 360’s hard-drive won’t be as difficult as getting Zellner to talk to the suspicious man with the newspaper and not head outside the door next to him.