Tag Archives: horror

See what horrors The Doll Shop holds at your own risk

Naturally, I was drawn to The Doll Shop for its beautiful watercolor artwork and depiction of life in the Japanese countryside, not its focus on dolls. I’m not into dolls in general, but I’m really not into dolls that look like little children or come alive and are violent. Maybe I watched Child’s Play when I was too young or maybe I still can’t get that episode of The Twilight Zone out of my head where a ventriloquist’s doll is both alive and neglected, replaced by one called Goofy Goggles, and exacts revenge on his master by flipping their roles; that said, I’m perfectly fine with nesting dolls. Either way, they aren’t for me, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t for others. Such as the main protagonist in The Doll Shop, a young man in his twenty-somethings that repairs dolls for a living, though I don’t think we ever learn his name…

The Doll Shop comes from Atelier Sentô, which is a French duo, specifically Cécile Brun and Olivier Pichard. Their work is often based on their travels throughout Japan. This one is set in a small, desolate village during the winter. The village is still reeling from a girl disappearing weeks ago, but life goes on, especially for our leading lad, who is repairing broken dolls while also collecting butterflies in his shop’s back room. However, he is harboring a great and terrible secret, and when a childhood friend returns to the village and reconnects with him, he finds himself unable to not contain what he has done.

The game is a mix of horror, romance, and light puzzle solving. It’s both a point-and-click adventure and visual novel, and the game offers you several choices to make throughout your days in this cold, dark village. These will affect your ending, of which there are three to see, and you can also collect posters as you explore around. The only tedious part of The Doll Shop is when you have to constantly dip your paintbrush in the paint after each action you take to fix the doll, but that’s a minor complaint at best. Everything else is sublime and beautifully done, though I do wish there was more things to click on and get descriptions of, especially when it comes to things like bath-houses and shrines, which, as an American who has never really left the country, except to go to Canada, I do not have a lot of experience with.

The graphics for The Doll Shop were hand-painted with watercolors by twenty-three students over three days in January 2018 during a workshop at the ECV art school in Bordeaux, France. Each student selected a part of the background, such as a tree, house, or mountain, and drew a sketch of it on paper. Next, they used a light pad and an 8B pencil to copy it on to watercolor paper. After that, the drawings were painted with watercolors. Finally, all the drawings were scanned, cut out on Photoshop, and incorporated into the game, which was made in Unity with the Adventure Creator add-on. The results are simply stunning, both in motion and as simple stills; I personally loved the look of all the buildings as I explored the village while the snowfall changed from light to heavy and back to light, all backed by a wonderfully quiet yet atmospheric soundtrack.

Anyways, just like with every Metal Gear Solid game, you get a progress screen at the end to tell you how you did and what is left to uncover. If I was to make up a title based on my work, I’d say I earned Gossamer-winged Butterfly. Right. Moving on, my results after the first playthrough of The Doll Shop are as follows:

I don’t plan to replay The Doll Shop. My story is my story, and those choices I made are locked in place. Ending B is all she wrote. I tried to play the main protagonist as a broken man breaking down, desperate for help, but sometimes unable to speak the words. He did terrible things and is terribly troubled, and soon everyone will know. I hope he gets help, and I mourn for those in mourning, now burdened with extra trauma. Yet another doll story to forever stay in my mind and haunt me for years to come. Thanks, Atelier Sentô.

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Paul’s Preeminent PlayStation Plus Purge – Master Reboot

Master Reboot is a cool name for a game I don’t understand. At least it isn’t ReBoot, a Canadian CGI-animated action-adventure television series that originally aired from 1994 to 2001…of which, I saw several episodes. For funsies, you should check out the intro and feel special knowing that you are witnessing the world’s first completely computer-animated TV series. A true piece of animation history. Too bad it kind of stunk.

What Master Reboot actually is…well, it’s not exactly spelled out from the get-go. I think it is an adventure game, heavy on exploration and puzzle solving, with a bit of spookiness thrown in to keep you on your polygonal feet. It takes place inside the Soul Cloud, which is a giant server that holds the data of your soul and memories when you die. The Soul Cloud is brimming floating islands, and each island looks like a town, village, or city filled with rooms, skyscrapers, and houses that hold people’s memories. To house your soul, a family member (or you before you die, if you are prepared for it) must purchase an island on the Soul Cloud where the server will generate these spaces to hold each and every memory from the deceased’s past. There are, evidently, 34 unique environments to see, but I probably only saw one-fifth of them in the time I spent poking at Master Reboot.

The game has a look, and I’d call that look somewhat simplistic. Low-fi and low on details. On purpose. I’m perfectly fine with flat textures and few details–I loved it recently with Burly Men at Sea, as well as countless other games that went with the less-is-more route–but here I felt like there actually could have been more. A few more shades of detail to really drive home being in a certain place, like a school or child’s bedroom. Also, the game doesn’t even try to hide its invisible walls, them appearing as red-colored shield-walls when you venture too far away from the main path, like you are trapped under a highly technical dome. I kept bumping into these walls, hoping to go somewhere else, but alas, nope, nope, nope. It was a bit jarring.

That aside, because I do think the story is somewhat neat and don’t mind the occasional jump scare, my biggest problem with Master Reboot has to do with its puzzles. More often than not, they truly tried my nerves, as in the case of a memory that forced me to drive into oncoming traffic or one that made me recreate an image from memory when I hadn’t seen the parent image in a half hour or more. Completing these usually yielded some insight into the world’s mythology or the protagonist’s identity, but they were mostly obtuse obstacles to keep answers at bay. The game definitely doesn’t hold your hand, and it’s up to you to figure out what you are supposed to evidently do; yes, I’m looking at you, puzzle that had me rotating tiles to form three distinct pictures.

I gave up on Master Reboot after solving the puzzles in the park playground level, of which I had to look up a couple solutions for. After this is over, you have to use jump pads to leap from one sinking platform to another. Please don’t ask me why. If you aren’t quick enough, you drown and get a screen full of code, forced to try again. I tried three times and said, “No more.” The controls are built for a slow-moving game about exploring a small environment, in search of puzzle items or tiny blue ducks that act as the game’s collectibles. It’s not meant for moving quickly from one area to another. Ultimately, it’s not meant for me to keep playing.

Oh look, another reoccurring feature for Grinding Down. At least this one has both a purpose and an end goal–to rid myself of my digital collection of PlayStation Plus “freebies” as I look to discontinue the service soon. I got my PlayStation 3 back in January 2013 and have since been downloading just about every game offered up to me monthly thanks to the service’s subscription, but let’s be honest. Many of these games aren’t great, and the PlayStation 3 is long past its time in the limelight for stronger choices. So I’m gonna play ’em, uninstall ’em. Join me on this grand endeavor.

Return home to familial strangeness with Azurael’s Circle: Chapter 1

I am one of those people that grew up in the ’90s reading those various More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books by Alvin Schwartz, and, yes, I was extremely disappointed when they got reissued with all new art, illustrations that did not immediately make your blood run cold and stay with you for years on end. One of my favorite short stories from these horror collections–favorite is actually a weird choice here, but I think you get what I mean–was “Harold,” which is mostly about two farmers mistreating their scarecrow and then getting their just desserts. Both the story and Stephen Gammell’s intro art for it have never left me, and I mention all this only because Azurael’s Circle: Chapter 1 features a scarecrow up to no good. Alas, it’s not as terrifying.

Azurael’s Circle: Chapter 1 is a horror-mystery, point-and-click adventure game where you must find the truth about your mother’s death. It’s free on Steam…well, this first chapter is, and it should only take you about a half hour to get through it. The police came to the conclusion that Helen Lancaster’s suicide, where she gutted herself with a kitchen knife, was due to the grief of losing her husband. However, her son, Clint Lancaster, doesn’t believe a woman as deeply religious as her mother would do such a thing and plans to investigate. As you further explore your childhood farmhouse, you’ll discover that nothing is as it seems; in fact, things are getting stranger by the minute.

Gameplay is fairly simple. You can use a mouse to click everything or use a controller…though I stuck with the keyboard mostly. Like, the up, down, left, right arrows and the enter key; I’m a relic. Item use and item combination is all automatic, which some people may like, but it results in a lot less thinking when it comes to solving puzzles. Oh, this cabinet door is stuck? I’ll just immediately use this cane from my dead grandfather to prop it open. No, no, don’t worry, I got this for you. I really didn’t want you to have to try out all the other items on it first. Again, it’s fine, if a little dumbed down. Also, a couple of items are tricky to spot, so there is a small amount of pixel hunting to deal with. Other than that, you are mostly exploring different rooms in the farmhouse and watching them change as you go, with your true goal being getting into the cellar.

Over the years, I’ve grown to dislike a many RPGMaker-made games. They all contain a similar look and menu UI, and, at first, I thought it was really neat and awesome, but I’ve grown tired of seeing the same pixel art and character portraits and start screens. It seems like the “new releases” tab on Steam, on any given day, contains at least one or two creations like this. I don’t know if Azurael’s Circle: Chapter 1 was made with RPGMaker, but it feels like it; that said, it has a better design to it, and I do like the small circle of light around Clint, which does obfuscate parts of the room you are exploring, leaving room for scares and surprises. The writing, while a little rote in places, does a good job of leading you along, revealing enough dribs and drabs about Clint’s parents for you to fill in the rest with your imagination.

According to the Steam page description, there are three endings to discover. I’m not sure if that is meant for Chapter 1 only or the series as a whole. Not exactly sure how different of an ending I could have conceived as I felt like I found every item and solved all the puzzles, but maybe there was something I missed. Oh well. Honestly, I would have preferred not to see the [redacted] at the end, but that’s me, an animal lover. Looks like Chapter 2 is available now, with more chapters to go down the road, but this didn’t draw me in enough to have me foaming at the mouth for more. I’ll leave Azurael’s Circle forever closed.

2018 Game Review Haiku, #29 – Umfend

An experiment
Creates echoes from the past
Work harder, smarter

For 2018, I’m mixing things up by fusing my marvelous artwork and even more amazing skills at writing videogame-themed haikus to give you…a piece of artwork followed by a haiku. I know, it’s crazy. Here’s hoping you like at least one aspect or even both, and I’m curious to see if my drawing style changes at all over three hundred and sixty-five days (no leap year until 2020, kids). Okay, another year of 5–7–5 syllable counts is officially a go.

2018 Game Review Haiku, #26 – Late Night Wanderer

A late night walk home
The paranoia sets in
Dead phone battery

For 2018, I’m mixing things up by fusing my marvelous artwork and even more amazing skills at writing videogame-themed haikus to give you…a piece of artwork followed by a haiku. I know, it’s crazy. Here’s hoping you like at least one aspect or even both, and I’m curious to see if my drawing style changes at all over three hundred and sixty-five days (no leap year until 2020, kids). Okay, another year of 5–7–5 syllable counts is officially a go.

Paul’s Preeminent PlayStation Plus Purge – Lone Survivor

I’d never survive in an actual post-apocalyptic universe. That’s just the harsh truth, one that I’ve come to terms with long ago. There’d be mutated monsters stalking the streets, high levels of radiation eating away at our health, and my bone-dry skeleton curled up inside a bathtub because I couldn’t even bother to try to scavenge for food and water and decided that lying down and closing my eyes for forever was the easier path. Also, if the monsters are even the teeniest bit speedy, I’ll never make it due to…well, cardio.

And that brings us to the ever-so-cheery and delightful Lone Survivor from Jasper Byrne, which is a post-apocalyptic survival horror game with retro-styled 2D graphics and a somber-yet-sick-as-all-gets soundtrack. Please note that Jasper Byrne also contributed to Hotline Miami‘s soundtrack. Well, in this disease-ridden world, the player controls a nameless man-boy, who wears a medical mask, and…well, I don’t honestly know what this person’s true journey is, his desires. He may very well only be following directions provided to him via apparent hallucinations, telling him to go check out this room or that room or use violence to take out the monsters. For me, the clear and only goal was to survive, and exploring the spooky, grimy apartment building you are currently stuck in will reveal a staggering amount of special items, weapons, door keys, pills, notes, and a bunch of different types of food to help in this endeavor.

Lone Survivor is kind of like a point-and-click adventure game, but you also have a pistol and can blast monsters with bullets until they stop moving while trying to keep your hunger, thirst, and sanity meters in check, sleeping now and then too. Still, many of the items you find can be used on other items to solve a specific logic-based puzzle; for instance, early on, you find a pair of scissors and, later, when your passage is blocked by a bulging mass of flesh, you know exactly how to use them. You can also combine items together and even cook food for better results. Otherwise, you’re exploring the nearby hallways and rooms, hiding from or killing monsters, while trying to piece together what is happening and maybe looking for a way out. Your apartment, which has a bed, radio, and stove, acts as a mini-hub, which you can return to using magical mirrors and save your progress.

Silent Hill 2‘s influence here is clear. For one, there’s a man you meet in your dreams with a cardboard box on his head that will probably get you thinking about other men with oddly-shaped heads. Similar to James Sunderland’s quest to find his wife, you are running around a spooky apartment building brimming with locked doors, where things aren’t always what they seem to be. Also, there’s a terrible map system here, just like in Silent Hill 2, and I found myself getting lost constantly, unsure of where to actually go for main and side quest purposes. I’d rather have a blank map that allowed me to annotate it myself than try to parse someone else’s notes on it. Lastly, the shooting is almost purposefully clunky, which means you have to decide early on if you want to waste ammo or use chunks of rotting meat to distract monsters.

Evidently, your interactions with the game’s world and inhabitants result in different endings upon completion of Lone Survivor. Immediately, this stressed me out. I mean, it’s not like this is competing with Chrono Trigger or NieR: Automata in terms of number of endings, but still, now I’m over-thinking every choice I make, like whether or not I should take the green pill before bed because I desperately need batteries to proceed but this might affect the ending I get. Gaah. Given that a single playthrough takes around four to six hours to see credits roll, I most likely will only ever see one ending for this game, and it won’t be any time soon as I’ve already uninstalled it from my PlayStation 3, giving up after an hour or two of meandering back and forth, growing hungrier and more insane by the minute, not sure of why I have these items in my inventory or their ultimate purpose or how to even cook food.

Thankfully, if I ever do want to give Lone Survivor another mighty swing of the horror stick, I have a second copy on Steam, ready to go. Or I could return to Soul Brother, one of Byrne’s earlier projects, and a lighter one at that, if my goal is to feel enlightened instead of devoured.

Oh look, another reoccurring feature for Grinding Down. At least this one has both a purpose and an end goal–to rid myself of my digital collection of PlayStation Plus “freebies” as I look to discontinue the service soon. I got my PlayStation 3 back in January 2013 and have since been downloading just about every game offered up to me monthly thanks to the service’s subscription, but let’s be honest. Many of these games aren’t great, and the PlayStation 3 is long past its time in the limelight for stronger choices. So I’m gonna play ’em, uninstall ’em. Join me on this grand endeavor.

Je ne comprends pas The City of Lost Children, d’accord

There were two big events in my childhood/teenhood that caused me to stay home from school for several days and recover in bed or on the living room couch with lots of tea, buttered white toast, and TV sitcom marathons. Also videogames on the television, all on my SNES or PlayStation 1 with the kewl PSM lid cover, but I did eat up nearly an entire run of Gilligan’s Island at some point too though perhaps that was just a highly visual fever dream. My favorite character is Mary Ann, by the way, and the episode most firmly cemented in my brain revolved around a method actor visiting the island and pretending to be a Tarzan-like jungle lord. Shrugs.

Right, back to the stay-at-home events. One had to do with me getting my wisdom teeth removed, and the other was related to an injury to my left knee that required surgery, pain killers crushed up in applesauce, and physical therapy. Both were not fun and had me in various states of wooziness, and I don’t remember exactly which event it was, but for one of them, my mother let me rent a bunch of games for the PlayStation to keep me entertained. Me thinks it was for the wisdom teeth removal, since I knew when that was happening and wanted some guaranteed pleasures during the downtime.

Well, I selected three PlayStation 1 games from our local store that rented games (not a Blockbuster, sorry), all on their box art alone–Destruction Derby, The City of Lost Children, and Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror. I mean, look at how cool these covers are:

Er, maybe not. Well, I thought they were killer then.

Of these, I remember enjoying Destruction Derby a lot, not understanding how a point-and-click adventure game worked in Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror, especially using a controller, and being completed dumbfounded by The City of Lost Children, which, if you didn’t already know, is an adaptation of the 1995 movie of the same name by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Also, if you’re not familiar with the film, you have no chance of understanding what’s going on in this game–trust me on this. The introductory cutscene doesn’t really explain anything, not even introducing you to the character you will be playing as for the entire game. Thankfully, the manual offers a brief summary of the plot, but even that is not much to work from.

I’ll do my best here. The City of Lost Children takes place in a nameless, steampunk-inspired city by the seaside. A less-than-good scientist, most likely evil, has his henchmen kidnap children in order to steal their dreams to prevent the process of his premature aging. Y’know, normal kidnapping reasons. Anyways, the opening cutscene shows one of these children getting kidnapped, and that’s really all the information the game gives you before giving you control over 12-year-old Miette, which means “crumb” in French. You start inside a classroom, with a pair of Siamese sisters at the front telling you to go steal money from some hut because they said so.

Little to my teenage knowledge, this was an adventure game. Not exactly a point and click one, but still one where you walked around, gathered items, and made progress by using those items on people or other items to make things happen. Like a Metroidvania, but with less action involved. Considering it would still be many, many years before I would fall in love with the genre, I probably went into The City of Lost Children thinking it was in the same vein as things like Resident Evil or Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. Boy was I not at all right. Not one teeny tiny bit. I’d later come to have fun with Blazing Dragons and Discworld II: Mortality Bytes!, so this being an adventure game alone had nothing to do with my terrible time with it. That is a result of it being exceedingly obtuse and poorly designed.

A strong memory that stands out: Miette, saying “I can’t do anything” or “I can’t manage it,” every time you interact on something she can’t do anything with. Which was on a lot of items in that early portion of the game I banged my head against. Compound this with the sluggish, tank-like controls and sometimes odd camera angles that made it hard to see where something lead to another screen, and my rented time with the game was spent wandering around the first few areas aimlessly until I decided enough was enough and at least knew what to do with my vehicle in Destruction Derby–crash it. Which is a shame, because I thought The City of Lost Children looked stunning at the time, and, while the polygons are not as sharp as today’s standards, there’s still a strong, off-kilter aesthetic here from Psygnosis, the British developer that gave us gems like Colony Wars, G-Police, and, uh, Hexx: Heresy of the Wizard, that makes this one of the more unique-looking games from the generation.

Anyways, I’m sure someone has paid it forward and done a recorded playthrough of The City of Lost Children and put it up for free on the Internet for everyone to watch. Maybe one day I’ll even search it out. Until then, I hope you enjoyed this random trip down my memory lane.