Tag Archives: science fiction

2017 Game Review Haiku, #89 – Haven: The Small World, “Episode 1”

Oxygen is low
Reduce the population
Survive through edits

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.

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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?

Having a baby in Cayne’s universe is a real life-changer

gd-cayne-impressions-02

I’m a big fan of free, standalone tie-in experiences, not simply because they are free. Some examples that instantly come to mind are Lost Constellation and Longest Night for the quickly upcoming Night in the Woods, the demo for Bravely Default, which contained a side-quest not available in the full release, and the Spore Creature Creator for, well, Spore. These snippets and slices offer a chance to see what the big deal is while simultaneously providing an experience not fully found in the main game. All that setup leads us to Cayne, which is an ultra-dark journey through the dystopian world of Stasis from The Brotherhood, in preparation for the studio’s next project called Beautiful Desolation.

Here’s what I know about Cayne, and, no, I haven’t yet played Stasis though that may likely change. It begins with Hadley, a mother-to-be, waking up in a strange medical facility. Unfortunately for her, this wasn’t a routine procedure and something is severely amiss. She manages to escape the operating table before her baby can be ripped from her body, only to make things worse, causing a massive, floor-destroying explosion. Now on her own, she’ll have to explore her surroundings and find out why these people were after her child, as well as make her getaway. One big problem: there’s a deadly monster-thing-with-claws called Samantha guarding the elevator.

Obviously, Cayne has style. Or, as Jeff Gerstmann likes to say, styyyyyle. It’s drawing heavily from things like Alien, as well as sci-fi short stories from decades ago, the kind that present really large ideas in tight spaces and like to pull the rug out from under you with a big twist at the end. I’m thinking of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison and “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick and other similar tales. As you explore the Cayne facility, you’ll gain access to PDAs, computer logs, and other characters, which offer some insights into what is happening while also keeping mum about the true motives of the company. Seems like they are into growing babies, but I never understood why and for what purpose by the end, though the ending does hint that this is a major operation, not some one-off experiment. Also, a lot of the people you meet–both living and dead–are real pieces of scum, so there’s that too.

All of this style is backed up and emphasized on through great voice acting and subtle yet effective audio tones. Hadley comes across as, I hope and assume, many of us would if we woke up in a similar situation. I like that her nervousness results in badly-timed jokes. That’s something I do too. Shortly into Cayne, Hadley “meets” a man. I say “meets” because it is more that she begins to hear a voice, and her dialogue with this person makes up a large chunk of the game, revealing many tidbits and insight into these characters. Also, the FMV sequences are pretty stellar, far more cinematic than I expected.

Something Cayne does well is minimize the amount of things you need to click on by providing descriptions of everything in text off to the side when the mouse cursor is hovered over key items in a scene. Normally, you’d click on it to get this kind of information, but now you can move through the descriptions at your own pace. I like this. The cursor also changes when over something that can be interacted with, which helps. That’s not to say the puzzles are a cakewalk; in fact, many of them are quite tricky, and I won’t deny that I ended up using a guide to figure out the ID number for the Grub Habitat, as well as how to manipulate the server platform and blow up the power generator. Other puzzles were easy to figure out, though I ended up taking a good chunk of notes just in case.

Cayne‘s biggest and most glaring fault is that…like many point-and-click adventure games, there’s a lot of backtracking involved. Generally, that’s fine. That’s part of the genre. However, a lot of games have got with the times and allowed for quicker hopping to and fro, whether through a map of locations (like in Read Only Memories) or by letting the player double-click on the exit areas to jump ahead. Cayne does not do this. Throw in the fact that our protagonist is a very pregnant woman with no shoes running around a facility with fire, broken glass, and gross puddles of ooze everywhere–well, moving through the Cayne facility is a slow burn. Real slow. I found this pace to be extremely frustrating as I was deciphering puzzles, knowing that I’d have to travel across three to four rooms just to find a piece of information and then return with my solution. It’s never a good sign when I begin reaching for my phone to kill time when moving from room to room.

Thanks to Cayne, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on The Brotherhood and what’s next from the studio. I’m not one hundred percent in love with their gameplay mechanics and UI, but those things aren’t deal-breakers when it comes to a powerful story, believable characters in peril or up to no good, and audio design that can set your teeth on edge. You can grab a free copy of the game seemingly just about everywhere on the Internet; I played mine on Steam for those silent, delicious Achievements.

The future is full of cyborg diseases and neon adverts in Among Thorns

gd final impressions among thorns screenshot 01

I am weak to small games with big ambition. Like Limbo, which was a perfunctory action-puzzle platformer that attempted to tell a story of loss and uncertainty with next to no words. Or Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, what with its exploration based around different phases of the actual moon. I think we can add Among Thorns to this mental list of mine. It reminds me a bit of A Landlord’s Dream, which also came from the AGS community and was brimming with grand ideas, littered with the kind of far-reaching sci-fi concepts that flesh out a futuristic world to make it feel livable instantly. However, Matt Frith’s pixel art here is a whole lot less grainy, having that clean, sterile feel to it that can only be attained in an era of synthetic body upgrades, and the puzzles are not as obtuse.

Among Thorns was created specifically for MAGS, which is a monthly competition for all amateur adventure game makers, last month. January 2016 for those that can’t figure it out. I think voting is still going on, though I have high hopes for it doing well among its competitors. The theme was Black Death, and Among Thorns certainly covers that aspect with its Necronite disease, which only seems to affect the people in this world that have begun to augment their bodies.

Among Thorns‘ driving force is slight, but gets things going right away. You almost don’t have time to finish your noodle cup before the plot starts popping in. Anyways, you play as a young woman named Cora who ends up taking a shady job from her boss Lentii to investigate a dude named Cordell Jann, as he may or may not have a cure for Necronite. Yup, that sentenced contained a lot of science fiction-appropriate names. Now, getting to Jann’s apartment is no hop and skip over, and most of the game involves puzzling your way past roadblocks, like the cops. Once you’re inside Jann’s place, there’s more to do and discover, but I won’t spoil any of that here.

Gameplay doesn’t try to do anything wild and crazily unorthodox for the point-and-click adventuring genre. You have an inventory on the left side of the screen, can collect items, converse with people and things, and solve puzzles logically, using your brain and whatever is in your pockets. That’s fine. It’s a short little game, and, for me, this was all about seeing what was next. The more neon signs my eyes could eat up, the better. I mean, we all love Blade Runner, right? This is very much Blade Runner-inspired. There’s a small amount of pixel hunting to do, and this task can be hard to accomplish when there is so much already on the screen to gawk at. I’m still always looking for that balance of easier to find things to interactive with versus actually playing detective screen to screen.

Though Cora does complete her job by the time credits roll, the story ends in a cliffhanger-esque fashion, leaving me hungry for more and wondering what happens next. Clearly, time was an issue, and this is more a prologue than complete project. Among Thorns is certainly capable of carrying a full-fledged story and campaign, and I’d love to learn more about Cora herself and why she prefers to live off the grid and what struggles that entails. Until then, I’ll probably check out some of Matt Frith’s other work over at the AGS community.