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The Council Episode 3: Ripples Review

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If you have not read our review containing the previous episodes, it’s highly recommended as it’s not only referenced, but we may not discuss many of the mechanics present in previous episodes.  This was to prevent redundant comments and move directly into the changes in the current episode.  Eventually the link above will serve as the location for all episode reviews.  This review contains no spoilers.

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In many ways I consider the third episode of a five episode series to be the moment of truth.  It seems episodic titles are doomed to have weaker second episodes because of the natural arc of plot and character development, but typically you get a twist and/or climax in the third episode that redeems everything.  While The Council definitely follows this formula, it was disappointing to see that while the story takes some drastic new turns, what you actually play is the same old song and dance.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but it surely wasn’t yet another trip through the mansion followed by a huge dump of exposition and concluding in a long obtuse puzzle…again.  Regardless of those expectations, that’s exactly what I received, which has me weary of future episodes and frankly a bored in the current one.  I didn’t even play this episode a second time, there seemed to be no need.  If you’re not fully invested in the overall season before going into this episode, it’s probably best you stay away for now.

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Written by Fred Rojas

July 30, 2018 at 11:00 am

Unravel Two Review

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At E3 2015 a shy developer named Martin Sahlin walked onto the Electronic Arts (EA) stage and announced his passion project Unravel, developed by Coldwood Interactive. This would be the first game to be part of the “EA Originals” program, where EA helps fund small independent game projects and allows the developer to keep all the profits (after repaying the funding and also publishing/marketing budgets). Despite how you personally feel about EA as a company this is proof that sometimes there is heart even in a big corporation like EA. While the internet would take note of the developers nerves and fragile presentation for the time it felt real and it was clear Unravel meant a lot to Sahlin. In all honesty I would struggle to talk in front of a large audience even if it was about something you loved.

Unravel was a cute, puzzle-based platformer where you play a character made out of wire and yarn. The game had beautiful music that moved me in ways that I rarely experience in games. I guess it was made even more unique and special to me because the reception for Unravel wasn’t favourable across the board. My partner loved watching me play Unravel too. I loved Unravel so much that in preparation for my wedding in 2017, I decided to make 112 Yarny dolls myself in accordance with the number of guests attending (another game inspired decorations but that’s a tale for another day). We knew a sequel was on the way, EA had reported it had been successful, and the developers were already at work on it. My partner and I would theorize what the sequel would be like, with the biggest wish on the list being the inclusion of local co-op; this seemed to be the best evolution of the series. E3 2018 rolls around, Unravel Two gets announced, and both my wife and I leaped for joy. Then we leaped a second time because it was revealed the game was available on the day of announcement and includes co-op. I was so eager to purchase the game I refreshed the Xbox One store page six times as well as switching the console on and off again twice just so I could purchase and download it. I rarely get this excited for a game on launch.

Its taken me a while to get to the actual review of Unravel Two, but I felt the above paragraph was important as it discloses how much the original game meant to me and additionally how difficult it was to write the following review.

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Written by jamalais

July 5, 2018 at 11:00 am

Vampyr Review

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Being a vampire isn’t at all what I imagined. After falling victim to the embrace I awoke with all knowledge of who I had been in my past life.  In my previous life I was Dr. Jonathan Reid and my area of medical study was both in hematology (the study of blood) and trauma surgery.  I was a risk taker and had achieved renown and contempt for my tactics in transfusion.  This all assisted me in getting a job at the Pembroke Hospital, a London-based institution that has a reputation similar to my own, and attempt to help the people there. That’s right, I’m helping humans get medical attention and curing what ails them.  It is the year 1918 and the city is plagued by the aftermath of the Great War, which still wages on, and the Spanish Flu is taking more lives every day with increased effectiveness.  On top of all of this monsters roam about the streets at night, and not just vampires either.  In these times the relationships you establish are key, the politics of both the human and vampire world are always a consideration, and it’s fair to say something apocalyptic may be afoot.  This is Vampyr.

The newest game from studio Dontnod, known previously for Remember Me and Life is Strange, is going all in on the skills it has developed for in the past and combining them into an open world action RPG that leverages story to propel things forward.  Whereas quest givers and NPCs can be seen as somewhat throwaway or in the least dismissed after their vignettes, no one in Vampyr is forgotten after you meet them unless you will it so.  The beginning of the game will introduce you to nearly a dozen characters, each with their own story, background, thoughts, opinions, and connections to other characters.  Getting to know everyone is an arduous task that will surely make up the first two to three hours of your game, but fortunately all of the pertinent details you receive are kept organized and available to you in your notebook.  Unlike other vampire tales, every person you meet is key to the continuation of your story and will assist you at getting to your next goals, just not necessarily the way you might expect.  Along the way you will open up more districts to the point that your cast is roughly 40 characters that you should consistently manage the health, relationships, and well being should you need them in the future.  And trust me, you may need them in the future.

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Written by Fred Rojas

June 4, 2018 at 5:00 pm

The Council Episode 2: Hide and Seek Review

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If you have not read our review of Episode 1, it’s highly recommended as it’s not only referenced, but we do not discuss many of the mechanics present in both episodes.  This was to prevent redundant comments and move directly into the changes in Episode 2.  This review contains no spoilers from either episode.

It has been nearly two months since the premiere of The Council, which has now returned in its second episode Hide and Seek.  In my previous review I said that I was optimistic about the future of this new interactive fiction, but sadly I have to report that this sophomoric effort has me wavering.  The initial episode bombarded you with plot, characters, and mechanics that both fascinated and daunted.  This is to be expected, it’s an introduction, but sadly this episode doesn’t even make good on some of the concepts introduced in the first.  That’s not to say the core design is absent, just that it feels like a padded experience relying far too much on the ebb and flow of your build and points than with an intriguing plot or well thought out puzzles.  I also didn’t like that this chapter leans heavily on classic adventure game mechanics, a genre I personally despise due to your need to basically read the developers mind, and was mostly absent from The Mad Ones (episode 1).  Probably my biggest concern coming into Hide and Seek is that almost none of my decisions from The Mad Ones seemed to have much of an effect.

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Written by Fred Rojas

May 15, 2018 at 11:00 am

Video: Let’s Compare Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic

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Thanks to the backward compatibility program on Xbox One, you can now play Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) in 1080p on the Xbox One and 4K on the Xbox One X. In this video we compare the resolution and performance of the original Xbox version, the Xbox 360 emulated version, both Xbox One versions, and finally the PC (with an without mods). This video is mastered in 4K at 60 fps, so if you have a screen that supports it we highly recommend viewing on that.

Written by Fred Rojas

April 27, 2018 at 11:00 am

Extinction Review

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Right now video games are in an interesting shift. Multiplayer titles are coming under more scrutiny, so simply throwing a bunch of people into an online situation without a solid gameplay foundation will likely fail. Single player experiences have an even larger problem in that the high price point of a game requires these titles to be a difficult balance of length, story depth, and mechanics. Then along comes a game like Extinction, a mechanics-heavy single player action game that mainly focuses on taking down massive ogres called Ravenii that are trying to destroy your kingdom. Gameplay is king and the goal is to get you so enthralled in mastering the task at hand that you are compelled to return on a regular basis. If this is starting to sound similar to various mobile titles that have hooked us all over the years, it’s because the same concept is employed here. Whether or not that’s substantial enough to justify a full priced game is definitely going to be in the eyes of the beholder.

Comparisons will surely be made between Extinction and Attack on Titan, especially considering the way you take down massive enemies is essentially the same.  You will target various limbs, removing any armor present first, and eventually fill up a gauge that allows you to decapitate a Ravenii.  Beyond that the comparison doesn’t really hold up because Attack on Titan was all about a catapult mechanic that was the central focus in movement as well as attacking the large titans.  In Extinction you are given more of a puzzle that requires you to juggle outside factors during your battle.  There are minor enemies on the ground that can be dispatched, citizens that can be saved, and a town that you must try to keep intact all while keeping the one, or multiple, Ravenii at bay.  This is in addition to the different ways in which to combat the armor they wear, some of which is very straightforward to destroy and others that I have yet to figure out.  Armor is one of my larger gripes about this game because it does such a great job at introducing you to many of the different types and then just throws the most difficult your way without so much as a hint of what to do.  The game is also kind enough to tell me what I’m doing wrong, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what I’m supposed to do right.  This isn’t a deal breaker – although I will concede I’m two missions away from completing the 50 mission campaign – but I really hate when a game gates your progress for arbitrary reasons.  Beyond that developer Iron Galaxy definitely employs the “keep it simple, stupid” mentality of streamlining both controls and the skill tree.  This was a welcome change of pace when compared to the over-complicated mechanics I experience in many games of late, especially the larger scale indie titles.  There’s not much more to the game beyond that, it’s an endless series of skirmishes between a talented warrior and a bunch of big ogres, but man is the combat so enjoyable that I keep coming back.

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Written by Fred Rojas

April 10, 2018 at 11:00 am

Posted in PC/Mac, PS4, Reviews, Xbox One

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The Council Review

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Episode 1: The Mad Ones

If I may be so bold, narrative fiction games have all lacked pretty heavily in the goals they are trying to achieve.  By narrative fiction I mean the pantheon of TellTale Titles (Walking Dead, Batman, etc.), Life is Strange, and even games that weave it into larger experiences such as Mass Effect.  These games all claim to remember your choices, note them, and use these items to essentially alter the story of the game as you play.  It is in this regard where I feel they all fail. The path never changes, the outcome is always the same, and for the most part the only thing that shifts are the characters involved, which are often just proxies for the ones intended in the cannon.  The only game that shook this was the now cult title Alpha Protocol, which was notorious for several delays, a system behind the scenes that was far too complicated, and a lukewarm reception from audiences and critics alike.  The Council, a new episodic title from freshman developer Big Bad Wolf hopes to buck that trend with a game that focuses heavily on investigation, personality, and decision-focused storylines.  If this first episode is an indication of the overall experience, the next evolution of narrative fiction may very well be upon us.

The story is also compelling for those, like me, who are also history buffs.  It takes place in 1793 and you play a Frenchman named Louis de Richet who is part of a secret society, the leader in France being his very own mother.  When she goes missing at a private island off the coast of England owned by the mysterious Lord Mortimer, Louis is called to come to the exclusive landmass.  When I say “exclusive” I do mean that in every way. You can only go there if invited and to call it posh is to devalue the extravagance of everything you see around you; it seems Lord Mortimer is wealthy beyond standards of any one country.  Whenever you deal with a person of such wealth, it stands to reason that notable individuals will also be drawn to them as well, which then leads to the number of true historical characters in The Council.  So far I’ve met George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte but there were hints at quite a few others, not to mention people you could include in spoilers.   The Council makes no qualms about the fact that all of the plots involving historical characters are fictional, but also throw out that the storylines are based on actual facts.  Others are also woven into the plot that I’m pretty sure are not actual figures of history such as Cardinal Giuseppe Piaggi, who works closely with the pope, and an English Duchess who has grown favor with the Crown.  It makes for a great cast of characters and dialogue connecting real history with fictional, making everything that much easier to believe.

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Written by Fred Rojas

March 19, 2018 at 12:00 pm

Unearthing Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy, Now on PC

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2003 was a fascinating time for video games.  Playstation 2, Gamecube, and Xbox were all capable of running most third party games, the main differentiation being your platform of choice.  As a result, developers were getting more liberal with the offering of releases and it would be easy for certain titles to fall through the cracks, which is exactly what happened to Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy.  Despite being highly praised by enthusiast media, sales barely touched over half a million units across all platforms, which is a failure by any account. Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy was in impressive company – Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time just to name a few.  There were other greats that were criminally underappreciated such as Beyond Good & Evil telling me it was just a rough time to be an unknown franchise. Fast forward to 2017 where thanks to the embrace of HD remasters and the strength of a digital publishing platform, Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy is being given a new lease on life for the PC.  While I wasn’t sure how the adventure would hold up today, I was impressed with stunning new visuals and an unexpected time capsule of what game design was like two generations ago.

If you’ve never touched it before, Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy is a linear adventure where two protagonists explore dungeons, one fighting and one puzzle solving.  You’ll probably hear it compared to Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker by both contemporaries and reviews at the time.  I disagree personally and fall back on this title being compared due to incidental parallels and the fact that the two released within six months of one another.  The same thing happened when Prototype and inFamous were released around the same time, so unrelated titles sometimes get lumped together for better or worse. I won’t disregard the similarities: delving into dungeons, solving puzzles, and even the lack of voice acting instead of text, but some fundamentals of this title differ heavily from Nintendo’s franchise. For starters, you get to control the camera with the right stick allowing for a flexibility that was much more cumbersome in Zelda titles. Since the camera is free form there is also the removal of “Z-targeting” or the ability to lock on to a character you fight.  As a result the combat is loose and can be frustrating in the 3D environment, but I was able to easily tolerate it in Sands of Time and the same holds true here.  There are also two protagonists, one that can’t fight and instead solves puzzles (Tutenkhamen aka “The Cursed Mummy”), and one who is more of a fighter than a thinker (the demigod Sphinx).  The separation of gameplay in levels may be divisive, but at least you know what each section of the game expects from you.  Finally this game is linear progression as opposed to the massive open world of Wind Waker.

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Written by Fred Rojas

December 5, 2017 at 1:00 pm

Observer Review

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The cyberpunk genre gets tossed around a lot these days.  As with many video games, experiences can quickly devolve into power fantasies and before you know it you’re more Matrix than Blade Runner.  This is not my definition of cyberpunk.  It’s a darker concept with the emotionless merging of man and machine out of necessity, poverty, and corporate societal takeover.  It was built around the concepts of Orwell’s novel 1984, evolved by Gibson’s Neuromancer, and made whole by Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? among others.  I can understand why many don’t walk this path: games are supposed to be fun and cyberpunk is rather bleak and depressing.  That’s why it is so refreshing to play Observer and experience a game that really gets the roots of traditional cyberpunk.  It’s an internal struggle, a socioeconomic dissection, and a disturbing dive into the human subconscious.

Normally I don’t pitch trailers in a review, but the E3 2016 trailer was so compelling that I figured linking it would be beneficial as well as jog some peoples’ memories.  Observer places you in the shoes of Daniel Lazarski, who lives in Poland in the year 2084.  After a digital plague involving bad cybernetic enhancements, mega corp Chiron has taken control of Poland and created the Fifth Polish Republic. Both the plague and the new Republic brought about a class-based society, war, drug addiction, and of course oppressive martial law.  Lazarski is an “observer,” a special police unit that has the authority to hack into people’s minds and access memories in a device called, get this, the “Dream Eater.”  The game opens with Lazarski receiving a call from his estranged son seeking help and asking him to meet in one of the rougher parts of lower class living.

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Written by Fred Rojas

August 24, 2017 at 11:00 am

Night Trap: 25th Anniversary Edition Analysis

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Night Trap holds odd significance to those that grew up with it.  It basically ushered in so-called “Full Motion Video” (FMV) games and in the process managed to snag some controversy, which only escalated its popularity in the early 90s.  The game itself and the storied tale of its development and release have already been covered here on Gaming History 101, so feel free to check out that retrospective for more information on the original game.  Since then the game has achieved cult status and despite being notoriously bad, you can’t help but talk about it.  Then in 2014, the creators attempted a failed Kickstarter that led to a random developer showing the game running on a cell phone, and eventually led to that developer creating the one-man studio Screaming Villains along with a re-release of Night Trap in 2017.  By bringing Night Trap 25th Anniversary to the masses, I fear that it won’t connect with most players that didn’t appreciate it before and it brings up some heavy realities for fans.  If you’re going to take the plunge, either as a longtime fan or for the first time, you’d best prepare for some unfortunate caveats that extend beyond the concept of the original.

When Night Trap premiered it was trying to fit approximately 90 minutes of footage onto CDs and compressing it in a way the Sega CD can show off.  That means a small resolution (168×104) and a limited color palette, which were just a reality back then and no one thought much about it.  Over the years and ports the resolution and quality were expanded to 272×104 and pretty much resembled MPEG1 or VCD standard.  This is nothing compared to the massive 1920×1080 (1080p) resolution we’re currently accustomed to, not to mention 4K, which is four times 1080p. When you look at the cleaned up version of Night Trap 25th Anniversary Edition on trailers, it appears that the game is amazingly crisp, but when you boot up the game proper it reveals itself to be more akin to a DVD than anything else.  For those that have played previous versions, that’s much cleaner than any version we’ve seen, but it doesn’t hold a candle to modern video.  Granted this footage is coming off of the master tape, which is most likely a broadcast standard betamax, and therefore can only be improved so much.  The reason movies can be magically upgraded to blu ray standards is because they are on film, but this wasn’t the case with Night Trap.  For that same reason the frame rate is counter to what you expect from movies as well.  Modern blu rays follow the film standard for frame rate of 24 frames per second (fps), whereas broadcast over the air is typically still 30 fps for the NTSC (US) standard.  Since the Night Trap masters were on tape, it’s captured at 30 fps.  Oddly enough, based on the player codecs of this game the PS4 version plays at only 24 fps so at times it can seem a bit jumpy.  On the PC the game runs at native 30 fps and the action appears smoother.  In both versions, however, you can sometimes experience odd glitches with the video where what’s happening on screen doesn’t match your control console.  Sometimes you trap an enemy that isn’t anywhere near the trap, but in doing so the footage will jump to capturing him and move forward.  Other times the audio will be behind the video, which seems only a bit annoying when watching a random scene, but if you’re trying to watch some plot points or God forbid listen for a code change it can be a game-ending bug.  Since this was pieced together from archival footage, there are extra scenes that were restored in the new “ReVamped” edition that can completely change some important outcomes and endanger characters that you never had to worry about before.   Hardcore fans can relax, you also have the option of playing the “Classic” version of Night Trap that appears identical to the original.  During some of the scenes there can be some tape damage that appears on the screen, certain scenes are pieced together and thus not edited very well, and you should expect a few jump cuts.  It’s nothing to write home about, but it is noticeable.

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Written by Fred Rojas

August 17, 2017 at 11:00 am