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Call of Cthulhu (2018) Review

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The works of H.P. Lovecraft are a great source for horror with the cold American East Coast being a predominant backdrop for the mysteries of the sea, secret cults, ancient gods, and of course the fragility of the human condition.  I’ve always felt these works lend themselves to the written word much better than other media due to the way Lovecraft tends to portray things with suggestions of the indescribable and the subjective way a person’s perspective can twist reality.  This is also why in gaming form I find the pen and paper RPG Call of Cthulhu captures the essence of these works because the entire game is much like its source material: interactive works of written (or scripted) fiction.  The challenge faced with video games the challenge of taking the themes of Lovecraft and turning them into a form of gameplay that is both realistic and enjoyable.  While a few attempts at Call of Cthulhu – a name that is used more for its notoriety and less for an actual connection to the short story – have been made, no studio has really been able to nail the gameplay part.  No matter how much I respect the old Infogrames adventure games or Dark Corners of the Earth, all of the Call of Cthulhu titles require caveats when recommending them.  As much as I had hoped developer Cyanide’s Call of Cthulhu game, based on Chaosium’s aforementioned pen and paper RPG, would break the mold it fails to overcome the gameplay challenge yet again.  Fortunately it oozes the dark and twisted world that is so unmistakably Lovecraft that you may excuse the gaming faults for overall experience.

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Written by Fred Rojas

October 30, 2018 at 11:00 am

The Council Episode 4: Burning Bridges 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.

Going into episode 4 of The Council I had absolutely no expectations.  The story was stagnant, the character development was marred by writing away plot holes with twins and the supernatural, and the gameplay was almost flat out boring.  I had grown tired of Louis and this fun alternative take on history because it seemed like the development team was out of ideas.  What started as an experiment in alt history along with a modern take on the adventure genre had become a series of fetch quests surrounding a main, but rock solid, puzzle with all plot points stressing answers to “a mystery.”  I didn’t think there was anything developer Big Bad Wolf could put in as an explanation that would live up to this fabled mystery.  In that regard, I will admit I was wrong, because Episode 4 throws you a massive curve ball and begins to answer questions left and right.  Events transpire at a lightening pace compared to what we’ve seen previously and some major events are given out like candy.  It also was apparently a good time to introduce a whole new mechanic that seems to heavily null some of the old mechanics, and the confrontation system has become a minefield for your usable resources.  The whole game was dialed up to 11 and it all seemed rushed out, which I’m betting it was.  While I have to admit I enjoyed playing through Episode 4, it’s frantic attempt to get things back on track came at the expense of it’s largest asset: the previous episodes no longer matter.

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Written by Fred Rojas

October 1, 2018 at 11:00 am

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.

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

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

The Council Review

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Note: This review covers each individual episode as it releases.  Currently Episodes 1-4 are represented here.  All reviews are spoiler free across the board, no new episode spoils previous ones.

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.

At its core the game plays much like a hybrid role-playing game (the traditional definition) and an adventure title.  You’ll partake in several different activities such as investigation, interacting with just about everything to take in the sites and scenery, and of course conversations.  The art design definitely made the vast estate of Lord Mortimer into a spectacle to match his wealth, so I had no problems indulging in just about every bit of lore I could find.  You’ll frequently be forced into scripted events that are primarily dialogue. The episode is broken into multiple chapters, each allowing you to put points into various skills that primarily assist with this dialogue, but also have uses in your exploration.  Since the character tree is designed to last you, presumably the entire 5 episode excursion, you are very limited in the amount of points you get. This makes the decisions in what to level far more critical in these opening moments as you will frequently see opportunities pass you by unless you spec for them.  There’s no catch-all spec, so don’t go trying to min-max because it’s simply impossible. That very much seems by design, which I find refreshing. To assist you in making some of the skills cheaper you get to pick from one of three main personality types. Each personality type has five of the overall skills and the points required to level those are significantly reduced, but that doesn’t prevent you from being able to focus on a non-personality skill if you’re willing to use a larger number of your scant points for it.  This will either be daunting or enticing to certain players, but I was pleased with such freedom and spec options. You will also gain some points organically based on your decisions, but I never counted on them in either of my playthroughs of the first episode. There are also big decisions to be made when deciding where to go or what to do next, which will eliminate the opportunity to see/experience the other. Think of these decisions as the one’s in The Witcher, neither is necessarily good or bad, but you have to make a choice.  It all comes together when you start applying these concepts to your dialogue, which is a significant part of the overall gameplay.

When dialogue happens, it’s either in a peaceful setting where you listen to conversations and attempt to make the most of the situation or confrontations.  If you’ve ever played a BioWare or Bethesda RPG, you’ll be familiar with the concept of the peaceful conversations. As with those games, depending on the build you have for your character, you may be given prompts to intercede with additional information or additional response options.  The game also lets you know when you’ve missed a chance at engaging in a side conversation or extra response so that you can note to build those skills in another play, should you wish to see where it goes. There are also a few wrenches in any situation: each person you speak with has weaknesses and immunities while Louis has a limited number of points to flaunt his abilities.  Those weaknesses and immunities are not known at the onset, so you have to discover them as you go and in many cases that will be when you choose a dialogue option. Each person may have multiple immunities and/or weaknesses, but I’m fairly certain they all have at least one of each. I don’t want to reveal any actual answers, but a good example would be to imagine that the philosopher Plato was one of the guests. He would probably be immune to Philosophy and thus any of your misdirection involving philosophy would be countered and identified, but perhaps if there was a sympathy skill he would have a weakness to it that you could exploit that instead.  At the same time you’ll also need to spend points to perform certain targeted actions, which will vary depending on how much you’ve leveled up that skill. As a result, you may not have enough points to misdirect them in conversation and you’ll be forced into canned choices. It’s pretty straightforward in the game, but I can understand if it feels a bit convoluted here. Then there are the moments of direct confrontations, each with consequences, and those require you to either pass or fail a heated interaction. To fail is to potentially close a door and to succeed has the potential to create allies or even see new sequences or areas. I found all of the dialogue sequences to be rather enjoyable as they are a gamified battle of wits.

As much as there are plenty of positive attributes to The Council’s initial episode, there are some glaring faults that may be deal breakers.  For starters the graphics, while impressive, lack in the animation department.  Whether it’s the game engine or the animators themselves, things just don’t always move in a believable way and the voices don’t always sync up with the dialogue.  I know that’s been a common problem in games this generation, but for one so focused on plot and dialogue it’s distracting here. There are also vast differences in quality with the voice acting of characters, most notably your protagonist Louis.  While the cast overall does a decent job, and I was particularly fond of the Duchess and the Cardinal, Louis has probably the most inconsistent voice acting. He’s alright, but sometimes the performance is unconvincing, especially for someone of his role in life.  I also don’t like the way he represents my dialogue choices at times, either. As already hinted earlier, the systems in this game are pretty complex and it’s quite daunting in the beginning to figure out exactly what you’re supposed to do and how to spec your character.  There’s also the fact that points are over-used as a currency – you use them to build skills, use skills, and also quantify how well you did in the chapter but all from different pools so when the game simply uses the term “points” you may not know exactly what’s being referred to.  Finally the UI leaves a bit to be desired as a necessary evil of trying to make the largest audience happy. Role playing fans will love the endless point sheets, notes in the journal, as well as the mystery of what the consequences of your choices will be without any real guidance. On the other hand, a traditional gamer will probably more appreciate the notes on when you don’t have an appropriate skill, the big green and red text to indicate a success or failure of a confrontation, and incessant battling of limited use items for challenges.  As you may expect, both groups can be annoyed by the others’ selling points, so in the end no one is really happy. As someone who would like to think he’s in the middle, I found gripes with both features, but nothing was a deal breaker.

I enjoyed my time with The Council’s first episode, enough to play a second time and see how things changed.  It’s impossible to tell if this title will be able to stick the landing, but I’m going into the next episode with a large degree of optimism.  I like the unknown and the way this title makes you actually role play instead of try to game the system. It’s totally breakable I’m sure, and anyone with enough free time and a pad of paper will probably be able to point out the part where the seams are showing.  That said, it was far more obvious in most other interactive fiction I’ve played in the past. There will be players that are annoyed by the fact that you have to make so many decisions with no idea what the consequences will be, especially because there’s really no way to course correct once the game is in motion.  I would tell them to simply replay the chapter and hope for a different outcome, but the reality is that few gamers finish titles and even fewer replay them, so that’s unrealistic. To me, The Council offers a unique opportunity to play through an elaborate version of the dinner party murder mystery and captures the feel of true role playing better than its peers.  I played the episode twice and had completely unique experiences by making different choices. If you want to become a different character and run through scenarios and experiences, it’s a worthwhile endeavor, flaws and all.  If this is just another game in a growing backlog that you just want to fly through and move on from, you might be better suited to avoid this. The Council looks to be something special, but as with all titles in this genre, we’ll have to wait for the remaining episodes to confirm.  I really wish this game had a demo, if only the first chapter or two in this episode, because asking people to buy the bundle only seems a bit of a stretch.

Final Score: 4 out of 5

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Written by Fred Rojas

March 19, 2018 at 12:00 pm

Seasons After Fall Review

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There is an undeniable attraction to Seasons After Fall.  In what I can best describe as a painting come to life, the striking graphical style draws your attention and the playful orchestral soundtrack keeps you interested.  The game presents a simple premise: a fox, a forest, and magic.  It’s a compelling argument, even before the first true moments of gameplay.  Things aren’t always as they seem with this title, however, as it doesn’t quite play as good as it looks.  Your tolerance to design quirks aside, the value of this title lands solely on the premise that it delivers on what I think games should do: take you to another world.

Seasons After Fall originally premiered on PC last fall during a time that seemed more riddled with open exploration puzzle platformers – I refuse to refer to this title as a “MetroidVania” – including Ori and the Blind Forest and Unravel.  Despite looking similar to these other titles, they are very distinct from one another, but somehow always seemed to be lumped together.  Seasons After Fall now comes to consoles in a direct port, but it’s successfully separated from these familiar looking games.  It’s a true puzzle platformer, best proven by the lack of combat in the game.  Yes, there’s absolutely no fighting, attacking, running from enemies, no enemies at all, and no boss battles.  Nope, this title is as a pacifist as they come.  There’s also no penalty for dying, if you can even call it that since falling into the rare pit results in you simply being brought back to the ledge you jumped off.  Despite these facts, don’t write off Seasons After Fall as a mindless stroll in the woods, because the challenge is in solving the puzzles and as the game progresses there’s a decent incline in difficulty.  It’s at this point you’ll either like how this title attempts to challenge you or hate it.  I might even say it’s impossible to describe your time with Seasons After Fall without mentioning at least a few moments where you are utterly stuck with no idea what to do.

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Written by Fred Rojas

May 15, 2017 at 11:00 am

The Surge Q & A Livestream

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Fred runs through some of the opening areas of The Surge and answering questions in the chat.  Developed by Deck13, The Surge combines the concept of loot drops, builds, and high difficulty action RPGs in a cyberpunk setting.

Written by Fred Rojas

May 14, 2017 at 11:00 am

The Technomancer Review

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The Technomancer reminds me of one of those relationships before I got married.  It’s dynamic and I enjoyed it, but ultimately I got to this point where I knew our time would have to end.  Much like those relationships, it probably lasted a bit longer than it should have, but that doesn’t mean that it was a waste of time.  Far from it.  Regardless of your opinion of nitpicks like whether or not the faces compete with modern powerhouse franchises or exactly what genre it should be labeled as, The Technomancer is offering a throwback to the complete package of RPG we saw often last generation.  That wouldn’t have made it stand out were it not for the fact that a title like this is somewhat rare these days.  Sure, everything is going open world, but releases of RPGs that heavily integrate decision and story are somewhat scarce and especially if you’re looking for sci-fi or cyberpunk.  So despite its flaws and not necessarily being able to keep up with its more established peers, The Technomancer is a worthwhile experience.

technomancer_1I’m guessing not many played developer Spiders’ first title Mars: War Logs, which you may be surprised to know is now available on PC and even Xbox One thanks to 360 backward compatibility (also on PS3).  It really is the early version of what would eventually become this title and established the lore of human colonization on Mars and the core of what the technomancers are.  That title was short, the combat was harshly integrated (especially for gamepads), and while I liked what it was doing I couldn’t get too invested.  Having played Mars: War Logs did allow me to appreciate how far Spiders has come in its sophomore effort on the concept, but it’s in no way necessary as a buffer for this title.  Newcomers and veterans alike will be introduced to Zachariah, a graduating technomancer that is coming to terms with his newfound powers and prepared to utilize them in an effort to keep the peace and eventually find a way back to Earth.  He’s not unique, many technomancers work for Abundance, a mega-corp that provides security on Mars and all technomancers are to guard the order’s secrets in an attempt to discover a way back home to Earth.  Beyond that you are free to hit the ground running in an open-world chock full of icons that represent main and side quests.  Along the way you will inevitably face combat, both in and out of hub locations, where your action fighting skills will be tested from start to finish.  I’ll return to the combat in a minute, but it’s important to note that the separation between non-combat zones and combat zones is blurred here, which I don’t often see in the modern world of RPGs that includes MMOs.  It may not be much of a change, but it struck me as somewhat unique.

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Written by Fred Rojas

July 11, 2016 at 11:00 am