Try-It Tuesday: The Long Dark (story mode)

Back in the days of 2016, I purchased The Long Dark as part of a Steam summer sale. At the time, the game only offered survival mode, which I tried. It was generally well-done and I had a fun adventure, although survival games aren’t usually my thing and TLD didn’t do much to change that opinion. But I had heard that there was a story mode that was on the way in the future, so I tucked that thought in the back of my mind and tucked the game back into my library.

That little persistent thought of a story mode finally made me reload the game this past month to check it out. Right now, The Long Dark’s story — which is called “Wintermute” — consists of just two episodes with more to come. But two is more than none, and the revelation that BOTH of Mass Effect’s Shepherds did the voices here got me on board.

At the start, Wintermute plays like a straight-up adventure game in the vein of Firewatch. You’re Mackenzie, a semi-drunk airplane pilot in Canada who is biding his time as the world is falling to pieces around him. One night, his ex-wife shows up with a mysterious case and a request for a risky flight to the far north with “no questions asked.” Mackenzie agrees, they fly out, and then the apocalypse happens.

The Long Dark’s apocalypse — the “quiet apocalypse” as it is termed — is apparently a geomagnetic storm that’s knocked out all power and electronics, at least in Canada, but perhaps all over the world. It’s also made normally shy animals a bit more man-hungry. And, oh yeah, it knocks the airplane out of the sky.

Mackenzie and his ex are separated after the crash, and the game becomes about Mackenzie trying to find her and figure out what’s happening.

Thus the game’s survival setting kicks in. I’d say that Wintermute is about 10% adventure game and 90% survival — which means that most of the time you’re fighting degrading meters (heat, hunger, thirst, rest) and trying to find all of the gear you need to survive. If you like scavenging — and hey, who doesn’t? — it’s kind of enjoyable. Makes you really excited to find a can of dog food or a bag of moldy beef jerky, because you know you’ll live another day.

But the problem I ran into is that I really wanted the story to progress, and the survival aspects kept holding that back. It’s kind of like you have to do a bunch of chores to stay alive enough to see the next bit of story, and after a while my patience started to wear thin on this.

I also found myself really frustrated about the weight limit in the game. Mackenzie can only carry 30 kg of gear without suffering penalties (and whining about it), and I hit that limit awfully quick with all of the necessities for survival. You don’t even get redundancies with 30kg, just the basics and even then not all of those.

Sure, I guess carrying 35 pounds of water around would make anyone tired, but a man’s gotta drink.

I got as far as finishing up all of the quests in and around Milton with the prompt to head out on a long hike to the next town. Perhaps I’ll even do it, too, but my enthusiasm meter is dipping down a bit without more of a story to prop it back up.

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Try-It Tuesday: Oxenfree

Time travel. Ghosts. Conspiracies. Teenage drama. Sounds like a great combination!

Lately I’ve been really jonesing for a good adventure game/walking simulator fix — something along the lines of Edith Finch or Firewatch that would tell me a good story in an immersive world. And wouldn’t take more than a few hours. I did some research, drew up a list of titles I had yet to play, and then realized that one of them — Oxenfree — was sitting in my GOG library as a free game that they gave out a while back.

Created by some ex-Telltale Games devs, Oxenfree drafts up a story of a group of five teenagers who are heading out to an island for an evening of beach R&R. Each one of the characters, including the main protagonist Alex, carries with him or her relationships and baggage. Alex, for example, lost her brother a year ago and is now grappling with the fact that her parents got a divorce, her mom remarried, and she now has a step-brother her age (who is along for the ride).

The beach party takes an unexpected turn as Alex’s radio tunes into a frequency that should have been left alone. Weird voices, time displacement, and strange happenings start popping up all over the place. Alex even sees herself in the mirror dispensing cryptic advice.

Other than some very light puzzles involving the radio, Oxenfree is mostly about exploring the island (which has a rich and occasionally disturbing history) and navigating the fivesome’s relationships via dialogue options. Alex can choose to remain silent during chats or break in with up to three options, all of which create a very natural-sounding flow of conversation. And while the game doesn’t make a big deal of it until the very end, many of these conversational picks end up influencing relationships and changing the ultimate outcome.

Fortunately for this dialogue-heavy game, Oxenfree is both written and performed admirably. The kids are genuinely interesting to listen to as they quip, argue, observe, and share history. While all of them have interconnected histories, it’s only through the dialogue selections that the player is gradually informed as to what they are. I always wanted to hear all of the dialogue and would sometimes stop walking just to make sure I didn’t transition to a new screen or trigger a script and cut off the chatter.

My greatest complaint about Oxenfree is, other than its relatively short length, the control scheme. For a game that only has a handful of inputs (movement, radio, map, use, dialogue selection), it should have been 100% controlled by the mouse. Instead — and with no options to change this — movement keys are the WASD or arrow keys, enter is the use key, CTRL is for the map, shift is for the radio, and the mouse picks the dialogue. I kept having to move my hands on and off the keyboard during the play due to needing the enter key and wanting my right hand to always be near the mouse in case one of the time-limited dialogue options popped up. It’s just an annoyance that shouldn’t have been present.

Another small quibble is that a lot of the game’s very important backstory — the overall mystery of the island — is relegated to a series of hidden letters (“Scavenger hunt! Scavenger hunt!” Alex crows) that only start unlocking late in the game when I kind of wanted to wrap up the tale. They should have been present earlier and been far more noticeable for their narrative importance.

Overall, Oxenfree is a funny, sometimes touching, and sometimes downright creepy game, even though it uses a rather distinct 2-D painterly visual setup (which — quibble number three here — can make using the island map a little difficult). There’s a little incentive to replay to make different choices and see how other dialogue options would have played out, but I think one solid playthrough gave me most of the game experience that I needed here. Definitely a recommended title.

Try-It Tuesday: Breach

“It’s like The Secret World and Global Agenda combined.”

Usually, I’m not one for early access. I mean, I’m *really* not. I think that there’s a lot of issues that this push to sell barely developed games is causing in the industry, and when we support it financially, we’re only contributing to the problem. But once in a blue moon I have dipped into this well, mostly out of curiosity, and some positive word-of-mouth and the above phrase tempted me into snagging Breach this month. Figured that, if nothing else, it might make for an interesting Try-It Tuesday title.

Turns out that might be all it was good for. Really wish I had that money back. Stupid impulse purchases.

In a nutshell, Breach is a third-person action-RPG where a team of four players attempts to win a map (dungeon) while a single opposing player takes on the role of a Void Demon (dungeon master) who can lay down traps and possess mobs to pilot them manually. This 4v1 idea has been poked at before in the genre — most notably back in 2015 with BioWare’s now-abandoned Shadow Realms — and I think it holds a lot of promise. It’s a fascinating blend of PvE and PvP, and I love the idea of giving players the tools to add variety and challenge into a dungeon run.

To go back to the opening phrase, Breach is a little like TSW and GA, but mostly in a pseudo-contemporary/horror setting and combat. Really, if you were to borrow one element from TSW and put into your game, I wouldn’t have chosen its combat system — old or new. So to have a game that’s pretty much Secret World Legends: Fight Hard without much in the way of story or world building or open world exploration is not much of an endorsement.

A few points in Breach’s favor that should be said. There is a lot of potential here and a very motivated dev team that wants to get a lot more content in before launch. The character creation offers some truly tempting class options and pretty well-done visual options (I wish that there was more mix-and-matching with outfits, but generally there’s more here than in a lot of early access titles I’ve seen). And the combat was… fine. Serviceable.

But serviceable isn’t enough for a game that’s pretty much all about combat. I ran the tutorials. I did the Veil Demon tutorial (which offered a slightly more interesting side of the game). I did a couple of runs with others. During all of this, I kept thinking, “It’s just not enough to have decent combat. There has to be more. There has to be a hook.” Said hook wasn’t appearing or reeling me in.

So for now, I’m putting this one on the shelf to perhaps check out again when it actually launches later this year.

Try-It Tuesday: CrossCode

Despite fantastic reviews and strong word-of-mouth, CrossCode went virtually unrecognized in the “Best Games of 2018” lists. Yet this game had been on my radar for most of last fall as it transitioned from early access to a full launch, and when it went on sale during GOG’s winter bonanza, I picked it up without a second thought.

Perhaps it was the “Cross” part of the title and the retro pixel art that drew favorable comparisons to Chrono Cross (intentional or not by the developers, it’s where my mind went). In any case, it wasn’t a wasted purchase; this is a pretty fun action-RPG that plays like an incredibly polished SNES title with a few modern sensibilities thrown in.

Plus, there’s an added bonus for MMO players: While single-player, CrossCode takes place in an MMORPG — just one where players remotely pilot robotic avatars on a far-away planet. I stared the game as a blue-haired avatar (who, as the game reminded me, could really be anyone behind her) who had no idea who she was or what she was doing in the game. Amnesia intro! That’s pretty classic. But there is something sinister and serious going on underneath the MMO trappings, and Lea the avatar goes on a quest to find out just what.

 When it comes to RPGs, story and combat are two elements that devs have to get absolutely right or it’s not worth playing for me. CrossCode uses an action-RPG system similar to Diablo’s clickfest, which is generally fine with me, although sometimes it got way too precise with fight mechanics to be as fun as it should’ve. The story was far better, using cute and funny dialogue moments and colorful areas to bring this unusual tale to light.

If I had to point at one element of CrossCode that didn’t work for me, it would be its heavy reliance on puzzles. Some areas require navigating landscape puzzles to proceed, and these got tedious as I had to do bank shots and figure out what secret angle had to be accessed. Maybe I’m growing more impatient for time-wasting puzzles in my middle age than I was in my youth, or maybe I’m just seeing them for what they really are.

Aside from that, everything in the game is really top-notch. Menus are snappy and clear, the world is a visual treat, and the music is serene and engaging. About the only thing I really wanted from the get-go was an on-screen mini-map and/or quest direction markers, as constantly pulling up the map to see locations was a bit annoying. Sometimes it wasn’t fully clear where I should be going, and I was surprised that an MMO-themed game in this day and age didn’t have these standard features.

For MMO fans, there’s the additional treat of encountering all sorts of mechanics, tropes, and in-jokes related to our genre. For example, a friend early on won’t party up with me because he was too high-level and would make our content trivial. I passed by another person who was fretting that raid members hadn’t shown up yet, and so on.

Try-It Tuesday: Unavowed

While perusing best-of lists for PC gaming last year, I saw someone strongly recommending the adventure game Avowed. It looked interesting and I’m always up for a good story, so why not? I won’t keep you in suspense — it made for a nice impulse purchase at around $10.

The premise of Unavowed is that there’s a team of supernatural investigators going around New York City to solve the wonky types of crime that local law enforcement is powerless to handle. Following a possession, the player character is drafted into this small group that includes a genie, a fire mage, and a few other assorted characters that are picked up over the course of the game.

While there is a narrative thread running from start to finish, the bulk of the game is very much episodic in nature. Every “episode” consists of a debriefing at headquarters and an investigation at a certain locale in NYC (each of which contains 4-10 scenes). In typical adventure game pattern, the story is only advanced by solving puzzles, navigating dialogue trees, and generally sleuthing it up.

What really impressed me right out of the gate is that Unavowed contains some rather surprising plot developments and fascinating storytelling. I was never quite sure *what* to expect going off to investigate each location, which made the emerging short stories even more compelling. It was like diving into the middle of a tale and then digging in both directions to get the full of it.

At times, Unavowed could be gory, disturbing, creepy, moving, and funny, although it wasn’t heavy in any of these. Most often, it was simply interesting, and that was enough for me. Unlike most adventure games, Unavowed sticks you with two other companions at any given time who offer up their own thoughts, talk to each other, and have special talents that can influence how a mission plays out. It’s a nice touch that might make the game more replayable, although I don’t see myself going through it more than once.

I won’t spoil any of the surprises or developments here other than to say that there are a few “wham” lines (“How long has she been out here?” really nailed a particular moment) and one ghost who ends up stealing the show from the moment she’s introduced forward. I also appreciated that there are some serious choices to be made from time to time that do have some small impact on the rest of the game.

It’s not a perfect game by any means. While the graphics are decent in a pixel art fashion, the animation is stiff and sometimes overcranked. And while each episode is pretty strong, the threading narrative is very flimsy and not that captivating to consider. It was almost like the developers had a bunch of campfire spooky tales to tell and then had to figure out some way to link them all. Finally, not all of the companions are equal in terms of personalities and backstories — in particular one hardboiled cop.

Overall, I was pretty happy to go through the entirety of Unavowed over the course of a couple of days during Christmas break. I think it might even deserve a sequel, if the team was ever up for it.

Try-It Tuesday: The Return of the Obra Dinn

What do you get when you mash-up the graphics of a 1980s-era Macintosh, the board game Clue, soduku, and a locked-room murder mystery? You’d end up with one of the most original games of 2018, that’s what.

As I perused the “Best of 2018” lists, The Return to Obra Dinn popped up again and again. I actually hadn’t heard of this fall release, but the stellar ratings and the unique premise earned a quick buy from me. It was money very well spent, because I became incredibly engrossed in this tale of murder and calamity on the high seas.

The player character takes on the role of an insurance adjuster (seriously) who is tasked with boarding the now-derelict Obra Dinn after it has been brought home with nary a single soul of its 60 original crew and passengers on it. The adjuster uses a magic pocketwatch (just go with it) to relive the final moments of each discovered corpse, taking notes in a book to help figure out the three essential questions: Who was this person? How did they die? And who killed them?

By jumping in and out of these past memories, a scattered timeline eventually takes shape. No spoilers here, but it involves both human deviousness as well as some supernatural elements. Eight chapters eventually are woven together to tell of this misfortune of this ship from start to end as well as those who sailed on it.

At the core, Obra Dinn is a logic puzzle in which the player has to identify clues from scenes and piece them together to figure out who is who and what happened to them. As it’s been said, the attention to detail is staggering here, and I had to look at nationalities, uniforms, photographic evidence, and not a little bit of prowling around the death scenes to see if I could spot anything helpful.

Once the player makes three correct guesses (as in, the correct fates of three individuals), the book will confirm it and start the countdown from 60 unidentified people down to zero. Some of it is easier than others, and there’s some guesswork to be done, but eventually it all is very solvable.

In a similar fashion to walking simulators like Tacoma, I appreciated how Obra Dinn really drew me into this world and told an engrossing story. I walked away from the game knowing a lot more about the positions and roles of crewmen aboard an 19th century sailing vessel as well as a ship’s layout, and some of the characters I ended up liking far more than others.

I was hoping for a little more satisfaction in the end, although wrapping up all of the fates was probably satisfaction enough — and there were very few unanswered questions when all was investigated. So yeah, I give this a strong recommendation. I’m sure we won’t see many other games like it in our lifetime.

Try It Tuesday: Dauntless

Since approximately a quarter of the world’s population — according to the sky-high queue numbers — was attempting to log in to Dauntless’ open beta this past weekend, I thought I would do the same. Seemed like an attractive title done by some ex-Blizzard folks, so why not? And never underestimate the draw of free-to-play, even in the grand year of 2018.

I have not understood the whole “monster hunter” genre nor partaken up to this point. If I am correct, it’s essentially “Raid Boss: The Game” where all you do is fight a mega-boss… and then another… and then another. With a whole lot of action combat and some expected crafting along the way. It’s like an MMO if you stripped it down to some of its lesser interesting parts.

After giving Dauntless a few hours, I am sure that I still don’t quite get the appeal of these games. I was bored, antsy, and ready to be done with it.

Character creation was fine. Adequate. In a really weird move, you initially have to pick out two pre-created “ancestors” and then mold the resulting blend of the two. No matter who I picked I ended up with a severe-looking and somewhat off-putting character. At least I could amuse myself by putting facial hair on women. Yes, I am 10 years old.

The visuals and especially the characters reminded me of a slightly less good-looking Landmark. If nothing else, I miss that game for its style. Really grooved on all of that.

There weren’t any classes from which to choose, so I got the default sword and eventually changed over to chain blades. Right now there are five weapon types, so I guess five “classes.” Seems kind of thin to me. Would have loved a machine gun or bombs or something. Going toe-to-toe with giant monsters seems kind of suicidal to me.

As far as I could ascertain, the basic gameplay loop is this: You accept a mission to kill a giant behemoth and then are ported to a floating island containing just one of these. You and your few silent player friends run around picking flowers and trying to find the boss, sending up a flare when one of you does. Then you engage in a boss fight that lasts shy of forever. It’s not helped by the fact that there is no on-screen indicator (that I could tell) informing you of how much life the boss has left. You just slash and cut and watch damage numbers go by, occasionally taking a breather to quaff a potion.

The combat, which is definitely the meat and the potatoes, is mostly fluid and involves some combos on your part and a variety of moves on the boss’. Everything’s controlled by mouse, so you only have a light and heavy attack and have to do them in a certain pattern to trigger a combo. I was horrible at this, but what did it matter? Slash slash, guy’s going to die one day anyway.

The combination of action combat, a boss with no health meter, and very simple moves (with no special abilities like what I would get in an MMO) quickly turned me off to the whole process. If I’m going to be clicking this much, I might as well be playing Diablo or something else that pays off with a lot more loot.

Between missions you head back to Ramsgate, the main town hub. It’s quite attractive (I can’t really fault the game’s style and design) but there was no life to it. People just ran in, got missions and did crafting, and ported back out for the next mission.

Maybe there’s something more to these types of games that I’m not getting. Maybe it’s just not the kind of game for me. I can accept that. But no matter what, Dauntless was not successful in piquing my interest or retaining me as a future player.