Monday, October 31, 2016

Review Double-shot: Ib and The Witch's House

After Murdered Soul Suspect, my wife and I decided to dig further into the horror-adventure genre with two Japanese indie titles: Ib and The Witch's House. Both of these games were created in RPG Maker and are available for free. Since these games are short (~2 hours) and I'm a little pressed for time, these are going to be mini-reviews.

Ib is about a little girl who finds herself trapped inside a surreal haunted art gallery. To escape she must solve various puzzles to progress through the gallery while avoiding monsters born from the works of art. I was initially skeptical that an RPG Maker game could pull off a creepy atmosphere or sense of dread, but Ib manages to pull it off despite its primitive pixelated graphics. There's no combat in the game, so enemy encounters are a matter of evasion and hiding behind obstacles. These  encounters are pretty straight-forward, so that the game can focus on its strengths: atmosphere and puzzles. While there are a few moments where the game's graphical limitations can cause issues with interpreting a puzzle or finding an item, the overall package is a fun and well-crafted minimalist horror-adventure game.
Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 3 hours

The Witch's House
After enjoying Ib so much, we were pretty psyched to jump into another one of these adventures the following night.
The Witch's House is about a girl who wanders into a witch's house in the middle of the woods and has to escape from the traps and monsters inside. This game immediately stands out from Ib since it was made with a more modern version of RPG Maker, so the graphics are much cleaner and easy to interpret. From a gameplay standpoint, The Witch's House initially plays very similar to Ib, but adds a few elements that may please some hardcore horror game fans, but really turned me off: jump scares and frequent sudden deaths. Enemies often appear suddenly upon entering a new area, have very high movement speed, and cause 1-hit kills if they catch you. It also doesn't help matters that RPG Maker's controls are just not well suited to the quick maneuvers this game requires to escape enemies. As a result, deaths are extremely frequent and memorizing enemy spawn locations is a must. For me, these irritating moments quickly got in the way of my enjoyment of the puzzle-solving and exploration that I wanted from The Witch's House.
Score: ⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

If you'd like to play either of the games I reviewed in this post, links to the download pages for each are provided below:
Ib (
The Witch's House (

Acknowledgement: I initially learned about these games from the Chic Pixel blog, so be sure to check that out if you're interesting in Japanese nerd culture.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Murdered Soul Suspect Review

An inept adventure game with a few clever ideas

Murdered Soul Suspect is yet another game in the backlog from last year's Square Enix Humble Bundle. With Halloween almost upon us, my wife and I were looking for a spooky game to play through together, and since this is an adventure game about ghosts and it was already in my queue, we thought it might fit the bill.

In Murdered Soul Suspect, Detective Ronan dies while pursuing a serial killer and is left roaming the earth as a ghost who must complete his unfinished business, solving the serial killer case, so that his soul can pass on to heaven and he can be reunited with his recently deceased wife. While Ronan was apparently not a particularly good detective in life (more on that later), as a ghost he has the benefit of powers that allow him walk through walls, have psychic visions, teleport, and possess living humans (and sometimes cats). The bulk of the gameplay involves using ghost powers to traverse the environments until arriving upon investigation areas in which clues must be gathered and pieced together in order to progress the plot and get closer to solving the mystery. In addition to these adventure game elements, there are occasional stealth action sections where Ronan must evade ghost-eating demons that patrol certain areas of the map.

As promising as this premise and mixture of gameplay styles initially seemed, much of it is handled rather clumsily. Unlike a traditional point-and-click adventure game, there are no inventory items to use or mechanical contraptions to operate since ghosts pass straight through solid objects. Thus most of the puzzle-solving takes the form of an Easter egg hunt in which Ronan must search each investigation area for the indicated number of clues. Once all the clues have been found, a question appears on screen such as "How did this man die?" that must be answered by selecting the most relevant clues. This is where it becomes painfully obvious that Ronan is a terrible detective; the crime scene might contain a tree, rope, and a body with lacerations around the neck, but the player must still go through the song and dance of gathering and selecting the proper clues to spell out to the inept investigator that the victim's cause of death was not drowning or poison. Further detracting from these investigations is that clues are sometimes hard to identify among the scenery and on several occasions awkward wording of the questions can make it difficult to determine which clues the game deems most relevant, even though the player has probably already solved the mystery of the scene. However, there's no real penalty for answering a question incorrectly, so the player can just press on with trial and error until (s)he can eventually proceed. On the other hand, using the ghost powers to get around the map between these investigations feels pretty good and is generally the most most interesting part of the gameplay. The demon encounters do a good job of adding some fear/excitement, though I found that pulling off the QTE maneuvers to kill a demon was a somewhat frustrating task.

Murdered Soul Suspect's plot is a hodgepodge of film noir and ghost story cliches all rolled together, but is presented in a fashion that is enjoyable to watch, yet still pretty corny. The voice acting is also pretty decent and the story does manage to sneak in a twist here and there, even if the player is often going to be several steps ahead of Ronan in terms of solving the case. Where the game succeeds the most is establishing a spooky, though not necessarily scary, atmosphere. Each of the game's environments from grisly murder scenes to cemeteries to psychiatric hospitals are exactly as creepy and dreary as one would want in a game for Halloween.

Murdered Soul Suspect is a game for which my entire reviewing process falls apart. My wife and I liked playing this game, but also couldn't help but acknowledge that it wasn't a particularly good adventure game from an objective standpoint. Thus, my verdict comes with some serious caveats: If you're in a similar situation to mine, in which you're looking for a spooky adventure to complete with a partner and are a fairly forgiving player, you'll probably have an enjoyable experience with this game. However, for the discerning solo adventure game player looking for clever puzzles or a thought-provoking plot, definitely look elsewhere.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️*
Completion Time: 12 hours, 24 minutes (Main story plus 92% of Steam achievements)
*In a different set of circumstances, I could easily see myself giving this game 2 stars instead

Note: This review is the product of discussions my wife and I had after finishing the game, so I want to acknowledge the contribution of her insight. Also, she wanted me to emphasis that by far the highlight of the game is getting the ability to possess and controls cats. I totally agree.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Just Cause 2 Review

Big, dumb, action movie fun

In my impressions post for Just Cause 2, I talked extensively about how the thrill of causing mayhem with Rico's impressive arsenal of moves appeared to be the main draw of the game while pretty much everything else took a back seat. After finishing the game I can  say that my initial impressions were spot-on, and that's totally fine; Just Cause 2 delivered a steady steam of fun even though my brain was able to nap much of the time.

The game's structure was interesting in that it deviated from its GTA inspiration by only having 7 story-essential missions. To unlock each of these story missions, Rico must earn the required amount of "Chaos" (essentially XP) by completing a handful of smaller faction missions and destroying enemy property. There's a total of 49 faction missions, but a significantly smaller number of them need to be completed to make it to the end of the game. As a result, these faction missions represent a large amount of the playtime of Just Cause 2, but vary wildly in scope from somewhat bland sub-3-minute errands (Kill X, Destroy Y), to rather involved set-piece focused adventures that rival the content of the story missions. Unfortunately, it's not clear how to tell which end of this spectrum a mission drawn from this grab-bag will be until your start it. In my case, I was having a good time and ended up completing all 49 faction missions anyway, so the unevenness of these missions didn't affect me too much, but I could see a player wanting to play the best-of-the-best on a shorter play-through getting frustrated. Ideally the faction missions should have had sub classifications so that the player could have the option of skipping some of the smaller filler ones and focusing on the more impressive ones.

From a technical standpoint, JC2 ran glitch-free, controlled tightly, and had some nice-looking vistas by 2010 standards. Most importantly, the explosion animations looked great and made destroying enemy structures and vehicles very satisfying. I did run into some issues with the game's AI that sometimes worked in my favor (a boss getting stuck in a vulnerable position) and other times did not (an ally being incapable of jumping over a 1-foot guardrail). These issues were annoying when they cropped up, but they were thankfully infrequent enough to not significantly tarnish the experience.

While the plot of Just Cause 2 was fairly minimal, I'm not quite sure what to make of presentation of the game's simple story. After seeing the Hollywood-quality cinematics of GTA 4 and Sleeping Dogs, Just Cause 2's cut scenes were very corny and unimpressively acted. I often found myself watching a scene and wondering if what I was seeing was meant to be humorous political satire or just pure camp. The fact that most of the characters were portrayed as wacky cultural stereotypes didn't help matters much on this front either, though to be fair, the game was definitely an equal-opportunity offender.

Despite a few flaws and some repetitive missions, I was still having fun throughout my 25 hours with the game and that's definitely saying something. While clearly not on the same plane as a masterpiece like GTA 4, Just Cause 2 is a classic example of how sound mechanics and a satisfying gameplay loop can trump other short-comings. If you love open-world action games or over-the-top summer blockbuster movies, Just Cause 2 is probably right up your alley.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time:  25 hours (All missions cleared on medium difficulty, 35% map completion)

Monday, October 10, 2016

Demo Hotness: ReCore

At last year's E3, ReCore was one of the few Xbox One exclusive games that really piqued my interest, so I was pretty excited when I found out that it was coming to PC as part of Microsoft's Xbox Play Anywhere initiative. After hearing some very mixed reviews for the game when it came out a few weeks ago, I was glad to hear there was a demo available so I could try it out for myself.

I should start out by saying that the demo was set up such that it starts out at the very beginning of the full game with a 30-minute countdown timer for the free trial period. As a result, I was only able to get a very small taste of the game and chose to experience as much gameplay as possible rather than devoting any time to adjusting settings or performance optimization. I found that outside of a long loading time on the title screen, the game ran very smoothly on "High" settings. However, for some reason the resolution was locked at 720p, giving everything a somewhat blurry look on my 1080p screen. I'm assuming this is something I could fix given more time if I buy the full game.

After an extremely brief opening cut scene, I was dropped right into gameplay and was immediately impressed with how solidly the game controlled. The Metroid/Nintendo lineage was apparent right off the bat; making Joule run, jump, and shoot all felt really natural with the Xbox 360 controller. There were a few minutes of light platforming before entering a cave that served as a sort of mini-dungeon and combat tutorial area. Combat consists of Zelda-style lock-on aiming with the option to use a grappling hook to rip the cores out of enemies as a finisher. Capturing these cores rather than simply destroying an enemy gives an XP boost as well as provides crafting supplies, but I didn't really get to see the implications of this in the demo. Joule is aided in combat and exploration by her robot dog companion that can attack enemies and help find hidden items. Later on it appears that she can recruit other robot animal helpers and craft various upgrades for them. This cave area didn't have much in the way of puzzles to solve, and was mostly focused on combat, platforming, and finding keys to unlock doors. Predictably, the mini-dungeon ended with the requisite giant spider boss that every video game seems to need to have. The boss wasn't very difficult but it effectively served the purpose of allowing me to master the basic battle mechanics. With the boss defeated, my demo fittingly ended soon afterward.

In addition to the more obvious Metroid and Zelda influences, this brief gameplay experience of navigating a dungeon with an AI companion gave me some Beyond Good and Evil vibes, which is definitely a plus. The environments I got to see were pretty standard desert and cave settings, so most of the ReCore's personality comes from the enemies, robot helpers, and to a lesser extent the protagonist, Joule. As Joule is the only speaking character, I couldn't help but notice that even in the span of a 30-minute demo, she spends a lot of time thinking out loud and narrating her own actions. I'm hoping this is mostly done for tutorial purposes at the beginning of the game and is not a constant throughout since I only need to hear things like "I wonder where the power source is?" and "There sure are a lot of enemies here" so many times, but maybe I would get used it.

Ultimately, thirty minutes with ReCore was just not enough time to gauge how much I would enjoy the whole game, but the little bit I got to play did seem to have potential. At this point I'm not sold enough to spend the $40 on the full game, but will definitely be keeping an eye out for a sale and may revisit the game once I've finished off my backlog.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Stealth Inc 2 Review

A victim of the Metroidvania craze

Stealth Inc 2 is a puzzle platformer that plays somewhat like a 2D version of Portal. The player character is a clone from a scientific research center that must complete a series of puzzles and avoid traps in order to escape the facility to freedom.

The game is comprised of a series of test chamber stages that are linked together by a Metroidvania-style overworld. The test chambers are by far the star of the show here. Each one features a combination of puzzle-solving and platforming combined with some light stealth elements. Every ten stages focuses on a different experimental gadget in the clone's arsenal, thus keeping any one mechanic from getting stale. While some of the challenges can get a little frustrating, the puzzles are generally pretty clever and I found myself looking forward to trying the next set of chambers and unlocking new gadgets. Unfortunately, getting from one chamber to the next requires traversing a rather bland overworld. Since all the gadgets are received automatically by progressing through the stages, there's very little to do in this overworld beyond finding the next chamber's entrance. This causes  me to question why the overworld is there at all. While it would probably reduce the total playtime (which wouldn't necessarily be a negative for me),  I think this game would be a much more enjoyable and streamlined experience if there was just a simple level-select screen rather than a shoehorned-in Metroidvania map.

The music is a mixed bag and the story is bare-bones, but in a puzzle platformer these elements are of lesser significance anyway. I did find myself appreciating the graphics, however. The character designs are simple yet cute, but the impressive part is the use of light and shadow. The dynamic shadow effects give the game a moody atmosphere and also play into the stealth aspects of the action.

While I was underwhelmed by many parts of Stealth Inc 2, the clever puzzles of the test chambers kept me engaged enough to stick with it. For those who enjoy puzzles and are absolutely smitten by the Metroidvania formula, this game should provide a pretty desirable package overall. However, for players like me who just want to get in, beat a few puzzle stages, and get out, they may find themselves wishing Stealth Inc 2 stuck to its strengths and cut the padding.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 16 hours (skipping bonus stages and arbitrary collectibles)