Category Archives: Review

The Witness: A (Cheater’s) Review

IMG_1272It started by “stumbling” across discussions about the game, convincing myself that I was listening to the Idle Thumbs podcast because I felt that it warrants my attention (true); not because The Witness was mentioned during a particular episode (false). Or because I hadn’t listened to IGN’s Game Scoop in months, missing a show that hooked me on video game related podcasts (true); not because The Witness was mentioned in a particular episode‘s show notes (false).

Like many growing up in the late ’80s, early ’90s, I was a fan of Myst. The game took the adult world by storm and after my father and step-father both began discussing its puzzles with me, I felt I had something to offer these grown humans. I spent large swaths of time on a mysterious island, solving puzzles and eventually pouring over a strategy guide; a “book” I later convinced my 2nd grade teacher would serve well for a book report.

And boy, do I love The Witness. To a point.

You know, the thing about Braid: I loved it, I loved the atmosphere, I loved the visions, the softness of it. It kind of felt like a piece of silk you could run your hands through. It was a lovely, lovely game. But here’s the thing that didn’t work for me: It got so tough that my need and want to experience more of its world was absolutely challenged by my feeling that I wasn’t clever enough. I kept going back to find out more about the world, feeling more and more stupid. After a while, I thought, This game is dumb. Now I think I was wrong, by the way.

– Peter Molyneux, in an interview with Tom Bissell, Extra Lives

I’m sure I underestimate myself by thinking I would have never completed the game without a guide. The game thrives on the notion of beating the player down only to let them realize they could find the solution all along. There were plenty of times when I pondered giving up, only to persevere and surprise myself the following day. But after 215 puzzles and frustrating “Tetris” logic, enough was enough.

After weeks of setting the game aside for Firewatch, Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives”, and Veep, the allure and curiosity of The Witness wore off. I was no longer itching to out-do myself. I just needed to know what the The Witness would amount to. Was the experience worth it?

Many reviewers point to discovery and breakthrough as the reward. That once the player is spoiled with hints, the spell is broken. While those moments of besting oneself are certainly empowering, I found cheating my way through the second-half to be enjoyable as well.

I was able to appreciate the full genius behind the game. Had I spent 20-100 hours attempting to slog through the insanely brilliant puzzles for weeks, months or years, there was still no certainty I’d finish the game. By cheating my way through The Witness, I was able to see and appreciate all of the ludacris and awe-inspiring puzzles throughout.

I don’t want to invest in a game that I’m going to put 200 hours in because I’m never going to put 200 or 100 or 50 or 20 hours into a game. I’m just not going to do it. But something like this, which is substantial to me, it’s longer than a movie but it doesn’t become a lifestyle either.

– Jason Snell on Firewatch, The Incomparable podcast, episode 290

It’s very hard for me to spend 20 hours let alone 200 on a single game, as clearly evidenced by my quick drop off from games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto IV. Sure, I’m attempting to play through the entire Final Fantasy series, but it’s a repetitive mobile effort that I dip into for 20 minutes at a time. (You’re not missing much of a story in the first Final Fantasy to warrant consecutive hours of play.)

Lastly, experiencing The Witness‘s devilish penultimate puzzle — two randomly generated, timed mazes of mixed logic intended to thwart cheaters — was a welcome surprise. As I closed in on the end of the walkthough, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a puzzle that could not be documented or shared. I was forced to figure this one out on my own. It certainly wasn’t the most difficult puzzle in the game, but it’s a puzzle that could only be appreciated (and likely solved) by someone who had learned enough to stretch their rusty two-week-old Witness muscles.

Oh, what a frustrating ordeal the penultimate puzzle must be for those who had decided to cheat their way though the entirety of the game; stopped short of victory at the 1-yard line. It would have been easy to overlook adding this trick, but is a perfect fit for a game that prides itself on using assumption to shoot-down the player’s knowledge. (Hats off, Team Thekla!)

The penultimate puzzle alone leads me to believe that Jonathan Blow and his team wanted a community to blossom, sharing hints, tips, and solutions across the global community. Why else would there be only one randomly generated puzzle? It suddenly made me feel less guilty for succumbing to a walkthrough.

Do I feel cheating spoiled the game for me? Absolutely not. That said, I strongly advise pushing oneself to the brink of insanity, solve the puzzle that brought you there, then do it a few more times. Understand the language of the puzzles. Only then will it be rewarding to experience the building of The Mountain, the final tricks, the puzzles within puzzles, and the tightly woven secret of the island. Only then will the player truly understand the frustrating brilliance of The Witness‘s final puzzle.

Blow and the Thekla team put together an experience that will be talked about for years to come. And they took a very high risk placing the final puzzle where they had. The spiraling essence of zooming out to see the whole connected thought is a lovely thing. So much so that the idea that The Witness has players seeing puzzles in the real-world is completely legitimized.

Sure, all of this could have been said from a player who finished the game without cheating, and likely with greater appreciation and satisfaction. But I know I ended up a whole lot less frustrated yet still deeply satisfied.

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Firewatch: A Review

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It goes without saying Firewatch is an aesthetic marvel. Just look look at the gameplay screenshot above. Better yet, head to firewatchgame.com and get your fill. But it’s what lies within the exterior beauty that Firewatch shines.

Without taking the Up-like blow out of the first act, the game finds protagonist Henry having taken a job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. Henry communicates with Delilah, a veteran lookout in another watchtower, via radio through choice-driven narrative queues (à la The Walking Dead, Choose Your Own Adventure). Shortly after the opening, the two find themselves tangled up in a self-provoked mystery.

Throughout my play-through, I became so concerned for Henry’s safety that my own certainty about the wilderness and its role as a haven for the unknown and unexplainable began to fulfill itself. However, it’s at the mercy of a few cheap tricks that this unsettlement is allowed to creep in. One early trick creates the suspicion that something bigger is going on and you’re the only one not in on the secret. Another instills the fear of looking down or turning a corner; two actions that become impossible to avoid and occur at breakneck frequency throughout the entirety of the game. Campo Santo makes it impossible not to feel anxious.

The answer to the game’s mystery will be unsatisfying, but only because this is the wrong puzzle. I’d argue the real answer is to why the game’s mystery is unsatisfying. Therein lies the revelation. Ultimately, Firewatch shows that one’s own ego and neurosis can overshadow important details; that our narcissism and persistence to seek the puppet-masters blur what is right in front of us. Without doubt, an interesting mystery unfolds for Henry and Delilah; but it’s an exposé in egoism that lies at the heart of Firewatch.

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Demo Mode: Rise of the Tomb Raider

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In the shadow of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, I’m not entirely sure it’s fair to say Square Enix’s 2013 Tomb Raider reboot set a bar, but it certainly showed that Square Enix has the chops to add a fair contender to the photorealistic action-adventure genre. To say it another way, if it weren’t for the lack of wit, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Nathan Drake made a cameo. That is a compliment.

Uncharted similarities aside, I imagine Tomb Raider was a welcome reboot of the franchise. Missing a chance with the original Tomb Raider series, 2013’s Tomb Raider was my first-ever jaunt with Lara Croft, and it certainly had me yearning for adventures with her. The mechanics felt nice. There were enough collectibles to make its linear nature feel a bit more open. And it was certainly gorgeous.

However, having never played the original Tomb Raider series from the late-90s, I was unfamiliar with the concept of raiding tombs. Thinking back on my play-through, the reboot had very little to do with it’s namesake. Many Tomb Raider reviews called out the lack of the core aspect of the franchise. In any case, my enjoyment with the reboot left me unquestioning of the game’s title.

Square Enix’s sequel/prequel (the trial doesn’t paint a fair picture of the timeline) Rise of the Tomb Raider appears to have a greater focus on tomb raiding. Various reviews have highlighted that this new focus paired with an open-world nature make for a compelling follow-up and something that is varied enough from the first.

During the Rise of the Tomb Raider trial, I did not have an opportunity to experience either of these aspects. It opens with the player scaling an icy and crumbing mountainside — an Uncharted 2 opening train-scene equivalent — to a lost city and a tomb within. The visuals are stunning and, like the first, the mechanics feel polished. (This coming off of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate which feel clunky to a franchise novice. A story for another post.) After entering the ruins of the lost city, the player is treated with a fairly simple puzzle of rising water and platforming. Unchallenging, but it gives the impression that this type of puzzling will be core to the remainder of the game.

The hour-long trial is ripe with cinematics: the opening, a few during the mountain climb, a flashback highlighting Lara’s father, and the ending. I’d hope that the remainder of the game strays away from the heavy-handed cinematics and quicktime events, opting to focus more on puzzling within tombs. The trial ends in a rushed cinematic with an unnamed baddie, a “shootout” with two henchmen, and a race out of the tomb before it comes crashing down.

Without relying too heavily on reviews elsewhere, the trial of Rise of the Tomb Raider feels like more of the same, albeit a bit prettier than the first title in the franchise.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

SPOILERS!

I’m being torn apart. Did I like it? Yes. Did I love it? No. Did it live up to the hype? Maybe. My pros/cons list weighs heavily on the dark side, but the experience steers the franchise toward the light.

The film opens with a fleet of stormtroopers storming a village. In one particular instance, as one goes down, another, FN-2187 (quite obviously Finn for anyone who’s seen the trailers), without firing a shot, has a sudden change of heart about being part of a war-machine. Is this his first fight? Was the death of that particular comrade important? The audience would be better served if we understood the bond between Finn and the downed stormtrooper, or if there was some understanding that this was FN-2187’s first fight.

Not to mention that Finn’s introduction is mixed with a barrage of other main characters Poe, BB-8, Kylo Ren, and Captain Phasma within the first ten minutes. This all felt like a lot to digest.

It’s not until Rey’s introduction where the film begins to establish its language and context. The pace slows, allowing the audience to grasp the stakes through osmosis rather than force-feeding. Though, it’s not hard to feel enchanted when Rey is on-screen. Daisy Ridley is the star of the show and only becomes larger when backed by “Rey’s Theme”; John Williams’s breathtaking score for our new hero. (Fear not. BB-8 is a marvel!)

On the topic of characters, I never got on-board with Finn. He feels more like a Star Wars uber-fan living out his fantasies than true-blue Star Wars lore. But maybe that’s because Finn is the only character that doesn’t really have a Star Wars legacy identity. Rey acts as a brilliant blend of Han and young Obi-Wan while Poe waxes a bit “pilot” Luke. If anything, Finn’s overly comedic performance rings closer to Jar-Jar than any other legacy character. That’s not to discount everything John Boyega brings to the table, namely his performance in the Takodana bar and his lightsaber battle against Kylo Ren. But in large part, I began to dread his appearance on-screen. I would have gladly traded the abundance of Finn for the lack of Leia’s most talented pilot, Poe.

If there was one thing The Force Awakens is not short on, it’s dog-fights. Battles overall, for that matter. However, while dog-fights are a boon for a Star Wars fan, not one of these takes place in space! What’s a Star Wars movie without a war amongst the stars?! (This may not be the fairest gripe, but it’s an observance worth bringing up.) In any case, ground combat felt fantastic, with practical explosions and the bodies of stormtroopers flying about; CG effects seemingly only used for blaster fire.

And while I loved the idea of J.J. making a point to bring back a heavy use of practical-effects, they began to feel heavy handed at times. Jakku’s village felt like it paid great homage while Takodana’s bar felt exhaustive. Other instances of aliens and droids painted some scenes well. But in large part, it all felt a bit too much. Excessive b-role and cuts to random characters feel strewn about just for fan service and proof that they were committed to the idea of practical-effects. (I wonder if my fretting is just jarring reaction to the modern reliance of CG…?)

As heavy-handed as the practical-effects were, the allure they have been brought on to create is thrown out when two major characters appear as CG constructs. Like Finn’s out-of-place character, these characters took me out of the world that J.J. had constructed and put me back into the tried-and-tired trope of major CG reliance.

On the flip side, the lack of large scale CG set pieces and battlegrounds made this epic feel eerily small. Each scene feels like a specific set piece rather than a fleshed-out world. (There are similar scenes in The Hobbit films and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.) Suffice to say, most of the sets (and some of the acting and scene transitions) made the movie feel like a stage-play.

For all of the negative I can bring up about The Force Awakens, I cannot help but think about the good, the warm, and the fresh. This is why I’m torn. (Okay, add Kylo Ren’s struggle to the list. It was extremely human and relatable on multiple levels.)

Good: It’s a Star Wars film that feels like an Abrams film. While the characters, design, and story feel fairly true to the Star Wars universe, the film feels far removed from the language Lucas established with the original trilogy and certainly the prequels. So much so that I still feel like I’m having to check my opinion against what I’ve come to know and expect of Star Wars films, even the great ones. (Am I bothered simply because what I expect of this universe feels alien? Is that bad? Am I guarding myself from another Phantom Menace folly?) This is a good thing. “Enhancements” aside, we will always have the original trilogy and it’s refreshing to see a new take on this universe.

Warm: There are call-backs and nods. A lot of them. Maybe too many of them. But every single one feels like a treat that I apparently can’t get sick of. (They felt more natural the second time around.) Say what you will of The Hobbit films, it was nice to see the cast back together. The same feeling is exuded in The Force Awakens. Even more so. Some of the references feel forced, but that is too be expected. I imagine the audiences experiencing the Star Wars saga (well, episodes IV-VII) straight through or for the first time won’t be as phased by the obvious.

Fresh: The final scene. Our reunion with Luke opens the story in ways that The Empire Strikes Back had no other option but to fill in after the fact. Never has there been a Star Wars film where the future was so foreign to the audience but so presumably mapped by writers. (The script for Episode VIII was finished before the release of Episode VII. Unprecedented for a non-prequel Star Wars film. ) We know bigger things are coming and I’d argue that Episode VII simply exists to whet our appetites. That’s not to say it’s a cliffhanger, but through Luke, the mysteries and color of today’s Star Wars universe are on the cusp of being revealed.

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[EDIT]: Added paragraph about set pieces and stage-plays.

1/1/16: Edited and revised after second viewing.

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The Room Three

On occasion, usually during App Store visits, the question whether Fireproof Games had released the (by my standards) highly anticipated third entry of The Room series bubbles up. Admittedly and shamefully, I don’t follow Pocket Gamer or Touch Arcade with any sort of regularity. (Changing that now.) To my surprise, I had come to find out about the release of The Room Three in Ben Kuchera’s argument as a gamer for switching to iOS:

The release of The Room 3 finally broke me. Last night I went to my local AT&T store, suffered through the inevitable awful wait, and traded in my Galaxy Note 4 for an iPhone 6S Plus.

Let this in-and-of-itself give credence to The Room. And not just the third entry, but the series as a whole.

The Room series stakes its claim on connected hyper-schewmorphic puzzles, set in a Myst-style photorealistic environment, all for the sake of solving a mystery. You crank gears, adjust mirrors, light fires, slide latches, and flick switches in an attempt to find out where the hell you are, how the hell you got there, what all of these cryptic symbols and anicent references mean, how deep the rabbit goes, and what pathological nut case is stringing you along. For a symbolic, deep-meaning, puzzle junkie such as myself, it’s perfect.

In the first entry, the player was tasked with getting to the center of a box. Said box rests in “the room”. To open the box, you must solve the puzzles of the box. The more the player digs, the tricker puzzles become; the deeper the mystery gets.

The Room Two expands beyond the box, donning the player with a special eyepiece to see hidden messages scattered about. This sequel also expands movement, allowing the player to scour rooms for clues and secrets. It dabbles deeper into the classical elements (earth, wind, water, fire) to find The Null.


The Room Three takes movement and depth one step further with the addition of areas (levels) to explore and a new lens addition for your eyepiece; one that allows the player to dive deep into the miniature mechanics of the machines seen about. To use a mechanism for one puzzle, you must solve the puzzle within the mechanism.

I found there to be a bit of repetition with the puzzles, not to mention some overly obvious and seemingly pointless tasks. (Yes, I will slide that thing to the left because I have no other option to do anything else.) But that’s the charm of The Room. It always has been. Sticking a key in a whole won’t do anything unless you turn the key, right?

The mysticism and cryptic nature of The Room Three felt a bit lackluster. Not many otherworldly references or hair-raising messages. (Granted, it’s been two years since I’ve spent time with The Room Two. Maybe this was the case there as well.) It felt hallow. Not necessarily that the dark charm and personality had been altogether lost, but maybe that the developer was too fatigued with adding puzzles to a world so large that depth took a backseat to time.

Which brings me to the awe inspiring essence of The Room series. Regardless of the charm falling flat or the occasional overt obviousness, the mind-bending  machines and realism Fireproof Games continues to dream up is inspiring to the point that it’s excruciating. There is dazzle and surprise around every corner; astonishing cleaverness in every puzzle; perfectionism in art direction and machanics.

Predictably, The Room Three was a delight to solve. Truly a treasure through to the end. Though sadly, it was the end that finally kicked the cleverness up to my desired notch. I continue to think on what mad scientists and otherworldly designers continue to craft such detailed experiences.

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King’s Quest

“Cheri…! How do you spell ‘Sierra?'” a question I would often shout to my step-mother from an adjacent room. Their PC housed a game called Quest for Glory. Somewhere between my limited knowledge of MS-DOS and the English language, I would ask and re-ask this question, eventually running the prompt C:\sierra\glory.exe. To add to the naivety, I didn’t learn how to intiate mouse control until my dad’s friend (and King’s Quest junkie) relayed the message to me. For years, I had been playing a point-and-click without, well, a mouse to point and click.

Nonetheless, today is different; though, not entirely far off. I’ve completed the first chapter of the King’s Quest reboot on PS4 without a mouse. And boy, did it feel great.

At heart, I’m a Quest for Glory kid. In any case, my memory serves King’s Quest far from simplistic and innocent, but dashed with bits of humor and challenge. That said, the personally and puzzles in the reboot feel more realized and extemely fitting.

Princess Bride notes ring hard and true, from a grandfather’s storytelling to a cast including Wallace Shawn (and Christopher Lloyd, not to be left without mention!), but it’s all a lovely addition and somewhat apt recalling of the memories of playing the (or those in spirit to the) original game. The humor and trials dance between easy no-brainer to truly challenging exercises of “wit.” And while most of the game’s writing and development is close to that of a better than average Disney film with clever storytelling devices strewn about, there is one surprising and appreciated moment that brings some weighty emotion; its effect ringing subtly through the remainder of the chapter.

The first of five chapters, A Knight to Remember, resolves with satisfaction. The art direction is gorgeous, animations fluid, and the writing is sure to land a few square chuckles with all age groups. The game comes off as a Disney movie that you play. Not to mention it took much longer than I had expected to complete. While I’m one for concise games these days, it felt appropriate that King’s Quest had more to ofter than anticipated. This coming after viewing a score of 6.5 from one of my favorite game reviewers.

King’s Quest is a worthy play and I am eagerly looking forward to the next chapter.

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GOTY: Rocksmith 2014

Not much weight should be put on Game of the Year. Just ask Griffin McElroy. And for a guy who obsesses over the industry, I’m ashamed to say that I had only played a handful of last year’s releases. While I played the best of the best, Mario Kart 8, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and Broken Age to name a few, nothing has kept me coming back like Rocksmith 2014.

Apologies for the late review. I had only started playing days before the New Year.

Gameplay

I was a latecomer to the plastic-partying hysteria of Guitar Hero. My brother talked me into picking up Rockband (Guitar Hero with drums and a microphone for those unfamiliar) as a family activity. We had a blast, but I was never able to pry myself away from the drum kit. With a small background in music, the five-button toy guitars never satisfied. The drums were the closest I could get to a life-like experience. After leaving my high school rock band days well behind me, an itch for the satisfaction in controlling a real instrument began to percolate.

At it’s core, Rocksmith is built around the iconic Guitar Hero design: A reverse Star Wars crawl of notes streaming toward a fretboard with the player expected to strike said note at the right time. Where Rocksmith differs is the use of a real guitar; 138 notes vs. Guitar Hero’s 6.

From the get-go, I was extremely impressed by Rocksmith’s accuracy of note and chord recognition. Honest strikes and near misses are fed back in real-time just like Guitar Hero. Inaccuracies happen but typically err on the side of the player. Sure, there are inconsistencies here and there. If I missed a note in a chord, Rocksmith generally let it slide. However, when I can feel and hear exactly what I am playing, I know I am a cheat. (No amount of “gimmes” could extinguish my weight of guilt.) I didn’t need Rocksmith 2014 to tell me I was wrong. I was just as eager to jump back into the ring.

The player is offered three paths: lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and bass. In the instance of lead guitar, techniques are slowly introduced during the “Learn A Song” mode. They are also readily available in “Lessons”. The player starts by playing along with a songs using well spaced single notes. These notes slowly advance into chords, bends, slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, tapping, etc. The scale of techniques offered by the game is shocking, not to mention the depth of the lessons and range of songs that utilize each technique.

Core

Where Rocksmith shines is the Learn A Song mode. There is a surprisingly vast array of songs in the catalog: from The Ramones to Rush to The Dear Hunter to Minus the Bear(!) to Mastodon. The player fas the choice to play each song straight through or focus on objectives such as mastering a bridge, finishing with a certain level of accuracy, or playing a mini-game that teaches a technique used in the song.

The killer feature, however, is Rocksmith’s ability to scale the difficulty of each song on the fly based on how well the player is performing. As I coolly played through La Sera’s “Love That’s Gone”, strumming full E5s and delicately plucking scattered notes, I was sure I had mastered the patterns. I was then caught off guard by a C#m that, at first, had only included A-flat and D-flat. After a few play-throughs and a headfake chorus, the chord had evolved, incorporating an E and another A-flat. Replaying the same song over and over without having to manually change difficulty is great. But more importantly, scaling the difficulty between individual sections previously mastered is brilliant. Imagine every time you played through World 1-1, new obstacles were introduced in the areas you excelled in.

Extras

In addition to learning songs, Rocksmith 2014 is packed with a plethora of supplemental modes, all serving individual importance and, quite possibly, to different audiences.

“Lessons” focus on individual techniques with accompanying videos and monitored playback that end in full songs. Lessons are repeated until mastered and are fairly enjoyable to revisit. Even the simple ones taught me something. And yes, the videos can be skipped.

“Guitarcade” focuses less on technique and more on music theory. Numerous surprisingly well designed games teach core skills in volume control, scales, and chord changes, among others. Be it the Streets of Rage style “Scale Warriors” or the Star Fox homage “Star Chords”, the level of detail in design, music, and art is top-notch.

That said, I have yet to jump at playing any of the “Guitarcade” mini-games. I don’t find them quite as engaging as the core “Learn A Song” mode or “Lessons”. Their presence within the greater Rocksmith game are a prime statement on edutainment; layering education on top of existing games (or vice versa) rarely produces a great experience. (Guitarcade) Building them together generally produces a far more engaging product. (Learn a Song)

To round out the list of features, “Session Mode” allows the player to build a band for an endless jam session. Similar to Apple’s GarageBand and Logic drummers, the band members the player chooses work for the player, not separately from the player. The AI play styles dynamically shift based on the player’s strumming patterns and rhythms.

Even with my lukewarm response to the “Guitarcade”, I can see a universe in which each of these secondary features are shipped as fantastic stand-alone products. To bundle them into the same package as the already fantastic core game is without a doubt a triumph in its own right. There is a level of finesse, execution, and love put into “Lessons”, “Guitarcade”, and “Session Mode” that seem to have be missing from major releases of late.

Falling Short

Where Rocksmith falls short is in guiding the player through recommended songs, lessons, and mini-games. It is clear that there was a desire to emphasize recommended paths, but it feels poorly executed. Rather just pressing “play” and letting Rocksmith 2014 take the wheel to automatically jump from song to mini-game back to the same song with an emphasis on a single verse and so forth, the player is forced to manually jump around in hopes that the recommendations are truly applicable.

In the case of playing “recommended” songs, I felt like I was playing through the entire catalog rather than focusing on where my skills needed work. In no time, Rocksmith took me from Johnny Ramone to Alex Lifeson before I could handle Dave Grohl. It took about 4 hours of play to realize sorting by “difficulty” rather than “recommended” was my desired style of play.

Conclusion

It’s been nearly 15 years since I began playing in a rock back. Nearly 15 years since the dream of becoming a rock star ever surfaced into my consciousness. Time, money, space, studies, work, responsibility: These things began to take priority after high school. The thing that made me feel most alive was put aside. It’s a shame that more effort was not made, that I lacked the confidence to perform on my own, or that I wouldn’t set aside a few hours a day to practice. (Also, I was never that good.) The older I got, the more I watched my rock ‘n roll glory days fade away.

Rocksmith 2014, through it’s brilliant use of familiar design, great song catalog, and level of detail, is quite possibly the best piece of edutainment software out there. Not only is it engaging, it is educational and addicting.  It is by no means perfect, with “recommendations” being a botched effort on potentially the strongest feature. But what it gets wrong pales in comparison to the core features it gets right. With surprise after surprise, “wow moment” after “wow moment”, Rocksmith 2014 kept hitting me in all of the sweet spots. And most importantly, it brought me back to my guitar.


Amazon | Rocksmith 2014 requires a guitar and a specialized 1/4 audio to USB cable.

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Monument Valley – A Review

The beauty of brevity. The pleasure of paradox.


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Ten puzzles. Ten gorgeous, mind-bending, paradoxical puzzles. This is a video game you will complete. In fact, Monument Valley may the first video game many will complete. This is by design.

“With so many games, people never see the end, because there’s so many hours of gameplay, we wanted to make a game where you see the whole thing.” – Dan Gray, Monument Valley Executive Producer in an interview with Polygon

As a child, completing a game was a triumph. This was not due to lack time, rather heightened difficulty. Personally, my choice in games was largely based on franchise rather than quality. In turn, this provided me with a library of poorly designed “classics” such as Sonic The Hedgehog and Battletoads. Hours were spent replaying games from Stage 1-1 on to the point where I was forced to power down the console. Check points were few and far between. Save files were non-existent. When asking a video game funding parent if their child had completed any, you’d be hard pressed to receive a positive answer.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this notion has persuaded many audiences away from video games entirely. If they cannot be finished, what is the point?

Now in my late-20s, working 10-12 hours per day, fitting in crucial exercise for a metabolism that seems all but lost, weekends spent running errands that have stacked up, and nurturing a relationship with my soon-to-be wife, I find very little free time to invest in my love for gaming. The minute-to-minute time I do find is spent reading pieces on Polygon or IGN, sharing these with the greater social media landscape. Echoed in Ben Kuchera’s post “Parenthood makes gaming better by making time your most precious resource,” the value of time skyrockets as we age. The pastimes of yesteryear begin to seem wasteful, yet we strive to retain a connection to our childhood identity. After all, it is the foundation of our dreams. It is who we are and where we are headed.

Since playing Final Fantasy X (recently remastered for PS3 and PSVita) in high school, I have searched for games with rich story. Until the rise of indies, these only seemed attainable through 15-40 hour bouts of character and world building, effectively turning a game into an interactive novel. Fitting one of these epics into my day-to-day has become a near impossible feat.

This is where Monument Valley succeeds. Piling mass amounts of beautiful art and ambitious puzzle design into a bite sized experience is the video game equivalent of a decadent cake. Too much is overbearing. Not enough is unsatisfying. There is a balance.

Monument Valley immediately finds it’s footing through a rich color palette, a soothing soundtrack, and delicate animation. The player understands this world and its inhabitants. The story is used as a mysterious additive that comes secondary to exploring the gorgeous worlds built on paradoxical M. C. Esher design.

Puzzle solving through the discovery of paradox makes the player feel empowered and unstoppable. The experience of breaking illogical boundaries through new perspectives gives players the opportunity to live out their fantasies; it offers a sensation of seeing The Matrix or experiencing the paradox of Inception first-hand.

As the game progresses, the solutions to impossible geometry become more and more difficult to discover. It was not uncommon for me to consciously forget my knowledge of the real world and instead fall back on memories of mazes and Puzzlemania books of my youth. As the difficulty builds, the frustration of adulthood becomes more apparent. Our desire to know how things work is challenged to near breaking point. Even those with a basic understanding of code, animation, and design will scratch their heads and ask of the developers, “how did they do that?” Somehow, the player is able to move the on-screen character through paths that did not previously exist until viewing the vertical world from a different angle. Genius.

It seems the urgency for time has permeated the minds of the developers at ustwo. Monument Valley’s 2-3 hour play-through is the perfect amount of that decadent cake. The experience of Monument Valley is sure to please both the hardcore gamer and casual audiences alike. In fact, it is the perfect example of the importance of short and sweet, possibly introducing these polarizing audiences to a new approach in game design as seen in JourneyThe Room, or EDGE. And like that decadent cake, Monument Valley’s length, design, and puzzles are mesmerizing enough to feel satisfied yet haunting enough to warrant constant craving. If DLC is abound, sign me up.

Monument Valley is available exclusively on iOS (iTunes)


Originally published on TheStarrList.com

 

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