Freebird games make video games that look and sound a lot like mid-90s Japanese role-playing games, it’s an aesthetic they have completely nailed down. But they’ve removed core elements from them to create something that feels a little more like a traditional adventure game. To The Moon completely eschewed with combat and focused on exploration of areas in order to tell its story, it involved a lot of characters talking to each other.
Their most recent game, A Bird Story, does away with even more. There’s no dialogue at all and it’s a much more scripted linear experience that would probably upset the same people that would say that Gone Home and Proteus are not video games. It uses so little traditional game mechanics in order to tell a story of a boy bonding with an injured bird. It also can be finished in an hour.
But let’s look past that really, it’s not like this game costs a lot, it’s short but really sweet. The thing that really grated me about To The Moon is that portions of it felt too ‘video gamey’ and somewhat diminished the emotional impact of certain sequences. A Birds Story takes a much more minimalistic approach like something you’d see in a Sylvain Chomet film, though not quite as tear-jerking. There was no point where I had to engage in annoying video game rubbish in order to progress.
It’s so simple, it only uses the arrow keys and spacebar for controls (a controller is also supported). I suppose because it’s using old fashioned sprite graphics, the mind does a lot to fill in what’s going on, the music helps a lot, especially since a lot of it feels completely tailored to fit each moment. A couple of times I noticed that the game and music felt really in sync with each other, which helped to elevate some of those moments.
Sure I only got an hour out of it, but during that hour I had a smile on my face.
If you’ve only seen some footage of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, you’d be a little forgiven for thinking it’s just like every other big-budget game out there. Its movement is lifted straight out of Assassin’s Creed and its combat is taken right from the Batman: Arkham games. The story is some generic revenge fantasy that video game writers seem really into these days. I don’t think that does a good job of selling this game, because as bog standard as I’ve made it sound, it’s actually great.
On top of the game’s risk-free open-world structure, is a system that has brought about equal amounts of frustration and satisfaction. Basically it’s what has been described as the “Nemesis System”. For those unfamiliar amongst the orc enemies around the game are named captains and war chiefs. They can pop up at any time, like when you’re just wandering around, or even during a main mission. They’re hard to take down, and if they kill you they will let you know about it the next time you come across them. They’re persistent too, if you take them down they could potentially come back to fight again.
Each time you die against an orc it’s annoying because they get more powerful because of that, but it was such a good system because I felt that fuelled my desire to fight back. The one guy who kept killing me would be my target, but there was always a small feeling of panic when they would turn up out of nowhere. It also made dying in the game a lot more meaningful, it was punishing as opposed to being just a temporary roadblock. Each of the orcs were likely randomly generated out of certain elements, but there was enough unique about each of the ones I encountered that I always recognised my worst enemies.
This system elevated the game to be much more exciting than similar ones out there. It’s great how one aspect can change how a game flows, but wait I’m not quite done yet.
About 2/3rds of the way through the game you get the ability to ‘brand’ orcs and make them fight for you. It’s thematically problematic (you basically enslave them) but mechanically satisfying. You could sneak up on orcs, brand a few and have them fight each other while watching from the shadows. I personally found it much more fun to charge in head first into a big battle, fill up my combo meter so that I could brand them mid-battle, and gradually turn a huge crowd that was all against me into my own army. And yes you can take over the minds of captains and war chiefs too, which you can command to take out other orcs in the hierarchy. At this point it has some light strategy elements as you pit captains against each other. It’s just a shame that you have to get through roughly 60% of the game to get to the best part.
These extra layers make Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor one of the most interesting games to come out this year. I couldn’t care any less about the story but just the act of playing it was really fun, and in a big-budget game like this one I really appreciated that.
Just look at it, it’s really nice and colourful. Did I mention it’s ridiculous? I’m really having a lot of fun with it though.
There’s not a lot I can say about it, it would be easier for you to go play it yourself, or take a look at the Youtube video below if you’re feeling a bit lazy.
It’s a smartphone game, so it won’t cost you a lot.
Proteus is weird. There’s not much else like it out there, however that doesn’t mean to say it’s better than everything else because it’s different.
This is a game of pure exploration, and not much else. It’s a virtual nature-walk with old-school graphics.
There is fun to be had in that, it’s bright colours allow it to look very pretty, and the games music sounds fantastic.
Speaking of music, it is a strong point of the game. The players movement and location controls it, with sombre tracks on high lonely hills, and upbeat melodies in the lush green forests. Each kind of animal you encounter adds their own flourish to the soundtrack, giving the game that extra bit of personality.
All this sight and sound comes together to something pretty lovely. A short and sweet little game.
The problem however is that it isn’t really much beyond that, it doesn’t offer a lot that the traditional videogame would.
And that could lead some to being very oppositional to it, Proteus is just a game that a lot of people aren’t going to understand, but that’s absolutely fine.
It does make this much harder to write about the game, I’m unsure of the type of person who would like it. I know I did, but people have also told me that it’s the worst thing they’ve played in a while, because it lacks the ‘core parts of being a videogame’.
I’m of the opinion that Proteus is most certainly a videogame, it does fun things with it’s interactivity, and I feel something can easily become a game with the smallest amount of interactivity.
There’s no winning and losing in Proteus, no roadblocks, no challenges, no boss fights. You walk around a little island that looks and sounds really nice. I honestly can’t say whether or not you would like that. It might be worth giving a go, but don’t say I told you it was amazing.
The version of Proteus played for review was on PSVita, it is also available on PS3 and PC. Review code was supplied by Curve Studios.
This plays just like that, it takes the adventure game format, and instead of making it about ‘item a’ in ‘slot b’ style puzzles, it gives more of a focus on narrative choices, mostly through dialogue.
Often at times you’re given a timer, and forced to make a decision that doesn’t quite have a clear cut right or wrong answer.
They’re also both released episodically, which worked great because it gave it a similar feel to a new TV show, complete with the whole dialogue of “Oh did you see that new episode”, “No man don’t spoil!”
As much as there are similarities, this does not feel the same.
For a start it’s a much more colourful game, set during the 80s, it makes use of a bright pinks and light blues, but it’s shadowy night-time setting gives a gritty noir tone to the visuals.
The pacing feels slower, it doesn’t have the constant sense of dread that came from The Walking Dead’s apocalyptic setting.
Once I had gotten quite into the game, I stopped doing internal comparisons, and started appreciating the game for it’s own aspects.
It’s based on the comic book Fables, and has a murder mystery, peppered with aspects of class tension, all presented through fairy tale characters in a modern setting, known in-game as ‘fables’. Most of the non-human looking ones have bought ‘glamours’ a spell which allows them to appear human, however it costs money.
And Telltale have managed to make good characters out of them. The Big Bad Wolf reformed and is now Bigby Wolf, sheriff of Fabletown, New York. Most fables see him as too strict and controlling, how he sees himself is up to you through the dialogue choices. Mr Toad has gone from the lavishness of Toad Hall to a cheap apartment where he can’t even afford a glamour to make himself look human, and is frustrated by it.
Then there is an interrogation scene, which you look around a crime scene in someone’s house, and ask them questions. Picking the right dialogue choices to catch them off guard is really cool, I wouldn’t want to spoil too much of it, but I think it’s experiencing for yourself.
But it does have it’s drawbacks, towards the beginning a few of the fight scenes feel like they lack impact, and are heavily dependant on timed button prompts. It’s a shame because at times those sorts of button prompts were used to such good effect in the Walking Dead. Also if you’re the impatient sort, you might have to tolerate some load times, but nothing crazy significant.
For now though this is a good first start, and has made me hopeful for future episodes.
The Wolf Among Us Episode 1 is available on XBLA, PSN and Steam. Steam requires you to buy all episodes at once, a season pass is available for XBLA and PSN to gain every episode when they are released.
One of my favourite things about this game are benches.
It sounds mundane, but sitting on a bench moves the camera out to give a full view of the area, and the locations in Brothers are beautiful.
It’s great looking in general, with a lovely soundtrack to compliment it’s visuals, and despite the lack of any understandable dialogue it manages to tell a great story through sight and sound.
It opens with simple premise of two brothers journeying off to a far land to find medicine for their sick father, and builds to a very emotional conclusion.
The control scheme can take a small amount used to, each brother is controlled with either analogue stick, and can sometimes feel like the videogame equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your belly. However there isn’t really a lot of dexterity required in playing Brothers, and the controls really serve to pack an emotional punch in certain scenes.
Following a recent trend with certain games, I managed to finish it in one sitting, about 3 hours-ish. I like that, it can give a more ‘movie-like’ pacing to these sorts of games, it also means that there’s never a dull moment in the game. I’d rather take a great 3 hour experience over a 40 hour slog.
If you have an evening, or lazy afternoon to spare, I’d recommend giving Brothers a try, especially if you like purely narrative driven games.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is available to buy on Steam, Xbox Live, and Playstation Network.
For PC players, Lone Survivor has been out for a year and a half. Now it’s come to PlayStation Network and hasn’t lost anything in the transition.
It’s the same game with more content put on top of it, which isn’t a bad thing at all, the existing game is an incredibly creepy and tense psychological horror, with clear influences from Silent Hill and David Lynch films.
If anything the game evokes a very similar sense of foreboding dread to Silent Hill, and if it was released under that franchise it wouldn’t seem weird at all. Both games are set in very dark, ruined places. Both games feature weird and twisted human-like enemies. Both games feature deliberately awkward combat in order to bring up the tension.
There are a lot of mechanics to do with survival in the game, you have to stop yourself from being too tired, hungry or make sure you don’t get killed by some monster. The game doesn’t have so much of a hunger or tiredness meter on display, or even a health bar. This is both a weakness and a strength.
The lack of clarity can make for a very frightening experience, but for some a very frustrating one. However it’s what makes the game what it is, you have to take risks in order to learn everything in the game. You have to risk starving to know that you have to eat, you have to risk confronting enemies to know how you can deal with them and if you have the resources.
Risk is an important part this game, it’s what creates tension. Walk into an area in the dark and risk bumping into a group of creatures without seeing them, but go in with your flash-light on and you could risk drawing attention to yourself. Take on a bad guy with your handgun and risk another three or four coming in and taking you down with ease.
Some could write the game off as old-fashioned and clunky, but it just goes to show that horror games aren’t truly for everyone. Aspects from this game in most other genres would come across as annoying, but here it works because horror is about having a bad time. You have to be made to panic and scramble across the place, it can’t be too easy for you.
That all said you can’t justify all of the game’s issues by just saying ‘it’s what horror does’. The in-game map takes a bit of getting used to, and there are a few moments where the game’s scares come across as a bit obviously scripted.
The version of the game I was playing was on the PlayStation Vita, and the game doesn’t lend itself too much to being ‘portable’. You’re better off playing it with headphones or external speakers because the game would sound otherwise too tinny. Also the game’s intended effect of scaring the living daylights out of you when you’re playing it in daylight sat on a bus somewhere.
If you’re the sort who can’t get into a game because the controls are a bit clunky, or the game doesn’t explain enough to you, this isn’t for you. It’s for the horror game fans, who will understand that the game does what it can to make you feel very afraid.