Memories, Subjective as They Are – PC – Amnesia: The Dark Descent – 2010

20190315192205_1Amnesia: The Dark Descent
PC
Frictional Games
Genre: Horror Adventure
2010

Everyone finds a different way to tackle their backlog, and it is hardly ever the same as the next person. I’ve worked on finding creative ways to approach my backlog, but it always seems to grow faster than I can get it to shrink. In a recent Twitter post, someone mentioned looking into your Steam library purchases to see what the first game you ever bought on the platform was. My curiosity got the better of me given my pile of games on there is probably the largest of all of my gaming methods, so I took the plunge to find out what my flagship Steam purchase was.

December 11th, 2010. A few days before my birthday so I must have been treating myself. No surprise that it was a horror game but a bit surprising that it was a game I hadn’t played to completion: Amnesia: The Dark Descent. As a bit of a Lovecraft fan and an entrenched horror gaming fan, it struck me as odd that I hadn’t taken the plunge to complete the game but had made a few unsuccessful attempts.

As someone who was very excited to check out Amnesia when it first released, knowing nearly ten years after it came out that I hadn’t finished it became the gasoline in my tank to push into it with the express purpose of seeing the end credits. Not that I didn’t have an inherent interest. After years of hype, though, and seeing it recommended by a ton of fellow horror fans, I had to wonder what kind of impact it would leave on me in the present day. Continue reading

Ahead of Its Time with an Excess of Pieces – PC – Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh – 1996

TitlePhantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh
PC
Sierra On-Line
Genre: Point-and-Click Horror/Sci-Fi
1996

Anyone who has talked with me about video games for an extended amount of times has stumbled on my love of FMV games. It’s probably due to the mixture of cinema and the interactivity of the medium, but something has always intrigued me about the jump to using live actors and CGI to bring games to the ‘next level’.

About three years ago, I put together a piece on a full-motion video game called Phantasmagoria, a game that was developed and published by prominent adventure game designer and Sierra On-Line luminary Roberta Williams. After the immense success of creating a video game that was aimed squarely at a more mature audience, it was only logical that a sequel would be developed; that’s the way that media works and Sierra did not disappoint in delivering another game to the short-lived franchise.

Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh appeared on shelves a year after the original. Despite not being helmed by Williams this time around- the reins had been passed to a colleague of hers, Lorelei Shannon who wrote and directed- the sequel’s horrific box art and correlation to its controversial predecessor gave it the perfect setup to once again break records. The issue with following up groundbreaking work, however, is finding new ground to strike in a novel way. On the surface, this game seems ready to deliver the goods.

Once it’s open and the gears start turning, though, does the puzzle fit together or are there are few pieces missing that keep the final product from being as iconic as the first?

Plot

1

From the start, the imagery comes on strong.

A restraint buckle hanging off of the side of a gurney. A group of doctors working to detain a frantic young man, eyes wild with delusion and panic as he struggles against a straitjacket. The sterile walls of a hospital room, tinted in a just-too-vivid shade of blue.

As the medical staff deals with their patient, the perspective snaps to Curtis Craig, the young man who had been restrained, now waking in a sweat in his bed. He starts his morning getting ready to head to Wyntech, the pharmaceutical company he works for, and while the nightmare doesn’t seem to be uncommon, he goes about his morning jarred. Still, life goes on.

It isn’t long before things start to go awry at Wyntech. Amidst the bouts of paranoia and mental duress Curtis deals with from past traumas, the sudden grisly demise of a reviled co-worker begins a spiral into an urban legend that has haunted Wyntech for as long as any of the current employees can remember. Despite the staff’s desperation to recover from the shock of their colleague’s murder, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that the danger still looms over Wyntech, threatening and ever-present.

It’s up to Curtis, who stumbles on some cryptic information in his paranoia, to uncover the truth behind the rumors at Wyntech to protect himself and the people around him before they all succumb to the invisible terrors that only he seems to be able to perceive and grasp.

Mechanics

8

There are plenty of things to interact with, whether you want to or not.

The game’s simple mechanics are almost exactly like Phantasmagoria and other point-and-click adventures. Against pre-rendered backdrops, the player moves a cursor to highlight items that can be interacted with in the environment. By clicking a reactive part of the screen, the player can also move between areas, giving a different perspective or moving throughout the game’s world to interact. Nearly everything in the game revolves around, as the genre states, pointing and clicking. Phantasmagoria does take this a step further, as clicking on particular people and places multiple times in succession will create complete conversations and is usually vital to progress.

By hovering over the bottom of the screen, you can interact with Curtis’ inventory of items he has picked up. Clicking on one of these items will usually change the cursor to said item so that it can be placed on a person or place on the screen. When the item is highlighted over the target, clicking again will attempt to use them in correlation with one another. This is the primary way that puzzles are solved and characters can be interacted with about particular topics.

The Good, The Bad, And…

10

Supporting characters play a large part in the game as it unravels.

Given that this game is a sequel- albeit largely unrelated to the original Phantasmagoria– it’s hard not to compare it to the first. In some ways, Phantasmagoria 2 differs and excels while in others, it takes a half-step back. Given the reins of leadership being handed off by the iconic Williams to Lorelei Shannon, there were large shoes to fill. Where the original Phantasmagoria felt claustrophobic and isolated its protagonist (whose name makes a brief cameo in an advertisement delivered to Curtis’ apartment), Curtis feels like he is surrounded by people throughout most of the game, either checking in on him or generally working nearby. Also, rather than delving into the past of the game’s locale like Adrienne Delaney had in the predecessor, Curtis’ adventure takes a deeper look into himself and a few of the characters around him. Not only is the tonal shift palpable, but the shift from story-driven to character-driven narrative makes the game feel like its own island off of the coast of what the original had set up.

One of the only issues I had with Phantasmagoria 2 was that a few of the puzzles felt unnecessarily convoluted. For instance, the now infamous first puzzle of the game involves Curtis losing an item under his couch. Rather than acting like a normal person and moving the couch to retrieve it, he sends his pet rat, Blob, to fetch it for him. Of course, then the rat won’t come out so she has to be lured out with food. There are a number of obstacles like this that are too obtuse to not feel frustrating, even with all of the items at your disposal.

While the script is nothing special in most respects, the game really does shine with a few interactions, particularly involving Curtis’ conversations with his best friend, Trevor, and with the therapist he begins to see throughout the story, Dr. Harburg. Not only do they feel the most “natural” so far as the actors are concerned, but they give some fantastic build-up regarding the world and Curtis as a protagonist. The rest of the game decidedly feels like it would have served better as a work of narrative fiction rather than a “video game film” in the way that much of the dialogue is written. It isn’t disappointing in comparison to the FMV games of the time, but there are parts that have not aged well structurally.

9

Some of the strongest scenes involve Curtis’ chats about his past and analyzing himself.

Something that drew me to the game and wanting to explore it a bit more- and this is a bit of a spoiler if you truly want to go into the game completely blind- revolves around Curtis as a protagonist and Trevor. Out of personal interest, I pride myself a bit on trying to find games with positive LGBT representation. Curtis stands as the first ‘officially’ bisexual characters in a video game, engaging romantically-slash-sexually with three of the characters in the game: his girlfriend, an eager female co-worker, and his best friend, Trevor. Of these, the most natural feels like the progression with Trevor, and Paul Morgan Stetler thrives in his scenes as Curtis interacting with Trevor. A lot of attention clearly went into Curtis’ self-analysis and breaking into his own psychology, but between his performance- which, like most FMV games to be fair, is a bit uneven at points- and Shannon’s writing, his performance and realizations feel natural and relatable to anyone who has been through similar moments in their life. Trevor also presents as a character who speaks nonchalantly as a gay man, discussing his dates with Curtis and making jokes that are never scoffed at or played off at the expense of the character. Trevor acts as the game’s comic relief, but he never feels like the butt of the joke which is a breath of fresh air given how characters like him are handled in many other games. If you’re looking for positive representation, Phantasmagoria does a fantastic job with these two characters.

Presentation

7

The horror comes on strong and hard throughout Curtis’ mental anguish and breakdowns.

Like many games of the genre, Phantasmagoria 2 involves movie quality sets and real actors, so the question of visuals starts at a relatively high standard bar. The transitions between gameplay screens and filmed sequences can be a bit grainy, but the quality drop is minimal. Even the more ‘phantasmagoric’ sequences later in the game look really well done, and the game carries the same charm that films of the time had with practical gore and special effects spliced with well-executed cinematography to create some jarring moments. The settings are governed a bit through lighting and filters, as well, so each area feels distinct in its purpose- the offices that the characters work in appear sterile and just a bit too bright, for instance, while the therapist’s office sits in a muted sepia-tone and a bar that Curtis visits a few times is steeped in saturated blues and reds.

Audibly, the game always feels like it has something going on. Sometimes, there’s background noise like the murmur of people or music playing in the background. Other times, there is a distinct soundtrack to set the tone of the scene. All of the dialogue is well-recorded and balanced so that I didn’t feel like I had missed anything; something certain games had trouble with given the medium. The one thing that bothered me was going in and out of conversations that clearly had been filmed all at one time but were broken up for the players’ convenience. The music doesn’t persist when there are breaks, resulting in an audio yo-yo between intense music and silence in some sequences. It’s a necessary evil due to the nature of how FMV games were made at the time so it’s hard to hold it against the game too strongly.

Conclusion
Phantasmagoria 2 is it’s own worst enemy in some cases, even dismissing the original game. It delves deep into some very strong and adult themes- alternative lifestyles and discovery of self-being the most prominent- and when it does so, it’s clear that the game is a passion piece for Shannon. There are a lot of well-written moments, whether you agree with how characters are acting in them or not. There are also plenty of cute nods to let horror fans know that they are in the right place. As a note, those looking for a wholesome time here, be warned that there are brief moments of nudity and BDSM, but they are scarce. Phantasmagoria as a whole has never really been a “family” game. All of the trappings of late 80s and early 90s horror are on display from start to finish.

The issue with the game resides in its mechanics and the trails going from point A to B between these themes, though. Puzzles feel like they are there strictly because they need to be and while a number of scenes between story beats exist, a lot of them feel like filler when they aren’t developing Curtis on a deep level as a character. It makes the world feel fleshed out (see what I did there?) but the interesting bits are so interesting that the path feels almost boring by comparison.

If you’re into bizarre horror that focuses a lot on characters and dark themes, this game is worth checking out. It pings some of the same notes that Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit did for me, to draw some comparison, but it hangs onto the unsettling charm of the original Phantasmagoria in the process. If it sounds like something you’d be interested in, it goes fairly cheap on Steam and other PC gaming platforms and is a worthwhile look back at FMV gaming as well as LGBT representation in gaming history.

A Victory Lap Years Later – Super Nintendo – Super Mario Kart – 1992

Super Mario Kart (U) [!]000Super Mario Kart
Super Nintendo
Nintendo
Genre: Racing
1992

There are a few genres in gaming that I don’t talk about a lot. I haven’t played many sports games since I was a kid. I’m not really into the ‘4X’ strategy games that some of my friends gush over. One type of game that I’ve regularly played, though, and haven’t brought up is the ‘racing’ genre.

Nearly all of the major franchises from the 1990s ended up with some kind of racing title. Sonic Drift, Crash Team Racing, and even Final Fantasy had Chocobo Racing. One of the forerunners of this trend, of course, was the Mario franchise. When Super Mario Kart came out on the Super Nintendo, its colorful and chaotic cover art promised some new adventures involving a variety of characters from the universe we had all come to know and love. Given the number of spinoff games the franchise would receive, one could argue that Super Mario Kart opened the gates for the dearth of games we would see later on like Mario Party and Mario (insert name of sport here).

Even as a kid getting this game, though, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Playing as Mario without jumping on enemies and trying to navigate perilous worlds to save something? It was such a strange concept to me back then. Now, it seems as natural as any other idea given how many games bear the Mario Kart moniker. With the amount of time and refinement the games have gotten over multiple consoles and years, heading back to the beginning worried me. It could easily have been an undertaking of frustration that could decimate my nostalgia for the game.

Needless to say, I popped it in recently and gave it a whirl. What’s the worst that could happen? Continue reading

Mobile Mini-Reviews – With an Open Heart, Sharp Wits, and Neon Blood

One hill I am willing to die on is that mobile gaming gets much less credit than it deserves.

Don’t get me wrong. Much like other platforms like Steam where smaller developers can occasionally throw whatever they want into the marketplace with varying quality, it can take some sifting to find some of the gems hidden in the digital mineshaft. Even then, those gems are a matter of taste and might not appeal to everybody.

With much I use my phone in waiting rooms and while I’m trying to accomplish other things, I’ve come across a few games that met with some personal criteria I had set up- a defined ending, for instance- which I would love to share with folks who might be struggling to find some way to cut their teeth on the offerings at their fingertips.

HungryHeartsTitleHungry Hearts Diner: A Tale of Star-Crossed Souls
GAGEX Co., Ltd
Genre: Simluation
HungryHearts1In a small village just on the border of a large city in Japan in the Showa era, a diner sits steeped in antiquity and small-town conversation. The owner of the diner has fallen ill recently, however, so his wife has taken over the duties of cooking, meal planning, and keeping the diner in business for the locals. Every small town’s citizens have a story, though, and a small eatery is a perfect place for them to open up. After all, food can bring up memories and emotions just as well as any other stimulus can.

Taking the role of the elderly wife, your job is to keep people in your diner happy and fed while improving the diner and its menu. With particular customers, you will be able to suss out their favorite dishes and what food will help them open up, relating their stories and troubles to you in small cutscenes once their affection has risen enough. The more you create your available concoctions, you will also be able to create other dishes which will earn more money and cater to your clientele even more.

HungryHearts2At its core, Hungry Hearts is a ‘tapper’ game, which won’t appeal to everyone. The game does have the occasional option to watch an advertisement to gain more experience or money, but they can easily be skipped. It is free-to-play as a base, however, and the trappings only obscure the heart of the game underneath.

Where this game excels is in its stories, characters, and atmosphere. Hungry Hearts captures the village feel that it is going for with exquisite results. More than once, I felt a tug of emotion at the writing and interactions between the people of the town, many of whom have stories that interact with one another despite their not interacting directly. Each unique character has their own full story to be engaged with and the endings are almost entirely well worth the investment. In between stories, the game was also incredibly relaxing with an ambient soundtrack and charming visual style that I found myself addicted to.

If you don’t mind dealing with some of the usual free-to-play inconveniences and you need a game to wind down with, you would do well to seek out Hungry Hearts.

PartiaTitlePartia: The Broken Lineage
Imago Software
Genre: Strategy Role-Playing
Partia1
Taking place on the continent of Partia in the kingdom of Grana, you play as the younger of two princes slated to sit on the throne and rule over the people. The people of the land, however, clearly have their favored candidate of the two, whether it is the responsible and headstrong eldest or the slightly rebellious and more approachable second-born. Some of those people, however, will do whatever they must to ensure that their candidate of choice ascends to the throne.

With no qualms of being derived from the likes of Fire Emblem, Partia concerns itself more with political intrigue and strategic choices over knockdown brawls. Divided into chapters, the game takes you through the moves made by those who desire power as you gather a group of allies willing to fight by the prince’s side. Following the mechanics of Fire Emblem to a near-perfect T, characters level up, receive weapons with particular durability, and can be lost forever if they perish in battle.

Partia2The game isn’t without its obstacles. Without exploiting the arena in town between chapters, you will lose a lot of your allies so grinding is a bit of a must. The translation in the build I played was also a little choppy in areas, though easily navigable. The team has released patches since, however, so it may be a slightly different experience to play now.

What is to be commended is that the game captures the spirit of the early Fire Emblem games with a bit of an overhaul on the presentation side. The battle sprites are simple but effective, and the portraits and other art evoke the styles of games like Shining Force and the GBA entries of the Fire Emblem series. A lot of heart and passion for the genre appears in the short time you will spend with Partia which, as of this writing, rings in at $3.99 to purchase. There are also two sequels available, and while I’ve only just started the second game, improvements already appear to have been implemented.

MidnightShowTitleThe Midnight Show
Takster Games, LLC
Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure
MidnightShow1It’s 1985. You’ve arrived at the Orpheum Theatre where some of the hottest new films are playing and the staff is way cooler than you’ll ever be. If you don’t feel like taking in a show, you could always hit the arcade and try to win some prizes from the crane game there. For such a rad looking place, though, it seems awfully empty. Something feels just a bit off about that, doesn’t it? Maybe if you look around a bit, you’ll figure out what’s going on and why you can’t seem to leave the way you came in.

I may be biased given my love of horror, the 80s, and point-and-click adventure games. The Midnight Show, however, was probably one of my favorite mobile games to get through and play. It unfolds like any other point-and-click game does, but with the in-jokes and tongue-in-cheek tone, it feels right at home with games like Maniac Mansion (which is has a great poke at) and other LucasArts adventures.

MidnightShow2If I had one qualm, it is a bit short. This isn’t a major issue, though, as it doesn’t overstay its welcome longer than it has to, telling a tight story with a few atmospheric moments and just enough puzzles to make you think and explore a bit to proceed. My “qualm” probably lies in the fact that I wanted a bit more of the universe once the game closed up shop. Call me selfish, I guess.

As with the other two games here, the presentation is strong. While I loved the visuals, the soundtrack is where the game really hooked me with some strong 80s synth that found me sticking around a bit longer in places than I probably needed to. If you’re a fan of the music of the era, you’ll be hard-pressed not to relish in the soundscape a bit. Kudos to Wice and ALEX, who are credited as the featured artists.

Looking at the game, I don’t see a price tag on it anymore so it may just be free to download- which is a steal for the experience. The Midnight Show is well worth the price of admission, however, price tag or not, and it should be checked out if you have any interest after reading this.

I play quite a few persistent games that I could easily recommend, as well, and may write a bit about them in a future post. Having a game that has a defined beginning and end can be tough to find in a quality package and an affordable cost. Hopefully, this will point out some options to folks who might not be fans of mobile games to give a chance to!

Have any recommendations or thoughts on these games if you’ve checked them out? Any feelings on mobile gaming you’d like to share? As always, drop me a line here in the comments or on Twitter!

Blink and You’ll Miss It – PC – The Final Take – 2016

title
The Final Take
PC
Hush Interactive/Forever Entertainment S.A.
Genre: Survival Horror
2016

Sometimes, brevity is the kindest form of reference.

No, that’s not a saying. I just feel like it’s apt for some situations. In some cases, the less you say about something, the better. Sometimes, you have to refrain from saying something negative. Other times, there just isn’t enough to draw from to say much at all. In the case of The Final Take, it’s a bit more of the second reason than the first.

Given I just finished this game in a sitting, I wanted to at least pop some notes down so that if other folks run across this title, they may at least have some impressions before picking it up.  
Continue reading