Horizon Zero Dawn Review

Introduction

Background: Dutch developer Guerilla Games released Horizon Zero Dawn on February 28, 2017. They used their proprietary game engine Decima, which will also be used to make the hotly anticipated Death Stranding. Horizon Zero Dawn has been very well-reviewed overall: it has an 89/100 on Metacritic and earned “Best Original Game” from the Game Critics Awards. Prior to the release of Horizon, Guerilla was best known for its series of Killzone games.

The TL;DR Version of this Review: I love Horizon Zero Dawn a lot! I rarely find a game that ticks off every box on my checklist of “things I want in a game.” From the riveting story, to the fun and engaging gameplay, to the expansive and detailed world, Horizon Zero Dawn not only met but exceeded all of the expectations I built for it. I was so excited when it was shown at E3 last year, I ordered the Collectors Edition. Buying in to the hype on an unknown game early on can be risky (you can find plenty of articles on why not to preorder games during E3), but I’m so happy that I did; it was worth the wait and the excitement. You can still pick up the Collectors edition from Amazon if you want – at double the price they were originally going for last June!

Check out some pictures of the Collectors Edition below:

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At the time I’m writing this review, my game completion is at 78.76% and I have 64% of trophies. I played on the “normal” difficulty setting. I’ve put about 70 hours into it, and I have completed the main story and collected all the special collectibles with plenty of content such as errands and side quests left. I played at a leisurely pace by most standards; Horizon is one of those games where individual play time will vary greatly depending on how you’re playing, and how interested you are in completion.

In May, Guerilla released a fun free update for Photo Mode. You can change time of day, brightness, exposure, camera angle, and all sorts of settings on your current scene. You can even pose Aloy, or take her out of the picture. Throw a filter on it! I had a lot of fun using this feature to take the screenshots for this article.

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This is a long review due to how much I had to say about the game, and I’ve broken it up into the following sections if you’d like to jump around:

This review will contain some spoilers, but I’ve stuck the most important spoilers in a labeled portion of the “Story” section, so if you’re planning on playing Horizon but haven’t yet, just skip that part!

Story

Amongst the wreckage of skyscrapers and city streets that once formed our world, primitive human civilizations have bloomed. It’s a prehistoric human existence, a simpler time when humans and animals shared the land – with one major twist. The beasts of this land, which the humans hunt and rely on for supplies, are made of metal and machinery rather than flesh and bone. A diverse menagerie of these robotic creatures inhabit the world, each with their own unique abilities, components, and weaknesses. You’ll spend a lot of time while exploring contending with these creatures: either avoiding them or hunting them for parts.

When I play open world games like Horizon, I tend to wander around completing side quests rather than focusing on the main quest. I enjoy game worlds and don’t want to leave them, so I don’t focus on the path that will quickly end the game. However, that was NOT the case with Horizon. I was driven to complete the main story quest. Why? Because the story is AMAZING! I was blown away by the compelling and original story. I don’t know when I lost faith in open world games, but I don’t expect to care about the main story anymore. With games like Fallout and Skyrim – games I love! – I usually think of the main story quests as the ones to be completed when you have to, or when you run out of side quests. (When I mention Fallout in this review, just assume I’m lumping 3 and 4 together and speaking of those two, specifically.) The story of Horizon Zero Dawn is like an edge-of-your-seat book and I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

Aloy was an interesting protagonist because I actually didn’t find her that likable, despite the fact that I really liked playing as her. Perhaps it’s not that she’s unlikable, but she’s not like me – lately I’m used to playing games where you customize your character to be like you, or something like Breath of the Wild, where the character you play as is voiceless and therefore doesn’t have a strong personality to clash with your self perceptions. Especially in the dialogues, Aloy is blunt and mean, with a clipped and dry tone. Even when given personality-driven dialogue options, which doesn’t happen too often, I still didn’t mesh with the way she talked to people. But that’s how Aloy is – a fiery redhead who you wouldn’t want to mess with, who has to carve out a place for herself in this world she doesn’t quite belong in, someone who grew up motherless in a society where mothers are valued above all.

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Although Aloy is such a strong character, you will come across dialogue choices during important conversations that determine the attitude with which Aloy responds. You get three options accompanied by an icon – a fist, a heart, or a brain – that represents strength/force, compassion, or intelligence. However, it’s unclear in what ways these choices affect the game, if at all. There aren’t multiple endings to the game, so always picking “fist” won’t result in a noticeable change versus always choosing “heart” – the choice just affects a small portion of a dialogue immediately after your choice. If they don’t affect the story, then the choices shouldn’t be given as though they are different branches, because it’s confusing and takes away from Aloy’s presence as a character. Is she a character we’re playing, or are we supposed to feel like we’re in the driver’s seat as players? It’s a weird and frustrating disconnect that ultimately feels to me like a game feature that wasn’t fully realized.

One last warning: MAIN STORY SPOILERS BELOW! Skip this section if you don’t want spoilers, and go right on down to Gameplay.

The story of Horizon Zero Dawn begins hundreds of years before you enter the game: in the near future of our world, the 2060s, AIs created by an irresponsible corporation malfunctioned, and their robots began to destroy the planet. A team of scientists and engineers led by Dr. Elisabet Sobeck raced against time to save humanity, and Aloy lives in the world that they saved, among the ruins of their old technology. You’re somewhere near Denver, though since the timelines diverge in the future of our world, there aren’t necessarily any recognizable Colorado landmarks.

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Beautiful scenery!

Aloy is a highly skilled hunter and survivalist with an insatiable curiosity about the Old Ones who built the metal world. Due to the questionable circumstances of her birth, Aloy began her life as an outcast of the Nora, a tribe of mother-goddess-worshipping hunters. During her childhood explorations, she finds an electronic device used by the Old Ones called a “focus,” which allows her to see data in the world that’s hidden from the naked eye. As an adult, she is able to earn full membership to the Nora through a ritual called “The Proving.” Right after she does, the tribe is attacked by an unknown foreign enemy. Now, as a specially blessed envoy of the Nora called a Seeker, Aloy must journey out of the sacred Nora lands to forbidden territory in order to investigate the threat to the Nora, as well as to investigate her own history.

There are some other societies to interact with outside of the Nora lands, including the Carja, the Oseram, and the Banuk. Each is a different take on early human societies: the Banuk are a spiritual, isolated arctic people who practice colorful cliff painting and revere the machines; the Oseram are into forging metal, making weapons and armor, and overall remind me of ancient Romans; and the sun worship and history of mass human sacrifice by the Carja inevitably begs comparisons to the ancient Aztecs. While solving inter-tribe conflicts, Aloy also begins to explore wrecked research facilities of the Old Ones, and in doing so she finds holograms that reveal the events of the past.

My rave review of the story is primarily about the elements that deal with Aloy’s discovery about the truth of the past. I wasn’t as intrigued by the present-time conflicts between the warring city states. It was still interesting and well written, but that type of story line is more commonly explored in media. (See: the aforementioned Skyrim and Fallout, plus a variety of other sources from A Song of Ice and Fire to world history textbooks.) However, it is interesting to see the cultures that developed in the world of Horizon – almost prehistoric, but incorporating the debris of our old world. It’s fascinating to see our precious technology reduced to trinkets and decorations, to see our simplest inventions marveled at by people who don’t have any knowledge of our current world.

The holograms deliver the most gripping stories of the game. People who were around during Earth’s downfall come alive and walk around the scene as they did hundreds of years ago, and we get to see conversations and events that precipitated the disaster. By ferreting out the data of the past, Aloy learns about the origin of the machines, the reason for the downfall of the Old Ones, and even the mystery of her own motherless birth – she’s actually a clone of the great Dr. Sobeck, her spawning a failsafe triggered by the all-powerful guardian AI: GAIA.

Meanwhile, an evil society broken from the Carja called the Eclipse has been resurrecting the bad machines of the past and causing the other machines roaming the world to become corrupted. While the good machines will leave people alone if left alone, much like wild animals, the corrupted machines are particularly hostile. Aloy also has to stop this corruption because the corrupted machines are making the world extremely unsafe for humans.

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You can tell a machine is corrupted by the glowing red tendrils that infiltrate its body.

The most emotional twist of the story is when you discover that the geniuses of the past that you’ve been learning about, all the people who worked so hard to save the world – they didn’t. Our world as we know it was reduced to ruin, and the world that we traipse around in as Aloy is a rebuilt world, a product of GAIA, who the team built in order to resurrect life after it had been purged from Earth. Little by little, you learn their fate and you realize that they died not knowing what their work would eventually produce.

With such a unique, detailed, engaging, surprising, and emotional story, Horizon Zero Dawn has earned my respect for engaging and original game writing.

Even aside from the main story, the world is filled with interesting side stories that flesh out the world both past and present, and you can discover them as you explore. See the next section for some details!

Gameplay

Quests & Goals

Along with the main quest that propels you through the story, and side quests that give you a richer experience of the world, there are many other tasks for you to complete. Characters give you simple errands like finding missing relatives, bandit camps need to be cleared out, and zones of corrupted machines need to be eliminated. Along the way there are also some special pickups to find, which I loved because they contained additional unique stories to uncover:

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  • Banuk figures: Usually placed up on a cliff or mountain and indicated with colorful markings, each figure contains a portion of the tragic story about a Banuk artist from the past.
  • Vantage points: Data points stuck into the ground throughout the environment. Activating them reveals the landscape as it was before the world was destroyed, plays a short audio clip, and contains a text file that reveals a portion of the story about an engineer that lived in the old world right when it was ending.
  • Metal flowers: Found throughout the world within suspiciously unnatural triangles of wildflowers, each one contains a poem.
  • Ancient vessels: These don’t actually contain stories, but they are mugs with different decorations from the old world.

Even though these side stories don’t affect the main plot, they enrich the world and make it feel more real. Uncovering the side stories was one of my favorite parts of the game. Plus, once you have a complete set of these four main collectibles, you can trade the set to a specialty merchant in Meridian in exchange for a special prize box. If you have trouble locating all of collectibles, you can purchase maps from merchants that reveal the locations on the map.

Unfortunately, the dialogue scenes with characters to deliver quest or errand information are painfully stiff and halt the action. I found myself losing interest even when the information being delivered was interesting. With the main quest you don’t have this problem because usually you are engaging with dynamic information delivery such as a hologram or audio tape, during which you can move Aloy around, or a full cut scene. But with side quest characters, the conversations are just a mechanical back and forth where the view of the characters doesn’t change and you have to click through the different conversation branches.

You can easily track your progress on the various tasks, which I enjoy because I like to have a clear picture of where I stand on completion status. The hardest tasks to complete are the weapon tutorials because they have to be active in order to achieve them – this means if you are doing another task but use your weapon and forget to switch to the tutorial quest, it won’t count! Therefore, though I am certainly proficient in all weapon types, I still haven’t completed most of the tutorials! (If you do focus on doing the weapons tutorials, it’s an easy way to get lots of XP.)

Technology

Aloy has two key pieces of technology that she uses: the focus she finds as a child, and the lance which she modifies to act as an override tool. I love the contrast between the primitive lifestyles of the characters with the advanced technology and machines that they sometimes use.

  • Focus: Aloy’s focus allows her to track paths, locate signals, and identify components and weaknesses on machines. When you go into focus mode you walk really slowly, which is probably to prevent the player from constantly going around in focus mode. (Kind of like the special hearing mode Joel can use in The Last of Us.) It’s super helpful, especially when tracking the paths of machines so you can set traps for them.
  • Lance/Override tool: Aloy modifies her lance so that it can override machine technology when she jams it into certain ports. By doing so, she can open doors or make machines friendly. Check out the cauldrons around the environment and override the cores found within to gain the ability to override different types of machines. I like to override machines and make them fight for me! Plus, once overridden, certain machine species can be mounted and ridden around.

Map

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When you first start, the map is mostly obscured by clouds so you can’t see any of the details. As you explore, the clouds will lift so you can see the markers. Alternatively, by locating and overriding the Tallnecks, you can reveal large portions of the map even if you don’t walk directly over those areas. My map, which you can see above, has been completely uncovered, and since I’ve found all of the collectibles you can see their locations on the map. As you can see from some of the cauldrons I haven’t completed, when you have yet to complete them they show up on your map as blue; once you’re done, they turn green. After you discover a campfire, it will turn green and you can fast travel to it at any time. Machine zones are indicated with special icons so if you are looking for a specific component, you can go hunting for the species that carry it.

The map looks really big, but when you’re actually walking around it doesn’t take long to get from one place to another. In fact, it feels nicely walkable (or rideable, if you’re on a machine mount!). One feature I loved was the cost of fast traveling. In order to fast travel, you have to use a “Fast Travel Pack,” an item which you can either buy or craft. Because fast traveling was not free, I was more likely to walk wherever I needed to go, even if it meant retracing my steps through familiar territory. Later in the game there is a “Golden Fast Travel Pack” you can purchase which gives you unlimited fast traveling. When you’ve been most places and are just trying for completion, it’s nice to be able to easily fast travel. However, earlier in the game, walking everywhere helps to foster a sense of connection to the environment, and facilitates seamless acquisition of both fighting skills and crafting resources.

My map may look cluttered, but one very useful feature is the ability to select or deselect map markers; for example, say you wanted to look for a specific machine on the map. For instance, I wanted to find a Thunderjaw to photograph for this review!

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First, I zoomed out, and selected only the machine map markers. Once I found a Thunderjaw, I zoomed in closer and selected campfires, so I could see where I could fast travel to to get there. Nice!

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It’s also helpful if you are looking for bandit camps or cauldrons that you haven’t finished yet.

Combat

One thing that really stood out to me about Horizon is how masterfully handled the difficulty curve felt, especially for an open game world. The balance of the game design allowed for a very smooth and natural growth from barely being able to take on a Sawtooth to easily dispatching Ravagers, from not even approaching larger enemies like Tramplers to feeling confident enough to take on a whole herd. Through the ability tree upgrades (see below for more details), increased grades of weapons and armors, and expanding the health bar, Aloy slowly but surely grows from a budding brave to a skilled and confident warrior. I also liked how the main quests would force me to take down a huge machine that I wouldn’t have approached, so that it gave me the courage to kill the enemies when I would encounter them in the field.

While there are some boss-type enemies involved in the main quest (you actually have to defeat them to proceed, and you can’t just run away from them if you run out of health or ammo), the regular machine opponents are more like resources than traditional enemies. They infinitely spawn in their favored environments (marked on the map with special icons), so it’s up to you whether you practice taking out enormous Thunderjaws or quickly dispatch some Watchers and Scrappers to acquire resources. In general, the machines are easy to sneak around or sprint away from if you don’t feel like fighting, but they’re always there for you if you do want to take them on – you can adjust how much combat there is in your gameplay experience.

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Human enemies, on the other hand, seem to be a non-renewable resource. Once you take out a bandit camp, it converts into a friendly settlement and you never see those bandits again. I’ve had some random bandit encounters on the road, but I’m not sure how often (if ever) the bandits re-spawn in the environment without camps to go back to. (As of writing this article, I haven’t cleared out all the bandit camps yet.) The easiest way to take out human enemies is simply to snipe them from afar – their friends are slow to catch on, and you can pretty much take out an entire camp in secrecy. (The phrase, “Must have been the wind!” comes to mind…) In general, the machine enemies are more difficult to defeat than the human enemies, and also take more strategy since you can take advantage of their weaknesses.

Upgrades & Customization

As I’ve mentioned in sections above, there are a number of ways to customize your gameplay experience while playing Horizon, such as choosing how often to fight machines in the field, and choosing how many side quests or errands you do. My number one recommendation for all types of gamers who want the the best gameplay experience is to customize your HUD. The default display is unnecessarily crowded, constantly displaying your quest details and blocking your view of the exquisite scenery. Hide as much of it as you want, and simply brushing the touchpad will bring up the hidden details.

As Aloy defeats enemies and completes quests, she gains XP and skill points. The skill points can be used in a branching tree with escalating levels across different skill sets (hunter, prowler, etc.)

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The top tier costs one skill point, the next two, and the bottom two rows of skills cost three points each. I found it quite easy to acquire the skills I wanted and was able to do so quickly. The most useful skills are the ones that allow you to nock multiple arrows so you get extra firepower with each shot. I also really liked the skill that allowed you to pick up trip wires and traps if your enemies don’t set them off. For reference, if you’ve played it, the skill tree in HZD is very similar to the skill tree in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

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Each weapon is available from merchants in different levels – no modifier, Carja, and Shadow. (For example: War Bow, Carja War Bow, and Shadow War Bow.) Not every weapon is available at every trader, but generally once you get to Meridian all the traders past that point will have all the weapons. The higher the level, the stronger the weapon, and the more modifications you’ll be able to add – one slot for the lowest level, two slots for Carja weapons, and three slots for Shadow weapons.

The same basic rules apply for the outfits, which offer Light, Medium, or Heavy variations. They vary more on how many modification slots each one has. Modifications are looted from the corpses of machines or supply crates, or purchased from merchants. The highest level modifications are pretty hard to find. I struggled to find the best strategy for modifications; what I went with was to max out one quality for each item and switch frequently – for example, add high powered freeze resistance modifications to the already freeze resistant Banuk Ice Hunter outfit and then equip it whenever I fight Glinthawks, which spew frost attacks.

Outfits, unfortunately, limit the player to choosing full outfits – you can’t mix and match outfit components or change the colors. Also, of course, you can’t change your facial or body appearance at all due to the fact that you’re playing as Aloy, not a customized character. I thought some of the outfits were goofy looking, so I would regret if I got into a serious cut scene wearing the Banuk Ice Hunter headgear, but overall I thought the designs stemmed from really cool ideas about how primitive people would incorporate metal beasts into their attire.

Inventory

Carry capacity is always my first stop when upgrading. I love to collect resources, and I hate running out of space. Though I quickly upgraded my resource satchel to its largest size, I still ran out of space a lot. There are a lot of rare pickups, but not a lot to spend them on. For example, you need a Stalker heart to get the Shadow Heavy Armor. However, once you trade it in for the armor, there’s no reason to keep collecting more of them. But the difficult experience of getting it in the first place compelled me to keep collecting them, though eventually they had no purpose. I went through this process with all the hearts and lenses in the game, until I finally realized that what I was doing was foolish and sold them all. You need that space for resources that can be turned into ammo!

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There are two resources that I ran into trouble with: echo shells and blaze. Echo shells are used in tearblast arrows, which I love to use because they blast weapons off of enemies. (If you blast off a Ravager cannon, you can pick it up and turn it on them!) Blaze is used in a wide variety of incendiary weapons, including fire arrows, blast and flame tripwires, and bombs. (Blast tripwires are my favorite! They’re an easy way to do damage to big enemies.) Ultimately, if you’re not varying your battle techniques, it is possible to run out of even very common components. My huge mistake in this regard was keeping the rare items like hearts and lenses over common resources like blaze. The rare items sat uselessly taking up inventory space, while I quickly went through my slots of ammo resources

The complaints I once had about inventory management were addressed with an update that allows you to sort resources by their different attributes, and switch between how they’re sorted. It also made it clear which carry capacity upgrades are available, which are completed, and which require resources you don’t have at the moment – I used to waste a lot of time clicking through the carry capacity menu trying to figure out what I could, couldn’t, and needed to upgrade.

Graphics

The expansive and complex world of Horizon Zero Dawn calls for graphics that are nothing less than extraordinary – and the visuals do not disappoint. From the sweeping natural vistas of the mountain ranges, to the twisted and overgrown remains of skyscrapers, to the cramped and fractal-inspired machine cauldrons, the world comes alive in an intensely immersive way. The map feels larger than it really is since it’s packed with a variety of richly detailed and unique environments. You get to experience an icy mountaintop, wide grassy plains, a lush vegetative forest, and a desert area with stunning rock formations. I don’t know how accurate the map is compared to the actual landscape it’s based on, but even if it doesn’t replicate reality, it creates its own reality for the player.

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The delightfully diverse human inhabitants of Horizon Zero Dawn don vivid costumes and possess reasonably realistic faces. Occasionally I would catch a glitch where the mouths didn’t move in sync with the words, or the eyes would appear slightly off-focus, but overall I was impressed with the graphics on the humans. Since you often get stuck having lengthy conversations with people about errands they want you to run, it’s nice that the people actually look human. I was most impressed by the variety of looks in the world – the faces looked unique, so each character stood out in my mind as an individual person, rather than looking like the same models replicated over and over again.

Metal and robotic entities are easier to CGI than humans, so it goes without saying that the machines looked even better. They’re a really cool mixture of robot and animal, drawing inspiration from real life animals like bison, alligators, and birds. The hard metal of the machines against the natural environment contrasts beautifully, rather than clashing, creating a unique feel for the game.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed playing Horizon Zero Dawn! It’s an open world game that gives players the freedom to play in a way that meshes with their own style, while also providing a satisfying structure that enables you to systematically accomplish tasks. The world, story, and protagonist are well developed and unique. Even though this review is already absurdly long, I feel like I left out tons of thoughts. And that’s perhaps my favorite thing of all: Horizon Zero Dawn gave me a lot to think about. It manages to be both action-packed and smart, proving that you can have it both ways.

Thanks so much for reading!

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Guest Review: Fran Bow

Maggie here! I’m very pleased to be hosting another excellent guest review from contributor Becca L. She is a huge fan of point-and-click adventure games, a genre that I don’t play as much, so for this post she’s going to take us into the dark and twisted world of Fran Bow. The small developer Killmonday Games, comprised of designer Natalia Figueroa and composer Isak Martinsson, released Fran Bow for desktop platforms (Windows, OS X, Linux) in August 2015, followed by a release for mobile (Android and iOS) in early 2016. Without further ado, I’ll let Becca tell you all about it!

Becca’s Review

“Between guilt and fear…. I choose happiness.”

Fran Bow is way too scary for me. This tells you very little about the game, though, and more about the author of this review: an unapologetic scaredy-cat.

So when I stumbled upon Fran Bow, with its screenshots of rotting flesh, dismembered corpses, and ghoulish messages scribbled across the walls in blood, the proper response would have been to keep scrolling through Steam offerings. But I downloaded it anyway. Fran Bow is Coraline meets Spirited Away meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although I wouldn’t know, because I would never in my right mind subject myself to Texas Chainsaw Massacre as I hate horror.

Until now.

Gameplay

Fran Bow is a point-and-click adventure/horror game. You play as the eponymous heroine: a ten-year-old girl who wakes up in an asylum for (criminally?) insane children after witnessing the gruesome murder of her parents. Fran knows she needs to escape, find her cat Mr. Midnight, investigate the death of her parents, and return safely to the care of her beloved Aunt Grace.

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The asylum is an evil place, full of psychologically and emotionally abused children, callous nurses, and suspicious doctors. The staff gives Fran red duodine pills, which cause disturbing hallucinations, primarily of the blood and guts variety. During the first of these pill-induced psychotic breaks with reality, Fran gets a message from Mr. Midnight, telling her that the pills are the secret to escaping the asylum. Desperate to reunite with Mr. Midnight, Fran steals a jar of the red duodine and places it in her pocket. From then on, two worlds are available to you: Fran’s gritty reality, and the bloody world of the pills.

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The duodine pills add a level of gameplay that reminded me of the 2013 3DS Zelda game A Link Between Worlds. In that game, Link develops the ability to become two-dimensional, sneaking around corners and popping on and off walls. In LBW, being able to shift dimensions was an essential part of solving some puzzles. The same is true for Fran Bow. Certain items, characters, and opportunities are only available to you in the red world of the duodine pills. You’ll have to move from world to world in order to solve the puzzles, but you’ll feel awful doing it. It’s one thing to visit the horror world yourself, and quite another to ask the ten-year-old Fran to come with you.

Fran herself is polite, inquisitive, kind-hearted, and brave, a charming combination in a terrible reality. The game is organized into chapters, which seems fitting for a game that is so invested in narrative: the game is about depression, loss, acceptance, and growing up, and it’s wonderful to watch Fran grow and develop as you play in this game. Her dialogue reflects the things she’s learned. As someone who studies books for a living, I found this kind of storytelling immediately compelling.

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Growth and development are built into the gameplay beyond just the dialogue. Over time, the already blurry lines between hallucination and reality disappear altogether (who thought that giving a ten-year-old mind altering drugs was a good idea?). The pills stay in poor Fran’s system, and she can no longer tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not (and neither can we).

Characters

Besides Fran herself, you’ll meet a delightfully odd assortment of supporting characters, from the skeletal Mr. Itward to the elegant Palontras to the misunderstood paper-pushing bureaucrat Dr. Deern.

The most disturbing part of Fran Bow is that the adults, especially in the asylum, are the true source of evil. In one room you meet a little girl who uses art therapy to recover from sexual abuse. When you take the pills, she turns into a stuffed dolled, with handprints grabbing her between her legs. Later, your character meets a security guard who asks you to sit on his lap and give him a kiss. It is disgusting — and horrifying — perhaps more so than the mounds of mutilated bodies surrounding the main character.

Genre

Fran Bow is made in the classic adventure-game style. For me, this was a selling point. I love old PC adventure gaming and am always on the lookout for modern versions of this dead genre. You do need some literacy with point-and-click adventure games in order to understand the gameplay, though. Your curser is interactive and will let you know when you can click on something. You place objects in your inventory, wherein you have three possible actions: use, combine, and examine.

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Story

This is a spoiler-free review, so I’ll talk in general terms. The story is divided into five chapters. Each chapter features an immersive world, complicated by the duodine mechanism which reveals a world behind the world. My favorite world (to no one’s surprise) was the location of chapter 3: the lovely Istheria, a vegetative world where the trees and insects come alive. In this chapter alone, Fran misplaces her red pills, and the game puzzle-mechanism is replaced by a charming tree clock that changes the seasons. Although the chapter still has a couple of scares, it provides a much-needed break from the relentless horror of the other chapters.

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I liked the story in-as-much-as it is either a.) an exploration of mental illness, b.) an actual magical fantasy world with gruesome elements or c.) a combo of both.

That being said, you’ll have to decide for yourself what you think of the final chapter.

Pros:

Spellbinding artwork. From the gritty and drab asylum to the blood-washed and spirit-haunted hallucinations to the literal bedroom full of bloodied dismembered dolls heads, the landscape is surreal.

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Immersive soundscape. Headphones are highly recommended for this game. The music on this one got me. The well-planned silences. The shrieks as you moved from the “normal” world to the duodine induced hallucinations. Every time I anticipated a scare, I would yank my headphones out of my ears to lessen the spook. Now that, friends, is a well-executed sound track.

Well-designed puzzles. Seeing other game reviewers complain about overly-taxing puzzles is always an eye-roll. In this game in particular, the puzzles were intuitive (at least, as far as adventure-games go), had some kind of built-in hint system with dialogue, and kept the game moving along. A couple of times, I ran into trouble with the pointing-and-clicking part of this point-and-click game. Usually because I had solved a puzzle but the game didn’t register that I had found the solution because of either the location or speed with which I was clicking. This is a classic problem with this genre, so I don’t fault Fran Bow at all for it.

Getting to play as Mr. Midnight in chapter three! It was so cute and obviously the whole game should’ve been this (luckily for us, Killmonday Games is developing a game called Different Galaxy about a cat-scout who goes on adventures!)

Cons:

Plot. If you’re looking for easy answers to hard questions, this game isn’t for you. It’s a game about how children process trauma and drug-induced psychosis, so it lends itself to open-endedness. But to be honest, the story wanted to go in ten directions at once, and since each of them seemed cool, I was hoping that the writers could settle on one. The plot goes off the rails at a certain point.

No voice acting. I know people will disagree with me here, but I think the story and characters would have been enlivened by it.

Scary as all get out. This is a pro for basically everyone else though. Why else choose to play a horror adventure game?

If you’re interested in video games about depression, or enjoy horror games, or have a soft spot in your heart for indie gaming, check this game out. If you’re a lover of point-and-click adventure games with a fear of blood and guts and scares, decide for yourself. I fell into the latter category, and I loved Fran Bow.

After immersing myself in the world of Fran Bow, I’ve recognized that the duo behind Killmonday Games, Natalia Figueroa and Isak Martinsson, are beautiful minds and wonderful people and I will play anything they make. As of April 5, 2017, Figueroa has been teasing us with the promise of a “secret game” to be released before the much-anticipated Different Galaxy. I’m so excited—I can’t wait!

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Maggie back again with a final note – If you’re interested in learning more about the game or the developers, you can check out the official Fran Bow website and the Killmonday Games website. Fran Bow is currently available to purchase from several different sources for $14.99 for desktop. (Gog has it listed for only $4.49!) On mobile platforms, each of the five chapters is sold separately for $1.99 each. After reading Becca’s review, I decided I’m going to play it!

Aside from being a game enthusiast, Becca L. is an English PhD student writing on turn of the century American women authors. You can find Becca on Twitter at @SweetleyTrimmer.

Guest Review: Sid Meier’s Civilization VI

I’m so excited to host another guest review on my blog! Unfortunately, there are too many great video games in the world for me to be able to play them all. Luckily, I have some great friends who are willing to help me out!

For this post, Becca L. shares her thoughts on Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, which was released for Windows and OS X in October 2016. The Civilization series started in 1991 with the first game, Civilization, and has enjoyed critical and commercial success throughout its many iterations. The Civilization games are turn-based strategy games in which the player develops a civilization from the ground up while conflicting or cooperating with computer controlled civilizations. There are several different win states, including victory through military domination or victory through cultural achievement. Civilization VI, the most recent installment, won “Best PC Game” from the 2016 Game Critics Awards and “Best Strategy Game” from both the 2016 Game Critics Awards and The Game Awards 2016.

Becca’s Review

I finally downloaded Civ VI for Mac recently. It’s impossible not to want to play every second of every day (just… one… more… turn!) but I’ve tried things like setting timers (does not work) and just telling myself “no” (really does not work). But of course, that is the appeal of Civ games. They have always been completely immersive, and Civ VI is, if anything, even more beautiful and engrossing than ever before.

Map

If you’re familiar with the series, you’ll notice immediately that the artwork has changed. The hexes (an innovation from Civ V) are still there, but now they are brought to life with animations that give you all the information you need at a glance. Resources, tile improvements, wonders, and districts are clearly differentiated. The level of detail is stunning: tiny doves fly above my holy site, and little fires sparkle and dance in the barracks. My once static city is now a dynamic sprawl of farms, mines, districts, wonders, and armed garrisons, all teeming with life.

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That’s right: I said sprawl. Cities now grow across hexes, instead of piling everything in a single stack. This means, among other things, that you need to be thoughtful about where you’re building those barracks and that amphitheater. It also means that each city is completely unique, since the landscape will determine where and perhaps even what you choose to build. This is a massive change from previous games, and one of my favorite developments in Civ VI.

Districts are arguably the most important addition to the game, and it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how to place them to their best advantages. Districts are huge investments: they take on average about 20 turns to produce (from a decent city, with decent production – try to place one in a newly founded city and you’re in for the long haul), and they occupy an entire hex, getting different bonuses based on landscape adjacencies. Their construction is dependent on a city’s population (unless you’re playing as a civ with special district abilities, such as Germany) so you need to be thoughtful about which districts you choose, especially in the early game. Once you build a district, you can start to develop it. For example, you’ll need the encampment district in order to build barracks, and you’ll need the campus district in order to construct science-generating buildings like the university.

Civ is as much about your neighbors and the map as it is your strategy. You can’t make your strategy in a vacuum –local resources and land formations are going to affect your gameplay. That being said, strategic resources in this game feel less necessary than ever before. You could theoretically win a domination victory, for example, without ever having access to iron, or coal, or oil. Let me explain. You don’t need strategic resources for the production of buildings, meaning that you can now build a factory without coal, and a spaceport sans aluminum. Moreover, each strategic resource makes possible the construction of two (but only two!) combat units, and civilization-unique combat units do not need access to their corresponding strategic resource. For example, France can build a unique unit comparable to the musketman without niter, and Scythia can create horse archers without a horse resource. This is a definite change from previous games, and in general I’m not sure that I like it. It has changed gameplay a lot and I think made it easier to survive without iron and oil, two previously indispensable resources. This means that you’re less likely to declare war for resources, less likely to be forced need to found new cities, and less likely to need good diplomatic relations in order to trade for them.

Diplomacy

The departure from photorealistic to a frankly cartoony character design was a risk, and I know a lot of fans are angered by the new look of the world leaders. In my opinion though, it really paid off. Your allies — and enemies– are colorful, expressive, and completely memorable.

Look at Catherine de Medici – she is drinking champagne as she watches your cities burn.

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The diplomacy interface is light-years ahead of what we had to deal with in Civ V. Each civ has a unique agenda that is visible from the start. Norway, for instance, respects other civs with strong navies, and Brazil hates civs that recruit more great people than they do. Not meeting these agendas is a recipe for bad diplomatic relations and potential unwanted declarations of war. Additionally, each civ has a randomized “secret agenda.” You need diplomatic access in order to see what this secret agenda is, and it changes every game. Some are relatively harmless – liking civs with happy cities, or civs with a big income; and some are downright terrifying. During one of my playthroughs, Victoria had a secret agenda called ‘Nuke Happy.”

The diplomacy interface is easy to use and gives all the information you need. However, there are still some bugs that I think will get patched in the next couple of months. For example, here is that scoundrel Pedro II of Brazil, denouncing innocent me for no reason.

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5+ 2 -7 +2 +6 = DENOUNCED ? So many questions.

Gameplay

I played as that champagne-drinking broad Catherine de Medici of France on my first play through. I barely had any competition for my cultural victory, which the Civ main menu tells me is the most difficult to earn. Then again, I’m playing as Catherine de Medici, and her culture benefits are out of this world. Her “flying squadron” ability gives instant access to the other civs’ secret agenda—very helpful if you’re trying to keep the peace. Catherine’s circle of ladies in waiting will also tell you which wonders other civs are trying to construct, so you can plan accordingly.

Filling up my museums, cathedrals, and amphitheaters with actual great works was possibly my favorite part of my play through. It made the cultural victory feel fun in a way it never did in the previous games (although let’s face it: no victory in Civ is more fun than domination). But in Civ VI, you can recruit actual artists as “great people” and display their works. I collected Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Rembrandt’s Abraham and Isaac. Since Catherine has espionage bonuses, at a certain point in the late game, I had my spies sneak away with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from Brazil. Pedro never discovered the heist, which is surprising, since so many of his citizens came to my cities as tourists!

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My second time around, I played as Tomyris of Scythia – going for early game military advantages and shooting for the conquest victory. I’ll be honest, I chose Tomyris basically at random because she looked like a beautiful warrior queen and I’m a sucker for that, but I couldn’t be happier with my decision.

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Tomyris’s special ability allows her to automatically build a second light cavalry unit for every one produced. Put simply, this means you can grow your army fast.

Tomyris has a lot of early game bonuses and no late game bonuses, which means that in order to survive I need to move quickly. This works for me, because warmongering penalties are relatively light in the ancient and classical eras. In this game, Mvemba a Nzinga (Kongo) and Cleopatra (Egypt) declared surprise war on me for no reason very early on, which was fantastic since my military could easily wipe Nzinga off the planet. Fun fact: early cities aren’t able to defend themselves, and open borders are the default during the very early game.

Warfare is as enjoyable as ever. Like Civ V, Civ VI doesn’t allow stacked armies, so no mega stacks of death in this game. I know some people will be disappointed by this, but for me it was a plus. You can, however, after research, combine two or three identical units to make a corps and an army (or a fleet and an armada), gaining combat bonuses.

Pros

Revised city-state system. City-state gameplay was bonkers in Civ V – they were way too important for cultural victory and the number of notifications of their petty needs, feuds, and alliances was obnoxious — and I’m so glad that they changed it for Civ VI. You still meet city-states and complete quests, but now your relations are mediated through envoys, which you earn slowly over time. Because the cultural victory has changed so much, you no longer need to be friends with city-states in order to stand a chance of winning by this route.

New Civics tree system. In fact, culture has been completely revamped. They’ve changed the “social policies” from Civ V into a Civics tree, which acts as a sort of card game that allows you to sub in and out policies as you earn them. Anything that adds more complexity to this already heavily strategic game is good by me, and I loved this update.

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As you progress through your Civics tree, you’ll eventually unlock new governments. Governments have unique bonuses, as well as legacy bonuses which stay with you even if you change governments later. More modern governments let you equip more policies, so it’s in your best interest to move beyond a classical republic or oligarchy early on to something like a monarchy or theocracy, and later to fascism, democracy, and communism. My experience with governments is that you’ll choose based on bonuses: merchant republic, with its trade route bonuses, will help you hoard gold quickly, whereas democracy will help you purchase and cultivate great people. You also get improved diplomatic relations with civs that follow the same government as you, which is useful for when you want to keep the peace. At one point, I changed my government to autocracy solely to appease Egypt while I plotted to take their capital.

Population management. Thankfully, Civ VI has returned to using city-wide happiness instead of population-wide happiness, so population management is much easier (and much more intuitive!) than in Civ V.

Finally: Sean Bean’s voice.

Cons

Frustrating map view. There are always some kinks in Civ games when they first come out – in mine, the map couldn’t zoom out far enough to see more than two of my cities at once. This changed after one of the updates, but it’s still not ideal. I miss being able to see the whole map from an eagle’s eye view.

Difficult for new players. As a first time player of Civ VI (but a longtime player of the Civ series), I did find it difficult to get all the information I need – like the hex bonuses for improvements. The Civilopedia feels especially useless (or maybe I’ve simply never needed to use it before). I had a lot of trouble at first figuring out how to expend great people after I had earned them, and the Civilopedia was no help at all.

Clever but repetitive sound design. Like previous entries in the series, each civilization has unique music that changes as you progress through different eras. In the diplomacy screen, the music of each civ will play as you talk with them. The music is incredible, but I’m putting this on the con list because the industrial age French music got old fast.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Civ VI’s increased depth of gameplay with districts, improved diplomacy, and the civics tree has added variety and fun to an already wonderful game series. The artwork and music are spellbinding. I honestly can’t imagine anyone, newcomer or veteran, not enjoying this game. But now I must return to Tomyris; she’s about to lay waste to Cleopatra’s cities.

Becca L. is an English PhD student writing on turn of the century American women authors. You can find Becca L. on Twitter at @SweetleyTrimmer.

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Review: Yoshi’s Woolly World

It may seem like I’m late to the party with this review since Yoshi’s Woolly World came out for the Wii U back in October of 2015. However, Nintendo is releasing the game for 3DS tomorrow, February 3, under the name “Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World.” Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World will contain all stages of the Wii U version along with bonus Poochy levels and 3DS exclusive features. Nintendo is also releasing a brand new knitted Poochy amiibo to coincide with the game’s release.

I originally wrote this review soon after the game came out for a different blog I had at the time, so I’ve edited it and re-posted it here to celebrate the new release. (You might notice that the format is a bit different than my recent reviews.) Keep in mind, this review is based on the Wii U version, since I have not played the 3DS version.

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In Yoshi’s Woolly World, you play as a crocheted version of Yoshi in a whimsical universe modeled off of an overturned craft basket. Yarn, buttons, crochet hooks, lace, and more compose the environment and enemies. It’s a cute, original take on a classic Nintendo character. Or, as my dad said, “it sounds like you have to be on acid to play that.”

No drugs required to have enjoy this game! YWW is incredibly fun and adorable. It’s destined to be a staple for any Nintendo fan. Since the worlds start off quite easy, it’s a great way for newbies and kids to enter the Nintendo universe. As you progress, however, the game’s puzzles escalate in difficulty, providing fun and rewarding challenges.

Jaw-dropping graphics. YWW takes full advantage of the Wii U’s capabilities, delivering a colorful, lovingly detailed world that is sure to impress and delight you. It feels like you could reach out and touch the small craft items in the world. You can even see the frayed threads pulling off of the yarn balls! With a wide variety of world types (fire, water, jungle, etc) I was continuously impressed by the level of creativity that went into making the levels out of yarn-related items.

No time limits. With such beautifully animated scenery, you’re going to want to take some time to appreciate it! Eliminating time limits allows players to focus on solving unique yarn-based puzzles, rather than trying to zip through an onslaught of enemies.

Use enemies to your advantage. The enemies are often tools you need to solve the level. For example, some can be unraveled to create yarn projectiles needed for certain pickups, and some can be bounced upon to get to otherwise unreachable areas.

No life limits. If you’re playing with someone else, this is a pretty essential feature due to the amount of times you and your partner will wind up accidentally eating each other and stealing each other’s yarn balls. However, if you both die, you have to go back to the last checkpoint!

Great incentives to play to full completion. If you get all five yarn skeins hidden in a level, you unlock a new playable Yoshi. Each one features a fun and unique themed design. If you get all five flowers on every level of a world, you unlock a bonus level. Getting every pickup and ending the level with full hearts gives you full completion. Sometimes, you unlock a mini bonus game at the end of a level!

Boosters for purchase. Having trouble with a level? At the beginning, you have the option to buy a booster badge (using gems you’ve collected in the levels and bonus games) that will give you special powers for that level. You never know when it might come in handy to have an unlimited amount of watermelon seeds to spit at enemies…

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Pictured: Yoshi’s Woolly World for Wii U box set that includes the Green Yarn Yoshi amiibo. I also picked up the Blue Yarn Yoshi. Also pictured: Yoshi and Peach Wii Remote that I happened to get in the same trip!

amiibo functionality. I’m playing with a partner, but if you’re playing solo, your Yoshi doesn’t have to be alone! Use an amiibo to add a second helper Yoshi to your levels. You can save the designs of your unlocked Yoshis to your amiibo so that your second Yoshi can display your favorite patterns. The Yoshi’s Woolly World amiibos are by far my favorite amiibos that have been released. They’re actually knitted, and they are stuffed and squishy! They are available in green, blue, pink, and a jumbo green version. As I mentioned above, a Poochy amiibo is also being released with the 3DS version. However, you do not actually need the amiibos to enjoy the game! They are just fun add-ons.

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Non-Linear Levels. I was pleasantly surprised by the non-linear levels. I’m used to traditional side-scrolling worlds that force you to continually progress forward, and if you miss anything, too bad for you! The first few levels are like that, but then you start getting to worlds with multiple paths, giving you the opportunity to find the level’s items by solving yarn problems.

Bottom line. I enjoyed playing this game a lot, I had so much fun, and I would highly recommend getting it for the Wii U. It’s really fun to play with a friend, so invite someone over and knit some woolly action together!

One final note: Since I’ve only played the Wii U version, please don’t consider this a full review of Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World for 3DS. I emphasized the amazing graphics in my review, and you’re obviously going to lose a lot of that quality when you move it to the 3DS. However, even at the lower image quality of the 3DS, you’re still getting the cuteness and the creativity of the game. Also, I primarily played with a second person, and the 3DS version will be one player only. Personally, I will not get the 3DS game, since I already played it on the Wii U. If I didn’t have a Wii U, I would want it on the 3DS because it is such a fun and rewarding game.

 

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories Review

After a bit of a hiatus for summer vacation, I’m back for more video game posts!

I recently finished the original Silent Hill trilogy. I’m homesick for my little lakeside town, so I decided to revisit Silent Hill by checking out Shattered Memories. I already had a copy of the game for Wii!

Climax Studios and Konami released Silent Hill:Shattered Memories, the seventh installment in the series, in 2009, originally for Wii and then later for the PS2. I played on the Wii, and based on my experience, I believe that players will have a very different experience depending on which platform they choose.

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The Story

Shattered Memories is an alternate universe reimagining of the original Silent Hill game. Many characters from the original return in this game, though with altered personalities and appearances. You play as Harry Mason. The game switches back and forth between two timelines: third person sequences of Harry searching for his daughter, Cheryl, in the abandoned, snowy town of Silent Hill; and first person sequences in which the player is being interviewed about the events you’re playing through and tested by a psychiatrist, Michael Kaufmann. (You may recognize the name if you played the first Silent Hill game, though his character is different in this installment.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the alternate universe aspect of the plot. It made the whole game feel eerie, with that ominous feeling of déjà vu. I recognized it as Silent Hill, but it felt different. The plot itself is more grounded and personal, rather than the more large-scale plots that the series has had, with killing god and cults and so on. This is more about one man’s personal journey dealing with his family, especially his daughter.

The presentation of the plot was well done: as you search Silent Hill, the player slowly picks up the pieces of what happened to both Harry and Cheryl. Though the gameplay is very linear, the storytelling is done elegantly.

The Gameplay

Shattered Memories focuses on exploration and puzzle solving, similar to previous Silent Hill games. However, there are no weapons and there is no combat. Instead, you have to survive attacks in the Otherworld using stealth or, more often, running as fast as you can. You’re armed only with a flashlight and a cell phone. When you enter the Otherworld, the world freezes over, and creatures (called Raw Shocks) start looking for you. You have to sprint and hide through a series of rooms before you reach safety. If a Raw Shock catches you, you have very little time to shake it off (with a series of awkward arm swings) before you are overcome. It’s super nerve-wracking to be in the Otherworld with no weapon to defend yourself, and your cell phone emits static that lets you know danger is near.

The game was quite linear, with only a few simple branches: In certain areas, there would be two rooms to choose to go into, and once you ventured into one, the other would become inaccessible. (For example, in the mall there are two stores you can enter, but once you enter one–even if you don’t complete the puzzle within–the other becomes blocked off and your only chance to see it will be another play through.) I never felt lost, and I always knew where I had to go next–well, there weren’t really any ways I could go other than what was next. The linearity, however, does not render the game stale–rather, it serves to help the player focus on exploring and discovering all the secrets and mysteries that Silent Hill has to offer. Sure, you could blow through and finish the story line in no time, but then you would be missing out on key elements of the game’s content.

The utilization of the Wii remote functionality was more often frustrating than enjoyable. You move with the joystick while aiming your flashlight with the Wii remote. In the Otherworld running sequences, I had trouble directing myself using the Wii remote and I would often find myself unintentionally running right into the arms of the monsters. Many of the puzzles and pick ups involved deft environmental manipulation using the Wii remote, which was nearly impossible. The flailing sequences to escape the monsters almost never worked for me. Overall, I found the use of the Wii remotes distracting, and the cons outweighed the pros. I wonder what the game is like on PS2 – if it’s improved by the subtraction of the Wii remote functionality, or if it feels like it’s missing something because it was originally designed for it. Perhaps I’ll check it out at some point and report back.

Since many puzzles rely on using the Wii remote to solve them, their difficulty lies in simply getting the mechanics right. The riddles themselves are not hard at all, and there’s no option to bump up the difficulty. After playing Silent Hill 3 on the hardest puzzle difficulty, Shattered Memories’ puzzles felt like child’s play. I missed the brain teasers, but the core mystery of the game was enough to keep me hooked.

The graphics are decent; they hold up well despite the game being almost a decade old. Or, perhaps, I grew used to the graphics from the original trilogy, so Shattered Memories feels like a huge upgrade.

In my opinion, the biggest departure in gameplay from previous Silent Hill games was not needing to obsessively check my map. There are pros and cons to this. On the pro side, I always had a bad memory for where I was and constantly needed to check. On the con side, I missed the satisfaction from filling up my map with all the red lines and squiggles that signified where I’d been and where I couldn’t go.

The Setting

Having just played the original trilogy, I had an appreciation for how well Shattered Memories puts the player in the town, using familiar landmarks to make it feel like a real place. The mall especially stood out to me as a mall that it felt like I’d really been to before.

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Rather than the omnipresent fog familiar to Silent Hill fans, the town in Shattered Memories is beset by a severe snow storm (the cause of your car crash). As a result, the town has largely been abandoned, and you find yourself alone among huge snow drifts and thickly falling snowflakes.

The icy, wintry aesthetic permeates the game, including the Otherworld. While the Otherworld in previous games utilized a red-focused color scheme (blood, heat, rust, etc.), the Otherworld in Shattered Memories is an iced over, frigid, blue nightmare. The effect is equally frightening but very different, resulting in an effect that feels like Silent Hill without being a simple redo. It’s like entering the opposite side of hell.

The monsters, called “Raw Shocks,” are fairly simple, without the hideous variety usually found in Silent Hill games. They look like shriveled humans, and they shriek as they launch themselves at you. As the game progresses, the design of the enemies evolves based on the player’s psychological profile (more on that later). In my game, they evolved into the “Abstract” style: they began to look like they were missing pieces of their bodies, or unraveling. There are four different possible versions of the enemy. There are no bosses, just escalating difficulty when it comes to the monster chase sequences. The only thing that can keep them at bay are short-lived flares, which Harry doesn’t find very often.

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“Run” is a good idea. Source

The Features

Psychological Profiling

Shattered Memories claims to read into your choices as you play it, and as you progress, certain choices will lead to differences in the games. There are several first person look tracking scenes during which the game analyzes where you look and how long you look there (using the Wii remote). There are also some tests the psychiatrist gives you, such as questionnaires and a coloring task. These tests directly affect aesthetic changes in the games. Characters and monsters can have dramatically different appearances based on your answers and actions.

I could write an entire blog post about the psychological profiling in the game, but that would be beyond the scope of this review. You’ll get the most rewarding experience out of the game if you go in without trying to manipulate the game a certain way, and then once you’re done, look up the possible changes and find out what your game tells you about yourself.

Harry’s Cell Phone

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The cell phone was probably my favorite feature in the game. Despite the game coming out in 2009, the cell phone was very well done and didn’t make the game feel dated. The cell phone contained many functionalities for game play: you can make calls and receive calls, receive text messages, take and store photos, and use the map. You also access settings and save the game using the cell phone. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, the map is not quite necessary due to how linear the game is, but it came in handy a handful of times. The cell phone also serves as a monster (and general creepiness) detector by emitting static when you get close to a monster or ghost (see more below).

Because the cell phone was done well, it added an extra level of spookiness. Many horror movies and games choose to simply ignore cell phones because they provide easy solutions to many plot problems, but a poorly functioning cell phone can strike deep fear into the hearts of modern people. There’s nothing worse than calling someone to help you, only to be foiled by static and the dull beep of a dropped connection.

Ghosts of the Past

Throughout the game, Harry will come across traces of the past. Sometimes they appear as ghosts in a certain location, indicated by a subtle static effect in the landscape that is a mere shadow of a person. Harry needs to use his cell phone camera to capture the ghost in his phone. When he does that, he receives either a voice mail or a text message that gives a window into a past story line. In other cases, Harry’s cell phone will start to emit static, and you follow the static until you come across some sort of object that has a connection to a past story. White light will flash and Harry will receive either a voice mail or text message.

These traces of the past add to the history of Silent Hill, and they add to the player’s experience of the story. Some of the traces are from random people in Silent Hill, but some you will eventually realize have to do with Harry and Cheryl. I thought this element of the game was especially well done.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed Shattered Memories a lot, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the Silent Hill series. It’s different from the original trilogy, but it still feels like a Silent Hill game. It’s a short game with excellent re-playability, thanks to all the different possible play experiences. Even if you’re not a Silent Hill fan yet, it’s a great gateway for potential fans who are hesitant about getting into horror games. I’ve recommended Shattered Memories to a lot of friends who aren’t necessarily into horror because, despite some truly scary moments, Shattered Memories is more focused on mystery and storytelling than on making you scream.

Sources:

Header image.

Since Silent Hill games feature branching narratives, alternative endings, and well-hidden story elements, I couldn’t have written my post without a little help from the internet. The Silent Hill Wiki is a great resource for all things related to Silent Hill, but beware of spoilers. The game specific and whole franchise Wikipedia pages were also a great help. I also loved this walkthrough, written by my new hero Whitney Chavis, aka the Guiness World Record holder for “Largest Silent Hill Collection” and the creator of the Silent Hill Historical Society.

 

Resident Evil 7 Teaser: Beginning Hour Review & Gameplay Video

During Sony’s E3, the Resident Evil VII teaser stood out to me as a Big Deal. I love Resident Evil, I love horror, I love the look of the game. I mentioned it briefly during my Sony E3 post, and I’ve been obsessing over it ever since. Because here’s the thing — there’s more than enough to obsess over. But more on that later.

A little bit about the game:

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Image source

It takes place after Resident Evil 6, and it will feature a new main character and has no returning characters. This new main character will not be the character you play as in the teaser. The events of the teaser take place before the events of the main game. RE7 will actually be the second Resident Evil game in first person. (But the first one barely counts — it was Resident Evil Survivor, a poorly reviewed game for PlayStation and Windows that came out in 2000.) The game will also be one player only, which means they’re abandoning the co-op option from 5 and 6. As if experiencing the horror in first person wouldn’t be enough, it will be fully playable with the PlayStation VR (out 10/13/16).

The playable teaser (called Beginning Hour) is meant to be a standalone experience designed to give players a feel for the direction of RE7, and it will not actually be a part of the game. As director Koshi Nakanishi told Game Informer, the game is “a tonal teaser of the game, it’s not a content tease.” The full game will have a larger environment, of course — but it will still take place in a dilapidated mansion, according to the Capcom blog. There will also be additional game mechanics, such as combat. That’s good, because I don’t fancy being stalked around a creepy mansion without the ability to fight back!

Sony released the Beginning Hour teaser on June 14, the same day the game was announced. The game will come out on January 24, 2017.

Now, about the demo:

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You wake up alone in an eerily dark room in a rotting house. There’s a TV in the corner ominously playing static. You’re armed with only a flashlight – which you can’t turn off if you’re concerned about someone finding you. It’s daytime, but it doesn’t feel like it – the windows are mostly boarded up, and it takes you a while to find slivers of sunlight.

Beginning Hour was extremely scary the first time I played through it, mostly because I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know if I would have to run and hide, if I would have to fight, if things would jump out at me. As it turns out, there’s nowhere to run and no need to hide, but things did in fact jump out at me — and there was nothing I could do about it. The scary moments are good enough that they had me jumping even after multiple plays through, and the creepy moments gave me chills.

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The mannequins freaked me out the most

The first person perspective, as well as the limited illumination from your flashlight, delivers a deliciously limited field of view that makes you feel on edge the whole time. There are plenty of bumps, creaks, doors slamming, and footsteps in the distance to make sure you never feel safe.

The teaser has a gripping arc: you wander the main house looking for a tape that you can play on the TV in the first room you entered, and once you pop it in you then play through the events of the tape as though you’re living them. Once the tape is finished, you go back through the house, with (depending on which order you do things) new information on where things are. This was a cool technique that was much more interesting than just statically watching a video. The visuals change as well during the video part to simulate the feel of VHS quality, which enhances the horror atmosphere. The method of having the player search the same location in different timelines presents the opportunity to play around with the discoveries they’ll make.

You should play it for yourself – it’s still available for free on the PlayStation Store. You can also check out my play through in the video below! I only play through one of the possible endings.

The demo holds more than meets the eye

The internet is now filling up with people trying to poke into all the nooks and crannies and ferret out all the secrets that Beginning Hour holds. We know there are multiple endings, including a rumored “true ending” that no one seems to be able to find. (However, I have one friend who says she successfully left the house! Achieved by hugging the walls and creeping around.) Of the various items you pick up and use throughout the game, no one has been able to figure out (at least at the time I’m writing this) the purpose of the “dummy finger” that you find in a drawer in the main hallway. Doing things in different orders triggers different paths to take through the demo, and different endings. You can play through the entire thing once without finding certain items and areas in the house.

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The notorious dummy finger

One of the more frustrating secrets for me is the alleged ghost girl, who shows up at random times in certain places during the VHS tape portion. I have never been able to find her in all of my many plays through the demo. Even when I looked up a YouTube video which showed several of her appearances, I had trouble seeing her in the video. Kudos to the eagle-eyed gamer who managed to find her in the first place. Check out this list of her known locations if you want to try to spot her. Honestly, I would be surprised if a ghost of any sort featured prominently in the main game, since Resident Evil enemies aren’t typically of the spectral variety.

To what extent will the mysteries of Beginning Hour pertain to the main game? That’s hard to say, but considering that the developers have already said that it’s not content from the main game, they might not relate at all. It’s probably just a fun way to keep fans excited while they wait for the real deal.

How does it compare to previous Resident Evil games?

Based on what we can glean from the demo, the series is definitely getting back to its horror roots. They’ve left behind the sweeping, global scope of bioterror attacks that games 5 and 6 focused on. Instead, you feel the more human, personal fear of being in imminent danger. This isn’t about saving the world — it’s about saving yourself.

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Argh! Unidentifiable sludge!

Some things about the demo’s atmosphere feel like Resident Evil to me: the bags of trash throughout the house, the unidentifiable creepy sludge in the cooking pot, the gruesome dead bodies of the animals you find. However, some details feel distinctly like Silent Hill: the house setting, the notes you find, the nature of the “find the key” puzzles you have to solve, the mysterious phone calls. This isn’t a complaint since I love both series, it’s just interesting to see the new direction that Resident Evil is pursuing, and the inspirations that probably went into it.

It’s hard to judge how the combat will feel, considering that there’s no combat in the demo. It’s possible to find an axe, but all you can do with it is destroy boxes and mannequins. However, based on the overall demo, it feels unlikely that the game will have the gun focused, military style combat of 5 and 6, at least. I predict that combat will be dramatically scaled down, possibly reduced to melee only. (Although, they might use gun combat to get gamers to buy the newly designed PS VR Aim Controller.)

How excited am I for the main game to come out?

So excited! Resident Evil 7 is already available for pre-order. The digital deluxe edition, available from the PlayStation Store for $79.99, includes a special dynamic theme, Survival Pack DLC, four short side stories, and one additional story episode (when they are released).

Finally, some Fun Facts about the game title:

While the “Wikipedia official” title refers to it as “Resident Evil 7: Biohazard” it’s being stylized in America as “RESIDENT EVII. biohazard” and “BIOHA7ARD resident evil” in Japan. (Check out the image earlier in this post to see it.) It’s a lot of focus on the number 7 for game that will technically be the eleventh installment in the main Resident Evil series.

*Unsourced images are screen caps from my gameplay video

Story of Seasons – First Impression

Story of Seasons was released in America on March 31, 2015. I recently acquired it through the Nintendo eStore for the low price of only $19.99 due to their E3 sale. I have been interested in the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons series for some time now, but I’ve always been really invested in Animal Crossing New Leaf, and I wasn’t sure if I needed a similar game.  I figured this was my chance to get the game at the lowest price I was ever likely to get it (barring waiting a few years), so I took the plunge! Here’s my report on my first impressions of the game, as well as an overview. Use this as a guide if you’re thinking about getting it!

Intro

The game greets me with a cute note about respecting animals because they are helpful and they are our friends! There’s a beautifully designed animated intro that shows the town going through the changing of the seasons, accompanied by adorable farm animals. I was intrigued by the focus on the setting rather than any human characters.

Customizability

You have the option to choose “original” or “seedling” level of difficulty. I looked it up and found out that this option was an add-on after early users complained about the level of grinding necessary early in the game. That’s my cue to start feeling nervous…

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Image source – for some reason I could only find a picture of the male character!

You only have two gender options (male or female), but there is a decent range of skin color diversity, as well as hair and eye colors. There are also a wide variety of vibrant (not natural) colors for hair! You could also change the style, with a good number of options. You pick from a range of pre-made faces without the option to choose individual facial features. There are no options to customize clothes at this point, so that must come later in the game.

(I only checked out the female options since I’m playing as a female character, but I imagine the male character has a similar customization scheme.)

My main qualm with the customizability is the extremely short name length – only six letters. I was lucky that “Maggie” fit, because lots of common names won’t make the cut. (The six letter limit is also a problem when naming your farm.)

Art Design

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The art design for the animals is incredible – really adorable and homespun, with roly-poly cows and sheep frolicking together in a pastoral paradise. The menus and titles use a quaint burlap pattern that feels homey and rustic.

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When you interact with NPCs, you are treated to delightful anime-style dialogues featuring portraits of whomever you’re talking to (slightly animated, with just expressions changing like in Fire Emblem dialogues). The art style for these interaction portraits is a gorgeous muted watercolor scheme (see above). Since I already know this game involves marriage, I was immediately on the prowl for the most eligible bachelors… I was truly surprised by how elegant the art design was for the characters considering that a lot of the other artistic elements of the game seem to focus on “cute and simple.”

The music is soothing and upbeat, but I was disappointed by how the music changes abruptly between day and night. It was a really dramatic change, not a smooth transition at all. The first time I heard the music change from daytime to evening I did a double take. It’s too bad they didn’t put more effort into making a smooth and soothing transition, because atmospheric mood music can add so much to the experience of a simlulation game like SoS.

Story

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I really enjoy the plot – you are a city dweller who has decided to leave behind the hustle and bustle and pursue a more relaxing countryside lifestyle. It struck a chord with me since I live in a major city.

Once you reach Oak Tree Town, you meet the guild master Veronica, who leads you around your new town in a clunky, plodding intro. It allowed me to see the whole big town, which got me really excited. However, it could have been shown much more effectively in a cinematic rather than making me walk around the whole thing. Veronica then takes you to Madam Eda, the owner of Sunnyside Farm, who will train you in the ways of farming so that you can help Oak Tree Town to prosper.

The long winded intro then turned into the worst tutorial of my life.

Tutorial

You’re stuck with Madam Eda for a full week (game time), during which she often teaches you one thing and then sends you off to “explore the town.” However, I don’t really know how to do anything at this point, so it seems pointless and I usually just go to bed right away to try to speed things along.

The most frustrating part of the tutorial is when it tells you how to do something, but then doesn’t allow you to do it yourself. For example, when Fritz (a plucky young cutie) taught me how to swim, he tells me the buttons to press to jump off the dock and dive down. But then, instead of allowing me to perform the actions myself and solidify my learning, it cuts to a cinematic that shows me diving into the river. It says you use stamina, but I have no idea how much since it doesn’t even show your stamina meter during the demonstration.

I feel like this long tutorial is boring and pointless since I’m going to have to learn everything by experience again later. Plus, this entire time the touch screen (which is supposed to have a variety of information such as the map) just says “Training,” even though the tutorials keep referencing things that should appear there. What’s the point of even having the tutorial if it’s not actually going to show me what the game is like?

After six long, horrible days of training, I finally got my rundown little farm! I named it Magtop Farm and set about tidying it up. Since the tutorial was useless, I wasted a ton of time smashing a boulder on my land (several days!) before I finally went to town, when I found plenty of materials to collect along the way.

Gameplay

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The top screen shows your movements around the town as well as any interactions, while the touch screen shows a map with icons to tell you where everyone is. You also see the date, time, and how much money you have. You can access your journal and your backpack from the touch screen.

The gameplay is very similar to Animal Crossing New Leaf. You have a bag to store items and various storage chests in your house to store things when your bag gets full. The hot key system is a bit clunkier, however, and takes some getting used to before you can smoothly access all of your desired tools, seeds, and more.

The map is very large, much larger than the simple 2-area map of ACNL. The main problem with this is that it takes an awful long time to run from your farm all the way to the trade plaza on the other side of town, which is typically my destination. Even when I finally got my horse, I felt like I spent an inordinate amount of time getting from Point A to Point B. The movement of my avatar seems kind of jerky and hard to look at when I’m running around. I found the map a bit confusing at first, since there were lots of different areas. I didn’t find out until later that these are farms you can rent later in the game, so I had trouble figuring out which were the important parts of the map.

You have a mood meter and a stamina meter to monitor throughout the day. You use up stamina by performing your farming tasks, such as harvesting crops, milking cows, watering crops, and chopping wood. Eating food (which you can only get at the restaurant until you save up enough to build the kitchen) replenishes your stamina. The stamina has a brutal expiration rate, and until I learned about eating food (another way the tutorial let me down), I went to bed at 8am on quite a few days. On the flip side, it’s really easy to keep your mood meter high. So far I’ve had absolutely no trouble with it, and haven’t seen it slip below the second level of happiness (when I stayed out past my bedtime and used up all my stamina, waking up in a daze in the town’s clinic).

You can interact with the townspeople, but so far I have only gotten very simple interactions – one sentence responses from them to which I can’t respond. It doesn’t feel like a conversation. They don’t give me tasks. They don’t even seem to appreciate it when I give them birthday presents. At this rate, I don’t know how I’m supposed to figure out who to marry.

The Verdict

At first I regretted buying Story of Seasons because I didn’t like it much. Now, I regret buying it because I spend way too much time playing it. Once I got past the awful tutorial and figured out my way around the game, and once I had gotten far enough to see some profits (planted enough crops, bought enough animals), I started to enjoy it a lot!

It feels a bit more grown up than ACNL, but not as advanced as The Sims. The excitement of having crops to harvest and traders to exchange with keeps me coming back day after day. The pace of the game is extremely slow, so it takes a long time to build up your farm. However, I feel like that compels me even more to keep playing. As the seasons pass, I am constantly getting new characters to trade or talk with, new events to plan for, and new elements that are added to the game. I never knew farming could be so much fun.

If Story of Seasons sounds like something you’re interested in, check out the Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns trailer from this year’s E3! It looks very similar to Story of Seasons, with some scenery differences. It’s coming out sometime in 2017.

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