Space rock operas aren’t something you see in gaming much and The Artful Escape is a visual and auditorial treat for the senses. You play as a young boy who is living in the shadows of his late uncle who was a famous folk singer in the town he lives in. He feels forced to follow in his footsteps when he actually is a metalhead at heart. You are sent on an acid trip of a space rock opera through a universe of weird space creatures and worlds. You meet a man named Lightman (voiced by Carl Weathers of Rocky and The Predator fame) who is the most famous person of this universe and shreds like no other. He wants to help you overcome your fear of being yourself and you go on a journey together to impress the Tastemaker which is the ultimate deciding creature in this universe.
Don’t think too much into the story as it’s mostly filler for just a sidescrolling walking simulator with light rhythm mechanics. You move always to the right and can hold down a button to shred your guitar. It sounds awesome and I never got tired of hearing the licks repeat, and each planet has its own licks, but the visual flair and usefulness of these are never explained and despite being able to just hold down the button and shred while you slide down slopes, jump over platforms, and bounce on things some times the background interacts and the background music will swell as you jump and shred. It’s cool when it does and sometimes gave me goosebumps because the music is so good, but 75% of the time I was just holding down the button not sure when it will trigger an interaction.
At the end of each stage, you come across a boss of sorts that displays a Simon Says-style rhythm pattern. There’s zero challenge here as you don’t need to memorize anything as you can play as the buttons appear. You also don’t get penalized for messing up and that note just starts over. I found this mechanic fairly pointless and just filler as some of these sessions are only a few notes long. It sounded and looked cool, but that was it. There’s pretty much zero gameplay here. The sidescrolling and shredding are literally an excuse to turn this story into a game. I also loved the art. There are crazy creature designs lots of vaporwave aesthetics going on with a menagerie of lights and colors all over the place. Sadly, that’s all the game really offers. While the voice acting is also good, the dialog isn’t anything exciting and I didn’t care at all about any of the characters. The game is so short that you don’t get any time to really invest in these characters.
So what we get is a three-hour adventure with great visuals and music, but boring gameplay mechanics that only enhance the game in rare moments. I also found the engine is poorly optimized as even on high-end hardware the game dipped well below 60FPS on some areas with lots of lighting effects going on. Turning everything down to low didn’t help much, so this is clearly an optimization issue. With that said, The Artful Escape is great for metalheads who want to chill out for a few hours and enjoy the visual treat, but otherwise, you aren’t missing much here. This sadly is just another adventure game where the developers think it’s cute or revolutionary to forgo any gameplay and solely focus on the visuals and music, but they forget this is a game first.
I’m not much of a visual novel fan. I love reading books and grew up reading a lot, but visual novels are basically just digital manga, and I prefer traditional manga. I bought VA-11 Hall-A years ago and never got around to it because there’s so much reading. What got me interested was the bartending aspect. It seemed like a fun time-management mini-game mixed in and I was completely wrong. However, the strongest point with this game is the fun characters and how invested in their stories I became.
You play Julianne Stingray, a bartender in a cyberpunk world setting nearly 100 years in the future. The bar is close to getting shut down and you’re just living life day-to-day until that time comes. The game is pretty slow-paced and takes quite a while to pick up and get interesting. There’s a lot of character setup and it takes such a long time so it feels natural and organic rather than rushed. There isn’t really any gameplay. I spent more time clicking through dialog than anything else, but I did like all the characters. They were fun, unique, and had great personalities that I got attached to. If I were to say there was an ultimate goal it would be to make amends with your ex-girlfriend who you got into a fight with years ago and need to apologize to, but honestly, this is a slice-of-life type of game. You really only need to just read through everything.
You do earn money at the end of every day and this can be spent on items to keep Jill focused at her job. There will be a hint when you get to your apartment as to what she might want. If you don’t buy this item she won’t remember what customers order and you have to remember yourself. There are also major bills that have to be paid so you need to spend wisely. There is also an optional phone you can view with various news apps. Just some insight into the world really and nothing that matters towards the main story. There is an option to customize your apartment a bit, but it seemed superfluous in the end and pointless.
As you talk to patrons you have to make their drinks. This seemed fun at first, but it quickly becomes dull and stale by day three in the game. There is a recipe book full of 24 different drinks you can make and you can filter them by flavor and type. Patrons will give hints as to what they want and you sometimes even have to read the descriptions to get cryptic ones correct. Drinks are made with artificial chemicals in this world and you have five. There are squares that fill up with each measurement and you can mix or blend the drink and age it or add ice. That’s literally it. I thought you could upgrade the bar and add new flavors and devices, but this is it. You end up cycling through all 24 drinks early on and maybe 10 repeats constantly. It ends up no longer being fun to make these drinks and just interrupts the story. There are also no instructions on the difference between mixing and blending. You need to count how many times the shaker wiggles and if it starts going fast…that’s blended. If you mess up a drink you lose a bonus at the end of the day. However, you can’t serve messed-up drinks as the game won’t let you. Some drinks allow you to add synthetic alcohol as much or as little as you want and this is supposed to change the story somehow…by making characters spill things when they’re drunker, but I never saw this happen.
The one game mechanic in an otherwise interactive visual novel is boring and somewhat pointless. If there was a much larger selection of drinks, or if I could add some later, or upgrade equipment, that would be fun, but what’s here feels half-assed and tacked on. I also don’t like how we never get to know what’s going on in the world. The game hints at things happening politically and with various corporations, and even a hacking group, but we get nothing in that regard. It’s mostly just what’s going on inside the bar and the characters you meet; it stays very local and centralized. I also felt the visuals while artistically beautiful were boring to look at. There isn’t any change in scenery and the static anime-style characters just change facial expressions. It’s very hard to stare at the same background for nearly a dozen hours and make dozens upon dozens of repeated drinks just to stay invested in a character’s story. If it weren’t for the great characters this game would be utterly boring nonsense.
With that said, VA-11 Hall-A is only worth getting into if you love anime, visual novels, or just like reading books. The bartending aspect is a poorly throughout afterthought that hinders the progress of the story rather than helps it due to the small recipe size and laughable mechanics. I really liked the characters here, and the story ended on a nice note. I expected some sort of twist ending where the bar would close early, or the hackers would take over all the androids and something interesting would happen, but we just get a slice-of-life anime-style bartending experience.
I love post-apocalyptic anything. Just the curiosity of wondering what would happen when a man is on the brink of extinction is morbid yet fascinating. Beautiful Desolation takes the isometric point and click of yore and brings it to life with over 40 fully voiced and wonderfully designed characters and a time warping story. The game starts out with you, Mark Leslie, arguing with his wife about someone whose emotional mess you have to clean up. Suddenly a giant object slams into the ground from the sky and brings about the apocalypse with machines. You are now trying to find a way to figure out what the Penrose, the giant object, is and how to stop it from changing the world. The only issue is that doesn’t go as planned and you are warped an unknown amount of years into the future and must stop factions from fighting and chose between groups of characters.
Choices mostly matter before the ending of the game. There are several groups of characters, some warring with each other, and some just single characters that don’t offer any rewards, and you must decide what happens to them all. You fly around an overhead map in your Buffalo transport and objectives are obtained by talking to characters. Each area is small and linear and there’s usually only one person to talk to in each area. The characters are really well done and the style of the game feels like a mid-90’s Fallout with pre-rendered animations in a box and the text appears below it. The characters look amazing from robots to weird fleshy things to plants and various lifeforms. There’s tons of imagination in this game and even the environments look amazing. However, there’s not much else when it comes to exploring.
When you land in an area you will most likely find things that need to be used or find things that need something to be used with. Sometimes a character might need an item, or they might need you to solve a large issue that decides the fate of their race or faction. The issue here is that objectives are so obtuse and cryptic and you can easily miss an option to solve a large problem. For example, you need to ultimately find three items to restart the array to let you back on the Penrose to go home. One item needed is Red Mercury. There are two ways to obtain this and depending on your choices once will always be cut off. There is also one route that lets you fight a few bosses via a weird arcade game. You need tokens to put combatants in this machine. You need at least three tokens to even bother and that’s never explained. To get these tokens you must choose one of three outcomes for a few factions, or the fourth outcome gives you Red Mercury for the array. I wound up missing two of these and only got two tokens in the game so the item I needed from the final boss for the arcade game to get Red Mercury was cut off.
This long string of outcomes that are hidden is a little unfair. I also accidentally decided a fate without even knowing that option would do that and I wasn’t given a second chance. I decided the fate of two factions early on and wound up doing the opposite because I didn’t realize clicking a certain option would launch that decision and it was too late. There are also some items that need to be bought to progress and you need credits that are exchanged for gold. To acquire gold you need to find them hidden in certain areas by just wandering around. This was also something never explained and for a while, I couldn’t figure out how to get credits. There are also some bogus items that you can waste credits on, so I’m not sure if you can end up not finishing the game because you have found all the gold and don’t have enough credits. There’s only so much gold in the game and there’s not much.
One of my biggest gripes is needing to talk to certain characters before something would advance. Icons on the map flash if there is a new dialog for a character, but that’s if you have already done something to trigger that. It won’t flash for items not discovered or anything like that. I had to use a walkthrough through most of the game because there were times I felt l made progress and the next character would give me zero hints on where to go next. Some objectives I could figure out alone, but 90% needed a walkthrough. Just because the game looks mid-90’s doesn’t mean it needs to play like it. It still didn’t stop me from looking forward to the next area and character to talk to as they are so unique and interesting.
Overall, Beautiful Desolation is a well-written and very stylized post-apocalyptic adventure game with lots of nostalgic feelings of the mid-’90s. However, the insane amount of cryptic and obtuse objectives makes the game very frustrating without a guide. I also didn’t like how often you would start feeling like you’re making progress and then get stopped dead at every turn with the only option is to wander around every area until you notice something you missed, and as the game progresses that can take forever. You end up unlocking over 50 areas towards the end and going back to them all is insane. I love the voice acting, the art style, and the story itself, but it’s so unfair and stops you dead in your tracks at every turn. Progress is incredibly grindy here and not to mention the major decisions in the game can easily be missed or skipped over.
The morals of AI behavior have always been a question. How close should they get to human emotion? Would they be considered people? Should they be considered and treated like machines? What happens if one becomes rogue and starts feeling outside of its programmed emotions? Many games, books, and movies have explored this concept. The movie A.I., Bicentennial Man, I, Robot, Isaac Asimov’s novels, and most recently with Detroit: Become Human. It’s a fascinating concept that becomes closer to reality as technology advances. With cloud-based AIs like Siri, Google, Bixby, and Cortana, and realistic-looking robots that have been created, this could be the future within the next 10-15 years.
Silicon Dreams puts you in the eyes of a robot interrogator for a mega-corporation called Kronos. Kronos creates bots for service and work and must keep a close eye on any that might be considered rogue. The game is mostly basic visually, but you spend 90% of your time on the interrogation screen. You click around on questions and try to gain the responses and information Kronos asks of you. Each case is different and you also interrogate some humans. At first, this will become confusing and you won’t be sure what the strategy is. As time goes on you are contacted by a rogue robot who wants to start a revolution. You end up interviewing robots that have gone rogue, or what Kronos thinks has gone rogue, and it’s your job to get as much information as possible. Some robots are easy to crack and some require trust.
As you go on you will realize that emotions are the main way to get what you want. There’s a wheel pie chart with different emotions and as you talk to the subjects that slice will flash and the graph will adjust. Some robots aren’t supposed to feel certain emotions and Kronos might ask you to observe this and the end report you fill out might ask this question. Of course, your own morals come into play here and it’s one of the few games I’ve played where I was torn between helping out Kronos and wanting to help the robot revolution. Every single interaction will sway you either way as you will be afraid of being decommissioned yourself and get caught if you help and you never know if what you’re doing is correct in either direction. The mystery is good and it’s akin to how you might navigate these situations in real life. Kronos promises private quarters and a more lavish lifestyle if you cooperate, but then you see a news article at the end of each day talking about the robot revolution and you sympathize with the stories and situations of the subjects. You want to just do your job and keep your head down, but you also have a chance to change the world.
This leads to different outcomes as you play. I was so torn between not wanting to help either side that my company points kept dropping to the point where I was interrogated myself. I also screwed up that interview by playing the neutral party and I got a bad ending. There’s tons of replay value here and I intend to be for either side solely so I can see what end I get. However, this also goes for interviews. I would exhaust all my options and be unable to invoke the emotion I needed to get the correct information. I had to choose to either let the subject go, send it to maintenance for a memory wipe, or decommission. This is one of the hardest choices to make and what eventually can piss of Kronos the most. They want to keep a clean image and if you let deviant robots free it makes them look bad. I did eventually get my company points to 60/100 and acquired the ability to invoke and sway the robot’s emotions. You also get to cuff them to invoke fear and anger and sometimes this is the last resort if you end up choosing the wrong responses and wind up not getting everything you need.
Outside of all the interviews, there’s nothing else to do. The visuals are very basic, while not ugly, there’s no voice acting which would have added some character to everyone, and the Blade Runner style Voight-Kampff iris vision is just for show. Same thing with the option to show camera angles. You’re never close enough to see emotion visually which would have added another layer to the overall gameplay. As it is your only indicator is the text itself and the emotion pie chart.
Overall, Silicon Dreams is a fantastic text adventure that pushes the moral boundary of AI as humans and makes you think with every mouse click. I had to make sure I even talked about certain topics in a certain order to open up trust first before talking about the actual reason why the subject was with me. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t, but that’s part of all the fun in this game.
Time Schaffer games are always hit or miss. He may be a great story writer or character creator, but he’s not a great game designer. I don’t want to come out swinging with everyone thinking I hate Grim Fandango or all Schaffer-made games. A lot of his work is considered some of the best games ever made on PC, which I get, but they’re remembered for their story, atmosphere, and characters – not so much their gameplay.
You play as Manual Calavera. A Mexican salesman of the dead who gets wrapped up in a huge film noir-style story trying to save a mysterious girl, get back at his evil overlord of a boss, and also an evil co-worker. The game is split up into four years. It takes four years for people to travel by foot to the Ninth Level if they don’t qualify for an express train ticket. For some reason, Manny can’t get any good clients yet his co-worker Domino can. You wind up uncovering a plot of fraud, sabotage, subterfuge, and love. I can’t go too far into story details, but they’re quite entertaining enough to keep you pushing on.
And pushing on you will do. The game’s object hunting obtuseness varies from minimal to I will never figure this out without a walkthrough. The way objects are used is very illogical at times and you wonder how Schaffer thought gamers would think in these ways. It doesn’t help that the areas you explore are massive with dozens of hallways and rooms and you can easily miss something that needs picking up or completely bypass something that needs to be interacted with. LucasArts had a lot on their hands with this game as it was the first 3D game they developed and the most sophisticated to date. There’s no object mixing either. Manny stores everything in his cloak/jacket and you must either try everything on every interactive object or simply think in odd obscure ways.
One example early on requires Manny to gum up a pneumatic tube system and get the maintenance demon to open the door. That was fine and all, but the demon left and I couldn’t get in the door. I then had to re-acquire all the items needed to gum up the system again by running down hallways and do a ton of more backtracking all because I didn’t realize I had to throw the bolt to stop the door from closing. How was I supposed to guess that? You run into these situations every step of the way and it gets exhausting and discouraging. Another scenario requires Manny to take a sign and use it to find a hidden doorway in part of a forest. This forest has doorways that loop back around to the same room and do nothing. How would you know to take that sign from the previous room and use it as a compass to find the hidden doorway in this room? The puzzles are insane and poorly designed and lead to constant frustration. I felt my progress halted every five minutes.
Now with puzzle obscurity out of the way, there’s nothing else to this game. There are pretty environments to look at, great music and voice acting to listen to, and some great characters, albeit none of them very memorable. You can unlock quite a few achievements by talking to certain people at certain points or looking at certain objects. I find this in tune with the puzzle obscurity. I also didn’t like how many areas are reused over and over again, while in new ways, they’re still the same. Things are just spread so far apart and so many sub-plots and hints are given to you that you can’t make heads or tails of any of it. There’s no journal to keep track of what’s said or even what you’re really supposed to be doing next. It can become quite frustrating.
Thankfully the game isn’t very long, especially if you use a walkthrough. My adventure was over in about 6 hours and I enjoyed it while it lasted, but it’s not something I will be talking about for years to come. The gameplay time isn’t enough to really flesh out the characters more than you wanted, and almost plays out like a Pixar movie. It’s a fun blast while you’re in it, but once the credits roll you quickly move on to something else and probably won’t remember it a year down the road. Something about this whole game just didn’t stick with me and I can’t put my finger on it. If the puzzles weren’t so obscure I might be more inclined. At least there’s fun developer commentary all over the place and the remastered upgrades are nice. Everything looks sharp and clean and rendered in a much higher resolution. However, there are still many collision and animation bugs.
Overall, Grim Fandango is a fun story with some fun characters while you’re in it, but will quickly move on to other things as something about this game doesn’t quite stick. It feels more like a Pixar cartoon with gameplay bits in between than a full-blown game. It looks good, sounds good, and the voice acting is excellent, but many won’t finish the game just due to how obscure getting through everything really is.
Oxenfree is all about horror and mystery. It starts out with five students in their early 20’s arriving at a small town in the Pacific Northwest to discover some sort of weird thing that goes on in the caves there when you tune a radio to a certain frequency. After a good amount of dialog and plot and character development, you tune your radio and discover a rift in time and discover the island is actually haunted and you are trying to free the ghosts within. Why, how, and what they are in the mystery that I won’t spoil.
The horror elements are mostly audio-related and are something I have not really heard in a game before. The game uses the eerieness of radio static, and voices. Have you ever gone down a scary YouTube rabbit hole and watched “Top 10 scariest sounds” or something like that? Well, if you ever heard one that is about strange radio call signs that were used in the Cold War then you know what you will hear in this game. It made the hair on my neck stand up and was very chilling to hear. There are various stones you can find throughout the game that give you tidbits of stories about the island and these creepy radio calls are part of this.
You wander around the island listening to the dialog as there are no puzzles in this game. It’s very much a “walking simulator”, but you walk and talk with the characters and choose from three different dialog options as they pop up in conversation. Some of these are story altering and some are not. These choices determine the ending you get which I found was a little too short and disappointing. I really got to like the characters here and the game is so short you can’t invest a lot of time into them. Every so often the game will bring you into a time loop and these are when a lot of important choices are made. Even for only a 4 hours game the story is done quite well and has a beginning, middle, and clear ending and you wind up exploring most of the island albeit at a snail’s pace. You can wander around further to collect letters and find these frequency stones, but I honestly didn’t find the story of the island as interesting as the characters.
The voice acting is actually really well done and I like that when you answer before someone finishes a sentence Alex, your character, will interrupt with a correct tone and inflection in her voice. The constant bantering between the characters is the most entertaining part of the game and I was always looking forward to hearing what they had to say. The game also looks really good with 2D backgrounds and 3D models. It’s a 2D side-scrolling adventure so it’s hard to get lost here. I found the game’s pacing was all over the place however, there would be sections where I felt I was progressing quickly only to get slowed down by too much backtracking or lots of cut scenes and dialog. You don’t have to really think to finish the game, and I felt collecting everything was too tedious due to the slow pace of the game.
Overall, Oxenfree is a great horror mystery game that while not being very memorable will entertain you for an afternoon and might be something you discuss with friends as the story does have a twist ending. It looks good, has great voice acting, and the characters are interesting, but the constant backtracking, slow pace, and almost zero gameplay may put some off.
I Am Dead is a curious object hunting game about a ghost of a museum curator. That may sound boring on paper, but it’s quite charming and the mini-stories within are nice enough to keep the game moving along. You discover you have died, of what is unknown, and you can see through objects like a ghost or “slice” objects. This is a game all about a no-clip camera! It’s pretty cool at first as you can push the camera through an object to see what’s lying or hiding underneath. This is 100% a hidden object game with a larger budget is. The goal of the game is to find a spirit that can take over quieting the island of Shimerston as the volcano is about to erupt. You slowly learn of the island legend and the 5 main characters you need to try and convince to do the job.
There are 5 objects to find in each level. You spin around an area with smaller areas to click on and then the object hunting begins. To know what you are hunting you click on characters with bubbles as you will recall their memory and the main object they are talking about in that memory is what you will hunt. The stories are the most charming part of the game. They are super short but well written and during these stories rotate some sort of weird globe to focus the picture into view. It’s pointless, but it’s something to do during all the talking. Once you know what object you need to find is you will get a hint if that object is in the area you clicked on by the icon popping up on the screen. It was never too difficult to figure out what the items were, but the optional Grenkins objects are a lot tougher. This is a side puzzle that requires you to rotate a certain object like a shadow game so only part of the camera clips through and it looks like the icon. If the Grenkin object is what you clicked on Sparky, your canine companion will bark so you aren’t aimlessly rotating every object. There are additional tougher objects to hunt if you can find the secret list. These are tiny objects hidden inside others such as toys or bugs and you only get descriptive hints as to what they might be.
To be honest, the game shows you all it can do in the first ten minutes, and outside of hunting for the main items, I collected Grenkins for two levels and stopped. It was just too much to endlessly rotate and hunt objects forever as the main story was already asking for a lot. If you really love the gameplay mechanic here then it’s for you, but after so long I tired of it and wanted to see the story progress. There is literally nothing else to do in the game outside of object hunting as that is the sole mechanic. At least the areas are all varied and no single object was the same. You can finish the main story in about 4 hours, but if you collect everything you might be here for over 10. The visuals are quite charming with a flat pastel color and low poly objects. It has a unique look and each item is surprisingly detailed both inside and out. There are hundreds of objects to examine and it’s quite impressive that the developers went through all that effort. The voice acting is also quite good and it helps seal the aesthetics.
Overall, I Am Dead is a fun object hunting game for a few hours, but the story, in the end, doesn’t wow you or have a twist ending. It’s pretty predictable and the extra puzzles aren’t worth your time as there is no reward outside of just doing them. The visuals are charming and there is a lot of detail put into the objects you examine, but the entire game shows everything it can do in the first ten minutes and never evolves beyond that. If there was something more to this game outside of just clipping through objects for 4 hours until I find what I need I would stay longer, but this game is mostly for object hunting fanatics.
I absolutely love typing games. Why? Because it’s a skill everyone needs to learn and it’s a unique way to play a game that you can only do on PC. I remember Mario Typing Tutor back in the ’90s and various programs on the Apple II and original iMac back in the early ’90s in school. Then there was Typing of the Dead and Typing of the Dead: Overkill. These games were so much fun and there just doesn’t seem to be enough of them. Epistory is a Zelda like an adventure in which you type for every action. It’s a game I unlike any other and no other typing game does something like this. Rather than an on-rails shooter or just a series of exercises you go on an adventure trying to cleanse the land of evil and darkness. The story doesn’t really make much sense, and there’s not really much of one, but it’s the adventure that counts here.
There’s also not really any characters to get attached to as you are the only one. You are a girl riding a three-tailed fox and whenever you see something flashing like a log, stone, chest, or anything like that you press space and you enter combat mode in which you type the words shown above the item. It’s a lot of fun running around gathering chests, increasing your score count, and in the dungeons solving extra puzzles to collect fragment pieces. While these just unlock art pieces that are mostly meaningless, the game’s adventuring is highly addictive and the challenge slowly increases as the game goes on. When you see bugs on-screen that slowly crawl towards you that’s when you can press space and type the words above them to attack them. In the beginning, it’s rather easy and slow going. Some smaller bugs just have a letter, while larger enemies have larger words. The largest word of them all is actually an optional “arena” with a boss that has something along the lines of a 30 letter word and it was the hardest arena in the game.
That’s not all though. You go around collecting four different elements in these dungeons to progress further in the open world. Fire, ice, wind, and electricity. You can switch between each ability by typing the name such as fire, ice, spark, and wind. These also need to be used in conjunction with strategy and the game’s arenas throw more and more waves at you. Some enemies can only be hurt with a certain element and your upgrades can make combat much easier and is essential to even finishing the game. Even if you can type 100 words per minute, you won’t finish the later arenas without upgrading such as spark which will burn a word on the adjacent enemy, or fire which will burn the next word for that same enemy. This is a great strategy for enemies with long words strung together. It lets you type as little as possible so you can deal with smaller enemies. If there are a lot of small enemies coming at you spark will jump around knocking them out as they only have one or two words each. Wind allows you to blow enemies back and ice will freeze them in place for a second.
You also need these elements to solve puzzles in dungeons, but not every puzzle requires typing. Some require sliding on ice in a certain pattern to press buttons, some require deciphering a code in a certain order. The puzzles are mixed up nicely and the dungeons are all different. One dungeon is full of darkness and you must type a word above a crystal to light up the area for a few seconds to proceed. Each dungeon was a blast and the open world was also really fun to explore with lots of hidden chests and optional arenas. I highly suggest trying to complete the game 100% as you will have a lot of fun, but the game does have some issues.
For one, the map is terrible as you can scroll around the map or hover over something to see description. You can only zoom in on yourself and zoom out all the way. The enemy variety is also atrociously small as the same bugs repeat throughout the entire game and it gets old. Like I mentioned earlier, there’s pretty much no story outside of a woman narrating your adventure is broken up sentences that don’t really add up to much other than feelings of what the girl on the fox might be thinking at that moment. However, I found the visuals to be strikingly gorgeous. Papercraft art similar to Tearaway scatters across the screen with bright vivid colors and a lot of detail. It’s not something I expected but the game never got old to look at.
Overall, Epistory has a great typing adventure mechanic that’s highly addictive with great dungeons, fun puzzles, and challenging arenas. The game looks fantastic with gorgeous papercraft art, but the game is lacking a story and any characters to care about. The overworld map is also mostly useless and hard to navigate and there’s no real reward for finding everything outside of Steam achievements. My biggest gripe is the severe lack of variety in enemies that just repeat for 5-6 hours straight over and over. At least the game provides a fun challenge and uses typing in a game that we haven’t seen before.
Serious Sam has never been my favorite FPS and there’s a single reason for that. The game is incredibly repetitive and every campaign overstays its welcome and I’m bored before the game is even over. The entire appeal of Serious Sam is to shoot everything that moves and massive waves of enemies, and I mean massive. More enemies than any other shooter would dare throw at you and that’s part of the game’s challenge and incredibly frustrating difficulty. Even on easy, Serious Sam 4 was tough and I died numerous times. I had to switch to easy on the fifth level because I just wasn’t making progress. Serious Sam 4 also lacks in story and character, and many other things, but we’ll get there.
You play as Sam Stone, a badass dude who shoots everything that moves. The game starts off with a giant battle with thousands of characters on screen. I mean thousands. It’s something I have never seen in a game before and it’s amazing to mow down these endless hordes, but the impressiveness ends there. The game starts at the end and then you jump forward at the beginning. Nowhere else is there any amount of enemies like this outside of maybe 100 on-screen at once. I wanted to see these thousands on the screen that the game kept advertising, but only at the beginning and very end battles do you see this. How disappointing. The game does up the ante as you progress with the final level having you mow down a few thousand but in smaller waves. That’s literally all there is to the game. There are a couple of mech sections which are awesome, and a few driving sections which are lame and boring, but they’re there. It’s not nearly enough to break up the 8-10 hours of monotonous shooting, however.
The arsenal of weapons Sam gets is actually quite entertaining especially when you get skill points and can unlock dual-wielding. The skill tree is actually rather useful and I enjoyed what I unlocked. Duel-wielding is the only way you may get through the game, to be honest. Guns like the Cannonball, Electric gun, rocket launcher, grenade launcher, the Devastator, and double-barrel shotgun are just a few that you will switch between depending on what calls for them. A horde of smaller enemies may require more rounds so the mini-gun is one of the most useful in the game. Yes, you can duel-wield mini-guns and it’s a blast. Have a horde of larger enemies? Throw the cannons at them and watch them explode. Now, this was fine and all, but there’s a huge issue I take with locking most weapons away as side objectives. This includes items such as the mini-nuke, black hole, gas grenade, and various boosters. I finally got over that and did all the side objectives I ran into, but then you get to a level where the weapons are all taken away from you and you have to re-acquire them by doing more side objectives?! What?! It’s absurd and not fun. I just went through all this effort and the developers seemed to have done this to somehow extend playtime? It doesn’t end there as they do it a THIRD time! It’s incredibly frustrating and by the final level, you don’t even get all the items and weapons back that could be useful.
Let’s talk about level design. It’s awful. The game has not evolved a single iota since its inception and other games of the era such as Doom, Zelda, Mario, and various other series have evolved with the times but Serious Sam just can not. The levels feel haphazardly designed with random buildings, terrible open maps in which you drive a vehicle through for no apparent reason except to waste time and bore you to death. It doesn’t help that the game is trying to tell the story of an alien named Mental trying to take over Earth, but the characters are so unlikeable and the dialog is eye-rolling and misses the mark every time. The heroes harp on one-liners for a third of the game and it ends up being the main focus of banter between them. I love the humor in shooters, Doom 2016 did it very well, but this isn’t it. The writers just drop the ball or can’t land a joke, and when they do they don’t run with it. There are subtle things in the game that were kind of funny like when Sam asks a less-than-funny Russian soldier where the battle is and he just points his finger in a direction and there was dead silence. That’s funny! But then they gave Sam a lame one-liner and ruined the follow-up. Sometimes less is more and the writers clearer don’t see this. Not even breaking the fourth wall kind of humor is present. Like it’s almost there, but not quite. None of the writing just ever makes sense or seems pointless.
Let’s talk about visuals as Serious Sam has always pushed PCs with impressive engines. While SS4 does push PCs to their limits, and beyond, the game isn’t well optimized. The game would drop down to 30FPS during cut scenes, and then there would be massive texture pop-in every time the camera changed angles. The game eats up VRAM like crazy and yes, there are a ton of graphics options and even some for controls, motion sickness, and a bunch others that need to be standard in PC games, but no matter how much I fiddled with the options I could never get a steady framerate. I would dip into the 40s in large cities, but the battle with thousands of enemies on screen I got 80FPS? Then in large open areas with just trees, I would bounce between 70 and 60 with every step. The game looks fantastic and is impressive, but it’s also boring and sterile. The game looks real and maybe too real, but for the silly zaniness of aliens and monsters, the game just looks boring. The environments mostly never change and everything is just white buildings, boring trees, boring open maps, and the occasional cramped hallway. Outside of all the shooting, there’s literally nothing else to do and every single battle is exactly the same. You wind up seeing all the enemies by chapter 5 and there’s nothing new except a few new weapons down the pipeline. This is what Serious Sam is, which is shooting massive hordes of aliens, but the developers need to find a way to evolve this. Sam has the potential of being a funny character, but the writing isn’t there and the game just lacks character.
Overall, the game is fun for a while but also lacks multiplayer and co-op which are musts for this series and they are missing. After you beat the campaign there is no point in replaying as there’s no new game plus or anything like that. The game has interesting monsters, but the game looks sterile and boring with no life, boring open maps, lame characters, and writing that always misses the mark. The engine is poorly optimized and you constantly have to re-acquire your arsenal throughout the game. I just don’t think anyone is missing anything by not playing this game. It’s intense during the firefights, but there’s a whole lot of nothing in between and that’s where the game needs to change.
Adventure games are always hit or miss. The fundamental thing that needs to be focused on is characters and story as that’s the main reason why people play these games. It takes away the action and gameplay so you can enjoy an interactive story. This has been done really well and, sadly, really badly more times than anyone can count. Beyond a Steel Sky is the long-awaited sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky which released in 1994. It wasn’t very well known and most people know it today as “that free game that GOG.com gave away when you opened an account” for the longest time. Beyond a Steel Sky has the potential for greatness, but it falls flat in many ways and I’ll explain.
You play as Robert Foster who was the main protagonist in the first game. You are living your life in the Gap, which is a Nomad town basically, and someone’s kid named Milo gets kidnapped by a walking mechanical dog thing. Yeah, there’s no context here and you are literally told to care about someone and risk your life who has zero backstory. A chapter or two inside the Gap where Foster was living would have built that up, but instead, we jump right into heading into Union City which is the dystopian town from the first game. Here you are introduced to controls and game mechanics which aren’t any different from other adventure games. You find objects that go into other objects and click on stuff. The only difference is a cool gadget which is a hack tool, but even that isn’t lived up to its potential like I thought it would. It shows various devices with a puzzle-like grid and you can swap stuff around to make these devices do different things. Of course, one puzzle piece from action for that device must fit, but the issue here is that each device has a different type of puzzle piece and if you are in proximity to multiple devices the game purposefully makes those pieces different so you can’t swap whatever you want around. Instead, this is mostly reserved for main mission puzzles.
As you progress through the story there’s always a sense of why? Why am I doing this? The characters are one-dimensional and just don’t have good writing. The dialog is very dry and unimportant and there’s no reason to explore the world. I even wound up finishing the game with items in my inventory I never even used so what’s the purpose? The writing is just awful or passable at best and the voice acting is so spotty. Even Foster sometimes sounds like he’s reading from a high-school play and sometimes he nails the line. It’s so inconsistent it drove me insane. Once you eventually team up with the cities’ AI, Joey from the first game, the story then turns from saving kidnapped children to taking down the entire city council? I don’t understand why the narrative has this tug-of-war and that’s not even mentioning the fact that this beautifully created world is never explored. This game could have been something like Beyond Good & Evil with a great city to explore, but instead, we only see a few mundane and boring areas with this huge beautiful backdrop that I wanted to explore more of. Beyond a Steel Sky does a great job of creating an atmospheric and lived-in world, but this isn’t how you explore that world.
The most entertaining part of the game was exploring the MINOS cyber world which had a Vaporwave/Cyberpunk aesthetic and collecting the various programs to progress was fun, but again, the puzzles had zero challenge. The entire game just has you matching items to others and it’s very obvious and there’s zero challenge throughout the entire game. There’s even a hint system that basically tells you where to go, and while that’s a good thing, it doesn’t make you work for the hints either. I also think this game would have done better as a multi-part series or just something that isn’t an adventure game as there’s so much missed potential around every corner.
Overall, Beyond a Steel Sky builds a great atmosphere and a wonderful city to explore, but you can’t explore it. The story doesn’t know what it wants to do and the characters are one-dimensional with dry dialog and humor that lands wrong. The puzzles aren’t challenging and even just simply exploring the game is boring. I wanted to care about everything in the game, but it’s hard to when the developers only pushed their world a little bit instead of shaking it and letting the fruit fall.