I love short point-and-click games, but they are hit-and-miss. For these games that are less than two hours, it takes a lot of talent to pull off a good story, something to get attached to, and fun gameplay. Cat Museum nails almost all of this except the story and something to get attached to. The mini-game and puzzle-driven gameplay are more entertaining than pixel hunting, but there’s also the fantastic art direction and grotesque nature of the whole game.
See, the story just doesn’t make any sense. It’s told in abstract story panels. I only gathered that you’re possibly dreaming and your dream of a cat museum full of monsters and creatures that need help. You’re searching for special eggs and that’s all I could gather. It doesn’t make a lick of sense. The game isn’t confusing or anything like that which is nice. Clicking around moves the boy and you will see eye icons for things to look at and hand icons for interaction. These hand icons advance the game and each interaction is unique and different. Jigsaw puzzles, slider puzzles, timing mini-games, and just weird things like pushing and pulling things to reveal hints. It’s hard to get stuck in this game as there’s always one object in each room to interact with which will reveal a hint or the puzzle/mini-game will advance the story.
The best part about this game is the insane art style. Lots of grotesque characters, guts, bodily fluids, and crazy monster designs right out of a child’s nightmare. However, it’s still colorful and full of life. I really liked the atmosphere and world of Cat Museum, but at a 90-minute runtime, the game doesn’t allow any type of world-building or anything of that nature. Dialogue is cut down to a couple of lines per character and none of it is meaningful. There are a couple of scenes where you need to run and hide from a monster chasing you, but it’s just to the end of the same room so there’s no challenge there either.
There’s not much to say for a 90-minute game. For a few dollars this is an interesting art exhibit, but not much more. I appreciate the unique puzzles and mini-games, but the monster designs are so cool that I wanted to spend more time in this world and learn more about it. What’s here is a short and crazy ride full of weird art and nothing more.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game I have struggled to finish for 5 years now. It’s not that it’s a bad game or a boring one, it just has a lot of promise in the beginning third of the game and you quickly learn it has shown everything it has to offer by then. I got frustrated with the game more often than I wanted to. I found the game had felt bloated with too many activities and very little reward for them. However, it’s the game’s less-than-stellar combat that made me continue to turn the game off many times over the last five years.
I even repurchased the game on PC and thought the higher fidelity would get me to finish the game. I even tried it on the Steam Deck, but it wasn’t until I bought my PS5 and wanted to dive into Forbidden West that made me finally complete the game. I did complete most of the side quests and explore the world for various collectibles, but in the end, the in-game economy is so small and restricted that there’s no reward worth the effort. You can buy the strongest weapons and armor about 1/3 through the game and you can’t find more powerful weapons or acquire them. The same goes for armor. There are merchants spread throughout the game, but they mostly offer stuff you can craft, but it’s imperative that you buy and save for the most powerful stuff early on.
I saw all of this because the combat while interesting is frustrating and fairly uninteresting. The entire game’s premise focuses on these machines that made humanity go extinct. While I don’t want to discuss too much of the story as it will spoil it (the story is really good) I will say that the entire idea of weak points breaks the combat. You can use your Focus, which is a device Aloy has on her ear that can scan the world, and this will show breakable weak points on machines. Each weak point might have different elemental weaknesses. It’s essential to break these down to attack the machine and kill it faster. Otherwise, you will only chip health away. While this sounds fine on paper, the execution is poorly done. A lot of the game wants to focus on stealth by sneaking around tall grass and using your tripcaster to shoot out trip lines for machines to walk across. Early on this is fine as single wires can take down enemies. Later on, the bigger ones won’t fall for this, and the entire tripcaster weapon becomes useless. The ropcaster is used to tie down machines, but it is useless against humans. There is a sling that throws out bombs, and then a heavy bow and a bow for elemental arrows. That is it. The only difference in price for each weapon is how many augmentation slots you get, now so much power, and different elemental ammo types it can use.
The flaw stems from combat being too chaotic to accurately break down weak points. When multiple machines are coming at you the instinct is to just throw everything you have at them. Forget melee attacks as these only work against smaller machines that are maybe twice your size. Attacking massive Deathbringers up close will result in instant death. The bigger the machine the more you have to roll and dodge around and shoot elemental arrows and really have the ammo for that weakness. The second big flaw comes into account with the crafting system. You have to either buy or craft everything and it’s imperative that you have plenty of material on hand or you are left hanging. You can’t ever hold more than what you can craft and crafting bigger ammo pouches doesn’t help much. You always feel like nothing is enough. Health upgrades with each level up aren’t enough, the skill tree takes way too long to get to more useless skills and it always feels like it’s not enough. You can’t upgrade your base power as weapons rely on augmentations to make them more powerful. It just never feels like what you do is good enough and can’t get better no matter how much you level up. I was always dying easily, guzzling health potions, and relying on cheap exploits to get through tougher battles.
It’s sad that the combat is so flawed as the rest of the game is fine. The open world is beautiful and I have fun climbing mountains Tomb Raider style and wanted to explore more, but there’s no reward for any of this. In combat, you can control smaller machines and you learn to control new ones by finding Cauldrons throughout the game. Think tombs in Tomb Raider. These require taking down bosses to learn a new ability, but I never needed to ride an animal once. It felt pointless and the reward wasn’t justified. Why would I go through all this trouble for a new skill I will never use? Side quests in this game are fine for the most part. The other big flaw in the game is the lifeless and boring characters. Sylens and Aloy are the only characters I had any interest in outside of discovering the mystery of what caused the human apocalypse. Most of the side characters feel like mannequins and the voice acting is spotty for them.
Some other gripes are the healing system. You have to run around picking up every little flower you see to keep filling your medicine pouch. This is a health system separate from potions. However, if you want to keep potions stocked you need to hunt animals which is really tedious and gets old fast. The same five animals are spread throughout the game and you need different meat types to make potions. Some pouch upgrades require animal skins which require hunting multiple times before they drop one. It’s a very tedious system and there’s no relief. After the 100,000 flower I picked up I wanted to scream. The medicine pouch is annoying because combat is flawed. If I didn’t have to guzzle health items so often and actually felt like I was getting stronger it wouldn’t be an issue. Each system feeds off of itself and it brings the whole game down quite a bit.
The visuals are actually quite impressive. While the base PS4 model is pretty rough the game looks great on PS4 Pro and even better on PC and PS5. The character models look a bit plastic-like, but overall the entire game just looks good and colorful. I didn’t run into any slowdown or glitches at all. It runs really solid, however, the game isn’t well-optimized on PC. It requires more powerful hardware than is really needed.
Overall, Horizon: Zero Dawn has a fantastic story, and world-building is done well, but the game has many systems that feed off of each other and each one is severely flawed. Combat is hectic and requires breaking machine parts to take them down, and that type of precise combat isn’t fun here. Stealth is flawed as it requires trial and error and you don’t get powerful enough weapons to ever feel like you can get any job done right. The weapons are mostly uninteresting and the skill tree is a grind. Side quests and NPCs are a bore and there are no worthwhile rewards for getting collectibles and doing said side quests. It sounds like I hated this game, but I didn’t. The story and world are interesting enough to keep playing, and Aloy is a great character herself. I just felt like the first third of the game builds everything up too much and you’re let down when you realize that’s all the game has to offer and you keep playing expecting things to change and they don’t.
The Yakuza series had massive success with its spinoff Like a Dragon. While it had flaws it was entertaining and had great characters and a detailed story. The entire Yakuza franchise excels in the storytelling and character development department. Judgment is no different. You play as the lawyer turned-detective Tavo Kagami trying to rid of his demons and upturn a bunch of corrupt politicians. An Alzheimer’s cure and a murder mystery are at the center of this. The story is well constructed and kept me on the edge of my seat at every turn. The entire story has chapters ending on cliffhangers like addictive binge-worthy TV shows. I always wanted to know what was going to come next. At many points, it felt that Yagami and co. were backed into a corner and I didn’t see any way out only for the story to twist and turn in crazy ways.
I don’t want to say too much about the story as any small detail can spoil it. Just know that this is the strongest point of the game and what makes it worth sticking through the 30+ hour game for. The second reason is the characters. There are many and they are well-acted and have great backstories. They are slowly introduced throughout the game and by the end, I either loved them or hated them. Tavo himself is a well-rounded character that’s stubborn and unwilling to back down from anything. I really liked the personalities of each character. They were unique and interesting and they all stood out in their own way. For such a large cast this is usually hard to pull off or not done well enough.
As for the gameplay, this is where Judgment falters and the entire Yakuza series lacks here in every entry in some way. You get to run around in this open…map called Kamarucho. I don’t want to say open world because it’s just a small city that can be run across in about 2-3 minutes. It’s a city full of crime and underground misdeeds. What’s the point of the open city? I don’t really know. Mostly for side quests, but I always found these to be underwhelming and repetitive in the Yakuza series. There are a few types. First off are actual side cases which net you more SP and cash. That’s bout it. They are mostly uninteresting and don’t advance the story or characters at all. There are friend events spread throughout which net you skills that can be unlocked, SP, and cash. These are the two main types of side quests you can partake in and I did finish most side cases just for the SP and cash. You really need cash to buy healing items and stay stocked up.
There are taxis spread throughout to help with fast travel. With such a small area you would think it’s pointless but it’s great to avoid fights on the streets. These are randomly occurring and you can usually run from them and you should. I felt it hindered progress and after the third chapter, it didn’t net enough SP to be worth bothering with. Eventually, you will be wanted by street gangs and your threat level will increase unless you stop a boss-type enemy. This never goes away and will always go back to 100% so I just ignored them. There are also side activities that are mostly used for dating. That’s another side quest that I didn’t find interesting. You can meet girls through friend events or side cases and later date them by presenting presents. Side mini-games like batting, darts, and gambling can be fun to an extent, but when are mini-games like this ever fun to go back to? It’s just filler content and for achievement hunters really. It doesn’t advance the story or add to it in any way I just felt like all of these side activities/missions were chores to complete.
Let’s get into combat. It’s flawed for sure. While it looks cool and it’s simple to understand it suffers from unresponsive controls and animations that don’t interrupt when you input a command. I always felt like my button presses were delayed. There are two fighting stances. Tiger for one-to-one fights and Crane for multiple enemies. You can pick up objects and hit people with them and there’s a special EX finishing move that you can perform which is key to winning tougher fights. You also have an EX boost which unlocks more powerful combos and increases your defense. Again, a key thing to use to win fights. I just felt like no matter what I did I couldn’t master the system. There is a block and dodge button, but it seems that the enemies are magnetized to you because no matter how much I dodge or run away they always follow me and connect their attacks. It makes boss fights especially infuriating. While I had plenty of items I could use at my disposal to help I wish I could rely more on my skill, but the fighting system just doesn’t allow it.
There are other small annoyances such as mortal wounds. These lockout parts of your health bar and the only thing in the game that can fix this are med-kits which are rare and cost a lot of money. There’s only one person that can heal you and they’re sold underground in a sewer. Of course, you have to go through the animation of opening the sewer great, sliding down a ladder, running down the sewer, and then the same thing going back up. Just cut all of this out! I also found the game way too long. It’s padded with a ton of fights throughout the main story and I wish a lot of this was cut out. There are easily 10 hours of fights just in the main story. Nothing breaks this up, however. There are repetitive detective events like searching for objects in first-person, chase scenes and tailing people. My god, do these get old quickly. Tailing missions are never fun in games and these are dragged out for sometimes over five minutes. You can hide behind objects and that’s about it. Just don’t fill the suspicion meter. All of these mini-games are just incredibly repetitive and could have been cut out.
The game at least looks decent. It’s a PS4 port so some parts look rough. There are some textures that look like PS3-era stuff, but at least the facial animations and character models are really good. There’s lots of detail everywhere, but don’t expect this to push your hardware to its limits. It mostly looks very realistic and sterile with not much in the way of artistic flair. It looks like a modern-day Japanese city.
Overall, Judgment excels in storytelling and character development but falters in gameplay. The fighting is stiff and unresponsive, the mini-games are repetitive and pad out the hours, and I felt the detective work in the courtroom was a missed opportunity. The open city is an excuse to throw side cases and missions at you that are meaningless and just pad gameplay. Random city fights are annoying and get in the way of progress, and the visuals aren’t much of an upgrade. What’s here works, but I mostly stayed for the story. If it had a bad story this game would be barely above average, however, it’s one of the best and most detailed video game stories I’ve seen in recent years.
I really like the Persona and Shin Megami Tensei series, but they are insanely long and challenging. These are hardcore JRPGs not meant for casual players. Most won’t have the stamina needed to sit through 150+ hour games and the PlayStation trophy data shows that. Less than half of all Persona 5 players finished the game. Thankfully, for people like me, Atlus put me in an extra easy mode called Safety that let me finish my first-ever Persona game. I tried the third and fourth games several times and just couldn’t do it. While I eventually did well in battles, the games were too long. The story in Persona 5 is fantastic and there are plenty of great things about this game, but a few key issues may drive most players away even more casual JRPG fans.
The story is insanely deep and detailed. There are plenty of mysteries and twists and turns that kept me trucking on because I wanted to see what happened next. The characters are compelling, well-written, and very likable, however, you still need to like anime to enjoy the characters in this game. There are some typical anime tropes that leak in, but I think people who play JRPGs are already aware of this. Your character is Joker, a teenage boy wrongfully convicted of assaulting a high-profile individual for just trying to save a woman from harassment on the street. You end up living with someone who volunteered to take in a convict and watch over you so you can get rehabilitated. This game plays just like previous Persona games with a time limit, days going by, social rankings, and acquiring personas.
The game will introduce things to you throughout the entire game, and I mean throughout. 40 hours in I was still getting tutorial messages. The game is an incredibly slow burn. I didn’t get to do any battling until the fifth or sixth hour. This was all story and world-building, introducing the idea of personas, your purpose, and your back story, and showing you how to go about the day-to-day. The game is mostly dialog, to be honest. Out of the 80 hours, it took me to finish the game maybe 25 of that was actually exploring the dungeons and fighting. There is a lot of character-building and slice-of-life stuff in here. You also have a time limit to finish every palace which is the main dungeon in the game.
When you’re not battling you are living your everyday life. You need to go to school and the day is broken up into sections such as early morning which is reserved for dialog you hear on the train going to school, talking to friends at the train station, etc. Morning and afternoon are reserved for things happening at school during the week or random quizzes that you can answer to increase your social stats. These stats are knowledge, proficiency, charm, kindness, and guts. These are needed to finish confidant arcs and max out that persona category so you can get stat boosts when using that type of persona. These stats can be increased by doing certain activities like watching movies, playing games, doing chores, and other everyday activities. It’s important to use your downtime for increasing these stats as the game is balanced by not just level grinding, but having these extra stats for each persona type.
After school time is reserved for doing things around the city such as said activities and getting together to enter Momentos which is a secondary dungeon with a few dozen levels that you need to descend to complete requests from people. In the end, it’s required to descend fully for the final dungeon, but before that it’s optional. I recommend doing these late-game so you can just barrel through the levels by the end. The evening is reserved for nighttime activities and jobs even to earn more money. After the activity, the evening is done you advance to the next day and do this all over. Some days are interrupted by story elements, scripted scenes, and other events. It’s important to hang out with confidants when you get texts from them to advance their persona ranking. These are where the side stories for each character are held. They can be long-cut scenes too. Usually, you get 30 odd days between each major palace to fill the time. This time period can take hours to finish.
When you do actually battle Persona is based on finding the weaknesses of enemies. This can be both good and bad. If you find the weakness you get one more turn. This can be elemental or physical. The downside is that the entire game can be over if you don’t find these quickly. It’s trial and error as to finding the weakness and some just don’t have one. You waste precious turns trying to figure this out and it can make some boss fights grueling. You can save within these palaces and return to the real world to buy items and increase your persona rankings more, but if you don’t find the treasure and beat the boss by the deadline it’s game over. I’ve always hated this about the series and it makes the game more difficult and frustrating than it needs to be. You can capture personas by talking to them when they’re weak in battle. If successful they will join your ranks. It’s important to keep a good variety of personas leveled up and acquire new ones with better skills. You can fuse and itemize them in the Velvet Room as well as sacrifice weaker ones to strengthen others.
While you can use multiple personas your party members are stuck with one. Every few levels they will gain new abilities for their personas and you have a limited number of slots so it’s important to keep them balanced. Inside these palaces, you can acquire items, treasures to sell, and powerful equipment that you can buy in the airsoft shop. These palaces are huge with multiple levels and can take hours to complete. I played the game on safety difficulty so I could beat each palace in a single sitting, but if you need to level grind and fuse personas you could take the entire time limit. Each palace is a different theme and they look cool, but the weak puzzles and labyrinthine halls of some of them are really annoying. Enemies walk around in real-time and because you are thieves you can get behind cover and dash around them stealthily or take them head-on. Some palaces are a really confusing mess and I found some just went on for too long.
Those are your two main parts of the game. Battling in Momentos or palaces and living your everyday life to increase social stats and play mini-games. I personally don’t like the trial and error of exploiting weaknesses to win each fight. The graphics are decent, while stylistically they look great with lots of flash and color, but technically it looks like a typical JRPG and borderline last generation and not too much of a step up from the PS3 version. While it seems there is a lot to do in the game there actually isn’t. You’re so focused on visiting confidants and maxing out social stats in the real world that it feels like a chore after a while. You have to realize there are nearly 250 in-game days you have to get through on top of the palaces and momentos. The game just feels like it never ends. 80 hours to finish safety difficulties and it can take 150-200 hours for higher difficulties. I had to dedicate every free minute I had over the last three weeks to finishing this game and not playing any other games in between. I wish there was a warning at the beginning of the game letting players know how long the game can take on average or even put it somewhere on an official source of info for the game. I have played and bought many JRPGs not realizing just how long they take to beat.
Overall, I don’t want to talk too much about the story because I can easily spoil something. The Phantom Thieves and trying to change the hearts of criminals is a great story. It can be very dark at times talking bout child exploitation, abuse, murder, money laundering, and many other crimes. It’s a dark game and I felt it had a very memorable story, but it takes way too long to tell it. Many will balk at the trial and error of weakness exploitation to win battles, insane amounts of grinding, and the constant need to micro-manage your personas to get a well-balanced always leveled-up arsenal might seem like too much. That doesn’t include dozens upon dozens of hours of reading dialog and watching cut scenes. I recommend this only to the hardest-core of JRPG fans. This game is not to be taken lightly. While I complain about some of these things fans of this genre embrace it and that’s okay, but for only around 40% of players to have finished the game says something about the length.
Ever since P.T. was shown and canceled it set a new standard for survival horror games. Silent Hill has always been the gold standard to live up to and many games have since. MADiSON is one of the first games I’ve played in the style of P.T. to actually be good and pull off the scares and atmospheres. While not inherently as frightening as P.T. or other horror games it definitely gets across a dark and haunting atmosphere with plenty of scares.
The game starts out really solid but also has foreshadowing of the game’s main weakness. You start out in a dark room with just a TV on and your dad pounding on a door. You need to use the TV as a flashlight by spinning it around and finding a handle to a cupboard on the wall to get a hammer. You get to crawl your way into the rest of the house which acts as the main area you will be solving puzzles. Madison is all about puzzle solving as that’s all you do. The first half of the game can be solved fairly easily. It’s the same affair of examining everything you can and finding that one thing you can pick up and can use on something you remembered it would go to. A lot of finding and matching at the beginning. In between, there is the main gameplay mechanics which involved a Polaroid camera. A Camera Obscura isn’t unusual in horror games. The entire Fatal Frame series is based around one, but here it’s used to advance the story. There are Polaroids laying around objects you can photograph. When you do you can shake the photo to expose it. While most photos don’t need this some need to be exposed to show a number for a combination lock.
I have to give the developers credit for the great layout of the house. This is a huge issue with a lot of horror games. Many require tons of backtracking through the same area and they grow as you unlock new areas. The house in Madison is well laid out with lots of landmarks to memorize where certain things are. I knew the main starting point with the “ritual area” was past the dining room. The basement was in the main hallway etc. The house is laid out like all horror games should be laid out. Make it memorable with easy landmarks because you trek through the house probably hundreds of times. Most of the rooms hold puzzle areas or transport you to new areas to solve puzzles. You also have an 8-item inventory limit and need to trek to your safe often to store and pick up items. Outside of occasional scripted events, not much happens in the house outside of sounds. There is one scene in a water-filled basement that was probably the scariest in the whole game. The developers really used audio to spook the crap out of you and draw out many fears people would have. Creepy static on radios with unclear voices is haunting.
When you’re wandering around the house nothing happens in between puzzles. Just a lot of squeaking doors, wind blowing, slamming doors, etc. There’s Luca’s breathing that gets annoying as his deep sighs repeat often, but the house itself is just haunting. The sterile lighting, the ultra-realistic look to the house, and the head bobbing. If you played the P.T. demo you know what I’m talking about. This is the new-age horror style that needs to get perfected and Madison definitely sets a new bar. Here’s where things take a bit of a dive. Halfway through when you get to the infamous candle puzzle area in the church many players may turn the game off. You must find four different candles in two different time periods and match those colors that are associated with religious imagery. You also have to navigate through four different mazes and if that candle’s image isn’t there you have to backtrack, go back to the other time period, navigate the same maze again, then repeat this three more times. The one thing the game doesn’t tell you is that if you listen to the confessional too early a ghost stalks you and can kill you if you don’t place the candle down before he shows up. Thankfully he only exists in one time period. I was able to place the first three candles before doing the last one, but many players won’t know this.
Then there’s the clock face puzzle. You must match clock faces that are shown on five different walls but the correct faces are spread out around the house. It’s a lot of memorization and backtracking. And then there’s the Blue Knees ghost puzzle that was incredibly frustrating at the very end. None of this spoils the story, but the last half of the game will really try players’ patience. The game got so much right up until this point and it felt like filler to stretch a 2-hour game into 5. Horror game developers please listen. You don’t need insanely mind-bending puzzles to be a good game. I know this is a trope, but please stop it. No one liked them 25 years ago and no one likes them now. We play horror games for the atmosphere, scares, and intense scenes, not puzzles.
In the end, the story itself is open to self-interpretation. It’s not obvious or clear when the credits roll about what happens to Madison or Luca, but what is obvious are the possible reasons why the ending occurred the way it did. Props to the developers for making an open-ending without being cryptic or making no sense. The visuals are excellent and the production values are up there, but those later half puzzles really bring the game down quite a bit. If you can push past them you’re in for a treat with this being one of the best horror games in recent years.
We as humans tend to dwell on death and what lies beyond. It’s only natural as we simply don’t know. Behind the Frame explores this concept with an emotional tug-of-war of a story, but you really need to pay attention, and a lot of the story is more between the lines and not what’s really being shown in front of you. There’s a lot of assumption that you know what’s happening when the main character looks shockingly off in the distance based on the previous scene. It’s done fairly well too.
Most of Behind the Frame is puzzle solving. It takes a dark twist halfway through and it surprised me. Your goal is to acquire all five missing colors on your paint palette to finish your painting. To do this each color is locked away behind a chapter puzzle. These got rather complex towards the end, but nothing you can’t figure out without exploring and finding that key item that gives you that “AHA!” moment. Some puzzles are as simple as matching colors on a painting to memorization. Nothing is overly complex and it does eventually come together. The painting itself is a matter of scribbling enough in the empty space and it will auto-fill. Nothing extraordinary there. There are some other small tasks like making food which is as simple and dragging items around.
There isn’t a lot of context on the main character’s life itself through any reading of notes or anything. It’s pretty much learning about her past and her connection with her neighbor. The game has gorgeous anime-Ghibli-inspired art with a few small cut scenes thrown in. I never got tired of looking at the game, but it is confined to mostly her apartment. Every so often you “dive” into a painting, but it’s usually just for story context. There were a few panoramic scenes that were breathtaking. I actually felt like I stepped into a painting myself a few times.
In the end, the game is over in about 90 minutes or less depending on how long it takes you to solve the more complex puzzles in the final chapters. Without having to solve these this game is over in an hour. The story does unfold quite a bit towards the end and without voice acting it gets a lot of emotions across and I have to give the developers credit for that. Most of these short indie games don’t have any meaning behind them. They have some clever gameplay ideas or neat visuals and nothing beyond that. Behind the Frame actually tugged at my heart strings a bit and got me thinking at the end which is more than I can say for 60-hour-long AAA titles. If you want a puzzle-filled emotional evening with great visuals and fun gameplay mechanics then look no further.
I love cyberpunk settings. There’s so much darkness and imagination that can go into the setting. It’s also a setting we could possibly be heading into ourselves with the way technology is advancing and how much we rely on it. Stray is all about exactly this issue. You play as an unnamed orange cat who ends up in the middle of trying to help a race of robots see the “Outside” again. You befriend a robot named B12 who helps you communicate with these robots and he also learns about his identity along the way.
Stray has some really good pacing. It’s a very short game that can be completed in a single sitting, but it has exploration, puzzles, scripted action events, stealth, and collectibles. That’s a lot to back into 5 hours and it’s done very well. Let’s start out with the obvious. This is the best representation of a cat in any video game. The animations are insanely realistic, you get a meow button that’s pretty much useless, but it’s there, and you can do cat things like knock stuff over, sleep, scratch on carpets and walls, and get paper bags stuck on your head that reverse the controls. While it may seem superfluous on the surface it helps add to the love of cats that the developers have even though none of these things really involve advancing the game further.
Jumping around in the game is dealt with context buttons. The jump button will appear on top of the platforms you can climb onto. Outside of this, there are no other actions except accessing B12’s menu to look at items and the flashlight. On occasion, you will have chase sequences in which you are running from a swarm of insect-like creatures, but most of Stray involves finding ways into rooms, platforming, and minor puzzles such as rolling barrels underneath things to jump up to. There are three major cities you end up in. The first one involves vertical platforming that lets you find lost music pages, B12 memories, and various item gathering to progress past certain points. The second city is a brief visit, but the last one is pretty large and looks beautiful. You can also talk to the various robots in the city to help you find out where to go or give you hints.
My favorite parts of Stray were the areas in between cities. I liked climbing around, jumping, and running from the insects. The city areas slowed the game down too much for me especially trying to gather the items needed to progress out of the city. The game looks gorgeous with lots of neon lights, and it’s surprisingly dark and gritty for a cat starring a cute cat. The story is pretty touching and tugs at your heartstrings towards the end. Despite the short length, the developers did a great job connecting you with these characters. However, there does seem to be a missed opportunity here. This is a game that would benefit from being open-world. A vast cyberpunk city with side quests and tons of areas to explore. While quite ambitious for such a small team, it would be great, and I think a lot of people are mistaking this game for something like Cyberpunk 2077 in its scope.
Overall, the game is a lot of fun and quite enjoyable despite the limitations of exploration. The game is sadly, poorly optimized on PC with lots of stuttering, terrible temporal anti-aliasing, and shader caching issues. I played the entire game on Steam Deck and it suffered from stuttering when going into new areas. When it’s all said and done, Stray is a very unique game and the love of the domestic feline companion oozes through the screen and pulls on your heart.
Whenever Valve releases a new in-house first-party game people pay attention. They are masters at storytelling and world-building. Aperture Desk Job is set in the world of Portal. You’d think this is a Steam Deck exclusive Portal game, but it’s not. This short 30-45 minute tech demo shows you the Steam Deck’s unique features.
Desk Job opens up with Cave Johnson giving a riveting motivational speech to his employees (J.K. Simmons retains his role) and the game pans down a factory level by level. You arrive at your desk with a new Wheatley-type character. He’s funny and got some laughs from me, but he isn’t as energetic. He’s a bit masochistic and Valve did a great job with his writing for the short time he’s on screen. Your desk has the exact layout as your Steam Deck and the short story unfolds with you as a toilet tester. Valve’s on-point humor hits here with the subtly they’re known for. You test a few toilets and then time goes by and you see some ridiculous number on the counter board.
You eventually turn the toilets into turrets which is pretty funny. Here you learn about the right stick’s touch sensor inside the Steam Deck for gyro controls. It’s calibrated pretty well, and I haven’t used good gyro controls before. It’s done right here. Without telling too much more of the story you take a ride back through the factory and you get a fun turret song at the end. The humor punches throughout and I had a good time. There are a lot of missed opportunities here like just a longer game or even some mini-games. It almost seems pointless for Valve to go through all this effort to create such a well-produced tech demo. I’m hoping this means more is coming along, but knowing Valve, it’s not.
The visuals are great and run well on the Steam Deck. 60FPS throughout with great textures and lighting effects. I don’t see the point of playing this on PC unless you just want to enjoy the writing and characters. In Valve’s defense, handhelds are subject to tech demos. Sony did it with the PSP and Vita, and Nintendo loved doing this with the DS and 3DS. Anyone who has played handhelds their whole life won’t feel so shocked or hate Valve for this. They just used such a beloved IP and didn’t go anywhere with it. It’s a painful tease as we all know there’s nothing else coming from it.
If you have a Steam Deck this is a no-brainer. It’s a fun 30-minute demo to play while you wait for other downloads or something. While the main character didn’t get enough time to fully mature like in other Valve IPs just the fact that they got laughs out of me in 30-minutes says a lot. Most games can’t get a smile over the course of hours.
I recently picked up the Complete Edition on Switch as I never got around to The Kid’s DLC, Secrets of the Maw. I replayed the original game and will post my original review below and address further thoughts with the DLC review.
Minimalist side-scrollers have become very popular in Limbo. Inside is just another example of these horror side scrollers done right. Little Nightmares doesn’t really tell a story through voices or words, but through actions. Unlike Inside, Little Nightmares doesn’t have too much of a story to tell. You play as a child trying to escape a ship from humongous fat monsters trying to eat you. That’s all we get really.
Sadly, the story doesn’t really explain much as the art direction, monster design, and backdrops are wonderful and beg for more storytelling. The beginning of the game is made up of basic platforming with simple physics puzzles and a lot of atmosphere. Eventually, you start seeing the occupants of this ship and that’s when things get creepy.
Little Nightmares does a fine job of creating a tense atmosphere and suspense. Grabbing and sneaking are tied to the shoulder buttons, so when you grab something you must hold the button down. This makes things more intense as you are running away from a monster with a key to unlock a door and if you let go of that button it’s all over. The middle of the game is made up of outsmarting these monsters and the puzzles get bigger, but not really harder.
There’s not much to really explore outside of lighting lanterns for checkpoints and breaking porcelain dolls to unlock achievements. The game is definitely intense throughout the 3 hours it takes to complete, there wasn’t a dull moment that I can remember. I always felt like I was running and overpowered and small. From climbing stacks of dishes and escaping on meat hooks to chopping off the arms of a doll maker. The game gives players something that most don’t and that’s solid gameplay while combining excellent visuals and touching moments.
Overall, there are some of the best 3 hours you will spend. From beginning to end, Little Nightmares has something interesting to offer and it’s never boring. The graphics are gorgeous with art styles that reminded me of Box Trolls mixed with Coraline. If you love horror games and platformers then this is for you.
Secrets of the Maw DLC
After replaying the original game I still felt the same about it. The game portrays a really creepy atmosphere and digs into the fears of children and well – their nightmares. The Secrets of the Maw DLC tells the adventure of the kid you see in the cage when you first start the game up. The DLC is about as long as the original game and is divided into three chapters as well, however, there are more gameplay elements mixed into each chapter to make it more interesting gameplay-wise.
The DLC still gives off that creepy and dark atmosphere and sense of dread that the Kid has to go through. Sadly, we only get one new monster known as The Granny in the first chapter. You spend this chapter at the bottom of the ship in the sewers escaping her grip in the water. The main gameplay loop here is jumping around platforms in the water and swimming for your life to the next segment. I wish we could have seen her more instead of just bubbles in the water. She does appear at the end of the chapter, but with this being the only new monster it’s a bit of a letdown.
Overall this chapter focuses mostly on platforming and the DLC didn’t address any issues such as the camera problems and not being able to line up your jump correctly. The Switch version suffers greatly from long load times so dying often can be a frustrating mess on the Switch. Loading can take up to a minute between each death and sometimes I died shortly after loading just to wait another minute to try again.
The second chapter brings back The Janitor which was the first monster in the main game. This is a very long chapter that consists of three puzzle areas. Here you also get to solve puzzles with the little gnomes from the main game to push things around and activate levers. I found several bugs here such as gnomes disappearing through floors which required checkpoint restarts. Overall, running from The Janitor again isn’t as terrifying as the first time.
The last chapter brings back The Geisha which was the final monster in the main game. This one mostly focuses on a new flashlight combat system in which you shine your light on phantoms and they turn to ash. I found this frustrating as the closer they are to you the less effective the light is which doesn’t make sense. The smallest point of the cone of light is what causes this and it seems like an oversight. I found there were too many phantoms coming after you at once and it became overwhelming. The puzzles in this chapter are the best in the entire game, but again it’s another monster we’ve seen before.
Overall, Secrets of the Maw is a great DLC that doubles the length of the entire collection. It feels more like a game and less like a haunted house ride and just feels more thought out. There were some glitches, the platforming and camera need work, and reusing monsters brings the tension down too much. With the entire package wrapped up, you have about 3 hours of fun creepy atmosphere here.
Bright Memory was an impressive tech demo that was in Steam Early Access a couple of years ago. It had a scantily clad female protagonist (which doesn’t do anything for the game honestly) and a mix of sword and gunplay in the first person which felt fast-paced and punchy. Infinite is the fully released game, and it’s basically a much longer tech demo. You can finish the game in 90 minutes and this leaves nothing for story or character development which is almost non-existent. All I gathered is that there’s a black hole forming near-Earth and you must stop an evil military guy from taking some sort of artifact that will bring Earth back to Feudal Japan? I’m honestly not even sure.
The best part about the game is the gunplay. The swordplay kind of takes a back seat and is only needed in certain situations. You get a standard arsenal of four weapons. Automatic pistol, auto-shotgun, assault rifle, and sniper rifle. Each weapon has an alternate ammo type that’s usually explosive and does massive damage which is best saved for larger enemies and bosses. The weapons feel heavy and punchy, and they are fun to shoot and use. The gunplay was so good that it kept me wanting more from the game. It had a AAA budget quality to it that’s not seen in many indie shooters. The swordplay consists of mashing a single button or launching enemies into the air. There’s a tacked-on afterthought of a skill tree that lets you unlock abilities and upgrade your alternate ammo firepower, but in 90 minutes you upgrade almost everything pretty quickly so it feels trivial.
There is a grapple line for traversing long distances which are scripted, and you can wall run. These ninja acrobatics feels a bit stiff and not as refined as the actual gunplay. In fact, all of the animations feel stiff and like they were hand done. The faces almost don’t animate and thankfully there are less than 10 minutes of total screen time where the camera shows any faces. Your main character, Shelia, is questionable in the sexy department since you hardly ever see her and there are DLC costumes that seem pointless due to the short run time. You can go through the game again on higher difficulties, but I don’t see the point.
The issue with a short game like this is there is no incentive to come back. There are no modes, no multiplayer, and hardly anything to aim for. The visuals in the game are fantastic with great use of ray-tracing, but again the animations are weird. There’s a short scene where you drive a car and it feels really janky and half-baked. Overall, the boss fights are fun, but there are literally only four types of enemies in the whole game so it gets repetitive quickly. At a sale price, this could be a fun evening, but that’s about it.