Monthly Archives: January 2017

Game Review: Until Dawn

In my first impressions on this game, I pointed out how I got major “The Cabin in the Woods” vibes.  Sadly, I can’t say one way or another if this vibe was accurate.  If you know what goes on in the movie, it would spoil the game; if you know what goes on the game, it would spoil the movie.  And “The Cabin in the Woods” & Until Dawn‘s stories are good enough that they need to be experienced without any spoilers.

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In Until Dawn, you play as a group of potential murder victims who return to a lodge located in the isolated mountains of Alberta, Canada.  One year prior to their outing, in the game’s prologue, two of their friends disappeared after a prank gone wrong, & were never found despite police investigation.  On the anniversary of their suspected deaths, the sisters’ brother invites everyone back out to the family’s lodge both in memory of the date & to help everyone heal from the tragedy.  Things quickly begin to go awry as the group of teens find themselves pursued by mysterious stalkers whose goal seems to be killing them off… but not before having a little fun with them.

A mishmash of various gaming genres, Until Dawn is probably best described as an interactive drama with heavy adventure game influences.  Aside from wandering around the environments finding clues about the twins’ death & your stalker, the main mechanics of the game revolve around choosing your controllable character’s reactions or decisions & quick-time events during the action-oriented scenes.  A major component to Until Dawn, so much so that it’s actually what the opening cutscene begins on, is the “Butterfly Effect.”  The idea that even the smallest choice can alter the course of history.  From a gameplay perspective, this means that every choice, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, can affect your survival later on.


untildawnleadimagejtNarrative: I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed Until Dawn’s story.  Usually most of the enjoyment derived from slasher flicks is in the catharsis of watching annoying characters die; typically the plot itself is pretty flimsy.  But while you can certainly play Until Dawn in this manner, making the characters as unlikable as possible to enjoy killing them later, the plot is actually fairly solid.  I can appreciate how much effort the developers put in to making this game feel like a quality slasher flick.  I don’t know if I’d say it’s a “smart” game, but it’s clear that the developers understood the medium, including the clichés, tropes & player expectations, while trying to add their own twist on it.  To me, that’s the difference between a trope & a cliché.  A trope is an archetype, or creative shortcut, like the brooding anti-hero or knight.  It’s only when this archetype is poorly implemented that it becomes a negative cliche.  For example, the… blonde of questionable life choices is the first to go, & the black kid got shafted in both of my playthroughs despite my best efforts.  Very classically tropes from horror movies, yet it’s entirely up to the player what ultimately happens to everyone.

That’s another aspect I enjoy, that you can control how deserving the characters’ potential deaths are.  You can make them as insufferable as you want, but the game also presents the teenagers as reasonably well-rounded individuals, so there’s also potential to like them.  Jessica may be one of those boy-crazy girls I’ve always avoided like the plague in real life, but she shows she has a mind of her own & isn’t a total pushover when she’s with Mike in the cabin.  Emily’s catty, backstabbing & bossy (among other less polite adjectives), but is far more tolerable when she’s by herself finding a way out of the mines.  Mike’s a typical playboy, but at least he tries to help people even if it ends up hurting him.  Maybe this is more due to them not acting like stereotypical teens when actual things of importance come up (like not dying), or feeling they repented for their sins by getting the crap beat out of them?  I started liking characters after they’d been terrorized for a bit.  Like, “Okay, now that you’ve been beaten to Hell & back I guess I’ll save you.”

I also really enjoyed the pacing, & how all the seemingly unrelated clues you come across actually piece together to make a single, coherent story.  It’s fun trying to figure out who the killer is, then after the killer’s revealed, questioning all the incidents that don’t mesh with that.  There’s always a new question to answer, & everything comes together very nicely in the end.  Another small but important detail is that the characters’ understanding of what’s going on is based on the clues you find while exploring.  I liked that they have different conversations based on what you’ve found.  It’s a nice little touch.

If I have complaints about the story, they involve the totems & Matt & Emily.  My problem with the totems from a story perspective is that they’re the only things the characters can find that they have no reaction to.  It was the only feature that really only seemed to exist for the benefit of the player.  I would’ve liked to have seen them show some reaction to the visions.  And my problem with Matt & Emily is that in the base game there’s a huge chunk where they’re just gone, & we never know what they’re doing.  Part of me wants to believe it’s because the developers want you to think they’re in on what’s going on, because their reactions to the news is pretty blasé.  But I saw that there’s an added scene only available in pre-order editions that fills in that gap, making me think it was more bad writing.

Overall, Until Dawn has an intriguing & well-paced thriller/mystery that will keep you guessing.

Score: 4


jpgMechanics: Given that the big selling point of Until Dawn is that your choices matter, naturally the most important mechanic to pin down is making choices.  These can range from seemingly minor, such as choosing whether or not to shoot a squirrel, to make-the-wrong-choice-&-die-instantly.  I’d say overall it’s a mechanic that works well because you never really know if the next choice is a biggie or not.  I also liked that some of the choices are times, including an anxiety-inducing ticking sound as your time counts down.  Although you can always pause the game to think longer, it really helps you feel the pressure the character is under.  I also appreciated that there weren’t too many instant death choices.

Quick-time events are also a big component of the gameplay.  And while QTEs are typically the bane of gamers’ existence, this is probably the best they’ve been implemented.  Basically they are the only control you have during the more action-heavy segments, meaning you don’t have to multitask.  You can just focus on being prepared for the next QTE.  It helps add a sense of drama.  Now, I have to admit I had some trouble with them, simply because I haven’t fully internalized where all the buttons are on the PS4 controller.  Every time an action scene started, I would mentally chant, “Square, Triangle, Circle,” to remind myself of their location.  But there is a pattern to most of the events that help you predict what’s coming next.  For example, any jump required the Triangle, & you never have two of the same commands in a row.  It’s also the same QTEs for an event, so you can learn them.  I also appreciated that you get a second chance if you mess up a QTE, again making instant deaths rare.  There was also a function where at times you’ll have to hold the controller completely still, ensuring that the glowing portion remained within the bounds, adding some nice tension to hiding scenes.  One QTE I didn’t appreciate, however, was the aiming sections.  My first playthrough I had to keep reloading in one part because I kept getting Chris killed.  This problem was mitigated by the update that added the option to invert controls, but I was still annoyed that wasn’t a default option.

That’s not to say the controls are perfect, however.  The fixed camera angles are nice for atmosphere, but suck for helping you navigate, as this caused me to have to pause a second between angles to readjust my direction.  It’s not required, as you can continue in the same direction you were already going in, but my brain doesn’t function that way.  Movement feels clunky in general, especially with the amount of times you get stuck on the scenery or a companion as you walk around.  And walking is all you can do.  You can walk or walk faster.  No running.  I also found it strange that nothing was mapped to the left trigger.  I think this should’ve been the button to grab items, because holding down right trigger to grab then using the right stick to rotate causes cramps if the game’s played for long periods.

There were also some features that I didn’t get, or felt weren’t properly utilized.  Why do the characters have personality stats if I tell them what to do?  They don’t act differently based on these stats.  Choices also had a weird way of changing these stats.  For instance, expressing remorse would sometimes cause a character’s honesty to go down.  Is it implying this person is lying by saying they feel sorry for their past actions?  I also found the relationship stats a bit odd, but more understandable.  There are a few moments when interactions change based on how much a person likes your current character, & I suppose they couldn’t only show the stats for the one person whose opinion mattered.  The psychiatrist segments as well, while interesting in how they relate to the overarching story, seemed pointless in that your choices didn’t affect anything significant.

Overall, Until Dawn has some solid gameplay that manages to make QTEs work properly, but a few minor yet continuous annoyances drag it down.

Score: 4


until-dawn-chris-2Aesthetics: Until Dawn’s presentation is fairly impressive.  The developers clearly took painstaking care to render the actors properly, to the game’s benefit.  The facial animations & textures are quite remarkable to look at (& the game knows this, as standing still will bring a close-up of the character’s face as they twitch anxiously).  And unlike some previous games, just as much attention has been given to the character models, for the most part allowing the game to avoid the Uncanny Valley.  However, characters do tend to emote a little too much at times, particularly when they’re yelling.  Their mouths at time seem too big, & I think a big part of that is their teeth.  They’re just too big & white, & when characters smile they show too much gums.  Other than that, the scenery is beautiful in a bleak, atmospheric kind of way, making excellent use of lighting.  I also mentioned this before, but the camera angles make me feel like I’m the stalker, really adding to these sense of paranoia.

Acoustically, I can say that the voice acting is really good, always matching the tone of the situation.  The game has some great sound design, with appropriate creaks, groans & howls.  I also have to say Until Dawn has some of the best snow crunching sounds I’ve ever heard in a game.  Yeah, it’s a little thing, but small details like that help add to the immersion.  The music was okay.  Honestly, there are only a few moments I can distinctly remember the music.  And while that might not bode well for the soundtrack, at least I can say nothing detracted from the experience.

Overall, solid presentation with some top-notch motion-capture & sound design, but perhaps a little too hammy.

Score: 4


Replay Value: High.  This sort of game is made to be played multiple times to experience all the possible outcomes.  And the outcomes are quite varied, warranting the time it takes to play through again.  Everyone can survive, or die, or any combination in between.

Score: 5


Breakdown

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Final Score: 4

Final Word: I started this review talking about The Cabin in the Woods, & I’ll bring it back.  Like that movie, Until Dawn is a love-letter to horror movies.  You can see all the influences on it, & get a sense of love for the genre.  Whether you play it serious or just want to laugh at the clichés, Until Dawn is a fun experience that I recommend everyone at least check out.

–  GamerDame

Title: Until Dawn
Console: PS4
Rating: M
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: August 25, 2015

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Filed under 4, Adventure, Horror, PS4, Reviews

Game Review: Bad End

Not even a month into the new year & I’ve already completed three games.  Not bad!  Granted… they were all new games that I got over Christmas sales, so they don’t actually tick off my backlog, but… Oh well!

I can’t quite pin down one thing that drew me to today’s game, Bad End.  It could’ve been that it has decent reviews for a little indie visual novel game, or that it was discounted even more than it’s $2 price.  But probably a large part was that I have a thing for horror stories that take advantage of modern technology.  This love of being haunted through progress started with the movie Stay Alive, a movie about a video game that kills people if they die in the game.  And Bad End’s premise is basically the same.

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The titular Bad End is a game within the game.  Players take the role of regular high school student Kyuuhei, who begins investigating rumors about a new mobile game that kills people after his best friend mysteriously dies of a heart attack the same night he texted Kyuuhei about getting the game to work.  Believing this can’t be a coincidence, Kyuuhei discovers that no one seems to know where this game came from, despite its popularity, & threads from people who get the game to work always end mysteriously.  Kyuuhei takes it upon himself to finish the game without making any mistakes to hopefully end the curse so no one else dies, but between the mental fatigue and ghostly phone calls, the line between the game world & reality starts to blur.

As with most visual novels, all of your actions are limited to simply selecting between various choices when the game prompts you.  But as the title suggests, these choices are littered with Bad (or quite literally Dead) Ends.


20170103185103_1Narrative: The overall impression I left the game with was that it was a missed opportunity.  There’s nothing in the story that I can point to as bad, but I don’t feel it was as good as it could have been.  The concept of controlling a character in a visual novel that’s controlling another character in another visual novel is interesting.  And the mystery revolving around the Bad End game (in the game) is well-paced.  I enjoyed solving the mystery along with Kyuuhei, always trying to stay one step ahead of the game.  I felt excited when I caught on to where the story was going, as well as a sense of accomplishment for being right.

That being said, I did find the resolution disappointing.  It was very clichéd, & surprisingly cheesy for a Japanese horror story.  If you know anything about Asian horror, it’s usually that there’s no happy ending.  I did figure out what was behind the cursed game, & it made sense… but I felt Kyuuhei was way too forgiving about the whole ordeal.  The “misunderstanding” killed a lot of people, including Kyuuhei’s stated best friend, & yet he seemingly overlooks this detail because he gets some T&A out of it.  I swear his last scene in the game comes across as, “It sucks my best friend in the whole world died, but at least I got a girlfriend!”  I don’t know… I’m not a guy, so maybe that would be their response, but it just irked me.

But, for me at least, the biggest misstep is all the squandered opportunities the story provided Bad End.  It had the potential to do some interesting things.  They could’ve done some fourth wall breaking stuff by having the character in the mobile game be self-aware & work with Kyuuhei (something that would’ve made sense given the origin of the cursed game), or even some double-fourth wall breaking stuff by having Kyuuhei realize he was being played.  At the very least, I would’ve liked to have seen something other than you-mess-up-once-&-just-die.  The way the store page & trailer presented it, I expected the real world to gradually become more dangerous as threats from the game started chasing Kyuuhei with each mistake he made.  What I got, however, was make a wrong choice & a ghost hand comes out of your phone & strangles you.  The End.  Maybe it’s not fair to judge a game based on what I wanted, & there were some clever bad ends in the beginning (like choosing to believe your friend really did die of natural causes, not pursuing the mystery & living happy life, or going insane from the constant calls from the dead because you couldn’t take the pressure of making a choice in the game).  But it really did feel like the studio dropped the ball.

Overall, aside from a disappointing resolution & some clichés, I can’t say there was anything “bad” about Bad End’s story.  But it wasn’t memorable either.

Score: 3


20170103213327_1Mechanics: What can you say about the mechanics in a visual novel game?  You use the mouse to select an option when prompted.  That’s it.  It is nice, though, that you can save whenever you want, meaning you can save before you make a choice & start back from there if that was the wrong choice.

As for the choices themselves, for the most part if you pay attention to what’s going on in the game it’s not too difficult to make the right choice.  Except for the very first choice made while Kyuuhei’s actually playing the game.  Kyuuhei’s first choice inside the Bad End game gives you one of three directions to run & there’s absolutely no way to know which one won’t get you killed.  It’s obvious when you make the right choice why it’s the right choice, because it’s the direction that leads you back to the main street, but prior to that the game gives you no clues about what’s in any of the directions you’re given the option to run in.  And given that you can actually make one free mistake (meaning you get a second chance) it feels like the developers knew this & were just being mean-spirited.  Like they wanted you to die here.  That just feels like bad design.

Not much else to say.  Just don’t be stupid, & in most cases you won’t die.

Score: 3


untitled-1024x680Aesthetics: If you’re not familiar with the visual novel style, most of the graphics consist of a background with still images of the characters speaking superimposed on it, with dialogue boxes beneath.  And while Bad End has all that, in comparison to other visual novel games I’ve played recently, the images are very uninspired.  Again, not bad.  They just look like your average anime.  The backgrounds are pretty generic, which is doubly bad considering you’ll be seeing the same places over & over.

The music likewise feels very stock.  I know I’ve heard some of them before, but I’m not sure if they’re stock music that comes with whatever program the developers used to create the game or if it’s from a royalty-free site.  Worse yet, none of the music seemed to really fit with the accompanying scene.  The normal music is way too cheery for the game’s themes, & the music intended for scary scenes wasn’t scary.  And as there are no voices, or any other sounds, the music is all you have to focus on.

Overall, there was nothing particularly bad in the presentation, but nothing to make Bad End stand out, either.  Everything felt very stock, & gave me the impression of not putting in much effort to give their game a unique feel.

Score: 2


Replay Value: Low.  There’s really no point to play Bad End more than once after you’ve beaten it.  Even if you’re dying to get all the achievements for seeing all the bad ends, because you can save before each decision you can just pick up where you died.  The game’s always really short, only taking a few hours to finish.  Score: 2


Breakdown

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Final Score: 2

Final Word: Bad End reminded me of those Goosebumps Choose Your Own Adventure books. While there’s nothing glaringly wrong with Bad End, there’s nothing memorable about it either.  The most interesting thing about it is an interesting premise, & it doesn’t even handle that well.  Overall, I can’t recommend Bad End to anyone really.  Even with the low price, I can recommend much better visual novels to put that money toward over this.

–  GamerDame

Title: BAD END
Consoles: PC, iOS, Android
Rating: M
Developer: Arai Koh Create Office
Publisher: YOX-Project
Release Date: November 25, 2015

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Filed under 2, Horror, Indie, Mobile, PC, Reviews, Visual Novel