Category Archives: 4

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.

until_dawn_cover_art

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

untitled

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

Leave a comment

Filed under 4, Adventure, Horror, PS4, Reviews

Game Review: BioShock

I love rummaging through the bargain bins or checking out used game stores because you never know what you might find for a steal.  As much as some people might harp about used games taking profits from the developers, there’s no denying that they help extend the life of a game in the social consciousness & help people who might not have otherwise paid full price experience the game, which could mean increased sales on the developer’s next project.  Besides, most people in the industry say that the only profit that matters to publishers is within the first few weeks, as that’s how they recoup their expenses & finance the next game.  So theoretically even waiting a month can hurt studios, regardless of the price you pay.  Because of this, I felt no guilt buying what is by most accounts a superb game years after its release.  BioShock is one of those games that is so often discussed in gaming culture that it’s almost a requirement to play it.  I feel like it was a strike against my gamer-cred (if such a thing exists).  So how does this game stand up from a fresh perspective looking back?

BioShock_cover

BioShock is a first-person shooter action game where you play as Jack, a plane crash survivor who finds himself escaping the flaming wreckage into a mysterious underwater city.  Completely out of his element, Jack must rely on a voice on the radio to navigate the dilapidated labyrinth filled with genetically mutated monstrosities.  But when everyone’s looking out for themselves, who can he trust?

large

I think I’m outclassed

Thankfully, there are many ways to brave the trials ahead.  The boring way would be through brute force with the aid of weapons, but the more daring might prefer to alter their genetic code with Adam, a strange substance that lets you do things like shoot bees from your hands.  But the only way to access Adam is to take it from the Little Sisters, who are guarded by the baddest monstrosities in Rapture.

 

Narrative: I mentioned in my first impression that it was impossible to go this long without having some of the game spoiled, so I went in knowing a certain pivotal plot twist.  However, I don’t feel that negatively impacted my experience, aside from being a good example of gameplay-as-narrative, meaning the actual mechanics of the game are reflected through the story.  Overall, I found the story engaging, but aside from the spoiler nothing came as a surprise to me.  I’m not sure if it’s because I’m looking back almost a decade after its release, but a lot of the ideas in the game are pretty standard fare.  Destroyed utopia, forgotten past, morally questionable scientific discovery leading to ruin, betrayal… I’ve seen them before, & the game is actually quite good at giving you hints to the twists.  All the other plot twists, such as who Jack is relation to Rapture, didn’t come as a surprise.  But I do feel the ideas explored are interesting, if a bit trite.  The characters encountered all have distinct personalities & are recognizable despite us rarely seeing them.  And I think Jack makes a good silent protagonist.  I could project myself onto him, but the devs gave him enough history that he’s not a complete blank slate.  My only real complaint is that a lot of Rapture’s history is told via recordings, which aren’t bad, but sometimes it was hard to keep the minor characters separate.  Overall, though, despite seeming a little predictable now, I thought the story of BioShock was very interesting & engaging.  Score: 4

405384-bioshock-xbox-360-screenshot-we-ll-need-more-than-a-wrench

Most impractical location ever

Mechanics: For the most part, I think BioShock strikes a good balance between giving the player freedom to handle situations as they please & not feeling overwhelmed.  You’ve got weapons, plasmids (Adam-based superpowers), tonics (grant certain skills & abilities), stuff to buy, stuff to craft, hacking, research through photography… It sounds like a lot, but you can focus or ignore whatever you want, which I appreciated.  It lets the player decide how they want to play.  Personally, I favored my weapons, sticking mostly with the electrobolt plasmid only when overwhelmed.  Between the static charge tonic, armored shell, and natural camouflage (which let me turn invisible when I stood still), there wasn’t much I couldn’t handle.  Everything feels fun to use, with one exception.  I found the hacking tedious, & odd from a world-building standpoint.  Throughout the game, you’ll come across security cameras, turrets & attack drones that will view you as an enemy if you don’t destroy or hack them.  If you hack them, they’ll attack enemies for you.  But I found the pipe mania mini-games you have to play to do so tedious.  Also, are these machines water-powered?  It makes sense based on water being readily available, but I’m not sure how semi-sentient machines could be water-powered.  Even stranger, you can pay money to override these machines.  Who am I paying?  Am I bribing the machine?  I appreciate having options, but towards the end I was either bribing the machines or using the auto-hack tools.  The lock-on system also seemed a bit laggy, especially when enemies are running around, & often seemed to stick to one side of the enemy, making it hard to be accurate during a heavy firefight.  Other than those minor points, I felt that everything worked well.  Score: 5

 

Cohen's_Collection

Horror in non-horror games

Aesthetics: Despite being almost a decade old, the graphics hold up pretty well.  The world of Rapture is beautifully unique & atmospheric.  Although structurally questionable, I love that so much of the game space shows the city at large & the ocean environment.  It really sets up this isolated, alien feeling.  Each level feels unique, whether it’s a garden or apartment, & is populated with signs of life, lending to the feeling that this was a thriving city before everything went to Hell.  The voice acting felt solid.  I don’t recall a lot of music other than a random jukebox, but I did think the sound direction was spot on.  Debris skitters, splicers mutter & scratch the walls, & Big Daddies clomp around.  Being able to hear enemies is crucial.  And the moments when everything is still & quiet can be nail-biting.  Score: 5

 

Replay Value: Moderate.  BioShock does have two endings based on whether or not you harvested the Little Sisters, but I don’t think there’s enough difference to warrant a new playthrough.  But I do think it’s the sort of story where people might want to go back to find the little clues they might have overlooked.  Score: 3

Breakdown

Untitled

Overall Score: 4

Final Word: It’s hard to judge a game’s originality years after it started influencing the medium as a whole, but any criticism I have of the themes BioShock explored don’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the title.  Aside from some minor complaints, I recommend this game for pretty much anyone.

– GamerDame

Title: BioShock
Consoles: PC, 360, PS3
Rating: M
Developer: 2K Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: August 21, 2007

Leave a comment

Filed under 4, FPS, PC, PS3, Reviews, XBox 360