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Game Review: The Old City Leviathan

Sometimes I feel like I have a personal vendetta against philosophy.  As interesting as I may find it, there were many times during my studies when I would’ve killed to have a time machine for the sole purpose of going back & yelling at the person whose work I was reading to tell them, “Get to the point!”.  Were they getting paid by the word?  How hard was it to say, “Let people think you’re a good person but secretly do whatever you feel is necessary regardless of ethics”?  There; I just summed up the entirety of Machiavelli’s The Prince in one sentence.  Or maybe I’m just bitter because I was always the one who had to explain the books to my classmates because making high schooler’s read ancient classics is an exercise in futility.

The point is that while I enjoy studying philosophy in theory (dissect that), it’s far too easy to slip into pointless rumination & navel-gazing, until I just want to tell to suck it up & contribute something useful to society.

Why go on this little tangent?  Because a recent indie game I finished, The Old City: Leviathan, at times teeters on the edge between insight & uselessness.

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The Old City is the first title released by PostMod Softworks, & as the name implies, is set entirely in what is known as “The Old City” (to the point that’s how it’s listed on welcome signs).  We find ourselves thrust into the shoes of Jonah, a mix of wanderer/scavenger/historian, who despite living in a fallen society has plenty of time to ponder the nature of the universe.  Jonah’s goal, & by extension your own, is to reach the surface & hopefully uncover some insight into what’s been happening.  But it’s not so easy, for as the game warns you in the opening screen, “You are about to inhabit a broken mind.  Not everything you see or hear is trustworthy.”

At its core, The Old City is an exploration game — or as more commonly deemed, a walking simulator.  There’s no fighting.  No enemies.  No inventory.  You merely wander to your heart’s content, occasionally finding notes to read from those gone before you.


20170530180033_1Narrative: At the end of the day, I find myself with very mixed feelings about The Old City’s story & how it’s portrayed.  At times, I actually really enjoyed it.  While it had a slow start as you spend time escaping a sewer while getting immersed into this strange dystopian world, when the game starts playing with your perceptions, it really gets interesting.  There’s a strong sense of disconnect with the world around you.  I started questioning if the monologuing was my own, or some alien “parasite” like it referred to itself.  Was I Jonah?  Was the voice Jonah?  Was I Leviathan?  Fortunately, these questions (at least) are answered if you take the time to immerse yourself in the game.

I also enjoyed how Leviathan was framed as, maybe not quite a split personality, but more a coping mechanism the player developed to protect their fragile human mind from the sheer depressiveness of this new world.  I liked the whole  mixing reality with the fantasy, & how at times entire levels will play out like dreams, making you question what exactly happened.  The height of intrigue for me, however, was seeing what becomes of the world after this fantastical layer of reality disappears.  Once the veil was torn & I really saw the world for what it is, I completely sympathized with the character & understood why he preferred his fantasy to reality.  While not as drastic as something like Cry of Fear, where everything is basically a delusion, it’s very effective at making its point.

Despite most of the story pieced together through the voice in the player’s head & pieces of journals left lying around, The Old City also uses the environment to tell its story.  I didn’t notice it at first, but there were lots of little hints in the environment.  Some of my favorite examples were the soda cans labeled “NO ORDER” & a box in seemingly every room marked “MAKE THE LEAP,” which directly plays in to the ending.  And while the reading can ramble, it’s realistic for what a crazy person who has too much free time would right.  Not to mention several little sparks of insight.

That being said, I do feel that The Old City’s story & philosophical themes are a bit more than your average gamer can stomach.  Most people probably won’t be able to hold their breath to get to the level the game’s monologuing wants.  A quick way to tell how lost you’ll be is how familiar you are with the concepts such as Gnosticism, Relativism, & Nihilism.  Not having working knowlege of these concepts won’t prevent you from understanding the overall story, but you probably won’t enjoy it either.  On a purely subjective level, I grew annoyed with the excessive soliloquizing in the last few chapters as it veered from inquisitive speculation to full-blown navel-gazing.  Personally, I neither like nor agree with any of the concepts I named a few sentences ago.  But I do understand the thematic importance of having a character named Jonah diving into the belly of his Leviathan (ie. his delusions) before he can bridge the gap between his fantasies & reality.

In the end, while I fully expect this type of story won’t appeal to your average gamer, from my own personal opinion, I enjoyed The Old City’s story.  While it got a bit rambling toward the end, & is deliberately set up as a prologue of sorts to a larger story (clearly spelled out on their homepage), I found it an intriguing, at times thought-provoking experience when it tied its philosophy into the actual game.

Score: 4


20170530205754_1Mechanics: In comparison to the vastness of discussion the plot can produce, the gameplay is cut-and-dry.  It’s an exploration game.  You walk.  A lot.  I highly recommend utilizing the controller support, otherwise you’ll be like me & longing for a auto-walk.  You can “run,” which is more like power walking.  You can “interact”, which is relegated to opening doors &  few instances of pushing buttons.  You can zoom in, so either you’re sticking your face right up to something or you have extendo-eyeballs.  But it’s useful for reading notes & exploring in general.  And you can jump.  Strangely, you can’t jump on or over anything.  I honestly think this was added just so players wouldn’t get stuck on the iffy collision detection.  I got stuck on railways & crates a lot.

And that’s it.  If there’s anything else to say about the mechanics, it’s that the chapters tend to play out a similar way.  You can either go straight toward the exit or explore around, typically entering some delusional state that reveals a bit of Jonah’s psyche before being plonked back near the exit to continue on.  But this is only toward the beginning, really, so it didn’t feel tedious or repetitive.

Other than that, there’s not much to say.  What little there is in terms of actual gameplay works to serve its purpose, & nothing more.

Score: 3


20170530174154_1Aesthetics: I’m not sure what engine The Old City was built in, but it is a gorgeous game.  I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time getting the perfect angle to take a screenshot in a game.  But it’s not just the graphical quality, although there is some spectacular lighting effects.  No, I think the game’s strength is in the variety & scope of the environments.  Each level has its own theme.  While you start in a dark, damp sewer, you don’t stay there for long.  You’ll travel through an office building, then reach the surface & traverse a water treatment plant.  Then you’ll be in a dream world with floating islands, mythical creatures & giant statues.  I oohed & aahed a lot during this game.

The sound direction is pretty good, as well.  Whether it was ambient noises, such as pipes leaking or the waves crashing on the shore, or musical accompaniment, I found all the sounds to help set the mood of whatever scene or environment I was in.  The single voiceactor in the game, while a bit prone to ramble, did an admirable job of portraying proper emotion during his ramblings.

Score: 4


Replay Value: Low.  Although very time-efficient at 5 hours, I doubt there’s much reason to play a second time.  There are only a handful of notes to collect, & you can always replay a specific chapter once you’ve cleared it.  Think of it like going to a pretty but desolate location.  Go through, take lots of screenshots, & be done.

Score: 2


Breakdown

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Final Score: 3

Final Word: The Old City Leviathan is a beautiful, at times thought-provoking game set in an interesting world.  However, despite this, I have a hard time recommending it to most gamers due to the heavy philosophical themes & lack of interactivity.  At best, I’d say if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t mind going on a brief, nihilistic sightseeing tour or thought you could like Dear Esther if it had a interesting story, check it out.

– GamerDame

Title: The Old City Leviathan
Consoles: PC
Rating: N/A (personal rating T)
Developer: PostMod Softworks
Publisher: PostMod Softworks
Release Date: December 3, 2014

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Filed under 3, Indie, PC, Reviews

Game Review: Her Story

It seems that most of the games I’ve really enjoyed so far this year have all had one common trait: they embrace the fact they are games to offer a unique story-telling experience.  Movies & books are fairly passive, or perhaps structured is a better word, in how they present their stories.  The “proper” way to experience their story is from start to finish exactly as the writer intended.  Ever caught a movie halfway through & then have no idea what’s going on for the rest of it?  But gaming can shake this formula up.  Because it requires the player’s active participation, developers can present a cohesive story in unique ways.  Her Story is one such experience.

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In Her Story, you play as basically yourself.  Someone sitting at a computer, presumably in a police station, searching through broken bits of video revolving around several police interviews of a woman named Hannah in regards to a missing person, & later a murder.  The plot is that you’re trying to figure out the plot.

I’ve seen Her Story described as an “interactive movie,” which is fairly accurate to how the gameplay is structured.  You’re basically operating a computer to search for small video snippets from Hannah’s interviews.  Although there are several interviews, they’re all broken into snippets of maybe a minute or so length, & you search for new pieces by entering keywords that Hannah says in the videos.  For example, the first video I viewed gave me an idea to search for “Simon” & “murder”.


2893760-herstory-2Narrative: As this is a very heavily story-based mystery game, having a compelling mystery is essential, & I’m happy to report that I felt Her Story‘s story was very well executed.  The mystery, once you piece it all together, was unique & well-thought out.  But what struck me as most interesting was how the player’s unraveling of the mystery is entirely dependent on their actions.  The story’s structure remains the same, but how you uncover it will greatly affect its impact.  You might find a key clue before another player, thus affecting the conclusions you draw about what happened.  It’s hard to talk about without going into spoilers, but an example from my own playthrough was that, for the longest time, I suspected Hannah had a Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder) & that this alternate personality had killed Simon.  I found myself writing notes, paying attention to dates & timestamps on the videos to understand the timeline of the interviews.  I’ve never done police work, but it really gave me the sense of being a detective.

There are numerous small details that go into adding to the atmosphere of the game.  I know, it’s hard to imagine how a game that’s nothing but staring at a computer screen staring at an in-game computer screen can have atmosphere, but Her Story manages with its minimal presentation.  Everything just felt a little… off, in a way that’s difficult to give words to.  Perhaps it’s the welling sense that something very bad happened.  Perhaps it’s how Hannah always comes across as unbalanced and off-kilter, even before she’s accused of anything.  Even though I was just watching videos, I couldn’t help questioning myself.  Who was I, & why was I sitting in what felt like a dark, dank room in some police archive?  Was I even supposed to be there?  Why did I care about Hannah’s story?

Overall, if you let yourself get immersed in the mystery, you’ll find it a compelling story.

Score: 5


unnamedMechanics: Mechanics are minimal but work for their intended purpose.  You type in keywords to search, watch videos & can even organize the videos into a sort of save bar to keep everything in order.  There’s not really a lot to say in this regard.  Every aspect, however simplistic, served to aid in the illusion of the world the game was creating.  You even get little popup chat messages from your “coworker”.

If I had a complaint about the mechanics, it’s that the save bar feature could’ve been better.  In the beginning, I was trying to organize each video based on their timestamps so that in the end I would have a cohesive timeline, but it quickly became too tedious.  When you save a new video, it naturally goes to the end of your feed, but you can’t just drop it between other clips.  Moving it will swap the two clips’ positions.  So if you want to move a clip, you have to swap it with each sequential video up the line.  I gave up after a while.  While this took nothing away from the story, it was an annoyance.

Overall, simplistic mechanics that add to the purpose of the experience, but skip the save bar.

Score: 3


Aesthetics: As with the mechanics, the presentation of Her Story is minimal but utilitarian.  From the design of the desktop to the quality of the video clips, it felt like I was using an ancient computer stuck in some dungeon of a police archive.  I have to give a lot of credit to Viva Seifert, the actress playing Hannah.  I thought she gave a very convincing performance.  There’s a natural unnaturalness about her in the videos.  Her behavior is slightly stilted, which I think anyone’s would be while being interrogated by the police.

The game also has a lot of small visual cues & attentions to detail that help immerse players in the game “world.”  For example, two clips might show Hannah in the same outfit, but she has her hair up in one but down in another, giving you a clue that the second video comes later in the interview.  Another small detail that caught me off guard but increased my investment in the game was when the lights would flicker on my “screen”, making “my” reflection faintly flash across the desktop.  Such a small thing, but when I realized I wasn’t playing as myself but someone actually in the game’s world, it added a second mystery to solve.

Overall, the presentation is simplistic but with great attention to detail to help with immersion.

Score: 4


Replay Value: Low.  Nothing changes in the story, so I feel no need to replay the game.  However, as there is some fun to be had rewatching a mystery to with knowing eyes to see if you missed any clues, some gamers might enjoy replaying the game.

Score: 3


Breakdown

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Final Score: 4

Final Word: While it certainly won’t appeal to everyone, Her Story is a solid experience & great example of story-telling through mechanics, with great attention to detail.  If you’re a sucker for a good mystery or want to try something new, it’s work checking out.

–  GamerDame

Title: Her Story
Consoles: PC, Mac, iOS, Android
Rating: N/A (personal rating T)
Developer: Sam Barlow
Publisher: Sam Barlow
Release Date: June 24, 2015

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Filed under 4, Indie, Mobile, PC, Reviews