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Game Review: Inside

The end of the year was the perfect time for me to take a vacation of sorts, allowing me to recharge & not even think about work or worry about the constant emails I get on a daily basis.  Fortunately this also coincided with several year-end game sales, thus allowing me to aid in this recharging by spending uninterrupted hours catching up on some games I was interested in but hadn’t gotten around to buying.  Playdead’s acclaimed Inside was one such game that I completed in a single sitting.  I’ve gone on record of saying that Playdead’s previously acclaimed game, Limbo, was a visual feast but suffered (in my personal opinion) from some frustrating puzzles & impenetrable story.  So have they improved with Inside?

inside_xbox_one_cover_art

As with their previous game, what exactly is going on in Inside is debatable, but what’s apparent from the plot is that you control a faceless boy who must traverse a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape while avoiding armed guards, rabid beasts, human-hunting machines & apparently failed human experiments to reach some indeterminate end goal.  What is the boy’s goal at the end of his journey inside the imposing factory?  Does he even know?

Inside is 2.5D sidescrolling puzzle-platformer.  Kid (as I took to calling him as he’s never given a name) must navigate a series of obstacles & puzzles to continue forward.  He can run, jump, climb, push & pull.  There are also sections where he must utilize mind-control helmets to control drone-people to help him solve puzzles, as well as an underwater section involving diving tank.


256-inside-screenshot-1466596552Narrative: There’s a fine line between being open to interpretation & being as opaque as a brick wall, but I feel Inside strikes the right balance between telling us what’s going on & letting players interpret events.  The term “visual storytelling” gets thrown around a lot in game media, but Inside is an example of putting this idea into practice & doing it well.  Without a single line of spoken dialogue or text (in fact, I don’t think there’s any text anywhere in the entire game), Inside perfectly portrays its world, & we instantly empathize with the challenges the Kid has to overcome.  The very first moment of the game is the Kid climbing out of a hole in some rocks & coming across a barrier, with mindless drone-people being loaded into the back of a shady truck, all while surrounded by glowing tanks & armed, masked guards.  Whatever’s going on, it’s not good.

Inside also does an excellent job of exemplifying “transformational media,” or the idea that each person who views a piece of media will take away their own unique experience.  Because the plot is just vague enough for us to never truly be sure of what’s going on, we build our own interpretations, & thus the story changes a little bit for each person.  The way I interpret events might be different from the next person.  Who is the Kid?  Did he intend for the outcome?  What really happened to this world?  But it leaves just enough questions unanswered to make us what to see what comes next.

I also have to say I really enjoyed the setting for Inside… if you can enjoy an oppressive, potentially doomed world.  Not only are there strong Orwellian, 1984 vibes, but it reminded me a lot of a short-story we read in high school called Harrison Bergeron (check it out if you’re a fan of dystopian science fiction).  Everything is dark & depressing, & each obstacles builds on the horror, making us think the worst of this world.  Outrunning guards, controlling drones, watching what remains of society staring blankly on as they seemingly purchase these drone-people, failed experiments, & finally the Hive Mind… I found the ending genuinely distressing.  Not something to be “happy” about, but if that was the goal of the developers, they succeeded in spades.

Overall, an intriguing mystery that will have you thinking about the game long after you’ve stopped playing.

Score: 5


2016_0719in06Mechanics: I really feel that Playdead perfected the mechanics they set out to create in Limbo with Inside.  The controls are simple & responsive.  Heck, there’s only three controls, really.  Movement with the left stick, jump & grab.  Simple, but everything controls like it’s supposed to.  I didn’t experience any frustrating lags in the Kid doing what I said or ungainliness like I did in Limbo.

The puzzles are also vastly improved.  Playdead seemed to realize that the fun & challenge in a puzzle should come from figuring it out, not in precision timing.  Of course, that might also be due to Inside being less about the futility of action & being stuck in a limbo of death & failure.  The puzzles have just the right amount of difficulty, with the solutions coming very naturally from the player’s experimentation & exploration of the environment.  There’s also a nice variety of puzzles or obstacles, mixing strategic thinking & timing.  I think my favorite was in the flooded base when you have to bait the water baby/siren thing to different parts of the water to give you time to reach the next switch.  Yes, these require timing, but to the point of making you feel tense as you try to swim away from the water baby, & not frustrating.  Although you will probably die several times, it never became frustrating to me, & the checkpoint system is very forgiving so you’ll typically restart right before you died.

Overall, smooth, solid controls & great puzzle-platforming design.

Score: 5


851099-inside-windows-screenshot-the-boy-was-shot-let-s-try-thatAesthetics: I find it funny that when I initially saw footage of Inside, I immediately thought it was from Playdead.  The art style is very similar to Limbo, utilizing atmospheric lighting, heavy shadows & imposing scenery.  The art style is suitably gloomy, & the developers clearly paid a lot of attention to detail.  For example, the Kid’s red shirt is some of the only color in the game.  Everything feels muted.  Another detail that makes me wonder about its narrative significance is the fact that people don’t have faces, but specific people are shown wearing masks with faces on them, like the guards & “regular” citizens.  What does it mean?  And while I’m a little loathe to do so, I give Playdead credit for creating something that made me feel a bit nauseous.  The Hive Mind at the end seriously grossed me out.  I’m not sure if it’s a body horror thing, a blob thing, or the way it moved, but it was very effective.

The musical & sound direction were also spot on.  There’s actually not a lot of “music” in the game, but in its place, we have atmospheric sounds that really help with immersion.  I actually paused the game in the beginning to see if my TV had a headphone jack so I could take in every little sound (sadly, it didn’t).  But again, I think it’s the attention to detail.  Little things like the irregular sound of rain, or that deep booming tone that sounded straight out of Inception, or even how everything goes silent & muted underwater.  Without proper dialogue, everything’s portrayed through noise.  And portrayed effectively.

Overall, shows supberb attention to detail both in terms in visual presentation & ambient sound.

Score: 5


Replay Value: Moderate.  While this could certainly be a one-&-done game, I think there’s a lot to it that makes it replayable.  For one, it’s fairly short.  I think it took me about three hours.  There’s also an alternate ending that requires you to find all the secret orbs hidden throughout the game.  You can replay from any checkpoint, which is fairly frequent.  And just the mystery of the plot makes it so you’ll want to play again to try to understand it better.  To really take your time & explore to uncover all the mysteries.  Score: 4


Breakdown

untitled

Final Score: 5

Final Word: I didn’t realize until writing this review that I literally have nothing bad to say against Inside, & that’s never happened before, not even with my favorite games.  That fact alone means I can’t help by recommend this game to every gamer.  While the open-ended story might not appeal to everyone, the only people I can really see not finding something to enjoy about Inside are those who only play one specific franchise (like Madden or Call of Duty).

– GamerDame

Title: Inside
Consoles: PS4, PC, XB1
Rating: M
Developer: Playdead
Publisher: Playdead
Release Date: June 29, 2016

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Filed under 5, PC, Platformer, PS4, Puzzle, Reviews, XBox One

Game Review: Never Alone

Retellings of folklore is a common theme in videogames, but rarely has there been a game that presents a tale I’m not at least somewhat familiar with.  Between my interest in Asian culture & numerous religious studies classes, it’s not often that I come across a retelling in game format that I haven’t at least heard about.  But Never Alone has managed to be one of the few games to not only present a story whose origins I wasn’t familiar with, but to introduce me to cultural ideas that were completely new.

Not to be confused with forever alone

Not to be confused with forever alone

Never Alone integrates several legends from the indigenous people of Alaska to create a singular story about a young girl named Nuna who sets out from her village to find the source of an eternal blizzard threatening their way of life.  Along the way, she is both hindered & aided by spirits, one of which is an arctic fox who joins Nuna to help her along her quest.  As she searches for the storm’s source, Nuna & the fox must contend with Manslayers, polar bears, the souls of lost children, & other obstacles.

Most adorable protagonists ever?

Most adorable protagonists ever?

Developers Upper One Games describes Never Alone as an atmospheric puzzle-platformer.  You control either Nuna or the fox separately, switching between them to solve puzzles to continue your journey.  Or you can play co-op & one person controls each.  The two have distinctive abilities that make them better suited for different obstacles.  Nuna can use a bola, a throwing weapon, to break obstacles & can drag items.  The fox can fit through small gaps, wall run & make spirits visible.  As the game progresses, you’ll need to use both in tandem to solve puzzles.

Narrative: Although Never Alone weaves several indigenous stories together, I never felt confused by any of it.  While the specific legends & contexts were different, I think anyone who’s ever heard at least one fairytale will recognize a lot of the themes.  It’s about a girl overcoming supernatural problems much bigger than herself through wit.  For the aspects that are unique to indigenous Alaskan culture, the game helpfully provides short vignettes that explain their significance.  I also found the story to be told in an interesting way.  The story of Never Alone is told through a combination of action & narration.  There’s no spoken dialogue in the game, save for the storyteller narrating the finer points.  Aside from that, the story is told by seeing, as you control Nuna & the fox.  I really felt like it set the tone of this being a fable retold to a new audience, which I believe was the goal of the game.  As for the story itself, I enjoyed it.  I’ve always gravitated to stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things simply because someone has to do it (as opposed to some prophesied hero).  And even without words, the game did a good job of showing the closeness between Nuna & the fox, which was adorable.  Although I would like to point out that (if you read my First Impressions) I was right about the fox’s fate, though it wasn’t as depressing as I was expecting.  So overall, I think it did an admirable job of retelling a story that is both new & familiar.  Score: 4

Who knew the auroras were children's spirits that will steal your head to play ball

Who knew the auroras were children’s spirits that will steal your head to play ball

Mechanics: Never Alone controls as you’d expect a puzzle-platformer to.  You run, jump & climb.  I liked that each character had unique abilities needed to overcome obstacles.  The puzzles are also fairly well-done, requiring a bit of trail & error without being frustrating.  For the most part, the game handled well, with a few exceptions.  I found it a bit tricky to use the bola.  To throw the bola, you have to move the R-stick in the opposite direction you want to throw it then move the stick in the direction.  This works fine if what you’re aiming at something directly in front of you.  But when you’re aiming at an angle, it can be hard to judge it.  It doesn’t help that a lot of times you’re running from something when you’re doing this, & you can’t move & throw the bola at the same time.  Another control issue was that whichever character you’re not controlling follows you.  Normally, this is a good thing, except when you have to move a character to a different section to solve a puzzle for the other to pass.  Frequently the non-controlled character will try to follow, climbing onto platforms they don’t need to be on.  This is usually just a nuisance, but occasionally it got me killed.  For example, in one section I had to move the fox to a higher platform to make spirits appear for Nuna to jump across.  But when I controlled Nuna, the fox would move, making the spirits disappear & Nuna fall to her death.  It doesn’t happen a lot, but enough to be noticeable.  Also, towards the end of the game, it seems pretty apparent the game was designed for co-op, because a lot of the platforming challenges require you to use the characters in tandem.  It’s possible to do these on your own, but it would be a lot easier if you have two people controlling the characters separately.  Overall these are more recurring frustrations that do somewhat take away from the experience.  Score: 3

Made to resemble carvings

Made to resemble carvings

Aesthetics: Overall, I found the game’s presentation mixed.  On the one hand, the character models & designs are nice, but it can be difficult to notice this.  Because of the arctic setting, a lot of the environments look barren & lifeless.  And while that’s to be expected (I hardly expected flowers in the tundra) there are times when the game shows how detailed it can be.  When the game mixes it up with lighting & shading effects, you get a glimpse of how nice it actually looks.  It’s just that most of the time the game looks stark.  But as I said, I do like the designs.  I have to give them credit for the level designed around the ice giant.  I wasn’t thrilled by the art style used in some of the cutscenes, either, but as they were using traditional art techniques it’s understandable.  There’s also almost no music in the game, which I found confusing.  I figured they’d want to demonstrate indigenous music, but for the most part it’s just the sound of the wind.  So I guess overall, not bad but not as good as it could have been.  Score: 3

Replay Value: Fairly low.  Unless you want to play co-op, there isn’t much reason to play a second time.  But once you beat the game, you get a chapter select option, so if there’s a portion you particularly liked, or you’re a completionist & missed a few vignettes, you can replay that section.  Which is a shame, given how short the game actually is.  Score: 2

Breakdown

untitledOverall Score: 3

Final words: Never Alone encourages developers to tell new tales, bringing the cultures of others to a new medium.  However, while the game’s a fun little romp through a new setting, it’s a bit short for the pricetag.  If you’re interested, I’d wait until the price goes down somewhat.

– GamerDame

Title: Never Alone
Console: PC, PS4 & XB1
Rating: T
Developers: Upper One Games & E-Line Media
Publisher: E-Line Media
Release Date: November 18, 2014

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Filed under 3, Indie, PC, Platformer, PS4, Reviews, XBox One