Tag Archives: Indie

Review: Unravel

unravel-cover-art
via Wikipedia

Unravel (2016)

PS4 / Rated E

Puzzle / Platformer

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Developer: Coldwood Interactive


When this little indie game from Coldwood Interactive named Unravel was first announced at EA’s 2015 E3 press conference, it immediately caught my attention.  A very nervous Martin Sahlin, the game’s creator, came out on stage and proceeded to introduce us to the game, and its adorable little star, Yarny. (Seen below)  I remember being instantly intrigued with its mechanics and instantly charmed by the games irresistibly cute visual style.  It later went on to release in early 2016, but it seemed to be a game that largely flew under people’s radars…including mine.  After about a year I finally dipped my toes into what Unravel is all about and I was met with a very charming experience with some unique platforming elements that make it standout from some of its peers.

As I mentioned before, the game stars a small red, cat-looking creature named Yarny, who is made entirely of yarn.  Yarny is constantly in awe and wonderment as he explores the objects and environments around him.  The game starts you in a small house that includes pictures of different locations that are important to the homeowner’s life.  Yarny explores these environments and collects memories along the way, slowly telling the emotional and nostalgic stories of the homeowner and their family throughout the years.

It is a very gripping story structure that drives you through the game.  There no cut scenes and a scant amount of characters, but the whole story is told through pictures and mirages in the environments that you explore.  Some of these stories were a little tough to understand, but the game does a fantastic job at capturing the various moments and emotions that families experience, whether it is the happy moments or the sad moments.  It is harrowing at times and will most likely relate to your life in some way.  Unravel, despite its simple concept, has a way of resonating with players, making it a special experience.

unravel-1
via Coldwood Interactive

The game is made up of twelve different levels spanning environments like forests, mountainous hilltops, and snowy valleys…to name a few.  These levels require you to use Yarny’s body made of yarn to get pasts its various obstacles and dangers.  Yarny can create rope to swing across gaps, make bridges, and maneuver objects.  If that was not enough, Yarny also unravels (insert title card) as you make your way through the level.  If you are overzealous with your yarn usage, you will eventually run out of yarn and Yarny will be stripped down to his basic frame.  To combat this, there are various “checkpoints” in the levels that allow you to re-spool, giving Yarny more yarn to work with.  I did not find myself running out of yarn too much, but it does add another layer of complexity to the levels and their thoughtful design.  In terms of overall difficulty, the game is not too challenging.  There are moments where the game will get you, but death is never really a burden given the generous checkpoint system.  You also can warp back to the latest checkpoint if you find yourself stuck.

One gripe I have with Unravel’s mechanics are the floaty controls that sometimes make tougher platforming sections a little frustrating.  There were some moments in the game were tighter controls would have been more helpful.  There is a trophy (on PS4) that requires you to go through each level without dying and I quickly found myself giving up because the controls were not as up-to-snuff as I would have liked them to be.  There is also the tiny issue of freshness when it comes to the game’s mechanics.  Unravel does a commendable job, for the most part, of giving you new challenges that change things up, but this evolution in gameplay starts to taper off when you get to the later levels.  Due to the game’s simplistic nature, it is tough to constantly give you new ways of using the mechanics at your disposal.

unravel-2
via Coldwood Interactive

But let us talk about the game’s main attraction: just how darn cute the whole thing is.  There is an enormous amount of detail that went into the game’s visual style from the environments to Yarny himself.  Everything has a tactile feel to it and Yarny looks super realistic.  Coldwood Interactive most likely drew some inspiration from Nintendo’s games like Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Yoshi’s Wooly World.  The game’s score is also well done, meshing perfectly with the game’s heartwarming story of family and nostalgia.

Despite the few issues I had with the game’s mechanics Unravel still manages to invoke tons of feeling, something you do not see too much from puzzle-platformers.  The game’s eye-popping adorability is what pulls you in but it is the gripping and emotional story that convinces you to stay.  It is a relatively short, but powerful, experience that manages to do some cool things with its yarn-based mechanics.  Unravel is worth your time.  It is worth it alone just to see Yarny’s curiosity of the world around him.

unravel-score

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Review: No Man’s Sky

no-mans-sky-cover
via Moby Games

No Man’s Sky (2016)

PS4 / Rated T

Action / Adventure

Publisher: Hello Games

Developer: Hello Games


What do you get when you mix together a fresh new idea, an unconventional publisher-developer relationship, a massive development cycle, and hype levels the size of space itself?  You get No Man’s Sky, a game that I really wanted to like.  Sean Murray and the team at Hello Games promised to make an expansive game rooted in boundless exploration and science-fiction nostalgia.  They teamed up with Sony to bring a console exclusive that would be revolutionary to gaming.  Unfortunately, the game was treated like a AAA game with the size of an indie studio.  When you pair that with a plethora of broken promises and an unclear scope, you get a game that lets a ton of people (like myself) down.

no-mans-sky-1
via Gear Nuke

Again, I really wanted to like No Man’s Sky.  The game brought and touched upon a ton of different concepts and ideas that would have made for a fantastic game if handled with a little more care.  The prospect of getting in a space cruiser and flying through the endless expanse of space, exploring different planets and their wildlife on the way, is an idea that should get any sci-fi nerd bouncing with excitement.  On top of that, a fluctuating space economy and the ability to interact with different alien species paint should have made No Man’s Sky the space exploration game we all were waiting for.  So where did it all go wrong?  Why did the game fall short of its expectations?

One reason is reality of the game’s planets versus what we were promised over the course of the game’s prolonged development and PR cycle.  If you watched any of the game’s demos, you probably saw a lush and vibrant ecosystem, filled to the brim with a wide range of mystical creatures roaming about.  It’s a setting that looked ripped from a painting.  It was beautiful, and it got a lot of gamers excited to explore the game’s randomly generated planets for themselves.  We all bought a ticket for the hype train.  We all bought in to the Sean Murray’s tremendous vision, one that might have been a little too far-fetched.

no-mans-sky-2
via Segment Next

At the end of the day, No Man’s Sky is just a game.  A game with limitations, just like any other game.  What Hello Games was promising fans was a game that would exceed technological innovation.  Instead, what we got were computer-generated planets that looked barren and empty, usually with some sort of radiation or extreme temperatures that make exploration a major pain in the ass.  Instead of these mythical creatures we saw in pre-release footage, we got a fair amount of atrocities that looked like the by-product of an animal creation algorithm gone wrong.  Remember EA’s character creation game Spore?  The creatures that you encounter in No Man’s Sky look like Spore rejects.  The ecosystem in the actual game just doesn’t match up with what we saw leading up to the game’s release.  This made planet exploration a bummer, especially when I started to see a lot of the same animals and planets over and over again over the course of my travels.  Random generation is great, but the limitations of such a system started to become apparent after my visit to my fifth planet.

Besides flora and fauna, you can also explore abandoned outposts, monoliths, and other structures, some populated and some empty.  Inside these buildings you can find new items, upgrades, money, and directions to other locations of interests.  The variety of these buildings, just like the animal and plant variety, starts to quickly wear thin as the buildings you explore start to become super familiar as you go on.  The monoliths, which are essentially ancient alien structures, are the most intriguing structures to explore as they offer the most variety and they also look amazing as well.

no-mans-sky-3
via Investor Place

The universe of No Man’s Sky feels empty as well.  Talks of a space economy and different alien species that you could interact with made me believe that the world we would be exploring would be a living and breathing galaxy.  Instead, members of these different alien species stay in the same spots, whether it’s in a space station or a planet’s outpost.  They talk in foreign tongues which makes it next to impossible to feel like you are actually having a conversation with an alien.  You can find tomes throughout the galaxy that help you understand these species’ languages, but this doesn’t help the fact that these NPCs that you encounter are lifeless quest givers.  The space economy does deliver in that you can find different prices for materials in different space systems, but I don’t think these prices are determined by any meta-statistics.  If I were to sell tons of iron to a space trader, the price of iron across the galaxy would not go down, which is a shame.  A space economy that actually reacted to players’ buying habits would be amazing.

Combat, whether it’s on foot or in the sky, is largely underwhelming.  While exploring planets, you have a multi-tool, which allows you to mine for materials as well as fight enemies.  You can upgrade the tool with better upgrades and abilities as you go.  When exploring planets, your only enemies are aggressive creatures and the flying sentinels that scour the planetscape, waiting for someone to cause trouble.  The creatures are easy to take down with your multi-tools’s blaster but the sentinels become a real nuisance as they traverse through the air.  The gun combat doesn’t feel great and I often found myself recklessly shooting my gun in an attempt to destroy the sentinels.  Combat does get easier with subsequent upgrades, but it never felt fun, which is a big problem.  In the air, your space ship has blasters and lasers that aid you in taking down pesky space pirates you track you down if you have any valuable cargo on board.  These fights were the most frustrating of them all.  The space pirates zoom by you and do nimble acrobatic maneuvers through the air as you try to shoot them with your sluggish aim.  Your best bet is to park yourself in place and turn your ship around in an attempt to take down the enemy ships.  This, again, was not fun at all and was the source of a good amount of deaths.  In fact, most of my deaths in this game came at the hands of space pirates.  Luckily they have no interest in your cargo as you can go retrieve your lost goods in the same place where you went down.  There are no stakes to these fights, which makes them a little easier to swallow.

no mans sky 4.png

Up to this point, I have probably talked about half of what you do in No Man’s Sky.  The other half you may ask?  Well, you are going to spend a lot of time with inventory management, which is another major detriment to the game’s experience.  The thing I like about No Man’s Sky’s user interface is the inspiration it draws from Destiny’s user interface.  Unfortunately, navigating through your inventory becomes a hassle thanks to the limited space that you have right from the get-go.  Your Exosuit (your spacesuit) has an inventory as well as you ship, which usually has a larger inventory.  These inventories are pretty small in the beginning which makes resource mining a pain.  I constantly found myself having to sacrifice some materials in order to make room for rarer materials and items.  It also doesn’t help that suit and ship upgrades take up inventory spots as well, which makes upgrading your gear a tougher decision that it should be.  Your inventory space should never get in the way of upgrading your gear.  In order to expand your inventory, you either have to purchase suit upgrades at outposts or obtain bigger and more expensive ships with more space.  Again, as a player you should never have to upgrade your inventories in order to make them useable.  Moving resources and items around in order to make room for other things is a big portion of the gameplay, which is a major shame.  It starts to become a drag really quickly.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that half of your playtime will be spent in the game’s inventory menus.  You’re going to be managing your inventory a lot…which is not my idea of a good time.

Finally, I feel like I need to talk about the multiplayer aspects of the game, rather the lack of multiplayer features that the game has to offer.  You have the choice to name the systems, planets, animals, and plants that you discover in hopes that another player will stumble upon your discoveries.  Why else would name these things?  However, the reality of such a massive random generation algorithm means that millions of planets are being created.  Sean Murray has made it pretty clear that the chance of stumbling upon someone else’s discovery are pretty slim.  Over the course of my playtime, I found nothing that was discovered by someone else.  Because of this, I found myself skipping the naming process, sticking with the randomly generated names that the game gives to these different aspects of the universe.  I stopped claiming ownership of such discoveries, because in the end, they don’t really matter.  Realistically, no one is going to stumble upon your discovered planets…which is a damn shame.  This is the theme of No Man’s Sky.  It’s a damn shame.

No Man's Sky_20160808131201
via Segment Next

I could go on for multiple paragraphs, but this review is starting to run long.  There’s a bevy of great ideas and systems that No Man’s Sky implements, but they all feel half-baked and undercooked.  Black holes, Hyper drives, puzzles, and the mysterious Atlas are aspects of the game that I haven’t talked about.  However, none of these things managed to stick out because they were either mishandled ideas or cheap by-products of another random generation.  I admire Hello Game’s commitment to fixing the game and trying to make it a better experience for players after the game has launch, but a lot of these problems could have been fixed if expectations were tempered and promises weren’t made.  The No Man’s Sky we were expecting versus the No Man’s Sky that was put on shelves are two different products that tell two different stories.  One could have been a defining addition to gaming history while the other was the product of a hype train gone off the rails.  I wanted to like No Man’s Sky so much, but in the end it’s a game that just can’t get into.  Who knows, maybe the game will be different in a year’s time with the developer’s plans to update the game, but I don’t think I will be making the return trip into No Man’s Sky.

no-mans-sky-score

Review: The Babadook

the babadook poster
via Rotten Tomatoes

The Babadook (2014)

NR / 93 mins

Drama / Horror / Thriller

Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall

Director: Jennifer Kent


Everybody remembers the classic ritual of bedtime stories.  As kids we would brush our teeth, put on our pajamas, and then climb into bed excitedly as we would wait for night’s fairytale or children’s story.  At least that’s how I remember it.  The Babadook, an indie horror flick directed by Jennifer Kent, is an example of bad parenting.

the babadook 1
via Cine-Nerd

The movie stars troubled mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her delinquent son Sam, played by child actor Noah Wiseman.  Through the use of flashbacks, we discover that the two are grieving the death of their father.  Things are not easy and over the course of the movie we watch as the two spiral down a dark path.  Sam is a problem child, throwing frequent tantrums that begin to turn violent.  He’s fascinated with the idea of fighting and protecting his mother from monsters.  This soon leads to a mysterious book, called “The Babadook,” which Sam asks his mom to read.

This is where the bad parenting comes in.  The book is introduced around halfway through the movie and by that point Amelia should have noticed that her son wasn’t doing well.  The decision to read her son a (rather frightening) book about a dark monster who lives in the dark side of the bedroom is probably not the best.  As one would expect, this drives Sam’s mental state into a deeper downward spiral and things start to go pretty bad very quickly when the demonic book starts to haunt their house, and everything in it.

the babadook 2
via Joblo

I’m normally not a huge fan of horror movies; not because they are dumb but because the premise behind most of them are stupid and often times predictable.  The concept behind The Babadook is not entirely new, but it provides enough dumb fun to make it enjoyable.  A lot of the scenes, especially the ones dealing with the storybook, are kind of silly and stupid, but they aren’t bad enough to make the movie unwatchable.  I found myself snickering a lot more than getting scared, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Speaking of getting scared, the movie is generally tame when it comes to the spooks.  Although, there are some disturbing scenes and imagery that will make anyone cringe.  One of the best parts about the movie is its reliance on disturbing imagery, rather than jump scares, to frighten viewers.  It made the movie feel less cheap and gives the movie a more authentic quality.  The imagery used during the storybook sequences are really well done and the pages literally come to life on screen, which was really fun to watch.

the babadook 3
via TVQC

Performance wise, you can take it or leave it.  The movie primarily focuses on Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, with some supporting cast here and there.  Their acting isn’t necessarily the best, but it is good enough to be passable.  In the end, I didn’t really care because when all’s said and done, The Badadook is a B-movie affair.  The acting took a backseat for me, as I was too caught up in the fun that was happening on screen.

Perhaps the big takeaway from The Babadook is that you shouldn’t read your young kids a dark storybook about the monsters that make noises in the night.  C’mon, that’s a disaster waiting to happen, as evidenced by the movie.  There are a plethora of better horror films out there, but this one holds its own as being a dumb fun kind of movie that you can just give a mindless watch.

the babadook score

Why MisterWives Are My Best Discovery of the Year

If you were to tell me at the beginning of the year that some indie group from New York City would put out an album that would be in contention for my top album of 2015, I’d probably laugh and call you crazy.  “Uh huh, yeah sure,” I’d probably say.  That’s what makes my crazy interest in MisterWives so puzzling.  Indie pop is typically not a genre I listen to.  My musical interests mainly lie in hip-hop and dance, with the occasional rock group or pop artist rounding out my music library.

So why is MisterWives my best discovery of the year?  Why do I like them so much?  It’s been a question that I have been asking myself a lot recently.  What makes them worth listening to so much?

via Diffuser
via Diffuser

Before I begin my reflection, I should probably introduce who the heck these guys even are.  The group, as I mentioned before, originates from New York City and consists of lead singer Mandy Lee, percussionist Etienne Bowler, bass guitarist William Hehir, guitarist Marc Campbell, multi-instrumentalist Jesse Blum, and saxophonist Mike Murphy.  Their name is a gender-flipped play on an old 19th Century term “Sister Wives,” which is an old Mormon practice of polygamy.  The idea for the group started with Mandy Lee’s aspiration to start an 80’s cover band.  With the mission to make her dream a reality, she enlisted the help of fellow musicians Etienne and William, who were introduced through mutual friends.  This marked the start of the band that we have today, with the rest of the crew joining up with them along the way.  The rest was history.

misterwives 2At the time of this writing, I can’t tell you how many times I have listened to the group’s debut album, Our Own House, which was released back in February.  The music has not gotten old and I continue to find new things I like about the songs that live on the album.  Usually music gets old if you repeatedly listen to it over and over again in a short amount of time, but Our Own House has not lost that luster.  Why?  What makes MisterWives so good?


Their Music Is Really Fun

Let me tell you about how I officially discovered MisterWives.  One day a while back I was just casually browsing the Google Play store as one does.  As I scrolled down the page, I noticed that the free song of the week was “Our Own House” by a band called MisterWives.  I clicked play and I was hooked within seconds.  The song started off slow, but sweet, with a rising melody by lead singer Lee.  It then burst into the wild and crazy chorus that included funky guitars and trumpets.  It was a really cool song that was just fun to listen to.  It had the addicting funk of your radio-ready pop song with the heart and soul of an indie song.  I downloaded it immediately, but stopped there.

It took a couple more months for me to wander onto the groups’ Spotify page where I discovered the rest of their music and to my surprise, the rest of their music had the same feel as “Our Own House.”  The MisterWives had a ton of energetic songs in their portfolio of music.  It only took a couple more plays of their songs until I finally bought their album in its entirety.  There isn’t a song on the album that I don’t like.  That’s the sign of a pretty good album by the way.

Perhaps the band’s most popular song to date, and the one that propelled them into the spotlight, is “Reflections.”  Someone explained the song as being “disco soul-pop,” and I couldn’t agree with them more.  The song is as addicting and fun as “Our Own House” and continues to be one of my favorites.  Another song I keep going back to is “Best I Can Do,” which is a reflection on a bad relationship.  Despite the subject material, the song is insanely fun to move around to and makes it hard to keep still.  MisterWives have a unique style about them that makes their music much different from other music out there, and they rock that style.

via YouTube
via YouTube

Their Songs Also Have a Lot of Meaning

Mandy Lee and her crew have a ton of fun with their music, but they also get serious and deep with some of their songs.  I immediately point to their song “Coffins.”  It’s the one slow and super stripped-down song on the album.  In an interview, Lee said that the song was about a past friendship that she had with a band mate that went south and turned bad.  It never got better with time and the song is her reflection on where it all went wrong.  What makes the song so deep is that it has other meanings, including bad relationships as well as death.  It’s what makes the song so relatable, in fact, it’s almost hard not to relate to it in some way or another.  (I also want to point out that the chorus is amazing and still gives me chills)

via MTV
via MTV

Other songs like “Queens,” which goes into the importance of staying true to your home, and “Vagabond,” which talks about the life and struggles of being a vagabond, are two other great examples of songs that have a lot of meaning when you really dig deep into them.


They’re Just Super Talented

This one might be self-explanatory, because how else would they have gotten to where they are now.  I still think it’s important to note that MisterWives is full of some pretty talented people.  Every single member of the group brings their own talent and expertise to the forefront, but two members stand out when it comes to extreme talent; lead singer Mandy Lee and their multi-instrumentalist Jesse Blum.

via Headline Planet
via Headline Planet

As the leader of the group, Mandy Lee brings an amazing voice and great songwriting skills to the table.  Listen to any chorus featured on their album and you will instantly see what I mean.  Her lyrics are also pretty wonderful.  It all started back when she was fourteen years old.  That is when she wrote “Oceans,” a song that appears on the album.  It’s kind of impressive when you think about it.  Since then she has continued to refine her writing skills to where they are today.  Here are some of my favorite snippets from the album:

How do you soften
The thought of carrying coffins?
We were so alive
Only to see us wither and die

– “Coffins”

My Queens is a queen
Not talking bright lights and shiny things
But we always made it work
Building castles out of dirt
My home is a throne
Not very pretty, but tough as stone
And we always made it work
No matter how much it did hurt

– “Queens”

via Korg
via Korg

Now let me talk about Jesse Blum.  He’s the guy that you will always find wearing a bow tie.  He rocks that style everywhere he goes.  He also happens to be super talented when it comes to his instruments.  He primarily plays the keyboard and the trumpet, but he dabbles in a bunch of other different instruments.  Songs like “Not Your Way” and “Our Own House” really show off the kind of chops that Blum has musically.  He shines on these songs, as well as most of the others.  Besides Mike Murphy’s saxophone, he’s pretty much responsible for all the other non-traditional sounds on the album.  It’s really quite intriguing.


They’re Really Good Live

A while back, MisterWives announced their Scrapbook Tour which is the band’s first big tour that is currently taking them all over the US and Canada.  Their tour kicked off in Pittsburgh at Stage AE, which basically meant I had to see them.  The dates were announced right around the time I really started getting into their music, so it only made sense.  I was really glad I made the trip back to Pittsburgh to watch them play live because they gave me, and a bunch of other fans, one hell of a performance.

via Live Nation
via Live Nation

First of all, they were super down to earth when it came to talking with the crowd.  Mandy Lee at one point told a humbling story about their first time in Pittsburgh.  She started to talk about how they played in the back of the venue, where the Merchandise stand is today.  She went on to thank the crowd for giving them the opportunity for giving them the chance to do great things, like headline a tour that put them on Stage AE’s main stage instead of the tiny little stage in the back of the venue.  The genuine nature of her words really seemed to resonate.  This band was for real and it’s pretty amazing at how far they have come already.

Secondly, they retained the fun and energetic vibes that they were known for on their album.  They gave a one-two punch of a show that was super entertaining from start to finish.  Lee was all over the place dancing and rocking each verse from the album.  At one point she was even doing push-ups before “Not Your Way.”  The other band members had their fun as well.  At one point, there was even a dance off.  It was all super cool to take in.  The moment of the night came when the band slowed down and gathered at the front of the stage, giving us an all-acoustic version of “Coffins.”  Lee knocked it out of the park with grace and emotion, sending chills throughout the entire venue.  It showed off the true range that the band has live.  It was by far one of my favorite shows that I have ever been to.

via Pop Sugar
via Pop Sugar

I’d recommend MisterWives to anyone in a heartbeat.  Even though they may not be your type of style, I’d still give them a try.  I mean hey, I pretty much only listen to hip-hop and dance and I got pretty hooked on them.  I’m glad that I jumped on the bandwagon now, because this is a band that I can only see getting better and better as time goes on.  I have confidence that MisterWives is going to be super big someday, and they deserve to be.  Now if you don’t mind me, I am going to continue listening to the album and debating how high their album is going to be on my end of the year list.

Review: The Unfinished Swan

via Giant Bomb
via Giant Bomb

The Unfinished Swan (2012)

PS4 / Rated E

Casual / Puzzle

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Developer: Giant Sparrow


The argument on whether video games are art or not has been raging among critics and fans for a while now.  Say what you want about the topic, but I think it is completely stupid.  Games are games, and we should not waste our time trying to make games seem more worthy among those who do not find games appealing.  We should just enjoy them for what they are: fun interactive experiences.  Now that I have went on a tangent, let’s talk about a game which involves both art and interactive experiences.  It’s called The Unfinished Swan.

The game, which is developed by indie studio Giant Sparrow, can be best described as an interactive storybook.  Monroe, a little boy that is the star of the game, has a mother that is an avid painter.  She paints, but she does not finish her work, leaving them unfinished.  One day, Monroe is forced to go to an orphanage, but they let him take one piece of his mom’s work.  He picks her Unfinished Swan painting, which is his favorite.  One night, he looks over to discover that the swan has disappeared from the painting.  This leads him to explore the painting, giving him entrance to a whole new world within the painting.

via jeuxactu.com
via jeuxactu.com

This is how we first get introduced to the world of The Unfinished Swan.  The first set of levels takes place within a king’s garden. However, the screen is completely white.  It’s a good thing that Monroe brought his mom’s paint brush.  The game’s first mechanic that it gives you is the ability to throw paintballs around the world.  In the first levels, this allows you to paint the world around you, forming the space in front of you.  In a sense, you have to feel your way around by painting the blank canvas around you while perusing the swan that seems to be leading you through this king’s world.

You soon start to find out a little more about the king through the collectible storybook pages.  The king is a tyrant, but a creator at heart.  He creates this kingdom for himself, but his people are never pleased because he does not seem to finish what he starts.  Just like Monroe’s mom, he paints these magnificent places, but does not finish them.  It’s the similarities between this king and Monroe’s mom that seems to be the possible understory of the game’s progression.

via Geeks Podcast
via Geeks Podcast

The game is a relatively short adventure.  There are only about four chapters with a couple of levels beneath each one.  The environments that you explore range greatly, going from the blank canvas in the beginning to the shaded walls of a magnificent castle to the dark and gloomy locale of a nighttime forest to the geometry based world that focuses on blocks and other shapes.  You go through these stages relatively quickly, as most of them are pretty easy and straightforward to get through, but they are a spectacle to see.

Another quibble I have with the game is the way it breezes through new gameplay experiences that it gives you.  One thing you will notice as you make your way through the game is that each level, for the most part, gives you a new gameplay mechanic or gimmick to play around with.  The first level, for instance, focuses on throwing paint balls to explore while some of the later levels involve moving lantern balls around the forest and firing a paint hose around the environment.  One of my favorite mechanics lets you create blocks the unfinished swan 4using your paintballs as the constraints.  Based on where you throw your paintballs, you can set the length, width, and height of the blocks that you create, almost as if you were the game designer.  You use these blocks to traverse to areas you were not able to get to before.  This mechanic was a lot of fun, but was forgotten pretty quickly as the game moved on.  It came back for a tiny bit during the last chapter, but I would have liked to see the game explore these kinds of mechanics more.  This is where the games length starts to hurt the experience.  The story pretty much hits the sweet spot in terms of time, but I would have generally liked to experience the mechanics a little more.

the unfinished swan 3

The Unfinished Swan is not a hard game by any definition of the word.  This is because difficulty is not the game’s main priority.  The game focuses on its story, and the experience of discovery.  The game does not want to block you from exploring the world that it gives you, and for that I commend Giant Sparrow.  This might be unattractive to some gamers, but it’s worth the break from some of the other games that are out right now.  In terms of replayabilty, balloons can be found throughout the environments that encourage deeper exploration.  This can warrant another playthrough for some, but I found all of them on my first runthrough.  Aside from that, the game is meant to be played just once.  That is all you need.

If you want to engage in the debate on whether games are art, then The Unfinished Swan is probably the game you would want to include in your discussion.  It’s a game that managed to captivate me with its colorful, and sometimes colorless, environments.  The game has a unique look unlike any other game.  It’s a little short and it breezes through at a pace that might be too fast for some, but it is most definitely a journey worth taking.  On a side note, they missed their chance on making a 100% completion trophy named “The Finished Swan.”  …just saying.

the unfinished swan score

*Also available on PS3 and PSVita

Review: Papers, Please

Papers Please 1When you think about it, being a border patrol officer must really suck.  Think about the kind of stuff you have to deal with.  You have to deal with stubborn people who want to get in to the country, terrorists, drug smuggling, and a bunch of different policies.  Not to mention you are the one that denies a person of their dreams of starting a new life.

Papers, Please, a game by developer Lucas Pope, puts you in the shoes of Arstotzka’s newest border patrol officer.  You were chosen for this position and now you, and your family, are moved into a class 8 household near the border.  Perhaps you can provide a good life for your family while you start your new job.  You will get paid everyday based on how productive you are at your post and then you can use this money to provide heat, food, medicine, and rent for your family, among other things.

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You get to your post on the first day and you notice that you have a lot of work ahead of you.  The line seems endless and everybody in that line has a different story, and one goal…to get into the glorious nation of Arstotzka.  The game is simple in premise but quickly gets bogged down in complexity.  Each day, the Ministry of Admission will give you certain objectives and policies that you have to carry out and enforce for the day.  For example, on the first day, you were ordered to not let foreigners into the country.  As the days go on, these policies and rules get more complex, which means there is a lot more stuff that you have to pay attention to.

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The basic gameplay involves you cross checking each persons papers, thus the name of the game.  A person will give you there stuff and then you have to check to make sure that everything is credible and legit.  There are a bunch of people that have forged their papers and it is your job to catch those people and interrogate them.  If there info doesn’t match up, you don’t let them into the country.  When there is a bunch of rules and policies that you have to follow, this can get pretty challenging to do, especially with a time limit for each day.  It is a race against the clock to get as much people through the line for the day as possible.   That is why each time you notice a discrepancy in someone’s papers, it is a pretty satisfying experience.  You can almost consider Papers, Please a puzzle game in concept.

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The game gives you a rule book that has all of the policies, countries, issuing cities, and a ton of other information.  However, with the limited space you are given to work with, it is hard to totally have this book open at all times.  You find yourself memorizing different information to make the task at hand easier.  It also saves you time so you don’t have to open the book every time.

Not everybody is the same though.  You will encounter some people that try to bargain with you and try to sweet talk you into letting them in even though their papers don’t stack up.  That is where the conflict of the story comes into play.  Are you the stone-cold officer that stays true to his policies and rules or are you the kind-hearted and lenient officer?  It’s a question that you will often have to contemplate.  If a person offers you money, will you let them in?  When you have a family at home that could use this money, is it a risk worth taking?

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You also have to deal with terrorists that try to run through the border.  You will have to use your quick thinking to unlock your gun and shoot them down before they cause too much damage on the top screen.  It’s just another thing that you have to pay attention to as the days go on and the work gets harder.

The game has twenty endings, which means that your thirty day campaign probably won’t end the same each time you play.  My campaign ended with my character in jail because I forgot to let in a certain person that was important in Arstotzka.  I was totally guilty though because I totally forgot about that person among the chaos of the people coming into my post.  When a higher-up came in and told me about this person, I quickly forgot about the name he gave me.  This hurt me, and my family, in the end.

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The game looks beautiful, but dreary in a way.  There are no bright colors, just a lot of blacks and grays.  The border doesn’t seem like a happy place, but this choice probably makes sense.  A border checkpoint probably wouldn’t be the brightest spot on the map.  The music plays well into the atmosphere as well.  It has a dark undertone that really adds to the dreariness of the situation.

Papers, Please was a game that I decided to play because of the good things I heard about it.  When it originally came out in 2013, it made a bunch of people’s top ten lists.  The game has an intriguing, and dark, story to tell.  I never wondered what it was like to be a border patrol officer but I think this game did a good job of showcasing the hard job that they have.  It was not easy being on the border patrol, with people’s fates in my hands.  This is not an easy power to  have…and maybe it is too much power.