Tag Archives: Puzzle

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: The Swapper

via Giant Bomb
via Giant Bomb

The Swapper (2013)

PS4 / E10+

Puzzle / Platformer

Publisher: Curve Digital

Developer: Facepalm Games, Curve Digital


Puzzle games can be extremely satisfying experiences if executed correctly.  Puzzles need to be deep and innovative, using familiar mechanics while managing to keep things fresh as time goes along.  This is precisely why The Swapper was such a satisfying experience.  Not only did it deliver on the puzzles, but it managed to tell a simple yet compelling story with the eerie and dark backdrop of space.  It was a weird experience, but I liked it.

the swapper 1

The game doesn’t waste time in throwing you right into the world.  You play as a female space scavenger who finds herself stranded in an abandoned and mysterious space research facility, which you learn is named Theseus.  The facility, among others, was set up to mine for resources.  Earth has already used up a majority of its resources, forcing the construction and deployment of these facilities to essentially save Earth from a resource crisis.  Theseus and its crew landed on Chori V and discovered some weird, but abundant mineral deposits in the ground.  However, things go awry as these resources start to have adverse effects on the crew and their functions.

As the lone explorer of the space station, the player is left to their own devices to discover the story of what happened to Theseus and its crew.  While wondering around the station’s corridors, you brush up against a mysterious device known as The Swapper.  The device allows for the creation of clones which you can swap in and out of at will.  You’re not meant to immediately get what is going on with the device, but as you progress through the game, you start to learn more about it and its effects.  I like the sense of progression that the game employs.  You are given little in the beginning, but as you make your way through the research facility, you discover more and more, until you finally realize what actually happened to the doomed facility.

via PS4 Home
via PS4 Home

The Swapper, despite its deep, chilling story is a puzzle game by nature.  The device that players picks up yields some great innovative and thoughtful puzzles that feel satisfying every time you solve them.  The obstacles that you have to overcome are pretty easy in the beginning.  The mechanics are simple, you can create clones and then switch to them to gain access to other areas.  Red lights prevent you from swapping to your created clones while blue lights prevent the creation of clones.  Purple lights prevent both actions.  In terms of mechanics, that’s pretty much all there is to it.  Some puzzles require quick timing and precision but don’t let that scare you.  Most of the puzzles are pretty easy to figure out, but are challenging enough to make feel great when completing them.  There are a couple of puzzles that I found to be quite frustrating and annoying, but these problems are few and far between to be too meddling.

You will know when you complete a puzzle because at the end you receive different types of orbs.  Some contain a single orb while others contain multiple orbs.  They all are added to your grand total which allow you to access blocked areas.  The game’s final terminal is only accessible after finding 124 orbs, which means you will have to explore the entirety of the facility to gain the necessary orbs necessary for accessing the final moments.  This was a cool way to handle progression and it made the game feel like Metroid in a way.  You’ll run across areas that you aren’t able to access right away but after some exploration and puzzle solving, you will be able to access these areas in due time.

via Egg Plante
via Egg Plante

Perhaps the neatest thing about The Swapper is its brilliant atmosphere that surrounds the whole experience.  There’s a feeling of loneliness that envelopes you as you make your way through the space station’s abandoned corridors.  There is a silence that lingers in the air, besides the sound of your footsteps.  It’s a chilling adventure.  The game also looks amazing as well.  If the art style looks handmade to you, that’s because it is.  The artists at Curve Studios originally made the game’s assets with clay.  They then digitized their creations to bring the game’s world to life on screen.  The game deserves major props for its art direction.

The Swapper ends with a choice that you have to make based off the information that you have gleaned as you cloned and swapped your way through the station.  This was a thoughtful and deep game, which I was not expecting given the game’s initial moments.  The puzzles and obstacles that you encounter never get old despite the lack of new mechanics.  Instead, they evolve and innovate with these simple mechanics to give you fresh and new experiences right up to the game’s ending.  I encourage you to take the trip through the space station to discover the true story of Theseus and The Swapper.

the swapper score

Also available on PC, PS3, Vita, and Xbox One

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: Never Alone

via store.neveralonegame.com
via store.neveralonegame.com

Never Alone (2014)

PS4 / Rated T

Puzzle / Platformer / Educational

Publisher: Upper One Games

Developer: Upper One Games


The Inupiaq people of Alaska are a fascinating group of people.  I never understood how people could live and carry out their daily lives in such harsh and cold climates.  Alaska can be brutal during the winter months, but the Inupiaq people manage to get by.  The have a rich and thriving culture and a pretty deep history as well.  Thanks to the work of indie studio Upper One Games, the Inupiaq now have a game based on their culture, titled Never Alone (also known as Kisima Innitchuna).

Rooted in deep in Inupiaq tradition, the game tells the story of a little girl named Nuna who is met with the problem of an eternal blizzard.  She has to go to the source of the problem to set things right.  Early on, she comes into acquaintance with a cute arctic fox.  The two grow an attachment to each other and accompany each other through the harsh wintery adventure.

via Techno Buffalo
via Techno Buffalo

The game is a puzzle-platformer that puts you in control of both Nuna and the fox.  You switch between the two rather seamlessly to get past puzzles.  The fox can reach some of the harder to reach places and Nuna can do some of the physical work that the fox can’t.  The puzzles that you encounter throughout the adventure are usually not too hard, but there are some situations that are frustrating as hell to get by.

Speaking of frustrating, the gameplay could use a lot of work.  The game does not necessarily require too much of the player in terms of platforming, but the controls just seem imprecise.  They did not feel too good when I was making jumps and trying to get by.  I often found myself having trouble with certain sequences due to the frustrating nature of the controls.  A little while in, Nuna acquires the “Bola,” a projectile-style weapon of Inupiaq tradition.  The weapon requires you to first aim the weapon and then throw the projectile in the direction you want.  It almost reminded me of throwing eggs in Yoshi’s Island. However, the mechanic was not fun at all to use, and almost always took me multiple attempts to get a desired result.  You control both motions with only the right stick, which can cause a lot of headaches when trying throw the weapon in certain trajectories.

via XBLA Fans
via XBLA Fans

Never Alone also suffers from some technical problems that detract from the overall experience.  I often found both Nuna and the fox glitching in the game’s geometry, and getting stuck.  Luckily there is a reset option that puts your characters back at the most recent checkpoint.  The two character’s behavior was also unpredictable at times, which led to some frustration when trying to progress.

There is a level of charm that the game gives off, as well as a careful attention to the details of the Inupiaq culture, that demands for a little praise.  The game looks pretty nice, and the environments and character designs all fit together pretty well.  There’s not a whole lot of variety to the game’s atmosphere, but that is probably because Alaska is not the most diverse place in terms of looks.  There are also “Cultural Insights” that the player can collect along the way that provide some further information and facts about the many different aspects of Inupiaq culture.  These little bite-size videos feature some good production work and were often fun to watch through.

via Console Domination
via Console Domination

It is hard to argue the heart that Never Alone contains.  It is pretty apparent that there was a lot of work put into the game to make it a genuine experience about the Inupiaq culture.  However, there were a lot of frustrations that I took away that made the experience a less enjoyable.  It is a shame because I really wanted to like the game.  It does a lot of things right, but it also does a lot of things wrong as well.

never alone score

Review: Valiant Hearts: The Great War

valiant hearts coverValiant Hearts: The Great War (2014)

PS4 / Rated T

Adventure / Educational / Puzzle

Publisher: Ubisoft

Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier Studios


World War I was a really ugly war.  It was the time of rapid advancements in military technology, but that often meant that the men on the front line where the subjects of their tests.  Numerous people, from all sides of the conflict, lost their lives in some of the worst conditions known to man.  We often look at the war in terms of numbers; in terms of how many people died.  What about the individual stories?  What about the individual people who experienced the war first hand?  Valiant Hearts: The Great War tackles the story of five characters and their struggles and triumphs during the time of the First World War

Don’t let the bright and colorful visuals, done beautifully by the UbiArt Framework, fool you into thinking that this is a bright and cheery story, because the story is the complete opposite of cheery.  Yes, the five different characters experience their fair share of triumphs throughout the story, but the struggles and hardships far outweigh the rays of sunshine.  Valiant Hearts: The Great War doesn’t have a happy ending.  It’s not supposed to.

via eggplante.com
via eggplante.com

The game looks into the lives of Emile, Karl, Freddie, Anna, and Walt the dog as they try to retain their humanity amid the terrors and horrors of the war.  Destiny shines upon them all as their stories are interconnected and intertwined as their paths come together.  They all experience some form of friendship, love, sacrifice, and tragedy along the way, some more than others.  It’s a unique story, inspired by the letters written during WWI, and it offers a different and eye-opening perspective to the travesty that was The Great War.

As I mentioned before, the game looks amazing.  Everything is hand drawn via Ubisoft’s crafty artist framework, UbiArt.  The 2D side-scrolling levels pop off the screen with their effective use of color.  It’s a fitting art style for such a game.  The characters don’t talk too much, which just seems right considering the situation that the characters are in.  The story is presented beautifully though use of nice-looking hand drawn cut scenes and a voice narrating the action on the battlefield.

via Techno Buffalo
via Techno Buffalo

The game’s gameplay comes in the form of adventure-style puzzle solving, with some brief sequences of action here and there.  Often times you are on the frontline, moving around picking up items to use for the one or two big puzzles per level.  Nothing was entirely too hard, and the puzzles offered a little bit of challenge.  There were a couple tough puzzles, but there is a well-done hint system that pushes you in the right direction without giving you the outright answer.

I would have liked to see a little more puzzles that offered more of a challenge.  Most of the puzzles were often too easy to solve, and they often involved picking up items here and there, which started to get a little old after a while.  However, I have to commend all of the puzzles for having a purpose.  They all drove the story, whether you were infiltrating enemy territory or reuniting loved ones.

via Vidaextra
via Vidaextra

More action sequences would have also been nice.  The action sequences often consisted of dodging enemy fire by finding cover, sneaking out of POW camps, and taxi missions.  The taxi missions were driving sequences, where you have to dodge different obstacles. The game shines through its adventure-style gameplay, but the action sequences provided a brief change of pace.

The game encourages some exploration in its levels in the form of hidden historical items that are scattered throughout the levels.  These items provide the player with little bits of history about the hundreds of items that were used during the war.  These items were pretty tough to find, with some being hidden in places I would never have thought to look.  It was satisfying to find all of these items at the end of each level.  At the beginning of each level, there are also some historical facts that the player can read on their own time.  I highly recommend taking in all of the history that the game gives you, because it really adds to the experience, and it surprisingly enhanced some elements of the story.

via 3DJuegos
via 3DJuegos

Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a game like no other.  It was a moving experience, one that provides a special and personal look into the darkness that the war brought on the people who were a part of it.  I instantly clung to the characters that the game provided me with, which made the ending a little hard to swallow.  It inspires a lot of emotions and it hits all the right spots.  I can’t think of another war game that really captured the spirit and horror of the war in a better way.

valiant hearts score

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.

Papers Please 6

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.

Papers Please 5

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.

Papers Please 3

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?

Papers Please 4

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.

Papers Please 2

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.