Game Review : Catherine

 

 

Catherine PS3

Catherine PS3 (Photo credit: Bababaloo.com)

 

Catherine is one of the strangest and most innovative games I’ve ever played.  It is engaging with a combination of sex and horror (always the best mix).  It combines several modes of gameplay and story-telling into something that is altogether unique and worth your time and money.

 

Catherine is a puzzle game.  No, wait, it’s an RPG.  No… it’s an anime movie.  Frankly, it’s everything.  Catherine stars a protaganist, Vincent, who has been dating a type-A named Katherine for several years.  She is on the fast-track to marriage and he’s got cold feet.  Nbd, until one morning he wakes and is startled to find a naked blonde next to him named Catherine (with a “C”).  All hell breaks loose and that’s just the anime portion.

 

Between anime sequences there is a puzzle game.  You see, every night, Vincent dreams he is in a quasi-Pergatory where he is a sheep among a herd of sheep who have one task : climb a cliff face of blocks as fast as they can or be consumed by some demon waiting in the darkness below.  In the same strain as my favorite series, Silent Hill, the demon is a reflection of some betrayal committed in the sheep’s past.  Oh yeah, and if the demon kills the sheep in the nightmare, that person dies in their sleep in real life.  (“one, two, Freddy’s coming for you”)

 

Ok, but between Anime and climbing cliffs, there is yet another layer to this gameplay.  Vincent spends his evenings with friends in a bar called The

 

Stray Sheep.  During these sequences, the Player actually can chose to interact with Vincent’s friends as well as random people at the bar.  Through these interactions, ensuing layers of the story are revealed including the realization that Vincent isn’t the only man having nightmares.

 

The bar contains other modes of play including an arcade game where the Player can train for his climbing nightmare on good rendition of an 8-bit game.  Vincent also receives texts on his phone and can respond to them selecting from several pre-defined phrases.  These subtle interactions  allow for a gameplay that flexes to the Player’s choices.  Characters actually react to your texting!

 

From a gameplay perspective, the game is solid.  It is an amalgamation of many modes of play in a unique form that really had me addicted.  I am not a fan of puzzle games, but I wanted to pound through them just so I could advance the story and interact with the characters at the bar.

 

The music is a bit weak during the puzzle sequences.  The game remixes the works of Holst, Beethoven, Handel, etc.  The mixes get repetitive and annoying very quick.  However, the music during the bar scenes is perfect, evoking a lounge environment that is both alluring and uneasy.

 

Story.  Solid.

 

Visuals.  Unique.  The Anime moments alone are worthy of a full-blown movie.  The bar scenes are lush.  The puzzle sequences are solid.

 

All told, I bought this game on ebay, used for $15.  Easily worth the money.  If you see a copy grab it, even if you just consider yourself a student of game design, I think this piece has so many unique touches  it is worth your study.

 

Game Review : Silent Hill Downpour


silent-hill-downpour-cover

silent-hill-downpour-cover (Photo credit: Dekuwa)

Like many, I had been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Silent Hill Downpour.  While the game does have its issues in both design and execution, it does not deserve the flat out panning it has received at the hands of IGN and other reviewers.  Silent Hill Downpour is an engaging experience, worthy of your gameplay time and dollars.

One of the significant changes in Downpour is the “open world” concept.  While not absolute, the game allows the Player a significant amount of freedom to explore Silent Hill in a non-linear fashion unlike its predecessors.  While this does make for a new mode of play which opens up SH  (“Silent Hill) to wider audiences, this method does inhibit certain elements of story which has always been the hallmark of SH.

The Downpour story fits well within the Silent Hill tradition : person with a dark secret becomes trapped in a town mirroring his/her inner demons.  That history is revealed throughout gameplay in a manner similar to Silent Hill 2.  However, the reveals can be broken by circumventing certain areas of play through the open world concept.

The main character is strong, while others are more like actors delivering lines, which works for this game.  SH has always had a sort of detached relationship between protagonist and supporting cast that evokes alienation.

Gameplay has some serious issues.

  • Framerate – the rumors you have heard are true!  There are moments where framerate stumbles to a few frames per second or even a few seconds per FRAME!  These especially coincide with enemies on screen.  The more enemies, the worse the framerate.  This is an unexcusable flaw, so visible it points to the publisher obviously rushing the release of the product before the necessary polish had been applied.  Frustrating doesn’t cover it.  This QA issue should never have happened.
  • Attack Mode – camera work in attack mode is horrendous.   There are moments when the Player needs to run just to avoid the camera issues because attacking is just imposible.
  • Artifacts – “God Beams” – the ray effects you see from sunlight filtering through trees, building, etc.  SH is the first in the franchise to implement this effect, however, the implementation is blocky.  It just gets in the way of enjoying the game.  Whereas games like “Uncharted” so fluidly execute this effect.
  • The Chase Sequences – in my review of the SH remake : Shattered Memories, the one thing I really couldn’t stand were the chase sequences.  They were clunky and broke apart an otherwise surreal experience.  The same is true in Downpour.  I wish the designers had axed that idea rather than possibly turn it into a convention.  Some chase sequences are almost comical in their over-the-top awfulness.  There’s chase sequences where the world turns upside down, cars fall from ceilings or the protagonist is suddenly walking upside-down, this kind of carnival fun-house weirdness is too blatant for what is historically a cerebral experience.  SH is all about the character.  From Harry Mason in SH1 to the present, the game is about a protagonist thrust into a quasi-hell borne of his/her mind and the struggle to escape.  Downpour’s chase sequences interrupt an otherwise solid take on an internal character struggle.  Man vs Self, not Man vs Fun House Mirror.
Environment.  This is where Downpour shines and deserves your time.  In the same way Shattered Memories took a series and reinterpretted the world of SH through snowy New England, Downpour puts another filter over the camera and produces something that is tangible to any person who has been through a thunderstorm.  Downpour evokes  the aura of SH through the use of rain in a way that is so universal, it can really open up the experience to new users.  Do I miss the ash from the sky?  of course, but from an artistic angle, focused on the game in itself, the rain works really well.  This combined with the interplay of light and shadow / flashlight vs darkness makes for very tense gameplay.
There are some incredibly innovative moments in the environmental / gameplay interaction.  There is a particular scene in an orphanage involving a play that is just incredible where reality and something else intersect.  These moments within the design deserve your gameplay time.
Music.  This is the first game in the series without Akira Yamaokaand you can feel the difference.  The music is extremely sparse and often carries

throwbacks to Akira’s scores in the form of radio broadcasts.  It does work for the game in the context of the environment.  If this game were set in the Silent Hill evoked in SH 1 – 3, then I would say otherwise, but in Downpour, the sparse touches of music work well.

All in all, this game is a good play.  Does it live up to precedent of SH 1  – 3?  No.  Unfortunately gameplay and QA issues inhibit that mark, but it does serve as a good followup to Homecoming and Shattered Memories (minus QA).  I am still hoping for a solid return to SH2, but that might just not be possible with shifts in the game market, the dissolution of Team Silent, the departure of Yamaoka.  Still, do check this game out if you are a fan of the series.  Look at it as a piece in-and-of-itself; prepare for the flaws, and embrace the hallmarks.

Game Review : Journey for PS3


Journey (2012 video game)

Journey (2012 video game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Journey, available on the PlayStation Network, is a work of art.  Developed by ThatGameCompany, the makers of Flower and Flow, Journey takes the Player on a quest that is beautiful, sublime, frightening, intriguing, and altogether human.  Brilliantly, Journey does not rely on any spoken or written language, rather the story unfolds through Player experiences.  No exposition necessary.  In much the same manner as music : the universal language, the game uses common human experience to draw the Player through a world that is fantastic but very familiar.
The game begins in a desert.  The image is astounding.  The cinematography : perfect.  The concept of depth-of-field in this game is handled with a well balanced hand evoking poetry.  Technically, the piece that immediately grabbed my attention was the particle effects.  The sand actually flows like an ocean.  Wind conjures particles with a movement like ink in water.  Even the “pause” screen could be framed for a digital screen in a gallery.
Gameplay is simple and the controls are reveled organically during the first steps in the journey.  Thereafter, gameplay is more of an experience with a world where the Player is a small spec on a global stage.
Music, in the words of Jerry Goldsmith, “heightens the emotional experience”.  This is deftly handled in Journey.
Multiplayer mode is unique.   If the Player opts to go online, he/she will be automatically paired with another player that may come and go.  These two players can journey together, or separately.  What makes this experience unique is the players do not communicate except through their actions/inactions.  The Player is not even made aware of the other person’s identity until the end of the game.
While other blogs will delve into the various locations of Journey, let me simply say, they are for you to experience.  ThatGameCompany’s mission is “Create timeless entertainment that make positive change to the human psyche worldwide.”  They certainly accomplished this in Journey.  Do check it out.

Unity3D – Best Plugins on the Asset Store

A few weeks ago at the Philly Unity User Group, we were talking about our favorite Asset Store Plugins.  I’ll put together my list here:

  1. #1 for me is PlayMaker – I really dig it for organizing my AI (Finite State Machines cover what I need).  I’ve used Angry Ant’s stuff and it just doesn’t seem to have the intuitive feel of Playmaker.  PlayMaker has a LOT of actions (scripts) for hooking to your states.  Makes programming logic quick, easy to visually debug.  Playmaker has some UI components, but they’re weak.  Get it for structuring your logic.
  2.  #2 is PoolManager – instead of taking the performance hit destroying/instantiating objects over and over, just recycle them.  PoolManager is well documented.  Great support.  Does the trick.  Only issue I’ve had is how to properly reset physics when recycling ragdolls.  If you have an idea, please let me know:)
  3. Sprite Manager  2 – ROCKS!  Simplifies sprite (2D animation) creation.  Automatically creates texture atlases (this in itself is incredible).  Simple GUI and extensive script access.  Documentation/support for SM2 is excellent.
  4.  EZGUI –  It’s a bit hard to get into, but it’s powerful.  Same author as SpriteManager 2.  If you want to see what EZGUI does, see demo vids here: http://www.anbsoft.com/middleware/ezgui/  Author is one of the driest presenters I’ve heard, but he does give you the detail you need.
  5. NativeToolkit – used this for a proof-of-concept I hacked together at work where I had to interact with a native Objective-C SDK and viewcontroller in my Unityproject.  If you try it, just be sure to set the file permissions properly before you build.  Does the trick.
  6. JSON Object – extremely simple, but sweet.  Used this for the same proof-of-concept where I was calling a restful API and parsing JSON.  Hand it a string from your WWW object, it gives you an JSONObject with field, key, and random access.  Easy.  (free)

IH8Zombies – Afro Samurai, Evil Dead, and The Maxx had a Baby – –

Resident Evil (video game)

Image via Wikipedia

– – and asked me to teach it to walk, talk, carry a six-shooter, and be an all-around bad@ss.

IH8Zombies is a comedic take on survival-horror that has been my pleasureful pain for almost two years. The game originally occurred to me when I was doodling with my Wacom tablet and started creating various panels of a Resident Evil 1-esque game utilizing hand-drawn elements and stick figures. It was a few months later, while be driven to an airport, and listening to Infected Mushroom‘s Heavyweaight, that something clicked in my brain and I suddenly became obsessed with a vision of a cute hero carrying a six-shooter.

Review : Silent Hill : Shattered Memories


The past three nights gave me the opportunity to finally break open a game I’ve had in shrink wrap since my birthday back in March.  I’m talking about Silent Hill : Shattered Memories (“SHSM” ).  I have to admit, I’ve been avoiding playing a game claiming to “reimagine” one of my absolute favorite pieces of video game art, but in the end, though imperfect, I believe SHSM is an innovative, emmersive, and addictive piece of work that stands on its own.

When I first began playing, I have to admit I immediately considered putting the controller down and walking away when I realized just how “reimagined” this Silent Hill (“SH”) would be.  From the very first gameplay moments, I knew this was not the SH I loved.  Basic elements defining the previous Silent Hill were gone.  I literally had to pause the game, step back, and have a conversation with myself that “you have to look at this game from a fresh perspective.  This isn’t SH, this is something else with no history.”  Once I did that, this game began unfurling its own lush, seedy, and human story that tapped into me in different ways than its predecessors.

Environment.  SHSM takes place much closer to our reality.  The game is set in upstate NY.  There’s a sign in the first few minutes of gameplay at a car repair shop that reads something like “Rochester 40 miles, Buffalo 50 miles, Hornell 30 miles”.  If you’ve been to upstate, you probably know these names.  The setting tapped into me because I went to undergrad about 10 miles from Hornell, and I went to grad in Rochester.  You tell me small town on a lake in upstate NY, and I’ve got ample memories.  Instead of the gutted streets and mysterious abondoned aura of SH, this game relies on a blizzard shutting down the town.   I could immediately identify.  I don’t know if that device works for people who grew up in warmer climes, but it worked for me.  Which leans on something about SHSM’s environment that is different than its predecessors: I’ve been there!  I’ve been on the streets of a small town silenced by feet of snow.  I used to go out late at night and take photographs at the height of storms because the look, the sound (of silence) is so surreal.  The world of SHSM actually exists.  If you want to experience it first hand, spend a snowy evening in New England.  Whereas, if you wish to visit the inspiration of the original SH, Centralia, PA, you will only find a few smoking holes in the ground as most of the town has been leveled.

Where the previous games have always dealt with human emotions and experiences, SHSM really puts these elements into a universal context : highschool, late night parties, broken families, the thrill and heartache of young love.

  • Story.  SHSM is story driven: the hallmark of a great game.  There were times during gameplay when I would’ve hit fastfoward if I could have just to advance the story because it was that compelling.  I actually started and finished the game in less than 3 evenings just because it was that good.   The plot relied on the unfurling of a mystery surrounded by a cast with very discernable spines and human desires including sex, love, and self-fulfillment while juxtaposed with fears of inadequacy, rejection, and failure.  The character exemplifying this conflict the mos ended up being the Player’s character: Harry Mason.  This leads to the second point
  • Innovation.
    • Always being watched. This is the first game I played that actually began with a warning the game would build a psychological profile of me.  .   .   .   The game story and character elements morph depending on your interaction with characters.  This sort of underlying feat has been attempted in the past (including previous SH games) but SHSM actually provides a framework.  The game literally begins with the Player being interviewed by a psychiatrist.  Throughout gameplay, this element is revisited, reminding us that someone is literally watching the decisions we make in gameplay.  I think the effect was sometimes heavy-handed, but nonetheless novel in execution.  Moreover, this element brought back something missing since Silent Hill 2 : a game world that reflects the conflict within the main character.  As James, in SH2, delved deeper into SH, he was foremost diving deeper into his own past.  In the case of SHSM, we are led along this same thread where every advancement in the plot is a step to the revelation : Why is Harry trapped in Silent Hill?
    • The Phone. The game actually uses a mobile phone.  At first, I was skeptical.  I’m used to the high tech in a SH game being the static of a broken radio, but the phone paradigm actually worked as a map, inventory, camera and… phone!  It was kinda cool to call other characters.  Even getting their answering machine added tension.  Static or broken calls during a heavy snowstorm heightened the realism.  Getting txts, a bit hightech by SH standards, still brought the game into a contemporary context: this world is our world.
  • Gameplay. When gameplay is about exploring this lush environment, as in every SH, it’s excellent.  When gameplay segues to the nightmare segments, it can be painful.  SHSM introduces a different take on SH’s “Otherworld”.  Instead of the Player being transported to an industrial Hell, the Player is thrown into a frozen mirror of the real world (literally, ice-covered).  The Player than has to find the exit from this world by navigating a maze at a hectic pace while being chased by the only monsters in the game.  The creatures look like humanoid clay bodies bathed in Peptobismal.  The end product’s frantic pace does drive our heartbeat, but the underpinning lack of development in the monsters is glaring.  The real end-goal during the chase segements is to get the heck out of them to progress the story: what this game is all about.
  • Puzzles. Again, this was a frustrating bit.  There’s actually a sequence where you have to remember the colors on a toucan’s nose in a shopping mall.  This is just too unsophisticated a puzzle for SH.
  • Music. Akira Yamaoka.  If you know the series, you know his work.  His music comes straight from the town’s soul.

I actually wrote this review on Sept 6, 2010.  I’m positing it now that I’ve recovered my database, four months later.  I want to play the game again.  There were frustrating bits in gameplay, and the ending was a major let down, but getting there is what this game is all about.  If you are looking for an experience within which you can become lost, this is a great game.  If you are looking for something dark, twisted, yet beautiful, this is a great game.  If you’re a SH fan and can put aside your past SH experiences, do it!  If you’re looking for Angry Birds, move along.

Silent Hill: Homecoming

I’ve been well overdue in writing this.

For Christmas, my family gave me a copy of “Silent Hill: Homecoming“.  This was the major reason I wanted a PS3.  Silent Hill has long been my favorite video game franchise since the original title’s release.  Of course, if you read my previous entry about Silent Hill Origins, you’ll know that I was a bit let down and hoping this game would redeem the bloodline.  It did so in spades and had me so hooked, after 3 evening / early morning jags, I had completed the game.

Silent Hill: Homecoming, in my mind, is what the franchise was always meant to be.  Silent Hill 2, by many accounts, was the pinnacle of the series, and I think in this latest installment, Homecoming meets the mark set by that early title.  There are many detractors who have described Homecoming as drawing out what should’ve been a graceful end to the series.  Of course, I was going into this game skeptical as this was the first console game designed entirely by an American studio, and many critics said the American aesthetic had detracted from the Japanese style horror.  However, Silent Hill: Homecoming has all the elements that made the series excel : story, environments, music, and that unique combination of scares that only Silent Hill can pull off.  Moreover, this particular title brought in a whole new set of elements which stand it apart as being the new flagship in the series.

1) Graphics – The game is just plain gorgeous.  There’s no getting around it.   Unlike the previous games, the player has complete freedom to view the environment from any perspective to really soak in the masterfully crafted world.  This just wasn’t possible in the previous platforms and on the PS3, the environments just envelope you.  Moreover, the monsters become much scarier when you actually have to look to see them.  It’s quite a rush to be in a dark hotel hallway and suddenly hear the steps of some monster directly behind you.

The monsters have real visual depth.  The prime example are the nurses which have been in the games since the original title.  In Homecoming, you can actual feel, with your eyes, the textures of their skin, clothing, weapons, it’s just so much more real and frightening.  The physics guiding those movements are believable and the rules of combat are much better defined than in previous titles (especially Origins).

2)  Music  – Of course, Akira Yamaoka, who has been the series composer since the beginning, came back for this title, but what struck me as interesting in this incarnation was the way music would come and go as part of the environment.  Unlike other titles where music was a separate layer on top of the game, in Homecoming, music actually fades in and out as the player runs through the world.  This use of music as a component of the environment spatially really enhances the world’s depth.

3) Gameplay – Homecoming has a whole new level of complexity in the game controls.  It takes some serious getting used to, however, once you’ve started up the game, you’ll be so engrossed learning the controls will come fairly quickly and progress as the game progresses in difficulty.  The combat is certainly more prevalent in this game, but this is not a first person shooter by any means, you still need to use your brains to run when it’s appropriate and fight when it’s necessary.  Again, though, the very act of having to control the perspective of the player, and the aim of the attack adds this new layer of tension to the experience and an increasing feeling of “being in the game”.

Overall, Homecoming is a piece of art.  The developers deserves praise for maintaining and reinvigorating a tradition through some powerful inventions.  I sincerely hope this becomes the new standard for the series.

Mirror’s Edge Demo

This isn’t so much a review as some comments.

Happy Holidays, Everyone! : )  I’m home in PA for a few days.  Among other things, I’m enjoying a new PS3 my family got me.  At night, I’m playing the latest in the Silent Hill franchise, and a review will be coming shortly, however, what I wanted to write quick was my thoughts on the Mirror’s Edge demo from the Playstation Store.  Woah woah woah…

 

Who thought this up?!  I remember listening to an NPR article a year or two ago about the group down in NYC who would run over bridgeworks and up walls, etc.  This game is like an application of just that.  The care the team put into the experience : depth of field and high contrast environments, the rush of wind as you fall, the motion blur as you run.  The gameplay is wild and complex, but it’s so compelling!  I actually feel myself breathing quick at the end of a particularly intense scene (or after I fell to my death).  This game is just beautiful in the same sense as the cinematics to the original Matrix merged with Bladerunner.  It’s just incredible.

It’s on my short list.

Reach out and make a friend