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.

 

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.

Darkon

I definitely would not consider this a review, so much as : I need to get back in the flow of building content on a website:)  I’ve been very busy wtih my company’s website and it’s just drained my ability to sit down and work on my own pages.  However, I’ve got to get back in the flow.

Tonight, my brother brought over Darkon.  We saw a clip from it almost a year ago and Adam finally grabbed a DVD.  “Darkon” is a real-life role-playing game going in the Baltimore / DC area (see http://www.darkon.org/) since 1985.  The film documents the events and people surrounding a chapter in the “civilization’s” history when an alliance of rebel nations attempts to break the power of an empire.  However, the film goes way beyond events and investigates the motivations of the actual people behind the masks and armor, comparing and contrasting their “real” lives with their “Darkon” lives.

I have to admit, the premise of this whole film at first struck me as laughable.  Just seeing these people and hearing the speeches on the field made me cringe, but as the film progressed, I found myself understanding why these people need this other reality.  In fact, I began to see how I, and everybody else, may not be any different.  There’s a particularly poignant moment when a player compares his playing a character in a game to his weekday role : playing a manager at a Hot Topic, trying to get people to buy his clothes.  

If you have the time and an open mind, Darkon is worth it.

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.

Stick Figure Survival Horror Game

Stick Figure Survival Horror - SethPerkins.com

A rather glorious weekend is coming to a close.  As I write, it’s about 10:30 at night and I’ll be turning in shortly.  Snowed hard Friday.  Therefore, the neighborhood has been rather quiet.  Skies mostly overcast and with the snow, the outside is basically tones of black and white.  Maybe that’s partially responsible for the content of this article.:)

I spent a few hours Sunday playing a game call Obscure for the PS2.  My brother gave it to me last Christmas (along with a significant stack of other games which I did play much sooner).  This one, ended up on the bottom of the pile and I never got to it.  Anyway, sometime I’ll do a writeup on the game.  I will say here that I have been rather impressed!  It’s more or less a survival horror in the tradition of Resident Evil and Silent Hill but with some interesting twists.

Well, another thing I played with this weekend was my Wacom tablet.  I bought it used about two months ago and haven’t really gotten around to getting acquainted with it.  I decided I’d do some doodling this weekend.  Well, you take some grey-tone days, survival horror games, and charcoal / watercolor and you get the drawings below!

I started thinking “Man, it would be cool to make a flash-based game like this”. . .   CS4 has some special links between After Effects and Flash.   Wouldn’t it be cool to build a game like this.  All action.  Simple Simple Simple.  Get some people excited on the web and allow them to contibute their own screens?

Anyway.

Stick Figure Survival Horror - SethPerkins.com

Stick Figure Survival Horror - SethPerkins.com

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ClockTower 3

I recently completed Clocktower 3 by Capcom.  My feelings?  Interesting story told in a very heavy-handed manner.  Gameplay was fairly straightforward and enjoyable albeit linear.  Graphic environments were well executed, however background music / sound did not live up to the task.  Cutscenes were excellent.  The overall experience was fun, though brief.  With the exception of the final boss, the game took me less than 6 total hours of gameplay.  

On a scale of 1 – 10? 

Graphics = 8

BG Music / Sound = 4

Sound FX = 7

Story = 8

Fun Factor = 7

Replayability = 4

 

Overall Rating = 6.3

 

The major opportunities for improvement, in my mind, would be music first.  The loops were way too short and simple.  They actually distracted from gameplay. The issue with “replayability” is really a matter of the linear nature of the game.  Now that I know the puzzles, the only real challenge is surviving the bosses when their difficulty is increased.  The linear construction particularly conflicts with replaying the game, in this case, because the game is focused on avoiding conflict (unlike Resident Evil), therefore, the player doesn’t have that action experience moment to moment to relive.  Clocktower is really about solving puzzles and beating one boss per stage which just doesn’t provide a decent incentive to replay the game when the puzzles have been solved.  A problem like this, though, can’t be solved after the fact.  This is something that had to be addressed way back during the initial design of the gameplay.

The final boss was a wicked pain, but once I figured out the rhythm, he’s wasn’t that bad.  (It just took me a long time to figure out the rhythm!)  One of my apartment mates took this video of my victorious moment.

{flv}Seth_Rocking_Clocktower_3{/flv} 

Silent Hill Origins (PS2)

A few weeks ago, I completed Silent Hill Origins. For those of you that haven’t read some of my earlier entries, the Silent Hill game series from Konami has been among my favorite series. “Origins” was originally written for the PSP and then ported to the PS2.

 

Story

 

There was an interview I watched a few times several years ago with Rafael Chandler of Red Storm Entertainment, creators of the Rainbow 6 games. Basically, his point was: story is where it starts and the rest follows. I’m a believer. Of course, there are genres where this is less true (arcade action for example), but in the Adventure / Survival Horror arena, I think this is crucial. Even in first person shooter, as Chandler discussed, where the gamer is focused on a mission structure, a story is crucial to carry the player through the game.

 

Silent Hill Origins has the story. It works pretty decently as a precursor to Silent Hills 1 – 4, depicting the origins of certain persons, events, and plot lines. I feel there were times when the more horrific elements were a little too intrusive versus the more subtle treatment of Silent Hill 2 which is often characterized as the epitome of psychological thriller.  However, this may be a characteristic nuance of the transition of the series from the original, Japan-based, “Team Silent” to US developer Climax.  

 

Gameplay

 

Gameplay was rough. Admittedly, it took me a lot longer to get through this game than its predecessors. Usually, I’d get through a title in a few days at most. This game, I frankly put down in frustration for weeks at a time. There were two elements that irked me. The first is, as we all know in any horror flick, you don’t walk away from the monster when he’s down because once you turn your back he’s back up and chasing you. It’s the same philosophy in most games: just because you knock someone down, doesn’t mean they are out. This is the case in all the Silent Hills, including Origins. However, unlike the earlier titles, Origins requires you to wait until the monster is back on his feet before you attack again. Honestly, it might sound trivial, but when you’re in the heat of the moment, your heart’s pumpin’ and you’re surrounded by zombie-creatures, you don’t want to break that tension by having to wait, in place, for precious seconds while the creatures writhe around on the floor rejuvenating. You want to take them out and not be like all those stupid teenagers in every horror film you ever saw.

 

Second issue, which is kinda the generic bane of many action-based games and which does not always get thefull attention it deserves: fighting has to be fair. What I mean is that there has to be a very clearly defined ruleset as far as : “if monster does ‘x’ than player must do ‘y’ else some negative outcome will occur”. This is the central issue I had with a game called Rule of Rose which I never bothered to review (but should). Oftentimes, you just couldn’t do anything to counter the baddies attacks. Often times in Origins, you can see one of those straight-jacket monsters coming at you, but before you know it, they’re magically on top of you spewing acid in your face. Between the moment when you saw the character, and the moment the negative outcome occurred, you as the player never have that opportunity to really counter their attack, you just have to kinda put up with it and after a while, it gets really frustrating.  Stuff like that, I’m guessing, happens when a development schedule gets crunched and certain parts of QA are, unfortunately, neglected.

 

In-Game Graphics and Sound.

 

I’ll lump these together for space. For the most part, I thought these were executed well and up to par with the series.

Cutscenes / Presentation

 

I was happy, except for the scenes involving duo-tone flashbacks which felt like blown up images from a low res source. The details felt flat compared to other, usually present-day shots.

 

Overall, I think the game was fulfilling in the end; however it wasn’t consistently enjoyable.  The gameplay got in the way too much.  I had to have a roommate egg me into finishing after I gave up in frustration, which is a first in the Silent Hill series for me.  I felt treatment of many psychological / character elements was heavy-handed.  I’m a  strong believer in “show don’t tell”.  Let the audience figure it out. 

 

Obviously, I haven’t given Silent Hill 5 a go yet, but I’ll let you know when that happens.

Videogame Design

Well, most people who know me post undergrad believe my time for videogames is non-existent: it is, except when it comes to something that’s really good.  There are some games out there many of us will just play for fun or as part of the social atmosphere, but there are a handful of games that I play just because I really really need to see them through: beginning to end like a good book.  What makes the Best Video Game in my mind?  Well, graphics, gameplay, music, sound all have to be well crafted, but before any of this stuff can come to fruition, what I want first is story.  What kind of stories grab me?  Anything involving zombies, mystery, and adventure.  It’s got to have solid characters and a plot that pulls you.

What fits that criteria?

The Silent Hill Series (Playstation 1 – 2)

Hands down one of the best pieces of video game “art” out there.  

I’ve got a screenshot to the left from Silent Hill 2 and one of its famous cinematics.  This game has it all : characters you believe in, a plot that grabs your attention, antongonists who make you jump (not laugh).  Moreover, the crafting of this game was just as finely and completely executed as some of the best movie directors yielding a complete, unbroken dream in which the player can lose his or herself for hours.

 

The Fear Effect Series (Playstation 1)

I was upset when this series was discontinued.  It had those classic elements of story, and moreover, it had some flairs that just made Fear Effect something unto itself.  The creators drew on chinese mythology and aesthetics in their settings.  Kronos coupled this with their own brand of technology for creating immersive environments called Motion FX.  The results were gorgeous.  The distinct feel merged so tightly with the plot, music and overall experience that one can look at a screeshot and easily identify, just from the cell shading and colors, that it’s a Fear Effect screenshot.

 

 

Resident Evil Series (Playstation 1 – 2)

 Everyone who plays video games knows the “Resident Evil” name, and even those who don’t play know the Resident Evil movies.  I was in highschool when my little brother and I saw the cover of this game with the crazed charicature of some guy, a gun, and a spider.  It just looked nuts!  For all intents and purposes, at the time, the first Resident Evil was nuts!  It was something new and, as most authorities tend to agree : the real beginning of a genre (alongside Silent Hill) of what’s become known as “Survival Horror”.  

Resident Evil has that plot which just latches on.  As time has progressed the environments, graphics and gameplay (Resident Evil 4) have evolved immensley, and underneath all that is still the continuation of plots that I, as a player, really want to see unraveled.

 


Haunting Ground (Playstation 2)

 My brother got me this game for Christmas.  I’m embarrassed to say, I hadn’t even heard of it until I played for the first time.  Reviews on this game  are fairly polarized.  I’m among the group that considers this an incredible play and a great piece of work.  The story has a similar element to Silent Hill 2 in that it revolves around revealing the forgotten history of the main character.  Sometimes selective amnesia can be a cliche, but in this case, it just works well.  The quantity of antagonists is significantly less than Silent Hill or Resident Evil, so the focus is more on the quality of the individual characters and the dramatics inherent.  

 

 

 

 

 

 Phantasmagoria (PC)

This was the game in my library for a long time.  I had a 486SX, upgraded it to a DX4-100 and tacked on a whole 8 Megs of RAM to run this!  7 CDs!!  It was amazing.  Live actors in a gorgeously rendered 3D setting.  The story was incredible.  In retrospect, the acting might’ve been “B” but it WORKED!  It scared the heck out of me!  I just couldn’t stop playing.  I think I flew through this in two days or so of nonstop enjoyment.  That’s how I often like a game : being sucked in and not being let go until I’ve seen it through, saved the day, turned the last page.  This game is a classic and Roberta Williams is one of my favorite game designers.  By the way, she is also known for her King’s Quest Series which was another jewel of the adventure games genre.  

What Makes the Best Video Game

All right.  Well, most people who know me post undergrad believe my time for videogames is non-existent.  It is, except when it comes to something that’s really good.  There are some games out there that many of us will just play for fun or as part of the social atmosphere, but there are a handful of games that I play just because I really really need to see them through: beginning to end like a good book.  What makes the Best Video Game in my mind?  Story.  What kind of stories grab me?  Anything involving zombies, mystery, and adventure.

What fits that criteria?

#1 The Silent Hill Series

 

Reach out and make a friend