Games Reviews

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – It’ll Stress You Out And You’ll Love It

It was only relatively recently that humanity even started to understand the concept of mental health, and only very recently that people have really started to take it seriously – and we still have some way to go in that direction. Back in the days of tribal people, where healthcare, in general, was not even really understood – people might have thought of people suffering from mental disorders as being slow, evil, or even an oracle who can see visions. They might have shunned these people or even burned them as witches out of pure fear.

Senua is a tribal woman living in what I can only guess is northern Britain who suffers from psychosis – meaning she hallucinates through psychedelic visions and sounds in her head. This game tells of her quest to bring back the life of Dillion – a man she loved before he died of spoilers. The game is told through the eyes and ears of Senua – the player experiences her visions and hears what she hears, and Senua isn’t having a good time of it. She’s seeing visions of scary monsters trying to kill her and occasionally of being set on fire. She doesn’t cower in fear, however, she instead fights through in her determination to reach Helheim to beg the God, Hela, for the life of Dillion.

Nothing is handed to you when you’re playing Hellblade. The game only acknowledges your presence once, when it tells you about the black rot mechanic – which is an unintrusive life countdown mechanic. Everything else is left for you to work out through trial, error, and experiance. I didn’t know I could block attacks until I accidentally pressed the corresponding button. Over the course of the game you’ll do better naturally, rather than artificially, through augmentation of stats. It should be said that the game does give you a list of controls when you pause, but that’s just a reference for if you forget. The effect of this is that every visual, which would normally be a UI element, can be explained as something that Senua is actually seeing due to her psychosis. Nothing is allowed to be intrusive and everything appears to be real for the player.

This is also true for the audio. Senua hears voices in her head, and to communicate this to the player, these voices have been recorded using binaural microphones. If you’re not familiar with the concept, I would highly recommend you listen to the Virtual Barber Shop, wearing headphones. This microphone system uses two specialised microphones with ear-shaped covers on them, placed a head’s width apart. The result is an illusion in which the listener can tell where the sounds are coming from – it sounds like noises are coming from in the room with you, rather than through your headphones. In this game, the effect used is to unnerve the player. In stressful situations, it can really throw you off if someone starts whispering right by the back of your head. This game does that a lot. Also, everyone whispering in the background is kind of creepy. A really creative use of the voices in this game is in combat – you’re friendly head voices like to warn you about enemies coming up behind you, and they like to remind you to evade some attacks rather than block them.

The atmosphere of this game is its strongest asset. If you’re going to play this game, play it with the lights off and headphones on. It’s a spooky experience to behold. From the sound design to the wild and creative visual effects, this game has got its tone nailed. I felt stressed as Senua did, felt calm when she did, and even felt a bit traumatised at times. This isn’t an experience you can get in most games; it takes real skill to get it right, and Ninja Theory must be praised for it. A lot of this, I think, comes from the authenticity of the experience – Ninja Theory worked with several mental health experts to ensure the experiences present are true to that of psychosis. There are sections of this game that are simply frightening. When atmosphere alone makes you tense up and get’s your blood pumping – that’s when you know you’ve got something good going.

This atmosphere is craftily built and very delicate – anything could destroy it, like a bug or a glitch, for instance. This game isn’t AAA. That’s something which, in the interest of fairness, should be established before continuing. This is an independent project, focusing on creating an AAA experience, but shorter – meaning it’s cheaper and less of a risky investment for publishers. It’s clear to see where they skimped out with the budget. I encountered many small glitches and bugs which ranged from negligible to very frustrating, sometimes requiring the game to be restarted. I got a couple which just meant that things didn’t trigger when they should’ve, but, because of the no-hand-holding nature of the game, I wasn’t sure whether I had just done something wrong and ended up wasting a load of time trying to solve a puzzle that doesn’t exist. These glitches weren’t too often, however, and they were easy to get past – but not good for maintaining the atmosphere.

Speaking of combat – this game has it – and this game’s combat is, like many elements of the game, very stressful. The combat style is what I would describe as being ‘half-Dark Souls’ in nature. Movements are fairly slow and deliberate, letting the player really feel the weight and brutality of this kind of combat; but it’s not as unforgiving as Dark Souls. It’s hard but not punishing – and there is an easy mode (although the game does a good job of setting the difficulty automatically). You can do all of the usual things like dodging, rolling, heavy attack, light attack, and block. The enemy types are not particularly varied – you have the usual ideas for enemy types like sword boys, shield boys, mace boys, and so on. It honestly wouldn’t bother me if the combat sections didn’t have a tendency to drag a little due to the game’s habit of throwing waves of enemies after you endlessly. I feel like more could have been done with the combat sections to make them more interesting.

Similarly, the puzzles can suffer from an over-abundance of repetitive mechanics. This game has a few really creative puzzle ideas, but once you get used to the idea of one, you won’t struggle to solve more of that one as it occurs. That said, solving them the first time can be fairly frustrating, especially when the style of puzzles has not been well established enough – you need to remember that interacting with things in this game isn’t always about pressing a button, sometimes it’s a matter of perspective. I’m not saying the puzzles are bad – they’re actually pretty good – but you’ll be in the dark for some of them until a lightbulb pops up above your head, and others can feel like they’re the same as each other, deminishing the challenge somewhat.

Playing this game has been an experience I’ll probably remember for a while yet. It evoked fear, stress, anxiety, and hope in me. The ending touched me with its message about loss and greif. It ended up being a far more profound experience than I had anticipated. Well worth whatever I paid for it.


Story Telling In Video Games

Story tellers have always been looking for new and more creative ways to express themselves and/or entertain the masses. I think that, if handled correctly, video games can be the most immersive and creative medium of all. But what is the correct way to go about telling a tale in such an inherently interactive environment? Over the past several years, various people and studios have experimented in an attempt to answer this question. The solutions some have come up with have been absolutely amazing in some cases, controversial in others and a complete failure in a disappointing number more.

You may have heard of The Chinese Room. They are an independent developer who has gained some fame for making two such infamous story-based games. The ‘walking simulator’ is a derogatory term which (so far as I know) was invented to describe the games that The Chinese Room is known for. Dear Esther is the first time I’d heard of them myself. This is a ‘game’ which I believe I have complained about before on this blog; the amount of interaction the player has is minimal: hold ‘w’ and move the mouse to point in the direction you want to walk while a mopey man talks in your ears about something. I honestly gave up listening to him after only a few minutes of him complaining. A mistake, it turns out, as the mopey man who talks way too much turns out to be the device by which the entire story is told. You walk around a deserted island until he runs out of stuff to complain about. The end. There is some kind of gameplay here, but I fear it was not intended by the developer; the level design is extremely poor. So much that it presents quite the challenge at times to work out where you’re supposed to next. Oftentimes it leads you to a dead end and you have to, with no indication at all, work out that you’re supposed to do a 180 and go back the way you came for a bit. To get through this harrowing experience, I would throw on some tracks from Spotify to listen to while I held ‘w’ down for 5 minutes straight, and discovered that you can’t actually drown yourself in game – several times. When this torture ended, I remember a great feeling of frustration that I had wasted my time on it. I was shocked to discover that I had only apparently spent 76 minutes on it. I thought it had been hours.

Their next game was Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. I did a review of it at the time. If you can’t be bothered to read that, here’s a summary: if you ignore the very nice graphics and beautiful soundtrack, the only thing impressive about this game is how the story can be so boring throughout, and yet the ending still manages to disappoint you. The story is told in basically the same way, except there is now some kind of gameplay, I’m not talking about the (still as unbelievably terrible) puzzle of a level design, but there’s a confusing light puzzle thing that is remarkably easy to solve once you work out the first one.

Everything about The Chinese Room’s games screams pretentiousness to the highest degree. They are games that feign depth and put on an aesthetic which tries to trick you into thinking that these games are deeper than they actually are. The kind of thing that some people would be scared to criticise because fans could so easily tell you that you ‘just don’t get it’ and that you’re ‘not clever enough to understand’. Well no more!

Gone Home is also a walking simulator, developed by Full Bright. I love Gone Home. It’s the only good walking simulator I’ve ever played. It tells the story of a person going home to the house they grew up in and learning about the events that transpired while they were away. What makes the game good is how much freedom the player is given to pick and choose how much information they want to learn. There’s the base story, which you have to follow, but there’s also so much more detail the player can go into in the form of documents, photos, notebooks etc. The player chooses the pace at which the story is told – this is an advantage of this medium that walking simulators simply must capitalise on if they’re going to tell a story. If you’re trying to tell a story through a game and you don’t want to give the audience the freedom to go at their own pace and skip out on stuff that might not be as interesting to them as someone else, are you sure a video game was the right medium to tell this story? Gone Home’s story is simple, easy to follow and excellently told. It doesn’t try to be anything more than it needs to be – there’s no fluff, it’s not trying to examine the human condition, it’s trying to tell the story of a family and the struggles they’ve had with living together – and yet Gone Home has had a far deeper impact on me than anything The Chinese Room has ever done. I fell in love with the characters and I left the game feeling satisfied, rather than frustrated. Gone Home is up there with the greats.

Walking simulators are quite limiting, however. You can only really tell one kind of story with one – one where the events have occurred and you’re a person walking through the rubble, uncovering the story regarding what happened. Telltale takes a more cinematic approach. I think most people know of or have played their Walking Dead game, at least the first series. It’s the only one I played. Telltale pioneered the episodic approach to releasing a story driven game. They would work on an episode, release that, and then do the next episode a month later or so. This is a pretty good system for them for a few reasons. For one thing, it means that they can have an output and release stuff on the regular without compromising so much on quality than if they had released it all at once. It also gives the players a common stopping point. It means players of the game are more likely to discuss it with each other. If the game was released all at once, it would leave players all at different points meaning that they would avoid discussing the game. By releasing the game in easily-digestible 2 hour chunks, you get the water-cooler effect, where people start discussing what they think might happen next. Then we get the peer pressure in for the people who aren’t playing the game but everyone else is. It’s a great marketing strategy.

In terms of how Telltale tells a tale, it much like watching an episode of a TV show, only you get to make some decisions like how the main character will reply to a question, who they’ll back up in a conflict, should they go to this location and do this or go to the other location and do something else. There’s also a combat system built into most of them which almost always consists of quick-time events and button-mashing, which can be exciting sometimes, but it is almost impossible to fail most of the time. Telltale has made series in this style ranging from The Walking Dead to Minecraft. They have been hugely successful, and I’m not going to sit here and write that they are bad at it; they’re not, they make good stuff, just nothing great.

I think that there are a few things which hold back all Telltale games. For one thing, production value is fairly low – animation is consistently robotic looking, graphics usually leave something to be desired and the soundtrack has never been stunning, but this is what you get when you are splitting you’re resources so much that you can be working on multiple series at once, and when you want to easily port the game to mobile.

Also a problem for me is the implementation of player choice. We know from the failings of The Chinese Room that you need player input. I’m not convinced Telltale actually really has any. I think that when you are given a choice in a Telltale game, you are being tricked. It’s not like the game ignores anything you tell it – it’s more that the choices you make have no real effect on the outcome of the story. Quite often a dialogue choice will come up and it will be designed so that whatever you choose, the same event will occur afterwards. It is, of course, unrealistic to expect Telltale to create such a branching story line so that any choice the player makes will have a different effect on the outcome. I just think that when you have a system like this, you are relying on the illusion of choice you’ve set up to not be shattered; once it is, the player starts to wonder why they’re bothering. I’ve always watched Telltale games being played on YouTube rather than buy them and play them myself.

For a more high production value game in this style, see Life Is Strange. Life Is Strange is the same sort of formula, except it’s a lot more like a normal game; you have a lot more control over what the main character, Max, does. You can walk her around, go exploring and also control time – but that’s more to do with the plot than anything else. This opens up something that is missing in Telltale games – exploration. Like in Gone Home, the player is given more of an opportunity to play at their own pace. If they were to walk into a room, they’d be able to look at loads of things in the room in order to learn more about the world, the characters and pick up hints about the plot. Choices that the player makes actually affect aspects of the game. So far as I know, nothing can change the outcome, but it makes the journey to the outcome so much more interesting, and provides a different experience for each player.

Life Is Strange is also a beautiful game, with pretty good animation, nothing stunning but better than Telltale’s stuff, and a great soundtrack. You may get annoyed with the characters, being that they’re all angsty teenagers, and you’ll definitely get annoyed if you are a teenager yourself because the character’s lines were all clearly written by someone who does not know how teenagers talk to each other – I’ll say this is charming; it did give me a good laugh while playing it.

There are loads of other games I could talk out – The Witcher 3, The Last Of Us, Uncharted – but I wanted to focus on games who’s sole purpose is to tell a story rather than be an action adventure or an RPG. I have seen proof that games can be, when done correctly, an amazing way to tell a story and an experience to remember for the player. But I think that it is so much harder to achieve this than to make a great film because there are so many variables involved. For a story to work as a game it has to be written as a game, and it should not be something that could be directly translated into a film or a book. Story telling in games is hard – but when it pays off, it can make for a groundbreaking experience.

Games Reviews

Mass Effect: Andromeda – Not Actually the Worst Game Ever

Mass Effect: Andromeda came out a few months ago, but if you wanted a quick review from me I can only disappoint you. When the game came out, it was bombarded by the internet because of the animations and glitches. In fact, EA managed to unwittingly create a perfect storm by releasing the game early to some people – so for the majority of people, the marketing of the game was stuff like this:

Which was a bit of a disaster for sales in an environment when so many things can go wrong, and if any of them do, the sales of a game can completely fall over. Big games like Mass Effect: Andromeda need to sell well because they cost so much to make. A lot of casual fans dismissed the game because of the footage of the animations and glitches they were seeing all over YouTube, and while the reviews of the game weren’t actually bad in general, they were just not as good as most people need. At least it got over 70% on Metacritic, which is the threshold it needs to cross in order to be not a complete disaster, but it was just not good enough for casual gamers – especially at the £50 price point. The game didn’t sell well enough and it’s no surprise to anyone that EA has (apparently) ‘shelved the series’.

I would love to go into the details of why the game failed so badly on a technical level, but other people have already done that a lot more effectively than me, and with better knowledge. Firstly by Jason Schreirer of Kotaku who did some excellent investigative reporting on the subject, and secondly, there’s a great video which also covers animation in RPGs generally:

But if you can’t be bothered with that, here’s a summary: EA is in love with their Frostbite engine (and has been for years) and recently decided that all their games must use it because then they’ll all look really good. The problem with that is Bioware had barely used the Frostbite engine in the past, and because the engine is only really a graphics rendering engine, they had to rebuild a lot of the systems they had before for the other games when they used the Unreal engine. A combination of poor management and staff changes throughout the project lead to everything falling apart. A lot of the animation ended up (probably) being untouched by human hands and was left mostly to the computers to work out using advanced cyberspace computer magic. I’m surprised EA didn’t delay the game again, but I suppose this is EA we’re talking about, who would throttle a starving orphan to get an extra £10 in sales of FIFA.

Considering the nightmare of a development Andromeda had, I was genuinely impressed they managed to get such a complete game out the door. Yeah it was glitchy and the animations were often hilarious, but overall the game is playable, and I only encountered 2 game-breaking bugs, causing me to have to reload from an early save and redo some bits. It’s even quite fun. Yes, even after all the bad press it got, I still bought it (for cheaper than the normal price) fully expecting to find that I had made a horrible mistake. Given my expectations, I was very quite surprised by the game – in a good way.

Andromeda takes place after the events of Mass Effect 3, although none of the characters are aware of the events of Mass Effect 3 (probably a good thing). This is because, as the narrative dictates, after Mass Effect 2 the council decides that just in case the galaxy is wiped out by the Reapers after all, they should send a few colony ships to the nearest other galaxy: Andromeda. They all set off just before Mass Effect 3 begins, and arrive 700 years later. Thorugh some kerfuffling, you become the human Pathfinder – the person who is in charge of establishing new colonies throughout the galaxy and also sorting everything else out because apparently, no one thought to send any kind of military with the colonies to do the dangerous stuff. But that’s fine, I think all government officials should be trained in the art of combat and sent into war zones – it would more fun that way. Some stuff and things happen – you meet an alien race who are hilariously called the ‘Kett’ and some purple humanoid lion people who are all quite nice but don’t really trust outsiders. The story, in general, is okay – nothing too interesting or engaging but at least it drives things forward. I could fairly well predict the plot points that were coming up as I played through the story.

Getting into the characters for a minute, it’s worth setting this up by mentioning that the characters in the original trilogy were definitely one of the strongest points of the games. They were all interesting, varied and had rough edges – like real people. They could joke around but knew when to get serious. You knew you could depend on them in a crisis. Through the games, you got to know them very well – if you spent enough time talking to them – and because of this, I got to quite like some characters that I had, at first, disliked. This was only because I actually talked to them and helped them out with their loyalty missions. It was all very well done. Andromeda’s characters are all a lot more childish and light-hearted. The majority of the characters are people in their early 20s and not from a military background, so they aren’t hardened and they often joke around, sometimes inappropriately. I don’t want to give the impression that I hated this, I was just a bit confused by it for a while and I definitely don’t prefer it. It’s a little bit jarring if, like me, you’ve come straight from the original trilogy. I suppose it was an attempt to distance this set of characters from the characters of the Normandy. I can respect this direction, even if it comes off a little bit cheesy at times. My biggest problem was the lack of variety in the crew. Nearly everyone failed to interest me at all. I didn’t really want to get to know my crew particularly in the same way that I wanted to get to know my crew on the Normandy as Commander Shepard. Ryder (the Pathfinder) is much less of a leader on the ship than Shepard and more of a friend to everyone. I’m not such a fan of this direction, personally.

One thing I am a fan of is, however, is the new dialogue system. The original Mass Effect series had a dialogue morality system where one could choose either the good option or the bad option for what they want to say to people. If you do a lot of good things, you will be able to do special good things which will mean you can persuade other characters to do stuff – and the same for the bad dialogue options. It doesn’t amazingly matter whether you pick good or bad, It’ll just affect whether Shepard is nice to people or not. The problem with this system is that one only has to choose at the start of the game whether they want to be nice or nasty and then from that point on simply only pick the relevant dialogue options in order to unlock the late-game persuasion options. This system is abandoned in Andromeda and replaced with what emotion you want to respond with. Do you want to respond to a person emotionally, logically, professionally, or casually? This means that you’ll end up spending a lot more time thinking about your options rather than always going for the good or the bad option. In the originals, it would sometimes even point out to you what the good option and bad option is for a moral choice. Would you like to do the good thing or the bad thing to these people? Oh no! How am I going to decide?! What a conundrum!

The original idea behind Andromeda was to go back to the roots of Mass Effect, which was fantasy fulfilment and exploration. While I think the term ‘fantasy fulfilment’ sounds dodgy, I can confirm my fantasies were fulfilled by this game more effectively than in the first three games. I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation recently, and I’ve got to say, Andromeda got me feeling like I was in charge of a little spaceship, like in TNG, and that’s a great feeling. I loved the idea of flying around the galaxy and visiting new planets with my loyal crew at my heel, ready to take a pounding whenever they fail me. But that’s just my fantasy, I don’t know about you.

As for the exploration part, well I dunno about that. The game features 7 planets to wander around. They are very large areas and I only found the border of one once. However, these planets are all a bit empty. One planet is literally just a big sandy desert a la Tatooine or Jakku from the Star Wars franchise of movies. Originally, there were going to be infinite planets like No Man’s Sky, but people in Bioware questioned how that would possibly make a good game and how they could tell a story in a game world like that. The idea was scrapped and the number of planets was eventually reduced to 7. I feel as though they could have trimmed it more if it meant more variety and features on the more important and interesting planets. I didn’t feel at all compelled to properly explore the planets I was on. I quite quickly got bored of all of them before even the game would allow me to move on to another planet. I found I was rushing through the missions just so I could go somewhere else. In open world games, I’m a strong believer in ‘density over size’ of a game world. Just Cause 3’s world was big and empty – I got bored pretty quickly, the same is true for the Mad Max game. You can try to impress me all you want with how big the world is, but if there’s not a lot in it, I don’t care – I would even prefer the world were smaller. This is why open world games like Skyrim, The Witcher 3 and Horizon Zero Dawn work so well – their worlds are only as big as they need to be in order to comfortably fit all the actual stuff in them. The reason I wanted to move on to a different planet in Andromeda was that I wanted to see a different horizon and be somewhere else. I would say Bioware didn’t do an excellent job of the exploration part of things.

They didn’t screw up combat too badly at all, however. Well, that’s not entirely true – the biotics wheel is gone and you can only equip two powers before a mission which you’re stuck with. This was probably an attempt to streamline the combat, but I just think it makes the combat a lot less varied and a lot more shooty. Strategy is no longer much a concern in Andromeda and combat is a lot messier. That said, I think it still is very fun in its own way – it’s certainly more fun than a lot of third person shooters I’ve played, and a lot more varied in terms of the enemies you’re fighting, which need you to do different things in order to take them down. It’s quite like Destiny. I had fun with the combat, but I did still miss the strategy and planning involved with the previous games. I suppose you could explain it away by saying that Commander Shepard was an actual military commander and Ryder has almost no military training at all – but that just leads you to question why Ryder has been put in charge of a military team when there are people on the ship who are actually qualified to do that very thing. What are they even there for?

The game was a lot of fun and I did play it for thirty hours. However, the final four of those hours were rushed because I could feel myself getting very bored and I didn’t want to abandon the game when I felt so close to the end. The plot left lots of things unexplained – clearly setting itself up for a sequel which will never happen now (probably). Maybe the (potentially) forthcoming DLC will explain some of these things. I would say that the game is worth playing if you’re a fan of the series. And if you can get it cheap. And if you have nothing else to do – which you clearly don’t because you read all the way to the bottom of this.