VVVVVV

VVVVVV is one of my most requested reviews. It came out a year before I started IGC, and it’s one of those games that come up every time I review a punisher, along with Super Meat Boy and Spelunky. Usually it gets name-dropped in the form of a question, like “how does this compare to VVVVVV?” or “why can’t punishers be more like VVVVVV?” I hadn’t played it, so I couldn’t comment on it. I meant to play it because people wouldn’t shut up about it, but I just never got around to it. Then it came out on PlayStation 4 this last week, and I finally got to see what all the fuss was about. And see it I did. Understanding the continued love for it? I still don’t.

Maybe VVVVVV was special back in 2010 when punishers were starting to become a thing. The problem is, standards have changed a lot since then. VVVVVV has a nifty play mechanic where, instead of jumping, you reverse gravity. It has an open map that be explored at your leisure, since then are no upgrades you’re required to find to unlock areas. Some of the stages are clever, and there’s a genuine sense of thrill when you make progress. So trust me when I say, I wish I could like VVVVVV. Especially considering that people get really mad when others don’t like it. It would spare me a lot of angry responses that usually end with “go back to Call of Duty you pinko casualtard.” Well, I never.

The V's in the title represent spikes. Which, I assure you, there are more than six of.

The V’s in the title represent spikes. Which, I assure you, there are more than six of.

VVVVVV has horrible play control, at least on PS4. I had people insisting to me that the PC version, or the 3DS version, or the iPad version were better. I tried the demo for the PC port, and it felt pretty much the same. Very slippery and imprecise. Unfortunately, space-age technology like analog control doesn’t exist except in the realms of fiction. So even the act of moving forward is risky because it’s tough to judge just how far a press of the pad will take you, often leading to you walking into a spike. VVVVVV relies heavily on precision platforming for level design and “difficulty”, but really, can you still call it difficulty when the challenge is more about fighting shoddy movement? And it’s not like it can’t be done better. Many, many games from this genre have controls good enough that if you die, it’s your fault. Platformers have been capable of better control than VVVVVV for at least three decades now, and indies consistently get it right too. Maybe VVVVVV wouldn’t be as hard if it was more precise, but it’s not as if it would be a cakewalk. You can see thought and mastery of design with some of the stages. It’s a shame that instead of being able to admire that effort, all I could think about was “oh goody, I just barely nudged the stick and walked into a spike. Again.”

To VVVVVV’s credit, the developer got the absolute maximum potential out of the gravity gimmick in terms of level design. I wasn’t expecting a five-year old punisher that inspired many of the games I’ve reviewed at IGC to surprise me with clever design that holds up relatively well, but it still did. And it is for that reason that I can’t give the bad controls any leeway. Because VVVVVV shouldn’t have any relevance remaining after this long, but it retains it to a large degree. Smooth, responsive controls would have unquestionably cemented it as an all-time classic. More importantly, it would have served as much better inspiration for the next generation of indie developers. Now, I can’t help but wonder if some of those bad punishers I played failed because their devs said “well, VVVVVV got away with crap controls, so fuck it, my game can too.” I would love to see developer Terry Cavanagh challenge those he inspired to do better than he did. I mean, there is a pair of stages called “Do as I say, not as I do” in VVVVVV. He’s trying to send you guys a message! What does he have to do, wink at you and nudge your ribs with his elbow? Because I might be willing to pay his expenses to go wink and nudge you guys in ribs with his elbow if you don’t get it. Terry, you’re about to get a lot of frequent flyer miles.

♫Come and fall on on our floor. Suck the spikes like a whore. Save some face and quit you disgrace, three's company too! ♫

♫ Come and fall on our floor. Respawn and die a little more. Save some face and quit in disgrace, three’s company too! ♫

The map isn’t perfect by any means. Much like the EA clearance bin at Wal-Mart, there’s a lot of dead space present. VVVVVV also isn’t consistent with checkpoints. Sometimes they’re so abundant that it feels almost like the game is mocking you, and sometimes you’ll scream “WHY ISN’T THIS ROOM SATURATED WITH CHECKPOINTS LIKE ALL THE OTHERS?” while your family begins moving breakables out of controller-throwing distance. And not all the ideas work. There’s a section where you have to sort of steer an NPC through a few puzzles. The NPC is so worthless and inconsistent in its responses that it makes Yorda look like a fucking genius. During this section, I got stuck on one particular room, had three rage quits during it, wrote a full review for this game, uploaded a pic of the stage I was stuck on, realized I had not been playing the room right, had a run-on sentence like this one only much more swear-filled, and finally finished it. About an hour later, I finished the game properly. I had to think really hard whether I liked VVVVVV more than I disliked it.

I finally came to the conclusion that I didn’t. But it was close. If I had an anti-leaderboard for games I didn’t like, VVVVVV would be at the bottom of the list, or the top, or.. damnit, I’m trying to say that it was the best game I’ve played that I didn’t award my seal of approval to. I just couldn’t get over how badly it controls. I don’t deny VVVVVV’s historical significance. But like many classic games, the formula has just been replicated with better results too many times to ignore. Now granted, I’m not a huge fan of games where the point is you die a lot, but I think it’s safe to say that there are better options these days. Games where failure is unquestionably your fault. I do appreciate that VVVVVV includes an option to reduce flashing/flickering special effects, which makes it significantly safer to play with my epilepsy (if you have epilepsy, DO NOT attempt to play VVVVVV even with the effects turned off before first consulting your doctor). That was classy on the part of creator Terry Cavanagh and he has my eternal gratitude and respect for including it. Yea, he forgot to stop a giant elephant from strobbing that literally became the elephant in the room for my play session, but he’s thankfully pledged to fix that too. So yea, Terry is a class act. I just wish his game hadn’t controlled like shit. No, VVVVVV isn’t in one of my most beloved genres, but the idea that I was predisposed to not liking it is about as far-fetched as Adam Sandler or Peter Dinklage being retro-gaming champions. But hey, I did finish the game, so that makes me different from Sandler. I did progress.

VVVVVV logoVVVVVV was developed by Terry Cavanagh
Point of Sale: PlayStation 4
This review only covers the PS4 version.

$7.99 loves how Sandler went out of his way to stress how he never got good at the games featured in Pixels, so that his fans would know for sure he’s not one of those loser video game players in the making of this review.

 

Rocket League

Rocket League combines cars and soccer. It’s such a simple concept that seems like it would be better suited as Mario Party minigame. Or a sport played by Wuzzles. Funny enough, and this is a true story, one of the first sketches my boyfriend showed me when he got me into Top Gear was soccer with cars. They did it a few times, and I distinctly remember saying “they should make a game out of this.” Which is a risky thing to say, frankly, since I never remember to be more specific and say “they should make a good game out of this.” Somewhere, deep down in the darker parts of my psyche, I still blame myself for not saying “good game” with the Matrix. Damn it.

My bad.

My bad.

Thankfully, the fates were less cruel this time around. In fact, Rocket League is one of the best online indies of all time. When I heard the concept, my initial thought was “it’ll probably control like shit or have massive lag.” I know there are some networking issues, but the overwhelming majority of games I played (and I put a whopping 60 hours into this) ran smoothly. And Rocket League controls really well. Using the turbo boost to pull off air-based strikes and blocks has a learning curve to it, but there’s no complex combos to pull off. The controls are responsive and instinctual.

It’s sort of tough to get more in-depth while reviewing Rocket League, because what’s here is the closest to being perfect as any game I’ve ever reviewed, even though there’s not a lot to it. There are some weird anomalies. Like playing single-player league on easy and watching my AI teammates seem to forget what team they’re on. More than once I saw them take the ball the full length of the field to own-goal themselves. I wasn’t sure if this was just happenstance until I saw the ball start to drift away from my own goal, only for them to casually dribble it back towards it before bumping it in. This happened frequently, perhaps in protest of me being a sissy and picking easy mode. I would have made a joke about it being passive resistance, but my AI teammates physically cleared me out of the way far more often than opponents did. None of this happened on the normal difficulty. I can sum up easy mode by noting that I averaged 20 goals a game during the jump balls, and a couple more a game for when I would miss. Normal difficulty was much more realistic, in the sense that I was eliminated in the semi-finals the first time I played it and won the title despite a losing record the second go-around.

#Splash

#Splash

The biggest problem with Rocket League is out of the hands of the developers: the quality of online players. Now don’t get me wrong, most Rocket League players are awesome. But, just often enough to be annoying, a game would happen where the other team will score the first goal and my two randomly assigned teammates would immediately vote to forfeit the remainder of the game. In about a third of such games, when I refused to vote with them, they either just quit out or they started own-goaling me in an attempt to force my hand, all while bitching at me for wasting their precious time. Rocket League certainly isn’t exceptional in this regard. Anyone who has ever played any team-based online game deals with this. Rocket League is only remarkable in how damn fast people are willing to quit. I had a game where we led 2 to 0, the other team scored a goal, which meant we were still up by one, and a teammate voted to forfeit. I figured there must have been some kind of achievement he was going for based around shutouts, but no such achievement existed.

Eventually I got pretty decent at Rocket League. Not great or anything, but I could hold my own. And, all credit to the quitter brigade, because they led to a couple of the most exhilarating moments I’ve had as IGC. I scored a couple moral victories by preventing shutouts by myself against full teams after I had both teammates quit after just one goal. And then there was the game where we started the game 1 to 0, had the other team tie it up, our teammate voted to forfeit and then quit seconds later, and myself and the random dude I was paired with proceeded to win the game when down a player by a score of 5 to 1. And it wasn’t like our opponents were slouches, which made our blowout so satisfying. Later, I played matches against some of my readers, and it was awesome to get to finally play a game where I could play and interact with so many of them. A couple of them hopped into ranked games with me, where we went on an extended winning streak. Which we immediately followed up with a losing streak that no one in particular was to blame.

It was me

Rocket League’s biggest successes from a design point of view come down to what the game doesn’t include. There’s a large variety of cars, but besides slightly different collision boxes, there’s no differences in performance in them. All unlockables and the DLC are purely superficial changes, which levels the play field. It makes Rocket League one of the most accessible and enjoyable games of its type in recent memory, since newbs can hop right in and not spend the next several weeks grinding up in hopes of competing with early adopters. Yea, I wish the league play had more options (and more stats, since I would have liked to know how many goals I personally scored), but otherwise, isn’t it more important to refine and perfect what you’ve built? I’ve heard it suggested that Rocket League is a glorified minigame. Fine, so be it. Because I’ve seen games ruined by leveling systems. Castlestorm‘s online mode could have solidified it as an all-time classic, but instead I found myself being matched against players 150 levels more advanced than me, with all the upgrades that are earned along the way. While you’ll still need to put time into Rocket League to get good, when you are good you won’t need to grind away an extra fifty hours just to compete. There’s something to be said about that. Restraint is perhaps something more indies need. Rocket League doesn’t do a lot, but what it does is phenomenal. By the way, if this review sounds to lovey-dovey, I should note that the next teammate of mine who bumps me out of the way of an open shot is getting a foot upside the ass, and I have Bob Lanier and his size 22s on retainer.

UPDATE: Actually, the game does keep track of stats in the Extras menu, but this doesn’t improve things. Single player stats are added to online stats, and thus it appears like I’ve scored 685 goals (ha!) when in reality I think roughly 600 of those came in one 27 game easy league season. This is a massive oversight on the developer’s part, and it ought to be changed.

Rocket League logoRocket League was developed by Psyonix
Point of Sale: Steam, PS4
igc_approved1
$19.99 said the “damn women drivers” joke from opposing players NEVER GOT OLD AT ANY POINT OVER THE COURSE OF 60 HOURS YOU CLEVER CLEVER PEOPLE in the making of this review.

Rocket League is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

In the interest of full disclosure, my experience playing Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was marred by probably the most unfortunate glitch I’ve ever encountered reviewing a game at Indie Gamer Chick. In what turned out to be the second to last chapter, one of the guiding orbs I was relying on to prevent aimless wandering got stuck in the ground next to a tree. This apparently happened to more players than just me in a variety of locations, but in my case, it got stuck in a way so that I couldn’t tell the game was glitching out. Thus, I spent four hours trying to figure out how to activate the special story telling tree that didn’t actually exist and wandering around a town trying to figure out if I missed something to make it work. Now, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has no puzzles in it, or really anything to do but watch the narrative unfold. But I was nearing the end of the game, so I figured maybe the developers had thrown a twist my way. How would I know? The game gave NO instructions up to this point. Stuff like this is sort of what you risk as a developer when you make what I’ve come to call a “Figure It Out Yourself Adventure.” But, I mean, look at it! It looks like it could be a climatic moment.
Rapture 4
But no, it was just a horrific glitch. It gets worse. Once I figured it out, I ended the game, rebooted it, and the guiding light skipped the remainder of the character’s story I was on and took me straight to the final chapter of the game. Oh, and I was unable to return and finish the previous storyline. At this point, I became like the manure farmer with Alzheimers and completely lost my shit. Four fucking hours of wandering around trying to figure out what I was missing, only to find out the game fucked up, and on top of that, I didn’t even get a conclusion to the character’s story in the chapter I was in? I think I’m totally justified in being furious.

Not that it would have made a difference on whether or not I liked Rapture overall. I didn’t. I hated Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. I hated it, hated it, HATED IT! But I figured I should be upfront about the whole four lost hours and the lost character arc conclusion affecting my session.

The sad part is, I didn’t hate Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture initially. I was immediately sucked in by the premise, the spooky isolation, and the mystery of what happened. A town devoid of humanity, with creepy emergency broadcast sounds playing, and quarantine signage scattered all over. Some serious shit had clearly gone down, and I was positively intrigued. I won’t spoil the story, but needless to say, it didn’t last. The cause of this particular apocalypse is hugely disappointing. I remember feeling my heart sink when I realized what direction the story was going. Of the multitude of explanations and angles they could have taken, it seems like the one that had the most potential to disappoint is the route that was taken. When I realized where Rapture was going, I let out an audible “ohhhhhhh. Well, that blows.”

The game is set in England, so there's roughly two million soccer pitches in the town, give or take. And for some reason, they all have a dog shit skid mark on them. Hey, in America we made OUR version of footballs brown for that very reason. We would rather not know what exactly we're getting all over our hands.

The game is set in England, so there’s roughly two thousand soccer pitches in the town, give or take. And for some reason, they all have a dog shit skid mark on them. Hey, in America we made OUR version of footballs brown for that very reason. We would rather not know what exactly we’re getting all over our hands.

Some people are saying Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture isn’t really a game, and others are saying it is a game and those other people are casual fucktards. Both sides are right, except the casual fucktard part, because art is always in the eye of the beholder. I’ll personally side with the Not a Game crowd and call it a “Game-like Experience.” I would define a game as something where there’s at least some form of a challenge or task to overcome. Rapture does have some trophy-based challenges (of which, I unlocked none except the “finish the game” trophy, though not for a lack of effort) but really the point is to just watch cut scenes unfold, then find the next cut scene. To the best of my knowledge, you have no control over the story, and the only thing you can do to change the story you see is to take it out of order or to simply miss parts of it. Which, judging by the “find everything” trophy’s rarity, you almost certainly will.

While the turn the story makes is disappointing, given how intolerably boring the characters are, I probably should have seen it coming. These are just not interesting people. You basically do the fly-on-the-wall thing, watching their lives immediately before the start of the game. While I’ll concede that the writing does feel naturalistic and “real”, real can be pretty dull. Some of it really dull. Like, we’re in the middle of the apocalypse and there’s cattle and birds dropping dead, people suddenly becoming violently sick and/or disappearing, and government people locking the town down. So, why do conversations still sometimes sound like petty office gossip? Even though they are aware the situation is bad. It’s weird. Even worse is you never see any of the characters. Everyone is represented by gold particle ghosts that, I swear to God, look just like the beaming effects from the recent Star Trek remakes. Judge for yourself.

If you find yourself stuck with a copy of Everybody's Gone to Rapture and hate it as much as I do, pretending the story is actually about Scotty getting drunk and beaming a town full of British people into oblivion as payback for the whole lack of Scottish independence, it doesn't help at all. Trust me, I tried it.

If you find yourself stuck with a copy of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and hate it as much as I do, pretending the story is actually about Scotty getting drunk and beaming a town full of British people into oblivion as payback for the whole lack of Scottish independence doesn’t help at all. Trust me, I tried it.

How did that similarity never come up during production? I’m not even a Trekkie and it was the very first thing I thought when I first saw it. It was distracting. I’m guessing they did it this way because they made a beautiful (and bland, but still beautiful) town, but couldn’t quite come up with human characters to match the astonishing visuals they created. It feels like perhaps it was a cut corner. But I never could feel a connection to any of the characters. There’s too many of them, they all have generic names, many seem to have no personality, and frankly it was hard to keep track of them. Even fans of the game seem to side with me on this one, though people will say “but I found whats-his/her-face’s story to be good.” I didn’t. Not one. These are seriously dull characters. Well written I guess, in the sense that they don’t seem too outrageous or too fantastical, but I would hate being stuck with any of them.

I don’t get the appeal in games like this. I can’t even say Rapture is pretentious, because it feels genuine and heartfelt, but it’s so damn boring. Yea, it’s pretty, and yea, it has a nice soundtrack, but what games don’t these days? Also, your character moves slow, and sometimes the game glitches out on you and you start to move even slower for no damn reason. I had to pause the game to undo this multiple times. It turned out, there was a run button. Kind of. Holding R2 might make your speed eventually build up. Or maybe it won’t. Whatever. I don’t get the point of games like Rapture. Maybe it’s not a game, and more like a digital amusement park ride where you hop from one display of animatronic figures to the next. Even though I think the story took the least interesting paths possible, they still told a somewhat coherent story (with an ending as unsatisfying and lame as can be). Obvious care and effort was put forth to craft it. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has no instructions, puzzles, challenges, objectives, or anything else you expect from a story told through a game controller . The only thing it can do that you can’t do in any other medium is potentially miss large chunks of the story. Since Rapture only exists to deliver a story, that seems like a bad idea to me. Then again, so does BASE jumping but people are into that too.

Rapture logoEverybody’s Gone to the Rapture was developed by The Chinese Room
Point of Sale: PlayStation 4

$19.99 said, meh, still better than Left Behind in the making of this review.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter opens with a screen warning that it doesn’t “hold your hand.” So many games make this claim anymore that it’s starting to come across as kind of snotty and condescending. Ethan Carter’s lack of hand holding isn’t in the difficulty sense, like Bloodborne or 1001 Spikes. You can’t die, and there are no real stakes besides extending the delay of the unfolding story. Instead, it doesn’t hold your hands in the sense that you’re given no instructions at all. No tutorial, no hints what the game’s primary mechanics are, or what your end goal is. So, in my first attempt at playing Ethan Carter, I ended up missing the first four of ten “puzzles.” The fifth one is neither a puzzle nor possible to miss (I think). The first one I actually stumbled upon and solved was the sixth one. Of ten. This is the kind of not-hand-holding that a sadistic swimming instructor with a growing body count would believe in.

Ethan Carter is an aimless wandering simulator that occasionally gets interrupted by an interesting plot. I’ve never been into Lovecraftian type of horror, so when I found the story to be good, I was a bit surprised. However, I missed nearly the first half of it, so I decided I would break a personal rule of mine. I try to avoid using walk-throughs when I review games. Now, I had stumbled upon a couple of the puzzles, but I didn’t realize they were puzzles or would unlock the plot. The game doesn’t imply any of that. When I solved the graveyard sequence, I decided to just start over from the beginning and have someone send me a list of the general locations of the puzzles. Just having that list and the knowledge that there were puzzles to complete totally changed my enjoyment of the game. It was okay. Okay is better than “God I’m bored out of my fucking skull.

Ethan 2

Needs more Grim Grinning Ghosts.

I hate doing this with any game, because it’s 2015 and nobody should give a shit about graphics anymore unless they are mind-blowingly awesome. I don’t know if the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is quite that good, but it’s probably the most gorgeous indie up to this point. To put it in perspective, my mother walked into the room while I was making my way through a forested area and asked what movie we were watching. Movie. Until she said that, I hadn’t stopped to appreciate how damn good-looking Vanishing of Ethan Carter is. Now, that story wouldn’t have happened if I was in many of the areas of the game, especially ones that take place in a mine, or ones where there’s rushing water. The cave section looks like any other cavern level in a first-person game, and rushing water has that creepy uncanny valley effect, slightly life-like but undeniably off. Probably the most off-putting thing about the presentation is you don’t feel even close to a real person. You feel like a camera hovering six above the ground. The lack of humanity in the player-character made it nearly impossible to ever feel immersed. Which is a shame because the world created is photo-realistic at times and that kind of goes to waste.

I’ll go spoiler-free on the plot as much as possible. It’s pretty obvious early on that some kind of twist ending was coming, but Ethan Carter still manged to fool me with it while still feeling like I wasn’t cheated by the context. It wasn’t like Braid’s “deep” twist ending where, spoiler alert on a game eight years old: the main character of Braid was part of the Manhattan Project and felt guilty for creating nuclear weapons, with the world of Braid being his escapism to alleviate his guilt. Yea. I haven’t met a person yet who didn’t blurt out “where in the fuck did that come from?” when they experienced that ending. But Braid is popular and pretentious allegories pulled out of thin air are all the rage in Indieland, so I expected Ethan Carter to end on one. It didn’t. The ending was satisfactory in a Twilight Zone sort of way and felt real. I guess you can’t ask for anything more.

SPOILER WARNING – SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU WISH TO AVOID

Not that the story doesn’t occasionally devolve into raving lunacy. The most random happening involved an encounter with an astronaut. I think it was meant to be a jump scare when it first appeared, but it was so random that all I could do was laugh. This eventually led to a section where I was floating through space in a scene I swear was ripped straight from that God awful piece of shit movie Contact. Even after finishing Ethan Carter, I’m not entirely sure what the point of that part was. The studio behind this game is named Astronauts, so maybe this was meant to be an in-joke for them. Another failed attempt at scares occurred in the cave area, where you’re being stalked by a ghost while searching a maze for five dead bodies. I wasn’t aware that this was considered the most terrifying section of the game by most people due to “jump scares” that happen during it. This is because I found all five dead bodies and solved the puzzle in it without ever having the ghost catch me. In fact, I only caught a glimpse of it once and heard it two other times. Given that Ethan Carter’s form of horror is based more on atmosphere and characterization, I’m surprised it would even try to do jump scares. I think I enjoyed the experience more than others did as a result. Jump scares are something anyone can cause with a plastic bag full of air and a floor that doesn’t squeak when you try to sneak up behind someone. Lowbrow and easy. Creeping people out with an unnerving atmosphere takes skill, and Ethan Carter pulls it off.

They should've sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful. I had no idea.

They should’ve sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful. I had no idea.

END OF SPOILERS

The writing is not bad at all. The cut scenes have pretty decent voice acting. Ethan Carter does almost nothing wrong in terms of plot and storytelling. It’s the method of delivery that I feel doesn’t serve players properly. It goes back to the “hand holding” thing. What is so wrong with pointing players in a direction? Shadow of the Colossus is similar to Ethan Carter in the sense that you have a vast open world with specific areas you need to discover. You’re not told how to discover them, or what to expect when you get there. You hold your sword up and it points the direction, and that’s it. Nobody would accuse that of being an example of hand-holding. So that opening “we don’t hold hands” bit almost feels accusatory against players. “Oh, you didn’t find the stuff we obscurely hid? What, you expect directions? What kind of pussy-whipped casual gamer are you?”

Maybe the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a glorified tech-demo, as some of my readers on Twitter suggested. While there are a couple creative puzzles, most of them come down to finding items and returning them to their locations. A few times you’ll be required to look at a few different dioramas and place them in sequential order. If the puzzle design had matched the art quality, Ethan Carter would have been something very special. I do reject the notion that Ethan Carter is an “experience” more than a game. It’s a game, and a perfectly fine one. I don’t think it will withstand the test of time, or be particularly memorable. As technology gets better and games that look like this become more common place, its relevance will fade. Ultimately, I did enjoy it when I played it “my way”, with general instructions to the locations of the ten puzzles. Others enjoyed it without those, liking the sense of discovery. Others still got sick aimlessly wandering around without any clue what they were doing and quit. I can’t help but wonder if Ethan Carter would have benefited greatly by giving players two options: to play the game with or without direction. If they had done that, all discussion of the game would have been centered around its merits instead of its abstraction. Ethan Carter can stand on its own merits. It’s a quality game, even if it’s so militantly against holding hands that it comes across like a six-year-old afraid of catching cooties.

Ethan logoThe Vanishing of Ethan Carter was developed by Astronauts
Point of Sale: PlayStation 4, Steam

igc_approved1$19.99 walked away from Ethan Carter feelings like her eyeballs were gently massaged by the graceful hands of God himself in the making of this review.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

White Night

This is the latest challenge from the gang at the Indie Game Riot, who matched my White Night purchase price ($14.99) as a charitable donation to the Epilepsy Foundation. I buy the game, they match the price, everyone benefits. Except my brain, because given their selection of games for me, I’m starting to think they hate me.

In the interest of fairness, I should concede that I almost certainly never had any chance of liking White Night right from the get-go. This is for a couple of reasons. I never got into horror games. As a child, my parents didn’t let me play M rated games. I guess they didn’t want me to grow up cussing a blue-streak or making obscene jokes. The results speak for themselves. By time I was an adult, I had epilepsy. Horror games are meant to be played in the dark, with all external lighting turned off. That’s the biggest epilepsy no-no there is. But, White Night was mostly done-in for me by relying on fixed camera angles. I hate those. My first Resident Evil was #4. Also known as the one that ditched the fixed camera angles in favor of, you know, anything but fixed camera angles. You’ll notice almost nobody talks about the first three Resident Evils as the pinnacle of the series. Resident Evil 4 was so good it made the first three retroactively bad. More outdated than natural aging should have made them, and that’s almost entirely on the fixed camera angles. I get the point of them, especially in horror games. Like a theme park dark ride, they direct your attention in a specific direction to optimize the terror when something scary comes into view. The problem with that is, it compromises optimized gameplay for stylized storytelling. Games aren’t movies. Gameplay should always be paramount.

And, in the case of White Night, the graphics style does not mesh well at all with the fixed camera malarkey. This gets proven nearly every time something is introduced that’s intend to drive the plot in some way. There’s a scene in the second chapter where you’re in a dining room (I think it’s a dining room) and the game’s plot takes over: a ghost girl who needs your help. She appears suddenly and then walks through a door. When she does, the cinematics take over so you can see her walk through the door. You then return to the fixed camera you were at, and it’s almost impossible to figure out which door she just went through. The game is drawn in black and white graphics and the gimmick is most of the game is shrouded in darkness.

White Night 2

Here’s an example of how the puzzles in the game don’t work in a logical sense. See the statue casting a shadow on the grave marker? There’s a key hanging where the shadow is. It’s not an Indiana Jones type of thing where moving the shadow of the statue activates a mechanism that reveals the key. No, the key is apparently just hanging there (you can even feel it before you move the statue) but you can’t actually claim it until you move the statue and can see it. Oh COME ON! It’s right fucking there. It’s just so damn silly that it breaks immersion right off the bat. This is literally the prologue to the game and the concept is already ruined. Sigh.

It doesn’t work as a play mechanic or a storytelling device. Hypothetically, the player character saw the ghost and knows which door she went through. That’s why it’s scary. Because holy fuck that was a ghost! But the player can’t tell which door she went through, so the plot grinds to a halt once again while you stumble around slowly, lighting matches to illuminate dark areas and clicking every object hoping to make the god damn slow-as-radioactive-decay story unfold just a sliver more. This breaks immersion, because in a cinematic experience (like White Night strives to be), the guy who, again, just saw a fucking ghost crying for help and walking through a door, would know which door she went through and follow her. In the game, the players are left to stumble searching for the door that the character himself saw. Are we scared yet? No, really, we’re just bored.

Oh, and by the way, the door she went through? It was locked.

Other technical issues get in the way. Even the simple act of clicking on shit to examine wasn’t handled well. The game kicks off with a car crash that injures the main character. I’m not sure if he spends the whole game limping around, but at the point I quit (which, granted, was very early in), he staggers with all the urgency of a murderer being dragged to the gallows. The limping animation leads to making lining up with stuff that you need to click a needless exercise in frustration. I’ve slammed the examine when the magnifying glass appears on-screen, only the dipshit you control was still dragging his leg in the animation and thus by time the game acknowledges that you hit a button, the character is no longer in position to examine the thing in question. Normally I would label this “lag” but it’s not really lag. It’s just bad design.

I don’t want to call it “Style over Substance” because that implies the game’s creators made a conscious decision that the gameplay could be mediocre as long as the art work was striking (and it is). I think White Night is a victim of the development team knowing how to play their own game and forgetting that you develop games for everyone else. Like an expectation that players will play the game the way the game’s creator does. For example, save points are notoriously spread far apart. In theory, this is done to heighten tension, making players practically pray they that come across one so that all the progress they’ve made isn’t lost. In practice, players just make a tiny bit of progress, return to the last save point they found, then venture back to make a little more progress, rinse, repeat until they stumble upon a new one. Thus 10 minutes worth of gameplay takes an hour to complete. I’ve never seen a game where that’s an option and most players opt to just risk making it to checkpoints. That’s especially true with White Night, because the game unfolds so fucking slowly, with miserable play control, that fear of having to repeat the tedious activities is more terrifying than any jump-scares or creepy atmosphere the game can throw at you.

Lighting matches doesn't protect you from the more aggresive ghosts, but they'll be removed as threats by electic lights. This leads to two things. First, some of the light switches "look dangerous" and thus your character won't push them, because of course he won't. I mean seriously, you fucking pussy, you're being stalked by killer ghosts who are only scared of electricity. You're locked in the house. It's just a fucking light switch! Again, all the stuff designed to keep tension up or be a "puzzle" is handled so poorly that it breaks the immersion. In a horror game, immersion is all you have. You break that, you're left with nothing. And second, it leads to players hugging the fucking walls searching in vain for a light switch that simply does not stick out enough. Who wants to play hug the walls? White Night is a wall-hugging simulator.

Lighting matches doesn’t protect you from the more aggressive ghosts, but they’ll be removed as threats by electric lights. This leads to two things. First, some of the light switches “look dangerous” and thus your character won’t push them, because of course he won’t. I mean seriously, what a pussy. He’s being stalked by killer ghosts who are only scared of electricity. He’s locked in the house. And it’s just a fucking light switch! Again, all the stuff designed to keep tension up or be a “puzzle” is handled so poorly that it breaks the immersion. In a horror game, immersion is all you have. You break that, you’re left with nothing. And second, it leads to players hugging the fucking walls searching in vain for a light switch that simply does not stick out enough, and then when you find it, it doesn’t work. Who wants to play hug the walls? White Night is a wall-hugging simulator.

There’s not a single concept that White Night has that I feel works the way it was probably envisioned. The game gives you matches that you must use to stay in the light. You can carry 12 at a time. If you run out of matches, you die. If you can’t get a match lit in a dark area fast enough, you die. That can be problematic when you’re trying to light a match but the character is either caught in an examination animation or even a movement animation that you can’t even see. I’m guessing it’s done to be realistic, because real people would struggle to light a match in a haunted house where ghosts will fucking kill you if you aren’t able to spark the thing up. THIS ISN’T REAL LIFE! It’s a game! And besides, when the ghosts actually kill you, the death animation looks more like a mildly annoyed person trying to shoo a housefly away, not a scared-shitless person having the life force sucked out of them by a god damned mother fucking GHOST! And why the hell are the ghosts in the game instakills? And why are we even doing the ridiculous save stuff? And why in the blue fuck are matches in limited supplies? White Night has a very old, first-gen 3D horror mentality. It ignores all the major advancements in-game design that have come about over the last twenty years. A lot of people say Resident Evil 1 was scarier than Resident Evil 4. Fine, maybe it was. But horror games control better today than they did in the PS1/Saturn era. Can’t we find a healthy middle ground between good gameplay and real scares?

That’s the real shame here. White Night might actually be a really scary video game. I played it in a room with four grown men and my mother. We all had a couple “fucking game got me!” BOO moments. But typically those resulted in me dying, followed by dying several more times in a row. Then more dying. You die a lot. This is mostly because, for some reason, when a ghost spots you the movement gets even weirder and more limpy than normal. If a ghost catches you, you die. You can run away, but while doing so, you have to compete with horrible play control and the possibility that the fixed camera angles will change. Again, because of the all white and black style and the darkness versus light gimmick, the layouts of rooms are confusing at best. Often, it’s not even worth attempting to runaway.

Going off the percentages of players getting achievements for completing the second chapter, a shocking amount of people quit playing White Night at some point on the second stage, and I’m amongst them. This game is awful. Look, even scary games are supposed to be entertaining. While the game is interesting to look at, a game shouldn’t make it so easy for players to give up and quit. White Night frustrates with archaic fixed angles, clunky movement, bad play control, confusing layouts, a slow, somewhat uninteresting and far too vague story, and annoying instakills that make you replay all the annoying things. No, as someone who completely missed the fixed-camera era of horror gaming and HATES that style, I probably never stood a chance to like White Night. Was this review fair? I feel it was, because if you’re in the same boat as me, with no nostalgic affection for that style, White Night is clearly not for you. Playing White Night is practically a war of attrition, and it is in that sense only that it succeeds. I wave the white flag.

White NightWhite Night was developed by O’Some Studio
Point of Sale: Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

$14.99 said “who’ya gonna call?” like a schmuck in the making of this review.

Axiom Verge

Well, that didn’t take long. It was only 68 days ago that Shovel Knight dethroned Journey for the #1 spot on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Journey had sat as king of the throne for 1,048 days. And there’s MANY more amazing looking indies coming in 2015. I tell you, we’re in the Golden Age of Indie Gaming, and ain’t it sweet?

Axiom Verge certainly had an advantage over Shovel Knight. Metroidvanias are my favorite gaming genre. They factored hugely into my gaming upbringing. Meanwhile, I can probably count the number of times I’ve even held an NES controller on one hand, and I certainly didn’t grow up playing Capcom’s NES library. So maybe it was fate that finally a Metroidvania would take the crown here at IGC. Then again, I think it speaks volumes about its quality that I was (and still am) gaga over Shovel Knight despite having no heart warming childhood stories about the time I ran through Duck Tales in a single life or the hours I spent designing fantasy Mega Man bosses. Shovel Knight holds a special place in my heart, and it does so simply by being an incredible game.

But, Axiom Verge has beaten it. And handily at that. It is the best independent video game I’ve ever played.

I've seen a lot of tributes to the Kraid fight in Super Metroid. This one outshines the rest.

I’ve seen a lot of tributes to the Kraid fight in Super Metroid. This one outshines the rest.

Think of Axiom Verge as the evolutionary Metroid. The same basic concept and play mechanics are present. The same enemy placement sensibility, where each corridor has the same enemies that you encounter one after the other. It’s so close that if you re-skinned the lead character Trace with Samus Aran sprites, put bubbles around each door, and replaced a drone you acquire a couple of hours into the game with the Morphing Ball, you would swear this really was a Metroid game. It’s that seamless.

Really, I can think of nothing else that speaks as great a volume as that when it comes to praising Axiom Verge: that you could believe this was an authentic Metroid game, made by a team of veteran designers working for gaming’s most prestigious house. But it wasn’t. One guy made this. And it’s better than any adventure the house of Mario has given their super heroine. Whoa!

Sacrilege, you scream. Look, we (or at least, people with similar taste to me) whine about how Nintendo turns out samey games. Every Zelda has the hookshot, the master sword, a boomerang, etc. Every Metroid has the Morphing Ball, the Grappling Beam, the Wave Beam, etc. Nintendo can get away with this because we keep eating it up year after year. I’m guilty of it too. Now here comes along a game that could be a Metroid, but it does things different. No Morphing Ball, the Bionic Commando grappling hook instead of the Grappling Beam (you can grab pretty much any platform instead of designated grappling sections once you acquire it), no bubble doors, new gun concepts, new enemies, a deeper story, but the same core gameplay. This is exactly what we’ve been asking for. For years. It’s the twist in the formula we’ve all been hoping for. The logical evolution of the Metroid mechanics.

The platform Trace is standing on here is practical invisible. The game has since been patched to make it and others like it stick out more, but there's still some minor visibility issues in Axiom Verge.

The platform Trace is standing on here is practically invisible. The game has since been patched to make it and others like it stick out more, but there’s still some minor visibility issues in Axiom Verge.

And then comes the Glitch Gun. It’s not really called that. It has some stupid name like data disruptor. Just call it the Glitch Gun, everyone else does. Probably inspired by the types of graphic abnormalities that happen when you haven’t sufficiently blown on your NES cartridges enough, it’s sort of a more proactive version of Samus’s visor from Metroid Prime. When you shoot most enemies with it, you “hack” them, making them glitch out. This might make them simpler to slay, or it might make them useful, even able to open up hidden rooms. The gun will also interact with the environment, creating or destroying blocks, opening up new pathways, or unveiling secrets. It’s very clever and mostly well done. However, later in the game, once the gun is upgraded, I struggled somewhat in consistently clearing out the most advanced glitch blocks, often phasing some in while making others phase out. It’s a small niggling complaint, but it almost always happened when I was trying to clear the blocks out. Beyond that, the biggest mistake I think the developer made with the Glitch Gun was not giving it to players right out of the starting gate. It’s what sets Axiom Verge apart from its heritage more than any other play mechanic. You want to flaunt that stuff right off the bat. If someone has a flying car, I don’t want him to show it off to me by taking me on a trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. Even if it’s a nice ride, I want to see the car fly! And I want to see the Glitch Gun in Axiom Verge right from the start.

Actually, since I’m complaining about things right now, I should point out that I don’t love the graphics. The world Tom Happ has created for Axiom Verge hits similar notes to other games in this genre, but it lacks liveliness and color. The story explains it to some degree (my insane fan theory: Murky and Lurky are behind this), but the starkness of the color is kind of exhausting. And it occasionally gets in the way. It’s often hard to distinguish between the foreground and background. The problem is Axiom Verge is too married to the limited color palette of the 8 bit era. Although I’m quite fond of neo-retro games, I think developers should remember that you shouldn’t handicap your own game in the process of paying homage. Cheat the rules occasionally. Use shading and color techniques not available on classic  platforms, but do so in a clever way so that people don’t notice. Axiom Verge looks very convincing as a classic game, but that often works against it more than it helps it.

The controls are smooth. If there’s a problem with them, it’s that there’s just so much shit to do. By the end of the game you’ll be using pretty much every button on the controller, and unless you’re one of those freaks that can rub their head and pat their belly at will, you’re bound to slip up. I also felt the lack of ability to shoot at a downward diagonal angle while moving made the search for hidden rooms a bit more tedious than it had to be. I had to stop and shoot straight down, move a couple of spots forward and do it again while on the hunt for hidden stuff. It took me twenty-six hours to finish Axiom Verge, and you could probably shave at least an hour of that off just by giving me the ability to fire downward while running. Oh, and the dead zone for the right stick is too small. Combine that with my tiny hands and I kept accidentally bumping it, interrupting the game to select a new weapon. The dead zone should just stop short of maximum range, since it’s unlikely anyone is going to just nudge the stick to pause the game and choose a different gun. Then again, that might have been my fault. I have extraordinarily clumsy hands. Really clumsy. Dangerously clumsy. The last guy I gave a hand job to now goes by the name Sally.

Exploration and meaningful backtracking are the backbone of Metroidvanias. Something I’ve noticed about indies is they often just don’t fucking GET IT with that. Yea, you force players to go backwards, but when you do, you have to make it interesting by including hidden goodies along the way that were previously out of reach with the weapons and items you had access to the first time you were in that area. Huge props to Tom Happ for grasping this. There is so much hidden crap in Axiom Verge that I don’t think I went ten minutes between any pick-up. Even when I would occasionally get lost trying to figure out where the next event would take place at (some kind of Metroid Primeish GO HERE beeping spot on the map would have helped), I was stumbling upon so many goodies that I never got annoyed with it. By time I knew the game was getting ready to wrap up, I decided to take a stroll through all the previous stages just to see what I missed. Shockingly, it was a lot. Even in places where I was certain I had gotten everything, I was wrong. And I didn’t even get a 100% item pick-up, despite having 96% of the map explored. Holy fuck. As much as I’m grateful, I have to wonder if Tom has some kind of mental disorder that led to this. Dude is like a demented Easter Bunny.

I grew to love its story. The plot is problematic for some, because it fails to grab you immediately. This happened to me too. For the first several hours, when friends asked me about it, I said “you’ll want to buy this for the gameplay.” But once the story gets rolling, I actually did care. Quite a bit. I just don’t think the game handled the delivery of the story well. Part of that comes down to the lack of voice acting, because, once again, the game is married to being old school. Oh woe be it, if only we had access to the types of space-age technology that would allow voice acting in video games. Oh wait.

Notroid.

I called this the Ghostbuster gun. You’ll see why.

But, I did grow fond of lead character Trace, and skeptical of whether or not the mysterious giant mecha baby heads that drive the plot were friend or foe. I just wish it had been told better. Having said that, there’s a couple “okay, that was cool” story moments that are integrated into the gameplay that were very risky to include from a creative standpoint. They worked, grabbing my attention and leaving every gameplay moment that followed feeling like the stakes were higher, with tension added that was totally authentic. Axiom Verge might have one of the most interesting sci-fi gaming storylines I’ve ever seen. Saying it gets off to a slow start is an understatement, and I’m guessing many players will be so underwhelmed by it that they’ll blow off the remaining dialog, but they’re missing out.

I loved Axiom Verge. I can’t believe how much I loved it. I never expected to walk away from it having enjoyed it more than any of Nintendo’s entries in the Metroid series. Axiom Verge isn’t a Metroid game. It’s a tribute to Metroid. My expectations were set to “respectable tribute.” Not “better than the originals”. But it is. And yeah, I’m a whippersnapper who was in my twenties when I played Super Metroid for the first time, so I’m not nostalgic for those SNES and GBA classics. You know what? I think even those who would burn me at the stake for saying Axiom Verge is better than Super Metroid (and it is) would have to at least stop and think about whether I’m right or not. It’s that good. It’s for real. It’s the best indie of all-time, at least in this Chick’s book.

Special Note: I am friends with Axiom Verge producer Dan Adelman, whom I previously interviewed on this blog. My friendships with game developers do not and will never influence my opinions on their games. My friends are my friends because I give them my unfiltered, often blunt opinions on their games. Ask my friend Marc. They expect nothing less from me. As for me, I would never be friends with anyone whose friendship is conditional, based on me liking their stuff. That’s not the way real friends treat each other. But my readers deserve to know who I’m friends with, so I’m letting them know.

Axiom Verge logoAxiom Verge was developed by Thomas Happ
Point of Sale: PlayStation 4, Steam

igc_approved1$17.99 (normally priced $19.99) has a father who screamed at her for including the hand job joke in the making of this review.

Axiom Verge is Chick-Approved and Ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

A review copy of Axiom Verge was provided to Indie Gamer Chick prior to the game’s release on March 31. Indie Gamer Chick has since purchased a copy. All games reviewed by Cathy are paid for by her with her own money. For more on this policy, check out the FAQ.

Haunt the House: Terrortown

Haunt the House: Terrortown is sort of like that old GameCube title Geist, only it’s not a first person adventure, you can’t possess people, and the game doesn’t fucking suck. It’s not great either. Like Geist, the concept seems like it should lend itself well to a video game, but there’s not a whole lot you can do with it. Unlike Geist, the game doesn’t attempt to pad out a shallow, low-mileage concept. Haunt the House can comfortably be finished in under an hour. That includes the free Christmas-themed DLC. No, this doesn’t mean it qualified for Short Subject Saturdays. Being able to hypothetically finish something in under twenty minutes doesn’t make it short subject. You can beat Mario 64 in under fifteen minutes. Tell me with a straight face that makes it short subject.

Haunt the House 1

There’s actually a lot of objects to inhabit in Haunt the House, though I’m not certain how some of them are supposed to scare people. In the DLC, you can possess a bulb on the Christmas Tree and make X-Wings attack it like the Death Star. What the fuck? How is that scary? “Oh shit people, GEORGE LUCAS IS HERE! RUN!”

I guess I enjoyed Haunt the House. I mean, there’s just not a lot to it. You enter objects, you make them do something scary. As people become more terrified, you get the ability to make objects do even scarier things. To win, you have to get people so pants-shittingly scared that they flee the stage. It’s actually very family friendly, which is probably why I didn’t fall in love with it. It’s a children’s game, with just enough play time to hold their attention for an hour. I tested this theory on Brent, a friend’s ten-year-old. And then I became one of those people. You know, those people who can’t tell what forms of entertainment will be enjoyed by which age groups. The ones that buy Barbies for thirteen-year-olds, or complex LEGO sets for five-year-olds. At ten years of ages, even Brent was too old to really get an appropriate lark out of Haunt the House. I forgot that kids these days have access to shows like Walking Dead, and their video games are an orgy of terror and violence. I thought maybe I had been wrong about the kids will love it stuff, but then I tested it on seven-year-old Kelvin. He thought it was jim dandy awesome. Also, I’m using the terms like “jim dandy” and “kids these days” to describe anything. Christ, how did I get so old and out of touch so quickly?

Can adults enjoy Haunt the House? Sure, but they’ll mostly just complain that it’s too short, too shallow, or too kiddy. I liked it, but I wasn’t exactly disappointed when the game ended in less time than it takes to watch an episode of House of Cards. Hell, I even found a game-killing glitch in that short time. On one stage, one of the women you have to scare was somehow stuck running a loop on a staircase. She would get to the top of the stairs, then teleport to the bottom and run up it again. There was no way to get her out of it, and it rendered the game unbeatable. The only work around was to quit out of the game and come back. When you do this, all your progress is retained but the woman will be somewhere else on the stage. Just keep her away from the stairs. And other issues abound. When a person is terrified to the point that they’ll leave the stage, sometimes they don’t exactly take the best pathway to do so. It reminded me of Carlton’s freakout from Fresh Prince. The AI has one job: leave the fucking house. It should be more efficient at doing so.

This is the spot where the girl got stuck in the staircase.

This is the spot where the girl got stuck in the staircase. Or did she? Maybe developer Tom Vian was trying to show the theory of space and relativity, showing that if you travel faster than the speed of light, you could end up causing an endless loophole of misery and repetition. This is actually one of the best uses I’ve ever seen for gaming to explain the laws of theoretical science and natu.. oh never mind, it was just a glitch.

Is it fun? Yea. Is it on the wrong platform? Yea. I know it came out on PlayStation Mobile, but really, it belongs on Wii U or 3DS. Is it over priced? Ohhhh yea. $4.99 is too much for a game with this little going for it. But if you’ve got wee ones or you can grab it for under $2, Haunt the House isn’t bad by any means. Had I realized Haunt the House was a game best suited for the under-nine set, I wouldn’t have played it. Haunt the House wasn’t designed for me. It was made for children. I’m a sophisticated adult. One who hides clips of a Japanese children’s television show in every review she does, but, um, what were we talking about?

Haunt the HouseHaunt the House was developed by SFB Games
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$4.99 yelled at kids to get off my lawn in the making of this review.

Haunt the House is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

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