Review – Vambrace: Cold Soul

Icenaire is in peril, wraiths and the living dead torment what few survivors are left and doomsday cultists threaten to unleash dark forces upon the world. Only you stand in their way, armed with your trusty Vambrace.

Good

  • Frozen Doom: I find it refreshing every time someone goes for a wasteland setting that is not a barren brown landscape. The frozen wasteland in Vambrace: Cold Soul is incredibly oppressive and the signs of life lost and frozen in time is just amazing for the atmosphere of the game.
  • Our Elves are Different: One thing I really enjoyed about the writing in Vambrace is how nuanced the fantasy races are. At firs they seem to readily fall into known tropes and clichés but the more you interact with them, take on sidequests and learn about the delicate political balance in town, the depictions gain a lot more depth and even the darkest of Drow has a noble soul and something to share.

Bad

  • Bland Class Design: Aside from the protagonist, you can recruit other team members to go up to the surface with you to loot or pursue mission objectives but the classes themselves aren’t all that interesting, with only two abilities to them, a main attack and a charged Flourish. Overall, the classes feel samey, and not even the variable attributes on characters makes them stand out or feel like the right choice for any given situation. Worse still, you never feel like there’s synergy between members of the group.
  • Poor Progression: As you complete chapters in the game, you’ll unlock Perk Points for your vambrace, which raise your statuses, but that’s about it when it comes to progression. Classes don’t have upgrades, there are no additional paths or abilities, so there’s very little incentive in trying to keep a party alive, other than losing any of them meaning you most likely have to cancel your current expedition, return to base, recruit a new team and then start over from scratch. Hell, it’s more than likely you’ll get rid of your early companions as soon as others with higher combat stats pop up.
  • Unnecessarily Punitive:  If you return from an expedition you lose all progress, and I’m fine with that. What I’m not fine is with the gated crafting tables, the fact that companion death means their equipment goes with them, the incredibly high cost of healing supplies, and just how many negative effects enemies and traps can stack on you. The weight limits are also ridiculously low, to the point you’re often considering if you should get rid of healing items or loot. It’s game design that feels like it’s just there to inflate difficulty, not because it adds anything to the experience.
  • Single Save: There’s only the autosave, no manual save option. In a game where the loss of one companion can be completely fatal as you lose precious equipment (and crafting is a gigantic pain in the rear), not being able to set a separate save file before the expedition is a major glaring flaw for me.

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Review: Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles

A boy, a compass and a mysterious island. It’s how a good adventure starts, with a mystery worth solving and a new land worth exploring, and at its core, that’s what Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is about.

Continue reading Review: Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles

Preview: We Happy Few

I remember the announcement for We Happy Few and the first few images posted online. I thought it was creepy and exciting. I’m a big fan of dystopian settings, even more so when the people in them think of society as being utopic overall. The juxtaposition between how clearly horrible the world is and how people perceive it is fascinating for me, particularly when done right.

This weekend I got my hands on the Early Access version of We Happy Few—no, I didn’t buy it, the developers sent me the code—and I got to play for a little while, exploring this alpha version dystopian world. Continue reading Preview: We Happy Few

Annoying Game Mechanics – Timed Sequences

Annoying Game Mechanics are those that just make you groan when you see them in a game. You’ve seen them at their best but you’ve also seen them at their worst. You can’t love them but you can’t hate them either, but you can definitely be annoyed!

This week the mechanic I’m having an issue with is Timed Sequences! I’m pulling this one from the 1001Up.com archives, as this was the last AGM to be featured on the site, and it was a video! Thankfully, there are no records of it ever existing and the world is a happier place for it. You don’t need me mumbling on video with poor audio. You already have me mumbling on video with good audio!

Sometimes games need to add a bit more pressure to your current task. Maybe they want you to hurry the hell up before the nuclear reactor blows up, or maybe they want you to hold on to dear life and withstand something unfairly difficult for a little while before something else happens! These are Timed Sequences, events or segments in a game where you have a finite time window to complete a task. Unlike other Annoying Game Mechanics, there are two types of Timed Sequences:

Timed Tasks, as their name imply mean you have a set time to go about your business. Maybe it’s escaping a room before a bomb blows up, or escape a crime-scene before the police arrive, or lock your doors before someone comes barging in. These timed sequences add tension to a sequence. The gameplay remains the same as do all the rules, but now you have that timer pressuring you.

Survival Countdown sequences are not specific tasks, not simple objectives to follow. Instead your only goal is to survive or hold on until the time runs out or some other even triggers. Real Time Strategy games are fond of this one, of giving you a five minute window until victory triggers with the difficulty ramping up the more time passes. While the previous mean to increase tension, these are frantic and meant to test your composure and reaction time.

If done properly these sequences do exactly what they’re meant to do, they add tension and make for exciting gameplay. They make you nervous enough to make mistakes as you fumble with the controls, but lenient enough that you can commit errors and still make it through. The successful ones add an incomparable adrenaline rush to your game and in doing so enhance the player’s immersion.

If they screw up, on the other hand, the only thing they’ll cause is stress and frustration, becoming tall walls the players need to overcome to move along with the rest of the game. They kill the fun and immersion they tried to enhance and make sure the player doesn’t have fond memories of the game.

The staple of an annoying mechanic is that it’s seen both good and bad days. The following are some of the best and most disappointing uses:

Good:

  • Every Metroid game has at least one timed sequence, usually in the form of an escape. From leaving the self-destructing planet at the end of Metroid 1 and Super Metroid to the reactor core meltdown in Metroid Fusion. These sequences are exciting and tense but you have enough leeway to royally screw up and still make it out in time.
  • Warcraft III has a few of these. The most memorable one is the last mission in the Undead Campaign, where you summon the Burning Legion to Azeroth. The enemies become ever stronger and the units come out faster and it’s a frantic race to keep your defenses up until the time is done. Thankfully your new masters send you aid in the form of demonic units to help vanquish your enemies and give you some breathing space!
  • Guild of Dungeoneering has an interesting take on the timed tasks. Some dungeons will feature a “sleeping” monster. The creature will come after you in a number of turns and you have to do your best to gear and level up before it does. The best part about it is that if you manage to reach it before it wakes up, it will take a hit to its stats, making the fight considerably easier.
  • Resident Evil games also have a tendency for self-destruct escapes. Resident Evil 2 is the most memorable of them in my opinion by having a boss fight right in the middle of it. It would be stressful if not for two reasons. First, the timer is generous enough. Second, by the time you get to the boss you’ll have a massive arsenal with which to take the boss out with time to spare. So it works as a wonderfully tense situation.
  • One of the most memorable stages in StarCraft is the mission where you must hold on until evacuation comes by resisting attacks by the Protoss and Zerg. This is the mission where Kerrigan falls. It was wonderfully paced and by the end you hate to leave her behind.
  • The Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth has a wonderful starting timed sequence. You have to jump out of bed and block out the entrances to your room before the villagers can come after you. From then it escalates into a chase sequence where each locked door adds a bit of time for a breather. If you’re playing on the PC version—in which the main character moves at 1/6 of the normal speed—this extra time is vital!
  • Final Fantasy VIII has a fantastic timed sequence. While fighting Seifer on the Lunatic Pandora, Odin will appear and attempt to kill him only to die in the process. You then see Odin’s sword flying through the sky and a mysterious hand grabbing it as it parts the clouds. If you then stretch the battle on, eventually Gilgamesh will show up, kill Seifer and take Odin’s place as your new summon. It’s entirely optional but very rewarding!

Bad:

  • Dracula 2 added these to the game, but they are outstandingly frustrating. With the poor resolution on its static backgrounds, finding the latch to close the door or the mirrors to move to kill a vampire is a bit of frustrating pixel hunting that will annoy you to no end.
  • Batman: Arkham Knight added VR challenges for the Batmobile, where you race from one end to another or have a limited time to do something with the clunky tank. By that last sentence you should know why this is a bad one. The Batmobile has worthless maneuverability, making each turn take so much time that completing the challenges becomes painful. It doesn’t help that time boosters are so out of the way that it’s pointless to get them.
  • Guild of Dungeoneering makes the list again but this time with its monster chase quests. In these the monster is coming after you and will get to you in a matter of turns. With the way the AI works for determining its next move, these quests can be very frustrating when your character walks straight into the monster’s path.
  • Various JRPG, including Xenoblade Chronicles, have unbeatable boss fights where you just have to hold on for a certain number of turns until something else happens. These sequences feel cheap and are insanely punishing and barely beatable. Worse still, if for some reason you out-level the content, then it feels as though you lose by plot even if you manage to defeat the monster.
  • Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness has a few of these. The first one is at an old lady’s house, where you must escape before the police get there, but not before you find a journal. The only problem is that the journal is nowhere in sight. So you look around and of course, it’s in the kitchen? What? The time you have to do this is very tight and the ridiculous location for the item just adds to the confusion.
    • Later on you need to escape from a room where someone set a bomb, but even the smallest of missteps will make the thing go boom.

Review: Resident Evil: Revelations 2

Resident Evil: Revelations 2 puts you in control of four characters, searching for answers in a hostile island and a way out, before fear consumes and changes them—literally so.

Genre(s): Survival Horror

Developer: Capcom

Publisher: Capcom

Release Date: February-March 2015

Played: Full Season + 4 hours Raid Mode

Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox360, Xbox One

Purchase At: Steam

Good:

  • Terrific characterization.

  • Strong survival-focused gameplay.

  • Strong Japanese voice cast.

Bad:

  • Bad environmental design.

  • Repetitive documents.

  • Uneven plot pacing.

 

Review

I still remember the announcement for RER2. It came during a week when female members of our community were under fire and the women’s role and portrayal in games were under debate. When they announced Clare was coming back, I honestly thought, “This is what we need, one of the original female badasses, Clare Redfield!” Capcom definitely nailed the timing for their announcement.

And that is one thing Resident Evil: Revelations 2 does right: character portrayals. Clare isn’t the same girl we met in Resident Evil 2 but one of the senior Terra Save agents. She’s strong, decisive and courageous, but without losing her humanity, which is harder to do than you’d expect—most of the times writers just cross the line into Impossible Hardass.

It's all about Kafka!
It’s all about Kafka!

With Clare is Moira Burton, Barry’s daughter and the most foul-mouthed character in all of Resident Evil. What I like most about Moira is she shows significant growth during the story. At the start she refuses to even hold a gun because of a childhood trauma, but by the end she manages to push herself beyond it. I liked that development and it feels real and believable…you know, even with the crazy genetic monstrosities.

The rest of the main cast consists of Barry himself, coming to the island where the plot takes place (I’ll get on that in a bit) a few months later than Clare and his daughter, hoping to find answers to her fate. Barry is a rock of a character, acting as the strong and collected one to his companion, Natalia, an 11-year-old-ish girl. Where she falters he’s there to offer support and as such he doesn’t evolve as much as the rest, but is instrumental in the other character’s development.

The nonsensical skill tree
The nonsensical skill tree

RER2 doesn’t waste time in setting up its premise. During the opening cinematic, an assault team attacks and captures all Terra Save workers at their yearly corporate party. When Clare wakes she’s in a mysterious prison with Moira and fitted with a strange metal bracelet. The bracelets change colour depending on the person’s state of mind, going from green to a deep red the more frightened they become. The island is home to savage mutants like those found in Resident Evil 4 and 5 and there’s a woman, The Overseer, constantly taunting them and driving them closer to fear and despair.

Clare and Moira’s half is all about survival and finding out and stopping The Overseer’s plans. Barry’s half is about finding his daughter, arriving on the island 6 months after Clare’s initial chapter, following an SOS. He meets Natalia, a young girl surviving on her own, and with the mysterious ability to sense monsters and even their weak spots. She met Moira & Clare in the past and guides Barry to where they last saw each other.

Tourniquets are the way to go...unless you're out of herbs!
Tourniquets are the way to go…unless you’re out of herbs!

The story itself is the usual Resident Evil fare of crazy viruses and deranged genetic experimentation that ultimately becomes so out there you lose all interest in it. But in its episodic storytelling, RER2 splits the reveals very well between its two story arcs, keeping you interested and asking questions until it finally shows its hand. The works of Franz Kafka, The Metamophosis in particular, are at the core of the plot, just taken literal and to the extreme. This game’s writers don’t believe in subtlety.

The narrative split might be good but the pacing is uneven between the Clare and Barry segments—some are plot-heavy while others are combat-centric—and it doesn’t take long for you to learn or figure out everything about the story, making some of the last episode’s climaxes fall terribly short.

Resident Evils have always supported their narrative with documents strewn around the environment and RER2 continues this tradition but there are too repetitive and useless documents. I don’t mind backstory if it adds to the experience, but it feels as though they enough documents to make sure that you’d pick up at least one. It’s even worse considering much of what the documents tell you the characters later mention in cutscenes.

In terms of visuals, they’re around the same quality as Resident Evil 6’s, which isn’t surprising considering they both use the same engine. For this game, it’s not graphical quality that I look for, because I know it’ll be good. What I care about is the little details and the overall environment and creature design, which are some of the elements the horror will hang on. One thing in particular that stood out for me was how bad the lip-synching was. I played the game originally with Japanese audio (more on that later) and even switching to English didn’t make the lips sync-up with the words. In fact, the lips barely move.

Monster design differs greatly between Clare and Barry’s segments. Clare’s enemies are more akin to the wild enemies from The Evil Within, self-mutilated and with heavy body modifications, while Barry’s are more traditional RE monstrosities and desiccated zombies. Clare’s work very well the first time they show up, but lose their effectiveness as a visual fear stimulus very quickly. Barry’s on the other hand remain effective for much longer, especially since they are very difficult to kill if you don’t target their Ouroboros core.

Bleeding is extremely dangerous in RER2
Bleeding is extremely dangerous in RER2

Sadly, the environments themselves are dull, drab and lack any form of atmosphere and rehash locations from previous titles—prison facilities, derelict villages and ruined buildings. There’s even a moment in Episdoe 2 where you must survive an assault from enemies while inside a building, killing enemies before they jump inside. Sound familiar? Setting the game in a wider open area presents challenges, that I understand, but I do wish they had done a better job, made them much more interesting. The environments also clashed with the accounts from the documents—you should have seen more remnants of the previous occupants, more signs of violence. Instead of helping the immersion, this clash countered it.

Clare's enemies are fast and strong!
Clare’s enemies are fast and strong!

Music is largely absent from the game, coming in during high-stress sequences with the appropriate tense music and almost at random during investigative and exploration segments. These pieces are moodier and eerie but the volume is low, almost like background noise and often drowned out by other sounds. It left me to wonder what the point was. The moody bits are very good but with the bland environments, there’s not much they can do to help the immersion opportunities the visual side already squandered.

I played the game in Japanese first, as I often do with Japanese games. I still used English text for subtitles. I have a less than rudimentary grasp on the Japanese tongue but I can tell right away when the English script is departing radically from the Japanese one. For example, Moira doesn’t curse in the Japanese version, not as much, but instead says “Saiyaku,” which literall means Disaster but you can take it—transliterated—as “This is the worst!” which is also Barry’s common catchphrase, a shared mannerism between parent and child. The voice acting is generally good but I find the Japanese to be superior, as there’s a lot more strength put into the performances. The American cast falters during emotional sequences. Pedro’s actor in Japanese sounds genuinely terrified and panicky during the Episode 2 village sequence, while the American doesn’t and the emotion he portrays doesn’t match up with the character’s body language.

Natalia can sense monsters, even through walls. Pretty handy for stealth-kills!
Natalia can sense monsters, even through walls. Pretty handy for stealth-kills!

The gameplay remains very much like Resident Evils after the 4th instalment, with the over the shoulder camera and aiming. It’s a style I like very much and allows me to headshot enemies as much as I want to, which I enjoy doing, just to test my accuracy. You can instantly switch from the main characters (Clare & Barry) to their partners and you’ll need to as most of the ‘puzzles’ revolve around doing two things almost at once with the characters, such as pulling levers in separate rooms. Only your main characters carry weapons, the secondary ones have melee attacks and are just there for support really. Though the AI partner did finish off a few enemies for me when I was out of ammo.

Battle Points (BP) are back, used to upgrade your characters with the obligatory skill system, increasing some of your base abilities and the effectiveness of items. Some of the upgrades are pretty useful but most are worthless. For example, one of them increases how effective Green Herbs are, but even without it they already heal you completely. The only point in getting that ability is unlocking the one further down the tree. The tree itself makes no sense, with abilities having thematically unrelated ones as prerequisites. The previous Green Herb skill is a prerequisite for the Charged Melee attack skill, for example.

RER2 gives you a dedicated “Pick-up” button that works well for consumables but the game then alternates between it and the “Use” button so many times I found myself shouting “Make up your mind!” at the screen. At some points it prompted me to pick up items with one button then with the other, leaving me irritated and confused.

Speaking of weapons, RER2 features a crafting system for secondary items. You can use bottles to make up to four kinds of bombs—Molotov cocktails and smoke bombs for example– and cloth for tourniquets, as a minor healing kit and to stop the bleeding effect, and disinfectants, for clearing your HUD of monster goop. The latter isn’t really useful due to the very small number of blinding monsters. Weapon upgrades return from the previous game and they work exactly the same, providing mostly passive bonuses such as increased damage, capacity or reduced recoil. Golden Upgrades give your weapons new powers. They aren’t necessary but they do help, especially the rare ones, and I found myself exploring the dreadfully bland environments looking for secret chests.

In terms of enemies and combat, Clare’s are much closer to the original RE series’ bullet sponges, taking in tons of damage before falling—though headshots help and it’s why I go for them. Barry’s on the other hand are much closer to the Resident Evil 4+ style of enemies with weak points. Bosses, for either character, fall into this latter category, with a single weak point you first need to reveal before actually damaging the boss.

Language Moira!
Language Moira!

Conclusion

Resident Evil: Revelations 2’s gameplay and characterization make up for some of its design and narrative flaws, and while it’s not the deepest of stories it will keep you hooked until the end and beyond if you like to indulge in the RPG-esque raid mode. It’s a flawed game, definitely, but worth a shot, even if it fails at the horror half of Survival Horror.

TMA SCORE:

4/5 – Exceptional