I Have No Idea What I’m Doing (Kairo)

The somewhat jokingly but later canonically termed “Walking Simulator” genre gets a lot of flak for being a lot of nothing. Walking Sims are filled with games such as Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, games which contain little more gameplay or story than what the title will already tell you. But people often forget that this genre also contains gems such as The Stanley Parable, arguably a masterpiece by the common standard.

I wouldn’t call Kairo a masterpiece. And I wouldn’t call it a brilliant game. But I certainly wouldn’t call it a waste of time, either.

Kairo utilises abstraction to maintain the player’s interest in their surroundings as they traverse the simplistic but highly atmospheric world. The game benefits highly from not attempting to shove a narrative down your throat, opting to instead let you explore at your own pace and leisure. There’s plenty of narrative to be soaked up in secrets, pictures, environments and the odd set-piece, but you could – if you wanted – ignore all of these things entirely, and it would not impact your ability to enjoy this game.

I suppose I am cheating somewhat by discussing Kairo like it’s purely a Walking Sim. The game is actually a puzzler, containing many rooms that don’t tell you what to do, simply leaving you to work it out as if you truly were a wanderer coming across these bizarre places for the first time. If you really do get stuck, the developers had the foresight to add a hints screen in the pause menu, and even they don’t give everything away if you choose to read all three levels of hint. There’s also no penalty for reading them, in achievements or otherwise.

The game itself is fairly short. I finished it in around three hours, not accounting for collectables. And while I’m sure that there’s a full story in there somewhere, I personally couldn’t garner anything from the conclusion as to what was happening or what I’d ultimately done besides just turning things on. But I had a good, satisfying time completing the puzzles before me and admiring the abstract, boxy world.

There are a few rooms that aren’t linked to the overall completion of the game, containing no hints and straying from the typical logic followed by the main puzzles. There’s achievements that these seem to be tied to, so I look forward to returning to the game and figuring them out. I always welcome a game that gives you something to do after you’ve effectively beaten it; it adds to the sense of a wider world as you make your way to the end.

The default price is £4.00, so if that’s too much for you to spend on a Walking Sim / Puzzle game that lasts a few hours (as it is for me), then wait for it to appear in a bundle or dip down to a pittance in a sale. But if you’re looking for a calm, perplexing experience, Kairo is a safe bet.

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The Fighting, Fishing Farmer (Stardew Valley)

I’ve never played a Harvest Moon game before. I’ve eyed up the games on more than one occasion, but Nintendo typically doesn’t like to sell any of its big franchise titles below £20 and the very minimum. (Steam may have spoiled me in this regard.) I have, however, played my fair share on Animal Crossing games (Wild World, City Folk, New Leaf) and am a sucker for this genre of game.

It is easy, then, to see why Stardew Valley caught my eye. To this day, it remains as one of the only games I’ve bought upon its release without waiting for it go on sale in a year’s time. (Other games in this special category include Rocket League and Robot Roller Derby Disco Dodgeball.) After seeing approximately 5 seconds of a little pixellated guy planting some seeds of whatever, I leaned in intently for a closer look. 5 minutes later and it was downloading.

So here’s how my day begins: I get up, I water the crops. Preferably I’d like this to be automated eventually, as my ever-expanding farm takes longer and longer to water, but for this I need iron, and that’s a whole other enterprise. After watering the crops, I say a quick hello to Tocco the dog, before trotting into town. When I get there, I typically stop and realise that I’ve no idea what to do with my day. Should I go fishing? Foraging? Monster slaying and mining? Try to make friends and woo potential future wives? (Yes, marriage is another goal to work towards in-game.)

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This game is a little too realistic for my liking.

Currently, my main demand is making money. I need to buy a silo, and a chicken coop. I need to buy more crops to sell more crops. I need to buy a house upgrade to get a kitchen and delve into cooking. I need to buy tool upgrades, too, and I’m torn as to whether I should do that first or continue saving up. The game’s economy is a perfect balance of not having enough money to race through the game, and being able to make money fast enough to the point where you actually feel like you’re doing something.

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Having not yet grasped the workings of the gifting system, I’d become convinced that you could gift any villager anything and it’d raise your friendship. Mayor Lewis was not impressed with the rock I gave him.

Never before has a game simulated the whole “not enough hours in a day” problem as Stardew Valley. (Well, maybe Harvest Moon, but I’ve never played those games.) I mean, at least in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask you could play a handy little tune to send you back in time. In Stardew Valley, I’ll sometimes be in the middle of cave diving and monster slaying when my character suddenly yawns, and I realise it’s midnight and I need to get home before I collapse at 2AM. Then it’s a rushed 6 hours sleep in which I dream about how much money the stuff I’ve dumped in my box has sold for, before it’s time to get up and water the crops again, bleary eyed and wondering how to spend my day.

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Had I known that the change of seasons would outright kill my crops, I’d have perhaps planted them a little earlier.

You may worry that Stardew Valley would get a bit routine, then, but the depth of the game counteracts this problem. Not only do you have plenty to do regarding skills, people and dungeon-running, but the game also has a good story, day-specific events and, of course, the changing of seasons to keep you occupied. Sometimes characters give you quests, asking you too find them a specific item and thereby rewarding you with gold and friendship. Sometimes you’ll walk into a room and a cutscene will start, cued by either storyline or level of friendship. There’s plenty to keep you busy, immersed, and out of a rut.

I have few criticisms, but I’ll express them anyway. Firstly, the controls. It’s difficult to explain, but sometimes when you click on a tile, you’ll instead interact with a different tile due to your character’s positioning. I feel that clicking on a tile that’s next to you should override the current position you’re facing and turn you, so that you don’t accidentally smash your potatoes with a pickaxe rather than that inviting looking stone behind you. My other small gripe as that, although the game’s soundtrack and ambiance is mostly perfect, the ambient noises they’ve included in forests for summer namely include flies buzzing loudly around the place. This might be realistic, but games like the Sims have conditioned me to believe that this noise is of negative origin, and I spent an embarrasingly long time trying to track down the source of the flies. It’s also just a, er, annoying noise.

 

That’s it, though. My two criticisms. Weighed against hundreds of points of positivity, I think it’s safe to say that Stardew Valley will be one of my longer-lasting companions in the gaming world.

 

Triple Whammy (Grapple, LYNE, and Qbeh-1)

Besides the ever-present Skyrim, I’ve not been playing all that much else in the way of gaming besides a smattering of smaller titles. There are three titles, however, which have caught my attention this week and I feel are deserving of a blog post!

 

The first is Grapple. You’re this groovy little blob and it is your absolute imperative to get from one side of the level to the other, ever-fearful of the spacial abyss which looms below you should you make a mistake, falling just too far of the platform which you yearn to reach. You are also the enemy of everything red, so don’t go touching that. You stick to everything like a Tory sticks to their outdated ideals (weyyy forced political joke). There are collectibles, multiple game modes (such as time trials and speed runs), and the physics engine is pretty darn gravy.

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…that was a close one!

I’m currently about a quarter of the way through the game and I find that there’s just enough challenge for my liking. I can become infuriated, but my rage is the quickly quenched by the following success. The levels are the perfect length, swinging is fun, collectibles are plentiful and hidden in a way that makes them missable, but not so much if you’re actively looking for them. It’s just fun, really. Oh, and it has a good soundtrack, too.

LYNE is marketed as a “deceptively simple” game, and I certainly wouldn’t disagree. All you have to do is match the shapes together and pass their lines through the octagons as many times as the octagons dictate necessary. I find that whenever I’m confronted with a level, I cry, “Simple! This one is simple!” And then I end up with a tangled mess like you see below:

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Just looking at it makes me want to solve it. Bleurgh.

There is a seemingly unending quantity of levels available. The base game is split up into sections of the alphabet, which have so far contained 25 levels each. However, the game also offers you procedurally generated batches of daily puzzles. It’s like having a big ol’ book of crossword puzzles, only the book has new puzzles at the back every day and instead of a crossword you’re looking at what should be a simply solved collection of shapes which stop you in your tracks.

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I tried to take a screenshot of me solving the puzzle, but I didn’t account for the bottom octagon. Blast!

Last but most definitely not least comes Qbeh-1: The Atlas Cube. This is the most incredibly beautiful puzzle platformer I’ve ever set eyes upon. It’s a weird cross between Q.U.B.E, Antichamber (the block-related parts, not the mind-bending geography) and community created Minecraft puzzle maps. The world is made of blocks, but you can only pick up a certain type of block and place it on a certain type of surface. When a block is place on a surface, you can then attach another block to it. Some blocks work as keys, others as gravity modifiers, but the red one you can just about see in the image below simply exists to be placed.

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Screenshots alone don’t really do it justice, but this should give you a general idea of the game’s atmosphere. Or at least, one of its worlds.

The game also comes with a level creator and Steam workshop integration, so you can build your own maps and share ’em. I’ve not done so yet, and probably won’t until I’ve beaten the game and gotten tired of scouring through the levels for collectibles. The collectibles usually entail finding out how to get to a secret section of the map, and then completing a few extra puzzles to reach it. It is plenty fun and challenging!

So, that’s what I’ve been playing this week. It’s worth noting that LYNE and Qbeh-1 are currently 99p and 69p, respectively, in the Humble Store winter sale. I’m no advertiser but that’s where I found these games, and I personally recommend them a lot.

Cleaning the King’s Basement (Hammerwatch)

For those of you not in the know, Hammerwatch is a top down, 2D Gauntlet-esque RPG. That is, to say, a highly minimalised version of Gauntlet. From what I’ve seen you get a basic attack and a mana-costing attack, you eat the food you find to survive, pick up coins and occasionally come across a vendor who can upgrade your attack, defense, or combo maneuvers.

When I first bought the game some time ago I gave it a whirl, died, and went, “Oh, game over is really game over; there’s no alternate progression and the levels aren’t randomised, so I’ll have to do it again. Well, whatever, that was fun.”

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Toasty! Leagues of skeletons are no match for Reece’s mastery of fire!

I wish to go back in time and slap myself in my big dumb face. Randomised dungeon crawlers have spoiled us; they appeal to our short attention spans and throw algorithms at us, which we gleefully lap up as we explore the never-ending shifting maze. Games like Hammerwatch reign us back in and invite us to consider the beauty of manual architecture; secrets are hidden ingeniously, food scattered provisionally, enemy spawns have rhyme and rhythm to them, and treasure is presented on a silver pedestal as opposed to half glitching into a wall somewhere.

The fun really begins when you pull a friend by their ear and get them to join in with you. The sense of adventure and exploration is more than doubled when shared, and the “OH GOD SAVE ME” moments are to be relished. Whilst I’ve never played Gauntlet beyond dabbling in Dark Legacy as a child on the PS2, I’ve read elsewhere that Hammerwatch really brings back the feeling of couch co-op that the old Gauntlet games excelled so well at.

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Wasn’t this the pivotal scene in Batman Begins?

The linearity of the game is to be praised. For the longest time, I thought the game would end after defeating the maggot boss after three floors. I know three floors doesn’t sound like much, but there truly was a rich quantity of content offered and the game came equipped with an expansion and user created campaigns, so I assumed this was the case. I once jokingly referred to Hammerwatch as a game in which you were hired to clean the King’s basement, as the three types of enemies you come across in the first segment of the game are ballistic bats, hardy beetles, and the never ending tide of maggots that spit so much acid at you, the game quickly descends into a bullet hell of avoidance and triumphant spamming of attack when you find that sweet spot devoid of pain.

Well anyway, my friend and I defeated the maggot queen and were surprised when we were met with not a credits screen but a new basement, full of skeleton warriors and archers. “Hurray!” we cried. “These 14 extra lives will make this a cakewalk!”

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This was not the case.

The Diversity We’ve Lost (Darksiders and the Gaming Industry)

Yesterday, my friend brought Darksiders 2 over for me to try out, thinking I’d like it. And he has good taste! It’s now on my to-buy list, after I play the first game. For me, the game hearkens back to the PS2 era, where games held more of a unique flare to them.

I only played the first few hours of Darksiders 2, but it was brilliant. That game is an intertextual haven for other genres, and it pulls it off flawlessly, without falling into the trap of trying to be too many things at once. It has the combat of Devil May Cry, the dungeons and lock-on combat of Legend of Zelda, the loot system of games like Dark Souls and Diablo; galloping through open fields and finding gigantic bosses is reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus. It even has a portal gun, if my friend is to be believed. And it does this all without feeling like it’s stealing from other games, or being unoriginal; it’s taking the best of other genres and blending them into the most delicious smoothie you’ve ever tasted. Unless you don’t like smoothies, in which case you’re like me, and we should head for the milkshakes immediately. And if you don’t like milkshake? Well, you’re beyond saving.

This game is more than just a love letter to the gaming universe, however. It has its own unique plot involving the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, multiple realms of existence connected through one world tree, that kind of thing. Similarly to its gameplay, its story takes influences from all kinds of places, whilst still making it unique. They have dwarves who are huge and built like tanks! Like I said, I only played around in the game for a few hours so I can’t exactly do a review on it as such, but even within the first few hours I was able to identify the game’s shining features.

And the art design! That is how you do art design. Not just the weapons you wield, but the very world around you is just delicious. From the vibrant green fields to the luminescent lava pools, this game will make your eyes pop out with happiness. And I was playing this on a PS3!

When I mentioned the PS2 era of gaming earlier, I was talking about how diverse the game library was for that system. Sure, you had your Need for Speeds and FIFAs, and Call of Duty was still making its baby steps towards competitive multiplayer… on console, anyway. But then you had Motor Mayhem. And Ratchet and Clank. You had Jak and Daxter transition into Jak 2 of all things, you had RC Revenge and Fur Fighters and Shadow of the Colossus, you had Wipeout and Smash Cars and you had god damn Road Trip Adventure, a game which I will surely cover in the future; it didn’t know whether to be Penny Racer or an RPG. And, hell, does anyone remember Herdy Gerdy?!

I’m not discounting the games we have today. Borderlands was a brilliant mesh of gaming genres. But it was an FPS. And in my eyes at least, Destiny is a different flavour of Borderlands, with a little bit of Halo mixed in there, asking me to buy ridiculous emotes as opposed to unnecessary character skins. And these games are all first person shooters. When I was a child, I used to read gaming magazines – my favourite was Games Master – and I used to enjoy reading through the many varieties of upcoming games that looked interesting and fun, and new. And I remember buying one of those gaming magazines for the first time since the 360 and PS3 came out, a few years after, and being disappointed that everything had descended into gritty shooters. Although the grittiness, to be fair, is something we seem to finally be leaving behind, as can be seen from the transition between Fallout 3 to Fallout 4, between CoD: World at War to CoD: Advanced Warfare.

Indie titles have been a step back towards this era of gameplay, and it’s something that’s really taken off in the last four or five years. We’ve had Bastion, for example. We’ve had Super Meat Boy, we’ve had The Binding of Isaac, we’ve had Trine. But these games are noticeably smaller in size, which is understandable given the limitations of independent resources and the lack of funding. When are we going to see an influx of unique games on the scale of Okamiden?

Probably not any time soon. Much as I’m sure we all hate to admit it, the gaming industry is an absolute mess right now. We’ve got DLC and microtransactions being enforced by corporate greed, ruining the integrity of the gameplay; we’ve got an oversaturation of half-baked indie titles burying truly talented games, and early access allowing developers to lose motivation after recieving a released game’s worth of money for an unfinished product; we have publishers rushing out titles before they’re finished, leading to broken and buggy gameplay.  The free-to-play model has leaked off of phones and into our consoles and computers, providing the most expensive, paywall-ridden games to date. We’re in a new age of online discussion and vocal minorities, harassing developers to make changes to their upcoming games which show of overly ambitious, unique changes that we don’t like because we’re already invested in the series. Seriously, never has game development been so public to its consumers, and people now more than ever are falling prey to the trap of judging a game many many months before it has been polished and balanced into its final release. And the developers understand this, but the pure visceral nature of community backlash is what forces them to change things.

But as long as games like Darksiders 2 can exist, there’s hope. And it’s not all bad; there are new indie titles which are brilliant, and early access games which have been a huge success. Hell, once in a blue moon we may even see a triple-A title like Darksiders emerge. It’s just a vastly different gaming world to the one we’ve known before, and whilst modern games shouldn’t be discounted for their progress in furthering entertaining gameplay, I, personally, would certainly welcome some miraculous transformation back into the diversity of the PS2 and previous consoles.