Around the Park in 79 Days

Since I was already shopping at PlayStation Store, I also ended up buying Firewatch, Campo Santo’s fairly well-received debut adventure from 2016. It stars Henry, a man broken by life’s surprising curve balls. He decides to get away from pretty much everything and takes a job as a reclusive fire lookout in the Yellowstone National Park. The only one to keep him company is chatty Delilah, a lookout on the neighboring watchtower. Although Henry has never met her, they quickly end up forming a long distance (work) relationship through radio. Days go by with small talk, long hikes, and dealing with drunken teenagers, although it soon becomes apparent that not everything is as it should. There are shadowy people lurking about, park visitors either go missing or have gone missing ages ago, Henry and Delilah find out they’re being eavesdropped, and some areas have been suspiciously fenced up. Amid all these mysteries, Henry is still expected to take care of his post and ensure that an exceptionally hot and dry summer won’t end up in a catastrophic wildfire.

Probably the first thing the player notices is the openness of this first person exploration adventure. Henry has been put in charge of a fairly vast area and the game isn’t that much into hand-holding. If the man has to do some routine patrolling or spots something peculiar in the horizon, the route has to be figured out with frequent glances to a map and a compass. Even if merely walking around in the middle of beautiful nature has its charm, Firewatch is first and foremost about the chemistry between Henry and Delilah. They’re both adults, slightly broken personalities who possess a delightfully cynical attitude towards life, complemented by crude humor. Their abundant interaction supports an otherwise tranquil story most well, especially as the player is frequently given a chance to choose how Henry reacts.

In real-time, Henry’s two and a half month summer job takes about four hours to experience. This time consists of plenty of peace of nature, remarkable sunrises and sunsets, magnificent vistas, rappelling down cliffs, discovering abandoned campsites, and getting caught up in odd, increasingly unnerving events. As a slight blemish, gaining access to some areas can feel awkward and implausible, and even the overall story stumbles a little towards the end. This is, however, easy to forgive as the main attraction is still very much the chance encounter of two imperfect souls only via walkie-talkies. Granted, when all is said and done, Firewatch is another release that is game in name only but like so many of these “walking simulators” have shown, this media is perfectly suitable for mere stories, too. Me likey.

Edith, Edith, Who the F*** Is Edith?

That’s pretty much what I was asking myself when going through other players’ lists of the best games of last year. Quite many of them mentioned What Remains of Edith Finch, whose developer Giant Sparrow sounded oddly familiar. After a bit of thinking, I remembered that they were the studio behind the really quite lovely The Unfinished Swan back in 2012. Since What Remains of Edith Finch happened to be on PlayStation Store’s sale this month, I had no choice but to see what sort of potential hit had managed to fly under my usually so finely tuned radar. Now, only a couple of short hours later, I have to admit that despite the experience having been a fleeting one, it was also an extremely beautiful and touching little story.

Despite being just 17, Edith Finch is the last of her kin. As years have gone by, all Finches have either disappeared or died, often in the most peculiar of circumstances. After being away for six years, Edith returns to her childhood home in order to get better acquainted with her roots that some claim to be cursed. Although the doors of the derelict mansion are seamed shut, the house is full of hidden passages through which Edith finds her way around to learn more about the life and fate of her ancestors. Through letters and diaries, she gets drawn into flashbacks that make her experience the last moments of her family through their eyes. As creepy as that might sound, the game most certainly isn’t a horror adventure but a wistful and mystic journey full of captivating fantasy.

As a first-person adventure, What Remains of Edith Finch is pure exploration with all interaction limited to just walking around and activating miscellaneous hotspots with the controller’s shoulder button. The narrated thoughts of both Edith and other Finch family members float nicely around the environment, taking care of not just storytelling but also gently guiding the player along. Although the abandoned mansion is pretty huge, the adventure is remarkably straightforward and much more about soaking everything in than actually playing as such. And that’s about all that can be said to avoid spoilers. All the magic stems from the melancholic but also remarkably eccentric fate of each Finch, often ripping open the fabric of reality.

In a nutshell, What Remains of Edith Finch is an impressive fairy tale for grown-ups, one that can easily make the player even a little misty-eyed. Its short length, deliberate tranquility, and lack of genuine gameplay elements might not be for everyone but for those interested in emotionally powerful stories, it’s a journey most fine and memorable!

The Luck of the Underachiever

No need to feel down; none of this matters!

Gaming year 2018 continues under fair winds as the eternity topic of this blog, The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars, is now thoroughly done! Against ridiculously small odds, one random gold present was finally kind enough to contain the very last costume I was still missing. About two seconds later, the game disc left the console for never to return. Although I had already considered the game beaten after raising all idols to S rank, I now have its elusive platinum trophy as well. This utterly insane challenge ended up taking over 303 hours. While such a number would make the game easily the longest I have ever played, the truth isn’t quite so straightforward.

Somewhere around 200 hours, I realized that the game doesn’t actually care about its player at all. For each live, the amount and content of eventual gifts has been drawn even before the first note, so it makes no difference whether the song is played at all. As pathetic as that is, it turned out to be a blessing of sorts. Mindless repetition was no longer an issue as it was possible to just mute the TV, start the live, and go do something else entirely. Granted, it was still necessary to skip all post-live cutscenes and start a new round every few minutes but that was thankfully all the attention the game required. Ironically enough, this kind of non-playing is even a little faster way to make progress as it does away with cutscenes related to successful performances.

All the goodwill I might have had for this otherwise really quite proficient rhythm game during its first 20-30 hours went down the drain as months went by. In the end, Project iM@S and Bandai Namco only succeeded to display incredible nihilism by imagining that a game that is noticeably light in content would somehow feel more full-bodied by pitting the player against a sadistic random number generator for hundreds of hours. The game doesn’t have even a trifle of respect for its players’ time, and it would be even more ruthless towards their wallets, should anyone be foolish enough to drop hundreds of euros for additional overpriced songs, costumes, and potentially grind-lessening gifts. It’s almost insulting how little the company thinks of its customers but I suppose even a grossly cynical approach like this is somehow worth it to them.

For those willing to treat Platinum Stars as nothing more than a simple little snack for an evening or two, it’s not half bad. For completionists, however, the journey is mind-numbingly long, boring, and unrewarding. Just last December, Bandai Namco released The Idolm@ster: Stella Stage, which looks pretty much the same for its rhythm part, at least. Still, if its career mode has been ruined in a similar fashion, it’s one to pass. I’ll be damned to go through this kind of madness ever again.

Punful Days with a Side Order of Cats

Spirry just being her (?) lovable curt self

Good quality games can pop up from anywhere around the world. Yesterday, this claim was proved by the Singaporean indie studio The Gentlebros, whose consciously tongue-in-cheek cat action RPG Cat Quest managed to glue me to the telly for all of its eight hours’ worth. Its nameless feline hero is in trouble from the very beginning. A wicked white cat, Drakoth, kidnaps his sister and starts terrorizing the hapless, peasant-filled kingdom of Felingrad with ancient dragons. As luck would have it, our poor hero turns out to be a descendant of the mythical dragon slayers. Granted, he’s also very much the silent type but that’s not really an issue as he’s soon joined by a jovial and chatty cat spirit Spirry. Together, these two end up pouncing all over Felingrad, foiling Drakoth’s dastardly plans while bumping into pretty much every imaginable, most awkward cat pun in known existence.

After a delightfully compact intro, almost the entirety of Felingrad is immediately open for exploration. The whole game world is literally a map that has been filled with amusingly named areas, villages, dungeons, and a bunch of cutesy monsters. The latter are beaten in fluent real-time combat that is based on skillfully simplified controls. One button is reserved for attacking and another for nimby rolling away from harm’s way. The four shoulder buttons of the controller, in turn, can be customized to fling spells sold and enhanced by Felingrad’s mage kittens. Although magic is powerful, it requires mana that can only be restored in melee combat, so all brawls require at least a modicum of tactical thinking. As for items or shops, there are none. Village inns are just free save spots and practically all weapons and gear are acquired from cat chests within dungeons.

In order to keep the player suitably leveled up for the main story, all villages have notice boards providing plenty of miscellaneous side quests. Some of them end up teaching the hero essential special skills such as the ability to walk on water or even fly. Most of them, though, are merely simple variations of themes such as “fetch something”, “go somewhere”, “kill all”, or usually all three rolled into one. While this sort of lazy and haphazard quest design would poison pretty much any game, Cat Quest sports a full house of cuteness and (good) bad humor but, most importantly, exemplary pacing. Since all the quests and dungeons are extraordinarily short, those eight hours are perfectly adequate to complete all 62 side quests, triumph over all 52 dungeons, and even level up the hero all the way up to 99. Even if the entire adventure ends up repeating itself from the very beginning to the very end, the pace itself is so delightfully brisk that the repetition never has time to turn into an actual issue. Since all quests and dungeons are even polite enough to hint what their recommended character level is, there’s not even need for pointless grinding.

Whereas so many games, indies in particular, expect their players to come around and then stay around for extended, often unreasonably long periods of time, Cat Quest is lovably honest. It is fully aware of its capability to provide goofy entertainment for no more than a day or so, but it also does its darnedest to ensure that day will be as entertaining as possible. That’s exactly how mine turned out, so mission accomplished and two thumbs up!

That aforementioned mini-gem also kicked off this year’s shopping coverage as Ron Gilbert’s Thimbleweed Park actually managed to find its new home during the very last days of 2017. Not only is it my first (and most likely last) physical PC release, it’s most certainly one of the finest commemorations to all those wonderful Lucasfilm graphic adventures of the late 80’s and early 90’s. You know, those games that were loved by so many of us modern day geezers who were too broke and flippant as teenagers back then. Even if the likes of Good Old Games have since then given us a chance to atone digitally, those big boxes of the past remain just as awesome as they once were.

Flogging an (Un)dead Horse

Even Clementine knows how the story will go

My gaming year seems to continue in a gloomy fashion, even if Japanese spirits have already been replaced by American undead. Telltale’s five-episode The Walking Dead: A New Frontier culminated in last May but I once again waited for a retail release to enjoy this third season in one fell swoop. Although the series’ long-standing heroine Clementine is still very much around, the spotlight now falls primarily on former baseball player Javier Garcia and his makeshift family. Not only do they have daily trouble with the undead, they also have to deal with the titular New Frontier; a notorious group of settlers operating from Richmond. As expected, in a collapsed society humans can be an even bigger threat than zombies, so both Clementine and Javier’s posse soon end up fighting not just for their survival but their humanity as well.

Rewinding time for about five years, Telltale had just published their first The Walking Dead which handily ended up rejuvenating almost the entire genre of graphic adventures. Although the game didn’t feature much in the way of actual gameplay, this was easily forgiven. The chilling story that delivered a constant barrage of tough moral dilemmas altering its flow took the gaming world by storm, myself included. It was a wild success story that surprised players and maybe even the studio itself. Since then, however, things have backfired. The studio churns out its episodic adventures with such a hectic pace that it’s hard to get excited about them. The likes of The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands still worked because of their original source material but as for The Walking Dead, even its second season started to repeat itself and A New Frontier only manages to do the same in an even more pronounced fashion.

This latest story is less than seven hours in length, which is actually a good thing as everything is already overly familiar. The zombies are nothing more than a tired source of mandatory drama, nonchalantly dealt with in various gory ways via simple QTE button presses. All humans, in turn, are almost predictable in their capriciousness with all interactions irrevocably leading to increasingly more dire situations. The weight of having to make painful decisions and deal with the consequences worked once, in the first game. By the second one, that charm was already thinning out and now everything is just plain awkward; no matter the choices, things are guaranteed to only get worse. The game hasn’t got a single plot twist or action sequence that wouldn’t feel recycled in some way and thus even the saddest of fates no longer manages to raise any eyebrows.

If anything, it’s at least nice to see how Telltale’s notoriously stuttering game engine finally runs smoothly on PS4. Sadly Javier’s satchel in particular is prone to many weird graphical glitches that easily ruin cutscenes for long periods of time. The retail copy is a bit disappointing, too, as only the first episode is on disc while the remaining four have to be individually downloaded from the PSN store.

Despite all this naysay, A New Frontier is a passable Telltale production. It’s unsurprising, yet still reasonably entertaining one-night stand, especially if picked up from a bargain bin. Unfortunately it also teases a fourth season that will most likely meet the same fate; this series simply doesn’t seem to have any ideas or content left.

Chibi Scares

That’s not what I meant wanting to cut ties with you!

Scary merry New Year to all fellow gamers! Scary mostly because I lack all sense of sensible timing and decided to kick off 2018 with a release that would have felt more at home during Halloween. Then again, those who are not into horror have nothing to fear; Yomawari: Midnight Shadows draws much less from cheap jump scares as it does from gloomy melancholy and Japan’s exceptionally bountiful spirit mythology. The game revolves around childhood friends Haru and Yui, who enjoy a cheery late-summer fireworks show before heading back home through a dark and foreboding forest. Sadly, malicious spirits soon appear to separate the girls from each other. What’s worse, such apparitions even patrol the streets and alleyways of their suddenly desolated home town. Both girls wish nothing more than to be reunited, so they have no recourse but to brave the night and head out to the streets in search of one another while desperately trying to figure out what has happened.

Since it’s not very realistic to expect elementary school kids to have a fighting chance against forces of darkness, Yomawari is all about survival horror. Some spirits can be vanquished, halted, or at least made visible with the beam of a flashlight, and it might even be possible to harm some by pelting them with rocks. Still, hands down the best way to survive is to run away as fast as a rapidly depleting stamina meter allows. Billboards, discarded cardboard boxes, and bushes act as good impromptu hiding places when something wicked just won’t give up a chase. Ten yen coins picked up from here and there, on the other hand, are just perfect for activating Jizo statues that serve both as save points and handy warp portals to the various parts of the girls’ little home town (and eventually even the neighboring town).

Alternating regularly between Haru and Yui, the really quite loose and vague story has very little else going for it. Coupled with moments of aimless wandering around in free roam style, the adventure leads the girls’ to haunted mansions, sewers, derelict train yards, and many other spooky places that aren’t ever pleasant to explore in nighttime. Every now and then they come across slightly bigger menaces, although these confrontations, too, are mostly about madly scampering away from lethal attacks.

The biggest issue about Yomawari is that it seems to love folklore more than it does storytelling. Haru, Yui, and their eventual fates are merely grace notes to a huge bunch of imaginative spirits. Sadly, learning the nature and how to either avoid or banish each of them is – at least from a western perspective – a matter of trial and error leading to dozens and dozens of deaths on the way. Not that game over itself would be much of a threat. Death simply means returning to the last activated save point, even with all collected items still in tow. The biggest hurdles in making progress are the excessive cheapness of some spirits and the sheer boredom of having to trek back to the point of last demise. Having only a couple of seconds to react to many threats, or even dying without knowing what just happened are fairly frequent occurrences. Both Haru and Yui are annoyingly slow when walking and not much faster when sprinting, especially as panic depletes their otherwise ample stamina meter within seconds. All of this contributes to the game being more about sheer frustration than actual suspense or fear.

The production values aren’t much better. The isometric chibi graphics can be beautiful and detailed at times but the sounds are overly sparse. There’s no spoken dialogue or even music (apart from the ending credits), so the roughly seven-hour-long journey is only about footsteps, heart bumps, chirping cicadas, and various moans and growls of nearby spirits. Even with a comprehensive guide, it takes almost as much time to locate everything the two towns have to offer, as they both feature plenty of small, inconsequential junk serving no other purpose than to be collected. At least it’s nice to be able to still grab everything during the post game but a chore is still a chore.

Sure, Yomawari can be amusingly weird in that unique, deeply Japanese way, and its rich assortment of spirits is at least moderately enchanting. As it stands, however, it’s mostly just a mundane slaughterhouse of cute chibi characters, which isn’t really that entertaining, especially as so many others have already done something similar in the past. Still, it’s at least an initial benchmark for 2018, so thanks, I guess, and with that I’m off to find the next contestant!