video games

Cibele

Hello folks. I wrote half of this review a year ago and never finished it. Finding it now, I don't really like my writing in it, but I'm fed up editing it, so here it is.

The negative reviews on Cibele’s Steam page seem to come largely from people who had different expectations, so I think it’s best that we address them first: I don’t think that it’s accurate to call Cibele a video game. While there are game-like elements, it doesn’t really contain any challenges and I wouldn’t really say that it’s something that you “play”.

Cibele is an interactive story about a teenage girl named Nina who falls in love with a boy online while playing an MMORPG called Valtameri. It’s only a few hours long and takes place across 3 acts. Each act is a combination of playing Valtameri, FMV of Nina in real life, and exploring Nina’s computer as if it was your own desktop. The Valtameri gameplay exists only as a vehicle for Nina and Blake’s conversations - it isn’t really a game in itself.

We join Nina in the middle of her story. She has been playing Valtameri for a long time and she already has some sort of relationship with Blake. We are made to feel deeply voyeuristic here: we have access to Nina’s computer and we see her world through camera angles that hint at some kind of hidden camera setup. Everything feels deeply personal. Here, Cibele does a great job of showing us how an interactive story can be more than a film and more than a game. If this was a game, you’d be hunting for a clue or a solution to a puzzle, but in Cibele, you’re just in the moment, looking in on someone else’s life. It’s a powerful setup. Each act is another window into the relationship, further along the timeline, and as you work through the scenes you experience the changes in their lives as they grow closer.

Cibele excels in its multimedia storytelling. You learn about Nina’s thoughts through file names on her desktop and the files she hides away, while you learn about Blake through stilted push-to-talk voice communications in Valtameri. The voice conversations have a certain cadence that I find so familiar as an ex MMO player - they’re put together beautifully and really hit the mark for me.

Cibele definitely isn’t for everyone, but if you spent your youth in an MMO or you like multimedia storytelling and interactive stories it might be worth a shot.

Steaming: Braid

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

I’m not sure how I missed it, but somehow, I forgot to talk about Braid. I played through it after Binding of Isaac, I suppose - that’s where it’d be in alphabetical order, so that must be when it was.

I’d heard a lot about Braid. One of the true original indie stars, it catapulted its author, Jonathan Blow, into the headlines and did the same for indie games development. Suddenly, anyone could make a game. It was an interesting time to be into games and the industry. I read a lot about it, but I didn’t actually play Braid. It was released in 2008 and I was catching up on games I’d missed while I’d been away travelling. I think I was knee-deep in Bioshock. Well, it’s time to fix that. This is a puzzle game based around time travel, and the manipulation of time: throughout the various worlds, you gain various powers over the passage of time and the world reacts to them in unusual ways. You must collect puzzle pieces in each world to complete a series of jigsaw puzzles.

Braid is gorgeous: it looks like a moving painting, and that’s exactly the aesthetic it was going for. It is, however, a little dated by today’s standards, and I don’t mean to sound like one of those people who talk about framerates when I say that: I just mean that it somehow looks as old as it is, which I wouldn’t have expected from this kind of game. Perhaps it’s more down to how character movement in 2D gaming has changed. Spelunky, for example, has made the platformer look so much more refined than Braid. It’s not exactly a criticism, but it certainly struck me.

Braid’s not about movement, though. Not like Spelunky is. And it’s not about looks, although they must have been a part of it’s success. It’s about the puzzles, and Braid is a brain teaser for sure. Where Antichamber felt like it was trying to be clever, Braid actually is, and the solution to almost every level in this game is reached with experimentation and lateral thinking that makes you feel genuinely clever. You often find yourself moving in the right direction, close to reaching the jigsaw piece that you’re trying to grab, but not quite making it. You try again, and again, getting closer each time. Eventually, you crack it, and it all fits together. Where Antichamber failed in this was that the solutions often felt a little too organic: I felt like I’d cheated my way through rather than solving the room in the intended fashion. With Braid, there are a few moments like that (in one puzzle I think I glitched a key through the floor) but overall the balance feels right. It felt like I was coming up with the solution myself, but the solution wasn’t painful to execute each time.

Braid is on the short-but-sweet side of gaming, clocking in at 5.9 hours for me according to Steam, and none of that time is wasted. There’s no filler here - barely even any story, in fact - and I was left feeling happy that I’d bought it and played it. I was a little disappointed by the difficulty, though: I’d heard so much about what a hard game it was and went in hoping for a real challenge, but I never really found myself stuck for long. I suspect that feeling is down to the hype surrounding the game rather than my ability to solve puzzles.

Bloodborne

Bloodborne is the other game that I absolutely had to buy a PS4 for. The latest in the Souls series of games, it throws out shields, replaces them with guns, and goes all Lovecraftian. I’m all over it.

The first thing you notice, coming from Dark Souls to Bloodborne, is that the game moves a lot faster. It’s smoother, too: I was initially pretty sceptical about the worth of quick-stepping when locked onto a target instead of rolling, but it allows for a rather neat fine-tuning of your position in fights versus the rather long and unwieldy Dark Souls roll. Bloodborne wants you to dance lightly around your opponents and avoid hits, rather than survive the pummelling or get well clear every time an enemy swings their sword. It does away with any kind of encumbrance too, opening up the entire wardrobe of armour to every character. It’s hard to argue with these changes. Sure, they reduce the number of fighting styles available to you in the game, but Dark Souls’ heavy-set warrior build’s slowness was a punishment, not a boon: if you could have had the fast rolling with the heavy armour, you’d have taken it in a second. In Bloodborne, that’s what you get. Sort of.

You get no shield, and you get no armour. Not really, anyway. There are armour sets, and they do help you out, a bit, but to be honest, not one of them is going to save you. The emphasis in Bloodborne is definitely on not getting hit at all, ever. If you do get hit (and you will), you have a chance to claim back your lost hit points by successfully attacking an enemy in return for a short time after you receive the damage. This means that the best defence is a good offence and keeps the game focused on attacking. You find yourself running towards the next enemy, diving straight in, trying to get back the health you lost on the last bad guy. Each attack sprays blood into the air, coating your character, and very quickly you feel rather similar to the beasts that you’re fighting.

So yeah, you’re fighting beasts and stuff. The plot is, as you’d expect from a Souls game, quite subtle, but runs deep and invites plenty of theories and discussion. I’m not going to spoil anything, but I will say that it manages to be reasonably unpredictable and manages to be rather more complex than you initially expect. The “Who’s the real monster” trope implied by the brutality of the combat and the blood splattered across your armour never really manifests beyond the vibe introduced by Dark Souls (Probably Demon Souls, actually, but I haven’t played that, so we’ll stick with comparing to Dark souls for now): the monsters and people you destroy feel like important characters, parts of a world. Killing them feels like a negative action, like you’re ending a story too early or writing them out of a book.

I’ve completed Bloodborne, but in so many ways, I haven’t. I don’t understand it, not even after reading up on the plot and trying to piece things together from various wikis and videos. I haven’t finished the chalice dungeons, Bloodborne’s randomly generated attempt at some kind of procedural Souls game that, despite how it sounds, does have an end and a storyline, of sorts. For the first time, I feel like it might be worth getting all the achievements in a game, too. After the credits rolled and I caught my breath, I just started playing again. I don’t really feel done with this game at all. As if that all wasn’t enough, the expansion, The Old Hunters, was released last week, and I’m currently bashing my head against the first boss, who is absolutely incredible, and rock solid. I’m reminded, and not for the first time in a Souls game, of World of Warcraft’s raiding, where we would wipe over and over again on the same boss, each time shaving a little more of their health off, until eventually we mastered the strategy and defeated them. Souls games have the same vibe, and I love it.

Batman: Arkham Knight

Arkham Asylum is probably on my all-time top 10 games list. It features no filler, no nonsense, no missed opportunity for comic book brilliance. It set a trend for combat in games. It managed to feel like a complete world without being so open that you get lost, and it managed to maintain a sense of “levels” that made it feel somehow arcadey. It was a wonderful mix of everything that makes a game good. Arkham City threw a lot of that out the window, and, in spite of itself, managed to be a pretty good game, but it never managed to make me care about the side plots: there was absolutely no way I was collecting all those Riddler trophies. The central plot was outstanding in itself though, so I was willing to forgive the sprawling open world aspect that added nothing to the game and only detracted from the beautiful setup it was granted by Asylum. I skipped the next in the series, Arkham Origins, based on its poor reviews, but that didn’t stop me getting all excited for its sequel, Arkham Knight.

I don’t, as a general rule, pre-order games, mainly because I have too many old games to play to be excited about something new, but a new game in the Arkham series is one of very few things that will make me pay attention. I didn’t want to pre-order this either, as it happens, but the Amazon PS4 and Batman bundle was too cheap to ignore. Unfortunately, my console was damaged in transit and didn’t even arrive on my doorstep, so I had to get a refund and go and buy the same bundle at Argos for £20 more, meaning that I didn’t actually get it on release day. Oh well. I still got it more or less at release, which is a bit of a big deal for me. I think the last game I bought on release day was LA Noire.

The plot of Arkham Knight is movie-worthy, for sure: it could be a comic book movie, slightly cheesy, slightly more focused on the action than the characters, but it would hold up. It twists and turns like a comic movie should, characters do a reasonable job of developing over the course of the game, and a few slightly shocking things happen. They do brave things with the licence: I’m not sure if this is considered canon to the Batman franchise, but it plays like it is. It feels like some of the story beats here should be reserved for the big screen, and it’s refreshing to see them take place in a game.

Rocksteady have also managed to tie the side quests into the main story in a way that made sense and made me want to do them: I had done all but 3 or 4 before I reached the end of the main storyline without really going out of my way. It helps that there are only around 15: some are very short, some are long, but the low number of them and the big, friendly display of every available quest in the game made it very easy to get my head around them and somehow stopped me from suffering from the open world game ennui that means I’ve never played more than a few hours of any GTA.

There are, unfortunately, several side quests that are repetitive and empty. That said, they involve driving the Batmobile, which is mostly pretty fun, and hitting people in the face, which is what the Batman games have been doing best since the very start. Mastering the combat system is enjoyable in itself, and I was never too upset about the opportunity to fight some more bad guys. The quests that involved finding things in the open world were absolutely not my style, but the constant radio broadcasts picked up from thugs around you made the majority of them quite easy to find and I managed to get very close to the end before I sighed and looked up a map online. I hate cheating, but in my mind, virtual hide and seek with no clues is not an interesting way to spend my time. Putting over 200 Riddler trophies in the game and requiring their collection in order to see the “true” ending of the game seems like a total joke, too: I watched it on YouTube, and I’m glad I did - if I’d worked through 200 trophies just for that I’d have been furious.

The other thing that grates is how tightly this game holds your hand - it wouldn’t allow me to be stuck for even a second. I never got a chance to really think through a problem: one moment’s hesitation and I’d be told exactly what I should be doing. I was led through an experience rather than presented with a challenge. Perhaps I’ve just been spoilt by years of indie games and brutal Souls-style battles.

I may sound down on Arkham Knight, but I’m really just being critical of something I love and want to see reach the perfection of the start of the series. Arkham Knight was a joy from start to finish and I’m so, so happy to dip my toe into the AAA games world and see that it’s come so far while I’ve been mucking about with obscure stuff and esports. I look forward to the next one.

Steaming: Dark Souls

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

I never thought I’d get to write this. I started playing Dark Souls years ago, but due to one thing or another, I’d never been able to put much time into it. Dark Souls is, to the beginner, punishing and frustrating. It doesn’t hold your hand at all and does little to guide you through any part of the experience. It’s hard to bring yourself to spend time on it when you don’t know what you’re doing. I decided, foolishly, to play through it blind. This was a terrible mistake.

A while back I decided that I was too casual a gamer to do this kind of thing: the hardest difficulty setting is not for me. I’m there for the experience more than the challenge, and the lowest difficulty setting is usually quite tough enough for me, thank you. Dark Souls doesn’t have a difficulty option though: it just has the option of googling for answers, or not. If you do, you’ll find a reasonably pleasant game that will push you but is ultimately a fair, consistent system which is a pleasure to pick apart and learn. If you don’t, you will die a lot. Over and over again. In the same spot.

My first Dark Souls attempts are something that I’m quite proud of because they demonstrate that I am, if nothing else, persistent. I made it to Anor Londo in 50 hours. I fought bosses 20, 30, 50 times, who knows? I spent over 2 hours on the Anor Londo archers. I was terrible at the game. I decided to give up on the blind thing, start fresh, and learn about the game. I wanted to be good at it.

I learned which weapons were the most practical (to its credit, there is no “best” weapon in Dark Souls, only different ones), how to upgrade them effectively, and which armour to get hold of first. I looked up maps of the areas. Suddenly, the game became not just playable, but incredibly fun: I stomped through to the same spot I’d reached in my previous game in around 12 hours, I think. It’s still not fast, but perfectly acceptable for me. Most importantly, I really, really enjoyed it. I took time to appreciate the game’s world and level design and found that when you can see the map, each level is actually quite short, and the time between bonfires is no longer hours but minutes. Those save points went from being far too far apart to almost too close together for a game with this reputation. I felt like I was finally seeing the game that the world fell in love with.

Dark Souls is a poster child for the idea that games are all about environmental storytelling. Almost none of the plot is explained to you outright, there are few cutscenes, and you’ll only interact with the handful of characters in the world on rare occasions. Instead, the plot is all around you. The world tells the story, the environments you work through provide clever hints at something bigger. The game doesn’t give you any clues as to the ways that you can change the storyline, but it’s actually wide open: your actions have real effects on the world.

A part of me wants to write that Dark Souls would be better if it had more of a tutorial, or just a few more guidelines. I don’t know if that’s true. It’s certainly true that learning more about the game enabled me to enjoy it, and the game didn’t provide a way to learn that suited me. Is that ok? Is it part of the game to uncover those mysteries? It was refreshing to play something so opaque and deep and weird, but I’m glad that someone else is out there making the guides that allowed me to enjoy the game. I hope they had as much fun making them as I had using them.

Hotline Miami 2

I’ve struggled for a while with what’s worth saying about Hotline Miami 2. The reviews out there cover it quite well, and if you’re trying to figure out whether or not you want to buy it or not, I’d recommend you read Andi Hamilton’s words over at Midnight Resistance - I think he covers a lot of it very well, and I almost canned the whole idea of writing anything about it because anything else feels redundant. I can’t quite let it go, though: I feel like the great bits of this game have been missed by the masses.

Hotline Miami’s soundtrack is the icing on the cake to an incredible game that elevates it from being great to being one of the best games ever made. The audio design as a whole is simple, elegant and brutal. Hotline Miami 2, unbelievably, improves on this. The more varied levels lend themselves to a more varied musical background, allowing the developers and composers to work out something truly imaginative and special. The build-up of Carpenter Brut’s Roller Mobster is a wonderful example of how this game uses quieter moments in an otherwise unrelenting soundtrack to emphasise the tension that’s present in the game.

Tension is a theme in this game. Where Hotline Miami’s story was vague and meandering, Hotline Miami 2’s is always working towards something, and it’s always something horrible. Every character is searching for an answer, but it always feels like it’s going to be a Seven-style head-in-a-box answer that no character really wants to reach. We watch as The Soldier desperately seeks a way out of the war, but we feel like it will never really end for him. We watch The Writer give up everything in pursuit of understanding the events of Hotline Miami. The world is falling apart for every character we play as, one way or another, whether it’s the corrupt cop who abuses his position to kill for fun, or The Fans, morally bankrupt kids who emulate murders for kicks. It’s left a little unclear whether people are deliberately corrupting the world, or the organisations we see are merely symptoms of the human condition.

The ending didn’t satisfy me, but that felt ok. I don’t think that every story has to be what you want it to be, and these stories, these lives, feel like unsatisfying ones. The characters are all missing something vital, something that makes them whole human beings, and they end their time broken and lost.

Is it any good? As a game? Well, that’s more complicated. What everyone else has said is right: the levels are so big and open that it becomes more of a stealth shooter than a combo-busting brawler at times. The AI is frustrating and broken in places, and the random seeding of levels can make them laughably easy or maddeningly hard: one level I tried was nearly impossible because I couldn’t get my hands on anything other than a 2-cartridge shotgun. I quit the game, tried again the next day, and every enemy was boasting a fully-automatic machine gun, meaning that I was able to breeze through the level first try. That all said, I finished it, and I enjoyed it. It tries too hard and does too many new things, but anything less and it might have been branded as “more of the same” and “unimaginative” - it’s a fine line and I think they did the best they could. This is not a bad game, by any means - it’s just not going to sit in the hall of fame alongside Hotline Miami.