Where the Dialogue Is Stiffer Than the Zombies…

The PlayStation 1 was the victor of its generational console war against the Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn for various reasons – not least of which was a bunch of unforced errors on the part of Sega and, to a lesser, extent, Nintendo – but it’s fair to say that the game selection involved was a major factor. Whereas Nintendo and Sega tried to operate comparatively closed shops, with third-party developers expected to toe the line when it came to developing for them (especially when it came to more mature content), Sony went out of their way to make it easy for developers to produce games for the PlayStation.

This inevitably meant that the platform ended up with its fair share of shovelware, along with games which sparked controversy like Grand Theft Auto for its depiction of violence in a close-to-real-world setting or Tomb Raider for its shameless male gaze-y handling of Lara Croft, whose polygonal boobs were frequently treated as the game’s main selling points. Part of the reason Nintendo and Sega had been careful about third party software for their systems came down to fear of just such quality control issues or media backlashes, after all.

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Fun To Dip Into and Immersive While It Lasts

The Sinking City, developed by Ukrainian outfit Frogwares, casts the player as troubled private eye Charles Reed. After a poorly-remembered encounter with (maybe) Cthulhu during his Naval service in World War I, Reed has had certain abilities which aid him in his investigative work, but also suffers from nightmarish visions which have sapped his sanity – to the point where be spent a chunk of time after the War confined to an asylum.

Now it’s the mid-1930s, and Reed has not only discovered the existence of other people suffering from the same visions as him, but he’s also found a strange link between them – they’ve all gone missing in the general vicinity of Oakmont, a Massachusetts city which has curiously managed to avoid being put on many maps. Oakmont is an insular, xenophobic town where lower is held in the hands of a few great families who conduct themselves as little more than gangsters. It’s also faced various upheavals in recent years. First, there was the influx of refugees from Innsmouth, fleeing the Federal raid on that town; then there was the utter disaster of the Flood, which even years later has left significant areas of the poorer section of the city waterlogged. The richer districts are not immune from the Flood’s effects either, especially when those consequences include roving monsters which seem drawn to sites of atrocity or extreme negative emotion.

Soon after Reed arrives he becomes embroiled in the affair of the Throgmorton expedition – a jaunt to the bottom of the sea near Oakmont which, in its search for the causes of the Flood, has stumbled across something appalling. Is there some connection between the Flood, the expedition’s shocking discoveries, and Reed’s visions? And if there is, is there anything Reed can do to resist this terrible confluence of forces?

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Piercing the Veil

It’s 1924. Edward Pierce came back from World War I, the last survivor of the Lost Batallion, with a hole in daddy’s arm where the money goes a drinking problem that’s well on the way to destroying him. He’s set himself up as a private detective, since that’s a profession where there’s a certain acceptance that people will get plastered and fall asleep on their office couch from time to time – but that hasn’t stopped him being assailed by bizarre dreams.

Then it comes – the big case. Specifically, it’s the case of one Sarah Hawkins – a gifted artist famous for her macabre, surreal works. Sarah had married Charles Hawkins and moved into his mansion on Darkwater, a lonely island off the coast of Boston, and was apparently happy enough turning out additional work and being a parent to her and Charles’ little boy. Then a terrible fire broke out in the mansion, and all three were reported dead.

Sarah’s dad, however, smells a big fat rat. For one thing, very shortly before the fire Sarah had arranged to send him a painting – one suggesting that she was feeling threatened. And the police report has these odd inconsistencies – like how they go out of their way to insist that Sarah was mentally unbalanced but also that the fire was an accident. (If it were entirely accidental, why would they comment on her mental state at all?) Sarah’s father is convinced that the official report is at best bungled, at worst a cover-up, and hires Pierce to go to Darkwater, uncover the truth, and thereby salvage Sarah’s reputation.

At Darkwater, Pierce finds that Prohibition is being openly flouted, a gang of bootleggers is occupying the main town, and the locals are feeling surly and demoralised. Once upon a time Darkwater was a major whaling centre, but these days it’s slim pickings out there – almost like the whales have been consumed or driven away by some apex predator. It’s not like it was back in 1847, when the celebrated Miraculous Catch saved the island from famine and made the fortunes of the major local families. All interesting, all apparently disconnected from the Hawkins case… but as Pierce investigates, he discovers that Charles Hawkins had a very special interest in the Miraculous Catch legend indeed – and, more particularly, the deity the islanders thank for the Miraculous Catch… whose call resounds in the dreams of Darkwater’s inhabitants, inspired Sarah’s talents, and provides the game with its title.

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Soma-ch For All That

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Having developed a reputation for extremely spooky first-person hide-and-seek-em’-ups like Penumbra and Amnesia: the Dark Descent, Frictional Games’ latest offering in this vein is Soma, a return to the more science fictional bent of Penumbra. The player is cast as Simon, an average guy of the present day who has been suffering from a nasty brain ailment after a car accident. You play through the process of Simon going to an appointment to undergo an experimental technique of non-intrusively scanning a subject’s entire brain, giving a perfect picture of their neurological state at the time of scanning, the idea being that this could then be used to devise a customised treatment plan to save Simon.

At the moment the scan takes place, Simon finds himself apparently transported nearly a century into the future, and trapped in the mysterious undersea base Pathos-II. Naturally, because even if Simon is a chump who takes way too long to think through the implications of what he has been told most players soon as hell aren’t, you can quickly infer that the original Simon is long dead, and you are actually playing an activated copy of Simon produced using the scan somehow. What is less apparent why there’s this glowing masses of electronic pseudo-flesh growing and spreading across the complex, or what disaster has overtaken the crew, or what research was going on down here, or what tragedy has occurred to mean the surface road isn’t going to be sending help any time soon. That’s all for you to discover as you explore Pathos-II and try to eke out some sort of meaningful point to your unasked-for resurrection – and, ultimately, to establish some sort of lasting legacy for humanity in general.

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Enduring Outlast

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Horror films based partially or entirely on found footage have practically become a cliché at this point. In fact, the subgenre is so well-established there’s even subgenres within the subgenre; the former LoveFilm streaming offerings (which have now become the free component of Amazon Prime’s streaming setup) are absolutely choked with found footage horror movies with exactly the same plot. In each case the movie is supposedly either the unaired final episode of a ghost-hunting TV show or the pilot episode of an abortive one, and the idea is that this is the episode where they finally came across something genuinely paranormal. Invariably the something genuinely paranormal. Invariably the setting is an abandoned mental hospital with rumours of an abusive past.

Outlast is about as clichéd as those movies, but in a survival horror context. It takes almost all of its aesthetic from other survival horror games and dips into the Saw and Hostel films for the rest. Almost all of its gameplay is borrowed from the Amnesia series. But there’s a few innovations that creep in here and there which make it interesting.

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Look Upon My Pigs, Ye Mighty, and Despair

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

When I first heard that Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs would be developed by The Chinese Room I had a little trepidation – Dear Esther had seemed rather trite to me, and I was concerned that they would produce an exercise in linear storytelling and minimal gameplay that would lose a lot of what made The Dark Descent work. Although they do drift in the direction of high linearity and minimal gameplay, I think in this case The Chinese Room have produced a followup that in some respects outdoes the original.

The game casts you as wealthy industrialist Oswald Mandus, boss of the Mandus meat production empire. After hearing the sound of your twin sons begging you not to kill them and a momentary vision of a vast machine roaring into life, you wake up in a bedroom in your luxurious mansion – a bedroom with a large metal cage over the bed. Your memories are minimal – all you know is that your sons are playing somewhere and you need to find them – but as you explore the house it becomes apparent that you have developed some odd hobbies over the years. There’s the secret passages that riddle the house and the one-way mirrors in the bathrooms, and extensive evidence that you have used these for crafty jerkoff purposes. There’s the fragments of your diary, alluding to a catastrophic expedition to Mexico your sons accompanied you on, during which you seem to have had an encounter with an Orb much like the McGuffin of the original game. And there’s the radical improvements you seem to have made to the meat processing factory since you got back – improvements that include expansive underground sections and highly advanced machinery.

And then there’s your newfound outlook on the world as expressed in your diary, a sort of proto-fascism combined with the resolute conviction of Victorian industrialists that there is no problem on Earth that doesn’t have an engineering solution. For instance, there’s clearly too many poor people around stinking up the joint, but during the span of months you don’t remember you hit on the perfect solution: farm them, herd them, and slaughter them like pigs.

And who better to help you than your own army of human-piggy hybrids?

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Frictional (So Far)

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

After a series of frustrating encounters with horror-based first person adventure games such as Barrow Hill, Scratches and Dark Fall, various folk started recommending Amnesia: the Dark Descent to me. Amnesia is the latest release by Frictional Games, a group of Swedish independent developers who so far have been fairly dedicated to carving out a niche in 3D first person survival horror – to the extent that their in-house 3D engine is named the HPL engine after Lovecraft. Adventure games of the sort that have been marketed directly to adventure gamers have often shied away from implementing proper 3D engines – aside from the expenses and time involved, such things often lend themselves to action games and require hand-eye co-ordination on the part of players, both of which are anathema to hardcore adventure gamers. However, Frictional’s Penumbra series, which they debuted with, seems to have mainly had a warm reception amongst the adventure game community, and Amnesia managed to generate a buzz well beyond that subculture and won a more widespread audience.

With Frictional working on an as-yet untitled new horror game, it’s high time I started paying attention to them. Although they debuted with the Penumbra series, I’m going to review their back catalogue in the order I played it in – Amnesia first, followed by the Penumbra games.

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Silent Hill’s Sequel Nightmare

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

In my restless dreams, I see that town: Silent Hill. Konami promised they’d take us there again some day, but they never did – at least, not in the company of Team Silent, the tour guides fans of the series had become accustomed to over the course of the first four games of the series. There’s been four new additions to the main series (where I define main series as “games which have seen release on home consoles rather than being mobile gaming or handheld exclusives”) since the demise of Team Silent in the muddled mess of The Room, and none of them have really won over the hearts and minds of fans. Is this a case of fandom being too hostile to the idea of new developers refreshing and putting a new spin on the series, or is this a genuine problem Konami are having with finding a safe pair of hands to bring the series forwards? Nothing for it but to ignore the warnings of others (because what sort of shitty horror protagonist would I be if I heeded warnings?) and head back to town.

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The Short and Bloody Life of Team Silent

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The early Silent Hill games are held up by some (including me) as the gold standard in survival horror, in particular because they have distinct and interesting aesthetics, great soundtracks and somewhat more original plots than your typical Resident Evil knock-off. As a result of this, a certain mystique has grown up around Team Silent, the original Japanese group of developers who made the first four game in the series. After Silent Hill 4: The Room various other developers – Climax Studios in the UK, Double Helix in the US and Vatra Games in the Czech Republic – have had their own stabs at making Silent Hill games, none of which have won over the fanbase to the extent that the original games did. Consequently, the accepted wisdom seems to be that nobody who isn’t Team Silent is really capable of making a good Silent Hill game.

That might be true. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that Team Silent were able to make a really excellent Silent Hill towards the end of their existence either. But to make that argument, I’ll have to kick off by talking about what they did right.

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Alan Wake is a Plagiarising Hack

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Alan Wake opens with a voiceover talking about how overexplaining things in horror stories dilutes their power, how reducing sinister dark forces to concrete phenomena acting according to a defined set of rules robs them of their impact. This is an idea I completely agree with, which made it quite surprising when the writers decided to heavy-handedly telegraph almost every major revelation in the plot, and spend so much time exploring the mythology of the game’s setting that the explanation behind the supernatural phenomena is obvious before the game is even a third over.

An introduction to the game’s premise and gameplay is in order first, though. As far as gameplay goes, Alan Wake is pretty standard survival horror fare – keeping track of resources like ammunition and torch batteries is important, combat is fiddly enough to make most enemies a threat but not quite fiddly enough to make it excessively difficult to progress, there’s lots of running around in dark areas waving your torch around and puzzles involving manipulating bits of scenery like cranes and bridges in order to get to where you need to get.

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