Review: Inside

Precarious safe says hi!

I’d been putting off inside in a couple of ways: firstly putting off playing it as I was doing a sound redesign for it (which you can find in my projects section) and secondly by doing this review. To cut a long story short, I love this game, but I do NOT understand it. 

If you don’t know Inside, it’s a game by Danish dev team, Playdead, and is quoted as the spiritual successor of the highly acclaimed Limbo; a.k.a arachnophobia simulator. A successor in that you play as a small lad, running from left to right in a beautifully designed pseudo-3D, dystopian world. When I say beautifully designed, I really mean it. The character design is simple yet effective, and the level design is flawless. 

Which brings me nicely onto the sound design. I did some research into this a while ago when I was writing a proposal for uni; Martin Stig Anderson is effectively a wizard. Imagine you’ve not only come up with a marvel of immerse sound design and compositional work that reflects the emotions of the game in a master stroke, how do you make it better? By putting a transducer and a contact mic on a human skull and playing the score through that. Anderson has some before and after examples of what this does, but it’s just fascinating and incredibly innovative. It helps to really build upon a level of claustrophobia that is present within the game, not being able to escape from, at times, some really sticky situations, which is helped further by the parameterised dynamic breathing of the character. As this is a game without dialogue, the sound design forms an incredibly important part in building the narrative and sealing the immersion down. The sound design makes you think you ARE running away from wild dogs in a forest, narrowly escaping them. It makes you think you are moments away from drowning in the vast water sequences. It makes you think you are part of this giant conveyer line of people, walking almost certainly to your death. It’s so powerful that it makes you think you’re INSIDE the mind of this lad (Once again I do not apologise for the pun). 

Positively threatening, oversized security cameras.

If I’m to go slightly more general now, I got really engrossed in playing this game, I mean it helped that I chose to play it on a snow day as I couldn’t leave the house anyway, but even though this game is on the short side it definitely does not detract. You can easily play through this game over the course of a day, but to really get the most out of it you need to spend time and experience it, as pompous as that sounds. Just appreciate the high attention to detail that is going on everywhere in this game. Seriously though there’s a lot more going on than you think, even if you don’t quite understand it. I played through this game from start to finish over the course of a couple of days and I left really pondering what was going on, whether there was some underlying narrative or metaphorical meaning regarding the industrial machine of the world or whether it was just meant as an artistic piece. The meaning is there for you to discover for yourself once you finish it. Just be aware though it’s a pretty rough ride. 

Legitimately, I would not recommend going into this game thinking that you can run a permadeath with no prior experience with the game, or even the developers. It might seem frustrating at first, but in order to really play this game, you need to learn how not to die. Everything in Inside is trying to kill you; the people, the animals, the water, the animals in the water, the ground, the buildings, the caves, the sky, the air, the EVERYTHING. Seriously, this game is out to get you, but that’s actually the beauty of it. It’s very much a trial by fire, you run in all guns blazing, get picked off by the first thing you come across, and you adapt your play so that you don’t die the same way again. Naturally this may take a few tries, depending on the situation and the difficulty presented. But after a while you start to develop a knack for avoiding death… Or so you may think. The game is very good a coercing you into a false sense of security, and as such presents little traps here and there and is consistently ramping up and modulating the number of variables in place to kill you. For instance, there’s a puzzle in the game where you have to push a heavy safe off of a high platform, but only realise it’s connected by a rope to the small (very breakable) wooden platform you’re standing on, which dropping from kills you. So realistically; the game kills you, you learn how it kills you, you get confident, it kills you again harder. In Inside, you are never safe. 

Simplistic, yet effective world design really builds sense of fear and tension.

Aside from the constant barrage of player deaths, however, is the overall gameplay of Inside. The general feeling of Inside is a part explorer, part puzzle-based wonder, and part well constituted platformer. All of these parts come together seamlessly to create an incredibly immersive gameplay experience. You learn fairly early on that there are certain collectibles hidden around the map - on y first play through I missed the first three and from onwards of collecting the fourth I was constantly checking every space in every environment to make sure I didn’t miss another (which went a lot worse than initially planned). Taking the time to look for these collectibles really makes you appreciate the size and beauty of the levels and environments featured in Inside. Furthermore, the puzzle elements of the game are a classy combination of both intriguing and perplexing; they offer a suitable difficulty that ramps up as the game progresses, but the game also reveals the logic required for some puzzles as it progresses. Much is the case in the so called “20 Man Puzzle”, in which you have to explore six different areas over three different floors in one environment, in order to gather 20 people to stand on a platform opening up the next area. Each area has it’s own puzzle to solve so really there’s a level of puzzle-ception going on, and it also allows for a nice break from the constant cycle of dying. Finally, the platform mechanics are somewhat of a joy to work with, I fell in love with how well the physics work and to the extent that they apply certain puzzles to the platform realm. Furthermore, although the movement system takes place on a 2D plane, this is by no means reflected by the platform elements. There are elements that can be moved in the pseudo-3D realm of the game to allow access to certain areas, and open up solutions in puzzles. 

Fundamentally, what makes this game so intriguing is how it works so well and can easily suck up a good 3-4 hours of your life, and yet so little is explained. It very much has an art house kind of vibe to it, which leads me to believe, as mentioned before, that there is some form of metaphorical meaning behind Inside, or whether it’s cognitive purpose is purely a case of what you see is what you get. I feel bad for repeating this, but at the same time it has baffled me so much that I feel the need to talk about it a lot, it’s very much stuck in my head as another realm of uncertainty. If you’re in the market to be as baffled as me then by all means play this game and read into it as much as you like and ping me a message with what you think is going on. If you’re no in the market for sheer bafflement then you should still play this game, it is, as mentioned before, a fantastic combination of exploration, puzzle solving and platforming, which culminates together to make a really nice game. Even if it does kill you every five seconds. 

Review: Knack

Knack: A.K.A. rinse, repeat, repeat again, repeat *again*, throw controller out of the window.

Knack: A.K.A. rinse, repeat, repeat again, repeat *again*, throw controller out of the window.

First and foremost, I'd like to start this review by saying it made me very glad to discover that this game hit only 54% overall on metacritic... And if that doesn't set the tone for this post, then I don't know what will!

I had relatively high hopes for Knack starting my experience off; I thought the mechanics of gathering so called relics (basically stones with super powers) to build "Knack" (relic powered main character) and increase his size and damage output were quite neat. Also, as PlayStation released this as another free game this month alongside the beautiful Rime, I thought it would be held in a good stead. At least to start with... It doesn't take long for the realisation to settle in that you have to have a real knack to play this game (I do not apologise for the pun). I'm going to interject quickly with some audio thoughts before I get as mad as I did when playing this game.

So as far as the music goes in this game, I thought it replicated a kind of Ratchet and Clank-esque vibe. It does the job and effectively conveys the theme of the game/level, but it's always in the background so you tend to phase it out quite quickly. It doesn't really have the orchestral power of other games such as Destiny 2, but that's to be expected from a kid's game. Sound design wise Knack is very much a case of hit and miss. There were some good elements in there, particularly in the case of how ice shards sink in the immersion feeling as they play around with the mechanics, and more so some of the sound effects for breaking down walls I thought were on the clean side of things. However, certain enemy types were slightly unconvincing from a sound perspective and, frankly, there were some very flat sounding explosive sounds. 

Anyway that brings me to the end of being remotely nice. Sit back and enjoy this white knuckle ride of distaste. 

First of all I want to say that I don't think I'm necessarily bad at games, in fact I'd say I'm pretty good at some. But Knack seemed to be on an entirely new level of difficulty for me, considering I was playing on normal mode. I just couldn't understand why enemies would deal so much damage, and why health was so hard to regenerate. In the end I mounted a full on rage quit and deleted the game, which is something I have never, ever, EVER, done before. 

The long and short of it is, the combat system, which this game is ENTIRELY centred around, is flawed to the highest degree. Furthermore, the checkpoint system is absolutely relentless. The game follows a strong focus on linearity, moving from one combat sequence to another, which already is pretty uninventive. But this linear nature is coupled with simplistic, and sometimes impossible, combat. In turn this makes the game tiring and tedious; there's no incentive for moving between sequences, other than a dry story line which offers very little incentive in the first place (we'll come back to that point later though). What needs to be expressed though is how backwards the combat mechanics are. First of all we're introduced to some basic one-button combat on square (classic.) and a short dodge on the right analog stick. This is all well and good, and you'd think this would work perfectly well, but the movement involved in both the attacks and the dodging is effectively minimal. You move a matter of centimetres when dodging, which makes dodging meaningless, and the hit box on the attacks is so small you'll spend most of your time swinging at an enemy only to get caught out in between attacks and lose most of your health. Which brings me onto the next point: the health system.

As we said earlier, the game utilises relics as a means of building up Knack, but they also serve as the health system. You can increase your max health or regain health lost by destroying crates and containers with relics inside them. You would have thought this would be a good idea, until you realise how infrequently these crates actually spawn... and more so the fact that this is the ONLY WAY to regenerate health. FURTHERMORE, the amount of health dished out by these crates is so pitiful that there is just no point in even bothering to pick them up. EVEN FURTHERMORE, is the fact that the enemies deal such a high level of damage that there is no point to having a health bar in the first place. Even low level enemies have the capability to seemingly destroy not just Knack, but a small housing estate in the process, like some low budget Godzilla style film. So to sum up the situation, imagine you're a moderately sized flea, wandering through a world of giants armed with V2 rockets, and the only solace from the megaton destruction is a sparse assortment of Jacob's cracker crumbs. These enemies are relentless, even on normal difficulty, to the point that it makes the game unbelievably frustrating on a Super Meat Boy level. It is also incredibly hard to dodge these enemies, down to the fact that they possess an uncanny level of accuracy and determination. The targeting system on the enemies is unrelenting; you'd normally expect an enemy in game to start an attack and settling on a sole direction with which to launch that attack, this isn't the case when it comes to Knack. No, enemies will target Knack for the duration of the attack, making the dodging even more useless, as the timing involved with effectively dodging a life threatening attack boils down to a matter of femtoseconds. By the end of this I actually felt sorry for Knack, he'd been killed by the same enemies, in the same sequences, and respawned at the same checkpoint two kilometres back. I could feel his stoney blood boiling.  

Accurate representation of both mine and Knack's feelings.

Accurate representation of both mine and Knack's feelings.

I'm going to sum this up before I rant on any further: Knack is a kids game for kids who hate themselves. Over the couple of hours before I ended up rage quitting, I didn't get a lot of enjoyment out of the process. Like I say, I think some of the mechanics are interesting and the sound design has some decent moments in it. But the combat is so impossible and so frequent that it really makes this game frankly unplayable. TL;DR - don't pay money for this game.

Review: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Effectively stunning village scene 

Brothers: A Tale or Two Sons, henceforth Brothers, is a linear, story driven adventure / puzzle game with some absolutely mind bending mechanics. 

We follow the story of two brothers (shocking I know) who are on a quest across a fantasy setting to find medicine for their sick father. The hard part, you ask? The brothers are controlled independently and simultaneously. 

Now when I say that the controls are difficult to handle, I don’t mean that in a bad way. As a matter of fact, I think that the controls are extremely innovative and are actually quite fun to get your head around. Imagine the controller is split in half, with each analog stick handling the character movement and triggers controlling the use and grab functionality. Essentially, it’s an incredibly innovative approach to a local multiplayer control scheme. In a single player environment it’s an utter head screw. 

I’d say I’m normally pretty coordinated, but the first fifteen minutes of gameplay were heavily focused on getting the characters out the bushes they had been running into for a solid 30 seconds. In this regard though, the game is quite forgiving in that whilst one character is being controlled, there is normally somewhere to leave the other idle as not to overload your focus. However, as aforementioned, once you’ve gotten your head around the control scheme it can be really enjoyable to work with. 

Furthermore, for a game that utilises an entirely gibberish language, the story is incredibly compelling. I found myself increasingly involved with the characters and the relationship between the brothers as the game progressed. Without giving too much away, there were moments where I sat back in complete awe from what I had witnessed. However, bearing these points in mind, I feel as though there is so much more the game could have accomplished. 

From more of an audio stand point, I felt that the music was sadly lacking in areas. The compositional theme is formed of close orchestral strings, acoustic guitar and some wacky vocals, which for me didn't really fit as well as I'd hoped it would. There is a definite sense of adventure and fantasy from the music but it almost seems a little too over the top. For instance, there is a lot of reverb which seems unnecessary and frankly the guitar can be quite overpowering. Whilst the game suffered in terms of music, it made up for in sound design. There is a very strong focus on atmosphere and environment in Brothers which is suitably matched in the sound design. The soundscapes are enough to fully immerse you, either with wind, spatialisation or with the event sound effects on their own. Each plays a part in building the overall sonic experience. 

Normally I like a little more challenge from my puzzle games, which I didn't really get from Brothers. Whilst there is a good variety of puzzle mechanics, it needs to be said that it wasn't that hard to get my head around them. There were some moments where I would initially be pretty confused by them, but never for more than five minutes or so. This being said, Brothers is definitely a game more focused on the journey than the challenges you come across on the way, what with its scenic benches, which trigger some pretty amazing views, and a well thought out and nurtured level design. Yet, returning to the previous point, a little more challenge would make this game truly excellent. 

With that being said it's great to approach this game with an open mind, especially considering it came out in 2013 for the last gen. Get yourself up to speed with the controls and have a great time getting sucked into the story and world. 

Review: Rime

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Rime... seriously a matter of 10 minutes-ish. Yes, featured this month on the PlayStation Plus free games, the beautiful aesthetic and dynamics of Rime are truly a marvel to behold. 

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

I recall watching a short play through on YouTube some time ago, enough to intrigue me but not enough to lose interest. Even then I thought the level design and art style of the game were on another level separate from anything I’d seen recently. Crisp, colourful and refined. Yet, when actually trying the game myself for the first time, I was blown away by the sound and music.

Rime follows a third-person perspective of a mysterious young lad, whom we’re introduced to lying unconscious on the shore of an equally mysterious island. Yet, even when presented in this situation, the sound design flawlessly recreates the soundscape for the setting, and continues to do so throughout the game. Furthermore, the music brilliantly compliments the completion of story objectives. So far as to say that exploration and puzzle solving are largely incentivised through the reward of a stunning score. Therefore, not only does the player receive the satisfaction of solving a mind bending puzzle, there’s also some ear candy to go with it. What’s not to love? 

I found myself so captivated by everything on offer in Rime, I watched thirty minutes turn into three hours within the blink of an eye. Yet, I did encounter some moments which broke the spell a slight amount. For instance, the main music theme, whilst it didn’t detract from the moment, seemed almost too similar to a piece from the Lord of the Rings saga. Further to this, during the game we eventually meet a fox companion that barks just a *little* bit too much; especially the case when you’ve messed up the same climbing sequence four times in a row. I’m sure he means well but it does get annoying...

Fox: “<Come on you can do it!>”

Me:  ._. Can you not tho.

But all of these aside I can’t recommend this game enough. The aforementioned features all work seamlessly together, whilst using the slowly ramping puzzles and narrative to push to game forward. Even if just for the music and sound design this game is worth playing, but the whole package makes this game an easy favourite of mine.