There’s nothing worse than running into a naked man in the dark.
There’s nothing worse than running into a naked man in the dark.
You start the game in much the same way as you start most horror games, travelling at night for no obvious reason. You are investigative journalist Miles Upshur and you have arrived at the brilliantly named Mount Massive Asylum, to look for signs of kung-fu treachery.
The graphics are the first thing you notice in this first-person Horror, they aren’t the best in the world but they’re certainly a cut above the average game of the genre. The most important aspect of which is the lighting, or lack thereof, throughout the asylum’s blood soaked depths. The use of a light source to navigate dark areas is pretty much the staple of horror games these days, Outlast is no exception, but it takes a Blair Witch approach with the use of night-vision hand camera. Again like many other games of the genre this vision is finite and requires a source of power, in this case batteries. Before you start thinking this will add a survival element, putting pressure on your explorations, batteries are actually quite abundant. That said your night vision burns through power quicker than a knife fight in a phone booth, which can lead to some tense moments of battery switching in the pitch black. The sound design is great; hearing the desperate fearful breaths of your character, the thudding of his heart, helps to inspire your own raised pulse, not unlike the effect laughter has in comedies. The soundtrack is also suitably atmospheric, with the music often teasing the possibility of danger where there is none.
“Your night vision burns through power quicker than a knife fight in a phone booth.”
Taking a note out of Amnesia’s handbook enemies can organically search for you in areas, usually while you are trying to accomplish some kind of task. However in Amnesia the enemies were unmistakeably monstrous, simulated by the fact that you can’t look at them without losing your sanity. In Outlast the threat feels decidedly human and while that would still be terrifying in real life, in a game it falls a little flat. This is chiefly because of a lack of agency, many of the asylum’s denizens seem like hollow animals, however characters like Dr. Trager stand out amongst the crowd. With him you experience a tense game of Cat and Mouse, it’s his cold, calculating intelligence that makes him truly frightening, an element that’s missing from most of the game’s antagonists.
“It’s his cold calculating intelligence that makes him truly frightening.”
One of the best features of the game is the ability to hide, for example in lockers and under beds. The tension created by the player hearing a noise and hiding in a locker and watching their pursuer search the locker next to them is very primal. Though Outlast’s ambiance sets the tone, a lot of the time it feels as though you bring your own fear to the table. For me my fear of being trapped in small spaces made vents stressful and the universal mistrust of the dark keeps you on edge. In a game with an atmosphere like this, you become your own worst enemy.
However it’s the feeling that your hunter is aware of you that creates a true sense of terror, like seeing an eye looking at you through a crack, or knocking on a door and hearing something knock back, or hearing other footsteps only moving when you do. These are things that Outlast doesn’t do very often, but what it does do well is induce blind panic, provoked by jump scares and chase sequences. It’s a different kind of horror, but one that’s employed effectively, especially if like me you wanted to play the game in order to experience that type of fear. I do feel like they could have done slightly more to keep the game frightening, fear is often provoked by the unknown, but having to flick switches while being chased by an angry fat man does start to wear a little thin towards the end. That said Outlast does a good job of not drawing things out too much, with no more than about 7 hours of play time, it ends before it can become too predictable. An accomplished horror game, Outlast is enjoyable to play from start to finish, if the hide-and-seek gameplay appeals to you.
Score: 7.5 Good
© Alex Annabel, 21st February 2014
I didn’t enjoy Dragon’s Dogma because of its mediocre story, or its cheesy J-pop soundtrack, or its hilariously awful attempt at olde English dialect. In fact, these are all pretty good reasons to dislike the game. No, the reason I enjoyed this game as much as I did was completely down to the gameplay. A cross between Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus, a marriage that would make any fantasy action gamer moist, Dragon’s Dogma is an adventure packed with jolly cooperation.
“Dragon’s Dogma is an adventure packed with jolly cooperation.”
Again, not unlike Dark Souls, the game features some interesting online mechanics, which in this case centre on “Pawns”. A central theme of the game, they are inter-dimensional warriors who aid you throughout the game, they also happen to have about as much personality as a plank of wood and are twice as stupid. You have your own customisable AI and the other two slots in your party are filled by other people’s creations. Supposedly pawns learn enemy weaknesses and report them to their current master, though mine never seemed to get past “kill it with fire!” which seemed more like they were panicking than making a tactical suggestion.
The archaic language is so over-used it makes the whole game sound like a bad school play, but what makes it truly annoying is the repetition. Your pawns don’t have many lines of dialogue, but they use them over and over again. Unfortunately even when they’ve been “silenced” by enemy magic, it doesn’t actually stop them talking.
Combat can be very interactive, you can pick up and throw many objects in the game, such as rocks, explosive barrels, your pawns and even certain enemies. For example, while fighting a losing battle against the undead up a huge spiral staircase. I resorted to simply hurling them off the side, to their undeaths. It wasn’t until I had released one from my grasp that I realised I had picked up one of my pawns by mistake. Sure enough its health bar emerged at the top of my screen; she put her arms in the air like she didn’t care, before that same health bar emptied itself all over the concrete many feet below. It was a noble sacrifice and she definitely wouldn’t have wanted me to go back for her.
When you’re unable to throw enemies and throwing your pawns at them isn’t as effective as it is in chess, you use the same button to grab onto them. This is where the Shadow of the Colossus element comes in, as you have the ability to climb around the monster, many of which have some kind of weak spot. Sometimes it’s as simple as walking up to a Cyclops and making your way up his leg. Other times it’s not so simple, like when I used one of the Strider class’ abilities to kick off of an enemy like a springboard and grab hold of a swooping dragon (I won’t lie, it took me a few tries). I also had an encounter with a griffon, upon reaching low health, it began to fly away. One of these slippery buggers had gotten away from me before, so this time I ran up and grabbed hold of it, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Unable to strike it properly, it was all I could do to hang on for dear life, but after my little aerial tour of the countryside I ran out of stamina. I dropped at least a dozen feet more than I would have liked, but somehow managed to face-plant the ground with my life intact, if not my pride…
The customisation options are quite extensive and you can make anything from an ancient, crusty juggler, to a pre-pubescent man-child. The range of unsettling character options opens up some potential comedy gold (not unlike Saints Row). I personally enjoyed the altitude after I unthinkingly raised my protagonist’s height to the max and spent the rest of the game with most NPCs only going up to my chest. This made an already awkward “romance” scene especially humorous, with a woman desperately mashing her face into my character’s chest. Male nipple stimulation being the ultimate act of affection…
“You can make everything from an ancient, crusty juggler, to a pre-pubescent man-child.”
Other awkward scenes include the obligatory end-game “romance” that consists of you rescuing and licking faces with the NPC that likes you the most. The problems begin with almost every NPC wanting a piece of your fine Arisen scar tissue and their affection can be gained with gifts, or even simply by completing quests for them…I somehow ended up with resident witch girl Selene, but while she is technically immortal, she has the body of a 13 year old girl. Her small stature was further exaggerated by my great height, making for an incredibly uncomfortable scene that had me laughing and wondering when the police would arrive at my house. But don’t worry, it gets better. Disturbingly I heard that someone had a child NPC at their epilogue and more hilariously someone’s “totally straight male character” had the male blacksmith at the end. Strangely his main concern was that the guy had a wife…This also creates some problems in the endgame content, with the blacksmith moving into the player character’s house at the starting area of the game. This means, probably the most useful NPC, is stuck on the other side of the map from the capital. Suddenly my eyebrow-less, morose, daughter/wife didn’t seem so bad…
Many of these terrible, poorly thought out game mechanics, somehow endeared the game to me greatly. Proving once and for all that some jokes can be so bad they’re funny and that really sums up Dragon’s Dogma. With Dragon’s Dogma 2 being teased for the future I can’t help but look forward to more titan slaying and awkwardly forced bromance.
© Alex Annabel, 4th December 2013
No animal is safe.
This survival action game comes courtesy of Klei Entertainment, the same folks who made Mark Of The Ninja and Shank. Don’t Starve certainly shares a similar animated art style and propensity for violence, features that have become the trademark of the developers. However here the challenge isn’t to destroy, but to survive, that said plenty of innocent bunnies have to pay for your continued existence.
There are three meters that you must maintain in order to stay alive; health, hunger and sanity. The effects of running out of the first two are fairly self-explanatory, but the side-effects of insanity are a little more subtle. Once you’ve lost a certain amount of it, you begin to see shadows of monsters that don’t exist floating across your screen. Continue to lose sanity and these apparitions become violent, they may not be real, but the damage they do to you certainly is.
Restoring lost health is needlessly harsh, you don’t heal over time and the few restorative items can be complicated to come by. Instead food is far easier to maintain, although different foods restore different amounts of health, few of them make any real difference. Maintaining your hunger can be a hit and miss experience, there are times when you’ll be so flush with food that some of it will go off before you even need it. Other times you’ll be desperately combing the wilds for seeds and berries to stave off the constant companion that is Death.
Making sure you don’t go insane directly correlates with the amount of sanity depriving activities you partake in. For example worm holes exist as two way teleport systems, (I have a particular fondness for camping near them for use as escape tunnels), however each jump damages your sanity. The methods of restoring your equilibrium are, (like most of the game), pleasingly eccentric. Everything from shaving your beard, to make a garland out of flowers helps to restore your mental calm.
Materials are gathered in a variety of ways which range from simple tasks, to complex achievements. Sometimes you will tread familiar ground, chopping down trees and mining rocks, other times you’ll be playing with science and alchemy to craft bizarre tools. The thing they all have in common is danger, obvious dangers like fighting monsters for their giblets and not so obvious, like getting attacked by an Ent while out gathering wood. There is also potential for creating sustainable source of materials and food, though far from easy, for example you can create farms for crops, bees and rabbits.
The hellhounds were first real threat I encountered, combat in Don’t Starve is incredibly risky, making running away often the most attractive option. Hellhounds remove that option. They spawn after a predetermined amount of days, then come straight at you and never give up. There are always two of them, meaning even if you time your attacks to avoid being hit by one, you’ll doubtless be hit by the other. It’s pretty much inevitable death unless you knew they were coming, even then preparing an effective defence can be difficult, they’ll simply smash through your walls (which is how I first succumbed to death). Instead you have to leave an opening, like a tunnel, which you fill with traps.
This brings me onto one of the cool features of the game, the ability to edit certain in-game contents. You can make the game easier or even harder, I didn’t want to mess with the options too much, but I did turn off Hellhounds…
Of course this just allowed me to die of something else, winter kills. My attempt to survive the winter was an intense experience, keeping my campfire burning 24-7, dashing out to my nearby traps to try and catch some food before I froze. All the while growing my beard long and sporting a fetching pair of rabbit earmuffs for insulation. Even with my preparations, it was not enough and so the grasping hand of an icy cold claimed me.
Despite all my attempts and putting over a dozen or so hours into the game, I still feel so ignorant. For a game with no real end, there’s still so much I haven’t achieved and that’s a good thing. Together with updates and a great modding community, there’s a lot of content to play around with. This includes the in-house mod The Screecher, beyond being technically impressive; it adds a dose of ‘Slender’ style horror to the mix.
The game can be harsh sometimes and without using the internet, it can be very difficult to learn what things do and how you can use them. But if you enjoy the simple act of surviving being a challenge, then you’ll feel right at home in this charmingly bleak world.
© Alex Annabel, 23rd August 2013
You know you should stop experimenting on yourself when your radio starts talking to you.