Friday, February 6, 2015

I Try Explaining (Some of) Silent Hill's Lore

[This started as a response on Reddit. It is meant to be a very rough explanation of the events that build up the world of Silent Hill, at least for the Team Silent-developed games.]

While the first three "Silent Hill" games are fairly consistent, the fourth one changes things a bit due to the nature of portals to different parts of the game's worlds and the introduction of Walter Sullivan's Ritual story, and then the later western-developed games also add new things (and even retroactively alter story bits of previous games,) so I'll just try to cover the first three games.

Firstly, the BASIC LORE, since I'm not going to put everything (might as well play the games and read the official books for that.) I'll also try not to spoil the actual games' events beyond basics:
  • Pre-1600's: the land of Silent Hill before the town's founding is sacred ground for rituals performed by Native Americans
  • Late 1600's: European settlers arrive in Massachusetts; witch trials and shit
  • 1700's: mysterious epidemic breaks out, and the town is essentially now dead
  • 1810's: War of 1812 begins; Silent Hill becomes penal colony, prison and hospital are founded
  • 1830's: forced removal policy of Native Americans in North America starts
  • 1850's: coal mine found, town revitalized
  • 1860's: Toluca prison camp for Civil War POW's constructed
  • Later 1860's: prison camp converted into federal prison after Civil War
  • 1890's: Native Americans end organized resistance; people all over Silent Hill disappear
  • Early 1900's: Silent Hill becomes tourist town, Toluca Prison closes; the primary cult begins formation*
  • 1939: "strange events" at Toluca Lake
  • 1963: Silent Hill's mayor dies suddenly, followed by the rest of the town's staff
  • 1969: Alessa Gillespie is born
  • 1976: Dahlia Gillespie enacts her ritual to summon the town cult's god; Cheryl is born
  • 1983(?): "Silent Hill 1" occurs (monsters appearing, confirming magic now taking effect)
  • 1993(?): "Silent Hill 2" occurs
  • 2000(?): "Silent Hill 3" occurs (confirmed about 17-18 years after "Silent Hill 1")
*The cult of Silent Hill is mistakenly named "The Order" by a mistranslation in "Silent Hill 3." The cult has no true name, even if the films and later games have persisted in making this canon.
So from this rough timeline, we can see that, at least between the early 1900's to the late 1970's, Silent Hill was the "ordinary" town that most people knew and loved, but there had always been a weird history to it under covers. However, there isn't enough information to confirm if there were monsters before the first "Silent Hill" game (since I'm not discussing "Origins.")

We DO have enough information to know that the foggy and creepy version of Silent Hill with monsters began as early as sometime in the 1980's (the first game.) But the events of that game occur in what's called Old Silent Hill, which is apparently ignored by vacationers. Laura and Mary meet a year before "Silent Hill 2," so apparently the resort part of town was still normal for them in the early 1990's, and some people still lived there. The two parts are separated by Toluca Lake.

What one can infer from this info is that Old Silent Hill was abandoned as of the 1980's following Dahlia's ritual, while the vacation town was still relatively normal until the events of "Silent Hill 2." Whether people lived in those parts after is not really known, though I personally don't believe people did.

Basically, the town of Silent Hill holds some dark magic due to pissed off Native American rituals combining with the rituals performed by the cult trying to rebirth a god and create a paradise by destroying humanity and, in the cult's eyes, their pain and suffering as well. This is mostly explained in "Silent Hill 3."

The Otherworld is where the real world seems to intersect with "unreality" (magic and traumatic experiences and such, like what was undergone by the Native Americans who originally inhabited the area, Alessa, James, and Angela, to name a few.) There's not yet a specific confirmed way that the Otherworld manifests, though it usually becomes more and more prominent in a game as characters learn more and more about the reasons they've been brought there.

And contrary to how every game past "Silent Hill 4" has attempted to make the town into basically a demonic psychiatrist, "Silent Hill 2" is the ONLY game in the original four games that based its horror on what the main character (James Sunderland) had been experiencing. Harry Mason, Heather Mason, and Henry Townsend all are witnesses to the experiences of other people.

TL;DR: there is a lot of dark magic in Silent Hill created from rituals as early as the 17th century that draws people who are usually explicitly tied to Silent Hill in some way to the town (read: NOT JUST ANYONE WITH PSYCHOLOGICAL ISSUES.) However, not everyone who comes to the town has history with it. The magic of Silent Hill seems to feed off of traumatic events and gets stronger as the characters understand more about why they're in the town. There isn't enough information to confirm whether or not normal people still live in the town (either Old Silent Hill or the resort part) after the 1980's, but I make the assumption that they don't.

Let me know if any of you guys have questions. Most of my information is parsed from having played the "Silent Hill" games developed by members of Team Silent of Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo firsthand (1, 2, 3, and 4, to be specific,) reading up on the excellent fan site Translated Memories, which compiles translations of official Japanese documents detailing the first four games of the series, and a little bit of personal interpretation, as much of the lore has never been completely explained.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Feature: "Playing with the Dark: Horror Games and Why They’re Important"

This piece has been repurposed from my enterprise story assignment submitted in my JMC 201 News Writing and Reporting course at Arizona State University.

            Video games have been around for almost six decades, and as such as have evolved to cover multiple different genres, just as books, film, television, music, and other forms of media have.

Among the games that feature crime sprees or cooking or go-karts or martial arts, one genre that has captured the interest of a wide audience is “survival horror,” a term popularized by the game “Resident Evil” in 1996.
Though not the first horror game, "Resident Evil" brought the genre into mainstream interest.
This genre is defined by experiences that force the player to endure terrifying situations, which can vary widely: “Five Nights at Freddy’s” sees the player confined to a security room at night under the assault of animatronic characters, “Alien: Isolation“ pits the player in a decommissioned space station being stalked by an intelligent and deadly alien creature, and “Silent Hill 2” follows the journey of a widower entering a town haunted by disturbing monsters in search of his supposedly dead wife.
So why do so many players seek out frightening and upsetting situations? Shouldn’t the protective instincts in our brains tell us to quit playing these scary games and instead find something more comforting? Why do we seek to instill in ourselves fear and anxiety?
You wouldn't expect many people to continue playing "P.T." once this occurs...
As it does with horror films and books, fear plays a major part in these games’ appeal. Yet unlike any other medium, horror games involve the active participation of players. When you watch a horror movie, the most interaction you have with that movie is pressing Play or Pause (or maybe turning on subtitles.) You can hide under a blanket or close your eyes during the more intensely scary scenes, but the film will continue to play.

By contrast, a horror game will scare a player yet still require the player to respond according to that game’s rules and systems. If you close your eyes and just hope that the threat will go away, your character in the game will probably die, and the game will reset to a previous state.  

The "Fatal Frame" series distinctly forces players to take pictures of the apparitions that haunt the player.
Plenty of research has been conducted in attempts to explain why we do enjoy horror games. One such idea that’s been used is called excitation-transfer theory: basically, experiencing things that scare us will arouse us, usually in a negative way (due to our psychological wiring,) but this arousal becomes positive once we’ve escaped the causes of fear and anxiety (known as catharsis.) This is common in horror films, as it gives the audience breathing room between scares. Being bombarded with too much in too little time will overstimulate us, causing us to quit watching or playing these scary pieces of entertainment. This means that a balance must be struck, in order to maintain the effectiveness of scares as well as the enjoyment of an audience. You don’t want too little or too much.

The "Silent Hill" games developed by Team Silent show a perfect understanding of flow between horror and safety.
Jamie Madigan, writer for multiple video game websites and magazines (such as GamePro,) with a Ph.D in psychology, said in his article, "The Psychology of Horror" [link here]:

A second set of explanations for horror’s delight posits that we hate the horror, but like the proverbial man who bangs his head against the wall because it feels so good when he stops, we love the relief that comes at the end.”

Another reason that horror games have such a mass appeal is their tendency to cover subjects usually avoided by other genres of entertainment. As is also common with other medium in the horror genre, horror games will often contain stories and situations that illustrate taboo subjects, paranoia, societal anxieties, primal phobias, and personal trauma. Examples include themes of sexual assault (in “Silent Hill 2,”) distressing hallucinations (“Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem,”) serial killers (“Condemned: Criminal Origins,”) forbidden knowledge (“Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth,”) outbreaks of infectious lethal diseases (“Resident Evil,”) and violent extraterrestrial encounters (“Dead Space.”) 

"Condemned: Criminal Origins" has ritualistic murders, something you don't expect to see from, say, "Mario Kart"
Dr. Andrew Weaver is an Associate Professor at Indiana University who researches media psychology with a special emphasis on media violence, race and media, and moral choice in video games. In a Eurogamer article published in 2010 (link here,) he discusses why we find horror games scary; even though we know what we’re seeing isn’t real.

"The physiological reaction to frightening stimuli is pretty much the same whether it's real or [in the media.] As audience members we're pretty good at engaging in suspension of disbelief. At some level we can choose to essentially forget that what we're watching or playing isn't real so that we can become fully transported into the story. If we do become immersed in a story, then the empathetic bonds we create with the characters will cause us to feel the fear they experience - much the same way we would in real life.”

The biggest advantage horror games have pertaining to exploring these themes and making audiences empathize with characters excitement, however, is the fact that we actively interact with these situations. In all of the above mentioned games, you have to confront that which is meant to scare you, in order to continue experiencing the story. But unlike an action game where you’ll often be armed to the teeth with powerful weapons and tons of ammunition, well-made horror games aim to make violent confrontations difficult for the player through disempowerment. You’ll have weak weaponry, little ammo, sparse space to move around in, low visibility, and even unconventional goals in a fight: mutated corpses in Dead Space resist blows to the head, so the better approach is actively removing their deadly limbs with engineering tools to (literally) disarm them.

Have fun trying to figure out your first encounter with a Divider in "Dead Space"
“Horror games are able to delve into human fear in a way that books and movies cannot; they use the key element for games, interaction, to achieve the greatest effect amongst players,” says Lukas Verselis, 19, Foresight Research Assistant for the School of Strategic Human Communication at Arizona State University. “The scariest games to me involve human corruption, so ‘Silent Hill’ is a classic for me. Games that allow you to fight back can cheapen the effect as well.”

Also commonly shared between horror games and other media of horror is the elimination of gender stereotypes. In far too much conventional media, men are illustrated in a vast variety of roles as heroes and villains and anything in between, but women are generally weaker or needier when not posed as villains (which is in itself often an attempt to persuade women to embrace conventional roles.)

“In the case of gender roles, the societies have established the hegemony of males by institutionalizing of male dominance over women…men have been perceived as the head of the household and women were mainly housewives. Nowadays the differences between male and female roles are smaller; however mass media still perpetuates traditional gender stereotypes.” (Wolska 2011)

Many horror games do away with conventional gender roles by making men and women are just as powerful (or rather, powerless) as each. For example, “Silent Hill 3” features a female teenage protagonist, who deals with a disturbing journey involving rituals and terrifying monsters mostly on her own; her male ally never fights alongside her during gameplay. The story actually makes effective use of a female perspective, featuring themes of fertility, birth, and even abortion, while making developing the protagonist as a strong-willed and capable character based on her own words and actions rather than any reason tied to her gender or sex. It’s vastly important that representation in media expand to be more inclusive, and many horror games have helped in that way.

Heather from "Silent Hill 3" is still one of my favorite horror game characters.
Lastly, horror games have even been utilized in therapeutic ways, sometimes known as “virtual reality exposure therapy.” One game, “Nevermind,” actually utilizes a cardio chest strap, which will detect physiological signs of fear in the player (mainly, an increase in heart rate.) The game will then increase its difficulty as a response to the player being afraid, and inversely, become easier if the player manages to calm down.

Two more examples of virtual reality exposure therapy are “Bravemind” and “STRIDE,” which have been utilized by over 50 hospitals and university research centers to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in members of the armed forces who have experienced combat.

“More than just sights and sounds, “Bravemind” uses a virtual reality head-mounted display, directional 3D audio, vibrations, and smells to generate a truly immersive recreation of the event that can be regulated at a pace the patient can handle.”

Facing our fears is an important part of our development, and one of the best ways that we can do this is through horror games. We’re put face-to-face with nightmarish situations, but in reality, we’re perfectly safe. Our imaginations run wild, both as players and as the creators of these experiences, in ways that other games can’t emulate, potentially in ways that can benefit us in very effective psychological ways.

“When we block unpleasant emotions, we also block pleasant ones, since they are all intertwined,” said Kosjenka Muk, a Special Education teacher as well as a Soulwork Systemic Coaching trainer from Croatia. “To small, dependent children, immature behavior of people around them can be so frightening that they try to absorb the shock by creating limiting beliefs and suppressing their feelings. The reason it is so hard to resolve those feelings and become aware of them is that infantile parts of us, once dissociated and suppressed from consciousness, never had the chance to mature. They stay on a childish level of perception even when we grow up. Even now, they are still just as afraid of difficult emotions, as when they were originally created.”

Angela's tragic story in "Silent Hill 2" is a perfect example of the importance in confronting our fears.
Perhaps horror games can be more than simply entertainment; perhaps they can be the push we need to overcome our inhibitions.
Don't be afraid to enter the fog...

Monday, November 24, 2014

Game Review: Alien: Isolation

This review is based on the PC version of Alien: Isolation, available on Steam.

Can I just start this off by saying that I love that this game exists? (yes, I can, it's my review. I'll do whatever I please.)

I've been a fan of the Alien film series for years. I own all of the four Alien-titled movies on DVD, and I'm able to appreciate parts of Prometheus and the two Alien vs. Predator films, but my favorite will always be the first: Alien, from 1979. Perfect pacing, a really great plot of events, realistic characters with strong performances from everyone, fantastic visual style and sound design, and the amazing designs by the amazingly talented late H.R. Gigar for the Alien (among other things) make it one of my favorite films of all time. The fact that the first and the last few minutes of the film lack any dialogue really shows a great sense of direction. It's no wonder that so many films since its release have borrowed something from Alien.

To try being brief: Alien is a story set in the (ironically now very retro-looking) future about a commercial spaceship crew of the USCSS Nostromo being awoken from cryosleep and responding to a distress beacon on an alien planetoid, under orders from Weyland-Yutani. They find a derelict space ship, a giant corpse, and a field of odd looking eggs...Of course, a crew member gets attacked by a Facehugger, arguments to let him on the ship are had, he gets on anyway, and after a very memorable bursting through of that person's chest, the titular creature slowly decreases the crew's size, though it's not the only threat on board. Only Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley survives in a shuttle. The film does well in conveying themes including corporate corruption (The Company running the operation cares about preserving the creature, not about ensuring the crew's survival,) knowing to stick to safety precautions, and having determination even in the face of a big black alien creature that bleeds acid and wants to stick its second mouth through your squishy human body.

The badass who survived the Alien. Alongside a cat.
Plot Overview
Alien: Isolation follows Amanda Ripley, the now adult daughter of Ellen Ripley. The game's events take place 15 years after Alien, and Amanda has been living without knowledge of her mother's whereabouts since. A man from "The Company" named Samuels tells her that the flight recorder of the Nostromo's been found, driving Amanda to join Samuels and a nervous analyst named Taylor on a mission to retrieve said recorder. The recorder is located on a colony called Sevastopol Station, which is where you'll be exploring for the majority of the game.

Of course, the mission doesn't go as is a game set in space after all.

Overall, the story of the game is not really anything special, mostly retreading ground laid by Alien and Aliens. The writing is serviceable, I suppose would be the best word. A bit of a shame, but I'd never call the game's story bad; just not innovative.

From the first moments you're thrown into Sevastopol by an explosion somewhere on the station, the game's title really fits. Amanda is isolated from Taylor, Samuels, and the rest of her crew, forced to scrounge around the oddly rundown station. Her new environment is covered in graffiti, tossed around items, broken machinery, and lots of malfunctioning lights. The player can read various terminal logs that describe a wide felt outrage by Sevastopol's residents against the management, reminiscent of the original film's themes. Clearly Seegson ain't Weyland-Yutani in terms of funding.

But the station is not empty. Amanda has to deal with desperate passengers who would rather fight than work together, and Sevastapol's own androids called Working Joes, who wear jumpsuits and lifeless white vaguely-human looking faces, complete with dead white eyes. These eyes glow red when they find an intruder, and they'll do their damnedest to extinguish such intruders with their bare hands, all while spewing such cryptic and ironic messages as "Why not ask me about Sevastopol's safety protocols?" I recommend not trying to confront them unless necessary: they're very durable.

And sometimes they play dead...
The Alien (also known as the Xenomorph by many fans) is truly terrifying to encounter, so you'll be better off avoiding its attention. Your stalker possesses one of the most natural-feeling artificial intelligences I've seen in a game; there is no discernible pattern to its habits. You'll have to consider both how loud and how visible you are at all times, as the Alien has stronger senses than any other enemy in the game. Encounters will require strategy and patience if you plan to survive. The Alien can change its behavior at a moment's notice, alternating from running around the area, to creeping slowly and examining every inch of a room, to crawling through the maintenance vents, and waiting for an unwary Amanda to walk under certain vents that show its dripping saliva. Amanda can distract the Alien using such attention grabbing items as flares and noisemakers. In some parts of the game, I even used it to dispatch groups of enemies, diverting its attention to violent looters with well placed loud sounds...though that did end up with me having to still work my way around it alone.

One of my own encounters with the Alien. Thank YouTube for the butchered quality.

Alien: Isolation's story can be played in three difficulties: Easy, Normal, and Hard. I strongly recommend you play the game on the Hard difficulty, so that you get the best sense of having to scavenge for items and managing your resources (also, DO NOT MISS.) I've heard some reviewers call certain parts of the game unfair, which I mostly disagree with: the game does a great job of punishing you for not paying attention to your surroundings or responding in a less prepared manner. However, toward the end of the game, I did think it was getting a little too hard to tell what was going on, due to the level design blending in with the enemies. Even then, this was a learning experience: I had to slow down and really focus on what was happening around me instead of treating the game like I could just run past the obstacles (a big issue for me when it came to the game Outlast.)

Aside from the multiple encounters you have with less-than-friendly inhabitants of Sevastopol, you'll engage in hacking mini-games in order to brute force security, little interactive moments of using tools like a wrench or a torch, and rewiring power to different doors or systems. Since they take time, you'd best make sure you're not around any enemies when doing these tasks. The mini-games are simple and neat enough that I never got annoyed by them, though it can be frustrating how much time it takes Amanda to transition between interacting with things and being able to move.

One of the hacking mini-games involves matching shapes with the displayed Callback Code.
One thing some people dislike but I'm actually glad was implemented is the manual save system, another of my (many) complaints about changes brought on by Dead Space 3. You'll have to be careful whenever you want to save your progress, make sure the coast is clear, and then interact with specific save points marked by a big "EMERGENCY" sign and a distinct beeping that will become your best friend.

Tip: don't ignore any of these. Death will no doubt be a constant.
One more thing: the game's story is beefy, and will last around 18 to 20 hours, depending on your deaths, adaptability, and knack for exploration. I don't think the game is overly long as some other critics have said, but the ending is disappointing to me. Hope that doesn't spoil the experience though: it's well worth it.

Beside that, there's a Survivor Mode, where you try to complete a number of objectives in a specific area of Sevastopol while also dealing with the Alien while having a very limited amount of supplies. It's a test of against time to fulfill these objectives as soon as possible while staying alive, and it's recommended you don't play Survivor Mode until you finish the story. Interestingly, Survivor Mode has a characters select and area select, yet only one character and area are available if you haven't bought the game's DLC. This was disappointing, to be blunt.

Put simply, the game looks gorgeous...about 90% of the time. Immediately you get a sense of what the future must look like if it were made with 1980's aesthetics, with CRT displays, tons of cigarette trays, oddly antiquated furnishings, and other effects. A vastly impressive level of detail has been paid in making the game both look faithful to the original film, while also being innovative with the introduction of the uncanny valley-evoking Working Joe androids.

I love the black screens with green text.
The manipulation of lights and shadows and dust particles, and the effects created from weaponry and tools alike all really make the game's scenes pop out in engaging ways. Activating a flare will make the screen glow red and give a little lens flare, to the chagrin of many realists; I don't mind the cinematic effect personally. Some moments you'll be wearing a suit to traverse outer space, and vision in the helmet is accurately cut down a bit by the helmet itself and the scratches on the glass. There's even a toggle between focusing on your motion tracker and what's in front of you.

You don't want to see dots on that thing. Especially if they're close to you.
The Alien itself is incredibly detailed, even though you'll want to avoid having to see it up-close obviously. From the trailing tail to the elongated shape of its head to the creepy six fingered hands, the creature looks marvelous, a perfect mix of organic and mechanical. Again, props to H.R. Giger for the original design. In certain moments of lighting hitting the creature just right, it really felt like I was experiencing the films again.

Dat tail tho.
The game's third-person (and a select few first-person) cut scenes are pre-rendered at I believe 30 FPS, with very realistically animated human faces. However, in-game talking characters look like Muppets. These cut scenes also were a little choppy. Also, some textures are much lower resolution than I thought once I got close to them. I'm not that worried though, as this work around helps more systems run the game well. In fact, I'm very impressed how good the game looks on my Asus G550JK, and I even tweaked the graphics settings higher than the default settings with no noticeable drops in FPS. Seriously, you'll be surprised how good this game can look and run on a less-powerful setup.

Very impressive detail in the faces for the third-person cutscenes.
Also, I did experience multiple visual bugs in my playthrough, but usually they were very minor and didn't affect my gameplay. Most common was floating revolvers or wrenches. I also saw Amanda's fingers clip through a vent or two. The one gamebreaking glitch I experienced was what seemed like the darkness of space farting out crystals through a character's body, so I couldn't see where I was supposed to be going. Resetting to an earlier save fixed that issue though I believe. That or just resetting the game; luckily they were close to save points.

No horror game would be complete without competent sound design, which thankfully Alien: Isolation does very well. The moment that you're aware of the Alien's presence on the ship, every sound can set you on edge, making the gameplay rely partly on knowing what each sound means. This is especially true when you find yourself hiding in a locker from the Alien. Using your motion tracker emits sound that the Alien can hear, so I found myself keeping that instrument down and instead listening intently to the sounds of the Alien's footsteps and shrieks in order to estimate my distance.

Listen to the saliva dripping...

Music is not commonly in the forefront of the game, but when it is used, it fits the scene perfectly. Loud violins that reflect the tension of the scene often complement the stalking of the Alien. I'm pretty sure I heard some music from the original Alien film as well. Wouldn't doubt it at least.

The voice acting in the game feels pretty natural too, with no performances I'd call weak. Amanda displays a range of emotions in her voice, like fear, annoyance, anger, sarcasm, and concern. The Working Joes all emit a lack of emotion that really helps make them all the more creepy. Whomever does the Alien's shrieks deserve kudos and probably a lozenge or something.

Alien: Isolation is easily one of the best games I've played in 2014. It combines a universe that I love with truly immersive gameplay, and features one of the best antagonists (who doesn't even have dialogue) in recent gaming history. If you're a sci-fi fan and/or a horror fan who enjoys games that focus more on exploration, patience, thinking through situations, and SPACE, I can't recommend this game enough.

Personal score: 9/10 

Extra Bits
I know a few certain advocates for positively portrayed female protagonist in games are gonna like this part: (COUGH HALEY AND CASS COUGH)

Amanda Ripley is a great example of a female protagonist done respectfully, just as her mother Ellen is in the film universe. Her sex is never addressed in a dismissive way by other characters (or really at all,) she doesn't seem in any way weaker than the male human characters (in fact, she's more of a badass than any of them,) and her behavior and attire aren't tied to her sex (when too many cases see this happen in submissive ways,) but rather her own personal motivations. While I don't think she's exactly memorable like Heather Mason from Silent Hill 3, she's at least another forward-thought example in terms of having female protagonists that are treated like humans.

David Cage, take some damn notes.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Game Review: The Wolf Among Us

This review is based on the PC version of The Wolf Among Us, available on Steam.

Hot off of the success they garnered with their excellent adaptation of The Walking Dead, Telltale Games set off to tackle another acclaimed graphic novel with The Wolf Among Us. And boy am I glad that they did.

Based on the Fables series written by Bill Willingham, The Wolf Among Us is centered around the investigations conducted by Bigby Wolf, the sheriff of a community in New York City called Fabletown. Appropriately, Fabletown is where a variety of characters from old fables and folk lore now live, following their exile from the Homelands. Bigby thus has to deal with the issues of such characters as Toad, Beauty, Beast, Snow White, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and Grendel. Many of the characters would look peculiar in our "Mundie" world of humans, so some (such as Grendel and Jersey) use a magic called Glamour in order to appear human, though they'll show their true forms in times of conflict.

And so will the Big Bad Wolf himself.
 Gameplay in The Wolf Among Us is strongly reminiscent of point-and-click adventure games of the 1990's, as well as the earlier titles from Telltale such as The Walking Dead and Back to the Future, in a specific genre most put as "graphic adventures." Generally, you'll be choosing to interact with various objects and characters in a certain location, or choosing what to say in conversations with limited time windows. Breaking up these moments are also more action-packed sequences where you'll have to press certain buttons with even smaller time windows. While the gameplay is by no means complex, it doesn't have to be: this game is more about telling a narrative and letting players choose from multiple paths how that narrative will progress, and for me, the gameplay helps do just that in an effective way.

An example of the game's exploration gameplay. The rings denote what Bigby can interact with, like the Dust Ring, or the door in the background.
As The Wolf Among Us is a game driven by its narrative, the experience lives or dies on writing and voice acting. Both are thankfully excellent, with a lot of clever foreshadowing, sarcastic comedy, noir-esque dialogue, mystery, and a charm all its own. I also love that every character has multiple dimensions to them. Snow White, for example, manages to be a great authoritative character without ever becoming a damsel-in-distress; in fact, some moments feel like she's the one who Bigby should be careful around. The game's voice cast makes all of the dialogue really come to life, with some of my favorite performances being for Bigby, Jersey, Bloody Mary, and Snow White.

One thing you'll learn about Telltale's design style though is that the story always will reach certain milestones no matter your choices, though your choices do affect how certain characters feel about Bigby, what interactions open up to you in certain situations, and even the life of death of some characters. My version of Bigby was someone who attempted to stick to lawfulness and thus (usually) avoided violence, but wouldn't take bullshit when he knew things weren't going anywhere by being gentle, and I quite like how his lines and actions are written. Thus, he saved just about anyone he could, but wasn't afraid to step on a few toes when need be.

Gren is one person whose toes were stepped on, though I came to like him eventually.
I'm also a big fan of how the game looks visually. The cell shading and color pallet really bring the clash of New York City with fabled creatures to life in visually exciting ways. Telltale once again does wonderful work with the facial animations of characters too, especially showing a great manipulation of mouths, eyes, and eyebrows. I couldn't help but find Snow White's smile cute, while also being impressed with the work done with The Crooked Man's unique appearance (well, they're all unique, but you'll see what I mean.)

Seriously, this scene looks to be straight out of a comic book.
Complimenting the strong writing and visuals is a competent soundtrack, composed by Jared Emerson-Johnson, with music that ranges from the thriller theme of the story to more slow-paced background thumping for quiet bars to hectic orchestrations for hectic chases. Each track fits the scene it plays in well, especially strong in the more dramatic moments (don't want to spoil anything.) I especially like the music that plays during the opening credits of each episode.

 Credit goes to LazyDude24K for this upload.

One difference I saw in versions of the game pertains to the performance and number of technical hiccups, a recurring issue with Telltale's game engines that many players have become familiar with. On my PC, the game ran perfectly, with no glitches, crashes, stutters, or long load times. Meanwhile, I played Episode 1 on the Xbox 360, and have been watching the playthrough on YouTube channel "The Sw1tcher," where I saw a few recurring issues: scene transitions that were stuck for a few seconds, long and frequent load times, models popping-up in odd ways, fluctuating frames-per-second, and a few more. The worst hiccups occur in flashback sequences that play when you start a new episode. Still, these hiccups aren't bad enough nor frequent enough in my eyes to take away from the experience. Rather, they're minute breaks in immersion, akin to hitting the pause button at the wrong time. If anything, I'd recommend you play this game on a decent PC, though I've not heard how it fares on Xbox One or PS4.

Da bes glitch (no spoilers)

With a great story, wonderful presentation, strong writing and voice acting, memorable characters, and intense moments of drama, The Wolf Among Us is one of the best graphic adventure games I've had the opportunity to play, alongside Telltale's magnum opus: the first season of The Walking Dead. I recommend this game to anyone who's into games with themes of noir, fantasy mixed with reality, crime, and delicious irony.

Personal score: 8.5/10

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Game Review: The Legend of Korra

 This review is based on the PC version of The Legend of Korra, available on Steam.

Seeing as this is a review of a game based on a pre-existing series, I feel it's important to discuss that series at least briefly first.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is perhaps my favorite animated series (read: NOT ANIME) of all time, and I'd say a vast majority of the people who have watched the series also hold the series in high acclaim. In this world, some people are able to manipulate one of four elements (Earth, Fire, Air, or Water,) except for one being: the Avatar, who is able to "bend" all four elements.

The original Avatar series centered around the adventures of the 12 year-old Avatar Aang, who's tasked with saving the world from Fire Lord Ozai. Along the way, he becomes friends with such compelling characters as Katara, Sokka, Suki, Toph, and even Ozai's son, Zuko. The series is excellently written and paced, and covers many topics most other children-targeted series would never dare to tackle (or at least in respectable depth,) such as war, the morality of killing and revenge, honor, and clashing cultures.

The sequel to Avatar, known as The Legend of Korra, takes place 70 years after the first series' events of Book Three. Korra is the new Avatar, and has her own troubles to deal with in a more modernized world. While I am a fan of The Legend of Korra, it's had its (many) missteps, especially in Books One and Two, with confusing pacing and motivations and some bizarre shifts in tone (Book Two ending feels out of place.) However, as of Book Three and (so far) Book Four, Korra has regained its footing, and manages to present very interesting new storylines. It's not quite as strong as its predecessor yet, but it's very enjoyable to watch.

Zaheer is a good antagonist. Unalaq is not.
Now for the game itself.

The Legend of Korra game takes place sometime between Books Two and Three of the animated series, following Korra's victory over Unalaq and the dark spirit Vaatu. We're able to see the world after Korra's choice to leave open the portals between the mortal world and the Spirit World, with spirits (both benevolent and dangerous) roaming around and giant plant life sprouting throughout Republic City.

Right off the bat, The Legend of Korra game gives us a good taste of its combat system, yet fails to properly introduce newcomers to the series, only serving them with the quick synopsis about what the Avatar can do as one finds at the beginning of the Korra animated series. Rather, we're introduced to a new villain who strips Korra of her bending after we're given an opportunity to try all four elements out briefly in the Spirit World. We don't see much of this villain until late into the game, and even then, he's not at all memorable (just like Unalaq, who I constantly have to look up the name of whenever I want to mention him.)

This guy basically doesn't do anything outside of the beginning and the finale.
 While the plot and storytelling are pretty lackluster, the gameplay is very fun and responsive, especially in the avenue of combat. Developed by one of my favorite teams, PlatinumGames Inc., the combat is extremely fast-paced, responsive, and visceral. You'll be dodging attacks, countering with force, dashing across arenas, racking up combos with the martial arts prowess possessed by Korra, and attempting to fight faster and fiercer with each conflict to reach a higher rank and gain more points used in a store to attain abilities and items. Combat is fluid and feels great, as I've found with Platinum's titles Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Bayonetta, though Korra's gameplay is not nearly as deep as I'd have preferred. The skill ceiling comes nowhere near those other works, and you'll often find yourself repeating certain maneuvers to deal with annoying projectile spamming enemies.

What I found most impressive about the combat is just how different each style of Bending is. Earthbending is so powerful that enemies (and Korra) can't block against it, but it's balanced out by being very slow. Waterbending feels fittingly fluid, allowing users to throw projectiles and even freeze water to use ice as a weapon. Firebending is viciously fast, yet short ranged, so it's probably the best element for raking up numbers in combos. Airbending, probably my favorite to use so far, utilizes wide sweeping movements, allowing you to hit many opponents at once AND YOU CAN EVEN UNLOCK THE AIR SCOOTER THING AANG USED. Each element feels very different from each other. There's tons of passion that's clear to see in this game's combat, and it really is a thrill to finally experience Bending realized in a quality action game.


The enemies you'll be using these great moves on are...not very inventive, to be honest, and are probably the biggest tell that this is a budget title. Until you fight the spirits after the game's intro, you'll see maybe six unique enemy models that are each palette swapped for different types of each model. The most common enemies are Chi Blockers (as seen in Book One of the animated series), with three variants. They'll vary between fighting you hand-to-hand, throwing bolas at you, and trying to stun you with electric gauntlets. Then, you'll for some reason see these Chi Blockers with the bosses of the Triple Triads, with slightly different colored versions later on. These guys are pretty fun to fight, though the Earthbender gets annoying in crowded situations since you can't block against him. Also, you'll have mini boss fights with the Mecha Tanks, perhaps the most frustrating enemy type to fight, due to their constant stun projectiles, ground burst moves that knock-up, and even sheer size obscuring your view if you try getting close. The best fight in the game is easily the final boss, which I won't spoil, besides saying that it definitely has that Platinum feel to it.

This gif, from Nerd Reactor, shows a tiny taste of the combat, against one of the many Chi Blockers you deal with.
In between the actual combat sections of the game are Temple Run-esque moments where Korra rides atop Naga in a decent but ultimately forgettable mini-game, and Pro Bending, which is kind of like the actual combat but set on the Pro Bending arena from the series and with some small mechanics changes. Both of these are pretty much distractions.

I managed to finish the game's Normal difficulty in around 3 hours, and doing so unlocked Extreme Difficulty and Pro Bending Mode. For what miniscule budget and time this game had to be developed, I'm impressed just how much fan fare and effort went into it, and I really hope that this game can find some success so that producers can see the demand for licensed games being developed by competent teams.

For $15, The Legend of Korra is a great appetizer for Platinum's more complete works, and also a respectful gift to the series' fans, some of whom have been begging for a good Avatar game since the original series aired back in 2005-2008. While corners were clearly cut (which I fault Nickelodeon and Activision on more than Platinum, who clearly put a ton of effort into the game,) the core gameplay really shines through, and I never felt like I was forcing myself to continue.

My personal score? 7/10.

By the way, Korra x Asami is da bes. (Source.)