Agents of SHIELDcast

The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter - Review [PC]

 Please Note: This review does not contain any spoilers.

Lately there has been this push in game development to move beyond the formulaic nature of what big name publishers think works in video games.  It doesn't take too long to see the slew of complaints coming out of major titles these days: the explanation of game mechanics is too long, pacing is terrible, show don't tell, cutscenes are not a great method of storytelling.  From the presence of these forumlas and subsequent gripes, there has been born a new style that I like to refer to as a "just play" game.  The Vanishing of Ethan Carter doesn't tell you a back story, it doesn't tell you what to do, it simply has one initial message that tells you it's an unguided free-form experience and then lets you go.  While I'm sure most gamers will get the jist of what's expected and what to do, I'm sure there are some people out there who will simply freak out and not be able to handle a game where their progress isn't being tracked, where there are no goals or achievements, and where at any given moment you have no idea what to do.  If you are one of those people, just turn away now because you will never find solace with Ethan Carter.  On the other hand, if you just want a lush, gorgeous world to explore and in the end get rewarded with a thought-provoking experience that almost never has to concede to game mechanics, then this could be up your alley.

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You enter the game on a forest-covered path as detective Paul Prospero, who immediately explains that he has supernatural abilities that assist you in discovering what has happened in the town of Red Creek Valley.  It was just as easy to imagine myself as the protagonist and the voice of Prospero merely lending the narration,  but regardless of how you want to view it this is the point where your journey begins.  It's a bit jarring to be dropped into a forest with no indication as to what's going on or what you are supposed to do and with each clue of the game's handful of mechanics and potential puzzles I found myself getting more confused and a bit overwhelmed.  Don't let this discourage you, enough people have played through it and made it out on the other side to assure that eventually you will make the progress you need.  Exploration in this title is so wonderful thanks first and foremost to the game's gorgeous graphics.  Built on the Unreal Engine, it looks almost photorealistic.  Everything from the backdrops to the textures of the ground are handled with the utmost care and the attention to detail must have been a pain for developer the Astronauts to assemble, but the payoff is a world that looks alive and never pulls back the veil to reveal its artificial nature.  The trade off for such wonderful graphics is that you will want a decent graphics card to support them, which my GTX 760 2 GB did a decent job of keeping up with in 1080p although I had to drop a few settings from the highest.  You may notice a random stutter or framerate drop, but the forums on Steam have found a decent solution and the rest can be chocked up to limitations of the Unreal Engine streaming in the next area.  If you're moving at a regular pace and trying to take in everything it's not all that noticeable, but if you find yourself having to backtrack - which you should prepare to have to do - it can be a bit of a nuisance.  Graphics aside the accompaniment of ambient sound effects and a subtle ochestral music assist in the richness of the world, yet again encouraging you to get out there an explore.  

voec 3That's not to say that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is all about wandering about in the woods looking at minutia, because I would have led that this was an art exhibit instead of a game if that were the case.  It presents itself as a mystery and that comes with it the inclusion of investigation, puzzle solving, and naturally wandering upon grounds where you might not be welcome.  Something has clearly happened in Red Creek Valley and it isn't long before you start to see hints of the past emerge to make your earn the title of detective.  It's at this point that one of this title's main flaws appear in full effect: without guidance you have almost no way of knowing when you have completed an area or puzzle.  Logic dictates the game will give you some sort of indication that you are done, which this game does, but when you go in blind and with no direction you could easily assume it may not.  Couple that with the initial tasks of the game being somewhat complicated and you almost wonder if the point was to eventually have you backtrack to complete what you started.  I don't like to return to areas I've already been and I view it as even more of a misstep when the backtracking works to remind me that I'm playing a game, complete with its experiential limitations.  For all  the work The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does to immerse you, it almost seems misguided when a player can bypass a significant mechanic and plot point only to be forced to spent long stretches returning to clean up that mistake later.  Perhaps it was a concious decision or perhaps the Astronauts were unsure how to balance explaining these early concepts without breaking the ultimate goal of letting the player lead the experience, but either way it's quite a setback.  In all honesty I had to restart the game within the first two hours when I realized what I had left behind and thought about how long I would have to retread my steps to clean things up.  I also discovered from breaking my experience into three different sittings that the checkpoint system is a bit broken and works more like a bookmark of new accomplishments as opposed to the save location that you will begin when playing again.  What I mean is that I could see the familiar "scene saving" message on the screen (there's no direct saving or loading on this game) and quit out, but when I restart later I'm dropped in a completely different part of the map where I last accomplished something new and might have to spend minutes if not tens of minutes returning to where I left off.  If you perform all the duties that an area has available to you before moving on the system should work like a true checkpoint, but from my experience you will often have to return to clean things up and at that point may checkpoint yourself far from where you want to go next.  It might surprise you to discover that as annoying and blasphemous as these factors may be, they hindered but didn't ruin my experience of what is otherwise an enchanting work.

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Once these intial hiccups are overcome and you are getting work done in Red Creek Valley, the subsequent events make it all worth it.  Each encounter or puzzle will make you think, but I never found myself stuck for too long nor was I unable to figure out what I was being asked to do.  You realize just how much testing must have gone on to throw people into an unexplained situation and yet give them enough subtext that they are able to easily navigate provided that they just allow themselves to stop and think about it.  As my momentum through the campaign grew I was rewarded with both plot and design twists that kept me hooked.  If you can't already tell from the screen shots it's a slightly eerie and ominous game from start to finish.  I also never worried about how much I had played or how much game I had left while traversing the story.  I just kept playing as long as I was entertained and when I got tired I would stop, but it wasn't long before I felt the pull to return and complete the mystery.  By the end of the game's approximate 4-6 hour journey, I was pleasantly pleased with the outcome both in terms of the story and looking back at The Vanishing of Ethan Carter from a macro perspective.  Some may find that this length is short, but I felt it was as long as it needed to be and may have been in danger of wearing out its welcome had it been padded down with additional content.  There's no doubt about it, this is a thought-provoking experience that will leave you wanting to talk about it with someone. If you're craving something fresh, look no further than The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

Final Score: 8/10

A review copy was provided by the developer for review purposes.  The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is available on Steam for $19.99 and should be released on PS4 early 2015.  It took the reviewer 5 hours to complete with an overall playtime of approximately 7 hours.  

  • Published in PC

Monochroma Review [PC]

Kickstarter is certainly becoming a hotbed for video game developers to bring their gaming visions to life without the yoke of a big publisher interfering. One of the latest video games to get fully funded and developed is Monochroma. It was developed by Nowhere Studios, a small studio in Istanbul, Turkey,who wants to take the spirit and fun of classic video games and create next-gen games for all types of systems. Monochroma is their first game towards that goal.

Monochroma tells a bittersweet tale of two brothers. Set in alternative dystopian 1950 it starts with the boys near their ramshackle home doing typical young boy things; climbing, jumping, swinging, and flying a kite. While the youngest brother is flying the kite a strong breeze comes up and takes the kite away from him. The boys chase the kite to a railway barn where it gets caught on the roof. They climb up onto the roof and just as they get close to it the roof caves in. The older brother comes through fine, but his younger brother injures his leg in the fall. With a little determination the big brother carries his little brother out of the railway barn into the connected robot factory only to learn it holds a dark secret. Their journey now becomes one of, not only looking for help, but survival.

It's a well told story especially given the fact that there is no dialog. The animation and "acting" of its characters are combined with a well-crafted soundtrack to convey all the story and emotion. The soundtrack was created by Gevende, a Turkish psychedelic rock band. Gevende manage to capture wonder, adventure, and yet a slight sad dystopian feel that gives Monochroma an emotional boost.

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The animation art is made up of stark grayscale that outlines positive and negative space, highlighted only by the splashes of red that point out items of importance. It's hauntingly beautiful. Little details certainly speak well. For example, the first time you try to set your brother down in the game in a place that's not brightly lit. The way he shakes his head and sort of hides his face at the same time perfectly conveys that childhood fear of the dark.

While the art and music of Monochroma present so much, it's a disappointment that the controls are not up quite up to snuff. For a 2D puzzle platforming game they are loose enough that you will experience more than a few untimely deaths. Part of the core controls is the fact that your movement speed and jumping height are affected by whether or not you are carrying your brother. You can move faster and jump higher without him, but you cannot go very far without him either. The game doesn't always seem to realize you are not carrying him. This issue comes into focus mostly while jumping. In later sections of the game this really matters because you are racing against a clock.The controls aren't completely horrible and if you remember to take the looseness into account, they are playable.

The only other problem I had with Monochroma has more to do with my own muscle memory than any problem with the game. Jump is the up arrow or "W" if you use "WASD" controls and the Space Bar is used to pick up and put down your brother. Years of playing other PC games that use the Space Bar as jump has led to a few “oops” moments. Again this really isn’t a problem with game; it's more a problem if you're so ingrained in one way of playing.

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Overall Monochroma is a very good story. The game rises above its problems and tells the sweet and sad tale of childhood, growing up, and family bonds. It stands out as one of the better Kickstarter games and Nowhere Studios should be very proud of it. I would like to see what they do next; in the meantime though I have some hidden flowers to find in Monochroma so I can finish an achievement.

  • Published in PC

Beatbuddy Review (PC)

beatbuddyYou probably haven’t heard of THREAKS before. It’s more than likely because they’ve never released a game before, so here’s their first game ever, Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians. Just because it’s the first game for the developer doesn’t mean there aren’t some industry veterans behind it, including Austin Wintory, composer of Journey, who has contributed songs for the game and Rhianna Pratchett, who is the writer for such games as Tomb Raider and Mirror’s Edge. So despite THREAKS being relatively new, there’s plenty of experience behind the team of Beatbuddy. Beatbuddy is a puzzle adventure game where your character, who just so happens to be called Beatbuddy, has been awakened from a deep slumber and then finds out his musically driven world is being the threatened with ultimate destruction. It’s up to you to puzzle solve your way through the game and find out why.

Beatbuddy is a rather simple game, your character Beatbuddy is a floating ghost-like character who moves around with 8 directions of freedom. It plays like you were a spaceship in a 2D world. You go through from section to section where you run into different obstacles that stop you from advancing. For example, one the most common puzzles elements are bounce pads which send you flying backwards and you have to orientate various mirrors to send you in a different directions from where you bounced from. The point is to send yourself flinging at top speed at clearly marked destructible walls which you hit and destroy after successfully orientating the mirrors correctly. You then move on and advance to the next section of level from there. Honestly it’s usually rather obvious what direction you’re supposed to line the mirrors up and so you spend an excruciating amount of time trying to line up mirrors correctly rather than solving actual puzzles.beatbuddy

Another central mechanic found within the game is that it’s supposed to be all about the beat where the music drives the environments and the environments drive the music. Honestly on this score, the game doesn’t quite live up to it’s hype. While there are definitely reasons that the music matters, like when the music is affected by touching items in the environment and even some enemies that have to be killed to the rhythm of the music playing, however there is no compelling use of the beat mechanics for the most part. It’s really just a gimmick that never gets used to its full potential.

Rhianna Pratchett is flaunted as the star writer, however the story really isn’t all that central to the game. You do have a reason to go from point A to point B but you’ll never get all that involved in the plot. The game’s story is mostly told through boring text bubbles that can be kinda funny sometimes but usually aren’t.

I’ve spent plenty of time bagging on the game but I feel I should highlight its positives as it’s not a bad game. While not innovative, you do have on your hands a solid puzzle adventure game that is not very difficult but is still fun. The primary mechanics are compelling enough to make you want to play through the game despite the few annoyances I mentioned earlier. There are constant checkpoints making it easy to jump in and out of the game between sessions. The game has plenty of options for controls (Keyboard, Gamepad, Mouse) and all of them play well. The musical score for the game is great. There was much attention paid to making a great electronic orchestral for the levels so I’d definitely recommend picking up the soundtrack once it’s available. I did notice the volume options can’t mute the game and only goes from somewhat low to high volumes, so keep that in mind. The “hand-painted” characters and environments look awesome and much kudos goes to the art director for the unique and beautiful game that they crafted.

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Beatbuddy is a fun little game that warrants it’s budget price. You’ll get a solid 5 hours out of playing it which could be seen as short to some but it was enough for me. You won’t have your socks blown off playing the game but it’s got a unique vibe and all in all it's worth a look.

  • Published in PC

Dr. Who Legacy Q&A + Giveaway on Sept 12th

Join us and Whovians from all over the world for the Doctor Who Legacy Q&A on Friday at 5pm est/10pm GMT to get all of your questions answered about the game and whats coming up in it's future. We’re also giving away prizes, including a Grand Prize during the Q@A that will give a lucky winner a prize so big it'll barely fit inside the Tardis. An unlock code giving you ALL of the characters in the game!(all standard characters, not including expert, fan zone or costumes) Allons-y!

Being a part of the fun is easy, just go to AllGames.com/live this Friday and you can listen as Tiny Rebel Studios answers your qeustions as you submit them.

If you’re busy traveling the universe in a TARDIS to be with us on Sept 12th, you can still join in by posting your questions in the comments section below.

The Ninth Doctor Giveaway!The Ninth Doctor Giveaway!

 Check out the Doctor Who Legacy Interview with Tiny Rebel on the 42 Level One Podcast!

Boltus Launch Announced

Twin Echoes has announced their first game, Boltus.  Boltus is currently on Steam Greenlight and will launch early 2016.  Twin Echoes LLC is based in Romania and just launched earlier this month by a married programmer/artist duo who like to foster a rapport with their players to build a better experience.

In its twist on the classic pinball Boltus puts you in the game as the ball and you are trying to capture your enemy team’s base going from bumper to bumper.  This action-puzzler you are released from the constraints of the normal pinball machine and can play both single player and co-op.  Check out their Steam Greenlight page to show your support http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=519408429 or you can check out the Twin Echoes website for more info www.twinehcoes.com

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  • Published in News
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