Showing posts with label Survival Horror. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Survival Horror. Show all posts

Friday, 18 September 2015

Review - Until Dawn

Until Dawn
Available only on Sony PlayStation 4

[Please be aware, this review contains huge story SPOILERS!]

I’ve been a massive fan of the “point and click” genre since I first laid eyes on Broken Sword and over time, my appreciation for the genre has grown and grown alongside the technology enhancements that led to 3D environments and more cinematic storylines. For me, the pinnacle of these is Quantic Dream’s absolutely superb Heavy Rain, which blended third person exploration, interactive conversations and Quick Time Events (QTEs) into a wonderful branching narrative, in which the player could weave multiple plot threads together to create their own tapestry of a story, even killing off the main protagonists and shifting the story in a different way. Tackling the film noir genre, Heavy Rain was a cracking detective story that gripped the player from the beginning and took them on a grim hunt for a child serial killer, echoing films like Seven and 8mm.

I absolutely loved Heavy Rain, especially the bonus DLC content which acted as a prequel and had the female protagonist, Madison, trapped in a serial killer’s home and attempting to escape the danger. It offered a completely different twist on the detective noir tone of the main game, evoking memories of films like The Silence of the Lambs and Halloween. So when I came across Until Dawn and saw that it took the same Heavy Rain formula and adapted it into a “Cabin in the Woods” horror movie storyline, my interest was immediately piqued. The trailer showcased a scene from midway in the game where Hayden Panettiere’s character, Sam, is being chased by a masked serial killer and the player must navigate her to safety through a blend of QTEs, split-second choices and motion-sensitive controls. It looked absolutely fantastic – just like being in a schlocky horror movie – and with just one trailer, I was determined to buy the game on release day.

From here on, I am going to discuss the game’s plot in detail, as there is a major plot development that occurs midway through the game that directly influences my feelings on the title and also some of the gameplay elements. Until Dawn is a game of two halves – the initial chapters follow the traditional horror tropes to the letter – horny teenagers, mysterious masked murderer and even a smidgen of “torture porn” popularised by films like Saw and Hostel. However, there is a twist that renders the peril and danger that the characters face in the entire first half of the game to be completely moot. Those decisions and QTEs that you thought mattered, well, they didn't – your characters were never really in any danger.

Ultimately, some of the more minor choices do carry through to the final act, but when it came to replaying the game to kill off all of the characters (one of the hidden trophies), it turned out that I could start the game from Chapter 6 (out of 10) to do so. Whatever decisions I’d made in the previous five chapters had been purely cosmetic and only gave the illusion of free choice. The characters are only in danger when the game wants them to be and that is surprisingly few times. There are only a handful of actual moments where the player can kill off the characters, which dramatically lessens the tension of the game. For example, it is impossible to kill Sam (Hayden Panettiere) until the final scene of the game, no matter how many QTEs and bad decisions you make. I’m guessing this was due to the game developers not wanting players to experience an incomplete play through – although personally, I think the game would be MUCH stronger if the characters were always at risk and it was possible to cut short the story and eliminate all the teens early on.

Despite this fundamental flaw, Until Dawn is still a strong game, albeit consigned to second place against the superior Heavy Rain. The script balances a love for the “Cabin in the Woods” sub-genre of horror and the more self-aware, subversive humour of post-modern horrors like Scream. Despite a sizeable cast of ten core characters (two of which are doomed from the start), the game manages to develop each one sufficiently, building stereotypical horror personalities (the jock, the nerd, the bitch) into something more. The eventual reveal of the true threat is also well done, seeded throughout the narrative by the optional collectibles before being revealed in gory fashion. I really enjoyed the animation of the Wendigo creatures, whose unpredictable skittish movements induced a genuine sense of fear into the QTE confrontations, making those split-second decisions even more urgent.

Graphics - Graphically, this game is absolutely gorgeous with some of the most realistic facial effects I’ve seen in a game. There are some moments, however, when the characters suffer from ‘glassy eye syndrome’, which seems to be pandemic of this current generation’s graphics. As a fan of both Brett Dalton and Hayden Panettiere, it’s quite impressive to see both their likenesses and facial tics perfectly recreated on these animated characters. It’s also worth noting the truly fantastic snow effects that help capture the isolated feeling of the Canadian woods.

Gameplay - The game has been described as an “interactive movie” and I agree to that definition to an extent. Most of the player-controlled action is through third person exploration of Blackwood Pines Lodge and the surrounding woodland. While these moments did evoke memories of classic survival horror games, there is never any danger or peril during these sequences as it is impossible for characters to die unless they fail a QTE or make the wrong decision when faced with a choice. This makes it an ideal game for novice players as there is no controller skill required to progress through the game – it’s purely based on button pushes or motion control.

Achievements / Trophies - Until Dawn’s trophy list is a blank slate of “secret trophies” which are linked to major plot points throughout the game, often awarding trophies for contradicting choices meaning that multiple playthroughs are needed to get the full roster. Unfortunately, basing these trophies around the game’s branching moments just draws attention to the mechanics behind the game’s narrative. 

Longevity - As with other games of its kind, Until Dawn is best played with a single play through, allowing the player’s choices to form the definitive narrative to the game without seeing the other versions of events. Upon replaying the game, it becomes clear where the various divergent moments are and how little difference some of the QTEs make the overall storyline. Unfortunately the trophy list and collectibles encourage repeat playthroughs for full completion, ruining some of the cinematic magic of the game.

While Until Dawn falters in providing the ultimate horror movie simulator, it does deliver a strong, cinematic narrative experience. Straddling the line between game and interactive movie, this sub-genre still has a lot of potential that has yet to be explored and I really hope other game studios see what Supermassive Games and Quantic Dream have done with their titles and push the boundaries even further, providing players with even more control over the narrative. Part of Until Dawn’s problem was its grandiose statements regarding its “butterfly effect” system and its claims of “hundreds of different endings” – every other element of the game is near-flawless; graphics, sound, voice acting and atmosphere. I do feel that I’ve been slightly harsh in my criticism of the title, as up until two-thirds of the way through, I was really enjoying the title – it was upon completion and getting a glimpse “behind the curtain” that soured the experience for me. I still recommend this title for “point and click” enthusiasts and even horror buffs, as it is a really enjoyable tale – it just fails to capitalise on the same potential that I glimpsed in that Heavy Rain DLC, “The Taxidermist”.

Score - 8.1 out of 10

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Review - The Evil Within

The Evil Within
Available on: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 4 and Xbox One

The Evil Within (also known as Psycho Break in Japan) is a third-person Survival Horror game, directed by the creator of Resident Evil, Shinji Mikami. Produced by Bethesda Softworks, known primarily for RPG franchises such as Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, the game focuses on protagonist Sebastian Castellanos as he finds himself pulled through a world filled with nightmarish locations and horrific creatures, as he struggles to unlock the secret behind the mysterious hooded figure known as Ruvik.

Immediately, it is evident that this game is heavily influenced by the two Survival Horror heavyweights, Resident Evil and Silent Hill, in both tone and gameplay elements. The sequences set within the European village recalls elements of Mikami’s own work on Resident Evil 4, with the possessed villagers resembling the zombie-like Ganados, even going as far to include a chainsaw wielding boss character. Aside from the more action-packed elements borrowing from the later Resident Evil games, Mikami also includes a more psychological horror element with the inclusion of the unstoppable multi-limbed Laura who crawls after the player, ready to land a one hit kill; or The Keeper, whose ‘safe for a head’ design recalls memories of Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head.

The comparisons to Silent Hill continue with the game’s dream-like quality and constant shifting of locations from a remote village in the woods, to a ruined urban environment and the sterile environment of an abandoned mental hospital, which is also used as a “checkpoint hub” for players to save their progress and upgrade their skills. Gameplay-wise, the game owes much of its style to Resident Evil 4, to the point where specific chapters feel like ‘deleted scenes’ from the previous games. Obviously, being one of the biggest-selling survival horror games, this isn't a true detriment to The Evil Within, but it does leave it feeling somewhat derivative of its survival horror ‘parents’.

As with all survival horror games, initially the player is made to feel powerless and the game implements a heavy ‘stealth’ strategy in early chapters to increase the tension and give the players the sense that every battle counts, but eventually the game leans towards a more action-focused stance towards the end with bigger boss battles and more powerful weapons. The game also allows players to upgrade skills such as, weapon efficiency and ammo stock, enabling players to tailor their character to their strengths and increase power to specific weapon load-outs. Also, hidden keys littered about the levels allows the player to unlock safety deposit boxes and earn bonus “brain juice” (the currency of the game) or ammunition.

Story-wise, the game has a distinct tone and flavour that briefly allows it to step out from the shadow of its more-established predecessors, constantly challenging the player’s perception of what is real and what isn't. The plot is clearly influenced by both Japanese and American horror movies, blending the two genres together to bring something interesting and fresh to gamers. As Sebastian unravels more of the mystery behind events, the seemingly disparate threads established at the start of the game begin to become clear and it manages to tie together in a fairly satisfying manner. While the developers manage to craft a strong and engaging antagonist in the mysterious Ruvik, they do falter somewhat in creating an equally engaging hero with Sebastian.

I don't suspect this is the start of a new franchise, but as a stand-alone oddity, The Evil Within is a nice excursion away from the worlds of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, whilst remaining comfortably familiar. With both of those franchises yet to release a “next-gen” outing for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it seems The Evil Within is free to bask alone in the survival horror pool until a more established game comes along. Interestingly, DLC has been released for the title, expanding its story to focus on one of the supporting characters (Juli Kidman) and even allowing players to play as recurring enemy, The Keeper. This single-player DLC is a great touch and suits the game better than a tacked on multi-player, such as Resident Evil's “Mercenaries” mode.

Graphics - As expected, having played this game on the PlayStation 4, the graphics are fantastic and offer some really crisp visuals, particularly the vast ruined city-scape on the urban levels. Once again, comparisons can be made with its survival-horror “parents” of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, with the graphics imbuing the game with a gritty and grimy feel, perhaps not to the same extent as Silent Hill’s rust-filled other-world. It’s truly a great looking game, managing to bring each of its varied locales to life in a realistic manner.

Gameplay - As discussed above, The Evil Within owes a lot of its gameplay style to Resident Evil 4, using the familiar over-the-shoulder view implemented in all of the Resident Evil games since that release. The game blends elements of stealth into proceedings, particularly in the opening chapters, but this is largely optional and those wishing to go in with guns-blazing can do so with little consequence.

Achievements / Trophies - Most of the trophies are focused on standard chapter progression throughout the game with a handful of “secret” trophies awarded to those who complete certain criteria within the chapters, such as avoiding being seen during Chapter 2, or not using firearms during Chapter 8. There’s also the obligatory ultra-hard mode achievement, inviting gamers to complete the game in “Akuma mode”, which weakens your character so one hit from anything will kill him. Good luck with that!

Longevity - With its episodic nature, the game feels more apt for replay value than other survival horror games which have a more traditional long-form narrative. Upon completion, New Game+ is unlocked; allowing gamers to replay any chapter with existing weaponry earned in the previous play through including bonus weapons such as the Rocket Launcher and Sub-Machine Gun. The only gripe is that the difficulties are fixed, meaning that you can’t use this experience and more powerful weaponry to tackle the game on a harder difficulty.

As one would expect with the frequent comparisons made to Resident Evil and Silent Hill, The Evil Within doesn't bring innovation to the genre of Survival Horror, but that isn't necessarily a negative trait. Fans of the genre will find plenty to enjoy here, picking up on the riffs and homages to its predecessors, but anyone picking up this game for a fresh take on the Survival Horror genre will be disappointed. The only advances made here are graphically, and the game is beautiful. Personally, I was on the fence during the initial levels, unsure of the stealth elements but mid-way through the game, I found myself hooked and eagerly working through the chapters to get to the conclusion.

Score - 9.4 out of 10

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Review - Alien: Isolation

Alien: Isolation
Available on: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 4 and Xbox One

My first experience with video-games based on the Alien franchise reaches as far back as Alien Trilogy, which was released on Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation and PC in 1996. This Doom-esque first-person shooter loosely adapted the first three films of the Alien series, placing the player in the role of Ellen Ripley as she encountered various creatures from the films across thirty levels. The most notable element of the game was the inclusion of the infamous motion-tracker from the movies, which added the same sense of impending dread as the beeping dots came ever closer to your marker.

Subsequent games featured the Aliens vs. Predator match-up and moved the franchise out of its traditional horror atmosphere into a more generic first-person shooter approach with players able to play as both the Alien and Predator characters in-game. It wasn't until 2013 with the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 that the deadly xenomorph’s regained their position as the solo enemies. Unfortunately, Colonial Marines was met with largely negative reviews and despite the removal of the Predator and focus on playing as a human; it retained an arcade action feel. To make matters worse, Electronic Arts had struck gold with the Dead Space series, which had managed to completely encapsulate that isolated horror feeling that the original Alien films had achieved. It was clear that a new strategy was needed if Twentieth Century Fox wanted to create the definitive Alien experience for fans of the films.

It was 2014’s Alien: Isolation that finally provided with an authentic journey into the world of the Alien franchise. Billed as a survival horror, rather than a first-person shooter, the game fits seamlessly into the established canon of the Alien universe by featuring Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, who was referenced on-screen during the beginning of Aliens and chronicles her untold search for her mother’s whereabouts. The first thing that struck me as I played through the game was the attention to detail in the design of the ships. As Amanda emerges from cryo-sleep at the start of the game, players are instantly struck with a sense of déjà vu as the opening sequence mirrors the beginning of Ridley Scott’s Alien, expertly setting up the atmosphere of deep space travel, using the same ‘retro’ technology seen in the 1979 movie to achieve consistency and evoke nostalgia.

It's Game Over, man...It's Game Over

Picking out the best ingredients from the movies like a fussy eater at a buffet, the game wisely decides to feature just one xenomorph as the primary antagonist, peppering the levels with desperate survivors and malfunctioning androids to add variety to the central battle of survival against the galaxy’s most deadly killing machine. The plot borrows familiar storyline elements from the films with the dastardly Weyland-Yutani corporation referenced in the many audio diaries littered about the Sevastopol space station, and a rather unhelpful central AI that turns the 'Working Joe' robots against anyone trying to destroy the xenomorph. As usual, it is humanity's greed and desire to turn the xenomorphs into profitable and controllable weapons that results in the horrific carnage and bloodshed that follows.

The motion-tracker which Ripley Jr is saddled with is something of a double-edged sword, because while it does allow the player to work out where the enemies are and in what quantity, it also serves to increase the tension as you sneak through the deserted corridors. The game encourages players to be smart and work out the least disruptive way to get past areas, because the Alien is quick and brutally unforgiving once it drops down out of the ventilation system and begins chasing any living thing in its path. Sometimes, when faced with overwhelming odds, the player must balance up the potential danger of 'summoning' the xenomorph out of its hiding place to take down some scavengers against the difficulty of a more stealthy approach.

Players are able to craft various tools out of materials to assist them in avoiding human/android threats, but I found myself using these sparingly, choosing to just hide in cupboards and under tables instead, often with limited success! As the game progresses, Ripley does acquire more powerful weapons into her armoury and the game begins to lose some of its stealthier qualities as players can scare off the Alien with a well-timed flame-thrower burst, but ammo is scarce and there is always danger around every corner.

Graphics - With the game relying on a first-person perspective throughout, it was vitally important that the environment of the Sevastopol spaceship held up to scrutiny – playing it on a PS4 system, I can safely say that the graphics were truly amazing and utilised the extra graphical power that came with the next-generation machine. Most notably, the lighting was superb, helping to cultivate a sense of fear throughout the game, especially when attempting to hide from the xenomorph. With very few enemies on-screen and an emphasis on stealth, there isn't much opportunity to admire the character models, but the game manages to excel at capturing the mood of the original Alien movie through the architectural design of the space station.

Gameplay - Gamers expecting a first-person shooter in the same vein as previous Alien games will be disappointed, as will people expecting an action-heavy survival horror akin to Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space. The game is more tonally similar to Metal Gear Solid, requiring stealth and tactics to overcome adversary. The xenomorph’s advanced AI ensures that it remains a constant presence in the gamer’s mind – whether it is on-screen or rattling about the ventilation shafts. 

Achievements / Trophies - The majority of the trophies are linked with progression of the story, with chapter completion achievements. There are some trophies that reward players for completing levels with distinction such as: “Complete the fifth mission without being killed by the Alien”. There are also trophies tied into the game’s collectibles, which take the form of ID tags and Audio Logs, which are relatively easy to find if you’re willing to brave the Sevastopol corridors to do so.

Longevity - The main campaign is fairly lengthy with eighteen chapters of varying lengths making up the story. Upon completion, players can also attempt the Survivor Mode levels, which create short scenarios for players to complete. With the additional of bonus DLC, players can expand this element of the game to include characters and locations from the movie franchise, such as Ellen Ripley and the Nostromo.

With very little competition, it is easy to proclaim this as the best video-game based on the Alien franchise, but digging deeper, this truly is a fantastic example of a licensed game done right. The guys over at Creative Assembly have done an amazing job at creating a truly immersive experience that recreates the same feeling of heart-wrenching terror that Ridley Scott set in place over thirty years ago. Judging by the success of this game, I'd imagine that this survival-horror model will be used in future installments, although it would likely need to move away from the Ripley family and possibly tell a story separate from the canon of the movies. Oddly enough, while Dead Space was a heavy influence on the Alien video-games getting retooled, this game doesn't quite feel the same as Electronic Arts' game, adopting a more measured and cinematic pace compared to Dead Space's frenzied terror. Fans of the survival-horror genre, particularly games where the protagonist has to rely on stealth over weaponry, such as the Clock Tower and Fatal Frame series, will find a lot here to enjoy but more action-orientated gamers may find themselves having to adjust to the different strategies required to survive Sevastopol.

Score - 9.2 out of 10

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