Sunday, August 10, 2014

Game Review - Remember Me (Xbox 360, 2013)

I find that I'm less likely to get sucked into a game's story than when I was younger.  Maybe common tropes are more apparent as I get older, maybe gaming's narratives aren't as well developed as they used to be, or maybe I'm just becoming a cynic.  Whatever the reason, Skyrim is the last game to really enthrall me, so I've gone nearly three years without such an experience.

Until I played Remember Me.

Now, I'm not suggesting that Remember Me really compares to an open-world RPG like Skyrim.  I'm simply saying that it's the first game since Skyrim that had a story and world that were interesting enough to keep me absolutely hooked.

And honestly, that's an impressive feat these days.

Remember Me is set in a futuristic world where memories have been commercialized.  You can literally share your memories with loved ones, or you can buy and sell particularly potent memories.  Memory manipulation is so ingrained in that society that prisoners have their memories removed (to be returned upon release) to reduce resistance (if they can't remember life before prison, why would they struggle against their fate?).

It's a fascinating world worthy of classic science fiction, and the game sucks you in by opening with a beautifully rendered advertisement for the prominent memory brokerage.

It's one of the most creative gaming worlds of recent memory.

While you don't get a chance to freely explore this world, as the game is fairly linear, the storyline certainly makes up for it.  You play the role of Nilin, a recent prisoner whose mind had been wiped before the opening scene.  As she's sent towards a final processing of sorts, a mysterious voice aids in her escape and her eventual connection with a rebel group.

You can probably imagine how it progresses from there.

The conflict is made more interesting by the fact that some talented memory extractors are able to alter existing memories instead of simply transplanting them as they are, which is the standard procedure.  As such, certain individuals have the potential to change someone's entire world.  It's a bit like Inception: The Game, and it works beautifully with the world they constructed.

The really compelling part of it all, though, is the detail put into the characters and the world itself.  I was consistently interested in minor characters' stories and the lore of the world - something that I can't honestly say for a lot of games with optional side material.

On top of all that, it looks pretty good.  Pre-rendered cutscenes are generally fantastic, and the voice acting is usually solid.  There are a few sequences that feel a little awkward, but the presentation is generally superb.

There are a few lapses in story quality, with sudden changes in characters' expressed opinions and the like, so it's far from perfect, but it's still more coherent and entertaining than a lot of games out there.

Given the quality of the storyline, as long as the gameplay isn't horrible, I'd still say that Remember Me is a good game.  While there are some disappointments, the gameplay is pretty smooth overall.

It breaks down into three basic categories: stealth, combat, and memory manipulation.  While none of the three are as deep or well-developed as I might like, there's a good balance of them, so I never felt that any of the basic mechanics became tedious or frustrating.

The stealth sections happen when Nilin is dealing with automated sentry drones.  They follow specific paths, and you just have to find the right timing or tricks to be able to get through the area undetected.  The stealth mechanics are particularly simple, but they're also not the main focus, so these sequences do a pretty good job of punctuating the more prominent combat sequences.

Combat uses a neat customizable combo system to enhance what is essentially the style of a third-person beat 'em up.  There are three hand-to-hand combos you can use over the course of the game, but you can alter the effect that each individual hit has.  As an example, you can choose to make each hit in a combo deal extra damage or heal you a bit; the later the hit occurs in the combo, the more pronounced the effect.

While you only get to choose from four different types of attack enhancements, changing the effects of each blow is a surprisingly satisfying degree of customization.  You get the chance to tweak the available combos to fit your playstyle, which is not something that I think I've ever really seen before.

There are some special attacks, which shake up the combat a little bit, too.  It's nothing groundbreaking, but it allows combat to be diverse enough to compensate for the relatively small number of enemy types you'll encounter.

It's also worth noting that the difficulty of the fights increases at a challenging but reasonable rate.  The challenge usually comes from mixing enemy types so that you have to adjust your tactics to deal with different combinations of strengths and weaknesses, so it feels a little more organic than just making individual enemies harder to kill.  Even so, it can get somewhat repetitive because you'll be using the same three combos over and over throughout the whole thing, but it never feels unreasonably easy or brutal.

The memory manipulation sections are really cool, but they're also the biggest reservoir of untapped potential.  The basic idea is that you are able to replay another character's memory with the opportunity to make changes.  Those changes are usually pretty subtle (like turning a machine off or on or moving a table), but they may affect the scene in some significant way.

It's an awesome concept, and the first instance of it is a great introduction to this sort of mechanic.

Unfortunately, it never evolves past what the introductory segment teaches you.  There are only simple interactions between possible changes, with only a couple possible outcomes for each memory, so they're pretty straightforward.  The only difficulty is that it's not always easy to notice the indicator that says something can be changed - in fact, I spent much too long on one of these memory sequences because I never saw one of the vital pieces of the puzzle.

It failed to be something amazing, but it's still a unique concept.

None of the gameplay categories are too exciting, but the mixture of three keeps the gameplay from getting stale.  Still, each of the three categories hinted at something awesome, leaving me wishing that some of the mechanics had been a bit more involved.  In short, it's not the best gameplay out there, but it never gets in the way of the narrative, so it's definitely good enough.

So in the end, I highly recommend Remember Me because of the way it builds around a neat story idea.  If you're only looking for engaging gameplay, you'll probably be disappointed, but the game's world is totally worth it.

My Rating: 7/10 - good.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Game Review - Abyss Odyssey (XBLA, 2014)

The Abyss Odyssey demo evoked the same sense of excitement that I get when playing a new Metroidvania or Rogue-like game, so I paid for the full game without hesitation.  What I got falls far short of the legacy of those genres.  Here's why:

At its core, Abyss Odyssey is a simple rogue-like title.  The entirety of the gameplay revolves around exploration of the titular Abyss, and death resets (most of) your progress and generates a new layout for the game's only dungeon.

It's a classic formula.  It's also not something that hits consoles very often, so it's a nice treat when it does.

Sadly, the rest of the details are disappointing.

The goal is always to reach the bottom of the Abyss to defeat the warlock residing there.  While the structure of the rooms along the way changes with each iteration, the overall layout is always the same - three columns of rooms with only a small handful of connections between them.

For the most part, you won't find much incentive to explore.  Sure, there are chances at finding some shiny new loot, but your inventory is limited to only a few usable items and most of the stuff you'll find isn't very compelling.  It's the kind of system where a single powerful weapon marginalizes the rest of your equipment, so once you find one, there's no reason to pursue anything but the main objective.

And the main objective is really all there is.  Once you figure out how everything works, you can easily clear the Abyss in about an hour, and your only option is to do it all again.  No sidequests, no special difficulty settings, and basically no longevity, as you can't even look to collect powerful items because you lose them when you complete the game.

To make matters worse, the intervening parts aren't all that great, either.

Moving and fighting in the Abyss is similar to a side-scrolling beat 'em up.  You have a couple basic attacks, a few more powerful skills that evolve according to simple RPG experience levels (which are the only things that don't reset upon death), and some straightforward 2D platforming sections.  It's simple, but that's not the biggest problem.

Unfortunately, the control scheme is awkward.  I experienced noticeable input lag at times, where the player character hesitated to perform any actions I made.  You can certainly get used to that kind of thing, but it makes combat with usually aggressive monsters pretty frustrating.

Screen transitions also don't scroll smoothly.  While running through an area, the graphics will get a little jumpy, making some of the trickier platforming sections frustrating, too.  It's probably just another form of that underlying lag, but the result is a game that feels woefully unpolished.

That said, there is a pretty cool mechanic for capturing monster souls for your use.  It's never explained outside the tutorial pages in the options menu (and who does that, right?), but you can take on the form of a vanquished foe to dominate your enemies.  While it's a nifty idea, it's not very deep, and many of the monsters are annoying to control anyway, so it's only a minor bright spot.

Basically, the game is short, frustrating, and it gets stale much too quickly to be worth the price tag.

Of course, there's a little more to it.  A couple of unlockable characters add some diversity to the gameplay as each has a distinct play style.  You can also collect a bunch of journal pages, filling in some of the warlock's backstory.  There's nothing earth-shattering, but it's nice to have the option to delve a bit more deeply into the game's (admittedly still weak) storyline.

It's also worth praising some of the game's aesthetics.  Many of the environments have lovely backgrounds, and it features several hauntingly beautiful tunes.  It's certainly not good enough to make up for the tedious gameplay, but it is a pretty game.

But that's really all you get with Abyss Odyssey - a short, tedious romp through a surprisingly pretty world.  If you're looking for something to mindlessly grind away at, this one isn't the worst choice you could make; otherwise, though, I'd stay away.

My Rating: 3/10 - bad.