Friday, October 20, 2017

Game EXP: Layers of Fear (PC)

I started Layers of Fear, a year and-a-half old first person perspective exploring psychological horror game back in August and I was apparently so frightening upon finishing it and the Inheritance DLC, that I apparently decided to take a month to mentally recover.

Now since it has been 612 days since Layers of Fear was first released, let us jump straight ahead to my approach to the game.

Being a fan of first person exploration games that do no rely on combat like Dear Esther, SOMA, and The Stanley Parable, I feel like Layers of Fear is a perfect fit for what I want in this type of game.  I do not even recall if there was a run option, but I am willing to bet that there was not, so unlike SOMA, and Outlast, there was frequently nothing to run away from, although I do recall having to hide a few times in Inheritance.  Perhaps it was this lack of physical adversaries that allowed the rest of my brain to be freaked out 90% of the time I was playing.  The other 10% was probably spent just being excited that the game was giving me this type of reaction.

Like the painting in the background, the visuals are very painting like. Then horribleness started to happen.

The thing for me that made LoF so frightening, was the smoothness of how the game operated when it wanted to scare you.  One non-spoiler example would be that you would walk down a hall towards a closed door.  You try to open the door but the door is locked.  You turn around to find that there is no longer a hallway behind you but a wall with no door.  Confused, you back up, turn around to the try the locked door again, but the door is no longer there.  You are now in a room with no exits.  Only after looking to your right, do you see a door that wasn't previously there.  You try that door and it opens into a large sitting room.  You pass through the door and as you enter the room, the door slams behind you.  You check out the door and it is indeed locked.  When you turn back around, a painting flies off of the wall and crashes to the ground in front of you, followed by a scream off in the distance.

That's not what a normal doorway should look like right?
What makes the mostly spoiler free scene above work so well, is that there is no indication, with the exception of the door slamming, that the game is doing anything to mess with you.  There is no lag when events happen, and there are often no sound effects to hint that the hallway you just walked down is now just a wall five feet behind you.  It is amazingly seamless.  During the entire game I was hoping that I would be able to see something happening, but the game never allowed this to happen.  You could stare at a wall that you are convinced is going to change into a door, but it will never happen unless you look away.  Or maybe it always was a door, but your brain won't allow a door to mysteriously change from a wall before your eyes because that just doesn't happen.

I feel like if you stripped the Lovecraftian elements away from Eternal Darkness, then you would have something similar to Layers of Fear.

Now, as someone who may frequent our site might have gathered by this point, my laptop is not a robust gaming computer, but it is able to handle a fair amount of games that have been released as recently as last year.  Most of the time, the game ran at around 24+ fps which, despite nearly everything you may read online, is not unplayable.  One of the few times my game acted up was in the beginning when I noticed some tearing and after some tinkering in the in-game settings, which I do not think hampered the visuals of the game, fixed the issue.  The other issues was that the game froze or crashed, but that happened less than five times during nine hours of game play.  And because the game auto saves every time you pass through a door that automatically closes (I think that is when it happens anyway), you do not have to really worry about losing progress.

And speaking of progress, there were only two instances in the whole game where I became lost and was unsure what to do.  Especially in an area where rooms started repeating, I was at first convinced that this is what was supposed to be happening, until I spent too much time re-entering the same room over and over and knew that I was missing something, or expecting something to happen that was not designed to happen.  I was a little annoyed at this wall I was hitting, but that frustration was short lived and I was able to get back to being frightened all over again.

That is really all I want to say about this game.  I had been a long time since I dreaded the anticipation of walking down a long hallway, but I kept playing because I was intrigued by the story that kept unfolding.  I am sure I could have done a speed run, but then you would lose most of what the game has to offer.  At the moment, I am seriously considering picking this up when it is released on the Switch (probably next year), to play it again, but also to show that there is interest in this kind of game for Nintendo's new console.

I Feel the Fear Takes Hold

P.S.  I ended up not taking as many pictures as I was hoping to, knowing that I was going to write about my experience, I was just too frightened to move my hands away from the mouse/keyboard.

P.P.S.  Then there is Observer, which was released back in August.  Here's to hoping that it sees a Switch release too.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

MIDI Week Singles: "Goodbye" - The Walking Dead (Everything)

"Goodbye" from The Walking Dead on Nearly Every Platform Out There (2012)*
Album: No Official Album Release (Sort Of)
Developer: Telltale Games

First off, as mentioned above in the "(Sort Of)" this music is not from the official The Walking Dead Original Game Score, which was released in certain editions of the Game of the Year edition back in 2013.  What "Goodbye" appears to be is a ripped from the game music, or at least pulled from the audio files as I could not find this particular track on the official soundtrack.  But because I am attached to this song, I decided that I would continue to use it in today's (semi-late-ish) article.  I have also decided to stick with the "Goodbye" title, if only for consistency out there in the Intertubalwebs, which is where this was plucked from.

Now that that is out of the way.

To hell with this song.  To hell with the feels this song decides that it want me to go ahead and relive all over again because recalling certain events in my mind just isn't enough, but now here is a musical cue to crap all over my heart strings!  I am not the one crying, although I appear to have just washed my face with a quart of freshly shredded onion pulp.

A bit melodramatic sure, but holy hell does this song just exude melancholy.  Although there is the ever slightest glimmer of hope from 1:06 - 1:11, but then it goes back into the bleakness of loss.  I am also greatly amused by how the song fades out around 1:54, but then comes back one last time a few seconds later.  Is it a death knell, a final grasp at life?

But seriously, I highly recommend this game/series because there are few games in the last five years that have given me as much of an emotional impact as this story telling, and while it may not be perfect, it is very effective.


*I mean, it's been released on Android, iOS, Kindle Fire HDX, OSX, Linux, Windows, Ouya, PS3, PS4, Vita, 360, and Xbox One.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Game EXP: Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia (3DS)

Two weeks ago, I finished Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia on the 3DS.  Being my first official foray into the Fire Emblem universe (after playing a lot of the mobile game Fire Emblem Heroes), I was very excited to play another tactics game that I hopped would not have a near perfect copy of That One Fight in Final Fantasy Tactics; it didn't.  I honestly cannot say why it took me this long to play a Fire Emblem game either.  Maybe it was the fact that there were so many FE games already out there and I did not know where to start so I just didn't?  Either way, I feel like I am fully in its grip now and seriously considering shelling out $40 for the four year old Fire Emblem Awakening rather than a combined $80ish for the entire Fire Emblem Fates series.  Then there is the attempt at braving the online auction house for a legitimate copy of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon because as  you all know by now, I love starting series at their beginning, even if it is a remake of that beginning.  But there is always hope for the hopefully happening Switch Virtual Console.

But Fire  Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is why we are all here today.

Now, I played this, mostly completely blind, in that I did not look up playthroughs, FAQs, or guides for how to beat dungeons or bosses.  There were some things I did look up while trying to make my way through Duma Tower such as if mid-stage bosses regenerated after leaving the Tower, or where to find Dragon Scales to craft the Dragon Scale Shield.  I also did not look up the best build for Alm's starting characters, who are all classed as Villagers and can take on any job once they have reached a particular level.  I tried to pick the path that I felt that the characters would choose based on the story up to that point.  So Gray became a mercenary, Tobin became an archer, Kliff became a mage, Faye became a cavalier, and in the case of Celica's storyline, I had Atlas become a mercenary because he seemed more like a sword wielding bloke; otherwise I would have made him a tank via the knight route.

And because this is a Game EXP article and not a Full Review or even a Game Review article, I am going to skip all the paragraphs dedicated to how this game operates in terms of Mila's Turnwheel and just say that I used it very frequently.  There were a number of times in Duma Tower that I ended up heading back out of the tower all together as I had used up more than half of my usages of the Turnwheel before reaching the mini-boss of the third floor.  Eventually I just switched party members and focused on finishing the damned thing instead of leveling characters.  But the Turnwheel.  Because it is a game mechanic, I did not see the purpose of overusing it, like when a character died, or as petty as when one of my heavy hitters missed.

Speaking of death, let us talk about that dead elephant in the room.  I played the game on the Normal difficulty and the Classic perma-death setting.  I decided on this before I knew much about the game aside from the fact that it was a tactics game and I was still in a Final Fantasy Tactics mindset.  It was a few hours in that I probably could have chosen to play it on casual setting since if any of my characters died (before I acquired the Turnwheel), I just turned the game off and restarted from my last save.  So why play it on classic then?  Because I had thought that, as is the case with FFT, that you could hire new mercenaries/soldiers as the story progressed, but that is not the case as every character you acquire is a named character, although not as important as either Alm or Celica.  This created a very real possibility of having too many characters die throughout the game to the point that it might be impossible (especially against those bastards who summon witches, dread fighter, and necrodragons; bastards).  So without the possibility of rebuilding up your fallen ranks, I decided that I would rather exit out of a dire situation rather than be frustrated in the late game.

Continuing with characters dying, I felt a little odd with Alm and Celica in battles since if they die, then there is no option to use the Turnwheel, your game just straight up ends.  And in some battles which required well over an hour of your time (at least the way I played because I am certainly going to use my archers to their fullest), the last thing I want to happen (which did happen a few times) was to have Alm or Celica die and then have to restart from before the battle started.  It was just mentally exhausting to play upwards of 45 minutes in a single battle only to have a few enemies spam attack Alm or Celica with critical hits and your game is over because you want your protagonists to be proactive and not lead from behind.  So there ended up being a number of battles where both Alm and Celica just hung out in the back until I knew that there was no way any one was going to die.  Cheap, but that's the way you have it.

In the end though, I did end up sacrificing three characters during the last battle (which I had my own issues with when it happened in that you were unable to pick who you wanted from Celica's party to join in, but whomever you had when you finished Duma Tower; annoyed partly because they were at a lower level than the rest of Alm's party) because they managed to draw attacks away from Alm or other characters who were more important during that battle.  It was pretty sad to see Valbar, Lukas, and Palla die, more so when during the credits you are told what happens to them after the events of the game.  Really I was the saddest, and at the same time happiest in a sad sort of way, when Valbar died.  I'm going to miss that lovable lug.

Which now brings me to the end of the game.  As I said, after you complete the game, you are told what happens to the characters later in their lives.  Then, you are able to play a post-game series of battles that. . .continue their story?  What is kind of annoying (in the petty sort of way), is that you are told what happens to everyone who survived the last battle (like two characters getting married and having lots of kids), but what if one of those characters then dies during the post game missions?  I guess it negates the epilogue, which is the easiest answer.

One aspect of the game that I really liked, although I felt it could have added implementations was being able to pause the short fight scenes between characters, which then rotated the camera around the paused action.  Coupled with the well done 3D effects made battles fun to watch as well.  What would have made this better, is if you had been able to take pictures, otherwise you have an event that you just look at for a few seconds before continuing on with the rest of the battle. 

My biggest criticism of the game is something that confuses even me a bit.  I felt that the story ended too quickly, despite it taking me 73 hours to beat.  Everything just seemed too straight forward for the most part.  You need to stop Rigel's invasion of Zofia, so you do that.  Celica needs to find out what happened to Mila and later rescue her at Duma Tower.  I think what I was expecting was a deeper story along the lines of Final Fantasy Tactics or A Song of Ice & Fire, and what I got instead was The Legend of Zelda or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  And there is nothing wrong with either of those stories.  It is just that both have obvious bad guys and good guys, and clear goals that are set out at nearly the beginning of the story.  But even that explanation is overly simplified and does not come across as how I want it to be.  I guess the short of it is that I was a bit underwhelmed that there was not as much character growth as I was hoping.

But damn that was a fun game, for the most part.  I mean, I find it rare that any game is 100% fun, although I did come away from Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia with a such a favorable view of the Fire Emblem series that I am just a little upset.  Except Fire Emblem Warriors on the Switch, cannot say I have a lot of interest in that, but maybe I will just rent it then.


P.S.  And for those of you wanting to know, I decided to have Sonya on my team instead of Deen, mainly because I felt like I could use another mage on my team as opposed to another fighter.  At the time I did not know that that when you had the decision to attack one over the other, I at first decided to attack (and kill) Sonya as I thought that you would have to go up against the other later in the game and a stronger mage would be more difficult than a stronger fighter.  When I found out that the one you did not attack joins your party, I restarted from a previous save so that I could get Sonya.

P.P.S.  And yes, I am starting the end-game quests because why not?  They are there and I do not have another tactics game (except I really do, but not on the 3DS) in my queue.

P.P.P.S.  And yes, I did buy one DLC map pack, the "Rise of the Deliverance" which seemed the most appealing at the time, which I played first before even starting the main game as it said that it took place "shortly before Alm's tale," and y'all know me and chronology.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

You know, I do not think I have seen "The Final Cut" of Blade Runner.  I bought "The Director's Cut" close to 17 years ago and that is the only version that I have in my mind when I think of the movie.  I know that the theatrical version has the voice over and a happy ending, but I can't think of what that is, and all that is coming to mind when I think of studio imposed happy endings is Brazil.  With that in mind, I am positive that there is a lot of imagery and meaning that went over my head in The Director's Cut and likewise, enough from Blade Runner 2049 that I missed.  Nevertheless, I am here to talk/ramble on about Blade Runner 2049, or at least attempt to talk about all 164 minutes of Denis Villeneuve's vision of Ridley Scott's vision of characters from Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"  Basically, I do not find myself competent enough to write a coherent and cohesive commentary on everything that the Blade Runner series has to say about our current and future world.

But moving on.

In short, I very much enjoyed the movie, even though my bladder decided that it had something to say about an hour and-a-half way through (I think, I didn't look at a clock or my phone to confirm the amount of time), to which I proceeded to ignore it until after getting back home.  Yes, BR2049 is a long movie, but only if you are not a fan of long movies to begin with.  It is shorter than The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and Gettysburg, but 48 minutes longer than the first Blade Runner.  So buckle up.

But um. . .yeah.  I thought Blade Runner 2049 was a pretty damn good movie, considering the legacy it had to live up to, and from my own partially educated mind, I think that Denis Villeneuve and company were able to pull off a sequel 35 years after the original was made.  The cinematography had a very similar feel and sense to remain consistent with the established world.  The music from both Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch at times seemed to be mixed almost too loud and oppressive (which might have been the point the whole time), but still sounded enough like Vangelis' score, but not so much that there was no originality to it.  The characters acted in ways that made sense, taking both films into account.

One sour note on the film, is something that Conklederp brought up a completely valid point with one of the characters, Joi, played by Ana de Armas.  That with Joi, a female character, her only purpose was to highlight the loneliness of K.  Joi's role in the film comes across as very 1940's film noir and that might have been perfectly fine in that era, but one would think that we would have progressed further in roles written for women by 2016.  Although given the recent state of how leading statesmen and heads of entertainment have treated women, it really is not surprising.

No, Blade Runner 2049 was not a perfect movie (what is these days?), but it was a very good science fiction film that was perfectly paced, mostly well written, and one that I will undoubtedly add next to my copy of Blade Runner: The Director's Cut when it is released, probably in early 2018.


P.S.  Only semi-sorry for the hack-job that this article turned out to be, but hey, that's why they pay me the big bucks.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

MIDI Week Singles: "Mansion Room" - Uninvited (NES)

"Mansion Room" from Uninvited on the Nintendo Entertainment System (1991)
Composer: Hiroyuki Masuno
Album: No Official Release

First off, a few points.

First, because there was no official release of a soundtrack for Uninvited, I have decided to stick with the community "Mansion Room" for the title of this song.  Secondly, from what I have read online, there was no soundtrack in 1986 Mac or the 1987 MSDOS versions of the game, before it was ported to the Famicom in 1989 and finally to the NES in 1991.

What better music to choose from a horror video game than one from a game that takes place in a haunted house!?  And despite this being a game that takes place in a haunted house, a lot of the music that Hiroyuki Masuno composed for the game (the same composer for Shadowgate on the NES as well) is rather upbeat.  Perhaps because this song also sounds so much like a lot of the music in Shadowgate is the reason that I am drawn to it, and honestly, I probably could not tell you that this was from Uninvited if you were to stick it in with the rest of the Shadowgate soundtrack.  And for that matter, I do not remember the last time I played Uninvited, which was probably back in the late 1990's.

So while this may not be the most haunting music to ever come out of a haunted house game on the NES, it is the most appropriate that I was drawn to from Uninvited.  And since the music changes frequently enough while wandering/searching between rooms in the mansion, it does serve its purpose pretty well in that vain.  Plus, it is a pretty damn catchy song.


Friday, October 6, 2017

Movie Review: XX

Conklederp and I enjoy short stories to the point that that is our go to form of story telling if we are not watching movies.  Stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood, Clark Ashton Smith, and Arthur Machen have been what I read at night for close to six years now before going to sleep.  We are also both big fans of the Lore podcast which is essentially a non-fiction short story about something creepy that has happened somewhere in the world.  Every so often we will put on an episode of The Twilight Zone that we may have not already seen and had we not already finished Alfred Hitchcock Presents, we would be watching that series as well; wait, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour!?

This still does not do the movie any favors, but that is really beyond the point.  
The point is, horror short stories is a medium that we both love to consume.  So the other night while perusing the new releases on Netflix, we came across a movie I had recently added to our list.  The description of XX on Netflix says that it is a ". . . four-part anthology of short horror films featur[ing] stories that include some traditional themes but all are shown from a female point of view."  The poster for the film has the tagline, "Four deadly tales by four killer women."  And if you were to read a majority of the reviews over at IMDb, you might think that this movie would constitute a pass, if only because of how the film was advertised as being female-centric.  Or because each short felt more like a pitch that was not good enough to be made into a feature length film and instead was turned into a short.  Or because a director ruined your favorite Jack Ketchum story.  For Conklederp and myself, XX was a pretty great collection of four horror shorts that surprised us in that the thumbnail up on Netflix was not very promising; see above.

Now, I could easily make this post about four times as long as it is going to be since each short film has its own writer(s), director, composer, actor, and in the case of "The Box," different production companies.  Listing each short would be too time consuming for me and this article would be in limbo for a long time as I tried to do a better job of explaining the characters, story elements, and other various aspects that I have no right to critique beyond someone who enjoys movies.

One criticism that amused me was in regards to the second short, "The Birthday Party." This person was upset that "The Birthday Party" was no so much a horror story as it was a dark comedy, which was St. Vincent's intent as she apparently is not a fan of traditional horror movies.  I thought that "The Birthday Party" worked very well on its own though,  not enough meat for an entire movie perhaps, but that is not the point of shorts.  Could these stories been better?  Maybe.  Could these shorts been better had they been directed by men as apparently a portion of the IMDb reviewers are a few words away from directly stating?  I am not even going to answer that one, silly bastards.

In short (eh!?), if watching horror stories the likes of Tales from the Dark Side, Tales from the Crypt, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, or even Goosebumps is your thing, then there is a pretty good chance that there will be at least one of the stories in XX that will entertain you.  And if not, they are short and then you are able to move on to the next one.


P.S.  The film has an 'in memory of' to Antonia Bird, the director of Ravenous.  I was sad to learn that she had passed away four years ago as I would have loved to have seen another horror movie from her.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

MIDI Week Singles: "Bats" - Conker: Live & Reloaded (XB)

"Bats" from Conker: Live & Reloaded on the Xbox (2005)
Composer: Robin Beanland
Developer: Rare

This, being the first MIDI Week Singles article for October, I wanted to go the similar route as in previous years and try to pull songs either from horror games, or songs that evoked some sense of horror or general scariness.  Having only played Conker's Bad Fur Day on the N64 back in 2001, I will say that the event that this music is from is neither scary, nor would I classify it as horror either.  It is mainly a parody of Bram Stoker's Dracula to some extent, and an anthropomorphized squirrel who has been turned into a bad who must collect other anthropomorphized squirrel villagers and drop them into a giant meat grinder which ends up over feeding Squirrel Dracula (a la Count Batula).  

So does this fit my self-imposed criteria?  It might, but the point is, "Bats" is one of my favorite cues that Robin Beanland wrote for Conker's Bad Fur Day and was brilliantly improved upon in the 2005 Xbox release of Conker: Live & Reloaded, which I admittedly have never played.  When C:L&R was released in 2005, I was quick to pick up the soundtrack as I missed picking it up when it was released/offered when CBFD was originally released.  And like in-game, of which I replayed that stage a few times just to listen to the music, "Bats" is one of my favorite tracks from that album.