Christmas Steam Games (2017)

This year’s crop!

Inside: Anodyne, Thomas Was Alone, Ossuary, Dreaming Sarah.

Anodyne
Action Adventure

This is a really disappointing Zelda clone. There is basically only one tool/mechanic, and therefore there aren’t really any puzzles. Combat is okay and the boss fights are generally well-designed, but the areas are total slogs and the “puzzles” mostly just consist of exploring aimlessly until you find the right switch to press. I found them very repetitive.

The area design is also very haphazard with a lot of random obstacles and open areas you can’t get to, but it turns out this is intentional because for the postgame you get a tool that lets you edit level tiles, thus allowing you to bypass any and all obstacles. So it’s not a bug, it’s a feature! A really terrible and lazy feature that’s horribly implemented. The idea is that you’re supposed to notice areas that are intentionally blocked off with natural obstacles, but it’s also possible (and in some cases, required) to, and I’m seriously not making this up, remove the wall tiles and run off the map. You can and will get stuck in glitch areas and impassible tiles. There are several areas that require you to just guess that there’s a secret path on the other side with no hints or indication. It’s incredibly bizarre. 100%ing this game is way more trouble than it’s worth — you have no option but to trudge through every meandering level again and check for anything that could hypothetically be a walled-off area. What possessed this developer to think letting players break the game was a good idea is beyond me.

The areas do have some nice atmosphere. In the beginning, it’s made obvious that the plot dispenser sage isn’t telling you everything, and the dungeons are extremely weird and imply you shouldn’t trust everything. There’s a dungeon that appears to be made of the corpse of an elder fish monster, but the new generation want to break from tradition. There’s a weird town that appears to be in flashback-o-vision that claims you’re the mayor; the area is full of angry ghosts, and you have to kill all the townspeople to progress… except the ghosts are there even before you kill anyone, so what is that supposed to mean? There’s a city area with two NPCs; one is obsessed with stars and the natural night sky, while one enjoys the humanity of the city lights; is it supposed to be thematic of something? In the end the sage insists you aren’t strong enough to save the day, but doesn’t say why and you don’t have choice but to continue anyway. But ultimately, none of it seems to matter, nothing ever connects together, and it never goes anywhere. I really wonder if this is intended to be part of a greater universe, because so much of the story was utterly incomprehensible to me.

Thomas Was Alone
Puzzle Platformer

AIs, in the form of colored geometric shapes, must work together to overcome obstacles and achieve sentience. This was really fun and had a really cute story; I love emergent humanity and society, and this had a lot of really great bits of the AIs figuring out who they were and establishing relationships with each other. My only real criticism is that I wish there was more; I finished the whole thing in only 6 hours, and a lot of the greater implications of the story are only told through short messages at the beginning of each stage. I also don’t feel like it was adequately established why Gray was evil; we’re told he wants to do something when he escapes and this is bad, but not what he’s going to do, which made the conflict feel a little flat. There was also a lack of gender parity at 3 girls/4 boys (why do AIs even have genders, anyway?), but the girls do get the most useful powers and most interesting personalities.

The puzzles were fun and I loved the synergy of the different AIs’ abilities, especially how well they were integrated into their personalities! All the AIs feel pride or frustration with their abilities that help develop their characters, and it creates a really strong connection with the player since they’re figuring out their abilities the same way you are.  I was initially annoyed with the obligatory het romance between Chris and Laura, but it actually makes sense because their abilities are such good complements to each other. Some of the puzzles did feel a bit on the easy side, and lugging the low-jumping guys around can get a bit tedious, but I still enjoyed it.

Ossuary
Adventure/Puzzle

A bizarre game where you find yourself in a creepy world full of bones and strange inhabitants. At the start, you are approached by four philosophers who each have a different idea of how best to protect the world from evil, as well as an anarchist who claims their philosophies are all founded on lies. The bulk of the game involves collecting MacGuffins from areas that each reflect one of the philosophers’ ideals. The puzzle aspect comes in through interaction with the inhabitants: you can influence NPCs with one of the seven deadly sins to sway them towards actions that benefit you. (Using Sloth to make a guard slack off and let you pass, or using Gluttony to make someone accept a bribe, for instance.)

The game is absolutely full of dialogue. Every single NPC has a response to all seven of the sins, in addition to their normal dialogue. I worried that they would get boring and repetitive after a while, but they don’t; every NPC has their own personality, quirks, and aspirations, and there’s usually at least one sin that can get an unusual response out of them. As puzzles, however, they’re not very engaging. There’s no penalty for misapplying a sin, so even if you have no idea what to do you can just run through all of them until you advance the quest. Still, if you like talking to weird characters about weird stuff, this game has you covered on that front. The flavor text is particularly interesting.

Story-wise, the areas all seem to be social commentary and criticisms, though rather obvious and shallow ones. The endings are also very much non-endings, which is a disappointment when this is supposedly all about the effect our actions and philosophies will have on the world.

Dreaming Sarah
Exploration Platformer

This is basically Yume Nikki, but a platformer and with clearer gameplay and progression mechanics. If you liked Yume Nikki, you’ll probably like this. I felt it was a bit weaker overall, though. While the 1D format makes exploration much easier, it also means areas are a lot more empty. There aren’t wide expanses of pointless nothing, but there aren’t as many cool background details either. Once you get the hang of it, you can rush through the game pretty quickly, and there’s not much reason to ever return to any of the worlds once you get, like, the one powerup in them. It’s also a lot more linear, while I felt the initial overwhelming choice of Yume Nikki was a lot of its charm. But on the other hand it’s also a lot less easy to get lost, and a lot more user-friendly. Give it a try if it’s on sale, maybe.

3 Comments

  1. Spinning Robo says:
    I liked Anodyne, though if I recall the appeal for me was more the strange and sort of unsettling atmosphere. Though I did like the use of glitch-like elements. I think maybe it could have been somewhat influenced/inspired by the screen warp glitch in some versions of Link’s Awakening.

    I get where your criticism is coming from though. Hopefully this comment doesn’t come off as refleexive defensiveness of something I liked.

    1. Though I did like the use of glitch-like elements.

      I think I would have liked it better if the void tiles were passable. What really frustrated me was that it was too easy to get stuck and then you’d just have to restart, which was boring and tedious. You couldn’t really experiment with it, even though the game expected you to. It would probably have also worked a lot better if you just couldn’t mess with wall tiles at all. You shouldn’t implement really fringe, uncontrollable mechanics unless you do a lot of work to prevent players from breaking stuff and getting themselves into unwinnable situations.

      1. Spinning Robo says:
        Well, it’s been a while since I played it. I do recall things sometimes being slow and/or tedious.

         

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