Another year, another crop. I put this off for a while because I was hoping to be able to rejigger a few games that had trouble playing on my computer, but no such luck. You’ll have to wait for reviews of Fez, Mages of Mystralia, and The Talos Principle when (if) I upgrade my hardware.
Inside: Hexcells, Her Story, Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight, Gravitas, Disoriented, OVIVO.
This is Minesweeper, but with preset level layouts. Every level is designed as a genuine puzzle; while you can guess, it is always possible to figure out your next move with certainty. Later levels also feature additional mechanics, such as telling you not just how many targets are adjacent but whether or not they are consecutive.
I found this to be extremely fun and the exact right level of reasoning and abstraction to be engaging without confusing me. It’s a great application of spacial and predictive reasoning that reminded me quite a lot of programming logic, which I love. Additionally, the music and sound effects were very pleasant and soothing without ever being distracting. Highly recommended.
Puzzle/Visual Novel (?)
This was recommended to me as being structurally similar to Virtue’s Last Reward, a game I enjoyed for being, as described by one reviewer, “A Metroidvania of plot.” I can definitely see the similarities here, though I’d say the structure is actually closer to Zero Time Dilemma.
The premise is this: In 1994, a man went missing. His wife was interviewed seven times by the police. However, the interviews are split into hundreds of short clips. You are given access to a database containing every clip, and have to figure out the right search terms to use to find the clips you need to piece together the story.
The game is a very interesting concept, though I think the puzzle aspect is a bit clunky. See, to prevent you from just searching a really obvious term and blazing through most of the database, you’re only allowed to see the first five chronological clips of any search result; the trick, therefore, is to figure out how to narrow your search to eliminate the clips you’ve already seen. …But of course, it’s pretty hard to do that when you don’t know the contents of the other clips and therefore what you might accidentally eliminate with a narrower search. The game is set up very well: The clips in the initial search result give you a clear set of keywords that you can follow in any order, and there are a number of clear thematic words and plot threads that you can follow up on pretty intuitively. (The interviewee is also wearing different suits in each interview, which allows you to easily distinguish which one the clip belongs to at a glance; I appreciated that.) But I still feel that it’s not user-friendly enough; once you pass a certain threshold (maybe 60-70% of the total clips), it’s really hard to get further without just guessing randomly. Additionally, the clips aren’t actually complete; they cut out the interviewer’s questions, sometimes making it hard to figure out what the interviewee is answering or talking about — made worse, of course, by the purposefully maddening use of pronouns and vague language. There were a lot of times when I went, “Okay, but who is ‘he’? What do you mean, ‘what we were just talking about’?” It’s a clever puzzle technique, but it did make things a bit too hard to piece together, I thought.
(There are also quite a few cheap shots that are clearly just to pad the clip count and make it harder to get 100%; there are several clips of the woman answering questions for a lie detector test, each of which are one second long and contain only the words “Yes” or “No”. How exactly are people supposed to find those naturally?)
I think the game could really have used a feature like automatically slotting viewed clips into a linear timeline — they’re all timestamped, so it’s not like that’s a mystery. I noted down a few important timestamps, but for the most part I just stopped bothering trying to keep track of what was happening in what order.
(I also think I accidentally got to the big reveal before I was supposed to — I prioritized searching for characters’ names, and if you do that for one that sounds innocuous early on you end up unraveling pretty much the whole mystery, likely before you see the foreshadowing for it.)
Overall, I think this was an interesting idea, but it needed clearer means of progression and a few more quality-of-life improvements. And unfortunately, after watching the whole thing in order, I actually do think the mystery works better as a linear story; the non-linearity doesn’t really enhance the experience in the end. I think seeing a single narrative in arbitrary chronological order just doesn’t work. What was cool about Virtue’s Last Reward was how you were given complete but separate narratives that each explored a different facet of the overall mystery plus their own self-contained arcs.
Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight
This was recommended to me as “Like Hollow Knight, but smaller.” Unfortunately, I think that’s too generous. This is barely a Metroidvania; you get only two movement upgrades throughout the entire thing, with progression mostly being gated through literal locks and keys. The individual areas are genuinely quite open, but the overall progression is still very linear. The combat was, somehow, simultaneously more simplistic and less intuitive than Hollow Knight’s — maybe I’m just not as used to combo systems, but I found it really awkward and clunky, especially since your attacks move you forward and there are some very narrow platforms. The lack of aerial combos also annoyed me and only seemed to serve to make aerial enemies a huge pain to deal with. The character’s movement speed was also much too slow; I spent as much time as I could in cat form just because it’s slightly faster. (And that slowdown in water, why.) I also felt much more fragile than I ever did in Hollow Knight; spikes are instant kills, which I hate, and even in the mid-game the character can die from only a few hits.
In terms of lore and story it has barely any, though that may be because this is part of a larger series (the rest are straight action platformers, like Castlevania). I was disappointed that the path to get the true ending had no story relevance; it was just a matter of poking the right secret area, with no indication it was anything special. Almost all the characters were women, but I genuinely couldn’t tell if that was supposed to be a fetish thing or not. Most of them don’t raise any red flags, but there’s a recurring boss whose weak point is her boobs. They jiggle when you hit them. So yeah.
But I’m still putting it in recommendations because, well, it’s not bad. If you don’t mind this kind of action-platformer-with-Metroidvania-elements as opposed to an actual Metroidvania, it’s perfectly fine. But it didn’t really scratch the right itch for me. (The price is pretty inflated, though; I beat the whole thing in 5 hours, admittedly without 100%ing it, and it goes for $10. For comparison, Hollow Knight is $15 and I’ve currently sunk 88 hours into it.)
This is a shameless Portal ripoff: You solve spatial manipulation puzzles in a mysterious facility while being lectured at by a vaguely-menacing AI. The key change is that you use gravity spikes instead of portals. I thought it was enjoyable and the Curator was really funny, though I feel gravity manipulation is less suited to this first-person format and less inherently interesting than portal manipulation. It was much shorter and simpler than the original Portal (in particular, I’m surprised you never got the ability to place multiple gravity wells or reverse their direction), but it’s freeware, so I can’t fault it. Give it a try!
A first-person spacial puzzler where moving up slopes changes the direction of gravity, and a prime example of why people need to question the assumptions of their default engines. This game badly needed a “turn 90 degrees” button instead of the standard 360-degree rotation of an FPS: Every platform and pathway is completely straight, so you will constantly find yourself just slightly off and needing to readjust every time you move. Also, falling off boots you back to the next checkpoint. None of this was necessary; plenty of puzzle games have a “reset to last checkpoint” button for if you get stuck, so all this accomplishes is making you lose time if you can’t navigate with the screwy camera. I was playing with a trackpad instead of a mouse, which made it even worse because I can’t walk and rotate the camera at the same time. There were many times where I knew what I had to do, but actually walking over there took ages.
The actual puzzles feel a bit bare-bones. The “tutorial” segment goes on for way too long and consists of incredibly simple levels that are all basically just walking along a linear path, but afterwards there are still only a few mechanics. I might have enjoyed it more if walking and navigating wasn’t such a chore, but overall it’s still just some pretty simple puzzles in a featureless white void with no narrative or other flavor to hold your interest. It’s an interesting concept, but not worth money.
Puzzle Platformer (sort of)
OVIVO is very reminiscent of SHIFT, a Flash game that was popular in my childhood. The levels are all black-and-white, and your avatar, a simple dot, can switch between the two by merging into the ground and flipping the scene. The key here is that you cannot jump: you instead must use the curvature and layout of the often-complicated level designs to slingshot yourself between locations. I thought this weird at first, but I got the hang of it pretty quickly, and you can fall into a really nice rhythm when you do it right. I overall enjoyed navigating the strange levels and the additional challenges and obstacles that appear as time goes on. I’d say my only issue is that the levels have lots of points of no return due to the aforementioned lack of jumping, and it’s not always clear when this happens. There are often cases where the path will branch, with one route leading to an optional collectible and the other progressing the level, and it’s rarely clear which is which. Still, the levels aren’t too long and you can replay them at any time, so it’s not too much of a loss.
I also got two games that Act reviewed last year: Cat Quest and SteamWorld: Dig. SteamWorld: Dig was very good and I second her recommendation. Cat Quest… It wasn’t bad, but I didn’t enjoy it as much. Maybe I’m just not as into open-world wRPGs. I felt the combat got repetitive around the mid-game, and the quest style of each area having a continuous storyline but requiring you to gain a ton of levels between each step so that you have to jump back and forth between plotlines was really weird.