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Heavy Rain Review: Wait, so what’s done is done?

Heavy Rain box

Those of us who live in video games have always had the luxury of a rather juvenile approach to our video game lives. Did you screw up? Go back and try it again. Do you want to be good or evil? Here are two options for you. Here’s what will happen depending on what you choose. Change your mind about which option you wanted? Well, that’s alright — just go back and try the other thing.

Heavy Rain is a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, emotional stranglehold of a game particularly because it violates all of these things that we’ve been accustomed to in video games. But first, some advice:

Play the game on the hardest difficulty, even if you’re not super familiar with video games. Unless you’re missing more than a third of so of the prompts, you shouldn’t pick the easier route. This game is much more interesting if you make mistakes.

This game is much more interesting if you make mistakes.

Heavy RainThis was one of the easier decisions in the game.

This isn’t a game about winning. This isn’t a game about doing things the right way. This is a game about people, and people make mistakes. And, unlike in video games, they have to live with those mistakes for the rest of their lives. Unlike in video games, sometimes what is asked of people is too much for them to handle, too much for them to accomplish. And forcing yourself to accept that reality and forcing yourself to accept that, for the next eight to twelve hours of your life, you have to live with whatever just happened — that is the insanity of this game.

And, the choices you make in the game are just as human, and just as insane. The sort of thing you’re choosing to do in this game is organic and real in a way that I haven’t seen in any other game to date. This isn’t a game that gives gravitas to grand, sweeping decisions that you’re making. There are no defining moments of choice. There is no Playboy X moment in this game. This game is much dirtier and much meaner than that.

There was one point in my first playthrough where I was confronted with a quick, simple decision, and implicitly given only seconds to choose — and I was completely paralyzed trying to make this decision because I had no idea if one of the options would perhaps kill me, or if the other option would perhaps result in the failure to find my son. In fact, I spent so long trying to weigh my options that the game stopped waiting for me and just moved on. The genius of the choices in this game is in the fact that you have an investment in those decisions (emotionally for the characters, as well as personally for your own time playing the entire remainder of the game), and as a result it becomes practically as real as it is for the characters in question.

Similarly, fight scenes are about as intense as any you’ll find in any game, simply because the stakes are so incredibly high. And, with fights and intense action happening fairly often, you’ll be about as exhausted as these poor characters by the end of the game.

I’d rather stop my review here. I think that everyone should play this game once. I think that while it may not be a revolution in the way games are made or told (it is, but it’s too much of an insane effort to be replicated within pretty much any other game), it is an incredibly well-conceived and -executed experience that everyone should experience once — particularly those that spend a lot of time playing video games.

And, perhaps once is the right number of times to play this game. Going back and seeing how other decisions play out I found ruined the emotional value of the scenes. Real people, after all, don’t get to time-travel back and figure out what might have otherwise happened. That nagging feeling after the game ends that perhaps you could have made better decisions, but not being completely certain, is part of the experience. Of course, if you want to get all the trophies in the game, you’ll have no choice.

Either way, though I think everything else about the game should be inconsequential in relativity to what I’ve already described, this wouldn’t be a proper game review without considering all the other components that make this game a game.

Heavy RainThis game has perhaps the best lighting since Mirror’s Edge.

Graphically, Heavy Rain is a bit of a tour de force. Sometimes the designers blew out the lighting a bit too much, for instance in the police office, and textures start to look like the pastels from the first Counter-Strike, but for the most part the graphics in this game are both technically and artistically breathtaking. The uncanny valley is in a bit of effect here, but it’s more than counterbalanced by the beauty of the lighting in the first scene of the game, or the dust suspended in the air of the apartment you just broke into, with peeling wallpaper and a crumbling ceiling, sunlight scattering through the dirty windows. There are brief moments in this game that look better and more realistic than any other game I’ve ever played, and I’m not sure how they do it, but I suspect they put a lot of thought into light and how it diffuses. The PS3 has really been shining bright recently.

The sound in the game is also superb for the most part, with the obvious and oft-mentioned complaint about some of the voice acting. I didn’t find it as distracting as others, but it was definitely a present problem. The music gets a bit repetitive after a while, with only a couple generic calm-yet-sad leitmotifs, and a small handful of oh-god-i’m-going-to-die cues.

Perhaps the most broken part of this game is the simple act of walking. After playing the game for a few minutes, you start to understand why the game controls like a tank (you hold R2 to walk, and then use the left stick to turn), but that still doesn’t excuse the fact that the way it carries out said tank-controls is so awful. Sometimes you’ll find yourself on the cusp of an invisible, virtual corner of the game, trying to get to the other side of the corner, but because you’re a few inches off, you’ll turn around like a drunk clown several times before finally giving up, walking several feet away, and trying it again. There must have been a better solution here than tank controls. Added to the fact that the way it’s animated gives the impression that you’re dragging these people unwillingly along by a piece of string attached to their noses, and it serves in general to make something which should be fairly simple incredibly frustrating.

Again, though, I think these things are inconsequential relative to the actual merits of this game. Everyone should play it once — perhaps precisely once, perhaps at least once, but once nonetheless.

Review: VVVVVV

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It’s no secret that the moment you make a 2D platforming game on a non-handheld platform, you’ll have my heart from the get-go. Releases in recent years have shown that unlike the 2D brawler genre, which had its heyday — looking at you, Streets of Rage — but is now dated and unenjoyable, the platforming genre has plenty left to say. Braid, Bionic Commando Rearmed, and New Super Mario Bros. Wii (despite its title) have shown that the affordances of modern hardware can allow for mechanics in platforming that are fresh, innovative, and which add new elements to the genre that were simply not possible or executed before 2D platforming was more or less abandoned twelve years ago. The sole exception here is perhaps Yoshi’s Island, which was far ahead of its time.

And then there was VVVVVV. Really, it doesn’t add anything that innovative to the genre. The gravity flipping mechanic has been done before by a million different online flash games, not to mention to an extent in Mega Man 5. Its 8-bit style means it doesn’t really push any boundaries graphically. It doesn’t even do that many things that wouldn’t have been possible on an NES. But damn if this isn’t a fantastic game.

Instead, the game takes advantage of the increase in horsepower to tighten up the mechanics. I’m old enough to remember when games were hard, but depending on the game any proportion of that difficulty could simply be assigned to general shoddiness. Poor hit detection, loose controls, and other quality issues often meant a thrown controller due to yet another death that seemed completely out of your control. I died 1155 times getting 100% in VVVVVV, and not once was it not my fault. That actually speaks volumes, I think, about just how tight the core mechanics are in this game.

Speaking of the core mechanics, VVVVVV‘s core mechanic — one might say gimmick — is actually immensely well done. Like Braid before it, the game takes a simple, perhaps overused mechanic (rewinding time in Braid and reversing gravity in VVVVVV), and examines it from different perspectives, adding different twists and poking at the result in interesting ways. As soon as you start to get the hang of each new mechanic in either game, it instantly yanks it away from you and replaces it with another one. The difference here is that while Braid focuses largely on puzzles and lateral thinking, VVVVVV is almost purely execution. The difficulty of the game ramps up pretty quickly, so even if you just go play the demo, you’ll find that not long after you’re introduced to a tripwire that reverses gravity the moment you hit it, you’ll come across rooms filled with them — and spikes.

There are a lot of spikes in this game.

There are, however, also a lot of checkpoints. These little diodes are scattered in enough places that you’ll never face one of gaming’s worst ruts: having to get through a lengthy easy part just to die at the real challenge over and over again. But don’t let their frequency fool you — this is still a hard game. It’s unforgiving in places. If you go for a full completion of the game, you’ll find yourself dying. A lot. One particular trinket took me around 500 deaths to nail (albeit it was 2 in the morning and I was exhausted at the time). And really, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a game with the unforgiving spirit of the “old days,” and it’s frankly refreshing. Just be prepared to hear that death sound effect a lot.

Also be prepared to hear some fantastic music. This isn’t some chiptune nonsense, this is true 8-bit video game music. Actually, it’s probably not. There are some samples in there that belie its modern origin, but overall the spirit is there in spades.

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The nostalgia isn’t limited to music, either: just look at this map and tell me it wasn’t ripped straight out of a Super Metroid.

If there’s one thing to complain about the game for, it’s its length. I hit 100% completion in the game in just about 2.5 hours. I’ve also played a lot of platforming games, so your mileage may vary. But for $15, I would really hope for a little more than that. There are plenty of possible mechanics left untouched that could have been interesting: areas that force gravity in a certain direction, or other objects that are also affected by your flipping, or perhaps even the ability to rotate gravity four ways rather than simply vertically. Perhaps these will be in VVVVVVV or something (yes, there is one more V in there), but it’s a shame they never saw the light of day in this one, considering how all-too-brief it is.

If you miss the old days as much as I do, and you enjoy the demo, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy this game full-price, sight unseen. If you don’t however, I can’t recommend spending the full $15 on it.

****/5