‘Shovel Knight’ digs up classic gaming memories

This article was originally published on The Oakland Press.

Shovel Knight feels like a game that was made in 1990, buried in a time capsule, and unearthed in 2014.

Many games have tried, but few have been able to accurately replicate the look and feel of a classic NES game. Yacht Club games seems to have nailed the limited color palette, chiptune music, and even occasional slowdown for platform games on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. And even more important, Yacht Club understands what it was about those games that made them fun.

Shovel Knight's pogo stick manuever is crucial for getting past the game's massive enemies.

Shovel Knight’s pogo stick manuever is crucial for getting past the game’s massive enemies.

The gameplay is a mixture of various 8-bit platformers, most notably Mega Man and DuckTales, but with some modern design choices thrown in to make it palatable to gamers 25 years removed from those titles. You control the titular hero Shovel Knight, who can use his bladed spade in a multitude of ways: slashing his foes, reflecting bullets, digging up treasure, and in a Scrooge McDuck-esque pogo stick maneuver. You’ll battle through increasingly difficult stages, each themed around its boss Knight, such as Propeller Knight or Spectre Knight, and collect mass quantities of treasure to upgrade your equipment along the way.

The controls are perfect, but the level design still makes each stage a challenge. The difficulty would be daunting if Shovel Knight utilized a classic Nintendo system of giving you a limited number of lives to get through the game, but instead you can continue as many times as you like from the last checkpoint you passed. The only penalty for dying is that you drop a percentage of your treasure, which can be picked up again if you return to the spot you died on your next life. This method, reminiscent of modern games like Dark Souls, makes the cycle of dying and restarting addictive rather than frustrating. You’ll fail many times before you learn the ropes of a stage, but each time you’ll feel reinvigorated to get further than you did before, rather than feeling punished.

Shovel Knight can dig up piles of dirt to reveal a shower of gems and gold.

Shovel Knight can dig up piles of dirt to reveal a shower of gems and gold.

Some old-school aficionados might find the infinite retries a little too forgiving, but the developers have come up with an excellent system to give those masochists the challenge they want. Sprinkled liberally throughout the stages are checkpoint orbs that light up as you run past them, allowing players to replay only the last portion of a level rather than the entire thing when they die. But if you’re so confident in your 8-bit gaming skills that you feel like you don’t need a checkpoint. You can have Shovel Knight smash the checkpoints, releasing some treasure in the process. It lets players choose a self-imposed balance of risk versus reward so novel that’s it’s strange we haven’t seen anything similar to this in the 25 years hence. Just be advised that if you smash every checkpoint to get that sweet treasure and then die fighting the level boss, it’s all the way back to the beginning.

The fun gameplay is enhanced by a weirdly cool sense of humor. In between levels you’ll encounter townspeople, some of whom are bipedal horses, but each who have a lot of personality, despite being 32-pixel sprites. All the Knight bosses are fans of awful puns centered around their theme. Jokes about garden tools are only the beginning. There is even a sidequest that revolves around telling bad jokes. Weirdest of all, Shovel Knight is aided in his quest by the Troupple King, a magical cross between a trout and an apple.

The 8-bit feel wouldn’t be complete without an outstanding chiptune soundtrack. Composer Jake Kaufman delivers in spades here; the music is high-energy and reminiscent of the classic Mega Mans. In one of the few departures from the 8-bit limitations the developers set on themselves, none of the tracks of music will cut out when sound effects are taking up too many audio channels, as was often the case with NES games. It’s a welcome addition, and doesn’t detract from the nostalgic feeling of the rest of the game.

For the purposes of this review, I played the PC version of Shovel Knight. While the 3DS and WiiU versions allow players to use the touch screen to switch weapons, the Steam version allows you to synch up your save files to Steam Cloud, which is handy if you plan on playing on more than one computer. If you do play on your computer, be sure to connect a game controller of some kind; trying to pull off precise platforming on a keyboard is a good way to get hand cramps.

Gamers who remember the platform games of yore will find a lot to dig about Shovel Knight, but even those born after the turn of the century will find an addictive, fun experience, provided they can enjoy the graphics for what they are. Shovel Knight is the pinnacle of retro cool.

Yacht Club Games provided a review code for the purposes of this article.

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‘Drakengard 3’ is a weird, bloody mess

This article originally appeared on The Oakland Press.

Drakengard 3 is destined to be a cult classic. If video games had midnight screenings, this would be playing at art theaters to fans in costume as the characters.

In terms of story, Drakengard 3 is definitely one of the weirder games I’ve ever played, somewhere between Persona and Bayonetta on the number of “huh?”s per second. The story revolves around Zero, a woman with a flower growing out of her eye whose goal is to kill her five sisters, each named with a number. The sisters are all Intoners, siren-like beings that command the power and loyalty of their followers through song. In order to murder her sisters, she has to cut through swaths of nameless soldiers who whine about being put up against such impossible odds, and she has to get very bloody in the process.

Zero fights with a variety of weapons, including her bare hands while in Intoner Mode.

Zero fights with a variety of weapons, including her bare hands while in Intoner Mode.

The gameplay boils down to a bog-standard hack-and-slash action affair akin to a Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, but not nearly as polished as either of those titles. The primary action in the game is blazing a trail through waves of soldiers, using combo attacks and a variety of weapons that can be switched at any moment. But while Devil May Cry made weaving together a combat routine like a ballet of blades, Drakengard 3 feels clunky by comparison. Attacks don’t move fluidly into each other, and the camera is usually positioned in a way where offscreen enemies can land cheap shots.

One of Drakengard 3’s unique gimmicks is that Zero’s white, airy clothing becomes increasingly soaked with blood as she wades through the entrails of her fallen foes. But in another idea borrowed from Devil May Cry and its ilk, the build up eventually will let the player use a rage-fueled Devil overdrive mode, here called Intoner Mode, where Zero is invincible and does massive damage, allowing her to more thoroughly eviscerate her enemies.

You'll take control of Mikhail, Zero's dragon, during flying sections of Drakengard 3.

You’ll take control of Mikhail, Zero’s dragon, during flying sections of Drakengard 3.


If there was any doubt about this game earning its “M for Mature” rating after seeing a blood-soaked Zero on the game’s box art, rest assured that nothing here is intended for kids. In the midst of all the gore, Zero and her companions routinely engage in very adult-themed conversations, many of which revolve around her having sex with them or around specific parts of their anatomies. Drakengard 3 is the only game I can think of that makes overt references to menstruation, although it happens to do it in a really skeevy way.

At least Drakengard 3 has a sense of humor about its own absurdity, with some characters breaking the fourth wall during cutscenes. While the game has no qualms dropping f-bombs, there are some scenes where streams of obscenities have been blocked out for comedic effect, replaced instead with pleasant classical music and a message saying “The scene has been deemed unsuitable for human ears.” Gaming conventions are skewered here as well, as when Zero comes across a series of floating platforms, she complains that she “doesn’t want to do another stupid jumping puzzle.” Nevertheless, we as players are forced to endure it anyway.

There are breaks in the normal action scenes where Zero will ride her dragon, Mikhail, into battle against giant enemies. These sections play out like a space shooter, something similar to a Starfox game, and they provide a brief break from the monotony of the on-foot combat, although the flying sections too eventually succumb to their own brand of monotony. They’re still enjoyable, thanks to Mikhail, who provides a much-needed lightening of the mood. Despite being a giant dragon, Mikhail has the voice and mentality of a child, leading him to ask Zero, rightfully, “Why do we need to kill so many people?”

The combat becomes challenging as the game progresses, but never as difficult as similar games in the genre. Though it’s only mentioned in loading screens, Drakengard 3 starts making the combat easier on you if you die repeatedly at the same point. Annoyingly, just when you think you’re becoming better, it might actually be the game pulling its punches.

However, that might be a blessing in disguise, because the most compelling part of playing Drakengard 3 is definitely seeing the story play out. There’s an undeniable pull to keep playing even when the combat isn’t particularly fun just to see what insane, obscene absurdities the next level will lavish upon you when you do triumph.

Drakengard 3 is like the Evil Dead of video games. Like the most-loved B-movies, It’s extremely rough around the edges, absurdly gory and vulgar, and has a unique sense of humor. But it’s that fascinating weirdness the keeps you immersed even when you recognize that there this is little more than a kiddie pool in terms of depth. And that kiddie pool is filled with blood.

Drakengard 3 is available for the Playstation 3. Square-Enix provided a download code for the purposes of this review.

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‘Transistor’ reboots the action game

This article originally appeared on The Oakland Press.

Like a powerful computer, ‘Transistor’ from developer Supergiant Games is a complex and fascinating machine capable of feats of beauty on a high level, but based at its core on a solid foundation.

Players control Red, a popular singer in the retro-futuristic city of Cloudbank who has lost her voice for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. She’s come into possession of the Transistor, a large sword-like weapon that has a voice and personality of its own. The Transistor becomes your companion, providing a running commentary and explaining certain details of the world of Cloudbank, as well as helping Red fight The Process, a malevolent virus entity that’s tearing the city apart.

Transistor 4

Transistor stars Red, a musician who’s had her voice stolen, and the Transistor, a sword-shaped object containing the personality of her talkative companion.

At first blush, Transistor might look like an action game with an overhead view similar to developer Supergiant Games’ previous title, Bastion. But trying to play Transistor be just whacking enemies with the titular object proves to be exceedingly difficult. Instead, players can use the “Turn” function, which allows you to stop time and plan out a series of actions, like shooting, dodging and setting up traps. It lends the game a strategic bent that’s missing from most action games, and allows you to take the time to calmly consider your actions instead of mashing one button repeatedly.

The combat is incredibly deep, thanks in part to the dynamic qualities of every ability you learn as you level up. Each ability can be used independently, as an active skill, or it can be used as an add-on to another ability, or simply as a passive stat boost. For example, the Bounce ability, used by itself, will make a projectile that ricochets from one enemy to another. But used as an add-on, Bounce adds a chain-reactive effect to other skills. Used passively, it will create a shield for Red that reflects some attacks. Every one of Transistor’s abilities function this way, making possibilities seemingly endless.

Though it uses hand drawn, pre-rendered environments instead of 3D ones, Transistor is unmistakably gorgeous. The amount of detail put into the backgrounds is outstanding, and some still frames of cutscenes could be paintings in their own right. This extends to the character design as well’ even though Red never speaks, her personality is still apparent through her animations; a defiant flip of her hair, or her casually shouldering the Transistor while standing idle.

The turn-based battle system lets players strategize in otherwise chaotic circumstances.

The turn-based battle system lets players strategize in otherwise chaotic circumstances.

However, Transistor’s personality is heard nowhere as clearly as in it’s sound design, which tends to resemble melancholic lounge song with tones of electronic music scattered about. The soundtrack is perfect to evoke an high-tech society with old-fashioned style, struggling its last breath against a seemingly unavoidable fate. When using the time-stopping Turn ability in battle, most of the instruments are muted, and only an echo of distant singing can be heard. And when you’re not in combat, there’s a button whose only function is to make the otherwise silent Red hum along to the music, providing a melodic reprieve from the action.

Though it’s never stated explicitly, Transistor seems to take place inside a computer under threat of serious malfunction, and most of the characters seem to be functions within the code. The story is relayed somewhat vaguely, mostly through the often entertaining commentary of the Transistor, who was himself a person in the world until just before the beginning of the story. Even the abilities you use in combat seem to be part of the story, as each one is a citizen of Cloudbank who left behind an imprint of their personality after they passed. You can discover more about each character’s backstory by leveling up their ability, which is done by utilizing that function in every possible configuration. Ingeniously, this acts as an incentive for players to try many different combinations of skills, rather than settling early in the game on a single set.

There is a good amount of replayability in Transistor, as optional “backdoor” missions put players speed and planning talents to the test by challenging them to defeat a ground of enemies in a limited amount of time, or using a single Turn. Finishing the game allows you to restart the story in “recursion” mode, letting players keep their earned skills, but with an amped-up challenge level as well. And instead of having a conventional difficulty setting, Transistor players can use “limiters,” special conditions that make the game significantly harder by creating conditions like giving all enemies shields or having them spawn clones when they die. Limiters can drastically change how the player has to approach each fight, but reward you with inflated experience points after each combat.

Transistor is a beautifully crafted experience, both in terms of gameplay and presentation, and though the main story is finishable in about five hours, there’s a lot of extra meat on the bones for players hungry for more. I even found myself getting a bit choked up by the end of the sas, yet enthralling narrative. My biggest complaint is that Supergiant Games has crafted a fascinating computerized world in Cloudbank City, but barely scratched the surface by the time the credits roll. Transistor is downloadable on PCs through Steam and on PS4 through the Playstation Network for $20.

Supergiant Games provided a review code for the purposes of this article.

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Absurdly-named ‘Drunken Robot Pornography’ features fast, funny jetpack action

This story was originally published on The Oakland Press.

First of all, it’s not what you think.

You'll use your jetpack to fight robots over the futuristic city of Boston.

You’ll use your jetpack to fight robots over the futuristic city of Boston.


“Drunken Robot Pornography” is the ludicrously titled newest game from developer Dejobaan, who have something of a penchant for ridiculous titles. In fact, the title “Drunken Robot Pornography” is a bit reserved from Dejobaan’s previous efforts “AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! — A Reckless Disregard for Gravity” and “3! 2! 1! KICK IT! Drop That Beat Like An Ugly Baby.”

The plot is about as insane as you would expect based on the title. Set in the skies of Boston in the distant future, the story casts you as bar owner Rueben Matsumoto, who decides to give sentience to his robot bartender, Tim. Tim responds by burning down the bar and turning Rueben’s bar workers into giant killing machines sent to destroy Boston. It’s up to Rueben to strap on a jet pack and a laser gun and take down the giant death machines, known as the 12 Centerfolds, to save Boston.

If you’re still on board after reading the premise, then you’ll probably get DRP’s offbeat sense of humor. There IS a bizarre story following Reuben’s quest to wipe out the 12 Deadly Centerfolds and save Sky Boston from annihilation, but it’s just icing on the insane, laser shooting cake. The story is told mostly through voice messages from your bartender, Tim, taunting you.

Intense laser dodging can be like a ballet though a jungle of blades.

Intense laser dodging can be like a ballet though a jungle of blades.


Even the menu system in the game has a sense of humor. When observing the wreckage to Rueben’s immolated, totally useless bar, I was given the option to “leave” or alternatively, to “leave in a huff.”

The actual gameplay is described by the developers as a mix of a first-person shooter with a “bullet hell” style of twitchy, fast-paced action game. You’ll use the jetpack in three-dimensions to maneuver through mazes of lasers while trying to shoot down colossal robots. Most missions end when you either get enough points by blowing up droids and collecting martinis, or when you destroy one of the giant “titan” size robots.

The action requires fast reflexes, but even the most hardcore gamers will find themselves dazzled by a screen that frequently is filled with nothing but lasers and explosions. It’s hard to tell what’s going on sometimes, but when the action is at its most chaotic it’s also at its most beautiful. The actual geometry of the world is nothing spectacular, but the special effects are impressive.

DRP is a score-intensive experience; much of the replayability of the game comes from trying to best your scores and those of your friends and climb up the leaderboard rankings. However, there is a mode that allows players to build their own additions to the game, including both arenas to fight in, and titan robots to fight against.

There’s a lot to like here for hardcore gamers who want a break from the military shooter monotony. The gameplay is frantic and fun, and the levels are short enough that you can play a few at a time without delving too deeply into it. Dodging lasers and shooting robots in these wide-open spaces has a rush to it that most modern first-person shooters are lacking. Score chasing on the leaderboard and the thrill of trying to create insane levels to force your friends to play gives this game a lot of replayability. Dejobaan is definitely onto something here. It’s just a shame that many people will dismiss “Drunken Robot Pornography” based on its name alone and never even realize what type of game it is.

“Drunken Robot Pornography” is available on the PC through Steam and on Dejobaan’s website. Dejobaan provided a review code for the purposes of this article.

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Octodad: Dadliest Catch review — Becoming father of the year

This article was originally printed in The Oakland Press.

Imagine you’re a man just trying to live a normal life, being supportive of your wife, playing games with your children, and doing household chores. You love your family, but you’re harboring a secret that you can’t let them find out — a secret that, if discovered, could bring your whole idyllic life crashing down.

Now, imagine that secret is that you’re an octopus.

The titular character of this video game scenario, Octodad, is a sea creature trying to live life as a human, attempting circumvent any suspicions about his identity with his human family, despite the fact that he is basically a yellow octopus in a suit, and talks only in gurgles.

Challenges in the game usually come down to having Octodad do simple things, such as mowing the lawn or buying groceries, but such tasks suddenly become struggles when you have to do them without the help of a spine. Even worse, Octodad is forced to go out into public and must balance his family life without revealing himself to be an aquatic creature. On top of all that, he has to contend with a deranged sushi chef pursuing him relentlessly, trying to unmask him for the mollusk he is.

To create the effect of controlling a sentient cephalopod, Octodad developer Young Horses has made the controls purposefully awkward. You can control Octodad with either a keyboard and mouse or with a game controller, but either way, fine-tuned motor skills are out of the question. Two buttons each control one of Octodad’s “legs” and another controls the suction cups on his “hands.” When you go to pick up a gallon of milk, expect to knock everything else off the table in the process. Something like walking up a downward-moving escalator would be an annoyance for a human; for Octodad it’s a herculean effort. It creates some side-splittingly silly situations, but slip up too many times and it’s game over.

While the game play is amusing, a premise this silly lives or dies on its writing. Luckily, the script here is hilarious, from Octodad’s attempts to explain to his human children where babies come from, to aquarium workers complaining about having to explain how fish breathe. Even though the story is comedy foremost, it also touches on some weirdly poignant moments between Octodad and his family, with a message about being accepted for the person you are on the inside.

For casual gamers the otherwise family-friendly atmosphere may be overshadowed by the intentional difficulty in controlling Octodad. The final moments of the game require deft maneuvering of your wiggly limbs, and there are a few stealth sections thrown in where one false step means failure. Expect to restart from a checkpoint a lot.

Compounding that are frame rate issues. Particularly busy sections of the game slowed my PC to a crawl, even with the graphics and physics settings turned down. While none of the graphics is spectacular, the sheer number of moving parts on screen made playing the game look more like a slideshow. I’m looking forward to seeing if the PlayStation 4 version of the game, coming out in March, irons out these technical issues for console gamers.


Despite of these drawbacks, the game doesn’t overstay its welcome. My first playthrough of the story clocked in at barely over two hours. Gameplay is extended by free downloadable bonus levels, some of which are harder than the main game. It’s for the best, because the idea of awkwardly doing everyday tasks probably couldn’t support a 20-hour game.

It’s hard to think of Octodad: Dadliest Catch as anything but a fun novelty. It’s a good way to spend an afternoon or even play with friends. The game supports local multiplayer, where up to four players can each control one or two of Octodad’s tentacles, but there are no plans to include online play. It’s available for the PC through Steam, but it might be best to wait for this one to come out on Playstation 4 before taking the plunge.

Developer Young Horses provided a review code for the purposes of this article.

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Typing of the Dead: Overkill review — Keep your trigger finger on the home row

This article originally appeared in The Oakland Press.

 When I was in fourth grade, if Mavis Beacon had taught typing by having players shoot zombies instead of practicing proper finger placement, I’d be typing at court stenographer speed by now.

Typing of the Dead: Overkill is a remake of a light gun shooter released on the Wii and PlayStation 3, but it smartly does away with plastic pistols and instead has players typing words on their PC keyboard to shoot shambling zombies. Each enemy is represented by a word or phrase that must be punched in quickly and correctly to kill it. It sounds strange, but the feeling of furiously trying to type “hypothalamus” while a killer mutant is bearing down on you is a surprisingly exhilarating one.

Let me stress that while Overkill requires you to type well to succeed, it is by no means a tutorial, and is definitely not for children. The game is presented in the style of ‘70s Grindhouse cinema, complete with copious cursing, glorified gore, and a gravelly-voiced narrator who spouts hilariously cheesy lines to hype the action during cutscenes. The original version even held a Guinness World Record for the most uses of the f-word in a video game.

Back in 2009, I wanted to recommend the original Wii version of House of the Dead: Overkill for its sick but silly sense of humor, its well-written, Tarantino-esque dialogue, and its excellent soundtrack, but the actual gameplay amounted to little more than a competent light gun shooter. This version solves that problem by introducing a mechanic that requires you to type fast and accurately to shoot the hordes of undead, rather than simply pointing your Wii Remote at them. Typing remakes of House of the Dead games have been done before, in arcades and on the Sega Dreamcast, but have been hard to find. Because it’s available as a download over Steam, Typing of the Dead: Overkill is available to anyone with a PC and an Internet connection.

The keyboard-based remake features the improved graphics of the PlayStation 3 version, which admittedly, looked dated even for their time. But graphics are not the main draw here; seeing what crazy phrases you’re required to type is as much fun as flawlessly nailing a long phrase. The words themselves are as funny as the cutscenes between levels, which see the unlikely pairing of Detective Isaac Washington and government Agent G in a buddy-cop movie style-team up. While previous entries in the House of the Dead series were B-movie level story affairs, Overkill recognizes its shlocky roots and embraces them, doing purposefully bad edits and playing them off for laughs.

In fact, that B-movie aesthetic makes it a little difficult to tell what parts are badly programmed and what are done intentionally badly for laughs. There were a couple points where the sound cut out completely, only to come back thirty seconds later. But overall these technological hiccups are forgivable, because at its core, Typing of the Dead is just fun to play.

Replay possibilities are high here, as finishing the story unlocks a “hardcore” mode where capitalization and punctuation are required to be accurate, and a mis-typed letter is met with a punishing setback. Downloadable bonus libraries are available, meaning that you can add olde English into the mix through the “Shakespeare” word set, or even dirtier language with the “Filth” set. When you’re tired of typing on your own, there’s even an online co-op mode for typing with a friend.

Besieged by setbacks during development, It’s a small miracle that this title exists at all. It was very quietly released late last year with no promotion whatsoever. This happened after the developer had already shut down, no less. It seems that like its Dreamcast predecessor, Typing of the Dead: Overkill is destined for obscurity and “cult classic” status. Which is really a shame, because as typing is a skill that almost anyone can do, any open-minded adult should enjoy Overkill for its humor and unique style of gameplay.

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Contrast review — Fuzzy around the edges

This article originally ran in The Oakland Press.

 With some games, the ambition and creativity of the premise vastly outstrip the technical execution. As a game reviewer, my instinct is to forgive a few hiccups or glitches if they occur in the course of telling a great story or introducing a truly unique idea for a game. However, the new puzzle platformer Contrast from developer Compulsion is one instance where the a hurried development harmed an otherwise interesting idea.

The pitch sounded great in print. You play as Dawn, the imaginary friend of a young, adventurous girl named Didi, with the ability to leap from the three-dimensional world into the two-dimensional world of shadows by pressing yourself up against a wall. The story follows the lives of Didi and her family and is set in a noir stylized version of the 1920s. Didi’s mother works as a lounge singer, and her estranged father works as a two-bit hustler trying to make good for his family.

While left alone at night, Dawn and Didi escape the family’s house to go out eavesdropping on her parents. All the other characters in the game appear only as shadows cast on the walls, a bit like how the adults on Charlie Brown are never actually seen directly. While the presentation seems to emphasize a child’s world of imagination, the actual themes of the game are a bit darker; Didi’s father owes a lot of money to the mob and is regularly beaten as a result of his latest scheme gone awry. Her mother struggles to make ends meet working at a cabaret club, the Ghost Note. The parents nearly come to violence at times but work to patch up their shattered family with the help of Didi and her imaginary friend. There’s a definite dream-like quality to the world of the game, as anytime Dawn ventures too far from Didi, the world seems to break apart, looking like a sea of street lamps and billboards floating in a starry sky.

The player is tasked with following Didi around, helping her sneak into cabaret clubs and circuses and helping to clean up her father’s messes. The puzzles generally involve manipulating the three-dimensional world by moving objects and light sources to make the two-dimensional shadow world easier to navigate. For example, you might need to get up to the second floor of a building to eavesdrop on Didi’s parents, but have no way to jump up to the nearby balcony. By moving a nearby crate closer to a light source, the crate’s shadow becomes much larger, giving you a platform to jump on once you transition into the shadow world.

 This approach definitely holds the potential to create some mind-bending puzzles, but regrettably most puzzles still boil down to moving creates around and pressing switches to open doors. Even worse, the puzzle design makes it surprisingly difficult to get some shadows to line up just right in order to make traversal possible. If you get stuck between two shadows that pin you down, usually you’ll be forced out of the shadows into the real world, and oftentimes this will mean falling to your death.

Death is not a huge problem, because you can retry an unlimited number of times and the game is usually pretty generous with its checkpoints. However, having to repeat the same sequence of jumps ten times or more, not because of user error, but because of finicky border detection in the shadow world is extremely frustrating.

While Contrast throws out some cool ideas near the end, its too little, too late. The whole experience is shorter than expected and is almost definitely a victim of being rushed to be released in time for the launch of the new PlayStation 4 console. A bit of polish and a few more inventive puzzles could’ve made a world of difference here, but it’s very difficult to recommend Contrast to anyone as it is. Playstation 4 owners starved for something new may want to check it out for a change of pace with the violence-heavy launch titles.

Here’s hoping a sequel will iron out most of problems and make a worthwhile experience.

A review code was provided by Compulsion for the purposes of this review. Contrast is currently available online on the PS4 and through Steam on the PC.

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Papers, Please review — Dehumanizing bureaucracy is fun!

This review was originally printed in The Oakland Press.

Papers Please 2

It’s a rare game that gives you respect for the TSA.

While working as a border crossing inspector in a fictional Eastern Bloc country during the 1980s isn’t the most likely premise for a video game, Lucas Pope’s “Papers, Please” makes it a surprisingly tense experience. That was clear the moment a person I just cleared to enter the country set off a suicide bomb shortly after crossing the border.

As the game opens, you’ve been selected by the government of Arstotzka to work processing people entering the country. A seemingly endless line of hopeful immigrants and citizens stretches in front of your booth, and you have to go over their paperwork, ensuring there are no discrepancies in the names on passports and work visas, checking expiration dates, and comparing people’s photos with their appearance.

You try to correctly process as many people as you can in a given day, which is usually a few minutes. Every day brings a new wrinkle to the proceedings as security restrictions get tighter and immigrants must present more and more documentation for you to pore over. Sometimes, the government will arbitrarily request new papers, like an entry permit instead of an entry ticket.

Sleuthing out a contradiction can be fun on its own, but having to turn away citizens with valid excuses brings some pathos into the mix. You’ll be tempted to bend the rules to let legit-looking people through, but you’ll still be penalized financially for doing so. Once I received a husband and wife — one with valid documents and the other without.

I looked the other way.

But that’s not something you can do often, as the money you make processing people is more than just a score. You have to support your family at the end of each day, paying for food, heat and medicine for sick relatives. It always seems like there’s never enough to go around, so some days you’ll be forced to hold off on buying your son the medicine he needs, or let grandpa go without heat for the night because you had a particularly poor day at work.

There are also story arcs that persist between days. After the suicide bombing, immigrants from the same country of origin are labeled as terrorists, and the government demands full body scans of anyone coming from there. I felt terrible subjecting people to “random” checks, but I needed to ensure I earned the money my family needed to survive.

Another arc involved a woman who slipped me a note saying she was going to be forced into sex trafficking if I allowed through the man in line after her. Though his papers were in perfect order, I still found an excuse to turn him away. And my good deed was rewarded with a dock to my pay.

That’s not to say the game is all gloomy. One persistent old man came to my checkpoint daily, each time presenting hilariously forged documents, including a passport that appeared as if he had drawn himself in colored pencils.

Papers Please 1

I don’t want to give away too much. Suffice to say that the game has a strong “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” attitude toward the job, and toward bureaucracy in general.

Our protagonist, the unassuming inspector, is dragged into international intrigue and revolutionary politics, and there are 20 different endings depending on who you choose to trust over a one-month period. It’s not easy making it to the end, either. Keeping your family alive and staying out of trouble is like plate spinning. Simply balancing the time you spend reading documents with trying to make enough money to get by is plenty nerve racking.

While on the surface it might seem like a droll exercise, “Papers, Please” is a surprisingly poignant and challenging game for PC and Mac players looking for something different, and it’s a meager $10 to boot. It’s available by download from Steam and through the website papersplea.se.

Lucas Pope provided a “Papers, Please” download code for the purposes of this review.

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Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs review — Porcine panic

This review was originally printed in The Oakland Press.

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I snuff out my lantern and huddle behind a cart full of pig carcasses, struggling to quiet my erratic breathing as I watch the door in anticipation. I can hear the sound of him squealing in anger, and that horrible snorting announcing his presence. I have no way to fight him off if he finds me, but I hope against my reason that he didn’t see me come in here.

For a moment, there’s silence. Then the sound of splintering wood as he begins breaking down the door.

So why am I not particularly frightened?

“Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs” is the sequel to 2010’s outstanding “Amnesia: The Dark Descent.” The one is developed by The Chinese Room in collaboration with Frictional Games, and makes many changes to the successful formula, not all of which come to fruition.

Players control Oswald Mundus, a London industrialist from the turn of the 20th century who suffers from the titular condition, and knows only that his two sons are lost somewhere in his massive factory, and he has to rescue them from the nightmarish pig men patrolling the halls of the facility.

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The original game, The Dark Descent, was ingenious in its mechanics; it built tension by forcing players to balance their resources, a constant tug of war between staying safe and staying sane. The longer you spent in the darkness, the more your grip on reality ebbed away and made it more difficult to navigate. But the longer you stayed in the light, the more precious lantern oil and tinderboxes you’d use to light your way.

Worse yet, the more you stood in the light, the easier it was for monsters to find you. And while your instinct would be to look at your pursuers, looking directly at the hideous monsters chasing you would erode your mental well being even faster. The sanity system was particularly well-executed, because it frequently resulted in players crouching in dark corners, staring directly at a wall or floor, hoping the terrors stalking them wouldn’t hear their panicked breathing. It hit every high note of survival horror games from the last 15 years.

Well, “A Machine For Pigs” does away with all that. Many of the first Amnesia’s cornerstones have been altered or removed completely. Players no longer have an inventory of any kind, health recharges over time, and the sanity system is completely gone, at least as a function of gameplay. Instead of an oil lantern, players have an electric lantern that only flickers out when enemies are nearby, which actually gives the monsters away more than it creates foreboding. While these changes might be attractive to less action-centric players, it also sucks away much of the tension and fear of the original.

It also doesn’t help that the beginning of the game is a very slow burn. It was over an hour and a half before I had any need of my electric lantern or came face to face with the grotesque pig men trying to hunt Mundus down. While you still have no means of fighting the beasts, I felt less scared by the pig men than I did when I was anticipating them, jumping at shadows. When I finally did get cornered by one, I found them surprisingly ineffective at killing me. Even after a few seconds of being gored by the boars, I was able to escape to a dark place and hide until I had my full health back. Realizing this really takes some of the punch out of the pursuit.

The story is told through voice-overs and found diaries, and while it is very elegantly written, it ultimately falls a bit flat, as you’re given little reason to sympathize with the Mundus or understand his connection to his children.

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As a horror game, “A Machine For Pigs” is not very scary, certainly in comparison to the previous game in the series. But neither does it work as a adventure game with tones of terror; most of the puzzles placed in your path amount to little more than “find fuse A and insert it into slot B.” Admittedly, some of the jump scares did get me, and the music does a great job of setting an atmosphere, but it’s hard not to be disappointed when the original Amnesia had players jumping out of their seats in fright.

The Chinese Room was the developer that gave us the interactive fiction “Dear Esther,” but their wheelhouse has always been more in storytelling and less in making actual game mechanics, and it really shows here. It’s admirable that Frictional Games gave another developer an opportunity to give their take on Amnesia rather than just rehashing the first title, it ultimately fails to recapture the magic of the original.

While it doesn’t hold up its legacy, “A Machine For Pigs” is still a solid, enjoyable experience. If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll enjoy it as an expansion of the story set out in The Dark Descent, but those looking for a real edge-out-your-seat experience for the upcoming Halloween season would do better to check out the other first-person horror game out this month: “Outlast.” Or if you’re unfamiliar with the series, check out the original “Amnesia.”

“Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs” is available on PC and Mac and is downloadable on Steam. Frictional Games provided a review code for the purposes of this article.

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Gone Home review — Exploring familial mysteries

This article was originally printed in The Oakland Press.

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When I finished “Gone Home,” I was emotionally drained.

The new title from The Fullbright Company is one of an emerging genre of video games where calling it a game is somewhat inaccurate. There’s no way to die, no failure state, no real threats of any kind. It might be more descriptive to just call it an interactive work of fiction, much in the vein of the excellent Dear Esther, from developer The Chinese Room.

What makes “Gone Home” remarkable is its ability to tell a compelling story about the awkwardness of human interaction, and lets the player get more invested more deeply in the narrative by making him or her a part of it.

At first glance, “Gone Home” might seem like a horror game. Set in 1994, you play as a young woman named Katie who’s returned home after a year spent backpacking in Europe to find yourself along in your family’s huge, empty house. Players are tasked with exploring the dark, creaky mansion to find clues to what’s happened to your mother, father and sister, while a thunderstorm rages outside. The story is told as you discover letters and notes written by the family and explore the house’s secret compartments and passages.

For a long time, I expected there to be a supernatural element to the story, and the atmosphere does nothing to dispel that. “Gone Home” even drops a few red herrings to lead you to that conclusion; your younger sister seems to be into ghost hunting and has left some paraphernalia around. But the story is far more deeply focused on the emotions of its cast, told through written notes and audio recordings, and remains firmly grounded in the realities of life in 1990s suburbia.

The story really is the entire game, so I don’t want to reveal any plot points, suffice to say that some heavy themes are explored, including many seldom touched on in the world of video games. There are no life and death situations, no fate of the world at stake. The situations are real and relatable to an average person. The characters’ insecurities and secrets are revealed by exploring the environment, especially those of Katie’s sister, Sam, who is the focus of the story.

At times it feels invasive, digging through your family’s belongings to learn more about them. Playing as Katie, you come in as a stranger, knowing nothing about her family. But as the story develops, Katie herself discovers secrets even she didn’t know about her relatives, and it seems as if she didn’t know them as well as she thought she did.

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That sense of isolation, coupled with the loneliness of the empty house, really support the narrative themes. Near the end of the story, the sense of melancholy began to weigh on me. While I finished it in two and a half hours, the length turned out to be perfect, as that was exactly when I needed to stop and decompress.

While definitely not for everyone, “Gone Home” is a rare game that can tell a personal, affecting story without cramming it down your throat through cutscenes and dialogue. It uses the distinction of being interactive to involve the player in ways a movie couldn’t. And just as not every movie is meant to be “fun,” you shouldn’t pick up this game up expecting to unwind.

But if you have an open mind and an appreciation for good, unconventional storytelling, “Gone Home” is a must-play.

“Gone Home” is a PC, Mac and Linux title available on Steam. The Fullbright Company provided a review code for the purposes of this review.

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