Tag Archives: Walking Sim

The Station review

The Station may be a short game but its story is well-told, its puzzles well-themed to the environment, and the visuals, sound effects and music do a great job in immersing you. However, is that enough to tempt you with its £11.99 price point?

The developers boast in The Station’s store page that “the best stories are shown not told” and there’s certainly a sense of that with this title. There’s a huge amount of environmental storytelling in every room and corridor you visit, making exploring the space station setting an intriguing endeavour.

You are a specialist sent to uncover why communication was lost to a space station orbiting and spying on an alien civilisation. This discovery of aliens has reshaped your world and provided countless scientific discoveries. However, the aliens are fighting a civil war on their planet, and so present a potential threat, deterring you from making yourselves known and engaging with them. Instead, a stealth space station has been deployed to spy and study them, with a small three member crew. Now communication has been lost it’s your job to uncover what went wrong and how compromised the station is.

Uncovering the fate of the crew involves you exploring each room of the space station and solving simple puzzles to gain access to new areas. There’s nothing too taxing here, it’s all very logical and appropriate to the situation you find yourself in, which helps greatly with immersing you in the story and setting. Furthermore, practically everything can be interacted with, making it a playground of objects you can examine and fling about. Fortunately, despite this you’re unlikely to be led astray with useless items, instead the important things are obvious enough visually, and explained well enough with your mission tracker, to keep you on the critical path.

And indeed, if you stick entirely to the critical path, The Station offers a mere couple of hours of content before you reach it’s rather predictable but still satisfying end. It’s a very short story with an interesting tale but one you’re likely to guess within the first fifteen minutes. However, there’s more to discover that helps bolster the story with additional titbits of information, should you go looking for it.

There are lockers to be found that can be opened with a little searching and puzzle solving, as well as plenty of computer terminals to snoop through. Meanwhile, the aforementioned visual storytelling of each room is particularly strong, with notes, stains, books and other objects painting a vivid picture of what life was like on the space station for the three person crew. There’s an intriguing set of stories for each member, granting you a better understanding of their personalities and motivations. And indeed, these character are well-rounded individuals; learning about them builds a bond with them, making the story and the ending feel more significant.

Excellent visuals and sound also help to bring the space station to life. It’s mostly dark, a cliché lighting model for space stations that have suffered a failure of some kind, however, other light sources help give an identity to each room, with subtle hues to denote the different personalities of the crew and neon lighting acting as a theme through the common areas. Music is rarely used, and when it is used it’s short and brilliantly effective. It all comes together to give the space station a superbly immersive atmosphere.

Indeed, ‘immersive’ is the word I keep coming back to. The Station does an excellent job in capturing your attention, and while its short runtime is disappointing it does feel appropriate to the story it wishes to tell. If then you’re looking for a bit of a palette cleanse; a walking simulator in a sci-fi setting, with light puzzle elements and an intriguing story, then The Station is just the title for you.

Thanks to Xbox and The Station Game for supporting TiX

Tacoma Review

Tacoma is going to be a very difficult game to review and score. It will probably be the shortest review I am going to write since joining TiX, as I can’t go into too much detail about the story in fear of giving you any spoilers. And, most importantly, the day after finishing Tacoma, I am still not sure how I feel about it.

Tacoma is the latest game from Fullbright, a very small team of developers whose past game, Gone Home, was extremely well received when released on PC, and has since been ported over to Xbox One. Both Gone Home and Tacoma are examples of games which have been given the somewhat harsh moniker of “Walking Simulators”, which are short, story based experiences.

Tacoma is a story, set in 2088, about six astronauts who are based on the Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma, 200,000 miles from Earth. You play as Amy Ferrier, a contractor assigned by the stations owners, the Venturis Corporation, to enter the abandoned Tacoma station to retrieve AI data from each of its sections and retrieve the physical processing module of ODIN, the station’s AI.

As you explore the station you use an AR device to witness the events that have befallen the crew, leading to the Tacoma becoming abandoned. Using the AR device you are also able to investigate the crew’s personal logs and emails, to see their individual thoughts and messages home. All these AR sections play like video clips, giving you the ability to forward, rewind and pause events to gain all the AI data needed. During these sections you discover codes which enable you to open new areas of the space station. Also dotted around are various objects, which when manipulated can earn you some nice easy achievements.

When you first encounter the AR mechanism its a little bit confusing, as there are markers at various time locations on the bar. But when you realise that they are colour coded, and each crew member is also colour coded, then the objective becomes clear. Each AR sequence can also be split, with the crew members splitting off and having their own conversations, which means the sequences have to be played through multiple times with your focus on different crew members.

The story is by far the most immersive element of Tacoma, especially the back stories and emotional moments witnessed in the various emails and messages sent between the crew, and between their families back home. Just by witnessing these moments, and by reading letters or notes left in drawers, you feel a bond and form emotional attachments to the characters, so much so that you really root for their survival.

The design of the space station Tacoma is also superb. You do feel like you are on a living, breathing space station, where a small group of people live and work. The simple additions of areas like Laundry Rooms and Kitchens, although not the most exciting areas, make it feel realistic. Each area of the station is connected via a hub, where there is no gravity, so you have to manoeuvre being weightless. From the hub, getting to each individual area is done via a long tube with a mechanical lift, which positively reinforces the feeling that you are on a space station. Each area has gravity, so it’s back to walking!

Tacoma is short. I am going to get that right out in the open. It is really short. All in all, to get every bit of content from this game will take about three hours. And that’s it’s biggest flaw.

When the game is about to finish, I was expecting it to move to a new location, or tell me that there has been a mistake and that there was a whole secret area to investigate. But there wasn’t. It was Game Over (man). So, apart from mopping up achievements for the full 1000 Gamerscore, that was it. The achievements are also pretty easy to get, but you will probably need a guide as most are secret and you may not naturally do some of these things whilst playing.

The shortness of Tacoma is the reason I am still unsure what rating to give it. Tacoma is a great piece of storytelling, in a fairly new, inventive way, but it left me feeling a bit empty afterwards. It just didn’t give me enough. I wanted more story, I wanted to see what happened afterwards. I wanted more history of both the crew and the Venturis Corporation.

And, unfortunately I came across a few bugs. At times the framerate drops a lot, and this mostly happened when travelling to different areas of the ship. On one of these occasions it also caused the game to crash, so it’s not perfect in its performance. This even takes place when the game starts with the message “Press A to start”, and you press A and nothing happens, so you keep pressing A until finally the game catches up with the first press of A. The bugs are not game breaking but are definitely frustrating.

So, this is my dilemna. Should you play Tacoma? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt. But, if you are like me, you’ll come away with a slight sense of disappointment, as you’ll feel a bit cheated on what time you spend for your £15.

Thanks to Xbox and Fullbright for supporting TiX

Nevermind review

Nevermind provides an interesting and eerie opportunity to see into the minds of four very different individuals, and help them overcome trauma. It’s part walking simulator, part puzzler and part horror, although the latter largely puts you in a position of unease rather than fright. And the three gameplay elements meld together splendidly to create a unique and fascinating, albeit short, experience.

You are a psychologist who’s been newly hired at a very advanced medical facility. Here doctors don’t just talk and listen to their patients but also delve deep into their minds, thanks to technology that maps and then allows you to explore their subconscious as if you are really there. It’s a neat idea and one that opens up huge possibilities for story-telling, but in Nevermind it’s merely a framing device for some eerie and perspective shifting exploration and puzzle solving. That’s not to say it’s dull, far from it, but there’s a spark of Portal genius here that’s unfortunately not acted upon.

One thing that’s missing from the Xbox One version however, is the biofeedback element. This would take data from a variety of third-party biofeedback devices that are available right now, and the game would change depending on how stressed and fearful you were. It sounds a like a great concept, but one that isn’t realised for Xbox One. However, what’s here doesn’t feel like it’s missing anything, and it’s still a great experience.

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A tutorial level helps ease you into the experience, following the familiar tale of Hansel and Gretel, but before long you’ll be experiencing the subconscious minds of four patients who have suffered some kind of trauma in their lives. Whilst exploring their mind it’s up to you to find 10 photographs which represent key memories, five of which are false. In order to cure your patient you must gather these memories, figure out which ones are true, and put them in the correct order. Afterwards, you can revisit their mind to try and find other memories, which are important for you to understand their story fully.

For the most part you’re walking through locations that represent real locations in your patient’s lives. Much like a dream, these warp and change as you explore them, with doors leading directly to a completely new location or even back to one you’ve recently visited but having gone through a transformation. It’s cleverly designed, with things often changing drastically simply when you turn your back, featuring some powerful imagery that invokes myriad feelings and helps put your patient’s trauma into perspective. It’s a little bit scary too, with some excellent sound effects and music, sparing but deliberately used to bring locations and events to life. However, whilst it’s certainly looking to invoke an emotional response from you, it’s not looking to outright frighten you.

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It’s meant to be eerie but don’t expect any jump scares, instead it means to tap into your empathy and place you in the mind-set of the patient. And it works too; the framing device of delving into the minds of these people is immersive, making it feel like you really are exploring someone’s subconscious. Meanwhile, some terrifically detailed visuals with high quality textures, a wide colour palette, effective use of lighting, and the added sound effects, music and weird imagery, is remarkably effective at putting you in their shoes. As such, if you pay attention to what is being said and shown to you, figuring out the trauma and what’s a real and fake memory in the photos is fairly intuitive.

Jumping back into your patients minds to further explore and find those fragments of memories to allow you to fully understand them, are a little more abstract and far less gamified than the rest of the experience. It makes them tricky to find if you’re searching for them specifically, such as for achievements, but if you do come across them naturally, they enhance your familiarity with the patient quite effectively.

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However, it’s not entirely smooth sailing through the minds of your patients, some slow-down kicks in frequently as you’re looking around, making the controls suddenly sluggish. There are occasions where this is done intentionally, such as puzzle sections or to help invoke a feeling related to your patient’s trauma, but when it happens outside of these moments it threatens to break the immersion. Fortunately, as frequent as it is, the overall experience isn’t hurt by it, it just feels odd when it does happen.

Indeed, Nevermind is a clever, revealing and fascinating exploration of mental health. The characters that make up your patients are believable and brilliantly voice acted, the locations and puzzles you explore are crafted to represent and encapsulate the trauma of the patients splendidly, and figuring it out and experiencing perspectives that you might not have otherwise experienced is highly satisfying and intriguing. There’s certainly a ‘what if’ niggling disappointment at how much more this kind of concept could be explored if narrative was more what the developers wanted to focus on, but that’s not what Nevermind is about, and what it does focus on is very well-crafted.

Thanks to Xbox and Flying Mollusk for supporting TiX

Virginia review

Virginia is a strange beast. This is by no means a slight on the game as such, as the creators themselves describe the game: “as strange and confounding as their experiences developing it”. This indie title has been years in the making, with a core concept planned from the beginning and with development aspirations escalating alongside an increase in support for the title. Best described as an adventure game, it has a lot of common elements of the ‘walking simulator’ a genre that has become more widespread and well-received in recent years.

When playing Virginia, you will experience quite a few tried and tested tropes concerning the FBI, which have been used in popular media over the decades. The story’s introductory beats are extremely simple and instantly recognisable. As a newly graduated, and as such unjaded, agent you are commissioned by the assistant director to join the Internal Affairs division. Your first case, to team up with a time served agent to investigate them while also undertaking the active investigation at hand. As such, you join up with agent Halperin, who’s office is tucked away in the basement – a la Fox Mulder – to investigate the recent disappearance of a young man from Kingdom, Virginia. Your journey to the truth is a bizarre experience for several reasons, most prevalent of which is the utilisation of ‘dream sequences’ to draw parallels between the details unveiled in the investigation and your character’s moral dilemma as she begins to empathise with her ‘target’. These sequences, some of the in game music, and the core story give a feeling of homage towards David Lynch’s seminal cult series, Twin Peaks, with several parallels that can be drawn other than the trippy dream segments: FBI attend a small, rural town to investigate an unusual case only to find that the more you scratch off the veneer of normality that is applied over the town, the darker and more unusual the world becomes. It all sounds so familiar, doesn’t it?

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The second and most jarring aspect of this experience is the lack of dialogue. This is not a case of minimalist interactions between characters, but literally all the characters are entirely mute. Not a word is spoken during the entire time played, with only readable files, and inferred emotional and reactional characterisation to guide you on what exactly is happening at any given time. This is achieved through what I can only describe as masterful utilisation of atmosphere. The music, lighting, animation and character direction all culminate in a game that you must feel and comprehend, more than understand. It is only later in the game that you realise the true story arc that you are playing out, and by the time this occurs you have enough investment in the characters involved to understand, if not fully empathise, with their motivations and beliefs.

Graphically, there is an old school hand crafted feel to the world. The angular character models feel more at home in Cruise for a Corpse or Another World, than a modern indie title, but even without the fidelity that most would come to accept nowadays, it is impressive how much they can convey with the raising of a simple, angular eyebrow. This lack of definition does not damage the game in any way, and does not detract at any point from the story it is trying to convey.

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Like all true walking simulators, there is a lot of navigating from point A to point B to interactive with an object, and these actions can be covered several times, but Virginia has come up with quite a quirky and unique way to reduce the leg work involved in these sections. A perfect example is the long and tedious walk from the elevators of the FBI building, through the winding basement passageways to Halperin’s office. At key sections of the walk, the character will “teleport” and skip large sections of unnecessary movement. At first, this transition can be quite jarring, but it is soon natural to be looking around at your files one second, and sitting beside your partner driving out of town the next, or to transfer from walking down a dingy corridor in a building to only find yourself transported into a glade as you continue with your investigation.  This reduces the inherent problem with walking simulators by eliminating a significant portion of the back tracking that is commonplace in these types of games.

Although there are collectable items throughout the game, the story itself truly only warrants a single playthrough, and while the short duration will not do much to dissuade those die hard completionists, there is little to convince the general gamer to return for a second burst. This is a single run title, with enough depth to enjoy in a single play through but not on multiple runs, but one that I recommend everyone experience, purely for the unique beauty inherent in the game.

Thanks to Xbox and Variable State for supporting TiX

Firewatch review

Watching out for smoke and fires in the wilderness of Wyoming might not sound like the most exciting game, but when trouble lures you from the safety of your watch tower, things take a turn for the interesting…

It’s a lonely life up in the watch tower, your only company is a lady called Delilah – who chats to you over the radio – so what would drive a person to take a job of such solitude? The game begins with the lead character, Henry, en route to his new place of work. Flashback scenes let you read about his past allowing you to fill in the blanks with multiple-choice answers. It’s a great touch, making Henry’s past feel personal to you.

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Armed with a map, compass and backpack, you venture out to explore the area of the Wyoming wilderness that you’ve been assigned. Several supply caches are spread across the area containing various items. Primarily they are a source of information that you note down on your map. As you explore you talk to Delilah about what you discover – often she pries into your past and why you took the job.

These often touching moments shape their relationship – it’s a great relationship too. Starting slowly as strangers you experience how the two bond over the radio as their conversations become playful and almost intimate. As you explore the wilderness, the simple life of a lookout turns quite sinister, which made me question Henry’s relationship with the mysterious Delilah. It’s your own perception of this – and the story – that will ultimately decide how you perceive the ending, which is a bit hit-and-miss.

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During the game Delilah asks Henry to perform several tasks, which aren’t too complex or cheapened with a clumsy mini game – the game is focused firmly on the relationship you build over the radio and the experience of exploring the world with your new friend. The world is crafted neatly, hiding areas until such a time that the story reveals them to you. Stop for a minute and you will realise that it leads you by the hand using smoke and mirrors to hide the fact it’s actually quite a linear path.

The art of the game is painted in a watercolour wash, creating sinister shapes, which heighten tension and contrast with the soothing colours of the game’s palette. Unfortunately, there are some minor graphic glitches, such as grass clumps that pop in, which was rather annoying, but overall, the environment looks like a painting in an art gallery. It’s a bit of a shame there wasn’t more life in the world, however. Beyond some scripted encounters there is a lack of wildlife – odd that a national park should be so devoid of life – and bar one or two encounters, you won’t meet anybody wondering through the wilderness.

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If you’re a fan of walking sims then there’s a real kick to be had from Firewatch. The story and relationship of Henry and Delilah reeled me in, while the change in perception of my environment played on my own fears – what was once a safe area soon became a place that I was afraid to venture out in – convinced there was someone behind me.

The ending can seem rather flat if you just sit back and accept what is being served to you, but there are lots to speculate about with plenty of plot holes, that I assume are intentional to make you question the story should you spot them. Some may feel short changed by the ending though; it builds well into a state of flurry only to just stop. For me, nothing is as it seems and I still question the events that I experienced.

Once you’ve finished the story there’s a director’s cut version to experience, complete with scavenger hunt, bonus secrets and extra information about the game. There’s also a day/night free roam to explore loaded with even more secrets to discover.

If you like a good story then Firewatch is well worth checking out – it’s one of the better walking simulators that I have played, even if the ending is a little hit-and-miss.

Thanks to Campo Santo and KOEI TECMO for supporting TiX