LTTP: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (X1)

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I admire Ninja Theory for their efforts in bringing awareness to mental illnesses like psychosis. I empathized with Senua; it would certainly be maddening to constantly hear differing voices doubting and prodding me constantly. I found the use of binaural audio to give players a sample of that experience effective. Watching someone struggle to maintain her reality wasn’t unique to Hellblade but it was one of the better uses of world bending imagery. I just wished they didn’t use live actors and full motion videos. They were jarring. 

Hellblade didn’t run well on my PC so I flipped over to the Xbox One X version and played it with “Enriched Visual Mode” which produced a good looking Unreal Engine 4.0 game. I wish I could have ran it at 4K and 60 FPS but there’s only so much this console can do. I eventually acclimatized to the performance but I never got used to the eerie uncanny valley. Senua’s eyes conveyed so much human emotion and was effective at highlighting her struggles without words. Unfortunately, her mouth and the way they rendered it was consistently distracting to me  — and there were a lot of close ups of her. I found her ghoulish from the beginning which may not have been Ninja Theory’s intention. Did they want me to view this warrior as a member of the undead army? 

What’s the answer to overcoming the uncanny valley? It’s not mixing live action and computer generated graphics, that’s for sure. Every live action clip that I saw conjured a chuckle out of me; they all looked silly. No matter how they tried to integrate it into the game, I found them goofy like the ones found in a Remedy Entertainment game. I don’t think that was their intention, was it? 

The Nordic mythology and over-the-shoulder third person camera bore unavoidable comparisons to God of War. They were unfair and unfavorable comparisons but I couldn’t help it. In every respect, Santa Monica Studio did it better.  

I enjoy “walking” simulators. I don’t have issue with slowly moving around in a space. But I do have issue with movement speed when there’s so little to see between points of interest. Senua walks incredibly slow and her run speed (which I recommend people bind as a toggle) is not drastically faster either. She can move faster in combat which makes it so frustrating to have her move at snail’s pace. I know what I need to do during these “puzzle” moments; they’re not difficult. They’re just time consuming because Senua cannot be bothered to move about the environment quickly.  

I wished I liked Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice more. I found its pacing add odds with my expectations and many of the developer’s intentions falling short of hitting the marks they sought. I wasn’t supposed to giggle at what were supposed to be emotional moments either but I did. When Hellbade works, it works well. But when it doesn’t? It can make you feel like an outsider. 

Verdict: 
I don’t like it

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Statik

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I bought Tarsier Studios’ Statik on the strength of its demo. I thought it was extremely clever how they transformed the DualShock 4 controller into a puzzle box for me to manipulate and figure out. I enjoyed the Portal inspired aesthetic as well. The demo set very high and positive expectations for which the full game did not live up to.  

While the demo showcased a brilliant use of the controller, it did omit one of the more annoying uses from the full game. Using the DualShock 4 controller as wand substitute was awkward and cumbersome. It’s not as accurate or as comfortable as it needs to be. Statik would have benefitted by not including those awful puzzle piece assembly intermissions.  

Portal comparisons ran rampant throughout my time with the game. It’s unfair to compare every game set in a sterile lab environment to Valve’s puzzle platformer but I am and Statik compared favorably. The inspiration was clear but it felt like they merely borrowed the Portal aesthetic as a vehicle to deliver their clever handheld puzzles.  

I genuinely enjoyed all the puzzles. The solutions were often felt out by fiddling with buttons and switches while observing the surrounding environment for clues. A few were tricky to piece together but overall, they were easier than the ones found in Valve’s Aperture Science centers.  

The motivation to finish the puzzles was to discover why I was stuck in this place trying to solve puzzles. I wasn’t expecting a tremendous pay off and I was right to do so.  

I was drawn to Statik for its puzzles and I ended up only enjoying it for its puzzles. On the plus side, it’s ¾ of what this game has to offer. The puzzles are engaging and rewarding to solve. The dressing and everything else surrounding it did not match the quality of said puzzles but it shouldn’t discourage those who enjoy a bit of puzzle solving in VR.  

Verdict: 
It was okay 

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Until Dawn

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My Until Dawn impressions as a whole align with my impressions of Rami Malek’s performance and of his character, Josh. It began a little awkwardly with hints of unsettling creepiness and then just devolves into unconvincing lunacy that provided a healthy amount of goofiness.

Horror themed games like Until Dawn and Amnesia: The Dark Descent were most effective when they hid away their monsters and left my imagination run rampant. The monsters were defanged as soon as they’re revealed. Akin to a fool wearing a poorly made Halloween costume, these sideshows hailed the beginning of a game’s rapid decline in scares.

I start to notice faults and the seams unravel. And before long, I stopped playing with mindfulness and welcomed risk with open arms.

Despite its inability to retain its horror hold over me, I found Until Dawn was one of the better branching path adventure games I’ve played. I enjoyed the fact that the decisions I made had a fairly large number of immediate outcomes. There were eight characters who can survive or perish because of my decisions. Little missteps during quick time events or just making the wrong choice, could result in a dead teen. Some decisions were obvious but many were a total mystery which made for a more exciting experience.

Not so exciting or flattering were the visuals which wobbled between looking great and unintentionally grotesque. The environments, objects, and essentially anything non-living looked as they should. Human characters appeared distracting features like Chiclet teeth or overly animated speech. A lot of the faces didn’t seem natural and excessive. Uncanny valley was in full force.

I played the game with the PlayStation 4 Pro and it’s Boost Mode but even then the performance was uneven. The dips in framerate did not get in the way of the life or death situations but they did make exploration feel sluggish. Couple with the plodding pace which the characters move, exploring the locales of Until Dawn felt like a chore.

It took me two Octobers to finish Until Dawn. Picking it back up was easy and the same could be said with putting it down. I never felt enough of a connection with the characters, story, or mystery to keep me coming back for more day after day. There were entertaining moments, a few scares, and moments of intrigue to string me towards the end of a chapter, but in the end, it was a forgettable popcorn horror flick.

Ratings Guide

Verdict:
It was okay

LTTP: Rise of the Tomb Raider [X1]

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With the release of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I thought it was about time to finally play Rise of the Tomb Raider. I didn’t like the second installment of this prequel trilogy as much as I thought I would. It played well, it was still able to hang with the best of them on the presentation front but I didn’t find Lara likable this time around

Rise of the Tomb Raider continued Lara Croft’s evolution into the Tomb Raider. In her 2013 adventure, Lara was depicted as an archaeologist thrown into traumatic situation. She was a bit hapless at first but by the end, she was taking out mercenaries like Nathan Drake. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft was a bit of an obsessed and selfish jerk who deliberately put her friend and others in danger in order to obtain the “Divine Source”. She even convinced herself that she was doing the right thing if she liberated the Divine Source and relieved the natives from the burden of defending it. Lara ultimately did the right thing but not before doing everything in her power to become very unlikable in my books.

The gameplay loop didn’t change much from what I recall of the last game. There were comparatively cinematic firefights, chases, and climbs broken up by larger open spaces for Lara to explore. These open spaces featured the hunting, gathering, crafting, and fetch quests that one would expect. Some fit the context of story well, while others required a long suspension of disbelief. Tombs were also unearthed in these spaces but this time they were a bit more elaborate and challenging compared to those of the last game.

Thankfully, Rise of the Tomb Raider was not as gruesome as its predecessor. Lara was still brutal with her executions but her deaths weren’t so wince inducing. It was unnecessary in their pursuit of grittiness. She still has a violent rage to her but at least, it matched her gruffer demeanor, this time around.

I played this game on the Xbox One X courtesy of Xbox Game Pass. The game looked very impressive with solid performance  early on but as soon as I stepped foot into the Geothermal Valley, the framerate suffered. I played it on the Digital Foundry recommended “Enriched 4K” mode and I was none too pleased by that experience. I would have preferred if they focused on getting the framerate to lock at 30 FPS. Rise of the Tomb Raider was supposed to be one of the Xbox One X showcase games and watching the game struggle was disappointing.

I continued to compare Rise of the Tomb Raider to the Uncharted series – I cannot help it. I played Uncharted 4 and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy before tackling Rise of the Tomb Raider so my expectations were inflated. I found Lara’s facial animation odd and distracting during dialog exchanges during (what was supposed to be) dramatic sequences.

One of the sillier aspects of these Tomb Raider games were the rewards. Lara found modern weapon parts deep in caves and knowledge to improve her survivability in texts at the end of tombs. I understand the desire to loop gameplay rewards into collectibles but at least try to make some sense of it. I also found the idea of her slaying half a dozen bears, wolves, and other wildlife to improve her equipment to be extreme. I felt they were stretching the survival angle thin in this game; it didn’t feel necessary once she met up with others.

Lara Croft was at her best doing what she was known to do and that was raiding tombs, solving puzzles, and occasionally fending off mercenaries and vicious animals. When she was interacting with other humans or skinning animals for their furs? I wish it was better realized.

Verdict:
It was okay

Ratings Guide

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