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

LTTP: Horizon: Zero Dawn

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I should have played Horizon: Zero Dawn before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I know they have very little in common outside of the fact that they’re both giant open world games but Nintendo made some transcendent additions that I sorely miss. I can scale many mountains in Horizon by hopping around like a red haired mountain goat but getting down from said heights was laborious. I missed the ability to glide. It’s not fair to expect the ability to scale everything with ease but I found it frustrating having to run around a mountain to seek out this “golden path” of handholds. Simply put, Horizon: Zero Dawn felt limiting for an open world game.

I wish I could look at Guerilla Games’ contribution to the open world genre in a vacuum but I cannot. The game’s map evoked Ubisoft open world games with its flood of icons. They put their own spin on certain elements like towers (they walk in the far flung future) but it’s so structurally similar that I cannot help but feel like Guerillla Games’ and Sony essentially made a first party Ubisoft game. It’s reductive but that’s how I feel about it.

The moment to moment action involved a fair bit of hunting with a bow. There were slingshots with explosives and the occasional chain gun here and there but the bulk of the action stemmed from the use of the bow. It was easy to wield with a generous amount of aim assist. A myriad of quests gave Alloy, the red haired protagonist, numerous opportunities to kill mechanical animals and humans. Going toe-to-toe with the mechanical beasts was engaging but the same cannot be said with the humans. Fighting them was a chore. Some were weirdly tough for humans wearing nothing but cloth and animal pelts.

The sabretooth and T-rex sized machines were formidable foes due to their size, ferocity, and complexity. Their resilience in battle meant I had to be smarter and not necessarily stronger to win. This was achieved through exploiting elemental weaknesses, shooting off component parts, or using the terrain to keep the mechanical beasts at bay. I found the last tactic shockingly easy to abuse and wonder how open world games will curb tactics like this. I felt I was breaking the game.

The main story thread was the reason for me to keep going forward. I was fascinated by the past and the events that lead the world to ruin. I was fascinated by how FARO doomed the world and how Elizabet Sobeck devised a plan to save humanity. There were a number of eyebrow raising moments that made me question the plausibility of events but in the end, I found it to be intriguing enough to suspend disbelief.

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed games have its historic and “present” day stories. I was invested in both narrative halves in those games but I had virtually zero interest in the politics, characters, or problems that did not directly tie to uncovering the past. Carja, Shadow Carja, Sun Kings, and Nora nonsense didn’t register with me after the world opened up. I just couldn’t muster a care in the world for tribal politics when there were giant robots running amok.

The new God of War shared similar limitations with golden paths but they worked within those limitations and didn’t create the illusion of being able to scale everything with a giant open world. I felt every inch of God of War was worth exploring; it felt rewarding and not a waste of time. Horizon: Zero Dawn’s strengths laid with its combat and narrative ambitions and I think they would have been better off scaling down.

Verdict:
It was okay

LTTP: Firewatch (PC)

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I spent a lot of time reading maps, exploring the surrounding wilderness and dealing with the usual public park happenings that would crop up. Rowdy teens? Illegal fireworks? Missing persons? They certainly made it feel like I was working in a giant public park. All these mundane activities were broken up with radio communiques with Delilah, a veteran lookout who acts as a guide at first but slowly develops into a companion for Henry.  

The dialog options gradually evolved from cordial and business like to flirtations. I’m supposed to believe Henry begins to fall for Delilah despite only hearing her voice on the radio. I bought it and believed the possibility of falling for someone in this manner but I wasn’t sympathetic to Henry’s emotional affair. I wasn’t convinced to even consider the flirtatious options. While Delilah sounded like a perfectly nice lady, time progressed in jump cuts and the slow build-up towards a connection was a bit too rapid for me to develop any emotional connection with her. I can see Henry growing that kind of relationship 60+ days into the job in the middle of nowhere but a couple of hours in real time on my couch? I wasn’t sold. 

The precarious nature of the Unity engine also struggled to keep me engaged. I was okay with not being able to run the game at 4K60 on a NVIDIA GeForce GTX1070; I was fine with settling with 1440p60. I was less forgiving of the minor hitching and game’s inability to maintain application focus with Steam Big Picture Mode. I wasn’t too keen on the handful of crashes I experienced either. I felt the entire game’s technological foundation was coming apart at the seams at times.  

I am enamored by Olly Moss’s art so when I heard there was going to be an entire game filled with his touch and style? I paid attention. But pretty scenery and art could only get me so far. What pushed me forward was Delilah and Henry’s conversations. What were they going to talk about next? By only sitting in on snapshots in time, enough loose ends and questions were raised along the way to entice me forward. I may not have bought into the idea of Henry abandoning his wife and falling for Delilah, but I was very curious to discover more about her and her experiences on this job.  

If Firewatch was supposed to make me think about my views on commitment and unconditional love then Camp Santo succeeded. If Firewatch was supposed to engross me in a situation where I’m supposed to develop a relationship with this woman on the radio then it’s a bit dicier. There were beautiful vistas to behold and a genuine believable person on the other side of the radio but unless a person can be convinced to ponder the topic of relationships and commitment, there’s not a whole lot to be gleaned from Firewatch. 

Ratings Guide

Verdict: 
I liked it

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