Well, the Summer gaming drought is finally beginning to reach its end, what with Destiny coming out next week and, you know, the general end of Summer going on. Things were a tad scarce for more high-profile releases, of course, but we were thankfully able to piece together an offering of titles from the past month that could either be worshiped as saviors in these trying times or end up getting sacrificed to the gaming gods in hopes of much better games. So let's see what we had to work with...
I was pretty disappointed that my first ever review of a mobile game here last month was for a mediocre endless runner based on Sharknado. Even more disappointed was when I peeked out of the corner of eye and saw an iOS game released last month that people were fawning over more, 80 Days. And you know what they say: If all of your peers are doing it, why don't you join in as well?
So I did join in, and you know what? The game kicked ass! So suck it, Reagan-era anti-drug messages!
As the name might imply, 80 Days is actually an adaptation of Jules Verne's classic novel Around the World in Eighty Days, taking place in 1872 with the player taking on the role of French valet Passepartout as he helps assist his employer Phileas Fogg with his wager of being able to trot around the globe in a limited amount of time. Also, I admit that my only experience with the story may come from Three Stooges adaptations, but the original story took place in an alternate steampunk universe, right? Because this game has that as well.
And notably, 80 Days lives up to its novel-based roots by putting a huge emphasis on story. I'm almost tempted to compare the whole thing to a visual novels and Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks, since practically every action you make in the game leads to a decision to make between multiple choices on what route to take, where to go in towns, what action to take and how to react, etc., with story told entirely through text instead of cinematics. And the end result does indeed feel like you're crafting your own epic adventure as you journey through 150 cities.
The game tends to hammer in the traditional message that the journey is more important than the destination, supported by all the moments you can talk with Fogg and realize that this isn't about the wager to him, but rather that he just wanted something more out of life. A clichéd message, possibly, but helped out by making the journey pretty damn exciting! In the course of one trip I was kidnapped by sentient steampunk machines who wanted me to help them in their cause, caught in a drowning ship after a mutiny I failed to prevent, and found myself in an impromptu boxing match, among countless other things. The writing really does bring each setting and the twists they have in this new universe to life, and even the simple images of various backgrounds, vehicle designs, and character portraits drawn in a gorgeous style help bring the settings to life, along with appropriate little tunes and sound effects for each new city.
The gameplay is simple yet perfect, the type of game where it really does feel like every choice you make has an effect on the game as a whole. You have to wisely choose how to spend Fogg's funds, be it on which route to take or what to buy at the market. And even then, you're faced with limited luggage space on each voyage, so you have to manage whatever items you take carefully. Do you bring along the rifle that you can sell for a hefty sum in another market two cities over, or a seafarer's outfit that could be used for bargaining with ship captain to leave earlier and quicker later on? Do you immediately go to catch the first flight out of the city, or do you spend a few hours exploring the city first to possibly discover info that reveals alternate routes or ends up getting your pocket picked? Do you spend a few days waiting for the local bank to wire you more money, or do just purge ahead and find yourself on the street dancing for nickels in order to fund a camel ride? When discussing travel routes with other passengers on a long voyage, what do you inquire about? Or will you just tend to Fogg and strengthen your relationship? Will you have Passepartout make sweet, sweet love to another man or...well, best not to give away everything. There's a lot of strategy involved, is my point, and you still have to think quick because the voyage's clock is ticking, making for a challenging, simple, and fun experience.
Now, you may be thinking "Okay, so why care about the story? I'll just ignore it, manage my supplies and finish this as quickly as possible!" at which point the game goes "WROOOONG!!!" and swats you upside the head. See, paying attention to your surroundings is another key element to 80 Days. At one point, I had planned out the route I had wanted to take well in advance, only for a passenger during the trip to tell me that one of the cities in my path had experienced an outbreak of cholera, so I should be careful. I dismissed it as mere window dressing and went ahead anyways, and upon arriving in said city, Fogg quickly contracted cholera and we had to wait several days and spend a bit of cash while he recovered, during which time I pondered making a little dunce cap for myself.
The story also affects the gameplay as well, since helping out characters involved in various ongoing conflicts or clandestine operations results in opportunities for shortcuts and more cash at the risk of your decisions possibly biting you in the ass. Even just talking to passengers reveals what various items you can purchase for cheap that will be quite valuable in more distant lands. So yes, not only does the story put an emphasis on the overall journey, but incorporates it nicely into the gameplay as well.
Any flaws? Well, while the map screen does a nice job of showing you your current routes available and uniquely showing you other players on their voyage at the moment, hinting at other notable routes to discover, navigating it can be a tad frustrating at times, especially when having to scale the map using a touch screen, which results in some awkwardness. But not as awkward as managing your luggage, let me tell you. At one point I had to get on a train leaving in a few moments, but we had four pieces of luggage and I only bribe the conductor into accepting three pieces of luggage, max. So I jettisoned a few items to make room, but as the luggage works like in Resident Evil 4 where each object takes up so much room, and the game couldn't automatically compact everything I had back into three remaining bags, I had to move items from one case into the other three manually. Except touching and dragging didn't seem to work, so I spent all my time trying to play a little game of Twister with my fingers in the hopes that something would happen. It didn't, and the train left without us. It wasn't until a few in-game days later that I learned you have to touch an object, hold it in that position for about a second or two, and then you're allowed to move it to another suitcase. Ah yes, because clearly it was so obvious. Thanks for not explaining it, game!
But those are really just petty niggles in an otherwise stellar game. 80 Days is a terrific piece of work and one of the year's best portable games so far, and is definitely a trip worth taking several times over (with each session lasting about an hour or so). Just remember to pack some heavy medication at times.
They say you can never judge a book by its cover, but upon seeing Eidolon, its minimalistic presentation, and its description in the Steam store saying that "It is a game about history, curiosity, interconnectedness, and the slow and inevitable beauty of life.", my initial thoughts were divided between "This is going to be an incredibly moving, powerful experience" and "This is going to be one pretentious piece of s***". In the end, it was neither, although thankfully leading more towards the former.
Eidolon can be described as a survival sim/exploration-based adventure game hybrid, plunking your character into the wrecked remains of Northern Washington circa the early 25th century, ages after a major disaster has taken place and nature has started to reclaim everything. What you do from this point outward is up to you, so wanting to carve my own story, I headed up into the mountains to seek my own path and discover just what had happened...where I prompted to immediately get lost amongst acres and acres of identical-looking trees, started to die from the cold after wandering into the snowy mountaintops, and eventually found myself actually falling off the side of the game's map, slowly dying in a blank void as the world floated above me.
Needless to say, it wasn't exactly the greatest first impression.
In retrospect, this was easily due to Eidolon's tendency to dump you into the game without explaining most of the mechanics and rules, as is the current norm for survival games. And after starting my second playthrough, I began to experiment more and get a feel for things. The survival mechanics are thankfully simple and never felt annoying. You pick up food and eat food when the game indicates you're hungry, you pick up wood and build fires when it indicates you're cold, easy-peasy. Things really started to get going when I found my first landmark and gained the binoculars, which led me to spot the next area I would travel to, where I would find the fishing rod and a river I followed, leading me to discover a compass and my first map slightly off the beaten path.
From there I was finally able to decode the locations of more landmarks and set off towards them, and this is where I discovered that a lot of Eidolon is a game of patience. Hoofing it on foot through constant forests at first got a bit annoying at first (the auto-run button will be your best friend here), but it eventually paid off once I found myself on a ruined highway leading to the skeletal remains of several skyscrapers, impressive sights and scenery all around me (this particular style of art definitely having its moments) as I combed the wreckage for documents detailing what exactly had happened, leading to tales of mad cults, brutality, and survival plans gone horribly wrong, in obvious contrast to the now-serene wilderness all around it. Truly I was now getting into the game more than ever and wait, hold on a second, did my game just freeze up?? OH, FFFFF...
Yeah, the fact that Eidolon tends to be a a tad buggy and feel a little unpolished at times doesn't exactly help. Brief freezes would happen on occasion, along with visits from pop-in textures and the tendency to briefly have me clip through the bottom of the map at times, usually when navigating more rocky terrain and hills. The rules when it comes to survival can also get a bit odd now and then, such as the fact that your character has weird ideas when it comes to conserving food. When it comes to the fish you catch, just one is apparently enough to quell your stomach for a while, but then you go to consume the wild mushrooms you pick as well and you end up chugging down thirty or so of them to equal what one fish did for you. Then there was a moment where I fell off a ranger station and found myself with a wound that affected my character and just wouldn't go away, but later I fell down a particularly steep hill and gained two more wounds...which just ended up healing themselves after a certain amount of time while the original wound still lingered. I understand letting us fend for ourselves, but either add a little more consistency or explain the rules a tad more, is all I'm sayin'.
But in the end, I can still say that I mostly enjoyed Eidolon. If you're patient and able to overcome its flaws, you may indeed discover an engaging little bit of wilderness survival (although you may argue whether or not it warrants a $15 price tag). Just be prepared to pick and scarf down enough mushrooms to rival an entire crowd at a Phish concert.
MIND: Path to Thalamus
MIND: Path to Thalamus is a game about - shockingly enough - exploring someone's mind and going on a journey that helps them sort out their various issues. Now typically, my initial reaction is to immediately turn giddy over any game whose premise I can even remotely compare to Psychonauts, so I immediately jumped on this. What did I wind up with? A solid first-person puzzler that did indeed end up surprising me in a few parts.
The premise of MIND is that you are a storm chaser named...eh, I don't remember him ever being given a name, so let's just call him Mr. Tickles, attempting to deal with the tragedy involving a storm chasing incident that took his young Sophia from him and that he feels responsible for by taking a journey through his own mind to a legendary tree known as the Thalamus, which will supposedly allow him to confront his issues and make peace with Sophia. As it turns out, though, a storm chaser's mind has weather on the brain quite a lot, and so said journey involves you having to help Mr. Tickles navigate a series of puzzles and obstacles that all involve manipulating the weather and the environment around you. Dropping orbs provided into specific areas causes day to turn into night and opens portals that lead you to new areas, changing the seasons and causing time to turn backwards and restore bits of architecture and obstacles or cause them to disappear, cause a sudden rain that makes platforms rise up, etc. It definitely allows for a lot of clever puzzles that makes you use both clever thinking and quick timing throughout the game, even if the puzzle difficulty can seem a tad inconsistent at times. One level can be a bit of a brain-teaser, and the next fairly straightforward and not requiring more than simple exploration, but I can't say the shifts in difficulty never reached any levels of annoyance.
So what did get annoying? Well, certainly not the graphics. Unsurprisingly, a game revolving around weather effects and a journey through various landscapes showcasing different parts of nature is flippin' gorgeous indeed, with several creative surreal bits added in for good measure, not to mention a particular boss fight of sorts that took my breath away a bit. Again, the world created in Mr. Tickles' mind is quite a sight to behold indeed...which makes it a shame whenever I actually had to solve a puzzle in it, which required carrying a large orb around to the areas that alter the environment, thus ensuring that I had what looked like a giant thorny beach ball blocking about a third of my view of the scenery several times. Although the orb also had a tendency to fling out of my hands whenever I had bumped against anything while carrying it, swung around too hard, stepped out of a creek, coughed, and so forth. It does get awkward at times indeed, and it seems like the only solution was to adjust the video settings, so maybe that was just me.
But then there's also the issue of invisible walls. Yes, that old chestnut. I get that all of the puzzles take place in self-contained areas, but when a puzzle takes place in, say, a vast desert where you can clearly see for miles, it just seems silly. The apex of said silliness being when one puzzle consisted of Mr. Tickles having to manipulate portals in order to find his way around the insurmountable obstacle that was a two-foot-high wooden fence. Throw in the fact that the games also encourages you to explore and find little hidden easter eggs and such, and that's where it moves into being frustrating.
Then there's also the ongoing narrative from Mr. Tickles, which has been taking shots from other critics as well for being too overdramatic, mopey, and annoying (hell, the game's latest patch even mentions fixing the script due to these issues)...and while, yeah, it could come across as trying too hard, I never really found it annoying enough to kill the mood. And without giving away anything, one moment near the end spun this narration around into a bit of genius, potentially even acting as a bit of a meta moment for other gaming narratives like this. Honestly, that moment alone immediately justified any tortured whining Mr. Tickles was letting off throughout everything.
So to sum things up, while MIND can stumble in a few parts and might be a tad on the short side, it's still a very satisfying puzzle game that I would indeed recommend. Just be prepared to potentially develop a hatred of large spherical objects.
So that wraps up another round of reviews, albeit less than last month...due to time constraints, I sadly couldn't fit in any room for Five Nights at Freddy's or Azure Striker Gunvolt (which only came out this weekend), so we'll just save those for Robotic Gaming Monthly #5. Sorry if that's a disappointment, but hopefully traveling back in time to party like it's 1999 now will help make up for it...