Monday, December 27, 2010

Review: The Void (PC)

The Void was developed by Ice-Pick Lodge and originally released 2008 in Russia followed by an international release in 2009. The game is probably best described as an resource management action-adventure with a heavy focus on artistic expression. While the game shares elements with games like Myst or Flower, it really is quite a different beast.

The game puts the player into a role of a lost soul that hangs somewhere between life and death in a place called the Void. The players tasks is it to collect color that grows the Void and then use it to fight enemies or unlock further areas with the ultimate goal to escape the Void.

Game Mechanics

The game is split into two parts. One is an overworld map on which one travels from realm to realm, this is somewhat reminiscent of games such as Super Mario Bros 3. The other part are the realms themselves, these are small self containing locations through which one navigates in first person view with regular first person controls. Gameplay in those areas is mostly focused on exploration and collecting colors, while enemies are sometimes present in those areas, they aren't the core focus and for most part it is best to simply avoid them instead of fighting. What makes The Void "special" is the way in which color is handled. Color is neither an ever growing resource or a collectible, instead it is a very rare resource that has to be managed by the player with care and that is required for all basic actions in the game. Color builds both the basis for the players survival, as it becomes essentially your lifebar as well as your ammunition when it comes to fighting enemies. Color comes in two forms, the unprocessed Lympha that one can carry around or use in ones hearts to keep one alive and the processes Nerva that is used as fuel for your glyph drawing. Nerva in the hearts get automatically converted into Lympha when on the worldmap, which has the side effect of constantly draining your life energy. Keeping a healthy balance between Lympha and Nerva is one of the core aspects of the game. By filling trees with color the player is able to grow the amount of color available, but as trees only return color at the end of an cycle, the player thus risks running short of color in the meantime.

The world of The Void also contains two faction of inhabitants, the brothers and the sisters. The brothers will wander around on the worldmap and try to steal color from the players garden when they can, but they are not a direct enemy, they see the player as their apprentice and will give him tasks and comment on his actions. Some will gain mistrust later in the game and challenge the player for a fight, while others will become a mentor. The sisters each have an area of their own on the worldmap, neighboring areas will stay locked until a sister heart has been filled with enough color. This happens in two stages, the first heart will unlock the regular realms next to her, while the second heart will unlock the path to the next sister, thus unlocking all of the worldmap over the course of the game.

The goal of the game is to harvest enough color to either free oneself from the Void, free a sister or join the brothers. While one is free to chose which route to take and which sister to free, the game only allows a limited amount of actual freedom as progress throughout the game is tied to specific the cycle, of which there are 35 in the game. A cycle is a unit of time that passes while on the worldmap, inside the realms themselves time is halted and doesn't progress. While waiting for the next story event to happen the player has to collect enough color to survive and prepare for that event.

Collectible color in the realms of the Void comes in multiple forms. The most simple one are small plans scattered throughout the world, these can be harvested with a simple mouse click. Another way to harvest color is by catching small creatures crawling around on the ground, these creatures will run away when one gets to close, but one can lure them in by dropping a bit of color onto the ground. Both of those are the main way to get color at the beginning of the game. Later on the main way to get color is to give color to a tree. A tree that has been filled with color will blossom with color in the next cycle and a few cycles after that, providing you with a return on your investment.

Interaction with the game world happens via mouse gestures. By holding down Ctrl the game will open up a palette of color and allow to draw strokes to the screen. Simple random strokes can be used to throw a blow at an enemy or to activate an object or character. Gestured, called glyphs here and acquired by collecting the 21 hearts in the game, allow to provide more powerful special attacks or to cast shields for protection. The by far most frequently used glyph in the game is the donor glyph, basically the shape of an alpha, that will allow the player to drop color to the ground to lure little creatures, give color to one of the sisters or give color to a tree. Most of the other glyphs stay unused throughout most of the game and only get important in the fights against the brothers. The color that is chosen from the palette only matters when giving color to a sister, a tree or fighting one of the brothers, for regular enemies the color used for a stroke doesn't seem to make a difference.

Where the color of the Nerva however matters is in the hearts. Filling the hearts with green will give better protection in fights, filling it with purple will allow to fill a tree using less color and gold will reduce the amount of color needed to give to a sister. As colors in the hearts get converted to Lympha and thus can no longer be used in the hearts, it is important to properly manage which color is in the heart and which is stored away in the normal containers.

The game does allow to save anywhere and anytime on the worldmap, but doesn't allow to save within a realm. Quicksave and quickload are provided as well.

Artistry

Where The Void really shines is in its artistry. The game is beautiful in basically every way. Starting from the main menu down to the tiniest corner of a realm. The interaction and contrast between the dark and moody backgrounds with the colorful Nerva is fantastic and seeing a once lifeless garden blossom with color is just beautiful to look at. The game doesn't constrain itself to a consistent world, instead each of the realms follows its own surrealistic theme, going anywhere from dark caves to abandoned houses. The background music and atmospheric effects underline the moody atmosphere of the game and help to give each of the realms depth. This is also one of those rare cases where the voice acting isn't just competent, but genuinely great across the board, putting a lot of the bigger budget titles to shame and again underlining the dreamy and moody atmosphere that the game creates.



Problems

The biggest issue with The Void is that it is borderline unplayable, not in a buggy or technical sense, I didn't run into any critical bugs and technically the fantastic graphics work smoothly even on older hardware. No, where The Void fails is in its punishing game mechanics. These days we are used to have games that tutor us into every detail, making it impossible to fail or do something wrong and even when one screws up one always has a reset point just a few meters away. The Void is different. While its game mechanics are not that complex, the game often only gives vague hints as to how one has to use them, thus making important details easy to miss and it doesn't shy away from letting the player just flat out run into an unsolvable dead end that might require to replay multiple hours of previous gameplay.

I went into The Void essentially expecting a Myst like adventure game and played it that way for the first hour. In that first hour I didn't run into any issues at all. The game didn't feel hard or complicated. I collected a bit of color here, planted a bit of color there and everything seemed fine and dandy. I excepted the game to slowly coach me into the details of its mechanics, except that didn't happen, instead I died without even a hint at what was going on. One moment I was walking around on the worldmap, the next the Game Over sequence played before my eyes. So I reloaded from an earlier save and tried again and died again. Still rather clueless as to what the hell was going on. I don't think I have ever seen a single game let you run so blindly into your death.

Reading through the 30 page manual and through this walkthrough cleared things up a bit. What had happened was that I ran out of Nerva in my hearts. The color you collect isn't automatically transferred to your hearts, thus you have to take extra care of managing that there is always some color in there. What makes this especially problematic is that you run out of color in your hearts extremely quickly. When you are in a realm everything is fine, the color in your heart becomes a regular energy bar that only goes down when enemies attack you and there aren't many in the first hour of the game, but on the worldmap time ticks away and with each seconds on the worldmap Nerva will get converted to Lympha, thus essentially reducing your lifebar. This process goes so far that just standing around on the worldmap without doing anything will kill you in just a minute.

Another big issue is that the game doesn't tell you what a color does until after it is already to late. If you want to give color to a tree you have to have purple in your hearts or else you will waste a lot of color. Same when you give color to a sisters, if you don't have gold in your heart you will waste color. The game does tell you that, but only after you already wasted a lot of color. The game also doesn't give you a second chance, if you don't fill a tree full with all the color you can on the first try, the game won't give you another chance to fill the tree for another few cycles and a cycle can easily be an hour of gameplay. Thus it is extremely easy to navigate into a position where there is simply have no color left to harvest in the world, no garden with unused trees where one can grow more color and facing a fight against a brother for which one need all the color you can get.

This is basically what happened on my second try, I restarted from scratch and followed the advice from the walkthrough and the manual, filled trees properly with colors, kept a more close eye on my hearts and managed everything a little better. This again worked just fine for some four hours of gameplay, until I failed to fulfill a task one of the brothers had given me. I didn't realize that the task the brothers give you aren't optional, at least not at this point in the game, so due to not fulfilling the task I had to fight that brother, which at this point was simply impossible to accomplish. I didn't have remotely enough color to do that and there was no way to acquire it in time. The only way to fix that situation was to go back to an earlier savegame and change the way I collected color. At this point I was really close to just give up on the game.

What changed my mind was for one simply the great atmosphere of the game, at this point I only saw a small fraction of the game and I wanted to see more. I also wasn't exactly alone in suffering through those issues and somebody already created an Easy Patch (Easy) for that game, which I promptly installed. Technical note: Users of non-English versions of the game need to delete the Properties/Strings/ subdirectory of the patch or else it will screw up the subtitles and dialog timing.

So with the Easy Patch installed I went back to an earlier savegame and continued from there. With that patch installed the game became much more manageable, but it didn't actually become easy, as all the micromanagement of colors in the hearts was still there. The patch also didn't give endless amounts of colors, I still was short of color basically throughout most of the game, but there was always enough to get the next task done and with the patch and the knowledge gained till then I didn't ran into any more dead ends.

I think the by far biggest issue of the game is the way the worldmap is handled. Playing in the realms itself is actually quite fine, in there you don't have a time limit to worry about and you can simply go along at your own pace. In those places the game can feel quite similar to Flower, as it is about the collection and spread of color, not about the fight against monsters. But on the worldmap you are under constant time pressure, so much in fact that even with the easy patch I would call the game flat out impossible to play in a regular manner.

The way I ended up playing was basically like this: Whenever I left a realm and got back to the worldmap I instantly hit the quicksave button, trying to not even waste a single second. Once saved, I went around in the world, looking for places where there was color to collect (displayed when you hover over a realm with your mouse) or where there was a sister to which I could go to unlock further parts of the worldmap. Once I figured out what I wanted to do I hit restored the earlier save and only then actually executed what I wanted to do, as quickly as possible. The reason for this is that every second on the worldmap counts, it is not only that the energy bar goes down quickly, but the main issue is that new colors only comes into the world only when a new cycle starts. This means that one can easily miss a whole cycle when one doesn't manage to fill a garden with color before the end of a cycle and that lack of color might prove fatal in a later fight. There are also only 35 cycles throughout the whole game, so wasting a single one of those can already get problematic.

Conclusion

Overall I don't think I have ever played a game that was so beautiful and yet so frustrating at the same time. Even after I was past the point of initial confusion and understood how the game was supposed to be played, it still felt like the game mechanics where just to messed up, not by technical inadequacies or lack of development time, but by design. Forcing the player on a strict time limit and only giving him small amounts of resources, that when mismanaged can screw him up hours later on in the game can be highly frustrating. What makes the matters worse in this game, then say a regular RTS, is that the effects here are not local to your current mission, they are global to the whole game. Small mistakes in the beginning can screw you up really bad later on and you won't even get a hint that you did something wrong unless its to late. What is especially problematic here is that the game never fells hard. There wasn't a single situation in the whole game that I would have considered hard in the classical sense, in fact most of it is rather relaxing, trying to lure the little creatures in with a bit of color can be a lot of fun and dodging bigger enemies is never very difficult. What makes the game hard is that you can easily run into dead ends with no way out. Color is your only way to fight enemies and when you run out of color while in a fight against a brother you simply will die, as there is no way out of that situation, no way to harvest more color and basically nothing one can do. Those fights don't just become hard, they become impossible when you don't have enough color.

Far to often the game basically expects you to prepare for an event that will only happen a few cycles down the road, without even giving you a hint that you need to prepare. I frequently found myself just fast-forwarding through the cycles to find out what will happen, only to then go back to an earlier save to prepare for that future event. A walkthrough will help here a bit, but as the game contains quite a number of randomized events it can't really tell you exactly what you will need to do. The Easy Patch will make it easier to get yourself prepared for a fight, but it still requires you to take care of the micromanagement of your colors.

Another issue with the game is that becomes quite repetitive later on. Seeing a garden blossom the first time around is beautiful, seeing it the tens time it becomes kind of routine. Some of the gardens also seem to be copy&paste of earlier gardens in the game with only minor variations. And the whole collection of color kind of becomes a grind, as one will have seen everything there is to see in the game quite a few cycles before the end.

In terms of story the game always stays rather abstract and always limited to the Void, so one never really learns what is really going on or how one got there in the first place. The ending is basically exactly what one expects it to be without any big surprise or grand finale. One thing I found a bit of puzzling are the sequences where one chase a ghost girl around rooftops. These sequences happen at specific points in time in the game, without any triggering action from the players side. One can't really get or learn anything in those sequences and stylistically they look a good bit more realistic then the rest of the game. The identity or purpose of that ghost girl is never revealed and it doesn't really integrate much with the rest of the story, which happens to be mostly about the conflict and power struggle between the brothers and sisters in the Void.

For anybody willing to try the game I would strongly recommend to study the manual, read a walkthrough and to go with the easy patch. Those won't remove some trial and error, but they should keep the game manageable and enjoyable. One can even go a step further and outright cheat by using the build in console, while I didn't found that to be necessary, it should allow to skip some of the grinding later on in the end and allow to escape some dead ends.

In the end this is a great game, a deeply flawed one, but a flawed one that still managed to pull me in with its atmosphere and beauty. The game took me around 28 hours to complete, I applied the easy patch around five hours in and restarted twice. Even when you are past the initial hurdles and understand how you are supposed to play the game, it still doesn't fully click as the quickload/quicksave on the worldmap and the grind is certainly annoying. The game also doesn't really offer a lot new stuff later on in the game. But even with those faults, the atmosphere in this game is simply fantastic and the game is definitively worth a look, but it is also a game that one has to be approached with care.

No comments: