Friday, December 31, 2010

xboxdrv 0.6.2 released

  • merged Xbox360 guitar handling into the regular Xbox360 controller handling, use --guitar to get the old mapping back
  • added generic event filter framework
  • added toggle button filter
  • added invert button filter
  • added auto fire button filter
  • added log filter for button and axis
  • added invert axis filter
  • added sensitivity axis filter
  • added relative axis filter
  • added response curve axis filter
  • added deadzone axis filter
  • added calibration axis filter
  • added ability to send different events depending on how long a button was pressed
  • added ability to launch a program on button press
  • added ability to replay a macro on a button press
  • added ability to launch a child program from within xboxdrv, making wrapper scripts easier to write without race conditions
  • added --option NAME=VALUE to allow INI-style config options from command line
  • added --evdev-debug to print out all received events from evdev
  • added --evdev-no-grab to avoid a full grab on the event device
  • unified ini and command line parsing some more
  • Mad Catz Xbox controller - MW2 controller support added
  • added support for Xbox1 analog buttons, use --ui-axismap with A, B, X, Y, black, white
  • give proper error message when the Play&Charge kit is used

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.


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.


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.


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.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

xboxdrv 0.6.0 released

  • support for reading from evdev, this allows the use of regular regular PC joysticks or the Playstation 3 controllers with xboxdrv, useful if you need configurability or joy2key-like functionality, but don't have a Xbox360 gamepad
  • added KEY_#num, ABS_#num and REL_#num to allow refering to events by number instead of name
  • support for reading configuration from a INI configuration file
  • cleaned up uinput mapping, --dpad-as-button, --dpad-only, etc. are now simple mappings instead of special case hackery
  • --ui-axismap and --ui-buttonmap now work with all axis and button
  • smooth deadzone handling without jumps
  • added --detach-kernel-driver
  • automatically insert dummy events to make input device register as joystick
  • added ability to have multiple configs running at the same time with --ui-new
  • added shifting to --ui-axismap, allows sending of different events when a shift button is pressed
  • Saitek Cyborg Rumble Pad support added
  • Gamestop Xbox 360 Controller support added

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: Perry Rhodan: The Adventure (PC)

"Perry Rhodan: The Adventure", known in other regions as "The Immortals of Terra" or "Rhodan: Myth of the Illochim", is a 2D point&click adventure for the PC, released in 2008. The game is based on the Perry Rhodan science fiction novel series which has been running in Germany since 1961, knowledge of that series is however not required as the game will provide plenty of background information on the characters and the universe. The game puts the player into the role of Perry Rhodan, who after an attack on the Terran headquarter finds out that his close college Mondra Diamond has been kidnapped and thus goes on a journey to free his friend and unravel the reason behind the kidnapping and thus later on unraveling the mystery behind the ancient race of the Illochim.

Mechanically the game follows closely in the footsteps of other modern point&click adventures. The game uses a single-action interface, where a click on an object will automatically do the right thing. A separate action to look at an object is not provided, except for objects in the inventory, where a right click will bring up a short description. Running is done with a double-click, while quick-travel to another room is accomplished by clicking the right mouse button, made even easier by the small thumbnail that will be shown of the next room when the mouse hovers over an exist. The inventory is presented as a list of items at the bottom of the screen, unless other adventures however here the inventory does not only contains collected objects, but also collected knowledge such as other characters or locations in the game. This little tweak allows the game to work without having a separate dialog interface, as discussions are simply done by using an items of the inventory with another character and thus triggering a short dialog sequence. Dialog can be skipped by sentence by pressing 'space'.

The game does keep track of tasks that need to be completed and general story progress in a very simple but effective log book where each task is summarized by a short sentence or two.

The save system works as usual, but is limited to only seven slots with one additional slot for quick-saves and another one for autosave, while not a big practical problem these days games really should allow an unlimited number of saves.

One mechanical issue with the game is that it doesn't display the name of the object under the mouse cursor, it only changes the mouse cursor to a generic one that indicates interactibility. In addition the game frequently places objects very close together and has hitboxes that sometimes seem overly large, which makes it hard to tell if the game will handle a larger collection as one logical game item or handle each of those objects as a separate item without clicking each of them. A pressing on 'S' will however mark all usable objects in the current scene and thus clear up most of the confusion.

Graphically the adventure is a mix of pre-rendered backgrounds and real-time characters. The backgrounds, especially in the later parts of the game, look extremely pretty. They suffer at times a little from a lack of animation, as only some particle effects and minor things like small rows flying cars are animated, while even things that should be animated, like water, stay completely static. The characters in the game also look very good and are quite a bit more detailed then many other adventure games, featuring good lighting effects and dynamic shadows. In terms of animation however the characters suffer from the same issues as most other adventures these days. The number of animation is very limited and most object interaction is done by generic animation that fails to properly connect to the object. Not much of an issue, as you pretty much get used to it, but some older games such as Broken Sword did a much better job at animation, even so they where hand animated, not 3D characters. The game also lacks a few transition animation when changing rooms. For example entering and starting an elevator just leads to a fade to black, instead of an animation of the elevator accelerating. In terms of art direction the game comes of a little sterile in the beginning, but gets better later on in the game.

The puzzle design in the game is overall very solid. There are a few instances where solving a puzzle will trigger a story event that advances the game, without having the puzzle and the continuation of the story have any direct connection, but those aren't that big of a practical problem. The few cases where an objects is small enough to be easily over looked can be solved by pressing 'S'. The only real issue I had with the puzzles in the game was when Perry Rhodan has to investigate an exhibition about the Illochim at the mid point of the game, that section doesn't really give much of a guidance as to what needs to be done, so there was to much trial&error for my taste. Everything before that section and after it however was lots of fun.

In terms of characters the game feels a little impersonal and distant at times. For example Mondra Diamond, the women that got kidnapped at the beginning of the game, and Perry Rhodan never exchange a single line of dialog with each other throughout the whole game. It is hard to feel for a character whom you don't even really know, except through some text descriptions. Perry Rhodan himself also feels a little cold and uninterested in the things happening around him, maybe that's to be expected from somebody who is 3000 years old, but a little more emotional involvement would have been welcome. Where the game however really shines is in its universe. There are plenty of interesting places to visit, races to talk to and items to interact with. The game is filled with little details and plenty of backstory on the characters. The game never takes itself to serious and while the humor come of as a little wooden, there is certainly some fun to be had. The science fiction in this game doesn't aim for realism, but goes straight into the pulp direction and it also happens to be filled with shear endless amounts of techobabble.

Overall this is a great adventure game. It is technically and mechanically very solid and whatever small issues it might have in its puzzle design and story are easily overcome by the detail filled universe. The wooden humor and technobabble might certainly not be everybody taste, but I had good fun with it. I found the 12 hours it took me to finish the game highly enjoyable. The one small gripe I might have with the game is the ending, while everything that leads up to it is perfectly fine, I kind of missed a longer epilogue. Going out with just a short cutscene doesn't feel right after a long adventure and an important discovery.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Review: Overclocked: A History of Violence (PC)

Overclocked was released in 2007 by the now defunct German developer House of Tales for the PC. This review focuses on the German language version. The point&click psycho thriller adventure puts the player into the role of David McNamara, an ex-army psychiatrist, who is tasked with finding out what happened to five college-aged teens that showed up armed, disoriented, confused and without memory in the New York. The memory of the patient is explored in the game in reverse chronological order, with the player backtracking through scenes from their escape to the cause of their current condition, while David McNamara has to fight with marriage issues and other troubles in the present.

Mechanically the game follows classic point&click adventure mechanics, instead of the nowadays popular single-click interface, a simple pie menu is used that allows you to perform different actions on an object. Usable objects can be highlighted with a press on the space key and the double-click for running and quick-travel is present as well. The discussion system follows a topic based approach. One annoying issue with the dialogs is that there is no way to skip individual sentences, the player can only skip whole dialogs/cutscenes by pressing Escape twice.

The game is presented with a mix of real-time rendered characters and fully animated 2D pre-rendered backgrounds. It also throws in a few camera movements here and there, which isn't seen often in a mixed real-time/pre-rendered presentation. Split screens are used frequently by the game in phone conversations or when McNamara is interrogating one of his patients. The game also makes use of a physics engine and real-time lighting of the pre-rendered backgrounds, however these technical gimmicks, while neat, are used only in two short situations throughout the whole game and one has to wonder why they even bothered with them. The graphics themselves are a bit mixed, while the pre-rendered backgrounds look impressive and show some great looking weather effects, the real-time rendered characters leave a lot to be desired. Especially David McNamara, the main character, looks a little off and some more work in terms of character design and animation would have been welcome. Lip syncing is solid, but given the low detail on the characters, that doesn't really help all that much. The German voice work is overall very good.

The game comes in a 4:3 aspect ratio, without a way to switch to 16:9 or 16:10 modes, unless of course you can live with horrible distortion. This is not unusual for adventure games, but is something that could have been easily avoided here, as the game comes with an unusually huge inventory bar at the bottom of the screen and a large black bar, used for subtitles, at the top, areas that could have been easily dynamically resized to allow play in proper wide-screen aspect ratios.

The camera placement in Overclocked suffers from the same issues as House of Tales previous game, The Moment of Silence, namely the game tries to hard to present a full 3d environment with interesting objects in every direction and this forces the game to violate the 180 degree rule of film making in almost every room. This leaves the player often a bit disoriented even in seemingly trivially small locations. The game doesn't have any maze like structures, so this doesn't ever become much of a practical problem, but its an issue that could have been easily avoided with a little more care done on the location planing.

The load/save interface also tries to be more clever then it should be, presenting the save games as a single photograph where one has to flip via forward and back buttons to reach older saves, an ability to view a list of all saves at once isn't available.

The puzzles in this game are for most part logical and easy to do, as the game focuses on the linear storytelling a lot more then on the free form exploration. Large locations with free form exploration basically don't exist in the game as the player is restricted to only those small parts that belong to the currently discussed repressed memory. The game however has issues with making it clear what the player is tasked to do next. Communication with patient works throughout the game by a simple technique, each discussion with a patient is recorded, a recording of one patient can be played back for another and provides hints for him to further explore his memory, thus providing yet another recording that can be used on yet another patient and thus slowly unraveling the whole story by having discussions with each patient. Which recording one has to play to which patient is however frequently not very clear and it is very easy to lose track of the people that interacted with each other in the memory scene. What makes this situation worse is that going through the routine of going to each patient room and playing back all the recordings made takes a lot of time, thus trial and error isn't really an option. Every now and then the game also requires the player to do something in the hospital before further interaction with a patient is possible, but again it is not always made very clear. At the very end the game also throws a basic code input puzzle at the player, while not difficult in principle, the player has at this point no longer access to the hint giving object and is thus forced to load an earlier save to retrieve the hint if he can't remember it.

Overall Overclocked is easily one of the most exciting adventure games I have played in years. Its unusual focus on a mostly static location for both the main character and the patients and the reverse chronological unraveling of the backstory works extremely well. The issues with losing track of what to do next are certainly annoying and probably the biggest issue I had with the game, but they can easily be worked around with a quick peek at a walkthrough. The games linearity might put off some people, but it didn't bother me at all. The game, talking around eight hours, is also not the longest, but given the tight and focused story that is not really a problem here. The few polishing issue that the game has don't really interfere with the main story telling, as you simply get used to them rather quickly. The games ending is also decent, something not exactly a given when it comes to unraveling mysteries. It is however not perfect, as I would have preferred it to go into a little more detail, instead of solving major plot points with a quick cinematic, but all the major plot points get answered. In the end this simply is a very well done gripping take on interactive storytelling.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Review: Memento Mori (PC)

Memento Mori was released in 2008 for the PC and is a classic point&click adventure. The game puts the player into the roles of Larisa Svetlova, an Interpol art theft specialist, and Maxime Durand, an art forger who was caught, but set free in exchange for offering his talents to the police. The two work together and try to solve the mysterious theft of some paintings and a connections of that theft with an ancient religious cult. This review was done based on the German language version, an additional English language version is not provided on the disc.

The game is presented in full real-time 3D with the gameplay itself following classic 2D point&click conventions. The 3D nature of the graphics is only used for a small handful of puzzles and sometimes to provide a split-screen close up of what the character is currently doing, but stays otherwise completely in the background, with mostly static cameras or only very limited panning movements. The graphics themselves are fine for most part, nothing spectacular, but nothing to ugly either. The characters however could have used a little more detail, they lack in polygons and animation and lip syncing is also basically non-existent. Even in the few pre-rendered cutscenes that the game provides the character models don't look much better. Demand on the graphics card is relatively heavy given the relative simplicity of the graphics, but nothing that a bit of tweaking in the graphics setting couldn't fix.

The controls are typical for today's modern adventure games, a left click will do an context sensitive action (use, pick up, talk to, etc.) while a right click will cause the character to look at an object. A double click will cause the character to run or quick-travel between rooms. Pressing the Tab key will highlight all usable objects in the current room. An unusual addition to the formula is that objects can only be looked at once, after that the object marker disappears and the object becomes a part of the background. This doesn't change the gameplay as important objects can be used multiple times as usual, it simply avoids the repeated phrases that one has already heard.

Object in the inventory and sometimes objects in the environment can be inspected up close in a 3D view. That 3D view can be rotated to uncover things hidden on the backside of an object, in a similar fashion as the first Resident Evil game did.

The dialog interface is one of the weirds parts of this game, instead of the regular dialog trees or topic based discussion, the interface is always limited to three choices "positive", "negative" and "question". While this might sound similar to the moral choice systems presented in modern RPG games, the game hardly ever goes in that direction, most dialog in the game is the usual stuff and often neither of the three choices really makes much sense in the context of the game. Additionally it is also not very clear what the choices actually mean, in some situation they are used as "yes/no" style answers, but in many other they seem to reflect the emotional stance of the character or simply have no real understandable meaning at all. The dialog choice is also bound to a time limit, like in other games such as Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, but that time limit feels meaningless, as it is to long to even matter with only three choices and one is hardly ever presented with a dialog that would require time to put thought into the choice.

The voice work in the game is competent overall, with well known professional speakers, but in large parts a bit flat and emotionless. One noticeable issue is that the voice work lacks any kind of dialect, which given that the game takes place in quite a few different countries across Europe, feels out of place.

The puzzles in the game are pretty much all on the easy side, even without using the Tab key to show hotspots I didn't had any issues getting through the game. In addition a large part of the game isn't so much driven by actual puzzles and exploration one the players side, but by phone calls and email conversations. This can sometimes be a bit confusing as every now and then the player is left without a clear task in already explored terrain only to then receive a phone call in the next room that drives the story forward. Some of the puzzles are also a little uncreative, feeling more like something you would encounter at work then in a game.

The story in Memento Mori feels a bit uneven. It starts out with the characters doing basically their routine every day jobs, which is fine for an introduction, but then fails to really accelerate, as it continues to just plot along without anything to exiting happening. The cutscenes that the game inserts between chapters are also a little weird, as they try to go for a spooky horror feel and manage that for most part reasonably well, but then that feel isn't actually mirrored by the actual game itself, which feels more like your typical lighthearted adventure stuff, except without any attempt at jokes. This only really changes right at the end, where a sudden plot twist mixes things up and lets the story take a more dramatic route, but at that point you are just a few minutes away from seeing the credits role and that just isn't enough for a 10 hour game. The twist at the end, even so obviously derivative, is however well done and helps to give a few weird moments previously in the game some meaning.

The game bolsters itself on the box with providing a dynamic story and eight different endings, but you don't really see much of that in the actual game, as it moves along like your regular linear adventure game. There seem to be two main endings with the rest just being alterations of text and voice overs and which of those you get is decided on your performance on a few puzzles in the game and other things you did or didn't do in the game. However the game doesn't really make clear what is a critical decision and what is not and neither of those seems alter the actual route the story takes, so they don't really add replayability.

Overall Memento Mori is a competent, but in large part unremarkable adventure game. I enjoyed the ending, but too much that came before it was just not very interesting and instead of slowly uncovering a mystery, the game basically uncovered it all at once for you right at the end. Too much of the game felt like filler that really didn't have any meaning for the core story that it tried to tell. Also the game remains in large part very stationary, having the player revisiting old locations again and again, without ever really getting anywhere. The typical adventure feel of going around the world and traveling to interesting locations is mostly missing, even so the story would have given plenty of excuse for doing that.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Review: Myst: Masterpiece Edition (PC)

Myst was released back in 1993 and one of the first games to make use of the CD-ROM, featuring pre-rendered backgrounds and video sequences. It turned out to be one the best selling PC game of it time. The Myst: Masterpiece Edition was released seven years later in 2000, upgrading the graphics from 256 to 24-bit and adding hint system, but leaving the game otherwise unchanged. Another version of the game was released the same year called realMyst, featuring a fully realtime environment instead of pre-rendered graphics. This review is about the Myst: Masterpiece Edition.

The game starts out without a big introduction. The player is dropped on the island called Myst, without an explanation, task or goal. A bit exploration will lead to a short speech from Atrus, a person with the ability to create portals into other worlds in the form of books. The player then learns that something went wrong and that the books have been hidden around the island in save places. Some further hints on the location of said books can be gathered in the central library of Myst and the books themselves are hidden in structures around the island, including a spaceship, a regular ship, a large set of gears and a clock tower. The island itself is rather small, featuring not much more then these structures. The players task is now to unlock each book and travel to the world they are connected to. In these worlds, which themselves are of a similar size to Myst itself, the player has to collect pages which are needed to complete books in the library and thus will unlock the final puzzle.

Graphically the game is presented from a first person perspective. Featuring mostly static backgrounds with very little or no animation. While the graphics certainly show their age, they still manage to create a decent atmosphere thanks to the nice wind and water ambient sounds in the backgrounds. Navigation in the world can however at times be a bit confusing, as the game doesn't provide a proper map or compass and lacks transition animations. Often it isn't very clear if a turn to the left will turn you around 180 degrees are just 90 and thus it is not unusual to step past something or miss a turn.

The interface of the game is extremely minimalistic, all the interaction and navigation in the world happens via the mouse, they keyboard stays unused. The mouse cursor doesn't change when an item is usable and an inventory is not present in this game. The few times where you have to pick up an item and use it, it is handled by changing your mouse cursor to that item. Without the ability drop or store those items it however becomes quite confusing as to what happens when you have grab multiple items at once. One noteworthy tweak to the regular pointing and clicking presented in the adventure genre is that in Myst you are not limited to only clicking things, if you want to pull a leaver you have to click and drag it into the appropriate direction. It is a nice little touch that increases the immersion a good bit.

The save system in Myst is a bit weird, as it doesn't save your exact location, but always drops you back at the start of the given world. Accomplishments in the world are preserved, but one has to walk back to the point from where one left. This isn't much of an issue, as one can quickly travel around in Myst and be back to where one left in often just a few seconds, but it is an irritating thing non the less.

The puzzle design in Myst is often not that great, as the puzzles aren't build around logic or item combination, but instead focus on observation. A typical puzzle in Myst is one where you pull a leaver or push a button and then have to figure out the effect that it had on the world. Cause and effect are often times a few rooms apart, so it can get a little tedious at times to figure out what happened. Puzzles furthermore often come in the form of very basic key/door patterns, you see a code or pattern in one place and have to enter it in another to unlock a door or mechanism. Entering those codes can be a bit tedious and also feels uninspired, as none of the mechanisms in the world really has a purpose other then acting as an convoluted input mechanism for said code. Another annoying issue is that the library you visit in the very beginning of the game contains important hints for puzzles you will see only much later in the game and without an inventory to put those books in, you have to basically transcribe those hints yourself, as you can't reach the library easily when you need to.

The thing that saves puzzle design in the Myst: Masterpiece Edition however is its great hint system. A click at the bottom of the screen will give you access to a map of the island and location specific hints in three levels, going from vague suggestions to basically detailed solution. The hints are written in the style of a person accompanying you on your journey, so they integrate very smoothly into the whole experience without feeling out of place. This removes a lot of the tedious trial and error from the game and make the game easily finishable without falling back to third party walkthroughs. The hint system also provides some of the needed track keeping that the game otherwise fails to provide.

Overall Myst is still a decent game, especially taking its age into account. The Masterpiece Edition, while technically being not much of an improvement over the original, is a much more enjoyable experience then the original due to its hint system. The often lacking feedback on actions and basically non-existent track keeping of the tasks you have already accomplished however pulls the game down quite noticeably. So does the almost non-existent story. While the few bits of dialog you get are nicely delivered, they just aren't enough to give your journey much of a meaning and the ending is kind of a let down. You get another piece of dialog and then just get send back to the island of Myst for some free exploration, which however is pointless at that point, as you have already seen anything of that island already. A proper ending cinematic or even a simple credit roll is missing, giving the ending a very inconclusive feel.

Technical notes: The game frequently crashes when showing the transition animations between the different worlds when playing it in Windows 98. This was solvable by uninstalling QuickTime and then reinstalling the version from the Myst CD.

The Masterpiece Edition also contains a glaring bug: In a note for the final puzzle the word "on" got changed to "off", making the note confusing and unusable, the text provided by the hint system however provides the correct answer.