Friday, 24 November 2017

Outlast - Review

Developer: Red Barrels
Publisher: Red Barrels
Platforms: Linux, PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

[Note: I've written reviews for various sites over the years and, inevitably, things get removed, disappear or generally vanish into the deep spaces of the interwebs. I figured some of those pieces could be put to better use up here on the site. So, voila, every now and then you'll see something I wrote for somewhere else.]

There is a school of thought within horror film theory that the rise of the found-footage genre is a direct response to the growing popularity of video games. After all, how could horror films compete with the terrifying experience of actually being chased by a monster? Games didn't just let you watch horrible things happen, they made you a part of it. Hence the need for a first-person perspective within a horror film.

Outlast sees this idea go full-circle with the main character armed not with a gun, but with a humble HD camera and a couple of spare batteries. The most prevalent theme within modern survival horror has been the quest to disempower the player character as much as possible; harkening back not only to Frictional Games' Amnesia and Penumbra series but also earlier, to the likes of Clock Tower.

Playing as oddly-named journalist Miles Upshur, the game has you investigating Mount Massive Asylum, a mental-health institute that has long been associated with patient abuse and MKUltra-type experiments. It's classic pulpy horror and story-wise the game is effectively an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's From Beyond short story, albeit with a healthy dollop of other influences thrown in.

However, it's not necessarily the plot that makes Outlast so compelling but the tangible, crushing atmosphere that hangs over the entire asylum. Creeping about, with the night-vision setting on your camera being the only way to peer into the darkness, Outlast's best scares are those that result from you psyching yourself out.

Of course, the monsters that stalk the asylum's halls are pretty unsettling too. The chunky, mutant humans are a slight disappointment after the incredibly unsettling opening segment. Whilst they're certainly going to give you a fright, there's none of the terrifying "what the hell is that" moments that you get from say, classic Silent Hill.

In a surprise turn, not all the characters you encounter in Outlast are a threat. Many people, despite suffering from some mysterious illness that has left their flesh hideously disfigured, are still happy to talk to Miles and in some cases even offer him help. It's here that developer Red Barrels manage to play with your expectations; by not making every figure immediately hostile, you never know when the game is going to pull the rug out from under your feet.

And be prepared to have that rug pulled a hell of a lot. Outlast is a game built on its ability to make you jump, sometimes when you genuinely least expect it. Since you're unable to fight enemies, much like in Amnesia your only solution is to run and hide until the horrible thing(s) chasing you give up. Scrambling underneath a filthy, rusted bed while a knife-wielding freak stalks the corridor nearby will have you craning the view has far as possible in order to keep track of where he is, your heart still racing even when he's wandered off to check somewhere else.

Every area of the game is essentially a slightly different spin on these hide and seek mechanics. Exploring Mount Massive Asylum is enjoyable in itself however. Picking up medical documents will shine some light and what seems to have gone off here and the frantic bloodied scrawls and terrified mutterings of some of its more lucid patients allows you to steadily piece together bits of the story.

Whilst the Lovecraft influence is obvious, there's also a strong influence of Clive Barker nestled in there, especially in some of the character designs, along with a strong nod to various horror films from Saw all the way to Jacob's Ladder.

Outlast's biggest problem is arguably the fact that it's most eager fans; the people craving for the abundance of horror games that came out in the late '90s, are likely the ones that are going to be most disappointed, or at the very least, the least likely to be scared.

It's quite easy for those that regularly play video games to notice the chinks in Outlast's armour. The boxes that you have to occasionally have to squeeze through aren't there just for the sake of a different animation, but so that the enemy's A.I. path-finding can't follow you too far. Likewise, picking up a quest-related item is bound to cause something to jump out, and it does. Every single time. So you're always prepared for it.

Outlast is effectively an interactive thrill-ride and the minute you begin to see the strings attached and begin second-guessing the developers its power to scare you quickly wanes. There's also the problem that the enemy designs simply aren't varied enough, eventually one rotting naked man, begins to look like every other rotting naked man.

This isn't to say that Outlast fails in what it sets out to do. Throughout its four to five hour runtime it maintains a remarkable feeling of tension and its level design alone puts many bigger budget games to shame. Likewise, the limited mechanics which amount to just running and hiding manage to remain engaging for far longer that you'd expect them to. Again, the design of the asylum manages to ensure that each encounter feels unique and unsettling in different ways, challenging players to remember their surroundings and make note of potential hiding places and dead-ends.

With the first batch of DLC content being released in April we're certainly not finished with the mystery that surrounds Mount Massive Asylum. Hopefully, this episode will shed some more light on the game's rather ambiguous ending, and more importantly provide us with some more nerve-jangling scares.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Sexy Brutale - Review

Developer: Cavalier Game Studios/Tequila Works
Publisher: Tequila Works
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Switch, Xbox One 

A puzzle game doesn’t have to be complex or even all that difficult to necessarily be fun. The Sexy Brutale is a perfect example of that.

Messing around with Groundhog Day-time loops is nothing new for video games, and indeed, the basic gameplay in The Sexy Brutale is nothing new or overwhelmingly original, but it is well executed.

The game effectively plays out as a series of “anti-hitman” puzzles, as you go about exploring the Sexy Brutale casino and attempting to undo the mysterious murders that take place there. Characters roam about the casino on a strict timetable, turning up in certain rooms at specific times of day. Given the game’s time travelling concept, you’ll quickly be “killed” (i.e. forced to start the day over) should you linger too long in a room with another guest, or when the entirety of a day has passed.

It makes it so the basic fun of The Sexy Brutale is about pinning down who is where at what time. An early encounter involves stopping two murders at once; a blind singer and her gambling-addicted husband. The singer gets gobbled up by a giant spider, whilst the husband gets poison added to his last round of drinks. It’s your job to make sure the husband doesn’t get poisoned, and also figures out what’s happened to his wife before it’s too late. Like with any game about people being assassinated, whether you be the one stopping the assassination or carrying it out, there’s a weird, morbid thrill about preventing these elaborate and bizarre crimes.

In part, this is thanks to the game’s gorgeous art style. It’s reminiscent of Viewtiful Joe; squat characters with giant heads and exaggerated faces. The casino opens up almost like a little toy set-piece, the camera almost firmly stuck above the action as if you’re hovering above and peering down at it.

Whilst the basic gameplay is a case of working out routes, solving a few puzzles by using item A with item B, there’s a steady trickle of additional abilities rolled out across the game’s svelte runtime to keep things from becoming stale. Each mask you acquire from rescuing one of the casino’s inhabitants imparts a new ability, such as improved hearing or the ability to shatter glass with your voice. This means the casino opens up in a logical fashion, with areas gated off until you’ve acquired a new ability by solving whatever murder is next on your list.

By doing so the developers manage player progression and reduce frustration. Rarely is there an area or encounter where things are too vague or cryptic to solve. The game world expands with each murder prevented, but never growing to the point where it becomes overwhelming.

In fact, if The Sexy Brutale has any major problem it’s perhaps that it’s too simple for too long. Anyone brought up on classic adventure games or survival horror titles will likely find the challenges here surprisingly simple, even when the game gears up for the climax. In one sense, this could be a criticism, but by keeping the game’s mechanics bare bones and instead focusing on the look and style of its world, The Sexy Brutale pitches itself as a game that just about anyone can enjoy, regardless of their knack for puzzles.

That being said, it feels as if something more could have been done with the game’s plot. It’s not terrible, but when the focus of the game is on basic puzzles, and you have an interesting world that has a funky, unique sense of style, the writing would have helped bring it together for the finishing touches.

Instead, the end game is somewhat disappointing. After slow-rolling its weird mystery throughout the rest of the game, the finale quickly tries to ape Undertale without any of the necessary character work or set-up to make that kind of thread pay off. It means that the story, while enjoyable enough, is slight and threadbare; fun whilst it’s unfolding but forgettable once it finishes.

That’s something that could summarise the whole of The Sexy Brutale come to think of it. Everything here works seamlessly; it’s fun, charming, fascinating to play and, hell, simply watch the game world hum along, and it paces itself perfectly through its short runtime. The only gripe is that it ends without much impression, once the credits roll, there’s little reason to return, and its writing and characters don’t leave you with enough impact to feel as if that was the point. A handful of collectibles and notes give completionists something to hunt after, but there’s hardly a great incentive to go rooting around for anything that’s not on the main path.

The Sexy Brutale is a fascinating, intricate little clockwork puzzle of a game. It’s well worth spending time with, just with the acknowledgement that, when it’s all over, it’s a case of having more style than substance.