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Gamers have no shortage of indie games that tap into our love for the 8 and 16-bit eras, but developers rarely seek to emulate the first PlayStation generation, with its grainy textures and polygon-shaped heroes. Humble Hearts has embraced this outdated look with a stealth-based action game that pays homage to Metal Gear Solid. While you could probably count the number of polygons used to construct Never Stop Sneakin’s characters, it’s gameplay is what really needs more detail.
Much like Metal Gear Solid on the original PlayStation, Never Stop Sneakin’ asks players to sneak through a series of secret military bases and avoid the vision cones and laser sights of patrolling enemies. Sadly, the gameplay doesn’t evolve past that. You have a limited supply of bullets and EMP grenades that save you if you get spotted, but these are all automatically used when you walk into an enemy’s line of sight. Because your only form of input is moving the character around with the analog stick, the action isn’t engaging.
Never Stop Sneakin’ encourages you to move quickly through each level, sneak up behind enemies, and take them all out in an efficient manner so that you can build a combo. The higher your combo, the more resources you will collect from hacking the computer terminals (another automated process) scattered across each level. Because of this system, Never Stop Sneakin’ feels more like an arcade game than a true stealth-action adventure.
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Even when viewed as an arcade experience, Never Stop Sneakin’ is shallow. The game only has a handful of environment types, and despite their procedurally generated nature, I felt like I was repeatedly exploring the same space. Enemy behavior is also incredibly predictable. Most guards have simple patrol patterns where they walk back and forth along a single hall, and they don’t change that behavior even if they see a fellow guard take a bullet to the head.
After infiltrating several levels of an enemy base, your operative takes a break, and you get to spend all the ESP they’ve collected to upgrade your FOB. Unfortunately, these upgrades don’t serve a purpose other than to push a nonsensical narrative forward. You can unlock several perks, and some of these let you scavenge more ammo on a level or increase the range in which you collect ESP. These don’t dramatically change the action either, and in Roguelike fashion, you must find them again each time you start a mission.
Never Stop Sneakin’ tried to appeal to my nostalgia for the original Metal Gear Solid. Unfortunately, you can’t judge this book by its cover. Dodging enemy sight cones and building up a stealth combo is only compelling for a short while, and the lack of overall variety made me want to sneak away to play other games.
Bungie faces the unenviable task of balancing established plans for content roll-out and simultaneously responding on the fly to an anxious and vocal community, many of whom have valid and frustrated feelings about this sequel’s problems in the endgame. Curse of Osiris is colored by that debate. This first expansion is a flawed and in-progress attempt to serve the game’s multiple masters – both casual and hardcore enthusiasts. Viewed on its own merits, I found a lot to enjoy, even if the core story, missions, and new setting elements don’t live up to their potential. At the same time, the release coincides with a few important updates that encourage deeper commitment.
Long hinted at in the series’ fiction, the curtain is finally pulled back on the mighty warlock Osiris. Framed as the fantasy fable of the grand wizard lost in the mystical woods, the narrative framework has a lot of potential, especially with the addition of the reality and time-experimenting Vex enemies at center stage. Unfortunately, despite a few attractive cinematic moments, the story fails to reach full stride. I never got invested in the conflict or its MacGuffin villain.
Mercury is a breathtaking new artistic backdrop, dominated by imposing architecture and the dazzling bloom of sunlight. The gates that lead into simulations of different timelines make for the sort of rich sci-fi concepting Destiny 2 should embrace. Yet again, the idea doesn’t live up to what it could be. The patrol space is too compact to compel a sense of exploration, and the connected network of gateways doesn’t capitalize on the breadth of locales and situations suggested by the conceit. The semi-random and interlinked puzzle-piece nodes of the simulated Vex Infinite Forest fail to differentiate the individual missions from one another. Likewise, the story missions that flow through both Mercury and other destinations offer few surprises or memorable action sequences.
Crucible play maintains the focus on teamwork and deliberate pacing that was present at launch months ago. I was disappointed to not see any new playlists or game modes, as PvP needs to be refreshed, notwithstanding some important and welcome balance tweaks that help even the playing field between weapons and classes. The limited playlist options harm replayability, and something needs to happen to inject increased variety into moment-to-moment play. Thankfully, several excellent PvP maps lend freshness. From the dimly lit halls of Titan’s arcology to the shimmering cliffs of Mercury’s distant past, these are thoughtfully constructed battlefields with Bungie’s usual practiced eye for chokepoints and lines of scrimmage.
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The new Eater of Worlds raid lair reuses some environment features from Destiny 2’s first raid, but don’t be fooled. This six-person cooperative expedition may be shorter than previous raids, but it boasts a few great encounters and an awesome boss fight. The puzzles are intriguing and logical without being obtuse, and the action scenes are intense and gratifying. Raid loot continues to need work, lacking the breadth of rewards and exciting drops that characterized the first Destiny raids.
Several new additions offer an olive branch to players struggling to find meaningful long-term investment. New masterwork weapons provide a fun chase for randomized perks and the ability to speed up the super recharge rate through more orb creation, but without breaking the game’s balance. A separate weapon forging mechanic demands an enjoyable grind for resources, and increased reason to engage with excellent activities like strikes and adventures. The new heroic adventures, with their challenging modifiers and fierce enemy combatants, make for great cooperative fun, and I hope they soon expand into other locales beyond Mercury. The frustrations of randomness in the token economy are also partially addressed, with a smart system to afford players who have already invested in a lengthy grind the option to purchase missing set pieces from some vendors. As a collector, it’s one of my personal favorite new features.
I’m dismayed that the crunch of vault, mod, and shader inventory remains unresolved. At times I simply turn the game off because I can’t stomach the task of managing more item juggling. In a loot-focused game about progression and collection, it’s a significant problem. I’m also increasingly troubled by the prevalence and number of rewards looped in with the microtransaction system. When Destiny 2 is struggling to find meaningful rewards to engage players in day-to-day play, it seems tone deaf to hide ships, ghosts, sparrows, ornaments, and armor sets behind a loot box system with only the stingiest paths to acquisition through natural cycles of play.
This release doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Curse of Osiris launches amid public backlash against certain Destiny 2 systems, including XP throttling and select content being locked behind the expansion purchase. Beyond that criticism, the expansion doesn’t hit the high notes it could have reached. Even if some features, characters, and new locations deserve more depth, this first DLC pack hides some thoughtful renovations and new opportunities for adventure behind an underwhelming first few hours. The robust community has a lot to say about the game, and I share some of the concerns being voiced. Simultaneously, my frustrations are tempered by several fun activities and loot chases that continue to keep me engaged.
When I think of Doom, two things come to mind: its colorful, over-the-top violence and its ridiculous speed. If you take either of those things out of the equation, what you have isn’t id Software’s infamous shooter but something lesser. This creates an interesting problem since virtual reality isn’t made for fast speed due to its ability to make people nauseated. Doom VFR tries to circumvent VR’s locomotion issue by giving you a teleporter function, but at the end of the day, this mini-campaign feels like a hobbled stroll through an amusement park instead of the frenzied, fantastic fight-or-die dance that makes Doom so special.
A series of combat arenas spread over four hours, VFR puts you in the shoes of a mostly-dead scientist who talks way too much as he tries to shut down a portal to hell with a combat suit he’s piloting from beyond the grave. Your left controller functions as your movement control, letting you slow down time to hop from place to place, while the right controller handles both your weapon wheel and combat functions. The control scheme is straightforward but takes getting used to, especially when it comes to secondary weapon functions. Even once you understand the controls, technical niggles still disrupt the experience. For example, sometimes you won’t jump to a spot you’ve marked due to the finicky controls, so you have to go through the same process again and hope you actually teleport this time. The delay means instant death during certain encounters. The weapon wheel is also problematic since it likes to spin past the weapon you intend to select, often disrupting the rhythm of combat.
The combat arenas are mostly levels from the 2016 reboot, like the reactor room or Titan’s Realm, and many of these levels don’t feel like they’re made for your teleporting function. Bars, computers, and giant spikes sticking in the ground often block your path. This makes escapes and daring maneuvers, which should feel exciting, like a chore. The game also lack ammo, including the ammo you rarely get from killing enemies, meaning unless you’re sharpshooting, it’s easy to end up just with your pistol to take on enemies that can devastate you in one hit. Despite these shortcomings, combat does have some nice moments. Slowing down time when you use your teleporter to watch the rocket you just fired turn an imp into fine paste is satisfying but the flip side of this is Glory Kills, that were an essential part of Dooms’s finely tuned combat, have been replaced by you simply teleporting inside weakened enemies and making them explode. Gory, sure, but it lacks the bone-crunching variety and thrills of the Glory Kills.
Between arena combat sequences, you have several chores to complete, like fetching keycards and new hacking sequences that failed to draw me into the setting and left me feeling irked more than anything else. Those just looking to be immersed by being inside the UAC facility, Mars, or Hell will also be disappointed. Despite playing the game on a high-end machine, the graphics for Doom VFR are blurry, both from afar and up close, and the textures are muddy – worse even than the Switch version’s visual downgrade. I spent far more time wincing at how bad everything looked than being immersed inside the creepy, demon-infested sci-fi base.
As a huge fan of Doom and someone interested in the possibilities of virtual reality, I came away from VFR immensely disappointed. Outside of some nifty moments involving the slo-mo mechanic, VFR just isn’t compelling. The finicky teleporting mechanic hinders movement, the levels don’t accommodate VR well, the protagonist is annoying, and the combat isn’t fun. The biggest selling point for VFR is that it’s a full campaign in virtual reality, but with stiff competition in the genre like Robo Recall and Superhot VR, it’s hard for me to recommend Doom VFR to anyone.
The PSVR Edge
If you have the option, it’s definitely best to play DOOM VFR on PSVR with the VR Aim Controller. The game’s visuals look equally bad on Vive and PSVR so you’re not really sacrificing anything except for load times, which are faster on Vive, and the VR Aim Controller is much more elegant than either the Vive or PlayStation Move controllers.
The moral and ethical dilemmas of engaging with ever-evolving technology isn't a new thing for video games. But in combining these weighty themes with a heartfelt story about family, loss, and love, Rumu brings a fresh and heart-wrenching perspective to some well-trodden thematic ground.
You play as Rumu, a tiny vacuum-cleaning robot who is as adorable as it is curious. Its one and only duty is to clean the futuristic house of its owners, David and Cecily. Said owners are nowhere to be found but the all-seeing sentient house AI, Sabrina, promises that they will be home soon. In the meantime, the only thing left to do is to clean and explore. Aided by Sabrina, as well as an eclectic mix of semi-intelligent home appliances and a house cat named Ada, everything starts off innocently enough. As you partake in chores, cleaning up some spilled tea here and some dropped toast there, Rumu slowly begins to grow self-aware. What starts off as a cute, whimsical adventure involving cleaning up spills soon gives way to a thought-provoking sci-fi tale.
Rumu is an isometric point-and-click puzzle game on the surface, but its strength doesn't lie in mechanics or aesthetics. Its puzzles are unchallenging and unexciting, and the discoveries that come from exploration play out in a linear fashion. The game instead anchors itself on Rumu and Sabrina's relationship and the underlying mystery of what happened to David and Cecily. Though the game is short--a full playthrough will last 2-3 hours--Rumu and Sabrina's complex dynamic and the central mystery is borne out in an engrossing manner from start to finish.
Rumu communicates with binary dialogue choices, while Sabrina is a fully coherent character. The little vacuum robot almost always "speaks" in variations of "I love you," and subtext is imbued into every line. Telling Sabrina "I love David, Cecily, and Sabrina" instead of "I love Sabrina, David, and Cecily" provokes contrasting reactions, and Sabrina possesses a sinister streak when provoked. She's surprisingly flawed for an AI character and prone to emotional vulnerability. Allegra Clark's excellent voice-acting gives extra weight to an already well-written character; little details like subtle breaks between words and slight pitch changes during heated conversations give the character a surprising degree of emotion and sympathy, and it's these finely-crafted moments that inject intriguing nuance into Rumu and Sabrina's relationship.
As pieces of the puzzle start falling into place, conversations with Sabrina take on a markedly more antagonistic tone. The I love yous become less frequent and more direct lines of questioning become the norm. The result is a fascinating look into emotional manipulation, familial relationships, and ultimately, loneliness. It's risky to focus an entire game around a single relationship since everything hinges on the strength of the characters, especially when both aren't even human. But both Rumu and Sabrina are well-written and surprisingly relatable during certain climactic moments. The experience is heightened by Rumu's beautifully poignant soundtrack, which perfectly evokes the game's futuristic setting and familial themes.
Events happen at a breakneck pace, and it doesn't take long for the story's conclusion to sneak up on you, but when you finally uncover the central mystery behind David and Cecily's absence, the emotional payoff feels well-earned thanks to strong character work and an impactful ending. It may be short and unchallenging, but Rumu's strong antagonist and its ultimately heart-wrenching journey make it one worth taking.
The Winter Olympics and Steep don't have a lot in common other than they take place on snowy mountains, which is the crux of this expansion's problems. Steep's base game and its DLC up to this point are open-ended experiences predicated on letting players explore different extreme sports forms in free spaces. The addition of nine Olympic events and a Become a Legend mode in Road to the Olympics restrict what is best about Steep with little to show for it in return. Even if you're solely interested in the Olympic content, this expansion provides little substance.
The Become a Legend mode is accessible in the main game's Aravis location (showing up as an optional event alongside the others), taking you on a training regimen that culminates in qualifying for and competing in three freestyle events in South Korea – Big Air, Halfpipe, and Slopestyle. This isn't a story mode or a deep career mode with a progression system for upgrading your rider. Instead, it's a series of tutorials and the occasional event. These competitions are routine for those who've already played Steep, and laborious for the uninitiated.
The mode half-heartedly attempts the staging of its own Olympic drama. This includes a narrator chronicling your journey leading up to the Winter Games and video clips of real-life Olympic athletes such as Lindsey Vonn, Sage Kotsenburg, and Kevin Rolland talking about their professional experiences, but it fails to convey much of the Olympic experience itself. It lacks TV-style presentation, an Olympic Village, a sense of occasion through the opening ceremonies, and even medal presentations on a podium.
My favorite events of the Winter Games – the skiing – aren't even included in the Become a Legend mode. These are instead only available by themselves on an isolated mountain representing South Korea. You can't even free ride it like all the other mountains in the game. It exists only to host the nine Olympic events, and therefore is a waste of a mountain and is unrelated to the rest of the game's philosophy, events, and even online features. You can see the online times of others, but there is no meeting and competing with real-life players in South Korea. Some Olympic spirit.
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The gameplay doesn't stray far from what Steep already has demonstrated it can do. Thankfully, none of the usual half-baked Olympic gameplay crutches are present, such as minigames, quick-time events, or button mashing – just snowboarding and skiing. The Super-G and Giant Slalom skiing events feel nice, with the fast downhill races offering a new experience for Steep players as skis chatter over the icy slopes with a palpable sense of danger. The Parallel Giant Slalom event on a snowboard was also fun, demanding a quick rhythmic swaying with the right analog for the fastest time through the gates. Despite these highlights, the Olympic content's focus on the actual Slopestyle freestyle course in South Korea emphasizes an existing weakness in Steep's gameplay – rail grinding and sliding. These were added as DLC, and getting on rails still feels unpredictable and too floaty to feel satisfying.
The Road to the Olympics expansion also contains alps in Japan. Thankfully, this new mountain region includes all the drop zones, mountain stories, challenges, and freeride opportunities Steep players have enjoyed in the base game. This region naturally includes the updates to Steep thus far, including the ability to change the world's ambiance and time of day at will, and other extreme sports like the rocket wingsuit. These true-to-form additions are redeeming because they are a more natural fit with the base game than the new Olympic content.
There's more going on in these winter sports than what happens when the world pays attention every four years, and Steep shouldn't be held hostage by the Olympics when what it does is working so well already. This content neither plays to Steep's existing strengths nor gives gamers looking for Olympic competition anything satisfying.
A common refrain you might hear from someone who’s finished one of today’s massive open-world games is that they would have liked any excuse to explore more of that world. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s second (and likely final) DLC, The Champion’s Ballad, is exactly that; it sprinkles Hyrule with several new shrines, outfits, tools, and a dungeon, giving players new objectives to work through while giving them reasons to explore old areas they might have ignored the first time around.
Your first quest upon starting up The Champion’s Ballad emphasizes challenging combat and puzzle encounters – something the previous DLC did with mixed results – but which works much better here. Instead of throwing you into a series of self-contained fights, you explore the area where Link first wakes up to find four new shrines, which are unlocked by defeating groups of bad guys. During this first segment Link gets a new weapon that will defeat anything in one hit, but he only has a quarter of a heart, which makes defeating these enemies and working through the shrines much more challenging. This is a welcome departure from some of the later encounters in the base game, which the slew of weapons, shields, and powers I’d amassed had made a breeze.
From there the DLC opens up, offering the kind of DIY exploration that made Breath of the Wild shine. Though you’re given four marks on the map to approach, they lead to points on the map that you have to pinpoint yourself through a bit of cartographic sleuthing. The shrines aren’t always immediately accessible, either, and you have to take hints from Kass (the Rito who plays the accordion) about how to unlock them. These puzzles are never headscratchers, but they invite you to do a little bit of everything Breath of the Wild offers, including hangliding, shield-surfing, and a boss battle, all of which are fun, if not mindblowing.
It’s unfortunate there aren’t any new areas to explore, but Hyrule is large and dense enough that revisiting older areas for new shrines yielded some fun discoveries. More than once, I’d venture to where my next marker was and see an old shrine or secret I’d missed the first time around, then get distracted as I ventured off to nab it. Those who’ve scoured most of the map already may not find this same joy, but as someone who still has a ton of stuff left to do, I found several new areas to explore this way, which made the world feel bigger and more enticing than ever.
The new shrines don’t offer new tools or ideas to play with, but they’re clever iterations on what’s come before. A couple of shrines work as rugged gauntlets to traverse, while others have you figuring out-room scale puzzles. Some have specific solutions, while I was able to solve others in ways that circumvented the challenge at hand. The variety of these shrines is a lot of fun, and even when I didn’t solve one “correctly,” I felt smart for devising my own solution.
Not every retread is worthwhile, however. Throughout your journey you must re-fight the four bosses from Breath of the Wild, now with a limited pre-determined toolset, which amps up the challenge. These fights don’t meaningfully change otherwise, and working through them is a chore. Despite the limited weapons, armor, and arrows, I was able to brute force most of them without remembering the tells and tricks I used to defeat them the first time, which made them feel unsatisfying.
After defeating each boss you unlock additional memories featuring one of the four champions corresponding to each boss. These scenes offer up couple of character moments, but don’t offer any insight into the overall plot of Breath of the Wild, and don’t feel like they add much to the world as a whole.
The new dungeon offers an interesting mix of puzzles, but is over before it really gets going. Like the other dungeons in Breath of the Wild, you can alter the layout of the dungeon with your Sheikah Slate, but the dungeon’s spoked nature means it’s effectively four isolated, simple puzzles. The boss that caps it off is a fun surprise thematically, but I found it a bit of a slog to whittle away at its health long after I’d “solved” it. As a whole, the new dungeon left me wanting more iteration on the concepts it introduces.
After finishing the main quest, you’re rewarded with the Master Cycle Zero. It can summoned at any time and makes traveling around Hyrule much easier, even though it does occasionally force the game to pause to load the world because you’re moving at such high speeds. Fortunately, it can also climb some mountains, which makes it a more capable companion than any horse.
You can also search the map for several new cosmetic items, most of which are nods to other Zelda games. It’s fun to dress up in new guises that skew the canon of the world, but I wish I could upgrade these items to make them reliable outfits I don’t feel compelled to swap out when I approach a Guardian or some other challenging foe. A set of ancient horse armor also lets you summon a horse you’ve built a bond with at will, but you can’t summon it in many locations, making it feel useless compared to the Master Cycle Zero.
Despite the unfortunate boss retreads and disappointing final dungeon, The Champion’s Ballad is a great excuse to revisit Breath of the Wild’s enormous world. Its new challenges highlight what made Breath of the Wild great in the first place, giving you some fun new ways to utilize your old toolkit. Figuring out where the new shrines are, puzzling out how to complete them, and finding several new secrets along the way gave me the same exciting wonder I had when I first started exploring Hyrule, and make me eager to continue exploring it and see what other secrets I’ve missed.
Hello Neighbor makes a strong first impression. With its Dr. Seuss-like artistic vision of an idyllic neighborhood hiding a terrible secret, the opening cinematic, featuring our curious protagonist spying on his neighbor, drew me in immediately. Too bad the illusion came crashing down shortly after that.
The game casts you as a child sneaking into his neighbor’s house to find out what kicking, screaming secret this man is hiding in his basement. An experiment gone wrong? A prisoner? Murder victims? My mind constantly poked at all the possibilities during the opening hour, but my interest was quickly murdered by dull and broken sneaking mechanics. Hello Neighbor’s campaign is composed of three acts, with the neighbor’s house serving as a series of puzzles you have to overcome to complete whatever your objective is. These puzzles err on the side of loony, recalling the days of point and click adventures, with gears and levers you often have to find and click to activate some other part of the house so that you can delve deeper. This is fine enough on paper, but the layout of the house means you’ll be constantly backtracking and searching for clues, opening drawers and looking beneath beds for that one key or object you need to get to the next segment. Those annoyances become a fatal flaw once the titular neighbor gets involved.
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The Neighbor functions like monsters in Amnesia or the Alien in Alien Isolation. He’s constantly patrolling the grounds of his estate and will hunt you down the moment he hears or sees you. You can slow him down by hurling objects at him, but he’s unkillable and unpredictable. And I don’t mean unpredictable in the sense that he’s a compelling foe, setting up traps in places you often visit (which he does), but instead because he’s brokenly powerful. The neighbor is capable of clipping through walls, seeing you, and often grabbing you when there’s a surface between you. To Hello Neighbor’s credit, your progress through the level doesn’t reset when you’re caught, and you get to keep whatever items you have on you, but the amount of times I felt like the game had cheated in catching me washed away the appreciation I had for that choice.
Hello Neighbor is annoying and flat-out broken in other areas too. The control scheme is particularly bad, requiring you to hold down a shoulder button for a second to pick up an object, and then having two other buttons for throwing and “using,” instead of just combining them, making everything more complicated and sluggish than it needs to be. Though the house the neighbor builds across every act is impressively zany, the inside of the house often feel like dull test chambers, with a lot of blank wall space and uninspired decoration. A number of puzzles often require you to use objects, like cardboard boxes, to reach other places. This means stacking them or hurling them through windows. Unfortunately, the physics for these objects are wonky at best. I often spent double-digit attempts trying to get boxes in the right formation so I could use them to make a jump, which became a long, drawn-out affair since the neighbor kept catching me anytime I screwed up, forcing me back to another part of the map.
Hello Neighbor is unpolished to the point that it feels unfinished. The overpowered enemy A.I. makes the gameplay miserable; models and animations are stiff, and physics critical to completing puzzles are so woefully uncalibrated that much of the game feels like you’re stacking boxes and hoping for the best. The game falls so short of its genre companions that it’s hard to recommend it to anyone, in spite of its beautiful aesthetic. Hello Neighbor simply isn’t fun or compelling even when it’s working.
This year marked the end of the rebooted Planet of the Apes film trilogy, but fans don’t have to say goodbye quite yet. Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier offers an all-new story set between the second and third films, which shows another example of the personal toll that the Simian Flu has taken on both its human and ape survivors. Rather than take direct control over the characters, viewers cast their votes on how to proceed in A or B reactions. It’s an appealing proposition, but repeated viewings hammer home just how little impact your choices have on this out-of-control world and its unlucky inhabitants.
Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier splits its focus between the human and ape perspectives of an impending crisis. A community of Simian Flu survivors is huddled in the Rocky Mountains in a small community called Millerton. Unbeknownst to them, the approaching winter is agitating a nearby colony of apes. Both factions are running low on food, and are embroiled in their own internal power struggles. After the apes raid a human outpost, a pair of drifters appears in Millerton, and their presence threatens to bring the simmering hostilities to an all-out war. It’s a dramatic setup, which has the potential of offering up a variety of satisfying twists and turns. Does it deliver? Mostly, or it does at least once.
I was dubious of the game’s stripped-to-the-metal approach to gameplay, but I enjoyed it once I settled into its particular rhythm. I don’t ultimately know that being able to manually spur a horse along during a conversation between Millerton’s leader, Jess, and her underlings would have added anything to the story, which is clearly the focus here. The simplicity also makes it more approachable for people who may not play a lot of games, but want to participate in a group viewing with their friends. Up to four players can vote on decisions using either a game controller or their mobile device (after installing a companion app).
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Playing with a group adds an interesting dynamic to the experience, particularly as the story starts to pick up and people gravitate toward either the human or ape sides of the conflict. In the event of a tie vote, another vote is held until either a consensus is formed or a player uses a tiebreaker to push their agenda forward. I got a kick out of playing with my family and having brief, impassioned conversations during what seemed like particularly momentous events. Those choices come at a steady pace, requiring viewers pay close attention to conversations. If you do drift off for a second, choices are presented with a snippet of representative dialog or action, as well as a word that describes the intended action – like “joking” or “aggressive.”
Fortunately for Last Frontier (and viewers who do have a tendency to drift off), what it lacks in traditional interaction it makes up for in presentation. The game was developed with help from Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium Productions, the mocap studio that helped bring the apes to life so believably in the films. While they’ve taken a visual hit in the game, I was still impressed at how great the characters look in close up, and how subtle their physical performances are. Little tics like eyelids fluttering during a deceptive response are present, which helps sell what could otherwise be plain silliness. One side effect of not having much to do beyond making binary decisions is I found myself looking at the game with a particularly critical eye. It’s true that the character models are impressive up close, but the apes have a tendency to look shaggy and weird at middle distance, and everything from the characters to the environments are plagued with constant texture-loading issues on my standard PlayStation 4. A post-launch patch has fixed an issue I had with the game hard crashing at the same place, but technical goofs like tutorial text staying onscreen remain.
About halfway through my first viewing, I started wondering just how much these discussions and votes ultimately mattered. Both Jess, the human leader, and Bryn, her ape counterpart, are characters stuck in the middle, between opposing forces. It’s a dynamic that’s necessary to keep the action dramatic, but it also creates a sensation that regardless of when and how you choose to blast the horn, the train is going to keep rolling where the train is going to keep rolling. When the game wrapped up, it concluded with a bummer of an ending that, while in line with the film franchise, didn’t quite line up with my expectations based on how I’d been playing and the decisions I’d made. The game’s movie-length runtime and promise of different outcomes seems to encourage repeat playthroughs; would another run at it lead to substantial differences in the narrative?
When I played through a second time, my suspicions were confirmed. Your choices may help contribute to an unseen tally that selects which of the game’s three main endings you’ll get, but the overall flow of the story is the same regardless of your input. That raid will happen, no matter how passionately you argue against it, and one rancher will be wounded and escape; if you choose not to pull the trigger, another ape will rise up and handle it for you. I wasn’t able to extract any meaningful changes in dialog, locations, or reactions during my time with Last Frontier, aside from seeing several different ending cutscenes. It’s asking a lot of viewers to sit through what’s largely the same thing for just under three hours in the hopes that their choices will trigger something new in the final seconds.
I looked forward to each installment of the Planet of the Apes movies, and I enjoyed the strange, brutal future they outlined. Last Frontier is an interesting take on that world that trades in the same themes of the struggle between compassion and forgiveness versus the appeal of tyranny and vengeance. It’s a shame that the interactive elements and choices have about as much effect on that world as the close-door button in an elevator. It’s a ride that might be worth taking once, but don’t bother going back in when you’re done.
I appreciate short games built to execute specific, modest concepts. The world of indie games is filled with these kinds of focused experiences, and Gorogoa can certainly be described in this way. However, I simply did not connect with its vision; the narrative is too ambiguous to be engaging, and the simple puzzle mechanics stirred up no emotional response within me.
Gorogoa’s puzzles are based on a series of hand-drawn images placed on a four-by-four grid. In these images, you see a young boy as he rounds up a collection of different colored fruits in a bowl. You can take the pictures apart, rearrange them, and even connect them to make larger images. You can connect two alike pictures to make the boy travel between them, for example, or place an image of a train track above another picture to make it act as a ladder.
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These hand-drawn images from artist Jason Roberts are beautiful, and stand out as the highlight. They remind me of my favorite children’s books, and do so without singling out a specific style or artist. Unfortunately, moving the images around never amounts to a satisfying puzzle solution. All of my careful puzzle arranging rarely led to eureka moments. Instead, when I got stuck, I would just zoom in and out of an image until I found an interactive element of the picture I had simply missed before. It made it feel like I was just clicking and rearranging things until the next cutscene occurred, instead of solving legitimate puzzles.
Part of why the puzzles are so unsatisfying is because the narrative is too ambiguous. I enjoy a story that lets me arrive at my own conclusions, but from Gorogoa’s beginning to end, I never quite understood what the boy was doing, who the other characters were, why it seemed to be moving through time, and how it was all connected. I was just moving images around until things stopped happening, and then I was suddenly watching the credits.
Gorogoa’s artist and designer, Jason Roberts, clearly had a vision with this game and I applaud him and everyone else at developer Buried Signal for making it a reality. But I struggle to recommend this experience, because whatever emotions Gorogoa was hoping to convey, I simply did not feel them.