Month: April 2019

Return of the Obra Dinn

Return of the Obra Dinn

Once you get over the contrived premise – “pocket watch lets you visit the moment of a character’s death, it’s magic, I ain’t gotta explain shit”  Return of the Obra Dinn is easily one of the most original and engaging games of 2018. Detective gameplay is difficult to pull off, because it requires that the overall mystery and a collection of smaller ones both be engrossing, but Obra Dinn does so in spades. Searching for clues to individuals’ identities and causes of death requires so much awareness of your surroundings that it’s virtually impossible not to be absorbed, while the question of why these events are happening aboard the titular 19th-century trading vessel lingers behind every moment. It helps that the smaller mysteries offer a satisfying intellectual challenge; clues range from “somewhat obvious” to “ridiculously minute and only noticeable on repeat viewings,” but a small amount of guesswork is allowed to balance out the latter.

Obra Dinn excels at working within its limitations. The two-colour freeze-frame presentation creates a game composed entirely of arresting tableaux that also happens to look period-appropriate, albeit not particularly conducive to the gameplay. The bombastic music nearly sounds like a holdover from the developer’s previous game (Papers, Please), but it still fits, adding gravity and darkly comedic elements to the static imagery. The voice acting isn’t stellar, but it gets the job done. No expense was spared on the design of the ship, however, as it’s a detailed, believable recreation without an inch of wasted space. The game could use a less cumbersome method of traversing and exiting memories, particularly when dealing with memories within memories, but overall, this is a superb example of what auteur game design can accomplish.

Flower

Flower

Playing Flower in 2019 really shows how far art games have come. With obvious inspiration from Passage, this is like the gaming equivalent of Oscar bait – using up a whole lot of artistic talent to say a whole lot of nothing. After an hour of gorgeous scenery and aimless gameplay, the game’s big statement boils down to “beautiful things > not beautiful things.” A lot of elements of the presentation still haven’t been replicated elsewhere, but in some cases, that’s because they don’t work very well. The unorthodox controls effectively capture the intended feeling of weightlessness but don’t lend themselves to the collection gameplay, which feels undercooked and inconsistent even by art game standards. It’s also quite obvious how infantile procedural audio was at this point, as the music often feels disjointed even during the story’s initial relaxing arc.

Life is Strange

Life is Strange

The elevator pitch for Life is Strange is usually “a Telltale-style adventure game where you can rewind time to edit your choices,” but it’s far from a clone. The time travel mechanics are more multifaceted than that, for one thing, as they can be used to imitate premonition and teleportation, among other things. Its gameplay is also peppered with detective segments, its story is filled with potent symbolism, and its unique atmosphere often feels more like an out-of-body experience than a roleplay. The player is more of a companion than a puppeteer to the characters, but when those characters are so three-dimensional, their world so vividly realized, and its relevant subject matter handled so maturely, merely observing it all through a mildly fantastical lens is as engaging as it needs to be.

Befitting its stellar soundtrack, Life is Strange is like a punk or folk song in video game form – a lack of refinement is the price you pay for authenticity. For example, as devastatingly memorable as several sequences are, the amount of ambiguity and red herrings in the plot’s resolution is disappointing. Additionally, the “painted” art style flips between gorgeous and inadequate depending on the subject. Some of the flaws improve over time, however. Episode 1 – Chrysalis is especially bogged down with introduction, and the early episodes’ default gameplay pattern of “Incorrect action >> Rewind >> Correct action” is gradually replaced with more unorthodox puzzles. The voice acting also inadvertently improves too, since events become more dire in later episodes and the side characters become more…well, sidelined.