Don’t Starve Spooky Review: Night Terrors

Genre: Action/Adventure, Survival

Developer: Klei Entertainment

Publisher: Klei Entertainment

Systems: XOne, iOS, Wii U, PS3, PS4, PSVita, PC, Linux, Mac OS

To me, Don’t Starve is the perfect Halloween game. It’s not scary per se; when playing, you won’t be expecting the jolt of a forthcoming jumpscare. Nor will you encounter ghosties or ghoulies, at least none that are so readily apparent.

What Don’t Starve does capture, however, is the spiritual essence of Halloween as an event; an archaic festival shrouded in superstition. Don’t Starve’s Mother Nature is harsh and distrustful, and as you strive to cobble together supplies to last the night, you’re all the while reminded of the inevitable darkness looming, and the threat of the unknown encloaked within it. So I wanted to do a review. A spooky review.

don't starve hands of darkness

Do bring a night light.

Usually with survival sims, you get what you pay for. And Klei’s Don’t Starve, on the face of it, looks conspicuously conformative in this regard. But as the ashen wilderness fills in around me, it becomes frightfully apparent that starving will often be the very last thing on my mind. How could I have been so naive.

Incidentally, that is a question that surfaces time and time again in Don’t Starve. As much as I’d like to scream profanity at the cruelty at each of my timely deaths in this game, I’m simultaneously reminded that the entire experience was resultant of my decisions, and my decisions alone. The world of Don’t Starve is deliberately elusive; veined with paths to places unknown that beckon with duplicitous reassurance.

don't starve treeguard

Do appreciate the greenery.

In this distinctively hand-drawn realm, even the trees are out to get you. As Wilson, the gentleman scientist, you tumble forth into a volatile dimension that you’re left to figure out alone. Chop too much wood and the stoic evergreens will fight back. Leave your camp for too long and risk it being taken over by beligerent flora. Fail to arm yourself correctly and you’ll be torn limb-from-limb by packs of scratchy hellhounds. This isn’t a world that takes too kindly to visitors, and whilst one mistake won’t necessarily kill you, it’ll leave you weak at the cold hard mercy of the impending seasons, which greatly motivates a less-than-brazen approach to the game’s exploration elements.

The fleeting daylight makes each objective huge, often requiring entire in-game days to complete and (more often than not) undue bloodshed. As such, every quest you embark on could catch you far from home as dusk descends, an experience that is terrifying, but certainly never dull. Such are the frailties of many a simulator title.

don't starve night monster

Don’t live the nightlife.

But hidden within its perpetual gloom, Don’t Starve maintains a charming sense of character, making your bedraggled fight for survival as amusing as it is challenging. Characters are exaggerated, grotesque; look and act like children playing dress-up, often resonating an eccentric sense of in-game logic. Chucking fish in a crock pot with some salvaged branches obviously makes fishsticks, whilst earmuffs during winter consist of merely two live rabbits. These details come as an unexpected laugh in Don’t Starve, offering a childlike sense of humour in an otherwise ominous enviroment.

don't starve insanity

Don’t trust imaginary friends.

Whilst trawling the wilderness for components and ingredients, you’ll inevitably have hunger and health bars to contend with; a piece de resistance of the survival genre. But after a few days of skulking for scraps you’re inevitably going to go a little loopy. As such, Don’t Starve‘s sanity meter is easily diminished by murdering passive creatures, being rained on and the all-encompassing nighttime. Allow yourself to go barmy and you’ll become prey to your own psyche, as blurred hallucinations zip in and out of awareness in attempt to do you in. While ominous, the notion of the player as their own worst enemy is a refreshing one.

Gameplay in Don’t Starve is orchestrated, rather than truly wild; a vital approach that allows its more whimsical elements to shine. The concept of a crafting system isn’t exactly unheard of by now, for Minecraft has made sure of that. But even amongst its pixellated siblings, Don’t Starve’s contents of craftables feels natural, purposeful and downright amusing. Most inventions are simple essentials needed for farming and combat, but the game’s imaginative flair peeks cheekily through some of the more optional accessories. From magical staffs to baseball bats made of ham, whether your allegiances lie with the practical or the daft, Don’t Starve will reward or punish you accordingly. And then probably punish you some more.

Craft and inventory systems are smartly organised to ensure speedy construction, and are superbly mapped to the PS4’s controller from the original PC layout. The mundanities of scrolling through supplies are choreless and comfortable thanks to the dual stick controls, and even minor fixes like holding down a command to auto-harvest stand out. There’s nothing particularly wrong with its PC controls, but the gamepad feels more precise; something that goes a long way when daylight’s running thin.

don't starve hey neighbour

Do get to know the locals.

Although Don’t Starve‘s difficulty seems deliberate, its roguelike features have been criticised in the past for their crushing attitude towards the player. Whilst there are ways to cheat death once or twice, you’re more often sent back to the drawing board, with precious little to show for hours of encumbered toil.

On a further note, the game’s thrashing nature sometimes lacks justification. Upon my return from chipping away in a rock biome, I discovered my camp had been made undwellable by a carnivorous plant, as I spiralled into the winter months. Much of what happens in Don’t Starve is simultaneous, making it difficult to stave off luckless happenings to avoid biting the dust, which often induces more rage than reward.

But Don’t Starve‘s smart, innocent outlook and intriguing domain is what has me coming back for more. It’s still a delightful challenge that constantly forces you to adapt to your increasingly vicious surroundings, and success in the face of oblivion is intensely satisfying.

don't starve beefalo
The harrowing world of Don’t Starve balances the charming with the precarious, offering a brutal challenge and inquisitive vibe that emanates Halloween spirit. Despite its heartwrenching permadeath and, at times, overwhelming sense of threat, it’s a meticulously designed survival title that mollycoddles you none. If, like myself, you consider yourself more Halloweenie than Halloweener, Don’t Starve will creep you out, without assaulting your amygdala, as it injects risk into every decision you make.

Don’t Starve, Halloweensfolk!

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Retrokick – Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee

I’ve been on a retrospective kick lately. I have, with uninhibited vigour, been kicking myself down a path of reminiscence littered with Wonka Nerds, Pokèmon, and undoubtedly, video games. And those scratchy plastic pogs we English called tazos. After the existential tirades of SOMA and its prompt accompaniment by the deluge of life around it, it was invigorating to look over some of the enchantment that marked my introduction to console gaming.

And after a bit of flame-shootin’ and bandicootin’, I decided not only to brave the path of nostalgic disillusionment by revisiting my miniature self’s treasured titles, but delve into some of the games I’d missed whilst out climbing trees, licking pavements, or whatever I did.

So where better to start than with a game I simply couldn’t fathom as a kid.

oddworld abe shocked

And after one playthrough I’m already speaking in rhyming couplets. Result!

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee was the first game born out of Sherry McKenna and Lorne Lanning’s co-founded Oddworld Inhabitants, and the introduction to what transpired to be one of the best loved titles for the Playstation.

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee follows (you’ve guessed it) the misadventures of Abe, who has since become recognised alongside Crash Bandicoot as one of the leading lights of the PS1 era. Lovable yet scrawny and defenseless, this bug-eyed dope is part of the Mudokon race, who have become enslaved by the villainous Glukkons; the owners of the antagonistic meat processing plant, Rupture Farms.

Unfortunately for all involved, meat has since become scarce, ultimately spoiling all the Glukkons’ lovely delicious money. In order to compensate, the Glukkons decide to start using their own workers to make ‘something new n’ tasty’. Upon learning this, Abe makes a timely escape, but rest assured, his destiny has yet to be realised.
oddworld abe scars
Oddworld Inhabitants’ debut has you traversing oppressive industry and ruthless wilderness as the guy with none of the luck, to realise his potential as the saviour of his fellow Mudokon slaves.

The Oddworld universe stands as a veritable window into the dark and novel imagination of Lorne Lanning; familiar enough in its socioeconomic ideas, divergent and rich enough for the player to explore it, in all its bizarre complexity.

Despite later Oddworld games taking more of a 3D approach (and not necessarily suffering because of it), for me, the franchise will always work better as a 2D sidescroller. The layout offers a carefully constructed environment that in turn promotes the player’s construction of survival plans, using actions with much more precision, and thus, confidence.

But aside from aiding gameplay, the sidescrolling aesthetic really reinforces the viciousness of the Oddworld universe. It singles you out as the survivor against a backdrop of trampled scrubland; the unfortunate stooge against seemingly impossible…odds…
oddworld jump
Core controls are simple; nothing out of the PS1 platforming ordinarium. There’s a run button, a crouch button, a D-pad to move and a jump button. What did make Abe’s Oddysee stand out amongst other 2D platformers of its time, however, was its ingenious talk system.

Holding either L1 or L2 not only allows Abe to guide his fellow Mudokons to freedom like a diplomatic Django, but opens up a whole new dimension to the otherwise typical platforming elements of the game. In addition to jumping on stuff, running on stuff and throwing with stuff, progression often means memorising melodic passwords and taming friendlier beasts.

With this in mind, Oddworld isn’t just an A to B platforming grind. If it was it’d be a much shorter game. It is instead a barbed wire maze consisted of anxious planning and brazen execution, where the only relaxation is found in the hysterical aftermath of a rabid pursuit, only to soon melt back into that impending sense of vulnerability.

However, what alluded me about Abe’s Oddysee back then was its rigidity. Abe is often required to jump, roll or otherwise act at moments so particular that they don’t grant much leeway for mistakes, resulting in a style of play that almost borders on rhythm gaming.

This isn’t too enthralling for an uncoordinated child (such as I was) and looking back, this kind of precision wasn’t complimented by the game’s punishing nature. But hell, if ever there was a game that made you feel godlike after success, it was Oddworld.

oddworld slig steven olds

Still, a part of me hopes for a DDR version with this [artwork by Steve Olds].

But even now, I can’t pretend that Abe’s Oddysee was always a picnic to play, because all who’ve experienced it would soon proclaim from the tops of Paramonia that I’m a despicable liar. Enemy reaction speed is irregular, often rendering it impossible to react quickly enough to survive.

Moreover, checkpoints aren’t highlighted and minute mistakes are punished remorselessly by resetting the stage. These experiences weren’t uncommon for earlier games (and to some extent, these aspects are part of what makes Abe’s Oddysee so rewarding), but if you’re looking for an exciting, concise adventure to occupy your breaks with, Oddworld sure as hell ain’t it.

Whilst this was true for me, however, I continue to be impressed by how, despite this trial and error style, Abe’s Oddysee still manages to excite, involve and terrify me. It’s self aware enough to anticipate that you’ll be endeavouring to succeed over and over again, and as such, ensures that something completely unexpected lies in wait in the next undiscovered screen.

oddworld scrab chase
The various sounds of Oddworld are used very much in tandem with the idiosyncratic behaviours of its mighty beasts. As such, you quickly learn to associate subtle sound and movement with help, hostility, and anything in between. Spider-esque face-hugger Paramites might hiss but only attack when backed into a corner, whilst scissor-beaked brutes -the Scrabs- emit a hoarse roar, callously trampling their foes’ corpses on sight.

Sounds contribute to a living breathing (and albeit trapped) Oddworld, and as the calls of the once-sacred beasts you encounter can span multiple screens, you can never really be sure what’s waiting for you, and thus sound never undermines the intense vulnerability of the protagonist.
As for the music, it’s kept relatively minimal, but remains effective even against the soundtrack of many recent games. A soundscape of organic vocalisation and rhythmic percussion, Abe’s soundtrack overlays a sense of ancient balance, and with it, Abe’s remarkable quest to warrior-hood.

Whilst this atmosphere is slightly offset by the marked dramaticism of the FMV cutscene accompaniment, this plays up the comedy in the reluctant hero’s journey, usually serving as an effective point of relief between fretful gameplay segments.

oddworld moon
Despite its demand for rigorous timing and at times, unpredictable enemy AI, Abe’s Oddysee marked (on the back of each hand) the beginning of a franchise that was innovative, challenging and involving. Playing the luckless chump who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time was, for the time, a refreshing change to the intrepid hero, and while initially vulnerable protagonists had been touched upon before (in Rayman, for example), it was Oddworld that consistently outmatched your capabilities; encouraged constant adaption whilst its vibrant world always gave reason for doing so.

SOMA Review: Save Yourself

Genre: Survival Horror

Developer: Frictional Games

Publisher: Frictional Games

Systems: PS4, PC, Linux, Mac OS

Whilst malfunctioned machinery and dilapidated hallways seem by now to be a maxim of the horror genre (and its dreaded jolts), it is what SOMA has to say that makes the newest trinket in Frictional Games’ toybox truly chilling.

Deriving its title from the Greek for ‘body’, SOMA is described as a look at consciousness; an indicator that this entry will invoke a refreshingly metaphysical focus, amongst the rampant shock-spins born out of the success of Frictional’s Dark Descent. You play as the ill-fated Simon Jarrett, who has just awoken on the sub-aquatic research facility of PATHOS-II, and if Frictional’s past experience is anything to go by, we’re in for a hell of a ride finding out why. Guided by the apprehensively evasive Catherine, Simon’s odyssey pays homage to such sci-fi grandees as Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison, raising questions surrounding identity and attachment to technology, as well as how our own code of ethics interacts with what we do (and do not) deem human.

soma carl

The player is constantly encouraged to reconsider their views on what is cruel and what is justified during SOMA.

Moments of  quiet reflection are accompanied by the dry repartee between the two protagonists; a relieving and subtly played successor to some of the tenser scenes, contributing to a pensive, occasionally humorous undertone that makes each happening feel fresh and thought-provoking. As a result, it is this cerebral approach that anchors SOMA in a sea of redundant Slender clones.

Frictional have kept their hallmark in regard to immediate surroundings. Just like in Amnesia, almost all items can be moved around, thrown to distract enemies or manipulated to solve puzzles. How this feature interacts with game narrative, however, is more apparent in SOMA. Such ostensible trivialities as yanking a lever could have morally abrasive outcomes, and this is something you’re constantly reminded of by the game’s rich and empathic dialogue.

With more of a resemblance to the earlier atmosphere of Penumbra, SOMA also captures a sense of abandonment within its subaqueous plains. Simon feels like the intruder on a fallen world, which only motivates the desire to delve further into the abyss.

The world itself observes a remarkable blend between the natural and the industrialised, often so intertwined that it becomes difficult to ascertain which is which. Pseudo-organic embodiments blotch and skulk the halls of PATHOS-II, and the more you encounter, the more you begin to question if there is as big a distinction after all. If this isn’t enough, each containment base is littered with optional audio logs, diary entries and intercom recordings, offering non-linear puzzle pieces hinting at the root of where everything went so wrong.
soma wau

After the multimedia hubub of Slender, Frictional intelligently demonstrate that shock isn’t the only way to scare a cat. SOMA‘s gameplay offers a much more gradual pace that invites the player to stop and think about what they’re being asked to do, and the possible consequences of their compliance. It’s when the pieces begin to be put together that the true horror within SOMA shines, and this is an unease that endures far after the game’s closure.

Much of the gameplay is typical of the survival-horror subgenre. As malignant cyber-creatures stalk the halls, you’re committed to creeping between checkpoints, and most objectives are devoted to salvaging battery packs, flipping switches and accessing mainframes in order to succeed.
One of the game’s major pitfalls, however, is its enemy mechanics. Much like the London Underground, many of the lifeforms you run into in SOMA are angered by eye contact.

The concept of running from something you can’t see is certainly a terrifying one, and in Alien, it was fair play. But in a game, not being able to look at an enemy makes for more frustrating gameplay than it does enthralling, and after a few hits and death sequences, the Ridley Scott novelty soon gives way to annoyance.
soma chase
Enemy encounters also happen to be the least interesting part of SOMA. The AI is predictable, causing stealth maneavers to become monotonous. Frankly, there just isn’t enough variation to compliment the sense of danger rendered by the overarching narrative, and the limited hiding spots do little to remedy this. Hiding from congealed cybernetic horrors is unnerving, yes, but as soon as your cover is blown you’re shoved into a run or die scenario, and unfortunately, this belittles the daunting uncertainty SOMA otherwise does so well.

This being said, when objectives do seem to be bordering on banality, it is the narrative that comes through. Each base you visit has its own segments that send you sprawling into the next calamity, not all of which are expected; a technique that feeds brilliantly into the methodical pacing of the game. It allows you to get comfortable just long enough for the next big moment to draw you back in, it’s just a shame that the sense of intrigue is almost entirely plot-oriented.

Sound and music in SOMA often merge to create an evocative atmosphere, but in themselves remain separately parallel to the game’s surroundings. The sparce underwater exploration experiences a hauntingly celestial vibe, whilst the veins of each nautical base crackle with the current of cyberpunk influence. It is easily the music that makes SOMA as atmospheric as it is, and as such, does not dip in quality amongst the immersive scores of Frictional’s previous titles. However, again, what potentially makes SOMA unique here is that the auditory juxtaposition between the peaceful and the hostile; the reassuring and the alien reinforces that sense of drift in a world we only half understand.

soma theta
SOMA‘s respect for the sci-fi greats shines through, whilst bearing an intrinsically relevant message. A meditation on the fragility of identity, it’s important as a contemporary observation of the growing marriage between humanity and the machine. This being said, SOMA isn’t just an argument. It’s an intriguing horror title that doesn’t conform to ephemeral shock value, instead opting to ponder over what makes us human, what makes us different.

Because surely, it can’t just be the soma.

 

Overall Score

89/100

Inside Out: I Feel So Far Away..But There’s The Big Picture

NOTE: Spoilers for Inside Out follow.

Inside Out didn’t feel like a Pixar movie. After first watching it, there was something about it that just felt cold, and distanced. This isn’t to say that the movie was devoid of that  familiar approach of whimsical meaning; in fact, Inside Out is abundant in the touching messages that have come to encapsulate Pixar over the years, such as love, individuality and solidarity amongst the ones you love. And when compartmentalised, Inside Out seems comprised of all the ingredients of previous Pixar movies. When watched, however, it becomes strikingly apparent that Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen were following a different recipe.

inside out screen
What surprised me most about the film was how alienated I felt from the rich and wonderful reality Pixar usually offers. The world depth of Inside Out is contrastingly contained, as we perceive the realities of Minnesota and San Francisco by way of a screen denoting Riley’s vision. In the first moments of the film, we see the birth of Riley through the coincidentally delivered Joy and her awareness of the world through the mind’s observatory window, this distance all the while making it cogent that this is very much a story about our mind, and our experiences.
In turns out that Joy, in addition to a spring in her (and Riley’s step), has more control issues than Marie Barone of Everybody Loves Raymond. Of all the emotions, Joy has known Riley the longest, and as such assumes that things are naturally better when the rose-tinted glasses are kept on. She, “has no idea” what Sadness does, but actively seeks to sideline her, for fear of making Riley upset.

doris roberts

Okay, maybe not quite as many control issues as Marie Barone. And a little less menacing.

Much, if not most of the film, is devoted to Joy’s character development. The more she and Sadness traverse the inner workings of their host’s (un)consciousness, the more she begins to realise that she can’t do all of this on her own. Riley can’t be happy all the time. All the while, we’re watching the effects all these things have on Riley, through both her emotions’ screen and within her own contained environment. This constant switching between worlds; the profound, psychological referential tone was part of what made it difficult for me to really connect with Inside Out’s characters, but equally what brought me to realise that that detachment is what drives it as a metaphor for its audience.
Although Joy, much like a caring mother, only wants Riley to be happy, she finally allows Sadness to affect Riley, in order to receive comfort and reassurance from her parents. Consequently, Riley’s unhappiness transpires as a vital role in our development as human beings, and the distance created between the world of the film, and the audience, makes this concept easier to comprehend in terms of our own experiences. It turns out that sadness has a knack for asking for help when we truly need it, and Inside Out teaches that asking for help when we’re suffering is something we shouldn’t feel burdensome about.

hugging
On their travels through the numerous memory banks of the bordering adolescent, Joy and Sadness encounter Bing Bong, who arises as a figurehead of one of the central messages of Inside Out.
A lot of what Bing Bong is is pure nostalgia. He’s undoubtedly a creepy-looking chap, and it’s trying to deny that he resembles the result of what years out of work did to the Cheshire Cat, but the sheer amalgam of his character captures well the impulsive nature of the child mind. Three year old Riley’s hotchpotch creation is a comforting jumble of favourite things, that had me harkening back to my own kindergartenous inventions, as opposed to, again, really engaging with the world of Bing Bong. Maybe I’m a violent egocentric.
However, this state of mind did set me up for one of the most heartbreaking, yet uplifiting scenes in the film.
After Joy and Bing Bong are cast into the void of the ‘Memory Dump’, Bing Bong decides to remain forgotten, whilst emploring Joy to resurface and  “Take her (Riley) to the moon for me”. Whilst this captures the necessary sacrifice in order to feel happiness again, Bing Bong’s evaporation represents Riley’s drift from imaginary dependence, which will ultimately allow her a better connection with the world when it comes to obtaining goals.
In so many animated films, the sacrifice of such innocent characters is seemingly blasphemous. In Monsters Inc. I couldn’t help but feel that Sully’s severance with Boo, firstly argued to be for the best (“kitty has to go”), was rendered obsolete by the reassembly of her door at the end. Perhaps in other family films, the ‘Riley’ might’ve still come to accept her impending maturity, without making sacrifices like letting go of Bing Bong, but the fact that Inside Out doesn’t appear to promise that things will always be A-okay forever validates the theme of emotional honesty better than any of Pixar’s prerequisites do. Even when Joy replies in the Memory Dump scene, she whispers not “I will” but, “I’ll try”, because that’s all any of us can do.

Bing_Bong_crying

And so the cinema became ripe with sniffles.

Although Inside Out is something of an odd cousin in the Pixar family tree in terms of how story and world is presented, the film is still, unmistakeably Pixarian. It communicates that yeah, this is what life is about. You’ll make sacrifices. You’ll lose touch with ideas or desires that you once had (another example is brought up by the comic scene in which the mother imagines her marriage to a Portugese smooth-talker: “Come fly with me, Gatinha!”). But you’ll also make sacrifices that were worth it (such as Riley’s sacrifice of her joyful exterior to accept help from her parents at the end), and without those things you wouldn’t be who you are now. Unlike the trite optimism often expected of animated films, Inside Out doesn’t explicitly promise anything; it just accepts that feelings are what generate our sense of humour, our family and friends, our interests and our honesty (reflected by the various islands of Riley’s personality), and whatever does happen will allow those respective islands to develop. It’s when we stop that things decline.

inside out goofball island
The world of Inside Out isn’t as involving. Docter swaps out wacky invite for the familiarity of life, which makes the viewer’s understandings and interpretations much more vital to Inside Out than to previous Pixar films, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just reinforces that this one is more about how the story is told, and what that means.