Solium Infernum already has its fans, but more so than the original, it feels as if this remake, given its extremely specific brand of prolonged negotiations and conniving, will live and die by whether it grows that dedicated audience. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Solium Infernum is that I very much hope it finds one so I can play more of it.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that one can pay to A Highland Song is that—unlike any number of games that mark traversable areas in, say, white splotches or yellow paint—it doesn’t feel obviously designed. There are areas in the game that you’ll never reach on a single run, forcing you to make decisions if you want to make it to Uncle Hamish’s lighthouse on time. A Highland Song’s rendition of the Scottish Highlands scans more as a natural space than as a bespoke puzzle, a world instead of a playground. Here, the hills are alive.
That’s how so much of Thirsty Suitors feels to play: stylish to look at and perhaps pleasurable in the moment yet ultimately quite shallow. As a whole, it’s a bundle of middling mechanics carried by strong writing. The story may be about Jala coming to terms with her past while she figures herself out, but the game itself never settles on a cohesive vision of what it should be.
Once we stop sharing in Yasna’s discoveries, the storytelling never quite clicks. Apart from a few stiff flashbacks, players simply don’t get to know enough about Yasna’s fellow researchers to get invested in how their fate drives her search for answers. Yasna’s quest feels detached rather than desperate, with all the game’s themes coldly laid out in dialogue choices. The Invincible does remain reasonably engrossing through to the end, but it never recaptures the interactive vigor of its first half, eventually becoming a bout of scientific calculus on autopilot.
But all that feels incongruent with the game’s source material. Perhaps it’s a bit naïve to hope that any social commentary can survive decades of franchising, but Rogue City’s handling of RoboCop leaves hardly a trace of his origins as a commentary on police violence and militarization. All the time you spend clomping around the faithfully rendered interior of the police station is in service of selling the cops as a force for good, with RoboCop’s actions emphatically meant to make the world a better place. There’s even a dialogue option to call the police a “family,” now totally decoupled from standard sci-fi corporate malfeasance. Rogue City has clearly put a lot of thought and effort into replicating the world of this character, but it does so within a mechanical and narrative framework that never quite fits.
That El Paso, Elsewhere works at all as a drama is a huge achievement. It tackles weighty topics with a maturity that’s rare in gaming, and which is all the more impressive given that it does so within the framework of a shooter that suggests a Halloween attraction as curated by John Woo. It’s emblematic of the game as a whole—a bizarre amalgamation of parts that shouldn’t work yet manages to form something cohesive, soulful, weird, and deeply personal.
Trepang2’s default control scheme even neglects to map the crucial slide maneuver to any button, only triggering when you crouch while sprinting. This can be changed in the options menu, but the oversight speaks to how the game, which launched on PC back in June, hasn’t been rebalanced particularly well for its console release. As frustrations mount with the final level’s poor autosave and maddening boss fight, it becomes clearer than ever that a console is far from the ideal venue to experience this flawed yet inspired shooter.
But the non-linear nature of The Cursed Crew does have its virtues. There are some magnificent moments of discovery where you feel as though you’ve circumvented the level design by maneuvering the right character into the right position to bypass certain guard setups or parts of the terrain. Simply by spending so much time with the characters, you’ll hit upon certain combinations of abilities independently, fine-tuning new strategies all the way up to the end. It’s in these moments that you see what the developers are aiming for, and they suggest that The Cursed Crew could be a tentative step in an exciting new direction for the studio, even if those elements are more notable for how they might be refined in a subsequent release.
Only toward the end does Venba hit upon a cohesive solution for both its story and its puzzles. The perspective shifts from Venba to Kavin, whose complicated relationship with his parents’ culture reframes the friction inherent to the game’s cooking segments: He has difficulty because he hasn’t prepared these dishes before and hasn’t cared to pay attention. Furthermore, his grasp on the Tamil language is rusty, so while he can refer to instructions at the top of the screen, they’ll be inaccurately translated and require the player to experiment while surmising their true meaning. This late change allows the game to finish strong, though the irritation of its earliest puzzles never quite dissipates, like a lingering taste from a dish whose flavors don’t fully cohere.
As for the MFN offices, they’re full of detailed memorabilia like posters, props, and episode scripts, to the point where simply taking it all in is perhaps the game’s main appeal. There’s a tangible love and care that has gone into making the game’s equivalent of Sesame Street studios feel plausible, as well as a clear delight in warping our memory of a show that opened up a world of imagination for generations of children into something darker.
Other UI irritations abound, serving only to further complicate an experience at odds with itself for how much information it wants to communicate at a given moment. On the whole, Jagged Alliance 3 lays some strong groundwork for the franchise’s resurgence, but it often feels like a series of individual victories that fail to work in concert for something greater.
Experimenting will more often reveal methods that do not work rather than validating the loading screen’s impossibly lofty claim to player freedom. Further, the resource scarcity that drives the game is hardly conducive to experimentation, doing more to keep you strictly on the path of least resistance. What motive is there to waste a precious gas can on some hare-brained scheme when you know for sure that it will work just fine in the generator? Certainly the more restrictive means of progression in The Bunker has its own pleasures even within a more open framework, but the game insists on calling a shot that it has no hope of making.
Nothing we see here matters because it’s all been made up for puzzle-solving. As such, the weirdness of the game’s mystery and its visuals is practically obliterated. It’s good, then, that The Tartarus Key squeaks by on the strength of its puzzles alone, because the connective tissue between them seems determined to strip the game of narrative intrigue before our very eyes.
The more fantastical elements of Redfall fail to impress, but the everyday detail of its setting manages to shine through, surfacing little stories left in the wreckage. The problem is that, even if you’re willing to dig for those moments, they’re still overshadowed by the glimpses of another, larger story: the one that explains how Redfall came to be released in such a state as this.
Much of the game involves strategizing around these quirks when possible. Upon snapping a guard's neck, for example, the "guilty conscience" trait sends your character hopping around in an uncontrollable panic for a few brief yet potentially pivotal seconds during which they might blunder into a trap or the sightline of another guard. To circumvent this, you can take care to kill exclusively (and presumably more impersonally) with weapons, or you can drag each body to some secluded area where it's safe for your assigned agent to shake off any post-murder jitters.
But for as pleasant and intermittently clever as it is, Storyteller’s breezy style comes at the cost of any real complexity. Because the game’s variables and statuses are meant to remain hidden in order to avoid overcrowding the screen with information, none of the puzzles can ask very much of the player. It avoids providing too many illustrations to experiment with and too much information to keep straight in your head. A few of the later puzzles demonstrate how easily this spareness can devolve into tedium, with several that require you to establish the family ties between dwarves. Though Storyteller has its share of clever moments, the game never quite finds the depth beyond the cozy archetypes that make up its exterior.
I’d be able to forgive these UI foibles if they contributed to a cohesive thematic style. The busy interface of a game like Highfleet appears even more inscrutable than Phantom Brigade, but it funnels its droves of information into a gorgeously intricate cockpit UI. The sliding gray menus of Phantom Brigade, on the other hand, are bland and indistinct. The bare-bones story and setting, with their anonymous blue and red factions, could very well pass for a placeholder. The game’s unique command system manages to capture what is so intrinsically awe-inspiring about giant, fickle robots battling other giant, fickle robots — but the surrounding framework lacks the same refinement and clarity of purpose.
Perhaps Colossal Cave’s unthinking fealty to the original, and its seeming dismissal of so many of the innovations that might have improved it, could be forgiven if it featured any puzzles or mechanics that would be tough to replicate in a modern design context. But no such innovations are apparent, and new touches like the first-person camera create new problems like making it easy to miss important items in the cave. Colossal Cave, then, can hardly be called a “modernization,” because it would have felt antiquated even if it came out 20 years ago.
Faith’s visual and mechanical variety, as well as its one-button simplicity, helps obscure whatever rules it operates by. Sometimes the “save” function briefly changes, and sometimes a pivotal moment takes place from the ordinary overhead camera view rather than in the elaborate rotoscoped cutscenes, just to keep you on your toes. Faith’s masterful sense of timing and mood create a truly rare feeling of persistent uncertainty where anything can happen. The game manages to be frightening because of its technical constraints rather than in spite of them.