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.
These issues are not unique to “The Devil in Me.” “The Quarry” often felt uneasily patched together, struggling to reconcile all of its plot threads. All of this raises a question that haunts the experience of Supermassive’s games: Amid players’ expectations of visual fidelity and complex narrative, how sustainable is a format where, at any point, any fully voice-acted, motion-captured character can die and be cut from the game in an instant?
While such digressions, to be fair, are optional, the game does encourage you to poke around every corner of its vibrantly rendered world to ensure that you’ve got the facts straight. In the end, though, Pentiment excels less as a mystery game and more as a portrait of a community. Because as a mystery to be solved and a mediation on how stories evolve over time, its focus wanders and ironically comes to fixate on elements like presentation and background lore that can all too easily overwhelm the basic tenets of telling an engaging story.
By the time the parasite does finally obstruct your ability to use machines or change weapons, the damage is already done. There are few enemies left and the game is almost over, so whatever additional tension might have resulted from these restrictions never materializes. Scorn is a transportive experience to be sure, at times a genuine masterwork of visual craft. But the unfulfilled possibilities linger a little too prominently, a reminder that it falls short of being a mechanical masterpiece, too.
Of course, these late-game inconveniences also speak to something rare and refreshing: Immortality isn’t designed for convenient completion because it’s fully comfortable with the player not seeing everything. It’s confident enough to merely suggest certain details and concepts, giving us glimpses of certain prickly edges and troubling dynamics without falling back on an overt explanation, a tidy conclusion, or even a break from the verisimilitude of the “found footage” format. It’s an impressively layered work, filled with conflicted thoughts on the concept of the auteur, the collaborative process of art, and the prospect of going too deep in the service of expression. Rather than a clean moral or cautionary tale, Immortality opts for something messier, more complex, and far more likely to endure.
Sephonie’s thematic scope is admirably wide-ranging, but its wordiness only crowds a game whose mechanics are tenuously connected. For a game that concerns the interconnectedness of all things, it’s unfortunate how awkwardly some of its pieces are glued together.
Playing Weird West, it’s hard to shake how much more gracefully other games of this type avoid similar pitfalls, with the abbreviated scavenging of Void Bastards and the easy-to-read interface of Desperados III, another western with a top-down perspective, immediately coming to mind. The latter game also supports far more complex maneuvers despite lacking the sort of pointless granularity that has the player comb through indistinguishable shelves for a handful of ammunition. By contrast, Weird West is a slog dying for an extensive streamline.
Where other isometric games of this sort heavily telegraph areas and objects that you should return to later, the levels here subtly fold in on themselves in ways that are both slyly hidden and obvious in hindsight. Tunic appears unassuming and even a little routine on the surface, but it constantly reveals how clever it is every time it encourages us to take a closer look.
Details like the cause of the disease and how it spreads are unclear, though it doesn’t appear to be fatal. Much of the game involves simply existing in the midst of this incident, experiencing the story while trying to hold certain relationships together as things grow more grave. The slow progression of the disease lends itself to tear-jerking melodrama, but the characters’ horror is quiet and largely internal. Occasionally, they verbalize their fears, but mostly their memories just gradually and inevitably falls away, like leaves in autumn.
Though Sifu features a few dialogue choices and scenes throughout its campaign where you don’t have to fight anyone, its surface-level engagement with martial arts film iconography betrays a lack of humanity that feels typical of works created well outside of the culture that they intend to depict. The game’s story grouses about the downsides of seeking vengeance, but this is plainly the work of people who like to fast forward to the fight scenes.
That emptiness only becomes harder to ignore when the story foregrounds itself, pulling you back for chats with your AI partner or scattering insipid post-apocalyptic lore documents all over the levels. For all of Solar Ash’s sense of genuine, thrilling speed in its mechanics, the game fails to muster any sense of accompanying narrative momentum, content to warm over imagery and ideas from Anno Hideaki’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, Shadow of the Colossus, and countless media inspired by each. Solar Ash reaches for awe and splendor somewhere beyond its overall poverty of imagination, succeeding occasionally yet also suggesting that the wordless storytelling of Hyper Light Drifter had been the right way to go.
And because the atmosphere encompasses so much of Sable’s appeal, the technical issues can be absolutely ruinous. When the bike disappears into the ground, when the menus break, or when Sable passes straight through an object that she should be able to land on, the illusion collapses and we’re left not with a vivid sense of place, but with a video game where the mechanics are all a bit of a chore. With its restrained approach toward collectibles and its rudimentary traversal, Sable attempts to depict exploration for the sake of exploration, but in doing so it only clarifies that such a concept is not necessarily as enticing as it sounds.
Psychonauts 2 in particular is a game of surprising psychological insight, full of rich, flawed characters at the end of their ropes. If so much of this game is a reiteration of what worked about its predecessor, it functions as a reminder for just how much of the medium is still catching up to Psychonauts.
Further glimpses into this breathtaking universe are often reward enough for exploring the game’s multitude of alternate paths, but even GRIME’s level design is surprising for featuring a world much larger and more complex than it appears as you discover involved platforming challenges and optional bosses. Though GRIME emerges into an almost comically overcrowded genre, its initial familiarity and rigidity belie a world of intricate and formidable imagination.
The Forgotten City certainly doesn’t need to answer the philosophical questions that it poses before it’s allowed to examine them in a narrative context, but the ludicrously tidy conclusions to the main story and most side quests feel like substitutes for any deep engagement. The game handily transcends its mod origins and tells an ambitious and thought-provoking story, but it eventually reaches a point where it doesn’t seem sure how to end.
Eventually, each story hurriedly resolves itself, foregoing tidy lessons or ironic endings but still lacking that crucial, elusive sense of lived-in authenticity. For as much effort has clearly gone into voicing and animating these characters within their 3D environments, we never spend enough time to seem like we really know them; quirks of the game’s strict linearity ensure we remain at a distance, observing relationships that are otherwise too thinly sketched to sustain the game’s emotional ambitions. Last Stop eventually arrives at an all-too-familiar game-design destination, hamstrung by its attempts at verisimilitude.
Where other games tend to have a greater purpose and complexity behind more granular mechanics that demand closer attention from the player, Biomutant remains a rather simplified, if overstuffed, game of loot-hoovering. In practice, you’re still chasing objective markers and wandering salvageable areas in hopes of spotting the “interact with object” indicator. But while Biomutant’s breadth of options does indeed make that familiar process more rewarding than the norm, it never quite offsets the accompanying increase in tedium.