Quadrilateral Cowboy Review

The “hacker” fantasy has been prominently ingrained in pop culture for over three decades, now. The Matrix. Swordfish. Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Pretty much every Cyberpunk property, ever. Hackers, obviously. An intellectually-focused power fantasy for these digital times. No matter who you are, with the drive to learn the right programming techniques and the skill to apply them, your imagination is the only limit to what you can achieve. It’s easy to see how we bought what they were selling.

Hacking as a mechanic in games has often taken a back seat to the action. From Bioshock’s erroneous Pipe Maniaesque approach to rewiring Rapture’s automated security robots to Deus Ex’s strategic node-mining method of cracking systems, accuracy has given way to simplicity. After all, if hacking’s not the main focus of your game, why expend so many resources on building a realistic system? For the purposes of those games, an abstracted puzzle loosely labelled hacking would suffice to provide much needed non-combat friction for the player.

The most notable game to attempt to fully embrace the hacker fantasy would be Watch_Dogs. Yet even the least informed person knows that your actions as a player in that game more closely resemble wizardry than they do the approach of a hacker. The world conveniently throws you hotkeys that you use to exploit your environment; you don’t crack any systems or craft any commands. Aiden Pierce (I had to google “Watch_Dogs protagonist” to remember that name, by the way) had done all of the hard work for you: he’d burrowed his way into the citywide OS and devised all of the shortcuts to utilise its hardware. Sure, you got to play with the toys he handed to you. But what’s the joy of Lego that you didn’t build yourself?

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Enter Quadrilateral Cowboy. The newest and most mechanically-ambitious game from indie developer extraordinaire and Blendo Games founder Brendon Chung, Quadrilateral Cowboy aims to capture the feeling of using your tools and ingenuity to bend the world to your will. It wants to give you a small glimpse of that long-elusive hacker fantasy.

God damn, does it do a good job.

It’s alternative-universe, cartoonishly tongue-in-cheek dystopian Cyberpunk 1980. As a Blendo Games cardboard-person armed with a bleeding-edge hacking deck “outfitted with a 56.6k modem and a staggering 256k RAM”, you’ll pull off a series of high-paying heists to further expand the range of tools at your disposal.

You’ll jack into each level under the guise of a virtual reality simulation carried out by you, the hacker of your heist group, to scope out and oversee the route for your agents. As you progress through the levels and encounter obstacles such as locked doors and laser traps, much of the gameplay mechanics revolve around the operation of your Deck to write programs (typed as code on your physical keyboard) that allow you to surpass such problems.

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It’s a vital and quickly-taught skill, then, to memorise the proper syntax and rules for writing your desired demands into your programs. Opening a locked door labelled “door9” for three seconds, for instance, would require the command “door9.open(3)”. The expanding language you’re required to learn is simple enough to be easy to remember throughout the game, yet complex enough to feel rewarding every time you successfully pull off a command- especially when you’re juggling more elaborate programs later on in the game.

Don’t be put off if that sounds like a lot of hard work: there’s always a safety-net in the form of in-Deck “help” commands that list off your options and their required syntax.

Each time you complete a job, your character purchases a new tool to get to grips with in the next level. You’ll get your hands on a remote-controlled robot and gun-packing suitcase that you’ll control from afar with the help of a CCTV screen, jump pads, and more interesting gameplay-expanding gadgets as you progress through the game.

If I had to name the closest cousin to Quadrilateral Cowboy gameplay-wise, it would be Portal. Like Portal, you’re constantly encouraged to experiment with your instruments and apply logical thought to overcome the obstacles in your path. You’re constantly encountering new mechanics and adding feathers to your hat, always pushing at the boundaries of what you can do.

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If I have one major criticism of Quadrilateral Cowboy, it would be that it doesn’t quite live up to that implied potential for iteration. Every time you add a new and interesting gadget to your belt, the item is heavily focused on for the current series of jobs before taking a back seat to the next shiny addition to your arsenal. “Mastered the remote-controlled robot? Cool- now put it down for a while, try out this new toy!” I would’ve rather seen levels that continue to make full use of your collection. There’s also a run of levels in the mid-to-late game which lose most of the focus on the central Deck mechanics, and while they were interesting from a story context I found them a poor fit for the game.

Still, it’s great fun to throw your tools and programs at anything Quadrilateral Cowboy throws your way. Although the game is an homage 80’s Cyberpunk stories that helped spawn the unrealistic hacker image, it’s easily the most honest and fleshed-out realisation of hacking as a gameplay mechanic to date. As you crack your knuckles and tangibly knock out lines of code to solve the problem ahead of you, you’ll feel like the genuine article, rather than some tech-shaman like in Watch_Dogs.

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A pure mechanical exercise of this quality would’ve made a fine diversion, but Quadrilateral Cowboy isn’t satisfied with settling there. It is a Blendo game, after all. There’s a poignant emotional core to the game as you progress through the story. A substantial amount of the run time of the game is spent hanging out with your friends between missions. You can click your way through a short, hilarious text-based adventure game written by one of your pals, engage in some light badminton, and pore over components as you build your home base together. It’s not “just about the job” for your character: you’re a part of a group with history, for whom this dangerous life-on-the-fringe is about the means rather than the ends. This game is full of details that punctuate Blendo Games’ sheer adoration for this game’s world and the works that inspired it: tiny, almost understated touches of humour and love that elevate the game from an interesting experience to a damned memorable one. This low-poly love-letter to Cyberpunk has a very human heart beating amongst all the wires and command lines.

Quadrilateral Cowboy offers a truly unique experience. It’s rare for a game to offer mechanics with such wide and experimentation-savvy parameters. Yes, there’s not an absolute wealth of content on offer. But with levels designed from the ground up to encourage replayability as well as extensive mod support, I think most people will see plenty of playtime past the end credits.

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Enter the Gungeon Review

The most recent game to get the Devolver Digital publishing treatment, Enter the Gungeon is a top-down bullet hell shooter with roguelike trappings in the manner of Binding of Isaac and Nuclear Throne. Developers Dodge Roll have created a game that’s worthy of those comparisons; Enter the Gungeon oozes quality, personality, and moment-to-moment excitement in a package that’s likely to hook you in for just-one-more-go for ages after you meant to stop playing.

You’ll control one of four protagonists that seek the Gun That Can Kill The Past, a legendary weapon found in the Gungeon- an ancient subterranean complex where pretty much everyone is obsessed with guns.

The four characters that you control all come with different starting weapons and items. The Marine starts out with a helmet that grants extra armour, an ammo drop, and the starting pistol with the most rounds. The Pilot starts with a lock pick that allows him to try to open loot chests without expending precious keys and a small discount at the Gungeon store. The Convict starts with an extra weapon, the sawed-off shotgun, and briefly deals extra damage if hurt. Finally, the Hunter has a (adorable) dog that increases her chances of finding items like health, ammo and keys on clearing rooms, as well as a crossbow alongside her starting sidearm.

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The Marine is clearly intended as the starting character with his large pistol clip and extra armour, so I spent much of my time playing as him. When I got more used to the game, though, I started to gravitate towards playing as the Pilot and the Hunter for their increased item-finding capabilities. I think that the four characters are different enough to subtly cater to different play styles, while similar enough that it’s never too jarring to swap between them multiple times per session as the fancy takes you.

Gameplay-wise, Enter the Gungeon functions like a faster Binding of Isaac with more degrees of freedom. Your character can be moved in eight directions, however you can fire your guns with the full range of circular freedom, making navigating enemy bullets while returning fire yourself feel smooth and responsive.

A major mechanic to master is the dodge roll; Gungeon takes a leaf from Dark Souls’ book by featuring a dodge roll with invincibility for the first half of the manoeuvre. This means you can leap right through enemy fire and you won’t take damage if you don’t land in a spot occupied by bullets. The game makes sure that you understand these basic mechanics early on with a quick and clear tutorial segment, pointing out that the invincible portion of your dodge roll is when your character is diving through the air. This is more important as one might initially think because you’ll be rolling around often enough that you’ll instinctively know the length of space that you’ll be able to dive through without taking damage.

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Another important method of staving off foes’ bullets is Blanks. You’ll start out each level with two of these, and activating them clears every hostile bullet in the room while knocking enemies back. These can be crucial when you encounter new enemies or bosses with unfamiliar or difficult-to-dodge attack patterns, and are very useful if you find yourself in a pinch. Enter the Gungeon certainly understands the need to ease players into its bullet hell.

Setting foot into the Gungeon itself, you’ll crash through doors to reveal new rooms in Binding of Isaac style. You’ll flip up tables to provide temporary cover, roll explosive barrels to catch would-be ambushers in powerful explosions, and drop chandeliers onto unwitting enemies’ heads. The snappy, fast-paced combat paired with the gung-ho nature of turning the environments to your advantage gives the game the feel of a John Woo movie mashed with a quirky, Sci-Fi/ Guns-and-Sorcery aesthetic. The balletic chaos is empowered by environments packed with incidental and destructible details- tables are stacked with books and plates that scatter across the floor when flipped, along with any other obliterated objects caught in the crossfire.

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There are five levels of the Gungeon, each with their own general look and feel. The first level is the newest and most well-kept, with lots of libraries, lavish halls and walls alive with lively paintings and portraits. But as you descend levels become more decrepit and complex, and your foes more sinister.

You’re likely to repeat each level- especially the first two or three- a lot; Enter the Gungeon is a roguelike, after all, and death is always a silly mistake away. The game retains a feeling of progression, though. Beating bosses awards you with Hedgemony Credits, a persistent currency that allows you to “buy” guns from the Hub World to unlock their possibility of being dropped in the Gungeon. You’ll also stumble across and help out NPCs on your travels, who range from vendors of new guns to providers of side quests.

It helps to have this meta-progression because, like most roguelikes, you can have both good runs and bad runs. Sometimes you won’t drop enough keys to open precious loot-bearing chests, forcing you to take on bosses with your weak starting weapon. Sometimes the loot that you do get just isn’t the right tool for the job. You’ll often find yourself scrambling for money, just short of the few coins needed to buy some crucial power-up. Progression is always within reach, though, even when luck isn’t on your side. The strength of the roguelike style of play is that you’re forced to make do with what you’ve got, and while your potency is stunted on unlucky runs, you’re still very capable of dealing decent damage and battling through the hardship.

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Enter the Gungeon is characterised by its chaos, but the way the game’s designed makes that bedlam manageable to learning players. The visual design of the game is key here- enemy bullets are bright red, and pop against the enemies and environmental details within the screen’s real estate. Your fired rounds are varied in design depending on the specific gun you’re using, but they’re always distinct in their own way, too. This means you’re immediately aware of where the danger is onscreen even when you’re facing down up to a dozen targets attempting to hose you down. Even with tens, even hundreds, of individual objects onscreen, you should instinctively know where you need to dodge and weave given a bit of experience.

The gameplay is well designed, responsive and inherently gratifying, but Enter the Gungeon isn’t content to stop there. The world and its Gungeon are obsessed with guns, and the sheer dedication to laying on brilliant puns over the dungeon-crawling aesthetic is impressive. Your standard enemies are large bullets that fire guns at you, and they’re so adorable that I’m seriously considering hunting down their likeness in plush form. Most enemies are a twist on classic fantasy genre characters, though. There’s a boss based on the Beholder creature from Dungeons and Dragons, except here it carries guns and is called the Beholster. There’s a sentient, skull-faced cannon ball called the Cannonbalrog. Ghost versions of the normal bullet enemies are named Hollow Points. It’s sheer genius, and the game just keeps coming out with this originality with such aplomb that I can’t help to be endeared to the world and characters.

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The commitment to variety doesn’t stop there, though. The list of unlockable and lootable guns in this game is long and filled with weapons both classic and bizarre. You’ll pick up AK-47s and shotguns, yes, but a surprising amount of the available death-dealers are either clever references to all manner of pop culture (from James Bond to Mega Man to Ghostbusters), or wacky original ideas like the Huntsman (a shotgun with an attacked axe that swings about to block bullets when you reload), The Silencer (you throw high velocity pillows at enemies) and the Pitchfork (shoots fireballs). It’s always exciting to find a new gun and relish whatever novelties it might bring.

If I could level any criticisms at Enter the Gungeon, it’d be that there’s a bit of a slump when you move towards the level where you’re trying to unlock shortcuts to complete the game. You’re required to deliver items to an NPC to repair lifts so that you can start a new run in a specific level of the Gungeon, but the requirements are quite a tall order and you’re sometimes held back by successive unlucky runs that don’t provide enough of the needed items or currency. It’s needlessly frustrating in a game that otherwise mitigates irritation so ably.

Enter the Gungeon is a goddamn party. It’s big, silly, guns-blazing Hong Kong action movie set in a detailed world that knows how not to take itself seriously. It’s one of the hardest games out yet this year, yet it’s designed to train and inform you so that you’re always aware of just how you faltered when you succumb to the challenges of the Gungeon. And when you do, you’ll hit Quick Restart and leap right back into the action again.

SUPERHOT Review

It’s not often that a game comes along with an idea so elegant, yet so simple, that it seizes your attention and imagination as soon as you see it in action. SUPERHOT is a game where time only moves when you do, slowing to near-standstill until you move your character in any direction. This stroke of genius allows you to perform incredible feats of action, separated as you are from the limits of your reaction time. The only question was whether SUPERHOT Team could build a compelling game around that golden concept.

So, the core mechanics: while you’re still, time moves at a crawl- that largely pertains to enemies and their bullets. Move, and time moves as normal until you stop again- you can use this to your advantage to, say, zig-zag to dodge incoming bullets once you see their trajectory and outmanoeuvre enemies. Once you’re near enough to an enemy you can punch them to disorient them and make their weapon (often a gun) fly up in the air, which you can then catch and turn back on them.

Actions on your part- shooting, punching, grabbing items- nudge time forward a few milliseconds, which might be enough time for an unseen bullet to catch up to your one-hit-killed character. It also means you need to learn to lead your shots relative to where the enemy’s going to be. Luckily, enemies are killed by a single bullet or melee weapon hit, or three punches. Any holdable weapon or object- including guns- can be thrown at enemies to disorient them and make them drop their weapon, as well as to block incoming bullets. Sometimes you’re forced to turn the environment, as well as obvious weapons, against your aggressors to come out alive. All of this results in a system where you’re presented with dozens of options for experimentation in any given situation. Can I block that unavoidable bullet with a bullet of my own? Yes you can. Can I lure that enemy into friendly fire? Yes you can. Most importantly, can I slice airborne bullets with this katana? Yes. Yes, you can. It’s awesome.

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You gain more abilities as the game goes on, but I won’t spoil them here. Mainly, though, you’ll be experimenting and finding out incredible new ways to combine your base skills and that variety only increases going into the late game.

There are three main guns- the pistol, the shotgun, and the automatic rifle, and they each behave differently whether they’re in your hands or enemies. I quickly learned to deal with shotgun-toting enemies with haste, both to get that deadly thing in my hands and to remove that threat from the map. The pistol is nice and accurate, as is the rifle which fires three bullets in succession for every shot- meaning you can put down several guys very quickly, but you’ll need to account for the continual march of time while you’re locked into shooting those bullets.

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SUPERHOT’s tradeoff between the ease of dealing and suffering death means that things can get pretty tense, and very hard. Short levels and quick replays lend a sense of immediacy to the game, though. The sense of momentum and weight as well as the actual nature of gameplay makes it feel like you’re playing Hotline Miami through the eyes of a character in a Zack Snyder slow-down-speed-up fight scene.

SUPERHOT’s aesthetics also really, really work well for the game, in both an eye-catching and practical sense. The crisp visuals are colour-coded to keep things clear (a must for the hectic encounters); the environments are rendered in white, enemies in red, and weapons and useable objects in black. Black bullets leave a sharp red trail, making them pop vividly and obviously against the white background. The glass mannequin-styled enemies shatter when dispatched with bullets or melee, really giving emphasis to the sense of weight and motion. It also looks awesome.

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Levels in the story mode are designed to feel like short encounters: get out of this lift alive; survive in this melee arena; take out everyone in a bar after taking out the barman. It’s a really cool way of injecting variety into the game, separating it into little bite-sized chunks ripe for oh-just-one-more play.

The story missions and plot are very reminiscent of January’s Pony Island. The narrative is that you’re on your computer, which has a ASCII style interface (see the pertinence of the Pony Island comparison?), and you’re playing a version of SUPERHOT that you’ve illicitly downloaded from the game company’s servers. Sadly there are no puzzles wrapped up in this interface; it’s just used as a base menu to select game modes from and receive narrative, mainly through the chat window. While SUPERHOT won’t win any awards for its writing, I thought it had a fitting and at times thought-provoking narrative that accompanied the story very well for its 2-3 hour duration, taking clever turns and employing some 4th-wall-breaking tricks that might have been more surprising if Undertale and Pony Island hadn’t stolen the 4th-wall cake so recently.

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Those 2-3 hours are just the surface of the game, though; there’s a ton of stuff to do after the credits roll. Firstly there’s a challenge mode which offers up the same levels seen in the story mode but with a variety of changes. Katana Only mode only allows you to use a katana; no punches, guns, or throwing environmental objects, just death on the end of your swung or thrown blade. AD2013 mode lets you play through the story with the graphical style and rules of the original version of the game, out of the 2013 game jam that was its inception. There’s a good few challenge modes on offer alongside these, and I fully expect a community to form around the speed run modes.

Endless mode is another area I think the hardcore crowd will flock to. You’re dropped into an arena and simply kill enemies until you’re dead. I think this mode will be great for people who just want to plug away at a pure combat challenge, or just blow off some steam for a few minutes.

On completing a level in any mode you can review the replay of your performance to upload to SUPERHOT’s own social media site, Killstagram. It’s also a brilliant method of breaking up the action between levels, as well as showing you what a badass you were if you watch what you just did without all the time stops. You can edit the replay, uploading either a whole level’s worth of your skills or selecting a short section to gift to the world. There’s already some really great stuff up on Killstagram, if only to serve as a reminder of how much of a scrub I am compared with some people.

There’s even a couple of mini games hidden away in the menus that’ll distract you for a few minutes. A personal favourite of mine being Tree Guy, where you control a little character that needs to chop down a tree while avoiding its branches that descend along with the shortening tree trunk.

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All these additions, large and small, mean that not only does the main story not overstay its welcome, but it can do so guiltlessly since you’re left with a substantial amount of game once you’ve polished off the levels for the first time. Each tightly crafted encounter already has a ton of replayability, but that’s expanded considerably with the chance to run at it again with completely different tactics available to you. It’s at once a great use of assets and a wonderful way to help people get their money’s worth out of the game after finishing the story experience.

SUPERHOT takes a great idea and runs the hell away with it. It’s an incredibly fun, attractive, narratively engaging and eminently repayable game that makes you feel like a grinning badass, and an experience that I find appeals to the reflexes and puzzle-solving mind at an extremely satisfying level. There’s a narrative reason (which I won’t spoil) why people are calling SUPERHOT “the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years”. I think that’s a label the game deserves.

Oxenfree Review

Oxenfree is a game that stands with one foot in the past and one in the present. On the one hand, its narrative is all 80’s and 90’s horror, with a group of teenagers spending the night on an island when events take a strange and deadly turn. On the other hand, it’s a smart character-driven drama with an extensive and intelligent dialogue system that feels like a smart next step for NPC interaction mechanics. Night School Studio might not deliver on Oxenfree’s promising full potential, but it’s still full of great ideas.

Protagonist Alex travels with her best friend Ren and new stepbrother Jonas to Edwards Island for the night in what’s apparently a yearly tradition for teenagers from their hometown. Not as many people have turned up as normal, so they’re only met by Clarissa, a girl with an axe to grind with Alex, and Nona, a girl that Ren has a thing for. Like I said, classic 80’s horror. After a brief game of truth or slap (it’s better than truth or dare, Ren says, because no one ends up having to lick unpleasant body parts), the kids play about with tuning a radio inside a nearby cave, which opens a supernatural rift and kicks off the paranormally charged night.

An adventure game-style experience, Oxenfree concerns itself less with puzzles and more on interesting interactions between the cast of characters. The player can almost always wander about the environment as Alex while picking dialogue options from speech bubbles that appear above her head. This is Oxenfree’s big, sweet innovation; integrating a telltale games-style dialogue system without switching between controllable gameplay and interactive cutscenes.

Allowing you to chime in on conversations to contribute to group discussions, or to stay quiet and listen to the cast of characters interact, Oxenfree’s dialogue system feels like a natural progression of the mechanic. Unfortunately, it’s not perfect- sometimes talking up interrupted someone else talking, while other times Alex waited until they’d finished talking to speak, and these results seem governed arbitrarily. Sometimes my clicks didn’t register on the speech bubble I wanted, resulting in either frenzied, repeated clicks on the fading bubble or in missing my opportunity to speak altogether. That said, this problem was intermittent at most, so didn’t amount to much more than a niggling annoyance.

A good dialogue mechanic wouldn’t be much without engaging writing and interesting characters, and Oxenfree does pretty well in this area. There’s a lot of dialogue in the game, often allowing you three distinct choices, which leads to a monumental number of potential conversation paths and outcomes. The characters have pretty diverse personalities and are pretty well written, although a touch more earnest than real life teenagers might be. They all avoid ending up as the clear-cut horror staple characters that they initially seem like they might have been, and in a way that feels subtle and realistic rather than a forced attempt to make the characters feel “well rounded”. Your dialogue choices affect Alex’s relationship with her friends, and although the plot isn’t massively altered by your decisions, it still feels like your choices are having an impact because the characters believably react to your words and actions.

Apart from dialogue choices, the rest of your time in Oxenfree is spent navigating Edwards Island’s several beautifully realised areas as the plot unfolds. I really dug the game’s handcrafted visual style, even mores when supernatural stuff starts happening. Sometimes you’re stuck in a paranormal event and the screen warps and tears like you’re watching a juddering VHS tape, hammering home the nostalgia that the narrative evokes in a smart, tonally consistent way. Paranormal activity is often given away with an effectively ominous red glow, and when the game started playing with reflective surfaces and ghostly figures juddering in and out of view with a flash of VHS-style tearing and a harsh spike of static I jumped and was legitimately creeped out.

You use your radio a lot, tuning into otherworldly frequencies and solving minor puzzles. The radio is fiddly and a little bit frustrating to tune as it scrolls through frequencies fairly slowly, which does harm the pace of the gameplay a bit, but in a smart move you can keep walking around as you use it (although this isn’t helpful that often, it’s a nice touch).

Oxenfree’s narrative is very strong, and it’s bolstered with that genius dialogue and well written, compelling characters. The game does an excellent job of gripping you and urging you to solve its mystery, yet I do find myself thinking that the narrative would be better if it had a bit more time to breathe and develop, though. While the ending was interesting, I do feel like that portion of the game happens and concludes a bit too abruptly. It’s still good; it’s just not quite as satisfying as what the game felt like it’d been building up to. I completed the game in one session in just over four hours, and while Oxenfree has multiple endings, I don’t think they’re different enough that you should rush back to replay the game right away.

The narrative isn’t just about a supernatural menace; like all good stories, it’s about more than that. In large part it’s about dealing with death; Alex’s elder brother Michael passed away about a year before the events of the game. The way that she and others who knew him deal with it is handled intelligently, and the way that it affects the relationships between the characters feels honest and accurate. Death is messy and sad and makes people feel powerless because there are to answers to the question of how to deal with it. The event and these themes bleed into and colour the story in a thought provoking and fulfilling way.

Oxenfree is a game that made me feel driven to pursue little narrative extras; like my Alex, I was just as fascinated as I was scared by the island’s horrors. A highlight for me was later in the game when if you tune into a certain radio frequency in each area, you can follow a clue to find a letter which uncovers a little bit more of the backstory on the island. By that point I was interested enough in the world Oxenfree had built that I had no problems with trekking about the entire island and uncovering most of these optional tidbits.

Oxenfree’s real strength is not in its narrative thread, but in the way it prioritises its character writing and crafts mechanics that make you feel that bit more involved in a conversation that most other games have managed.

Oxenfree puts on a very strong performance and compels from lots of angles, but ultimately suffers for its length and a lack of satisfying puzzles in the main story. That said, it’s an excellent way to kill an evening or two, and distinguishes itself as a thoroughly unique and worthwhile experience.

Image credits- polygon.com

Pony Island Review

It would be a shame, a real damn shame, if even one person misses out on Pony Island based off of its name. But give the game just a few minutes of your time, and you’ll see that it’s much more than you might think. In the words of Daniel Mullins Games, it’s “a suspense puzzle game in disguise”. And it’s brilliant.

On the Steam Storefront, Pony Island is quick to distinguish itself. Just a few seconds into its autoplay video, it downright tells you that it’s not what it seems; it’s more than a cutesy pony-themed runner platformer, hinting at a narrative that’s altogether darker. It knows the danger of people skimming past it, and takes sure steps to draw people in. You play as a person trapped in purgatory, forced to play a game programmed by Satan himself: “Pony Island”. The twist is that while he can lock you into unbeatable loops, enticing you to sell your soul in order to make it stop, you can “hack” the game to cheat your way past his unfair levels.

The runner parts consist of your pony running towards the end of the level, while you control its jumps and shoot lasers from your mouth to navigate barriers and oncoming enemies. Honestly it’s a little bit dull and quite unforgiving, which makes them all the more frustrating as you must restart each section if you so much as brush against an enemy attack or barrier. There were a couple of occasions where I was driven to shout at my screen while my pony was sent to the start of the finicky, repetitive level again. It controls fine, but there’s small margin for error and it can really grate.

It’s in the other, thankfully more prevalent parts of the game where Pony Island gets really interesting. Much of the game is taken up by hacking puzzles and sections where you delve into the arcade cabinet’s files to delete core programs to bring yourself closer to freeing yourself. You’re trying to find places of low security among the arcade cabinet’s files, and the game is just short enough that each time you have to find a new way to initiate or carry out a hack, you’re pleasantly surprised at each little show of design ingenuity on the part of Mr Mullins. The game’s constantly coming up with these “gotcha” moments; even on the game’s opening screen, the “Start Game” option needs to be fixed by going into the options menu and checking on the “Fix Start Game Button” option from there.

It’s a quirky little early puzzle, but sets up the board for a frankly astounding array of clever little moments throughout the game that I won’t spoil for you. The game knows how to unsettle you, making you second-guess your every move.

In a word, Pony Island is subversive, and if you enjoyed the fourth-wall-breaking and player-tricking moments from the likes of Batman: Arkham Asylum, Undertale and Metal Gear Solid, this is a game that takes those elements and runs with them for its duration in an effort that more than earns it a place among those games.

Of course, these interesting puzzles wouldn’t be much use without context to string them all together, and Pony Island lays out an excellent, unique narrative. Satan is a delicious character, although it’s not clear what the game’s getting at with his arc. Is he a commentary on developers who exploit in-app purchases? Or is he a budding designer that really wants to make a good game? Or is he a designer that’s passionate about his project, yet is forced by his job to implement exploitative design? I’m not sure. But it’s still a joy to play out the game, and it speaks volumes that a game can make me ask such questions about its narrative after only a couple of hours.

Pony Island, then, is a game that glued me to the screen with its cleverly interwoven narrative and ingenious puzzle mechanics. It’s just the right length at just over 2 hours long, and for £3.99 it’s a fair exchange rate for a game that’s sure to blow your mind a number of times. Since the game has caught some decent traction, I won’t be alone in paying close attention to what Daniel Mullins and co come up with next.

If you have a little bit of time and £3.99 to spare, I can’t recommend Pony Island enough.

Image credits- metro.co.uk

That Dragon, Cancer Review

We come across a lot of tragedy in entertainment media. Earthquakes, tsunamis, murder, kidnapping, and countless more events of dire destruction or injustice are translated to page or screen so that we can understand them as a part of the human experience, bringing us closer to events than our desensitisation to the nightly news allows us normally. It’s not very often that you come across a piece of media depicting tragedy of the kind with which you’re intimately familiar.

That Dragon, Cancer is a game that plays out the heart-wrenching story of creators Ryan and Amy Green losing their infant son Joel to cancer. It plays through the family’s emotional journey as Joel’s cancer treatment progresses, punctuating stylised real life events with dream sequences to describe the enormity of the shadow that cancer cast over their lives.

The game starts out just before Joel starts cancer treatment, following the milestones of the last few months of his story. Not that it’s all about devastation; in fact, much of the game focuses on all of the happiness that the family enjoyed in their short time together, as well as dealing with how the parents reconciled their faith with their terrible situation. It’s sad, but the game doesn’t linger on that, instead focusing on the meaning of hope in the face of futility.

It was a hard game for me to play. Cancer has touched my life, too, but in the opposite case than the game presents, having lost my dad to cancer as a child. It was pretty startling to see the differences and similarities between my personal experience and Amy and Ryan’s. The game is powerful, and surprisingly unflinching at times. A lot of sequences hit very close to home, like one scene where doctors give Joel’s prognosis and you switch between the thoughts of everyone in the room, and a section where you pluck messages from bottles floating in the sea and read short letters from different people with experiences involving cancer. Ryan and Amy seem to open their arms to all those that have watched a loved one fade to oblivion. As many of any of us, they know what that is. They know that many of us know too. And they’ve condensed all those experiences, every turn on that dark path, and in some sequences rendered them with bone-chilling clarity. 

Not all sequences are as powerful; a couple throw speed bumps under the steady pacing and tone, and I think that the dream sequences could have been more consistent with the game’s much more powerful “real” scenes. But it’s clear that this inconsistency, and these shifts in tone, are the result of an honest attempt to capture the tumultuous emotional state of the family during the course of Joel’s illness. I can’t help but admire the candid honesty that Ryan and Amy deliver in their game.

The guided story holds your hand through heartbreak and hope as the game tells its tale. Sometimes you just watch a scene play out, and sometimes you’re given a small amount of control, like pushing Joel on the swings while audio snippets play in the background, or you lie beside him and gently stroke his head as you both drift asleep. The game flits between these moments that define the family’s story, pausing for a moment to linger on each one before moving to the next; you experience the story at your own pace, as befits a game with such a heavy subject matter.

That Dragon, Cancer is a game that put my head in my hands. It made me cry (in several sequences), and while I finished it in one two-hour-long sitting, at times it was difficult to keep playing because it hit so close to home. But I felt it important to keep on experiencing the game because it’s a piece of art that grabs your hand, leads you through its story, and makes you think. It reminded me of events that I haven’t wanted to think about for many years, but I feel better having done so. This is the power of games that strive to do more than entertain. You’ll think about life, love, hope, faith, family, and a great many other things, both through the lens of the Green family and for yourself.

That Dragon, Cancer is flawed, and it’s emotionally difficult to endure, its pacing suffers from needless and poorly executed stretches of play, and I’m not sure I can recommend it as a product with an asking price of £10.99. Yet I’m glad that it exists, and I’m glad I spent time with it. That speaks volumes to its worth as an experience. 

Image credits- thatdragoncancer.com

Dr. Langeskov: The Middle Finger to AAA

A few days ago, a curious little game appeared on Steam. A “complimentary” game (that is, it’s free, not free-to-play but completely free) from new studio Crows Crows Crows, Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist (hereby referred to as Dr. Langeskov, because DLTTaTTCE:AWH, while amusing, is a pain in the arm to type out) has made quite the viral impact on the gaming community.

It’s a really interesting little experience. Fans of The Stanley Parable may recognise the name William Pugh as on of the main designers alongside Davey Wreden on the standalone release, and that makes sense given Dr. Langeskov’s similar style of narrative and game design. If you haven’t played the game yet, then you really should invest the 20 minutes it takes to play through the thing. If you need a little bit more context to pique your interest, then I’ll give you as broad a summary as I can: you’re following instructions from the disembodied voice of Simon Amstell to run several environmental effects, backstage in an action heist video game.

The game is spearheaded by Amstell’s wonderfully awkward character (think Wheatley from Portal 2) as he struggles to keep the game running with the fictional game company’s backstage crew on strike, hence the need for the player to work the effects for an unseen player’s benefit. The game feels like a bit of a poke at game development companies whose employees are mistreated or overworked, especially in light of recent revelations about Konami, as well as the more obvious Stanley Parable- esque commentary on player-game interactions.

Although limited in scope, Dr. Langeskov is a very tightly crafted piece of work. Although made using the Source engine, the environments shine through the placement of lots of visual gags including post-it notes and letters of resignation from disgruntled employees of the fictional development team of the game. The real charm comes from the excellent writing evident in Amstell’s narration, along with his natural talent with comic timing and pacing. While I didn’t laugh out loud, I was certainly smiling the whole way through the game.

I’ve got to say, this is a hell of a way to introduce yourself to the world as a new studio. Crows Crows Crows (these guys are really into names that are a pain to type, huh) have produced a delightful gem to showcase their considerable talents, and it’s really payed off; I’m sure a ton of people will really pay attention to whatever they turn out next. And I really hope that’s the case. Because in a world where the AAA companies seem afraid to experiment and push boundaries in favour of safe money, it’s great to see that this small team is very willing to to produce a very polished little experiment, so that next time, players know that their offerings are worth the money.