Rime Review [Nintendo Switch]

From a glimpse, RiME hits all the right points in presenting itself confidently among other contemporary artful adventure games. It has a distinctive art style, emotionally pounding soundtrack, and a sad yet touching story about a lost boy — yet none of those things feel completely its own, and through all its emotional elements, it seems to lack what matters most, and that’s heart.

You play as a boy who wakes up on a desolate island. With no explanation or context you’re free to roam around.

As you wander through what appears to be ancient civilization left in ruins, you are subtly guided with aid of a wild fox, but never are limited to explore at your own pace. You’ll encounter puzzles primarily solved using the environment around you by shifting certain items, playing with shadows, and other visual elements. The puzzles are easy, some of which I solved on accident almost immediately before understanding what it was that I had to do in the first place.

With easy puzzles and seemingly safe environment, it was hard to pinpoint the importance of doing anything. From the start we’re faced with a tower in the distance, obviously pointing the direction we should be heading. But why that was a priority for a boy that supposedly washed up on shore, didn’t really seem to make a lot of sense.

The stakes are raised, however, when encountering the game’s most prominent foe — a giant bird creature that tails you from above for more than half of the game. Here the creature takes an important object for progressing forward, but again, what we’re progressing towards still seems to have no relevance.

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Thankfully, the story behind the boy is unveiled as the game progresses using its environment, and collectibles hidden throughout the world, giving the player somewhat of an objective to explore in order to understand what’s going on. But unfortunately we’re left only with hints, most of which don’t make sense until the game’s somewhat underwhelming and cliche ending.

Environments do vary from an open peaceful seaside, to underwater ruins, but still maintain a similar gray blocky theme throughout, which becomes dull fairly quick.

To its merits, it is much longer than other games of its genre. However, after my 7-10 hour playthrough, I’d make the argument here that length is only as important as the value gained from the experience, and in this case RiME could have benefited from some heavy trimming.

RiME doesn’t utilize any of Switch’s features such as motion controls or its touch screen while in handheld mode — and that’s okay. It does however suffer from severe framerate drops that occur consistently. Most of which happen randomly with no indication of the game doing anything taxing to the hardware. This is my first rodeo with the game so I can’t compare its performance to its PS4 or XboxOne release. But I’m hard pressed to think it’s due to any limitations of Switch given its current library which seemingly has much more demanding titles. I can only hope that there’s a day one update that addresses its performance.

RiME’s strongest traits come from it’s design, and artistic direction, but fails to implement anything new to the genre. It has a little bit of everything from environmental storytelling, puzzles, and exploration, but it doesn’t do any of things particularly well or original.

What we’re left with in the end is a hollow attempt at trying to be some its better contemporaries. And by never truly fulfilling its own identity, it all comes off trying a bit too hard, making it more self-indulgent than rewarding for the audience.

Given Switch’s currently library, RiME does fill a much needed gap in its genre of art focused exploration puzzle games such as Journey, ABZU, Unfinished Swan, and the like. So those eager for a unique experience, especially on the go, RiME answers some of those prayers. Just be ready for a inconsistent performance, easy puzzles, and lackluster pacing.

Switch owners solution to games like Journey and The Witness, this is not.

Sylvio 2 Review

When Sylvio first came out in 2015 it was something of a diamond in the rough. A psychological horror game where ambitious design, haunting sound and atmosphere, and truly a original game mechanic, made up for most of the game’s shortcomings such as its visuals and at times wonky controls. Now, two years later, Sylvio makes its return with Sylvio 2, but instead of growing on the strengths of the first one, we are left with an empty shell, narrowed down only to its most core mechanic, leaving for a repetitive experience, with so much more — once again — left to be desired.

Picking up after the cryptic ending of the first game, you continue as Juliette Waters, an audio recordist specialized in EVP — or, better known as ghost recordings. Juliette wakes up in an empty apartment, buried underneath ground by a landslide. She finds a video recording system that captures both audio and visual to allow you to capture EVP recordings, and communicate with the deceased residents of the estates. Juliette escapes the mound, only to learn that Saginaw Park (the park she explores during the first game) has been completely flooded, leaving nothing but a stretching body of water.

She finds a boat rusted and abandoned where she manages to contact Captain Walter via a radio, where she learns that her boyfriend Jonathan is out there looking for her. With only coordinates left on a post-it note to go off of, she ventures out into the sprawling water, island to island to find her boyfriend, and to further explore the mystery of what happened to the residents of Saginaw Park.

 

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Using the S-I-GHT, a ship navigation system, you’re free to explore any island from the start. The rides are very long, with nothing to see on the journey. Fortunately there’s a bed in the main cabin where you can sleep, making it something of a fast travel.

Once you arrive to an island and enter the mound to the buildings buried beneath it, gameplay consists of wandering back and forth from white dots marked around the area, recording audio and visuals, playing back and forwards the audio, then moving to the next point in the area. Though this is doesn’t differ from the first game, a tremendous amount of mechanics have been stripped from the sequel such as puzzle solving, open world exploration, and the occasional run in with a ghost that you’d have to shoot down using a blunderbuss, not to mention the actual ability to use your microphone to track down recordings and the direction you should be heading. Instead, Sylvio 2 opts out for a much more automated experience, leaving only movement, and messing with audio to your control. Picking up EVP recordings is now done automatically by simply getting close to a glowing orb. Though it’s core mechanic of deciphering audio is Sylvio’s most prominent feature, it becomes repetitive and boring in Sylvio 2 without the variety of the other mechanics.

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The open sprawling areas of the first game, covered in a thick red mist, trees, and varying buildings, has been traded for closed claustrophobic rooms that are completely pitch black, which at times are indistinguishable from one another. The water above is a nice change of scenery, until I realized that that’s all it is — sprawling empty water, where all the islands are nothing by mounds of shiny black mud.

A welcoming return from the first game is the amazingly haunting sound design. Though it’s established very quickly that this isn’t a jump-scare horror game, the sound was enough to send chills down my spine and make me squirm with unease. Especially in a particular scene where I had to conduct a seance — I was squirming and panicking, desperately wanting the scene to be over. It was great.

Much like the first, it manages to be as frightening as it is calming. There’s something so oddly satisfying about rewinding and fast forwarding the audio to find hidden messages. Though, at the same time, it’s eerie and unsettling. But it manages to make you feel like you’re genuinely decrypting the signs of the afterlife.

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Voice actress Mia Hansson Bergqvist also returns to reprise the role of Juliette Waters. Her performance is reserved and soft spoken, which I found very effective for the character.

Sylvio 2 takes all the things that made Sylvio 1 unique and special, and strips it down to its one main core mechanic: recording and deciphering audio, with the exception of adding a visual component this time around. Though this was Sylvio’s standout feature, it’s elements of puzzle solving, open exploration, and the occasional run in with an apparition are what made Sylvio an original, calming, ambitious standout title.

By the time the credits rolled, I was left conflicted and overwhelmingly disappointed, still hoping that at any moment the true sequel I was hoping for would suddenly make an reappearance. The first game was inspiring, leaving a tremendous amount of potential displayed. Sylvio 2 does much the same in some ways, but ultimately feels more like enormous step backwards, leaving so much more to be desired.

I must make it clear that Stroboskop, the developer of Sylvio, is a one-man-show. So there are elements of the game that I’m forgiving of a certain polish these games lack. But I admit, there’s a part of my that makes my heart hurt expressing my dislike for a small one man dev, but it’d be a tremendous disservice not only to developer Niklas Swanberg, but myself, if I didn’t give my honest opinion on this game.

I think Sylvio 1 remains a brilliantly ambitious and mysterious game, that displays ideas and atmosphere unmatched in any game of its genre.

Kurt Indovina
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Opinion: Thimbleweed Park relies too heavily on nostalgia

[This is a spoiler free article on Thimbleweed Park. This is not a review.]

Upon its Kickstarter announcement, Thimbleweed Park is a game that I’ve been looking forward to since late 2014. At its heart, it’s a nostalgia project. Like so many other Kickstarters for point-and-click adventure games, it used the nostalgia of the genre’s heyday to sell itself: a self-proclaimed “LucasArts adventure game you’ve never played before.” But what separates this adventure game Kickstarter from all the others are its developers: Ron Gilbert—arguably the godfather of the graphic point-and-click adventure game—and Gary Winnick. The duo that brought us the 1987 classic Maniac Mansion.

To say it simply, adventure games are my favorite genre, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit just how excited I was to get this game. But after putting 6.5 hours into Thimbleweed Park, I’m left with a conflicting judgment: Where should the line be drawn between trying to develop a good game, and simultaneously make something that embraces the nostalgic roots that influenced a game’s existence in the first place? Even more importantly, where do I stand with judging the developers who’ve practically created the genre?

Within moments of starting the game, you are immediately reminded that you’re playing a pixelated point-and-click adventure game. Ron Gilbert wastes no time breaking the fourth wall, and has his characters cracking jokes about the tropes of classic adventure games. At first, this got a chuckle out of me. But it didn’t take long until I realized this would be a common theme in most of the conversations I would have in the game. So much to the point that I was being taken out of the experience, and felt completely removed from the narrative of the story: solving a murder in the small town of Thimbleweed Park.

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Being taken out of the game is a frustrating contradiction to what has made this genre so important to me. I love adventure games for their immersion. Because they’re a “play-at-your-own-pace” style of gaming, and rely almost solely on story and atmosphere to drive the player forward, it forces the player to step into the world, rather than speed through it. It influences the player to relax when other games heighten them. I’ve always preferred adventure games over other genres for this reason.

Gilbert’s constant wink at the players almost feels like he has to remind you that he was one of the creators of the genre. Like he’s giving you a proud shoulder nudge, met with an exaggerated smirk, and saying “yeah, that was me. I created that.”  It feels like he’s trying to prove his worth to the audience, as if they forgot about him, which clearly isn’t the case, given that the Kickstarter’s success could be directly owed to his name being attached to it.

It’s strange—the constant reminder of the basic mechanics of the genre feels like it could be intended to tell a new audience the rules of the genre, like saying “this game was expertly designed to have no dead-ends or deaths.” It’s something longtime fans already know, but it equally feels like it could be patronizing to a new audience of the genre. It doesn’t allow them to figure out how the game works on their own. Whether or not that was the developer’s intention? I don’t know. I’m speaking not only as a player, but also a long-time fan of the genre, and I’m annoyed on both ends. It alienates newcomers.

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Give yourself a nice pat on the back, Gilbert.

Contrary to what I’ve said, I’m enjoying the game quite a bit. Actually, it’s really good. Its pacing is like none other I’ve played in its genre. It moves fast, while still giving the player time to experience their environment and discover at their own pace. Its soundtrack sets the mood immediately; the settings are wonderfully varied and well crafted; and the characters are unforgettable. And as the game progresses, the references become much less frequent.

But despite all that I like about it, the experience has left me asking: how much nostalgia is too much? Where is that line drawn between trying to please fans, and making a good game? In this case, Thimbleweed Park is good, but I can’t help wonder if I’d be enjoying it more if it just took a step back from itself.

I also think it’s safe to assume Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick made this purely to satisfy their own need to make a game in the genre that they helped create. And with that respect, I totally get it: artists and creators should make what they want to play. At the end of the day, Gilbert is the artist, and artists can do whatever the they damn want. He did, after all, create the engine Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion (SCUMM) that all Lucasarts point-and-click games were made with in the 90’s. So more power to him.

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Get it?

Thimbleweed Park does, however, represent some of its nostalgic references right. X-Files and Twin Peaks are deliberate influences, but take a back seat in developing mood, atmosphere, and story, opposed to telling the player that they were influences within the game. Also, there’s good references to past adventure games, specifically when a character refers to his cousin Bernard (a lead character in both previous Gilbert projects Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle) is a quick nod to previous installments in Gilbert’s works, but done right.

Gilbert and Winnick set out to make a game that would reward longtime fans, and by doing so, risked alienating a new audience. And whether or not that was their intention, or should have even taken that risk, is debatable. I just didn’t expect that I would be one of those feeling alienated.

I also have to admit that I have an ongoing dilemma with nostalgia, and our reliance on it to make something interesting, like we’re not capable of accepting new ideas unless it refers to something we already know and love. Someday down the road if I have the time, I’d like to elaborate more on our obsession with nostalgia.

So how about you? Do you utterly disagree with me and love a good fan pleaser? Or is there another game of recent times that has made you feel same way?

A list of adventure games of recent years that I love:
The Dream Machine
The Journey Down
Kentucky Route Zero
Machinarium

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-Kurt

Keeping game development in New York State

“Brain-drain.” It’s a term that’s been tossed around my city of Rochester, New York for a long time. All Rochesterians, businesses, and educators alike are aware of it. It’s the idea that folks come from around the world to receive our education (especially in video game development), and then inevitably leave for work elsewhere. And in most cases, it’s the West Coast. Why? Because right now, that’s where the video game industry is.

I, admittedly, was one of them. A few years back, I left Rochester for Seattle, Washington — which at the time, I didn’t really have a reason or intention; I just wanted to go. Of course I knew Nintendo was there, and so was Microsoft, but I hadn’t known initially going there that I’d somehow end up working at the former. It was also there where I gained a newfound appreciation for Rochester. While in Seattle, I had crossed paths with a few people who went to school at Rochester Institute of Technology, and then left after graduating to work for Microsoft, Bungie, or one of the other 250 game studios in Seattle. Hearing this not only brought a much needed enthusiasm over Rochester, knowing that my small home city was pumping out credible talented individuals, but also left me begging the question: “What are they doing here? Actually, what am I doing here?” Eventually, I came back.

Now, I need to put all my cards on the table here: I am not a college educated individual. I went to a community college briefly for a degree in fine arts, but never finished that degree. With that said, I may not have educational credibility to my name, but there is credit to my work (more on that in this post). I’m also not claiming that Rochester will benefit from having my brain, but it is clear that Rochester can be more than just a hub of education, but a city of great minds, and it needs all it can get.

The brain-drain also goes beyond upstate New York, but all of New York State. In fact, New York State is just about ready to do anything to keep our young minds here. New York State governor Andrew Cuomo has created a free-tuition initiative specifically for SUNY graduates. As long as they stay in New York State after they graduate, they don’t have to pay their tuition. That is, unless they come from a family with more than a gross income of $125,000.  It’s a major catch. The plan has been met with opposing thoughts, and rightfully so: it’s pretty slippery. I don’t know if keeping graduates prisoner here is the answer, but the optimist in me wants to think it might be the nudge to shift where the industry grows next, even though, really, it’s a cheap trick.

There are efforts being made elsewhere, with less restriction to a graduate, such as the NYS Game Dev Challenge hosted by R.I.T. (I’ve mentioned this in past posts, and plan to elaborate more on it soon). The challenge is currently happening, with submissions closing on April 24, 2017. The contest is open to anyone who is a New York State resident (hobbyists and students alike).

Lastly, there’s the not-as-mentioned, as much they should be, Vicarious Visions. An Albany-based AAA game development studio that’s currently developing Destiny 2 and the Crash Bandicoot N’ Sane Trilogy.  I had the pleasure of listening to Vicarious Visions’ producer Kara Massie speak at the NYS Game Dev kickoff event, hearing her inspiring story of moving around the world from Canada to England, until she finally settled in Albany at Vicarious (her presentation can be watched below). So in short: there’s things happening here, cultivating a game industry all-its-own. It’s just a matter of educating others that it exists.

Rochester is a moderately small city, and aside from being known as a place to be educated on technology, medicine, and game development, it is probably most famously known for its culinary monstrosity the garbage plate. We can do better. And hey, don’t get me wrong – I love garbage plates. But what if we were the city of game development and garbage plates? That sounds a bit more enticing to me. And in a weird way, they kinda seem to go hand in hand.

– Kurt

Also, I nearly forgot. I started a Twitter account for VGCandC. So please, follow it.

I wrote this while sitting at Ugly Duck Coffee and listening to Future Islands’ The Far Field. “Cave” was a song that stuck out to me in particular.

What I read this week: Rumble by John Arcudi and James Harren.