Darksiders Review

One of the most cherished game tapes of my generation’s collective childhood.  One of the most cherished games of all time.  The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Darksiders is kind of like that game…  A hacky-slashy, open worldy romp and overall good ol’ time.  You’ve got fire worlds, water worlds, lush planty green worlds.  A big sword.  Big chests to smash open.  The hookshot.  Epona’s gothic other half.  Bosses.  Mini bosses.  Z friggin’ targetting.  

In closing:  Darksiders is a blatant, utter ripoff of the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and I couldn’t be more satisfied.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery — this is not generally applauded in video game land, but this game is an impressive exception.

B+

Heavy Rain

I was an avid fan of Indigo Prophecy (or Farenheit) despite the ridiculous supernatural direction the plot ultimately took.  This idea of the “interactive novel” is something that deeply resonates with me.  Games like Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, The Dream is Always the Same and Ico are among my favorite games because of the acute emotional responses they evoke from their audience and intentionally vague plot which yields to individual interpretation.  The gameplay may be toned down, but the emotional gratification and immersion can be quite astounding.

Heavy Rain is arguably the pinnacle of games offering this sort of entertainment at this point.  So many moments in the game had me at the edge of my seat, clutching the controller tensely, as I punched buttons interacting with the characters on screen — in real time.  This one-to-one feedback is really the root why the gameplay works so well.  Taking a step back, this gameplay is nothing that hasn’t been done before.  Quick Time Events (QTE) blew up a few years ago and have been used ad nauseum in countless games since.  God of War, Resident Evil, and a generous assortment of character action games have used this mechanic to death, but when this is the only mechanic present in Heavy Rain besides traversing the character across terrain that is is not slammed by criticism and reproach?

I’ve always found people’s quarrels with QTE’s to be rather hyperbolic.   Critics have felt that such gameplay segments are lazy excuses not to have actual gameplay.  

Switching tracks, its interesting how people seem to fall two sides on this game.  There are those who find the “compelling” narrative and dialogue to be the hook of the game.  The gameplay is simply means to progress through the story.  On the other side lie the people who find the story unoriginal and the dialouge and voice acting mediocre or terrible, yet find the gameplay the most engaging. 

I personally find myself leaning towards the latter.  While not the most original, the narrative was interesting and believable to some extent.  The voice acting was what really got to me.  The decision to have European voice actors doing American accents came out as awkward and unbelievable.  

Overall my experience with Heavy Rain was incredible.  It was everything I wanted it to be.  I’m excited to see if other developers take note of what this game does and try to offer similar experiences, transgressing the line from simply a game to something that offers a heightened emotional experience.


— March 2010

Alan Wake Review

Remedy’s psychological thriller casts the player as Alan Wake, a renowned thriller writer with a serious bout of writer’s block.  In attempts to reawaken his creative process, Wake and his wife Alice journey out to the quaint mountainside town of Bright Falls in the Pacific Northwest.  Unfortunately there was a serious miscommunication is the purpose of this seemingly innocent getaway.  Upon arrival to their isolated lakeside cabin, Wake realizes that this was no innocent vacation, but a much thought out plan to get him to start writing again. In Alice’s eyes, the town of Bright Falls would provide the perfect setting and inspiration for a novel, that piled with a typewriter and an appointment with a doctor specializing in helping troubled writers, Wake would finally write his next masterpiece.


In typical fashion, eerie mountainside towns are rarely all that they appear to be.  Years prior to Alan Wake, another writer ventured to Bright Falls for the same purpose, but after he had begun writing his next novel, parts of his writing came to life around him.  A mysterious dark presence within the town had manifested itself into the prose, breathing life into it and marrying the horrifying fiction with reality.  Unfortunately, such is the case for Wake.  Amidst the quarreling about misconceived motives, Wake’s wife goes missing, a dark presence swallows every trace of sunlight, and crazed locals with sharp weapons start coming out of the woodwork.  Unsure whether he is dreaming or awake, he knows he must find Alice. Problem is, everything happening around him is a twisted bastardization incarnate, and he has no memory of writing any of it. All he know is that he must bring the unfinished manuscript to a conclusion in such a way to save his wife and to destroy the darkness for good.

In the Dark, but certainly not alone.

Alan Wake does some interesting things in terms of narrative and presentation. Presented as a t.v. miniseries, the game is divided into six episodes — each ending on a cliffhanger with a ” Previously on Alan Wake” recap of the story so far. Fortunately the narrative component is also here, so that piled with such a stylized cinematic presentation give the game great personality. 

The first half of the game is a juxtaposition of mysterious dreams and alternate reality gameplay sections — it’s hard to distinguish what is reality and what is happening in Wake’s mind.  As a narrative driven game, Alan Wake does a few interesting things.  Most notably the variety of mediums used expanding upon the fiction from different angles and perspectives.  Pages of the unfinished manuscript Wake has been writing are scattered throughout the game.  The pages are all out of order, so they typically either serve as a foreshadowing tool or they describe parts of the game you have already played as you would read in a thriller novel.  In addition, Wake narrates throughout the game in real-time as if putting pen to paper, or pressing keys on a typewriter; working on a manuscript for his next novel.  The fusion of such brooding and mysterious audio and visual elements with the variety of story-telling mediums makes for a masterfully cohesive and immersive narrative experience.

Unfortunately, the game ultimately contradicts itself and breaks the immersion through its rote and repetitive gameplay.  Alan Wake is a narrative driven game, and as such, aims to immerse and engage the player as much as possible through this compelling narrative.  However, while that narrative is engaging (albeit confusing), the game proves to be a little too “gamey” for it’s own good.  

Numerous comparisons can be drawn from Alan Wake to a Resident Evil 4 or Condemned.  Swap out the laser sights in RE for a flashlight and thrown in some of the unnerving hoodlums from Condemned — and you got it. Darkness is the enemy here. Darkness as an ominous physical entity in the game possess objects and people with the sole purpose of harming you.  The Taken are the brooding enemies that once again seem inspired by the zombie-like enemies a la Resident Evil 4 and 5.  Empty souls retaining echoes of their former selves.  

When first encountering the Taken they are rather unnerving and terrifying: they appear from nowhere en masse and ruthlessly attack you wielding axes and chainsaws.  However, for some design choice, someone thought it would be a good idea to give them totally bizarre voice snippets.  ”Omega -3 fatty acids are good for your heart” or “keep those cholesterol levels down” are among the gutteral mutterings that can be heard. 

Flashlights, flare guns, flash bangs, and flare are used in coalition with guns to bring down the Taken.  Stunning enemies with a beam of light diminishes their protective aura of darkness and makes opens them up to attack.  It’s not just people that become possesed, but debris like rusty poles, slabs of concrete, enormous spools of cable.  Being chased by a pissed off combine harvester with nothing more than a flashlight is terrifying.

"In a horror story, not everyone is safe. Not even the protagonist."  Unfortunately, such is the case for our hero, Alan Wake

The last third of the game is undoubtedly the low end of the experience. It involves Wake making his way across the town to save his wife.  Being held captive by the mysterious dark forces.  The gameplay devolves and becomes disappointingly formulaic.  Each section is a sequence of battling enemies and making your way from point a to point b; a relay race.  You’ll probably start out by hopping in a car and driving for a ways, running down all the Taken you can shine your headlights on, then ditching the car and lambing it on foot when you get to a barricade preventing you from driving any further, and finally you’ll battle a few hordes of Taken in a holdout point while waiting for the elevator to get to you, or perhaps a bridge to be extended to you.  Now, this last stretch of the game is by no means bad, it simply lacks the driving force of the game — the narrative.

Alan Wake is a great experience overall.  The story is gripping and complex, perhaps a little too much for it’s own good.  The problems arise towards that last third of the game.  Once the mystery is unveiled and the questions have been answered, the game loses steam fast.  For how confusing the plot is for the most of the game, the payoff isn’t really there — you’ll likely guess the twist early on.  Once you know why these dark forces are trying to kill you, and what happened to your wife, the game shifts gears.  Rather than mixing up the pace with action segments, cut scenes and short exploration sections, it becomes a straight up action game.  While Alan Wake wasn’t quite a home run, the game does leave room for a sequel, so hopefully Remedy will nail in the next installment.

** SCORE: B - **

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