Hello Neighbor Review [PC] – It Might Be Best Just To Say Goodbye

Hello Neighbor, developed by Dynamic Pixels, has a rather intriguing premise. You witness your neighbor seemingly locking someone in his basement and, like any curious youth might, decide it would be a grand idea to sneak in and investigate. But, what begins as a decidedly simple cat and mouse escapade quickly devolves into a major test of patience and endurance.

There are a few things that Hello Neighbor gets right. The look and feel of the game accomplishes a fine amalgamation of the cartoony and sinister. Even though I was able to quickly get past fears of getting caught (more on that later), the basement sections, in particular, felt appropriately eerie. The bizarre nature of the world itself from the odd puzzles to your neighbor’s increasingly labyrinthine homestead adds to the underlying feeling that something is terribly off about this whole thing.

Also, despite the bright colours and Pixar feel, Hello Neighbor tells a decidedly dark story. The strange nightmare sequences that intermittently crop up, the unnerving atmosphere, and the outlandish, sometimes even supernatural, elements make up a poignant story aptly told through inference and artistic representation. That is not to say that every little thing will make complete sense in the end, but Hello Neighbor is an interesting foray into the human psyche. It is all the more unfortunate, then, that this foray comes with such a high level of frustration and lack of polish when it comes to gameplay that many will find the journey too much of a burden to complete.

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The game takes place in three acts, with the player beginning as a young kid and ending with you as an adult. The first act is fairly straightforward. You need to find the key to the basement without the neighbor catching you. It is during this period that you can say goodbye to any tension the neighbor snatching you up might have initially caused – the reason is because it will happen so often. Fortunately for you, even when you do get caught, the game does little more than set you back across the street with all the items you were carrying still in your possession. Since the house is so small at this stage, it will only take you a few moments to get back where you were, so gathering the nerve to simply charge right back over the fence won’t be the source of anxiety it arguably should be for a horror title.

Unfortunately, the AI is rather spotty. So, sometimes your neighbor will hound you like a dog, and other times you will wonder what is taking him so long and why he is repeatedly wondering about a room you almost never go in. In the case of the latter, just be glad you got lucky. In case he starts hounding you, get caught a few times in an area away from where you need to be and he will eventually start looking for you there.

In the later acts, particularly act 3, you can go for long spans of time without running into your neighbor due to the colossal size of his increasingly fort-like home. But, you will have new frustrations in the form of puzzles that, for lack of a better term, just make absolutely no sense. Well, that is not entirely true. Some make sense. But, all too often you will find yourself wondering where to go and what to do.

The main issue with many of the puzzles in Hello Neighbor is that the game does a poor job of implementing a consistent logic. There are times when I made something happen and had no idea what I did or how I did it. Often, it is a game of trial and error. Worse still, the game will sometimes require you to grab items from far corners of the expansive labyrinth without making it clear not only what items you need, but where these items are located. It is like playing a guessing game where you aren’t given any parameters concerning what exactly you are attempting to guess. I eventually had to crack open a walkthrough in order to continue with the game for review, and also to save my sanity.

There is no doubt that Hello Neighbor has found an audience, particularly with streamers who have the patience to plough through the game for views. But, ultimately, there are likely few people who can make it through without seeking outside assistance. Hello Neighbor seems to be designed to be played in a community rather than by oneself. This is not necessarily a negative thing. I see no problem with designing a game that is meant to be solved through communal trial and error. However, that does not make it a particularly well-designed game. If you want a puzzle game that you can solve by yourself without the need for a walkthrough or an unnecessary time investment, Hello Neighbor is not the game for you.

The other issue is the game still lacks polish even after going through several Alpha and Beta stages. During my playthrough, the game crashed on me multiple times. Items and your neighbor can get stuck in walls and doorways. I had a platform I was standing on phase through me somehow, requiring me to stand in a certain corner, cross my fingers, and just hope it would work until it finally did.

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Last but not least, the game’s physics could use a bit of a touchup. Stacking boxes in order to climb into otherwise unreachable areas becomes a precarious venture as one misstep and the whole thing goes crashing down. They can be used to break windows, but somehow do not weigh enough to stay put without a delicate and practiced hand.

Despite all the negative aspects, I can see why some people enjoy Hello Neighbor. It plays on our more fantastical curiosities about what sort of sinister deeds our otherwise seemingly mundane neighbors might be hiding behind locked doors. Everyone loves a good mystery, and some people are willing to put in the hours and work needed to solve it, even if that means a great deal of frustration along the way. For them, the difficulty the puzzles offer due to the lack of consistent logic only makes the reward of solving them that much greater.

For me, however, the reward was not worth the traipsing about without a clear goal, and often without any direction. Along with the lack of polish, Hello Neighbor might best be greeted with a passing curiosity, but ultimately a mystery that is left unsolved.

Hello Neighbor is currently available on Steam and Xbox One.

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Seven: The Days Long Gone Review [PC] – Part Fantasy RPG, Part Techno-Dystopian Drama

Seven: The Days Long Gone is an enthralling mishmash of genres that feel surprisingly at home together. Part isometric Assassin’s Creed, part fantasy RPG, and part techno-dystopian drama, the game plays to all the best aspects of each without feeling overstretched or fragmented.

Players will take the role of master thief Teriel who has made a living off of pilfering and looting. In the world of Seven: The Days Long Gone, however, this doesn’t seem as bad of a job as one might think. The “ancients” abandoned the earth for the stars long ago, leaving behind the dregs of humanity to make their way as best they can. After pulling off a particularly high-profile job, Teriel finds himself unwillingly recruited by the emperor and shipped off to a prison island called Peh to find and recover a lost spacecraft. Oh, and as a part of this deal you also equally unwillingly find yourself possessed by a daemon, an inter-dimensional being that will serve as Teriel’s guide and instructor at the behest of the emperor.

Teriel demonstrates his skills as a master thief from the get-go, and his catlike reflexes and dexterous parkour-like traversing allow you to tackle the surrounding world more like a jungle gym than your typical RPG. Teriel comes with a plethora of abilities that allow you to make your own way and accomplish missions through various paths. For example, do you need to sneak into a mansion to steal an artefact? Well, if marching through the front door and ripping your enemies apart with your daggers isn’t your style, then try sneaking in through a skylight, or finding a handy ventilation system to serve as a handy skywalk. You can steal a key from the guard, or break in using your handy drill. Just don’t get caught. If you do, though, try setting up a few traps and let them help you dispatch the oncoming onslaught as you watch with glee.

One of the most exciting features of the game is that you won’t need to wait until you’ve invested tens of hours into it before you can take advantage of a myriad of abilities including hacking, sneaking, looting, stealth kills, and trap building / disabling. Instead, you will spend time increasing the effectiveness of these skills, as well as adding new ones such as magic abilities. You will also be able to steal, craft or buy new gear that will help with both defense and protection.

New abilities are obtained through installing skill chips right into your brain, as one might expect in a dystopian technological future. The chips allow for certain upgrades to be slotted in, making Teriel even more of a force to be reckoned with, and don’t think you won’t need all the brawn and ability you can muster.

Seven: The Days Long Gone does a great job of letting you know the dangers of Peh are nothing to be taken lightly. Get caught pickpocketing and you’ll find yourself swarmed by angry guards faster than you can shout “help me!” If you are in a private area and look like an outsider, you better watch your back. Guards and even fellow prisoners can be hyper vigilant, and just because you think no one is watching doesn’t mean they aren’t.

Making your way around Peh is no easy task, even though the island is quite small. Gates that require a visa block numerous areas. The visas cost quite a bit, making sneaking past the gates more affordable, and also a better way to stick it to the system that left you on this island to begin with. The Visas, by the way, must be ingested and fused with your biology. If you try entering a gate without one, you will be lit up like a Christmas tree on fire. So, learning to take full advantage of your stealth abilities will be a boon.

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The isometric view is perfect for stealth, making tracking guards and sneak kills simple. Teriel also has a sense ability that will highlight objects of interest, slow time, and also expands your viewpoint beyond what is immediately around you. This ability goes a great deal toward helping you plan the best routes and discover where to go when it does not seem apparent from the map, which feels far less useful than it should.

The Island of Peh is filled with a mix of oddity, beauty, and menace. Grass covered areas filled with old hovels and wooden walkways exist alongside fluorescent streetlights and flickering signs, resembling something out of Blade Runner or Final Fantasy VII.

The voice acting is good, and the myriad of strange and fantastical characters you run into help bring Peh to life. It becomes easy to see what the world has come to in this far-flung era, presented in a small microcosm of rebels and thieves, adventurers and provocateurs. The island, though small in reality, feels like a grouping of very different cultures all in one place, making discovering each new area a thrill.

Since the game’s launch, developer Fool’s Theory has done a swell job of releasing updates to fix numerous bugs that were still within the game at launch. During my time, however, I still ran into a few glitches, as well as a few minor issues with combat.

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On occasion, I would move in for a sneak kill and initiating the attack would instead cause Teriel to leave the crouch position and head into a full-fledged assault, alerting any nearby guards to my presence. I dubbed another glitch the “sticky loot bug.” Seemingly at random, when I looted a crate or a deceased NPC, I would “stick” to them after completing the task, preventing me from moving away. Though, this might have been connected to using a controller rather than the keyboard and mouse. The game will naturally detect whichever you are using. At one point, the screen froze during an attempt to open a door using the controller to make the selection. I then was able to use the mouse to select the action, and the game progressed as usual. So, the “sticky loot bug” may be connected to using a controller. As of right now, the only way I was able to fix the sticky glitch was to go to a previous save and hope for the best next time. Perhaps, until it is fixed, forgoing the use of a controller would be your best bet.

The combat controls, though exhilarating and usually well-designed, can be a bit slippery. A few doomed attempts ended when I accidentally rolled off a cliff or fell off a high-rise along with one of my victims. So, though generally easy to use, the controls could still use a bit of tightening. But, overall, this didn’t majorly distract from my enjoyment of the game.

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Seven: The Days Long Gone feels like an assortment of genres that should have been a standard long ago. I wondered why more RPGs didn’t entail stealth kills and the freedom to roam the rooftops like an assassin. The story is interesting, the discovery of new areas is compelling, the risk you take just trying to explore the island and accomplish your missions is rewarding, and the combat is oh, so fun.

Seven: The Days Long Gone is developed by Fool’s Theory and available on Steam.

Dustbowl Review [PC] – A Point-and-Click Apocalypse

Just as one should be careful of judging the contents of a book by the cover art, anyone who grew up in the early days of gaming knows it also isn’t wise to judge a game by its pixel count. Dustbowl, developed by The Pompous Pixel, might look like a blast from the past, but don’t let first appearances fool you. This post-apocalyptic RPG boasts a challenging quest for survival and surprisingly fleshed out gameplay along with the old-school overlay.

Aliens have invaded the Earth, leaving the surface a dust-covered wasteland filled with nightmarish mutants and anyone crazy or desperate enough to remain above ground. You are the son of one of the survivors who helped establish a colony under the earth known as the HUB. Your father is sent out on an important mission that might affect the future of your little, underground community. Not one to wait for your fate, you decide to join the militia and hopefully locate your father and help bring him safely home.

Navigating the world is as simple as clicking on the direction or location you’d like your character to go. Scrolling over a given item, container or location will let you know if you can interact with it. Clicking on a door will either move you in or out or inform you if entry is blocked. Though I was never a particular fan of point-and-click adventures, this works well, especially when investigating your surroundings. You can also toggle walking speed under settings to help make moving around the world map or strolling across rooms a little quicker.

Survival will be your highest priority and the greatest challenge you will face in Dustbowl. There are separate meters for water, food and health. Another meter keeps track of the day and night cycle, ensuring you remember to get enough rest or face the negative consequences. This, of course, means you will need to make certain you have enough supplies as you wander, including basic essentials, health items, armour repair kits, weapons, and tents so you can rest when not back at the HUB. Eventually, this becomes a balancing act between what you need and what you can carry.

You will have a limited number of items you can keep in your pack based on overall weight. Later in the game, this becomes the biggest challenge to your survival. Thankfully, you can buy and sell items when encountering a vendor, or craft certain items when at a workbench,

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Crafting is simple and intuitive.

Crafting is simple and surprisingly robust. When you reach a workbench you will see a list of items that can be made and which items will be needed to complete the task. It actually feels quite a bit like something straight out of Fallout 1 and 2, an impression I carried with me throughout the game.

However, while the crafting system is intuitive, the only downside is, as with all the items you collect, scrolling over an item does not provide a description of what it does. For instance, you don’t really know how restorative one health item is over another except through trial and error. This means when crafting, especially initially, you have to make a best guess with some items rather than going off of stats or descriptions.

The only other complaint regarding items, aside from lack of descriptions, is an inability to sort items by function. Instead, all items are displayed in a way that does feel very much like digging through a backpack. The ability to sort items based on function would have helped me track what I had more efficiently, But, perhaps that is more a matter of preference than necessity.

Enemy encounters are randomly generated and combat is simple, but a challenge to perfect. Anyone who played PGA Tour for the SNES will be somewhat familiar with it. Choosing to attack sets off a line that scrolls quickly over a meter marked by three colours: grey (miss), blue (normal hit), and red (critical hit). You can select what body parts you would like to target. The three areas shrink or increase based on the body part you select for attack. For example, the head has a much smaller critical hit area than the torso.

Combat is turn-based and aside from using different types of weapons that allow for higher or lower hit points, it has little variety. That is not to say it necessarily gets old quickly, but the turn-based system does not work quite as well for this type of combat. Once you have the timing down, there is not much of a challenge left. Adding a more tactical approach or changing the combat style to quick turns and adding a block/parry function would add an additional challenge. Adding pros and cons to the weapons would also allow the player to make more informed decisions regarding which weapons to use, particularly if enemies displayed certain weaknesses based on type of assault.

Thankfully, the survival elements overshadow and outweigh anything the combat lacks. But, the major driving force behind your decision to take one more step into the dangerous unknown is the thrill of exploration which Dustbowl captures perfectly.

The world of Dustbowl is rather large considering the game’s engine and is divided into six different quadrants, each having their own style. Aside from the overarching story, you will also have the option to accept quests from NPCs throughout the world, some more outlandish than others. For instance, one of the first requests you are given is locating four stuffed bunnies misplaced by a small child. Complete the quests, and you will receive loot and experience points.

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Becoming effective at combat means mastering the timing.

Due largely to the fact your character initially seems rather run-of-the-mill for an adventure title (and looks a bit old to be in his early 20s), it took me a little bit to be able to put myself into his shoes. The dialogue can sometimes fall a bit flat and occasionally suffers from spelling and grammatical errors. Nothing anywhere near as memorable as “All your base are belong to us,” but something that needs to be taken into account for future studio endeavours.

After spending a short time with the game, however, I found myself getting sucked in. Dustbowl manages to tap into the most basic instinct of any curious gamer: I wanted to know what was going to happen next. I wanted to see how far I could go, what new places there were to explore, and what new characters I could meet. Each new character seemed to have a backstory, even ones with whom I spent little time. I could tell the developers invested great amounts of time into considering how these people had lived in this world up until the moment we met, who they were, and what their motivations are.

The game also does a fantastic job of conveying a sense of isolation, particularly in the sound design. Most of the time, you hear only wind or white noise interrupted only by the sound of your own footsteps. Among the old, worn down structures and amid the dust-strewn landscape, the sense of loneliness is palpable.

From the numerous sci-fi easter eggs to the obvious inspiration from games like Fallout and Metro 2033, and the clear level of care put into making Dustbowl a robust and engaging survival/adventure experience, there is no doubt the developers know their audience and are themselves fans of the genre.

Sure, Dustbowl isn’t perfect. A world map would have been handy, but at least the game marks out places you have already explored. Adding item and weapon details, the ability to sort items in the inventory and perhaps greater use of the crafting system regarding weapons would be a welcome addition. A more robust combat system would add a great deal to the game’s overall enjoyment simply due to the fact that you have to engage in it so often. But, the areas Dustbowl gets right (story, a sense of exploration, interesting characters, and a complex survival system), adds up to an impressive entry into the RPG/survival genre.

Dustbowl is available on Steam.

Cuphead Review: A Devilishly Good Time [Xbox One]

Cuphead takes a classic tale of moral propaganda and turns it into a romp through 1930s era animation that will both delight and challenge in equal turns. The tale follows the titular Cuphead and his unfortunate brother, Mugman, who are enjoying a good time at the Devil’s Casino until one misguided roll of the dice ends with a contract on their souls. But, the Devil tells the now damned duo they might be able to get out of their contracts if they can collect on other souls before their time is up. You can choose to play alone as Cuphead, or bring along a friend to aid you as Mugman during your treacherous journey.

A World Brimming with Bosses

The layout of worlds in Cuphead is fairly simple. You can select from a few run-and-gun levels, or pick form a plethora of battles with devious baddies whose soul contracts you now need to collect. Defeating bosses opens up new sections of each world and eventually allows you to move on to the next. Sounds simple enough, but this dance with the Devil is anything but slow and steady.

On a difficulty scale from Mega Man to Dark Souls, Cuphead hits much closer to the former. To succeed, practice and determination are key because death is practically guaranteed, but difficulty lands a little south of rage quitting. That isn’t to say boss battles don’t offer a very real challenge, but I rarely felt that I wasn’t able to make some progress with each run. It was this keen balance of punishment and progress that kept me aching to try again even after multiple failures. If you fail to complete a fight or stage, the game presents you with a meter showing how close you were to your goal. Depending on how you are doing, this can be both an encouragement or an indicator that it might be time to take a short break before another attempt.

Each boss has multiple attack stages, with an additional stage added if the game is played on Regular difficulty. However, the battles in Cuphead are dynamic enough that players cannot win simply through rote memorization. For example, in some cases, a boss can have varied versions of one attack stage. A particular battle involved a stage where the boss transformed into a zodiac character. I died before completing that stage and the next time around she transformed into a different member of the zodiac, catching me off guard with new attacks. Often, though, bosses follow a set of transformations that can be memorized, though getting through them is anything but simple even with some foreknowledge. Attack patterns can change within stages, and you often find yourself needing to battle against numerous peripheral attacks while at the same time avoiding main attacks from the baddie itself.

Boss battles are truly a sight to behold and a challenge even for a seasoned platform/run-and-gun aficionado. This is partly due to the intensity of the fights. During one encounter, I had to avoid a train while also dodging glowing horseshoe attacks from a clown riding on a donkey held up by a string. Sounds crazy, but aside from the spot-on 1930s visual aesthetic, Cuphead also solidly replicates the sheer bizarreness of the cartoons of that bygone era. I fought frogs that turned into a slot machine pitching coins at me, and a woman who became an airplane that became a terrifying version of the moon. And that is only a small, incomplete sampling. Somehow, it works. I never questioned the wacky and often unpredictable directions boss battles would go. The whole world is bright and bouncing, sometimes sharp and sinister, life and movement that I can only describe as what Jazz music must look like if animated.

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An Arsenal of Abilities & Upgrades

During the course of your battles you will earn coins that allow you to purchase different types of shots that can be equipped during battle. You can even equip two different shots and toggle between them. Each comes with both a plus as well as a minor downside. For example, one shot gives a wider bullet spread and allows you to aim backward, but offers only average damage unless used while aiming behind you. Another allows greater damage but requires more precision. You can also purchase charms that can be equipped as add-on effects or life extenders. For example, early on I purchased a heart that gave me an additional hit point. It, however, also slightly lowered my attack power. The extra hit point saved me more than once, so the slightly lowered attack was worth the price.

The most important move in Cuphead’s arsenal, though, is the Parry. This allows you to jump off of pink-colored objects that appear throughout a level or boss fight. During battle, this allows for more dynamic movement, but it also charges up your Super Meter which, when full, allows you to discharge a number of powerful attacks.

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Age of Fear 3: The Legend Review (PC)

Age of Fear 3: The Legend harkens back to 90s era turn-based strategy games with the added benefit of more modern AI. Though combat is really the main focus of the game, adventurers can choose from two narratives: a dryad sorceress or the drunken adventures of a dwarf lord. As a fan of both Tolkien and the occasional good ale, I chose the path of the dwarves, one of whom is even named Gimli in an apparent reference to a dwarf of the same name from The Lord of the Rings. The developers clearly designed Age of Fear 3 as a sort of tongue-in-cheek homage to the high fantasy genre itself. This approach might be a little hit and miss for most players, but the combat and other RPG elements provide enough strategic essentials to make it a decent challenge for casual players, and the AI along with other RPG elements adds enough depth to draw some interest for more advanced strategy fans seeking something fun without a huge time investment.

Each tale plays out largely through pages of text that appears between battles, followed by some dialogue between characters displayed using the tried and true dialogue boxes of yore. There is also some in-battle dialogue using the same boxes. The setup perfectly fits the retro style of the game. Unfortunately, the writing too often falls as flat as the dialogue boxes. The characters and story felt rather generic and often not very compelling. The tone was also inconsistent, with words like “noob” and a rather unanticipated reference to Twilight sprinkled in with uses of the word “ye” and other old-sounding English terms. Obviously, the attitude is meant to be light and a mixing of tones is fine for comedic effect, but given the general weakness of the storytelling, it only made me feel like very little time was placed on the narrative. I too often just wanted to move on to the next battle, and the story sort of felt like it was only there to give me some sense of progress rather than a memorable adventure.

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Of course, the combat system is the real focus of Age of Fear 3. The game boasts clever AI and a movement system that allows units to manoeuvre within a parameter rather than in squared off sections or set directions. Indeed, the AI proved clever enough to target my weaker characters, even moving past stronger ones to get to them. It would mob my more robust characters, move away when it could sense I was setting up for a major attack, and even target my spellcasters or units with ranged weapons to get them out of the way first. I was constantly forced to think ahead and be very aware of where all of my units stood at any given time.

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Since each unit can only take one action per turn, even moving was a major decision. I could, for instance, move my spellcaster to get him out of the way of an enemy unit poised to attack or use him to cast a spell that would help simultaneously take out multiple enemy units currently surrounding my weaker guys – but I can’t do both. Since my spellcaster had low health, this was a dire decision. In the beginning, the only way out was to try again, and this time be more careful about how I arranged my units on the battlefield, making sure to protract my weaker units and better anticipate my enemies’ movements. The ability to move a unit in any direction within a certain range is great, but I would also sometimes arrange units in a pattern that would end up blocking another unit’s movement in a way I did not anticipate. Turn-by-turn movement is a little frustrating. It seems obvious why it eventually fell out of style. However, it also adds to the overall difficulty, making the battlefield more like a game of chess than simply a challenge of might.

As your units fight their way toward victory, they will collect gold that you can use to purchase items or hire new units, as well as collecting experience points that can be used to upgrade your characters. For example, I could use my XP to give one unit more health or give my spellcaster the ability to use a turn to restore some of their magic. I can use my gold to buy new weapons, purchase potions to heal or alleviate poison, and even obtain rings that up my abilities or help protect me from harm. Anyone familiar with older RPGs such as Final Fantasy will be familiar with this type of system. Since units, aside from your two main characters, can permanently die, it also means keeping them alive and being able to use a character long-term requires mastering or at least becoming very familiar with this system.

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Age of Fear 3: The Legend is clearly a work of love for a genre that had its heyday in a bygone era of gaming. However, modern strategy-based RPGs are still alive and well, if not necessarily making up much of the AAA market. For fans of the genre, Age of Fear 3 might not quite stand out among the crowd. It is, however, a pretty good trip down the road of nostalgia for those who miss the turn-based era and are looking for a new trip down memory lane. Tabletop strategy fans might enjoy the experience as well. The story might not stick with you, but the battles are fun and engaging enough to keep you on your toes. The upgrades and items systems add enough extra depth to make up (sort of) for what the story lacks. And, if nothing else, just grab a good ole glass of dwarfish ale, kick back, and see where the road takes you.

Taster: Die Young – Welcome to the Island

Die Young, developed by IndieGala, is one of those rare titles that manages to hit all the right notes, creating an exciting symphony of survival, adventure, and mystery. You take on the role of an affluent and adventurous young woman who sets out with her friends for what she thinks will be a new thrill and a good time on an island in the Mediterranean sea. She then awakens at the bottom of a well, bruised and bloodied, with no memory of how she arrived there, and with no clues aside from a map lying on the floor in front of her. You emerge from the well onto a picturesque island and it is then up to you to discover what happened to your friends and why you were seemingly left for dead.

I was able to try the alpha build of the game, and I knew as soon as I opened the start menu that Die Young was going to be something different than your average survival title. I was greeted by the sounds of a steel guitar contrasted against an image of what appeared to be a quaint landscape, complete with country roads hedged with old wooden fences. After I escaped from the well using the game’s climbing mechanic (more on that in a bit), I was struck with just how gorgeous the game is, particularly when crossing the countryside. I was surrounded by rolling hills covered in flowers, green grasses, and fields of golden wheat that waved gracefully in the wind. Stunning beams of bright sunlight will stream through breaks in the trees or rocks, or through windows and cracks in the buildings and ruins you will explore. Even the dilapidated structures you discover have a silent magnificence.

Many of the plants littering the island have medicinal properties and can be gathered for crafting into various healing balms and medicines. The crafting system is simple to learn, and expands during the game as you locate more materials (such as wood, cloth, and metal) and other recipes. The menu is simple to maneuver with a list of crafting materials on the right, and a grid full of possible recipes or items you can create in the center. You can easily switch between crafting menus by type, select the item you would like to craft, see if you have the necessary components, and then simply hold down “E” (if you are playing with a keyboard) to create the item (which will include medicines, wound care items, weapons, and so forth). This makes it simple to not only create what you need, but to plan out which components you must gather.

The finely tuned crafting system is not only a fun component of the game, but a welcomed one because you will need all the help you can get to make it off the island alive. The tranquility of the blue sky and surrounding water is enough to lull you into a false sense of serenity, but a little exploration will shatter any sense of comfort fairly quickly. Enemies are always stalking around the island, some more easily avoidable than others. As I was going about the pleasant business of gathering herbs (I needed to create a salve), I heard a disgruntled growl and a bark and turned to see a feral hound travelling my way at a great speed. I had no weapons and so all I could do was run, hoping the beast would relent. Thankfully, I was able to avoid death by outrunning him, but only just.

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You have a stamina meter that appears on the lower left corner of the screen that lowers with exertion such as running or climbing. If the meter runs out, you will slow down to a walk or, if you are holding on to a handhold, you will lose your grip (an event that lead to my death more than once). I soon found out that if I squatted, I could avoid being detected by these hounds if I was in tall grass or weeds. In fact, one area I explored on the farm/villa required me to maneuver from one grouping of plants to another, like a ninja, in order to avoid the ravenous vengeance of these rather angry canines.

Other enemies that were a bit more difficult to avoid were rats and snakes. Often, I was forced to risk certain injury in order to make it through a room full of the hateful rodents, but thankfully their bites didn’t do major damage. This did mean I needed to make certain I stay stocked up on medicinal components, if I was planning on entering a structure that I might not easily be able to leave if I ran out of healing items. It is important to listen carefully because sometimes enemies will approach quietly. I once noticed a faint rustling sound only to realize I was being chased by a snake moving though the grass like an Olympic swimmer. It is possible to be poisoned in the game (and to craft items that will help counteract it), but thankfully I noticed the sinister serpent in time to run away poison-free.

Of course, antagonistic animals aren’t your only concern. You will notice while exploring that something has gone terribly wrong on the island, and something or someone far more sinister is still stalking about, (as if awakening at the bottom of a well with a map wasn’t enough to clue you in). In fact, at one point I heard footsteps behind me. I ran until I was no longer being chased, only to turn around and see in the distance a distinctly human enemy, who I immediately realized I didn’t want to run into again if I could help it. Strange goat-like images can be found draped across structures. Notes from former habitants or visitors are scattered throughout the buildings and ruins, describing how things went south. Gruesome discoveries serve as a warning and evidence that some sort of violent event occurred on the Island, disrupting what appears to at one time have been a peaceful experiment.

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What exactly happened, though, must be pieced together bit-by-bit. The game does give you tasks to accomplish such as locating water or exploring certain structures around the island, but the game is non-linear which gives you the freedom to take on tasks as you see fit and put together the story at your own pace. This adds an intriguing element to your exploration that makes you want to dig deeper, especially the further down the rabbit hole you go (and you have no choice but to follow it through because, after all, your life depends on it).

Exploration is a blast, not only because you clearly have an ever-broadening mystery to solve, but because maneuvering through the various locations requires platforming puzzles that are just as well designed as the crafting system. Jumping and climbing are as simple as aiming in the right direction and hitting the jump button. However, you have limited stamina, so climbing takes not only skill, but planning. The only issue I had with jumping wasn’t mechanical, but rather that I often felt the distance between ledges seemed rather far for any human (even a virtual one) to make. However, once I got used to the fact I was Wonder Woman (or, rather, I had a seemingly superhuman jumping ability) it became one of my favorite parts of the game, as well as one of the most challenging.

Die Young is only in it’s beginning stages with just a portion of the Island currently available and it is already a well-oiled machine. Lovers of survival, adventure, and intriguing thrillers will all find something to keep them interested. The welcoming and simple to learn crafting system, the refined jumping and climbing elements, and the picturesque beauty of the environment will pull you in and beckon you back for more. The developers have promised extra enemies, more missions, death machines (seriously) and other additions. After playing the alpha, however, I would simply be happy just to spend more time on the island delving into it’s mysteries. The death machines do sound interesting, though, and I can’t wait to see what terror and intrigue the full game will entail.

The alpha build of Die Young, developed and published by IndieGala, is currently available on Steam Early Access.

Taster: ORB – Steam Greenlight Impressions

The merging of a serious puzzle game and a 2D side-scrolling action title isn’t exactly an easy combo to muster. But, the universe is a vast and mysterious place and out of it has come just such an amalgamation recently greenlit by the Steam community. Imagine Asteroids on uppers with top-down puzzles and you’ll start to get a good idea of ORB’s basic gameplay. That might sound like a far out idea, but a short time with the alpha demo for the game plants the mechanics solidly on terra firma, with clever in-game incentives tying the two worlds together.

You play as the titular space entity Orb as you fly, dodge and blast your way through to various constellations. Each constellation leads Orb to what is called the “Puzzleverse” where, as you might have guessed, the player will be faced with top-down block-based challenges testing your ability to not only figure out what goes where, but how the overall puzzle is interconnected. For example, one early puzzle I played through gave Orb temporary X-ray vision that allows the player to see what section will be activated if a certain block is placed in a particular space. From there, I had to then solve how to move each block to the proper area and in what order.

Another required me to use a conveyor belt-like system to get each block to it’s proper destination without sending a block in the wrong direction and thus requiring me to start over (which did happen a couple of times). Each puzzle adds a level of complexity using a combination of in-puzzle elements and abilities Orb will acquire both in the wormholes and Puzzlesverse in order to solve them. This is ultimately what binds the two sections together.

During my first wormhole fly-through I obtained a dash ability that allowed me to outrun rogue comets bent on shooting me out of the stars. I also obtained a blast ability that allowed me to shoot enemies and obstacles out of my way. Within the Puzzleverse, my blast ability was later utilized to push blocks into place that I otherwise could not reach. The way these elements play within each section is clever and feeds well into not only the enjoyment of the fast-paced, run-and-gun wormhole sections, but adds yet another layer of difficulty to the puzzles.

Along with the 12 unlockable abilities (including Time Stop, Translocate, Bash and Harpoon), I was able to unlock upgrades to Orb that made me more of a force to be reckoned with within the wormhole sections. After completing my first puzzle I unlocked a health upgrade that extended my life bar. You will also unlock upgrades that will increase your strength and make your blasts a destructive sight to behold and might elicit an evil cackle. I was personally tempted to shout Ozymandias quotes to the universe (“Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!”), but a simple “Kamehameha!” or other guttural shout of victory will do.

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ORB is a unique title for sure, but one that manages to pull together in a compelling way what might otherwise have felt like two incongrous gameplay sections. The alpha demo demonstrates great potential for an Action/Puzzle game that requires players to engage all of their cognitive abilities in order to conquer it. Leaderboards will also incentivize players to complete puzzles in the fewest moves and blast through wormholes in the fastest time.

Developer Devil’s Peek Games has promised co-op puzzles and challenges along with additional puzzle elements which will serve as an even stronger incentive for players who like to make their way through as a team. We personally hope to see even more abilities integration between the Puzzleverse and wormhole areas. For now, though, the demo makes us want more. Enjoyable and difficult puzzles coupled with fast and furious flights through the dangerous and yet often beautiful depths of space makes ORB a puzzle title for arcade game lovers, and vice versa.

Devil’s Peek Games recently made a publishing deal with Keystone Games and the game will now be released for PC, PS4 and Xbox One as well.

Viewpoint: E3 2017 Predictions – The Evolving Battle for Next-Gen

E3 2017 is fast approaching and like every year gamers want to know what they can expect aside from the official plans announced by industry giants Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. This article is going to focus on what we believe the console colossuses have in store for fans this year.

Based on what we know, it looks like E3 2017 will focus heavily on content and services over new hardware aside from Microsoft’s big reveal of Project Scorpio. Even Microsoft, however, will focus most heavily on features and titles rather than the raw power of the new system in order to stay ahead of Sony in the console market.

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Sony:

With Microsoft showing off “Project Scorpio”, Sony will need to demonstrate they still have a competitive edge. However, likely they will play their hand close to their chest, emphasizing content over new hardware. We can expect to see a vast array of new titles, with special emphasis on approaching AAA hard-hitters such as The Last of Us 2, Death Stranding, God of War, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and Days Gone.

With the recent release of the PS4 Pro, and the PS4 still sitting under the average five-year system lifetime, it would be prudent for Sony to keep any big announcements about the next system (tentatively, the PS5) under wraps until after this year’s conference. The new importance placed on S-model systems, in the same vein as Apple’s iPhone launch model, is likely to extend the launch window for new generations. After releasing an upgrade to it’s current gen system, Sony has to keep consumers feeling like the upgrade was worth the purchase, and announcing a new system so soon would likely inspire those not yet convinced they need a 4K capable system to simply wait it out. Or, delay their purchase until the launch of the PS5 when they can get the Pro at a discounted price.

Sony will likely also hold off on releasing a new version of PSVR, which already had a performance upgrade of sorts with the PS4 Pro. PSVR has done well overall, selling more than 915,000 units as of February of this year. Sony will continue to ride this success, giving additional incentives for consumers to embrace the headset, and rewarding early adopters. We will likely see a PSVR and PS4 Pro bundle offered at a discounted price, along with an expanded library and a couple of larger titles. The motion controllers are long overdue for an upgrade, however, so it will not be surprising if Sony announces a newer model. Better controls matched with more titles and a couple of AAA hard-hitters will help move Sony’s VR headset into more homes and build consumer confidence.

One of the major questions about Sony’s conference, that has been circulating the internet recently, is whether Sony will make a major announcement concerning the Final Fantasy VII remake. Of course, making any predictions about the remake is a little like playing darts in the dark. Our gut instinct would be “no,” but during an interview with Gematsu back in January, FFVII Remake director Tetsuya Nomura revealed plans to divulge more information on both FFVII and Kingdom Hearts III some time this year:

“We’re steadily progressing on production. While we are making them, I apologize that the wait will be a bit longer for Kingdom Hearts III and Final Fantasy VII Remake. I am very sorry, but to that degree I will make a game that will meet your expectations.

“Last year, I didn’t put out much information on either title, but this year I want to show our progress at an event somewhere. The release of the titles themselves still have a way to go. But there are many titles releasing this year, if you can wait for any ‘surprises.’”

So, it wouldn’t be too far fetched to speculate that some new gameplay footage will make its way into this year’s E3 presentation. Though the game is still in progress (and would be a spectacular launch title for the next-gen PlayStation), it would still be a strong card to play for Sony this year even if only to give fans a little more to chew on.

Finally, will Sony announce a replacement for the PS Vita? With their recent removal of the PlayStation Now streaming service from the system and the overall poor sales (only a little over 15 million units sold world-wide), along with the rise of mobile gaming, it seems likely Sony plans to continue to deemphasize the handheld. At most, we might see a remodeled Vita with only slightly better specs, or more colors, but likely Sony is trying to move away from the handheld market altogether and won’t put much weight on the system aside from titles announced that will also be available on the Vita.

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Nintendo:

We already know that Nintendo plans to focus heavily on Super Mario Odyssey, much like they did at E3 2016 with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The other two titles that will garner most of the attention will be the upcoming fighting game ARMS and the squad-based multiplayer Splatoon 2.

Much like last year, Nintendo will showcase only a handful of new titles aside from those mentioned above, with the usual reveal of a reboot or new iteration of an older title. Likely, Nintendo will try to freshen things up by bringing back a recognizable, but less often updated classic akin to a new Kid Icarus.

In March of this year, My Nintendo offered rewards celebrating the 5-year anniversary of Kid Icarus: Uprising, which released in 2012, including videos and discounts on the Kid Icarus series. The series has had few entries, but has maintained a strong following over the years. While this doesn’t necessarily point to the arrival of a new Kid Icarus for the Switch in 2017, Nintendo would be remiss to let the opportunity pass by and a new adventure for Pit would add to a strong lineup for the new system. If a new Kid Icarus is already in development or in the planning stages, we will definitely hear about it at this year’s E3.

Aside from games, we will finally hear details on the Switch’s online service, which will launch later this year. One of Nintendo’s major focuses since the Wii has been interconnectivity and bringing people together around their system. There will be heavy emphasis on how this new service will benefit buyers not only through online multiplayer but through connectivity services such as chat, sharing, daily task management or life-style management integration, and streaming services.

The Switch has already done incredibly well in sales, with consumers purchasing 2.74 million units from March 3 to March 31 alone. Nintendo knows what works well for them, so we can expect more of the same this year, and likely until Nintendo sees another sales slump similar to that of the Wii U.

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Microsoft:

Project Scorpio.

Right, but you already knew that.

Microsoft will be using their new system as their heavy-hitter. This means a handful of (tentative) launch titles will be announced along with the big system reveal in order to wet the appetites of fans. We will finally get to hear the actual name of the system, its price, and release date. This presentation will likely not focus too heavily on specs (which have already been publically released), but more on demonstration and some developer spiels on how much they love working with the system (as we have come to expect). You can also reasonably presume to see the new Forza running in crisp, clear 4K resolution as a demonstration of the system’s power and performance since the series tends to run in two-year cycles. However, Project Scorpio likely will not take up a major portion of the presentation so Microsoft can focus on two areas in which they either already have the competitive edge on Sony, or on which they are trying to build an edge.

Backwards compatibility has become a major focus and Microsoft has been giving fans what they wanted with the XBOX One by building a library of XBOX 360 games that can be played on the system. A few strong titles added to this collection (preferably a few from the original system) will be a major selling point for both the XBOX One and Scorpio, and will help bolster the image Microsoft has been building of being a more consumer-friendly company than their competitor.

Another major focus will be features that will build off of the original pitch for the XBOX One, which was making the console the center of the home. Though this pitch never materialized, largely due to the failure of the Kinect, integration with Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana could truly put the system at the center of the living room. Users could utilize the system much like Google Home or Amazon Echo, except with the added benefit of controlling console features. If the system’s Cortana integration will be able to use features when the TV is off, then this would give Microsoft a way to push consumers to keep the console connected to the internet at all times. The original “always on” requirements for the XBOX One did not go over well with consumers, so Microsoft had to take a step back. If the system could be utilized as a hub for things such as home control, home monitoring, or even voice search using Cortana when the TV is off (either through a Bluetooth speaker or system speakers), then consumers would have motivation to keep the system connected online at all times without it being a requirement.

We can also expect to see what Microsoft has up its sleeves regarding virtual reality. Now that Microsoft has had the leisure of observing Sony’s success with VR, E3 2017 will be an ideal time to announce plans for their own dive into the VR market. Microsoft announced a partnership with Oculus in 2015, and it is unlikely that the company would sever that relationship to go on it’s own when working with Oculus has already proven lucrative. The partnership gives Microsoft an edge on the PC VR market they might not have if they went solo. We can expect to hear about future Microsoft cooperation with Oculus for PC. In addition, Microsoft is more likely to announce a lower-end headset for use with the XBOX One and Scorpio consoles created in cooperation with Oculus much like Samsung has done with the Gear VR.

Conclusion:

Microsoft has the greatest opportunity this year to direct the future of the console market, particularly if they can achieve the home-integration they originally envisioned for the XBOX One. Sony will press harder on the content side using variety as a selling point for their existing systems. Nintendo will carry on with the same structure they used last year and we can expect to see at least one new title (a new Kid Icarus seems likely, but we shall see).

The battle for the latest and greatest next generation system is evolving. Upgrades are coming faster, but in smaller leaps with the introduction of S-model systems. But, raw power alone will no longer cut it. Companies have to demonstrate an ever-increasing stream of content, interconnectivity and home integration. This E3 might not feature any huge surprises on the hardware front, but it will definitely set the stage for the future of the ongoing competition for console king.

Review: GRIDD: Retroenhanced (PC)

GRIDD: Retroenhanced is a fast and furious throwback to 1980s cyberpunk that feels fresh and perfectly at home in 2017. The player is pitted against the perils of a sinister network bent on preventing you from hacking your way through its defenses. True to the arcade feel, GRIDD leans more heavily on gameplay than plot. Nevertheless, this balance of a minimalistic cyberpunk narrative with stunning graphics, Tron-like neon effects and truly addictive gameplay make GRIDD a renewed reminder of what made gaming so great in the 80s.

In a day where games have become ever more complex, GRIDD hearkens back to a time when designers knew the key to creating a sense of compulsion in a player is sometimes simplicity. On the surface, the game is rather modest: you fly and shoot. However, I soon found excelling at the game was not so easy.

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Each stage offers a set group of obstacles that are randomly generated; making certain each attempt is different. This is particularly important because in Arcade Mode (the only mode made available at the onset), you are placed at the beginning again with each death. This might sound frustrating, but it is actually a mechanic that works in GRIDD’s favor. GRIDD is first and foremost a challenge of the player’s dexterity and their ability to improve with each attempt. The result is an enormous emotional payoff even for taking only minor strides.

The controls, once grasped, are simple but require a great deal of skill. I played the game using a keyboard, but if you have a game controller handy, it might make the initial learning curve a bit less steep for some players. The effect, however, is smooth and stunning to watch. The plane soars through cyberspace with a fluid motion somewhere between flying and swimming. Obstacles appear at breakneck speeds, and enemies will swarm as they launch attacks at your ship from multiple angles.

As you fly, you can shoot yellow objects to up your multiplier. The game scores you by keeping track of how many KB you collect with each run. The more objects you shoot, the better you score. But, be careful. Shooting metal objects will cause your bullets to ricochet back at your cybercraft. This helps ensure, particularly in later levels, that you can’t simply run through the game with guns blazing. Your mind has to be as quick as your fingers on the controls. There is some relief, though. Flying through special rings will assist the player by restoring your shield or upping your weapon’s power.

The challenge GRIDD poses adds to the game’s replayability. Even if Arcade had been the only mode available, I likely would have come back again just to try to beat my final score. The game, after all, is short enough that even after multiple playthroughs it never wears thin. However, developer Antab Studio was clever to add an Endless mode that allows players to get as far as they can without death sending them back to the beginning.

The world created in GRIDD is well fleshed out, even if we might not fully understand how we arrived in the network. The hacking motif isn’t simply a plot device for instance, but actually plays into the game itself. You will have to open literal firewalls along your journey. Hacking sequences will arise requiring the player to collect certain numbers in order to activate a key code. Perhaps, most striking of all is the overall feel.

As I flew through the cascade of shocking color at heart-stopping speeds to the beat of an electric soundtrack, I remembered why I loved gaming so much as a kid in the 80s. Not only does the game look like something that could have come straight from that era (if we had the graphical quality of today), but GRIDD grasps the addictive power of not only classic arcade shooters, but games of that era in general. A steep learning curve was once commonplace. Games like the original Kid Icarus and Mega Man required the player to replay each level until they get it exactly right. Being successful meant hours of trial and error. It was a test of skill and patience, but being pitted against yourself like that was also highly rewarding. GRIDD pulls the player in and won’t let them go using this same sense of self-trial. The fast pace and ever-changing levels make certain the challenge never grows stale before you finally reach the end.

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GRIDD: Retroenhanced is more than a nostalgia trip, it is a top-notch arcade shooter for the modern gamer. The pumping techno-beat carries the player onward through an electrifying journey of sights, sounds, and constant action that will urge you to try again just one more time. Then one time more. And then you’re hooked.

The game is developed by Antab Studio and published by Kongregate. GRIDD: Retroenhanced is available on Steam for Windows, Mac OS X, and Steam OS + Linux. Review copy provided by Kongregate.

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Viewpoint: The Psychology of Indie Games – How Small Developers Have Been Revitalizing the Horror Genre

Some of us play games for fun, some for family time, some for competition, and some of us like to have our wits and our desire to ever sleep again scared out of us for our own, personal enjoyment. Fans of horror games no doubt have AAA titles such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill to thank for pushing the genre into the mainstream and coining the now oft-used phrase “survival horror.” But, over the years the general mainstream horror genre has suffered from a loss of direction (think back to Resident Evil 6 before Capcom rebooted the series). The industry at large has failed to truly reinvent the genre after longtime fans became tired of the same old tropes, even when well-executed (think The Evil Within). But, as the larger studios have struggled to hit the mark, the indie game industry has managed to not only revive the horror genre, but infuse it with a fresh sense of dread, dark curiosity, and existential concepts that will keep you up at night.

Horror has always been about human frailty and probing what makes an individual through picking each aspect apart: the body, the emotions, and the psyche. Though funding issues often plague the hopes of smaller developers, not having to recover the higher budgets of AAA titles gives indie creators greater freedom to explore some of the more obscure concepts high-end developers often obfuscate. Unbridled by the pressures of larger investors, smaller developers have managed to zero in on what many bigger horror entries are missing: a sense of genuine internal trepidation brought on through feelings of mental dissonance and the subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) use of the uncanny.

Home, a game that puts the player into the shoes of a man who might be as physiologically unstable as any of Edgar Allen Poe’s narrators, tells it’s story largely through a sense that something is out of place (namely the timeframe, but also some key piece of knowledge the game never quite divulges). This sensation leaves the player with a perplexed and disquieted feeling similar to someone who might have just noticed their mind slipping a bit. The effect is small and subtle, but terrifying, and all this is accomplished in a span of only around a couple of hours in an entirely old-style, pixelated world.

The horror of not knowing the full story and the feeling of a lack of control it produces in the player was well utilized by developer Playdead in Limbo and, more recently, Inside. In fact, Inside thrives on this feeling of displacement juxtaposed with puzzles that require the player to literally control the minds of the people around them. The fact the gamer is taking on the role of what appears to be a little boy adds to the sense of helplessness and lack of control. The ending toys with the player’s psyche even further by literally dumping the player at the end of the game with no more knowledge than that with which you began, even though your character has literally become entangled with a mass of other minds (and bodies). This sense of psychological disorientation is just one way indie horror has succeeded in tackling a major element of the horror genre often left out or unsuccessfully implemented by AAA titles.

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But, of course, some larger indie titles manage to get the feel right, perhaps due to the passion and determination needed to succeed in the independent market. Layers of Fear is a larger indie title that accomplishes on a more grandiose scale what entries like Anatomy by Kitty Horrorshow did on a more subtle note: create a sense of disquiet through over-familiarity with the mundane. Certainly a (possibly) haunted mansion isn’t exactly breaking new ground in the horror genre, but Layers of Fear managed to meld the psyche of the protagonist with the very building the player walks through, much like Anatomy does with a single family home. Though the stories are different, and Layers of Fear eventually takes on a more Alice in Wonderland level of distortion, both games succeed in amplifying common feelings of familial and domestic entrapment, and the fear of being unable to escape our own minds with all our worst memories and regrets, literally changing the mundane into an uncanny manifestation of the disorder in our own minds.

Of course, there are many other independent titles that deal cunningly with the terrors of cognitive dissonance that can result from everyday emotional trauma, depression, and feelings of entrapment. Titles such as Neverending Nightmares and Notes of Obsession both deal with these common enough passions and mental states from the angle of a horror title. Games like Outlast 2 and Soma go a step further, removing the player from reality to such a degree that they are then forced to question how much of our mental state dictates who we are, how we act, and what makes us human. If our minds are undependable like the players experience in Outlast 2, or if similar to Soma our humanity is as fragile and transferrable as a computer program, what does it mean to be human, and how can we really ever know who and what we are?

The indie gaming industry is not an easy place to find success in general. The difficulty in acquiring the proper funding, the need to locate a good publisher, advertising the game and hitting the right notes for the title to be widely successful make the path particularly difficult. Developers of horror titles have the added difficulty of an oversaturated market. The internet is inundated with would-be developers hoping to cash-in on the next great scare fest. But, while being a small developer is a hard road, the horror genre has seen an overall boon within the small games market thanks to the determination, creativity and passion of small developers. We can only hope the path eventually becomes a bit smoother, and more titles like the ones above can make their way across platforms into our homes, and into our nightmares.