The 'Shroom:Issue LXII/Crocodile Style Reviews
So last month's double up was a very poor attempt of mine to fit more games into my reviewing schedule without having to miss out on the excess of releases that usually clog up the industry around July to November, but this month I swear I have a justification for the double-up; they're both smaller PlayStation Network titles, so the review would be a little starved for content if I just reviewed only one. Also because I totally didn't expect to be going in for open heart surgery this month, so I wasn't aware I might be biting off more than I can chew until it was too late, which I'm sure you can guess really hurts when you have large surgical scars where your breastbone should be.
My first subject is I Am Alive, a suspiciously cheap outing from France's gaming tyrant Ubisoft in lieu of Outland and From Dust, perhaps in hopes that it will help people conveniently forget that the company has been sadistically holding Beyond Good & Evil 2 just out of our reach for a good four years now. Anyway, a dust-related cataclysm about a year ago has devastated the entire planet, killed off the vast majority of living creatures, and left a thick layer of toxic fumes around the lower levels of the planet, which is really bad news for anyone living around the Dead Sea. You play as one the unluckiest bastards in the entire world named Adam, who after having travelled across the country to the east coast is attempting to reunite with his missing wife and daughter by searching through the ever-crumbling shithole that was his home city, along the way either helping other survivors in need of aid or trying to pacify the alarming amount of complete fruitcakes residing there.
So if you're having trouble keeping up, the tone is decidedly grim. I'll be honest, despite initially being rather thrilled, I Am Alive isn't exactly what you'd call brilliant, but it still deserves props for its genuinely unnerving atmosphere that's rather uncharacteristic of big game development studios these days. Many times the game had the right sort of contrast between ominous calmness and belittling tension that good horror games are supposed to have; the city is dark and crippled, the streets largely empty and quiet save for the occasional machete-wielding madmen, and of course the near-blinding dust storms that spark up at lower levels that all add up into making the environments themselves feel hostile and unwelcoming. You spend much of the game exploring the city for resources and moving Adam to whichever objective is marked on his map at the time, although due to all the collapsed buildings and debris Adam has to climb his way to most of his destinations (this is the same team that gave us Assassin's Creed), which is kind of a let down in my eyes. I don't dislike parkour, but the paths are always incredibly linear and the climbing tends to take precedence over the actual survivalist aspect of the game, which I thought was supposed to be the main draw. Aside from recovering from the dust, resources are only massively relevant due to climbing exhaustion, and they really aren't as scarce as the game would like you to believe; indeed, half my resources were wasted just trying to find other resources, and I still found myself coping pretty well during the story sequences.
Horror games generally work well with terrible combat, but that's assuming you first have the ability to just run away in desperation from whatever is trying to hack your ears off. I Am Alive has a really bad habit of forcing you into combat scenarios without the chance to just leave the nutjobs alone to tend to their own private floating hell, and it's a little hypocritical of the game to tell you to ration out your bullets carefully and yet have the gun-wielding dills shoot you the very first chance they get; practice what you goddamn preach, game. The most efficient way to stop enemies is to hold a gun at them (possession of ammunition notwithstanding) and guiding them towards a hole or ledge to just push them off, but if you procrastinate they assume or realise you're bluffing them and run up to kill you, which is tense in its own way but the frequency with which these scenarios happen relative to how often you will come out unscathed quickly becomes draining.
It's actually a lot of fun to explore the world provided you have the resources to risk treading in unfamiliar territory, and indeed I enjoyed meself the most when I ignored the story and just did whatever I please; the moment I got the hookshot was a sanctimonious one, which is why it's blasphemy that you rarely get a chance to use it. Wow, the game missteps around all the bits of it that are actually fun, doesn't it? Exploring allows you to meet the more docile survivors, many of whom come across as insanely whingy and needy; you can give them your resources, but they don't offer all that much pay-off aside from a choice few blokes that give you genuinely useful shit like ammunition or a shotgun. Most of them just give you hints relating to the whereabouts of Adam's family, and extra retries, which begs the question why I'd want to give up so much of my hard-earned resources for spare lives when they could be put to much better use ensuring I don't die. Actually I might know why; even though the murky, monotone environments do wonders to set the apocalyptic atmosphere, they can be very confusing during parkour sequences resulting in half your lost lives being from misjudged leaps towards bits of scenery that exist in an alternate physical plane from Adam; losing all your spare retries forces you back to the very beginning of the level, a useless design decision I can only assume was added to completely piss me off.
On that bout of negativity, let's take a walk across the great class divide away from the doom and gloom into the much more cheery independent village with ThatGameCompany's latest release Journey, the last in a trilogy of obligatory offerings made to appease the tyrannical giants of Sony. It's no secret that I have a fondness for independent developers, since it's nice to see new designers with fresh ideas take baby steps towards making a relevant mark in this competitive industry, and ThatGameCompany won my heart over with their previous title Flower, a beautiful experiment in non-violent gameplay that was a nice change of pace from the gun-toting, sword-swinging or turtle-stomping titles that clog up the mainstream market. The only problem is that it wasn't so much a game as it was experimental new age relaxation therapy, which is exactly where Journey fills the gap since while it also shuns even the vaguest concept of combat or violent action on your part, you solve platforming puzzles, stealth around giant stone snakes, and glide along magical ribbons, a mechanic lifted directly from my fondest decoration fantasies.
So saying it early on, Journey is a good game. It really is exactly what the industry needs more of; an exciting, engaging adventure brimming with gorgeous atmosphere and personable charm that's fun without having to resort to cheap thrills and combat like every other bloody game does. What Journey emphasizes is the beauty and emotional impact of the overall experience rather than instant gratification, which is probably why the plot is virtually non-existent; you play as a robed liquorice-like figure that awakens in the middle of an expansive desert with only a large mountain on the horizon to walk towards. There's not really much to the controls; you walk around, jump, and shout, it's really about as simple as it can get, which isn't a bad thing since it makes sure there aren't any unnecessary convolutions drawing you out of the adventure. Most of the adventure entails walking across the very pretty if not extremely brown environments in search of bridges, seaweed and jellyfish made out of enchanted ribbons that require your magical powers to activate, which will promptly open the way towards the next scenic view. Activating these holy scarves also grants you the ability to launch yourself in the air and glide around for a short period of time, which is fun and carefree enough on its own but is also necessary to reach platforms far out of your normal reach, and your flying duration can be extended by finding glyphs spread out across the world.
It's all very pretty, tightly-knit, and loads of fun, but what really stands out in my mind is the “co-op”, which if played without renders the game as just an intriguing art project. Journey is a massively multiplayer online game in the most limited of terms; so long as you're connected to the PlayStation Network, you may meet another player along the way, although you can't see their name, communicate with them, or even interact with them in-game in any particularly meaningful way. It doesn't sound like a very good sell, but the minimalism is what makes it so effective; the inability to communicate with them prohibits harassment, and griefing is made literally impossible from the simple control scheme and platforming puzzles, which means ignoring you is the worst your partner can do. Spending any duration of time alone builds up a feeling of isolation leading to a wonderful sense of relief when you find another living creature just like you, and it was always uplifting when I lost track of my partner only to find them waiting for me in the next level; it creates a gorgeous tone of collaboration and genuine emotional attachment, more than I thought possible with a complete stranger possibly living in the hills of northern Azerbaijan for all I knew.
The last area had the strongest impact on me, taking place on the top of the frozen mountain, leaving us both huddling together to keep each other warm and sticking close to hide from the eldritch snake statues stalking the large wasteland for any signs of cloth. I found it particularly heart-wrenching when me and my partner had escaped the monsters and proceeded towards the mountain in the increasingly powerful blizzard, our momentum slowing and powers dimming the farther we walked before both eventually collapsing into the snow upon realizing the hopelessness of our struggle, swiftly followed by one of the most stunning finales I've ever seen in a video game. I hardly knew you, SilverCaribbean, but I'll surely not forget you anytime soon! Journey is, however, ridiculously short relative to how expensive it is, taking roughly three hours at the absolute most if you take your time. I guess this is just the general trend with ThatGameCompany, to refine their works to near perfection at the expense of length, but for twenty Australian dollars, I would've expected a little bit more to warrant opening a new bottle of liqueur muscat, and it might prove alienating for more budget-conscious gamers. But even so, there are enough locations to explore to keep you playing a little bit longer, and the sheer experience alone is beautiful and unique enough to warrant a few more play-throughs.
So looking at both games from the purely objectives standards of my own opinion, I personally recommend both games to you depending on what you feel is missing from your recent gaming experience; if you want cheerful optimism and are willing to empty your wallet a bit to savour the pleasant taste of the arts, then pick up Journey and enjoy the most heart-warming feeling you've ever felt from an hour-long digital simulation of life in north-western Mongolia. But if you want a bit more playtime for your dollar and are horrifically misanthropic, then purchase I Am Alive and witness the industry taking clumsy but rather uplifting baby steps in the right direction for the modern survival horror game before our own great apocalypse renders everything these two games have accomplished completely pointless. Have a nice month!
(Also I'm recovering quite nicely, not that you asked)