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Review: Sunless Skies Plunges Us Evocatively into Outer Space

The world the game shares with its predecessors is detailed and bizarre in equal measure.

4.5

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Sunless Skies
Photo: Failbetter Games

Failbetter Games’s Sunless Skies captures both the horror and beauty of outer space, though not as we might typically imagine it. Here, reaching the stars is a Victorian-era achievement. Spaceships are locomotives and the sun is a clockwork machine, a replacement for an older one murdered in a display of British imperial power. Distant ports drift from colonial rule, nestled not within a featureless black void but within the High Wilderness, a dreamy collage of trees and ice and rocks and mushrooms divided into their own distinct biomes. Your character captains a locomotive, hauling goods between ports for profit and engaging in text-adventure storylines that reveal strange lives eked out in a sprawling, metaphysical space swallowed by industry and oppression.

The game’s pace is deliberate and (on the default difficulty setting) unforgiving. Wherever you go, whoever you fight, and whatever you haul is a commitment, because traveling the High Wilderness burns fuel and supplies. Exploration of new spaces might yield experience points, but it also might not cover the cost of the journey, rewarding you only with accumulated Terror from exposure to the leering gaze of madness-inducing stars. New ports aren’t marked on the map. Trade opportunities and quests designate port locations only in vague relation to an area’s hub city, and most are far enough away to make the search into a real hazard. Staying out too long or failing a skill check while searching the rusted remains of a dead ship might eat up the resources you need for a safe return journey. As supplies dwindle, crew will get sloppy and die in accidents. Morale will fray. Cannibalism will appear as an option.

Sunless Skies is tuned to prey on the player’s overconfidence and impatience, which might lead you down risky detours that come to disastrous dead ends. Perhaps you’ll simply overestimate the cost of a ship-to-ship battle on your fuel stores. Doubling back to the hub, where everything can be sold or stored in a bank vault and repairs can be made, might be safer than pushing on to the next port. But locomotives move slowly enough over long enough distances that riskier journeys grow more enticing than playing it safe, particularly when turning back costs extra resources. You decide you can make it, and sometimes you can’t.

When captains die, they are, by default, gone for good—meaning that the experiences and stat bonuses that came with them go up in smoke. Sunless Skies isn’t totally unforgiving in this regard, even when the player sets aside options to tweak the game’s difficulty. Locomotives will be reclaimed after your death, and you retain some portion of their equipment, the contents of a bank vault, and the amount of the map uncovered so far. Progress on various questlines and ambitions, however, reset. And though it becomes easier to get back on your feet through repeated failures, the setbacks are significant enough to lend a real sense of danger to the game’s conflict that’s enhanced by the rickety, unwieldy feeling of the locomotives. It’s never totally comfortable to maneuver a chunky space-train around small but devastating enemy projectiles, lining up a handful of shots before the heat gauge howls in protest. What battles you don’t flee from feel hard-won—the unwanted interruptions of a mad journey whose rewards might not be worth the losses it took to get them.

As players assimilate the game’s mechanics, they’ll settle into a rhythm of running routes between ports, continuing story quests and ferrying goods purchased on the cheap as they chart paths that get the most return on investment. Success is often incremental in the game, since the more rewarding storylines and the more lucrative trading opportunities reveal themselves slowly as you sink profits back into supplies, repairs, fuel, and replacements for your lost crew. In the end, it becomes easier to survive the longer you play Sunless Skies, accumulating more capital to pay for excursions and upgrading your locomotive and acquiring more crew to take risks for you to scavenge and explore the High Wilderness.

All these elements add up to one of the most evocative games of recent years, one that’s enhanced rather than hindered by its top-down, text-heavy aesthetic. The playful eccentricity of Failbetter’s beautiful writing conveys wonder and horror and mystery as wispy bits of narration and dialogue melt into the space around your panting locomotive, reinforcing that you’re carrying your story as much as you are a bundle of bronzewood and a few jars of souls.

The world the game shares with its predecessors, Sunless Sea and Fallen London (which you don’t need to have played in order to follow the stories of Sunless Skies), is detailed and bizarre in equal measure, literalizing concepts like time and relating how mastery over “hours” that must be mined like ore are wielded by a monarchy in order to oppress the working class and trap aristocratic enemies. In the game, people work through anxieties in play-acted therapy sessions where workers disguise themselves as figures from your past, and below the wreckage of a tolling clock tower hangs a useless Parliament, whose representatives don’t matter and whose for-profit laws matter even less.

Failbetter’s strange brand of Victorian fantasy meshes with the game’s measured resource management and dangerous combat to define a truly rich role to play, one that inevitably gives way to moral compromise as you operate, with some struggle and no small amount of complicity, under capitalism. You risk yourself, your crew, and your resources as you immerse yourself in stories, looking for beneficial angles to profit from and reach your ambitions. In the High Wilderness, there’s no shortage of places to go and stories to find, but as all of them—like your actions—reinforce, not even the stars can offer refuge from humanity’s failures.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Failbetter Games.

Developer: Failbetter Games Publisher: Failbetter Games Platform: PC Release Date: January 31, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: DiRT Rally 2.0 Celebrates the Driver’s Will to Try, Try Again

At the very least, the game’s epic trials will make you respect the practitioners of this most insane of sports.

4.5

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DiRT Rally 2.0
Photo: Codemasters

After you unlock only the second rallying event in DiRT Rally 2.0, the game’s extreme difficulty is dryly confirmed by the British voiceover: “Some might suggest this is where your first real challenge awaits.” For newcomers to the world of developer Codemaster’s rally simulators, the understatement of that quote might sting as much as it inspires laughter. Throughout, you might spend numerous hours struggling to find out how to deal with understeering, oversteering, lack of tire traction, vehicle instability, track degradation, unideal weather, and the sense that, no matter how focused and careful you are, you’re just not fast enough to keep up with your competitors.

But this is no arcade racer, after all. It’s the sequel to what some critics have called the best rally sim ever. In rallying, drivers don’t race head to head on a circular track, but rather take turns zipping along on literal roads—whether gravel, dirt, asphalt, or various combinations thereof—that might cut through forests, towns, mountains, and water. As the lone car on the track, your goal is to make it to the finish line in the shortest amount of time, but one good performance isn’t good enough. A rallying champion, according to this game, must achieve the best composite score across several miles-long tracks within multiple countries.

At the very least, the game’s epic trials will make you respect the practitioners of this most insane of sports. As your vehicle weaves through the beautiful fall-season trees of New England or rocky terrains of Argentina, you can’t help but ponder the bravery of individuals who confront ever-changing street and weather conditions and live to see another day. Your tragic incompetence in DiRT Rally 2.0 allows you to empathize with the hypothetical real-world competitors who nail one death-defying turn after another before misjudging a single kink in the road that sends their vehicles through a fence and rolling down a hill.

Mercifully, you can at any point in the game open a pause menu and restart a track so that your composite score isn’t ruined by a slight miscalculation on your part on a given track. A purist might say that this fundamentally contradicts the reality that rallying is a death-defying sport where there are no second chances, but a restart is often what the common player needs to maintain the will to keep trying within the framework of an otherwise viciously unforgiving game. For a title without a clear tutorial—and for one that can make Dark Souls seem like a walk in the park—the unrealistic do-over option is a necessary mercy.

Half the battle here is figuring out what car works best for you based on how it operates on a variety of surfaces. Though acclaimed, the first DiRT Rally was criticized for not making car and road types feel distinct—a limitation that’s been solved here. Not only can you almost taste the dirt and gravel kicked up by your vehicle, the difference in traction between rocky terrains and asphalt roadways is unmistakable. Likewise, the superior handling of a car, such as the gorgeous Lancia Fulvia HF, that weighs less than 2,000 pounds cannot be overstated.

For those interested in a more recognizable form of racing, Codemasters has more than doubled the original game’s number of rallycross locations, where five drivers jockey for position around the corners of a racetrack. Although the rallycross events don’t feature the natural surroundings of rallying competitions, they can seem more visceral as you bump and ram into your rivals. Between these races, you might find yourself tinkering countless times with your car selection and setup, as many rallycross cars are built more for power than graceful maneuvering. Stay patient, however, and the subtleties of executing a win—how to anticipate the green-light signal that starts the race, when to steer into an opponent, and what modifications to make to a vehicle—will take shape in your mind, leading to a deeper appreciation of a sport that’s foreign to almost all of us.

Developer: Codemasters Publisher: Codemasters Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: February 26, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Metro: Exodus’s Evocative Open World Starves for Nuance

The game ultimately seems less interested in the process of how humanity breaks down than its grisly end results.

3

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Metro: Exodus
Photo: 4A Games

Previous Metro games found texture through their limited scope. As seen through the eyes of Russian soldier Artyom, people in the subway tunnels beneath an irradiated Moscow cobbled society back together from the ruins of the old world while dealing with mutants, sickness, and rival factions built on all-too-familiar forms of extremism. 4A Games’s epic Metro: Exodus expands the series beyond those familiar claustrophobic tunnels, placing Artyom’s gaze firmly on the horizon as he and his companions journey across Russia by train, searching for a new home free from the ravages of humanity.

Appropriately, the game’s metaphor for its expanded world is to make parts of it literally open for the player. Artyom is now free to roam wide-open spaces—to peek into desolate houses for abandoned supplies and scout points of interest from a distance. All around you, mutants search for food, and bandits survey the wasteland from within ramshackle fortifications. The game is still driven by story segments, many of which fall back on the Metro series’s familiar brand of desperate survival horror; players creep around in the dark to conserve resources before a firefight breaks out or before massive spiders skitter through the rays of a draining flashlight. Other segments, though, take advantage of the world’s openness by providing multiple routes to do things like infiltrate a train yard, one of which might bypass a cluster of zombie-like humanoids entirely or drop Artyom right into their toxic nest.

The series is, as always, evocative in its atmosphere and the interactions it affords the player, such as allowing you to wipe the condensation off your gas mask with a press of a button. And Exodus’s open areas only enhance this specific sense of place. They even carry the occasional emergent thrill, like stranding you in a rowboat while a winged demon dives from overhead, forcing you to paddle to safety on land and take refuge in what turns out to be a populated bandit camp with a towering mutant shrimp in pursuit. But Exodus struggles to incentivize exploration of its world. You grow accustomed to the rusted, landlocked boats and the anonymous houses that dot the landscape and contain, if you’re lucky, an audio diary or a new attachment for the game’s robust weapon customization system. Most of the time, though, you’ll just find the same crafting materials when you explore the wasteland.

Unlike many crafting systems, Exodus’s never has you create anything new so much as replace what you’ve used up: things like bullets, gas mask filters, and medkits consumed either in missions or, paradoxically, in the very act of scavenging materials. When playing with some measure of stealth (which the game encourages) and keeping an eye out for materials on the way to (as well as during) missions, you’ll rarely struggle with the resource scarcity that might actually require a risky journey out into the world. Exodus is most successful elsewhere, in one forested area that provides an open-ended approach to a fixed destination. Its environments and encounters are more authored than the bland open world, and its scavenging is purposeful because it’s the only way to prepare for the encounters ahead.

The game’s open world feels like little more than overly elaborate wrapper for an underwhelming story that loses much of its drama to an awkwardly silent protagonist. Though Artyom narrates loading screens, he expresses himself in-game primarily by waving his hands around, as if miming because no one can hear him under a gas mask. His wife and his other companions refer to character traits we never see, alleged goals and ambitions conspicuously jammed into lengthy dialogue sequences. He’s supposed to be a dreamer. For one, the idea of a world beyond the metro is Artyom’s, yet none of that passion or hope ever comes through.

Not that the game thinks much of those apparent hopes, of course. The series’s typically dim view of humanity is on full display for much of Exodus’s length, as Artyom and his companions encounter terrible new societies birthed in distant parts of Russia. The game depicts people as easily subjugated when society breaks down, clinging to whatever is offered to them. Despots prey on desperation and fear, offering hope through perversions of community, religion, or protection. Violent forces upend what seem to be safe havens.

Exodus’s sweeping critique of humanity is practically nuance-free. Here, dissent among followers is rare, cultists are unquestioning fanatics, and cannibals screech “MEAT!” and jot the word down in unintentionally hilarious diary pages. Even slaves uniformly cower before their masters, weeping and begging for sympathy. Despite introducing an open world, the game is very much a forward journey, barely spending enough time in one place to inject any complexity to its exploration of how society claws its way back from the brink. You’ll hear the leaders of each group speak but seldom the people who follow them. They have no more voice than Artyom, no more interiority. Just as Artyom is essentially an anonymous pair of floating hands, the people that his party encounters often represent little more than simplistic avatars of a post-apocalyptic society gone mad. Exodus ultimately seems less interested in the process of how humanity breaks down than its grisly end results.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Tinsley PR.

Developer: 4A Games Publisher: Deep Silver Platform: PS4 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs Buy: Game

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Review: Kingdom Hearts III Is a Pedestrian Trip Down Memory Lane

The little that’s good here isn’t enough for one to shake off the faulty nature of the game’s narrative and thematic machinery.

2.5

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Kingdom Hearts III
Photo: Square Enix

The Kingdom Hearts series takes a simple fan wish-fulfilling premise—an action adventure featuring popular Disney characters who become friends with your hero—and complicates it with an unnecessarily dense and largely incoherent backstory concerning multiple generations of protagonists, a time-traveling puppetmaster, and an organization of possessed bodies in ornate trench coats. Despite more than 13 years having passed between the last numbered sequel in the series and its current installment, little has changed when it comes to the Kingdom Hearts formula. Savant Sora returns with his casually abusive pals Donald Duck and Goofy to journey through the worlds of various Disney feature films, all leading to an ultimate confrontation with the evil-or-not Xehanort.

In terms of gameplay mechanics and level design, Kingdom Hearts III has evolved so little since its forebearers that it feels less like a product of its time than it does a PlayStation 2 remaster. Each level consists of blocky open areas that your mostly pushed through in linear fashion, though the characters occasionally stop to fight enemies in arena battles before proceeding onward. The combat has been reworked (here it’s mostly the same as that of Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage), but the clunky, chaotic, seemingly unending battles favor endless button-mashing over precision. Nearly every skirmish is a mess of hard-to-follow on-screen activity, with dozens of same-y foes and effects flying in your face. Perversely, though, Kingdom Hearts III seems to be aware that its gameplay is a chore, allowing most combat sequences to be avoided by simply running past them.

The game is notable for the inclusion of levels inspired by recent Pixar and other Disney 3D films, but almost none take advantage of their source material in any meaningful way. The levels inspired by Frozen and no one’s favorite Disney outing, Tangled, serve up nothing but unvaried landscapes and gameplay. Worse, when Kingdom Hearts III specially references notable sequences from these films, such as Elsa’s showstopping “Let It Go,” the game does so with clumsy, overlong cutscenes, leaving us to imagine what it might have been like to actually take part in the action—to, say, have been invited to control Sora and interact with the ice castle as Elsa creates it from the ground up. Which is unfortunate, since that invitation to engage with Disney’s film art was one that was gladly extended to the player by Kingdom Heats II, most memorably in its inventive black-and-white world of “Timeless River” (based on Walt’s classic Steamboat Willy) and the Tron-themed “Space Paranoids,” which was set inside a server where the protagonists fight programs and compete in Light Cycle battles.

It’s only late into Kingdom Hearts III’s campaign, around the time that the worlds of “Keyblade Graveyard” and “Final World” are introduced, that the game begins to take its action in interesting directions, and just ahead of tying a bow on the overarching story. Here, Kingdom Hearts III somewhat successfully merges disparate, convoluted plot points from the entire series into an almost comprehensible whole, though that’s not enough for us to shake off the depressingly faulty nature of the game’s narrative and thematic machinery.

Consider the frustrating treatment of love interest and series favorite Kairi, who’s damselled as part of a disappointing trend of rendering Kingdom Hearts’s female characters helpless. Worse, protagonist Sora is an idiot in the Monkey D. Luffy mold: childish, stupid, and largely useless if not for him being an all-powerful “chosen one,” and not for any narratively or thematically justifiable reason. (The game seems aware of his generally pathetic nature, based on how often other characters insult and degrade him.) Sora is the embodiment of a participation trophy. Not that the others in this Calvinball soap opera hold much value either, as they speak entirely in empty platitudes and meaningless catchphrases, frequently distilling any narrative action down to the clumsiest metaphors about the power of friendship.

This is ultimately the biggest failing of Kingdom Hearts III, a game pitched as the finale to a series so many have grown up with but one that hasn’t matured with its audience or video games as a medium. It pretends to have something consequential to say in its bombastic conclusion but delivers only the most childish of dogmas. To the very end, the game’s subtext-free lore remains intentionally impenetrable, if for no other reason than to give the impression of actual depth. At the same time, Kingdom Hearts is in total adoration of itself as a concept—a brand and a commodity to sell. Kingdom Hearts III literally begins with two trailers for itself, a title card, then another trailer for itself and another title card, followed by another title card as a self-referential jab at the nonsense naming conventions of the series (“KINGDOM HEARTS II.9”) and finally a fourth title card two hours later. (It’s worth noting that these trailers feature much more stylistic and interesting combat sequences than anything you’ll stumble upon in the game proper.) Kingdom Hearts III offers a rote experience that rarely rises above mediocrity, failing to deliver on the promise of its lengthy campaign or as a meaningful conclusion to the dozens of games in the series that have preceded it.

The game was reviewed using a retail Xbox One copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Square Enix Business Division 3 Publisher: Square Enix Platform: Xbox One Release Date: January 29, 2019 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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