As someone who’s quite fond of the PSX aesthetic niche in modern horror games, I find it a bit disheartening that so many developers don’t understand what made those low-res games so good, beyond the nostalgic coat of paint. That being they were genuinely fun to play. Timeless, making the most of it despite technical limitations. Not every aspect will hold up well, but that’s inevitable. Expected, even. The benefit of making a modern homage that harkens back to the era is the ability to fix the messy details that only contribute to frustration. This is my first Puppet Combo game that I’ve actually played myself, and I’m hoping that it’s a fluke that I found it so underwhelming, with little having been done to build on the genre.

On the graphics I just want to preface that I couldn’t even play the game effectively once I got to the nominative house, lest I be at a severe and eye-hurting disadvantage. I had to change it from VHS to the 1999 aesthetic. I’ll congratulate the variety of options; you’ve got VHS, 1999, 1995, and 16mm, in addition to a CRT filter, which is particularly cool. It’s just a shame the game is so prohibitively dark I didn’t even want to use them.

The beginning sections were without a doubt the strongest part. Short, yet promising more. I was familiar with the convenience store part before playing it, as I saw a couple youtubers play it previously when it was a demo. Yet even knowing how scripted your interactions are it still felt tantalizing to see where it would go. Then I made it to the house, and I slowly lost all hope, much like the main character probably did. If anyone ever played Granny (2017) way back when that was still talked about, know this game is super similar to it. After getting captured by the baddie in the final act, you wake up in an upstairs room with little instruction on how to escape.

On your first inevitable death you’re given a grim lesson on the parameters of sound you’re allowed to make before you alert the killer or his mother. And it’s harsh. Every time you’re caught you lose a day and start in a new room. By crawling through vents, creeping around dark corridors, and hiding in closets and under tables you have to find a way…. out of the house. With a much cleaner polish, this is just Granny on a larger scale (it’s a big house). Strike one to this nice little formula is the questionable decision to limit you to a very small inventory. In my mind that should only come into play in one scenario: when storage management and annoying backtracking is negligible. This game satisfies neither criterion. What this means is that you’ll likely find yourself with a hoard to rival Smaug’s gold pile before long, except instead of treasures beyond compare it will be rocks and old bandages. Yummy. Too bad you didn’t bring your Fitbit along to track your steps as you micromanage your inventory across this godforsaken labyrinth of a house like this is Minecraft. So reminiscent is it that I can almost hear the phantom screams of my brother telling me to give him my precious diamonds. Who does that duplicitous usurper think he is?

But for as feral as my brother can get, it pales in comparison to the sheer determination of the killer in this game. This guy is nuts. With ears like a hawk, speed like a track star, and screeches like a pig I feel like this guy would make a great candidate for a Most Annoying in Show award. Of course, his mom is even worse. That scooter-wielding broad is two parts granny, three parts Terminator. She doesn’t kill you outright, but if she sees you in her considerably wide radius of sight as she traverses the house for her warden-ly rounds then you’re dead meat. The game needed a much bigger breadth of breathing room when it comes to where you’re safe and where you should be on edge. Enemy patrols are slow but constant, making sneaking more of a chore hampered by the too-wide detection of cameras and enemy lines of sight. A slog in other words, and a doubtless strike two.

The next and final strike against the game is its save system. You find tapes around the house and put them in TV to save your progress. It’s an old time-wasting relic that has no place here. Doubly so when considering the fragility of your character’s glass head and the stingy amount of saves rationed out. This could have been solved one of two ways while keeping the save method the same. One: make significant progress auto-save the game. Or two: make tapes not take up space and add a TV or two in the main areas.

To reiterate, Stay Out of the House, while nailing details that evoke the era it emulates, does little to polish it. Under the cluttered, messy details of moment-to-moment gameplay is a promising love letter to classic slashers and PSX games, but unfortunately this isn’t Minecraft. And I don’t have a pickaxe durable enough to dig to the treasure that makes this game worth playing.

If you take anything away from this review, I want it to be that unless you are a glutton for punishment and difficulty, you should choose Jill in your playthrough over Chris. The biggest debuff and the most painful one is the restriction to only having 6 item slots instead of 8, a choice that jumpscares me more than any zombified creature ever could. Yes, he has more health than Jill and is a bit better at handling weapons, but I promise you won’t be noticing that once you’re in the thick of it. On top of having more slots, her lockpick is also much better than Chris’ lighter. Having to expend an item slot for one-use keys is a luxury you can’t afford with Chris, yet sadly you are given no choice. So, expect a LOT of backtracking and having to make hard decisions on what to have on you at all times. Keep in mind none of this is communicated to you beforehand. If you already chose and chose wrong, may God have mercy on your soul. I managed it mind you, but it definitely played a huge part in my enjoyment.

Past that though, let’s talk about the actual game, content-wise. All due respect to what is the progenitor of many gaming tropes we see today, this entry just does not hold up well, remake or not. Resident Evil (2015) is a prime example of an instance where the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. The dark and gloomy manor, the unique movement design, and a great deal of freedom on where to go make for what sounds like a decent time. That notion is shattered when you take a deeper look and consider the full picture.

Similar to many survival horror games after it, Resident Evil made the design choice of handicapping you in certain aspects to increase claustrophobia and challenge. The problem is they lay it on far too thick. Since I played Chris, I’ll speak only from that perspective. Hearing that Chris has better combat stats than Jill disheartens me greatly, because his attack potency was trash. Every little annoyance you could have with a game, technically speaking, is dialed up to 11 in Resident Evil. Most obviously, zombies take too many shots to kill, and it’s not something you can ignore or MLG shoot away.

Ammo is sparse already, and with the RNG critical hits, zombies just eating your shots like candy, and a wonky-jawed control scheme - one that I don’t mind otherwise by the way - it makes for a painful time that slows momentum to a halt. Add to that the backtracking to store items in an already very unhandholdy game in terms of progression, itself compounded by door transition cinematics, which is the one of the worst mechanics I’ve ever experienced. Whoever decided to keep that antiquated loading scheme from the original game should be given a stern talking to. There is no need to take five seconds every 30 seconds to load an empty room or hallway.

Suffice it to say I was starting to lose patience rapidly with this one. In fact, if item boxes didn’t share a universal storage, I would have probably put down the game completely in an act of stubborn defiance. Story on the other hand was a pleasant contrast. Not convoluted or unsubtle like later entries but enough to be intrigued by the world. Wesker definitely being the highlight of that. Though with how a few times I got stuck for a while before figuring out where to go, I sometimes forget the game even had a story until I got to whatever the next cinematic was.

Look, I heard through the grapevine that this REmake was going to get a remake soon. If I were you, I would just wait for that before playing this one. Seeing how successful and well-received the recent batches of remakes have been, I have high faith that they’ll do it justice this time. If you simply can’t resist, know you can do a lot worse. The game’s high points are there, they’re just buried underneath a pile of clunkiness. Just remember the two p’s: patience and picking Jill.

Devotion is quite a ways off from what I expected it to be. Since I like to go in blind to most games beyond their short description, especially if it’s a horror or narrative heavy game, this often means that I have little expectations beyond what it says on the tin. For Devotion that means all I knew was that it would be a 1980s Taiwan horror game, presumedly about… Devotion. And call it stereotyping but I was very much anticipating a by-the-books but by no mean unwelcome ghost game. It goes a bit deeper than that though.

Similar to Transference, this is more a game about family than the underlying creep and dread of a boogeyman stalking you. Information you learn about yourself, your daughter, and your wife is told primarily through artistic vignettes, souvenirs, and notes, told over the snapshot duration of many years. Luckily unlike Transference, I think this game did a great job in not only defying my expectations, but in making me happy that it did. It did the unthinkable, it made me care to learn more about it’s titular family. As the name suggests, the game is a tale about how desperate devotion on the part of the player character, the father, can lead a man down a dark path to save his family. It’s a sad ballad that I could dissect set piece by set piece, but for the sake of brevity and the small possibility that I can get someone else to play this game, I won’t elaborate on any more spoilers here. I’ll just add as a last note on the story front that the passage of time is portrayed fantastically in the design and wear of the apartment complex your family lives in as you explore your past, creating a wonderful narrative and aesthetic harmony.

While I said this wasn’t a traditional haunted house, don’t think that means there won’t be any scares or legitimately horrific events. In a surprise twist this game has some of the best toe-curling body horror I’ve seen, realism be damned. And before you think this is just another PT walking simulator clone with a little fluff added on, I’m glad to say there’s some super creative gameplay segments beyond walking nondescript room to nondescript room that kept me properly engaged. Some are cute, some are ethereal, and some are quite unnerving, either by nature of the story or with the help of some masterly crafted ambience. It even has a half-decent chase sequence, with the caveat that it would have been vastly improved if our player character moved faster than a light jog. Regardless, it was short and gave the player some visceral, horror-fueled urgency that the rest of the game doesn’t quite touch on.

It’s weird how in many ways I find Devotion to be similar to Layers of Fear - another walking simulator where you uncover the dark pieces of your past - and yet I enjoyed it so much more. I think the depth of story, a clear creative throughline, and genuinely well-crafted sections beyond JUST notes made it so much more intriguing throughout, even if it wasn’t what I was initially hoping for. Devotion also has this remarkable, almost claylike look to everything that weirdly takes me back to games of the PS3 era. I’m not sure why, but I love it. Inscryption is kind of similar, it has an indescribably fuzzy art style to it that makes it oddly endearing. Whatever it is, keep ‘em coming I say.

For all intents and purposes, Alien: Isolation is as close to a retelling of the original Alien as legally allowed while still adhering to the universe’s canon, hallow be thy name. And full disclosure, I kind of wish they had just retold Alien (1979), and just added a few sections for gameplay’s sake. I say that because the story here is.. eh. You play as Ripley’s daughter whom, while looking for her missing mother, boards the Sevastopol space station with a few colleagues who claim information about Ripley’s disappearance is onboard the station. Fast forward through a botched boarding attempt and a few minutes spent walking through an excessively unlit station and you find out you have more in common with your mom than you realize: there be aliens afoot. More than just that the androids, or “Working Joes”, throughout the station have gone haywire and started attacking all humans they encounter. And before you ask let me just say no, the family fun doesn’t end there. There’s a good few batches of human threats scattered around as well, just for fun.

To account for this dizzying array of scoundrels the game uses a crafting system for creating tools to distract or eliminate threats. I’m gonna level with you, this whole system feels quite unnecessary. Both from a practically standpoint and just from a gameplay perspective. I’m usually very forgiving when it comes to games adding miscellaneous mechanics that don’t fit the genre or enhance the experience. It artificially inflates time and complexity, but rarely is it invasive or annoying to me. Unfortunately, Alien: Isolation doesn’t skate by that excuse. I mean, need EVERY game be a scavenge simulator? I’m a wayward astronaut adventure, not a reject from Hoarders. This is made more obvious when you actually use the tools too and see how pointless most of them are, creating a resource scarcity/overabundance that incenses me to no end. The Medikit, Molotov, Flamethrower, and Noisemakers are the only items you should ever be making or using. Everything else is too clunky, too slow, and too costly. I’d take it a step further and say Noisemakers are 100% necessary. As it turns out patience can only get you so far. More on that further down.

Before we do though let’s wrap up the story first to the best of my ability. Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to be moderately spoiled. After a lot of meandering back and forth, meeting new folks you couldn’t pay me to remember the names or faces of, you finally find out this was all a bad case of the narrative acrobatics and you were actually unwittingly sent on a mission to retrieve the alien itself. I guess Weyland-Yutani had learned nothing from the first movie. It was at this point I fully checked out. There were genuinely parts where I forgot who I was cool with and who had betrayed me. Not because it was so complex but because it felt so textbook and safe. Which is a shame considering how much I admire everything else. From its gorgeous glossy cassette futurism aesthetic to the crisp sound design in every corner of the game it really is one of the most well-designed titles I can think of, with the exception of a bad case of the uncanny-faces syndrome. For goodness sake, the original Alien callback sequence where you played as the guy who found the alien nest is almost worth the price of admission alone. No, it’s the heart, at least in the story, that’s missing for me. Anyway, after just about everyone else is dead or forgotten you’re finally able to get the hell out of dodge after an EXTREMELY drawn out end-sequence. One fakeout is good form. When you do three fakeout endings with no end in sight is when I start to get annoyed in a way that no cinematic sequences can lessen the blow of. Yet finally it does end, and on a cliffhanger no less. One I doubt we’ll ever get closure on, but never say never. In terms of story I’d give the game a firm 4/10. Terribly boring and quite drawn out. Shave off a couple hours and characters and pull back on the wild goose chases and we’d be in business.

Now let’s get into the real meat of the meal. What everyone raves about without end. The Alien, and by extension, its AI. I feel a touch more lukewarm about this than a lot of other folks it seems. Technically speaking, everything about the Alien is impressive. The sound, the animations, the reliance on sound and your radar to know where the Alien is, the fact that if you’re caught, you’re dead. It has all the hallmarks of a fully realized horror experience, no ifs, ands, or buts. In practice though, the lines between scary and tedious become far too blurred. This frustration comes from two elements: your utter helplessness and the overreliance on the illusion of realism. The first one is more straightforward, so let’s knock that one out. While I’d say this aspect is largely exacerbated by the second element, it’s annoying on its own. When I say helplessness I don’t only mean the fact that you’re a one-hit kill. As I said, it’s a neat twist on the tag-like horror games that already inundate the genre. The issue is that your tools to hide and fight back also suck. They give you a rotunda of tools and gadgets to supposedly fight back. Not kill the creature of course, but slow them down. This is mostly untrue. Of the tools you have, only half of them are polished enough to actually use. Even then, they last about 5 seconds and give you about twice that time to haul your butt to timbuktu.

The reason this is so devastating is because of the illusion of realism I talked about earlier. The general philosophy the game takes is trying to make the Alien as responsive and dangerous as possible. Given that it’s you know, an Alien, it also has enhanced hearing. What this means is you’ll spend a lot of time running and hiding from it. Mostly hiding, as it is much faster than you. That’s not all though, If you hide too close to when the Alien gets in the same room as you, there’s a good chance it will find you anyway. Best case scenario, you’ll have to spend two minutes pre-hiding under a desk while it meticulously walks back and forth across the room as it searches for you. On its own this just encourages a more careful method of playing, but we’re STILL not done. As annoying as it can be to have to wait around on account of the architecture disallowing me to make a distraction, that can be forgiven. What can’t be is the obvious instances where the Alien sticks around FOREVER, because under all the realism is a perfect knowledge of where your player character is at all times. I suppose it’s to make sure you’ll still see the Alien even if you optimize for sneaky gameplay. It simply goes on too long, and little recourse from my crappy tools, I’m frequently left sitting still for 5 minutes, going out for 1 minute, randomly triggering the Alien 100 feet away, then having to go back to hiding. When I could I just doused the clown in flames and speedran through the section, but with limited flame ammo that was fewer than half of my interactions.

Don’t misunderstand me, it was visceral, it was cinematic, and it perfectly portrayed what the Alien should be on a realism level. Yet as a horror veteran, the waiting around in lockers and under desks, with the knowledge that it shouldn’t have found me when it did, left me bored in a way only remedied by sitting still for multiple minutes while I prayed for the Alien to dip. I’m glad they spaced out the Alien so it wasn’t constantly stalking you the entire game, however I think making it less obvious and frequent when the game forced interactions would not only add to the realism, but would further lessen the tedium that came with prolonged exposure.

Long-winded as it may have been, I feel a differing perspective is never unhealthy to flesh out. And don’t mistake my rant for hatred. My peak of agitation with this game never came close to tempting me to quit early. Not every interaction was hell. Only about a quarter of them ;) Holistically, this game has a fantastic presentation with a weak story, mediocre combat, and a should-be-better gameplay loop.

Whistleblower may technically be a DLC, but for me it’s Outlast 1.1. Our main character still hasn’t learned how to talk, luckily he’s not nearly as stupid as our protagonist in the first one, ignoring him trying to expose his employers WHILE STILL IN THE FACILITY. It’s no secret I relished the first game, and that trend continues in the DLC. If I could point to only one game that smartly, most generally encapsulates the wide genre of horror in the most accessible way possible I would point to Outlast. It feels like the most horror game of all horror games. I don’t mean it’s my favorite horror title, or that it’s the scariest game I’ve played. What I mean is that both of these outings feel like the most succinct examples of classic horror in setting, tone, and story.

It’s just two games about two men in an insane asylum who very much should not and do not want to be there, encountering truly vile creatures at every step of the way as they fight to escape. Fight being figurative, as the game doesn’t let you fight back. It’s a little frustrating, but I suppose it works with the themes of utter helplessness that this franchise loves. Besides some optional documents there’s no excess of nonconsensual lore, out-of-place puzzles, or tonally clashing gameplay switches. You’re just some nerd with a camera and a dream. And If there’s one thing that this DLC gets right, it’s the crazies, or as the game supplies in a more PC manner, the variants.

Frank fits in right at home with his cannibalistic tendencies, and don’t even get me started on Eddie Gluskin. I won’t spoil in case anyone reading isn’t familiar with his…. style. I know I said this isn’t the scariest game I played, but man. This guy, as a guy myself, makes me question that. What a downright horrific dilemma he puts the player in. I didn’t think they could top Trager’s quasi-medical torture in the first game, now look who has egg on his face. All in all a 10/10 in terms of upping the ante on the derangement for this game. In fact, I’d probably go back to this DLC before I went back to the main title again.

The first game was short so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s DLC is even shorter. Still, it’s cheap and frequently comes with the base game anyway. Because of that I’ll say what I often do when recommending sequels, seeing as it applies doubly so here as a 1:1 DLC. If you like the first game, get this one. If the franchise’s commitment of helplessness bothers you yet you still have latent interest in the world, then maybe Outlast: Trials is more your thing. It’s multiplayer sure, but you can also throw bricks at people.

A compact experience even by Itch.io standards, Iron Lung relies on the design philosophy of tell don’t show. I don’t say that entirely facetiously, as that’s a perfectly acceptable way of worldbuilding and tension sustaining, so long as it hooks you with something too keep you entertained. Oftentimes the anticipation or imminent proximity to danger can be just as fulfilling as outright terror.

In Iron Lung you’re a wayward convict forcefully tasked with exploring a world overwhelmed by a ceaseless ocean of blood. The reason being that after every habitable planet suddenly and mysteriously disappeared, you and the rest of surviving humanity must search new solar systems in pursuit of food, shelter, and other valuables. What makes the premise particularly harrowing is the fact that your method of exploration lies solely in the eponymous Iron Lung, the name of the tiny, rickshaw submarine that you commandeer for the duration of the game. It’s about the length of a car and fitted with just three accoutrements. A console terminal, which can be used to find out more about the world, a simple coordinate-based navigation center, and a photo display that acts as the sole source of visual information outside the submarine.

It’s a brief adventure, requiring you to navigate to a list of coordinates using a reference map and take pictures of whatever is at them. Be it a plant, animal remains, or something more sinister. Since you don’t have consistent visuals on account of the depth of the ocean you’re in requiring the viewport to be welded shut, you have to use a motion sensor to let you know when you’re too close to an obstruction or debris. It’s almost impossible to die to it, it just makes it less straightforward than going directly from A to B. Even still, on it’s own the gameplay is quite one-dimensional. Thank goodness Iron Lung knows not to overstay it’s playtime. I guarantee that without the interesting premise tied to it this game wouldn’t be nearly as popular. No, this game is more focused on the slow build of anticipation as your observation pictures become more and more concerning. An objective greatly helped by the aid of a superb sound design. The leaky, bass-heavy hums and moans of the ocean is great on a good audio system.

While I’m aware that you’re suppose to rely on the sensors and whatnot, I can’t pretend I’m not disappointed you can’t use the camera system to more broadly explore the ocean. You can technically take pictures at any time, except when outside scripted sections they’ll just come out as indistinct photos every time. I know what I’m proposing would put the onus on the player, but imagine how much more impactful it would be for the scariest, most disturbing image to come from the player’s own curiosity.

Oppositely, the console terminal felt like a great organic source of worldbuilding. They didn’t make the mistake some games do where they have 100 different logs from 30 different people meticulously talking about how they hate the cereal they eat every morning and other nonsense I don’t care about. It’s very straight and to the point while sparking a genuine interest in the world. The only problem is that Markiplier movie notwithstanding, I’m not sure where else you can take the property that wouldn’t eliminate the nebulous horror it thrives on. I wouldn’t be against them trying, it’s just a precarious situation. One that those familiar with cosmic horror know all to well.

It’s a low investment venture where you get what you pay for. If you enjoy austere games where the emphasis is on the unknown rather than the observable, if you think the premise sounds fascinating, or if you just fancy cozy itch.io titles then this will be right up your alley. The ending is kind of anticlimactic, yet it did little to detract from the experience as a whole. My advice before you play is to not overhype it. Many people, myself included, make the mistake of seeing a game like Iron Lung skyrocket up in the pop-culture zeitgeist and then build too-high expectations from it. Meet the game where it is and you’ll have a decent time.

Given it’s nigh impossible to live in the first world and have not heard of this game, I won’t go into a lengthy introduction. Let’s just jump in. I played on mobile, normally a downgrade in terms of atmosphere and immersion. It doesn’t really make a difference here though. The game is simple in depth and mechanics enough that as long as you have relative peace and quiet for sound cues you’ll be ok.

As somebody who likes to take risks, this game was still VERY tight on the power management. To the point of annoyance. The first three nights of the eponymous five nights was nothing crazy. Check the cams often enough, but don’t be glued to them. Use power very sparingly and you’ll be good give or take a death or two. The fourth and fifth night on the other hand felt like huge jumps in difficulty. The fifth night especially. I’m not exaggerating when I say that within ten seconds every single time on the fifth night at least one animatronic would be at your door with Foxy not far behind. And if they didn’t get you then power-lossage was a very real possibility. That’s taking into account a near-ideal optimizations for power saving too, with delaying door closing as much as possible, opening them as soon as possible, and still the times were extremely close. Believe me when I say RNG is both your savior and your condemner. Random in-game button glitching, cams going down to let the animatronics move, or having the animatronics just straight up refusing to leave outside your room can easily be a ticket a quick trip to frustration land.

It’s that poorly managed RNG paired with shallow mechanics that provide little player expression that made me put the game down before I could beat the final night. You could be the best FNAF player in existence, perfectly optimizing battery usage and yet if RNGESUS doesn’t bless you, you’re not going to make it. Full stop. And after so many deaths the repetitive jump-scares became less suspenseful and more prohibitively drawn out.

It’s hard to believe this game would be the catalyst for the absolute WAVE of “mascot horror” we would continue to see a decade later. My advice if you want to finish the game? Take breaks, getting stuck in failure loops (like I did) will make you burn out very quick in a game like this. As a success story I admire this game. As a game it’s missing a few key elements, such as balance and interactivity, making it too punishing and too boring to see it though till the end. In terms of idle observer games, not a terrible start for a franchise from a one-man band, but I want to see more risks taken in future installments.

This review contains spoilers

Clocking in at around 20 minutes, How Fish is Made makes the smart decision and doesn’t muck about wasting it’s precious little time. True to its title, the game is about how fish is made. To expound, you’re a sardine newly entering a fish processing plant, encountering oily new friends as you explore further and further into the facility. Not solely a walking simulator (or would it be flopping simulator?), each fish you meet has an interesting question they all echo. That is, once you reach the end of the plant, which way are you going, up or down? Given it requires an answer each time they ask you, I took it seriously and thought of a few different reasonings that ultimately made my choice down.

To start with the weakest reasoning, the text for Up is red and Down is blue. And as we all learned at school, blue = good and red = bad. It’s mathematically proven at this point. Thesis ready as that was, for more support I took a look around the processing plant. As the start would suggest, you seem to be entering a downwards-built processing facility, which would suggest the natural sequence would be to go down, so I should go up right? We’re not finished. This is no ordinary facility, I hope. There’s mystery liquid stagnant ponds, eye-wall structure thingamabobs, too-large caverns that become more and more Cronenbergian in design as you go further in, and most disturbingly of all a general feeling that you’re not in a facility at all, but some sort of organic mass.

Now, with either interpretation of what you’re in it would seem sensible to go up. If it is a facility, maybe going up would take you out of the machine altogether, giving you another chance at oily freedom and all its worldly pleasures. And if it is a creature you’re in, then going up would surely seem more preferable than the alternative, in both cleanliness and general risk. Well, since that seems the obvious choice, it can’t possibly be the right one, so I decided to go the other way. Perhaps they used reverse psychology, and going down would end well for us after all. Besides, we already came from above, might as well see what they got in the other direction. Of course, meta-gaming can only get you so far, and while fun to ponder, these are all very flimsy theories.

Don’t worry though, remember those fish friends I was talking about? They’re more than happy to give their own input. I love these scaley friends of ours. Some are braggards, claiming with unfounded confidence they know which way to go, while others are less sure, themselves sweating over making the decision. Despite there seeming to be no obligation, every fish knew that they could only delay it so long. That no matter how long you put it off you must eventually face that million dollar choice. Finding the other indecisive fin-having fellows to be of little help, I stayed strong on my choice of down. I figured what upside could there be to changing my answer.

It’s here where the real bait and switch of the game is performed. That must be it, I thought. A test of conviction. That changing my answer, though seeming to have no consequence, could lead me to a “bad ending”, the consummate gamer’s archnemesis. So stand strong I did. Then I met the last two fish, each the most useful of all the waterfolk we met previously. The penultimate fish acted as the meta exposition, outright questioning what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Then gave two different explanation as to what the lesson is here. Is it a meaningless choice, or is it truly a test of conviction? Great, that’s another choice I have to make. Luckily the text for conviction was colored red, so we still have my rock-solid scientific method to fall back on.

Now normally I would call this clunky writing, to have them outright acknowledge the themes, but I think it works here. Throwing a wrench in the idea that there’s only message lends well to the over-analyzing this game thrives on, and it throws you off-kilter so effectively I just can’t muster the passion to deride it. Despite his later admission that he was just another lowly fish pretending to be of authority, his message still resonated. Still, I couldn’t falter at this point. So I stayed with my best friend Down.

The last fish, right before you make the decision for real this time, provides some stats like he’s some kind of Bill James. He tells you how many fish he’s seen go each way. He counted 199 fish that have gone down and 474 that have gone up. Interesting as it would appear, that little demographic does little to dissuade my love of down. Our final fish-bro’s not done yet though. He offers to go a direction we choose and yell at us what he sees as he goes through it. After sending him down he reports it’s “soft” before going silent. Alright, me and Tempur-Pedic are pretty tight, so make some room for me fish-bro. Steeling myself, I go down to the onyx abyss.

What splendors await me you ask? A yummy fish sandwich, with my sardine self providing the main protein. In other words, no bueno for me. A bad-ending perhaps, or maybe the only ending there is. The appetizer before our final form comes in the shape of some plain text on a black screen. A little send-off message. The author goes over how they hate the comfort given to people struggling that others are going through the same thing. They recognize this is unhealthy, before sending us off with the same message: “Don’t worry, a lot of people are going through the same thing.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure they’re likening the fish in the plant to those going through their own struggles. We might not be going at the same pace, but we all face trials and tribulations. Sometimes one’s we can’t avoid. Call me easy but I find this to be oddly endearing. I’m not familiar with the creator of the game but it feels startingly sincere and sobering.

Oh and to spoil the other ending, it’s just as unfortunate, with you becoming integrated into a huge mass of tormented fish flesh, unable to move or to exert agency. It’s here where the bait and switch I talked about is fully realized. It was never about conviction, except maybe for the benefit of your own self-respect. Changing your answer never amounted to any change. In fact, neither up nor down really mattered at all. Both were bad.

Which leads us to the main and largest theme of the game. That being the illusion of choice, the first theory posited and then dismissed by the penultimate fish. All that pondering, theorizing? All for nothing. You never had a chance to begin with. None of you and your fish friends did. Unbeknownst to you, you were all just helpless small fish in a scary world. Delay it as much as you want, you will have to face hardships, you might feel like a fish out of water, sometimes there will be no right answer. Certainly not one as simple as up or down. As the final text emphasized, sometimes all we can do is endure, It may not be romantic.

But that’s alright, just know,


a lot of people are going through the same thing.

This review contains spoilers

What an odd, quirky little game this one is. With a FMV presentation, a plot straight out of a fever dream, hyper violence, surprisingly mature sexual themes, all atop a satirical pastiche of the American Dream, it’s like this game was made for me. I can’t decide what I like more, the game or the idea of it. Harvester came out in what I consider to be one of the first virtual Wild Wests of the gaming-sphere. When games were really starting to push the envelope, both in maturity and in complexity of themes.

And that definitely becomes apparent when you see what sticks here and what doesn’t. For anyone out of the loop, I’ll give a quick rundown so we’re up to date on the game’s story. You’re Steve Mason, an 18 year old teenager that has suddenly woken up in Harvest, a small rural town unfamiliar to him. Family, neighbors, and fellow residents are all as equally strange to him as the locale. Giving cryptic answers, seemingly coached responses, and having darkly twisted morals, all given as if perfectly normal. Courtesy of a nasty case of amnesia, you’re tasked with figuring out what’s going on in this strange place, and why everyone is acting so weird. More specifically, you need to enter the city’s “lodge”, a special exclusive group that claims to have answers to your questions. But first you have to perform increasingly immoral tasks around town before they let you in. Along the way you meet Stephanie, another amnesiac teenager who shared your confusion. For this part of the game you have an unlimited amount of freedom to walk around town and talk to the locals. And for that and others reasons, it is the best part of Harvester.

With a population of just 50 people you wouldn’t think claustrophobia would be the name of the game here, but you’d be wrong. Everyone is just so off, and there’s no off-ramp for the insanity. From a sexually depraved mother, to a hyper-violence obsessed brother, to a cannibalistic butcher, there’s all manners of degeneracy represented. What really sets it apart is how well it straddles the line of being genuinely disturbing but also intensely funny at points. The absurdity of characters acting like nuking characters at the drop of a hat is normal, or having a kid who opens fire on you with a piece with ruthless efficiency for not giving him the newspaper that day just hits that sweet spot that every absurdist satire hopes to reach.

Conversely, the underlying themes of torture, cannibalism, incest, and sexual assault are all thoroughly sickening. There were times where I sincerely felt like putting some of these animals down. Altogether I found the juxtaposition of a 50’s era small-town and a band of vile caricatures so damn intriguing. Like I said, free exploration is allowed, which is both a curse and a blessing. You can talk to, bribe, extort, or even fight just about anyone in the game. Be wary because they fight back, sometimes leaving you dead, arrested, or just plain traumatized. My only complaint with this design is how easy it is to make a mistake and have to start over, and how optional some interactions are. For example the wasp lady and nuke guy were entirely plotless interactions who were kill-y than killer. And the nuke guy especially is the embodiment of a hair trigger red scare fanatic. A fun archetype, just ultimately not one that has any bearing on anything.

At its heart Harvester is a deconstruction. Specifically of the increasing prevalence of violence and sexual imagery in media. Ironically enough in a way Harvester is even a commentary critical of itself, echoing worries now long familiar with gamers everywhere. The concept of games corrupting the youth and the moral foundation of society. It does make use of its setting and time period, critiquing a thinly veiled caricature of the Red Ryder mascot just as quickly as it critiques video games and TV shows. Granted that doesn't mean every attempt is seamlessly crafted. Particularly the latter half lays it on reeeeeal thick with the paranoia. Though to be fair it can be hard to tell at times when the game is making fun of the satanic panic or actively supplying arguments it’s advocates would use. Beyond that it’s a take on the very real culture shift that’s taken place over the years. It’s not nuanced, and it’s not complete, but the root point demands some deeper examination, just not here. I mean having to increasingly perform worse and worse tasks to court membership in the lodge and figure out what’s going on provides a good dilemma, even if the consequences are mostly incidental. And having Stephanie as a peer with a sane perspective is a good grounding device. I only wish she played a bigger part in the game, instead of the after-thought she often felt like.

Now let’s skip to the latter half of the game’s narrative, after you’ve gained entry into the lodge. After Stephanie’s apparent murder just before you get accepted you’re all the more desperate to find answers to your questions. And it’s in the lodge where two major changes occur the the formula of the game. One, the game becomes much, much more combat focused. Whereas before you may have killed one or two people at most directly, during this part you’ll become a full-fledged killing machine. With insane humans, fleshly monsters, and eldritch creatures all forcing you to kill or be killed. This is where I’m less sure if I'd call it a good meta-commentary, as you’re not given much of a choice for most of these combat decisions, at least until you get to the trial rooms. And you can’t really make a good argument for sparing these demonic beasts and demons either. On top of that what was before small buildings and clearings has now been replaced by winding hallways, confusing corridors, and an utterly non-Euclidean architectural design pattern. It honestly felt a bit over designed and slightly tedious. Not to mention tough.

These beasts aren’t giving you an easy fight, and you’re far from a natural fighter. Picking up food items, secret weapons, and occasional restarts are all a natural consequence of this design. The trials near the end in the lodge were much more my speed. Short, succinct metaphors for life. Perhaps the most overt instances of parody in the game, these I could tell let the game designers go truly hog-wild with dialogue and horror. The most nonsensical commentaries mind you, but they gave us some cool, dreary vignettes. After all that, once you’ve cleaved and bargained your way to the final confrontation with the sergeant-at-arms, you’re finally given an answer for all the weirdness going on. Plus, you find out Stephanie is actually still alive! Turns out the spine from earlier was just a fake…..or somebody else's? Now, up until this point we understand clearly there’s something beyond a case of the crazies in this small town. Beyond your everyday case of moral degeneration, these FMV people are frequently seen portraying multiple characters. So what’s really going on? I had narrowed my suspicions down to three possibilities, with my prime theory being that the player character Steve was in some sort of coma, imagining people he knew in real life in a bizarre horror world that mirrored his anguish at being locked in his own body. So not too far from the truth.

You’re in a virtual world, created to test if a person can be driven to homicide by a matter of circumstances. Everything had been a test to get you closer and closer to shedding your own morality. The same is true for Stephanie. You two are the only real people in this simulation. And the sergeant-at-arms gives you a final choice. Kill Stephanie and return to the real world, or let yourself be killed with the consolation of experiencing a virtual simulation that makes you feel as though you’ve lived a full life with Stephanie before they pull the plug on you.

So what exactly are the choices here? Rise above your desire for freedom and temptation to shed the sanctity of life, or give in to a primal gratification of the body. This seems like a pretty easy choice, and it is in-game too unless you’re someone who likes to see the crazy endings in video games. It’s not like the player has actually been made deranged by the events in the story, however this does touch on an interesting choice that everyone must make in real life. Not a conscious choice, nor is it so grand and convoluted, but the idea that nurture reigns supreme over nature is still a hotly debated topic, and one that demands inspection. As hard as it is to quantity, it can’t be debated that upbringing and repeated traumatic events can permanently alter your behavior, values, and beliefs. In typical Harvester fashion it dials that up to 11. Good thing I’m not forming serious foundational beliefs from this silly game.

I know some people think the satire is tired and low-hanging fruit, but I can consume this stuff for days. I think the underlying mystery and creepiness is what makes it so captivating to me. On its own I might agree the game is a one-trick pony, and I’ll admit I have an unexplainable soft spot for Harvester, but the bizarre circumstances coupled with the active threats to your life give it a legitimately fun spin to your typical over-the-top fares. It lost me a bit on the tail-end with how it dragged, yet it’s still a fun romp highly accessible despite its age.

It’s a shame to me that the most well-known SCP video game is a buggy, antiquated mess of a game. Yes it’s free, and yes it was only made by one guy, but no that does not make this one worth playing more than once. Congrats to Joonas Rikkonen for making something that’s as it good as it is with only some cheap assets and a low-grade engine he had on hand. Aaaaaand that’s as far as my good will goes on that front.

The ultra-basic graphics and gameplay is perfectly acceptable. I’m not even close to expecting anything above that, nor do I really care for it. I understand where SCP lies in terms of Creative Commons. I get you can’t monetize a lot of what makes SCP, well… SCP. And with friends in the multiplayer mod that’s the last thing your paying attention to. No, my problem lies in two major factors.

One, the map design. For the life of me I can’t fathom why Rikkonen would make the game procedurally generated. I don’t mind the concept, however it doesn’t work here at all. While I don’t hate the simple graphics and laboratory design on their own — though some differentiation between rooms wouldn’t hurt —, coupled with the different level generation every time you start a new seed, the game quickly becomes a hell of endless labyrinthian boring white walls and hallways. A labyrinth without of ounce of fun to walk around in. And your stamina blows, so be prepared to do a lot of 3 second sprints, stops, sprints, stops for HOURS as you backtrack trying to remember the order of the rooms you just passed was. The archaic navigation device you can find is only an incremental improvement, providing the most basic of map information. Not a fun time let me say, and completely up to chance as to whether you’ll get a good seed or not.

My second problem is with the progression overall. It’s so terribly unclear where to go, what order to do it in, and for that matter what I’m even trying to do. An hour in and I started using a guide. Even without that it wasn’t a walk in the park. The enemy kiting in this game is awful. Dead end? you’re dead. Two seconds of stamina ran out? Deader than dead. Trying to have more than five seconds alone without some creature chasing you endlessly? Sorry but that doesn’t compute. Near the end I got so frustrated I just turned on God mode and tried to beat the game anyway. As I was getting gutted by invisible creatures while a plague doctor infinitely choked me out for the 10 time I realized it was just not worth it anymore. For as much of a time sink as this is, it’s not nearly intuitive or exciting enough. If I really wanna see the ending one day I’ll get a hold of my good friend Unregistered HyperCam 2 and see what they got on YouTube. Until then, I’m content to leave this game on the shelf.

Look, I love SCP. And I know it’s a long shot to wait for a home-run game that checks every box of mine, but this game just doesn’t cut it for me. The integration of lore, items, and enemies is awesome. The execution of everything else? Not so much. Who knows, somebody taking another crack at this formula may very well give us the quintessential SCP one day. Just not today.

Perhaps the closest we’ll ever get to a Narcos game, this one took a while to click for me. When I first booted this baby up a year ago it was….eh. Kind of confusing and overly open-ended. Fast forward to this September and I finally mustered the motivation to give it another try. I don’t know what it is but it felt so much more simpler than I remember it being. The whole cartel system just felt right to me and soon I was on a roll. I’m not exaggerating when I say I probably marathoned every mission in the game by playing just this for a week straight.

Not without reason, both the combat and narrative backdrop was supremely satisfying. Watching the little debriefs on my target and then systemically destroying them morale-wise and strength-wise was magnifique. Seeing the reactions of cartel higher-ups to my upsetting the balance of power was uber-gratifying and the cherry on top. The prime directive of taking down head honcho El Sueño was just too tantalizing a goal to not pursue. When the power fantasy was finally realized I felt unstoppable. Like I said, the game is Narcos and I’m Javier Peña, but instead of red tape and prohibitive politicking I have a squad of homie dudebros and more bullet-shaped lead than we know what to do with. Add to that the customization is pretty sweet, micro transactions completely optional and unnecessary for me.

Of course none of this would be worth mentioning if not for the handling and gameplay. And man it is smoother in Wildlands than it gets credit for. The transitions, be it from third person to first, vehicle to ground traversal, or crouching to prone, are all super sleek animation wise and let you do a lot of tacticool maneuvers. Plus it is has one of the most consistently dependable vehicle handling schemes of any game I’ve ever played, with an asterisk for the sometimes dodgy driving on rocky terrain. But even then that’s just amusing. The gun handling and customization is fantastic to boot as well. No notes from me there except keep it up Mr Clancy.

The game design is most likely one you’re familiar with. Open-world venture with enemy outposts, bases, and miscellaneous villages strewn throughout. And honestly I’m sort of torn on this methodology. On the one hand, with such a strict narrative goal I can see how it’s hard to add too much variety to the gameplay and missions. But maybe a bit more time in the oven to justify such a large open-world may have been preferred. The actual outpost takedowns are awesome, naturally. And with as many as there are you learn quickly to get creative with your method of madness. It can’t be argued it’s not repetitive, but for some reason I don’t mind it here. Just gives me more practice runs as I perfect my Terminator emulation. Though my favorite infiltration style will always be the stealthy drone scouting followed by meticulous sniper shots method, where I pick them off one by one, or two by two or three by three when I use the AI.

Speaking of AI, let’s talk about your buddies. Their logic is a bit all over the place, but they don’t annoy me too often. They can be real nice when you want to eliminate someone out of Line of Sight, and they’re almost impossible to spot by enemies when you’re sneaking around, unrealistically so. As in an enemy won’t see them when they’re five feet away and looking right at them. But besides it insulting reality and logic I’d prefer that to being punished for not being on top of he AI commands as much as I should be. But man these guys have no self-preservation center in their brain. You get pinned down in a location you better hope they followed you inside or heed your follow command in time, because otherwise they’re about to go down quicker than you can say gesundheit. Again, not the worst, but this game definitively proves they have not created the perfect AI yet. Because when they do I just now their priority will be to use that technology to give me the perfect teammates.

I’ll be the first to say, by all accounts this game isn’t really anything special. Notable polish ignored its undeniably cookie-cutter. Despite that I can’t help but enjoy this schlock. It’s simply too primally fun to goof around and experiment with different weapons and styles. If you enjoy tactical third-person shooters, and especially if you have a squad of your own peeps who do too, then give this game some consideration.

About as racing as a racing game can be. I remember being kind of obsessed with this game as a kid. And to it’s credit, the terrain deformation and slow-mo crashes are pretty entertaining, and furthermore technically impressive for the time. AND THE VEHICLE NAMES. Peak middle school cool. Juvenile me very much approved. No joke there’s a Racing Truck named Voodoo Iguana, and better yet in one of the sequels there’s a motorcycle called Wasabi Katana. I like to imagine they had two darts boards full of random nouns and adjectives in the developer headquarters and whenever they needed a new vehicle name they got to throwing.

Unfortunately that’s where this game peaks. It’s a competent game, but not one that will hold your attention long. I like the format of motorcycles vs buggies vs big rigs vs trucks vs cars, it makes it more of a party racing game than a competitive one, and I even like that you’re restricted in certain races to specific vehicle types, with different routes better suited for for each dirt-kicker. My only technical issue with the game is most small and medium-size vehicles have overly tuned turn rates. Makes it a bit clunky when you’re just getting used to the movement.

That aside, the game feels very repetitive after a while, even adjusting for it being a drivey drivey vroom vroom game. Maybe some powerups or match modifiers would have given me more mileage. It goes without saying the online mode is kapoot, and with only one mode I can’t help but be burnt out before even halfway through this entirely too long game. Nostalgic fondness withstanding, MotorStorm is a second-rate game with third-rate staying power. As far as racing games are concerned, you could do much worse, but you could also do much better. I say keep this one on the shelves of time.

Were there not a sequel, this may very well had been my favorite zombie game. Sorry Dead Rising, you’re a close runner-up. Everything about this 2008 arcade-y classic brings me back to a simpler time. Even though I didn’t play this entry as much as its sequel, it still blast-from-the-past jettisons me to that cozy mood of ever-present melancholy.

What’s weird is that I’m not typically a fan of Valve’s shooting mechanics. I’m one of the few people that just didn’t click with Counterstrike’s shooting and movement scheme. It felt clunky, odd, and unfit for first-person PvP gameplay. But for Left 4 Dead, it can’t feel more natural. The lack of aiming doesn’t bother me, the crouching for increased accuracy doesn’t frustrate me, and there being no running is simply incidental. I really think a large part of that difference lies in the transition from PvP to PvE, as well as the fact that these enemies don’t shoot back at you. The moderately fast run speed and the enemies running right up to you makes it perfect for both fast-paced speedruns or wait-back hunker down playstyles. Just don’t be too terribly slow or you’ll face quite a few AFK hordes.

Delightfully, this meat-and-potatoes design philosophy also extends to every other aspect of the game. All you have is a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, a healing item, a throwable explosive, and your wits. No esoteric perks, unique traits, or numerically ranked gear. Just run and shoot. Nothing but prime meat-grinder gameplay. Which brings me to my next adulation, the map design. Left 4 Dead proved all the way back in 2008 that you don’t need hand-holding to get across a map. Every corridor, stairwell, and alleyway flows so naturally into the next setpiece. It’s almost impossible to get lost. More importantly, it doesn’t come at the cost of contrived design choices made to baby-proof progression. I mean it when I say every aspect of this game is tightly designed to a T.

The narrative elements are sparse, with every new kernel acquired by safe-room writings, environmental storytelling, or voice lines by the characters you’re playing. All you need to know is a zombie outbreak just started (who would have thought?), and you’re rushing with your ragtag group of colorful survivors to reach the nearest safe haven. A task easier said than done judging by the number of missions in the game. As you could probably guess, I’m a big fan of this minimalistic style. We’ve all seen a million zombie stories. So when Left 4 Dead says let’s forgo the traditional song-and-dance and get right into the action I’m more than happy to oblige. Especially if I can play as my favorite cranky geriatric veteran Bill.

Now I know I’ve been gushing uncontrollably thus far, but why stop now. The lighting. Me likey. One of the biggest differences between Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 is the lighting, and with that, the mood. Though I think Left 4 Dead 2 improves on 1 in almost every facet, the dark, moody lighting in this game reigns supreme. It’s just so creepy and dreary, exactly how I’d like to imagine the end of the world would be. Gimme that overcast, week-late-on-the-electric-bill apocalypse all day every day. The very first chapter is a prime example of this, setting a thematically bleak tone for the rest of the game.

To add a hint of flavor and strategy the game, Left 4 Dead also introduces Special Infected, stronger, scarier, and dangerously enhanced zombies with their own gimmicks. Beyond having iconic designs, they also serve to address certain playstyles and challenge the player to switch tactics up when the situation allows for it. For example the Boomer punishes survivors who funnel hordes into point-blank kill-corridors, and the Hunter punishes survivors who go to far ahead of their teammates. Coupled with crescendo events — environmental interactions that causes an extra large horde to come after you— these touches of character help break up the potential monotony of just having the normal infected.

Bottom line being: try the game. With friends, alone, with the homeless man down the street. You’d have to be trying pretty hard to not have a fun time with this treat. There’s even a huge modding community. But don’t just take my word, there’s a reason the game has such a lively community 15 years later, and it’s not because Bill is just so damn charming.

Rest easy Outlast-heads, it’s finally here. It's been a long journey from first-look to release for this game, but the game is finally out, and it’s here to turn the formula on its head. Not only is it multiplayer now, your character remembers they can throw mad hands with the crazies! Outlast Trials is definitely a trial by fire game in that upon first bootup you’ll be running around like a chicken with your head cut off, with naked giants, gas happy lunatics, and banshee impersonators that will have you scream-laughing hysterically at your friends to come help you.

Don’t sweat it for a moment though, a few hours in and you’ll be a certified escape artist. Getting to know enemy behaviors, pathing patterns, and map layouts through repetition all help in making the game a slow simmer process. But that’s really the best way to learn. I was lucky enough to early on find a wise Trials elder in the wild who helped me get the fundamentals down, though really that can be supplemented with some simple experience and occasional web searches if it’s really not clicking fully with you. Remember, it’s not called Outlast Trials for nothing, as it is a definite trial and error game to begin with. Fortunately everything here is crafted expertly to immerse you in the world. The chest-mounted rigs that allow you to fight back minimally with smoke-bombs and stun nades do little to make you a terminator but it’s a good, logical step in the franchise’s evolution that I think works wonders here. Like in all multiplayer games, it can get a bit silly with perfect cooperation with friends that allow you to stunlock enemies for 30 seconds straight, but that’s the exception, not the rule, and it’s all temporary anyway. No permanent removal of enemies here.

To complement this change of pace, the thematic missions and villains, the sterile hub, and even the god forsaken arm-wrestling minigame all fit into the hellish Outlast world fantastically. On top of that the sound design and art direction is killer, with night vision lighting distinct from its predecessors but no less sublime. It’s clear the Red Barrels team has a vision and a passion with Outlast Trials. Perhaps the highest compliment I can give to Trials is that it is the one game that comes closest to maintaining a high “oh-crap” level even after throwing in a couple dozen hours into the game. It’s just so relentlessly suffocating and devoid of hope. Pair that with a cold-war setting and I’m hooked like it’s phonics.

But like all things, there’s two sides to every coin, and this game is no exception. Outlast Trials is a horror game in more than one way. It has committed the cardinal sin of being…… Early Access! And there’s two issues that come with that. Let’s start with the more minor one. Being an Early Access, multiplayer focused game, Trials doesn’t really have a continuous, sustained narrative or conclusion. It supplements this by having documents interspersed throughout trials randomly that you can pick up and helps you discover more about the history of the site, major players, and the world itself. It also has a pseudo-finale in its Program X, an amalgamation of the 3 other programs with increasingly difficult modifiers. Completing these unlocks the unique “escape” mission where you replay the introduction level but backwards. Naturally it’s not permanent nor particularly revelatory, nevertheless it gives you something to work towards.

The first half of these Program X trials find the perfect balance of fun and challenging. Given the nature of how you’re replaying the same trials over and over again, it can get easy faster than you’d think. So upping the stakes with extra lethal enemies and similar modifiers is more than welcome to me. It’s the second half of these missions I take umbrage with. It gets exponentially more difficult, with some nasty modifier stacking that I’m really not a fan of (looking at you no items + more enemies + no fun). You can technically beat the missions solo but you couldn’t pay me to be that patient, which sucks because the only real endgame as of now is locked behind beating that program. And you can’t just get anyone to beat it with. You need some great, coordinated players, no casual tomfoolery allowed. I’m not really sure why it’s that hard to begin with, considering how quickly they added Program Omega, another mission collection that’s just an even harder version of Program X where you’re forced to play with a team.

Wait, you say, what’s the problem with just grinding with a squad until you can beat the hardest missions with your eyes closed? And that’s where we get to the biggest issue of the game. It gets old long, long before you achieve enough spiritual enlightenment to beat the final levels. Early Access or not, this game was way too barebones at launch. The team’s not throwing in the towel luckily, but they need to pick up the pace on regular updates. Excluding the modifier modes, there’s three main Programs, each with a main mission and two smaller, slightly shorter mini-missions. These are not long missions mind you. Once you get a hang of the game the longer ones can be knocked out in less than 15 minutes and the smaller missions in less than 10. You can easily get through an entire rotation of missions in around 2 hours. It’s fun, I enjoyed my time solo, with randoms, and with friends. However, just a month in and I’ve shelved the game for the foreseeable future.

I heard they just released a new trial yesterday, a great step in the right direction, but they really need to let the creative juices flow. Create a custom mode where you can set your own modifiers, release new trials every 3 months instead of every 5 months, and do more to diversify gameplay. Introduced more mechanics, new enemy types, and fancy new items. It’s a heavy burden to keep the player base both on their toes and at the edge of their seats, yet even so I have faith in Red Barrels given their clean track record thus far. In all likelihood I’ll be back in a year or two to check in on the overall experience. Fingers crossed the game is all the more rich in content by then.

A Plague Tale: Innocence answers the hour old question of, “How good could a semi-historical fiction game about a sister and brother surviving a supernatural rat plague as they traverse famine-torn France be?” The answer is… surprisingly optimistic, much unlike the setting. Plague Tale is one of those story-driven, stealth-crafting hybrid games, and one of the better looking ones at that. And if there’s one thing to compliment about the game it’s its visuals. For a studio I’ve never heard of who’s claim to fame is gaming titans like Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties, it’s extremely impressive how good the lighting, landscapes, and faces are here. The gothic architecture in particular was so darkly ethereal on its own, doubly so when overrun with mountains of plague-infected rats. Seeing how they would newly present those nasty forces of nature was a sight I never got tired of seeing, and rats or not rats I’m already excited to see how the sequel looks.

The same praises can be sung of the game’s combat and stealth. I went in expecting to tire of the whole babysitting dynamic they set up in the introduction section. So color me presently surprised when it was a quite inoffensive mechanic throughout. The crafting ingredients were well spaced out as well, by the end I had nearly every upgrade, or at least the ones that I wanted. Much like the visuals, the rats take center stage in this portion of the game, creating some neat light-based puzzle segments. Now even with the rats, the gameplay should be very familiar to anyone who’s played a puzzle game for more than five minutes, but I’ll be damned if it’s not entertaining. Especially with how weighty and supremely satisfying my trusty slingshot feels. The two main boss fights were fun with the upgrades to the traditional arsenal, but be careful when fighting the first one, there’s a glitch I encountered that forced me to restart the chapter. Just make sure when you summon the rats to only summon one mound before you move to the next one.

Regrettably, the game is not perfect. I won’t spoil the story here, but by far its weakest aspect is the characters. The brother-sister duo did a good job with portraying that dynamic, the supporting cast on the other hand felt very much like checking a box, with the exception of Lukas. I see what they were trying to do, making a merry-band of young adult misfits in a harsh world. Sadly the writing and characters weren't as fleshed out as the concept. The motivations, and definitely the payoffs, felt rushed and flat for me. Too many of the deaths felt unearned for me to feel their weight. That’s another thing I’m curious about how the sequel improves upon, seeing as it’s one of the few mediocre elements of an otherwise fantastic game.