29 Reviews liked by tendog


There is a pattern with very few exceptions in the way I experience modular narrative games. The beginning of the game lays out a structure—the game's mechanical thesis—and I begin to understand ways in which that structure can be used to tell brilliant intertwining stories in ways that haven't been possible before. And then, inevitably, as I begin to approach the end of the game, I realize that it will not live up to the promise of its own structures, and however beautifully it weaves its story it will live in the shadow of what could have been.
Pentiment's story is doubtlessly beautiful. It takes a small town in an unglamorized time in history and tells a gripping tale that combines religion, politics, and humanity together as deftly (and with as much research) as any lauded novel of historical fiction. The comparison to Middlemarch is perhaps obvious, but well-earned. And it gives the player ample opportunity to influence characterization without making the protagonist a cipher with no personality of his own.
In the beginning, Pentiment tries to give the player a similar level of control of the narrative with a brilliant structure in which the player is presented with a buffet of choices of what to investigate and who to dine with, but with only a few days to allocate between them so that many paths remain unexplored. Allowing a single playthrough to miss major chunks of content is absolutely necessary for a narrative game to truly be modular, and this structure facilitates that while also presenting the player with a meta-puzzle across multiple playthroughs: learn what each of these events gets you, what information you get or friendships you make, and what is duplicated across different events. Combine this with the player's chosen traits and dialog options opening or closing different paths, and then hide the heart of the game within this web so that only by deeply understanding the town outside the minds of the protagonist—by becoming in a way its protector-saint—can you truly understand its secrets and navigate its innermost channels.
Despite creating a structure in which this is possible, a genuinely inspired combination of Inkle games and dating sims, Pentiment instead lets this structure fall by the wayside to the extent that the last third of the game is almost completely on rails—the player can and probably will see everything the game has to offer at that point, no matter what. Although the narrative is still marvelous it's no longer modular, and it only functions as a game within the scope of a few conversations and the player's trudging between screens.
And, oh, what trudging it is. Although I mourn for its unfulfilled potential and there are increasingly many glitchy moments or unedited lines as the game goes on (the result of a rushed end of production?), the truest deepest flaw of Pentiment is surely the amount of time a dedicated player will simply spend moving from screen to screen. In every hour any part of the map could have a new event or new dialog—but almost none actually do. There are just precisely enough that the player is motivated to check everywhere over and over again, wasting cumulative hours of real human time.
But if Pentiment's mechanics are a little underconsidered and their quality occasionally slapdash, it's still a miracle that it exists at all. I never thought I'd see a AAA studio, a Microsoft subsidiary no less, make something like this that is so openly in conversation with this genre which has for decades been exclusively the territory of indie games (and indeed was rarely a big name there either). I dearly hope that this helps legitimize that space and expands both its popularity and marketability, and I dream as I always have of the day when someone makes a game that truly grasps the potential towards which games like Pentiment extend their hands.

Mechanically, this game probably deserves a 3 or 3.5. But I can't help but bump it up because of how inventive its world is, how utterly AMAZING its soundtrack is, and how much I keep thinking about this game, even years after having played it.
I came off of this game feeling a little frustrated, and with its shortcomings at the forefront of my mind. "It's mediocre". But I kept thinking about it. I kept thinking about its art direction; the mesh of sleek, hypermodern glass and iron structures and nature. That is really what stuck the most with me. The closest I think a game gets to this is Phantasy Star Online, but Opoona does it better, cleaner, classier. I want so badly for more games to look like this.
As an immigrant, the subtext of bureaucracy in this game is not something I expected, but wow does it add to the experience. All the requisites and red tape you have to go through for just Existing in a planet that you're not a citizen of - it hit close to home. It's definitely a subjective point, but I heavily resonated with it and made me connect with Opoona's journey that much more.
I was also impressed with the town design, and how much life every single location seemed to have. It felt lived-in, it made sense that these locations would develop the way that they did. I love that there's a town known for its museums and high-class shops. I love that there's a business center with two competing technology companies, all of it UNDERWATER, and named "Intelligent Sea". What an amazing name.
The soundtrack is impeccable, probably the best on the system. Hell, probably the best in JRPGs period. It perfectly accentuates the environments, though I will say that the battle theme is terrible. It gets replaced with a much better song later, but only while on a specific mission. I wish that better song played all the time instead.
I think my favorite aspect of this game is how much it respects art. Whoever was in charge of design for this specific aspect clearly had a lot of love for the art world and was fully immersed in it. The game has museums, art exhibits, installations, paintings; pretty much everything that you can expect from the world's finest museums. And these pieces are scattered across the different locales, in different town museums, out in the wild where a rogue artist has set up a small studio and left an art exhibit behind. My favorite of these is the many empty art frames you encounter in your journey. They are introduced with very little fanfare. You just see these random, intricate, gold-leaf frames around the world, with a small inscription telling you the numbering, and the artist responsible. The idea of the installation is that whatever you are seeing through the frame is the art. The game never gives you a special camera angle, never zooms in on an intended perspective; they're all just there, capturing whatever it is the game's camera has put inside it, and it always works. It feels so real.
Opoona, to me, is a game about being othered. It's about beureaucracy. It's about art. Opoona contains multitudes, and despite its very glaring flaws, I can't help but love it. It's the closest I'll get to taking an intergalactic vacation.

I honestly didn't enjoy my time with Aqorel too much and I feel a bit bad about it. I can see the passion that went into making the game, but ultimately I was happy when it was finally over. The game is really slow and on top of that, the puzzles are often quite tedious and involve a lot of back and forth to the point where I already solved the puzzle in my head but had to still execute it which, more often than not, just took too much time. I also found the throwing mechanic to be a bit janky, but that could very well be because I played it on the Steam Deck.
Also, I am still a bit confused about the theme of the game. It is a game about mixing colours, but also about food and they don't really go well together. Why am I colouring an orange? I feel like concentrating on one of those themes could have helped the game.

It’s important that you treat Pentiment with the same scrutiny and scepticism that you (hopefully) do with any other historical source. Most media, not just videogames, are, politely put, atrocious at dealing in good faith with the settings and themes that Pentiment tackles, to the point where it’s probably reasonable to call it one of the most authentic games ever made in this regard. The flip side of this is that it makes the things Pentiment gets wrong feel more conspicuous than they would be otherwise.
If that last part has your guard up, you can safely lower it, because Pentiment’s small handful of inaccuracies are pretty minor in that they don't affect the plot overmuch. I won’t say what they are specifically, because this is the type of game where any and all details ought to be discovered yourself, but among other things, they include at least two cultural events which are unambiguously Christian being misattributed to Alpine paganism of some description, as well as one figure who was (to my knowledge) neither pre-Christian nor worshipped as a goddess being described as a pre-Christian goddess.
There are a couple of reasons why these don’t overly strain Pentiment’s believability and for which it deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt. For starters, relative to the vast majority of media set during the early modern period and (in this case, just after the) Middle Ages, Pentiment’s immensely tactful to the point where I'm (almost but not quite) inclined to think these kinds of mistakes were intentionally included, on the part of its characters rather than its writers; that it avoids the common error of misattributing the origins of Christian saints to pagan figures further suggests this. More broadly, it’s unreasonable to expect anything to be perfect in terms of accuracy and – on exceedingly rare occasions, in exceptionally talented hands – inaccuracies can be advantageous. Excalibur’s a more visually distinctive and symbolic film for featuring armour which is about 1000 years too advanced for the 5th/6th century AD. Shadow of Rome’s a more memorable game for making you fight a ~15ft tall Germanic barbarian whose weapon of choice is a marble pillar. Likewise, in a meta sort of way, Pentiment’s central idea of historiographical truth being difficult to pinpoint is arguably strengthened by its own shortcomings in this respect. Ideally, this’ll encourage players to be more wary of any historically-themed media they engage with, including Pentiment itself.
Any such grievances are further obscured by the mostly impressive weight Pentiment lends to your decisions. I had the fortune of playing through Pentiment concurrently with my brother, and when we’d walk in on each other playing it, we’d do mutual double takes as one of us was in the middle of story events that the other didn’t even consider would be possible. Speech checks being affected by past dialogue choices encourages you to constantly, properly pay attention to and think about what you’re saying in a way I personally haven’t seen done since the isometric Fallouts or Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines. Although its time limits (while appreciated) aren’t implemented as organically as Fallout 1’s, an advantage Pentiment has over even those titans is that it also autosaves after every single action you take, lending everything a degree of permanence that few other RPGs can offer. If you were feeling particularly cheeky, you could go as far as to say that Pentiment can be counted alongside the campaign of Black Ops 2 in the pantheon of games which actually are what everyone pretends New Vegas is.
I call it only mostly impressive because Pentiment’s key weakness is the linearity of its third and final act, which even if you’re being charitable can only really be called overbearing. Not to bang on the choices-don’t-matter drum too hard, because nobody can ever seem to agree what choices mattering in a game really looks like, but you’re much more likely to wish you were able to say or do something other than the options you’re given in the last act than in the preceding two. Potential twists and turns you might hope to direct this chapter’s plot towards are often snuffed out by blurted out variations of “actually, I was only pretending to want to do that” that you rarely have any control over. This isn’t to suggest that Pentiment ends on a sour note – the ending itself’s quite lovely – but from a decision making standpoint, the whole last stretch’s noticeably more limiting.
However close it comes, this is never enough to distract from Pentiment’s visual splendour. Jan van Eyck paintings and The Tragedy of Man are the only other media I can think of which incorporate so many different historical art styles into one cohesive package and so skilfully. Sebhat being drawn in the style of Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox art’s a particularly inspired touch, but in general it’s no wonder that the art director and animators are the first names to pop up on the opening credits, because it’s like a playable manuscript. Rarely do you come across a game where you can legitimately say that the visuals are a selling point in and of themselves.
There should be more games like Pentiment. It represents two things we need more of – big developers putting out more niche, experimental titles, and historical media which isn’t riddled with self-congratulatory 21st century arrogance that spits on the memory of everyone who happened to be born before an arbitrary point in time, in which characters actually believe what they say and aren’t one-dimensional caricatures of the past. Be thankful it exists, whatever its issues.

I did not expect this game to be so fascinating! It got clear inspiration from The Witness but manages to find its own identity rather quickly. The less you know about it the better, to be honest. It's short, it's cheap: there are no excuses, just play it :D

Interesting game. Maybe a little less than the sum of its parts, mainly because pretty much everyone has the same takeaway after playing it a bit: "why is this a roguelike?" The roguelike elements really aren't even very good - the power creep you get as you progress gets kind of crazy. But that also lent itself to me clearing the game in about 6-7 hours - if I had lost my final run, I'm not sure I would have given it another go, but that also left me with a decent impression. The rough-around-the-edges nature also (funnily enough) gave me a little bit of fire to go back after my first couple failed runs to show that stupid game who's boss, which made me giggle.
The levels tend to be quite long which feels more suited to a normal game format rather than a roguelike, and while I think the platforming is pretty interesting, technical, and satisfying to pull off (by the end I was really confident in handling spin despite it initially feeling unreliable), there is a pretty lacking element of that flow and the flight that I associate with golf. The presentation is very good though - the 2nd and 3rd boss themes were a bit lacking after the absolute gigabanger that is the 1st boss theme, but still great OST, excellent art, and charming enough writing despite some perhaps too-long tutorials. It seems like since release there have been several great QoL patches too. Overall, while the game might have some glaring flaws, I enjoyed my time, and the drive to mash up all these gameplay elements and follow through on finishing the project is artistically commendable. I appreciate it.

Really charming and distinctive art design and music, memorable characters, fun dialogue and clever mystery writing, nice 6 hr length and adventure game murder mystery puzzles that felt appropriately challenging and not too fiddly or like a pixel-hunt. Really liked this a surprising amount.

Stray

2022

At its best when you're exploring a hub - jumping around, finding new routes, interacting with the various residents of the locale and helping (or hindering) their day. When the game becomes more linear, especially where you're eluding or killing enemies, it just didn't seem as much fun thanks to you feline freedoms being more limited in where you can go and what you can interact with.
Still, the cat's cute and it's never not nice just to make a little meow every now and then.

Stray

2022

No idea why people were hyping this up based on the "le cute catto" factor considering the game's got a lot more to it than that, but I'm glad I decided to play it anyway. I was pretty worried it'd be overhyped yet shallow both mechanically and narratively... but thankfully, while it doesn't exactly challenge the player too much, it's still fun to play and has more depth to its narrative than I expected. It's a fun time and it's worth spending an afternoon or two on for sure. I will mention that it feels overpriced right now for how compact and gameplay-light it is, but that'll likely be less of an issue once it goes on sale sometime in the future. The game unfortunately has little to no replay value, so I'm a bit unsure on how to feel about the amount I paid for it even with its cheaper pre-release price. Anyway...
Stray uses the feline shape and size of its protagonist really well for navigation and environmental puzzles/platforming - there's quite a lot in it that I could not imagine a humanoid protagonist would be able to accomplish, and the game leans on it just enough so that those things don't feel tacked on. I will say that the combat and stealth mechanics are underutilized and don't take up enough of the game's runtime to feel like "main" mechanics as opposed to the exploration ones, but they're nothing offensive. They just come across as somewhat missed opportunities.
The sound design is awesome in this game and pretty consistently great the whole way through. The various feline noises are a treat to hear and the character babble-voices work plenty well to give the setting life. Just about every music track is one that I want to go give a listen to again even now that I finished the game, and I appreciate how a decent chunk of it is diegetic as well.
As usual for my reviews I do want to talk about the writing in this game. I'll do my best to avoid spoilers.
The characterization of your various robot friends tends to be brief but enjoyable, with nobody coming across as super duper notably great as a character but plenty of people feeling real, fun, or both. I found that the main speaking character - B12 - is nice to have around even while at first appearing to possibly be a Navi-ish character concept. I think I'd rather have had the main character not have a cat-to-robot translator on hand at all times but I do understand why they went with it. I think it's also helpful for the target audience of the game, which I assume is fairly wide; while I know I would have liked an experience far more divorced from human concepts of language and such, that's not really what this game was going for.
The actual story is light in terms of the sheer amount of things that happen, but its simplicity tends to be a benefit as the game's a lot more about interacting with the world and becoming attached to its sights and sounds than anything else. The game doesn't try to bring players in to hyperfixate on and love certain characters in a fandom-y way or to try to become a huge hero of some sort, but instead tells a grounded tale of unfamiliarity, community, and a need to rise. At the end of the day you're a small cat who wants to get back into nature and do what you can to help out the various robots who clearly deserve more than they've had for so long. I do wish it had had more time to flesh out the world some more and make the lategame have more oomph, but what we do have is plenty good for what it is. With only societal separations, swarms of small beings, and the world itself being the closest things to antagonists the game has, I was pleasantly surprised at how engaging it remained the whole time.
I found it to be a big breath of fresh air that this post-human story in a post-human world is one which doesn't really try to elevate humans to some untouchable high and which does not give them a special treatment beyond a (very believable!) general robot admiration as ancestors. Getting to experience media with that sort of feeling and style is something that I've wanted to see more and more with time, so I appreciate it a hell of a lot.
The short runtime of the game was a boon, I'd say, as it never overstayed its welcome nor did it feel like it was missing too much. Perhaps another half hour to an hour of content could have been neat to flesh out a couple areas some more, but I'm fine with what we got.
To speak briefly about the other major parts of the game, the graphics are beautiful, though the character models sometimes look a bit more dated than the environments. Regardless, it all fits together well and I found myself staring at lots of different parts of the world and those who inhabited it with a smile on my face. It's got a bit of a neat style to it yet also uses realism juuuust enough to ground things again to a degree. It is a bit of a tough tightrope to walk but I believe the game definitely achieves that which it intends with its graphics and it looks good for it.
My problems with this game are few but do come up somewhat frequently to bring it down a bit. There are quite a few bits of weird grammar, particularly coming from missing punctuation that leads to sentences reading more awkwardly than intended. It's nothing that ruins the game, but it really should have had another pass or two over the script to make sure it was all ready to go.
The other somewhat disappointing part of things was that you can't ever freely jump, but I do understand that the game is designed such that doing so might break some parts and make other parts way more difficult. Still, there were a number of instances where it looked like I'd 100% be able to make it to some area if I could freely jump but simply could not do so because the game did not want me to, instead forcing me to take some side path over. Again, nothing game-ruining, but it was something that made me see the limitations of the game in a sort of ugly manner.
Overall, though, I think Stray was a game I really needed and one I'm glad has been successful (at least circa launch). Still, I do hope people have gotten more out of it than just pointing at the meow button and saying "le cute catto" and then giving it a 5/5. If anything I'd find that it comes across as insulting to the game's many other qualities.
So... to combat the recommendations and impressions I'd seen up till now, I'll give my own: I highly recommend this to anyone who's looking to play a game taking place in a post-human world that treats said world with respect for both non-humans and humans. I'd also highly recommend this game to people who enjoy playing games with unique control styles and tempos to get used to and truly engage with for a good few hours. And of course, I'd most highly recommend this game to anyone who would like to know how it might feel to be in the proverbial shoes of a cat or other small animal. It might just boost your respect or admiration for them all the more even if it doesn't quite hit the level of immersion in the role that I would have hoped for.

Stray

2022

A monumental effort for a small team. The environment design is spectacular and one of the clear highlights, and I cannot begin to imagine what a deceptively difficult challenge it must have been to get movement to feel good, with how the cat is animated and how few times I found myself moving to the wrong platform with its simple controls. The music also deserves praise, and I'm starting to get sick of how good the music is in every professionally made game that I play. I can only type "compliments the action perfectly" so many times.
Of course, there is a drawback to having a small team. The game is short, I clocked in at just over 4 hours (keeping in mind that I tend to go through games much faster than the average player). Steam achievements show that 3 days after release, 17% of players who have started the game have already finished it. That's fine, but those who prioritise quantity may feel a little let down if they expected more from a Sony-backed game. In addition to this, the puzzles are fairly simple and none of the action scenes took me more than 2 attempts to complete, so those looking for a challenge may also not particularly enjoy this one.
But come on, you're playing as a cat doing cute cat things in a lavishly decorated crumbling city. I really enjoyed exploring the city, and some of the action scenes were very striking. I enjoyed my time with this one, and I cannot understate how impressive of an achievement it is.