I’ve been quite busy the last week or so, but I’ve managed to get some game-time in when I can. I’ve been playing a handful of games that all offer something different.
New Mega Drive Game? CHECK!
Walking Simulator? CHECK! Wait! Don’t leave!
Anyways, read on!
THE NEXT PENELOPE
I’ve umm’d and ahh’d over The Next Penelope for a long time. I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest F-Zero fan in the world, so taking that into account, I wasn’t too thrilled at the whole F-Zero but 2D vibe. The Next Penelope is not a straight-up racing game though – it was also on sale, down to around AU $15, so I thought I’d give it a bash.
What we have here is a top-down, genre-bending action game with elements of racing, combat and puzzlers, all in the one title.
It’s an intriguing blend, and initially quite fun. But is it a jack-of-all-trades and master of none?
It took me a couple of stages to acclimate to the control scheme – your craft auto accelerates and all that is required of you is to steer it left and right. Each stage will introduce a new power. These are mapped to the face buttons. You’ll receive a boost, gun, a mine and a blink-style move, amongst other things. All of these moves cost energy to use, and your energy pool is universal, so knowing when to use something and how long to do it for is a bit of a balancing act. Any collisions you have will also deplete your energy bar, so avoiding walls is always recommended. There are pit-lanes and areas in the stages, though not in all of them, and you can also refill your energy bar by taking out opponents.
And this is all great, in theory – I love the way The Next Penelope keeps things fresh by adding new abilities into the mix. Stages can vary too. One stage will be a straight-up race, the next could be an obstacle course, requiring deft use of a power-up in order to succeed. Boss battles are engaging too, and the creativity on display is a sight to behold.
My problem with The Next Penelope is that it never manages to come together. The polish, ideas and mechanics are all there, but it never feels like one cohesive whole. Through my first hour of play, I didn’t really get a strong sense of what the game wants to be. Variety is a great thing, but each stage differs so greatly from the last that it’s hard to settle into a groove. Just when I’m getting a feel for the racing, a boss stage requiring mostly shooting and mines will rear its head. There’s just too much jumping from here, to there, to everywhere – it’s disorienting.
The challenge level is also through the roof – this is a hard game. With practice, each stage can be overcome. I’ve let loose with the expletives on multiple occasions, and whilst I’ve gotten past the obstacles with a little practice and patience, The Next Penelope doesn’t really reward you for your efforts. I mean, yes, there’s an XP system in here, but I don’t feel the like the areas I’ve chosen to upgrade have made all that much difference. The only difference I’ve noticed in upgrading is that the AI gets more and more brutal the more you upgrade.
Back to the special abilities for a sec – they don’t really feel all that satisfying to pull of. The blink move, for example, feels tacked-on. It’s accurate, for sure, and certain stages are built with the mechanic in mind, but initiating a blink slows the pace of the game to a crawl and breaks the flow of whatever you’re doing at the time. Getting through a particularly difficult stage by using all the moves at your disposal should leave you feeling proud of what you achieved when you finally manage to scrape through. The Next Penelope is missing this all-important gratification. I was never happy that I made it through, just glad that it was over.
The game has also been praised for its co-opting of Greek mythology, and it is indeed an intoxicating blend of sci-fi and outlandish history. As promising as it all seems at the start, the way the story is told is bland and uninteresting. I initially made a point of reading all the dialogue I could, but I quickly gave up because once stripped of the mythological trappings, the writing doesn’t hold up to any deeper level of scrutiny. At the end of the day, these are one-dimensional characters simply going through the motions, so if you’ve come into the game expecting the cool story reviews have told you is there, as I did, then prepare to be disappointed.
You’ve read dialogue like this a million times before, and no doubt you will again.
I really wanted to like The Next Penelope, but for all the clever ideas and intriguing moments, it falls a little flat. With a total of 2 hours spent in the game, it doesn’t look like things are going to turn around, so I think I’m going to call quits on it for the time being. Still, I harbour no animosity toward the game, and I’m hoping it does well enough to warrant a sequel – maybe the next time around it’ll be a little more focused and fun. As it stands, The Next Penelope is a hodge-podge of great ideas thrown together, but with seemingly no mind paid to how each of the different facets of its gameplay works for the whole.
It’s a tour-de-force of creativity, for sure, and the one-man development team is to be commended. I sincerely appreciate the ambition to create something new. Something other.
L’ABBAYE DES MORTS (MD/GEN)
Now HERE is an instant classic! Locomalito’s l’Abbaye des Morts is amazing in its original form, and I enjoyed the Spectrum port, but this Mega Drive version… it really is something else! I’m not religious at all, but I find religious history type-stuff intriguing, and since l’Abbaye des Morts is set during The Crusades, it has a unique angle right from the start. Really, the atmosphere here is so dense you could indeed cut it with the proverbial knife. The story set-up for the game is admittedly light, but it’s by design and provides all the context you need.
It feels like an experience from another time and place. l’Abbaye des Morts is strange and ancient, feeling like something that pre-dates the video-game form it happens to be in, and is more like a piece of art from the time period it takes place in. From the stylised visuals, to the sombre score, you’ll feel every bit the persecuted monk your character is.
So what is the actual gameplay like, then? You’re tasked with finding all the crosses within the game world – they’re not in every screen, so you’ll have to traverse through each one to find them – yep, this is a single-screen platformer, and it’s brutal. I’ve managed to get 8 crosses so far, out the (I think?) 12, and the latter half are indeed difficult to nab. Still, the difficulty is of the organic variety – it’s hard because it is, and with repeated play, you will improve. You’ll never have to struggle with average controls or unreliable hit-detection – l’Abbaye des Morts controls are simple, reliable and accurate. Absolutely Spot-on.
Yet, even with the high level of difficulty, l’Abbaye des Morts remains entirely fair. Once you work out enemy patterns, each screen can be cleared relatively quickly, but lose all your lives and it’s back to the title screen. This may seem unfair, but replaying each screen just makes you better and better at it, and since the game isn’t all that long, it really is no bother. Trust me – I hate dying and retrying, but l’Abbaye des Morts does it right.
The Mega Drive version sports improved visuals, and looks stunning in motion, but one of the cooler aspects of the game is definitely the alternative graphical filters – you can make the game look like it’s running on different hardware entirely. Like your CGA colours? It’s yours! Prefer the Commodore 64’s chunkier pixels (compete with a SID-style soundtrack)? Go for it! But all of this runs deeper than a mere palette swap, because each filter remixes the layout of some screens. Take a look at these two screens here, this is the same part of the game, but in a different mode:
It really does change-up how you need to approach some sections of the levels. I adore this attention to detail, and it’s sure to give each play-through its own unique flavour. In fact, it’s a unique concept that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anywhere else. Fantastic stuff!
When it comes down to it, l’Abbaye des Morts is one of the most polished, focused games you’ll ever play, and I heartily recommend it to everybody.
I’m kicking myself for not actually purchasing this one. The last Humble Monthly was pretty sweet, and Tacoma was included. I really dug Fullbright’s Gone Home, so I was really looking forward to playing to Tacoma. If it was anything like Gone Home, I knew I’d start it and not leave my seat until I was through. As excited as I was for it however, life happens, as it often does, and it just kinda just slipped off my radar.
Well, thanks to the Humble Monthly, I was reminded of its existence, so I installed it last night. You know when you get into those lazy gaming moods? You want something low-pressure to interact with? Something to play that allows you to take your hands of the keyboard and mouse every now and then? Something that you could just sit and watch, absorb, listen to? If Tacoma was indeed Gone Home in Space, then I knew it fit the bill. I knew what I was getting into – it would be a game with a strong story that I could knock over in an evening. Perfect!
And if all of this sounds like a bait-and-switch, that I said all that just to swoop in and tell you how disappointed I was in Tacoma, then no. This is not one of those posts.
My evening with Tacoma was one of the most chill, laid back gaming nights I’ve had in a while. It is a walking simulator, yes, but the thing I really love about Tacoma is the mechanics.
The set-up is that you’re a freelance operative, tasked with exploring a ship in which the crew have either died/or vanished – in the beginning it’s not entirely clear. As you explore the ship section by section, you’ll come across fragments of events. These are key moments in what eventually lead up to the abandonment of the Tacoma, and take the form of conversations between the ghost-like visages of different crew members.
What I really dug was that one conversation could happen in one place, then the crew split up and head to other rooms to carry on amongst themselves. What this means for you is that you’ll have to leave one conversation to follow the, for lack of a better term, ghosts into another room. Sometimes this room is code-locked, so you’ll have to watch the ghost enter the code before you can enter. This central mechanic could have been frustrating, but within each memory imprint, you can rewind/fast-forward/pause as much as it should please you to do so. For example, I’m listening to a conversation play out, and the characters I find most interesting leave the conversation to chat amongst themselves, I can follow them to wherever they go, listen to what they have to say, and then just head back to the area they left, rewind time, and pick up where I left off. This time, I might follow another set of characters into a different room, but I can rest easy knowing that I’ll never miss a thing. It’s just a very tactile, satisfying system to use – everything in Tacoma is as intuitive as possible, and it makes scrubbing through conversations and scenes immensely satisfying, even at the most basic of levels. Actually, the wider use of Augmented Reality for all of your interaction with everything in the game is extremely well implemented.
And follow these interactions you will. At certain moments, you’ll be able to access their own, personal AR systems, and this will give you access to thing like text messages, recipes, University applications and other everyday things that will give you an insight into what makes each character tick. Search through drawers in their quarters and you could find a letter or item that teaches you something new about that particular crew member. The characters develop rather quickly, and gain layers with every word they say, and every email, text message and object you discover.
It also helps that the voice acting (and script writing in general) is AAA grade. I believed each crew member was who they said they were, and barring some under-developed romantic relationships, I clung to every piece of drama, insight and revelation. And by revelation, I’m talking in relative terms. Tacoma is an intimate tale, a low-key ghost story of a small group of people caught up in a system that doesn’t care for them, and doing their damnedest to weather the storm as best they know how. In that way, it’s not entirely unlike the TV Show Black Mirror; the events unfold as a cautionary tale of sorts – a warning of what may just lay in store for us if we as a people continue to buy the official story, hook, line and sinker. To say much more would be to spoil things.
Know what you’re getting into though, won’t you? Tacoma is, and always will be, a walking simulator, and if you find the price a deterrent for what amounts to about 3 hours of in-game time, then just give it a pass. I do grow tired of seeing the same people banging on about the price-to-game value proposition. I see the value in a good story, and the brevity of it is also something I am drawn to – I can knock over something like Tacoma in an evening, much like a movie. Not everything needs to be 20+ hours. These kinds of experiences have a place in the gaming landscape.
Yet, I too can be either hot or cold on these particular experiences. I loved Dear Esther, Gone Home and Tacoma – they all do a great job shuffling you through their worlds, with pacing that feels just right and nothing standing in the way of the story. Some games I’ve struggled with, such as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, The Old City: Leviathan and Layers of Fear. I’m not sure how and why I make such distinctions between all of these titles, but I do. Tacoma does what it does well, and the visual are gorgeous, as you can see in all of these screen-shots.
Even though I received Tacoma in a bundle, I’d have gladly paid full price for the experience I’ve had. Never once did I regret dropping the AU $25 on Gone Home, despite the short run time. It was worth it for the lovingly crafted story then, and I feel exactly the same about Tacoma.
I hope to get some more gaming time in this week. And I’d really love to hear from any of you out there who read this blog! It’s a bit slow going at the moment – all this writing for next-to-nobody, and my most popular post is the TeknoParrot SEGA Rally 3 Tutorial – haha!
Are you guys and gals enjoying my content? I put a lot of work into each post, and I think my writing style is OK, so any and all feedback you could give me would be much appreciated!
Until next time!
Tagged: action, Aurelian Regard, Free Games, Fullbright, L'ABBAYE DES MORTS, Locomalito, new genesis game, new mega drive game, Nintendo, PC, PC Gaming, racing, retroarch, SHMUP, shoot em up, Steam, Switch, Tacoma, The Next Penelope, Walking Simulator