Near the road, listening to campfire blues. Someone’s guitar gently weeps as fellow wanderers shut their eyes. Irradiated monsters await nearby yet nothing matters now but this safe space of camaraderie. The poetry of this moment is how missable it is. Players are not asked to contemplate it. There is no dialogue and no cinematic; it does not end a sidequest or activate one. Just slouching men resting to music. Tomorrow will see them again on some Ukrainian wasteland, searching for valuable artifacts sometimes guarded by unspeakable fiends. Another day in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.
Open world games tend to have pacing problems, partly because players are the ones who set the rhythm. There is usually a central plot thread crisscrossed by dozens of optional tasks. It can often happen that the latter are a distraction while the former is boring. But what if an open-world game had both excellent additional content – missions worth completing, quests worth undertaking – and an intriguing story that led players through a path of increasing complexity and tension? And what if, despite a plethora of options, the gameplay were consistently fun, intense, and gratifying, without lulls?
That game exists. 12 years ago, Ukrainian developer GSC Game World released what remains one of the moodiest, most frightening and distressing videogames ever made, a reimagining of Roadside Picnic, the celebrated science fiction novel by the Strugatsky brothers that inspired the similarly beloved 1979 film by Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker. The European studio took elements from their predecessors – the geopolitical and economic aspects of one, the mystical and existential dread of the other – and spun their own brilliant version.
Book and film were released prior to the Chernobyl disaster, but have henceforth been linked with it. In Roadside Picnic, extraterrestrials briefly touch down on our planet before continuing their journey elsewhere, leaving their trash behind. These alien objects are basically magical to human beings, so they’re sought after by both military and black market dealers. Which is where the “stalkers” come in, sneaking into the fenced-off landing sites, or “zones,” in search of fantastic loot. Tarkovsky trimmed most of these specifics and retained only the idea of zones – where supernatural incidents may or may not be happening – and of the stalkers who infiltrate them, no longer for loot so much as contact with the transcendent and sublime. After the nuclear plant near Pripyat broke down in 1986, sending radioactive material all the way to Italy and Moldova, the subsequent Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was inevitably associated with the aforementioned.
GSC Game World amalgamated these sources, from page, screen, and history, and mixed them up with first-person conventions and open world mechanics. Players control The Marked One, a wounded stalker who wakes up right outside the Zone. Like dozens of videogame protagonists before him, he’s lost his memory. But he has two clues to his identity: a tattoo on his arm and a helpful note on his PDA: “Kill Strelok.” As players uncover his past – and inevitably advance towards Pripyat and Chernobyl – they also discover what’s befallen the neighborhood. As it happens, a second meltdown left behind a landscape of radioactive patches; deadly anomalies; strange artifacts that sometimes come packaged with inexplicable perks, like increased endurance; mutated animals; zombified former stalkers; and what can only be described as hellspawn.
Linear progression, from the outskirts of the Zone to the infamous plant, is married to typical open-world nuts and bolts. There are factions in territorial disputes, which players can ignore or get involved in; random people who ask random favors, some of them exceedingly dangerous, the sort they should never expect a stranger to accept; and those awkward notes only people in videogames seem to leave behind, with precise indications to treasures and weapons.
Players can effortlessly juggle main and side quests, and all of them are compelling because of one simple reason: not the plot, not the dialogue, not the lore, but the environment. No matter where players go and why – to track a lost family rifle, find a hidden stash, meet someone – the whole adventure of getting there is rife with dangers and memorable encounters.
Early on, some players may be tempted to run across the fields, face reddened by the afternoon sun. But such bucolic saunters are promptly interrupted by the million and one things out there in the Zone. Step over a hill and you may inadvertently stumble into a radiated anomaly, everything around you quivering like a mirage as you’re jostled left, right, and away from your computer in righteous indignation. Stand under a tree and a pack of ravenous dog-things may decide to play fetch with your legs. Crash an abandoned house and you may discover it’s occupied by gun-happy bandits. Get distracted and your head may be blown off by snipers so far away they might as well be camping in a different videogame.
Shadow of Chernobyl is savage. It’s up there with some of the classics of anxiety: System Shock 2, Alien: Isolation, etc. They don’t trade in jump scares. Opponents are too deadly, too smart. They don’t need the element of surprise, though they nevertheless often possess it. Players can sneak or engage, but neither is easy. Gunfights can be chaotic and messy – especially when faced with growling, cloaking, hunched, bloodsucking mutants. And they’re just the entrée in this infernal banquet.
Patience tends to be the best tactic. Approach every corner like you would a gate into your worst nightmare. Don headphones and listen for the clicking of your Geiger counter. Recognize danger areas and bypass them. Clothe yourself in midnight darkness. Love open spaces, fear ruined cities and manufacturing plants, and treat underground laboratories like battles for your soul.
Like Dark Souls, Shadow of Chernobyl can be hostile, unfriendly, and off-putting. The most innocent stroll can quickly devolve into a breathless struggle against radiation poisoning, human aggression, and posthuman otherness. Players come to cherish infrequent resting spots and watering holes, like the 100 Rads bar, where they can relax, nod to the mellow instrumental beats of “Gurza Dreaming,” drink to dearly departed stalkers, and chat with patrons or the barman. Then it’s back outside, to deteriorating industrial territories crawling with monsters or swamplands infested by the undead.
For the unacquainted, the appeal of such a grueling, stressful experience can be difficult to understand. But veterans get it. Videogames that offer such a continuous all-embracing challenge are teeming with life, despite or maybe because of the constant proximity of virtual death. Each square mile is a self-contained epic. There are no dull stretches of nothing between waypoints or mission locations. Each surface can either hide horrors or shield you from them. To put it fancifully: the entire digital world is activated, burning with interactive possibilities, like a heat map on fire, everything the red of potential or ongoing activities. Such videogames demand absolute, unyielding attention, and can be exhausting. But in retrospect, players might realize that, while scouring Ukrainian wreckage, they were more aware, more awake, more in-the-moment than in other, less demanding titles. And that feeling is worth more than the price of admission – and of lost sleep.
‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off
The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.
Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.
Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.
The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.
To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.
In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.
On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.
By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.
Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.
Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.
‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale
Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?
From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.
“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”
The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.
Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.
However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.
At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.
“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”
The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.
On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.
Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.
‘Resident Evil 3: Nemesis’ — A New Height to Survival-Horror
If we can forget that Nemesis was a poorly designed rubber goof in the Resident Evil: Apocalypse movie, we can easily state that he is the apex predator of the series. The follow-up to Resident Evil 2 had quite a few expectations to fill and, for the most part, Resident Evil 3 delivered. While not so much a fan-favorite as RE2, there was a lot to like about RE3. The return of RE‘s Jill Valentine, some new intuitive controls, and, of course, theNemesis.
RE3 marks the first time in the series where you are limited to one character – Jill. Through this, the story is slightly more focused and straightforward – despite the plot being all about Jill trying to leave Raccoon City. RE3 director Kazuhiro Aoyama cleverly sets in pieces of RE2 to make this work as both a prequel and a sequel. If you’ve never played RE2 – shame on you – you would not be able to scout notable tie-ins such as the police station. With a large majority of the building still locked up, Marvin Branagh, the wounded police officer who helps you in the second game, is still unconscious and has yet to give anyone the keycard which unlocks the emergency security system.
Where RE3 really shines is in its latest entry of Umbrella Corps. bio-engineered tyrants called Nemesis. The hulking tank brought a new dimension to the series, invoking more cringe-inducing terror and stress than ever. As if zombies and critters jumping through windows weren’t bad enough, now you have to worry about an RPG-wielding maniac busting through a wall and chasing you around the entirety of the immediate environment – and chase is certainly brought to a whole new level indeed. It became a running joke when you would encounter a handful of zombies, but could escape unscathed by simply running into another room. Nemesis, on the other hand, will continue his pursuit no matter what room you run into. At the time, this brought a whole new level of detail in the genre. Knowing that at any given moment he will just appear and will certainly derail whatever key or plot item you’re quested to look for made Nemesis a very intense experience.
Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror.
The gameplay also takes a few different approaches in this game. There will be moments when you encounter Nemesis, or certain plot occasions where you will be prompted to make a decision. It was a great alteration to the series, as it added new layers and weight for the player. Another addition to the gameplay came in the form of control although as minute as it sounds, is having the ability to turn a full 180 degrees – yes you read that correctly. Resident Evil quintessentially coined the term survival-horror, and survival certainly predicates the genre. There will be times – if not numerous times, you will run out of ammo. When those moments used to occur, you would have to make your character turn in the slowest fashion imaginable to make a run for the door and to safety. It was those moments back then that would pull the player away from the action. With the addition of the quick-turn ability- which was actually first introduced in Capcom’ Dino Crisis game – it gave the player the chance to just cap a few zombies and dash creating more seamless and dynamic gameplay.
The level design of Resident Evil 3 is grand, if not grander than RE2. A lot of the setting and scenery take place in the open air of the city and a few other places around the vicinity. RE and RE2 mostly took place indoors, and those settings helped create unique moods especially when it is all about tight corridors adding a more claustrophobic feel. Aoyama definitely went with a bigger setting and atmosphere in the follow-up. The game takes you through a police station, a hospital, a local newspaper office, a clock tower and a factory. More often than not, though, people tend to forget the scope and grandeur of RE3. Not to mention you can only… spoiler… kill Nemesis with a Rail-Gun at the end.
Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror. It took everything that it did so well in the previous titles and made it bigger and better. Nemesis encapsulated fear and dread in ways rarely experienced at the time. The scene where he popped through a window and chased players through the police station has always remained a nostalgic moment, much like anything that comes through a window in the RE series. In fact, a bit of advice for anyone playing the first-gen of RE titles: beware of windows.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 16, 2016.
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