Author’s note: Just a quick heads up, there are some pretty big spoilers ahead
A couple of years ago, survival horror/interactive teen drama Until Dawn released on PS4 to some surprisingly positive reviews.
Not least because, despite being in many ways a tongue-in-cheek homage to the genre, Until Dawn is, nevertheless, a pretty unique horror experience. The first half of the game, in particular, provides ample evidence for this fascinating contrast.
As soon as the group arrives at the Washington family’s remote mountainside cabin, there’s a strong sense of déjà vu; and not just because there’re plenty of nods to other well-known horror franchises such as Friday the 13th, The Descent, and even Saw.
The gang is comprised of the usual teen-slasher character stereotypes – Mike the jock, Emily the self-absorbed mean girl, Jessica the prom Queen, Chris the goofy nerd etc. etc. – old newspaper clippings, letters, and other such conveniently placed environmental clues litter the cabin, directing the player’s suspicion towards the local psychopath who just so happens to bear a personal grievance against the Washington’s, while even the setting itself, with its isolated homestead, disused mine, and defunct sanatorium, scream by-the-numbers horror flick.
But it doesn’t take long before we realise Until Dawn is actually far more than a simple tribute act, and the superficial similarities that characterise the first hour or so of the game are just that: they’re skin deep.
From a narrative perspective, the fact that developer Supermassive Games refrains from revealing the identity of the culprits until relatively late in the story, throwing in plenty of false starts and gloriously cheap jump scares early on to get the pulse racing and ramp up the tension, keeps the player in a constant state of uncertainty and suspense. True, the bait and switch isn’t exactly the most original of narrative devices, but the sense of mystery that permeates the entirety of the first half, perhaps even the first two-thirds of the game, keeps the player invested in the story from start to finish.
In fact, now that I think of it, the second half/third of the game doesn’t fall short simply because, once we discover a combination of protagonist Josh and a brood of bloodthirsy Wendigos are behind the strange events that have been plaguing the group since they arrived on the mountain, all sense of mystery has been stripped away, but because, after such an intriguing build-up, the big reveal fails to live up to our expectations; the Wendigos especially feeling somewhat contrived and out of place.
Be that as it may, Josh is still a very effective and well-written pseudo-villain and, more importantly, the wider cast of genre stereotypes and other, more nuanced characters, are truly excellent.
Ersatz jock Mike comes across as typically arrogant and inconsiderate at the start, especially during the prologue scene in which the gang plays an awful prank on Josh’s now missing sister: the demure Hannah. However, following an interrupted tryst with vacuous it-girl Jessica, over the course of the rest of the game, Mike gradually reveals himself to be brave and selfless. For example, he goes out of his way to scour the eerie and dilapidated ruins of the Blackwood asylum once Jessica goes missing, while towards the end of the game, instead of running away to save his own skin, he returns to the mansion in the hopes of finding and helping his remaining friends escape the insatiable Wendigos (assuming he’s still alive and kicking at this point, that is).
Ashley’s character arc similarly subverts the genre stereotype she’s assigned at the beginning. Initially portrayed as the kind, intelligent member of the group whose personality clashes awkwardly with the rest, making her close relationship with the others a little difficult to explain. By the time the end credits roll around, we discover she actually has a bit of a selfish streak and, when pushed, can even be vindictive. When Sam goes missing, for instance, she tries to convince Chris to abandon her and concentrate on saving themselves. However, far from harming Ashley’s character, it adds an additional layer of depth to her personality and, in a strange way, makes her more relatable.
To be fair, not all the cast display such originality. Both Jessica and Emily could slot neatly into any number of typical teen-slasher flicks; Chris, despite the odd moment of bravery, rarely deviates from the bumbling comic relief archetype; and Samantha remains squeaky clean throughout (though, if I’m being cynical, I’d say this is due mainly to the fact she’s played by actress Hayden Panettiere, thus Supermassive felt obliged to make sure she came across well).
Even so, over the course of the game, we can’t help but be drawn to this eclectic group of characters. We celebrate when they escape seemingly perilous situations and mourn when one of them dies; not just because, as gamers, we hate making irrevocable errors, but because we’re genuinely sorry to see our slightly obnoxious digital companions suffer as a direct consequence of our mistakes: yes, even Emily.
Now, it’s true, the player has a certain amount of control over the way each character developers through conversation trees and the choices they make during quick time events, which, consequently, affect the way the story progresses too. Yet, if anything, this increases the number of opportunities to fine-tune the experience and direct the narrative in our own, unique way.
For instance, although Mike’s generally not as much of a bastard as we’re led to believe at first, it’s for the player to decide exactly how courageous and selfless he acts during the game; the player doesn’t have a binary, black and white choice but can opt for something greyer in between. Likewise, it’s possible to dilute some of Emily’s innate bitchiness, alter Matt’s inborn sensitivity, and make Chris slightly less feckless.
Crucially, this intrinsic mutability heightens the sense of danger that permeates the story as, unlike Heavy Rain or indeed any of David Cage’s other narrative-driven games, the story doesn’t turn on one or two individual moments.
Rather, the experiences and fate of each individual character are determined by the sum total of every choice the player makes over the course of the game; Supermassive’s version of the ‘butterfly effect’. Consistently put Chris’s own safety above Ashley’s, for example, and she’ll refuse to save him; fail to find enough clues as to Hannah’s fate and Josh won’t survive.
Therefore, because every action seems to matter, the player often finds themselves deliberating over seemingly innocuous decisions. So, when Emily has the opportunity to fire the flare gun in chapter 6, the player can’t help but wonder if doing so will actually summon help or if it will draw the attention of the group’s as yet unidentified assailants instead. Similarly, when Sam’s hiding from the psychopath in an old elevator shaft at the bottom of the mansion, the player doesn’t know if being caught here will result in her death or if this potentially fatal outcome is, ultimately, little more than another bump in the road; an optional hurdle that can be cleared if approached in the right way.
Knowing that the death or survival of each character, and thus the conclusion of Until Dawn itself, isn’t dependent on a single event that occurred hours before ensures the moment-to-moment gameplay is always tense and unpredictable, which, in turn, gives it a far higher replay value than any Quantic Dream title to date.
Before I finish my panegyric to Until Dawn, I’d be remiss if I didn’t dedicate a couple of paragraphs to the gorgeous setting and incredibly evocative environments I mentioned in passing earlier.
Featuring a cabin-in-the-woods-style mansion located well beyond outside assistance, a long-abandoned mine, and a disused asylum, each of Until Dawn’s locations pay tribute to one horror series or another. Yet, though familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the genre, much like the characters and the story, they’re presented in a highly original way.
Take the asylum. Far from being just another abandoned medical facility with a dark past, you know, a place that was once home to the kind of inhuman experiments and unimaginable suffering that, if ghosts existed (they don’t, obviously), would be prime real estate for a vengeful spirit. The asylum is presented as a perfectly legitimate hospital that, through no fault of the administration or its doctors, simply fell out of use not long after it was rather unfortunately lumbered with a bunch of cursed miners.
Similarly, the Washington family’s mountainside retreat manages to feel both fresh and familiar, never crossing the line between thoughtful tribute and hackneyed rip-off.
Of course, it helps that Until Dawn is rendered so beautifully in the Decima Engine. Everything from the filthy cells of the Blackwood sanatorium and the mansion’s romantic, cozy interior, to the snow drifts that blanket the mountainside and the atmospheric lighting that’s both magnificently oppressive and useful for concealing the occasionally awkward facial expressions of the characters are expertly crafted. In fact, in some ways, I wish it wasn’t quite so picturesque; then I might not feel so compelled to keep my eyes glued to the monitor and thus vulnerable to the horror that lurks around every dark corner.
In the two years following Until Dawn’s release, there’s been no word from Supermassive Games or publisher Sony Computer Entertainment of a direct sequel – unless you count on-rails virtual reality shooter Rush of Blood or forthcoming PSVR expansion The Inpatient.
Now, I can’t say I’m overly disappointed. The conclusion was pretty satisfactory after all and doesn’t really need expanding. That being said, I would love to see Supermassive return to the genre in future or another developer, realising the potential of this type of horror game, give it a go instead.
Being able to play out classic scenarios and essentially direct your very own horror movie is, as Until Dawn proved so successfully, extremely satisfying if a little bit terrifying. Anyway, we all enjoy wielding the power of life and death over a bunch of semi-obnoxious teens, right?
PAX South Hands On: ‘Streets of Rage 4’ Balances Legacy and Innovation
Streets of Rage 4 embodies the original series’ elegant, action-packed design and revives it for a new generation
From the moment I began my demo with Streets of Rage 4 at PAX South, it felt like coming home. It might have been more than two decades since the first three games in the Streets of Rage series perfected the beat ‘em up formula on the Sega Genesis, but courtesy of developers Lizardcube, DotEmu, and Guard Crush, this legendary series is back and in good hands. This brand new entry aims to recapture all the style and balance of the originals, while introducing innovations of its own. If my demo is any indication, the game is set to achieve that.
Streets of Rage 4 uses the same elegant level design that set the original trilogy apart back on the Genesis. The gameplay is simple: keep walking to the right, taking out every enemy in front of you with all the jabs, kicks, jumps, and special moves at your disposal. If anything, the controls feel better than ever before, with an added level of precision and fluidity that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware.
That’s not to mention the new move sets. Beat ’em ups might not be the most complex genre around, but Streets of Rage 4 adds the perfect level of depth to the combat. It has the same simple jabs and kicks found in the original games, but spiced up with the potential for new combos and even a handful of extravagant new special moves. With new and old fighting mechanics, this new entry features plenty of room to experiment with combat but never loses the simple, arcade-like charm of the originals.
Streets of Rage 4 revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed style for the twenty-first century
The demo included series staple characters like Axel and Blaze, yet I opted to play as an all-new character: Cherry Hunter, a guitar-wielding fighter whose move set felt very distinct from classic characters. Her movement is speedy, certainly faster than Axel but slower than Blaze, and her guitar provided for some unique melee moves. Like the new mechanics, her addition to the character roster helps shake up the Streets of Rage formula just enough, while maintaining the core beat ’em up simplicity that made the series special in the first place.
Streets of Rage 4 might innovate in a few areas, but one thing that’s clearly remained true to form is the difficulty. It boasts of the same old school difficulty that characterized the original games. The classic and brand new enemies are just as ruthless as ever, mercilessly crowding in around you and can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, just like the originals, the fighting feels so satisfying that it’s easy to keep coming back for more action.
Amid all these changes and additions, perhaps the most obvious (and controversial) change is the visual style. While the original series used detailed pixel art, Streets of Rage 4 instead boasts of an extremely detailed handcrafted art style, in which every frame of character animation is painstakingly drawn by hand and environments are colorful and painterly. Thousands of frames of animation go into each character, and the effort certainly shows, making every punch, kick, and other acts of violence a breathtaking sight to behold.
Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences.
Some fans have complained that the game loses the series’ spirit without pixel art, but DotEmu marketing director Arnaud De Sousa insisted to me that this simply isn’t the case. Pixel art wasn’t an artistic choice back then – it was a matter of necessity. If the developers could have designed the game to look exactly as they wanted, regardless of technical limitations, then it likely would have looked just like the luscious hand-drawn visuals of the current Streets of Rage 4.
That’s not to mention that, as De Sousa emphasized, the Streets of Rage games are defined by looking different from one another. The third game looks different from the second, which looked different from the first – and now this new entry has twenty years of change to catch up on. Thus, it only makes sense for this new entry to adopt a radically new graphical style after all this time.
Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences. The difference between De Sousa and myself is perfect evidence of that. He grew up playing the games in the 90s, whereas I wasn’t even born when the original trilogy became such a phenomenon and only played them years later in subsequent re-releases. Yet here we were, standing in the middle of a crowded convention and gushing about decades-old games. We might have had extremely different experiences with the series, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the joys of stylish beat ’em up action.
“A good game is a good game,” De Sousa told me, “no matter how old.” That’s the attitude that Streets of Rage 4 exemplifies. It revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed design for the twenty-first century. And with a release on all modern platforms, more players than ever will be able to rediscover the simple pleasure of wielding your bare knuckles against thugs of all types. Between the new art style and the solid gameplay, Streets of Rage 4 is looking like an incredibly welcome return for this iconic franchise.
An In-Depth Analysis of Fifa’s Career Mode
It’s a well-known fact that career mode on Fifa has been a long-neglected element of the best selling sports games series of all time. But for soccer fans who want to pretend to be a football manager, but also want to personally play the game, Fifa is currently the main option.
The problem is: for a 60 dollar game, almost nothing about Fifa career mode works properly.
Two of the most game-breaking bugs in Fifa career mode are so bad that it fundamentally makes the game unplayable for those who want to feel any sort of immersion.
The first is a bug that makes it so that top teams will sign many more players for a position than they could possibly need.
For example, Bayern might end up signing 6 or 7 great center backs, and then only play three or four of them, while what they really need to sign might be a winger or a fullback.
This leads into the second huge issue: even when a team like Bayern HAS 6 or 7 great center-backs, they will STILL often choose to start second or third-string center backs! This often leads to top teams languishing at 12th or 13th in the tables by the end of the season, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Everything about this image is wrong. Everything. The top three teams in this table shouldn’t finish higher than 7th more than once every ten seasons between them, and teams that should finish first and second aren’t even in the top eight. 64 points near the end of the season for first place is also a very low number.
There’s been plenty of other issues as well. Even on the highest difficulties, AI on both defense and ESPECIALLY offense ranges from poor to horrible, with the AI on offense rarely actually running at the defense (making defending boring and unrewarding), leaving players like Messi or Hazard to not even try to use their incredible dribbling ability and speed and instead pass away the ball as soon as they get it.
Instead, the most common way the AI scores are by performing a janky, unrealistic and clearly scripted pinball, with impossibly precise passes between 4 or 5 players before the ball ends up in the back of the net.
Another major problem with the game (though some might call it simply a feature in presenting a more arcade-like, less realistic take on soccer) is your ability (if you’re a big club) to buy multiple huge players and bring them to your club easily in your first season, making the game an absolute cakewalk.
After years of incompetence and the ignoring of career mode’s many issues, however, EA finally faced serious backlash with the release of Fifa 20–the most broken iteration in the series yet.
For a while, #fixcareermode was trending on twitter, and reviews blasted Fifa for its litany of issues, like players going on precipitous declines in stats right when they reach the age of 30.
Yet these bugs were treated by some in the media as a first time thing, issues that had only appeared in the latest iteration. They weren’t.
As one Reddit user noted to Eurogamer: “In the last few years, every FIFA game released has had bugs that ruin the immersion. Teams not starting their strongest lineups and unrealistic tables have been an issue not just for FIFA 20 but earlier editions. Our cries for patches and change have fallen on deaf ears. The community has been grossly neglected.”
The linked article by the Independent above wasn’t accurate in other ways, either. It claims that only simulated matches suffered from the bug of teams not playing their best players, and other articles have claimed that this bug only occurs when a big team plays against a small team.
But neither of these claims is accurate.
You could play against a top team like Barcelona, and you could also be a top team like Real Madrid, and Barcelona would still consistently field third or fourth-string players over the likes of Messi against your team.
This wasn’t an occasional thing, either. At least three or four top players were benched for players 20 or more points below them every game. Every. Single. Game.
I haven’t even mentioned the commentary in Fifa, which is so buggy and so immersion-breaking in its disconnection from reality that its more immersive to just turn it off entirely.
What is so infuriating is that that many of the bugs seem like fairly minor fixes (commentary issues aside), something that seems like it would take no more than a few hours of rooting around in the code to figure out whatever misplaced number value was causing the issue.
The fact that these major issues have existed for at least no less than SIX years (Fifa 14 was the first game I played) indicates definitively how little EA cares about its products, and how little the designers care about actual football or delivering an enjoyable experience out of Ultimate Team.
Of course, Ultimate Team alone in 2017 accounted for almost a third of all of EA’s revenue from sports titles, so it’s somewhat understandable why Ea focuses most of its attention on that element of Fifa.
But with the amount of effort put into the new “futsal” mode in Fifa 2020, or the three campaign-like “Journey” modes from Fifa 17 to Fifa 19, one wonders why the developers couldn’t have spent just a little more effort to fix a mode that was in many ways fundamentally broken.
Fifa HAVE made certain changes to career mode over this period, so it’s not like they’ve ignored it entirely. But the changes made to career mode in the six years I’ve played it have all either made the game much worse, slightly worse or had no great effect.
The major changes over this period have included:
A slightly updated youth system, which has suffered from its own serious bugs over the years, such as youth prospects never gaining stats in sprint speed or acceleration so that you end up getting stuck with players with 50 to 70 speed for eternity; a widely disliked training system for players that is utterly broken and unfair, allowing you to train players to abilities well beyond what is even vaguely realistic within a matter of a year or two; a new display screen for your team; the removal of form; the slight modification of morale; adding the ability to talk with your players; and, last but not least, transfer cut scenes which are the most incredibly pointless wastes of time in any sports game, both for the player and for the developers–at least they’re skippable. There is the ability to customize your manager–perhaps the most positive change made in this six-year period. But that’s still stunningly sad given that you will very rarely actually see your manager at all.
None of these modifications, you may have noticed, go any way towards fixing the fundamental issues with the game, issues which have been pointed out to EA year after year.
It’s fair to say that one of the main reasons that FIFA got away with what it did for so long was not thanks to the players, but the media.
Year after year, reviews for FIFA received solid scores (hovering around the low to mid 80’s), whereas user reviews were usually much lower. It was only this year that media reviews seriously pointed out issues with the career mode.
The fact that FIFA received so much better reviews from reviewers as compared to players is easily explained away by the fact that the former usually play the game for comparatively shorter times, and therefore tends to miss a lot of the details.
In response to the recent outrage which had finally reached a degree of publicity that EA could no longer ignore, EA finally patched some of FIFA’s issues, like the problem of teams not fielding their strongest lineups at least semi-frequently. This was a huge step towards making career mode not fundamentally broken, but whether or not the other most glaring issue of teams like Juventus signing 9 80+rated strikers (yes, that happened in my game once) has been solved remains to be seen. Given that I mostly gave up on the series after Fifa 19 continued the same problems of its predecessors, I don’t think it’ll be me that finds out.
- Evan Lindeman
‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season
Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.
The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.
Like a Warm Blanket
Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.
The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.
The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.
An Intimate Take on Storytelling
Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.
It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.
Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.
The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.
Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.
Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.
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