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The Value of a Relaxing Game

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The modern world is an incredibly stressful place. Despite constant reminders about the importance of sustaining a good work-life balance, we seem to be spending more time in the office than ever before, for less money. This makes it difficult to pay off our student loans or pay rent, let alone actually buy a house. And kids don’t have it any easier.

Being able to relax and forget about the pressures of day-to-day existence is thus absolutely crucial. For some, this means settling into a comfortable chair with a good book and a glass of wine close at hand, hitting the gym for a spot of vigorous exercise, or listening to a soothing piece of classical music.

As a gamer, however, I find nothing calms my frayed nerves more than a few peaceful hours playing a relaxing game like Journey, Animal Crossing, or Flower; digital retreats that help me forget about my troubles if only for a moment.

The one that’s helped me unwind more than any other in recent times – the one that inspired me to write this article, in fact – is Stardew Valley.

Inspired by the Harvest Moon series, the beauty of this farm/community simulator lies in the simplicity of its idyllic world. Players don’t have to worry about taxes, politics, or the ethics of using chemical pesticides, and can instead channel all of their energy into the highly-satisfying process of transforming an unkempt piece of scrub land into a successful, functioning farm and becoming an established member of the community.

It’s a disarmingly captivating game that delivers the perfect kind of escapism thanks to its charming visual style and ever-satisfying feedback loop which, alongside the core objectives mentioned above, includes a variety of side-distractions such as fishing, mining, and good old-fashioned RPG-style questing.

Ultimately, it’s the ability of titles like Stardew Valley, Abzu, Firewatch, or even something like The Sims’ to transport us to a calmer, more relaxing game environment that makes them so refreshing. Much as I love diving into a colossal sandbox world chock full of activities – whether that’s Final Fantasy VII, Dark Souls, or Skyrim – their sheer depth and complexity can be a little overwhelming if you subsist on an exclusively open world diet.

Now, obviously, spending all your free time in a digital world, ignoring all your real-life responsibilities so you can focus on your Minecraft creations or your latest Planet Coaster attractions isn’t conducive to a healthy, productive life-style either. Find the right balance between the two, however, and, as numerous scientific studies have demonstrated in recent years, there are noticeable psychological benefits to gaming, not the least of which are the positive effects it can have on our mental health.

A particularly interesting paper referenced in a recent article written by author/game designer Jane McGonigal revealed that the regions of the brain associated with memory and motivation – the same two areas that are severely affected by depression – are hyper-stimulated when we game. Consequently, playing can actually help to alleviate the symptoms of the illness and actually make sufferers feel less depressed.

That’s not to say overcoming depression is as simple as playing video games all day every day. As McGonigal has warned in the past, the negative, debilitating symptoms of the condition can be exacerbated if the player uses games to “self-medicate”, avoiding the root cause of their problems by withdrawing into an idealized virtual world, rather than confronting them head-on.

The trick, she says, is to have a particular goal in mind when you play such as “developing your creativity (in a game like Minecraft), learning to solve new problems (in a game like Portal)”, etc. Indeed, research has proved this approach to gaming not only improves a person’s self-confidence, weakening the negative self-perceptions produced by the illness, but it can also make the sufferer more resilient to the horrible effects of depression going forward.

Elsewhere, reports suggest gaming’s impact on anxiety, another extremely common mental health problem that effects an estimated 40 million adults in the US alone, has been similarly positive.

The author of a recent BBC article, for example, discussed the remedial influence superlative graphic adventure Firewatch had on his psychological well-being during an especially severe bout of anxiety, explaining that its engrossing narrative and gorgeous visuals finally convinced him to seek professional help. As someone who has and continues to struggle intermittently with social anxiety, I, too, can attest to the soothing qualities of Firewatch and numerous other titles: Gone Home, Journey, Hohokum to name but three. For all its wasted promise, I find even No Man’s Sky offers a certain easy-going tranquility that can help relieve a troubled mind.

Of course, no one’s suggesting video games are an untapped, potential cure-all for every psychological disorder known to humankind. What is abundantly clear from the scientific evidence and personal experiences of gamers who live with a chronic mental illness, however, is that playing for a few hours each week can and does provide some much-needed respite from the effects of such conditions, helping us to change the way we think, and making us happier people in general.

There are also, for want of a better term, less thoughtful reasons to choose a chill, indie title over the latest AAA blockbuster. Not the least of which is straight-up variety.

With so many divergent, unique experiences available on the market today, focusing solely on first-person shooters like Call of Duty or League of Legends severely restricts a player’s gaming horizon. To cite an example from my own past, a couple of years back I decided to play The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, and Metal Gear Solid V back-to-back. A sucker for an RPG (especially an open world one) I thought this would be an epic experience; a personal celebration of the genre. However, as I progressed through each of these fantastic titles, I found that, although I was having fun, I simply wasn’t as engaged as I knew I should have been. It wasn’t long before I realized I was craving something different.

So, when I finally got around to playing Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin a month or so ago (in case you’re interested, because I missed them the first-time around, I’m playing the Soulsbourne games in reverse order), I decided to partner it with Stardew Valley. The combination of these two wildly disparate games enabled me to keep my frustration at bay whenever I got stuck on one of Scholar’s devilishly tricky bosses or dungeons, and likewise appreciate the full value of Stardew Valley’s restful Arcadian setting.

Alternating between big-budget releases like Uncharted 4 and understated, individualistic indie darlings like The Witness has increased my appreciation for the undoubted artistry of modern gaming too.

Title’s such as Firewatch and Gone Home demonstrate how an original graphical style, evocative musical score, and well-written, well-acted dialogue can complement the central narrative and gameplay mechanics, subtly resonating with the player on the periphery of his or her perception.

I’m far more aware of my surroundings as a result. When I finally played Final Fantasy XV a few months ago, for instance, or whenever I return to Battlefield 1, I notice the little touches that complete the experience: the particle effects and shaking-screen that follows an explosion, conveying the terror and confusion of war in the latter; how Prompto’s photographs literally and metaphorically capture the bittersweet, nostalgic mood of the former.

But perhaps more than anything else in this regard, the very fact that Journey, Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, Stardew Valley and co. exist at all serves to show us just how far the industry has come since the early days when platformers and tough-as-nails action-adventures ruled the roost.

Admittedly, the titles referenced throughout this article are specific to me and some players will no doubt find the most recent incarnation of Doom far more calming than something as sedentary as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. It’s highly subjective.

The important thing to remember is that, if the precariousness and uncertainty of the 21st century is getting you down, there are plenty of relaxing games out there specifically designed to provide solace.

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.

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Game Reviews

‘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.

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Life is Strange 2

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.

Life is Strange 2

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.

Life is Strange 2

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.

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‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

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.

Yaga Game Review

“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

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.

Yaga

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.

Yaga Game Review

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.

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‘Resident Evil 3: Nemesis’ — A New Height to Survival-Horror

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Resident Evil 3 Nemesis

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.

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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.

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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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