The Infinite Zenith

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Wolfire Overgrowth: Review and Reflection

“At my last job, the tools had no Ctrl-Z, so I learned to be perfect on first try.” —Aubrey Serr, Wolfire Team

Set after the events of Lagaru, Overgrowth follows Turner after he defeated the alpha wolf and the corrupt monarch, Hickory, avenging the death of his family. Since then, he has wandered Lugaru seeking a new purpose. After bandits begin ravaging the island, Turner decides to investigate and help dispossessed find a new home in a mythical island in the sky. Turner reluctantly help those in need, finding himself entangled in a much deeper conflict involving slavery. Fighting his way through frigid glaciers and distant swamps, Turner is captured by the cats and proves his combat prowess in the arena, before killing off the leader of the cats. Turner eventually reaches the island and after ascending its sheer walls, reaches the top, where he kills its leaders. No longer denied homes, the rabbits aiding Turner find a new home, and Turner himself sets off, continuing to seek his purpose. This is Overgrowth‘s main campaign; clocking in at around four hours, it’s concise and accompanied by a remastered version of Lagaru, Overgrowth‘s predecessor. The game’s defining feature is that its development started around a decade ago, and in its finished form, the title very much feels like a demonstration of Wolfire’s Phoenix Engine, which is a technically impressive system; the main campaign showcases the different physics aspects available in Overgrowth, as well as a highly-evolved combat system. However, with only a pair of short campaigns and a few modes beyond this, Overgrowth comes across as being much more limited in content.

Overall, the combat and parkour system in Overgrowth are the game’s greatest strengths. The context-based fighting system is quick to learn but has a remarkably high skill ceiling: like Receiver, Overgrowth is very punishing. As Turner, players are able to hold their own on skill, but brute force will quickly result in death. Overgrowth‘s campaign rewards players who strategically make use of the environment to survive, as well as those who’ve taken the time to learn the fighting system. Consequently, every successful kill in the campaign is a satisfying one, and the game reinforces this by slowing things down on each kill. It is incredibly satisfying to survive a fight against large groups of opponents, whether they be other rabbits, rats, dogs, cats or the nigh-unstoppable wolves. Each of the different opponent types require a unique approach: Turner can stand toe-to-toe with other rabbits and rats, but cats, dogs and wolves involve strategy in order for Turner to survive. Turner can also make use of weapons to bolster his survivability in a fight, and against superior opponents, the terrain becomes an ally, as well – I’ve won most fights against wolves simply by kicking them off ledges. Similarly, Overgrowth has a particular emphasis on navigating vertical landscape features to reach a destination. While the controls are a bit challenging, once mastered, players can scale sheer walls and jump across vast distances. It is as satisfying to climb to the top of a structure as it is to survive a fight, and on both counts, Overgrowth‘s central features are well-implemented. With a narrative tying things together, it was superbly enjoyable to see the game exit the beta stage and become a full-fledged, if somewhat short, title that could form the basis for a much more content-rich game: it’s clear that the Phoenix Engine is quite powerful, and with the basics finished, I would like to see Wolfire use this engine to its full potential with a game that has a more detailed story.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • It’s been just a little less than four years since I bought Overgrowth during a Steam Sale while the game was still in its alpha stages: I experimented with the game only briefly and did not have too much to say about it, but now that Overgrowth is technically finished, with two campaigns, the game’s worth returning to, and returning for the first time since 2014, I’m impressed with the lighting effects and visuals.

  • While Overgrowth‘s textures are a bit dated and the lower polygon count is visible, the lighting effects and sense of scale in the maps have seen considerable improvements since the early days of the alpha. Missions in Overgrowth‘s campaign are usually broken up into two types: ascension and combat. Ascension missions involve parkour to reach the top of a map, and combat missions entail fighting a large number of enemy combatants.

  • As a rabbit, Turner can jump great distances, an ability that is useful for both parkour and combat as a defensive tactic; being able to escape swarms of enemies is especially important, since Overgrowth lacks a HUD: Turner will go down every quickly to large numbers of enemies, and against certain kinds of enemies, will die in a single blow. Thus, a large part of the gameplay is picking one’s engagements wisely and making use of the environment to assist in combat.

  • In conjunction with punches, kicks and blocks, Turner can silently dispatch enemies by means of stealth take downs to avoid alerting nearby enemies. The AI in Overgrowth has been meticulously designed and will begin investigating if players are not careful in their approach: once combat breaks out, all stealth goes out the window, and fighting multiple opponents simultaneously is difficult, so like most stealth games, if one can commit to not being spotted, missions in Overgrowth become much more straightforwards to complete.

  • Weapons in Overgrowth come in two varieties: two handed weapons that deal massive damage at the expense of mobility, and one-handed weapons that can be employed very quickly. Weapons can be thrown, although the AI will pick up any missed weapons and use them against Turner, block them with weapons of their own or even throw them back. When used properly, weapons can one-shot most opponents.

  • A Chinese-style junk is visible at this port city: Turner visits a vast range of locations in his travels, and while Overgrowth‘s narrative is constrained by a lack of cohesiveness, it does allow players to see a variety of locations. Wolfire only has four employees, all of whom have backgrounds in programming, development and 3D modelling: Overgrowth is by far their largest title, and so, it is understandable that Overgrowth does not have a more powerful story or voice acting.

  • Water effects in Overgrowth are impressive, but there’s no opportunity to go swimming in Overgrowth: if Turner falls into deep water, he will die instantly. Overgrowth states that rabbits cannot swim to explain this mechanic: while rabbits can in fact swim to escape dangers, this is an action they are absolutely not fond of, since they become waterlogged very quickly. The resulting cold and panic can lead to drowning, and since rabbits can be literally scared to death by a shocking change in conditions (by the way, this is the correct way of using ‘literally’ in a sentence), rabbits avoid swimming where possible.

  • With a pair of swords in hand, I effortlessly decimate all of the crew on board the junk, including the boss that comes out. Blood effects and ragdolls in Overgrowth are fun, adding satisfaction to finishing each fight. Besides swords and knives, spears and staffs are also available. Weapons can be sheathed when not in use, and there are occasions where it’s better not to have weapons drawn, since they can be knocked from one’s hands during the heat of combat.

  • Besides other rabbits and mice, Turner will also encounter dogs, cats and wolves in Overgrowth. Having weapons allows Turner to even the odds out somewhat, but Wolves, being the most powerful animal in the game, can absolutely tear Turner apart. Getting up here from the ocean was no cakewalk, involving all of my resourcefulness to find spots on the shear walls to parkour up. I ended up beating the wolf by using the jump kick, an overpowered move that propels enemies back, and kicked it off a ledge.

  • The jump kick is a fantastic move for creating space and dealing massive damage to enemies, but because it propels Turner back a large distance, as well, there are risks to using it. Wolfire has since patched Overgrowth so that AI will respond more effectively towards jump kicks by evading: it proved incredibly effective against wolves, who could be insta-killed if they were kicked over ledges and fell great distances.

  • I spent a portion of Christmas Day and Boxing Day playing Overgrowth; the cold, snowy environments perfectly capture the feel of a frigid Canadian winter, and I recall the many attempts it took to sneak past the dogs and lure them into single combat. I eventually managed to best them, and savoured the victory: if there’s anything Overgrowth excels at, it’s creating a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment with each fight won.

  • Like ReceiverOvergrowth is very unforgiving with its gameplay, and this is compounded by the lack of a UI; to counteract this, Overgrowth allows for near-instant respawns that put players right back into the things. This feature allows one to experiment with different approaches towards a problem until a solution is found.

  • I recall a six-on-one fight in one of the glacier missions where the ability to instantly respawn proved to be superbly useful: guards travel in pairs in this mission, and taking one out while the other is not looking is not possible. I ended up using stealth to take one out before going loud with a weapon with the other. The combat system in Overgrowth is very complex, and while easy to learn, mastering the controls is another story.

  • Turner goes from fighting in the cold glaciers to fighting in a fetid swamp. While lacking the steep drops of the glacier missions, the swamp is a dreary place that is quite easy to get lost in, and the lack of a HUD forces players to keep an eye on visual cues in the environment in order to figure out where to go next. They can be subtle, especially under low light conditions, and so, players might be forced to backtrack and explore.

  • Fighting rats in the swamps turned out to be relatively straightforwards: rats aren’t particularly challenging as a foe. Looking back, Overgrowth‘s development timeline was probably the biggest impediment the game had during its developer cycle. People wondered if the game would ever exit the alpha stage, and while the developers were constantly pushing updates, the game remained in alpha and beta stages for a few years.

  • One aspect of Overgrowth that sees very little discussion elsewhere is the game’s soundtrack. Composed by Mikko Tarmia, the music of Overgrowth is majestic, brooding and fits the game’s setting of a post-apocalyptic world. I would absolutely love to see a soundtrack, which, unfortunately, is not available for purchase at the time of writing. I recall listening to the game’s main theme frequently while writing Objective-C code, and because of our lab’s yearly excursions to Canmore, the soundtrack also reminds me of the mountains and valleys on the way leading into Banff National Park.

  • It attests to how much time has passed, now that Objective-C is being phased out in favour of Swift; when I began my time as an undergraduate researcher seven summers ago, I was a volunteer. My initial applications for funding were unsuccessful, but I decided to stick it out, since my goal was to learn, and two months in, I managed to build a simple model of blood oxygenation and deoxygenation in the lab’s custom game engine. Impressed, my supervisor switched me over to a funded programme, and I began work on a fluid flow model using agent-based approaches.

  • The mission to climb to the top of a tree and reach that glowing bucket proved to be an exercise in patience, and like the ascent to the top of a snow-covered mountain, it was immensely rewarding to actually reach the top and finish the objective. This is probably the “sense of pride and accomplishment” that all game developers want their players to experience; while the way to the top is marked by bioluminescent fungus, Overgrowth offers few other cues and suggestions, leaving players to work out how to get to the top.

  • By my second year, I managed to win the OCSS, a small scholarship for students enrolled in the Health Sciences program to do summer research. That summer, I continued on with my flow model after implementing a selectively permeable membrane system. Work on the flow model proceeded into June, and after spending many summer days tuning it, I was surprised to see my entities moving in a convoluted vessel without being stuck in the walls. I subsequently tried the algorithm out on a nephron model that we had, and it proved successful, so I spent the remainder of the summer trying to mimic renal flow and reabsorption, making use of the selectively permeable membranes in the process.

  • The camp in the swamp is such a visually impressive level with its lighting effects, and while quite difficult to nagivate, it was worth exploring every corner of this map to find the exit after all enemies had been eliminated. During this level, the intense fighting meant that I lost my weapons, but Overgrowth‘s jump kicks are overpowered to the point where they can be used if one lacks weapons. On a map with no ledges, this tactic is not a particularly dangerous one.

  • During my third summer in my undergraduate program, I did not return to the lab until August, having been entangled with the MCAT, but once that finished, I helped get a paper submission off the ground. By my fourth year, my old work with the nephrons eventually led me to build a multi-scale renal model in our lab’s in-house game engine, and I returned to this project that summer with an NSERC USRP award, building a distributed model that allowed different computers to share information with one another. In this implementation, I had one computer handle the renal calculations and the other handle cardiac functions. As they shared data, their visualisations, run locally, would be updated.

  • As we reach the end of Overgrowth‘s campaign, the levels become much more ominous in nature, featuring lavafalls and hellish environments. I fight in an arena here against increasingly difficult opponents, until at last, wolves are introduced. Wolves are terrifyingly powerful – Turner is no match for one in a straight-up fight, so I utilised hit-and-fade techniques, making use of distance to my advantage and waiting for the right moment to jump-kick a wolf into the lava below, which is an instant death. There was an occasion where I mis-timed one of my jumps and took myself out, but in the end, I managed to secure the win.

  • Turner is tasked with retrieving something whose value I cannot quite remember, but what I do remember of this mission is that it involves ascending ever-higher. It was quite the achievement to reach the top of the map and make my way back down: the way down was actually quite tricky, and even with the bioluminiscent markers helping, there were a few occasions where I overestimated how much falling damage that Turner could take.

  • Turner is later pitted against opponents of varying difficulty in another arena, and it was here that limitations in the pathfinding for some of the AI became visible. I exploited these limitations to win all of my matches, and during one match, managed to wrench a weapon from an opponent and turned things around instantly. While the organisers of the match are impressed, Turner will have none of this and proceeds to masacre all within the arena, including the cats running the event.

  • After killing off everything in sight, Turner must escape the cat’s desert city. The streets are unusually quiet, and it’s a good idea to hold onto any weapons one may have for the upcoming fight ahead: a number of cats stand between Turner and freedom, but compared to the fight in the arena, this one is relatively straightforward in nature.

  • Unlike the Wolfire Team, who continued to develop their Phoenix Engine until its reached the level of sophistication that it’s at today, our lab slowly phased out the in-house game engine once Unity made their engine freely available. While our own engine was robust, powerful and extensible, its biggest constraint was that it was not optimised; even simple simulations only ran at around 30 FPS, and more complex simulations would drop down to 10 FPS. This coincided with the arrival of The Giant Walkthrough Brain, and when I managed to build a functional prototype within two weeks, Jay Ingram and my supervisor were impressed with the engine’s capabilities. Since then, my old lab has used both Unity and Unreal.

  • While I’ve remarked that Overgrowth reminds me of Canmore and its surroundings, one should not expect to find such a structure in Canmore. This is the legendary country in the sky that was being referred to throughout Overgrowth. This is the culmination of all of the parkour and ascension skills that players have accumulated over the course of Overgrowth, and even then, climbing up here is no walk in the park. There are long jumps and tricky catches to make: any mistake will send Turner falling many metres into the water below, resulting in an instant death.

  • With the Phoenix Engine in a good state, one wonders if the Wolfire team will hire script writers and voice actors for any titles they might choose to make in the future. Since Overgrowth, I’ve not heard any news that the Wolfire team will be moving onto new projects, and from the looks of things, they will continue improving Overgrowth. In the time since I completed this game, two patches have come out to improve the AI and game performance.

  • I stop for a few moments to admire the scenery up here before continuing on. Once reaching the top, a brief fight awaits Turner. Beating down the tower’s leaders will bring an end to Overgrowth, and while the campaign was very short lived, it was quite entertaining. The fights are easily the best aspect of Overgrowth, especially with respect to how things slow down when a zone is cleared.

  • Overall, while I cannot say I recommend Overgrowth as a game, I can say that the game is a very pleasant reminder of my days as a university student. I bought the game mainly as a token of thanks for the Wolfire team, whose efforts and updates motivated me to delve further into the world of biological visualisations. With this being said, if people do not mind the shorter campaign and somewhat unoptimised performance, and they have a greater interest in all of the map tools than I did, then Overgrowth is not a particularly bad purchase, especially if on a sale; there are a host of worse ways of spending 33 CAD.

Having been in development since 2008, Overgrowth definitely feels dated with respect to its visuals, but the Wolfire team’s efforts have resulted in a superbly mature game engine that handles Overgrowth‘s fighting and parkour system well. The campaign is quite short, and it appears that the flexibility of Overgrowth‘s game engine stems from a desire for the community to create their own content. Work on this engine is why Overgrowth‘s development has spanned the greater part of a decade: I learned of Overgrowth during my first summer as an undergraduate researcher – my old research lab had developed its own game engine in-house to provide a 3D space in which to model and visualise biological systems. The lead developer on this project drew inspiration from Overgrowth‘s map editor, especially the transformation, rotation and scaling tools, to make it easier for objects to be placed in 3D space. This in-house game engine powered my thesis, and while it’s been replaced by commercially-available game engines like Unity, it formed the basis for the work that I would end up doing for my Master’s Thesis. Consequently, while Overgrowth might not be an impressive title from an entertainment perspective, there are features in Overgrowth that directly inspired the work at our lab. Improvements to our in-house game engine’s ease-of-use and navigation eventually led me to build a visualisation of the renal system at different scales, complete with a mathematical model to depict responses of my virtual renal system to various stimuli, for my undergraduate thesis. I watched the map editor demonstration and its accompanying humour eight years ago and found it deeply inspiring for my work; I ended up buying Overgrowth in its early access stage to support the development as a bit of thanks in 2013, after I had successfully defended my undergraduate thesis.

Stay! Stay! Democratic People’s Republic of Korea! Review and Reflection

“Just a small game that I sponsored; simple, short, and hilarious in a silly and campy way. Oh, and I’m also a guest character.” –Akeiko “Daigensui” Sumeragi on Stay! Stay! DPRK

Battlefield 1′s In The Name of the Tsar DLC has only been out for five days, but aside from spending enough time in the DLC to unlock the Fedorov Avtomat Trench and the Parabellum MG14 Suppressive, I’ve got a bit of a confession to make: I’ve been playing through DEVGRU-P’s Stay! Stay! Democratic People’s Republic of Korea! (which I will truncate to Stay! Stay! DPRK! for brevity’s sake) in my open time. An overt parody of Go! Go! Nippon! My First Trip to Japan, Stay! Stay! DPRK! follows the adventures of an American soldier in the Hermit Kingdom; in a manner similar to Go! Go! Nippon!, the protagonist visits North Korea and learns his pen pals are in fact ladies. What follows is a refreshing and hilarious take on a familiar set-up: the player accompanies Jeong or Eunji in touring locations of North Korea, but with more restrictions and jokes. The tour culminates in a visit to Mount Paektu for a soak in North Korean-style hot springs, but things go awry when it’s revealed that Jeong and Eunji are under investigation for harbouring a foreign agent. Depending on what decisions players make, they will either survive or be executed, a darkly humourous take on bad endings in the visual novel genre. During my playthrough, I opted to go with Jeong and see about unlocking her ending first – she’s Stay! Stay! DPRK!‘s equivalent of Makoto, so I figured it’d be appropriate to start here, and after two hours, I’ve completed the Jeong route, which sees the protagonist go at it with Jeong before escaping North Korea and landing in Syria, of all places.

It is worth mentioning that Stay! Stay! DPRK! is by no means an accurate North Korea simulator, but in spite of this, the title ends up providing a fairly informative background on the locations players can visit. On my run of Stay! Stay! DPRK!, I visited Mansudae, Kaesong and Yanggakdo, learning of the details and history of the areas while cracking the occasional joke with Jeong or Eunji (and often, watching the player suffer the consequences of doing so). Minor elements, such as random brown-outs, the extent of state-controlled media, reverence for the Glorious Leader and depiction of antiquated infrastructure and technology in North Korea also add to the atmospherics, although the adventure players experience is quite far removed from the undisclosed human rights violations and recent nuclear tests that have shaped the news. Books, such as Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14, offer a much more sobering insight into what conditions at political camps are like, while news of North Korea’s fledgling nuclear weapons program continue to remind the world that the Hermit Kingdom hides a great deal behind closed doors. In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, Stay! Stay! DPRK! represents a light-hearted opportunity to simulate a tour of North Korea without any risk beyond the initial price of admissions, and ultimately, succeeds in entertaining audiences with its parody.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • I remark that, in this collection of twenty screenshots, I do not have access to the usual 1080p images on ultra or near-ultra settings as is the usual standard for my other posts on games. As a visual novel, Stay! Stay! DPRK! does not have different graphics settings, or even different resolution settings. Some of the images may also appear a little fuzzy on high resolution displays.

  • I recall photographs from textbooks depicting empty shelves in department stores and the like in the old Soviet Union owing to shortages of consumer goods as the USSR placed greater emphasis on developing heavy industry. In North Korea, I imagine that there are always shortages of consumer goods, and grocery stores almost certainly would not look like this. The protagonist comments on this and gets a stern talking to from his “tour guides”, but mistakes are generally forgiven very quickly, befitting of the atmosphere in the game.

  • My first destination of Stay! Stay! DPRK! was Mansudae Art Studio, which is located in the Pyongcheon district of Pyongyang. The artwork of Stay! Stay! DPRK! excels at creating a highly peaceful atmosphere that is certainly absent in the streets of Pyongyang. I’ve got no intentions of actually visiting for myself – North Korean authorities have detained visitors in the past before for various offenses that seem trivial here, but owing to the severity of the penalties (which may involve sentencing to hard labour), the risk simply exceeds the values of visiting.

  • The Mansudae Art Studio is the largest art centres in North Korea and is home to upwards of four thousand artists; founded in 1959, numerous North Korean monuments are crafted here. Because the artwork here is officially sanctioned by the North Korean government, artists live in better conditions than most North Koreans, and works from the studio have been exhibited in other museums around the world.

  • While I have no plans to visit North Korea in the foreseeable future, I have visited South Korea some eleven years ago, and true to the depiction in Stay! Stay! DPRK!kimchi is a very common element of the Korean diet. Consisting of pickled vegetables seasoned with chili, ginger and garlic, kimchi has a very distinct, potent flavour that I enjoyed eating. One of the things about kimchi that I find a riot is that, owing to the gases resulting from fermentation, kimchi jars can explode if improperly stored or handled.

  • The Mansu Hill Grand Monument depicts North Korea’s previous leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il as 22-meter high bronze statues, and as described in Stay! Stay! DPRK!, visitors must capture the statues in full if they photograph them. Kim Il-sung’s statue was completed in 1972, and Kim Jong-il was added in 2011. Unlike the protagonist of Stay! Stay! DPRK!, my first destination in Seoul during my visit was a ginseng chicken soup restaurant: after the long flight across the Pacific, ginseng proved to be a nice boost to my spirits.

  • On the second day in Stay! Stay! DPRK!, I set my sights on Kaesong, a city close to the border with South Korea and so, hosted a special industrial district. However, I’m not sure if there’s anywhere in North Korea that looks quite like this: Jeong is standing in front of the Namdaemun here (which is written in Hanja as 南大門 and phonetically sounds similar), but this landmark is located in the heart of Seoul. One wonders if this is a deliberate or accidental oversight.

  • I note that I’ve not gotten all of the possible locations available for Stay! Stay! DPRK!, so at some point in the near future, I will need to go back and play through the destinations that I did not visit earlier. I’ve said this before for Wolfenstein: The New Order before, and despite having beaten the game once two years ago, I’ve actually yet to go back through and play the second campaign. I probably should do that ahead of the upcoming release of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.

  • Between “dates”, the protagonists lodges with Jeong and Eunji. Their time together is characterised by particularly bad jokes, flirting and a bit of physical violence. Of the two sisters, Jeong is a carbon copy of Go! Go! Nippon!‘s Makoto: gentle, versed in English and mature, while Eunji is the North Korean counterpart of Akria, being tsundere, ill-tempered but also a good cook. These moments are set in more or less the same rooms, and I note that visual novels do tend to rely a good deal on one’s imagination, with the artwork merely acting to prompt the mind’s eye.

  • The odds of accidentally entering the wrong room, seeing this and coming away in one piece are probably the inverse of the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field (i.e. I will get away with this once in 3720 attempts). There was a similar pair of moments in Go! Go! Nippon, and in both cases, the older sister is walked in on mid-shower, while the younger sister is walked in on mid-change. Stay! Stay! DPRK! presents itself as the unauthorised parody of Go! Go! Nippon, and it is moments like these that accentuate the influences the latter has in the style and tone of the parody.

  • While I could have gone to every conceivable spot with Jeong, it felt as though it might be more appropriate to diversify the characters at least a little, so I went on the last tour with Eunji, who takes players to the Yanggakdo Stadium in Pyongyang. With 30000 seats, it eclipses the Scotiabank Saddledome by around fifty-five percent in seating capacity, and in Stay! Stay! DPRK!, is where the player watches “football” with Eunji. From a technical perspective, “football” makes sense, since the sport is played predominantly with the feet. “Soccer”, on the other hand, developed out of the shortening of the phrase “Association football”. While us North Americans think of it as soccer, the rest of the world calls it football.

  • The outing with Eunji is actually quite nice, as she takes the player to a fancy revolving restaurant inside the Yanggakdo Hotel. This hotel is the second tallest building in North Korea, after the Ryugyonh Hotel, but unlike the latter, which remains unfinished to this day, the Yanggakdo Hotel is complete, being the only luxury hotel in all of North Korea. There’s a secret floor in the hotel that consists of propaganda-filled hallways and locked doors, although visiting this floor is not the best of ideas, especially considering how tourists have been detailed at this point in time.

  • If memory serves, players also get a lunch date with Akira in Go! Go! Nippon!, rather similar to how players spend a lunch with Eunji in Stay! Stay! DPRK!. By my admission, I’ve actually not beaten Go! Go! Nippon!‘s DLC yet: I have completed the original game and maxed out the Steam badge for it, as well. In the time since the DLC for Go! Go! Nippon! came out, apparently, there’s also a 2016 version as well as the 2015 version, which features animated characters.

  • The final destination in Stay! Stay! DPRK! is Mount Paektu, and if I had to draw the comparison, the mountain is most similar to Japan’s Mount Fuji: both mountains are sacred in their respective cultures, and are formed from volcanic activity. Both mountains are surrounded by dense forests, as well; Kim Il-sung organised resistance forces here against Japanese forces and later, propaganda claims he was born in this area.

  • While Go! Go! Nippon! was ostensibly a dating simulator disguised as a Japan tour simulator, it was devoid of moments such as the ones found in Stay! Stay! DPRK! Folks may find it unusual that Stay! Stay! DPRK! has an onsen chapter to it, although there are indeed hot springs in North Korea. With this being said, I imagine folks would prefer visiting hot springs elsewhere. I further remark that folks may claim Eunji to be “best girl”, although I’m more of a Jeong person, myself.

  • I’ve seen players wonder what the point of including Sumeragi in Stay! Stay! DPRK! was, and the answer to that is simple: she’s allegedly an NOC investigating North Korea. The character was included after an individual made a “Glorious Leader Tier” pledge, which features a cameo appearance for anyone who commits 500 USD to the game. Scuttlebutt has it that this donation was made by one Akeiko “Daigensui” Sumeragi, a rather unpleasant figure reviled in the World of Tanks community, being quite sectarian towards China and advocating revisionist views on history. Fortunately, the Sumeragi seen in Stay! Stay! DPRK! is very pleasing on the eyes, being a source of drunken comedy and perversion.

  • The romance elements of Stay! Stay! DPRK! come out full force late in the game, and the player character compares the two sisters to a beautiful waterfall in the area. Starting with the hot springs trip, decisions players make can actually affect the outcome of the game. Making some decisions can result in what the community refers to colloquially as a “bad end”, and as a parody of the dating sim genre, every ending in Stay! Stay! DPRK! is a bad end to some extent.

  • It is to my understanding that there is a patch for Stay! Stay! DPRK! that lets inquisitive (or insane) players experience the game at a whole new level, one that transcends all known existence. However, I’m not quite ready to transcend this blog into violation of whatever Terms of Service I agreed to when I signed up, and so, for this discussion, I’ve opted to feature only screenshots from the base version of the game on Steam.

  • Of course, Stay! Stay! DPRK! wouldn’t be quite as entertaining without a bit of a plot twist; it turns out Jeong was distracting the player in order to drug him, knocking him out. The player reawakens in a North Korean holding facility and is informed of Jeong and Eunji’s fate, having been branded a traitor by the North Korean government. However, since I did not make any bad decisions earlier, I get to the ending where players manage to escape.

  • With Stay! Stay! DPRK! in the books, I certainly had a few good laughs playing through the game, and I have a feeling that we’ll need these laughs very soon, especially considering recent news of Kim Jong-un’s progress towards developing a miniaturised warhead capable of being outfitted on an ICBM. I’m certainly hoping that negotiations and diplomacy will prevail, although anti-ballistic missile systems will likely be needed to prevent any missiles from reaching North America should things devolve into a shooting war. It is improbably that North Korea will be able to deal extensive damage to North America or triumph in any war to take South Korea, but there will be unacceptable casualties should this happen. For now, however, one hopes that these events will not come to fruition, and that we may continue to poke a bit of fun at the Hermit kingdom even as governments work towards addressing the problem that is North Korea’s weapons programme.

Remarkably enjoyable overall with its narrative, the question that is raised then becomes whether or not Stay! Stay! DPRK! becomes worth the price of admissions. From a strict value perspective, it offers a maximum of around six hours of gameplay assuming several play-throughs, and technically, is a solid visual novel – the artwork is appealing, if somewhat minimal, and while the soundtrack is very limited, it does convey the game’s intent as a parody. The writing is also deliberately chosen to create a sense of hilarity in the game: I’ve only spent two hours in the game, but the entire run was completed with a smile on my face owing to the presence of bad jokes in the game. I’m well familiar with the notion that “North Korea is Best Korea”, for instance, and seeing this thrown into the game, in conjunction with several “accidental” references to the fact that Stay! Stay! DPRK is a visual novel, only serve to bolster the comical value of the game. While immensely unrealistic, the game proved to be much more entertaining than expected; it’s certainly not a bad use of 11 CAD to purchase what is essentially a collection of jokes about North Korea bundled with some visually appealing artwork, although folks interested to try Stay! Stay! DPRK! out might get more value if they should choose to wait for a sale: I bought the game for 20 percent off, which equates to having spent eight dollars for it. Eight dollars is the equivalent of two coffees, and since I’m not particularly fond of coffee, I think that Stay! Stay! DPRK isn’t the worst way to spend eight dollars in the world.

Alien Isolation: Final Review and Reflection

“I’d like to say I got this part figured out, but I know the moment I say that, I’m going to get killed. Fucking Facehuggers, man.” —TheRadBrad on Alien Isolation

After two months and eighteen days, over the course of around nineteen hours, I’ve finally crossed the finish line for Alien: Isolation. When I left off last time back in late June, I’d just acquired the flamethrower and was getting ready to lure the Xenomorph into a trap such that it could be ejected from the station. That part of the game was quite tense, and I succeeded without too much difficulty. With the Xenomorph gone for a bit, there’s a respite in Alien: Isolation; the Working Joes and other human hostiles are not particularly scary, so I was able to enjoy the relative peace and quiet on Sevastopol station as I made my way to the Apollo core to try and reset the androids so they’d cease their hostilities. However, this is unsuccessful, leading to the single most tense mission in all of Alien: Isolation: Ripley learns that there is a vast Xenomorph hive in the bowels of the reactor and must overload it, all the while contending with Facehuggers and multiple Xenomorphs. Despite succeeding, several Xenomporhs escape, and Ripley must board the Anesidora to rescue Taylor. She learns her mother’s fate but only narrowly escapes the Anesidora’s destruction. With Sevastopol critically damaged, Ripley makes her way off the station after detaching it and back on board the Torrens, she finds herself confronted by yet another Xenomorph. She escapes through an airlock and drifts in space before being awakened by some searchlights.

While Alien: Isolation may be named after the Xenomorphs, having completed the game now, I conclude that the Xenomorph is, surprisingly, not the most frightening aspect of Alien: Isolation. Instead, the title for this covetted spot goes to the Facehuggers. These chelicerate arthropod-like sorganisms are the second stage of a Xenomorph’s life cycle: resembling spiders with bony appendages and a tail, they propel themselves at high speeds towards their victims’ faces. After they wrap their appendeges around the victim, they implant the Xenomorph embryo that matures into a Xenomporh. Small in size, capable of moving quickly and announcing their presence with a shriek, the Facehuggers are downright terrifying and can result deaths out of the blue. They are easily dispatched with any ordinance that Ripley carries (a single revolver bullet or a well-placed hit from the maintenance jack will kill them), but the unexpectedness that they can appear and hop onto the screen makes them the ideal means of inducing jump scares even in someone as stoic as myself. Nowhere in the game do I startle or even cry out in response to a death at the Xenomorph’s hands; that the Facehuggers can do this is a sure sign of how well-designed they are as enemies. Unlike the Poison Headcrabs of Half-Life 2, who similarly announced their presence audibly, the Facehuggers can send players back a long way, further increasing their ability to frighten players even compared to the Poison Headcrabs. So effective were the Facehuggers that it took me a week to muster the courage to continue playing the reactor basement mission, and ultimately, were it not for this opponent, Alien: Isolation might have lost its magic. Instead, the inclusion of Facehuggers capable of causing such effective jump scares adds to the enjoyment factor of Alien: Isolation substantially.

Stepping away from the Facehuggers and the fact that they gave me nightmares, the main theme in Alien: Isolation appears to revolve around Ripley’s resourcefulness, determination and adaptability as a character. Although the odds are stacked against Ripley the moment she sets foot on Sevastopol Station, she capitalises on her engineering knowledge and patience to make her way through areas, both to survive and to do what she’d set out to do. It was remarkably fun to be playing a character who is forced to use cunning, rather than firepower, to overwhelm an enemy, and similarly, it was a refreshing experience to capitalise on an unkillable enemy to further one’s goals and survival. Despite being highly linear in nature, almost to that of a kinetic novel, Alien: Isolation is a fantastic experience. This is because the atmosphere in Alien: Isolation is superbly designed, allowing players to vividly experience what Ripley herself is experiencing. Players have some sway over how Ripley’s adventure proceeds, offering a set of tools that can dramatically alter the outcome of an encounter with Working Joes, other humans or the Xenomorph itself. For instance, when encountered with a group of humans in a room, Ripley can sneak past them by triggering a smoke grenade, find a vent and use a different path, or even toss a noisemaker into the mix and have the Xenomorph do the dirty work. These highly immersive approach allows Alien: Isolation to succeed by giving players enough options to allow them a means of matching wits with their environment and enemies. In conjunction with a more linear story, Alien: Isolation provides a fine balance between openness and clearly telling its story about Ripley’s journey to figure out what happened to her mother.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • The flamethrower is possibly the single most useful weapon in Alien: Isolation, and although it is not capable of causing any serious harm to the Xenomorph, a short burst causes it to retreat. Fuel can be quite scarce, and overuse of the flamethrower can cause the Xenomorph to ignore the flames, resulting in death. Besides its utility in creating an opening in which to hide or escape, the flamethrower is highly effective against Facehuggers and can even be used to light the interiors of vents. The page quote is taken from TheRadBrad and his experiences with Facehuggers.

  • If it were not for the fact that Working Joes and a Xenomorph were chasing Ripley through Sevastopol Station, there might actually be some time to take in just how intricately designed the levels’ interiors are. The computers are pleasantly quaint, featuring large CRT displays and buttons from the 70s. Ripley must occasionally interact with these systems through mini-games, and these can be quite fun to complete.

  • Ripley can occasionally encounter other survivors on the Sevastopol Station. Most of them are hostile, but may occasionally give Ripley a chance to retreat into the shadows. Others are benign and so, should be left alone: during one mission, I assumed a group of people were hostile, planted a pipe bomb and lured them towards the device. When it detonated, the game ended and informed me that I’d just whacked civilians. From there on out, I decided to be more careful and assessed people based on their conversational tone.

  • Sneaking through one area of the station, the Xenomorph appeared and was impeding my progress, so I proceeded to unload the flamethrower on it. Lacking the range of a military flamethrower, the flamethrower Ripley has access to is limited by its short range. Firing it too early may result in the Xenomorph charging in, ignoring the fire and possibly result in the player’s death. Despite its efficacy, its still better to hide, since the Xenomorph will adapt to the player’s use of the flamethrower over time.

  • Because the Xenomorph is said to have sophisticated AI, eventually adapting to the players’ patterns, I decided I would respond to this knowledge ahead of time. To ensure that any particular method of escaping the Xenomporh remained viable, I chose to hide in lockers, cabinets, under desks, toss noisemakers or utilise my flamethrower. The Xenomporh’s learner would therefore register that since the player had a relatively even distribution of actions, the Xenomorph would therefore have a similar probability of executing any one particular countermeasure.

  • As such, I never was pulled out of a locker or was caught hiding underneath a desk, and the flamethrower remained effective well into the game. Here, I make my way out of an area after successfully luring the Xenomorph into the lab module and escaped. With the Xenomorph gone for the present, Alien: Isolation became uncharacteristically relaxed, allowing me to move through areas more quickly and with reduced caution. Some individuals consider the Working Joes and humans to be scarier opponents than the Xenomorph, but I digress.

  • One section of Alien: Isolation involves fending off six Working Joes. The most effective way of taking the conventional type out is to make use of the stun baton to temporarily disable it, and then strike it repeatedly with the maintenance jack until it goes down. Against a group, the EMP devices become more useful, disabling several and allowing for each to be dispatched in turn. Here, I’ve got the Henjin-Garcia Model 37-12 Gauge Pump Action shotgun, which is quite effective against humans and basic Working Joes. Ammunition is scarce, so I reserve the weapons only for the most dire of situations.

  • After missing the Molotov cocktail blueprints in the San Cristobal Medical Bay, I would find another set of blueprints for an updated Molotov, which burns for longer. The Molotov makes use of the ethanol bottles found scattered around Sevastopol Station and appears to be composed of a rye whiskey. Some of my friends are fond of rye and coke, but for better or worse, it seems that my liquor of choice now has become rum.

  • I found that distracting the Xenomorph was always somewhat of a gamble, as an improperly utilised flare or noisemaker could easily result in my death. One of my more amusing stories with Alien: Isolation is that until more than halfway through the game, I never did figure out how to replace the flashlight batteries and so, went through most of the game with two-thirds of my flashlight still available. Fortunately, there are only a few places in Alien: Isolation where the flashlight is really necessary, and it turns out that holding down the flashlight button will reload the batteries.

  • Despite the presence of Working Joes, the trek through Seegson Synthetics was surprisingly relaxing and easygoing compared to the rest of Alien: Isolation, and I spent a nontrivial amount of time getting lost en route to Apollo’s core. It turns out that Apollo is under directives to secure a Xenomorph specimen for Weyland-Yutani, hence the Working Joes being instructed to deal with all humans. Ripley is forced to relinquish all of her weapons here, leaving only the stun baton behind. After reaching Apollo’s core and learning about the Xenomorph hive in the reactor basement, she’ll thankfully recover all of her munitions just in time for the most nerve-wracking experience in the whole of Alien: Isolation.

  • The bolt gun becomes an essential tool for dispatching the hazardous environment Working Joes, who can resist EMP devices and the stun baton. Conversely, the bolt gun is capable of taking out the hazardous environment Joes in a single shot (they do require charging in order to be effective). These pneumatically-powered devices are improvised weapons and under normal circumstances, resemble nail guns, being used to drive anchor bolts into a surface.

  • The reactor basement is a dark, moist and downright terrifying environment. With walls covered in organic matter and a clear half-foot of water covering the floor, this area is silent save for the sounds of dripping water and distant echoes. The organic matter obfuscates the motion tracker, and the difficult environment is where the Facehuggers are first encountered. For the first time in my experiences, I became too frightened to continue and took a week of playing Alien: Isolation, even suffering from a nightmare where I found myself in the reactor core. However, I returned, and summoned the courage to overload the alpha and beta cores, finally completing the most challenging mission I’ve seen in a game.

  • It was a relief to take the elevator back to the reactor deck, where the only enemies are the hazardous environment Working Joes. A combination of steady aim and plentiful bolt gun ammunition meant it was reasonably straightforwards to dispatch the Joes, and then follow the procedure required to initiate the reactor purge. While the reactor basement was remarkably unsettling, the reactor itself is a neat location, being held in a room so large the walls surrounding it aren’t visible.

  • Once all of the steps have been taken to trigger the purge, it is shown that there are multiple Xenomorphs hanging about on Sevastopol Station. Several escape into the station, and now, Ripley must contend with multiple Xenomorphs. Fortunately, the strategies that have applied earlier remain effectual now, and so, Ripley must now revisit the San Cristobal Medical Bay in order to reach the Anesidora.

  • There are no enemies on board the Anesidora, save for one Facehugger, and on my first attempt here, I died instantly to one, listening to the gurgling sounds resulting from such a death. Regardless of whether or not I was expecting to die to a Facehugger, seeing the bony appendages and gaping maw. On my second attempt, I failed to equip my flamethrower, and instead, whipped out my revolver. My aim was true enough, and a single shot later, the Facehugger exploded into a puddle of acidic sludge.

  • Upon reaching the Anesidora’s reactor, Ripley finds a computer carrying the flight recorder log she’d been seeking. She gains closure with her mother’s fate, although Alien: Isolation does not end here: Marlowe has set the Anesidora’s reactor to explode with the aim of taking out Sevastopol Station and the other Xenomorphs. Even with Ripley walking Taylor through the shutdown procedure, the reactor explodes, forcing Ripley to beat a hasty retreat. While Alien: Isolation is generally a fantastic game, the voice acting is a little weaker, and Ripley’s scream here in response to Taylor’s death might perhaps be one instance of weaker voice acting.

  • Back on board Sevastopol Station, I use a flamethrower to roast two hostile guards. The flamethrower and Molotov cocktails are highly effective against human opponents, but ignited hostiles will scream, possibly attracting the Xenomorphs’ attention. Note the apostrophe placement: by this point in Alien: Isolation, Xenomorphs are referred to in plural now because there is definitely more than one.

  • The Anesidora’s destruction also damages stabilising structures onboard Sevastopol Station, causing its orbit to decay and spiral slowly into KG-348’s atmosphere. Ripley must escape, but finds that there’s no way to contact the Torrens. This necessitates an EVA out to the transmission dishes, and for the moment, this becomes one of the more easy-going sections of Alien: Isolation. Although the station might be falling apart and there’s a communications dish to get set up, there are no Xenomorphs or Facehuggers out here, so it’s possible to take in the scenery in peace.

  • Once the Torrens is hailed, Ripley must make her way to the Torrens. Ricardo, one of the deputies to Chief Marshall Waits, was the only survivor after the Working Joes killed the other humans, and assists Ripley in her journeys through the bowels of Sevastopol Station. She plans to at least bring him on board the Torrens, but upon returning from her EVA, she finds him taken down by a Facehugger.

  • Expanding this screenshot to 1080p reveals a Xenomorph in the centre of the screen. On several occasions, I’ve escaped the Xenomorph’s attention simply by losing line of sight with it, hiding behind a sign or chair. As soon as the Xenomorph grows bored and leaves, it’s time to push forwards. This late in the game, most of Ripley’s inventory becomes of limited use. Recalling my use of items, I found the flamethrower, stun baton and bolt gun to be the most useful of the weapons. Similarly, for tools, the medical kit, noise maker and Molotov see frequent use.

  • The penultimate chapter returns Ripley to a familiar hallway, and now armed with the ion torch, she’s able to cut through the door and conclude this mission. While Ripley boards Sevastopol Station poorly equipped to make her way through the numerous locked doors and the like, she’ll find the tools necessary (upgrades to the security access tuner and the cutting torches) as they become necessary. There’s no way to miss the essentials, although players who do not explore might miss crafting blueprints.

  • The final mission in Alien: Isolation is to manually detach the Torrens, which has become stuck to Sevastopol Station. The flamethrower becomes an indispensable tool here, marking the first time where Ripley will certainly encounter multiple Xenomorphs at once. Short, controlled bursts will send the Xenomorphs on their way. Once they’re dealt with, Ripley will need to reach the airlock and head back into the void of space, but she’s ambushed by a Xenomorph on the way.

  • When Ripley comes to, she finds herself stuck to the walls of a Xenomorph hive. Facehuggers are common here, and with few upcoming direct confrontations with Xenomorphs in Alien: Isolation‘s final sections, the flamethrower becomes a powerful tool for destroying the Facehuggers (and their eggs). This region appears to be in the process of being transformed into a new hive, and the spread of organic Xenomorph biomass into the area is perfectly disgusting. I failed to mention this earlier, but the eggs can be burned before the Facehuggers come out of them: the resulting effect is quite satisfying to watch.

  • Readers might have noticed that the frequency of screenshots with flames in them increases as the bottom of the post is reached, corresponding with the increasing damage that Sevastopol Station has suffered. After crawling through the damaged areas, I reached some train tracks and carefully made my way across. By the time I got here, I knew I was quite close to the end of Alien: Isolation. With the end so near, I resolved that I would finish the game before the weekend had ended.

  • Last Sunday, I had taken the morning to work on a journal publication, and I spent the afternoon enjoying the sunshine, riding the C-trains around town, reaching the southern edge of the city and returning to the downtown core to enjoy a double-cheese bacon poutine. The weather was fantastic for a summer characterised by an excess of rain and thunderstorms, and thankfully, this year, there were no major floods. After an adventure-filled day, I took the evening and went through the last parts of Alien: Isolation.

  • This narrow crawl-space stands between Ripley and the airlock: there are no fewer than three Facehuggers in here, and I died no fewer than three times here alone trying to clear the area out. At this point in Alien: Isolation, the game automatically saves, so one does not lose substantial progress, and at long last, after dispatching all of the Facehuggers in hear, I finally reached the airlock.

  • I have a little more than fifty deaths in Alien: Isolation in total; this is not quite enough to unlock the achievement for accumulating a hundred deaths in the game. The final objective here is to blow the bolts keeping the Torrens docked to Sevastopol Station, and once that’s done, a long cutscene is triggered, where multiple Xenomorphs are visible. Fortunately, a blast pushes Ripley back into the Torrens, while the station succumbs to gravity and is destroyed in KG-348’s atmosphere. The remains of the station explodes spectacularly, bringing to mind the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacts; the largest impact hit with the force of six million MT of energy.

  • Being a survival-horror game, Ripley is most certainly not safe even though she’s back on the Torrens. There is no opportunity to rest in the quiet of the Torrens and actually make one’s way to the bridge, since a Xenomorph will have boarded. The quick-time event to end the game is a mercifully straightforwards one, and I finished it on my first try, sending the Xenomorph flying out of the airlock into the voids of space. I’m generally not fond of quick-time events, recalling those of Battlefield 3 where I missed one button and proceeded to die, forcing me to restart a scene.

  • While Alien: Isolation appears to leave Ripley’s fate ambiguous, she’s picked up by another vessel and rescued. She later becomes married, taking on the name of McClaren, and dies at the age of sixty-six. Playing through Alien: Isolation, I’m now interested to watch Alien (the original, as well as Aliens), so if the game also had the aim of piquing interest in the Alien franchise, it succeeded somewhat. With this post over, I’m looking to write about Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and DOOM in the near future. As well, I neglected to mention that I definitely will be watching and reviewing Kimi no na wa (Your Name), a Makoto Shinkai film that will release in two days. I’ve been waiting for this movie since February of last year, and the post will probably be a larger one, featuring some sixty images.

Altogether, Alien: Isolation is a remarkable game that now joins the ranks of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Valkyria Chronicles as the best games I’ve experienced. With solid atmosphere conferred by the amount of attention put into level design, artwork and soundtrack, Alien: Isolation masterfully creates a truly frightening environment that surprises at every turn. A suspenseful and tense journey, Alien: Isolation‘s joys come in leaving the players guessing what comes next. With that being said, while I did enjoy Alien: Isolation tremendously, I do not imagine that I will be replaying the game in the near future: the single experience is sufficient for me to grasp the game’s strong points, and for the near future, I do not intend on putting myself through such a harrowing simulated experience again. My intererst in the Alien franchise has also been piqued, so I might check out the original Alien movie at some point in the future. For now, with what might be one of my most storied gaming adventures complete, I can turn my attention to DOOM and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided; apparently, the latter is so graphically demanding that it requires a pair of GTX 1080 cards in SLI to run at ultra settings on 4K. I’ll be playing at 1080p, so I imagine that my new GPU should be more than up for the job at high settings.

Alien Isolation: Impressions at the halfway point

“Let us hope that our presence may go unnoticed.” —Gandalf The Grey, Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Alien: Isolation is billed as one of the scariest games in living memory. Released in 2014, it follows Amanda Ripley and her journey through Sevastopol space station, a mining facility over the gas giant KG348. Her objective is to retrieve a flight recorder that is would help her learn what happened to her mother, Ellen Ripley, fifteen years ago. However, upon arriving at Sevastopol, she finds that the station is damaged and that there is a monster lurking in the shadows, slaying Sevastopol’s inhabitants. I’ve now reached the point where I’ve encountered the station’s marshall, Waits, and have begun the process of trapping the monster, a Xenomorph, with the aim of stopping it. Nine hours in, I’m about halfway through Alien: Isolation, and it’s been a thrilling experience so far, making my way through Sevastopol station in the hopes of completing my objectives without being killed by the Xenomorph, a powerful adversary that cannot be harmed by any craft that Ripley possesses. Even with a diverse arsenal of tools and weapons, Ripley is powerless against the Xenomorph and instead, must make use of the environment and plenty of patience to avoid death, leading Alien: Isolation to possess a significantly different atmosphere than any game I’ve experienced thus far.

While being ambushed by the Xenomorph at the most unexpected times and hearing sudden ambient sounds in the Sevastopol station were probably the most heart-stopping moments of Alien: Isolation, the game’s horror component does not lie in the occasional jump-scares. Instead, the true fear comes from not knowing when death will result, whether it be from encounters with other humans, the synthetic Working Joe androids or the Xenomorph itself. Because Alien: Isolation uses a save system that involves terminals sporadically placed throughout Sevastopol station, players stand to lose a fair amount of progress should they ever die. The fear of losing this progress and the associated causes are enough to keep players on their toes, wondering what’s around the corner or what the strange noises all around are. This is where the true horror comes in: paranoia and doubt start settling in, as the safe spots are very rare on board Sevastopol. Thus, when one does manage to complete objectives, reach a safe spot or even just find a terminal to save at, it feels like an achievement, a great success.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Released back in October 2014, Alien: Isolation would have been a perfect game for Halloween. Normally retailing on Steam for 55 CAD, sales occasionally drive around 75 percent off the price tag, allowing it to be purchased for 13.74 CAD. For the level of quality in this game, this price is tantamount to highway robbery, and I open by saying that it matters not whether or not one is into horror: Alien: Isolation is what a game should be.

  • Players take on the role of Amanda Ripley in Alien: Isolation, Ellen Ripley’s daughter. The game opens up on board the Torrens, and as such, is one of the few moments in the game where it is impossible for death to result. According to the developers, they went through three terabytes of production material from the original Alien, capturing the atmosphere and technological designs seen in the 1979 film.

  • After a space walk goes awry, Ripley makes it on board the Sevastopol station. Derelict and in an unkempt state, the game’s first jump scare occurs when players approach a ruptured gas pipe that suddenly ignites. While jump-scares are present in Alien: Isolation, they do not form a large portion of the fear in the game overall.

  • I utilise a flare here to illuminate the dark corridors where baggage handling occurs. Flares are just one of the many items that can be utilised in-game, and Alien: Isolation features a basic crafting system that allows players to create various gadgets, ranging from medical kits to flash bangs and pipe bombs. These utilities are useful in furthering Ripley’s survival but should be used sparingly, since resources for crafting are uncommon, and Ripley can only hold onto a limited number of them.

  • The Xenomorph does not make an appearance until Ripley meets Axel; promising to help him get off-station, the pair make their way through Sevastopol. Axel is eventually killed by the Xenomporh, and the horror aspect of Alien: Isolation truly kicks in at this point as players realise there is something pursuing them.

  • Ripley encounters a simply-wrought motion tracker that detects whether there are any moving entities in the AO, as well as points roughly in the direction that one must go to carry out the next step of the mission. This device soon becomes the source of much paranoia: while it picks up the motion of anything that moves, its primary application is checking the Xenomorph’s position. Thus, even a human or android moving about can occasionally lead players to hide in the nearest locker.

  • Save terminals are the single most valuable asset in the game and I experience relief every time I see one of these. Over time, a player’s fear in Alien: Isolation is less likely to be caused by the Xenomorph and more likely to result from a fear of losing critical progress. In a game where every step can end with a potential death, progress is measured in inches rather than meters, and so, reaching save points is always a relief.

  • The GTX 660 is the recommended GPU for experiencing Alien: Isolation, although the game runs fine on a GT 430. With all of the graphics settings turned up, players truly feel like they’re at Sevastopol station, making their way through the different regions of the station and hope they remain undetected long enough to complete the objective. Fortunately, crouching, moving slowly and making use of tactical advantages (such as lockers and tables to hide in and under, respectively), coupled with patience, is how to eke out survival.

  • There are some sections of the game, such as when Ripley must retrieve a trauma kit from the St. Christobal medical facilities, where the Xenomorph is solidly present to menace the player. One aspect about the Xenomorph that makes it truly devastating against player progress is the fact that it can make use of Sevastopol Station’s ventilation system to move swiftly between places: although the Xenomorph may have appeared to entered a room on the opposite side of the map, it can, at any time, appear right in front of Ripley using what is functionally equivalent to teleportation.

  • The standard FPS player would think that they can take out the Xenomorph with firearms, but the weapons available to Ripley are lower-powered; they are completely ineffectual against the Xenomorph, but perform well enough against other humans. Here, I’ve got the .375 revolver, a weapon that can be effective against humans but also fires loudly. Using it will almost certainly result in death, as it attracts the Xenomorph’s attention.

  • One of my favourite aspects about Alien: Isolation is the fact that some regions of the station are located on the outer sections; with large windows that let in starlight. These parts of Sevastopol station are awash with the star’s golden light and, despite the general sense of hostility in the station, these areas convey a more calming sense. With that being said, the Xenomorph can show up here, as well, so it’s prudent not to linger too long in these deceptively relaxed areas.

  • Because Sevastopol Station was unprofitable, much of it is derelict by the time the Torrens reaches it. Sections combust and explode from poor maintenance, forcing Ripley to get creative in her pathfinding. To the left of this image are the unnerving iris-vents: I’m a little unsettled by how they move, but entering the vents allow players to rapidly move around obstacles and obstructions. The Xenomorph can enter these systems, so they are not safe havens by any stretch.

  • The Xenomorph’s high lethality can be used to Ripley’s advantage: I place a noisemaker in an area with hostile people and watch as the Xenomorph annihilates them before making a get-away; after killing off everything in the area, the Xenomorph will continue hunting Ripley, so it’s prudent to hide. I’ve experienced a situation where I came under fire from another human, only to have the Xenomorph appear, rush past the other guy and put an end to Ripley.

  • Whereas I typically sprint through most first-person games, Alien: Isolation actively discourages thus; moving around too loudly will draw the Xenomorph’s attention and result in instant death. By putting the player in the shoes of someone ordinary, powerless to take out the Xenomorph, proper horror is achieved. In one of my undergraduate English courses, the professor stated that all horror comes from the fear of a loss of control.

  • Thus, horror becomes lost if players are given powerful weapons that allow them a degree of control. It is this reason that Alien: Colonial Marines proved unsuccessful; player have access to a powerful arsenal that allows them to blow Xenomorphs away as though it were just another day at the office. Conversely, by stripping Ripley of all means to confront the Xenomorph, Alien: Isolation crafts a powerful sense of fear in players. Here, I reactivate the transit stations and will locate a gas torch, useful for cutting through panels.

  • The stun baton is the second of the weapons that Ripley locates in the game: firing an electrical tip, it’s excellent for stopping the androids, or “Working Joes”, in their tracks. These androids can be quite unsettling, but are slow movers and not particularly fearsome unless in large numbers. They can kill Ripley quite easily and deflect her attacks, however, so it’s best to avoid direct confrontation with them. The Xenomorph cannot be goaded into taking them out.

  • The first part of Alien: Isolation where players will truly feel safe is once Marshal Waits’ headquarters are reached. There’s a save point here, and unless I’m mistaken, no chance that players will die to the Xenomorph. Here, Ripley learns of how Marlowe, captain of the Anesidora, found the Xenomorph and inadvertently brought it on board Sevastopol station.

  • For one mission, players can take Marlowe’s shoes and walk through Archeron LV-426, a moon with hostile surface conditions to locate a Derelict vessel after discovering a warning beacon. The walk to the vessel is a difficult one: visibility is low, with a windstorm whipping about debris and gases. As Marlowe, players have access to a direction scanner, although because the path is quite linear, it’s not strictly necessary to use this device too often.

  • Constructed by the Engineer (a race similar to Halo‘s Forerunner), the Derelict houses a vast nest of Xenomorph eggs. One of the eggs hatches here and the newly born Facehugger latches itself to Marlowe’s wife’s face, resulting in her death. It’s been hypothesised that the Engineers were responsible for creating the Xenomorphs for use as biological weapons, accounting for the Xenomorph’s seemingly perfect biological composition.

  • Returning back to Ripley’s perspective, she gains a flamethrower for use against the Xenomorph at the game’s halfway point. With half of Alien: Isolation under my belt, I’ve spent 9 hours in-game so far and have collected just under half of the achievements. There are a total of eighteen missions, and now that I’m past the halfway point, it’ll be interesting to see where Alien: Isolation goes from here: there is still a few more items to collect, and I’ve yet to find the Molotov cocktail’s upgrade blueprints, having missed the first one somehow while moving through the medical sections.

I’ve now just collected the flamethrower and thus, have reached Alien: Isolation‘s halfway point. The game feels solid and handles very well, managing to convey a sense of uncertainty and terror as I move through it. While the Xenomorph is said to possess a sophisticated machine learning algorithm to tune its behaviours such that it matches the players’ style, insofar, I find the Xenomorph’s true power to frighten comes from its stochasticity: at some points, I’ve been defeated instantly from a vent even though I had seen it, from afar, moving into a room at the opposite end of the hallway. I’m definitely curious to see how the story will progress and end, and will continue moving through this horror title that so far, lives up to its title as an inspired horror game that marks a return to the Alien franchise’s roots: Ripley’s total inability to destroy the Xenomorph as the Doom Slayer does his opponents plays on the base human fear of a lack of control, and Alien: Isolation uses this to great effect, creating a game quite unlike the titles I am accustomed to playing through.

Life is Strange Episode One: Chrysalis Review

If I could turn back time
If I could find a way
I’d take back those words that hurt you
And you’d stay

—Cher, song of the same name

At the request of one of my readers, I picked up and played through Life is Strange‘s first episode, Chrysalis. Opening in Arcadia Bay, a fictional town in Oregon, the game follows Max Caulfield, a new student at the Blackwell Academy. Dreaming about a devastating tornado, she wakes up to find herself in photography class. After class, she witnesses a murder in the bathroom, discovering her power in the process and making use of this knowledge to save Chloe Price, who’d been shot in a previous timeline. She reunites with Chloe and they visit the lighthouse seen in Max’s visions. Armed with a compelling mechanic, Life is Strange initially appears to be something that remains outside the realm of the titles that I’d typically discuss here, and with the first episode now under my belt, I see a title that’s sufficiently different than everything else I’ve played. From what little I’ve seen so far, it’s immediately apparent that the significance of choice is the main theme in the game. Armed with the ability to rewind time to specific moments, players can mull over different decisions to pick the ones they feel are most appropriate by playing out all of the scenarios to see what each decision to entail. This mechanic is also cleverly incorporated into different puzzles: Max is able to explore, make mistakes and then turn back time to play the decision differently, avoiding future trouble (such as getting oil on David Madsen’s documents at Chloe’s house) or understanding what’s needed to retrieve an item.

Life is Strange plays out as an adventure game, and the emphasis on conversations, coupled with decision-making, makes it feel like a more intricate, elaborate variant of the conversation system seen in Deus Ex: Human Revolutions. This time, however, there is no need to sneak around or use augmentations to cause destruction. Max’s objectives can be accomplished by a bit of social skill and, unlike Human Revolutions, conversations and actions have a far more profound action than they would in most games. Knowing this, I employed a more sympathetic approach to avoid antagonising everyone during my playthrough: the emphasis on choice is mirrored when Max sees a butterfly in the bathroom while hiding from Nathan Prescott. Although concepts of Chaos Theory are well beyond the scope of the current discussion, butterflies come into play as a part of Edward Lorenz’s so-called “Butterfly Effect”, which suggests that small changes in a non-deterministic system can result in large changes in later states. In the context of Life is Strange, a truly non-deterministic game would simply be unplayable, so but it’s excellent symbolism. That this sort of symbolism is present this early in the game serves to remind players that any decisions they make will have major consequences later on, and moreover, the effects of one decision might not be apparent until much later on. Consequently, Life is Strange compels players to roll through episodes again to see the effects of different decision patterns, encouraging re-playability as players search for their best ending.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • For the some of the figure captions in this post, I will refer to the episode I’ve played as Chrysalis; Life is Strange will therefore refer to the game in general, which I will use for describing mechanics, to minimise confusion. In the paragraphs, I refer to Life is Strange as a whole because the gameplay mechanics should be consistent throughout the game. Opening with a massive tornado destroying a lighthouse, I found the scene to greatly resemble the opening of Alan Wake.

  • The dream gives way to a more normal setting: the interior of a classroom by mid-afternoon, as a class on photography is underway. I do not believe my high school offered any sort of lessons on artistic photography, and instead, focused more on the technical details. I myself learned enough to capture more interesting pictures for the yearbook at a workshop that took place during the year’s beginning.

  • Looking through Max’s journal and SMS logs yields a great deal of additional insight into the sort of character Max is: she’s a new student at Blackwell Academy and is quite excited, but also seems to have difficulty fitting in with the other students. Here is an image of the basic UI in Life is Strange: it’s minimalistic and simple, being very easy to use, as one merely needs to get close to an object, and a context menu with a list of available options appears.

  • Being an adventure game, there is no option to jump or sprint as in a first person shooter, which in turn encourages exploration. Being made to move and look around more slowly forces the players’ attention to the environment, allowing one to interact with critical clues and people. The added bonus of slower movement makes things a little more realistic; while I’m fond of sprinting and jumping about most of the shooters I’ve played, I never move about in that manner in real life, as it would be extremely tiring of done for protracted periods.

  • The classroom thus serves as a simple tutorial to familiarise players to Life is Strange‘s controls: after watching Nathan shoot Chloe, Max’s ability to rewind time is awakened, and the game encourages players to test it by having Max become embarrassed when she fails to answer a question, then learns the answer and rewinds time to answer it properly. This shows players that they should be making liberal use of this ability for decision-making.

  • Though simple compared to some of the glitziest titles available out there, the visuals in Life is Strange are very effective at conveying a small-town American feel: the game was made using a later build of Unreal Engine 3 and handles very smoothly.

  • After classes let out, Max’s first objective is to return to the dormitories and retrieve a movie-filled USB for Warren, one of her friends from before she enrolled at Blackwell. Warren has a crush of sorts on Max, and although subtle, it is noticeable even during Chrysalis, although it’s only later that players have a choice of driving interactions down a particular path. Chalk another one up for the list of reasons to continue playing.

  • There’s a large number of people hanging around on the academy grounds that can be interacted with, adding an additional bit of life into the game world. There are some students for whom the only available option is “look”; while probably present as a development constraint (i.e. creating dialogue for each character is prohibitively costly), it contributes to the realism factor in that one does not typically try to strike up random conversations with every person in sight.

  • The dormitories offer a fine place to begin experimenting with Max’s powers. She first needs to get inside, and it’s a clever puzzle: Max must first distract the girls sitting on the steps using the sprinkler and tamper with a bucket of paint to disperse them; I chose to reconcile with Victoria here, as there’s little point in antagonising every character in the game. I play by similar approaches in real life: it takes way too much effort to antagonist people even if they are in the wrong, and as reflected in Life is Strange, the consequences can be quite unpleasant.

  • I absolutely love the level of details the dorm rooms are rendered in: they capture the sense of being living spaces for students, and the rooms that can be visited give off different impressions, reflective of their owner’s personality. Max’s room is a little strange with its lanterns, but also illustrates Max’s interests in photography. In order to enter Diana’s room and actually recover the USB, Max will need to mediate a situation, and using the empathy/understanding approach, I was able to get it done.

  • Before being able to reach the parking lot, Max witnesses David, the security guard, confronting Katie. I elected to intervene here and continued on to the parking lot. After meeting up with Warren, Nathan arrives to pummel Warren and threaten Max, but Max is saved by Chloe at the last moment. Mirroring the powerlessness that is seen in reality, Max has no options for fighting back or defending Warren, and Chloe’s arrival sets in motion the episodes’ second half, which takes place at Chloe’s house.

  • Chloe’s house, like the dormitories, is filled with details: whenever interacting with objects by looking at them, Max will have an interesting remark to make about it. Back at the school, there were a host of missing posters for Rachel Amber, a girl who was Chloe’s friend and quite well-liked by others. Their prevalence is quite unsettling for players, who realise that Rachel must have substantial role for the future.

  • David’s workspace is filled with surveillance equipment and there’s a gun locker, as well. An incredibly complex character, one of the reasons I would continue with Life is Strange is to see David’s role shift as the game progresses. Similar to the dormitories, the goal at Chloe’s house is to try to repair Max’s camera and here, Max also learns about her past friendship with Chloe, as well as Rachel. When David confronts Chloe about playing music too loudly and discovers recreational drugs, I had Max to hide, then step in and take the blame for things.

  • I realise that decisions with a positive short-term consequence can have detrimental impacts on what happens to Max later on, so I used the time travel mechanic to watch each scene a few times before proceeding. Once Chloe and Max leave the house, they visit the same lighthouse that was seen earlier in Max’s dream. By this point in Chrysalis, the main decision-making sections of the game have drawn to a close, and it’s time to sit back to watch some exposition.

  • The park is absolutely stunning, and surprisingly enough, I finished Chrysalis in less than two hours: this was with watching each cut-scene and experimenting with every conversation, but not interacting with each and every single entity that exists within the environment. It was the shortest day of year, and after homemade ramen for lunch, that I beat this game. Once I beat the game, I realised that the experience was quite short, and wondered about whether or not I would like to play through the remaining four episodes.

  • I’ll go into greater detail in the final paragraph as to whether or not I will end up buying the entirety of Life is Strange; normally costing 18.99 CAD, it’s going for 12.72 during the Winter Steam sale for the present, although I don’t see myself as having the time to play it in the near future on account of how busy graduate school is looking: first week of 2016, I have a conference paper deadline, plus two presentations and a TA meeting to tend to. 2016 in general is looking pretty intense, leaving little time to sit down and game, so if I do game, I’d like to at least get through my backlog first (consider that I’ve still not beaten Valkyria Chronicles yet!).

  • So, what will likely happen is that I’ll set aside Chrysalis for the present, and then during the next major Steam Sale, if there is enough interest for me to do so, I will purchase the season pass and play through the remaining episodes. Moreover, if the level of interest is quite high, I’ll do separate talks for each episode. To express said interest, you may drop a comment below. Alternatively, visit my Facebook or Twitter accounts and message me there.

  • So, returning to Chrysalis, the ending was well-written, and excites me enough to wish to check things out. With the characters, setting and game mechanics established, Life is Strange can proceed towards the more exciting aspects of the game, which are set in upcoming episodes, and during which decisions made this early will begin having an impact on the events to come. Given the integration of choice and coverage of heavier topics, the praise for Life is Strange is well-deserved.

  • We’re pretty much done this post, and despite being only one episode, I feel that twenty images might not be enough to fully do said episode justice. Life is Strange is a game with a bold sense of direction, being as compelling as a good novel, albeit one with a far greater degree of interactivity. It is, in short, the game of story-driven game that manages to hold the player’s interest, demonstrating that games can be about keeping an eye out for the smaller details.

The question eventually becomes: will I pick up the whole of Life is Strange? The answer is “once time permits”: there is definitely enough content in the games to warrant a full purchase for the remaining episodes (especially if there’s a sale), and thanks to a compelling narrative, my curiosity regarding what will happen to Max and Chloe has been piqued. I’ve not advanced far enough into the game to begin taking a look at Life is Strange‘s core themes about identity; these elements definitely merit exploration. On the whole, Life is Strange is reasonably well-crafted, with suitable artwork and use of graphics to bring the Arcadia Bay area to life, whether it’s a sunset at the lighthouse or the little details at Blackwell’s dormitories. While the voice acting was met with a more varied response, I found that the execution (admittedly, resembling that of RWBY for me) was acceptable and does not detract from the game. So, from a value perspective, Life is Strange is worth picking up: there’s incentive for multiple play-throughs, and the focus on character development represents a breath of fresh air from the tense, fast-paced shooters I’m more accustomed to playing. This forms the basis for my answer; whether or not I will buy all of Life is Strange is not so much a matter of if as much as it is when. Over the next year, things are going to be quite busy, and I feel that I will not be able to do Life is Strange justice if I play while simultaneously attempting to wrap up my graduate studies and trekking through the sizeable backlog of titles I’ve accumulated over the past few years.