Conversation and critique: Broken Sword 4

Last month, nufafitc from Emotional Multimedia Ride participated in the first ever conversation and critique post. We both played isometric horror-adventure CAYNE before getting together online to chat about our thoughts; and both came away feeling that it was a good game considering it’s free, but ultimately a little forgettable. You’re better off sticking with STASIS.

Nathan from Hurricane thought process stepped up to be my next participant but unfortunately, neither of us has been able to finish the title we’ve selected just yet! This will hopefully be coming next month and in the meantime, I recently picked on my other-half to help me continue the series. Here’s what happened when Pete and I sat down to play Broken Sword 4: The Angel of Death (with the profanities removed but a few minor spoilers included).

•••

Kim: Are you sure you want to play this? A lot of the Steam reviews are pretty bad…

Pete: Yeah. The sooner we finish it, the sooner we can move on to Broken Sword 5 and that’s meant to be much better.

Kim: Ok then… *starts up game*

Pete: Why are the graphics stuttering?

Kim: Might have to see if we can fiddle around with the settings if it stays like that.

Pete: So what’s happening here then?

Kim: No idea – but she should really put a bra on.

Pete: Human sacrifice is always a good way to start a game.

Kim: Oh look, George Stobbart is back. He’s such an idiot.

Pete: So this woman comes to your office knowing that some men are after her, and they’ll kill you too if they find you with her.

Kim: That’s nice of her.

Pete: What about the dude that’s working with George in the office? He’s just left him to deal with the henchmen all on his own.

Kim: That door is hardly going to hold them back. I told you George is an idiot.

Pete: Right, let’s have a look around.

Kim: George doesn’t seem particularly bothered that he’s about to get killed, does he?

Pete: “I’m just going to take a casual stroll around my office while some henchmen are waiting outside for me.”

Kim: I wish I hadn’t clicked on that now… we really don’t need a five-line description about a golf-club. It’s like it’s trying to be funny in a Broken Sword kind of way but it’s dragging it out.

Pete: Maybe George just likes golf.

Kim: I wonder if this section is timed?

Pete: I hope not. We’d be dead by now.

Kim: That’s it Anna Maria, you just stand there and watch while George does all the work.

Pete: Let’s just leave her there to hold open the elevator for the rest of the game.

Kim: That flipping golf-club. The elevator would have bent it in half by now, that’s stupid.

Pete: But Anna Maria thinks it’s a good idea.

Kim: Then Anna Maria is just as much of an idiot as George is.

Pete: Push the fan under the elevator so you can take back the golf-club.

Kim: Oh yes, we wouldn’t want to leave this area without the solution to all our problems. Urgh, these controls are horrible.

Pete: The pigeons don’t even move when you run past them. They know George Stobbart isn’t a threat.

Kim: The controls are really bad. You’re not sure whether you’ve missing the hotspot or if there’s actually nothing there when you try and click on something.

Pete: Climb up there and then get the chain.

Kim: He doesn’t want to do it.

Pete: No, climb back down and grab it from the bottom.

Kim: Using the golf-club… obviously.

Pete: Once again, Anna Maria stands there doing nothing to help herself.

Kim: I wouldn’t leave my fate to George. He’s an idiot.

Pete: Yes, so you said. Several times.

Kim: Finally a proper puzzle. Ok, so we’re going to have to find a replacement sprocket to get it working again and then manoeuvre the loading joist over to Anna Maria.

Pete: Why don’t you try that other handle?

Kim: Ok… what, no puzzle? You just needed to use the other handle

Pete: *laughs*

Kim: Couldn’t the bad guys just make it over the same way George did though? That’s ridiculous.

Pete: Yeah, but these henchmen are useless.

Kim: The henchmen in every single Broken Sword game are useless.

Pete: George is going all ‘Nathan Drake’ on us.

Kim: Let’s hope he falls and breaks a leg. Game over.

Pete: Stop being horrible to George.

Kim: Bloody controls – I’m not even clicking and he’s moving by himself!

Pete: Right, so we can’t use the two objects on the screen with any of the objects in our inventory. What do we do?

Kim: Let’s take another look around… ok, so we can shut and lock that door. Not sure what good that’s going to do though.

Pete: Look, the icon says you can open it even though it’s locked.

Kim: Let me try.

Pete: What the…?

Kim: *laughs*

Pete: Alright, that is stupid.

Kim: See? I keep telling you George is an idiot.

Pete: We’re finally out of the tutorial. Do you want to save?

Kim: Ok.

Pete: What’s happening?

Kim: It said that the save failed… let me try again. Nope, still failing.

Pete: Has anyone reported anything on Steam?

Kim: The only thing I can find is a message from someone saying that you need to contact Catherine at Revolution for a copy of a save game.

Pete: So either we keep emailing her for saves or leave the laptop on and play the game all the way through without saving it? I’m not doing that.

Kim: I guess we’ll have to watch it on YouTube then, if you want to know what happens before we play Broken Sword 5.

Pete: Yeah, that might be a good idea.

Kim: At least then I won’t have to deal with these bloody controls. *turns off game*

•••


So as you can see from the conversation above, we didn’t get that far with Broken Sword 4. Although we only managed to complete the first section, from what we saw from that alone there wasn’t much to keep us interested: the controls were sometimes difficult to use and the puzzles were either too easy or illogical. And on top of all that, George is still an idiot.

Perhaps Nathan and I will have better luck with the next game we’ve chosen for the conversation and critique series.

Trü-ly a good Kickstarter

I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m a Twin Peaks fan but I love the vibe. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a game which has stuck with me since I played it; I loved the way Kathy Rain started off as a straight-forward detective story before getting all mysterious; and Falling Sky by NFTS student Jonathan Nielssen is definitely a title to watch out for.

That’s one of the reasons why the campaign for Trüberbrook stood out to me while browsing through the Kickstarter website recently (along with Raji: An Ancient Epic, which you can read about here). Independent studio Bildundtonfabrik (btf) are advertising their point-and-click adventure as ‘sci-fi mystery’ inspired by Twin Peaks, The X-Files and Stranger Things – could it get any better?

The title is set in rural Germany in the late 1960s and players step into the shoes of young American physicist Hans Tannhauser. After being selected as the winner in a lottery he can’t remember entering, he heads off for a weekend break in the aging health resort of Trüberbrook somewhere in the countryside of West Germany. But there’s something strange going on in the town…

Shortly after his arrival, someone breaks into his room at the Pension Waldeslust and steals his paper on quantum physics; and someone is trying to get in touch with him. Eventually he teams up with anthropologst Gretchen Lemke who takes him on a great adventure and it becomes clear he’s not in Trüberbrook by accident: he’s actually there to save the world.

Alongside the mention of some great television series, the game’s distinct visual style makes it stand out from the other projects. Like titles such as The Dream Machine and Armikrog, all scenery is built by hand and real lighting is used to simulate different times of day and weather conditions. These are then digitised in a process called photogrammetry – the same process being used by The Brotherhood to create fellow Kickstarter campaign Beautiful Desolation – before being blended with characters and visual effects.

In the promotional video, the developer describes Trüberbrook as a ‘somewhat classic adventure game with a modern approach’. The story unfolds as you interact with the environment, talk to other characters and solve puzzles which are integrated into the narrative. Apparently, these will range from inventory-based puzzles to social challenges and even passing ‘unsettling psycho tests’ (I think I’m going to struggle with that last one).

Unfortunately, there isn’t a demo to go alongside the campaign so I’m unable to give a hands-on opinion right now. But the content shared on the Kickstarter page was enough to convince me to become a backer, and I’m looking forward to playing the game when it’s released in late 2018.

At the time of writing, Trüberbrook has already surpassed its £71,351 target and is well on its way to reaching its ‘prologue’ stretch goal at £180,000 with 19 days still left on the clock. Head over to Kickstarter to support the game before 14 December 2017 and sign up to the newsletter via the official website; and give btf a follow on Twitter and Facebook.

Dear Santa: gamers gift guide

Christmas is now only a month away and we’re all looking forward to some well-deserved time off from work to play video games. If you’re not sure what to give the gamers in your life as presents, then you’ve come to the right place: the following items will bring a smile to their face (as soon as they’ve torn their eyes away from the screen and put down the controller).

Before we launch into this list, a confession. I wanted to bring you a gift guide as comprehensive as possible, one which consisted of varied items which would appeal to a wide range of people, and therefore did plenty of research online before creating it. However, I ended up seeing so many things I’d actually like for myself that it’s probably now more a personal wishlist to Santa. Sorry about that…

Under £10

Bulbasaur, planter, plant, cactus, Pokemon

The Dragon’s Tea Party and I have given each other several interior design tips this year and a big thank you to her for pointing out this Bulbasaur planter by 8bitpixl on Etsy. I’m not a huge Pokémon fan but one of these would look great on a windowsill providing I’m able to keep a plant alive for once.

Gametee, lipbalm, pots, tins

Gametee is one of my favourite online shops and I’ve bought several items from them over the past year. Something I don’t have yet though is the gaming lipbalm pack and I’m sure I’d be able to find space for it in my handbag. I can also recommend their candles – the health and mana ones are lovely.

Stranger things, soundtrack, CD, box art

I totally adore Stranger Things and anything 80s so, while not strictly related to video games, something I’d love to find in my stocking this year would be the soundtrack CD. If that happens, it’s highly likely you’ll find me dancing around the kitchen while making waffles for breakfast on Christmas morning.

Under £20

Stories Untold, video game, box art

Thank you to the awesome Bradley from Cheap Boss Attack for telling me to play Stories Untold recently – the game is excellent and the artwork is just as good. This poster would show my appreciation for the title as well as fit in very nicely with the other 80s-style items I have around the house.

Firewatch, video game, notebooks

It’s always handy for a blogger to keep a notebook nearby to jot down ideas for future posts, so how about this lovely set from Campo Santos inspired by the Crime By The Numbers series of books from Firewatch? I’m not sure I’d want to spoil them with my bad handwriting, but they’d look great on my desk.

Monkey Island, video game, tote bag, verbs, cursor, DOS, retro

Anyone who visits Later Levels regularly is probably expecting a Monkey Island entry so here it is: this retro DOS tote bag by hangman3d on Redbubble. It would be perfect for holding all your flyers and merchandise when visiting gaming during 2018, which leads me nicely on to my next point…

Under £40

Rezzed, video games, gaming, expo, Little Nightmares, Kim

I’ve already sorted my ticket for the next year’s event but if the gamer in your life isn’t so organised, why not get them a Super Pass for Rezzed for Christmas? This is my favourite expo and I can highly recommend it if the thought of spending three days playing video games and talking to independent developers is appealing.

The Elder Scrolls Online, video game, book

Something which is still appealing to me at the moment is The Elder Scrolls Online and it’s likely I’ll be playing it well into the holidays (unless our relationship falters). Its sheer size can be a little overwhelming though so this guide to its lands would be useful; and the second book on its lore looks just as good.

Horizon Zero Dawn, video game, Aloy, female, warrior, bow and arrow

One of my favourite video game characters this year has been Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn: not only is she an independent woman who kicks butt, she has awesome hair while she’s doing it. One way to celebrate those auburn tresses in all their glory would be to order this statue from ThinkGeek.

Blow the budget

PlayStation 4, controller, customised, Custom Controllers UK

My other-half and stepson have customised controllers for our PlayStation 4 but I’m still using the standard! There are some great ones on the Custom Controllers UK website and I’ve got my eye on a few of them. I particularly like the two-tone edition – it’s rather in step with the Later Levels colour scheme.

Loot Crate, Loot Gaming, subscription box

A Loot Gaming subscription from Loot Crate would make a great present for gamers. I signed up to the Loot Wear version earlier this year and am pretty happy with the quality of items received (although the franchises aren’t always to my taste); however, the deliveries seem subject to frequent delays so bear that in mind when ordering.

Trico, The Last Guardian, video game, model, statue, GakmanCreatures, Etsy

I fell in love with Trico after the boys gave me The Last Guardian last Christmas and now it’s possible to have your own smaller version. This gorgeous collectable item by GakmanCreatures on Etsy sadly won’t be ready in time for the big day because it’s completely handmade, but it would be so worth the wait.

Disclaimer: the list above consists of items which caught my eye but I’m unable to comment on their quality or the performance of their sellers. Later Levels isn’t affiliated with the sites mentioned and I won’t receive any money as a result of clicking on the links in this post – although if the sellers read it and would like to send me these items, I’m not going to complain. Thank you.

Raji: An Ancient Epic on Kickstarter

According to Wikipedia, the video game sector in India is still underdeveloped compared to other Asian countries such as China and South Korea. Mobile apps seem to be the trend and it can be hard for developers to find the necessary funding to create PC and console games.

That partly explains why Raji: An Ancient Epic caught my eye while browsing through entries on Kickstarter recently. An action-adventure title that brings a cross between The Last Guardian and Bastion to mind, it’s being developed by Nodding Heads Games who are based in Pune in India. Co-Founder Ian Maude previously worked on Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and the team have over four decades of experience at well-known studios including Rockstar, Ubisoft, EA and Zynga.

The title’s namesake is a young girl chosen by the gods to fight against the demonic invasion of the human realm. Her destiny is to rescue her younger brother Golu, and players will witness how Raji evolves through the atrocities of war and the loss of loved ones. The chaos will only end if she manages to break down the might of the evil Mahabalasura: the great lord of the demons, whom it’s said holds the soul of every demon he’s ever slain.

Very few video games are set in India and Nodding Heads wants to change that, creating a project inspired by Hindu and Balinese mythology. The team’s research included visits to Rajasthan and Bali and they’re using the knowledge gathered to create some interesting level locations, bosses and characters – all of which is evident in the demo which can be downloaded from Raji’s Steam page right now.

I installed this recently and shortly after starting it up, my other-half looked over my shoulder to see what I was playing. The first thing he said was ‘that’s really pretty’ (I’m assuming he was talking about the game rather than me) and he’s right. The Kickstarter information advises that ‘every environment is treated as an ancient Indian painting portraying a story with exquisite details’. During the short time I spent with the demo, I guided Raji through the walls of Jaidhar fort studded with overgrown plants and glittering butterflies, along with a beautiful royal room with colourful stained-glass windows.

Not everything is so tranquil though, as waves of enemies try to take your character down as you work your way through the environment. Leaping trolls who spit balls of green goo at you are particularly annoying as they don’t stay still for long and it doesn’t seem possible to block their ammunition if you get caught in its path. The developer confirms that combat is focused on ‘blending the fluidity of movement and attacks of the player character against the mystical and powerful enemies you encounter’; the controls still feel slightly stiff at the moment but this is obviously something which can be refined throughout the project’s lifecycle.

Raji has a magical staff at her disposal and depending on which god you pick, this may be imbued with the element of lightning, fire, ice, earth and rage. The feature is called the ‘favour of the gods’ and allows you to customise your abilities to craft your own style of gameplay. Only one element is available in the demo and I particularly liked the chain-lightning: going up against one monster would result in those around it getting a sharp electric shock also. Plus it’s pretty satisfying seeing the enemies shake around you as you slam down your weapon and call forth your special attack.

The Kickstarter page refers to ‘intriguing environmental puzzles’ and, although those shown in the demo were very simple, I can see how the location and level design would lend itself well to more difficult challenges later on. The top-down view could potentially be used to hide plenty of secrets and hidden paths, giving plenty of opportunities for Raji to make some amazing discoveries during her adventures.

Despite the limitations of the demo, there’s plenty of potential here – enough to make me put my money where my mouth is and become a backer. At the time of writing, almost 22% of a £120,000 target has been raised by 884 backers and there are still 21 days left on the clock. Head over to Kickstarter to support Raji: An Ancient Epic before 12 December 2017, and follow Nodding Heads Games on Twitter and Facebook to stay up-to-date on their progress.

Stories Untold and the joy of text

I loved text adventures when I was young. It started with the Ghost Hunter choose-your-own-adventure by Edward Packard then progressed to games such as Zork. I used to scour our local library for the Usborne type-in books and I pored through the pages of code for story snippets.

There are a number of text adventures available on Steam nowadays but sadly, they’re not the same. I remember the excitement I used to feel as a kid when rolling the dice for a new page-number or typing in the next command and not knowing whether the result would be good or bad; and that just isn’t there any longer. Maybe it’s nostalgia talking or perhaps I’m becoming jaded in my old age, but it seems as though current text adventures are missing the thing that used to make them so special.

At least, that’s what I thought until I completed Stories Untold by No Code earlier this month. Let’s say that my opinion may have recently changed.

It was added to my wishlist in April where it sat for a few months before being purchased in the summer sale. But as is common with plenty of titles picked up in this way, it languished in my backlog until a couple of weeks ago when I had a conversation with Bradley over at Cheap Boss Attack. He referred to Stories Untold as one of his favourite games of the year and gave it a recommendation; so during a break between arguments with the other-half over whether Destiny 2 or The Elder Scrolls Online would be going on the PlayStation 4 that evening, I hit the ‘install’ button and roped Pete into playing with me.

Advertised as ‘four stories, one nightmare’, this experimental title manages to bend the genre into something new and unique. It cleverly combines text-adventures, point-and-clicks and psychological horrors into a rather remarkable experience which is likely to stay with me for some time to come. If you’re a fan of series such as The Twilight Zone and Stranger Things, of 80s nostalgia and retro games, or text adventures in general, you need to play it – I couldn’t agree more with Bradley’s recommendation.

The ending, when it arrives, is like an oncoming train. You can’t deviate from the path that fate has set out for you: as much as you want to tear yourself away from the inevitable conclusion, it’s simply impossible and you must see it through. The fear slowly rises as you make your way through the four episodes and see connections, until the hairs on the back on your neck stand up each time you’re asked to enter a new command.

I think that’s exactly what’s missing from other text-adventures. The items I mentioned at the start of this post used to invoke such fear in me as a kid but it was addictive: as much as I was scared by the spooks in Ghost Hunter or the Grue in Zork, I wanted to see them through to the end. The fact that there were no visuals meant it was up to the player to use the text to see the story in their own minds and that somehow made those worlds all the more frightening.

There was always the feeling that if you looked up from the screen, you’d start to see elements of the title in the real world; and that’s what Stories Untold successfully manages to recreate. It’s extremely hard to resist the urge to look over your shoulder as you play through The House Abandon episode or not to expect your phone to ring when the handset does in-game. It’s difficult to say more without spoiling it for future players except that No Code have crafted some very clever moments.

So say no more I will, and I’ll just encourage you to give it a go for yourself if you have the opportunity. I really hope the developer considers making a second season because I can’t wait to see where they take us next.

Let me take a (video game) selfie

Last month I came across a post written by Scott over at Insert Memory Card about the ‘exquisitely polished, jaw-droppingly pretty’ Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Although released over a year ago in May 2016, Scott says it still beats many other PlayStation 4 games in the looks department – and the glorious screenshots provided in his article show it.

Horizon Zero Dawn, video game, woman, warrior, Aloy, sky, photo mode, clouds

This got me thinking about the numerous hours I spent with Horizon Zero Dawn in 2017, not only playing the game but also messing around with its photo-mode. It’s one of the most gorgeous titles I’ve ever experienced and it’s the small things that make it so special: for example, the way Aloy’s hair ruffles when the wind catches it and how she hugs herself as she’s battered by rain. The mechanical beasts that interact with their herd while casually grazing, then limp and spark when wounded. The huge open vistas full of mountains and sunsets but smaller details such as tiny tree ants too, if you take the time to look closely enough.

Scott’s images from Uncharted 4 were stunning and I left a comment referring to Horizon, to which the lovely LightningEllen from LightningEllen’s Release later replied. The mention of her own numerous screenshots from the game show I wasn’t the only one who was rather taken with the photo-mode! I make a joke about starting a petition to ensure a similar feature is added to all open-world RPGs in the future and laughed when Ellen said I’d secured her signature.

It was shortly after this brief conversation that I decided to restart The Elder Scrolls Online and, despite becoming addicted all over again, it wasn’t long before I felt as though something was missing. I just couldn’t achieve the same picture quality as I could with Guerrilla’s title: the best I could do was get my High Elf to pose using an emote and then snap quickly before it ended. But this wasn’t enough and I wanted to be able to change the angle, move my character around, select expressions and soften the lighting. Maybe my idea about starting a petition wasn’t such a bad one!

RiME, video game, boy, building, tower, castle, sky, trees, path, walkway, running

As Scott picks up on in his post, a video game doesn’t need to be completely realistic in terms of looks in order to be visually-appealing. It’s obviously important for the graphics to be in-tune with the developer’s vision for their project and suit the gameplay otherwise it just isn’t going to come together in a coherent form. Indie titles have brought us so many different styles and each are special in their own unique way: compare RiME to Hellblade to Cuphead, to name just a few recent examples.

But when a game is as gorgeous as Uncharted 4 or Horizon, doesn’t it deserve a photo-mode? It’s clear to see just how much work has gone into creating the world and such a feature is a great way to allow gamers to show their appreciation for the developers’ efforts. Let us spam our Facebook pages with images of Nathan Drake as he gazes out at the sky while standing on a perfect beach. Let us post countless photographs of Aloy’s model pose atop of mountains on our Twitter feeds. Let us show the internet how beautiful each title is, and how much more interesting selfies are when they feature video game characters.

We’re the tourists in a video game’s foreign lands and, just as we’d want to take pictures of our real life adventures, we want to do it in our digital ones too. Leave a comment below if you’d like to sign my petition and let us know which titles deserve a bit of visual appreciation.