Hitchhiker: a journey into the unknown

When sitting down to write a review, I usually begin by making a list of all the points I want to cover. They might be simple things such as the way the graphics reminded me of another release; or more complex subjects like story connections and meaning.

I’ve tried to do this with Hitchhiker several times now but it’s impossible. After completing Mad about Pandas’ latest release a couple days ago thanks to a review key from Plan of Attack, thoughts about how it made me feel and what I think it was trying to say are still swimming around in my head and they’re as hard to pin down as the narrative itself. It’s difficult to put into words but don’t take that as a bad thing: this has possibly been the most interesting gaming experience I’ve had in 2021 so far and I think it’s going to be with me for a while yet.

Hitchhiker is one of those titles where it’s difficult to go into detail without spoiling what makes it special. I tend to roll my eyes when I see that sentiment expressed in reviews because it always comes across like a cop-out, but this is definitely a game which needs to be played to be understood. You step into the shoes of a young man who hitches a ride with a different character in five episodes, before things turn mysterious when you realise they all know you in some way. More about that later.

At first, the title seems like a hitchhiking simulator where you can’t do much outside of conversation except examine a few objects inside the car and look out of the window. There are a few puzzles which need to be solved to progress: for example, at one point you’ll be guessing the answer to riddles posed by the radio DJ and then later, rewiring a light to get out of a tricky situation. Although they aren’t overly challenging, they do provide a nice, occasional break from the story.

But the story is where the power of Hitchhiker lies. You’re a young man with no memory of who you are and where you’re going, and the only thing for you to do is hitch a ride to hopefully reach your unknown destination. The first person you meet is a raisin farmer called Vern who’s happy to chat to you about his life. Over the course of the next 40-minutes however, it becomes clear that not everything is as seems and you start asking yourself whether you can trust this man and his words.

Why do you feel as though you recognise each of the characters but don’t remember them? And how do they know so much about you and who you really are? The next rides are just as intriguing as the first with Vern and, although it’s difficult to say who my favourite driver was, I found myself drawn to Sayed due to the backstory hinted at in conversation. Each of these people are curious in their own way with individual personalities, beliefs and desires that they may use to influence you.

Hitchhiker, video game, car, ride, man, Vern

I didn’t get the impression that the options selected during discussions with the characters did much to change the following dialogue, because each response was vague enough to answer any of the questions asked. This fits in wonderfully with Hitchhiker’s atmosphere though. It’s as if you’re aware the drivers are pulling the strings during these rides and, although they appear amiable on the surface, you can tell there’s something each of them is trying to hide from you.

An interlude during each ride gives some insight into their backstories. These are depicted in totally different visual styles from the Firewatch-like graphics of the main game: for example, one is told in black-and-white hand-drawn pictures while another is communicated through old View-Master images. I found this switch jarring at first but, once I understood that these stories-within-a-story were told from the other characters’ perspective, the style was perfect.

It’s design choices like this which make Hitchhiker feel something like a hallucination. It’s almost as if the other characters have stepped into your dream during the main narrative and you’ve visited theirs for a short spell in return during the interludes mentioned above. Other visual components such as guiding fireflies, moving mustard bottles and even tumbleweed balls with staring eyes add to the impression that not everything the protagonist witnesses or is told is the truth.

In certain sections of the game, it’s obvious that certain assets have been reused: scenery repeats outside the car window and the drivers all have the same way of fidgeting and checking out their surroundings. I couldn’t tell whether this was due to budget constraints or intentional design – but I’m going to go with the latter regardless because it worked. It seems to replicate that feeling of dreaming and noticing objects or people you recognise in situations or places where they don’t belong.

I must admit that I wasn’t sure what to make of Hitchhiker immediately after completing it. Several possible explanations are given for the protagonist’s memory loss and potential destination but pulling the threads of truth out of the narrative is challenging, and you constantly change your mind about what you believe during your playthrough. No definitive conclusion is given at the end of the game and this isn’t usually something I enjoy; I’d rather have all the answers handed to me than an open-ended story.

But it’s now a few days later and I’ve changed my mind yet again. Although I still haven’t deciphered everything and some questions remain unanswered, I think I’ve figured out most of what has happened to the protagonist – at least my version of what has happened to them. Giving a firm conclusion to Mad About Panda’s project would have removed some of that surreal feeling, and it’s thanks to some superb writing and voice-acting that I’m still thinking about it a week later.

While Hitchhiker won’t be to everybody’s tastes thanks to the way it tells its story, it’s a game I’d definitely recommend to fans of releases such as Kentucky Route Zero and Virginia. It took me on a journey into the unknown and it’s one I’m not going to forget for a while.

Nanotale: my type of game

I’ve always enjoyed typing games. There’s something quite relaxing about completing a mission armed only with your keyboard, whether it’s shooting at zombies in The House of the Dead: Overkill or being Master QWERTY’s apprentice in Keyboard Sports.

During a week off work a few years back, I spent most of my time unsurprisingly playing video games and the one I had the most fun with was Epistory – Typing Chronicles. You play as the muse to a writer who’s lacking creativity and so your adventure starts on a blank page; but as you gather inspiration, solve mysteries and defeat enemies by typing the words shown onscreen, the world opens in an origami fashion and becomes filled with both life and danger.

I was therefore pleased when I heard developer Fishing Cactus was working on another project and that I’d have a chance to get my hands on a demo of Nanotale – Typing Chronicles at the EGX Rezzed event in 2019. It felt quite similar to Epistory but a lot of thought seemed to have been put into how to evolve the mechanics since the previous title. Thanks to the offer of a review key from the Plan of Attack team, I’ve finally been able to play it in full this month.

The story centres on novice Archivist Rosalind on her 18th birthday. She’s now old enough to explore the Ancestral Forest so, armed with the field notebook gifted to her by teacher Lavender, she sets off to discover rare plants and creatures. But when Dissonant Magic is lingering in the air and she’s attacked by slinking creatures after finding a Spirit Fox lying hurt in a clearing, she must set out on a journey to fix the corruption that’s filling broken hearts in her home and beyond.

Anyone who’s ever played a typing game will be familiar with the gameplay: words appear onscreen and you must enter them on your keyboard to strike enemies, pick up health and talk to non-player characters (NPCs). Nanotale builds on its predecessor’s formula by adding a few RPG elements however. New spells learnt as you progress can be used to build up bigger attacks: for example, combining ‘large’ with ‘fire’ will throw a fiery ball at your chosen target.

As seems to happen naturally with RPGs, you find your preferred spell and tend to stick with it for the majority of your playthrough, but the puzzles dotted throughout the three biomes encourage you to mix things up a bit. You can create bridges made from thick vines if you shoot your lightning spell at sand with ‘zap’ for example, but how do you do this if the ground is formed of rock? It was surprising to see a couple of new abilities introduced so late in my progress that I didn’t even use them, not even with the final boss.

Nanotale, Typing Chronicles, video game, boss battle, typing

Speaking of bosses, you face several during Nanotale and they come in the form of a large antagonist who must be defeated by taking down waves of smaller enemies in a particular way. Although these events don’t feel as frantic as those in Epistory, they’re still rather tough and there’s always a risk of hurting Rosalind through your actions. Don’t do what I did on several occasions: it’s never a good idea to use a fire spell when you’re hiding in tall grasses. Who knew they were so flammable?

It’s a matter of staying calm, being as accurate as possible with your typing, strategically choosing which creatures to attack first and picking the right spell for the environment. There are some stressful moments when you’re trapped in an arena with a wave of enemies slowly crawling towards you but at no point did I feel overwhelmed enough to stop. It’s a pleasant level of stress and there’s a great sense of achievement after you’ve made it out of a battle alive.

It’s not all about fighting though. Rosalind is an Archivist at heart and by entering the words shown above plants and trees throughout the environments, you can add them to her catalogue and find out more about them once she has enough information. There are several Steam achievements to be gained from collecting but sadly, I found that some of them didn’t trigger during my playthrough. The developer seems to be working on these issues though as fixes have been mentioned in the Steam discussions.

For anyone who’s reading this post and feeling their typing skills would stop them from playing such a game: don’t worry, as several accessibility options can be changed to suit your needs. Adaptive difficulty means Nanotale gradually changes to match your level and you can also set a time-break to help you escape from difficult battles, opt for health regeneration and use the OpenDislexic font for more readable text. For those who are interested, you can check the typing speed recorded in the menu too.

Nanotale, Typing Chronicles, video game, spirit fox, typing, desert

Unfortunately, I did encounter a few bugs; at times I became stuck on the edge of ledges, friendly creatures approached me but then wouldn’t move so I became blocked me between rocks, and at one point I was unable to leave attack mode. These problems became more apparent during the last half of the final biome and I had to respawn every 30-minutes or so to progress. At least the last checkpoints were never too far away and so I never had to go back to repeat actions already completed.

Nanotale’s map feels far bigger than Epistory, although my playtime of 14-hours was only three more than for the previous game. The lack of a fast-travel option didn’t bother me at all because the environments are so pretty and the transitions between the different atmosphere in each biome – the Ancestral Forest, Sunken Caves and Blue Desert – is lovely. The only small niggle I had was the lack of a quest marker onscreen as having to keep leaving the game to check my direction on the map broke my immersion a little.

The final negative is that some of the smaller areas just don’t feel completely finished. There’s a section to the right in the desert that isn’t filled with anything other than rocks and seems to be missing both NPCs and enemies. And a bridge to a new location is marked on the map in the forest but when you arrive there, there’s no switch to activate and you can’t cross it. The fact that there’s plenty of content to see in other places unfortunately makes these omissions more obvious.

But did I enjoy Nanotale? Definitely. It’s very easy to escape into as the typing gameplay and lack of more action-y elements usually found in RPGs make it a relaxing change from many other games in the genre, yet it’s still challenging in all the right places. The environments and soundtrack are both gorgeous too to top it all off. It’s a great follow-up to Epistory and you can see how much Fishing Cactus have learnt from their experience of creating the previous title.

I’d recommend playing Nanotale – Typing Chronicles if you’re a fan of typing games because it’s a lot of fun; I finished it over four sessions and each one went on for longer than I intended because lost track of time after being sucked into its world. It’s just good to be aware of the bugs you might encounter during the final third of the game or be patient enough to wait for them to be resolved. The developer does seem to be actively working on fixing these and is keeping everyone updated via Steam discussions.

I hope the Fishing Cactus team go on to create more instalments in the Typing Chronicles series. Until we hear more news, I’ll be working on increasing my typing speed.

You’re so Vane: style over substance?

It’s no secret how much I love adventure and exploration, so it’s no surprise I jumped at the chance to play Vane after Lewis from Plan of Attack got in touch. This atmospheric title was finally coming up for release after four years in development and from the information in my news feed, it seemed like just the sort of thing I’d like to get absorbed in.

Created by a Tokyo-based studio consisting of team-members who had previously worked on some very well-known releases, their website proclaimed: “Vane is an enigmatic and unnerving game that aims to leave an impact. The team at Friend & Foe Games, using experience spanning titles like The Last Guardian and Killzone, made Vane with the conviction that players should find their own path in the world, and explore just to the point of getting lost – and the result is a unique, unforgettable memory.”

At several points within the game it’s clear that someone with a Team Ico background has worked their magic on it. From the wide-open vistas that make your character feel almost insignificant, to the more confined spaces where shadows shift mysteriously, to the sense of isolation that pervades every scene; there are a lot of elements in Vane to remind the player of the emotion of titles such as The Last Guardian. That hook right there should be enough to get gamers with similar tastes drooling.

But for all that promise of a meaningful adventure and an experience which will stay with the player long after the credits have rolled, there’s a word there in the description on Friend & Foe’s website which sums up how I felt during most of the time I spent with their project. In some ways, it succinctly captures my overall opinion of Vane too. This is one of those times when I can’t help but feel disappointed because it’s easy to see just how special this game could have been.

That word I’m talking about? It’s lost.

When Vane concentrates on what it does best, it really shines and its highlight is how brilliantly the artwork and audio come together. Visually it’s something like a cross between Another World’s 3D style and Journey’s vastness, with a touch of Inside’s darkness thrown in for good measure. Even my other-half – who was meant to be playing something else at the time – kept glancing over at my screen and commenting on how good some of the scenes looked.

Near the start of the title players take on the form of a bird who soars above an expansive dessert, its black plumage contrasting perfectly with the pale shades of sand. After getting up some speed by tapping the X-button, you’re able to let go of the controller and watch the world pass beneath you; and it at these moments when the camera swings around automatically to give you a view over the crow’s shoulder. Its feathers ruffle in the wind while the sun reveals their iridescent oil-slick colours and it’s mesmerising to watch.

The discovery of gold dust (which made me want to keep yelling ‘Will you start the fans please!’ at my PlayStation) grants the ability to change from a bird into a child. This, alongside the potential to transform back into your avian body by jumping off of a high ledge, made for a section of puzzles in Vane’s second act that I particularly enjoyed. The mechanic is put to good use here as you switch between your two forms, getting a feel for the strengths and weaknesses of both while trying to figure out a way forward.

Vane, video game, birds, crows, dessert, oasis, windsock, lake, water, sand

Sadly though, for each of those positive elements there’s also a negative. Bugs become more apparent the further you progress and unfortunately some of these can be game-breaking. At one point I found myself falling through a flight of stairs and transforming into a bird as a result; this meant having to go back to earlier in the level for gold dust to change into the child and try again. I gave up once this had happened for the third time and I’d lost 30 minutes of gameplay, choosing to watch a video of the rest of the title instead.

While the bird-into-child-and-back-again works incredibly well in places, it falters in others where it starts to feel more like a hindrance. If the player accidentally falls off a ledge – and this happens more often than you’d expect due to the issue described in the following paragraph – they’ll transform into their avian form and have to backtrack. That it seems more like the game’s fault than the player’s lack of skill and the fact there are no checkpoints within a scene makes for some extremely frustrating moments.

In a similar manner, Vane’s visuals are its high point as well as its lowest as the camera completely lets the game down. It moves around of its own accord, drifting in a direction and disappearing behind walls; and a certain amount of counter-movement is required on the right-joystick almost constantly in order to keep it in place. It’s particularly troublesome in the acts that take place underground where the area is more confined, and it’s easy to become stuck under a ledge as the bird when you can’t see where you’re flying.

That’s not to say it’s much better in the open expanse of the dessert at the start of the title however. The places you’re trying to reach here are far away from each other and so a complete overview of the environment is beneficial for your bearings, but with the camera moving about randomly it’s very easy to confuse your flight path. Instead of the design of the landscape naturally pulling you towards your destination, there’s no assistance apart from the occasional glint in the distance and this can be slightly overwhelming for a new player.

Vane, video game, child, cave, hut, gold

Friend & Foe may have set out to create a project where players can ‘explore just to the point of getting lost’, and they’ve managed to achieve this in some respects. I’m just not entirely sure it succeeds in providing most gamers with the experience they’ll be searching for. Is a video game really fun when it feels as though you’ve managed to find whatever is you’re hunting for through sheer luck alone rather than your intelligence and observation of the scene around you?

Vane seems as though it doesn’t know what it wants to be: a piece of beautiful art, a game that tells a meaningful story through symbolism, or an experience each player interprets for themselves. All I can tell you is that it’s a release which I think is about transformation (although I’m not entirely sure) that has lost itself within bugs and bad camera angles.