Until Dawn Review

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Nobody was buried under snow in my playthrough…

I’m gonna go ahead and preemptively declare Until Dawn as my sleeper hit of the year. I mean, sure, I heard a bit about it, and even thought I’d probably like it. But I did not expect to love the game as much as I do. As we played, Steve-O and I had a harder and harder time turning the console off each night when it was time to quit. I was skeptical at first. While Until Dawn meshes two of my favorite genres, Survival Horror and Narrative (Point and Click, I guess they’re called), I was concerned the game wouldn’t give me enough anxiety to be scary, because it’s not really based on player skill, per se. Plus, I figured, it’d rely mainly on jump scares. Meaning not scary at all.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, there are jump scares. And yes, I’m embarrassed to admit how many of them I fell prey to, even when I felt them coming. But we still felt a lot of the anxiety you’d typically get while playing a survival horror game. It just manifests itself a little differently. Instead of thinking “I’m out of healing items and ammo and have to make it to the next save point without dying and having to do everything all over,” your train of thought instead is, “If I do this wrong I’ll get this character PERMANENTLY killed.” No do-overs here, people. Like Heavy Rain, making a wrong decision can get a character dead, and there ain’t nothing you can do to fix it. Save starting a new game file, anyway.

Until Dawn is not very forgiving, either. Very few of your decisions are black and white in terms of outcome. In fact, people are still debating on message boards about what actions, conversation decisions, and collectibles lead to which outcomes. Moreso than Beyond Two Souls and Telltale Games’ selections, Until Dawn relies on the player finding collectibles to further enhance the story. And it appears that, on at least one prominent occasion, neglecting to pick some up can lead to a character death.

Speaking of collectibles, I really like the Totem concept. While exploring, you can pick up color coded totems that will foreshadow possible events in the future. For sadists like us, it means we still get to view a character’s death even if you don’t put the events in motion.

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One of our friends just disappeared? Let’s do it!

In case you’ve missed some of the commentary surrounding this game, it does, indeed, feature a bunch of horny high schoolers trying to get laid. Yes, even that snow-covered picnic table is no match for adolescent libido. What, there’s a killer on the loose? All the more reason to get laid one last time! The game certainly starts off with the typical cheesy 80’s slasher horror movie feel. But a few hours into the game we came to realize it evolves into something more. Let me put it this way: We began our adventure fully intending to get everyone killed. Yet, as the game progressed and we spent more time with these entitled brats, we sort of grew attached to them. We actually didn’t want most of the characters to die. (Not all, but most)

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Apparently Sam is an expert rock climber.

Until Dawn relies on timed QTEs and conversation options for the bulk of the gameplay. There are a handful of events requiring the player to aim and shoot guns, but they’re few and far between. During chase sequences, you often have to make timed, off-the-cuff decisions about how the character should progress. Fast or cautious? Left or right? Hide or try the door knob? Each decision potentially changes the future framework of your experience with this game whether you realize it or not. Don’t enter Until Dawn thinking that your decisions won’t change anything more than some dialogue subtleties like Telltale Games’ series. No. Until Dawn is, I daresay, the first game of this genre I’ve played to fully realize the butterfly effect. Everything else I’ve played before now barely scratched the surface.

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People still toy with these things?

Excellent butterfly effects and 80’s horror flick homages aside, Until Dawn is also well crafted on the aesthetic side of things. The graphics are excellent. The character models and facial recognition are top-notch. Remember Heavy Rain showcasing character facial expressions during the pause menu? Same goes here. Character’s profile pics change depending on their condition in-game as well. Someone take a little tumble or get in an altercation? Their pretty face now has bruises or cuts. Also, and I really appreciated this, the menu actually displays the character’s current relationship status with the rest of the cast! What a novel concept! You’re also shown how you’ve royally f***ed up their personality, to boot. Each character begins with 3 prominent personality features. They certainly don’t have to STAY brave, or loyal, or smart. Player actions and conversations will change all that, and the game will always keep you updated on how your choices are changing the framework.

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That’s one messy hickey.

Until Dawn breaks up the suspense by interjecting sessions with a psychologist. While I didn’t dislike these portions, and I did appreciate how the scenery eventually morphed into some messed up Silent Hill imagery, they did feel like Shattered Memories rip offs. Every session you had to answer his questions. In turn, these made small changes to the game. If you say you’re scared of spiders, they will crawl across the screen at one point. It’s small, superficial things like that. Miniscule in comparison to the rest of the butterfly effects this game offers. However, I did like how they helped unravel one of the game’s major mysteries.

There isn’t much else I can say without spoiling all the fun. Your first game will probably hit or fall just shy of the 10 hour mark. Despite being a short game, due to its high replay and production values, I think its totally worth paying full price. Until Dawn has set a new precedent for “Choose your adventure” games. I can only hope other companies are taking notes.

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Telltale’s Game of Thrones, Episode 5: A Nest of Vipers

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Yep, he’s finally setting sail…

While a short episode, Episode 5 of Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones spin-off finally begins to move things forward to the grand finale and managed to get me pumped for the series again. Character arcs finally progress onward and the player finally gets to make a decision that seems like it’ll actually make a big splash in the narrative!

And, yeah, some characters die. The video game, like the HBO series and novels, always instigates a haunting “Who is going to die next?” voice repeating in my brain. Some deaths elicit glee and excitement, others sadness and dread. I felt a little bit of both this episode.

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Being in Cersei’s shadow is never a good thing.

Mira’s portions of this game tend to annoy me. I know they’re necessary to reflect the large part of GoT’s universe that is the political power struggle realized through touchy conversations, eye shifting, and layering lies until you can’t remember what the truth is anymore; but truth be damned, because anything is better than getting on Cersei’s bad side! Through her usual style of manipulating and plotting, Cersei now has Mira in the palm of her hand, which I can only take to mean things will end very badly for Mira soon. She annoys me, so I hope she gets a good dose of Cersei revenge.

Mr. Tuttle isn’t having too much fun wandering the frozen expanses of the northern wilderness in pursuit of the mythical North Grove. Without spoiling too much here, I’ll only say there is a battle scene thrown in to spruce things up and he trudge on. Continue on and possibly die from hypothermia or get killed by winter zombies, versus turning back and probably get his head lopped off for desertion. The world is his oyster.

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Pretty boy’s gonna get his arse beat.

As usual, I had the most fun while playing with Asher and Beskha. That pair always find themselves  in hot water and solving differences at sword point. In Episode 5, Asher must prove his worth to the meandering pit fighters, now ex-slaves with no purpose but wanton violence. After reigning supreme in the pit, Asher gets himself an army to take back to Westeros. Yes, Asher FINALLY sails back home.

And it doesn’t take long for Asher to find more trouble. At least this time he is uniting with his Forrester family against the Whitehills. Unfortunately, Asher’s reunion with his family is short-lived before grief strikes yet again and the player is left to a difficult, and I’m hoping profound, choice.

I’m just going to leave it at that. You’re welcome.

Telltale’s Game of Thrones Episode 4: Sons of Winter

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I’m sure this city needs no introduction.

The latest in TTG’s Game of Thrones interactive series, Sons of Winter, picks up in some story lines and drags in others. Mira Forrester, the handmaiden to Lady Margaery who keeps finding herself in all sorts of King’s Landing gossipy troubles, was even more painful than usual to slog through. I should’ve enjoyed stickin’ it to the chubby jerk named Andros. He rightfully deserved the double-handed trickery I performed against him in the name of preserving the Forrester’s hand in ironwood trade. And yet, I was more than willing for her portions to end to get to the more action-oriented segments.

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Daenerys is definitely one of the best looking adaptations to her HBO counterpart.

Daenerys’ model is certainly one of the better looking ones. But what she was bestowed upon with beauty the writers took away in attitude. She’s got a stick up her butt or something… all bent outta shape over Drogon going missing. Yet for some reason I can’t discern (except to cause conflict for the sake of conflict) she refuses to believe Asher and company saw Drogon. And when I presented his tooth as proof, she got all defensive and stood by her poor baby when we described how he KILLED a bunch of people. It was all very contradictory to the Daenerys we know, who was guilt-stricken over her dragons eating children and CHAINED them up in dark seclusion.

As usual, Asher and Beska’s sequences are full of action. In this case, they are assisting The Mother of Dragons in taking over Meereen in return for acquiring an army to assist with the Forrester family’s Whitehill problem. There was a “stealthing through the streets of Meereen” portion (insert not-so-surprised gasp). Usually I hate stealth, with all its transparent tacked-on-because-every-game-needs-stealth-moments and OHKs. This wasn’t so bad. Easy, short, and to the point. I’m a bit concerned about potential ramifications over what I allowed Beska to do, defying orders and all, so we’ll see if it amounts to anything in Episode 5.

Garred Tuttle, our Castle Black token character, had a rather bland showing this episode. He, along with Cotter and Pyke, finally leave Castle Black behind in pursuit of the legendary North Grove. I was relatively disinterested until his cliffhanger at the end, when we’re introduced to a new character:

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Looks like she’s wearing a Daenerys wig.

I won’t spoil who she is, but suffice it to say, I’m curious to see how Garred’s story will progress moving forward. I’m hoping it gets the shot of adrenaline it needs.

And, at long last, the Forresters on the home front FINALLY start giving it back to the Whitehills. After tolerating Gryff the entire series thusfar, there was no way in hell I wasn’t going to beat his face in when I had the chance. Elaena, Rodrik’s betrothed in my game, finds her breaking point and is instrumental in assisting the Forresters in exacting revenge on the Whitehills.

Did I mention how much I love it when women in the GoT universe release their badassery?

I was a little worried when this dashing young man came walking in with my woman:

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Finally, some archers!

I almost thought she was going to say she was sick of all the drama and moved on with her life. Instead, I got a “Do you remember my brother?” And released a sigh of relief.

While it’s true this episode finally let me release some pent up aggression against the Whitehills, it still sets the stage for some interesting events forthcoming… I can’t help but feel all the advances I made are going to blow up in my face next episode. But hey, that’s all part of the allure when it comes to playing these sorts of games. And it wouldn’t be Game of Thrones if they didn’t pull the rug out from under me and kick me in the face a few times, would it?

Telltale’s Game of Thrones Episode 2: The Lost Lords

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This image is so boring I can’t even come up with a witty caption for it.

 

The Lost Lords continues Telltale Games’ foray into the Game of Thrones universe. It picks up where Episode 1 left off, and continues most of the same mechanations. Mira is still getting wrapped up in King’s Landing politics because she’s a naive idiot, the Forresters keep getting crapped on by the Whitehills, and Tyrion still lives to piss Cersei off. I didn’t find this episode to be as enthralling as the first one, but that’s probably because no one interesting dies. In fact, it doesn’t end with a cliffhanger at all; more of a touchy-feely montage showing all the playable characters in their respective situations.

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My new favorite playable and NPC characters on the right.

 

In fact, the most fun I had in this episode came at the very beginning, where we’re introduced to Asher Forrester, the exile turned sellsword, and his pal Beskha. She’s definitely one badass broad who I would not want to get in a fight with. I kept hoping the episode would come back to them, but thusfar he and Beskha had their obligatory intro scene (which ended up being a great fight scene) before being recruited by his uncle to return to Westeros.

Episode 2 features one addition to the list of familiar HBO series faces. This time it’s Jon Snow’s turn to make an appearance. Gared Tuttle arrives at The Wall, where he’ll participate in big dick contests with the other new recruits and get roped into a fistfight no matter what dialogue options you choose. Boys will be boys, I suppose. Jon Snow fans of the world can rest easy: he’s just as brooding and boring as he is in the TV show.

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Behold! Endless miles of white stuff.

 

 There are a few more characters you’ll meet as well. None I like so much as Beskha, but I do like them more than some of the cast from the previous episode.

This episode was about as long as its successor. While it’s a lot more of the same GoT politics with the unfortunate Forresters, there’s just enough of a spark of hope to keep the player crossing their fingers that all will end well for their favorite characters. While there wasn’t a big shock moment like the end of Episode 1, I’m still eager to see where Telltale Games will lead us.

 

 

The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1- Faith

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Big Bad is always sucking on a cancer stick.

At the end of my Walking Dead review, I mentioned my impulse purchase of Telltale Game’s other episodic game series, The Wolf Among Us. In my defense, it was on sale. And, thankfully, I really like it so far.

Being a fan of their Walking Dead series, I was no stranger to the game play mechanics. It didn’t take me long to establish that it’s 99% Walking Dead in terms of conversations, morality, interacting with the environment, battle scenes, etc. But unlike The Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us takes place in a very different setting that I particularly like.

While Walking Dead takes advantage of the over-used zombie apocalypse setting, Wolf Among Us settles very comfortably into the common “gritty detective who-done-it” world. Except the characters are fairy tale characters (known as “Fables”) who have escaped from FairyTale Land… or whatever. To me, it’s like the illegitimate lovechild of Once  Upon a Time and Sin City. For the record, TWAU is actually a prequel to an already established comic book series that I know nothing about. So far, not having read the comic book series has not impeded my enjoyment.

TWAU follows gritty detective tropes like, super hard. The main character, Bigby, is the Big Bad Wolf reformed as the new Sheriff in town. Bigby, Big Bad Wolf… get it? Being Mr. Gritty Detective, he has a cigarette permanently attached to his lips, and a 5 o’clock shadow to go along with it. Oh, and a totally sexy voice. And perfect hair, even after getting thrown out of a second story window.

Anyway.

These cliches didn’t really bother me. There’s a couple of instances when the game’s characters sort of allude to it, but it doesn’t really make fun of itself. They’re too busy making allusions to fairy tales to poke fun at themselves, I suppose. I normally roll my eyes when there’s too many tropes in a game or movie and it doesn’t poke fun at itself… But the fascinating dialogue and characters make up for it.

The art style is very similar to The Walking Dead, except the way in which colors are used is almost mesmerizing sometimes. The music is also perfect for the setting.

There’s something about Telltale’s games that makes me super anxious about making decisions when talking to characters and responding to situations. I know it’s silly, since the story arc will undoubtedly circle around to whatever the conclusion has to be, but I can’t help myself. I hate disappointing certain characters, yet I’m a complete bastard to others. This really says something about their writing, because I just came from 50 hours of Ni No Kuni where I wasn’t emotionally invested AT ALL in anything that happened and I barely read half of the dialogue.

I’m going to finish the season before recommending this game to anyone, but I think fans of TTG’s The Walking Dead and/or edgy who-done-it detective suspense stories (or, alt-universe fairy tales characters?) will probably enjoy this. I know I’m digging what I’ve seen so far.

The Walking Dead Game: Season 2 Episode 4: Amid the Ruins

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 I’ll admit… Kenny wields that crossbar like a boss.

Finally, the next installment in The Walking Dead video game has arrived! Narrative-driven games are a favorite of mine; and as painful as it is to wait two months to delve back into this zombie apocalypse, the suspense certainly makes me all the more anxious to drop whatever game I’m playing to finish the latest episode.

This time around, Clementine and company escape Crazy Carver’s commune only to be faced with Rebecca birthing a baby with no food, water, clean linens, or shelter. Thus, a bulk of this short episode is spent scavenging for supplies and finding shelter safe from the walkers. As you should know, performing the mundane tasks in the beginning of the episode serves to lure the player into a false sense of security for when the, um, severed zombie parts hit the fan?

While it is getting to the point where I can anticipate when I’m going to be given big decisions, and what I select doesn’t seem to greatly affect the narrative, I still can’t help but feel anticipation when deciding how to react in certain situations. Especially when it is choosing between two other characters that I really like. I have no issue offending Kenny, who was a complete JERK to my Lee, but I like Luke and Jane. I’ve even warmed up to Rebecca, despite how mean she was to Clementine in the first couple episodes of this season. I’m also on edge around Bonnie… I like to make her feel guilty for deceiving us still. Sorry, but giving Clementine a tacky jacket doesn’t make up for putting us in that situation in the first place.

You’re also NOT going to believe who they kill off in this episode!

Want to know? Dying to know? Then download it and play it! You’ll finish the chapter within 2 hours. It feels like the episodes are getting shorter and shorter… I hope the next one is about an hour longer. And that it comes soon, because you won’t believe the cliffhanger at the end, either!

The Walking Dead: Episodes 1-5

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Clementine, don’t turn around!

I haven’t seen the television series yet. Don’t hurt me. Or read the comics. Again, don’t hurt me. But when I went on a BOGO spree at Gamestop months ago I picked up this collection. I heard the video game series based on the popular comic books and television show was episodic, tailored to the decisions the player made, and, ya know, has zombies. Zombies are always a selling point for me.

Luckily, I waited to play this until the entire first season was released on one disc. After completing each episode I greedily fired up the next, eager to learn the fates of Lee, Clementine, and the rest of the ragtag zombie apocalypse survivors. The player controls Lee; a former professor who begins the game getting a ride to the police station due to murder charges. This game definitely follows the worn-down, over-used “Fallen from grace man who redeems himself by being a sweet little girl’s guardian angel” routine. But the beauty of a game with conversations and decisions designed like Walking Dead is in the player’s freedom to choose how they carry out the theme.  I could have decided never to utter a word about the past Lee is (or isn’t) seeking redemption from. Or I could have brought it up at every opportunity to learn more about him. I bottled most if it up until the very end, which made for a very emotional standoff with the “antagonist” of season 1. You can also being a bit of a jerk to Clementine, the girl whom you basically vow to protect, but let’s face it… you can’t.

I gotta say, being giving life-or-death decisions based on a timer was a great mechanic for building suspense in a game with no traditional battle system or health bars. You CAN die by making incorrect choices at times, but all this does is load the game a moment or so before you screwed up. The real suspense is seeing your choices unfold before you and the character deaths that follow. There were a couple of deaths that absolutely shocked me and made me instantly backtrack through all the decisions I’d made, wondering how things could have played out differently.

I think it was somewhere around episode 4 where I started to get jaded with the experience. If you played Fable 2, the situation is akin to doing everything in your power to make your spouse happy, only to find s/he is suddenly enraged at you f0r no discernible reason whatsoever. They leave you after all the time and money you spent on them, so naturally you stop caring and bring home a dirty prostitute who actually appreciates the things you do.  If you haven’t played Fable 2 or another game with bad AI relationship building, I’ll give a *little* spoiler here… I was basically kissing southern-hick Kenny’s pale white butt the entire game. Or so I thought. But then when I needed him the most he was like, “No way Lee, I’m not convinced you’d be there for me if I needed you.” WHAT. The rage. Oh, the rage. I wish he was a real person because I would have slapped him in the face. Or kicked him between the legs.

So how do I know I wasn’t the best friend I could have been, you ask? What if he was just programmed to be a jerk, you ask? Well, Telltale Games was kind enough to add a neat little feature at the end of each episode that shows a list of “stats” displaying how you compared to other players in decision making and subsequent AI decisions. When I saw “Kenny went with xx% of players,” I thought I would punch the screen.

Anyway, after my supposed zombie apocalypse bestie dumped me, I became a complete jerk and told everyone exactly how I felt. Well, out of the four options I was given, anyway. It is tough if you actually care if a certain character likes you or not. The conversation options and some of the decision-making choices are ambiguous. Which is good. It isn’t the stupidly-obvious choices from, say, Mass Effect. Nearly all of the character interactions feel organic and realistic. Not a black and white, “Oh this is the good-guy thing to do,” feeling. Okay, well some stuff is downright obvious but usually that’s because it can’t help but be. However, even then you usually have the option to “…” which means remain silent and not commit to any one idea or phrase that the character will not doubt hold against you until their untimely end.

I feel like I’ve played a lot of games with cel-shaded graphics lately, but it feels really at home in Walking Dead. The design keeps Walking Dead close to its comic book roots. It also doesn’t hesitate to deliver the gory, shock-value violence I come to expect in these kinds of games. The violence is appropriate, and while not scarce, it still manages to have an emotional impact. That’s saying a lot, considering the amount of pixels I’ve slain over the years. Everything that happens has a purpose. Again, a big compliment considering the plethora of paths one playthrough can take.

I feel like this next complaint should be tagged by default to every blog post I write about a video game because it is the new norm: technical problems!! In WD, the problem is slow down. Such terrible, terrible lag for a game that isn’t very technical. I really can’t imagine this cel-shaded episodic game is very taxing on my PS3, but the lag is distracting and inexcusable. And yes, it even happens during timed events. Everything else about this game is so good I sucked it up, but I want to write Telltale Games and have a wicked complain-fest about the necessities of having quality testers.

After completing every episode I thought to myself, “I really want to play this one again to see how (insert event) changes.” Up until the ending. Don’t get me wrong– I liked the ending. A lot. But that can’t be changed. Kind of like in Heavy Rain, how the serial killer is always the same person in the end. For some reason that is always a buzz kill for me. If I were a gamer with more time on my hands (and not a mile-long list of games gifted to me at Christmas) that probably wouldn’t be the case. Also, keep in mind the decisions made in Episode 1 and the DLC carry over to season 2.

No second playthroughs not withstanding, I am hooked on this video game series. I purchased the DLC as soon as I completed season 1 and I downloaded the first episode of season 2 as soon as possible. If you like narrative-driven video games, the Walking Dead, or just plain zombie stuff, you should give yourself the pleasure of playing Walking Dead.