Its time for another roundup of the games given out for ‘free’ as part of Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold and Sony’s Playstation Plus programmes. Today I’ll be looking at two games from the latter in recent months to see if they are worth downloading and playing.
Stories: The Path of Destinies (PS4 version reviewed)
Cutting monetary corners and getting more for less has been a staple of artistic creation for decades; Japanese animation uses techniques like panning static background frames across each other to give the impression of movement, or using short loops of a few frames of animation to set tone and mood with very little actually going on and filling runtime. In the early days of videogames developers had to pull off similar tricks to realise their creative ambitions and to get round hardware limitations at the time.
Stories is a top-down action game which takes inspiration from the Batman Arkham games for its combat but innovates in its approach to using limited resources and environments to tell a story and build a game outside of its own limitations, constructing its depth and longevity through a Groundhog Day framework of repetition. Set in a world of anthropomorphic animals in a land of islands in the sky, the protagonist is a charming swashbuckling fox named Reynardo looking to defeat the evil empire who are on the cusp of defeating the rebel forces opposing them. Through well-written and delivered dialogue and branching choices Reynardo tries various approaches from going after a super-weapon to destroy the forces of darkness to trying to use the Emperor’s daughter as leverage. As you repeat events and try new options Reynardo learns several truths about what is really going on. Once you have achieved an ending which falls into each category of truth you can use this information to go for the ‘real’ ending and save the world properly.
Stories pulls this off fairly well, the writing and narration are very well done, the world environments are basic but coherent and the combat apes all the best elements of what made the Arkham games so great. The biggest problem was that it taxed the PS4 way more than I was expecting. As well as performance dips throughout I was unable to finish the final fight in the game as the sheer quantity of enemies and effects brought the framerate crashing down and made the timing of counterattacks and dodging out of the way of incoming spells incredibly difficult and was made all the more frustrating by the fact that there was nothing I could do about it.
Apart from the hardware limitations the game itself is excellent; a unique and fun action romp that clocks in at about 5 hours or so to get to the ‘true’ ending but with plenty more scope if you want to go back and get every other permutation and variation of Reynardo’s mishaps along the way. If you have this on PS+ and haven’t given it a go then it is well worth a try, other than that I would recommend getting it on PC where hopefully the performance issues that plagued this version wouldn’t be a problem.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (PS4 version reviewed)
‘Walking Simulators’ get a bad rap from some elements of the gaming community, that they are not real games because there is little to no interactivity, competition, fail states or difference in experience from playing it yourself versus watching someone else do it. EGTTR is one of the most egregious examples of all of these criticisms in action.
Most of the defence of games like EGTTR is that its more of an ‘interactive story’ and that its about the characters and world than the gameplay. If this is the case then why have such an open world? Good stories don’t have chunks of the protagonist trudging about between snippets of dialogue like a book that has several blank pages between each paragraph. This open-world framing meant that on at least two occasions I stumbled into areas which would later be the poignant finale for the current section I was in which completely undermined their impact. Having grown up in the countryside the rural village setting was excellently done but much of it was completely devoid of anything to do, like you were looking at an elaborate display piece through a glass screen. All the trudging about following the light ball to the next piece of dialogue (which got stuck several times and prompting full reboots) quickly stopped being a chance to drink in the majesty of the setting (which was difficult given how much the framerate was all over the place) and became an immersion-breaking bore even with the bizarre and counter-intuitive gradual speedup run mechanic that many people played through the entire game without realising was there. Its story was interesting and the voice acting was excellent, however without turning on subtitles showing who each blob of light talking was it would have been easy to lose track of who was who – even more so with how spread out each titbit of dialogue was within its non-linear framework.
Games like The Talos Principle directly challenged the player to think about philosophy through adversarial dialogue and found texts/audio files and the game deals with themes similar to EGTTR, however they are all built around a robust puzzle game whose mechanics and level design build on and form part of these discussions. The Stanley Parable uses humour and Escher-like level design to play with game tropes in a memorable way while being even less interactive. The Old City: Leviathan is an incredibly dense and esoteric game full of exposition, but it is short and linear enough to keep it all fairly concentrated. Games like these either need a solid gameplay framework to build this kind of storytelling around so that even if you ignored the plot there would be a fun game underneath, as with The Talos Principle or Icey, or they need to offer either more dense and intellectually challenging content to think about during and after a relatively short and punchy duration or be funny enough to pull the game and the player along and this has neither. As a result I absolutely cannot recommend Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture as either an enjoyable videogame or a noteworthy narrative experience.