Devotion Review – 6.9/10 (But definitely worth playing.)

Red Candle Games is a small Taiwanese studio that focuses specifically on producing games that present realistic depictions of Taiwanese culture and beliefs in a narrative focused structure while applying elements of horror. What is so interesting about their games though is that the horror aspects, like everything else in them, are not original concepts. They are realistic depictions of actual Taiwanese beliefs. That’s one of the main reasons their games are so interesting to play and why they appeal to such a diverse audience within Taiwan. Their first game, Detention, appealed to people of all walks of life and ages in Taiwan. It was an excellent 2D point and click that also managed to be quite scary. Now they’ve released their second game, Devotion, and it’s being met with similar appeal. Already there are reviews and videos of the game all over the Taiwanese internet not just from gamers but from a completely random assortment of Taiwanese citizens. This is because once again they have managed to capture an eerily realistic snapshot of Taiwanese life and culture. Even as an African American living in Taiwan and ultimately experiencing the culture as an outsider, I was extremely impressed with how well the game depicts Taiwan. So before getting into the real meat and potatoes of the game review, know that as cultural snapshots of Taiwan both Detention and Devotion are top notch experiences that are informative, entertaining (for horror fans), and highly accurate.

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Gameplay (Left) – My actual tile (Right)

Devotion is a first person walking simulator style game that takes place in a single apartment building located in, I believe, Taipei. The bulk of the game takes place in a single two bedroom apartment but there are a few sequences that have the player explore other parts of the building as well as fantasy locales for sequences taking place in the spirit realm. The graphics are an incredible step up from their previous game. This is a highly detailed 3D environment that takes place across multiple time periods and realms of reality. While it is still an indie game, the visual quality rivals that of some low to mid-tier AAA titles. The atmosphere is a mixture of vibrant hues and gloomy shadows. As the story takes place across several years of a family’s life, there are many ups and downs depicted in the same 3D space. Some moments are happy and inviting while others are scary and induce paranoia within the player. What’s truly impressive about the graphics is just how realistic they are.

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Gameplay (Left) – My actual door (Right)

As someone who actually lives in an apartment in Taiwan, playing Devotion is a very unique experience. I wasn’t aware of just how similar most apartments are in Taiwan before I played this game, but apparently they’re all pretty much the same, otherwise Red Candle Games must have snuck into my apartment for inspiration. So many small details about the game’s setting are pulled right out of my apartment. The entire time I was playing the game, my girlfriend kept commenting on all the objects that look exactly the same. From the floor tiles, to the doorbell, to the doors, to the kitchen, it’s all a bit too real. This is especially stressful when playing a horror game because it’s just too easy to place yourself within the game when it looks almost exactly like the place you actually live in. I think this is one of the main reasons so many people in Taiwan are taken with the game. It would probably be too uncomfortable of an experience to play this game in VR for me because I might end up trapped in an Inception like state of confusion about reality.

Gameplay wise, it’s a slow paced walking simulator that focuses on developing the story and atmosphere rather than on exciting gameplay mechanics. You move, look around, and click on things to interact with them. Occasionally you are required to use a few other buttons to do specific things like pull up your item menu or complete a specific active task for effect, but mostly it’s just looking around and discovering things. There is a single chase sequence that requires you to quickly run through a maze of hallways. This is the only part of the game where you can die, which I did several times. The game quickly reloads to the start of that sequence and has you try again until you’ve finally succeeded. Though this one sequence is different from the entire rest of the game’s gameplay it works just fine and requires little to no adjustment from normal play. Honestly I could have used a few more sequences of this nature to make the overall experience more exciting and increase the fear factor.

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A large part of the gameplay involves reading. There are 33 different documents to find, many of which contain clues that help you figure out how to progress forward. I don’t believe you need to find all of them to complete the game, because there is a trophy/achievement for doing so and not all of them reference specific actions you need to complete. The bulk of them provide you with background information about the narrative as well as culturally specific traditions and legends. As this is a point and click, reading and interpreting clues is paramount to reaching the end. Chances are you will get stuck and have to look over things more than one time before you realize what the game expects you to do. I ran into this situation about midway through the game. This was not an issue of language limitations, as all the text is in English and the dialog, though in Chinese, is all subtitled in English. The roadblock I ran into was cultural. You had to complete a ritual that was probably fairly obvious to most traditional Taiwanese citizens, but as an African American I knew nothing about it. It was only after reading through all the documents I collected along the way that I found the clue I needed to solve the puzzle. Though it can be frustrating while playing, I really like this type of system because it really forces you to use your skills of observation and interpretation to solve puzzles rather than just handing you the answers to move forward. Chances are you will end returning to each of the available time periods more than once before you find and figure out everything you need to finish the game.

While the gameplay is fairly basic at a mechanical level, I highly recommend that you use a keyboard and mouse if playing on PC, which I was. The game supports multiple controller types but the amount of lag when using a controller with the default settings is unbearable. I tried both a Dualshock 4 and a Wii U Pro Controller and both performed unacceptably. The walking movement is laggy and looking around is extremely inconsistent as well. But as soon as I switched to a keyboard and mouse the controls were flawless. Movement is smooth and quick to respond. Commands are highly responsive with pretty much no input lag. You do have the ability to try to change the sensitivity of the controller to make it run better, but not to the standard that it should be running at. I was able to clean up the movement considerably but there was still quite a bit of lag and the movement kept stopping abruptly after raising the sensitivity to account for the lag. You just need to use a keyboard and mouse to play this on PC. At least until some patches are added. Really the only performance problem I had once I gave up on using a controller was that the game crashed once near the end. A simple restart of the application solved the problem and no other ones ever occurred. And with the game’s auto-saving function I lost a maximum of maybe 2 minutes of progress with the restart. The game is also broken up into chapters so you can easily backtrack without having to lose too much progress. You can also use this function post-game to replay specific sequences.

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There are only a few sequences where the gameplay is slightly different from the general experience. The chase scene that I mentioned previously, a few mini-game style moments involving some puzzles, and a storybook fantasy sequence that plays like a platformer. All in all, the gameplay was exactly what it needed to be, but I do feel like there could have been more sequences outside of the traditional point and click mechanics of the normal gameplay.

As with Detention, the writing in Devotion is very personal and culturally specific. The game follows a family, mostly through the eyes of the father but sometimes from the daughter’s perspective as well. The story mixes elements of horror, mystery, and drama to touch on serious themes including parenting, religion, financial insecurity, marriage, and ultimately guilt. Much of the plot is steeped in metaphors and cultural references that don’t all necessarily translate to the larger world. I was lucky enough to be able to play through the whole game alongside a Taiwanese person to explain things to me. While this lack of cultural understanding will absolutely not hinder your ability to complete the game, there are definitely some parts of the narrative that you most likely won’t understand or be able to relate to directly depending on your cultural and religious background. The ending is a good example of this. It’s sort of abrupt and not clear what actually happened. But my girlfriend explained to me that if you read the Chinese text of the game that it’s much more obvious what actually occurred. I won’t spoil that here though. In a way it’s not necessarily a problem for the ending to be vague as the game touches on supernatural themes anyway that can be left up to interpretation by each individual player.

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I was happy with the way the story was presented, but ultimately it was a hollow overall experience for me compared to Detention. The buildup is really good and the atmosphere is very scary. Within the first 10 minutes of the game my girlfriend and I literally jumped out of our seats and yelled because of a specific occurrence. This, along with much of the marketing materials pre-release, led me to believe that this was going to be a true horror game. Sadly it wasn’t. There are a few horror sequences, and they are done fairly well, but the bulk of the game is not scary. Instead the atmosphere is used to make the player expect something scary to happen but that rarely happens throughout the course of the game. The rest of the game is more sad and introspective than terrifying. And that’s not a problem, or at least it wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t been misled into believing I was about to play a horror game. So while the writing was in no way bad, it also lacked the impact I wanted it to have. It was very similar to playing Gone Home (2013), where the game comes off like a haunted house horror game but is really just an emotional journey about the main character’s family problems and learning to accept reality. I would love to see these same visual assets reused to make a proper horror game.

Because I was much more focused on reading subtitles and documents as well as searching for clues, I feel like the sound didn’t have the impact on me it probably could have had while I was playing. There are some great sound effects at times such as the use of knocking on doors to clue you in on where you should be going next. The sound quality of the voice acting was quite good, even if I couldn’t understand it directly. The music, though few and far between, was effective and really helped bring the daughter character to life.  Overall, the sound quality was quite good, but my need to focus on reading detracted from my ability to focus on and ultimately appreciate it. It’s important to note that you could technically play through the whole game with the sound off but you would lose out on the full impact of the voice acting, the music used as part of the narrative, and some of the of the better sound effects.

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I can’t really say that there’s any reason to replay Devotion more than once. You can easily get 100% completion in the first playthrough and if you miss anything it’s easy to load one of the chapters and backtrack to the achievement(s) you missed. This is ultimately how I got the only achievement I missed during my first playthrough. And the chapter load took me right to where I needed to get to complete that achievement. So while the first playthrough is quite good, I really can’t say that there is any real replay value in this game. I have already heard rumors that extra content will be added though. The whole game can be beaten in under 4 hours so I gotta say that the $17 price tag is a bit too steep. It’s definitely worth playing and can be beaten to a 100% completion in one sitting, which I did. But my advice is to wait for a price drop.

While I liked Detention more overall, Devotion was a great step up quality wise for Red Candle Games. The jump in graphics between the two games was mind blowing. The writing, though not as scary, was just as culturally significant and impactful while remaining a personal narrative about specific characters in the world. And the narrative is totally believable. The supernatural stuff is of course open for interpretation but the real life events could be about pretty much any Taiwanese family. The gameplay works, but they really need get the controller performance up to snuff. I’m kind of curious to see how the game will perform on other platforms when it’s inevitably ported like Detention was. While I gave it a 6.9, let me be clear in saying that this score is not because the game isn’t good. It’s because it has issues with controller play, no replay value, and a fairly high opening price point for the amount of actual gameplay. The score is in no way meant to present the game as a bad gameplay experience. I simply can’t in good conscience score it higher with those issues. If the game was at say $5, had more achievements, and no controller issues, we’re looking at something around an 8/10 rating. At the end of the day, I encourage you to try Devotion. It’s an interesting experience that’s much different from the walking simulators and point and clicks you see from Western developers. It’s a solid second installment for the company and certainly worth your time.

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Halloween (2018) Review – 8.5/10

I saw the original Halloween (1978) in 2008. I watched it for a class I took on horror films. Even 30 years later, it still stood up as an excellent slasher film. What I like about it is that unlike many other slasher films of that era, it actually looks good as far as conventional film making practices. Many horror films, both in and out of the slasher genre, aren’t shot particularly well. They often have a very low budget look to them which in many ways became the standard and has since the early 80’s been done intentionally, which I personally think is a stupid genre trope. The original Halloween is responsible for creating and/or normalizing many of the slasher/horror tropes we are used to today and it’s within that context that one should watch Halloween (2018), the direct sequel to the original film.

*Please note that from here on whenever I say Halloween I’m referring to the 2018 film unless otherwise stated.

The first thing that needs to be noted about Halloween is the attention to detail and consistency within the timeline of the franchise/story. The original film takes place on Halloween 1978 in Haddonfield, IL. In the original film, it’s stated that the villain, Michael Myers, murdered his sister when he was six years old on Halloween 1963 in Haddonfield, IL. Halloween takes place on Halloween 2018, exactly 40 years to the day later, with Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in both films) facing off against Michael Myers in Haddonfield, IL again. It’s a beautiful coupling of history, canon, and aesthetic that many horror franchises have never and will never get to accomplish. And it makes the film way better. I assume this is even more the case if you watched the original in theaters 40 years ago. Note that this film acts as a direct sequel to the original and disregards all the various nonsense shown in the countless campy Halloween sequels and remakes that have been made over the years.

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Halloween is effective in its storytelling because it builds off of the original film’s ideas but modernizes them both in aesthetic and plot. It’s still Haddonfield, IL. It’s still a nice, presumably safe suburb full of happy families, friendly neighbors, and angsty but ultimately harmless teenagers. Though it’s set in 2018, a world full of various issues political, cultural, and otherwise, that’s not part of the film. Though it is commented on near the beginning in a single short conversation, the rest of the world doesn’t really matter here. This isn’t a story about the world or society at large. This is simply the story of maybe 100 people being affected by the actions of one man. You don’t have to read more into it and you shouldn’t. Whether it’s 1978 or 2018, teenagers still go to school, fool around when adults aren’t looking, and live mostly inconsequential, carefree lives. And that’s how it should be. Really that’s what Halloween, in the modern American context, is supposed to be about.

The Haddonfield of today may have some of the modern conveniences that weren’t present in 1978 like cell phones, but really little has changed. It still has a sheriff’s department instead of a police department. People still leave their back doors open. Most people don’t have security systems. It might not be how America is often depicted today in news media, but it’s the America people like to pretend still exists. And in many ways that makes it scarier. The most noticeable change in this film compared to the original and really most horror films of the 70’s and 80’s is that now there are considerably more Black people, with speaking parts, and none of them were the first one to die. #Progress!

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The film recreates a similar story where Michael has once again escaped custody the day before Halloween and has decided to return to his hometown to murder people at seemingly random for no explained reason. Really that’s my biggest beef with this and the original film. Michael simply is evil. We never get any insight into why he kills people and why he does it on Halloween. He just does. This movie takes the time to argue that some people just are pure evil. That there’s no explanation or justification for it. Michael Myers simply kills. While I may not like this explanation, it does accomplish two things rather well. First, it removes the need for a legitimate backstory and/or explanation. Often these come off cheesy and don’t necessarily make the film any better. I appreciate their presence in movies, but can admit that most of them don’t make any sense. How did the boy who drowned in the lake come back to life? How did the man become an evil spirit that hunts teens down in their dreams? Explanations justify the plot of the current story, but they often also leave the viewer with more questions than answers by the end of the movie.

The second thing a lack of justification accomplishes is that it makes the story even scarier. Films like I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) give you a justification for the actions shown. The victims did something wrong and they are punished for it. Many slasher films work this way. Teenagers get killed because of bad behavior. This allows the viewer to not feel as bad for the victims when they get offed and allows them to remove themselves from the story, ultimately reducing the fear factor. It’s really easy to walk out of a theater after seeing a bunch of kids get murdered for covering up a manslaughter charge. You don’t even necessarily feel sorry for them at the end of the day. But if there is no reason for the violence and no specific justification for the victims chosen then that means everyone is a potential target. There’s nothing the characters and more importantly the viewer(s) can do to avoid being murdered. It’s simply a random case of bad luck where you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a case of weaker writing to achieve a stronger overall experience.

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In the case of specifically Laurie, it’s not even fully apparent that Michael had planned to go after her in this film. What it more seems to be is that he was just on a random killing spree and was maneuvered towards going after her again. Multiple characters go out of their way to try to put the two back together in order to see what will happen. This worked well here because it justified the story focusing on Laurie without giving up the original randomness of Michael’s victims. He kills almost indiscriminately based on who’s in his vicinity when no witnesses are present. By the end of the film a great many people had been killed by Michael, but only two of the murders shown on screen happened with other people present. There are a number of little details like this that make Halloween so much more than the original. Almost to the point where I’d be willing to believe that people had really spent the last 40 years planning this almost perfect sequel. I don’t want to go into too much specific detail about the main plot because it’s so tightly written that mentioning most things directly related to Laurie will spoil her story arc. Suffice it to say that they did a story that I didn’t expect but that I really liked. I found it to be a perfect ending to a 40 year struggle that was true to both the main characters.

The cinematography is excellent. It’s a very well shot film that takes advantage of the experience gained over the last four decades of horror films. The lighting, the angles, the cuts, and even the sound all comes together perfectly to create a very stressful yet entirely believable viewing experience. I also really appreciated that there was only one jump scare in the whole movie and it wasn’t done by Michael. It’s expressed intentionally as a Halloween prank within the movie and for me that’s important. Jump scares are the lazy man’s horror technique. I’m glad we’ve pretty much done away with them in horror movies in exchange for psychological terror. One of my favorite shots in the whole movie was when someone, who I won’t name for spoiler reasons, decides to try to turn the fight back on Michael only to get thrown out a window. But at this point the roles have been reversed and the camera expresses this very well. Michael gets distracted and when he looks back at the body lying outside it’s gone. The sequence proceeds to show Michael moving through the house searching for an intruder the way the prey usually is in this genre. It was a phenomenal sequence that humanized Michael. Many other shots and sequences were just as effective in their own ways at telling a great slasher horror story.

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While this is in many ways a higher minded slasher film that isn’t simply using gore to impress the audience, it’s still very graphic. Michael is at peak killing prowess and he’s not just using knives to kill people. Stabbing is just one of many ways he murders his victims this time around, but what’s also well done is the murders they didn’t show on screen. Many sequences cut or angle away from the actual violence and then show you the after math, leaving you to imagine what happened yourself. While this may not be the most visceral way to depict a murder story, it’s much stronger for the overall storytelling. You don’t have to dwell on every murder that takes place which keeps the pacing good. The film never drags on with violence even while showing you a slew of bodies left in Michael’s wake. Again, Halloween really shows itself as a high quality modern movie that just happens to be a slasher film rather than the classic low quality film that stereotypes the genre.

The acting was great. Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance has only gotten better with age. You really believed that she had been struggling with the memories of that night for 40 years. But other actors did a fine job as well. Will Patton as Sheriff Hawkins was exactly what I wanted him to be. This movie actually centers mostly on women of various ages and they all gave great performances. The writing definitely plays a role in this because the story was very realistic, thus making it even more believable. It’s not the cheesy somehow Michael is everywhere scenario. The characters just happen to move into his path and are killed as a consequence of that. There are really only two murders in the whole movie that seem completely intentional as targeted victims and Michael targeting them made perfect sense. I will say though that there are a number of classic dumb horror movie character moments that take place. They’re believable, but they continue the stereotype of people (in this case me) wanting to yell at the screen because why would you run into the woods when a psychopath is trying to murder you when you’re already on a road that cars drive on? The movie isn’t built on these moments, but a number of them occur and as a Black man I had to do everything in my power not to yell at the screen. What was great was that there actually is a Black kid in the movie that basically does this for one sequence. He tells the two older white kids what not to do, they don’t listen, and bad things happen to them. So kudos to you David Gordon Green for acknowledging your audience and for casting a hilarious Black kid.

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I’m not going to say there haven’t been other great pure American slasher films in the last 10 years, but I will say that I can’t recall any. It’s not my favorite genre so I haven’t devoted time to actively seeking them out, but in my opinion horror as a genre has moved away from the slasher idea. Halloween does the genre justice. It’s not just an excellent slasher film. It’s an excellent film that I might even argue is better than the original both in how it presents the genre and circumvents many of the tropes of the genre 40 years later. If you enjoyed the original film, this is a must watch. But even if you didn’t see the original and aren’t a fan of the genre, I still think you’ll enjoy this movie quite a bit.

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Gaming Photography – Detention

Time for another Gaming Photography Post. Recently I beat a Taiwanese indie game called Detention.

This is an amazing point and click horror story based on historical events. It ties directly to Taiwanese cultural beliefs about ghosts and karma. While it is a 2D point and click, the small studio did a great job of creating a scary atmosphere and a compelling story. I was very impressed with the game overall. Currently it’s actually on sale for Halloween on both Steam and PSN and I highly recommend it. It will only take you 5 – 6 hours tops, which is why you’ll want to grab it at sale price. I played the Steam version.

So now I’d like to present my top 10 photos from Detention. As always, I make it a point of only taking natural in game shots. I don’t use photo modes or alter the brightness/color settings except in special situations. I took my photos for this game through Steam‘s screenshot system. I also post them on my Twitter and Instagram often.

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*If you’d like to see the full resolution image please right click and press “view image”.

Please let me know what you think of my shots. Any feedback is appreciated because I would like to improve my gaming photography skills.

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As always, thanks for reading. Please take the time to follow my blog, leave a comment, and check out some of my other channels if you enjoyed what you read.