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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I See You Nintendo (Tetris 99)

In September of last year, I wrote a post calling for a boycott of Nintendo Switch Online. Actually many people were and still are on board. I won’t claim that it was solely because of my blog post because many people posted similar sentiments on various platforms, but the point is that the service Nintendo released at cost was, and still mostly is, a bad service that isn’t worth the money. Even if it is the cheapest online console service currently, that doesn’t somehow magically justify the cost, though many fanboys would make that argument. I’m still boycotting Nintendo Switch Online. I love my Switch. Since that post I’ve purchased Smash Bros Ultimate, Super Mario Party, Pokemon Let’s GO – Eevee, and though I received a review copy and thus didn’t pay for it, I also got Starlink: Battle for Atlas. Every single one of those games is excellent. I would recommend purchasing every one of them. None of them are flawless. But I don’t regret buying/playing any of them. And there are more games on the way that I can’t wait to play.

Nintendo just released a demo for Yoshi’s Crafted World. It’s amazing. It’s exactly what I wanted from the next Yoshi game. I will absolutely be buying it. The point is that I in no way regret purchasing a Switch. There are numerous amazing games to play on it and I have a decent sized backlog of unfinished titles to play. And honestly though it does affect me occasionally, for the most part I’m fine not having access to online PVP. Currently there are only two games that I really want to play online against other people, not counting Super Mario Party, which I absolutely do want to play online against other people, but they don’t have the full board game mode available for online PVP and that’s what I want to play against others. So currently the only argument that can be made for why I should pay Nintendo $20 a year for online multiplayer is Smash Bros. Ultimate and after the latest Nintendo Direct, Tetris 99.

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Tetris 99 is the combination of probably the closest thing to a perfect game ever made and the current battle royale craze. Now personally I hate this BR bullshit. I hate PUBG. I hate Fortnite. I hate Blackout. For many reasons I hate this entire trend and concept. I don’t like the idea that developers can release games with no story and they become super popular and make billions of dollars in loot boxes and skins. That’s everything wrong with the gaming industry and community today. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to projects like Star Wars: Battlefront II. It’s not OK. But Nintendo, being Nintendo, took the concept and made it not suck, innovative, not a cash grab, and for once worth my time . . . maybe?

Tetris 99 is the first BR game I’ve ever had an interest in. For starters, it’s the only BR game to date that can justify not having a story. It’s a simple puzzle game that’s been around since 1984. The game is so old, many games couldn’t have stories back then. It’s justified. It has no loot boxes, microtransactions, or DLC. You download the game and you have the whole game. It’s free. Well it’s not free, but it comes as part of the Nintendo Switch Online subscription so it’s free-ish in the same way that we describe PlayStation Plus games and XBOX Games with Gold games. I haven’t personally played it, because again I’m not a subscriber, but this the first time since the service went live that I really wish I had a Nintendo Switch Online subscription. Or more accurately, I really wish the service was good enough to warrant me subscribing. Tetris 99 is the first step in the right direction. This is the kind of content and release model that I need to see coming from Nintendo consistently, as in on a monthly to bi-monthly basis, for me to consider the service worth my money. What’s important here is that they were able to create a game that I actively want to play. I think about it a lot. I’ve been watching Tetris 99 videos, something I never do. I do not normally just watch other people play games without some specific reason tied to it like I’m stuck in a game or I know the person playing personally. And yet I’ve taken the time on more than one occasion to watch videos of people playing Tetris 99. As a side note, most of you apparently such at Tetris. I’ve been appalled by some of the low quality performances people felt were appropriate to post online. And I know that sounds arrogant and hypocritical considering many of the lackluster gaming performances I’ve posted to my Twitch and/or YouTube channels, but Tetris is not that hard. Granted I have been playing it semi-actively for more than 20 years so maybe I’m just at a level of experience that makes me unable to relate to new players. But I digress.

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This is the kind of content that I want to see from Nintendo Switch Online. This is how you sell me this service. And you don’t touch the current price point. It stays where it’s at or gets lower. So my point with this post is to tip my hat to Nintendo. I see you making moves trying to add value to your online service. I respect that. That’s what I want to see, not just from Nintendo, but from XBOX and PlayStation as well. Make online subscriptions great again. And I’m fine with Nintendo focusing on old games. They said they were gonna do that from the beginning. But this is the first time since the service started that they did it in a way that’s actually interesting and worth my time. I don’t want to take turns playing old NES and SNES titles. I can do that with my SNES Classic without paying a subscription fee. Tetris 99 justifies the need for online PVP access. Now I’m not gonna pay $20 a year just to play Tetris. I wanted to get Tetris Effect, but that won’t happen till that price goes way down. I am not paying $40 to play Tetris. But if every month we got another Tetris 99 style game free as part of the service, I’d definitely sign up. So hopefully this is the beginning of Nintendo Switch Online actually being worth the money. And if and when that’s confirmed, I’ll definitely sign up. So the next question is what’s the next Tetris 99?

I’ve given this only a little bit of thought so far but I do have some ideas that I think would be equally successful, if not more so. The entire concept of Tetris 99 is take an old game that’s simple to understand but, apparently, hard to master that has an indefinite amount of play time and apply some sort of mechanic that allows multiple players to play single player rounds of the game at the same time where a certain occurrence negatively affects the other players in the lobby. Here are just three of the ideas I came up with in a matter of minutes.

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Dr. Mario

This seems fairly obvious. Really it’s just a variation of the Tetris concept with different rules of engagement. Just apply the same multiplayer mechanics and it’s good to go.

Pac-Man

My idea would be exactly the same as Tetris 99 where all 99 players are playing their own game of Pac-Man, still with three lives and the ability to earn more, but it’s only one map/stage. There are no regular pellets. Instead the only task for the player is to survive. More specifically, don’t get eaten by ghosts. Power pellets would still be present and reappear over time, possibly tied to eating a certain number of pieces of fruit. When you use a power pellet and eat ghosts, you send those ghosts to other players’ games. It would work just like Tetris 99 where you can send ghosts to randoms, attackers, those soon to die, and badges, which I haven’t put a lot of time into conceptualizing yet.

Galaga

Similar to my Pac-Man idea, everyone would be playing their own game of Galaga concurrently. When you kill an enemy, you can send it to other players’ games. There would probably need to be some limitations set upon it like the number of enemies that can actually get sent and some sort of limit to how many enemies can be sent to the same player at the same time.

Have you played Tetris 99 yet? What do you think of it? What other games would like to see this concept applied to? Let me know in the comments.

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Officially a True PC Gamer

Last time I posted about how I finally built my gaming PC, but one cannot truly call themselves a PC gamer and by extension a member of the PC Master Race until they have officially completed a game on their rig. Today I do declare my official membership.

I thought it was appropriate to bridge the gap between my pre-Master Race life as a gamer with my newfound gloriousness. So I decided that instead of my initially planned The Witcher 2 as my first PC game on my rig I would complete a game that I had started on my laptop but never finished. I chose Magrunner: Dark Pulse (2013) developed by Frogwares.

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I originally tried Magrunner back in 2013 as a demo on PS3. I very much enjoyed the demo. It was like Portal but with magnets. As a fan of level based puzzlers like Portal, I was very interested in playing through the whole game. But I did not want to pay the price they were charging on PS3. I can’t remember the exact price but currently on the PSN store it’s listed as $10 so let’s go with that because I defintely wouldn’t have paid that price. Months later the game was on sale on GOG.com for less than $5. I happily bought it and started it soon after.

I was happy playing Magrunner on my laptop. It wasn’t running perfectly but it was certainly playable. I did not regret the purchase and everything was going quite well. Then I got stuck. There are three types of getting stuck in a game. Not knowing what to do. Not being able to do something. And not being able to do something because of hardware. Often people make the excuse that they are experiencing the third scenario when really they’re experiencing the second. With the advent of YouTube, the first scenario ceased to be a valid reason to get stuck in any game for an extended period of time. I was experiencing the third scenario. This was because my gamepad was not properly syncing to my laptop so I had to program it by hand with MotionJoy to pretend to be a mouse. But the settings were not perfect. I also had minor lag because of a lack of RAM.

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Up until the point where I actually did get stuck, these hardware issues were not game breaking. I had to work harder, but the game never got impossible. Then I got to a puzzle that required the highest level of accuracy and speed. Having now completed the game, I will still hold that this particular puzzle was the hardest to execute in the game. It wasn’t the hardest to solve, but actually do it was much hard. I tried and I tried and I tried, but was never able to succeed. You are required to quickly shoot three targets while riding a moving platform in hopes of getting through the door on the other side within the time limit. It was a horrible experience. I just couldn’t do it with my system. Eventually I gave up.

Three years after that happened I finally built a PC and my gamepad works properly. As does my mouse, which I had to switch to occasionally while playing. I beat that puzzle I was stuck on so long in under five minutes. I went on to beat the rest of the game soon after.

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I’m so thankful that I was finally able to complete that game. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as gaming redemption. I have completed Magrunner: Dark Pulse and can now officially call my self a PC gamer. My rig has been christened. No longer will I be limited by technical limitations. No longer will I have to miss out on betas because my system can’t run them. Now I can and shall go on to play and beat countless PC games.

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Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey Review – 8/10

It has been a busy few weeks with Mass Effect: Andromeda among other games, but I wanted to make sure to take the time to post about this particular game review. I had the pleasure of reviewing a turn based, open world JRPG from Koei Tecmo called Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey. This game hadn’t even crossed my radar, but I was asked to review it and I’m so glad I did. Definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for a casual level JRPG. I published this review on Brash Games, but here’s the introduction:

Atelier Firis

Tackling an RPG is always a daunting task. And other than in the case of games like Dark Souls, the JRPG is always the most intimidating of the genre. The highest levels of concentration, character development, patience, and ultimately time are required to best these beastly games. As a person who has played and reviewed my fair share of Koei Tecmo titles, I went into the recently released (3/7/17) Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey expecting a harsh uphill battle. While this is still a JRPG, I was surprised to discover that this is much different from just about every other game I’ve played in the genre.

You can read the rest of the review here. For this and other reviews by me on Brash Games you can also check out my Author’s Archive page.

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Words Up! Academy Review – 4/10

It has been a long time since I reviewed a Wii U game.I wish I could say that this return to Nintendo was as fortuitous as getting to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but alas it wasn’t. I reviewed a pretty lackluster word puzzle game called Words Up! Academy. Here’s the introduction but honestly it’s not worth buying so you can probably save yourself the trouble:

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I like to try out video games that attempt to be educational because I think making a game that’s both entertaining and helpful is some of the hardest development around. I’ve played a number of games that tried their best and did some things right, but they never seem to enter into legitimately fun game status. Sadly, the recently released (2/9/17) Words Up! Academy by CoderChild is another honorable but ultimately average at best try.

You can read the rest of the review here. For this and other reviews by me on Brash Games you can also check out my Author’s Archive page.

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Linelight Review – 6/10

This week I reviewed a fun little puzzle game on the PS4 call Linelight. It’s a short, but sweet little experience that I highly recommend and it’s also available on PC. I published this review on Brash Games, but here is the introduction:

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In my opinion, the best puzzle games are either really complicated to the point of making you pull your hair out, or elegantly simple and require a fair amount of thought, but not too much else to be satisfying. The recently released (1/31/2017) Linelight by Brett Taylor Interactive LLC falls into the latter category. This simple puzzle game does just about everything right to give you a fulfilling gameplay experience without asking for too much in return.

You can read the rest of the review here. For this and other reviews by me on Brash Games you can also check out my Author’s Archive page.

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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.