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Adventure Gamers: Rainswept (25/02/19)

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It starts with a gunshot to the head. Well, actually, Rainswept starts with a warning that the game contains references to suicide. So straight away it’s clear that despite the pastel colours and slightly cartoonlike 2D graphics, this will be a dark and emotional ride. Developer Frostwood Interactive do their best to deliver on their promise of an adult story with powerful themes, featuring a detective with a messed-up mind and a murder mystery that isn’t quite what it seems. In some standout scenes, with the help of a melancholic soundtrack, they succeed. But Rainswept has a lot in common with Night in the Woods, not just its palette but also large parts of its narrative (lonely protagonist and creepy goings-on in small town America) and gameplay (interacting with the local characters through dialogue choices). Whilst games borrow from and expand on each other all the time, here the comparison only highlights the elements that don’t quite meet Rainswept’s high ambitions, packing a torrent of emotional beats into just a few hours of gameplay when a steady drip would have been more impactful.

You’ll recognize protagonist Michael Stone as soon as you see him. He’s the archetypal detective featured in so many other games, films and books: chain-smoking, unshaven, jaded and lacking in sleep, with dark thoughts on his mind. He’s arrived in the small town of Pineview to help out the local police force with what they believe to be an open and shut case – a murder-suicide of local couple Chris and Diane, who were seemingly having marital issues leading up to the incident (therapy is much more expensive than a gun these days). Naturally, there’s more to it than meets the eye, both with the case and with Detective Stone, who suddenly has a violent vision at the start of the investigation, creating some kind of new world record for “shortest length of time before my co-workers get concerned I’m probably not fit for this job.”

Graphically the game has a light cartoonish touch: people have button eyes but no mouths, and character animations are a little comical. For example, the protagonist’s long bandy legs never quite seem in sync with the rest of his body when you’re moving him about. It certainly adds a level of comic eccentricity to the experience, but the quirky tone can feel a bit off at times, especially considering the mature subject matter.

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As the dysfunctional Stone, you’ll navigate the 2D streets and bars, shops and houses of Pineview using the keyboard. Points of interest pop up as a magnifying glass icon as you walk past them. When clicked, hotspots open up verb coin options of looking at, using, or talking to the object or person in question. The developers are reportedly also working on a mouse cursor option that doesn’t require being near objects to interact with them. While this feature wasn’t available at the time of my playthrough, its absence didn’t really cause an issue because there’s very little in the way of puzzles here, and not a huge number of objects are vital to the story. Any slight challenges, such as getting a dog to let go of an important photograph (as you do), rely mainly on picking up an item nearby (usually in the same screen) and then using it.

Much like Night in the Woods, the lack of puzzles seems intentional. Rainswept is a narrative-focused game rather than a gameplay-heavy one. Detective Stone only has a few days to try to wrap up the case before the town’s big festival comes, and the chief has more important matters to attend to (small town cops apparently love festivals). The story is split into these distinct days, with each one more or less starting with our investigator waking up and meeting his partner Officer Blunt in the cafe for a lowdown on the objectives he should look into for that day, whether that be meeting the coroner or interviewing a potential suspect.

You’re then free to travel around Pineview and carry out these plans in any order you see fit, and can interact with various characters around town that are going about their daily lives, just for the hell of it. There’s a rudimentary pop-up map that can be used to guide you to your goals, but the street system takes a little bit of getting used to, and often it’s more fun just wandering around anyway. You can check your objectives at any point or even bring up the journal where Detective Stone writes all of his notes about the case, though you’ll never need to refer to any of these to solve anything, so it’s more just for show, or for remembering the names of the people you meet.

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You can opt to completely ignore chatting and get on with cracking the case, but then you’d be missing out on some of the game’s best moments. Whether helping come up with lyrics for a street guitarist’s latest song; rolling your eyes at Grandpa, the town’s resident elderly lothario; or shooting the breeze with a group of teenage skaters, these fun little encounters make Pineview – and Rainswept as a whole – feel more alive, and as the days change so do the differing dialogue options. If anything, even more could have been made of these interactions: more people or different characters that pop up over time, or some secret areas to discover that would encourage you to explore that extra bit longer and create a richer world. As it stands, they’re just a fun but slight distraction to the main story.

Without any voice acting, the dialogue appears in text boxes above the characters, using a basic font that takes a little getting used to at first. You’ll soon get past that and into conversing with the locals, suspects and your fellow officers. Once you get gabbing, you can select what to ask from a couple of options, along with deciding on certain occasions what to reveal about yourself or whether to share your thoughts about a situation, or just remain silent. It’s hard to know how much these choices really affect the gameplay; in one situation I was asked by Officer Blunt whether I liked fiction or non-fiction books, and so I played through both scenarios by going back to my save game. I got a slightly different response depending on what I said, but that appeared to be it. Still, it’s a nice extra feature that gives you the feeling that there is a bit more going on in a game that doesn’t offer much in the way of a challenge – even if that choice is purely cosmetic.

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As Detective Stone looks further into the lives of the murder victims, you also get to play out flashbacks of the first time Chris and Diane met, and how it went so wrong. These moments are easily some of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful in the game. Playing as Chris, one effective scene sees you on a date with Diane in the very beginning of their relationship, taking a boat out to a distant island. As the two reflect on their own insecurities and loneliness, against the backdrop of a blueish purple sky, the experience opens up into less of a “whodunit” and more into the drama of two people and how they later fell apart. It’s a touching recollection, relatable to anyone who has ever felt like an outcast or a little bit isolated from the world, written with just the right amount of subtlety and maturity.

Such moments are made even more poignant by Micamic’s beautiful soundtrack of lilting piano chords or jazzy syncopated rhythms, depending on the situation and mood. Whilst there are only a handful of main themes looped throughout the game, I found at least one or two of them running through my head even when I wasn’t playing Rainswept, simple yet instantly memorable.

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Unfortunately, key points are also undermined occasionally by a lack of finesse. In a clearly poignant scene between Chris and his wife, Diane suddenly becomes “Daine”, and in another instance Chris asks “do you have any how beautiful you look?” It’s obvious what is meant, but in such emotionally charged scenes all it takes are slight slip-ups to tarnish the moment. Similarly, that moving musical score suddenly cuts to silence when you go to look at your map, and sometimes if you linger too long drinking in the scenery, it will just stop altogether.

As you near the end of the investigation, you’ll also delve into the detective’s own haunting memories of a past relationship, which explain why he’s having so much trouble sleeping. Between this, dipping into Chris and Diane’s backstory, and solving the murder case at present, the narrative strands start to become a little overwhelming near the end as they vie for attention. Depending on whether you make it your top priority to give that guitarist your finest lyrics every day or just rush through the game, there’s probably about 6-8 hours of gameplay all in all. The final reveal of what really happened that night between the couple doesn’t have the climactic feel you might expect, because you’ve been too busy dealing with so many other elements in such a short space of time. Themes of rape, death of a loved one, and PTSD are all hurriedly tackled long before the game’s denouement, more than some games fit into twice or three times the length.

Rainswept is a game that right from the start makes it clear it isn’t afraid of addressing big issues, and should be celebrated for being able to carry it off for the most part. At times, however, this ambition gets the better of it. Not only do several of these elements feel rushed, but there isn’t much actual gameplay to help flesh them out. Another casualty is that basic elements such as script and sound editing lack polish, while engaging features like discovering more about the town and its residents get sidelined. Still, the visuals are stylish, the music wonderfully atmospheric, and the flashbacks scenes in particular are deeply touching, so if you do manage to weather some of the game’s more preposterous moments, there’s a breath of fresh air to be had in its more reflective moments.

Our Verdict:

Rainswept bites off more than it can chew with its ambitious story of love, murder and loneliness, but within the sometimes confusing narrative strands there’s an involving game with a beautiful soundtrack to discover.

3/5

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Adventure Gamers: Lovecraft Quest – A Comix Game (5/12/2018)

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The cult of author H.P. Lovecraft has never been stronger in video games, as the master of cosmic horror has got his (tentacled) grip firmly on developers’ thoughts these days. Lovecraft Quest – A Comix Game tries to bring something new to the party, using a mix of classic logic puzzles and choose-your-own-adventure-style gameplay, all framed within the panels of an interactive comic based on the world of Lovecraft. However, even with such a short game its initial ideas become repetitive, and the addition of one final frustrating puzzle was enough to send this writer into a demented spiral more frenzied than the sight of the great Cthulhu himself.

The story starts in a skippable sequence pre-menu screen, with our unnamed protagonist aboard a frigate heading to New England. Inevitably the ship never makes it to its destination, with a terrible storm plunging it and most of the crew into the murky depths below. You manage to make it ashore to a deserted island, but your only passage away from the lapping waves appears to be an ancient dungeon – the Temple of Nameless Cults. Does everyone have their Lovecraft bingo cards ready?

All of this plays out in a beautifully hand-drawn graphic novel style, with each panel representing the next scene in the story. The tale is conveyed in written comic book-esque boxes and font, with the player clicking a “next” box when ready to move on to the following page. The panels aren’t completely static, with one early standout scene drawn from the point of view of the protagonist as he slowing sinks further under the wreck of his battered boat above the waves, his hand outstretched in front of him and framed in inky blue as bubbles move and float around the screen.

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While presented in the same style, it’s a shame that when you enter the dungeon most of the pretty attention to detail is lost in drab grey rooms. The occasional lurking monster spices up the colour palette a little, and a scene where you have to shoot a gun into the darkness is illustrated in true comic book style with the giant word “BANG” ripped in two by a bullet, but otherwise the inventiveness of the artwork at the beginning gives way to the necessity of trawling through rooms and solving puzzles.

There isn’t much else involved story-wise as you traverse the creepy temple in search of safety, and the game gets stuck in its main mechanics. There are three floors to explore, the first two consisting of 20 rooms each to tentatively venture through. Each room is adjoined by two or three others and you must choose which one to enter by clicking on a box neatly entitled “enter room 5” or something similar. However, some rooms are filled with traps, ranging from bottomless pits to great tentacled Shoggoths ready to eat you whole.

If you enter a room that has a trap in an area next to it, the game will warn you: “there’s a draft nearby” for when you’re near a bottomless pit, for example. Your goal on each of these floors is not only not to die (!) but also to find a particular piece in one of the rooms that will slot into that floor’s puzzle, which when solved will allow you to head deeper into the mysterious cave. If you die, you return to the beginning of that floor again, and as the traps are procedurally created, there’s no point remembering which room held a trap the time before as it’ll all have mostly changed your next time around.  

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Once you find a map for each floor, the puzzle of finding out which rooms have traps in them becomes quite a fun game of logic, as you can cross reference which rooms were said to have something bad lurking next to them and work out a path through the labyrinth. However, until you find the map, which is in a different room every time you play, there’s very little you can do but enter new areas in a trial and error way, hoping you’ve picked one unoccupied by something wanting to kill you. This makes gameplay a little frustrating and quite scattershot at the start, as you pick random doors without much thought or precision. It might have made more sense to include the map from the very beginning, but perhaps the idea was to lengthen this short game as much as possible, which trundling around for direction certainly does.

If you do end up in the room with a hulking Shoggoth, you’ll kickstart a reaction mini-game. In this you’ll need to quickly choose one of three rooms for the protagonist to run through, with a timer at the bottom ticking down as the monster gets progressively closer to chomping on you. Not-so-cryptic advice will appear to hint at where you need to go. For example, when the three doors are marked with an eagle, a shark and grass symbol , the hint tells you to “follow the path of the earth”. This mini-game adds some much-needed change of pace to Lovecraft Quest – unless you keep dying. If you do, it soon becomes clear that although beginning in a different room each time, the sequence of scenarios you have to react to are exactly the same every time. A little bit of variety even in the order of the situations would have kept this more exciting, but maybe that says more about the amount of times I died than anything!

Other threats don’t take up quite as much time. Smelling a “foul stench” means a Dagon (another mythical Lovecraft monster) is near. You can choose a room to fire a gun into in the hope that it’ll hit the slimy beast, but if you’ve chosen incorrectly and don’t wound the creature, the sound will alert it and you’ll be gobbled up whole. There’s also no mini-game or second chance in avoiding the bottomless pits – if you step into a room containing one, it’s back to the start of the floor.

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Once you’ve sidestepped the traps and found your piece as well as the puzzle it fits into, it’s time to get solving so you can open the door to the next floor. Both of the first two floors have quite similar puzzles – one featuring tiles in the wrong places that need to be slid into the right sequence to depict an image (Cthulhu!), and the other consisting of four cogs which each need to be turned so that they too form a picture the right way round. Both of these tasks are fairly easy and even with a bit of mindless clicking can be overcome.

When you reach the final floor, there’s no more room-hopping but instead three bigger puzzles to solve. It’s here that some form of in-game notepad might have been a helpful thing to include, especially as one riddle basically consists of you pressing many symbols in the right order. (Cue bits of paper with weird scribbles on them filling my room, making me look not unlike a cult member myself.) And then there’s the final puzzle. Appearing simple, it merely requires you to turn 16 horizontal rods vertical, opening four locks to the next door. However, turning one rod vertical turns the whole row or column of rods next to it too. It’s hard to put across the frustration of not being able to work out a logical pattern to the puzzle, particularly when previous conundrums were fairly straightforward.

Shamelessly after many, many attempts I found myself seeking help online and even then only worked out the solution because it was alluded to as being similar to one in another game made many years ago, so I looked up the walkthrough for that instead. No doubt some minds more akin to the intellectual Lovecraft will be able to figure this out much quicker than I did, but the overriding feeling I was left with so close to the end of the game was annoyance. Some form of hint system, even if still kept fairly vague, might have helped alleviate the irritation at the final hurdle.

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Most of the sound is made up of effects such as dripping water and monstrous grunts and wails, set alongside a short spooky-sounding score playing in a loop, different for each floor. Although relatively innocuous for most of the game, this repetitive soundtrack during the last puzzle quietly drove me round the bend, and eventually forced me to forcibly jab the mute button.

After one final mini-game, the story ends quite abruptly with a typically Lovecraftian (read: depressing) take on events. Much like in a choose-your-own-adventure book, which route you take will leave you with one of six endings – one “true” outcome on completion of the entire game, or five others to experience throughout, depicting your character dying in some grisly fashion (and sending you back to the start of the current floor to try again). This adds some replayability to a short game, which – annoying last puzzle or not – should still be wrapped up within two hours max for a single playthrough.

The gameis available on PC, but also on Android and iOS devices, and it’s the latter formats that make the most sense here. The short mini-games and self-contained puzzles perfectly lend themselves to the pick-up-and-play approach of mobile gaming. Regardless of platform, OGUREC’s adventure initially stands out for its visual style and seemingly choice-driven gameplay, but ultimately fails to build on this promise. Lovecraft famously hated games, noting that they and sport “ought not be ranked among the major phenomena of life”. By merely borrowing some elements of the author’s mythos to enhance a series of puzzles and timed events, however beautifully drawn, yet leaving behind the compelling story that makes that universe so rich, Lovecraft Quest – A Comix Game unfortunately does little to prove Howard Phillips wrong.

Our Verdict:

Stylish to look at but short on substance, Lovecraft Quest: A Comix Game has a few fun puzzles to beef up its brief story, but too much repetition stops it from becoming a Great One. 2.5/5

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Adventure Gamers: Detective Case and Clown Bot in The Express Killer (06/11/18)

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It isn’t every adventure game that can make you chuckle from its start menu alone. Yet from the outset Detective Case and Clown Bot in The Express Killer, with its surreal instruction to “kiss the keyboard”, raises a smile. As the titular P.I. and his robot buddy progress through a comic cartoon tale of body bags, bongos and many, many teeth (I cannot stress enough the amount of teeth), this continual eagerness to be abstract and wacky starts to grate. Unfortunately, this and some issues with dialogue and pixel hunting mean that Nerd Monkeys’s inventive style of play just isn’t enough to stop this sequel from jumping the tracks.

This isn’t the first title featuring our dynamic duo, but having not played Murder in the Hotel Lisbon myself, there was very little in The Express Killer that didn’t make sense, save the odd in-joke. Detective Justin Case, who like any good detective starts this adventure by waking up in a foggy haze of alcoholic regrets, has just recovered from a questionable night out on the town when he and his hovering mechanical sidekick Clown Bot are assigned to an intriguing case on that most exotic of all public transport – a train.

A killer is loose on the express route from Lisbon to Porto: passengers are being very violently terminated and it’s up to Case and Clown Bot to hop on the train to find the culprit and (loco)motive. Thus starts an enjoyably farcical quest, at least at first, as the pair race to interview every passenger and potential suspect on board, whilst all around them more and more commuters get bumped off with alarming and darkly hilarious regularity.

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The game is divided into several acts, the majority of which are spent on the train, which is itself split into three carriages to explore. It may sound as if there’d be very little to discover after a few minutes of car-hopping, but nearly every inch of screen in this adventure hides an item to be clicked on or collected, and it wasn’t until near the very end that I found myself tired of trundling through the same three rooms. Interaction happens through a verb coin interface; a left-click brings up icons such as a mouth to talk to someone or a hand to use an item, and Clown Bot acts as your floating inventory. However, puzzles in the main section aboard the express are largely made up of locating the correct objects hidden around the train and then notifying passengers when you have them, rather than any challenge in combining them or even using them, which is half the fun in most other adventure games.

And then there are the teeth. With a bit of persistence, most of the items that need to be found can be discovered fairly easily, but one challenge asks you to find 29 teeth – visualized as 29 tiny white pixels hidden amongst the train carriages. It’s most appropriate that this task felt like pulling teeth – I ended up finding the majority of choppers whilst taking part in other challenges, but the search for the last few became a very frustrating and boring game of pixel hunting. Some I just couldn’t find at all despite combing the screen several times with the cursor, which highlights items when hovering over them to make them very slightly easier to see. I eventually and somewhat reluctantly turned to a guide to find the final few. After discovering the locations I was glad I did, as without dragging my mouse over every inch of the screen they would have been impossible to spot, especially as the pixels for the particularly difficult ones aren’t even white. It feels like the developers added the teeth problem to make up for a lack of complexity elsewhere, but it would have been better for everyone’s sanity to not have as many, or at least keep it as a completionist’s target rather than one of the main goals of the game.

Along with the item gathering there are also some inventive mini-games scattered like so many body bags throughout the story. Whether it’s having to correctly fit those 29 newly-found rotten and infected teeth back into their rightful denture sockets (complete with gungy gum sound effects) or remember the correct pattern played by a stereotypical bongo-playing Jamaican whilst inhaling questionable substances from a pipe, these games are enjoyable and help to break up the story, and I would have preferred more of them than the scavenger hunting.

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Once the requirements for each passenger / suspect are completed and all objects relating to them found, Case and Clown Bot get the chance to interview them. This comes in the form of another mini-game which those who have played Murder in the Hotel Lisbon will recognize. You must decide whether to have the Detective or CB conduct the interview, and then in a simplified interrogation à la L.A. Noire, choose the correct question out of a selection of three and the inventory item that backs up your line of questioning to “crack” the suspect and find out whether they’re hiding anything.

Unfortunately, the questions themselves make little sense. Each round you get correct, the music becomes more and more frantic and the gestures of the suspects become noticeably more exaggerated and outlandish, but there’s little logical explanation as to why your questions are causing this effect. Why is a banker getting worried about his fake moustaches left behind in a different carriage being discovered – and why would that mean he might be the murderer? Like much of the other components of the game, the idea behind the interview stage is entertaining and it’s admirable to see an adventure game willing to keep throwing different formats and ideas at the player, but the execution just isn’t quite up to scratch.

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General dialogue between Case, CB and their fellow passengers suffers the same fate. There’s the occasional funny joke, particularly of the meta variety – e.g. Case asking what’s wrong with a character and CB explaining that his animators aren’t finished with him yet so he can’t reply. But some rushed English translation from the original Portuguese means that occasionally a word is spelt wrong, or that a non-English word (e.g. “mas”) is slipped into the translation by accident. It’s not a huge issue in the grand scheme of things, but it does serve to detract from the immersion the game is trying to create.

Nerd Monkeys are obviously fans of breaking the fourth wall, as every five minutes when something significant or supposedly funny happens, a silhouetted audience pops up to hoot, jeer or laugh, perhaps to excuse the real audience not doing so. This really gets quite tiring after a while, and I searched in vain for an option in the settings to turn this off. Similarly, the joke that Case can’t remember anybody’s name isn’t particularly amusing to start with and only gets more annoying the tenth or eleventh time it’s repeated. Humour may be subjective, but there’s very few who will find themselves chuckling out loud as the Detective once again slips up with a name – unless they’re a member of the lively on-screen audience who can’t seem to get enough of it.

But you have to hand it to the indie development team for their persistence in trying to make you laugh. Perhaps one of the best gags of the game is a visual and audio one. Passing from the economy train carriages to first class, the view suddenly turns from depicting grotty, falling-apart seats and cracked windows to grand chandeliers swinging from the ceiling, champagne and a billiards table, whilst the soundtrack switches from looping piano to Petzold’s prim and proper “Minuet in G Major”. In general, The Express Killer’s pixel art calls back another game starring a befuddled detective and non-human sidekick duo, Sam & Max Hit The Road, though less pixelated with slightly cleaner definitions. Having so few scenes and most of those consisting of train carriages means that there’s not as much in the way of detail – a few more extra things to see akin to the first class joke wouldn’t have gone amiss.

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All dialogue is written, with no voice-over, so sound is mainly in the form of the repeating score which changes slightly depending on the location or situation, as well as a few sound effects (gungy teeth!). Click on a street band busking at the train station, however, and you’ll be treated to a rousing rock number. The usual short tracks of jazzy flutes and keyboard chords are catchy enough and fairly innocuous sounding, so whilst not particularly memorable, they do serve their basic function without grating on you as they’re played again and again.

The game is relatively short, taking roughly 4-6 hours to finish, depending on whether you choose to complete the optional side quests, and of course on how long it takes you to hunt down those elusive teeth. Without giving too much away, the final reveal of the mysterious killer is fitting for the surreal story and surprisingly one of the strongest parts of the whole plot – it’s fairly unlikely you’ll be able to guess whodunit without a bit of abstract thinking.

If you’re willing to look past some of the annoying issues in Detective Case and Clown Bot in The Express Killer – the occasionally confusing dialogue, laborious pixel hunting and slightly limited puzzles – then there is a somewhat fun game to be enjoyed here. Nerd Monkeys clearly love adventure games and their enthusiasm for the genre can at times be infectious, making you hope for more amusing mini-games or unexpected twists in the bonkers plot. It’s a shame, then, that such moments are all too rare, and what you’re left with instead is a game that grinds to a halt whenever it’s about to pick up momentum.

Our Verdict:

The Express Killer’s eagerness to entertain is a breath of fresh air at first, but its relentless surrealism and some unnecessary pixel hunting soon undermine its creative mini-games and plot twists. 2.5/5