Yup, it's official: the era of the PS4 and XBOX One (oh, yeah, and the WiiU) has arrived, and with them comes enhanced graphics, shiny new gadgets, and the onset condition of those "older" consoles dying a slow death by way of discontinued support and lack of new games. While early adopters are hungrily devouring the bare offerings of those new consoles at high prices, it's also a great time to sit back for a while as the values drop and discover some of the quality games that went under the radar this generation, to which there were quite a number of solid ones: unsuspecting settings for role-playing games, military shooters with darker intentions, and survival-horror outings with zany senses of humor. Below lies a collection of ten (well, nineteen in total, including some honorable mentions at the bottom) of those tossed-aside pieces of work that either sold very few copies or received lackluster marks from critics -- or, in most cases, both -- along with some thoughts about their narrative and gameplay-immersion strengths, listed in alphabetical order. And what could be more appropriate at this juncture than descending down the rabbit hole ...
The eeriness of Wonderland's dreamscape atmosphere, unofficially branched off from Lewis Carroll's stories, was the draw to American McGee's Alice ... not so much its rigid gameplay. For the long-rumored and long-discussed sequel, Madness Returns, McGee spices up the interactivity with fundamental, versatile mechanics -- hefty influence from the later-era Zelda games can be spotted at every turn, from the equipment structure to the environmental puzzles -- as it once again descends into the labyrinth of Alice's psychosis, a hybrid of fantastical beauty and steampunk-infused grittiness studded with echoes of the troubled girl's life. McGee's warped creativity, practical RPG-lite game design (gotta love the unlockable dresses), and an endlessly haunting score entwine into an absorbing and surprisingly lengthy experience full of radiant butterflies, floating doll heads, deadly teapots and, yes, Royal Cardsman, The dungeons of Alice's mind complicate her ornate pathway to recovery, transforming into a uniquely metaphorical expression and a sly ode to classic adventure games.
Once you've adjusted to Alpha Protocol's lackluster third-person gunplay (opt for stealth instead of shooting wherever possible) and uninspiring graphics, the accomplishments buried within Obsidian's writing and game design open up into a layered, relatively deep role-playing experience centered around contemporary espionage. No stranger to following in the footsteps of legendary RPG-maker BioWare, their story of up-and-coming spy Michael Thorton -- whose background the player chooses upon starting the game -- takes shape in several different ways depending on player input: his attitude towards authority figures, taste in women, and on-the-fly decisions inform the character's personality through timed dialogue choices. The consequences of these choices, even the romances, materialize into tangible responses throughout Mike's investigation of terrorist involvement in the crash of a jet airliner, resulting in many different possibilities for the story's resolution based on personal input. It's the closest thing to a James Bond simulator current available, and its flexibility goes woefully under-appreciated.
While other games this generation borrowed elements from previous hack-'n-slash RPGs like Zelda and God of War, none did so quite as liberally, respectfully, or adoringly as Vigil's pair of Darksiders games. Their first -- the story of War, one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, who tears across a post-apocalyptic proxy of Hyrule to exonerate his name in connection with the world's destruction -- blends structured "get this item to progress" adventure and weapons upgrade in the truest sense, relying on fast-paced, brutal action that funnels towards several clever (and frustrating) boss battles in a mythical setting. The sequel experimented further with its RPG-esque inventory, customizable combat, and open-world possibilities, telling the story of another of the horseman, Death, who seeks to undo War's accused wrongdoings and resurrect the human species. Each are epic-scaled fantasies with an intriguing storytelling foundation that excel as slightly different creations: one as an enthralling and dedicated ode to its influences, and the other as a fierce progression of where that fusion of gaming elements could go.
The hack-'n-slash hybrid genre took on a new face following the PS2 / XBOX generation, shortening the gap between action and role-playing in series that require both coordination and a close eye for upgrades. Silently sneaking up late in last-gen's production cycle was Dragon's Dogma, Capcom's entry in the twitch-style dungeon crawler that relishes customization, multiple play-throughs, and flexible skill classes across a quasi-open-world map. Outside of the story's central ideas of a human fighting vigorously without their heart -- stolen by a dragon, Grigori -- and the ethereal, user-created "pawns" that follow this Arisen hero on their quest, the European-esque medieval environment takes clear inspiration from lower-fantasy universes like Game of Thrones while telling its mythically somber story. The game's responsive combat is given versatility by the easiness of switching combat concentrations (blades, bows, magic, and hybrids of each) and broad crafting / loot opportunities, which can be helpful when taking on one of the game's many invigorating oversized creature battles ... that frequently demand the Arisen to scramble for a grip on a wing or a neck for a clear shot at their foe.
Upon its release, the reception for Mirror's Edge was fairly polarized: some relished DICE's sharp, sparse visual design and coordination-based flow across several possible paths atop roofs and through buildings, while others justifiably felt the storytelling sparse and the colored guidance system to betray its ambitions towards an open-world parkour simulator. While it's easy to agree with the misgivings over Faith's story, told through choppy animated sequences that progress in small doses across the game, the effects of pinpointing poles to grab, gaps to slide under, and ledges to reverse-jump at while caught in the runner's first-person momentum are incredibly immersive. In that, DICE tells its own visceral story of Faith's rush to avoid the authorities in a deceptively dystopian society, backed by a magnificent score that often feels like the pulse and endorphins firing off in Faith's body. And while the narrative is simple, it does have the heart of resistance against oppressive authorities and the unconditional bond between family to propel the stubborn hero forward, while her choices for or against using lethal violence offer plenty of gameplay variety while scrambling for the next ledge from which to vault.
Speaking of Mirror's Edge, that's the game initially used as a comparison to Remember Me, coupled with the science-fiction content of Inception in how the lead character, Nilin, alters the memories of her targets. While it's also set in an oppressive future, there's far more to the story here, from the protagonist's relationship with the creators of the Memorize mind-altering tech to the AI-powered setting of Neo-Paris. There's an intriguing science-fiction backbone to the story as Nilin suffers from the effects of having her own memory wiped, which creates the game's episodic structure as she climbs -- less like Faith in Mirror's Edge and more like the platforming in Prince of Persia -- between destinations in the dark atmosphere. Once she gets in hand-to-hand fights, Remember Me's polished combination system enters the picture, where the player can customize an array of punches, kicks, and special moves that accelerate Nilin's regeneration of various attributes, if they're landed properly. It's all a little one-note, but it's worth the patience once Nilin reaches those points where she rewinds people's memories, altering them to her benefit as she makes her way towards rediscovering herself.
Appreciation from those who enjoy the sandbox genre can be fickle when it comes to the balance between freedom of choice, narrative demands, and whether to maintain a straight or playful face under the conditions. Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row unleash criminals on metropolitan areas with dashes of social commentary and overt humor, while Assassin's Creed plays it about as straight as it can within realistic settings -- both of which have unrealistic grasps on the repercussions of their actions so the player can have anarchistic freedom. That's why it's unfortunate to see an entry in the genre like Pandemic's The Saboteur get tossed aside: it fits somewhere between being serious and lighthearted in its exaggerated depiction of Germany-occupied Paris during World War II, not unlike something similar to Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, giving the Irish racecar-driving protagonist, Sean Devlin, a plethora of explosives, climbing skills, and cars to unleash mayhem against the Nazis. And when he does, the game's "freedom" mechanic slowly lets the black-and-white graphics fill with color to signify escalating morale, a simplistic yet idealistic and poetic way of tracking progress across its high-octane story.
From Killer7 to No More Heroes, Grasshopper Manufacture's strength resides in their fusion of outlandish humor and references to geek culture, slathered atop familiar gameplay styles as a medium for their off-kilter style. With Shadows of the Damned, they did this again by teaming up with Resident Evil director Shinji Mikami for the over-the-shoulder horror style that gained mainstream appeal with RE4, guiding a demon hunter, Garcia Hotspur, into the labyrinth of the levels of Hell in search of his kidnapped beloved, Paula. Exaggerated, often insane humor drives Hotspur and his saucy attitude through a bleak and colorful range of gnarly locales, as he adjusts to the denizens who can switch between light and dark with the flip of a ... goat head. Grasshopper incorporates a ton of different spirit-killing weapons -- given shape by Hotspur's skullhead torch buddy, Johnson -- and a few unpredictable gameplay segments that add variety to the dripping atmosphere, culminating into a wild, charismatic take on horror-survival corridor exploration.
The cards were stacked against Downpour from the very beginning: on top of following a lukewarm reception to Silent Hill: Homecoming from its loyal fans (despite still being a fairly satisfying entry in the franchise from Double Helix), the next game's development was once again sent away from Konami and over to the unseasoned -- now defunct -- Vatra Games, while legendary composer Akira Yamaoka wasn't involved due to his resignation from Konami. Slowly, however, the project started taking shape, emphasizing its atmosphere, its more personal character storytelling from the perspective of a sympathetic and mentally-tortured escaped convict, and the employment of Dexter's Daniel Licht as its composer. What results in Downpour is rough-around-the-edges, sure, but it's also a surprisingly strong, atmospheric, macabre return to the psychological horror that made the franchise what it is, while incorporating a new role-playing mechanic based on the lead character's decisions towards violence and acceptance of his spectral surroundings. For my money, the process of cautiously exploring the segments of the vast haunted town's map descends into the eeriness of survival horror better than most this gen.
Everything about 2K / Yager's military shooter appears absolutely routine on the surface, built on the idea of reconnaissance missions and soldier retrieval in the landscape of Dubai, which has transformed into a sandy and byzantine warzone. Inside each building offers unique architecture to fight through, full of the dilapidated glitz and glamour one would expect of the locale, while stiff but serviceable third-person cover-shooting mechanics habitually keep the action moving forward. Decisions are made in tricky, often grotesque situations, though, building towards an unsettling mood that's centered on patriotism and sacrifice under the guise of war. Once Spec Ops: The Line reaches its conclusion, it completely defies one's expectations of the gung-ho military games that have preceded it, instead choosing to say some rather dark, psychologically-provocative things about soldiers, following orders, and the turmoil they undergo as their perspective on life twists under the circumstances. As a game, it's fine; as an experience, however, it's a masterful example of the bleak immersion that's capable in the gaming medium.
Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 5/30/2014