Wednesday, March 13, 2013

In The Pale Moonlight: YEAR WALK Review

In Swedish folklore, the Year Walk was an ancient and mysterious vision quest embarked upon by those who wished to peer into the future, sometimes against all wisdom. Abstaining from food or drink or human contact for an entire day, the Year Walker would venture out in the dead of night on New Year's Eve, often encountering guardian spirits who tested the fortitude of the traveler--if he survived, he would be granted a vision of things to come in the next year, for good or ill.  Year Walk (iOS, $3.99), a recently released adventure by Simogo, puts the player in the snow-crusted shoes of a lovesick wanderer on one of these journeys.
A pale horse is a pale horse, of course, of course.

Year Walk works best going in with as little information as possible, though a free companion app is available that fills in the folklore background and contains hints to uncover the "true" ending. But there are no instructions, no tutorials, and no menus here. You begin in the snow-covered woods outside your cabin, and from there you wander the maze-like, phantasmal forest, stumbling across artifacts, mysterious etchings and symbols, and abandoned shelters, all under a palpable sense of foreboding. The art style and ethereal soundtrack--with its grim papery cut-outs and dissonant strains--contribute to the feeling of being warned away by increasingly hostile presences.

Unfortunately, Year Walk is only about as long as an afternoon stroll, easily completed in less than two hours. The game makes good use of the interface possibilities on the iPhone or iPad--though none of the puzzles are particularly difficult, they occasionally require some lateral thinking about the device you're using. (It also helps to keep a pad and pencil handy.) But there's no denying the game is more of an "atmospheric experience" than anything else. As such, its appeal hinges on how immersed you feel in it, and one might reasonably wonder how creepy a game can be on a four or five-inch cell phone. With headphones plugged in and zero distractions, however, it is possible to feel like that lost journeyman trudging inexorably toward a final, awful revelation.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Adventures In The Hyper-Dimension: A Review of Antichamber

If you're feeling insufficiently grateful for our universe and its immutable laws of dimensional space, it's time you played Antichamber. A mind-and-spacetime-bending puzzler in the vein of Portal, Antichamber (PC, available on Steam, $19.99) quickly teaches you not to trust your assumptions about video games, direction, perspective, Euclidean geometry and pretty much the entire fabric of reality.
Never look for the bathroom at M.C. Escher's house on your own.

There's no story to speak of in Antichamber. The game begins in a spare, closed antechamber (natch), resembling a deactivated Star Trek holodeck. On one wall, below a message reading "ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW", are some rudimentary instructions and game options. On the opposite wall, an exit door beckons tauntingly behind a pane of glass. It will be a while before you get there, if it even matters when you do. 

And on yet another wall is a map, showing the first and only chamber room available at the start. From there the game proceeds in a nominally linear manner; each room is a puzzle, and though all rooms are connected and some can't be solved before others, you have the option of returning to the map room at any time and warping to any previously explored areas by clicking on them. In this way you hop back and forth between the map room and the maze itself, cruising through the puzzles until you are stumped, then warping back to revisit a different room. It's clear Antichamber wants you to discover as much as possible on your own, so it's difficult to get specific about puzzles without ruining anything. Suffice to say, the bulk of the game involves environment manipulation--the manner and rules of which are for you to figure out. There are portals in Antichamber as well, but they are not big glowing hoops in walls, nor do you have any control of them or even see them--they lie in a hyper-dimension, transporting you when you face one direction and turn back again, or peer through a window showing a view of where you thought you weren't but suddenly are. Do not expect space to behave rationally for you here--walls and floors disintegrate, stairs materialize under your feet, hallways continue endlessly in one direction and suddenly end in the other. It's not quite as terrifying as an  extra-dimensional Dr. Watson, but it may approximate insanity.

Antichamber does what it can to nudge you along while feeding you as little explicit information as possible. Dozens of placards hang on the walls of the complex in nearly every room, providing hints disguised as sketches and fortune-cookie aphorisms. The bold colors splashed across the monochrome interiors are often clues in and of themselves. And once in a while, the chamber acknowledges it is too confusing for its own good and just draws an arrow for you to follow.

Even with the sideways winks and nudges, it sometimes feels like the game could use a little more signposting. Though the puzzles are some of the most original you'll find in a video game, they occasionally succumb to dreaded "fiddliness", wherein the controls aren't quite up to the demands of the solution, leaving you wondering whether you are doing what the game wants in the first place. And the game's refusal to tell you anything about what you can expect to find may also leave you struggling over puzzles that are impossible to solve for the time being. But as with most puzzle games, user experiences vary widely. (Read: You may be smarter than I am.)

But overall, this is one of the most original and brain-cramping puzzle video games to come along in years. Remarkably, Antichamber is largely the work of one person, developer Alexander Bruce, and the sheer ingenuity and consistency of its design cannot be denied.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Look At You, Chicken

Public service announcement (via RPS): System Shock 2, the classic PC survival horror game I sold back to Electronics Boutique in 2000 because it was too scary, has finally been rescued from  distribution rights purgatory and will be available for digital download on starting tomorrow.