Category Archives: Indie

The Unique Aesthetic of Wilson’s Heart and Monument Valley 2

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Monument Valley was a very interesting and aesthetically pleasing project when it released so it stands to reason that the sequel should and would be as well. Although there are several new gimmicks and ideas in play for all intents and purposes you’re looking at a continuation of the same game and same vein of design. This isn’t a bad thing at all.

What you may not be expecting is for me to compare the beautifully crafted visuals and puzzling gameplay of Monument Valley and its sequel to that of the monochromatic, dark and occult filled visuals of Wilson’s Heart. A virtual reality adventure and a downloadable game don’t always have much in common but starting today I’m making a connection between these two in particular.

It’s not so much that they have anything in common rather it’s the fact that both push the boundary of visual presentation in one way or another, or perhaps even in several ways in some instances. Functionality notwithstanding, each of these games is a thorough experience that relies heavily upon visual input and context. The ways in which you’re able to perceive specific stages directly impacts how you’re able to accomplish or complete them in Monument Valley 2 whereas the ways you’re able to react to and interact with the Lovecraftian occult setting and situations within Wilson’s Heart directly influences your experience as well.

Perception and reception are very much an integral part in the game making and game playing processes. Look no further than these two titles for confirmation of that one simple truth. Puzzle games are notorious for requiring players to adhere to a strict and often steep learning curve however this is all down based upon the expectation that if you show somebody how to do something and slowly walk them through whilst holding their hand, eventually they’ll be able to fly through the task on their own later. Continuing along that train of thought, if you see somebody place a blue and orange portal and then go through one and emerge from the other then naturally you’ll pick up how the specific mechanics perform in context as well.

How we perceive the world around us often differs with regard to specific stimuli in the environment and a whole metric plethora of other factors that may be involved from the womb until the tomb. There is no “one way” to perceive a situation or pick up on a particular aesthetic value or visualization as fate (and apparently science) would have it. And that’s why both Wilson’s Heart and Monument Valley 2 are two of the most recent and most intriguing views into both perception and reception in terms of visual effect and resonance for me personally. Sure, I could’ve taken the easy way out and chosen a game such as the aptly named Perception or perhaps even What Remains of Edith Finch but then that would be cheating don’t you think? We knew all along that those two games would purposely distort reality and offer a surreal and uncharacteristically and aesthetically challenging adventure.

In many ways the visuals of Monument Valley and Monument Valley 2 on the whole just have this air of surrealism yet it’s presented in such a uniquely tangible way as well. You see beautifully rendered and colored backdrops and the simplistic yet ultimately complex and multifaceted levels of the castles and stages and they just make you stop and think and appreciate the art style for a moment or two. Wilson’s Heart on a more cerebral level forces you to think in much the same way but it has more to do with the monochromatic visuals and old, campy horror vibe than it does with the surreal Cthulhu vibes the game gives off for the duration of its screentime. Sometimes it’s simple ambiance and principle that give quality to a project or perhaps that render it admirable or even redeemable when it would otherwise be a loss in terms of gameplay and presentation.

On one hand we have Monument Valley 2 which is most definitely a game that I would consider to be both pretty and unique but on the other you have Wilson’s Heart which is something rougher around the edges and yet no less enjoyable that some other dark and unique tales such as Outlast or Amnesia. Wilson’s Heart may derive some success from the level of camp it attributes to old B-movies and old school monster flicks and yet it is also ultimately a visual and presented success due to the vibes it can tap into akin to independently developed horror projects of recent fame and fortune.

Sometimes it’s impressive what you can compare yourself to and not just what you can showcase in your own unique way. It’s about connections and perception just as much as quality and reception. Cheers.

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What Remains of Edith Finch Review

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What Remains of Edith Finch is a game that I have long awaited because it blends the talent at Giant Sparrow with the conceptual value of titles such as Gone Home and adds in a much more macabre element. After all, this is essentially a game where you relive the semi-black humor semi-horrible deaths of each and every one of your family members as you waltz around the nooks and crannies of a lively house. So that right there makes Edith Finch one of the indie darlings of the Play Station 4 this year and adds it to the growing collection of games featuring Inside and all things Playdead as well in terms of dark and engrossing narratives.

Edith Finch very much finds itself fixated with the prospect of death and yet it also proves that there is always something to live for. It is a very interesting and unique take on the human condition in more ways than one and even livens up the otherwise tried and tired concept of walking around a house or other mostly linear area and reveling in your exploration a la Gone Home and Firewatch. Rather than merely be a carbon copy of all things done in the past, E.F. makes its own strides work and pushes far beyond what we’ve seen thus far.

There is still the detailed way in which you must inevitably uncover clues and progress the plot, however the mere way the text is represented and narrated as you watch the words shift and fold onto the screen and on objects of interest makes things interesting enough. As you search the house and come across items belonging to lost relatives or objects of interest the creative ways in which the smoky text scrawl onto the screen and off of it when your perspective shifts are always engaging and imaginative. Although you are playing as the last Finch and the titular Edith, it’s also interesting to note that you’ll be literally living through the morbid ways in which your relatives bit the dust as well through reenactment and reading.

There is an attention to detail in both the narrative and housing situation that constantly wowed me in ways that the admittedly bland games that have come before have not. Edith Finch looks graphically amazing and it also adds a believable amount of clutter to its main setting in ways that Gone Home and Firewatch and other similar title have not managed to do. At its root it is essentially the same type of game and yet with its variety of established characters and rich story it feels radically different as well. Although you will find yourself listening to just as many narrations and dialogues as any other exploration game in the same vein, the way it dynamically draws players in is both admirable and thoroughly worth the investment of a few short hours.

What Remains of Edith Finch is both an experience grounded in reality and one that offers a sublime and surreal quality not before seen in the genre of late. Adventure games are very much making a comeback and in my mind Edith Finch is leading the charge as of right now. There is an ironic sense of childish fantasy overlapping with discussion of adult subjects and overall mortality and morality which is something that remains engaging throughout the morose and macabre environments you’ll explore. The game does a great job of balancing the lighter and darker elements and sometimes they’re quite difficult to distinguish from each other a well.

Although there is a degree of linearity particularly in how each segment where you “play” as another family member pans out, it’s interesting to note that there are still those little instances of openness and ambiguity offered to the player in how you approach situations that eventually lead to the same inevitable conclusion. In some ways it operates as the Telltale brand of interactive storytelling does, albeit without the same level of choice in terms of alteration to the overall narrative. The text-driven narration and the general environments themselves often mesh together in ways that draw your attention from one thing to the next and never leave you feeling out of the action or bored for a moment- something that even excellent AAA games could learn from lengthy audio tapes and collectibles.

There is a certain degree of ambiguity to the game’s eventual conclusion despite the premise being relatively straightforward and to simply ascertain what has lead to the demise of your relatives. That is your main goal and an easily accomplished one, however part way through the story it also becomes clear that something darker and more sinister is also afoot. Although there are hints as to how and why your relatives have been lead like lambs to the slaughter, it’s left ultimately up to players to mostly infer why and how. The saddest thing of all is that this information is purportedly available to you however circumstance dictates time and time again that you’re denied the full revelation and as such culminates in a slightly disappointing finish to an otherwise brilliant title.

At its basest level, Edith Finch is about ultimately exploring the theme of death and immortality and how they go hand in hand. Although each of her seemingly ill-fated and cursed family members has been struck down by death’s chilled hand, each has also been immortalized both in their writings and memories as well as Edith’s own characterizations and representations of them. You constantly learn more and more about the facets that make up each character and as such they are highly realized even if they never necessarily appear in the course of the game outside of their perspective and musings. It’s an interesting way to tell a story and certainly an intriguing method to convey one with such deeply disturbing and empathetic tones as this one.

Death truly is not always the end and life is such a beautiful thing and should not be taken for granted. What Remains of Edith Finch constantly hammers these points home in more ways than one and is better for it.

Concept: Explore your cluttered and memorable family home and discover the motivations behind several relatives and the choices that ultimately lead to their untimely demise.

Graphics: The game is artistic and beautiful and constantly shifts between realistic and surreal at the flick of a switch. It conveys the tone and the mood throughout the narrative and often reflects what is being said as well as what is being felt in a believable manner.

Sound: At times the voice-work can be quite mesmerizing and is certainly one of the higher points for the game. The sound work is also respectable and shifts to suit the tone of the moment being played out.

Playability: The games controls are easy to grasp and just as easy to handle. Understandably it works quite in part due to the large amount of talent involved with playtesting the game prior to its launch- featuring developers from famous studios and writers for upcoming games such as The Last of Us Part Two for example.

Entertainment: Although Edith Finch’s own dynamic story is at the forefront of the narrative, it’s just as interesting to look to the past and to what tragic ironies and calamities have befallen her relatives. It’s an expanding and shifting tale of changing perspectives and changing outlooks on life and all the more intriguing for it.

Replay Value: Low.

Overall Score: 8.0

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Small Crimes Review

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Small Crimes recently released on Netflix at the end of April and is the next in the seemingly endless stream of independent or miniature films to be featured on the streaming service. Unlike some of the drivel that often comes with these second chance or low budget films being made and provided on the closed circuit, Small Crimes is actually a pretty competent story as well as darkly comedic satire on turning your life around after a series of unfortunate events.

Based upon the first book in a trilogy of novels written by Dave Zeltserman, Small Crimes sees its main protagonist- Joe Denton (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) released from prison following a short term stay for attempted murder and drug abuse. Each novel in the trilogy focuses on a more or less “bad” person who has recently been released from prison and the effects this has on their prospects as well as how well (or poorly) they manage to escape their past mistakes. In Joe’s case, things get pretty grim from the outset.

Something that sort of surprised me throughout the hour and a half film was how well it manages to handle some complicated ideas and simplify things down to human nature and emotional attachment. There are a lot of ideas juggled by the film but more or less it focuses on a handful and comes out better for it- no complicated plot twists here so much as there are ironic turns of events. Coster-Waldau is easily the highlight of the film as he brings the dirty cop and hitman vibe with equal measures narcissism and grit. Robert Forster, Gary Cole, and Molly Parker also play their respective roles quite well- Forster as Joe’s father, Cole as his former partner and another cop on the take, and Parker as a love interest and nurse.

The thing that Small Crimes does the best is get the job done, quite unlike Joe Denton in many ways. It isn’t immediately apparent that it carries almost a darkly comedic and satirical vibe although there are some instances where things take a dramatic turn for the worse in the most ironic way imaginable. It’s almost like there’s some sense of ex machina except every situation takes a turn for the worse rather than ever getting any better. It is very much a film about a man trying to redeem himself and despite everything being dragged back to his old ways and old world.

Although it has a relatively short run-time, one of the best things about Small Crimes is how well it wraps up and how cleanly it does so after a messy final act that quite literally butchers the majority of the main cast. What at first began as a film that hints at the violent nature of Joe’s world soon becomes a showcase of the reality of cause and effect as well as choice and consequence. What begins as a simple hit on a former mob boss who plans to spill the beans to the local district attorney quickly devolves into an all-out war that rages throughout the small town setting. Nobody is safe, not even Jaime Lannister.

On one hand, the film may not seem altogether too deep and it has been criticized for some of its simplicity and lack of complex motives or meaning. However, if you really look closely you will see there are so many intricate dynamics between the characters and Coster-Waldau predominately embodies this in his performance which really makes you feel as if he knows his fellow actors as intimately as his character does. There is a particularly ironic and tragic bit in the very end where Coster-Waldau gives so much weight to everything that has happened and the scene is veritably dripping with emotion despite him only giving a meaningful glance to his father and wiping a knife clean of prints.

Small Crimes isn’t a simple film by any means but a lot of what it does best is create simple complexities rather than needlessly confusing plot points and obscure references. It is concise and to the point which the story definitely benefits from and it has some interesting and colorful characters that range from extreme to deranged depending on the given situation. There aren’t many unnecessary revelations but the level to which pretty much all of its events tie-in and come together almost reminds me of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the masterful way that it tied together seemingly unique stories.

Small Crimes is by no means perfect but in my mind it is one of the better offerings we’ve seen come straight to Netflix lately and if you’re a fan of darkly humorous and ironic films, there’s a strong possibility that you’ll enjoy this one as well. Think of it as somewhere between a gritty crime film and a typical Coen Brothers production- not quite one extreme or the other, but more a commentary on redemption than anything else.

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In Five Minutes or Less: Little Nightmares

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Before I begin this semi-review, semi-not-a-review post in earnest, allow me to state the obvious: you’re undoubtedly going to hear Little Nightmares in the same conversations you hear about Limbo and Inside in some ways. Ignore that chatter. Little Nightmares may strike some similar chords to what Playdead has done with their past titles, however it is in no way striking the same tone or note in what experiences it attempts to convey.

Yes, there are the similar tropes that come with dark games and brooding environments featuring dire and grotesque consequences for any unwary and unwelcome traveler. There are ultimately gruesome ends your adorable character can meet and plenty of equally gruesome foes to send her there. Environmental hazards and puzzles come in equal numbers and the mere use of light and darkness is more than enough to set the tone for each stage of the short yet endearing exploration.

If you’re into platforming puzzle titles that also feature palpable amounts of ambiance and relevant horrors and low-key fears that will probably make you cringe once you realize the extent of their depth and attention to detail, then Little Nightmares will rock your socks off. Or knock them off and freeze you with fear. Perhaps the most exciting component in the game is that it leaves pretty much everything except what you see with your own eyes quite ambiguous in an almost ‘Souls’ sort of way (of handling lore)- minus the bloody scratch marks on the ground everywhere.

Ambiguity permeates the entire experience and makes it a more convincing and exceptionally interesting one for that matter. You aren’t even given so much as maybe the occasional hint to rotate the camera around if you get stuck, however the rest of the controls are never exactly specified and so it’s up to you to learn the ropes. The experience perfectly meshes both two-dimensional and three-dimensional perspective into a very well thought out 2.5D platforming puzzler.

Although you are very definitely little and dwarfed by the surroundings you will encounter, there is nothing little at all about the immense nightmarish rogues you will inevitably face or flee. Because you cannot fight back in most cases, there is always an air of tension and terror whenever these foes enter the picture and you must fly through some puzzle or another and make it to the next area. I’m still quite shocked at how well thought out each room is and how each area ratchets up the tension and the screen literally crawls with the sound effects and slight background happenings as well.

Little Nightmares is a game that will easily catch you if you pay too much attention to your surroundings, but will ironically let you escape its clutches time and time again should you not find yourself entirely caught up in the warped reality it presents. For the most part the puzzle and platform gameplay never gets too difficult and so the entire experience is perfectly accessible, enjoyable, and entirely worthwhile in my opinion. The presentation itself will pique your curiosity and then the events themselves, as they unfold, should firmly grasp it and drag you into the experience.

The vivid imagery and scenes steal the show almost when coupled with the eerie and daunting soundtrack accompaniment. Oftentimes you may stumble onto a new area and not even notice the body dangling from a rope overhead with its feet just barely visible or the faint outline of a shadow shuffling hurriedly in the background. It’s the moments like that that add to the feeling that someone is always watching and that every skittering motion on screen is some new devilish foe come to rend your flesh or curdle your blood.

Needless to say, Little Nightmares isn’t your typical horror game and it’s much better for that fact. Ambiguity is the name of the game and the game itself will wear you out each and every time you think you’ve understood its nature- right up until the very end. You can feel free to stop and stare at the beautiful surroundings any time, however it still has a relatively run time and as such is a compact and entirely artistic and expressive experience.

If I were to apply my typical review material and run down the brief checklist of everything I tend to go through in those lengthy posts, Little Nightmares would be getting no less than a 9.5 out of 10 from me. It’s entirely deserving of that and a highly replayable experience if only to see the little touches that you’ll pick up with each runthrough here and there.

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Games I Didn’t Review in 2016: Obduction

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Silly old me thought for the longest time that the title of the semi-spiritual successor to Myst/Riven/All-That-Good-Stuff point and click adventure was a mere typo or perhaps creative indifference to the spelling of abduction. As it stands, I think it rather ironically would encapsulate the narrative in either its present spelling or that alternative. Obduction instead refers in no small part to something along the lines of opposite subduction, or rather oceanic lithosphere forcing itself over continental counterparts.

All that scientific banter aside, Obduction really is a fitting title for this game and since I’m seeking to avoid spoiling the majority of the narrative, I’ll say little more than that. At first glance it seems like just another adventure seeking to cash in on this newfangled idea of nuevo-retro. What I mean by this is that it takes an old gaming concept and places it into a new gaming era and melds the best of both worlds, or in this case multiple realms. The narrative and lore behind Obduction is certainly one of its strongest points and like the Myst saga, I really enjoyed how it was fleshed out and how things are rarely as they initially seem.

Even with Cyan Worlds having developed the game with the thought in mind for it to be a spiritual successor to Myst/Riven, the only ways in which it is truly similar stem from the gameplay and some of the ideas of travel and various worlds and time displacements and similarly intriguing alien technology. If you know anything about the Myst series- whether it be lore or gameplay or overall narrative, then you may find this particular title engaging as well. The most interesting of all the narrative elements and potential in Obduction is definitely the meshing of several worlds and several time periods. For example, there is an advanced alien subculture lying dormant right alongside a displaced wild western town straight out of the late eighteen hundreds.

Perhaps another of the unintended and yet awesomely interesting elements of the game is the ambiguity surrounding narrative and character choice. Certainly, some things will undoubtedly seem and in fact be very linear throughout the adventure. However there are also particular points littered throughout the story where your character’s journey or the concurrent adventures of the few other beings you encounter may come to an abrupt and even brutally twisted end. I won’t say much more for fear of ruining some of the finer endgame moments, but suffice it to say few things are as they seem.

Obduction, if it aspires to be anything else or anything other, is certainly a game revolving around unintended consequences and brilliance of simple design. I think that is probably one of its other admirable traits, and it is definitely something we don’t see as much nowadays or perhaps ever. I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure itself for the feelings it elicited, the narrative tropes it trod, and the lore it hid slightly beneath the surface. It is always invigorating to experience something along the lines of a thrill ride in such a seemingly archaic and simple adventure game revolving around core mechanics such as light puzzle solving and information gathering. Yes, it can inevitably have its boring or even low points, but if you stick by it then the payoff is totally worth it.

For what it’s worth, I have only good things to say about this particular title as a whole and I would probably give it somewhere between an 8.0 and 8.5 out of ten. That’s high praise coming from me and something I believe it is entirely deserving of as well. I implore you to give it a whirl if you’re into old school adventures, an interesting story, or simply want to branch out into a new genre of gaming.

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Games I Didn’t Review in 2016: Chronos

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Last year was a busy time for me- in fact, this year and every year for the past four or five have been incredibly busy. Therefore, it only makes sense that I approach the veritable heap of a backlog of reviews that I owe the universe. These are titles that I’ve played and already formulated opinions on, and yet for whatever reason I could not find the time to review in full. However, I will write some brief remarks regarding each game that I decide to do this for. Essentially, my goal is to provide ample detail- although avoiding spoilers to some degree, in regards to the overarching plot lines or major details of the games themselves.

Chronos is an intriguing game in many ways. It was one of the headlining titles for the Oculus Rift and has received excellent reviews to date. It sits somewhere around an 80/85 percent out of one hundred. It isn’t your traditional virtual reality experience, and when I say this I mean you can actually see a playable character as with any traditional third-person role-playing game. While there are light role-playing mechanics present within the game, the experience is mostly atmospheric and not necessarily deep enough to rival anything like The Witcher or The Elder Scrolls in terms of questlines or overall narrative prowess.

The story seems to draw on some ancient roots of Greek and Roman mythology and the title may even allude to such as well if you think about it- as well as the passing of time. You take control of a hero on a “lifelong quest” to purge their homeland of an almighty evil and to delve deeper and deeper into a mysterious labyrinth which is central to the plot. Another interesting thing in regard to time and the title itself is that said labyrinth only opens once a year and if you fail to delve deep enough to uncover its secrets you will be cast out until the next time it chooses to open. At its core, Chronos is an adventure game first and foremost and as such it offers plenty of thrills and gorgeous visuals.

Leveling, as with most role-playing games, is an important part of your adventure. However, Chronos approaches this in a way that sort of reminds me of Fable and yet is totally original in its own right as well. Each adventure into the labyrinth ages your hero as they must wait to return another year should they fail in their quest. Obviously, things are not going to be easy enough for you to just run through in your first year- so coming back is completely in the question. As you age you start to lose stamina and agility and gain other attributes like magical prowess. It’s a neat and refreshing give or take system and it definitely changes the way you play as well.

As with many of the Oculus Rift launch games and with virtual reality adventures in general, Chronos isn’t necessarily a very long game. That having been said, it is probably one of the lengthiest and best virtual reality projects I’ve yet to play in my own experience with the consoles with provide VR. Most people should clock in anywhere from twenty to thirty hours on it and could definitely see more than that if they make a goal of finding every single secret and scrap of lore within the adventure. The attention to detail, the solid mechanics, and the overall aesthetic experience have such a level of depth and attention to quality gaming that it really pleasantly surprised me.

Gunfire Games deserves all of the praise they’ve been getting for Chronos and I definitely would recommend it to anyone interested in playing a few VR titles in the future. Once the price for VR headsets and equipment goes down a little bit and there are other quality titles to accompany this one in your collection, you should definitely make a point of at least attempting to play it whether adventure-RPGs are your “thing” or not. In my mind, it’s at least a solid 8 out of 10 and definitely worth the time and effort.

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Absolving Us of our Sins

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Today’s post has to do with two games that are coming in the as of yet undetermined future, but supposedly within the bounds of 2017. The first title is Absolver- an action oriented role-playing game seeking to meld concepts of RPGs and MMOs in terms of story and open-world gameplay. The second is similar in design but follows a more rogue-like situation as it is none other than Capybara’s Below. While these two games bear similarities in both initial glances and potential expectations, they couldn’t be more different upon looking at the winding paths they’ve taken during their development and overall tenure in creative production.

I’ll start with Absolver, which is being developed by Sloclap- a studio made up of former Ubisoft veterans who have worked on a number of titles in the past including Ghost Recon. It is being handled on the publishing side by Devolver Digital- more widely recognized for their work on the Shadow Warrior reboot and sequel. In terms of technicality, the game is going to be rendered fully in a version of Unreal Engine 4 and therefore should be pretty versatile in what it can handle and how it can evolve throughout the single and multiplayer components of the campaign and story.

The game is set in a fantastical land rife with martial artists and warriors seeking to prove themselves worthy of admission into a class of peacekeepers which derive their names from the title of the game itself- Absolvers. The game seems to want to meld plenty of preexisting attributes from other titles into an original and inventive experience, which is commendable to say the least. Players will find themselves in 3v3 and 1v1 matchups against computer controlled and player controlled opponents throughout the story as they traverse an open-world setting. While at its core it wishes to be a fighting game, movesets will be determined by collected cards and skills- meaning the more gear and bonuses you desire, the more exploration and combat you’ll inevitably face.

As of right now, the game is set to be initially released for PS4 and for PC, which brings me to my smooth jazz transition to Below- set to show up on Xbox One and PC initially. Below has been in development for what seems like a very long time, and has consistently been one of my most anticipated titles of the year. Luckily, it seems like we may have an opportunity to actually witness its arrival in 2017 and alongside a slew of promising content and activities as well. I’ve already mentioned that it shares some single and multiplayer similarities to what Absolver wishes to accomplish, that it is a rogue-like title, and that it too has an evolving and open world. What also catches my attention is the fact that perspective and exploration play an even larger role in Below than combat and evolution seeks to.

It is, at its root, an adventure title seeking to send your tiny player-character into the world and the depths of caverns and crags in an ever-evolving experience and story. You will very definitely be able to write your own experience and your own narrative in the way you explore and the things you discover. The difficulty and overall mechanics sound very close in execution to Salt and Sanctuary- a title that many have enjoyed comparing to an independently developed Dark Souls, essentially for lack of a better comparison. If you think back to Double Fine’s Massive Chalice, which featured randomly generated worlds and stages and an interesting overarching narrative woven into the player-characters’ survival, you’ve probably got a firm handle on what Below seeks to encompass.

While the finer points and details of both titles are inevitably not going to release until closer to said games’ actual release dates as well, I’d like to think I know what to expect but also am open to welcome advancements and surprises. Below has been a long time coming and even Absolver has been in development for several years now, so it’ll be nice to see how they are received and if they live up to the hype and anticipation. I like to think that indie experiences constantly surprise and baffle us more than their triple-A competition, and that they’re more likely to garner praise and receive cult followings than to be belittled like annual releases and large IPs. I know today’s post has been a brief one but I’ll leave you with a gorgeous picture of Capybara’s adventure title as compensation.

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Milly Schmidt

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