Safe House Review

Congratulations

Labs Games promises a marriage between Papers, Please, Sim Tower, and the adventures of James Bond in Safe House. It sounds like a fascinating concept to take a bit of the bureaucratic paper shuffling puzzles and themes from Papers, Please and put those within a building management simulation. That idea grabbed me when I first read about it. It could be very interesting to play the part of a CIA safe house manager in the fictional city of Kazataire.

From midnight each in-game night until ten in the morning I had to decide who to let in the front door of the “book store,” which deliveries to let in around back, who gets interrogated, and what missions my spies and soldiers would take. The side-on cutout view of the building looks like Fallout Shelter’s vault and the base of operations in XCom.

If you complete your management tasks correctly, and if your soldiers and spies complete theirs, you’ll earn cash to upgrade the safe house with different rooms that give you new tasks. Those new rooms can also be upgraded over time. Slowly transforming your safe house from an empty office building into a busy money-generating operation for the CIA.

The description for the game calls the tasks in each room puzzles, and they end up being the bulk of what you’re doing with your time in Safe House, so it’s important that they’re interesting to complete. Unfortunately, while there are a variety of those tasks to do, they lack the fun and polish other games apply to make those types of puzzles interesting. Sure, it sounds different to assemble the ingredients for an improvised explosive device in your safe house’s bomb making room, but the actual experience is just reading a list of random components and then clicking on each one in the correct order until you’ve assembled three bombs. The challenge here is that some of the ingredients have similar-sounding names so it can take a few moments to tell Trolite from Tritolone and Tritolite.

Bomb making instructions

In the infirmary a patient will materialize out of thin air. Here you would consult the instructions that tell you how to infuse the patient with the correct type of blood and a type of medicine to treat whatever problem they have. Each patient has three ingredients they’re allergic to, so you have another list to read with similar-sounding names until you find just the right one. If you give the agents that show up in the infirmary correctly typed blood, and the right medications, they disappear from the room the same way that patients you’ve failed will pass on.

The only difference between success and failure with any of these tasks is the dollar amount that appears briefly on-screen. The game never tells you what you did wrong with the tasks you fail, it just deducts the cash that you would have gotten from your safe house’s bank balance. The bombs you make don’t get used in the game. The patients you treat aren’t your agents that were harmed on missions, they’re just random nobodies.

When you deal with the spies that come in the front door, and you correctly identify the ones to let in, they don’t actually go into your safe house. They just depart with the same animation that spies you misidentify or kick out use to leave. Strangely, they disappear a few steps out of the door. That’s the most animation you’ll see in a typical night of managing your safe house.

There could be some way to make theses tasks less repetitive and more rewarding, but every job in the game is just as tedious. I want to see the results of the actions in the game. If I let the wrong person in the front door it’d be interesting to have them run through your safe house and steal a document or let a prisoner go, or mess with your dossier so that you can’t see some key piece of information for that day. Cascading failures make games like this interesting. In Fallout Shelter when something goes wrong it’s up to your survivors to fend off attacks or repair broken systems that your vault needs to function. The spies and soldiers you hire in Safe House move about in their room or barracks a little but they don’t ever walk around outside it or have any interaction with the other rooms.

There aren’t enough consequences to your actions in Safe House. Sure a monetary penalty is bad, but it’s not bad enough, and the experience of Safe House is playing these same droll mini-games over and over again until the night is over and you move on to the next day where you have the option to make new rooms or upgrade old ones and recruit or send agents and soldiers on missions.

Good lord

There’s a stereotypical 1960’s look and sound to games about spies that this game feels like it is leaning towards but doesn’t quite make it there. The audio is complete with the smoothest muzak from an elevator and a few audio brief notes to alert you to your success or failure and when it is time to see which one of the safe house’s rooms needs your attention for the next task.

From a small development team, I didn’t expect much in terms of graphical prowess, but the faces on the polygonal characters in your safe house just don’t make sense. The person that works at the loading dock has a permanent joker grin that looks straight out of the Batman animated series. When you get a barracks for soldiers or spy lounge you’ll see 2D character portraits for those characters that look a little bit like they’re from Penny Arcade before that comic turned into an unreadable mess thanks to PA’s creators being complete shitheads, but that style doesn’t really match the style of Safe House. The upgrades to the different rooms change each one a little bit, but that’s the only change you’ll see over time once each room in the building is occupied.

There are all sorts of software bugs within Safe House that get in the way of completing the campaign. Sometimes creating identification in the forgery room would fail for no apparent reason. The mission success reports often misspell words like “scientists,” “carriage,” and “comfortable.” I found about a dozen or so other issues I had with the game, none of these reset my progress but they all added up to a general sense that this game could use a lot more attention from the developer before it shipped.

The most disappointing part of Safe House is that it has an inkling of a story inside it about colonialism and American interventions on the behalf of business interests, with multiple endings, but it never earns the dramatic turns it takes. One time when Safe House turns in this direction your interrogation room that you thought was just for interviews is revealed to be a torture facility once it is fully upgraded. Your in-game avatar is shocked, other characters reveal who they actually are, and things change in the game. It could have been a very interesting turn of events if the game had an engrossing story from the start, but it never made me care about those characters.

Safe House has multiple endings, but after going through hours of repetitive tasks I didn’t want to play through the tutorial at the start of the game, and then 5 more hours of the gameplay Safe House had to offer, just to see each ending.

The premise of operating a CIA safe house is fascinating, there was clearly some thought put into style and sound design, but Safe House lacks the depth of other games that specialize in building a city or a tower, managing people, or old spy movies. The lack of polish is entirely excusable from a one-person developer, but the gameplay couldn’t live up to the concept. Papers, Please, Sim Tower, and James Bond are three ideas that probably can’t work together, but I really wish they had.

1 out of 5 Panic Rooms for Safe House. It’s $10 on Steam for Windows.

Happier times

Google AIY Voice Kit Review

The Dumbest Kid in Smart Speaker Class

AIY Voice Kit box

Google is selling a DIY smart speaker kit in the US through Target stores. They call it an AIY Voice Kit with the sub-heading of a “Do-it-yourself intelligent speaker.” Is it a kit that lives up to what the box promises for only $50? Let’s find out, together.

I’m not super fond of Google, they’re great at search but really make their money today by selling advertising space on websites. In my opinion, their “don’t be evil” motto has shifted as their priorities changed. There’s always the upfront cost of a product ($50) but with any smart speaker device there’s also the intangible cost of allowing a company to listen to, and process, whatever it can hear.

Ideally a smart speaker would only listen after a physical input, or most smart speakers also have a wake word to summon the device to interpret your speech and do something with it.  This kit has an arcade button on top for physical input if that’s your game.

The do-it-yourself aspect is mostly fun, you assemble the included bare speaker, wires, cardboard, arcade button, and a Raspberry Pi Zero WH with Google’s Voice Bonnet add-on board to make the smart speaker. It’s not very difficult to put this kit together, the instructions are clear, but it is missing two things you’ll need, and one critical component of the setup requires other tools or devices.

You’ll need a very small flathead screwdriver to connect the speaker cables to the terminals. I happen to have the right screwdriver, but these terminal screws are incredibly tiny. Your regular household tools aren’t going to work with them.

It only takes about an hour before you’re putting the included Micro SD card in and powering the speaker up, or you would be. If there were a power supply included. You get a USB cable in the box, but no power connection.

Why not include the power supply and the screwdriver in the box? The screwdriver is almost understandable, because you could own one already if you’re into technology. The power supply is just necessary for the device to function, it makes no sense to me that it isn’t included in a general-purpose kit.

Wires

There’s one other small issue with the connections inside the kit. The wires to connect the arcade button are not friendly to the color blind. I am only mildly color blind, so I can’t differentiate between some colors with red and green in them. The arcade button wires are blue, green, grey, black, red, and orange. I had a hard time picking out the green from the grey and the red from the orange.

Okay you’ve got the kit assembled, and you’ve found a power supply to turn it on.

How do you connect to the box so that you can get it on your home WiFi?

The Rapsberry Pi Zero WH included with the kit has USB, it has HDMI, but they’re all mini connectors that need adapters and a hub to connect a keyboard and mouse. The other option, and this is what I chose, is to use an app that is only available for Android devices to get the diy smart speaker onto WiFi and find out the IP address so you can connect to it via SSH.

Once you get that IP address, and learn SSH and the Linux shell, you’re in business with a shell prompt at a Linux terminal running a variant of Raspian that Google’s engineers modified to support their Voice Bonnet.

Finally, you’ve got a smart speaker, right?

This is the real thing that kills this project, it doesn’t include any kind of hot-word, or wake-word, detection. Just like hotkeys, hotwords like “Hey, Siri,” and “Okay, Google” tell our phones and other smart speakers to start listening. Ideally the processing for these prompts happens on the device so they’re not just uploading everything you say to Apple’s, Google’s, or Amazon’s, servers.

This AIY smart speaker box promises, on the back, a “…smart device that understands and responds when you speak.” I don’t think that is truthful. It is not at all a smart speaker that listens when you speak, you have to press the arcade button before the included Python code will fetch Google’s assistant to start listening and interpreting your words into a reply. It’s an infuriating experience to have to press that button, especially whenever Google’s assistant demands interaction.

Google’s assistant can play a MadLibs game with you. Just like the real game, you supply the nouns, verbs, and adjectives and the assistant fills in a virtual MadLibs sheet to make a silly story. Unlike the real game, you have to press the stupid button each time the assistant needs the next word.

The times when I’d press the button there was no guarantee the assistant would listen. Many times it would just ignore me and I’d have to press the button again. I ended up pressing the button about 25 times to get 18 words into the MadLibs game. I don’t think I will ever do that again.

This built-in python-based assistant code was just slow to react and frustrating to interact with.

It was also incredibly limited compared to other assistants and even the iOS version of Google’s assistant is easier to use. This smart speaker version of Google’s assistant can’t even access your calendar or other information tied to your Google account.

So, overall it’s a pretty disappointing device as shipped by Google. But this is a DIY thing, right? Well, I haven’t found much of an active development community around it. The forums for Google’s “AIY” projects are sparsely populated and the best use I’ve gotten out of the device was to load free software onto it that made the assembled device into a genuinely useful AirPlay speaker.

Some of the replies from Google engineers on these forums indicate that more functionality could come to the device soon, but I don’t think they have any plans to add hot-word detection.

The most surprising thing I’ve found on that forum is that there was an older version of this project that included hot-word detection. This was possible when version 1 was based on the more capable Raspberry Pi 3 single-board computer. Apparently this is version 2 of their voice kit.

I don’t understand a lot of the choices Google made here, but the most important question is: Why did they drop the hot-word detection? Why don’t they mention anywhere on the box that you need an Android device or a bunch of adapters so that you can get this device on the network?

Maybe parents buying this kit for teenagers (the box lists it as appropriate for ages 14 and up) were concerned about it listening to them all the time. That’s the only reason I can think of as to why Google decided to drop the smartest feature of a smart speaker, otherwise it’d just be down to cost. The Raspberry Pi Zero WH is about $10, the Raspberry Pi 3 is about $35.

When I first saw this project in the store I knew there had to be some limitations to hit that $50 price point, and it went lower than even my wildly low expectations. I don’t think most people would be happy with the device as a “smart speaker.” Years ago, when you assembled a transistor radio kit, you ended up with a radio. What you end up with here is a very versatile Linux computer kit with microphones and a speaker that could be incredibly useful in the right hands. I turned it into an AirPlay speaker without having to write any code at all, and I haven’t even remarked about the quality of the sound yet — it’s fine in general, but turn it up loud and you’re gonna get distortion — but without hot-word detection this kit is just too dumb to be called smart.

1 out of 5 HomePods for the Google AIY Voice Kit

Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch) Review

Odyssey

1996’s Super Mario 64 was the first, and the last, 3D Mario game I completed before playing Super Mario Odyssey. 21 years separate these games but they are inexorably linked. I will never forget the first time I saw Mario 64 in motion on a Nintendo 64 kiosk at a major league baseball fan appreciation day. It was an unbelievable triumph of translating the 2D Mario games into a 3D world, even for someone who was in the process of turning into a jaded teenager,

Super Mario Odyssey is a complete continuation, and improvement, on that same exuberant, fun, platforming that impressed everyone, even that horrible teenager, in 1996.

It isn’t perfect, but there are very few meaningful caveats in recommending Odyssey.

The first issue is that while the story is told in fun cutscenes that don’t wear out their welcome, it is just a slight variation on the same tired plot that Bowser has captured Princess Peach, again.

This time Bowser wants to force Peach to marry him, and he has a crew of unlikable rabbits (the Broodals) working as his wedding planners. They’re the mini-bosses scouring every kingdom on the planet for flowers and everything else Bowser wants at the wedding with Peach. Mario has to stop the wedding with his new friend in Cappy, your living hat guy from a kingdom of living hat people. Cappy ends up replacing Mario’s iconic hat, and most of the ranged attacks that Mario would otherwise acquire via pick-ups. When Mario launches Cappy he’ll possess any enemies that aren’t wearing hats (and the occasional bystander frog) in the kingdoms that they travel to.

Mario and Cappy travel onboard a cap-shaped flying machine, the titular Odyssey. It acts like a flying RV on their journey to each kingdom where they will try and cut off Bowser’s minions before they can get everything ready for the wedding.

The Odyssey is powered by collectibles, moons, they’re hidden in each kingdom just like the stars were in Mario 64, except there are hundreds of the moons scattered everywhere. Just like in Mario 64 It’s still a delight to find each moon. My almost-2-year-old son absolutely loves the music and animation that plays each time Mario collects one. I’m not quite as enthusiastic about it, but that reaction epitomizes the Super Mario Odyssey experience. It’s almost all fun, mostly all of the time. You’ll only need a very few per-kingdom to move on but I constantly found myself collecting “just one more,” and before I knew it I had collected dozens to hand in to the Odyssey.

Mario is still on the hunt for coins, of course. Each kingdom that Mario and Cappy visit also has a purple currency specific to it. The inverted pyramid desert level has inverted purple pyramid tokens, for example. You can spend these at the shop in each kingdom and get new costumes, gear to decorate the Odyssey inside and out, and some power-ups. All of the costumes are charming and wonderful like the old Doctor Mario outfit, or more appropriate for the kingdom you’re in like the sombrero and poncho outfit pieces. In each world one of the costumes will unlock a special area with at least one moon, but you can also skip the stores if you’re not interested in Mario Teaches Capitalism Jr. It’s 2017 so I should say there are no loot boxes, premium currencies, DLC, or anything with real money besides purchasing the game.

The worst problem for Odyssey is that the motion controls are abysmal. You have to wiggle the controllers in a circle to get your cap to spin in a circle and slam into every enemy around Mario when he’s surrounded, or just aggressively shake them to get Cappy to home-in on a slightly distant target after launching it.

It’d be different if the controllers that come with the system, the Joy-Cons, weren’t attached to the sides of the Switch while you’re playing in handheld mode. But they  are, and it definitely doesn’t feel like you should be shaking the entire system. There is a work-around for the motion controls most of the time. You can spin the left analog stick in a circle, before launching Cappy, to get that spin attack without shaking your system. This takes a bit longer to perform the action but it still gets it done and is more reliable than the motion controls. Although the homing action is only necessary for some of the more advanced platforming areas, there isn’t any work-around for it that I’ve found.

This is one of the few games that also rewards exploration to the extreme. Launching Cappy enables Mario to perform a series of dives and jumps that can be used to ascend to places he wouldn’t normally be able to get to. I’m not that great at doing this, but if you are then you will find that Nintendo stocks all of these off-the-beaten-path areas with coins. The harder it is to get somewhere the more coins you’ll find, and it’s absolutely great that they do this.

More minor explorational feats are rewarded with moons, but you always feel smart just for finding one by instinct, even if it is really just good game design that lead you there.

Most of the kingdoms Mario and Cappy visit are terrifically designed, a few are bizarrely unexpected in a Mario game, and New Donk City ended up being my favorite. It’s very strange seeing Mario interact with a city of humans that look very different from his bizarro adult toddler form, but that level also goes places that I absolutely didn’t expect. There are things in many of these kingdoms that I wish I hadn’t known about going into them, because they’re so incredible and unexpected that I felt like the surprise was spoiled. I’ll say that even after rescuing Peach there is still more to do in the game, and I definitely have spent more time with it, and leave it at that.

I don’t feel like anyone else could have made Odyssey, there just hasn’t been another 3D platforming game that achieves half of what Odyssey does in the 21 years since Super Mario 64 was released. Almost every kingdom has unique enemies to possess and delightful puzzles to complete. I’m not the first person to say it, but, each kingdom feels like it could be the basis for an entire game that another developer would make and drive the mechanic into the ground before the game is finished. Super Mario Odyssey is a wonderful adventure that really made me happy to have the Switch. As a parent it was a fun game I could share with my son around. As an adult human in 2017 Odyssey is some fantastic sunlight brightening up a terrible year.

5 out of 5 musical Marios for Super Mario Odyssey

Danger Zone Review (Xbox One)

Three Fields Entertainment’s Danger Zone is so close to what we want from a successor to Burnout’s crash mode.

You can skip this next paragraph if you’ve read the last thing, but just for anyone who doesn’t know the context around Three Fields Entertainment’s Danger Zone, here it is:

Burnout was a fantastic game series that I loved, it had arcade-style racing that rewarded you for driving into oncoming traffic (and other absurd stunts) in its races or crashing into as many vehicles as possible in the crash mode. Sadly, that game series is dead and the last big game in the series, Burnout Paradise, had a crappy version of crash mode that isn’t worth talking about.

Danger Zone is all of the good crash mode. You drive a car into an intersection, or series of intersections. Once your car hits a certain number of other cars you get a bonus that lets your car explode and then you can roll your car into more vehicles and more power ups, some of which let your car explode again. There is some thought you have to put into it when you figure out a path to hit everything just so. Do it right and you’ll get a great score by causing the most destruction. It’s a little puzzle of planning out pain.

That stuff, it’s almost all there in Danger Zone, the crashing, the rolling your car through the air to hit other intersections. What they’ve changed from Burnout is the virtual environment Danger Zone takes place in instead of the ostensibly real world that Burnout inhabited. Danger Zone trades cities and their highways for roads that appear to materialize before you after the level loads. All the cars you drive are emblemized to indicate that they’re similar to crash test cars. It’s a mix of the holodeck from Star Trek and the IIHS crash test videos.

The simulation of roads and vehicles lets the level designers get creative and make layouts that could never happen in real life. There are some truly ridiculous levels as you keep playing through the game. Intersections full of the smashbreaker rewards that let you keep rolling on to other roundabouts that float in the air.

Here’s an example of how ridiculous these Danger Zone levels get. In the last tier of levels you’ll find one that has taxi cabs hovering in the sky. They rain down and explode as you drive under them to add a challenge to getting just the right path for the highest score. It looks cool to see them hanging out above the ground with the stars above them, but it isn’t fun to avoid them. Your car’s handling is so close to good, but it ended up being incredibly frustrating to try and dodge these cabs.

The other levels in the final tier get even crazier with drives through the center of spinning roundabouts while you do hockey-checks and push cars into disaster.

As ridiculous as the environments can get, Danger Zone only really has two or three different styles for them, with a few different lighting conditions. There’s a virtual holodeck world in a huge metal box, there’s one with an outdoor open air skybox with a scuffed white paint job on the walls above the laser grid, and one final mode with the same holodeck as the first but with a starry night skybox instead of a boring warehouse ceiling.

It really makes me miss the urban disasters of Burnout and wish for something in-between. Without the simulated test facility vibe, it’d be incredible to play a similar game that featured these crashes in a semi-realistic environment of Burnout that gradually changed into a completely bent world with the same layouts that you have in Danger Zone.

Those ridiculous levels at the end of Danger Zone would be so much better if there were city blocks teeming with life spinning around the path you’re driving through. Or farmer’s fields with cows, or whatever. It could be an amazing trip, but the virtual environment ultimately detracts from the fun that is hidden in Danger Zone. Almost roadway in the game has minimal or no barriers to falling off of it, and landing onto a grid that slowly eats your car and forces you to restart the level.

Just got a grand slam (all of the medals on the level in order) but your car is teetering on the edge of a road? Too bad, it’s going to fall off into the grid.

That grid, and the long load times to restart each medal attempt, really ruin the fun of trying to achieve the best score on each level. This game needs a more dynamic core that is capable of fast restarts when the game ends.

The camera controls are also incredibly frustrating, that the game doesn’t even let you tune the sensitivity for the right thumbstick is ridiculous. It can be incredibly difficult to pan around and figure out where you need to roll your burning wreckage next before the car just starts going without your input.

While I could spend some time trying to get better medals on each level I don’t think I’m going to try. It’s a fun game if you are looking for the most bare-bones experience and are incredibly desperate for some more crash mode without resorting to emulation or hooking up an old console. I hope that Three Fields keeps improving this formula, it’s so close to a fantastic crash mode game and already much better than their last attempt at it with Dangerous Golf.

3/5 burning limousines for Danger Zone

Danger Zone is $15 and available now on the Xbox OnePlayStation 4and Steam for Windows.

A Robot Named Fight Review (Windows)

Matt Bitner’s A Robot Named Fight feels like it might be the answer to a question: What if a third-party developer had made a Super Metroid style of game for Sega’s Genesis console?

Here’s the concept: You’re a robot, you fight some meat-monsters until your remains are tossed on a heap of other robots that have failed in their task. Each time the robot named Fight dies another robot you control shoots up a different procedurally generated series of rooms. Each bot is looking for a violent solution to the meat-monster problem, or at least some powerups for now and some upgrades that might be available for the next ‘bot. Ultimately, you must destroy the Megabeast. The developer calls it a “…pulsating moon-sized orb of flesh, eyes, mouths and reproductive organs…”

Most games in this metroidvania genre of side-scrollers try to significantly depart from their source material. In this case ARNF takes the unusual position of straight-up copying Samus’ spinning jump and a few other animations. They might not be perfect reproductions, but they are so close.

Now that isn’t bad, just a surprise as if you went into a Burger King for the first time and found them selling the exact same sandwich as you would find in a McDonald’s. Except in this game the fries and tray and your drink and cup and straw would be made of meat.

A Robot Named Fight has another clear ancestor in Rogue. That’s where it gets areas generated programmatically, or laid out by an algorithm, instead of designed and assembled by hand in a linear order. You might see the same kind of room in one run and another, but the layout of the rooms should almost never be the same as what you saw in your last attempt.

This is also a pretty difficult game. There is what the developer calls true permadeath, once you run out of health your run is done. No coffins or alien tubes to resurrect in. The game lets you save at any time, but that’s not a save you can go back to if, when, things go to shit. Although I did find a robo-tube save-room once, using it brought me back to life with a black screen that ultimately appeared to be a bug. After restarting the game I was back to a normal view. More typically, when Fight dies it’s back to the start for an almost entirely clean slate.

A Robot Named Fight is at least nice enough to follow the standard of giving you what you need most. If you’re low on health, you’ll get health when you splat some more monsters. Low on energy? Here you go.

The bosses I’ve faced so far aren’t super challenging, they generally feel like you can work out a simple strategy as long as you’ve had enough upgrades on the path to them.

Other little things contribute to the difficulty. Often, games can be generous with the amount of invincibility you get when landing in spikes or lava or whatever to get out of them, not in ARNF. If you land in spikes with some minor obstacle blocking your exit it could be game over.

Some of the most challenging parts of the game come when you least expect them. Once, when I had been through a room a few times before and was used to blasting everything before it could harm Fight, I wasn’t paying quite enough attention and got tangled by a glitch monster that screws with your controls. That wouldn’t be so bad if they hadn’t gotten me while I was over a pit of spikes where I struggled for a few moments watching my health dwindle before regaining control.

Like many modern metroidvania games, when you press the “select” button to bring up the map, or view the minimap in the top right of the screen, you’ll see an indicator for rooms with hidden powerups. But in ARNF I keep coming across misleading markers for hidden items where the marker is for one room but the adjoining area is actually where the hidden powerup is. It doesn’t take too long to figure out that you’re attacking the wrong zone, but it isn’t fun to waste a few minutes looking for something that isn’t there. It’s also a bit difficult to even see that the hidden powerup marker on the minimap when you’re in the room because the “you are here” blinking marker overlaps it. Then you realize while you’re staring at the map that bringing it up doesn’t pause the game and you might lose some health or die. Not fun.

Maybe the most frustrating part of A Robot Named Fight is that in some cases you’ll end up taking a path down that is a steep enough drop that you can’t return to the previous area. In one egregious case I went through a door on the floor intro a room that connected to one other but had no way to get back up or progress in any way because I hadn’t found a double-jump powerup on that run. 20 minutes of exploring down the drain because the procedurally laid out rooms had been generated poorly and then five minutes more of trying to find some way to progress by letting my robot bounce off of the two monsters that spawned in the room.

The developer is still patching the game, and I see patch notes for correcting similar issues so I would expect all of those situations to eventually be resolved, but in that case maybe this game should be in Steam’s Early Access program. I reported the bug and sent my save file to the developer before starting a fresh game in a different save slot.

The next run I had was my longest robo-life with the game at that point, 35 minutes or so where I explored a lot of the meatly ruins  It’s here that I finally had the default blaster leveled up with so many rate-of-fire powerups and other bonuses like flame damage to finally feel like I could breeze through areas without worrying too much about the monsters in them.

The final differentiating factor for this metroidvania is that it isn’t built for playing on a review schedule. A Robot Named Fight feels like a game where it is entirely run-based and would be best played at a leisurely pace, picking it up once or twice a day for a few weeks to experience a new layout of the wrecked planet each time. Playing repeated runs for long sessions felt defeating. One run might be great, but my next would sometimes throw me up against a boss immediately without enough powerups to win.

I like a lot of things about A Robot Named Fight, it is extremely familiar with callbacks to earlier games but also changes things up with the randomized level layout and meat-tacular theme, but it feels like it isn’t ready yet.

I love the feeling of progress in metroidvania games by unlocking more weapons and breezing through areas that were previously difficult, but ARNF isn’t always as rewarding with its progression as it should be.

I love randomized level layouts in some recent metroidvania games like Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells, but it’s clear with A Robot Named Fight that no human designed them when I ended up looking at layouts of rooms too often that made no sense. Secret paths that lead nowhere, broken rooms without an escape. these all made me feel like this game should be in beta, not a finished product. It is receiving patches every few days right now to fix these issues, and I can understand why someone might not want their game lumped into the early access program, but sometimes when you hit a bug ARNF feels like it’ll be done in 3 months, not today.

Still, there’s something charming about the meaty challenge. If you’re looking for something that you can’t turn your brain off and breeze through, this could be that game for you. For me, I’m not sure if I’ll ever reach the Megabeast but I will keep trying a run or two every few nights.

3 out of 5 reanimated meat monsters for A Robot Named Fight. It’s out now at $10 on Steam for Windows and macOS. A Linux version is planned.

Prey (2017) Review

I can’t type the word “Prey” without thinking back to the 2006 game by Human Head and the 90’s Prey from 3D Realms that was never released. The Prey game in 2006 was inspired by the idea of portal technology from the 3D Realms game. The concept was that players could look through, and walk through, portals, to take them to other places. This idea seemed revolutionary back when Duke 3D could barely manage to hold a mirror together in the BUILD engine. The idea was completely surpassed by Valve’s Portal, but there were plenty of other Prey projects between 2006 and now that shared the same fate as the original 3D Realms game that never saw the light. One that sounded particularly promising was a bounty hunting sequel by Human Head to their 2006 game. We will probably never see any of that work, but here we are in 2017 with a new exploration and brutal alien murder sim from the developers of Dishonored, Arkane Studios, that has no portals or involvement with the previous developers.

The second game to actually ship with the name Prey shares the overall genre of science fiction and first-person action but has nothing to do with any of the previous games. Today we’ll play the character of Morgan Yu. Morgan is kind of a blank slate who has lost a lot of themselves, but in a way that feels appropriate when you learn why.

Although you hear Morgan’s voice more than a typical silent protagonist like Gordon Freeman, it is still far less than you might expect. The developers have a neat trick to make you feel like you hear more from Morgan that I won’t spoil.

Morgan’s life and work are on board a gigantic space station called Talos 1 where an alien species called the Typhon are being researched by the employees of the TranStar corporation. They acquired the station after it was developed by different political groups in the alternate timeline of Prey‘s universe.

Talos 1 truly is huge, it feels complete once you’ve seen the different sections where it’s clear that different crew members worked and lived. Prey gets some things wrong, but their space station isn’t one of them. Eventually you can explore a few different modes of transportation that let you get around more quickly than hustling through the decks. Each of those alternate transportation modes have their own advantages and add to the wonderful sense of exploration I felt as Morgan gained more and more access to the station.

Different areas of the station, and rooms or maintenance facilities behind its facade, really felt like they were designed by different era’s and cultures of space explorers until TranStar finally got hold of it for their projects.

Part of TranStar’s research enabled people to absorb skills through a device that jacks into their brain via spikes inserted into their eyeballs to reach their brain. Ouch. Fortunately, as these are the regular way that Morgan can upgrade their abilities, you only have to truly experience that effect once. I’d probably recoil in horror if it were done in virtual reality.

Neuromods could give someone the power to play the piano with the skill of an extremely talented musician in just a few seconds, but Morgan’s upgrades are almost all centered around overcoming obstacles to reach new parts of the station, survival skills to live longer, stealthily sneaking past enemies, or straight up combat abilities.

The lowest form of these amorphous blobs of Typhon sludge can assume the shape of random objects on the station and it isn’t long before those skills enable them to escape their containment and start murdering everyone onboard Talos 1. The higher level Typhon can possess the crew’s minds, turn them into bipedal Typhon phantoms, or just murdering them. There are so many dead or possessed people on Talos 1 that you really might feel bad for some of the regular crew who weren’t involved in the research. It took hours before I came across any humans left alive on the station.

Other Typhon can even possess the station’s stationary sentry guns and the large flying toaster robots (called Operators) that serve as medics and engineers onboard Talos 1.

Each upgrade of Morgan’s skill tree is only unlocked with Neuromods, there aren’t any experience points or other leveling mechanics. That tree is so large that you’re really only going to get to play with a few different sets of abilities throughout the game. A lack of specialization would probably leave your Morgan unable to survive for long, and although I had many options I did end up feeling like I picked a slightly boring route by focusing on stealth and traditional firearms over the (slight spoiler) unlockable Typhon powers that would have allowed my Morgan to gain some of those mimic abilities and other more outrageous powers. Maybe I put a little bit too much of myself into my character, but I felt that the Typhon were genuinely disgusting to look at and didn’t want my Morgan to be like them.

It was a little frustrating that you’re not given any chance to test out these powers before spending your precious Neuromods on them. On the other hand, the descriptions on some powers are straightforward enough to understand what you’d be getting. Unlocking the different tiers of the hacking power, for example, makes sense because every hackable item in the game tells you what level of the hacking skill you would need to even attempt it.

Speaking of Prey’s hacking, wow is it bad. It’s a randomized two-dimensional level where your controller or keyboard input fidelity are reduced and you have to move a crosshair onto a target position and press a randomized button before time runs out. Each level of the hack introduces a new target position onto the same field of plain walls and shocking red walls that bounce your crosshair around. If you can’t complete the puzzle within the time limit the hacking attempt fails and Morgan loses a little bit of health.

I don’t know what a good hacking minigame could look like today, but this is definitely not it. I just found myself frustrated and annoyed when I had to go through with it in order to achieve some relatively minor objective like unlocking a safe that just contained eel parts and ammo.

Strangely enough, the higher tiers of the hacking minigame give you so much time to complete them, and the puzzles are so generously spaced out, that they’re actually far easier to complete than the lower tier puzzles. It’s almost like a message from the developers that they know this sucks but they needed to limit Morgan somehow, but they are apologizing by making things a little easier.

Hacking is just one of the different powers on the skill tree that allow Morgan to proceed past different obstacles and access restricted areas of the game. Sometimes you’re also given the opportunity to find a key card that can get you past a secured door without having to hack it. Or you find a maintenance duct that you can use to sneak past enemies and get into the same room. Prey goes out of its way to tell you that you have these options very early in the game. You also might be able to use the game’s gloo gun to clamber over the wall or access that maintenance duct. These options make Prey feels like a very advanced metroidvania.

One way for Morgan to get more ammunition and other consumable items is to recycle junk that you can pick up around the station through a very entertaining process that ends in a satisfying series of clinks and clunks as the the resulting pure materials land in the recycler’s bin. Once you have the raw materials you can select what you would like from the catalog of an ultra-advanced 3D printer. Throughout the game you’ll also find the raw blueprints that enable you to expand your catalog. Recycling junk and turning it into ammunition never stopped being fun for me, even after the process would sometimes leave me feeling strapped for materials once I had mined part of the station’s Typhon and trash cans for recyclables. At those points in Prey, particularly towards the end of the game, I was very glad to have unlocked stealth and other movement abilities that enabled me to speed through the world and complete the final objectives I had left.

The story has meaningful choices, and some surprisingly technical ideas. For example, at one point you find out that digital rights management has locked you out of 3D printing an item you might want, but an optional mission gives you the ability to bypass the DRM and keep printing that item. It makes sense that if all of the 3D printers on a future cruise ship or space station are from the same company they could also, and almost certainly would have, implemented incredibly shitty DRM. Some of the crew’s audiologs and e-mails are concerned with people wanting more access to the 3D printing catalog, or their abuse of it. This just adds to the lived-in feeling of the station.

It’s fun that these materials and neuromods are your currency. I can’t remember any point of Prey where Morgan has to deal with money, but it also feels like part of the game’s mostly solitary journey that you’re not interacting with any vendors.

Once you’ve made some choices for Morgan and completed your journey through Talos 1 you aren’t given a chance to play through the game a second time while retaining the powers you’ve unlocked. Another bummer. I’m kind of glad that my playthrough is unique and will be my canonical experience, but it’d be good to at least have the option of experiencing more ways to play the game without starting over from scratch.

There are more pitfalls for Prey. The weapons aren’t interesting enough. They’re close, but they’re just missing more interesting effects and ideas that seem to have been reserved for unlockable powers on the skill tree.

The gloo gun is the most disappointing because I had the highest expectations for it. Each shot of gloo lets you attach a glob for climbing or incapacitating a foe, but that’s it. The climbing isn’t particularly enjoyable, and it feels wildly imprecise even with a mouse and keyboard. There also aren’t any puzzles where Morgan could connect two objects with gloo. Prey just uses the gun once or twice to seal a hull breach on Talos 1’s exterior and even then what I saw onscreen felt disconnected from the actions I was actually doing.

It also took quite a while for me to get engaged with the game early on, although it’s difficult to say why exactly that was, I had reached the opposite end of the spectrum by the time I had finished the game with 34 hours on the Steam clock.

The worst shortcoming of Prey is that while the game did give me choices that felt meaningful, in the end it also subverted them after the credits and made me feel as if they were never as important to the developer as setting up a sequel without any consequences from this game. Will the sequel even get made? Games called Prey have a very difficult time getting past a conceptual stage and production. If it doesn’t, ruining the player’s choices for a sequel could be a fundamentally wasted decision.

There is an obvious comparison to the System Shock and BioShock games, but I feel like Talos’ designs are superior to some parts of Rapture. Of course they might not have been better if it weren’t for at least BioShock existing in the first place, but once I got to know the world of some of Talos’ crew Prey just felt more like it housed real people instead of Bioshock’s caricatures. Sure, that comparison might not hold up for everyone on the station, and I will always be happy to destroy libertarian fantasy worlds like Bioshock’s Rapture, but here we are with original characters and science fiction ideas that somehow feel more grounded in reality than a modern gritty movie or television show.

I’m also glad that my fear that this would be a horror game was unfounded. The feeling of terror you get from the Typhon springing at you quickly fades, and leaves you with a level of fright that you might experience while watching the nth Doctor Who episode featuring the same monsters you’ve seen before.

Ultimately, the Prey we got in 2017 is a different beast that surpasses any association with older games just by being better than them. It has some serious flaws, but I can’t think of many successful first-person games that don’t. I haven’t thought about the the Prey game from 2006 in years, and if anyone does care about games with that name in the future they’ll think of what Arkane created here. Even when today’s Prey was disappointing, it was an overall success that I eagerly played whenever I could because unlocking and exploring a new room or section of Talos 1 was just so much fun.

4 out of 5 Typhon for Prey. It is available now on Steam for Windows as well as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

SuperHot Review

The first time I saw SuperHot, it was a simpler game for the 7-Day FPS game jam. Although it was simple, it demonstrated a singular, sound, question: What if there were a first-person-shooter that was more of a puzzle than a game about reflexes? Time in the game only moves when your character moves.

The first time I ever played something similar was way back when with Action Quake 2 and using Quake 2-engine console commands in order to slow down time. That gave me something like The Matrix, but it was an incredibly shallow experience, especially when it wasn’t fun to play multiplayer that way.

The finished SuperHot isn’t incredibly deep, but it is more impressive and has way more ideas than that old childish power fantasy of thinking and moving faster than the enemies around you in an FPS we all cribbed from movies.

The game presents you with all kinds of style. An old-school ASCII-style terminal provides the menu and feels like something from DOS computers in the the 1980s. Each option makes sense within this universe. You can change settings in settings.exe and the main game is launched from superhot.exe. This menu is where you bounce back from the challenge of the main game and chat with artificial online strangers to find out more about it.

Each level is a stark contrast of white geometry with harshly polygonal red bad guys that have a kind of shine to them. You will see one additional color, black, to indicate bullets and firearms along with objects like baseball bats that can be picked up and wielded against your foes. This style is unique. The closest comparison would be to Mirror’s Edge, but even that game’s simplistic color-scheme has much more texture to the characters and world.

It’s an art style that grabs your eyes with simplicity in order for you to focus on the game play of avoiding the oncoming bullets, fists, baseball bats, and other objects the red guys throw your way.

Each time you shoot or punch out a red guy you’re rewarded with their polygons shattering in a unique display of aggression that is your reward for figuring out the solution to the puzzle of moving past that obstacle for the next. Each time you’re wondering how you can move onto the next red guy and survive until you’re rewarded with the end of the level when a robotic voice chants SUPERHOT… while the full-speed replay displays underneath the text SUPERHOT

Early on in SuperHot one of the levels wants to teach you how to dodge oncoming fire in a simple corridor. It took me a few tries to understand that yes, indeed, I need to go slow as the game had informed me in giant bold text. Darting right until the red guys fired, then left and waiting for them to fire again, on and on up the corridor until I could try and retrieve the pistol a dead red guy had dropped. Except picking that gun up was another motion that caused time to proceed, allowing the enemy fire to move, and left me dead a few times until I learned to lead the red guys into shooting away from me and gave myself enough time to pick up the gun. Each step after that put less distance between the red guys and my character, but with SuperHot’s gun all distances are shorter and it’s just a matter of giving yourself the time to fire, wait for the next round to chamber, and fire again. All without getting shot. So if the first half of that level taught me how to avoid fire, the second half teaches you to remember where bullets are in the air at any time. That’s the puzzle you have to work out in each level. Moving, from one red guy to the next, reaching out and firing untilSUPERHOTSUPERHOT

The level-ending chant is deeply satisfying when it happens. Although SuperHot’s campaign doesn’t present any incredible challenges, it does change things up and add new twists that are almost universally fun to learn and best.

SuperHot succeeds at being unlike any traditional FPS, but it also isn’t an incredibly long experience. I finished the game’s campaign in just a few hours. Once you’ve completed it you unlock other single-player challenges and wave-based survival modes that are fun, but it is questionable if the game is worth those $25 dollars the developer charges by default.

That isn’t a question I will be able to answer for everyone, but for my life these days it’s nice to be done with something after a few hours without feeling like I’ve just made the first step into adding some 150-hour long journey to the back catalog of games I’ll probably never get around to. So, I don’t feel like SuperHot overstayed its welcome by throwing more ridiculous gameplay ideas at us. Instead, it was just as much SuperHot as I wanted, and I’ll always randomly think to myself SUPERHOTSUPERHOT

4 out of 5 VHS copies of The Matrix for SuperHot. It is available on Steam for Windows, macOS, and Linux or on the Xbox One.

AirPods Review Update

The AirPods box.

There were a few things that I’ve noticed since I posted a review of Apple’s AirPods back in December, so here’s a quick update.

  1. The range is ridiculous. I can leave my iPhone downstairs and the AirPods carry on delivering audio to my ears.
  2. The sound the AirPods make to let you know they’re running low on battery is kind of surprising because it isn’t accompanied by anything onscreen to let you know what’s going on. Midcall I kept hearing the sound and trying to figure out what it was until finally the AirPod I had in turned off. Switching to the other AirPod is easy, and it’s a mistake you should only make once, but it seems boneheaded to not let people know what’s happening when they look at the device that their AirPods are connected to.
  3. There are a few tiny issues with the case. It’s too loud when it snaps shut. There’s an audible clicking sound when you close it and although it’s fine in many situations in a few it is absolutely not fine. These headphones are slick as hell but waking up a sleeping baby when you switch out one AirPod for the other and shut the case isn’t. You might think you could more gently close the case to prevent this, you can’t unless you have both hands free.
  4. The same goes for the charging status light inside the case. Way too bright in some situations without an ambient light sensor to detect that it should dim.
  5. As an incredible bargain compared to other truly wireless earbuds it feels a little like nitpicking, but, why does Apple include a charging cable without a wall adapter? These cost $159. Include the darn wall adapter.
  6. AirPods are very comfortable. I can forget if they are in or not. A few times I’ve gone to listen to them and wasn’t able to tell if I had them in or not without checking the charging case or my ear.

Finally, there are silent firmware updates for the AirPods when they’re in their charging case and near an iOS device. There are a few issues I’ve had that might be fixed by this firmware but it is impossible to tell since there are no release notes. Of course these are tiny computers so getting updated software isn’t completely unexpected, but it sure would be nice to know what is changing when we skip through a few versions very quickly. This update went from 3.3.1 to 3.5.1.

I’m still very onboard with our wireless future, there are far cheaper bluetooth headset options with better battery life, and some have better sound quality, but none are as smooth and they’re the best for calling our senators.

AirPods Review

The iPhone 7 is half of a vision for a future without wires.

Apple’s AirPods are the other half of that vision.

It’s a future where headphones are no-longer tangled up in your pocket, and are instead a three piece system of two earbuds and a charging case that has its own battery and keeps them topped off throughout the day.

You connect the AirPods to your iOS 10 device by opening up the charging case while it is nearby. A dialog pops up that asks if you want to connect them and once connected they become available via Apple’s iCloud to every other iOS 10 device and Mac you own.


Each earbud is smart enough to know if they’re in your ear or not and pause your music accordingly when removed. When you pop only one earbud in and hit the play button, the device is intelligent enough to downmix both stereo channels into one monaural channel.

They’re the pinnacle of convenience, but there are some significant drawbacks with the first generation of AirPods.

The AirPods are yet another thing that needs charging. It’s less frequent charging than a phone because they come in a special case, but about once a week or every few days, depending on how much you’re listening, you’ll need to charge the case the ear buds rest in.

The earbuds themselves last about five hours and according to Apple they get three hours of charging in 15 minutes resting in the case.
My old Bluetooth headphones lasted just about forever on a charge, but required me to dig out the specific kind of USB cable to charge them. The AirPods charging case uses a USB-A to Lightning adapter. It’s kind of odd that for $159 you don’t get an AC adapter, although you do get the cable in the box.

Each AirPod earbud is comparable to the regular Apple EarPod earbuds in terms of style, but a bit longer in length of the stem that extends out of the bit that goes in your ear. This extra room is where the battery hides inside the AirPods.

There are more little spots on the AirPods than the EarPods had for sensors to know when they’re in or out of your ears.

This elongated EarPod design kind of falls apart for me when you get to the tip of the stem. At that point, furthest out of your ears, is a shiny spot that holds the microphone you can use for talking to Siri or making phone calls.

The shiny microphone spots at the bottom of the AirPods look kind of like earrings or other ear-mounted jewelry, which look kind of goofy to me.

The AirPods are a bit less goofy than the old giant Bluetooth devices we all used for hands-free talking but might get you some funny looks until people get used to them. They’re also not as large as some competing earbud headphones that have large rectangular dinguses sticking horizontally out of your ears and floating there like little matchbooks.
The microphone works well enough for my usage when talking to Siri or on calls, I just wish Apple had styled the tip differently.

I’ve had a few times where when I was listening to a podcast or some music with just one earbud, and put the second one in, the new earbud took a few moments longer than I would like to start working. There have also been moments where I’ve accidentally triggered the sensors that tell the AirPods they’re in my ear when I was picking them up or putting them down.

Without a connecting cable to your devices, the AirPods lost the control module on other headphones that lets you change volume, play or pause whatever you’re listening to, or do extra nerdy commands via tap codes on that button like skipping songs.

Photographers also used that module to trigger the camera shutter without introducing minute vibrations to the phone that could cause pictures to be a little blurrier.

A tiny Bluetooth controller might be nice to replace that functionality, or these controls could be on the AirPods charging case. I’ve been getting out my iPhone or using my Apple Watch to control volume and whatever program I’m listening to.



Siri
is available at any time by double tapping the side of the earbud. She can raise or lower the volume and pause or resume playback. It feels kind of weird to do this, and I’ve heard complaints that the double-tap is an uncomfortable gesture for some people. Roughly equivalent to getting old wired earbuds yanked out of your ear when the cord gets caught on something. If you really hate the gesture, the “Hey Siri” vocal gesture (which is normally disabled when using the speaker) is enabled while using the AirPods. I didn’t feel any discomfort while using the double-tap gesture, but thought it was worth mentioning that other people might have a problem with it.

You can change the double-tap gesture to be a play/pause control in your iOS device’s Bluetooth settings if you prefer that over Siri. I just took one earbud out and used that to pause my music but it might be better to have the gesture if you want to pause while cooking or cleaning without digging out another device or speaking with Siri.

As far as fit, I have huge ears and the AirPods get nestled in there about as well as the EarPods did. Though the AirPods do feel a little bit looser than I would like, I’m glad they don’t make a complete seal so I am not entirely obvious to what is going on around me. Apple has a 14-day return policy if they don’t fit you, I’ve also heard that you can try them on in some stores.

Because they don’t form a total seal of the ear canal, like in-ear monitors or rubberized earbuds would, bass isn’t perfect and sound quality is almost exactly the same as the EarPods. You can tell how much work the little porting cutouts are doing by pressing your finger over one on the back of the earbud and listening as your music suddenly changes from high-quality FM to tinny AM.

The charging case is a simple white rounded rectangle box with the single button I mentioned above for pairing with non-Apple Bluetooth devices. There is a tiny, shiny metal, hinge that folds open the top of the case up very easily when you want to retrieve the earbuds or put them back. Tiny magnets grab the earbuds and hold them in or guide their safe return. A small light gives you an indication of charging status when the lid is open and also helps to see inside when it’s dark.

It would be nice if the case were thinner, but it’s a small price to pay for about 24-hours of additional listening via the case’s internal battery. I’ll note that I haven’t rigorously tested Apple’s battery life claims, some people have reported that the charging case had been rapidly discharging. I wasn’t able to reproduce that issue, but Apple replaced the charging case for the one incident I heard of.

I’ve been wanting truly wireless earbuds like this for a long time and other Bluetooth earbuds I’ve read about have been disappointing enough with technical hazards that I haven’t bothered trying them.

At $159 these are the most expensive headphones I have right now, but they’re cheaper than other comparable Bluetooth earbuds without cables and have more intelligence to them. If you lose one AirPod then Apple will sell you a replacement for $69. The case itself is replaceable for $59.

Despite the look, the extra dingus to charge, and the loss of the wired control module, I very much prefer going totally wireless with the AirPods over using regular earbuds or my other Bluetooth headsets.

It’s that good to not have to manage untangling a wire from your pocket, or dealing with traditional Bluetooth syncing, or having headphones yanked out of your ear when they get caught on something or grabbed by a kid. Of course since the iPhone 7 can’t charge and use wired headphones at the same time, there’s also the benefit of being able to listen to something on headphones while charging my pocket computer.

I hope that competition brings the price of all truly wireless headphones down and iteration might find new ways to resolve the other issues.

If you travelled back in time about 20 years and showed these to me I wouldn’t believe they could exist. As the first version of this device they’re not perfect, but I am onboard for the wireless future.

Inside Review (Windows)

inside

The developers of Limbo, Playdead, have returned with what at first glance appears to be a very similar game in appearance. Just like Limbo, Inside looks like in a dark platforming adventure featuring a young man who is in some terrible strife.

When the game starts, you’re a nameless boy who is just running for his life, escaped from some terrible fate. Slow down or miss a moment and you might be beaten and dragged back or eaten alive by dogs. This child spends most of the first part of the game just running past scenes in the background of what look like people being rounded up by security forces. Games like Half-Life 2 depicted similar scenes with brighter colors, music that was more in your face, and people talking about the situation. I don’t think any of the characters of Inside ever speak a full phrase. It is the visuals and a subdued score that do the talking.

Limbo had a very stark visual style that was kind of like looking at shadows move across your screen. There were many games that proceeded to imitate that art style to different degrees of success. I don’t think they’ll try the same thing with Inside. It is a more stark game of contrasting colors and more depth to its dimension that are still dark and mostly gray.

The exception to that is what the game developers want to draw your attention to. A brightly colored cable that leads you to a secret. A smear of blood there. Flesh tones, there are those and anyone who has played the game should not speak of what or why to anyone who hasn’t.

Inside’s protagonist does so much running and dying, and the animation for all of that is wonderfully well done. Every interaction seems like it is perfectly in tune with the environment and responding to the strain the boy puts on himself to pick up a box as big as he is just to get up a little bit higher. If he falls from a height he’ll respond appropriately. Too high a fall and there’s always a gruesome scene that follows. What makes it truly awful is that the game forces you to watch, you can’t turn away or else the game won’t proceed. As a father, any time a child is harmed in a television show or movie or game it gets to me a little bit more than usual. When the dogs were tearing Inside’s boy apart, the game  subverted every attempt at skipping the scene so by not loading the last checkpoint until I used my  controller. Flailing at buttons didn’t seem to work, it was only measured responses to attempt to get the violence to stop that caused the game to proceed when it was good and ready, and felt like you had absorbed the impact of whatever mistake you made that caused that boy to die. It could have been timed, I’m not sure, I just didn’t want to watch  him die again.

All of the scenery behind the boy is just as vital to telling the story of the game, and occasionally it moves from the background into the foreground to interact with him. You’ll watch other characters who have been subdued (for reasons I won’t get into) marching in line, as you move through that area you’ll have to get in that line with them and mirror their movements or the boy will die. At the beginning of the game there are people searching for other people who have escaped their fate in the background and you’ll have to move carefully to not be detected by them or the boy will die.

The game doesn’t rely on stealth much outside of those few scenes, instead there are platforming puzzles. These puzzles aren’t particularly difficult to figure out if you’ve played any other side-scrolling games and know what to look for. Inside didn’t have many moments that stymied my progress either. What makes them vicious is that failure results in more prolonged death animations.

In a way, Inside feels like the best parts of older Call of Duty campaigns when those were still impressive. It’s very linear, there is pretty much only a straight path that occasionally requires some minor backtracking or running to the left to complete the game. Just like Call of Duty, there are incredible scenes all around your character. Unlike Call of Duty, you’re going to want to stop and look at these because they make you feel something and I think that’s what makes this an incredible game. Those emotions are more than what you might expect upon first glance from screenshots of Inside if you’re familiar with Limbo. The art and sound and animation and programming all come together perfectly.

It isn’t surprising that Inside was developed in Denmark, it looks like a game that couldn’t have come from anywhere else. At times the puzzles can be tiresome because you instantly know what to do to solve them, but you’re forced to run back and forth across the screen at whatever pace the game’s designers set.

The worst part of Inside is the ending, it is anti-climactic and while I am sure it could mean something to somebody, it lacked the emotional connection from the rest of the game for me. That you have to go back for seconds to see the “real ending” isn’t positive. If you play the game, don’t look up either on video, just look up the solution to the multi-layered puzzle to get the second ending so that you can actually make both happen.

That ending and the few other flaws the game has aren’t enough to betray the rest of the experience which must be played.

If you were wondering what Playdead were doing in the 6 years since Limbo came out, Inside is the incredible answer. It took me roughly 5 hours to find everything there is to explore in the game, and if you’re at all interested in it you should not read or watch or listen to anything else about Inside. There are massive spoilers going around and knowing more about what kind of game it is can ruin the experience. I wish I had gone in knowing even less, but podcasts have basically ruined parts of the game without warning.

Inside is out now on Steam for Windows and the Xbox One digital distribution platforms.

4 out of 5 abject walruses.