Reviews: Quick Takes

Every once in a while I get email saying "Didn't you play this old game? You should write a review!" And sometimes it's a game that I did play, but I never wrote a review. (Of course sometimes it's a game I didn't play and don't plan to.)

I'll only write a full-length review immediately after finishing a game. If more than month or so passes, I figure I've forgotten some of the interesting details. But I also figure I should write down the one-paragraph capsule reviews. Partially to remind myself; partially to mention some more games worth mentioning; partially to be able to point at something when people ask me "Didn't you play this old game?"

(Note: There are still many games which I've played but never reviewed. Even with this list included, I'm not trying to be complete.)

Amber: Journeys Beyond

I liked the idea, and I liked some of the ghost-scenarios, but the overall plot was lame.

Journeyman Project, Journeyman Project 2

I played these, but I honestly don't remember anything about them.

(See also Journeyman Project 3)

The Daedalus Encounter

Tia Carriere in a low-cut jumpsuit. Ok, there was a game too. They had an interesting idea: explain the minimalist Myst-style interface by making you a brain in a bottle. This didn't revolutionize the genre, but it worked here. Then you solve a bunch of alien-technology puzzles.

The Space Bar

I got most of the way through this; then I hit the big overall time limit and gave up. Actually, I didn't even hit the time limit -- I just got close to it. The endgame seemed like it would be tedious and frustrating, and I didn't bother. Some of the earlier scenarios were fun, though.

Grand Theft Auto 3, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

Deserves a full-length review exploring how (for example) driving across the city like a lunatic, swerving across lanes and jumping the sidewalk, can be both the maximally fun and the maximally efficient driving style. I think they did it by careful optimization of the road width, traffic density, and traffic speed. Also, I am the Package King. (I have avoided picking up GTA: San Andreas because I'm convinced they've made it too big and too realistic. Consequences to your actions? The hell with that.)

Project Eden

Very clever and adventure-y. It's the "you control four dudes, each with different powers" genre. You have to shoot stuff, but your dudes come back to life and the enemies don't, so you can just bull through those parts and get to the environmental puzzles. Which are great -- not just a bunch of climbing puzzles; every situation and interaction is different. Sadly, the PS2 version was buggy as hell.

Silent Hill 3

More of the same. I still like it, but there's no real advance in technique over SH1 and SH2. The plot ties back to SH1, though, which adds some depth. And the graphics are better. Oh lord. I walked into a room and the worst thing I'd ever seen in a video game happened to me. Really. I was whimpering out loud.

(See also Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2)

Silent Hill 4

The designers obviously reconsidered the whole underlying Silent Hill game model. The reconsideration was long overdue -- the first three games were way too similar. Some concepts they kept, some they threw out, some they integrated into the storytelling (instead of leaving them as flat game mechanics). A lot of people complained about the (occasional) unkillable monsters -- I thought the balance was fine. Mind you, I was playing in "easy" mode. You probably should too.

(See also Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2)

Fatal Frame, Fatal Frame 2

These don't get as much airplay as the Silent Hill series, but they're every bit as scary. It's a different kind of scary. The SH games (particularly the later ones) go for an unnerving creepy disturbingness. The FF games actually keep on scaring you. Ghost jumps out -- yahhgh! And you have to pay careful attention to your surroundings, for various in-game reasons. So you move slowly, watching for clues, and then yahhgh! It's genuinely nervewracking. Unfortunately the first FF was way too hard -- I kept dying at the beginning of chapter 3. FF2 has an "easy" combat mode, which enabled me to play the game, which I very much appreciated.

Soul Reaver (1)

One of my favorite console games ever. Managed to evoke a sense of deep history. Exploration and re-exploration of environments; each area of the game got more interesting as you gained more abilities. Lots of optional stuff to discover. They cared enough to implement mechanics which had no impact on gameplay, but revealed glimpses of the underlying world and how it worked. Great soundtrack.

(See also Soul Reaver 2)

Blood Omen 2

Enh. I didn't hate playing it, but it didn't fit in with the other games either storywise, backgroundwise, or stylistically. -Wise.

(See also Soul Reaver 2)

Legacy of Kain: Defiance

An acceptable followup to the first two Soul Reaver games, but not inspired. The paradox story elements from SR2 are abandoned completely -- not that they were all that strong to begin with, but I was hoping that the conclusion would be more interesting. The major story revelations are all either murky or implausible. I still want more games set in this universe, but they need to start over with better writers.

(See also Soul Reaver 2)


Really nice game design, slightly buggy, depressingly cliche plot. Worth it for the exploring and the environmental puzzles.

Beyond Good and Evil

Overrated. If you thought it was the best thing ever, I apologize. The story was dumb. And not played-for-laughs dumb like the Ratchet and Clank games (which are great). The characters were supposed to be sympathetic and emotional, and it didn't work. The plot was supposed to be a big GTA-style "you can do all these different things", and that didn't work either. The whole game, in fact, felt like it was carefully targetted to all the most popular game design theories, by designers who were a whole lot better at theory than at creating a coherent game in practice.

Kya: Dark Lineage

In contrast to BG&E, this was coherent. Weirdly adventure-like, too. Yes, it's a platformer, but every game element is used in at least two different ways, and the second is unexpected and revelatory.

Katamari Damacy

Totally fun.

Prince of Persia 2: Warrior Within

The irritating thing is, room-by-room, the puzzles are better than in Sands of Time. The designers are improving. The environmental elements (platforms, ledges, ropes, poles) are used in subtler, trickier, more varied, more obfuscated, cleverer ways.

The reason that's irritating is that Sands of Time was a much better game. Warrior Within has utterly eradicated the charm and wit of its predecessor. The brilliant frame story is gone. The clever monologues are gone. (New Prince dialogue: "Rrrarrrgghh!") The dream-like surreality is gone. The time-travel plot makes no sense -- yes, I can see it's consistent, but every plot twist seems to be just made up on the spot (except for the one you'll see coming a year away).

Penny Arcade nailed it (2004/12/03 strip).

(See also Prince of Persia: Sands of Time; Prince of Persia 3: The Two Thrones)

God of War

Same review as POP2:WW -- except that POP was brilliant at recombining a palette of game elements in new and challenging ways, whereas God of War gives you a constant stream of brilliant new challenging game elements.

The gameplay of this thing is fantastic. Great fight engine, if you like that kind of thing, and if you don't there's an easy mode for you. Wonderful environments. Wonderful mix of action, exploration, and puzzles. Game worlds that you cross and re-cross in the course of each chapter, discovering new stuff, causing environment changes and restructurings, finding bonus items. Best environment-as-narrative ever.

Story? Character? Flatlined. I called every "plot twist" in five seconds or less. The protagonist has the personality of a potato. A brutal, angry potato. He's supposed to be a brutal, angry, tormented potato but they couldn't get that much emotion into him. Actually, the anger isn't really there either, except for repeated cries of "Rrrarrrgghh!" Kratos kills monsters like he's punching a time-clock. Grim brutal antiheroes are officially OVER.

Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future

I managed to miss this the first go-round -- and the zeroth, if you count the Saturn version. But I remember a friend telling me, "If you liked Soul Reaver, play this." Which turns out to be true. The first chapter of this game is a big broad-threaded world, where you gain powers and backtrack to explore new areas. (Plus -- very, very pretty.) The subsequent chapters are more linear, but it's still an exploring/puzzle-solving game. The focus is on discovering how the environment works and what you can do to it, with interludes of combat, bonus-hunting, and adventure-style (unique) boss fights. Also, pretty.

Myst 5: End of Ages

People keep asking me about this... yes, I enjoyed it. But I didn't wind up with anything really urgent to say about it, so I never wrote a review. It plays more like Uru than the earlier Myst games. I liked Uru, but not everyone did, so you'll have to decide how you feel about that. The tablet-drawing system was an interesting, but not entirely successful, experiment -- which is characteristic of the Uru series.

Update: okay, so I eventually wrote a full review.


I will happily call Okami the pinnacle of PS2 action-adventure gaming. Or is that capstone? It's the end of the cycle; in a few months it'll be PS3 time, and the PS3 is not launching with this kind of game, as far as I can tell. And Okami has everything I like about the genre -- in huge gobs. Exploration, package-hunting, a great story, fun combat (not too difficult and not too much of it), interesting adventure-form bosses, gameplay-transforming abilities to acquire, re-exploration, side quests, unique imagery and style. And the game is enormous. Easily twice the gameplay I expect when I plunk down my PS2 budget bolus.

No, I am not yielding up my adoration of Raziel. But if you are looking out over the wasteland of CRPGs and racing games to come, and you want to know what was good about PS2 gaming, play Okami.


An excellently atmospheric ghost story. (Jonathan Boakes, creator of the Dark Fall games, shows up here as voice talent.) The story design is the high point. Many adventures fall into the pattern of "explore, reach a new room, reach another new room" with story discoveries as rewards. Scratches moves through a series of events, with both story discoveries and new areas woven into the plot. You make phone calls, receive letters, sleep at night; and (more interestingly) your own goals and mood shift as the story progresses.

The weak point is an over-reliance on particular actions as plot triggers. Very often there's one thing you have to do -- a phone call, an object found -- to make the story progress. But the magic action sometimes has nothing to do with your goals as a player. So you wind up using the phone as a "click here to continue" button, which breaks the mood. Or, worse, you have to search the house top to bottom to see what hotspot you missed -- and then do it again an hour later.

Dead Reefs

Decent horror plot, crippled by stunningly bad interface. No mouse control at all; you use the arrow keys and the WSAD diamond at the same time. (Presumably this was originally designed for a console game controller, but that excuses nothing.) The creators make a special effort to ensure that the "do it" key and the "cancel" key are different in every single mode of action. Plus, game logic bugs -- I played most of the first half out of plot sequence. Plus, the kind of plot pacing that rewards you for succeeding by making you fail. I could go on. The game has good points, but it's impossible to remember them through the flood of design annoyances.

Penumbra: Overture

A survival horror game. I'm not sure why it's marketed as adventure. Perhaps because the technology isn't up to commercial survival horror games; the graphics are crude, the controls are clumsy, and there are only a couple types of creepy-crawlies.

The gimmick is a physics engine, on which some of the puzzles are based. Sadly, this is bad for the puzzles -- I spent a lot of time trying ideas which should have worked, but which I couldn't force the physics to comply with. And it's not great for the horror either. Rule of thumb: simulation engines lead to solutions which are emergent, surprising, and dull. You can kill nearly everything in the game by kneeling on a crate and flailing with your biggest weapon.

When the authors aren't shoehorning game mechanics into their prized physics system, they keep up a notably creepy and desolate vibe. The story background emerges full of both interesting detail and evocative gaps; the (sole) character you encounter is vivid, sympathetic without being trustworthy.

This is marketed as the first in an episodic serial, which mostly means that we'll never find out how it ends. Oh well. [Wrong! --Ed.]

Cosmic Osmo's Hex Isle

A simple puzzle game that Cyan whipped up in order to have a revenue stream if Uru failed. It's a 3D, third-person jumping game -- same display engine as Uru, but with a cartoony style, not hyperrealistic. On each level you have to reach six target platforms. Some platforms disintegrate a few seconds after you touch them, which makes it a timed puzzle game, and the last few levels are hard enough that I gave up.

(There's also a tougher goal, which is hitting every platform on a level, with a time limit. Only obsessive thirteen-year-olds will succeed at many of those.)

Cute, but aside from the 3Dness, it doesn't surpass any dozen jumping puzzle games available for free on the Web. I bought it because Uru failed. Yes, I will buy cute puzzle games from Cyan forever, because I want them to survive and write more adventures.

Penumbra: Black Plague

The followup (and conclusion) to Penumbra: Overture. When I played that game, I feared for the fate of the series. Indeed, the creators ran into trouble, switched publishers, and shortened the planned series to a two-parter. The result is worth their trouble.

This chapter fixes everything I complained about in the first game. The physics engine is now harnessed to serve the puzzles and plot, instead of the other way around. You still do lots of stuff, but your actions are now clear and definite when they need to be, analogue and simulation-y only when that's interesting. The combat is entirely gone; monsters may chase you, and you might even be trapped in a room with one, but you aren't flailing with a crowbar. You have to either run, or figure out how to use the environment to save your butt. More immersive, scarier, and far less dull.

If I have a complaint, it's the two characters who share the story with you. Neither is anywhere near as interesting as Red in Overture. However, the plot makes up for it; perhaps not in originality (disease, scientific base full of zombies, increasingly hallucinatory flashbacks and encounters) but it's all well-executed and entertaining. And all nerve-wracking enough that I could only handle a couple of hours of play at a time, which is all the quality a horror game needs.

Chameleon: Mysterious Journey 2

A followup to Schizm. Basically more of that. The graphics are fine and the navigation is okay -- those aspects, they improved. The puzzle clues are now... adequate. Actually, any given puzzle is a well-designed puzzle.

But every puzzle is hard. And every game interaction is a puzzle. You go from puzzle to puzzle, and each one is a carefully-tuned stumper. You never interact with the game world -- it's all scenery or a puzzle. I mean, in most games, you solve some puzzles, run some errands, open a door, solve some more puzzles, call an elevator... But here, all the ordinary things you might do are either stripped out or relegated to cut scenes. And since there's no difficulty ramp on the puzzles -- the first is just as hard as the last -- the game winds up being a trudge. Pity.

Rhem 3

This is not a review. Everything there is to say about Rhem 3, I've already said about Rhem 2. Knut Müller has not changed his approach, his design style, his artistic style, or his sense of puzzle design. He's done another big game full of more of all that, and that's what I wanted, so he wins.

Okay, a couple of differences:

In the Rhem 2 review, I said Müller should make his color distinctions clearer, and also cut down the number of slow elevator trips you need while running back and forth. Rhem 3 improves both of these things. (Running around still takes some bridge-and-elevator work, but I didn't find it tiresome. You spend much less of your time watching things move.)

In one place in Rhem 3, you find about fifteen notebooks, each with several pages of clues. Don't freak out. There's an extra "photograph this page" button in the toolbar, which adds the stuff to the toolbar book.

Playing Rhem 2, I filled eleven pages with notes and maps. In 3, I filled twelve pages. (But half of one of them is stuff I copied down before I noticed the "photograph this page" button.) In Rhem 2, I finished without any hints. In 3, I needed two hints -- embarrassing! (But both were about obscure directions I had failed to look in, not about puzzles or clues.)

The plot hook for Rhem 4 implies that it will revisit areas from the first three games. I await.

Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches

I was going to write a review, and as the days passed it wore down to a few complaints, so that's all you get.

Primarily: if you write in the manual that "objects cannot be taken until you need them, so remember where everything is," then you have not solved your design problem. You've merely explained to the player what your problem is. Go solve it, then get back to me.

Yes, I get that having lots and lots of objects makes for a nice rich puzzle story, but having them all takeable clogs the inventory. I know. But trying to remember where I saw that damn box of rat poison is clogging my brain. It's not fun. How about an in-game memo list? That would have been okay. Or a categorizing inventory UI like in Voyage?

The puzzles were, in general, awkward. Too often I had to guess (or look for hints) about what the designer thought I should be doing next. Also, when the ancient Welsh spirits use European musical notation for music puzzles, and then write the clues in English -- they need to be trying harder. Also, the scene layout has a bad case of the "you can't see what you're standing next to" problem.

On the plus side, the story is interestingly complex, and tolerably written. But on the minus side again, one puzzle gimmick is homeopathy. I'll swallow ritual magic and Kirlian photography, just like I swallow Jonathan Boakes's ghost-hunting obsession, but homeopathy is over the line. It's crap.

Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals

Nikopol gives the sense of having a lot more plot than ever made it into the game itself. After I finished, I searched around and discovered that it's an adaptation of a French graphic novel, Enki Bilal's La Foire aux Immortels. I read the synopsis of that and decided that fans of the graphic novel would be exactly as confused as I was.

The box says "From the studio created by adventure game legend Benoit Sokal", which is up there with "From the publisher of The Wheel of Time" for semi-meaningless blurbery. The game designer is credited as Marc Rutschle, but in fact I found it in line with the Sokal games I've played: wonderful environments paired with clunky plot-direction and obtuse puzzle sequences.

The puzzles are mixed in with some timed sequences; monsters or guards (or guard-monsters) are chasing you, and if you screw up, you die. This sounds annoying -- okay, it was annoying -- but it actually made for some of the better puzzles, because you could try different things and the game would at least react. The weaker puzzle scenes were (as usual) the ones where you just didn't see anything to do, or where all of the object-and-hotspot combinations you tried were "Futile."

(Nonetheless, the game went more smoothly once I realized that you weren't expected to solve complex puzzles under time pressure. If you're being chased, you have to either hide, escape, or barricade the path. That gives you time to get stuck on whatever happens next.)

The environments are wonderful, anyhow.

Last updated Apr 26, 2009.

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