Ah gamescom, how you've grown… This was not the first time I've attended the annual games convention in Cologne, so I knew it would be busy, but with the entire 335,000-person capacity being sold out before the fair even began, it was much worse than when I last visited in 2011. In order to keep things moving, major walkways had to be sectioned into one-direction segments and at one point visitors were forced to walk via the outside of the building to reach the next halls. Gamescom is simply getting too big for even the Koelnmesse complex to handle comfortably anymore.
While adventures are still a bit of a niche, it was also more busy for us specifically than I would have expected. I saw a lot of interesting things this year, and my colleague Astrid Beulink saw even more, which she’ll be reporting on separately. Whether you're into comedy or serious stories, cartoony, stylized or realistic visuals, traditional or more unusual gameplay, there is something promising to look forward to.
The Book of Unwritten Tales 2
When visiting Nordic for a look at The Book of Unwritten Tales 2, the big question on my mind was the same that is no doubt on everyone else's: will it be as good as the first one? While it is of course impossible to give a definite answer to that at this stage, at least all signs seem to be pointing in the right direction. Looking at early parts of the game, we saw the main characters start off in a very typical situation: Nate was scrambling to survive while falling from a great height after the latest misadventure with his skyship; Wilbur was struggling to keep the attention of some unruly apprentices in his new job teaching at the magic university; Ivo, a bit later in the story, was safe enough at home but eager to get out to the city after hearing that Wilbur had been accused of killing the Archmage. (We didn't see the Critter, but he will be in the game as well.)
Critter wasn't in our gamescom demo, but look who was waiting for us at Nordic's display
Beyond the setups themselves, the writing and voice acting in these scenes made even clearer that KING Art has not lost touch with these characters and the game should be on the right track. There is also a promising combination of the epic and the absurd in the overarching plot, which involves a dangerous magical plague which turns its victims into the kind of overly-saccharine abominations you might expect in an early generation My Little Pony cartoon. It will also be a long story, taking some 20-25 hours to finish, due in part to extra content afforded by the bonus Kickstarter funds.
Another big point of the Kickstarter was to be able to implement projection mapping. We only saw some subtle uses of that technique for moving around rooms and zooming in, but even so it impressively created the illusion of live 3D rendering. With the graphics otherwise being no less great than before, it is a very nifty extra to have.
For a sneak peek of your own at this highly anticipated fantasy sequel, the game has been released on Steam as an Early Access work-in-progress. You will have to wait until early next year to be sure how the finished version all works out, but of all the games I saw this year at gamescom, The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 is probably the one I feel most confident about.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
When we met Nordic's PR Manager Philipp Brock for a look at The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, he was a happy man. Having only just got his hands on the game himself at this event, he seemed genuinely eager to show it off once more and talked at length about how he discovered something new on each playthrough. This says more about the game than you might think, as by this time most people doing press demos tire of showing the same preview over and over.
As the game began, we walked out of a dark tunnel and onto some train tracks in a lightly forested area. Philipp tells us that most playtesters follow the tracks straight ahead to a nearby bridge and thereby miss a whole set of clues. In this exploration game you need to stray from the most obvious path if you want to see it all. As we did so, I got a look at the first of a number of game mechanics built around detective Paul Prospero’s psychic powers. Scattered near the tracks were several traps against trespassers. They’ve missed their mark, but each was a clue that provided a shard of a vision related to it. When you collect enough clues, these shards grow into a picture that takes up the screen and you find yourself in an important place that would otherwise be hard to spot.
Having found what we could here, we moved on across the bridge, where a bloodstained railcar gave us the opportunity to use another important ability. Using it while pondering the stain, many related questions became visualized as words on the screen. Soon they settled on the most immediate matter, a winch that had gone missing. By paying attention to the way the cloud of words behaved as we looked around, we got it to tell us what direction the winch was, and then saw a vision of it and its surroundings.
On our way to collect the winch, I already got a bit of an impression of where the blood must have come from, spotting pieces of rope tied to the tracks and a dead body without legs nearby. After using the winch to move the railcar back to where it must have started, we soon began to put the pieces together using yet another ability. Near each clue we saw a small scene related to the incident, and by putting them into the right order we got to see the whole thing and more. Without spoiling too much, little Ethan Carter (not the dead man) has clearly seen his share of violence at home, partly due to the influence of some very old malign presence.
That was about as much as we could see of the gameplay and story. As for the graphics, they are impressive indeed. By constructing object textures out of a composite of many photos rather than artificially, Ethan Carter achieves some of the most realistic-looking visuals I’ve yet seen. The voice acting, while sparsely used, is also quite good, especially in making the main character’s claims of experience sound convincing.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter will come out on September 25th on PC, with a PS4 version to follow early next year. As a (largely) explorative game it won’t be for everyone, but if you can get past the lack of puzzles in a traditional sense, you’ll find an investigation style that’s far more open and involved than a game like Dear Esther, coupled with a captivating horror story that draws you in a bit closer with each clue you uncover.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, Call of Cthulhu
The good news for people looking forward to Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments is that it will be coming out as early as September 30. The bad news is that my appointment with Focus Home didn't last long enough for me to see anything that wasn't already shown in the extensive gameplay trailer put out earlier this year. Especially disappointing was not being able to try out the revamped deduction system, which will at times open up new mid-case decisions and let you indict or clear any of at least four suspects per case, with nine possible endings to each of the six cases. To increase replay value and immersion, you can (and will by default) choose not to be told whether you picked the right suspect, though at the end of each case you can opt to have its correct solution revealed.
Crimes & Punishments gameplay video
These six cases should take about three to four hours each. Some of them are based on the original Conan Doyle stories, though with some changes made so people who already read those stories won't be able to crack the case right off the bat. The cases do not come together in any overarching plot, but the aftermath of each does affect your reputation and career as a detective.
While I was still at Focus Home's booth, I took the opportunity to ask about the upcoming Cthulhu-based game that was announced recently. Unfortunately, they wouldn't tell me more than that it will be made by the same team as the Sherlock Holmes series, and that they are researching thoroughly and playing some Cthulhu board and card games every day at lunch. The publisher catalog I got further states that the game will be called Call of Cthulhu and released in 2015.
The Talos Principle
Getting into conferences this big can be hard without a publisher, but this year the collaborative Indie Mega Booth showed up at gamescom for the first time, taking up a surprisingly large space and showcasing more than 30 games. Most of them were of course from other genres, but one I did sit down for was The Talos Principle, the “philosophical first-person puzzler” coming from Croteam later this month.
As the demo began, I was at a small bridge leading up to a medieval-style stone fort, protected by a distinctly not-medieval-style electronic puzzle lock. Not having enough pieces yet to solve the Tetris-style jigsaw puzzle, I explored a bit instead. It was certainly a nice enough stroll: everything looked great, from the luscious grass to the richly textured walls to the sky above, where I even spotted a rainbow out in the background.
After crossing the bridge again back to where I began, I found some ruins in the same style which looked to be more accessible. Soon enough, I stumbled on a little computer terminal. Where I expected to get some immediate result just using the interact button, surprisingly the view zoomed in for detailed interaction. Then what started out as trying some console commands to override security turned into what felt like a dialog puzzle when a reluctant AI inside questioned why I should be getting special treatment. I say “felt” because at the end, nothing seemed to change and I'm not sure whether I succeeded or if success was even possible. After exploring the computer a little more for some vaguely philosophical-flavored texts, I moved along while a voice-over discussed how “the apparent wisdom of the interloper” was hollow and self-serving. (Ahem.)
Exploring a bit more, I finally arrived at some of the physical puzzles I assume will be the bread and butter of this game. The ‘Easy’ puzzle I began with introduced force fields and inhibitors I could plop down to disable them. The ‘Hard’ puzzle I took on next introduced a red laser that could be redirected by another pedestal-mounted device I could reposition, with useful things happening when the beam went into the right hole. You can make the beam hit the redirector from any angle and split it up as much as you want; there just needs to be a good line of sight to everything. It's a bit much to take in, but it starts to feel natural very quickly and soon enough I was happily running around alternating between moving the inhibitor and the redirector, getting one step further each time. Then a little while later, the fun really started when a blue laser and targets were added to the mix.
Since I had an appointment elsewhere drawing ever closer and I couldn't hog a show floor demo for too long in any case, I couldn't get much further than that. But while I didn't get to see some of the more advanced mechanics and can't tell if the philosophy angle will amount to much more than window-dressing, the puzzle design and atmosphere certainly make this a promising title if you have an itch to scratch for a Portal-style physical puzzler.
Also available to try out at the Indie Mega Booth was Wander, a game which is unusual in that it is a narrative-driven exploration game while also being a (combat-free) MMO. You start the game as a living, vaguely humanoid tree, recently awoken in a thick rainforest. The visuals are certainly pretty enough and combined with the ambient sound effects give off a very relaxing atmosphere as you stroll from one point of interest to the next, but the lumbering tree moves about so slowly it started grating on my patience soon enough. I don't play a lot of exploration games, but I dare say the movement is a bit too slow even for one of those.
After encountering some stone ruins, you soon gain the ability to take the form of a griffin and take flight. This is quite a bit faster and makes for a great view, but without the help of a minimap it's very easy to lose your bearings and have no idea how to get back to your takeoff point. Walking on the ground in griffin form is still quite slow, but the full game should have other, more convenient forms for that.
What I didn't see was any interaction with another player, nor anything I could recognize as a puzzle. Creative Director Loki Davison likes to compare the game to a multiplayer version of the PS3 game flower, and also said it would be a bit like Myst when I asked about that. The way the MMO interaction is described is also reminiscent of Journey. So Wander is a bit hard to place for now, but it might blossom into something fascinating when it moves out of its public beta later this year.
Silence: The Whispered World 2
The first time you see Silence, you might find it hard to believe it is in fact a sequel to The Whispered World. Where the first game was a defiant statement in good-looking 2D art when 3D (or at least 2.5D) was already the norm, Silence takes the more modern approach, and still looks great doing it. Likewise, it might feel a bit off that the story starts with a 'real world' mountain village being attacked by World War II-style bombers. I can't say much more about the story without spoiling the first game (to read more, see our earlier preview), but the new main characters will get back into the familiar Whispered World soon enough, with the starting place being relatively unimportant to the larger adventure.
Silence and The Devil's Men had wall-sized mural displays at Daedalic's booth
As for gameplay, expect puzzles to be a bit easier and perhaps a bit less numerous. The design philosophy is to pay more attention to the story and move away from 'puzzles for the sake of puzzles'. That said, the shape-changing sidekick Spot is back and as useful as ever, and the part I saw had no lack of natural puzzle moments. Commonly occurring hallucinogenic plants and occasional switching between playable characters should also spice things up.
Silence: The Whispered World 2 is set to come out early next year.
Among an otherwise largely traditional lineup, including The Devil’s Men (which we previewed at E3), the Stone-Age themed puzzler Fire was Daedalic's odd duck. Rather than emulating conventional titles, everything about Fire from the level-based experimentation gameplay to the fairly light story to the endearing little silent protagonist brings to mind Amanita's peculiar gems, especially Samorost. Each level has you guide caveman Ungh to a firefly that will lead him to the next level, ultimately aiming to reach a volcano where he can get a new source of fire, which he needs to make up for causing his tribe's fireplace go out on his watch.
Beyond just making the formula work for them, which they seemed to do well enough in the level I saw, Daedalic is also putting its own twist on the art: where Amanita likes to go with a gouache style, Fire aims more at cartoony, and pulls it off quite nicely. Everywhere you go, great little animations add charm and humor, adding up to a delightful experience. The clarity and high contrast of this style should also benefit the tablet versions, which are already being planned. The PC and Mac versions of Fire are due later this year, with the tablet versions coming at some point after that.
While Daedalic is also the publisher behind Randal’s Monday, I was shown the game by Spanish studio Nexus Games, who are nothing if not ambitious. As our meeting started they introduced the game to me as a “classic” point-and-click adventure, and if it doesn't become one it won't be for lack of trying. With over 40 characters, 50 locations, 200 distinct animations and some 20 hours of gameplay divided over 7 chapters and a prologue and epilogue, they are not skimping on anything.
The story is like a combination of a sitcom episode and Groundhog Day. It's Monday, and the rent on Randal's disorganized mess of an apartment is long due. Not having any of his excuses, his landlord will throw him out if he can't cough up the money that day. When Randal asks his boss for an advance, he is fired instead and turns to the pawnshop. Since his own stuff isn't worth anything, Randal ultimately gets the money by pawning off an engagement ring he stole from a friend. It's a move befitting of jerk protagonists like Rufus and Simon the Sorcerer, but karmic justice is much swifter for Randal. After finding out his ring got 'lost', Randal's friend commits suicide that evening. And things get worse from there.
The next morning, Randal finds that it's the same Monday again. As will become clear soon enough, the ring was cursed and he is stuck in a loop until he can set things right. Which will not be as easy as just not selling the ring. Somehow what Randal does on one Monday affects the next; in the new day the ring is already in the pawnbroker's possession, and already sold on further by the time he gets there.
The loose time travel-like mechanic will obviously have its use in puzzles; in one scenario I saw you could reschedule a conference simply by scribbling a new date over the poster and waiting a 'day'. To avoid boredom from having the same things repeated each day, there is also some variety thrown into the writing: each morning Randal makes up different inane excuses to hold off his landlord, and each evening his friend commits suicide in a different absurd way (the first time by sticking his head in the oven) and Randal throws different quips at the police officers who call him to the scene (as he is mentioned unfavorably in the suicide note). This reflects the approach to the rest of the game, which is stuffed with jokes everywhere and crammed even further with all kinds of pop culture references.
Clerks star Jeff Anderson voices Randal
The cartoony style fits the atmosphere well enough, and so does the overall solid voice acting. Notably, Randal is voiced by Jeff Anderson, who also played the character he was inspired by: Randal Graves in Clerks. That doesn't mean much to me personally, but certainly the voice works well in the game.
With Daedalic's support as the publisher, Randal's Monday is coming out in early November.
Her Majesty's SPIFFING
Towards the end of the first day I sat down with Billy Goat Entertainment for a look at Her Majesty's SPIFFING. While the demo was too early to let me explore much or even finish the first puzzle, the things I did see bode well. Chief among them is the writing, which already shines through. The unapologetically British and ever self-deprecating humor brings to mind the Hector and Ben & Dan series and is at a similar level, though never as raunchy as either.
Instead of raunchiness, SPIFFING goes for parodied national stereotypes. The art style goes quite well with this and so does the voice acting, especially for the main character, a fat pompous captain whose voice is just perfect. Naturally the first puzzle is to make a cup of tea, and one for the scrawny more level-headed subordinate who knows just how to talk his way around his boss. Further national pride is on display in the design of the ship itself, which has iconic parts including the front of a Mini Cooper van, though to further the self-deprecating humor a lot of British tech will be portrayed as shoddy.
The British aren't the only ones getting spoofed, as contact with aliens will take a backseat to interactions with similar expeditions from other countries, including French, American and German ones, with the French leader being a riff on Napoleon and the American team being out to grab natural resources under the guise of spreading democracy. The developers plan to release the game in three episodes, each focusing on the interactions with one of these groups, and hope to release the first episode around this time next year.