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.Continued on the next page...