Gamescom 2014 round-up - Part 2 preview

Gamescom 2014 round-up - Part 2
Gamescom 2014 round-up - Part 2

As my colleague Harald Bastiaanse said in the first part of our gamescom coverage, this year's show was busier than ever. Having visited gamescom each year since its inception and watched it grow each year, I was prepared for that, having planned to only stray from the Business Halls into the publicly accessible Entertainment Halls on the Trade-Only Wednesday. Due to the decision of the fair organisers, however, a number of non-trade visitors were allowed in on Wednesday anyway, ensuring queues to see the more popular games even on this relatively quiet day (though nowhere near '150 minute' waits as on the public days).

But even I wasn't prepared for the number of adventure games (and a couple of 'not-quite' adventure games) we were shown, as there were certainly a lot more than last year. Some of them didn't have a booth in the Business Halls, which made extra visits to the Entertainment Halls a necessity. While it's a good thing more and more adventure games are shown to the public directly, it made a decent conversation with the developers and a proper demonstration of gameplay mechanics quite hard. Still, the variety of games we saw between the two of us should offer something to look forward to for people of every taste.


Agustín Cordes demonstrated the latest version of Senscape’s upcoming Kickstarter-financed horror adventure Asylum. The Argentine studio recently adapted their own engine, Dagon, to integrate with Unity to form a hybrid engine they've dubbed 'Dagonity'. This means they can now render 3D objects (including people) in real time for more lifelike realism, and the engine has opened up tons of new possibilities for atmosphere-enhancing details like dust and fog that make the game feel far more alive.

Apart from better graphics, there's also been a change to the interface to make it more immersive. Where previously a key would simply be used magically when approaching a door, there is now an arm (and hand) in view that shows the interaction. Since Senscape believe even a cursor can break immersion, they are trying to create what they call a 'look-and-click' adventure rather than a point-and-click one. As a result, items you can interact with will have a faint glow around them. While there won't be a traditional inventory, the protagonist will make a note about objects he has seen or people he has spoken to, and you can select that particular entry from the notebook to combine it with hotspots, just without a cursor.

A "brooding thunderstorm" demonstrates the new effects possible due to Asylum's engine change

They've also redone the character models, so that the asylum receptionist Julia, for example, will have more animations such as looking around or at her fingernails during a conversation. Using Unity also means that porting to other platforms will be easier, so that a release on consoles and tablets will now be possible. Naturally, adapting to the new engine has caused some delay in getting Asylum finished, but the benefits look to be well worth a bit of extra impatience. Agustín still wasn't ready to mention a specific launch date, but said they're "months" away from completion.


Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Flesh

Just before gamescom, a series of short videos began teasing an "#Unspeakable Adventure" that Senscape will be formally announcing shortly. Since the graphics and animations for Asylum are pretty much done, it makes sense for the artists to start working on another project. Under the temporary name "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Flesh", the team is creating another horror game, for which they will be launching a Kickstarter campaign in October. All Agustín is willing to share right now is that, unlike Asylum, it will be a third-person adventure game, and Jenny Pattison, who previously contributed to Quest for Infamy, is working on it. The gameplay clip we were shown of a man walking in a dusty-looking library certainly had a unique, promising look, and even though Senscape was not willing to share any details about the story or premise just yet, I am looking forward to learning more early next month.

J.U.L.I.A. Among the Stars

With its September 12th release imminent at gamescom, indie Czech studio CBE was eager to show tons of new content for their reimagined sci-fi adventure. With crowdfunding money behind them, developers Jan Kavan and Lukáš Medek more or less started the remake from scratch, building their own engine based on Wintermute and making it open source for everyone to use. The renamed J.U.L.I.A. Among the Stars is technically much more advanced and has better graphics, new puzzles, and a partially different storyline. Kavan and Medek also added new audio features that were far too technical for me to understand, but they sounded impressive and Jan certainly seemed to be proud of the accomplishment.

The story still starts with 35-year-old astrobiologist Rachel Manners waking up from cryo sleep. She was part of a mission to investigate an artificial signal picked up from a distant solar system, but awakens to discover she is the only one still on board the spacecraft. Compared to the original game, we’ll learn much more about the other crew members this time. By visiting nearby planets (or to be more specific, by letting the remote robot Mobot visit the planets), we will discover that they all had ideas about what happened, but they were all wrong. Only you as the player have the ability to piece it all together from their diaries and other evidence. There is a lot of optional content that gives extra background information you don't actually need to solve the mystery, and if you are really thorough you can solve an additional puzzle called 'mind-o-matic'.

There is still no inventory, but you can interact with hotspots. For instance, if you look at an object or corpse you can ask Mobot to take a sample from it and do a couple types of analysis on it (e.g. DNA, fingerprints, chemical composition). A log keeps track of dialogues for you, showing subjects and branches while colour coding indicates if you've already addressed a particular key word (though you can always repeat it if you've forgotten the answer).

Having played the original game a few years back, I was very impressed with what Jan and Lukáš have accomplished since then. Not only are the background graphics and animations breathtakingly beautiful, there's tons of new content to be discovered. From little details such as the planets now being named instead of just numbered to completely new puzzles and story arcs, it felt like I was playing a new game that was inspired by the old one. The Windows version of J.U.L.I.A. Among the Stars is available now on Steam and CBE's own DRM-free store, with Mac and Linux versions to  follow shortly.


The St. Christopher's School Lockdown

Laney Berry, Kara Queen and Göran Paues from Classroom Graffiti have been working on creating a playable demo of The St. Christopher's School Lockdown since their successful Kickstarter, which we got to see first-hand at gamescom. The first thing that immediately sets it apart from most adventures is the start screen, in which you are prompted to choose statistics for your character, as if it were a roleplaying game. Similar to the Quest for Glory games, these statistics (for instance Wit, Charisma, Persuasion, and Computer Hacking Skills) influence the way you solve puzzles, creating a degree of replay value rarely seen in the genre.

The basic premise of the game is that St. Christopher's private school in Britain has been seized by its student body in a lock-in protest against severe new financial rulings set forth nation-wide by the Ministry of Education. The game will be released in several chapters, or episodes, and the first one is all about Kayleigh, a student who is also a bit of a con artist but is currently in serious debt with some dangerous people. The demo we saw didn't take place in the school, but rather demonstrated how Kayleigh would get herself out of this troubling situation. To do so, she needs to do some research in a cyber cafe (although the game does not have a specific time setting, there are references to the nineties when it wasn't quite as common to have a home computer, let alone a smart phone with an internet connection). Unfortunately, all of the computers are occupied or broken.

Programmer Göran Paues showed several solutions to the problem. Based on the statistics you chose at the beginning, these may or may not be available to you. For instance, if you are good at deceiving people, you might see a plumber's van outside, note the phone number on the back and call the guy to leave the cafe to fix your toilet. If your skill isn't high enough, the plumber won't be convinced of the emergency and remains seated where he is. Alternatively, you might be able to persuade someone to leave their computer if you buy them something to eat. Another solution involves telling yet another patron, who is searching for porn, that his favourite star is signing autographs at a venue across town. Or perhaps you might even be able to fix a broken computer.

There will be tons of optional content in the game, such as newspapers you can read, websites you can visit, and school textbooks you can study. Some of these might offer a clue to an obstacle you are facing, so it pays to examine everything carefully. Lead developer Laney Berry promises there will be no 'fail states', meaning there will always be another solution for you to find. There will also be an optional mini-game in which you try to beat someone in a voodoo-themed trading card game for more information or a clue.

I was very impressed with the smooth, crisp graphics of The St. Christopher's School Lockdown, the richness of the universe they've created for the game – from subtle details like fashion or graffiti on the wall to news stories about world politics – and the way the statistics impact the possible solutions. There is still no word on the launch of episode one, however, so we’ll need to wait a while longer to see how such an ambitious project all comes together.

Continued on the next page...

content continues below