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PSX 2015 round-up

PSX 2015
PSX 2015


We all remember what Gabriel Knight said when you tried to combine two incompatible items: “Nope, those don’t work together.” There was a time when combining ‘adventure games’ and ‘PlayStation’ would elicit just that response. But ever since Heavy Rain released as a PlayStation exclusive, more and more adventure games have come out on Sony’s consoles, and the trend doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

At the recent PlayStation Experience (PSX) event in San Francisco, I checked out five adventures worth paying attention to when they release next year. Don’t own a PlayStation 4 or Vita? Never fear: all but one of these are also coming to desktops.
 



Day of the Tentacle Remastered


Like this year’s Grim Fandango re-release, Double Fine’s upcoming Day of the Tentacle Remastered is a faithful, high-quality update of the LucasArts original. For the uninitiated, DOTT is a 1993 comedy by Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman about a mad scientist, three time-traveling teenagers, and some evil tentacles out to take over the world, ranked #6 in Adventure Gamers’ 100 All Time Adventure Games list.

Emily poses with a (friendly?) Purple Tentacle at Double Fine’s booth.

DOTT Remastered’s artwork has been completely redone, but you might not realize it at a glance. Double Fine’s artists redrew all of the game’s backgrounds to achieve sharp lines and smooth curves for today’s high-res displays. Prefer the original pixelated look? With the press of a button you can switch between the old and new graphics, just like in LucasArts’ Monkey Island remakes of a few years ago.

The other significant change is in the interface: for both the classic and remastered graphic versions, you can choose between the original verb bank at the bottom of the screen, or a verb wheel à la Full Throttle (select a hotspot and the available actions display in a cluster of icons). Using the gamepad, I found the verb wheel much more comfortable than moving the cursor to the bottom of the screen to select “talk to” or “look at,” but die-hard fans might prefer that old-school method, especially on a PC with a mouse. Animation is on par with the original, while the voice acting—uncompressed and re-edited from the original recordings—sounds crisp and meshes beautifully with the new artwork, with no hint of the 20-plus year gap between their creations.


During PSX, Double Fine announced that after Day of the Tentacle Remastered releases for PS4, Vita, PC, and Mac in March, they’ll give Schafer’s Full Throttle the same treatment. Once that’s complete, is there any chance we’ll see a sequel to one of these classic titles? Probably not, Tim says, as long as Disney owns the IP—he’d rather make sequels to games he has complete control over, like Psychonauts.

 

Firewatch


After The Walking Dead: Season One took home every Game of the Year award known to man, project leads Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin quietly left Telltale to form their own studio, Campo Santo. Their first game, Firewatch, is coming to PS4, PC, Mac, and Linux in February, and if you liked The Walking Dead’s writing but hated its lack of freedom, this is a game for you.

Set in the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming, Firewatch is a first-person game with two prominent characters: rookie fire lookout Henry and his boss Delilah, whom he communicates with over a walkie-talkie. The PSX demo took place during Henry’s first day on the job. From his lookout tower he spots fireworks, an obvious danger in the woods, and Delilah tells him to find and stop whoever’s setting them off. It’s time to get lost in the woods.

Sean Vanaman describes Firewatch to a rapt audience at PSX.

While you’re exploring this vast 3D world, Delilah gives hints over the radio about which way to go and how to access lockboxes with supplies. She’s a bit like Portal’s GLaDOS, giving instructions and sometimes piping up with a non sequitur to break the silence. You can decide how to respond, with some responses time-limited and often with the option to say nothing (which may have its own consequences).

The forest has a stylized, pastel look inspired by the art deco WPA posters of the 1930s and 40s. As Henry moves, you see his hands and occasionally his body but never his face—you’re seeing the world through his eyes. He carries a map that updates as he visits new areas, as well as a compass. You can refer to these while you walk and you’ll also pass landmarks and marker signs to help you get your bearings, but there’s no map overlay or quick travel option to aid the directionally challenged.

Beyond exploring the forest and reporting back to Delilah, Firewatch has some real-world puzzle solving. (For example: find a rope in a lock box, then use the rope to scale down a ravine.) As Henry comes across useful items he puts them in his pockets—an inventory you can access with a press of a button. The first-person perspective, open world, and direct controls give the feel of a shooter, but actions such as hopping over a fallen log or climbing a rock wall are handled with simple button pushes. The demo didn’t include any QTEs, just “press X to climb”-type actions.

When you find the teenagers setting off fireworks, there are various ways to deal with them. In my playthrough I asked them nicely to stop; later I watched another player throw the teens’ radio in the lake. Similarly, you can choose how to respond to Delilah’s questions and even decide which details about what you’ve found in the woods to radio back to her. Like Lee Everett’s choices toward characters such as Larry and Clementine influenced the player’s overall experience in The Walking Dead, how you choose to play Henry will likely influence his rapport with Delilah and craft a personalized experience, however subtle.


Henry’s dialogue with his boss is snappy and often funny, and even this brief look made clear that their banter is a large part of what makes Firewatch special. And though the demo was more or less a day in the life of a fire lookout, Delilah’s awkward apology for her drunken greeting upon Henry’s arrival, a mysterious figure lurking in the distance, and the discovery that Henry’s lookout tower has been vandalized in his absence hint at a more complex story waiting in the woods when Firewatch releases on February 9th.


Alone With You


Currently planned as a PlayStation exclusive, Alone With You is a “sci-fi romance adventure” by Ben Rivers, developer of 2012’s indie title Home. A catastrophe has resulted in the death of everyone on board a space station, and you—an unnamed, mystery-gendered person in a space suit and helmet—have been sent here to figure out what happened. The game’s pixel art graphics are reminiscent of old Space Quests and its structure is sort of like the Persona RPGs, but without combat. Every day, you search part of the space station for clues about what happened. And every night, you go on a date courtesy of the station’s holo-sim chamber.

Since Ben first showed me this game almost two years ago, the “romance” part of “sci-fi romance adventure” has always been the hardest part to understand, but with the PSX demo it’s starting to make sense. Alone With You consists of 12 missions over a 3-week period. During each mission you’ll explore an area of the space station, scanning dead bodies, journals, and other relics for clues about four people who had important jobs on the station. Meanwhile you’re in regular contact with an AI who gives instructions and asks seemingly banal questions like what you want for dinner, your answers shaping the story in subtle ways.

The two missions I played included some simple puzzle-solving, usually related to learning you need an item, finding it a few screens later, and then making your way back to the place where you can use it (a relatively easy task with locations laid out for comfortable exploration). Each area is associated with one of the four people you’re investigating, and at the end of the mission you’ll meet up with that person—virtually—in the holo-sim chamber. (This is the nightly “date.”) With the help of their notes and insight from hologram versions of themselves, you will piece together what happened. But at the same time you’ll get to know them, and choices you make about how to interact with these holograms could lead to romance.


Graphically, Alone With You rises to the challenge of looking low-res on the PS4’s high-res display. Its 16-bit pixel art graphics take advantage of the large amount of screen real estate to include a lot of detail. From couch distance, the chunky pixels blend together nicely—anti-aliased by your own eyes, in a sense—but the game also has a sharp 1080p interface that’s easy to read even from afar. Unlike the dark and stormy Home, Alone With You uses pastels from the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive color palette for an old-school console feel. It may remind you of a point-and-click adventure, but the gamepad controls are intuitive: move around with the left stick, press buttons that correspond with dialogue options, and hold down the R2 trigger to scan items of interest.

Even after playing part of it, I think there’s a lot about Alone With You that will be hard to grasp until it’s released—this game defies simple categorization and demo slices only tease at the big picture. It’s clearly a story-heavy game, with player decisions shaping the narrative and old-school graphics providing a nostalgia trip for fans of 1980s/90s adventure games (or Sega Genesis games, for that matter). Some players might be wary of the romance aspect, but Ben says it’s possible to play the game totally straight, without romance, if you choose. We’ll find out just how steamy an abandoned space station can get in Spring 2016, when Alone With You releases on PS4 and Vita.

 

Night in the Woods


You know that saying “You can’t go home again”? Mae Borowski, Night in the Woods’ 20-year-old protagonist, can relate. A college dropout with anger issues, she’s returned to her depressed hometown of Possum Springs, a Detroit-like place where industry has dried up and people dream of getting out, but don’t know how.

Mae’s quest for identity is at the forefront of this Kickstarted adventure game from developer Infinite Fall and publisher Finji Games. At a glance it may look cutsey, what with its talking animal characters and paper cutout aesthetic, but any such illusions disappear with the first talk bubbles that pop up over Mae’s head in her childhood bedroom (“If I don’t get out of this room, I’m probably going to burn it down with me in it.”) She’s sarcastic, cynical, and unhappy, and part of your objective in Night in the Woods is to understand why.

Early in the PSX demo, Mae’s mother and a neighbor admonish her for jumping up on mailboxes and climbing to the roofs of buildings—so of course that’s exactly what she goes on to do. The game looks and moves like a side-scrolling platformer, but jumping from a mailbox to a tree branch to a power line to a rooftop is more like puzzle-solving than platforming as you figure out how to progress from surface to surface to reach where you want to go. Some precision is required, but you don’t die if you fall.

The town is bustling with animated activity as cars drive by, flocks of birds migrate overhead, squirrels run across window sills, and autumn leaves blow around—it’s like a hipster version of Richard Scarry’s Busytown. As Mae chats with people ranging from old friends to the new crop of high school troublemakers to a former teacher, bits and pieces of her story come out, along with plenty of snark and sarcasm to establish her character. Dialogue is presented through non-voiced talk bubbles, with icons sometimes used in place of text to show what’s on someone’s mind. (In one sequence I’m pretty sure I interpreted correctly, a jilted passer-by went from thinking about a broken heart, to getting some money, to firing a gun…)


The part I played involved exploring the town and some light puzzle-solving, but as the story progresses Mae will discover that something unusual is going on at night in (wait for it…) the woods. The demo’s combination of cynicism and charm has me eager for more, but unfortunately Night in the Woods is still almost a year away, with a launch on PS4, PC, Mac, and Linux expected between August and November of 2016. The developers are promising to release some previously backer-only video before then, and two free minigames are already available from the official website.

 

Pavilion


Indie developer Visiontrick Media touts Pavilion as a “fourth-person puzzling adventure.” Until I played it at PSX I had no idea what that meant… or how much fun it could be.

In this surreal puzzle game, a little guy in a suit is running through an MC Escher-like complex of bridges, ladders, and stairways. He runs on his own—you can’t control him. Instead, you manipulate the world around him to direct him. Ring a bell and he’ll run toward the noise. If he encounters a dark area he’ll hesitate, so you can flip on a light to make him progress or flip it off if you want him to turn back. Giant cubes can be pushed and pulled to block or open up a pathway. Some gates are locked, and you need to guide the man past a nearby chest to pick up the key. Other gates only open when a pressure pad with a timer is activated, so you need to direct him over the pad then get him back to the gate before it closes again. Trickier still, a gate may require stepping on two pressure pads in sync.

The “fourth-person” controls seem simple at first but the difficulty ramps up quickly—this puzzle game will make you use your brain. The isometric perspective means you view the tiny man from a distance, which provides a good view of the area around him so you can plan out a route while also giving the feeling that you’re playing as an omniscient, god-like character.


Even after completing two levels (I felt so smart!), I don’t know much about Pavilion overall, but that seems to be by design—it’s a game that eschews handholding as you figure out on your own how the man will react to different actions and how the world itself fits together. There does seem to be a larger story at work: the man is following (or chasing?) a woman who is also running, but in this demo she was always just out of reach. We’ll find out more about this mysterious world when Pavilion releases for PS4, Vita, and PC in February 2016.


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