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E3 2016 round-up

E3 2016 round-up
E3 2016 round-up

E3 is an experience that is so over-the-top it is hard to put into words, with all the sights, the sounds, the stagecraft that makes it look like you’ve just stumbled onto some movie set, and all the expensive visual publisher gimmicks vying for your attention left and right. Adventure games, historically not the flashiest attention magnets, can easily go unnoticed amidst it all. But they are there for the finding, on the show floor or tucked away in a meeting room; like a good adventurer, one just has to take the time to discover them.
 



State of Mind

Getting the chance to sit down behind closed doors with the Daedalic Entertainment team at E3 (and converse with them in our native German) was one of my highlights of the entire event. Moreover, it gave me the opportunity to observe some actual gameplay of their upcoming adventure, State of Mind.

Written by Martin Ganteföhr (The Moment of Silence, Overclocked), State of Mind is a vision of our near future, specifically the year 2048 in the city of Berlin. It is a future in which robots have been integrated into the normal everyday household, and humans have taken to improving themselves via bionic integration and chip implants. By this time, artificial intelligence has taken the next leap forward and become self-aware, which plays a major role within the narrative.

The game deals with the subject of transhumanism, where it has become possible to upload one’s entire consciousness and exist within a virtual reality world; basically it takes the concept of playing a computer game to its most sci-fi extreme. Players take on the role of Richard Nolan, a newspaper journalist whose flaws have led him to a troubled personal life with an estranged wife and child. As the game begins, Richard comes home to find that both of them have mysteriously vanished. His only lead is that his wife apparently uploaded herself into the virtual reality City 5. It is up to the player to uncover the mystery of what really happened to Richard’s family.

Another interesting question the game tackles relates to what it really means to be human, an issue explored in the actual story. In an attempt to follow his wife and get some answers, Richard also tries to insert his conscious self into City 5, but an accident causes a virtual copy of Richard, named Adam, to be created in the VR environment instead, while Richard remains in the real world. Richard is able to communicate with his VR counterpart to enlist his aid. The catch is that Adam, being a fully self-aware AI, doesn’t actually know that he’s not a real person, just a construct. The conflict born of this dilemma gives the story its moral ambiguity.

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State of Mind is presented as a 3D thriller, instead of the traditional point-and-click approach. Rather than aiming for full realism, however, it uses a very stylized art style, with character models built from polygons. The two juxtaposed planes of existence – the real Berlin and the virtual City 5 – will also provide critically different mirror images of each other. The game’s release is scheduled for the first quarter of 2017, and along with a PC release it will also see the light of day on next-gen consoles PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

 

Syberia 3

How many game series get a chance at a comeback after a decade’s absence? Not many, I’d wager – unless it's a franchise with a dedicated fan base and storied history like Syberia. So you can imagine it was quite a big deal to me to be able to attend a private meeting with Microïds’ brass to get a taste of Kate Walker’s continued adventures.
 

Syberia 3 is once again helmed by Benoît Sokal, this time collaborating with his son Hugo. Together they’re creating the first game in the series actually designed for console play from the ground up. That means environments are full 3D for the first time, as opposed to the pre-rendered spaces of its point-and-click predecessors. The demo I saw already looked great, though it wasn’t a completed build with final graphics or voice-overs.

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Over a decade has passed for us, but Kate Walker’s story picks up where it left off in the last game. As the game opens, Kate is stranded in the frozen wastelands of Syberia, with no hope of surviving. She is found and rescued in the nick of time by the native Youkol tribe, who take her to the nearest hospital in the town of Valsembor, where she awakens and begins her new adventure.

The demo was focused on Kate getting out of the hospital, starting with escaping her room. A Youkol tribesman sharing the room provides a bit of help in this, the game’s first puzzle sequence. In the end, Kate is able to bypass the room’s mechanical lock before proceeding into the dimly lit, bare concrete hallways of the hospital. Despite the facility’s spartan architecture, its furnishings reflect more splendor: beautiful antique desks share space with suits of armor as Kate seeks out the attending psychiatrist in an attempt to convince him to sign her release papers. The psychiatrist, however, has quite a different idea in mind: after Kate passes a lie detector examination, he placates her by giving her the key to the front doors, only for her to discover that the key doesn’t open the doors at all. Kate is a prisoner.

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As I watched my presenter maneuver Kate around the hospital, I noticed the interface has no on-screen display. Icons pop up when Kate is near enough to interact with an object, and pressing a button on the controller accesses the inventory. Objects in the game can be examined in close-up views, allowing for direct manipulation. Kate meets a few of the hospital’s other staff, including a kindly doctor and a malicious head nurse.

In a vacant office room, Kate’s next obstacle is to access a secret passage she hopes will let her leave this place. Here I was able to witness the way the game’s music has been utilized to provide audible help to the player. The soundtrack is composed by Inon Zur, who has created the scores for series like Fallout and Dragon Age, as well as Syberia II. As I watched the puzzle being solved on the screen, I could hear the music progress through stages that corresponded with how closely we got to the solution. Starting as a single tone, the song becomes a two-part harmony as the next piece falls into place; as we drew nearer to the puzzle’s final solution, a vocal element joined the music to complete the song as well as the puzzle.

The final moments of the demo revealed that the secret passage Kate uncovered actually leads to a basement room of the hospital, in which the evil psychiatrist and the suspicious nurse are plotting a dastardly scheme to harm the local villagers by stopping their mission to take a group of snow ostriches to a special place known as the Sacred Lands. Having learned of their plot, Kate knows it’s up to her to succeed in making her escape from the hospital and help the Youkol people fulfill their mission.

Before concluding our meeting, I was assured that Syberia 3 will release before year’s end. It will be available on Windows and Mac, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.


Yesterday Origins

It seems that Pendulo Studios has taken user feedback from its first outing in the Yesterday series to heart, and is implementing a few changes for this sophomore turn, including a novel approach to its puzzle solving. Yesterday Origins is 3D point-and-click adventure game whose cartoonish art style belies its somber atmosphere and mature subject matter. The game is as much prequel as it is sequel, with its story split between John Yesterday, protagonist of the first game, and his wife Pauline. While John’s story is set during the gruesome Spanish Inquisition and serves as the prequel for what is to come, Pauline’s segments take place in modern-day Paris and drive the story forward.

My demonstration focused on John, whose goal in the game is to complete the ritual that will make him immortal. But first thing’s first: for starters, John has to find a way to escape the dungeon he’s been thrown into. Accomplishing this took the entire length of the demo; the process was long and deliciously complex, and should please those who felt the original game lacked in difficulty. This time around, the developers are taking steps to dedicate the game more to the hardcore adventure audience.

As if not bad enough to wake up as a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, John’s cellmate is a pig, thrown into the cell because of its fondness for human flesh, an affront to God. Should the pig break free of the rope binding it, John is informed, it will surely attack and devour him as well. Moments later, a second body, this one already dead, is dropped in on a rope through an access panel in the cell’s ceiling. Things are definitely getting crowded in here.

The solution to the puzzle is a convoluted one, but it involves faking your own death and making use of a hallucinogenic poison to induce visions of a Satanic porcine frolicking in an orgy of blood. See what I mean about the mature content? But what’s more interesting are the mechanics involved in pulling this off. There is no on-screen interface until the inventory is opened using a controller button. Dialog happens using close-up inserts of the characters, and cinematics play out via comic book panels. Items in your inventory can be combined, but to do so successfully you not only have to choose the correct items, but also choose the right motivation for why you’re doing it from a list of options. This will hopefully prevent random item combinations, as it forces players to think several steps ahead, and have a good reason in mind as to why they should be combined in the first place.

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I got some good news in parting: Yesterday Origins is confirmed for a September 29, 2016 release, making an appearance on Windows and Mac, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

 

Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter

Ukrainian developer Frogwares has had much success with its Sherlock Holmes series of adventure games, gradually adapting the formula by introducing a score of gameplay mechanics that help players really take on the role of London’s most famous sleuth and solve cases the way he would. Their latest release, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, does not reinvent the wheel, instead further refining the process to tell a more personal, emotional story.

The first thing one notices when starting the game is that both Holmes and Watson appear to look younger than when we last saw them. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as the game is not a direct sequel to 2014’s Crimes & Punishments and does not follow the established timeline. Each case in the game is a standalone story, though they all tie together to tell an overarching tale centered on young Katelyn, Professor Moriarty’s daughter, now adopted by Holmes.

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The case shown at E3, “Infamy”, introduces a mysterious American actor named Orson Wilde, just arrived at 221B Baker Street to study Holmes for a role he’s preparing to play. Immediately, the game switches to detective mode, in which Holmes makes some character judgments through careful observation. Occasionally, players will have to make a decision on the spot during such character investigations. For example, Orson Wilde has an American pin attached to his lapel; is it because he enjoys the attention this attracts, or is he actually that patriotic? Even this first scene contributes to solving the larger case at hand; an incorrect deduction at any point during the investigation, while not making a successful conclusion impossible, will certainly make it more difficult to achieve. It does not bode well for me that my conclusions about Orson Wilde proved to be false after checking the character screen.

That night, a precariously ticking container is thrown through the flat’s window. Diffusing the situation with mere seconds to spare, Holmes enlists the aid of his Baker Street Irregulars, the gang of streetwise boys he sometimes tasks with helping him, to report back to him the whereabouts of the man suspected to have thrown the bomb. Holmes sets off to follow the suspect to the Green Dragon Tavern.

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Once at the tavern, in order to pursue the suspect further, Holmes must create a distraction that will get the burly gorilla guarding the establishment’s back door away from his post. To do this, I entered imagination mode, which let me slowly plan out a complicated series of steps to manipulate the environment and the people in it, selecting them in the right order to achieve the desired outcome, then executing it to move on. Causing a brawl at a nearby card table gets the guard off his seat, and Holmes quietly sneaks out the back.

Here’s where a more action-oriented sequence plays out: Sherlock must cross to a neighboring rooftop via a wooden plank spanning the gap. To keep his balance, it’s up to the player to to keep two separate on-screen icons in their respective areas, otherwise Holmes loses his balance and falls. After three failed attempts, I handed the controller to my guide from Frogwares’ development team; she crossed the gap in one attempt.

Following the trail to the suspect’s residence, Holmes must make use of his gift of masquerading to gain entrance by posing as a pious preacher to the aging lady of the house. Once inside, I got a chance to see another gameplay mechanic as Holmes, in his churchly disguise, stages an exorcism in order to access his suspect’s private room. This is done in the form of a Quick Time Event, following an on-screen series of button presses to pass each sequence. There are, of course, more aspects to the case from this point on, none of which I saw due to time constraints (nor particularly wanted to spoil until I get the chance to take the game through its paces on my own).

In the end, it’s time to put all the clues together and solve the case. But wait, there’s one more decision to be made. As in the previous game, each case ends by giving you a moral choice, whether to turn in the guilty party to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, or to turn a blind eye and exercise mercy, perhaps due to extenuating circumstances that forced them to do what they did. Since the cases get more and more complex, there are a multitude of ways each can be solved, and different individuals can be accused and arrested, depending on your conclusions. The game leaves it up to each player’s intuition and deductive skill to steer toward the outcome they perceive as right, and just like in real life it is possible to bungle it up by having an innocent person arrested on false charges. You can carry on this way never being any the wiser, although a case-by-case comparison option for those that absolutely have to know whether they achieved the intended outcome is also included once each case is solved.

Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter is out now, available for Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.


Phoenix Wright: Spirit of Justice

How to write about a short hands-on demo of what is essentially a visual novel? Phoenix Wright is back, and everything you’ve come to love about the series – its humor, puns, characters, and evidence-and-objection-based gameplay – has returned. So have some familiar faces, including Maya and Apollo Justice, who’s at home minding the store when he gets his own case to crack while his mentor is away. There will be plenty of oddball new characters as well, and some new gameplay mechanics to master, but perhaps making only iterative changes to the tried-and-true formula is the best way to keep this popular series moving forward.

Image #7I didn’t spend more than about ten minutes playing the game’s opening scenario; truth be told, I put my 3DS down before some of my fellow gamers. Phoenix Wright is the kind of game that’s best enjoyed as a full experience, giving the cases time to unfold, letting the twists and turns play out while enjoying the offbeat comedy winding through the entire experience. So once I’d gotten a sense of the game, I was more than happy to step back and wait for the full release.

The gameplay of any Phoenix Wright title is essentially the same: take on a case to defend a client accused of a crime, search locations and speak to witnesses for evidence, then participate in cross-examinations in the courtroom, exposing lies and half-truths and ultimately proving your client’s innocence. All of this looks like it is present and accounted for in the new title, though I did not play long enough to get to search for actual clues on location.

As the game opens, Phoenix is off traveling, visiting a foreign country. As soon as he arrives, it seems, his guide is arrested right in front of him, charged with a crime. Phoenix being Phoenix, he immediately volunteers to act as the defense lawyer, only to be hit with the game’s first plot twist: this is a country that despises lawyers, going so far as to having replaced them in the courtroom with spiritual mediums who simply glean the outcome of each cases by conversing with the spirits. Even his own client doesn’t trust him and wants nothing to do with him, what with Phoenix being a lawyer. The judge, who may as well be a long-lost twin of the familiar judge we know and love from Ace Attorney games of the past, grants Phoenix the opportunity to prove his worth, much to the accused’s chagrin. Thus begins another highly unusual case, with every card in the deck seemingly stacked against Phoenix this time around.

I played just long enough to finish the introduction, setting the game aside when the first cross-examination began. Here, I told myself, is where the real nitty-gritty of weighing each and every word against the case files and notes begins. It was time to put the 3DS down and wait for the game’s digital release in September.

 

Troll and I

Last but not least (in fact, it was my very first adventure-related stop at E3, which happened by simply walking around on the show floor, seeing what’s what) is Troll and I, an indie game with action elements developed by Spiral House and published by Maximum Games. First adventure, and it hit me right in the feels. Or at least, I’m fairly certain it will once it’s out and I’ve had more than the twenty or so hands-on minutes I got with it this time.

Image #8Troll and I is a dual-character game, meaning you’re controlling two protagonists: Troll, who is exactly what his name suggests, and Otto, a young man-slash-teenage boy. Think Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, but without the dual-analog stick control scheme. In Troll and I, you take control of one character at a time, switching between them at will. The only time they’re controlled together is when Otto scrabbles onto Troll’s shoulder for a ride, at which point you’ll move Troll while using Otto’s spear-throwing ability.

The demo started with Otto waking up in a forest clearing – next to him, the colossal figure of Troll. Seeing the hairy mountain, Otto recalls an event that happened the previous day, during which Troll apparently saved him. Realizing Troll is real and not just a figment of a dream he was having, Otto sets out with Troll to explore his surroundings. Soon it becomes apparent how the two of them must work together to progress on their journey, as a steep cliff must be ascended to continue. Though Otto is able to explore on his own in some situations, here he clambers onto Troll and lets himself be carried up the cliff while his new friend does the climbing.

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Once at the top, I got my first taste of combat. Passing the wrecked fuselage of an airplane (the game contains some realistic elements too), I encountered little kobold-like creatures, a little smaller than Otto, and their slightly bigger cousins – some wielding swords, others just generally scratching and clawing at their victims. Otto is armed with a blade as well, and it’s your choice as the player whether to engage in blade-to-blade combat or switch control to Troll, who towers over his enemies and can literally pound them into pulp with his lumbering arms. Troll will also have the use of magic in the final game, as evidenced by some enemies releasing magic energy when crushed by Troll, which flows into him and fills up a magic meter at the bottom of the screen.

Image #10Shortly after defeating the horde of foes (a split-screen co-op mode will allow two players to play simultaneously), I came to a puzzle that required the pair to split up. Two climbing paths were ahead of me, one with footholds too small for Troll, the other’s too large for Otto. Guiding Otto to the top of his wall, my demo ended when I miscalculated a jump between ledges and plunged to my death. Keeping both characters alive and in good health is an essential element of the game.

Along with some fighting, Troll and I will contain elements of stealth, crafting, and environmental puzzle-solving. But at the core of all of that is the relationship between the two unlikely companions. Troll is a giant brute of a creature with long dreadlocks and covered in a wooly pelt. My mind immediately made a logical leap from young man and his shaggy but loveable protector to an ending that could potentially tug at the heartstrings, just when you’ve gotten to dearly love Troll. It’s not unlike Shadow of the Colossus, if you replace Agro with Harry and the Hendersons.

Of course, the developers would neither confirm nor deny my hypothesis, but I’ll definitely keep a box of Kleenex handy when Troll and I releases on Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Originally meant to launch in 2015, the game has been pushed back indefinitely, though I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a release sooner rather than later.

 

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