E3 2017 round-up preview
There are many more adventures to be found at a convention like E3 than can be handled in a single day. While Daedalic Entertainment was my first destination when I arrived, I spent the next two days combing both the general show floor and the private areas in back for other hidden and not-so-hidden gems. I found plenty for all sorts of platforms, including VR – some in plain sight, while others were tucked away off the beaten path but are sure to garner a healthy buzz in the coming months.
The two-man development team of Pixel Spill, with the assistance of publisher Devolver Digital, has designs on taking players to two places: into space, floating just beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, and back several decades into the Cold War, Space Race era of the 1980s with their atmospheric thriller Outreach. Developer James Booth and voice actor Adam Harrington, known for his roles as Bigby Wolf, Groot, and many others in Telltale’s episodic games, sat me on a couch, put a controller in my hand, and gave me the rundown.
The game takes its cue from recent titles like Gone Home, in that it aims to tell an atmospheric story through, primarily, environmental exploration. The environment in question is the fictional Soviet space station Outreach, which has been modeled after the actual space station Mir. Players take on the role of the lone astronaut who’s been sent into orbit to investigate after communications between ground control and Outreach came to an unexplained halt. What follows is an eerie thriller to expose the fate of those on board.
Arriving in his one-man shuttle, our protagonist’s first order of business is to reboot a computer system to complete the docking procedure with the Outreach. Through his own radio connection to Earth, ground control is able to talk him through these processes as a sort of tutorial. (It was pretty entertaining to have Harrington talk to me about the game I was playing even as his voice, modified with a heavy Russian accent, coached the astronaut on screen.) Once safely attached, I was able to open a hatch and move into the space station proper, where I was greeted not by a welcome comrade but by eerie silence and objects, like a highlighter and a photograph, floating aimlessly in the dark room. Turning on my flashlight, I set about restoring power to the lights.
Realism is key to Pixel Spill’s design dogma; not only has the space station Outreach been meticulously modeled on research, but in orbit, the only means of movement is by pushing off walls and propelling slowly across rooms, tunnels, and even along the outside of the station itself, where one wrong push or missed handhold will spell bitter doom. The lack of gravity, which has caused Harrington to jokingly refer to the game as a “first-person floater,” means players will have to take some time getting used to the unique controls, which for the demo involved using an Xbox gamepad. There is the usual camera control to adjust the first-person view, though terms like “up” and “down” quickly go out the window. A separate control lets you adjust rotation, which proved tricky for a few minutes, though it started to become natural before long.
But twitch reflexes and a tight grip on the deliberately floaty controls won’t mean the difference between success and failure; Outreach’s pacing is purposely placed in the hands of players. As I explored the crew quarters, I discovered more artifacts of daily life. Pictures, computer logs, and audio tapes started telling a story of the original crew and what happened to them. It’s up to you how much time to spend on soaking in all the atmosphere Outreach has to offer; Booth estimates a full playthrough to take around two to three hours.
As I moved into hydroponics, another gameplay element was introduced. To get a visual, ground control will ask you to take photos of certain objects and send them back to them. This is all part of the “gently nudging” storytelling approach the team is taking, directing the player’s attention via other means. Eventually, I found myself unable to advance, as the handle of a hatch broke off in my hand as I attempted to open it. The only way to proceed beyond was to exit the station and make my way around the outside of it to another entrance. As the outer door opened, a glorious vista of Earth spread out before me. With this reveal, and more questions raised than answered, the demo came to an end.
Players will not have long to wait to discover the fate of the station’s crew for themselves. Outreach is releasing in the fall of 2017, and will be available for Windows and Mac via Steam.
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony
Spike Chunsoft is ready to take fans of their Danganronpa series of visual novel thrillers back to school with the American and European releases of Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony. Stopping by NIS America’s booth at E3, I was able to talk shop and check out the playable demo, which exists as a sort of standalone precursor to the game proper.
This third entry marks the first time that a Danganronpa title has been specifically designed for home consoles, rather than a mobile device prior to being ported to other platforms. As such, it is specifically built to take advantage of the horsepower of the PlayStation Pro and 4K TVs. However, the demo, while certainly showing off better graphics than its predecessors, didn’t include any visuals or performance beyond what can be achieved on a normal next-gen setup.
Though it is an original story with a new cast of sixteen characters, series veterans will instantly recognize the basic premise as well as the majority of gameplay elements. A group of “Ultimate” students are locked in a school and forced to play a killing game, with the intention of leaving only one of them left standing at the end – the graduate, if you will. The murderous robot teddy Monokuma is back for this installment, and he’s brought with him five even more pint-sized pals: the Monokubs. These are smaller versions of Monokuma, each with a distinct personality and a distinct design based around a particular color (red Monokub, blue Monokub, etc.).
It’s difficult to go into any details on the game’s narrative, because I don’t know any. The demo available on the show floor was a custom-built mini-story, a passing of the guard from previous cast members to the new victims. There are, however, some new gameplay features that have made their way into DV3. Players will now be able to have the new protagonist, Kaede Akamatsu, react to her fellow students in different ways, for example.
Class trials feature some major new elements. There is now a segment called the Mass Panic Debate, in which multiple students are all talking over top of each other, and players will need to pay closer attention than ever to catch the contradictions. New minigames include Mind Mine, a Minesweeper-like game that reveals the murder weapon, and Psyche Taxi, a stylized racing simulation that sees players actually drive their car over the correct answer to a question.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, lying is now a major aspect of class trial gameplay. If Kaede wants to prove something, such as to protect someone she knows is innocent, even though she doesn’t have physical proof, she can use a Reversible Truth Bullet – essentially a lie – and put her word against somebody else’s. Of course, one lie begets another, and pretty soon it’s possible to have built a veritable House of Lies that’ll be impossible to escape from.
We’re close to the localized game releasing. American audiences will get Danganronpa V3 on September 26th, while European markets follow on September 29th, available on both PS4 and Vita. In the meantime, the E3 demo will be available for download on the PlayStation Network soon.
A Case of Distrust
Sometimes you can arrange for good things to happen, and other times they just kind of fall into your lap. Such was the case with indie adventure A Case of Distrust, which I didn’t plan on seeing at E3 but came across in a stroke of luck. It’s a stylish noir detective story set in 1924 San Francisco by developer Ben Wander, who puts his own spin on the noir theme, setting it apart from other thematically similar games.
The first thing you will notice about the game is its distinctive graphical style, which takes inspiration from the work of early twentieth century artist Saul Bass. Many of the visuals consist of silhouetted locales set against colored backgrounds, like a cross-section of the environment, as seen through the protagonist's eyes (more or less). Moving the cursor over an object highlights it if it’s interactive; in that manner, this is a point-and-click game of sorts. However, it eschews the traditional item collection and inventory puzzles found in many of its contemporaries. Instead, it plays out as an interactive novel, with evidence to gather and statements to contradict.
A Case of Distrust indulges players who are interested in a leisurely-paced experience. Everything you click on prompts text to be displayed on-screen, sometimes just short flavor passages, other times more elaborate pieces of backstory. Within this text, further branching choices allow you to delve deeper, or simply ignore them and move on. Even when presenting evidence, each wrong selection elicits a unique response, some of them quite humorous.
Everything is written in a consistent tone, congruous with the era. Ben admitted to having an unhealthy obsession with the 1920s, and this game is full of synchronous references to the politics, technology and state of the world at the time. For example, a taxi ride late in the demo involved a conversation with the cab driver about the dangers of the fledgling automobile industry (one of many pre-programmed conversations chosen at random for this scene).
The majority of the demo featured protagonist Phyllis Malone (a play on the name of classic gumshoe Philip Marlowe) attempting to prove to her ravenous cat that there is no food in the house. This requires searching the rooms and presenting the feline sufficient evidence that the cupboards truly are bare. It’s a playful way to introduce the mechanics of gathering and presenting evidence. The fact that the lead character is a female, in a male-dominated profession at a time when women were fighting for equal rights, plays a big role in how the story unfolds. Other hot-button issues of the period like prohibition, racial prejudice, and technological mistrust are also frequently referenced. Despite its playful demo, A Case of Distrust is meant to be a thoughtful game.
The demo ended before the case got going in earnest, but Ben was willing to let slip that the game’s mystery, like all good mysteries, is much deeper than it seems at first. Just when exactly A Case of Distrust will be finished is unclear, though Ben estimates it will be sometime this year. He’s aiming for a release for Windows and Mac when the time is right.
There are two kinds of adventures: those that bring the whole family together with a fun, friendly experience, and those that know their target demographic and aim straight for the mature bullseye. >observer_ is one of the latter, pulling me into its E3 show floor station purely based on the way it looked from a distance. In a word, the look it goes for is dark.
Developed by Bloober Team, the indie team previously known for their Layers of Fear titles, the game is a first-person cyberpunk horror title set in Poland, 2084. The protagonist Daniel Lazarski is one of the titular Observers, corporate-funded police investigators specializing in hacking into people’s minds. The nanophage, a digital plague caused by technological body augmentations, has wiped out a large percentage of citizens. Those who have survived live in widespread poverty, and it is this remnant that Observers must deal with.
As the game opens, Daniel has discovered a mutilated body in a bad part of town, and has entered a dilapidated apartment building in search of clues to the murderer. Equipped with specialized electromagnetic and biometric scanners, the Observer can scan for clues invisible to the naked eye. Following a tip, you make your way to a certain apartment. The atmosphere is grim and disturbing, the kind that makes one expect a screaming maniac or drug-addled psychopath to come charging out of a door at any minute. Other apartments line the building’s hallways, and you can knock on the doors to get some kind of response, but most citizens are suspicious of Observers, and some will react with outright hostility. The game does have several available side missions for those willing to go off the beaten path and explore.
Once inside the right apartment, having to gain entry by force, Daniel discovers a dying man propped up against the tub in a filthy bathroom. He can’t speak, at least not in any coherent manner, but the chip embedded in his brain might have some answers. The Observer unfurls a plug, and, after at least getting the dying man’s nonverbal consent, jacks it into the back of his skull. Instantly, he is transported to a virtual nightmare world which he must travel through and survive, making sense of a dying man’s disjointed thoughts.
It’s an incredibly creepy experience: menacing imagery everywhere, doors open and close on their own, rooms change and furniture shifts when your back is turned. I solved a puzzle that required me to choose the correct exit from a sequence of rooms that have several doors. Imagine the psychological horror of Freddy Krueger, jacked into the Matrix. By the time I neared the end of the demo, a slow and steady thumping noise was becoming more and more insistent the closer it got. Eventually, I found myself trapped in a room whose walls would shake as whatever nightmare creature was causing the threatening footfall stomps must have been right outside of it. The demo ended without giving me any answers, just before the giant evil revealed itself, leaving me hungry for more.
Fortunately, we won’t have to wait too long to experience what >observer_ has in store. The game should be released before the end of summer, and will be available for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
It’s difficult to accurately convey the experience of a virtual reality game without some of it being lost in translation. But the VR aspect is precisely one of the things that made playing the demo of Moss such an enchanting experience. Without it, Moss is a very pretty puzzle-platformer about a cute mouse named Quill. But once you step into the game world via the PSVR headset, the level of immersion and emotional investment makes for a wholly unique, captivating experience that I can’t wait to experience at home for myself.
Comprised of members with credits including several top Bungie and Bioware titles, developer Polyarc has its sights set on the family-friendly market with Moss. Taking on the role of The Reader, players step foot into a fantastical world filled with color and wonder, where you are an active, if stationary, character, rather than merely an outside observer.
It all starts in a cathedral-style gothic library. The screen faded in from black, and my jaw immediately had the uncontrollable urge to drop; craning my neck, I scanned the impossibly high vaulted ceilings, peered off into the distance past rows and rows of shelves, even marveled as I turned all the way around and witnessed the open expanse of books stretching behind me, where moments ago there had just been an E3 cubicle wall. Before me, a tome with the word “Moss” embossed on it waited to be opened. Though The Reader cannot physically change location, the DualShock 4 controller is tracked on-screen and can be used to interact with objects in the environment. Looking through the book was the first tutorial of sorts that taught me how to interact with my environment. Turning the pages, suddenly a bright light shone out from the book and pulled me into its wondrous world.
Here’s where the game proper begins. Arriving in a lush forest setting, I spent several moments giggling in glee, playing around with brushing my “hands” through the grasses and ferns growing around me, watching them bend to my touch, and agitating the water of a little river, causing some light splashes. Suddenly, a rustling coming from some nearby undergrowth caught my attention. Within a few moments, Quill emerges from the bushes, stopping in alarm as she sees me. With trepidation, Quill comes nearer, and, bending over the stream, we both see each other’s reflection in the gentle waters, my form a shrouded humanoid figure with an elaborately-carved mask. From this moment, we are connected: she the pint-sized adventurer, and me her guardian spirit.
As the game continues, there are three distinct planes of control. As The Reader, your place in the game is stationary, though the VR headset allows for full range of camera control, including bending down, leaning in, and looking around corners and through gaps. As Quill progresses from one screen to another, typically by solving some sort of puzzle or challenge, the screen fades to black as the sound of a page in her book turning is heard. As she enters the next page of her story, I’m already there, awaiting her arrival. The Reader’s ability to interact with the environment – a vital role in many of the game’s puzzles – is handled by moving the actual controller, represented by a glowing blue orb, around the screen and pulling the triggers. Finally, Quill herself is also controlled by the player, via the thumbsticks, with some of the face buttons controlling her jumps and sword swings.
The majority of the demo revolved around some light puzzle solving – moving statues and blocks, turning objects, etc. – to let Quill pass on to the next scene. Platforming in the form of jumping came into play, as well as Quill using her little sword to ward off some robot-like metal beetles. It was fairly simple stuff, and anybody with a working knowledge of 3D action platformers should do just fine. Challenge isn’t one of the team’s main priorities, as they want everyone in the family to be able to enjoy Quill’s adventures together. Prior to the demo ending, one final room’s puzzle involving multiple switches and paths through a stone cylinder that could be turned in a 360-degree circle did hint at more involved challenges to come.
The thing that really sold me on the game world is the attention to detail that made me feel a sense of total, if sadly brief, immersion. Quill is a living character in her own right, behaving not just at the player’s whim. After our first meeting, it was her gesture, after a brief moment of hesitation, which beckoned me to follow. While I was still figuring out the cylinder puzzle, Quill started excitedly squeaking at me to get my attention; when I leaned down to pay attention to her, she made wild exaggerated motions with her tiny arms and galloped in a circle, obviously trying to give me hints to do something with the cylinder that she wasn’t big or strong enough to do on her own. When Quill popped out of the top door of the cylinder after I’d finally solved it and stood in front of me with a triumphant wave of her tiny paw, it was all I could do to not let go of the controller and give her a physical high-five. There’s a great sense of connection between Quill and The Reader, already evident after just spending a couple of minutes with the game.
All good things must come to an end, and so it was with the demo of Moss. Slowly ascending a staircase into a darkened hall where an ominous slithering could be heard, Quill nervously glanced at me over her shoulder, making sure I was still there and reminding me that she’ll need my help with what’s ahead. As the sound approached and the pointy fangs and mean eyes of a gigantic snake came into view, towering above her, Quill drew her tiny sword in anticipation of the battle to come. This is where my journey with her came to an end, for now.
Speaking with Chris Alderson, artist on Moss, he assured me that the team is hard at work to meet a release deadline of the 2017 holiday season. Of course, the game will require a PSVR peripheral to play, and will take at least a few hours to complete. He also hinted at there possibly being more adventures starring Quill in the future; the library at the beginning of the demo is a repository of stories, and Moss is just a single one of them. I, for one, can’t wait to assist Quill on her quest to save a family member when the game finally releases.