Gamescom 2018 round-up: Part 1
Reporting from E3, GDC, AdventureX, Gamescom and other gaming events around the world
By now, the fact that gamescom managed to attract 370,000 visitors this year can hardly be called surprising. With the rising importance of independent games and mid-tier publishers, perhaps I also shouldn't have been so stunned to see the Indie Arena booth grow to encompass more than 80 games and include even relatively big studios like Daedalic and Frogwares this time around. But even that was nothing compared to my shock at the amount of adventure games lined up for us specifically.
Between myself and our colleagues at Adventure Corner, we had almost 40 titles to see firsthand, demonstrating the steadily rising popularity not just of the convention but of adventure and adventure-adjacent games themselves. If things stay like this, we have nothing to complain about. So without further ado, let us begin.
The Japanese publisher Bandai Namco showed many games this year, and I think it's safe to say most of the people who attended their presentation did not do so for the same games we did. Still, one game that has managed to draw even mainstream attention is Twin Mirror, seeing as it's made by DONTNOD, the developer of Life Is Strange.
Twin Mirror has an older main character than the French studio's other games, following 35-year-old Samuel Higgs as he returns to his childhood hometown of Basswood, West Virginia. He doesn't exactly have fond memories of the place, but he needs to attend the funeral of an old friend. The demo started with Sam waking up in his hotel room, trying to go to the bathroom before being stopped by “The Double”.
The Double is a figment of Sam’s imagination, a representation of his subconscious that manifests itself similarly to him in appearance but more sharply dressed. He will occasionally pop up to offer advice based on things Sam doesn't fully realize himself, in this case urging him to not go into the bathroom but instead to flee the hotel as soon as possible. When Sam ignores the Double and pushes on, the reason for the warning becomes a bit clearer, as the bathroom has one of his t-shirts in it, soaked in blood. But he still doesn't remember what happened last night that lead to this.
This makes for the perfect opportunity to introduce one of the game's main mechanics: reconstructions using the “Mind Palace”. By sitting down and focusing, Sam can enter this mental space and create a copy of an actual room there. He can then use clues from the real world to change the contents of the copy and thereby jog his memory or learn new things. In the practical sense, you just push a button to smoothly swap between the mental room and the real one, looking at clues in the physical world to get new possible answers to questions in the other, until you answer all questions resolved and proceed. A nice added touch is that each time you answer correctly, the walls of the mental room fill up a bit more, making it look more and more finished as you get closer to the truth.
After finishing the reconstruction and preparing to leave, the last thing to do before the demo ended was to decide whether to take the bloody t-shirt with you or leave it in the hotel room. Practical and moral choices promise to be another important part of the game that will affect the story. These choices are meant to be based on your personal values, with no obvious wrong answers.
Twin Mirror will release episodically for PC, PS4 and Xbox One, with the first episode, Lost on Arrival, due in early 2019.
You may remember btf’s Trüberbrook from their Kickstarter campaign last year, which got funded rapidly even though the adventure game crowdfunding hype is already well past us. When we sat down with publisher Headup Games for a preview, it quickly became clear why it got people so excited.
The most distinctive feature of the game is easily its environment graphics. These are created using real miniature sets processed with photogrammetry, a technique usually reserved for photorealistic first-person games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Applied to an otherwise traditional game like this, the result is so unique that it takes a bit of getting used to. It’s like a combination of claymation, a dollhouse and photographs. Once you do adjust it's an amazing look, boosted further by how easily it allows the characters (which are still computer-generated) to blend in nicely, with special effects added on either the set piece or 3D engine side.
The demo started at the beginning of the story, as American physics student Hans Tannhauser arrives at the remote German town of Trüberbrook for a vacation in the year 1967, having won the trip in a way he doesn't quite understand himself. While I personally can't say much about the authenticity of this fictional place, the Germans at the table found it familiar enough that they started discussing in which part of the country it would most likely be found. As we guided Tannhauser to his hotel room, we got a sampling of the game's voice acting and humor, both of which are shaping up quite well from what I've seen.
The next scene was set at some later point in the game, where we first explore an important bunker. There is more gameplay here, involving moving some objects around and getting into a dialog puzzle with an AI (that got increasingly emotional further into the conversation) in order to progress. The gameplay is traditional and has inventory items, but they cannot be combined with each other directly and you can only attempt to use them on places where it makes at least some sense. The last scene we saw was an interrogation in a dark room using Rorschach pictures. This part was a bit hard to connect to the rest without context, but it was funny and struck a good tone.
Trüberbrook has been slightly delayed from its optimistic Kickstarter schedule, now targeting a first-quarter 2019 release for Windows, Mac, Linux, Xbox One, PS4 and Switch. But from everything I've seen, it will be well worth the wait.
My curiosity was piqued by Shifting Tides' The Sojourn presenting itself as a “thought-provoking” first-person puzzle game about philosophical themes like “the nature of reality.” So it’s a shame that this aspect of the game was the one I experienced practically nothing of in my visit with its publisher, Iceberg Interactive. But the other parts are shaping up well.
The demo opened to some lighting effects so intense that they would make me question if my monitor was set up right if I were playing it alone. This was an intentional artistic choice though, underlining the game's theme of light and darkness. Indeed, the lighting and special effects continued to be great throughout the demo, vastly improving environments that would otherwise look a bit plain.
Gameplay-wise, The Sojourn takes the approach of building increasingly elaborate puzzle levels around a slowly growing set of core mechanics: standing on a special spot changes the time from day to night for a limited duration, which can make obstacles and bridges fade in and out of existence. You can swap places with special statues if they are in your line of sight at nighttime, and unlock some barriers by leaving them in particular spots. These basic elements already made for some good puzzles where you need to plan ahead carefully to be able to do everything you need before your timer runs out. Later levels added a harp statue with its own timer and effects on the environment that can continue after it becomes daytime again, gates that put you into nighttime indefinitely until you pass through them again, and other variations on the theme.
Unfortunately, I couldn't really get a sense of the story and philosophical themes. These will be told through voice-overs when passing by significant places, but they were not incorporated into the version I saw. I did learn there will not be any text or audio logs lying around, or interactive conversations with NPCs.
Knowing next to nothing about the story part, I can't exactly compare The Sojourn to the likes of The Talos Principle or the Portal series at this point. But I do think it's clear that the creative and well-designed challenges will offer much to enjoy if you like those kinds of environmental puzzle games. The Sojourn is set to come out in 2019 for PC, Xbox One and PS4.
The Sinking City
Even though we already had extensive coverage of The Sinking City from both EGX Rezzed and E3, there was no way I was not going to take my own look at Frogwares' upcoming Lovecraft-themed, L.A. Noire-style game. It did not disappoint, as the Ukrainian studio has clearly made good use of their experience with Sherlock Holmes in the investigative gameplay and continues to outdo itself graphics-wise. And while real-time combat is not really my thing, it at least adds an appropriate sense of fear, and can in part be avoided by not rushing through your cases too much. Expect the release on PC and consoles on March 21, 2019.
MarsLit Games’s Unknown Fate is another game that my colleagues from Adventure Corner were able to see last year in my absence. Feeling that the potential VR has for adventure games has not quite been fully exploited yet, I was glad to have an opportunity to not only check out the game for myself, but to try out the HTC Vive version at 1C Company's booth. Unfortunately, the demo was a bit rough around the edges and I could not see as much as I had hoped, so perhaps I’d have been better off with the standard PC version instead.
The experience was certainly an immersive one, making me spend some time admiring the rain and other effects before deciding to move on from the opening scene, and giving a great sense of scale and wonder in the dream-like landscapes that followed. The design of the creatures I met inspired both fear and fascination, and the ambient sound was also great, though it could only do so much against the noises coming from the show floor around us.
I cannot say I was as satisfied with the controls at this point, though. When using the Vive controllers, movement is handled using a standard teleportation method: you aim where you want to go with an arc that resembles a ballistic trajectory, then push a button to go there. That's all well and good, but I often had to aim at platforms so far above me that I couldn't quite see where I would be moving, plus the arcs tended to taper off too soon, making my movement range feel arbitrarily restricted. There were also issues with the game letting me teleport to places too narrow to actually stand, leading to brief darkness before being relocated to a better spot nearby. And with the indicators and graphics for the motion controllers being generic placeholders during much of my playthrough, there were times when I had no idea if I should be using my left hand for something or my right.
The gameplay also remained more of a mystery than I expected: the only puzzle I saw was picking up an object to insert into a device a couple of teleport-hops away, and I did not experience any of the occasional combat the game is also set to have. Perhaps I might have seen more if I had gotten a bit further, but the demo got cut short ahead of schedule when I seemed to run into a bug and nobody could help me get past it.
I don't want to give up on Unknown Fate just yet, but for now much of it remains, well, unknown. By the time you read this both the Vive and non-VR version for PC will already be released, with Oculus Rift support to be added later. Hopefully the traditional free-roaming, FPS-style presentation is more fluid than what I saw on display here, and the motion controls have been given at least some tweaks to polish the virtual reality experience.
We. The Revolution
Since I wasn't at gamescom when we looked at Polyslash’s We. The Revolution last year, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the genre-bending adventure in which players control a judge presiding over a tribunal during the French Revolution. Without retreading old ground too much, let's just say that the first thing to go overboard was the prospect that this game is anything like Ace Attorney. The standards of evidence are low, the truth doesn't necessarily matter, and you have to deal with political factions that have their own idea of the correct verdict before the trial even starts. Instead, the comparison the game’s publisher, Klabater, likes to push is with Papers, Please: duty is pitted against sympathy and the need to protect yourself and your family, and not everything that passes by your desk is very relevant to the story.
The most notable change in mechanics since last year comes in the form of a new “intrigue” screen. During the court phase, you can swap to the new screen to check on plots between important figures in the revolution. The outcome of these will affect the story, and picking a side and winning gives you rewards like faction influence and reputation. This does require a significant investment of influence points, especially if you want to help weaker characters against stronger ones. The same characters can also show up in court, with the demo showing the commander of the National Guard put on trial for using excessive force against a riot after showing Robespierre plotting to replace him.
Another addition is the “execution” screen. If you sentence someone to death, you will now have to activate the guillotine yourself, after crafting and giving a quick speech that will hopefully calm down those who disagree. It's a grim reminder of the consequences of your decisions, for the defendant as well as your own safety.
While it all looked to be coming together nicely, we did hear that the official third-quarter 2018 release date is starting to seem a little unrealistic. For a more likely estimate, expect the Windows and Mac versions to come out late this year, with the Switch version following in early 2019.
Edna & Harvey: The Breakout remake
Daedalic did not do their usual presentations in the business area this year, but did show State of Mind, Witch It (a hide & seek game), and the 10th Anniversary remake of Edna & Harvey: The Breakout in the Indie Arena booth. The remake updates the controls for consoles and sharpens the graphics and makes them more consistent with Harvey's New Eyes through design tweaks, added details, and especially much better shading. It will come out for Windows, Mac and Linux, PS4, Xbox One and Switch in 2019.
Irony Curtain: From Matryoshka with Love
Polish developer Artifex Mundi is best known for the many hidden object casual games it has made in the past, but their upcoming game Irony Curtain was the most traditional adventure I saw this year, and certainly a promising one. With communist rule being fairly recent history for Poland, the developers made the game to give an impression of communist life to those who might underestimate or even long for it. The adventure genre came naturally to them when they decided to approach it as a satirical game putting players through Kafka-esque bureaucratic ordeals.
The game follows a naïve western journalist who sneaks into Matryoshka, a fictional communist country he idolizes. After an opening cutscene showing him getting into the country with the help of a stereotypical female spy, the demo was all about getting checked into his hotel. Since the hotel is understaffed and over-regulated, this requires filling out tricky forms, combining some inventory items, and a lot of running back and forth between desks in situations that are only slightly exaggerated from real life.
Throughout this ordeal, the game not only makes the gameplay feel right but also keeps the humor coming, partly from laughing at the main character and partly from specific jokes and the absurdity of it all. The graphics are also excellent, using a cartoony art style with great hand-drawn backgrounds at 4K resolution. And though I couldn't catch much of the music or voice acting, what I did hear fit nicely.
Irony Curtain: From Matryoshka with Love will come out in 2019 for PC, PS4, Xbox One and Switch.
11-11: Memories Retold
When you think of who might publish a sober story game about World War I to coincide with the 100th anniversary of its conclusion on November 11th this year, Bandai Namco is probably not very high on your list. Yet they emphasized that 11-11: Memories Retold is a significant game for them with an important story to tell, even adding that they believe their efforts here will “elevate the narrative genre.”
They certainly did not skimp on the presentation: voice actors include the likes of Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings) and Sebastian Koch (Das Leben der Anderen, many German TV shows), the soundtrack is done by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios, and Aardman was brought in to develop a new visual design based on impressionist paintings. Seeing the screen filled with miniature brush-strokes is a sight to behold, but I'm not sure I would call it a complete success. The way the art keeps getting redrawn and changing even standing still can feel a bit jittery, and the way it obscures details from faces and the environment was even bothersome a few times.
The story begins on the 11th of November in 1916. After taking a few pictures of his love interest with his new camera (introducing a photo-taking mechanic that will be reused later on), young Canadian photographer Harry has a chance meeting with one Major Barrett. Convinced that it might help win over his beloved, he signs up to join the war as a military photographer, not realizing at the time that this involves being right at the front lines. At the same time in an airplane factory in Germany, an employee named Kurt hears in a radio report that the unit his son was fighting in has gone missing. When his boss is not able to give him any more details than he hears through rumors, he signs up for a more active role in the hopes of being able to discover more.
Obviously, these storylines will not remain separate. In the next scene I saw, the two main characters were on opposite sides of the same battlefield, each frantically helping their own side without taking part in the combat directly. As Harry, you need to take pictures at a few select spots and try to keep up with Major Barrett and not die. As Kurt, you fetch important items and do small repairs to help hold the enemy off. As the battle goes on, the Canadians advance ever further and eventually Kurt is forced to withdraw into a tunnel system, where he ends up coming across Harry and having to make a moral choice. The game then switches to an altogether different perspective, where you play as a cat moving through the tunnels to chase down a bird. The demo ended with the cat getting to and interrupting the scene between Kurt and Harry.
Though the over-the-shoulder 3D perspective and general art style are quite different and there seems to be a bit less puzzle focus, there are obvious parallels between this game and Ubisoft's earlier Valiant Hearts: The Great War, including having diary entries and collectible items of historical significance that give more background information and context. Because of this, it sometimes felt to me like I had been through this before. Still, it is respectful and well-made, and there is certainly room for more stories about the horrors of the first World War.
11-11: Memories Retold is set to arrive a few days ahead of the anniversary it is commemorating, launching November 9th this year for PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
Not unlike the Indie Arena booth in the general public area, the UKIE booth in the business area stunned me with its ever-increasing size, bringing together 70 developers, publishers and game-related companies from throughout the United Kingdom and still managing to squeeze in a carnival theme with free cotton candy. We would end up visiting it several times this year, with the first time for me being an appointment with Outsider Games for a look at Jennifer Wilde.
Having covered it for the 2016 and 2017 gamescoms, along with an interview with designer Stephen Downey, we already knew a lot about this game in which a young artist investigates her father's death with the help of Oscar Wilde's ghost in 1920s Paris. But it was nice to see the beautiful black-and-white comic book style art for myself and confirm that things are still on track. With only a slight delay from the original release target of its successful Kickstarter, Jennifer Wilde should wrap up development this year and be released for PC in early 2019.
Another of our appointments at the UKIE booth was with E-Line Media, who previously published and co-developed Never Alone, a puzzle-platformer based heavily on native Alaskan culture. Their upcoming underwater exploration game Beyond Blue might not seem like it has much in common with that game, but they brought it up specifically to tell us that they took a similar approach in getting experts on board early and conferring with them regularly to keep things grounded in reality as much as possible. Furthermore, the game is being made in cooperation with the BBC, and will feature some unused material from their Blue Planet series.
The story has you searching the South China Sea, attempting to track down a rumored “superpod” (an unusually large group) of sperm whales. In the meantime, you'll have to take stock of the general state of the areas you traverse and document anything unusual you come across. The 3D perspective and controls for Beyond Blue are most obviously comparable with a game like ABZÛ, as are the fluid character animation and much of the atmosphere. The greater focus on realism does mean that colors are more muted and life is sadly not quite as plentiful as it could be, but there are still some gorgeous scenes to behold.
The mechanics are a bit more involved than in ABZÛ, however. Besides exploring the deep sea in person, you can also go back to your submarine and operate two underwater drones. Another option to is attach a tracking device to one of the larger creatures to get a camera feed. The way creatures respond to you varies based on which of these three approaches you choose, so you will need to mix things up at times.
Some creatures are dangerous enough to force you to withdraw (such as hitting you with an ink cloud), but never to the point of actually killing you. Instead, when the threat seems too high, you will not be able to get any closer yourself and have to rely on indirect methods instead. Another thing that can slow you down is darkness. Some areas are closer to the surface than others, with three general depth levels. In the deepest ones, you will be dependent on artificial light. Since ordinary light does not carry far underwater, you use deep blue and ultraviolet light instead, with the latter revealing beautiful otherwise-unseen patterns on the wildlife.
Beyond Blue will come out for PC and consoles in early 2019.