Gamescom 2019 round-up: Part 2
Reporting from E3, GDC, AdventureX, Gamescom and other gaming events around the world
Our adventure game coverage of gamescom 2019 picks up where part one left off, featuring its fair share of detectives, comic books and memory lapses.
Blacksad: Under the Skin
Scooping the Best Action / Adventure Game award at gamescom this year, Blacksad, based on the Spanish comic book series of the same name, was also a popular draw at the annual Adventure-Treff party, where I got to spend some time playing it firsthand. You control Detective John Blacksad, an anthropomorphic cat voiced with an appropriately husky tone, as he unravels a dark corruption scandal set to shake the heart of 1950s New York. Although borrowing locations and characters like Commissioner Smirnov from the comics, Under the Skin will be an entirely original story you’ll get to sink your claws into. Pendulo Studios have decided to go for 3D graphics, which may not to be everyone’s taste given its moody, shaded 2D origins, but they certainly convey the feeling of a bustling city to explore.
The beginning of the demo showed that the “Action” part of that gamescom award isn’t entirely unwarranted. Everything starts with a bang as a very upset rhinoceros bursts into your office, angry that you’ve apparently been spying on him and his mistress. After a few QTE sequences to protect yourself from becoming rhino-kill, more of which I was told will be peppered throughout the gameplay, the “Adventure” side kicks in.
As Blacksad tried to reason with our angry horned friend, narrative devices from titles such as Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead sprang to mind. The various response options available, ranging from sarcastic to friendly, are similar to the zombie adventure game, and just like in Telltale’s series, messages flash up on-screen noting the way you’ve handled things. This will all impact something called “Your Blacksad”, a menu that you can bring up at any time. This feature will show fourteen different tracked traits such as silent, talkative, hard-boiled or sensitive, with the way you’ve chosen to roleplay Blacksad affecting those scores in real time. How much this will change the story in general is hard to tell, but I learned that there will be six different endings in total, so presumably if you go through the game being a complete pushover you’re going to get a very different outcome than if you act like you’re the cat’s whiskers.
After deciding whether to accept a bribe to keep quiet about our irate new guest’s philanderings (I chose to remain honest, which will apparently have consequences later on), it’s time to actually take on a case. Joe Dunn, the owner of a boxing club, has been found dead whilst rising boxing star Bobby Yale has mysteriously disappeared just days before the fight of his career. You’re tasked by Joe’s daughter to find out what’s really going on. As well as talking to people and clicking on objects, you can also use your “Cat Senses” at certain points of the investigation. This is basically a way of using Blacksad’s incredible feline senses to zoom in on a scene and pick up hidden clues – for example noticing with his superior eyesight the type of handwriting a waitress has. It feels a little shoehorned into proceedings at the moment as you can only use it in very specific instances, but maybe this will open up as you progress.
When you have enough clues to form a theory about something, you’ll spark an animation letting you know. This “deduction system” sees you combine the bits of evidence you’ve already found, which when put together correctly may make for new leads. It’s a nice way of making the player feel like they’re really doing some of the detective work, even though in the demo it was normally pretty obvious which details I needed to put together as the animation happened straight after picking up a necessary clue.
Early on the branching storyline feels a little at odds with these more rigid investigation segments. Even so, the intriguing cocktail of noir setting, multiple dialogue options and exciting action sequences may well make for a fur-midable detective game when Blacksad: Under The Skin is released on PC, Mac, PS4, Switch and Xbox One on November 5th.
The Darkside Detective: Season 2
Detective McQueen and his permanently confused sidekick Officer Dooley are back for a second slice of the supernatural adventure anthology The Darkside Detective. In a break from most sequels, developers Spooky Doorway seem to have changed very little from their successful first offering, as judging by the demo I sampled we’ll again be playing through another set of self-contained chapters with classic chunky pixel art, solving puzzles through dialogue choices as well as combining and using items in your inventory, and getting up to all kinds of spooky hijinks investigating the supernatural. I’m also glad to report that the game’s trademark puns and absurd humour are still very much on point, with one puzzle requiring me to find a physical book for a Clown Judge to throw at a Clown Defendant before court could be concluded.
One thing that will be different compared to the first game is the extended length of each chapter. The demo, which naturally saw McQueen and Dooley at a circus trying to reanimate a broken down robotic elephant, took roughly 20-30 minutes to complete and the team told me this represents only about a quarter of the full chapter in total, with the plan to feature even longer cases than this in the final product.
Here’s hoping Season 2 is able to maintain the same silly sense of humour in bigger, bolder cases when it comes out on Windows, Mac and Linux in spring 2020.
Adventure Gamers last left the protagonist of this dark, Black Mirror-like take on modern society making his way over to start another dull day as an Assistant Resource Technician at Mosaic's titular company. If that doesn’t sound like the most exciting of game concepts, well, that’s kind of the point. You play Inge Nilson, trapped in the daily grind alongside thousands of others in a grey, 1984-esque dystopian city, but at gamescom I got to see more of the surreal touches of how you’ll fight to break free of the faceless system.
I picked up the story as Inge was travelling home from work – so far, so monotonous. But soon I found myself morphing into a cardboard box on a conveyor belt and stealthily trying to escape my factory life and workers. These daydream sequences will blend seamlessly into the gameplay, with another segment seeing Inge suddenly shrinking to the size of a mouse and having to frantically avoid being stepped on by the gigantic passersby.
Work life in Mosaic is a bit more “normal”, involving you mining for resources by tapping various tiles in a simplistic puzzle game, a little bit like the intentionally repetitive BlipBlop game you can play on your phone in-game and, if you download the app, outside of it too. Don’t get too sucked in though: there were hints from the team that there’s something more sinister afoot with the office minigame that you’ll slowly uncover as you open your eyes to the world around you. And who better to try to help guide you on your journey to break free from your everyday routine than a flapping goldfish you find one day in your sink and keep in your pocket? Who said life was humdrum?
Mosaic's mixture of the banal and the bizarre should be coming to Windows, Mac, Linux, PS4 and Xbox One at the end of this year.
CMMN CLRS' Jonas Fisch
In this quirky point-and-click adventure you play Prim, a sprightly, rather opinionated teenager who also just happens to be the Grim Reaper’s daughter. The demo I played at Adventure-Treff’s party saw the eponymous protagonist trying to break out of her room to sneak out of the Land of the Dead and into that of the Living. It’s all because of a dream she keeps having about a boy who lives there, and so, taking the adage of “follow your dreams” quite literally, Prim’s decided to defy her father’s wishes to stay put, like any good teenager worth her salt.
It’s a very pretty game to look at, stylistically reminiscent of many of Tim Burton’s classics, all hand-drawn in 2D shades of black, grey and white. Whilst traditional in its point-and-click game design, there were a couple of clever touches in the demo that made it feel fresh and fun. For example, rather than having a hotspot indicator available straight away, you first have to figure out how to open a jar of glowing flies, which when let loose will magically settle on the objects you can pick up or use. The writing also felt akin to the punnery of classic adventure titles, with Prim‘s trusty “Swiss Army Scythe” just one of the examples. Fans of unusual sidekicks will also delight in her blinking eyeball friend (literally an eyeball on spider legs, but somehow a lot cuter than that sounds) who after some persuasion helps Prim finally get out of her room, and I’m told will also play a part in the puzzle-solving later on.
Keep your friendly spider eyes peeled for 2021, when this darkly comic adventure is set to be released on Windows, Mac and Linux.
Mooneye Studios' Tobias Graff
In the world of Lost Ember, you’re only reincarnated as an animal if you’ve done something pretty wrong, but given how fun it is to swap from wolf to duck to fish on the fly, it’s hard to understand why anyone would ever see it as a punishment at all. You play as said wolf in this third-person exploration adventure, or really a human who has been reborn as a wolf, on a quest to reignite old memories of a forgotten culture and within them discover why your soul never found peace.
You won’t be able to get everywhere on your journey as a four-legged creature, but if you’re near another species your soul can swap into them instead with a pleasingly simple tap of a button. Developers Mooneye Studios say there’ll be over fifteen different animals, from buffalo to turtle to mole to swap into, with the demo showcasing environmental obstacles that only particular creatures can overcome, such as large gaps only birds can fly over.
Scampering over lush greenery, then swapping quickly with a tap to swoop over gushing waterfalls is great fun, so much so that I almost forgot that there were some memories I was supposed to be recovering as well. You’re joined on your adventure by a human spirit companion in the form of a glowing ball of light, whose memories may be key to unlocking what happened to you long ago. Certain locations in your travels – the landscape changing from woodland to desert to city as you progress – have such memories attached to them, which you restore by watching them play out as holograms. Then it’s onto the next challenge, maybe as a duck this time, or even a rolling armadillo.
Lost Ember is due to be released before the end of the year on PC, Xbox One and PS4, with a Switch version expected later on.
Wanderlust Travel Stories
Take the interactive fiction of 80 Days and give it a more contemporary “gap year” feel, and you’ve got Wanderlust Travel Stories. A text adventure made up of over 300,000 words and based on real life travel experiences, Wanderlust sees you meeting a group of voyagers around a campfire, and every night they tell their stories in turn. Each story starts in a different country from around the world, from Bangladesh to Thailand, and by swiping around a looming globe and highlighting a tale that takes your fancy, you can choose which story will be told next.
Being a sad, miserable type I chose Tomek’s tale, “It’s Not A Love Story”. Set in Barcelona, it tells the story of one magical evening meeting a stranger who runs away too soon but promises she’ll be back again at the same time, same bar next year. Much like in inkle’s narrative adventure you’re given options for how to shape the tale at certain pauses in the paragraphs, whether in terms of how you replied to your date or what mood you were left in when she disappeared. Similarly, each narrator of their respective tale has a stress and fatigue bar that will increase or deplete throughout the story depending on certain choices you make, and at one stage I even had to do a bit of money managing to decide which mode of transport I could afford to take to try to make it to Barcelona again a year on.
The text is laid over backdrops of real travel photographs which at times felt too much like generic stock photos, rather detracting from the individualistic feel of each anecdote. Far more importantly though, for a game resting so heavily on its text, Wanderlust’s writing is very engaging: I really wanted to find out whether poor Tomek ever did meet up with his mysterious love (sadly my gamescom schedule had other ideas).
If you too want to go on a holiday without ever leaving your seat, you’ll only have to wait another month for Wanderlust’s release on Windows, Mac, iPhone and iPad, so get packing.
Welcome to Elk
Promotional poster for Elk: Tales of Real Stories (as it was known at gamescom)
This colourful hand-drawn adventure by Triple Topping Games, the developers behind the equally vivid platformer Spitkiss, won the coveted Best Story Award at this year’s Indie Arena Booth, so I went to find out why. The demo certainly is a rollercoaster of emotions: one minute you’re playing a silly minigame sticking cut-out faces onto balloons or trying to pour the perfect pint, the next you’re having to sing one last song for your Dad before he gets shot in the head by a pair of gangsters.
The idea here is to provide a conduit for telling tales of events that happened in the real world. You’re Frigg, a young carpenter on the island of Elk, and you potter about the island, chatting to your not-altogether-there friend Anders and causing mischief, slowly unravelling stories as you wander around. Sometimes the mature nature of these stories or the swear-laden language jarred with the cartoonlike art, but that seemed to almost be the point – life is a strange juxtaposition of humour and gravity, after all. A sudden cut to a filmed interview of the real life storyteller behind the demo’s particular tale, recounting his version of events, shows that the team aren’t afraid to make powerful creative choices to keep the art of storytelling alive.
Welcome to Elk is due to be released on Steam sometime in 2020.
Ghost on the Shore
like Charlie's Dagmar Blommaert
Memory and/or the lack of it played a big part in many of the games I tried at gamescom, but none more so than in Ghost on the Shore. You play as Riley, an adventurous young woman who’s escaped her abusive father’s clutches aboard a boat, only to find herself marooned on the mysterious Rogue Islands. Things don’t get much better when she encounters Josh, a ghost who gets trapped in Riley’s head, unable to leave until she helps him remember his life.
The demo was a mix of environmental storytelling, exploring part of the island whilst nattering to Josh, picking up objects and investigating the ruins of buildings you come across to try to piece together who Josh was in his past life. It’s a slow-paced experience at present, though the development team like Charlie said that in the finished version there would be more environmental puzzles to solve, as well as different endings to the story depending on how you interact with Josh. Just like in Firewatch, there are various ways you can respond to the voice in your head which will shape your relationship as you continue.
Ghost on the Shore hopes to be haunting PCs through Steam and itch.io in September 2020.
The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets
Tickle dogs, pour tea and collect coins in this whimsical interactive VR adventure which sees you exploring every inch of miniature worlds in search of – what else? – stolen pets. Guided by the voice of your grandfather, you revisit the days of your youth by looking through an old photo album to find those pesky animals. Each memory or world is brought to life in colourful 3D, and in a godlike fashion you can spin and twist each one in front of you with the controllers to examine them fully.
The demo level I played of a country house on top of a hill was filled to the brim with things to grab, pull, pick up and poke. There are five worlds like this one in the game as a whole, and in each you’ll be tasked with finding a certain number of pets by completing environmental puzzles hidden within the area. For example, fill a big cup with boiling water from a nearby teapot and nothing will happen – you’ll first have to ruffle a few bushes hanging overhead to add some tea leaves before you can make yourself a proper brew. For those who want an extra challenge to their pet hunt, there are also several coins concealed amongst the flora and fauna of each world for you to collect, though developer Fast Travel Games told me that there’ll be an option for more casual play too if you’d rather not deal with many puzzles at all.
The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets will be padding over to major 6DoF VR headsets including PlayStation VR, Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Windows Mixed Reality later this year.
The year is 2024 and judging by Liberated’s riots, hardline police and authoritarian government, things look like they might have flown off the handle just a little bit. A terror attack ten years ago changed the world into a security-conscious but increasingly more dystopian place where civil rights were erased under the pretext of order. In fitting with these dark vibes, the game is presented as four playable graphic novels, each from a different perspective of different characters. In other words, in one “book” you could be plotting to bring down the police as part of the Liberated protest group, and the next be playing as one of those very police officers itching to catch some rebel scum.
The story plays out in black and white, with most of the narration told within graphic novel-type panels which you flick across and down to progress the story, with other comic book trappings including large “BANG!”s and “AAAH!”s appearing when you shoot people. The game alternates between you “reading” the book, occasionally asking you to make a dialogue choice or take part in some fast-paced QTE button-bashing, and playable side-scrolling 2D segments which are more action-based.
In the demo, where I played one of the Liberated sneaking back to their house, these action sequences felt weaker. The controls to hide or shoot felt stiff and sometimes unresponsive, and once you get into a proper firefight it’s difficult to not die repeatedly. It’s a shame as the beautiful comic book design is painstakingly realised and very cool to play about in, so hopefully there is still time to tighten this element up before launch. If not, the team at gamescom did tell me that there will be two gameplay modes – Player Mode, which includes the action, and Reader Mode for those who want to just flip through the book – so graphic novel fans may well still have a reason to join the resistance.
Liberated will be released at the end of this year on Windows PC and Switch.