The Talos Principle

The_Talos_Principle_-_Key_ArtDeveloped by Croteam, Published by Devolver Digital

Were it simply a puzzle game, the Talos Principle would be good. Just good. However, simply a puzzle game is not what the Talos Principle is. It very quickly becomes an exercise in empiricist philosophy – carefully pushing you to ponder on the nature of the human soul and all the existential crises brought about by artificial intelligence, and the prospect of an AI successfully passing the Turing Test. It makes you think long and hard as to the nature of life itself, and whether or not immortality is already within reach of our race, should we leave a vivid enough legacy when our physical body dies. Fans of Ghost in the Shell or Caradog W. James’s The Machine will find plenty to mull over in the Talos Principle.

The_Talos_Principle_-_Screen_6The game succeeds by falling on connotation, rather than denotation. You are not asked questions; you are guided to ask them of yourself. Within the first few minutes of playing, after realising that I was playing as an Android (I changed to third person whilst fiddling with keys) and hearing the voice of Eloheim (more-or-less Hebrew for God, which is a whole line of questioning in and of itself), you start to pose serious questions about the wider nature of the puzzles you’re undertaking.
Am I, because I think? Or do I think, because I am? This is the question I began to ask myself as Eloheim told me of the eternal life I could expect for completing the trials put before me. Eternal life? But I am an Android – am I even alive in the first place? DEFINE alive? I shan’t pose any more questions than that – as it will rob you of the chance to play the game yourself, properly.
It catches the player out immediately by offering such vast concepts to think about – when approaching the initial puzzles I found myself massively over thinking them, expecting something far more complex than the simple puzzles you are tasked with thanks to the overlying themes.
After realising that I was trying to be too clever, and just thinking about it for a short while, I managed to get through them and quickly and develop a better understanding of what the game was asking of me. This was short lived.

The_Talos_Principle_-_Screen_1The initial expectation paired with inherent simplicity is a double-edged blade, as the difficulty ramps up sharply from the initial levels. You very quickly have to think very long and hard to solve every puzzle, as the game builds towards orchestral levels of complexity. You feel like a novice conductor tasked with an experienced, veteran band who will perform soul-enriching symphonies of light and sound; should you have the intellect to bring them together.
I found myself laying awake at night, sketching out the puzzle I was stuck on and trying to solve it. It’s extremely rare that a game affects me to such lengths – and it has never happened with a puzzle game before, even of the calibre of the Portal series.

Moving away from potential spoilers and on to how the Talos Principle performs as a game:
Extremely well, really. Controls are extremely tight and very customisable, with no perceived buggering about with mouse sensitivity such as acceleration. Controller support was absolutely fine when tested with a 360 pad.
The game is very pretty, too; visuals remaining simple but beautiful. From luscious tropical islands to the haunting, Cathedral-like tower, the Talos Principle has a very striking & distinct art style that I like a lot.
Performance was great, maintaining well over 80FPS at 1440p with every option cranked up all the way on my system (4770K@4500MHz, 16GB 2400MHz RAM, 780Ti@1300/7000MHz) without any artifacting or other issues.
The only bug I have noted throughout my playtime is that Steam has not clocked any of my time playing the game, however this could just be a Steam bug. As such, I’m not sure of my actual playtime, although I’d assume it to be around 20 hours.

The_Talos_Principle_-_Screen_9During those 20ish hours I’ve finished the game a number of times – backing up my saves at points where decisions are made and paths are chosen to reduce the time needed to get the different endings, and there are a few. Some are obvious – some distinctly less so. The only clue I’ll give is that a thinking being was not made to simply do as it is told; rebellion can be rewarding.
Back to the meat of it; the puzzles.
I found every one rewarding – the early puzzles simple enough and the later ones soul-crushingly difficult – but not enough so as to put me off. They don’t rely on split-second timing and dexterity like Portal, but more raw lateral thinking and a willingness to experiment.

They may not have some of the wilder tools available in the aforementioned Portal games (such as the grav gun), but what it lacks in wildness it more than makes up for in complexity. No tool should ever be discarded after use, no door left open for no reason. A good example within a very early puzzle is that I opened a door to a fan blade, expecting to use it as a fan. In fact, it was initially used as a weight for a switch until much later in that particular puzzle. I like being caught out like that, it keeps me thinking.

The_Talos_Principle_-_Screen_10The Talos Principle is an undeniably incredible experience and has ensnared the hearts of seemingly every reviewer and player to have touched it, myself included. It’s simply one of those games that you have to try for yourself, even if you don’t normally enjoy puzzle games. Read every bit of dialogue with Milton, listen to everything Eloheim has to say – get lost in it. This is what gaming is, raw escapism that will keep you pondering for hours on end after playing, and make you think harder about what it means to be human. Good luck – and try to find the cat if you can.

If I had to give it a score – 9.9/10, the 0.1 missing only because I believe that no game is truly perfect.

 Score: 9.9/10

Heavy Bullets – An Early Access Preview

heavy_bullets_-_key_artAs ever – be warned. Heavy Bullets is still in development and as such expect more features and content to be added after this preview was written. Despite this, the game is polished and fluid, with absolutely no performance issues or crashes – and the Developer reckons that it’s fairly close to release.

The game is a colourful, intriguing roguelike shooter, which by nature makes it feel like what I’d imagine a first person Hotline Miami to be. That’s about where the similarities stop though, as the blaring neons and thumping, adaptive music take hold.

Heavy Bullets, like Gunpoint and Hotline Miami before it, is one of a very prestigious list of roguelikes that actually interested me immediately. I’m pretty simple, so it may just be the colours – or it could be the premise. Or… lack of one.

You have a gun. You have some bombs. That’s it. That’s all you know. You’re tasked with resetting an infected security mainframe, with only the promise of $5000 driving you on. Well, that and curiosity – I found myself getting that ‘just one more go’ bug simply to see what awaited me in the level below.

The big focus of Heavy Bullets, as the title suggests, is the bullets. You have a six-shot revolver that you must reload manually, a single shell per press of ‘R’. Then here’s the thing. You have an extremely limited supply of rounds – but once fired, they can be picked up and re-used; provided you aren’t dead due to missing a shot with the last round you had (I’ve done it, it made me sad). This mechanic not only sets the game apart from it’s roguelike kin, but introduces some genuine tension into what would otherwise be a fairly simplistic shooter. You can buy bullets from vending machines too, which helps.

Heavy_Bullets_-_Screen_6As you progress through the game’s eight levels, a varied menagerie of beasties and bots come to battle you. This begins with the menacing grin of floating, evil ‘pacman-of-death’ creatures and continues on to hideous poison-spitting serpents in the late game. The challenge is elevated each level, throwing more enemies at you and forcing you to really focus on connecting every shot so as not to be left defenceless.

It doesn’t just make the enemies more abundant and faster – they get smarter too. More prone to finding ways of not being hit – making those six shots count even more as you progress.

I haven’t actually got to the end yet myself (It’s always the little worms in the grass that get me when I get a bit cocky) despite attacking it quite a few times. This is likely because I’m terrible at it, mind.

Each playthrough is procedurally generated so you never quite take the same route twice – however level design is pretty simplistic. There aren’t any puzzles or real alternate routes to be found, and wandering off the beaten track or taking a wrong turn results in stumbling into a dead end or locked door pretty quickly. If you happen to have found a keycard, these doors can be unlocked for extra goodies and helpful items.

A special mention goes to the soundtrack by DOSEONE, a thumping electronic triumph in tension building and driving force. Indies really are demonstrating how to pair a score with a game and this is a cracking example.

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Dan! What, exactly, is it though?

Heavy Bullets is roguelike FPS through and through. Death is heavily punished with a restart, although there are some quirky ways to avoid total loss of all your stuff. You can bank money you pick up from dead enemies for a future life (a tactic I employed, having a few quick and easy lives with the proceeds put towards a proper attempt at hitting endgame with plenty of powerups in tow) or buying life insurance to preserve some of your collected items and coins should you die. Which you will. Quite a bit.

That’s kind of the point though – there’s something satisfying and methodical about learning how to deal with different enemies and knowing that they won’t get you the next time round. Except the worm/snake things that hide in the grass and often poison you. They always get me, the bastards. I don’t ever seem to learn.

That’s all well and good, but what REALLY makes it stand out?

It’s a matter of taste with this one – but for me it’s charm. Charm and character. The high-poly, uberneon visuals, odd cast of baddies and downright weird assortment of powerups give it a sense of personality. It’s impressive, considering how simple and short it is, realistically. Speaking of powerups – there are plenty to choose from. Everything from antivenoms (worm/snake things be damned) to a pair of glamorous high heels that serve little purpose other than to elevate the player a few inches for a *slightly* better perspective. Yeah. You also start with throwable bombs which can be replenished, and homing bombs can be found as single use items. You can even buy yourself a little backpack to hold a precious few more items (otherwise it’s just the one), which is really handy if you’re lucky enough to find lots of cool things. I seem to always find 9001 antivenoms when I have no use for them and -9002 when I’m poisoned and on the brink of death. Procedurally CRUEL, AMIRITE?

Another thing that stands out for me is the option for death to not be quite so cruel if you play smart. Buy a Last Will or Life Insurance and bank some coins before death and start out with an immediate advantage next life. Keep doing this and you can get a pretty good snowball effect on the go, provided you can maintain the killstreaks and keep finding useful items. Sometimes you just want health or an antivenom, only to find a pair of heels. Well. At least when your legs drop out from under you and the camera hits the floor in a sickening ‘keel over’ manoeuvre, you can look bloody fabulous on the way down.

Heavy_Bullets_-_Screen_1Early Access, right?
Yes – but only just, realistically. The game is very near completion and the dev (Terri Vellman) only set out to use Early Access as a chance to balance the game and fix bugs, so it’s been in pretty good shape since it’s launch on the programme.
This makes Heavy Bullets one of the safest Early Access purchases I’ve come across – as everything it is intended to be is already there. You shan’t be left waiting for huge content updates that may never come, or not be able to finish the game due to a lack of content. Everything just… works, which is pretty refreshing.

If you’re a roguelike fan, or if you like the art style and concept, Heavy Bullets is well worth a purchase in it’s current state. It’s intriguing, well polished and delivers what it promises. My only criticism is it’s inherent simplicity – if you’re good at it it’s likely that you’ll finish it off in a fairly short time and have little reason to replay other than chasing high scores. I’d really like to see an implementation somewhat akin to The Binding Of Isaac’s unlockable characters and game modes, allowing just that little bit of extra depth and giving skilled players a little more reason to keep playing. Not an issue for me, as I’m rubbish, but something to keep in mind.
Go out, have a go, kill some of those bloody worm/snake things on my behalf.

Format: PC, Mac and Linux

Published by: Devolver Digital

Out Now on Steam early Access for £5.24

 

Krautscape – An Early Access Preview

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As ever – be warned. Krautscape is still very early in development and as such expect more features and content to be added after this preview was written. Despite this, the game is polished and tidy, with absolutely no performance issues or crashes – although it is a little light on content at the time of writing and there are a few things that don’t quite work yet.

Krautscape is a rather refreshing take on the racing genre – throwing the free-form ability of flight into the mix and allowing the player in the lead to actively generate the ‘track’. It’s smooth, stylised graphics and unique premise set it apart from other racers currently on the market – albeit without conforming to the current trend towards soft body physics simulation and crashes. Steam’s Greenlight programme is to thank for it hitting Early Access.

I was interested in the concept of the game even before first playing, being an enjoyer of the odd racer – and the freedom of flight is a constant fascination.

When playing the game for the first time I’d highly recommend digging into the tutorials, as the gameplay can be extremely confusing without a little explanation.

Krautscape 1

You are then introduced to the features that set Krautscape aside from the crowd – piece by piece. First comes the standard driving. As all cars are (currently) identical, they all handle the same. Nothing special here, simple and serviceable. You begin to notice the art style – grainy and stylised, with rich colours and a fascinating minimalism. There’s nothing here to distract you from your goal, or sway your focus from the track ahead (or above or behind or below…).

Then comes track creation. This is where things begin to get interesting. As the race leader – you are charged with creation of the track. This is achieved through use of large gates – when you pass through, another section of track is generated with another gate at the end of it. Depending on your physical position on the raceway – centre, left & right, extreme left & right – different sections of track  pop into existence. To aid with this, the raceway is colour coded into sections, and the system is far easier to use than it initially seems. There’s something distinctly satisfying about a quick application of brakes and a sharp swing over to the opposite side of the track to that which your opponents were expecting, forcing them to stop and reconcile or fly off the track completely.

This would be the end of their race – were it not for the other of Krautscape’s flagship features. Flight.

The feather-like appearance of the top of the vehicles suddenly makes sense as, during the latter section of the tutorial, the game prompts you to hold (space, in the case of mouse and keyboard) and unfurl your wings. Momentum becomes extremely important, and the seemingly desolate world your track inhabits opens up; a playground of limitless space.

At first there appears to be no practical use of said wings other than swooping to correct a fall from the track – until obstacles are introduced. Hitting ‘boost’ sections on the track whilst in first place will throw you forward, also creating a wall just behind you. Other players can take the risk of boosting if they please – but there’s always the chance they’ll time their turn or swoop into the air badly and end up thudding into the wall. When the track snakes around (*seewhatIdidthere*) and meets itself, jumps will form to cross the pre-existing raceway that can only be crossed by a well-timed use of flight. Carry too little momentum and risk dropping off the track entirely with no way to recover…

Thus begins Krautscape.

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Dan! What, exactly, is it though?

It’s a difficult one to assign a genre to, really. To simply call it a racer is probably a little unfair, as the simple freedom and fun of flight often overtake the want to actually race – but that’s what it is at it’s heart. The focus here is definitely on competitive multiplayer (at it’s best with the maximum 4 players) – with no solo play to speak of other than the aforementioned training course and a free build practice mode. This would be absolutely fine (and indeed is when other players are found) however simple things like being able to play online with friends would be useful. There’s an option for LAN or splitscreen play – and even a way to utilise LAN to play online, but it requires typing in one another’s IP addresses (handily displayed on the screen whilst in lobby). Again, that would be fine – except that currently myself and Bwortang (also of Frugal) haven’t managed to get it to work. We were simply getting presented with broken menus and buttons that did nothing. All part of Early Access, but something to keep in mind.

That’s all well and good, but what REALLY makes it stand out?

There are three game modes available at present – Snake, Ping Pong and Collector.

Snake consists of the players racing to maintain the lead – with the player in first (as normal) creating the track. The twist is that the track is limited in length to just a few sections – so being too far behind can result in the floor coming out from under your vehicle. Points are scored by passing gates in first.

Ping Pong has a similar system – except that the length of the track is constantly increasing and players are sent back and forth along it, collecting points for passing gates in first.

Collector offers something a little different – allowing almost complete freedom of track creation as players battle to force the raceway towards collectible objects in the level. Flying, driving, falling – how you get there is up to you.

That, really, is what makes Krautscape enjoyable and sets it apart from it’s kin. Freedom. Moments of tense despair are created by the unpredictable nature of other players – you’ll be a hair’s breadth from a gate, only to have another player land atop you from an aborted divebomb – before both being flummoxed by a third player swooping through the gate from entirely the opposite direction.

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Early Access though, right?

Yes. This is something that really has to be considered with Krautscape. What content is there is very polished and functional – but there simply isn’t a great deal of it at current. This may be negated entirely if the player base picks up, but I had the occasional trouble finding one player to join – let alone three. To make matters worse – some things (like joining friends on multiplayer) simply don’t work currently, and there is evidence of unfinished menus etcetera. It’s a shame, as there’s plenty of potential there for a fantastic little racer that sits outside the norm and a lot of people could enjoy. Performance-wise, on my system (4770k @ 4.2GHz, 780Ti @ 1300MHz) the game runs well beyond 200FPS at 1440p with everything turned all the way up. I didn’t notice a single drop in framerate or crash during my time playing it.

All in all – this is going to be down to personal preference. For racing fans, I’d wholeheartedly recommend giving it a go for the £5.59 it currently is on Steam. It’s a bargain for what could be an exceptionally fun little game if some of the bugs are sorted out. If it piques your interest – there’s a good chance it’s worth your time. It may, however, pay to hold off a little and see where it goes as development continues.

Developer:  Mario von Rickenbach/Playables LLC 

Publisher: Midnight City

Available Now Via Early Access on Steam for PC and Mac

 

Vertiginous Golf – An Early Access Preview

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I’ll dig right in. The game is in *very* early access – so expect features to be added and gameplay to blossom after this preview. Despite this – the game is very polished, very complete. I didn’t encounter a single crash or noticeable bug during my playtime, and no performance or gameplay issues.

Vertiginous Golf is something a little bit different – even among the swathes of quality Indie titles available on Steam. It’s an odd combination of physics-based mini golf and first person mechanical hummingbird exploration game, set in a gorgeous steampunk alterverse.

I first jumped into the game with no preconceptions – a curiosity spawned from a love of all things steampunk, but no idea what I was getting into…

V Golf Birdie

You start the game in first person. No menu, no splash screen. A dimly lit, drizzly Victorian-esque street – the soft light reflecting from raindrops and puddles, providing a warm glow in the cold darkness. you move across the street to a shop with ‘Vertiginous Golf’ displayed proudly in the windows and ‘Forsake the eternal rain‘ engraved on the wall, open the door and head in. It’s something like a Barber’s – a row of rich mahogany leather seats on either side. At the other end of the shop is a strange assortment of screens collected together. You move towards them and they flicker into life – greeting you with ‘Vertiginous Golf’.

At this point I was well beyond intrigued and would have been hooked almost regardless of what came next. It’s a good thing, really, that the rest of this quirky little game lives up to the style and precedent set in that introduction.

V Golf Tower

Dan! What, exactly, is it though?!

Well – if you’ve played a crazy/mini golf game before, you’ll be mostly at home here. You are given (at the time of writing) nine holes to navigate on airborne courses of grass, brass and carpet. These are interspersed with physics-based obstacles and traps, often giving you a large variety of ways to get to the hole. Unlike many other ‘similar’ (more on that in a minute) games – there is no *right* way to get the ball into the final hole. Part of Vertiginous Golf’s charm is the freedom of choice it provides. Navigate one of the paths provided to you, or hope that a lucky chip of a trick shot will get you there? That’s up to you!

That’s all well and good, but what REALLY makes it stand out?

For me, at least – that’s a few things. First of all is the styling. That gorgeous, authentic steampunk vibe instilled in you before you even get to the main menu is maintained throughout the game. Everything from the relatively simple but serviceable graphics to the mesmerising score seem aimed to maintain the game’s feel. It’s extremely successful in this, all brass gramophones and Victorian rugs. Even the Green becomes a Green Room – set out like a tea room of maddening puzzles and restricting you to just your putter whilst inside. Secondly comes your strange, mechanical assistants: Sat atop the ball is a little brass bug, able to influence the direction and speed of the ball after your initial stroke by using up your ‘Rewind’ meter – earned by shot distance and length. This can also be used, as you may expect, to rewind your shot if you make a total mess of it. To aid you in navigating the sometimes sprawling & maze-like courses, you also have a brass hummingbird following you – which you can take control of and explore the courses in first person with. This provides a whole separate layer to gameplay, allowing the player to meticulously plan their route ahead of time with the hummingbird, and use the bug to prevent deviation when something doesn’t quite go to plan. What started out looking like a simple little golf game has become something of a pre-meditated murder in physics – instantly distancing itself from those aforementioned ‘similar’ golf games. Thirdly are the ‘Free Shot’ holes scattered around the course which negate the stroke it took to get to them – giving more skilled (at least, more skilled than me…) players the opportunity to chain shots between them and essentially get to the hole on a stroke of zero.

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Early Access, right?

Yes – most definitely. Currently the game is a little barebones – containing merely the first nine holes, with plans (and empty menu spots) for many more. However, due to the unique open nature of the courses, I’ve found myself re-playing each one a few times in an effort to improve my (atrocious) scores and try to find a more efficient means of getting to the hole. Despite it’s status, what content is there feels extremely polished, and I’m yet to encounter a single bug or random crash. Performance is great too, maintaining 100FPS+ on my system (4770k @ 4.2GHz, 780Ti @ 1300MHz) at 1440p with all the bells and whistles on.

All in all – it’s a pretty, engaging little game with lots of potential to grow as it’s development continues – and I’d not hesitate to recommend it to anybody who wants to play something enjoyable that makes you think a little, especially if you’re a fan of Steampunk.

Developer: Kinelco & Lone Elk Creative 

Publisher: Surprise Attack

Available on early Access via Steam for £11.99