Monday, June 9, 2014

A Beautiful Mess

I've been introduced to the term "a beautiful mess" recently to describe video games which have interesting elements that failed to gel together into a cohesive whole.  Thinking back to titles that I've played in the recent past Banner Saga is the first that comes to mind, but I'd rather dedicate an entire post to that game at a later date.  So for now here are a few older titles that come to mind as quintessential examples.

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is one of the more recent attempts by the game industry to adapt the collective works of horror novelist H.P. Lovecraft.  Particularly the short stories "Shadow Over Innsmouth" and "Shadow out of Time" are on display here in faithful detail.  The video game also draws heavily on several table-top gaming supplementary RPG books by Chaosium to fill in some of the blanks.  True to the source material, sanity loss plays an important part in the game, as well as cosmic horror (not to mention a pinch of old fashion slasher flick gore to punctuate some of the scares).  It also tries to implement an accurate injury system which can inhibit the player controlled character in various ways if left untreated.  The problem with this title is it tries to be too many things at once.  Just to illustrate my point the genre of this game starts off walking simulator, then changes to a stealth game, followed by platforming and rail shooting.  After that there's a smattering of puzzle sections, straight up first person shooting and finally a decent into survival horror territory.  This would be great except none of the aforementioned gameplay bits are well handled...or fun really.  Lots of game crashing bugs don't help either.

Miasmata combines exploration and survival with biology and cartography.  You character is a severely ill castaway trapped on an isolated island, alone except for some birds, insects, squirrels...and a creature.  What kind of creature?  That's a good question.  It's not exactly something you can find in a zoology book.  In fact it might not be real in the strictest sense of the word.  Also, there's lots of murdered people, abandoned huts and a twist ending.  In order to survive the player will find themselves trying to keep hydrated and rested.  Mapping out the island by triangulating landmarks is important too since it's vital to the task of collecting local flora specimens to synthesize medicine and potentially a cure.  The game uses it's own original rendering engine (impressive when you consider that the development team consisted of only two people).  The cloud and water effects are particular iconic as well as the island itself, which feels like an amalgamation of several real world nature preserves, complete with ancient ruins, bamboo forests and weathered Moai.  Day and night cycles and dynamic weather add to the experience as well.  The problem with this game is the poorly optimized code, terrible sound design and general lack of polish.  Normally, this would just be a bunch of nitpicks, but all these things represent the glue that holds the entire experience together.  Hence the title fails to make a good initial impression (not to mention keeping immersion).

Demon's Souls is probably my favorite PS3 exclusive.  Hard as nails, filled with unique mechanics both on and off-line.  The story has the perfect amount of presence.  Just enough detail to get the ball rolling, but not so much it feels obtrusive, plus extra goodies for players who want to know more.  Visually, this dark fantasy title looks like it draws heavily from old-school Dungeons and Dragons artwork (actually the Fighting Fantasy series of game books).  Oppressive darkness, horrifying foes, cryptic allies, and overall feelings of desolation intertwine with demons, undead, mutations and madness.  This game freaked me out more than most horror games, and was...unforgiving to put it lightly.  Mechanics-wise though this first entry in the Souls series suffered from poor PvP, useless weapon classes (axes and crossbows in particular), not to mention two weapon fighting is impractical despite getting extensive animations.  Oh, and the dragons, giant beetles and certain bosses can only be killed by spamming incredibly awkward attacks over and over ad nauseum.  Key mechanics aren't explained anywhere and character stats are unbalanced with no way to re-spec less-than-optimal character builds.  World tendency (an online persistency mechanic affecting difficulty, the presence of certain NPCs and access to some locations) has to be actively avoided by disconnecting the PS3 from the internet in order to complete some sub-objectives as well.

Despite all my complaints I actually really enjoyed all three the above mentioned titles.  Perhaps I can overlook the flaws simply because I feel like these games offer something new.  Sure the latest triple AAA titles are more often than not polished to a high level of sheen, but I can't help having a soft spot for beautiful messes.

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