Risen 3: Titan Lords

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Developer: Piranha Bytes | Released: 2014 | Genre: RPG, Third Person

I decided to round off with the third game in the series now that I was on a roll anyway. Again, it was from Steam and included all DLC. This played like the quite the best game of the three. Yes, it reused a lot of assets and ideas from the second game (which probably also explains the development gap of only two years) but it felt more refined and it also grabbed me a lot better in the beginning, especially because I visited Fog Island first where plain old exploration was in the lead.

The game was more colorful and overgrown than ever. Truly Caribbean “Bounty”-land and lots of weird plants. For some strange reason the guy in my control was now Patty’s brother, without any explanation about what happened to the previous nameless hero with the eye patch. Maybe they simply didn’t want gamers to see that eye patch anymore? Alas, the siblings really left a skewed first impression. Patty now looked like a porn star with tits right in your face. I love tits as much as any man, but her outfit was really ludicrous. Similarly, the new nameless hero had a deep and dry voice that was just contrived.

I was already missing “John” and his normal voice. Two games and he was out.

The human models were much better now and added a lot to the overall impression. Eyes now moved properly to the sides, lip sync was slightly better, and although gesticulations were still a bit exaggerated, they seemed more focused now. Dialog was the same old. It still had that feeling of superfluous information that I often had to skip to get to the point, or maybe the interlocutor passed that point long ago and just kept on blathering anyway.

Risen 2: Dark Waters

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Developer: Piranha Bytes | Released: 2012 | Genre: RPG, Third Person

I decided to start Risen 2: Dark Waters right after the first game in the series, while I still had fresh memories about it. I bought it on Steam including all DLC, so there will also be something about those. One contains pirate clothes and two are actual adventures lasting about one hour each.

The title screen music was quite nice but also revealed that it wasn’t the same composer as in the previous game. In fact, a lot of things had changed. The nameless hero, now drunk in the beginning and without access to magic, had a big mullet and no longer resembled Wentworth Miller. His voice actor was also different. From a tower in the very tiny harbour town, Caldera, Commandant Carlos and our hero watched a medieval ship being trashed by a Kraken. The only survivor swimming ashore was Patty, the pirate daughter from the first game, and she also looked and sounded totally different.

Typical Piranha Bytes – no regard for continuity there. The Gothic series also had the same problems.

The interface was also handled quite differently in the sequel. There were absolutely no window panes anymore. All looting, inventory, attributes, logs and whathaveyou were shown in dark, separate screens. How very 2010’ish. Even looting a chest showed a separate screen, and looting corpses just grabbed whatever. Along with the vastly improved textures, sharp lighting and the larger font for dialogs, all the improvements made me think of a similar jump between the Two Worlds games. The first one was also crude in many areas that the second game improved upon in much the same way.

And this time they even allowed me to rebind the quicksave key.

Risen

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Developer: Piranha Bytes | Released: 2009 | Genre: RPG, Third Person

This was a third person open world RPG in control of a predefined male human – no character customization in this one. It had ruthless beginnings, unforgiving combat, expensive training, no loading in and out of most houses and dungeons, a great sense of verticality in the form of steep cliffs and meandering paths, and NPC that sometimes wouldn’t restrain themselves from calling you a moron and optionally kick your ass if need be.

In other words, a typical Piranha Bytes RPG.

In fact, it felt so much like the first Gothic games that it could almost have been called Gothic 2½. I’ve completed the first three Gothic games a long time ago. (Well, actually I’ve completed all four if you also count Arcania, but it wasn’t made by Piranha Bytes and had a different feel.) The first games in the Gothic series had very ruthless beginnings. I actually never quite enjoyed starting that far down the ladder and it taking so long to get the upper hand, but there is something to be said for finally getting powerful enough to stand toe to toe with the tougher enemies of the game. It gives a very palpable sense of progression in the later parts of their games.

The Piranha Bytes RPG have always felt crude to me in a strangely charming way – kind of like the Paul Norman games on the Commodore 64, such as Forbidden Forest and Aztec Challenge. Lots of cut corners everywhere. Roasting a stew without meat in the pan. Animations where items are just conjured out of thin air. Sound effects that sometimes feel like they don’t belong. That sort of thing. Even though Risen was a reboot with a new publisher in 2009, it still felt totally like a late part of the exact same series. It also still had all the strong trademarks too, like a solid AI for NPC going about their own business.

Alien: Isolation

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Developer: The Creative Assembly | Released: 2014 | Genre: FPS, Horror

As a first person horror action/adventure, this game was quite true to the first movie and really managed to exude the same atmosphere. Especially the prefabs and corridors were an amazingly close call. In the beginning it also felt like a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, in part because of the ominous graffiti on the walls. And it was quite a looker. Lots of details, all high resolution textures, and a solid lighting style with small whiffs of smoke here and there.

The gameplay was mostly sneaking around, avoiding androids or the alien using various tools for opening doors and a bit of crafting for e.g. creating distracting bombs and health syringes. I could hide inside lockers or crawl through vents. Weapons were weak and ammunition sparse, and most of it would barely scare away the alien anyway. The androids in the game were also tough bullet sponges. Fighting one felt just as absurd as when Ripley fought Ash in the movie, just as it should be.

The levels were quite linear to begin with, but the later areas got bigger and with adjoining corridors. If the area felt particularly open with lots of options for moving around, chances were that the alien would be tagging along there as well. There was also a lot of backtracking, either to get back to a hub (such as the tram stations) or to open previously blocked doors with newly acquired hacking or cutting tools.

But it’s true what they all say – it was way too long (a whopping 19 missions) and sometimes relentless. I heard the rumors and prudently selected one of the lower difficulty levels, but still. There were actually a lot of levels where the alien wasn’t even present, but when it was, it felt like it was tethered to me. Sort of like if it could sense my aura and know not to go too far away.

Papers, Please

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Developer: Lucas Pope | Released: 2013 | Genre: Simulation, Puzzle

This was a mix of a simulation and a puzzle game as an immigration officer at a border checkpoint for the fictitious country of Arstotzka in 1982. Inspecting the passports and papers of the arrivals from a massive queue was split up in days. In between a family had to be supported with the income, and if I had too many validation errors then maybe they would starve, be cold, or even die.

On various new days there were a change of rules, possibly introducing a new tool. Sometimes it was just additional papers, at other times confiscating passports, detaining, searching for hidden weapons after a couple of snapshots, even using a key to open a locker with a weapon and shooting a runner.

I didn’t expect this one to grab me as much as it did. Normally I’m not always keen on these simulation kind of games, and I had prepared myself for one of those that I played for one hour (the unwritten backlog rule) and then abandoned. I even selected easy mode with an additional income to avoid having to break too much of a sweat supporting my family. But within just a few minutes I was really hooked.

One reason was the terrific atmosphere – the dark, dystopian scenario, with perfect muffled talk sounds. Another reason was that checking up on details in passports, papers and fingerprints spoke to my tad of a perfectionist gene that I made good use of in my 12 years as a software tester. Not that I didn’t get quite a few error receipts. Sometimes the game did feel a bit unfair as if it wanted me to be downright wrong about a decision no matter what I chose. But that feeling of nailing a wrong piece of information and maybe even detaining someone, it was mysteriously fascinating.

Fallout 4: Part 4

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Developer: Bethesda Game Studios | Released: 2015 | Genre: RPG, First Person

After some random exploration, various side quests and most of the quest line for the Minutemen, I have finally decided that I’ve seen what I want to see of the vanilla version of Fallout 4. Maybe I’ll be back for some DLC later. I got to level 55, with 264 locations discovered and 108 quests completed. I maximized hacking and lockpicking relatively early and kept to mostly using single shot rifles, sometimes assisted by an automatic rifle with explosive bullets whenever I had ammunition for it.

The game generally had a bit too much street fighting for my liking. There were hardly any place I could go in the world where a gun fight wasn’t taking place somewhere in the distance. It often sounded like New Year’s Eve. Brotherhood of Steel was also quite aggressive and often had a Vertibird or two flying around. Hey, we have a skirmish over here, come on over and help us out! Sometimes it spiced up the action and was fun to take part of, but as said before, I still think they overdid it. There were situations where I just wanted to do a quest and was constantly pestered with skirmishes on the way.

By the way, I have a weird tip for you in case you’re bored watching loading screens. You can rotate the model by holding down the left mouse button and then move the mouse around. You can also toggle the green soda filter by hitting the V.A.T.S. button. I wonder if there’s more that can be controlled like this on the loading screen? It’s important.

Fallout 4: Part 3

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Developer: Bethesda Game Studios | Released: 2015 | Genre: RPG, First Person

I’ve completed the main quest and a bunch of side quests as well, and have reached level 43. I’m far from having completed the game though, as there’s still a ton of spots I’ve never visited on the map. Knowing Bethesda, there’s bound to be a lot of side quests I haven’t seen yet. As an indication of this, I’ve only found half a dozen companions so far and I know there are a lot more. That being said, I actually played solo for a while after having maximized Piper’s and Nick’s devotion. I don’t know, I guess I can’t ever shake the desire to be a lone wolf in games like these. I like not being dependent on anyone else than myself.

That sounds awfully familiar, actually.

My main weapon focus has been on rifles. I maximized the perk for rifles, and I currently have a legendary combat rifle on the first slot plus a legendary shotgun on the second. The shotgun does awesome damage but also have a ginormous recoil as part of the legendary attributes, which probably explains why I can’t mod it away. I also made a Gauss rifle my first sniper choice. A long scope, warming up the shot, and then holding my breath for a precise shot – not a lot of enemies can survive a direct hit from that. And finally, I have a missile launcher for when the enemies get too close to each other.

Fallout 4: Part 2

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Developer: Bethesda Game Studios | Released: 2015 | Genre: RPG, First Person

I’m now level 27 and close to completing the main quest of the game. After a lot of random exploration I decided I wanted to see some quest action, so I went down to Diamond City, got myself a bunch of quests, and started following their chains. If there was still a samey feeling of going through the motions, the fresh quests along with getting to know the companions helped a lot to keep this at bay. Some of the quests even have better writing or humor than I expected.

Given how much the quests spiced up the game for me, I’ll have to say that it’s a shame there are so few of them in the beginning for my type of player. I didn’t want to bother with the settlement crafting quests offered for Sanctuary Hills, and then it was only when I reached as far down as Diamond City that it felt like I finally had a nice palette of quests to work on.

The companions have been upgraded a lot compared to all previous games made by Bethesda. They’re no longer boring automatons just for extra firepower or junk storage. They comment on a lot of stuff, even small things like me picking something up. They sit down for a drink while I sniff around in drawers and desks. At my home they will use the crafting tables that I’m not currently using myself. They like or dislike my moral actions to quest dialog choices. And if they like you well enough, they will offer you a personal quest. There’s no doubt in my mind that BioWare has been subject to a lot of scrutinizing here, but it’s also one of the areas that I approve of the most. It adds a great layer of immersion and maybe it also makes me want to try out more companions.

Fallout 4: Part 1

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Developer: Bethesda Game Studios | Released: 2015 | Genre: RPG, First Person

I’ve played almost 8 hours now. My first impression of it is that it somehow feels like Fallout 3: Remastered. True, the graphics are much better (especially the lighting) and there are some new elements such as the settlement crafting – but turn a corner, and you’ll find the same hacking and lockpicking mini games, even some of the same posters and radio songs. It has been refined in many areas, but it also disappoints by still offering a crap UI that Bethesda should have been able to improve upon ages ago.

Still, it’s hard to not get caught up by the magnificent open world atmosphere and the way it pulls you in, wanting to explore the seemingly desolate buildings. I loved Fallout 3 for the very same reason and it feels like Fallout 4 will deliver in spades as well. But will it turn into too much familiarity; “been there, done that” at a later point? Maybe. The danger is certainly there. Both feelings are dragging me from opposite directions. It will be interesting to see which one of them wins.

DreadOut

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Developer: Digital Happiness | Released: 2014 | Genre: 3PS, Horror

It was really a shame coming from such a nice surprise as Lifeless Planet to this frustrating mess of bad design. If I could have gone back in time and told my older self what not to play, this would definitely have been one of them. DreadOut was a horror adventure that borrowed a lot from Silent Hill – even the dark style of the inventory, with big images of inventory items. The saddest thing is that the horror atmosphere was actually quite well done. Although cliche of course, it had just the right amount of disturbing dread and jump scares, supported by a marvelous ambient background sound.

The heroine, a teenager on a trip with her teacher and school mates in a car, used a smartphone camera and its flash to scare ghosts and monsters. A red vignette on the screen indicated that a spiritual being was close (sometimes invisible so the camera had to be held up to see it) and a blue vignette that an item or interaction was nearby. Being pummeled could lead to death, and this was shown as a limbo sequence running towards the light. To make matters even worse, some monsters were “camera bullet sponges” and had to be continuously snapshot. In between there were also mild puzzles and keys to find.