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Discussion: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (spoilers!)

May 29th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hello there.

Today we’re continuing our series of discussions of more modern indie titles. They’re not traditional reviews, as such, and we go into some detail about the specifics of the story of each, and so they’re heavily flagged for spoilers.

Previously, Jo and I have talked about the FMV mystery Her Story and the 90s-themed exploration adventure Gone Home. Today’s game is The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, developed and published by The Astronauts in 2014.

As with those other games in this discussion series, you’re probably best off not knowing too much about it before you start playing. However, the basic setup is that you are Paul Prospero, a paranormal investigator who responds to a letter from a young boy, Ethan Carter, by travelling to Ethan’s home in Red Valley Creek, Wisconsin. Here’s a short teaser trailer from the developers:

We weren’t quite as fond of this one as the previous games we discussed, but it still has plenty to recommend it, and it’s reasonably short and digestible, so do check it out if it looks like it might be of interest.

Otherwise, the usual ***spoiler warnings*** now apply, should you read any further.
Discussion: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (spoilers!) continued »

Super off-brand Mario

May 20th, 2020

Written by: Stoo

I have a tradition that occurs about twice a year. I dust off my 3DS, tell myself this time I’ll find something to play on it, then stuff it back its bag and ignore it for another six months.

I think there are a couple of problems contributing to this neglect. Firstly, games on its online store seem rather pricey to me, a PC gamer long accustomed to Steam sales. Secondly, I’ve come to the realisation that, apart from those famous first-party series like Mario, I actually know nothing about the games on there. I’m too out of touch to know what an Animal Crossing is, have never been interested in Pokemon and am completely baffled by any jrpg that isn’t Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy 6/7.

To this day I’ve only actually completed two games for it – Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (actually for the older DS) and Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Both of them were pretty great but I might have to just admit I’m not going to get much more use out of this device. I’m otherwise too dedicated to the PC, and my Steam and GOG backlogs are too lengthy. My interest in consoles remains limited to the 8 and 16 bit days.

Still, the 3DS can at least cater to this nostalgia for a short while, thanks to its virtual console. The classic games are also pricey (compare to GOG stuff of similar vintage) and the lack of SNES games is inexcusable but it does have a decent library of NES and Gameboy games. So I was rooting around trying to remember what I’d bought several years ago, and found myself on Super Mario Land.

It was probably had the second-highest profile of any Gameboy game, after the almighty Tetris. I’m sure many of us could hum the music to stage one. Yet I’ve always found something about it to be weirdly distracting. It has most of the familiar Mario features – mushrooms, head stomping, bashing blocks from underneath. Yet there are also a bunch of little differences that feel out of place.

The fire flower is renamed “power ball” and works differently. The koopas don’t leave shells for you to kick; rather they explode like a bob-omb. In some levels it turns into an side-scrolling shooter. Worlds are themed on real life locations; so we get ancient egypt in one, China in another. Also Easter Island statues, which have an otherworldly quality wherever you see them (part of why they are so fascinating), but are just plain odd in a Mario game.

The primitive nature of the graphics, even by Gameboy standards, adds an extra layer weirdness to it all. The faux-koopas are barely recognisable, and I was never quite sure if that’s a mouse with big ears or a fly with wings, attacking you on the first level (it’s the latter).

The overall effect is a bit like playing some kind of knock-off; like someone copied Mario but threw in random ideas of their own. Still worth playing for a bit, but even if it’s quite brief I doubt I’ll ever bother making it to the end.

I also downloaded the sequel, which feels much more like a proper Mario game. The artwork looks a lot better, probably because developers had learned how to squeeze more out of the Gameboy’s meagre hardware. Add to that the inclusion of a flying powerup, and levels joined by a map screen, and it’s clearly following the lineage of Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World.

So it’s a reason to keep the DS out of storage for the rest of the week, at least.

Review: Quarantine II: Road Warrior

May 17th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hi everyone.

Hope you’re doing ok.

I hope today’s review doesn’t seem in poor taste, considering the current situation: I can promise any link between the decision to cover it and the real-life global pandemic is purely coincidental. As any regular readers will know, we move far too slowly these days for anything to be topical, whatever our intentions.

Anyway, the game in question is Quarantine II: Road Warrior from GameTek.

(Which I think might well have been one of the games in The Big Cardboard Box).

Vault of Regret: The Big Cardboard Box

May 14th, 2020

Written by: Rik

The Vault of Regret is a very large place, which houses dusty old game CDs and boxes, untouched digital libraries, and the metaphysical concepts of remorse and embarrassment. Here we write about all the games we should have played but haven’t, or that we have played but didn’t enjoy, among other things.

Do you still have all your old boxed games from the 90s? If not, do you remember what happened to them? Why you kept some, and not others? And would you make the same decisions again now?

Perhaps you just got rid of the boxes, and kept the discs, for reasons of space. Or maybe it all just stayed at your parents’ house for a while, until several years passed and they had a clear out which forced you to make a decision. You weren’t to know, back in those days, that you’d be able to play those old DOS games again. Or that you’d even want to.

In our house, three people contributed to the shelves surrounding the family PC, and we each had different strategies when it came to our purchasing decisions. At the one end of the scale was Jo, who kept a fairly short list of adventure games that she wanted and would make sure she either saved up for them or put them on the next Christmas or birthday list. And at the other was yours truly, a gullible idiot who would buy whatever happened to be in the sales. (My Dad was somewhere in the middle, a keen follower of review scores but also always up for a bargain too.)

While Jo and I were living with our parents, at least some of the time, we could take and leave what we wanted back and forth to university. But when the time eventually came for me to move out, to share a room in a London flat with my girlfriend, I had a feeling that the arrangement would come to a swift end if I arrived armed with stacks of big box PC games.

And so it was time to perform a serious audit. Items of moderate value, generally the more modern titles, could be put on eBay as individual items. But in a pre-DOSBox world, the more genuine oldies were of less interest to the game-buying public. The only thing to do was to throw them all into a big cardboard box and sell them off together at a low, low price: 40 or so games at a starting price of 99p plus postage. (I think I got about 35 or so quid for them in the end).

It doesn’t bother me that I got rid of these games – the particular source of regret, in this case, is the fact that I can’t really remember many of their names, and even the ones that spring to mind, I can’t be 100% certain about. What was in that box? I guess it feels weird to have sold games that I didn’t play, or that didn’t make much of an impression on me: a collection of impulse purchases and some filler from compilations, no doubt, with some titles ones that I genuinely did mean to get around to one day, and others that were frankly never likely to make their way to the top of the pile.

I remember this much. But the box wasn’t empty, it had stuff in it.

As a dedicated archivist of my own digital past [Jee-sus! Just say ‘hoarder’ – FFG reader], it does genuinely bother me that I don’t know what these games were (I’ve already spent longer than is healthy scouring my e-mails and old backups for evidence of the eBay listing from 2003). Plus, it sort of blows my mind that I could have spent so long writing about old games here (admittedly, at an extremely slow pace) without even remembering, never mind getting around to revisiting, all the ones that I used to own.

In all likelihood, the full list will forever remain a mystery. But slowly, a few names are coming back to me: I’ve even somehow confirmed, thanks to MobyGames, that a seemingly random collection of CDs that were in my collection at one point in the 90s was a genuine, real-life compilation and not simply a figment of my imagination. So perhaps I can still dredge up a few more memories, pick out some of those abandoned oldies and give them a proper look over, all these years later.

Review: International Cricket Captain III

May 8th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hello there.

I’ll say it again: I do hope you’re all keeping safe and well at the moment.

In search of something calm and gentle, I decided to turn to cricket, and so today’s review is of a mid-to-late 00s entry in Empire’s long-running cricket management series: International Cricket Captain III.

Review: Colin McRae Rally 3

April 29th, 2020

Written by: Rik


Hope you’re all keeping well, under the circumstances.

At times like these we might find ourselves trying to go to our respective happy places, trying to find ways to relax or escape, whenever possible, and games can certainly help with that.

In my case, I think playing endless racing games from the 00s and early 10s would do just nicely.

So, today, we’re taking a look at Colin McRae Rally 3.

Discussion: Gone Home (spoilers!)

April 18th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hello. Hope you’re all keeping safe.

Regular readers, if any exist, may recall that last year we exhumed our discussion format in order to take a look at a modern indie title, Her Story. (Caution: there are spoilers ahead in that link!)

Well, I’m back, along with FFG’s unofficial third correspondent, Jo, in a belated follow-up, as part of what may become a semi-regular feature [careful with all that hype – FFG reader].

This time we’re looking at Gone Home (an appropriately-named game, under the circumstances), the acclaimed 2013 adventure from Fullbright (formerly The Fullbright Company).

As with Her Story, it’s the kind of game that you probably should play without knowing anything in advance – exploration and discovery being all part of the overall experience – but, broadly, it’s the tale of a young woman returning home from a year away, finding her family’s new house abandoned, and uncovering what has transpired in her absence.

This discussion covers pretty much all of the game’s major story details, so if you haven’t played Gone Home already, we’d advise that you do so first. We liked it, and it’s not a long game, so we’ll just leave you with this trailer at this stage: if it looks like it might be of interest, do check it out.

Otherwise, be warned: unless you have no intention of playing this game, or for some reason prefer for two strangers to paraphrase what happens before heading into something yourself, Gone Home is about to be spoiled for you.


Discussion: Gone Home (spoilers!) continued »

Moments in Gaming: Caution, Square Left

April 14th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Moments in Gaming is where we look back on gaming experiences that have left a particularly strong impression on us over the years: mainly for good reasons, but sometimes for bad ones.

At one point in the early 00s, the number of rally games being released seemed greatly at odds with the level of public interest in the sport. Like many other forms of motor racing, its very existence in the minds of a certain generation (in the UK at least) owed something to the era of terrestrial television, when Top Gear was a fusty motoring programme with car reviews and regular coverage of the rally championship from muddy fields in Wales, and Sunday afternoons meant watching the British Touring Car Championship because nothing else was on.

My memory of early rally games were in line with this slightly staid and old-fashioned image, with the likes of Lombard RAC Rally on Atari ST or Network Q RAC Rally Championship on PC being pretty dry affairs. On consoles, from Sega Rally, to Colin McRae, to Gran Turismo, things were jazzed up a little bit, but the focus was on mastering the slippery-slidey technique required to succeed more than anything else.

Enter Rally Championship Xtreme, which according to internet sources was a later instalment of the same Rally Championship series as the above-mentioned effort, albeit a largely ignored and unloved one, possessing neither the grim mechanical realities of a sim nor the flashy whizzery of a fun arcade racer.

What it did have, though, was a sense that its courses were part of a wider world: big open sections of countryside through which a race had been plotted, rather than some narrow tree-lined tracks. Whether it was true to the real sport or really delivered an authentic rallying experience, I don’t know, but as a game that made you feel that it might be fun to drive a small hatchback through the muddy fields of Great Britain, it certainly delivered.

You can work your way up to the top class of rally vehicles eventually, but I had the most fun in the little cars that you’re forced to begin with: the Citroën Saxo, the Nissan Micra, or the Peugeot 106. The early rallies (Scotland, Manx, Wales) also have some of the most memorable scenery and they have remained with me over the years: gaming spaces that I often think about returning to.

In my extremely ancient review, I suggested that (ever one to lack the courage of my convictions) despite enjoying the game, it may well not stand the test of time. But returning to it now, those early stages still retain their magic.

That review also featured a clip from our mid-00s tinkering with video, which resulted in a few short, lumpy and silent clips complementing our review coverage. Remarkably, the one attached to this game captured me negotiating a memorably tricky early stage with some success, power-sliding left through a narrow gate before driving through a church yard:

I can’t remember now whether I tried repeatedly to capture that moment on video or whether it was just a fluke, but I do recall messing that bit up time and again while playing. It’s a moment that can get into your head after repeated failures and probably best approached with caution (as advised by your co-driver) especially as the risks, in terms of damage, associated with hitting the post are significant. But slowing down too soon seems very unsatisfactory, even cowardly, despite the fact that the success of a flashy slide through the gate provides little significant time-saving advantage.

Pull off that initial turn, and the adrenaline high potentially fuels careless mistakes while driving through the church yard and subsequent gates, with equally dire consequences. Many a time I would pull off the turn but then come unstuck by putting my foot down and losing concentration during the next few seconds.

Thinking about that moment made me want to do it all again. Could I get the game working? Was that bit early enough for me to attempt without ploughing through many other stages? Was it actually all that hard really? Could I somehow pull it off one more time with the added pressure of video? Did I even know how to capture video from a game anyway?

(Look, I know it’s not the full arrogant powerslide through the gates, but it was the best I could do. I was 25 then, I’m closer to 40 now…)

Vault of Regret: Jagged Alliance 2

April 4th, 2020

Written by: Rik

The Vault of Regret is a very large place, which houses dusty old game CDs and boxes, untouched digital libraries, and the metaphysical concepts of remorse and embarrassment. Here we write about all the games we should have played but haven’t, or that we have played but didn’t enjoy, among other things.

We live in strange and uncertain times. Consigned to our homes, the prevailing opinion seems to be that the current lockdown will lead to an abundance of free time that urgently needs to be filled with quarantine-friendly activities: hobbies, goals or #content. Each person’s feelings on the matter are likely to depend on their own circumstances, but personally, boredom is not one of the main emotions I am feeling at the moment.

Still, even the idea of having an extended period of free time to fill does make the mind turn to previously abandoned gaming projects, optimism undimmed by the hard realities of past experience (for example, my last review here marks the completion of a series of in-progress write-ups I thought might possibly be done by the end of 2019). And there’s plenty of unplayed stuff here already in the Vault of Regret (ah, here’s one now: *blows off dust* “Transfer from Cupboard of Shame – Box #1 of 20”). But at times like this, I do start to wonder: is it time to play Jagged Alliance 2 again? And finish it this time?

We could argue all day about whether you have to finish a game to review it (please, let’s not, though) but I do feel reasonably okay about what I wrote about the game here, and I was up front about where I got up to, and my own shortcomings. A lot of hours went into getting to where I got to, and I definitely enjoyed it up to that point, but ultimately I chickened out of the last 30% or so of the game.

It’s quite hard, you see. Although the game does a good job of helping the player negotiate a fairly detailed setup, even early battles can be tough encounters. As you make progress in liberating the island of Arulco from evil Queen Deidrianna’s forces, your enemy starts to fight back, attempting to retake previously conquered sectors and putting your mercenary-trained local militia to the test. Meanwhile, your offensive campaign gets much harder, and when it came to facing off against tanks, I started to feel like I wasn’t up to the challenge.

I suspect I should probably have made use of some of the more expensive and skilful mercenaries from the huge roster available, but I’d sort of developed an attachment to the motley bunch I’d started with. Even now, some of their individual utterances remain with me: just the other day, I found myself exclaiming “STUPID FOOLS PUSH ME TOO FAR!” (a favourite of Bobby ‘Steroid’ Gontarski) at an ire-inducing work e-mail.

And on that point, Jagged Alliance 2 has likely remained so popular with fans because it’s a game with personality. Although the merc sprites themselves have little to distinguish them, they do otherwise feel like individuals, and you have a sense that the game would be different with a completely new set of heroes. (And in that respect it reminds me of Midwinter, an older favourite of mine based around similar themes).

There’s definitely also a cheesy low-budget aspect to proceedings that even in 1999 was slightly at odds with the general direction of travel when it came to how video games were presenting themselves. The manual, for example, conveyed a rather ramshackle enthusiasm about the experience ahead that sort of convinced you that the game was going to be good, and included some fairly detailed tips for starting out, in lieu of any kind of tutorial or gentle introduction within the game itself.

This was also reflected in the early fan sites I remember, too: less-than-slick Web 1.0 Geocities affairs that were nevertheless chock-full of enthusiasm for the game and detailed information and tips, particularly about negotiating any bugs or glitches. (Although over the years that fandom has escalated somewhat to the kind of situation where hardcore forum-dwellers insist the game is best played with an unofficial mod that allows the player to customise their experience in potentially overwhelming detail).

Having had two previous stabs at the campaign: once when I bought it, then again when I reviewed it, I then spent some considerable time more recently with the generally-loathed 3D real-time remake Back in Action (which I thought was okay, actually), enjoying all the previous bits of the game I’d remembered and revisited, before again getting bogged down when things got tough.

I think, perhaps, it’s not meant to be. So until I finally feel ready to go through the early stages all over again, endlessly defend my towns and mines against counter-attacks, and shell out on the big hard-nut mercs that can wrestle a tank into submission, it’s time to consign this game, and my feelings towards it, to the dusty old vault.

Review: Alpha Protocol

March 21st, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Strange times, huh? Hope you’re all keeping safe.

Well anyway, we keep plugging away with new content, and in today’s review I return to Obsidian’s ‘Espionage RPG’ Alpha Protocol.