Degrees of Separation is, in the simplest of terms, a lighthearted game with stunning visuals and a cute story. In this challenging yet lovingly crafted game, the player takes control of Ember and Rime, two contrasting characters on the search for answers in the ruins of a former kingdom.
The first and most beautifully blatant thing to note is the game’s outstanding background art. The sharp contrast of Ember’s warmth to Rime’s frosty landscape is extremely appealing; not only does it affect the world and how each character interacts with it, but it also creates a visual narrative for the two characters, truly demonstrating the separation between them.
The narrative follows the deuteragonists on their quest to collect black scarves throughout a fantasy land. Each level expands on a different aspect of the pair’s relationship and adds a new mechanic that is only used in that level. Each mechanic is unique and intuitive, focusing on a different narrative point. Most of these mechanics work well, but a few can get especially irritating if the player is playing alone.
For example, in the third level, a spark is created between Ember and Rime, and it explodes whenever they get too close, sending them firing off to opposite sides of the screen. This forced separation can get frustrating quite quickly, especially if the player commands the partner to follow them. Usually, the second character will remain close to the player, often causing an explosion.
Aside from the explosive side effects within this level, most of the puzzles are well thought out. However, a few can be easily cheesed or are too hard. One specific puzzle requires the use of an object from a puzzle two levels ahead, leaving the experience feeling unrewarding. In some ways, certain puzzles in the game lack a nuanced approach to problem-solving, with completion being met feelings of unsatisfaction.
Another problem emerges in the third level, when a character is supposed to jump on the other’s head, creating an explosion that is supposed to send them up to a platform. The issue is that Degrees of Separation is not a precision platformer and getting the characters to intersect at the right angle can be frustrating—not to mention recreating the setup is a tedious process.
The game drops the player in the deep end, with only a brief tutorial level in which the player learns to jump, climb, and roll objects. Degrees of Separation does not hold hands, but that is not really a problem since the mechanics are relatively simple to understand. Some of the more difficult puzzles can leave the player wondering if they missed something or if there was a mechanic that they did not quite understand. That is probably the biggest issue the game faces: that and the fluctuating difficulty of puzzles throughout. However, these faults do not stop the game from being an engaging experience, especially with a partner.
Ideally, Degrees of Separation is designed to be played with another person—specifically a significant other. Doing so takes away a few of the aforementioned issues with some of the levels.
Indeed, given that the narrative focuses on a couple, the game, therefore, seems better experienced by one. The story provides insight into the struggles and pleasures of a relationship, with each level describing a different obstacle that couples may face. All the while, the game buries its themes within an easily digestible fantasy context and an overarching plot about a fallen kingdom and mysterious black scarves.
The fact that the narrative and gameplay is based around two people does not mean that the game is not fun and satisfying for single players. The entirety of Degrees of Separation can be played alone, and it is still enjoyable, with only a few gripes concerning the AI. The NPC protagonist works mostly fine aside from the few times it forgets how to climb a rope or runs into the other character, sending them both hurtling across the screen, skipping several puzzles and jumpstarting a new voice line.
The narration seems to be recorded on a low-quality microphone, which can be jarring at first, especially in comparison to the clear sounding music. The audio quality is certainly not a deal breaker, but rather a noticeable flaw in the execution. Similarly, climbing and running cycles of the character models look stiff and out of place in comparison to the otherwise stunning visuals.
Aside from the small gripes and varyingly difficult puzzles, each level is beautiful and brings in novel mechanics and an interesting outlook on relationships. Degrees of Separation is a fresh and challenging game designed to be played with a significant other but remains a worthwhile experience alone.
American Fugitive Review — A Grand Tale of Theft and Auto
The original Grand Theft Auto rocked the virtual world with its violent gameplay from a birds-eye view perspective back in 1997. Once the series moved to a third-person, 3D perspective with Grand Theft Auto III, few gamers looked back and few developers attempted to replicate the original style. More than 20 years later, Fallen Tree Games has become of those few with American Fugitive.
Players control Will Riley, a man convicted for a crime he did not commit and filled with the desire for revenge. Once he has escaped from prison, Will must find old friends—and meet some new ones—to run errands and discover the person who killed his father.
The game is played from a top-down perspective in a 3D open world. More reminiscent of Chinatown Wars than the original Grand Theft Auto, the camera adds a level of complexity to American Fugitive, as players often will not see what lies beyond the edges of the screen. While a behind-the-character perspective would, at times, not go amiss, players will eventually grow to familiarise themselves with the camera, respecting the callback to classic open world titles.
The open world itself is also reminiscent of classic titles, with simplified designs regularly complimented by the detailed art style. The game’s animated, cartoon design scheme is fitting of its fast-paced action gameplay, always managing to keep the player on their toes and keen to discover more. Technically, the game plays almost flawlessly, with no significant performance issues to disrupt the player while they explore the map.
Players can explore the rural open world of Redrock County on foot or in a vehicle. The vehicular gameplay may take some time for players to familiarise themselves with, with some overly slippery mechanics leading to some unfortunate collisions, though fitting to the game’s tone. Thankfully, most environments in the game are destructible, so sliding off the road—if the player follows the road to begin with—does not often lead to disaster.
Despite beginning the game as a seemingly innocent man, Will doubles down on his criminal actions once he escapes from prison. Akin to Grand Theft Auto, the player can hijack cars, kill civilians, and attract the attention of police. Most residential buildings in the game can be robbed by the player, often leading to tense confrontations with the homeowners or police, so players must continue at their own risk.
The ‘wanted’ system in the game works similarly to Grand Theft Auto games, with players accumulating up to five stars depending on their behaviour. The stars often accumulate a little too quickly, however, with additional stars regularly added simply for evading police. Oftentimes, the player may possess a full wanted level—complete with large police vans and circling helicopters—within a minute of committing a minor offense. While this over-the-top gameplay design is fitting to the pace of the game, it may lead to frustrations within the main story missions by bringing the player’s progress to a halt.
The missions are also reminiscent of those in Grand Theft Auto, tasking the player with a wide variety of tasks to keep them busy while the story evolves. While many of these missions may seem disconnected to the main narrative structure, they are unique and regularly keep the player entertained, ranging from simple fetch quests and car robberies to full-scale shootouts. The game’s fast-paced gameplay and lack of loading screens also make the poorly-placed checkpoints bearable, especially when the beginning of missions require the player to drive to a certain location.
American Fugitive‘s storyline is simple in design but entertaining enough to keep the player engaged. The game’s ‘cutscenes’ exist in the form of text atop character designs; while some simple voice acting would elevate these scenes with more dramatic tension, they are short enough to maintain the player’s attention and continue the missions at a fast pace. Players will find themselves surprisingly engrossed in the story, wanting to see it through to its full conclusion.
Accompanying the fast-paced gameplay and narrative is the game’s music. From slow, explorative themes to fast-paced tracks, American Fugitive‘s original score is reminiscent of some of the best soundtracks across different media—from television’s True Detective to video gaming’s Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us. Each song accompanies the gameplay nicely, ramping up and down as the player makes the appropriate actions, and, along with the expert sound design, add the auditory sprinkles atop a visual and narrative treat.
American Fugitive, simply put, is fun. Fallen Tree Games has added its own unique twist to a classic gameplay formula, and utilised a simple but engaging narrative and a beautiful original score to maintain the player’s interest until the very end. Despite a few minor flaws in gameplay, the game stands strong against its competition. Players looking for a fast, fun, and mature sandbox game should not miss American Fugitive.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.
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