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Fade to Silence Review — Struggling for Survival

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Early in the 2010s, survival games exploded in popularity. Minecraft captured the imagination of gamers young and old, combining the appeal of Lego and keeping a character alive in a cute blocky package. The Arma 2 mod turned Early Access project Day Z added realistic zombies and stealthy gameplay to the survival mix. Hundreds of copycats followed, varying in quality and completeness as developers strove to strike while the iron was hot. Audiences quickly became oversaturated with mediocre options, and most players moved on to other things. Now nearing the end of the decade, Black Forest Games aims to bring the survival genre back into the zeitgeist with Fade to Silence, a tough-as-nails survival game set in an icy post-apocalypse. While a great deal of ambition is evident in the game’s exploration, combat, base building, permadeath, and story elements, a lack of cohesion between these ideas leaves Fade to Silence a disappointingly disjointed experience.

The game opens with menacing smoke monster hovering tauntingly over protagonist Ash’s corpse. “I’m not finished with you yet,” the monster breathes, black tendrils sinking into cold flesh. The man gasps, alive once more with an eldritch presence inhabiting his mind. The cycle has begun once again. Ash is caught in a loop of rebirth, trying with each life to clear the world of the red-tentacled blight that smothers it. Along the way, he will need to recruit followers, gather resources, rebuild his base, and, most importantly, keep warm.

Goals start out simple in Fade to Silence. Once the camp has been reclaimed from demonic creatures, Ash needs to find basic supplies. An Inner Vision ability highlights collectables with an outline, colour-coded for foraging, gathering spot, or monster nest. Chopping down a tree in a thicket or shooting a deer in the hunting area will claim that region for your camp, allowing followers to forage there once Ash has made some friends.

The greatest enemy in Fade to Silence is the cold. Health will slowly drain when not holding a torch, and freezing for long enough will reduce Ash’s maximum health. The fantastically cruel dynamic weather system will create blizzards at the most inopportune times, requiring Ash to immediately find shelter to avoid becoming a popsicle. Keeping warm can be slowly improved by crafting better clothing, and a fire can be lit in most of the ramshackle buildings dotted around the map. The weather systems are harsh but fair, keeping the pressure to survive high even when the player is otherwise well-equipped. Incoming blizzards are brutal, but clearly signposted, and the foolish player who leaves camp without a torch is asking for death.

Once Ash has obtained enough basic supplies to last for a while, finding followers to join him at his camp becomes imperative. Ash, for some reason, lacks the wherewithal to build structures himself, and followers are also a great help in gathering resources. Followers consume resources, and recruiting too many too fast can result in in-fighting at the camp. Such fights will reduce morale, with a depressed camp shirking most of their duties. A total of eight companions can be recruited, most of whom will need Ash to complete a quest for them before joining the cause. These quests vary greatly in difficulty—Gani’s object puzzle is pretty straightforward, but the bonfire Jin builds attracts many monsters for a tough battle.  

Combat feels slow and clumsy in Fade to Silence. Ash can swing at enemies with a quick or strong attack and dodge with a roll or block. While the attacks are fairly standard fare, Ash has an extremely restrictive stamina meter, requiring him to back away after two or so hits. Thankfully, the enemies are often equally clumsy, giving Ash more of a fighting chance. If they do hit, however, they hit hard, and the wiser option is often to run from the eldritch horrors than to risk losing a life.

Ash’s deaths come quickly and from many sources; freezing, starvation, monster attacks, blizzards, meteor storms. Fade to Silence features a modified permadeath mode: when Ash expires, so does a Flame of Hope. Lose all three and the character returns right back to square one: map unexplored, base reduced to rubble, no followers. The only boost the next run is given is an option chosen at death at the Circle of Torment perk tree, such as starting out with a large amount of firewood, an extra Flame of Hope, or a structure like the dog-sled hut already being built.

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This permadeath mode contradicts the enjoyable gameplay loop created by building up the base, recruiting followers, and little by little becoming stronger. Ash dies far too easily for so much to be lost with his death. Two difficulty options are built into the game, with the easier one excluding the permadeath, but changing difficulty wipes the current save game, increasing the challenge of trying out different game types to determine what the player prefers. The ‘Exploration’ difficulty also makes survival, combat, and collecting items much easier. Fade to Silence would be much better served if it had modular difficulty options. Let the player turn off permanent death but keep the harsh winter conditions on, or keep the harsh death mode on but make other aspects easier.  

After watching the game’s spectacular release trailer, Fade to Silence‘s dated graphics come as a surprise. Much of the dynamic lighting and detail from the trailer is not present in the Playstation 4 version, and the human characters appear to have used too much botox before the apocalypse occurred. Slow down is common, particularly when in a large building or more than three enemies are on screen. The game does feature some nice details; the monster design is interesting, all smokey apparitions with burning cores; and the snowy landscape is appropriately foreboding, but by and large Fade to Silence looks like it could run on a PlayStation 3.

Sound design fares much better, with the crunching snow, Ash’s chattering teeth, and the snarl of a beast all evoking a cold and merciless atmosphere. The voice acting is rather cheesy, but in a pleasing way. The monster residing inside Ash’s head makes delightful snide remarks as Ash adventures, admonishing him for being generally terrible at surviving while inadvertently giving him gameplay advice. This creature would make an excellent cartoon villain.

Fade to Silence is often unintentionally funny. With the strange button binding on console of R1 to both crouch and jump, Ash will often bounce around when trying to hunt a deer. Ash’s daughter Allie skips non-stop, even when complaining about how tired and starving she is. Followers will continue a conversation with Ash’s corpse. Some of the most enjoyable moments of the game are these weird occurrences, and perhaps embracing this silly tone would make for a better product.

Fade to Silence contains many interesting elements, but they simply do not combine well. The mix of a meditative base builder with clunky combat and the stress of permanent death results in a gameplay experience that is certainly unique, but unfortunately not enjoyable.

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PlayStation 4.

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Review

Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average

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Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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