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FAR: Lone Sails Review — The Road Less Travelled

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FAR: Lone Sails

For gamers of a certain age, their first memories with the medium involve moving from the left side of the screen to the right. Ever since 1981’s Jump Bug, players of side-scrolling video games have been persuaded to do one thing: move right. As the genre has progressed with densely-layered and mechanically demanding games, this singular pull has followed gaming for almost 40 years. The side-scrolling genre was an easy entry point for many due to its simple sense of reward and goal setting; all players had to do was move to the right before this movement became habitual. FAR: Lone Sails is built on this same foundation, but no other game has imbued this habit of momentum with such a high degree of emotion. Plainly-speaking FAR has used its simple toolkit to not just provide a meditation on the act of travel, but a meditation on the limits and origins of the medium.

FAR opens on a dead, greyed-out sea bed. The only colour on the screen is the game’s protagonist, a girl clad in red, at a scene of a recent burial. The opening minutes of FAR contains no exposition or explanation, but the title’s use of implication tells players all they need to know: the world is dead, and nobody knows where to go. Players, though, are inclined to move to the right of the screen, where a 30-second journey through the protagonist’s wooden house acts as a primer for the incredibly satisfying gameplay loop of the title. By collecting and navigating this short space, the space acts as a non-intrusive micro-tutorial. After moving through the house, the player discovers the game’s best feature and central hub: its vehicle. At this point, nothing is prodding players on aside from a desire to see more and move forward, thus hinting at the core of FAR; the game is a trial against stasis, an illustration of the human desire to always seek entropy.

The vehicle itself, which looks like an ersatz cross between a rickety boat and a tractor, propels players through FAR’s desolation. Players must compile bits of scrap and fuel to keep the vehicle running, along with managing its engine and repairs. Essentially, the meat of the game—which is travelling to points of interest in a linear fashion—is micromanagement. What keeps this relatively simple micromanagement enthralling is not necessarily a looming threat, but the desire to see more of the game’s grayscale, sprawling vistas. The game has a fail state when the weather turns, with death by exposure a possibility. Moving outside of the vehicle always carries with it a sense of anxiety, but weather aside, players can venture out to the wastes unperturbed. If FAR was to bear a major criticism, that would be the lack of an ever-present sense of danger. Early on, the possibility of an unknown threat creates an atmosphere of palpable tension, but once players realise the outer world carries no real threat, this dissipates.

While FAR’s environments are as void of life as they seem, the game does throw up some surprising and touching interactions with relics of human civilization. To spoil these would be to ruin the game’s rewards, but a striking highlight was stumbling upon a radio tower. After a small platforming section, players can find a working radio; the radio mostly spews static, but often breaks into song or recordings of voices. This radio can be scrapped for fuel, but, at least in this reviewer’s case, the radio reserved a spot in the bedroom area of the vehicle as a way to stave off FAR’s ever-present, suffocating sense of loneliness. Interactions with the odd fauna aside, all players find on their travels is different forms of death. Small comforts adorn FAR, but are often fleeting as they are sacrificed to fuel the game’s only companion: the vehicle. The tension between keeping comforts and the necessities of using them facilitates a vivid commentary on the sacrifice required to survive. While the aforementioned lack of a fail state exists, the possibility of running out of fuel feels like a nightmare. For the vehicle to fail would mean utter loneliness, a loss of the protagonist’s last connection with, well, anything.

In between these light set-pieces are moments of meditation; the game’s loop of maintenance, art style, and delicate application of sound all contributes to an appreciation of pilgrimage as a tool for peace. These moments of reconnection usually comes with an upgrade for the ship, diversifying and complicating the loop of maintenance further. A welcome addition comes early in the game where the ship gains a threadbare but functional sail. This addition allows players to reserve fuel more should the wind pick up, granting some much-needed time to take in the gradients of biomes on offer. The art style of FAR is truly exemplary, managing to offer variation whilst sticking to the overarching theme of an ashen, muted world. FAR’s sound design, too, is a major draw. The atmospheric soundtrack is weaved in effortlessly, while subtle touches like the rickety groan of the ship and distant thunderstorms contributing significantly.

Travel has formed the basis of many works of fiction. No other game, though, has committed to this human need to move forward as much as FAR. Aspects of the game touch on real-world issues—the dissolution of agrarian life, reliance on fossils fuels, technology as comfort—but the only one that really matters is the reiteration of what travel means to people. The title starts by tickling the innate need in gamers to move forward, before gently coaxing them into a pilgrimage. In only three hours, FAR is a reminder that even when things get rough, we can always push forward.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4

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Review

SteamWorld Quest Review — Full Steam Ahead

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The SteamWorld series has a habit of refusing to be confined to a single genre. The first entry in the series, way back on the Nintendo DSi, was a simple tower-defense game. That title was followed by procedurally generated platformer SteamWorld Dig, and then came strategy action title SteamWorld Heist. Now, developer Image & Form has dived into the turn-based RPG with SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech.

SteamWorld Quest is set in the same universe as the previous SteamWorld games, featuring a cast of steam bots who speak in a rapid, chattering language, helpfully translated for the players by subtitles.

As usual for a SteamWorld title, the first thing to draw the eye is the lovely hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds. The game has a surprising amount of detail in these 2D sprites, and players may find themselves suddenly noticing a detail that previously escaped attention.

The first characters to be introduced are Armilly and Copernica, a wannabe knight and alchemist, respectively. The animation provides great hints towards the character personalities before they even speak, showing Copernica as being quiet and introspective, but with a strong will, while Armilly puts up a brave front to cover deeper insecurities. This depth continues through the game, with subtle character tics betraying plot hints and nods to backstories.

Players pick up new party members as the game progresses, first running into Galleo, a big green bot who acts as party healer. Other characters can also be recruited, adding their own skills in combat to the roster. Only three party members can be active at once, so getting the balance right is important.

Combat itself is handled by a card system. Each character has a deck of no more than eight cards, three of which can be played each turn. By using their entire deck, players utilise effects such as attacks, defensive spells, healing, buffs, debuffs, and so on. Pleasingly, the combat system is complemented by a captivating sense of style, with each card channelling old-fashioned computer punch aesthetics.

The developers are clearly fans of collectable card games, as cards can also be chained together into combos, which provide an extra effect on the completion. This effect is not as easy to achieve as it might sound, however, as some cards require ‘Steam pressure’ to be played. This mechanic brings in an element of deck building and strategy, as players balance building steam pressure with spending it. Therefore, players can spend a significant amount of time agonising over new strategies, trying to decide on an effective build for the limited deck size.

Getting card game elements in a video game wrong is easy, by having the mechanics too complex or unwieldy. SteamWorld Quest avoids the pitfalls experienced by games such as Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories by making the card-based combat relatively simple. New twists and complexities are added gradually, thus giving the player several ways to build a deck to suit individual play style.

Cards can be crafted at the travelling merchant, providing a use for the various materials players pick up on their travels. Cards can also be upgraded to increase their effectiveness, preventing useful early cards from becoming obsolete later. Players can add to their decks by finding cards scattered about the world, along with weapons and accessories to make characters more effective, emphasising the importance of exploration.

SteamWorld Quest is more story-driven than its predecessors, and a lot of time between battles is taken up with talking. The conversations never outstay their welcome, as the plot moves along at a pleasing pace, and the characters are engaging enough to keep the player interested. As players progress, more backstory is uncovered, and some scenes can be surprisingly emotional, with the fluid character animations underscoring the dialogue in a believable way.

The writing uses consistent characterisation that is happy to show the player about the world and the characters instead of spilling everything in a massive information dump. This writing style serves the pacing well. The only real issue is that while the game allows skipping of dialogue, entirely skipping a scene is impossible, so when players are re-exploring an area for hidden secrets, the same scenes keep playing out, even if they have been seen before.

The game has frequent nods towards world-building and backstory, which serves to draw the player in. Progression reveals that the problems in the world of SteamWorld Quest go deeper than invading Dark Lords and evil magic. The first time the player notices that the language the steam bots speak is like a more pleasant version of modem noise, implying that the characters are speaking in binary, is a nice touch. Other geeky references are scattered around, including an equippable book called an Octavo, a sneaky reference to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Despite the cartoonish artwork and often light-hearted dialogue, hints at darkness are ever-present in the universe of SteamWorld Quest—something that is underscored by the music, which starts off pleasant and whimsical. However, as players progress into more dangerous areas, the mood of the soundscape also shifts, providing a counterpoint to the action and dialogue while never being obtrusive.

The gameplay flow is easy to get into once the basic controls have been established, though toggling the ‘speed up’ option in the menu is a good idea, as otherwise players need to hold down the right trigger to speed through enemy turns during combat. SteamWorld Quest shines when showing off the amount of depth that it offers in crafting cards, building suitable decks, and deciding on party composition for each area, with each enemy encounter tip-toeing delightfully between the exploitation of strengths and weaknesses. Boss battles, in particular, can be challenging unless chain combos have been mastered, which can itself be tricky if the character decks do not have the right balance.

SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech is a wonderful, fun RPG adventure that has a lot of depth to delve into, secrets to explore, and story to uncover. The game looks beautiful, sounds brilliant, and has a smooth and absorbing gameplay flow. SteamWorld Quest, is surprisingly easy to get completely sucked in to, with the card game elements providing an impressive amount of complexity to the combat. Any RPG fan should give serious consideration to adding the title to their Nintendo Switch library and fans of previous SteamWorld games will find a lot to enjoy in the art and lore, too.

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

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