Every once in a while, an independent developer creates a title so full of raw emotion that it captures players and transcends the medium. 2016’s That Dragon, Cancer, which recounts the life and experiences of a young boy with terminal cancer, is a heartbreaking exploration of the human spirit as two parents come to terms with their loss. This year’s Celeste tells the story of a young girl overcoming her struggles with depression, providing an insight into the lives of those with mental illness. GRIS, a puzzle-platformer from Spanish developer Nomada Studio, adds itself to this list, providing a profound, emotional experience unlike any other.
The game follows a girl named Gris, a “hopeful young girl lost in her own world” forced to deal with a painful life experience. The grief she feels throughout her journey is exhibited in her dress, presenting new powers and abilities to help navigate the game world, representative of Gris’s sorrowful reality. These abilities include changing her dress into a heavy block, which helps to solve several puzzles, and a double-jump and glide skill to reach higher and more distant platforms.
GRIS leaves most of its story to interpretation; the game features some cutscenes, though they add little in regards to directly informing the player about the narrative. The story presented is a powerful insight into the world of a young girl dealing with grief, but conclusions regarding a connection between the events and reality must be formed by the player’s own opinions and interpretations. Leaving the narrative vague was a clever choice on the developer’s behalf—rather than forcing the story onto the player through uninteresting dialogue or text boxes, GRIS must present itself through gameplay.
The puzzles in GRIS, while largely simplistic in nature, are incredibly satisfying to complete. Players may find themselves struggling throughout some of the game’s later levels, but the final rush of solving a puzzle is surprisingly joyous. Even if a player was to find themselves stuck on a puzzle for an extended period of time, they would find solace in simply exploring the game world. The level design is quite restricted, helping to build the representation of the character’s struggles, but does not typically feel as such—each level is immensely fun to explore, with collectibles and bonus puzzles to be found through further traversal and exploration. These side puzzles are expertly designed and will keep players returning to the game—even after spending three or four hours to complete the main story—in order to discover them all and gain a better understanding of the truth behind the narrative.
GRIS does not feature traditional enemies. Players will encounter and defend against one significant enemy, but weapons are not used to do so. Similarly, the game does not feature the ability to die and omits any ‘Game Over’ screens. Some players may find this lack of consequence boring or demeaning, but it allows the narrative to speak (not literally—the game lacks any voice acting) and grants the player an opportunity to interpret the narrative meaning without any dire competition or consequence.
The game is accompanied by an original score by Spanish band Berlinist, conducted of Marco Albano, Luigi Gervasi, and Gemma Gamarra. Each song featured in the game sounds better than the last, and every track fits with its respective scene perfectly. Ranging from quiet, minimalist pieces to crashing crescendos, and adding some stunning vocal melodies in between, the game’s score is a powerful accompaniment to such a profound experience and has the potential to stand among some of the greatest soundtracks of the industry. GRIS’s music is faultless.
The game’s sound design is similarly impeccable. Led by Rubén Rincón, the game’s sound designers have immaculately paired every action with a respective sound effect—every step, jump, and splash has a soothing sound to match. Even more minor actions—the twinkling of a light, the soft chime of bells, or the tiny murmur of a small, boxy companion—fit beautifully within the game and truly immerse the player within the world of a young girl’s sorrow.
From the game’s initial trailers, the developer made very clear that a large draw to GRIS would be the art design, led primarily by artist Conrad Roset. The trailers, however, still do not do the game justice. Every frame of GRIS is a painting in itself and each painting continues to improve as the narrative progresses. As the game world expands and additional colours are added, Roset’s true work is revealed and it is transcendent of anything in the medium to date. Every colour and frame is used for a purpose and the game makes no mistake of hiding its beauty.
The watercolour feel of the art is a perfect match for the gameplay and narrative. Each character fits appropriately within the world—none more so than Gris and her dress, whose neutral tone allows for each level’s colour to subtly bleed through and encompass the player, distinguished by her distinct blue hair. The smaller characters wandering around the levels feel appropriate to their respective settings as well, such as the rocky, spider-like creatures from the red world, or the dark blue butterflies of the water level. Every piece of scenery has been chosen to accompany the world with purpose and each level feels more alive—or purposefully the opposite, in some cases—as a result.
GRIS is a powerful insight into the human spirit of a young girl suffering with grief. As she comes to terms with each of her emotional states, and as the levels progress to accompany these stages, the player is granted a profound look into the true emotions of Gris’s character. Nomada Studio has blended simplistic, intuitive gameplay with a breathtaking artistic vision and remarkable music and sound design to create an unforgettable experience. GRIS easily stands among the best independent gems of the medium, presenting a narrative experience unlike any other. Gamers are doing themselves a disservice by not playing this game—GRIS is unmissable.
Reviewed on PC.
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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