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Home is Where One Starts Review

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[su_highlight background=”#3b88ff” color=”#ffffff”]Platforms: PC & Mac, | Developer & Publisher: David Wehle | ESRB: N/A | Controls: Keyboard/Controller[/su_highlight]

Directed ambiguity is a difficult beast of a concept to tame in game development. Too much ambiguity, and you risk leaving players wanting more, while too little usually ensures player boredom and dislike. But David Wehle found a lukewarm balance between these two extremes in his short indie PC and Mac first-person exploration game, Home is Where One Starts…. Here is my review. (NOTE: Minor spoilers ahead. Also, Home is Where One Starts… will be shortened to HiWOS from here on out)

The disembodied voice of an unnamed older woman greets players when they start up the game. Her first lines make it immediately obvious that the woman is reminiscing about a day during her childhood somewhere in the American South. For me, I love that Wehle used a memory-like approach to the storytelling, but more on this later.

After a short cinematic that sets the somber yet distinctly childishly-naive mood, players are immediately able to move and control the younger version of the narrator. Movement around a 3D world with graphics and environments like you stepped into a Thomas Kinkade painting is controlled by a simple W-A-S-D directional-pad-like keyboard scheme. The players’ first-person POV (basically, the camera) is controlled by the movement of the mouse, and has a central cursor, which itself becomes highlighted and changes shape when it is placed over interactable objects. I will not give any more STORY spoilers following this sentence, because I urge you to experience HiWOS for yourselves; reading words about this game does not compare to playing it first-hand.

Only certain objects can be picked up by clicking on the highlighted cursor, and can be rotated by moving around the mouse in the direction players want to invert or move it. Clicking again drops the object. The same controls apply when opening doors, where clicking on the doorknob allows players to open or close them. However, this part of the control scheme became a little annoying because some doors swing out instead of in, so if I opened the door from the wrong side of the door (i.e. from the left instead of the right, and vice-versa), then I’d get blocked from moving past the door until I closed it. But this is a small annoyance that’s solved by a single click.

HomeIWOSFather-Cedric

HiWOS’s asynchronous narration gives direction and meaning to its sometimes-blind exploration element. What does asynchronous mean? Basically, just that the narrator isn’t from the same time-frame as the in-game avatar, as I mentioned earlier. The future woman gives insights into the day that the player goes through while controlling the avatar of her younger self.

This is the major strength of HiWOS: the presentation and unraveling of its deep and relatable plot elements. The player is essentially free to explore the narrator’s main trailer house and the boonies area surrounding it. I got lost in just exploration several times, since the walking speed of the player avatar is a little slow. Thus, much can be missed in terms of interacting with objects or visiting sites that give clues as to the narrator’s troubled childhood, family situation, and state-of-mind (Hint: see the tags in this post!).

I encountered multiple objects and areas triggering narrator voice-overs to play during my playthrough that would have left a major chunk from my understanding of the story and back-story had I not found or visited them. So, exploration is key, and replayability is a must, if you want the full story, and even a few secret endings. The one ending I got during my first and only playthrough of around 30 minutes was poignantly-empowering while still somber, so you can be sure I’ll try playing it a few more times to see what else I can get.

Somber music permeates the background of the majority of HiWOS. The same track plays over and over throughout the game, until players reach the final stretch: slightly-happier music starts to play at that point, and then fades out as the credits that start to roll reach their end.

HiWOS is well-worth the low price point in exchange for its realistic, thought-provoking, and somber storyline and gameplay. It can teach all of us that, even when our situations and circumstances seem at their worst, we each make our own “home” wherever and however we can, whether it be by riding our bikes, laying on a haystack to catch the sun, or even steeling ourselves to do something we think is scary but not doing it in the end.

Home is Where One Starts is available now on PC and Mac.

Reviewed on PC. Review copy provided by the developer.

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Review

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review — A Symphony for the Fans

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Bloodstained Ritual of the Night

For a long while, the industry had yet to see a return to a true-to-form Castlevania title, leading many fans to speculate if Konami had abandoned the formula all together. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is ArtPlay’s response to this absence, with the legendary Castlevania-veteran Koji Igarashi at its helm. Although Bloodstained may not have certainty that it will continue the legacy of Castlevania, the title delivers on its promise as a game for fans, by the fans, and exceeds most expectations. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a true Castlevania experience in every way except the title. 

In Ritual of the Night, players take control of a Sharbinder named Miriam, an individual who can harness the power of magical shards crystallized by the souls of the enemies she kills. As the core mechanic, the ability to absorb shards and utilize their new skills is required for player progression and success. The fact that Miriam is a Shardbinder further reinforces the narrative of Bloodstained, since their existence often lead to negative events. The story contained within Ritual of the Night is similar to most Castlevania titles, except this time, Dracula is replaced in favor of Gebel, a more skilled Sharbinder and Miriam’s old friend and mentor. 

Bloodstained Castle

Most of the game takes place inside a castle, but long-time Castlevania veterans will expect that the castle is only an external facade, with caverns and caves hiding beneath. Remaining true to its Metroidvania roots, Bloodstained contains a sprawling map full of hidden rooms and secrets. Exploration is encouraged by the ever-present possibility of better items and power-ups in the following rooms. Bloodstained finds a perfect difficulty balance by spacing out save rooms to encourage caution. Every time death was close, the curiosity of what could be behind the next door drove the desire for further exploration.

The map present in Bloodstained is truly expansive and worthy of a Metroidvania title. Each new area provides an extension onto the already dense castle setting, never requiring players to travel to a new location to progress. All additional areas remain connected to the central castle, providing an experience that is continuous and believable. Similarly to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, players can unlock an “Inverse” ability that will flip the playable map upside down and allow for new experiences in an already explored area. Just as he did with Symphony of the Night, Igarashi-san crafted a beautiful setting that retains its appeal even when explored upside down.  

The desire to progress deeper into the castle is fueled in part by the Shard system and the potential of discovering new ones along the way. In Bloodstained: RotN, enemies have the potential to drop shards that provide enhanced abilities and passive stats. Players can equip multiple shards at once, each enhancing different areas of play. For instance, one shard can provide Miriam with an ability drawn from the creature that dropped it, while another can summon a familiar to accompany Miriam throughout her journey. 

Bloodstained Shard

As the game progresses, players are required to backtrack and utilize newly gathered shards to enter areas that were not accessible early on. In this regard, the title maintains its genuine Metroidvania, or Igavania, genre as some fans are hailing it. Killing a random sea creature might net Miriam the ability to create a directional aquatic blast, but use that ability near deep waters and players might be surprised by what they can do. 

Since every enemy in Ritual of the Night is capable of rewarding Miriam with a shard ability, players will quickly find themselves host to multiple of the same kind. To counter this, players are encouraged to sell unwanted shards for coins at the local merchant, where they can also purchase crafting items. The crafting system allows players to utilize recipes found throughout their journey and create food that provides a temporary boost to Miriam’s stats. Additionally, players can use materials gathered to enhance the shards they have amassed to alter its capabilities and damage output. 

Although Bloodstained deserves to be showered with praise, the game is not immune to technical issues that can hinder the experience. During the preparation of this review, the game was subject to continuous frame issues, where too much action would result in stuttering. Additionally, optimization issues plague the console port, with registration lag featured every time Miriam would absorb a shard or with the occasional room entry. ArtPlay has responded to these issues ensuring fans that optimization is a high priority for the company, and it will be addressing these problems within the next few patches.  

Despite a few technical setbacks, Bloodstained is truly an experience for first-timers and longtime Castlevania fans alike. Igarashi-san and ArtPlay built this game out of their love for the genre and that is evident in every aspect of the game. The preservation of a traditional Castlevania game along with the advancements made towards propelling the genre further help Bloodstained stand out amongst other Metroidvania titles of recent years. Although an argument could be made that the title leans too much on its Symphony of the Night influences, Ritual of the Night succeeds in providing fans of the genre with an experience that has been absent for years. 

Given that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a crowdfunded game, the amount of love and attention evident in its production comes as no surprise. The level of quality that is present in this package is truly astounding, and the appreciation grows even more when considering the free content promised for the coming months. Perfection should not be expected from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. However, the result is exactly what was promised by the developers, and fans could not ask for more. Throughout its development, Igarashi-san provided continual assurance that he desired to make the game a product of its fans. By listening to criticism and acting on it, he fulfilled his promise with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. Also available on Nintendo Switch, PC, and Xbox One.

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