Are You Afraid of the Dark?
For as long as the video game medium has existed, developers have searched for ways to make survival horror unique and fresh. Titles such as Resident Evil and Dead Space are among titans within the horror genre, and to this day remain inspirations for what makes a good survival horror. Despite their initial success, these two franchises were not immune to underperforming releases, as their desire to adapt to industry trends ultimately did more harm than good.
The Resident Evil and Dead Space franchise are special because they are titans within the industry and the genre. Their successful entries serve as inspiration for new titles every year, and more often than not whenever a new horror game is released, they are immediately compared to these two. This is where the Metro franchise found itself back in 2010 with the release of Metro 2033 on the PC and Xbox 360.
The Metro franchise always presented a unique spin on the survival horror genre, where the player could, at times, forget that they should anticipate tension around every corner. Within the underground metros of post-apocalyptic Russia, the enemy threat consisted of both humanoid and monster combatants, with the possibility of either one being in any given situation. Metro 2033 and Metro Last Light embodied survival horror through their atmospheric tension and desolate environment.
As the third entry in the franchise, Metro Exodus seeks to uphold the legacy that came before it, while simultaneously innovating and modernizing the series to take advantage of current-gen hardware. While maintaining the claustrophobic atmospheric horror of its predecessors, Metro Exodus introduces open level design and quality of life changes thanks to a determination to create an immersive survival horror experience.
To Boldly Go…
Set after the events of Metro Last Light’s good ending, Metro Exodus finds series protagonist Artyom searching for traces of life outside of Moscow’s metros. After an act of defiance early in the game, Artyom and crew must cast off from Moscow to search for a new haven to live in. Metro Exodus takes Artyom to numerous locations, each represented by a different environmental season.
In Metro Exodus, Artyom is now married to Anna, the daughter of Colonel Miller and partner from Metro Last Light. The pair, along with the rest of the Spartan militants, travel in search of survivors on the Russian train known as the Aurora. Since previous titles mostly featured Artyom alone, the change of perspective and narrative drive is a welcome addition. On top of all the issues that Artyom had to worry about in previous titles, he now has Anna. This relationship aids in humanizing Artyom, as moments spent with Anna feel natural and serve as a symbol of hope in the game’s ever-growing chaos.
Throughout the narrative Anna becomes enthralled by the idea of hope and the idea that others could be surviving on the surface after the nuclear war. Her perspective within Metro Exodus is a driving force for Artyom to expand outward and search for survivors. After every successful mission she is there waiting for him to confide in and discuss the potential future that awaits them. These narrative moments serve to humanize Artyom’s journey throughout Metro Exodus and provide background to his motives for leaving Moscow behind.
When not on an expedition, Artyom can interact with everyone on the Aurora and often participate in small activities while conversing. Taking an extra second to spend time with Anna before getting briefed on a mission can lead to quality time, where she confides her fears and dreams of a better life. Additionally, taking the time to explore and accomplish optional tasks can yield items that can be given as gifts to other members of the crew. A guitar that is retrieved in the open world can be heard playing at various moments throughout the game and is even used by Artyom during one interaction.
Even Artyom himself has noticeable improvements from previous titles and similar experiences within the genre. In Metro Exodus, Artyom feels more human than most first-person-shooter protagonists. In other FPS titles, the protagonist is often depicted as having superhuman tendencies where they are able to emerge victorious from most situations unscathed. Artyom is not as lucky, and, when ambushed by enemies or monsters the player is able to feel the weight and struggle of the character’s stamina as he desperately searches for whatever strength he has left. Every physical altercation Artyom has feels like it could be his last.
While Metro’s first attempt at open environmental storytelling seems small in comparison to other titles, the tools 4A Games uses for narrative storytelling should be recognized. Metro Exodus’ implementation of side-quests is to be praised for their influence on the overall narrative of the game. Taking time away from the primary objective to free some slaves on the outskirts of the map, for example, could yield an item that will present an optional reward later in the level.
Additionally, these side objectives can have heavy influences on the story of Metro Exodus, primarily towards the characters and ending. Previous Metro titles featured a morality system that was hidden behind player actions and choices. The game never told the player that what they were doing had consequences; the player had to decipher right from wrong. Metro Exodus continues this legacy but takes it further. Accomplishing certain side objectives can lead to either direct or indirect influences on the people around Artyom. As a result, player choice and immersion is more meaningful than in previous titles.
If it Ain’t Broke
As a sequel to 2033 and Last Light, Metro Exodus takes the series’ atmospheric horror and seeks to replicate the tension-filled gameplay both above ground and below. Where the previous titles saw Artyom trekking through narrow subway tunnels and towering structures, Metro Exodus takes players above ground and removes the shackles of linear exploration.
After the opening events unfold, players are immediately shown how the game will differ from its predecessors, as the first area is a marshland full of new threats to discover. From then the game presents a healthy balance of open world exploration with smaller confined experiences intended for linear progression. This healthy balance comes as a saving grace due to the games heavy and often clunky character movement.
Due to the previous Metro titles being primarily underground and in confined spaces, the methodical gunplay and movement speed enhanced the horror elements. In those titles, slower gunplay did not present any issues because it felt natural. In Metro Exodus, however, the heavier controls serve as a detriment to the game and its goal of taking the series to new heights.
The problem stemming from the restrictive movement speed becomes more apparent when above ground. Within underground structures, the player is able to predict enemy encounters due to the limited attack possibilities. Above the surface, however, the enemy AI has free mobility throughout the open environment to execute their attacks. This design may be intentional to intensify the encounter and increase its difficulty, but, due to the clunky gunplay, it comes across as poor combat design and frustrating mechanics. Having Artyom’s health drain from full to critical within seconds because the player cannot turn 180 degrees in time to face the attacker is not skillfully implemented terror; it is poor game design.
Most combat encounters throughout the game are manageable and succeed in offering enough tension with the desired levels of action. Within smaller structures and confined spaces, the threat level of enemies is multiplied due to the player’s limited access to mobility and resources. Despite this amplified terror within smaller environments, the enemy AI in the overworld possesses flaws that are inconsistent with their underworld counterparts. In the open world levels, enemy encounters only exist when NPCs have a line of sight on the player. Once the enemy is unable to detect Artyom for more than a few seconds, their state of emergency diminishes as they forget he was even there.
The arsenal found within Artyom’s possession is similar to that of the previous entries, however Metro Exodus introduces a new customization system that can greatly alter the user’s combat experience. In the previous titles, players would only be able to customize their weapons at safe houses and crafting benches. At any point in Metro Exodus, however, the player has the ability to open Artyom’s backpack and physically alter the design of their on hand weapons, changing their optimum performance on the fly. Using the resources found in the environment, players can craft second hand items like grenades, clean their weapons to increase performance, and adjust the attachments of each weapon. Weapon ammo can also be crafted in Metro Exodus, however this resource requires players to locate crafting benches scattered throughout the game.
Eye of the Beholder
More often than not consumers are treated to groundbreaking experiences that are sure to influence future titles and aspiring technologies. Metro Exodus is one of those experiences, as regardless of the platform of choice, the game is truly stunning. The breathtaking visuals are further accentuated by the title’s rustic, post-apocalyptic environment.
Throughout the game, the desire to appreciate all of the finer details that Metro Exodus has to offer can result in the player walking to each objective instead of running or driving. The level of detail that 4A Games has crammed into this experience subconsciously encourages further exploration into each environment to uncover hidden items and objectives.
Further amplifying the hyper-realism found within Metro Exodus is the lack of heads-up display on screen. When loading into the game for the first time, players will notice that they are truly witnessing the Russian wasteland through the eyes of Artyom. Metro Exodus offers no health icons or mini-map that overlays the screen, with the intention to achieve as close to complete immersion as possible. The decision to remove gameplay assists from the display is remarkably liberating, as it forces players to personify Artyom and live the journey through his eyes.
Unfortunately, Metro Exodus’s over the top visuals and level of detail also serve as a hindrance to player progression and experience. Due to its hyper-realized environment, object collision rate is more frequent than in other titles. Players will often find themselves repositioning numerous times when passing through structures due to a small piece of metal that is sticking out from the door frame.
Furthermore, the goal of complete immersion is also impeded by audio bugs. Throughout the game were numerous times where the audio did not match the scene of play, whether it was character dialogue registering at inaccurate distances or gunfire queuing in halfway through the clip. Additionally, the game had an occasional issue where the game would inaccurately recognize the terrain that characters were standing on, misrepresenting the sound of their footsteps. In an early snow level, character footsteps would sound like walking on broken glass instead of crunching snow.
The NPCs in Metro Exodus are incredibly detailed and for the most part, well-acted. As a problem that has plagued the series since the beginning, the voice acting for Metro Exodus can often come across as a westernized interpretation of Russian accents. Despite the accuracy being sometimes questionable, the accents presented by the supporting characters are convincing enough to maintain enough immersion within its Russian environment.
Unfortunately, immersion could only go so far as most NPCs were prone to animation bugs. For the most part, character animations were proper as they acted out each scene, but players will inevitably see some clunky movement and random gestures, as if the character’s do not know what to do with their hands.
Metro Exodus demands to be judged by the sum of its parts. When dissected and examined for its individual features, Metro Exodus can be seen as being outside of its element. Taking the series’s successful formula of claustrophobic terror and expanding that into open-ended exploration introduces new problems that question the franchise’s integrity within the survival horror genre.
From the beginning, the identity problem of Metro Exodus is apparent. Coming off of the success of the previous two titles, Exodus finds itself in its own morality struggle. Does the game take the franchise into a new direction and innovate for potential future releases or stick to a formula that was mostly successful and remain relative to a niche audience?
For the most part, Metro Exodus succeeds in finding a compromise between the two. When underground, the game feels like a swan song to its predecessors and truly conveys the survival horror experience the series is known for. When above ground and in an open environment, however, the slow and clunky gameplay serve as a detriment to what the title seeks to achieve.
As the game progresses further many of Metro Exodus’s problems begin to alleviate themselves as the experience becomes more defined. This allows for the game’s unique blend of gameplay and narrative storytelling in a horrific environment to shine through. While most titles in the horror genre focus on jump scares and other classic tropes, Metro Exodus allows the environment of post-apocalyptic Russia to do all the work. Players who take the time to experience what this new entry into the Metro series has to offer will no doubt witness one of the greatest narrative survival horror experiences present within a video game.
Reviewed on Xbox One.
Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average
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 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.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.
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