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Orphan is Far More Than a Limbo or Inside Imitator

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The phrase “for fans of the genre” cuts both ways: perhaps a game plays best to those key elements that draw fans to a project or genre specifically. Games may include intricacies that would be less important to non-fans—or even twists that would not otherwise be noticed.

However, fans of one title or another are also the most likely to criticise pretenders for their comparative failings. A pundit could look at the latest Assassin’s Creed and decide that running around an enormous Egyptian desert just does not interest them, but a genre fan will explain the important differences in pacing or quest structure between Far Cry 4 and Far Cry Primal.

In under-represented genres, distinguishing relative strengths in this way can lead to, arguably, unfair criticism. Last year, OnlySP gave kudos to Black The Fall on its own terms, though numerous other outlets (and no less appropriately in a world of subjective opinions) compared it unfavourably to Inside: a paragon of cinematic side-scrollers and the most notable entry to the genre since Playdead’s  previous game, Limbo. Those in-the-know remember Rocketbirds fondly, for sure, but that is neither here nor there.

Enter Orphan: an independent, Kickstarter-funded, adventure-platformer from Windy Hill Studio, coming to Steam Early Access later this year. Although publisher 2Dimensions calls the game a Metroidvania, Windy Hill is not playing coy with its real inspirations: particularly, Another World, Abe’s Oddysee and, of course, Limbo. Taking place after a global catastrophe, the game casts players as a boy (who *might* be the last human) exploring a dark and dangerous slice of rural Kentucky. The current build boasts fields, valleys, and caves, all dripping with an unspoken dread of what might lay just outside the boundaries of the screen.

“Fans of the genre” will already be guessing at what lays within, thanks to these particular touch stones. Orphan involves hiding from red-eyed monsters, solving light environmental puzzles, and running through mysterious locations—both the clanking, industrial kind and the spooky, natural kind—that less resemble mazes than they do long landscape paintings.

These environments are brought to life with gorgeous multi-plane visuals (think the scrolling backgrounds of 20th century Disney movies) and 2D shadow puppets to depict characters in the foreground. Sound is equally as purposeful at evoking the danger and mystery. Players might find themselves hearing distant bird calls in the trees, or some out-of-sight machine thumping away in the dark before snapping back to focus on the next horrid beasty that must be overcome.

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Similar to its siblings of recent years, Orphan is obsessed with the haunting lights of Close Encounters and the magic of The Secret of NIMH, adding a pinch of deconstructivism to its alien machinery and a whole lot of German Expressionism to its silhouetted forests. However, unlike Inside and Black The Fall, the game is not content with a minimalistic play mechanic to accompany its haunting visuals. Both a health meter, which can be refilled with access to water, and a progress-saving tent help to distance the player from the constant trial-and-error deaths of Limbo, in addition to a sound meter necessitating stealthy movement when enemies are nearby.

Players start out defenseless, but throughout the game (at least the portion currently available) their inventory fills with helpful and deadly items from flashlights to fishing poles to laser guns in the manner of the recent decade of adventure games from Half-Life 2 or the new Tomb Raider. These distinctive touches could help assuage concerns from some of those aforementioned genre fans that Orphan is simply another also-ran of Inside.

Of course, negative comparisons with Playdead’s magnum opus are not entirely unfounded. Thanks to the more complex mechanics, parts of the game can appear crude and unwieldy. With so many tools and weapons to use, more interactions are necessary for each stage of the journey—and, rather than the abstraction of Limbo (where, for example, a grabbable object will sport an indicative handle), items that can be picked up or interacted with are highlighted by the HUD. Combined with the health system, these additional HUD details and resource-management requirements together suggest a light survival-horror bent that could turn off potential players who want nothing but a straightforward adventure.

Development on Orphan is still well underway and the game could use an Early Access period for troubleshooting, as long as the  public is open to receiving it. Still, even in development, none of the game’s technical snags interfere with what is an achingly beautiful production that “fans of the genre” should love.

Then again, people might still be upset that Orphan is not Inside.

Mitchell is a writer from Currawang, Australia, where his metaphorical sword-pen cleaves fiction from reality daily. When he's not writing, he plays video games and watches movies. While thinking about writing.

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Shattered: Tale of the Forgotten King is a Baffling Combination of Journey and Dark Souls

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Mixing genres is a fairly common practice in video games. For some titles, the combination works well, such as Crypt of the Necrodancer‘s rhythmic dungeon crawling or Double Cross‘s use of light detective work between 2D platforming sections. Others do not fare so well, such as the out-of-place stealth sections in the Zelda-like Beyond Good and Evil, or the infamous jack-of-all-trades, master of none that Spore turned out to be. Shattered: Tale of the Forgotten King, unfortunately, falls into the latter category. Trying to combine the floaty exploration of Journey with the brutal combat of Dark Souls, the resulting mixture is a frustrating mess that will not please fans of either game. The first title by French independent developer Redlock Studio, this Early Access game requires a lot of work before it reaches the compelling gameplay experience it is aiming for.

The game begins with the protagonist waking up in Limbo, with no memory of who they are or how they got there. A tiny creature named Yaak takes pity on the player, suggesting that maybe the king Hypnos can help. The problem, however, is that Hypnos is the titular Forgotten King—a godlike figure, who mysteriously disappeared after creating the world. In his absence, demons have taken over the realms. On a journey to reclaim their identity, the protagonist just might be able to save the world along the way to finding the forgotten king.

The frustration begins as soon as the player gains control of the protagonist. Movement in  Shattered: Tale of the Forgotten King is floaty and imprecise. This annoyance might be minor in a platformer, but the inclusion of the punishing combat of a Souls-like makes it beyond frustrating. Enemy encounters are dangerous in this style of game, with the need to dodge, parry, and circle around combatants to avoid death. However, the controls simply do not have the precision needed for the task. When the game requires frame-perfect timing to parry an enemy’s attack but features a character that moves like molasses, more often than not the player will take a hit. Apart from the initial listless humanoids of Limbo, enemies are much faster and stronger than the protagonist, quickly taking down an unprepared player. The balance is so uneven that the first boss, a hulking creature with an enormous greatsword, feels like a fairer fight than the rooms full of small enemies since his attacks are slower and more clearly telegraphed. Often, the better choice is just to run past the enemies all together.

Should the player manage to defeat some enemies, they will gain essence, which is used in levelling up. Levelling up can only be done in Limbo, often requiring a fair bit of backtracking. Players can improve their vitality, stamina, strength, or mystic, but no explanation is given on what those statistics actually do. Putting one point into strength will result in the character doing one point of extra damage, but since even the smallest enemies have hundreds of health points, a lot of level ups would be required before the player would see any real benefit. 

The platforming aspect of the game fares little better. The player is given no indication of where they have to go or what they have to do, just the general imperative of finding the king. The Frontier D’Imbolt, the first real level in the game, has plains spread out in all directions, encouraging exploration. However, the map is also full of instant death; lava, spiky plants, ledges to be avoided, and, of course, aggressive enemies, making exploration much less inviting. The floaty controls cause problems here, too, with over-shooting a target platform a constant issue. This annoyance could be resolved somewhat with giving the character a shadow to see where they will land. The viewpoint will also randomly change from 3D to 2D, with no real change in gameplay. The change seems to be purely for aesthetics, which does not seem reason enough for including annoying running-towards-the-camera gameplay.

Aesthetics, in general, is a strong point for Shattered: Tale of the Forgotten King, with interesting character design and a muted colour palette. The enemies have a cool ghostly appearance, all transparent with hard planes. The blockiness of the world has an appealing look but sometimes presents gameplay issues, with a lack of clarity on which blocks can be stood upon and which cannot. Music is a highlight throughout the experience, soft and atmospheric throughout the levels but clashing into something harsh and unfamiliar for the boss fights.

As an Early Access title, bugs are to be expected at this stage of development, and Shattered: Tale of the Forgotten King has plenty to offer. Despite being set to English, Yaak would occasionally slip into French, along with tooltips and the occasional item description. The English translation in general needs some more work, with quite a few typos and some weird wording, like ‘Strenght’ in the character status screen and ‘Slained’ when defeating the boss Hob. Enemies have buggy AI, sometimes freezing in place if the player wanders slightly too far away. Some instant death obstacles seem misplaced, with death spikes jutting out of a random wall. Most devastating was the game failing to acknowledge that the boss was defeated, with the gate he was guarding refusing to open. Perhaps defeating him again would make the gate work, but few players would be inclined to do so after a tough battle. 

Shattered: Tale of the Forgotten King has the potential to become an interesting game but is simply not fun to play in its current state. The incompatibility of Journey and Dark Souls is the core of the game’s problem: it needs to lean more heavily on one concept or the other—make the levels more peaceful playgrounds for exploration, or tighten up the combat experience to reach that satisfying balance of hard but fair. Trying to have both leaves the game in this strange middle ground where no one is satisfied.

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