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The Piano Review — Mozart, This is Not

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The Piano

Referred to in past times as diabolus in musica—the devil in music—the tritone is a musical interval characterised by the sense of harmonic dissonance it causes. Particularly common in horror and thriller soundtracks, the peculiar combination of notes generates a sense of unease in the listener, putting them on edge and providing the feeling that something is not quite right. A sense of discord in narrative can be as effective in setting a mood as the tritone, but improper use can ruin a text, and The Piano—the debut effort of Mistaken Visions—suffers too much from a lack of cohesion in the storytelling. The sometimes indecipherable story couples with increasingly troublesome technical issues resulting in a game that seems to want to force the player away.

Perhaps the gravest fault of The Piano is that it is riddled with engaging ideas, beginning with the desaturated, noir-styled visual design. Bathed in hues of deep blue, the game’s fantastical approximation of Paris evokes a palpable sense of melancholy. The streets are mostly empty and grimy, and the buildings feel domineering in their immense monotony, weighing heavily upon the frame of protagonist John Barnerway. Later levels leave the promenades and byways behind in favour of more personal and contained locales, but the design principles that make John seem small and insignificant are unwavering; the environments suffocate both the character and player, and this trait sets the tone of the entire adventure.

Also helping to create a downbeat mood is the soundtrack. Dominated by piano chords, the score is sparse, yet entrancing, and the greatest disappointment is that the title does not foreground its music more in the moment-to-moment gameplay. Beyond the music, and as the title suggests, the piano is a recurring motif also playing an intriguing role in the narrative, appearing as a save point throughout the game (in an apparent allusion to Resident Evil’s classic typewriter save system). Unfortunately, other aspects of the audio presentation fail to inspire. The voice acting, though competent, is hampered by awkward dialogue timings, particularly in the earliest cutscene, while the world lacks ambient sounds that might otherwise bolster the sense of loneliness. Even without that reinforcement, The Piano effectively avoids any stray happiness—in emotion adhering closely to the narrative’s themes of confusion, depression, and self-incrimination.

Although the story is ripe with intrigue, the telling leaves much to be desired. John is the underachieving runt of the Barnerway family, while his brothers—all of whom have recently and mysteriously been killed at the outset of the game—form a famed piano trio. The player’s goal is to uncover the culprit behind the deaths. Mistaken Visions’s decision to avoid a straightforward Sherlockian murder mystery is commendable, but the developer goes too far in its attempts at novelty. An abusive childhood and ill-explained supernatural elements appear throughout the story, resulting in a confused jumble of ideas. Further obscuring clarity is the non-linear structure of the tale. The game jumps at random between locations and timeframes, and the lack of context in each segments means that piecing together an accurate timeline of John’s investigation is almost impossible. Handled well, as in the likes of Memento and Westworld, this storytelling device can draw the audience deep into the experience and impart shocking revelations, but its use in The Piano merely alienates the player. Far from offering the thought-provoking narrative the developer hopes for, the game is frustrating, and the potential to explore themes of fraternal jealousy, the quest for truth, or the media’s creation of folk devils is squandered.

The subpar story would not be so damning to the project’s quality were it accompanied by scintillating gameplay, but the mechanics and technical presentation often struggle to classify as even competent. At its core, The Piano is a third-person narrative adventure incorporating typical survival horror elements, such as puzzles and could-be terrifying enemies. Disappointingly, most of the puzzles are rudimentary and often lacking narrative—or even logical—justification for their existence; they are obstacles for the sake of being obstacles. The same faults holds true of the foes. Multiple monster types populate the world, but their movements are so slow and their AI so simple that they never pose a threat. The sole exception is the shadowy pseudo-bosses dotted throughout the environments, the appearance of which forces players into a clicking frenzy to maintain John’s sanity. These battles (if such a basic system deserves that title) could make for enjoyable deviations from exploration, but the void of strategy—combined with a tendency to force a fail state seemingly without cause—leaves them tiresome. The inclusion of these gameplay tropes feels unnecessary, but the most ineffectual addition is the investigation element.

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Several levels require John to scour the environments in the search for clues, following which players must piece together ideas to draw conclusions. In theory, the mechanic is sound, but its execution does not make for satisfying investigation sequences. The first fault is that all of the clues must be acquired before progression is possible, which can extend the levels to obscene lengths if the player struggles to locate them. Furthermore, drawing the wrong conclusions is impossible. The experience is entirely on-rails, and this fact robs this aspect of The Piano of any sense of reward. Additionally, the way these segments tear the user away from the core gameplay with minimal warning contributes to the sense of disharmony in the production.

Alongside all the poorly implemented gameplay elements and patchwork mess of a story, the flaws that seal the game’s fate are the glaring technical issues. The noir aesthetic softens the blow of the extremely dated graphics, but the unresponsive default camera setting and aforementioned dialogue problems seem to signify a production where detail has been overlooked. The faults grow as the game wears on, with some levels suffering from intense frame stuttering, even on machines far superior to the specifications listed on the title’s Steam page. Further niggling, yet intensely problematic issues are the ability to fall outside the geometry of certain levels and the chance to get boxed into areas that should be inaccessible. Some production bugs are forgivable, especially when dealing with small, inexperienced developers, but those present in The Piano are untenable, transforming the project from mediocre to well below par.

That the game is such a disappointment is a true shame; its ideas are as intriguing and novel as any to be found across the vast plains of the indie sector. The Piano’s strengths prime the title to embed itself in the hearts and minds of gamers willing to give it a chance. Unfortunately, the weaknesses are too many and the sense of discord across the production too high. Put simply, The Piano falls flat.

Reviewed on PC.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

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198X Review — A Nostalgia Trip Without a Destination

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198X

Some short stories feel more like chapters—snipped out of a larger work—that struggle to make sense on their own. 198X represents a translation of that ethos to video game form. As a result, the game feels unfulfilling, though that does not detract from the overall quality on offer. Ultimately, the player’s appraisal of 198X will depend on whether they place more stock in story or gameplay because while the former leaves much to be desired, the latter will be a hit for anyone with fond memories of the 8- and 16-bit classics.

In the framing and overall structure, 198X is decidedly modern, but everything else pulses with a retro vibe. At its core, the game is a compilation, weaving together five distinct experiences under the auspice of a story of personal development. From the Double Dragon-infused ‘Beating Heart’ to the turn-based dungeon RPG ‘Kill Screen’, each title feels slick, if a little undercooked. Those old-school originals could only dream of being as smooth as these throwbacks. However, the two-button input methodology results in the games feeling just a touch too simple, though their brevity—each clocking in at a maximum of 15 minutes (depending on the player’s skill level and muscle memory)—makes that less of an issue than it might have been. If more depth is present, it is hidden well, as the game lacks any sort of tutorial to guide players. Nevertheless, the stellar presentation goes a long way towards papering over the cracks.

The pixel art aesthetic of 198X is staggering. Each of the worlds that players make their way through is pitched perfectly to fit the mood it evokes. From the grungy brawler of the first game to the more melancholic mood of the open-road racer, the screen is drenched in lavish colour and far more detail than one might expect from such a seemingly simple art style.

Easily a match for the visuals is the audio. The in-game sounds of a car engine or bone-crunching strike are low-key, which allows the music to come to the fore. Those tunes are all from the electronic genre, simple, yet layered with enough depth to not feel tedious or tiring. Easily overshadowing all the rest though is Maya Tuttle’s voice-over narration as The Kid. Her tone is one of pervasive resignation that works to reinforce the same mood within the script.

That melancholia will surely strike a chord with anyone who has grown up on the fringes. The Kid speaks of once loving and now hating the Suburbia of their childhood, where memories of happiness collide with a contemporary feeling of entrapment. The words and lines are powerfully evocative—made even more so by the connection between the gameworlds and the prevailing emotion at that point. The problem is that they amount to nothing. The story comprises of these snippets—these freestanding scenes of life lived lonely—that never coalesce into anything. The Kid may find an arcade and speak of finding some sort of home and a source of strength, but it goes nowhere. The game ends just as things start to get interesting. Setting up for a sequel is no sin. Plenty of other games and media products—from Dante’s Inferno to Harry Potter—have done just that. However, to be effective, such first parts need to offer a story in and of themselves, not just the promise of a story to come, and that is where 198X falls apart.

With each game in the compilation being a straightforward, one-and-done affair and the overarching narrative feeling like a prologue at best, 198X is wafer-thin. The presentation is simply remarkable, and the package has enough variety to be worth a look, but the unmistakable impression is that something is missing.

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Coming soon to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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