Archive for September, 2008

Infinite Undiscovery – “Infinite Undiscovery”

As a genre grows old, it tends to stagnate and become a solid monolithic structure, impervious to new ideas. RPG’s, especially their oriental counterpart, greatly suffer from this predicament. Even when something refreshing comes along, fans are quick to distrust it (even if sales usually don’t falter). A quick look through current generation JRPG’s shows how much the genre is stale; in between “Blue Dragon”, “Lost Odyssey”, “Disgaea 3”, “Eternal Sonata”, and “Tales of Vesperia” there isn’t a single innovative concept that breaks away long winding “motifs”. If anything, these are some of the more conservative titles in years, “Blue Dragon” is a facsimile of “Dragon Quest” with poop jokes, wait… scratch that, it’s a facsimile of “Dragon Quest”, “Lost Odyssey”, an attempt at reproducing “Final Fantasy” outside of mega conglomerate Square-Enix, “Disgaea 3” is… well, “Disgaea”, and “Eternal Sonata” and “Tales of Vesperia” continue in the same vein of previous “Tales” and “Star Ocean” titles. Mild attempts at revitalizing the genre, are either remarkably flawed, as “Enchanted Arms” was, or completely forgotten despise their aspirations, as “Folklore”. “Infinite Undiscovery”, despite its numerous flaws, at least seems to have a noble goal: shake things up a bit.

It starts by employing some of the concepts inaugurated by “Parasite Eve”, “Vagrant Story” and “FFXII”, namely the idea of a consistent game-world, in which there is no transition from exploration to battle. “Infinite Undiscovery” however, abdicates turn-based like battle systems, instead opting for a completely real-time mechanic. Combat is simple and a nice evolution of the system present in Tri-Ace games, with only an attack and special attack buttons used for the unleashing of combos; this surprisingly simple system has an arcade feel that provides hectic brawls with enemies in fully 3D spaces. It’s pleasant and fast-paced as with any beat’em up, with careful positioning of your character and the selection of the right combo being the bulk of tactical choices present to the player. Magic is completely relegated to other members of your party, which you don’t control directly, so in order to heal yourself you’ll just press a button and the rest of the party will take care of the rest. The greatest issue concerning battle in “Infinite Undiscovery” comes when you actually have to coordinate attacks with your party. The game uses a standard tactical order that you can assign (like “focus your attacks” or “save mp”) and a “Connect” system which allows you to give direct orders to characters. The issue emerges from the incredibly slow pace of character reactions when you’re connected, making it impossible to use the system correctly, as you’re managing a gruesome, fast-paced, real-time battle with multiple enemies.

The “Connect Ability” is also used when exploring dungeons and town hubs, and once again marred with problems. Each character has a different special ability; for instance, there is a kid who can talk with animals, so for the player to engage in conversation with an animal, he has to connect with that character. The thing is, you can only connect with one character at a time, and connecting isn’t a simple matter of picking a name from a menu, no, for some insane reason you have to physically be in contact with a character to activate the “Connect” system and then go to the place where you want to use its ability. This would be fine if towns weren’t gigantic, and had clear indication on where each character is, but no, and if that wasn’t enough, characters are spread out randomly. This flaw in design destroys all the attempts at exploration, questing, as well as any tactical nuances you’d want to impose on your party. It’s at times like this, that “FFXII’s Gambit System” really comes to mind.

Exploring is not only a chore because of the silly “Connect” system, but also because most game-areas are large and, for the most part, vacant. There are wide open landscapes, sprawling in every direction, on the scale of many football fields, enormous castles with many corridor-filled floors and the stereotypical, boring dungeons with meters and meters of dark passages – and in each one of these areas, there are only one or two items to catch, even though they’re inhabited by dozens of enemies for you to kill. Not only that, but nine out of ten times, you don’t know where you’re supposed to go, as characters, cutscenes and maps provide zero clues on where to head in the vast game-world; leaving you two choices, wander aimlessly in hope of finding what you’re looking for (even if at times, you don’t know what that is) or google the solution and be on with it (my personal response).

Oh well, you can use mindless exploration to enjoy the scenery of “Undiscovery’s” strange world, and that pays off… for the most part. Each scenic area is beautiful in a fantasy postcard kind of way: mild blue skies, white clouds soaring high, the sun reflected in each small pond and lake, lush green pastures and grassy knolls spreading as far as the eye can see, tall forests of extremely old trees with a golden moon rain falling down from the skies, a hot steamy desert in reddish brown hues… It lacks the picturesque and impressionist design of “Eternal Sonata”, but is still beautiful by its own merits. The Shirogumi FMV intro is the cherry on top of the visual banquet. If only the dungeons and castles were as good looking: gray, black and brown tinted to the point of saturation, with poor lighting contrasts, and bland architectural details. Some art pieces present in certain sets are definitely worth watching carefully, as this is clearly the case of a “Square Enix” production, the most relevant being the ever looming moon, chained by beautifully ornamented chains to the Earth, glancing surreptitiously in every scenario, its presence constant and somewhat frightening.

And therein lies “Infinite Undiscovery’s” ultimate failure, by not being able to harness the potential of a powerful concept, which instead of flourishing into an arresting epic adventure, is instead turned into a shallow, cliched narrative. The idea of a world chained to a moon is original (even if the moon as an evil presence is a recurrent theme), and had the potential to deliver a high-fantasy story filled with powerful imagery; and yet, what we’re treated to is an insult to our intelligence. It starts with the characters, all the same tiresome archetypes with the same skin deep details you’ve come to expect, with Porom/Polom clones of the worst kind, a myriad of under-explored mystical concepts, a handful of predictable twists, and even a shameless copy of the “Prince and the Pauper” tale imbued in the main story-arch. As if it wasn’t enough, the voice acting is horrible, making even most Japanese-to-English game dubs seem decent. Super high pitch voices, overly sentimentalist tones, actors doing multiple voices when they’re clearly incapable of producing any believable accents, etc, etc. There are even scenes in which voice acting is cut off from the original, leaving awkward silence scenes in the game. And unlike recent JRPG’s… NO OPTION FOR THE ORIGINAL LANGUAGE. Why? Why would you bother dubbing something if not to attempt to do it, at least, mildly right? [Note to publishers: if you don’t wanna pay for a proper translation and dubbing, just leave it with subtitles, it’s much cheaper and we’ll all appreciate it.]

Motoi Sakuraba’s soundtrack tries and save the dramatic impact of the story sequences with his signature scores, but as the rest of the game, they’re not always on the level. Sad, heartwarming scenes are treated with soft and delightful melodies that are only marred by the obnoxious voices chatting away. Yet, whenever the need for a full, grand epic sounding score arises, Sakuraba’s progressive and unrelentingly grandiose style becomes tiresome for music excerpts that are repeated so often. The game’s main theme is his ultimate saving grace, a simple harmonic pattern that’s catchy and well developed over a series of orchestrations.

“Infinite Undiscovery” is filled with small ideas that are uncommon in the genre. Unfortunately, it gets none of them right, as they’re all wasted thanks to poor design choices, an apparent lack of testing and overall polish. This was Hiroshi Ogawa’s (“Tales of Destiny” and “Star Ocean Till the End of Time”) directorial debut, and though he seems to want to break the mold, he fails miserably. At the end of the day, the only thing that’s left is an entertaining battle system – which is little for a game that according to Square-Enix, had years and years of bottled ideas which were only possible to implement in the current generation of consoles. Apparently, it’s still too early to implement them.

Overall: 1/5

Beyond Good and Evil – “Beyond Genres and Conventions”

Videogames are a means in constant evolution; with every passing year, new conventions emerge, design philosophies shift, and tiresome old mechanics are refreshed with new ideas and conceptualizations. Sometimes, time flows by with such ease that we forget that things are in constant rearrangement, and how videogame paradigms are always being reshaped. Michel Ancel (creator of “Rayman”) seems to be one of those designers that is acutely aware of the ongoing changes in videogame history and “Beyond Good and Evil” is a proof of that. At glance, it seems like a typical Mario-esque 3D platform experience, with a cast of endearing and expressive characters, most of them with the expected animalistic characterization that is so common in the genre. It also proposes a fable-like, surrealistic world with sci-fi traits, bringing it closer to a “Jak and Dexter” or “Ratchet and Clank” aesthetic, filled with wide, open environments, adorned with gorgeous lighting and neon color palettes in tones of green and purple. But if all this builds up to a consistent and nostalgic platforming mood, the game avoids the simplistic characterization by throwing a lot of seemingly out-of-place elements. From the start, there’s the narrative, a tale of political and sociological concerns, about war and media manipulation, encapsulated with pure B-movie sci-fi madness codes, as pod monsters, evil empires and menacing, disgusting looking aliens. Though the plot has nothing to do with the presumptuous title (a reference to one of Nietzche’s darkest essays on the relativity of morale and philosophic reasoning), it oozes style and substance, with likable, humorous characters that actually make you laugh and a series of interesting twists. The game-world also deviates from what you’ve come to expect from the genre, as it is open enough to be mistaken with a small sand-box game. Also, a lot of game activities and mini-games are spread out throughout the scenarios, copying effectively the model laid out by GTA (albeit in a smaller scale). The gameplay itself, also makes some odd turns into the genre. Jumping for instance, is very rare; stealth portions on the other hand, are very common. Environmental puzzles abound, most of them easy enough to be enjoyable, but still warranting some thought. Combat is nice, simple and as straightforward as platformers go, though made all the more frenetic thanks to the accompanying score, a merger of frantic electronic beats and classical orchestrations, fit enough for any action-packed movie.

By merging a lot of different twists proposed by modern currents of videogames, Michel Ancel ends up creating an interesting mix of of flavors, a gaming buffet if you will. Neither of “Beyond Good and Evil’s” elements are particularly fleshed out or especially deep, but they’re all perfectly implemented and work in unison to create a coherent, pleasant gaming pastiche. At times it can seem a bit over simplistic, and it hurts the pace of the game that at times, it forces you to try every little game-mechanic through a series of manichaeist design choices (one thing is to have mini-games, the other is to force you into playing them). Apart from those minor flaws, I still can’t quite puzzle why the game didn’t do well in sales. It’s not as if it’s hugely pretentious or mature (like “Killer 7”), or infantile looking for the adolescent demographic (as “Ôkami”). Maybe people thought it was a mere kids game, but it’s much more than that. “Beyond Good and Evil” is like a Pixar animation: a charming story for all the family, with a cast of gorgeous characters, framed in a lovable aesthetic, and above all, an unwavering fun-ride all the way till the end. What more can one ask?

Overall: 3/5

The Last Express – “A Journey through Space and Time in the Orient Express”

The stage is the Orient Express in 1914 (just before the 1st World War outbreak), a clear reference to the iconic background made famous worldwide by Agatha Christie’s crime novel masterpiece, “Murder on the Orient Express”. This unapologetic homage takes center stage as one of the game’s driving forces, a classic whodunit play where the player takes on the role of the investigator. And though this is one of the most common themes in adventure games, leading into predictable alleys of narrative development and linear gameplay, “Last Express” manages to avoid most cliches with a superbly written plot, penned by Jordan Mechner himself (who also directs the game). Like its contemporary, “Broken Sword”, the initial events are but a fuse that sets into motion larger events. However, unlike “Broken Sword”, “Last Express” avoids a fictional background, and uses historical events as a backdrop for the action. By intertwining factual occurrences with fictional characters, the game manages to come out as more realistic set piece, and it feeds on it to propose pertinent moral, political and existential dilemmas that enrich the game’s narrative.

But the way in which the action unfolds also presents a unique approach to interaction and exploration. The idea here, was to replace a mostly event driven time flow (present in most videogames) and replace it for a real-time dynamic. Imagine, if you will, you’re on a train, people swerving around, talking to each other, going about their routines, living their lives, whether you care or not to observe – your presence closer to that of a spectator than that of a “player”. You can interact by choosing which conversations to listen in, what cabins to explore, which characters you try and engage conversation with, etc. This notion that events do occur, whether or not you’re present as they unfold is not only immersive, as it boasts a real life quality mostly alien to videogames. In this regard, “Last Express” behaves more like a post-modern play, where the spectator is on stage with the actors, voyeuristically observing the dramatic unfolding, but able to intervene, to some extent, by addressing actors/characters, triggering dialogues and slightly affecting narrative.

Perhaps the only letdown in “Last Express”, is that it sometimes behaves like a normal game, more so, a classic adventure game. In specific plot points you’re obliged to meet some criteria in order to move the action forward, and if you fail to comply, you’ll get a premature ending. This becomes unnerving because certain puzzle like activities aren’t always obvious, and some border the nonsensical. Visually cluttered screens sometimes have near invisible clues (with no visual cues to help you find it), scenarios have areas which are magically opened during some events (with more or less logic), some unpredictable events happen only at certain times, forcing you to explore the train constantly in order to observe them, and some puzzles are the object of strange reasoning (or lack thereof). The game is much more enjoyable and interesting when it allows the free exploration of the train throughout time, than when it wants you to do task A or complete puzzle B, just for the sake of the plot moving along.

There are also action sequences coupled with quick time events, where you’re pushed into pressing the mouse with specific timing and placement in order to survive. Though these do spice up the exploration bits of the game, creating rising moments of tension, their simple design (press this or die) is flawed and doesn’t always result in an enjoyable experience. Thankfully, when you end the game prematurely, you can still rewind the action to a suitable place in time that allows you to alter your destiny (in similar fashion to the later “Sands of Time”). This technique is ingenious and works well, and also allowed the designers to block any possibility of a save feature. This means the end of the save/load routine, which considerably improves player’s immersion, without compromising enjoyment when he fails.

To further enhance the sense of a breathing, living world, the game presents beautiful art nouveau decoration in the interiors of the train and some stunning character animation (this is no doubt, in great part thanks to the use of rotoscoping, a technique that helps design 2d images out of live action pictures). The way characters are modeled is simply astounding, with small details like eye-movement, clothes and hair fluttering as characters walk, all portrayed with unprecedented accuracy. The art style used for the coloration of characters, gives it a nice finish, effectively transforming the wonderful 2D animations into minimalist moving paintings. nfortunately, these techniques involved a lot work and money (as it was needed to shoot live action first and then color everything up), which made it impossible to produce crisp twenty three frame animations. As a consequence, the animations resemble a slide shows, running at about one or two frames per second. Even so, the game was still budgeted at around 6 million dollars, which is really, really high for a 1997 game. It’s not that it needed more frames, but the high-quality of the imagery almost begs a fully fledged animation – it just wasn’t possible at the time.

The soundtrack is as carefully wrought as the visuals are. The train produces exactly the sounds you expect it to as it travels: the blowing of the locomotives horn’s, the rhythmic sound of steel hitting the tracks, the wind fiercely blowing outside, all recorded and reproduced with meticulous care. Voice recordings are also downright perfect, as each character’s lines are spoken with the acting quality you’ve come to expect from a feature film. The score by Elia Cmiral, composed out of synthesizer melodies, enhances some of the emotional moods in the game, providing an eerie accompaniment to the mystery unfolding and enticing action in the game’s quick time events, as well as providing some well placed auditive cues that inform the player of a specific clue or object that is needed to inspect. The climax of the soundtrack comes in the form of a marvelous piano/violin concerto – “Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major” by César Franck, which is fully enacted in the game.

“The Last Express” is an artistic gem to behold and a narrative experience like no other in videogames. Jordan Mechner (the seminal creator of “Prince of Persia”) not only produced a convincing piece of art and story, as he did so by harvesting some of the most interesting qualities of videogames: the exploration and immersion in realistic virtual environments. Sadly, at times it becomes hard to distinguish “The Last Express” from classic adventure games, but the revolutionary nature of the game’s concepts clearly compensate the fact. It is also a shame that the game wasn’t appreciated by audiences when it came out, selling few copies despite its critical acclaim, thus becoming one of the greatest commercial failures of gaming history. Because of that sad fact, Jordan Mechner would only get to work again 6 years later in “Prince of Persia, The Sands of Time”. Still, despite of the failure, it remains as one of those rare videogames where cumbersome ludic dogmas are backstaged by a heartfelt desire to translate narrative through the use of interactive space, image, sound, and above all… time. And that is exactly what “The Last Express” is, an absolute masterpiece that will be remembered throughout time.

Overall: 5/5

 

Shin Megami Tensei Persona 3 – “Time and Time again”

Atlus’ acclaimed “Megami Tensei” (Rebirth of the Goddess) series remains, in the vast panorama of JRPG’s, as an aesthetic UFO. There’s as much personality and uniqueness in the series as there is a sense of despise face the genre’s conventions, as if its creators deliberately take pleasure in renouncing everything that lies at the very core of the genre. Individuality is usually a praiseworthy feat, especially in a genre so convoluted with clones and sequels, but the “Megami Tensei” series’ unique identity isn’t always a synonym of an intellectually superior work – most of the times it seems as hollow as the mainstream JRPG currents it so longs to distance itself from. The “Persona” sub-series have been the most accessible out of the vast library of the franchise. In a sense, they are Atlus’ attempt at a wider, more mainstream audience, in opposition to the traditional hardcore niche market the series usually pursues; this fact is made apparent in all of its features, starting with its scenario. Whereas in “Nocturne” and “Digital Devil Saga” the settings were of a post-apocalyptic nature, riddled with hard to interpret, abstract, mystic and arcane symbolism as well as philosophic themes, “Persona 3” (like its prequels) chooses a normal day Japanese high school. This change in setting eases the transition from our everyday world to the dark land of the series. Of course, it isn’t a mere high school; it’s a school that lies at the center of a long battle between humans and demons (here named Shadows). The creepy atmosphere and dark mysticism that pervades the series creeps up gently as the game unfolds, and a twisted horror themed background is revealed.

You play a student in high school, not just any student of course, one that, for some reason, is aware of the strange shadow-demons that emerge every day after midnight. During this “dark hour”, normal humans are imprisoned in eerie coffins, unaware of what’s happening, and the shadows attack. People who’re aware of the “Dark Hour” (like the main character) are able to summon personas, shadows that fight at their masters beckoning. What follows is pure JRPG canon: he meets a troupe of high school teens who share the Persona ability, and together they vow to fight the shadows, while at the same time try and discover their origins. The twist is that during the day, you must attend classes and after school activities just like any other student. The game thus splits into two different styles: during the day, mimicking Japanese adventure games (with a dating sim twist), you attend lectures, meet friends, engage in a wide selection of activities with them, and prepare for battle; during the night, in classic JRPG style, you’ll plow and plunder through a series of random generated dungeons, grinding levels, carrying out quests and occasionally acquiring information about the dark secrets that the plot holds. Besides that, in “Megami Tensei” style, you’ll have to manage your personas, by leveling them, acquiring new ones through fights, and fusing the ones you catch in hope of attaining further new forms – all very Pokemon, except with monsters and mythic creatures in the place of lovable animals. The connection between the two worlds of day and night, lies in the game’s social system. During daytime you’re encouraged to be with your friends and acquaintances and as you pass further time with them, you increase your “Social Link”. Each link is governed by a tarot card, and each type of persona as well; by increasing each “Social Link”, you empower the level of the personas you create (through fusion) that share the correspondent tarot card category. This connection ctreates an ingenious way of relating both play styles, fitting perfectly with the narrative and aptly serving the game’s setting.

Do not be frightened by the apparent emptiness of the game’s concept – “Persona” is no “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” for JRPG teens. It provides a lighter toned, less enigmatic and less pretentious narrative than most “Megami Tensei” titles, but it constantly avoids the high school cheesiness of TV teen shows. The daytime narrative is composed out of simple, short episodes that narrate the slow development of your relationships, as you’re invited to listen to your friend’s desires, hopes and ambitions, but also their fears and problems. Each of these characters is carefully characterized, providing individual traits that make them either endearing or repulsive and, most importantly, each symbolizing a particular philosophical lesson, and as common in Japanese art, some sort of life morale for you to uncover. The overall plot, which lies in the uncovering of the Shadows’ nature, also carries the same principle: at skin deep level it behaves as a mere horror-driven tale with high school kids, but at its deepest, provides a powerful subtext concerning Life and Time.

Time is, in fact, the main theme of the game, and that impregnates all of the gameplay. Managing your relationships, attending to school and studying for exams, confronting monsters during the night to gain levels – all of these take time, which is severely limited. Choosing on how to address these activities is a big part of the “Persona” experience: managing your busy schedule, making sure you devote enough time to your friends, study and character leveling. Sadly, “Time” is also the greatest downfall of “Persona 3”. As in the other titles of the franchise, the game takes combat elements really seriously, in a very orthodox kind of way; meaning, you’re required to grind constantly to match the levels required for each main-quest mission. Grinding is one of the great afflictions of RPG’s, as their inherently repetitive nature (a consequence from turn based battle systems) makes itself too notorious during experience acquisition downtime. Thankfully, the designers offer a lot of incentives for the grindfests, including story sequences every two or three hours for the narrative driven player. Even so, the game moves sluggishly, and the fact that the it seems absurdly long by today’s standards (70+ hours) doesn’t help one bit.

At least, battling in “Persona” is as enjoyable, tactical and challenging as you’ve come to expect from the series, even if it stubbornly clings to a traditional turn based system (don’t mind me, I love turn based battle, but we can all agree it’s getting old… fast). As in “Nocturne”, attacking with the right element is the key to success, as it determines the harnessing of “extra turns” for your party… of course, the reverse is also possible. That means you can destroy your enemy in little more than one turn, just by attacking with the element it’s weak to, harnessing extra turns and repeating the cycle over and over again, without giving the opposing side any chance for a response. Naturally, this comes at the cost of the enemy being able to do the same, wiping out your party in one stroke without a chance for you to fight back. The unrelenting difficulty is worsened by the lack of save points (especially during the main-quest) and the absence of a continue option. Though this strikes me as backwards thinking, I must admit that the hardcore philosophy is a living part of the thrill that comes out of the combat system, and for the most part it pays up, by transforming combat in an edgy experience, as you’re forced to consider extra carefully which Personas to use, taking into account their strengths and weaknesses, and planning ahead each battle turn by turn, nervously hoping to avoid the ever looming death sequence.

The virtuosity that the series exudes has always been most apparent in its aesthetic elements. Here as well, the series takes a less obscure path, by fusing the dark aesthetic the series is known for (Kazuma Kaneko) with some flashy pop art elements (Shinegori Soejima). This is not to say the game is any less stylized than previous iterations, as the game continues to be a visually arresting work of art: realistic depictions of modern day japan, with lush lighting schemes and some impressionist details, minimalist menus and hand drawn animations, with strong geometric patterns composed out of vibrant colors [see image above], and a cast of characters brimming with personality help make up the visuals. There’s also space for some devious aesthetic details in demon and scenario design, of which “Tartarus”, an Escher meets H.R. Giger demon tower is an extraordinary example.

The soundtrack (Shoji Meguro) also deviates from series canon, leaving the snazzy prog-rock ensemble of previous games for a modern J-pop feel, with a wide arrange of tracks covering all the latest trends. From urban themed hip-hop, featuring low-toned voices and repetitive drum beats (courtesy of MC Lotus Juice), to other trendy elements, as jazz saxophones, synthesizer beats and funk guitars, that provide appropriate melodic background, every contemporary pop avenue is represented. In the forefront, the sweet, flirty voice of Yumi Kawamura sings the simple, yet catchy, harmonic patterns that could drive any radio hit, with sugar candied lyrics completing this delicious pop miscellany. In the midst of this pop fusion madness, there’s also space for a more traditional track, a wonderful piano ballad with operatic nuances, accompanied by the eerie and melancholic voice of Tomoko Komiya. As pleasing as the soundtrack is, it falls on the repetitive side – we must remember that repetition is, in fact, one of the key basics of any good pop melody, and as charming as they may sound in a car-radio once in a while, they tend to wear out pretty rapidly when you’re forced to listen to each song time and time again. Other aesthetic annoyances come from the constant rehashing of monster design and sound effects from previous “Shin Megami Tensei” games that severely break up the aesthetic consistency of the work.

“Persona 3” is a successful rpg/adventure hybrid that tries and open up a niche series to a whole new audience. The lighter toned aesthetic and narrative are sure to help ease in the entrance to mainstream players, but the heavy focus on combat and grinding still keep the narrative oriented JRPG players (such as myself) at bay. It’s a beautiful, charming RPG, unique in its means, but it still somehow manages to fail in both its ambitions, for it’s neither as deep or virtuous as its predecessors, nor as enjoyable as modern JRPG’s, since it’s too long and time-consuming for the age of frantic time management. But Time is it’s main theme, so maybe it’s part of the irony of the game that you, as the player, must also manage your time in real life in order to properly enjoy this game. If only one could stop time…

score: 3/5

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – “A Closed World”

“Open world”, “Sand Box”, “Free Roaming” – all of these expressions have become powerful and common buzz words in the industry ever since “GTA III” (re)created the notion of open ended gameplay for the masses (in truth, the concept had been implemented long before, both in online and offline rpg’s). I am a skeptic of these so called “open worlds”, as I find there’s nothing truly open about them. There’s no freedom in choosing your path in a game-world, if it does not respond in any meaningful way to that choice (in that regard, a branching path RPG is much more “open”). MMORPGS and GTAs (and their clones) are all videogames where actions are of an inconsequential nature, where narrative is broken down into small blocks that have little connection between (generating conflict and lack of consistency), and where the only real choice you have is “to do” or “not to do” and “when” to do it (you can choose to take on a quest and when to do it, but that’s about all the choice you have). There’s as much interactivity there as in a book. What you should be prompted for in these games is “what to do”, and thus allowing the player different forms of expressing themselves in the game area. Unfortunately, the idea of MMORPGS on “what to do” is reduced to a simple-minded “use magic A” or “stealth kill B” to assault a nameless NPC. Talk about choice. This is not to say that open worlds aren’t a type of game that’s full of potential, but to fulfill it requires *consequence* and *choice* to truly be part of the equation.

“S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl” is a rare and bold attempt for a Eastern Europe studio, GSC – Game Publishing, to take on the industry. The game is an adaptation of a classic russian Sci-Fi piece, named “Roadside Picnic”, and, to some extent, of its loose cinema adaptation, “Stalker” (by Andrei Tarkovsky). For a first timer to choose such a complex game structure as an open world seems odd, to say the least, and that choice eventually proves to be its greatest downfall. You’re thrust into this game world with only a dingy FMV cutscene and an even shabbier NPC monologue, something about you being alive when you shouldn’t be, and, who’d have guessed, losing your memory in the process. Talk about first great impressions. The first striking feature of the game is how characters are downright expressionless, move in a mechanical, robotic way, and dialogues appear on screen in large doses of text that cover up NPC faces. This presentation fault, that mars irreversibly the player’s immersion and plot engagement, could be easily dismissed as this being a case of a mostly independent game, but it is in direct contradiction with the visually impressive quality of the game engine. But we’ll get to that.

Introduction finished, and the player is set on an errand quest, the kind of thing you’ve come to expect from the sort of open ended rpg. Though the menus and inventory system (that takes into account space as well as weight) seem consistent with a traditional western rpg, the first person view seems to take the game in a different direction. This is clearly “Oblivion” territory, though with gun in hand. Even when talking to other characters or fulfilling meaningless side-quests, the nature of this expansive setting isn’t made all that clear, and the insane amount of text filler each character will throw at you would make any player wish that such an intriguing world would be fleshed out properly. There’s a hefty amount of back-story, which isn’t striking at all considering the origins of the plot, but it’s just that it is translated in an uninteresting way – poorly written (or translated) text spoken by equally uninteresting and inexpressive characters. Also like in “Oblivion”, there are a number of factions which you can join with during the course of the narrative, though unlike the latest “Elder Scrolls”, this appears to have some sort of effect in the ending. Yet the sense of narrative abcense is overwhelming. That being said, “STALKER’s” greatest quality only makes itself clear, when you start treading your way throughout the world.

Set in the Zone, somewhere in the area that surrounded Chernobyl, “STALKER’s” post-apocalyptic environment is presented as both beautiful and desolate. Wide open areas, stemming with tall, withered trees and bushes, bathed by the cold light of the sun, covered in clouds and fog, providing an eerie background for the action. The ruins of the almighty Soviet Empire span across the terrain, their hymn to post industrial revolution civilization lying in shambles: abandoned factories and warehouses, rust and dust covered, with broken glasses where once stood windows, massive holes where once stood walls, dismantled machinery where once strived the hustle and bustle of mass production. Roads crossing as far as the eye can see, holes and bumps emerging every couple of meters, stripped down cars completing the picture of emptiness and devastation. The weather further enhances these feelings, with gloomy clouds followed by storms of lighting and wind establishing an almost supernatural landscape. And then, there are the anomalies, spaces where the laws of physics are altered, electricity and gravity mixed up in strange ways to an unsettling effect. Last but not least, the deformed animals and hedious mutants that populate the area, who seem straight out of a B-horror movie, and with an appetite for food (that’s you). All of these elements build up to render one of the most oppressive settings ever to grace a videogame, a game world that screams realism and imposes fear, all thanks to its great visual engine and a superb soundtrack, of realistic sound effects and creepy electronic melodies. And the open world dynamics feed on this background, providing an immersive experience like no other. Sadly, the astonishing artistic direction, that at times seems to live of Andrei Tarkovsy’s dark minimalism, only makes the game’s narrative devices seem more archaic and anti-climatic in exploring this intriguing world.

The actual gameplay doesn’t help either, as FPS just doesn’t translate well into rpg trappings. The hectic and tactical nature of action sets and the unrelenting, realistic weapon physics seem derived out of “Counter Strike”, but “STALKER” isn’t exactly LAN-party territory, with its small rounds of frantic fire and action pwnage – everything just seems out of place in a game that revolves around long periods of exploration. That the game is unrelenting and tough as nails just doesn’t help, even if at times, the survivalistic nature of the gameplay helps the environment feel appropriately dangerous.

The beautiful, expansive environments and the thought provoking sci-fi story background, could’ve easily help create one of the greatest open-world games to date. Unfortunately, some of the company’s poor design choices, like opting for a tactical combat system and relinquishing narrative to a second plane, end up hurting the experience in a really bad way. And these seem like key elements in providing a living breeding world, as narrative provides the background needed for the player to sink in and properly understand the game world, and gameplay provides the space of interaction in which he can create a connection with, and in the process fully immerse in the virtual landscape. As is, “STALKER” is a failed attempt of a potentially powerful concept, an “open world” that at first glance seems wide and full of possibilities, but is in fact, limited and hollow, a “closed world” like so many others out there.

[Once in a while I will do “Impression” articles, a sort of inconclusive review regarding games I didn’t bother finishing. Because of that, no grade will be attributed to these games.]