Beyond Eyes

Developer: tiger & squid
First Release: 8th September, 2015
Version Played: PS4
Length: Short

 

Beyond Eyes is a short exploration game, about a girl called Rae going to find her missing cat friend.

The marketing descriptions for Rae’s backstory are a bit of a mess, and don’t line up with what’s stated in the game. In the game, Rae is blinded in a fireworks accident. She becomes reclusive, staying in her garden, as a reaction to the trauma of the accident. That summer, she befriends a cat she calls Nani. The seasons travel through to winter, Nani starts to visit less and less often, and by spring he’s disappeared. Rae heads out to find him.

The difference is the marketing versions say she’s been blind since she was a toddler. However, the game shows her as near the same age (and wearing the same clothes) when she has her accident. The passing of the seasons would make it about a year later when she heads out. This also fits better with her general level of skill in moving around. If she had been blind since she was a toddler, it would come across as strange that she wasn’t more skilled at moving around. This would mean she’d been blind for most of her childhood, which just doesn’t fit.

But anyway, if I hadn’t read those descriptions, I’d have said this takes place about a year later.

The strength of the game is the way the world is painted around Rae. As she uses her other senses to navigate, she imagines the world, and it appears around her. This means she sometimes gets things wrong, such as thinking cloth flapping in the wind is a clothesline, when it’s a scarecrow. She might imagine a gate as closed because it was when she first encountered it, but someone’s opened it since then. As this representation exists only in her mind, it’s also influenced by her current mental state. When she’s frightened, the colours are less bright. When she’s confused, areas can disappear.

Though there are some sadder/tenser moments, it’s overall a gentle experience. Rae’s world is an idyllic village with flowers and birds singing, rendered in watercolour. The threats she faces are common ones, such as crossing the road or a loud dog.

I liked that Rae’s accident was not portrayed as the end of her life. Withdrawal is a normal (though not the only) response to trauma. The key here is it’s also showing her facing that, by leaving to find Nani. Life carries on.

There were two things I noted as not ideal in the portrayal of blindness. It’s odd that Rae’s eyes are closed all the time. Even in cases where the eyes are removed, the eyelids are not usually sewn shut in humans. I wonder if this was done to avoid showing damaged or absent eyes. The second point also doubles as a gameplay issue. There’s a misconception that blind people can’t move quickly. That blind children don’t run when they play, adults never run for the bus, and even a fast confident walk is seen as out of the question. This isn’t true. It’s natural for someone who is re-learning how to navigate to be cautious, but slow movement speed is not inherent to being blind.

The gameplay issue being Rae moves slowly all the time. For the initial exploration, this speed is fine. But it gets painful when backtracking to explore all the areas, which isn’t a good gameplay choice for an exploration game. It makes sense both from a real world perspective, and a game perspective, to have her pick up the pace in areas she’s already been. Even a cautious child is going to move faster going back down the path she knows is fine. It also would have been a nice touch if her basic walk had slowly increased in speed during her adventure, as she got more confident.

In terms of gameplay, I would have liked more events. There were some already in the world, such as being able to feed flowers to a cow, and finding memories of Nani. But there were also places that felt empty. Some of these had objects that could have triggered events. I didn’t feel the balance of things to find, versus the time taken to explore, had been hit.

Accessibility options for blind players would have been good, such as the option to have a narrator reading the story (it’s text only) and controller vibrations when hitting obstacles. Also worth noting the undiscovered areas are white, which can be a migraine or motion sickness trigger for some people. If you’re in that category, keeping game sessions short is advisable.

Overall, Beyond Eyes is a nice addition to the exploration genre. It has some strong points, such as the way the world is painted from Rae’s perception and the beautiful artwork. I would have liked a faster backtracking speed and more things to find, but this didn’t stop me enjoying it. Fans of quieter exploration games and walking simulators are likely to enjoy the game. It took me around six hours to finish everything, including reruns for trophies.

The Order: 1886

The Order: 1886 Cover

Developer: Ready At Dawn
First Release: 20th February, 2015
Version Played: PS4
Length: Medium

The Order: 1886 is a steampunk game set in London. The Order is a group of knights, named for the original knights of the round table, who prolong their lives by drinking blackwater from the grail. Their mission is to fight the half-breeds (such as the lycans… werewolves by another name).

Though the game has some shooter and stealth elements, it’s mainly about the story. That makes it a good place to start when discussing the game, as this is likely to make or break whether someone enjoys it.

Story

The story follows Sir Galahad, starting with the prologue where he’s being held prisoner by the Order, and flashing back to what led to this. In the flashback, a lot of things are happening in London. The poor are rebelling against oppression. A killer (Jack the Ripper) is targeting prostitutes. The patients of a mental asylum have broken out, and there’s suspicion of a lycan connection. The knights have a lot to deal with, but not everything is as it seems.

Anyone expecting a more common action game narrative of defeating the big bad and saving the day is likely to be disappointed, as it’s not that sort of story. It’s more about Galahad’s personal journey, as he discovers things aren’t as black and white as he assumed, and has to decide where he stands.

One thing I look for in steampunk is how colonial themes are tackled. Some stories are prone to glorifying the British Empire and all it did. The Order doesn’t. Some of the characters certainly think that way, but it’s clear to the player that the poor join the rebellion out of desperation for how they’re treated. The authorities are doing little about the murdered women, and something odd was going down at the asylum.

The supernatural elements are shown as taking advantage of the British Empire’s expansion, rather than being responsible for it. A subtle difference, but an important one, as blaming it all on magic is a common way for stories to avoid addressing history.

In terms of inclusion, there are two Indian women who are important to the story. However, I would have liked to see a wider racial mix among the inhabitants of Whitechapel. At this point in history (and there’s no suggestion that the game version is any different) people moved to London from all parts of the Empire. Few would make it into the upper classes (such as the knights), but the poor workers would be more diverse.

The biggest issue with the story was not developing some of the characters and subplots. The collectables would have been a good way to introduce more information about the things going on at the asylum and hospital. The knights visit a brothel, which makes sense as prostitutes are being targeted by Jack the Ripper. But they don’t actually talk to anyone to find out more about that, which seems like a wasted opportunity. These things could have been fleshed out without giving away everything. And in turn, a little more story in the subplots would have given more space to develop the characters.

Overall though, I enjoyed the story. It was the gameplay where my reaction was more lukewarm.

Gameplay

The shooter parts of the game were solid. It’s cover-based shooting, with a variety of weapons. There are a number of fun science weapons, designed by Tesla (though I would have liked more time to explode things with these). I also liked the tools, such as the lockpicking, morse code sender and circuit breaker. These could have been used more, such as having some puzzles that required them, but the basic mechanism for how they worked was fine. If this was all the gameplay, it would have been fun.

Unfortunately, the game also had quick time events. These can be fiddly for someone like me, as my coordination isn’t the best, and reacting quickly to onscreen prompts is difficult. I could at least retry the cutscenes with quick time events, so I got there eventually. The stopping point was the stealth takedowns. Rather than sneaking up and hitting the takedown key, it has rings around the button prompt. Only at the precise moment the rings hit the prompt, and the buttons highlights, can the takedown be performed successfully. Failure means total failure, as Galahad forgets how to fight if they turn around to face him. Which meant I failed as often as I succeeded. This was hard enough when I had to perform two takedowns in a row. But a later chapter with multiple takedowns was extremely difficult, and not in a fun challenging way. I thought I wouldn’t be able to complete the game due to that chapter. I can’t imagine why any developer would think it was fun to fail, and fail, and fail, and fail, for hours on end. So my assumption is they didn’t consider that quick time events can be a problem for people (I’d note that using an easy difficulty only seems to change the gun fights, not the reaction time for quick time events).

Subtitles

The subtitles had some issues. They were a little small for a start. Fine on the big screen I’m using, but I feel for anyone using them on a smaller screen.

I often got no subtitles for a conversation happening next to me, but at the same time I got subtitles for a conversation happened elsewhere. I would have also liked non-translated subtitles to go with dialogue in other languages (this was especially strange when the French character used the odd French word in mostly English dialogue, and the subtitles translated it… I wanted to know what he actually said).

The game was pretty free of bugs, though I did find one with the subtitles. I picked up a newspaper while a conversation was happening, and the subtitles got stuck on the screen.

It does feel like they needed a tester who uses subtitles regularly.

Graphics and Polish

The game’s graphics are as good as the promotion promised them to be. It sets a high bar for photorealistic games. Outside of my subtitle bug, I didn’t find anything else amiss. There was no getting stuck on geometry, trophies failing to award, save file corruption or other issues of that nature. It was clearly polished to a high standard.

As someone who likes collectables, I would have liked them to have more additional lore in them. I also would have liked a collectables log, so I could track them. The basic system for collectibles is really nice (Galahad can pick them up and look them over), so the potential is there.

No game is perfect, but this one certainly gives the feel of hitting what the developers set out to do.

Conclusions

The Order: 1886 is a beautiful game, with an interesting setting and storyline. It will appeal to steampunk fans, with its airships, Tesla devices and other trappings. For someone who is good at quick time events, it will be a quick play with easy trophies. However, I don’t recommend it for anyone who struggles with quick time events, as the chapters with multiple stealth takedowns will be frustratingly difficult.

I’m on the fence about whether I’d get another game in the series. The stealth takedowns were the least fun I’ve had in a game for a long while, and I’m not sure the story is going to be enough to sign up for that.

Julie of the Wolves – Jean Craighead George

Julie of the Wolves Cover: a yupik girl in a fur-lined coat and a wolf

Series: Julie of the Wolves, #1
First Published: 1st January, 1972
Genre: Contemporary Young Adult
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble

Miyax, a Yupik girl, runs away from home after being attacked. She has to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, using the skills her father has taught her and with assistance from a wolf pack.

I did enjoy some of the aspects of the story. The feel of the landscape and how the animals interacted was there, which is something I look for in survival stories. I liked the change between the names Julie and Miyax in the narration depending on her current situation. Some of the thoughts on animal behaviour were dated, but I’d hope no one would use this as a natural history guide anyway.

However, the descriptions of Miyax/Julie’s culture and herself were often exoticised or laced with unfortunate implications. An example was the description of Miyax’s looks. It’s said she’s an “Eskimo beauty”, which comes with the implication of “pretty for an Eskimo”. Not properly pretty, like a Northern European. Add in her thinking she looked more beautiful when she was starving, because her face was thin like a European. Even when she changes her attitudes towards Europeans, she doesn’t start to think of herself as beautiful.

When Miyax decides to embrace Yupik traditions, she does so in a very black-and-white way. The real world isn’t as simplistic as traditional is good and modern is bad. Someone can hunt in traditional ways and enjoy chocolate cake. They can travel on foot and carry a phone. I wasn’t comfortable with the vibe that the only way to connect with her culture was to exist in the past, as it ignores the modern reality of Yupik people.

There’s also the issue that Miyax’s husband from an arranged marriage is non-neurotypical and ends up trying to rape her (the attack that leads her to run away). Non-neurotypical people are often portrayed as violent in books, but are more likely to be the victims of violence for real. It’s not a good trope to be reinforcing.

I couldn’t get away from how much like an outsider’s view the story read. With the added helping of the attempted rape scene, I didn’t enjoy it very much.

Never Alone

Never Alone Cover: Nuna (a girl in a fur-lined coat) and Fox (white arctic fox) in the snow

Developer: Upper One Games, E-Line Media
First Release: 18th November, 2014
Version Played: PS4
Length: Short
Links: Game Website

Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is a side-scrolling platform game, produced in collaboration with the Iñupiat (Alaska Native peoples). When endless blizzards stop her community from hunting, a young girl (Nuna) heads out into the storm to find the source. She’s soon joined by an arctic fox.

Most of the game mechanics will be familiar to players of this type of game. Nuna can move objects, climb ropes and throw a bola. Fox can scrabble up walls. The difference comes in how the mechanics fit into the game. Air currents used to help or hinder jumps aren’t uncommon, but here the gusts of wind are the ever-present blizzard at the centre of the narrative. Moving platforms are common in the genre, but these platforms are in the form of spirits, which Fox calls and can direct. They fit naturally into the game world, rather than seeming like something that wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t needed for the game.

The atmosphere and story of the game are its strong points. It successfully creates the feel of the tundra and beyond, and the artwork used for the spirits is lovely. The story is a re-telling of a traditional story, with additions and changes to expand it for the game. This is reinforced with narration in the Iñupiaq language and cut-scenes reminiscent of scrimshaw art.

The cultural insights are also a great feature. During the game, there are a number of owls. Reaching the owls unlocks a cultural insight, which can be watched at any point. These are mini documentaries with Alaska Native people talking about their lives and culture. The insights explain various aspects of the game, including how the story is different to the original story. There are also quotes from this story on loading screens. So without leaving the game, the player understands how the game story was constructed (a notable change is turning a man into a young girl and her fox), and the people and culture behind it.

There were some aspects of the game controls that were a bit clunky. In single player mode, it would be very useful to be able to tell the other character to stay. For some puzzles, the AI would walk them into dangerous places (they wouldn’t jump to their death or anything, but would stand in the path of moving dangers). It wasn’t game breaking, as the AI could be dealt with by leaving the other character in a different place. But this could be smoothed out in future releases from the developer.

Experienced gamers will likely find the gameplay on the easy side. However, the atmosphere and the cultural insights made it stand out. I loved exploring the world as Nuna and Fox, and would be on board for any of their future adventures.

This Strange Way of Dying – Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Collection CoverFirst Published: 1st September, 2013
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Collection
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s collection has stories mostly set in Mexico, with speculative and folkloric themes. My favourite was “Maquech”, about selling live beetle jewellery. The beetle is the last one decorated by a particular crafter, and brings with it dreams of the jungle. Yet it has to be sold to cover basic living costs, to a rich person who only wants it as this season’s shiny thing.

It’s a strong collection, with a range of themes and approaches. Recommended for those who like stories of the quietly strange.