Wednesday, 3 August 2016

The Desegregated... Gamer?

Hi folks.

Yeah, I've been away for a while. I just haven't felt motivated to post much about cycling recently. I guess I kind of feel like I've said what I needed to say.

I've been wanting to branch out with blogs focusing on other areas of my interest, but until now, I was thinking of doing that in unrelated blogs. But I've decided, for better or worse, to keep it all here.

So here's my first game review. I tend to give critical reviews - I see no point in sugar-coating a review - game companies' marketing departments do that job just fine without needing me to add to the hype. So without further ado, here's my critical review of:

"Abzu" is a game of underwater exploration. It is a sort of sequel to 2012's "Journey", which is an almost abstract game in which the player journeys towards a distant mountain peak. In Abzu, the player is a diver who explores a mysterious underwater world while solving puzzles and bringing health and balance back to the damaged ecosystem. The game was published on 2 August 2016 and is available as a digital download for the PC and the PS4. I played the PS4 version.

I liked this game overall: it is not your average video game, as it gives the player a beautiful and generally non-threatening environment in which to play at his own pace. It's a game that many non-gamers might enjoy, as it requires neither fast reflexes nor the puzzle-solving skills of a rocket scientist. Everything happens at a slow pace, and while it has puzzles, they are simple, as the game is meant to be an experience and not a chore. While most modern games are almost like reality filtered through the mind of a deranged crackhead, Abzu is a little like reality filtered through the mellow mind of a guy who has had the best trip imaginable using magic mushrooms.

However, I couldn't help comparing Abzu to Journey, because it's scene-for-scene pretty much the same game, and for me, Journey is better, with more compelling ways of telling the story and with elements that show the player how he's progressing in terms of the collectibles. For example, where in Abzu is the in-game feature that tells me which shells I've collected? Journey had a little area, off to the side of one of the environments, which showed which collectibles were missing, so we could search in one area for a missing artifact, without having to look all through the game for it. And where is Abzu's equivalent to Journey's scarf, which told players how well they were doing in terms of gathering resources? These flaws made Abzu just a little frustrating, and that shouldn't happen in a game that is clearly intended to give players a peaceful experience.

Also, I couldn't help feeling geographically constrained by Abzu, especially in the later scenes, where you can see interesting areas ripe for exploration, but the game won't let you go there. This was compounded in the ending, which places you in a credits scene which allows no movement beyond the camera's focus. And the credits are unskippable, not just the first time, but every single time we play the game! It's just poor design.

Then there are the loading screens. I get that it's graphically intensive, so the loads between in-game stuff was fine. What I don't understand is why it should sometimes take over 30 seconds to load up a menu screen! 30 seconds to transition to the meditation menu screen, which is basically a screen with 12 static selectable images on it - what's up with that? Whereas Journey was 100% smooth from beginning to end, Abzu is broken up into chapters and menus that plunge the player into seemingly endless black loading screen after endless black loading screen. I wouldn't mind if the developers had given me something pretty to look at while the game is loading, but they haven't.

Finally, the lack of multiplayer definitely hurts the game in comparison with Journey. I see no reason why this game couldn't have a similar multiplayer mechanism.

But for all its flaws, I still enjoyed the game. I even played through it a second time, and a third to get all the trophies. I'm even planning on doing a fourth playthrough to concentrate on finding all the wall paintings from the ancient civilization, to see if I can piece together the story of how, and for what purpose, the vast machines (the game's antagonists) were built.

I loved Journey - it is an A+ in my book, whereas Abzu gets a B+. It's basically Journey underwater with better graphics, but I feel it's been stripped of many of the things I found most fun in the earlier game, while some design decisions are questionable at best. My verdict: by all means buy it, but be aware that it has some flaws.