Death’s Door Preview (PC)

Reaping souls ain’t much for the Crow, but it’s honest work.

UPDATE: we have now published a full review for Death’s Door, so be sure to check that out here if you’d like a comprehensive overview of the entire game. This articles covers only the preview, which is approximately 30% of the game but still a good snapshot of what to expect from the rest.

Devolver Digital have certainly garnered a reputation for being one of the best indie videogame publishers in the business. Their madcap approach to advertising and promotion coupled with handpicked creative and often unusual games has caught the attention of gamers from around the globe since their inception in 2009. And, like a fine wine or a delicious block of parmesan shaped into a game controller, Devolver only seem to get better with age.

Just a few of the excellent games from Devolver.

To add to their already vast library of published titles, earlier this year the team announced a game by the name of Death’s Door, an intriguing hack & slash following the tale of a soul-collecting crow set in a stylish gloomy world. Created by Acid Nerve, the two-person team responsible for Titan Souls, this immediately grabbed my attention thanks to its unique visual style and its avian protagonist and characters. Thankfully, the kind team at Devolver have provided me with a preview build to explore this entrancing world well before its launch on the 20th of July.

So what awaits behind Death’s Door?
Let me open the door a crack and give you a peek into the preview.

Premise

Office work can oftentimes be monotonous, and that’s no exception the Crow, who lives life by the clock, punching in on a daily basis and delivering the harvested souls of those who have died. Every day is much the same in this bleak and monochrome office, but a bird has to make a living, and so he sets off on his usual daily task to collect the next assigned soul on the roster.

*Not an actual screenshot from the game.

However, this routine task doesn’t quite go according to plan…
Upon collecting the next assigned soul, the Crow [STORY DETAILS REDACTED] and when returning to the office, it’s made apparent that the Crow’s own soul may be in danger unless actions are taken to fix what has just occurred. Venturing back into the bleak landscape to seek a solution, he just so happens to stumble upon…

Though inconveniently (but convenient to the plot) the door is locked, and the key to opening it lies in collecting the three Colossal Souls belonging to the Tyrants of the kingdom: a cursed witch, a mad king, and a vicious beast. Only by opening Death’s Door may the Crow complete the mission he has been tasked with. And so the Crow’s journey begins…

Gameplay

The game takes place across a sprawling map that is accessed through doors in the office-like hub world. By entering these doors, the crow is thrust into new locations full of souls ripe for the harvest. In design akin to Dark Souls, maps are vast and intertwined in clever ways, with shortcuts aplenty and secret locations that effortlessly link back to one another. Even though the preview build only showcases 5 of these areas, I was fascinated by each and wanted to explore every single corner to satisfy my own curiosity. Environmental puzzles will hinder the Crow’s progress throughout these area, and while most are simple, they are rewarding and offer more of a challenge when simultaneously trying to fend off hordes of enemies.

After exploring the main area, the map eventually branches off into smaller, more intricate locations that have the feeling of a traditional dungeon and reminiscent of Zelda titles. In the preview build, exploring the Ceramic Manor (the Urn Witch’s Mansion) involved collecting several keys, solving small puzzles in each room, fighting challenging enemies, and collecting the souls of four deceased crows to unlock a door and progress. After unlocking this door, the Crow gains the ability to fling a fireball, allowing access to a deeper area of the dungeon and then to the boss that awaits menacingly at the end. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the dungeons of A Link to the Past or Minish Cap in this design, but this is truly a compliment to the gameplay.

The first dungeon’s puzzles involve lighting fires.

Combat

Harvesting souls is not without its dangers, and as such the Crow is equipped with weaponry to help on this treacherous quest. Three melee weapons were made available in the preview build (sword, daggers, umbrella), and two ranged attacks (bow, fire spell). Attacks can be chained together in swift movements, and when coupled with ranged attacks and well-timed dodges, become a fluid barrage that at times made me feel as if I was playing Hades again. Collecting souls while progressing can be spent back at the office to upgrade the strength of attacks, the speed at which they can be performed, or other stat boosts that assist the Crow during combat.

Though I only played for just over 2 hours, by the end of the preview build I felt proficient in the combat and was able to take down the final boss without taking any damage. Restoring health during combat is not an option either, as the only way to do so is by planting seeds at particular pots and then consuming the bloom that sprouts from them. This means that every enemy encounter must be done with caution to avoid losing health unnecessarily.

Visuals

Interestingly, the game’s design and visual style seems somehow both charming and unnerving. The isometric view and detailed environments occasionally appear like miniatures or scale models, and the design and animations of the Crow are cute and at times juxtaposes with the bleak surroundings. Enemies feature a cartoonish yet grotesque appearance, and the design of some characters is just straight up hilarious, including a cast of characters whose heads have been replaced with pots by the wretched Urn Witch.

I love this character as much as I love soup.

It’s a lovely looking game and its eye-catching environments like detailed dioramas definitely had me pausing to appreciate the Crow’s surroundings on numerous occasions. There’s a lot of attention to detail, and at times this is even incorporated into some puzzles, which will require you to closely analyse for hidden clues. Though this has just been a taste, I’m excited to see the entire world in the full release shortly!

Audio

I’m a sucker for a good soundtrack. So how does Death’s Door hold up in only this short example? Well, the world of Death’s Door is bleak, so too should be its music. Each track in the preview build has a certain sadness to it, mostly featuring piano with light orchestration and ambient background effects. This obviously intensifies during enemy encounters or boss fights, becoming more frantic and fast-paced, but never seems to stray from an overall feeling of melancholy. Here’s a snippet of the music from the Ceramic Manor, the first main dungeon of the game:

What’s next for Death’s Door?

It’s hard for me to pass judgement on a mere preview of the game, but of what I’ve played so far, I’m eager for more. An intriguing world, smooth combat, and attractive visual style definitely make Death’s Door a game you’ll want to keep your eyes on like a hawk (or a crow). It releases shortly on July 20th for PC and Xbox One/Series S/Series X, and I’ll absolutely be playing the full version as soon as I can get my claws on it! Keep an eye out for the full review which I’ll be posting closer to launch.

You can find out more about Death’s Door below:
https://store.steampowered.com/app/894020/Deaths_Door/
https://www.devolverdigital.com/games/deaths-door/
https://playdeathsdoor.com/

Maid of Sker Review: PS5

Will you answer the Siren’s call?

There is a new survival horror game out on PS5 this month (well, a newish next-gen upgraded version of the game anyway), and I’m not talking about Resident Evil. Maid of Sker was previously released by Wales Interactive for the PC, PS4 and Xbox One in 2020, and has received the next-gen upgrade treatment for PS5 and Xbox Series consoles. Can the small Indie developer known for trying to bring back the ‘FMV’ style of game (baaaaaad idea) find some success with a game in a more mainstream genre? Read on my friends, read on…

Plot

The story of Maid of Sker bears little resemblance to the original Welsh folk song (or the novel of the same name). The game is set in 1898 in Wales and we embody Thomas, a silent protagonist (unless you consider grunts and screams as speaking). He is sent a letter by his lady friend Elisabeth along with her mother’s musical locket. Elisabeth requests that Thomas write a song, indeed a ‘counter song’ to the melody played by the locket (whatever that is), and to bring his music to her in the Sker Hotel managed by her father. Unfortunately, she cannot provide any further detail in her letter…how convenient.

Maid of Sker PS5 PlayStation 5
Welcome to Silent H… I mean the house of Lady Dime… I mean the Sker Hotel.

Thomas of course obliges to Elisabeth’s request and rushes to the hotel via train. On arrival, Thomas is greeted not by a thankful Elisabeth, but by a ringing telephone in the lobby of a dilapidated hotel filled with crazy cult members. Upon answering the phone, Thomas is pleased to hear that Elisabeth is on the other end of the line. She explains that she has barricaded herself in the attic to protect herself from her father, her uncle, and the strange people now inhabiting the hotel. She tasks Thomas with locating four musical cylinders hidden throughout the hotel that if played on the organ/harmonium in the hotel ballroom will turn everything back to normal. What is it that needs to be turned back to normal you ask? The ‘Quiet Ones‘ – staff and guests of the hotel that have been driven insane. They roam the grounds with sacks over their heads, viciously attacking anything that makes a sound.

Maid of Sker PS5 PlayStation 5
Play me a song my darling Elisabeth.

Thomas is generally left to his own devices to complete the game’s quest and other than some brief phone conversations with Elisabeth there are no other verbal interactions of which to speak. However, there are a number of clues scattered around the hotel in journals and on scraps of paper that provide further plot exposition. Elisabeth’s family has been part of a cult for generations, after her ancestors appear to have encountered the mythical Siren out in the open sea when sailing back to Wales. What was it about the Siren’s song that was so alluring?

Gameplay

The main story mode of Maid of Sker can be best described as a survival/stealth horror game. We control Thomas from a 1st person perspective as he skulks around the hotel finding clues, solving puzzles and picking up the musical cylinders without being discovered by the Quiet Ones. Fortunately, the Quiet Ones wear sacks over their heads and are for all intents and purposes blind. They can only locate you when you are silly enough to bump into furniture or try to walk through a dust cloud and cough your lungs out when they are in earshot. Unfortunately, in what may be a frustrating choice for some players, for the majority of the game we are literally defenseless. Even when the game is nice enough to provide a ‘weapon,’ this can only be used to temporarily stun enemies and cannot kill them, and in typical style the ammo for this weapon is extremely limited. More frustratingly, there is a point when this weapon is simply taken away from you for the rest of the game.

Maid of Sker PS5 PlayStation 5
How do you know I’m standing here? Oh, I forgot deodorant this morning you say? It is only 1898 after all.

Whilst I must admit to finding this complete lack of any offensive power incredibly frustrating in the early going, by the later game it does provide you with some tense moments. Thomas does control well enough, and there were never any moments where I felt a death in the game was caused by anything other than my own poor choices.

The puzzles in the game are all intuitive enough to solve without needing to look up a guide, and there are typically ample clues around to help you if you get stuck. In truth I would have liked a bit more variety in the puzzles here, and there is nothing ground-breaking that you haven’t seen done in similar games elsewhere. Find item X to open secret passageway Y that leads you to key Z etc. etc. That being said, the offering here is solid and if you like this style of game, then it is an enjoyable way to pass some time.

I must point out that the main story is relatively short even for survival horror, and can be completed in about 4-6 hours (more if you want to find all of the collectable items and uncover the full backstory). Originally released as an Indie title by Wales Interactive for the PC, PS4 and Xbox One in 2020, the team have gone above and beyond in providing something new for this next-gen upgrade with a collection of completely new game modes.

These 4 modes whilst all somewhat similar in their goal (escape the hotel with a limited number of lives/deaths) and do show that the game developers listened to some of the complaints of the original game. The two main differences in these additional ‘Challenges’ as they are called are:

  1. You now have access to 4 different weapons (Axe, Handgun, Shotgun, Rifle).
  2. There are a number of different enemy types that you need to mow down on your way out of the hotel.

The new experiences do give you that feeling of power that you severely miss in the main story and are worth a bit more of your time. But they probably won’t be something that significantly extends your time with the game as the FPS style controls and gameplay are just not up to par with dedicated FPS games.

Certainly my favourite element of the gameplay is the way that music and sound are utilised throughout the adventure. The crescendoing shrieks of a dissonant string orchestra will warn you of danger nearby. Alternatively, a simple change in the background music to a music box tune will alert you to an important item or save point nearby. What is that you hear? The rattle of a key turning a lock in the distance? You go to investigate… you have now opened the door to the next section of the review.

Presentation

Presentation is both a strength and a weakness of Maid of Sker. On the negative side, and as we might reasonably expect from an indie title with a small development team, the visuals here are rough around the edges. This was a late generation PS4 game, but it really wouldn’t look out of place on a PS3 when you compare it to the big AAA games on that platform (think Last of Us and Uncharted 3). Similarly to the lack of variety in the gameplay, there is also a similar deficiency here. The one main type of enemy is very bland looking and their animation is a bit janky, and the main boss is not much better.

Maid of Sker PS5 PlayStation 5

That being said, there has clearly been a lot of care and attention to detail here in regards to the environmental details here such as the trimmings of the hotel, the art on the walls and the furniture strewn around the rooms. There are a number of brief/small set-pieces that made me stop and say ‘that was sick‘ (in a good way), whereas other moments seem to fall flat, or almost appear comical in nature due to the animation. Despite the game’s clear limitations in terms of visuals, the gritty, dark Sker Hotel and surrounding grounds provide a great atmosphere particularly when combined with the aforementioned best element of the game – the sound design.

Audio

I was blown away by the quality of the sound and music in this game. It is by no means perfect, but clearly sound design is the highlight of the Maid of Sker experience. Given that ‘music’ is a core aspect of the game’s story and gameplay, it is obvious that the developers really put some effort in to this part of the game. The soundtrack is haunting and the perfect fit to this game, particularly in the build up to the game’s finale. Sound effects are also generally good, but can occasionally be a little more miss than hit, for example some of Thomas’ falling/death screams seeming more funny/hilarious than scary. Thomas is silent throughout the game other than his breathing, screaming and yelling. Elisabeth, however, is fully voiced during the numerous phone calls with her, and the Gramophones that are used as this game’s save point (like the Typewriter in Resident Evil) will also play a recorded voice clip of Elisabeth and her family.

Maid of Sker PS5 PlayStation 5
If the screech of this device upsets you, wait until you hear me falling.

Some PS5 features also helped improve the experience such as the fast loading times and the utilisation of the Dual Sense controller’s haptic feedback. Thomas’ heart rate will increase and become stronger depending on the situation he finds himself. It is subtle but again helps build on the game’s strong atmosphere and overall experience.

Conclusion

Maid of Sker was made by a small core team of less than 15 people, and at times it does show. As noted above, the base game is very short for a modern game. Even in this game’s genre, this one feels a little bit short for me. This may be as a result of the repetitiveness in the enemies and the puzzles.

That being said, the atmosphere that is built though the soundscape of this game is excellent. You can feel the pressure and tension of sneaking past groups of enemies, and the relief of snatching the item that you need to progress without being found.

There is nothing here that can be considered broken or otherwise gamebreaking. The game is a solid package and everything works. I played through the full story and multiple attempts at the challenge content and did not come across any bugs or crashes on PS5. Maid of Sker can’t compete at the level of a game like Resident Evil: Village – but we have to accept that a AAA game would have had at least 10 times the number of staff working on the game as Maid of Sker.

For what it is Maid of Sker is an enjoyable, if not short, experience that provides an intriguing story, a creepy atmosphere with some occasional jump scares and a cracking soundtrack.

So, why should you play it?

  • You are a survival/horror buff and want to experience a different and unique story.
  • Zombies, Vampires and other common horror tropes bore you and you want something more.
  • Not much time to play? No worries with this, you can get through it easily without too much of a time sink.

But, why shouldn’t you play it?

  • BOO! (did that scare you?)
  • You prefer a game that you can engage with for a long period of time.

A review code on PlayStation 5 was provided for the purpose of this review.

Essays on Empathy Review: PC

empathy | ˈɛmpəθi | noun “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”

Deconstructeam – maybe you’ve heard the name? Based in Valencia, Spain, this close-knit indie game developer consists of three key members, known for creating intimate, emotive narrative games, now in collaboration with Devolver Digital. Weaving stories with important messages conveyed through experimental formats, the studio has been widely-recognised for their games, “Gods Will Be Watching” (PC) and “The Red Strings Club” (Nintendo Switch, PC). While many of us play indie videogames on a daily basis for enjoyment, challenge, or entertainment, how often do we truly gain the opportunity to delve deeper into the motivations and thoughts behind the creative minds that concoct these experiences?

The Red Strings Club Nintendo Switch
Cyberpunk narrative adventure game, “The Red Strings Club”.

This is where Essays on Empathy fills a void. Through a hybrid format of videogames and short video documentaries, the player is taken on a journey into Deconstructeam’s past and present through 10 unique, individual standalone experiences. From a game as simple as picking the right book for a birthday present, all the way through to heart-wrenching human relationships and painful emotional experiences, there is one concept that flows through each game in this collection: empathy.

Accompanying each experience is a 10 – 15 minute dissection from the developers, who explain their creative processes, motivations, and most importantly, the messages and challenges behind the game’s creation. When consumed by a gripping videogame, it’s too easy to forget that these are all experiences for which real people are responsible, something Essays on Empathy expertly emphasises.

So what exactly are the games on offer in this captivating collection?
Let me break it down into its ten components:

Underground Hangovers (Genre: Metroidvania/Platformer)

If you had to leave a mysterious planet tomorrow would you: a) go to sleep at a reasonable time to ensure you don’t miss the only rocket off the planet, or b) have a massive party, wake up with a throbbing hangover, and miss the only rocket off the planet? Well in this case, the unfortunate party from Underground Hangovers chose the latter.

Underground Hangovers Essays on Empathy PC
The “Dual-Hook” makes for some interesting (and occasionally frustrating) platforming.

In what feels like the odd game out in the collection (as it’s far more focused on gameplay), you’re tasked with collecting enough ore to rebuild a rocket to make your way off this desolate planet. Though a simple game initially made for a Game Jam in 2015, it features some creative platforming puzzles that feel right at home in the genre.

Supercontinent Ltd (Genre: Cyberpunk/Narrative)

Bold, atmospheric, gripping and clever. Supercontinent Ltd is a narrative-heavy cyberpunk experience that will leave you thirsty for more. Playing as Brandeis (a character who also appears in The Red Strings Club), this game revolves around the use of ancient technology: a landline phone. Through use of a voice modulator (VOMOD), Brandeis makes phone calls to unravel the plot behind a mysterious organisation on the evening of their plan to overthrow the police force.

Supercontinent Ltd Essays on Empathy PC
Landlines really are ancient technology now.

With its engaging dialogue, gloomy pixel-art aesthetic, and ambient synth soundtrack, this game oozes style from every pixel. Impressively, Supercontinent somehow manages to achieve more character development and world-building in thirty minutes than games like Cyberpunk 2077 do in their entire narrative. Thirty minutes well spent.

Behind Every Great One (Genre: Drama/Narrative)

Riding on a high from Supercontinent, I jumped straight into the next game. I was not prepared for what I was about to feel. This game is, at times, mentally and emotionally difficult to play. Interestingly, the developers too discuss how difficult this game was to create. If you’re not in a good headspace, I would approach Behind Every Great One with caution. It will make you feel like absolute shit.

Behind Every Great One Essays on Empathy PC
Victorine’s life is a dull, unfulfilling loop.

You play as Victorine, the housewife to Gabriel, who is a renowned and celebrated artist. Living in his shadow, life has become a monotonous repetition of household chores and meaningless attempts at activity devoid of passion, interspersed with frequent anxiety attacks. The story becomes progressively more depressing as you delve deeper into the characters’ broken relationship and expectations of Victorine. It’s a highly emotive and confronting game that is not for the faint of heart.

Eternal Home Floristry (Genre: Narrative/Flower Arrangement)

An injured hitman loses his arm in an attack and is forced to seek refuge in the house of a florist called Sebastian, with whom he builds a relationship during their short time together. Learning the art of flower arrangement and the messages the blooms convey, Gordon is able to delve deeper into his own emotions and relationships. A highly emotive narrative that explores raw human emotion and the fragile elements that reside within even the most harsh exteriors.

Eternal Home Floristry Essays on Empathy PC
A truly beautiful narrative.

My favourite in the collection. Several times it even had me on the verge of tears. An impressive feat for a game that can easily be completed in half an hour. Though the game may be short, choices based on your flower arrangements will dramatically affect the outcome.

The Bookshelf Limbo (Genre: Point-and-Click)

Simplistic and charming; more of a minigame than a proper standalone title. Pick a comic book from the shelf at a bookstore to purchase as a birthday present for your father! This game was created as a birthday gift alongside a friend of the developers and features amusing cover art, genre stereotypes, and mocking of internet trolls.

The Bookshelf Limbo Essays on Empathy PC
The first game I’ve encountered that’s essentially an interactive birthday card.

Zen and the Art of Transhumanism (Genre: Sci-Fi/Narrative)

Pottery meets Cyberpunk in a genre mash-up I never thought I’d encounter. As a new member of a human improvement workshop, you’re tasked with creating body modifications to fulfil your client’s needs. By handcrafting differently-shaped mods, you’ll be able to enhance certain physical traits and oblige the wishes of the often-selfish humans.

Zen and the Art of Transhumanism Essays on Empathy PC
I need this one!

Another incredibly stylish game with an odd concept – this intriguing pottery-crafting gameplay re-appears in The Red Strings Club as a major gameplay mechanic. But does crafting your body into the ideal traits really lead to true fulfilment?

Engolasters January 2021 (Genre: Sci-Fi/Adventure)

In my opinion the least-enjoyable game in the entire collection. Set in the real life small mountain town of Engolasters, the protagonist (whose son has just run away from home) stumbles across extra-terrestrial life which offers to bestow great power. She must make a choice to save her son, herself, or unravel the secrets that lure her into the unknown. Afflicted by a wound and slowly losing blood, players must manage their life, phone battery, and car fuel while exploring the frosty overworld. The overworld is vast, empty, and lacking in direction, which led me to become easily frustrated.

Engolasters January 2021 Essays on Empathy PC

11:45 A Vivid Life (Genre: Point-and-Click)

The most interesting concept out of all the games: what if your skeleton didn’t belong to you? This simple point-and-click game explores the topic of body image and acceptance. By stealing an x-ray machine and fleeing to the country, the protagonist discovers more about herself by looking inside. Literally. X-rays reveal implants, evidence of past trauma, and pieces that seem mismatched and out of place. Once located, any foreign body parts must be forcibly removed through the use of pliers or scalpels. Not for the squeamish! Players can choose dialogue that will vary the consequences of the story, weaving an entertaining, introspective narrative with a stylish visual aesthetic.

11:45 A Vivid Life Essays on Empathy PC
Plenty of amusing dialogue in this one.

Dear Substance of Kin (Genre: Horror/Adventure)

For a moment I could have sworn I was playing something straight out of Bloodborne! This title is melancholy, chilling, and is dripping with disturbing atmosphere like a blood-soaked cloth. Exploring a decrepit and dilapidated town, you are the Coppersmith, an immortal artisan who harvests the organs of townspeople in exchange for fulfilling their requests through blood magic. By interrogating the residents, you can perceive their selfish desires and choose to either fulfil or sabotage them.

Dear Substance of Kin Essays on Empathy PC
The colour palette and pixel art create a morbid style.

Dark and brooding narrative alongside macabre art and music make this one of the most memorable titles in the collection, and leaves me thirsting for more. The inspiration behind this title is particularly interesting, as the creator draws upon a method that you’re unlikely to expect. Watch the documentary to find out!

Des Tres al Cuatro (Genre: Comedy/Narrative)

The main feature of this collection, a game that translates to “Three for a Quarter” (e.g. something of such poor quality that you can buy three of them for a single quarter), also the name of the comedy duo that you play as during this game. Garza and Bonachera are two halves of a failing comedy act, two lovers, and two grown men struggling for success, stumbling over the hurdles of their passions and their relationship. The story here is particularly personal to the developers, as it emphasises the harsh reality of making a living off of a creative pastime. Conversations between the characters are deeply intimate and allow the player to dive beneath the surface by revealing the characters’ inner thoughts on a separate area of the screen.

Des Tres al Cuatro Essays on Empathy PC
Many mature themes are discussed between Garza and Bonachera.

Gameplay is incredibly creative and unlike anything I’ve played, combining aspects of deckbuilding games with comedy dialogue, allowing you to attempt to earn coins to improve your deck. Cards will either build upon a joke, execute a hilarious punchline, or fail miserably and embarrass yourself in front of an entire crowd. Not only is it fun to play, but many of the jokes are legitimately amusing and it’s quite satisfying to be able to slowly improve your confidence with each show.

Des Tres al Cuatro Essays on Empathy PC
Easily some of the most creative gameplay you’ll come across.

Des Tres al Cuatro is, in my opinion, the best game in the entire collection, as it offers the perfect balance of innovative gameplay and insightful dialogue, and is an experience that is enjoyable every minute from start to finish. If you’re interested in Essays on Empathy, it’s worth it just for this alone.

Conclusion

A vast amount of passion has been poured into crafting these short but powerful games, which becomes even more apparent while watching the developers discuss each title in their respective documentaries. Thoughtfully reflective, introspective and emotive, Essays on Empathy is 50% videogame, 50% documentary, and 100% heart. If you’re the kind of person who plays videogames not only for enjoyment, but for deep narratives, important messages, or artistic expression, then this is an essential experience. And really, couldn’t everyone benefit from just a bit of extra empathy?

So, why should you play it?

  • You’re a fan of emotive narratives.
  • Looking for creative indie games? Go no further!
  • Gorgeous pixel art and equally gorgeous music.
  • Strong LGBTQIA representation will likely appeal to those within the community.

So, why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Certain games may be best avoided if you’re not in the right headspace.
  • Not a fan of narrative or text-heavy games? Then these probably aren’t for you.

Essays of Empathy is available now on PC via Steam.
Find out more about the game here: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1586880/Essays_on_Empathy/

A review code was provided for the purpose of this review.

Before I Forget Review – Nintendo Switch

In recent years, thanks to the growing popularity of indie games and small teams of developers, videogames have provided a means of discussing impactful topics. Often with only several people working on a game, this allows for unique insight into subject matter that might not otherwise be possible for triple-A titles. Notable titles like the widely-celebrated and brutally-difficult Celeste, which cleverly discusses depression and anxiety while climbing both a literal and figurative mountain, or Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a dark fantasy in which the player is made to experience psychosis, are both brilliant representations of mental health in video games. Games like these do not stigmatise or portray such difficult topics in a negative light, but rather help to promote understanding and discussion.

Chances are you may know someone, or have friends or family who have a loved one affected by dementia – in Australia alone there are 472,000 people living with dementia, and almost 1.6 million people involved in their care. This complex collection of symptoms can lead to memory loss, confusion, and impairment of thinking, making even simple daily activities into challenging tasks. A condition for which there is no prevention or cure, and of initial signs that can often be subtle or vague. Dementia is chronic and can progress to the point where it can become debilitating or even fatal. So how can a videogame attempt to replicate and provide insight into such a complex set of neurological symptoms?

This has been achieved in Before I Forget, a story-rich experience that is less of a traditional videogame, and more of a succinct interactive, artistic insight into the emotional impact of dementia. Created by 3-Fold Games and conceptualised at a Game Jam in 2016, the game launched as a Humble Original for PC in 2020 and received a BAFTA nomination earlier this year as a “Game Beyond Entertainment” (which has been received by games such as Hellblade and Animal Crossing: New Horizons). Now available on Nintendo Switch, how does such an impactful, thought-provoking game fare on a handheld console?

Story

The player takes control of Sunita Appleby, a Indian Cosmologist and a celebrated scientist – though these accolades have since become remnants of her fragmented past. Once a brilliant mind, Sunita is now affected by symptoms of dementia; her memories of family and friends fade in and out of view from within the window panes of her small home in which the entire game takes place. Finding herself trapped in her own porch, a small post-it note adhered to the wall sparks a memory of her loved one.

Unpaid bills lay scattered that Sunita has no recollection of, voice messages are left on her phone by friends who are now complete strangers, and through empty hallways echo the sound of melancholy piano played by none other than virtuoso pianist, Dylan Appleby, Sunita’s husband. This short story follows several days of Sunita’s life as she seeks to find Dylan and overcome simple challenges at home. Though the story takes place from her current perspective, you’ll be able to piece together her past through recollections, forgotten conversations, treasured mementos, and nostalgic flashbacks of key life moments.

Before I Forget Nintendo Switch Sunita Dylan
Sunita and Dylan are never seen in the game; you’ll find their images throughout the house.

Although short, the story is insightful, emotive, and at times even amusing and heart-warming. Impressively Before I Forget manages to achieve a deep emotional connection between Sunita and Dylan within a timeframe where most other videogame narratives would only be setting the scene.

Gameplay

Some may classify Before I Forget as a “Walking Simulator“, a sub-genre of games in which the primary gameplay involves controlling a character that walks and interacts with objects to unravel a story (think Dear Esther & Gone Home for example). In order to focus on a narrative, aspects of gameplay are minimal, though this does not detract from the overall experience of the game. Sometimes even navigating throughout Sunita’s small house can be a difficult task, as could be the case for those with dementia. Particular parts of the game may fool you into thinking you’ve gone in the wrong direction, or surprise you with hinderances that in reality do not actually exist.

Before I Forget Nintendo Switch Dementia visuals
Even the simple task of walking can sometimes be difficult.

Interacting with certain items in the game will prompt flashbacks of memories, in which you’re given insight into Sunita’s life, her relationship with Dylan, or her childhood. Although these events are mostly quite straightforward, they provide more depth to the narrative. You’ll likely miss a lot of these small details during your first playthrough, as not all of them are necessary for progression, which provides some incentive to play the game an additional time.

Before I Forget Nintendo Switch Flashback Art
This stargazing flashback of Sunita’s childhood is particularly heart-warming.

Visuals

This is one of the most appealing aspects of Before I Forget – I’d compare the visuals to a fusion of real life and an impressionist painting. At the beginning of the game, the surroundings are dull and devoid of colour to represent Sunita’s lack of memory. With further progression and interaction with more elements, her memory breathes life into the game’s visuals and colour begins to once again wash across the house like watercolour paint slowly spreading across a canvas. It’s a beautiful visual effect and is highly satisfying to see a bland room eventually transformed in pastel colours – quite a unique way to gauge the player’s progression through the game.

Rooms will begin to regain their detail and colour as you explore them.

Despite being played on the small, handheld screen of the Nintendo Switch, the simple visuals of the game still look incredibly attractive thanks to this art-style. There were even moments where I found myself pausing to admire the surroundings and snap a few screenshots before moving on.

In juxtaposition to the game’s gorgeous visuals, there are hindering visual elements designed to represent Sunita’s symptoms of dementia. Often the screen will have a hazy visual effect or at key moments will distort to appear chaotic and confusing, making it intentionally tricky to navigate an otherwise simple hallway. I would have liked to have seen more use of these sort of visuals though, as there were only a couple of instances where they had a significant impact.

Before I Forget Nintendo Switch Dementia visuals
At times Sunita feels trapped or lost within her own house.

Audio

Clever audio design is a key aspect in Before I Forget. Heavy footsteps on hardwood floors might prompt you to explore your surroundings, echoing piano notes from the distance call you to walk towards them, and thoughts and conversations from the past regularly play out in Sunita’s head. You’ll also hear quite a bit of dialogue throughout the game from Sunita, her mother, and Dylan. All have excellent performances from their voice actors and become highly emotive toward the end of the game. The simple piano soundtrack too is quite fitting, as music is often played by memories of Dylan who is a talented pianist. Here’s a short snippet in which you can literally watch the world go by while you enjoy the music:

Though I usually find myself fawning over game soundtracks, my favourite aspect of the audio is the inclusion of a full developer commentary. When starting the game you can choose to turn this on, and in doing so you’ll be prompted with hovering speech bubbles throughout your journey through the game. These snippets each a couple minutes long, contain interesting banter from most of the team who worked on the game, and felt as if I was listening to an interactive podcast. I wish more indie games would include commentary like this as an added bonus! It really offered me incentive to play through the game again with the commentary turned on.

Before I Forget Nintendo Switch Developer Commentary
These optional floating speech bubbles can be scattered throughout Sunita’s journey.

Conclusion

At only an hour long, Before I Forget feels like less of a traditional videogame and more of an interactive art piece, designed to offer insight into the topic of dementia and does so by portraying an impactful story with emotional character connections in a single sitting. In consulting with two psychiatrists (Dr Donald Sevant and Dr David Codling) for their medical expertise, 3-Fold Games have managed to create a melancholy but poignant story that highlights the challenges faced by those with dementia. I personally found myself to be quite moved by the experience. Though not all will find the game appealing, players with a fondness for artistic games or those seeking a narrative with an important message will find the experience worthwhile.

So, why should you play it?

  • You enjoy concise games with a focus on an emotional narrative.
  • Artistic games with very basic gameplay usually appeal to you.
  • You’d like to try understand a bit more about dementia.
  • It’s hard to find time for long games – this game can be easily played and completed in a single sitting.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • You’d rather play games to keep yourself occupied for hours at a time.
  • If videogames are more of a way to escape life’s tricky topics rather than to experience them.

To seek help regarding dementia, or if you need to help a family member or a friend that is affected, you can reach out to the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500 or via the Dementia Australia website.
If you or someone you care for is in need of support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

A review code was provided for the purpose of this review.

The Funniest Game on Switch? Say No! More Review – Nintendo Switch

Did you have a ball playing Katamari Damacy? Did you think Untitled Goose Game was a honking good time? Looking for another light-hearted, hilarious game? Then Say No! More.

Have you ever been in a situation where you just wanted to shout “NO!”?
Can you imagine if you didn’t even have the option? If refusal was considered taboo?
Where no matter what was asked of you, even the most tedious of tasks, you had to say “yes!” with enthusiasm.

Welcome to the world of Say No! More, a game that developers, Studio Fizbin, claim to be the world’s very first “NPG (No-Playing Game).” Through literally teaching the player to say “no” more, the game emphasises the power behind using this simple word that we too often take for granted. With its unique simplicity, quirky sense of humour, heavily-stylised visuals and superb voice acting, Say No! More delivers a unique experience I KNOW you won’t want to pass up.

So what makes such a simple concept so entertaining?
Well there’s NO time to waste, read on!

Say No More Nintendo Switch

PLOT

It’s your first day at a new job, you’re one of three new interns hired to work for an unnamed massive corporation. Exciting, right? No.

Only minutes into the new job you find out there is a hierarchy that must be obeyed. And as a lowly intern, guess what? You’re the bottom of the ladder. Anything that is asked of you must be done with enthusiasm, in fact it’s impossible to refuse. But why is that? The word “no” does not exist. It has has been completely outlawed, banished and hidden from society.

Get your superior a coffee? Sure, that’s reasonable!
Unjam the printer that your work colleague so kindly stuffed up? Rightio!
Work unpaid overtime for the fifth time this week? Yes, I would love to!
Even give up your adorable unicorn lunchbox because your supervisor forgot their lunch at home? Of course!

Say No More Nintendo Switch Unicorn Lunchbox
Yep, everyone in this game wants a piece of your badass unicorn lunchbox. Who wouldn’t? Just look at it. Majestic.

But this all changes when you stumble across a hidden tape above your dilapidated office desk. A tape containing a forbidden word that has been lost to society. In listening to this tape you gain a power that others in the world would not even speak of: the ability to say NO!

Say No More Nintendo Switch Tape
The world’s shortest audiobook.

In possessing this unique newfound skill, the oppressed intern seeks to rise up and quite literally spread the good word. What follows is a plot that is not only hilarious, but at times meaningful and strangely heart-warming. What starts out as a simple concept, evolves over 8 chapters into something much more dramatic than I had ever expected from a comedy game.

But how do you say “no” more?

GAMEPLAY

Before assaulting office workers and superiors with a barrage of refusal, you’ve got to look the part, right? The game begins with a detailed character creator, despite the very minimalist low-poly graphics. It feels like a combination of Mii Maker and creating a character in The Sims, allowing you to stylise your character’s facial features, clothing and accessories to be as exciting or boring as you wish. I went for a pretty generic salaryman look (that somehow looked a bit like Robert Downey Jr?).

Say No More Nintendo Switch Character Creator
Change your face? No plastic surgery required.

After creating your character, you need to give them a voice. Impressively you can choose from shouting “NO!” in seventeen different languages, each with a feminine or masculine voice. The voice acting is in English, but this shouldn’t stop you from exploring all the different ways you can refuse someone! Definitely a nice touch. For your entertainment here’s a short clip of how to say “no” in the languages available:

Ever wondered how to say no in Gaelic? No?

Once you’ve created your character and chosen your preferred language, the game drops you into a story that takes place across 8 different chapters. Each is about 10 – 15 minutes long and is packed full of hilarious dialogue, amusing conversations between characters, clever easter eggs, and silly slapstick comedy. Levels follow a linear route akin to an on-rails shooter, but instead of firing bullets you’ll be blasting office workers with the sheer power of your words alone. This is simplistic gameplay at its finest and is approachable enough for literally anyone to play. Even my wife (who is usually terrible at games, sorry!) enjoyed it.

Say No More Nintendo Switch Gameplay
Probably don’t do this in your real-life office though…

As you progress through the chapters, you’ll be given additional means of saying no. Certain situations may require you to respond with an angry, a lazy or a sarcastic no. To further humiliate your colleagues, you can perform actions like sarcastically clapping at them, laughing or nodding your head, all of which have certain situations where they are most appropriate. You’ll also be able to hold down the button to charge up a more devastating “NO” that usually causes havoc by launching the unfortunate office workers or inanimate objects that stand in your way. These are all clever ways of adding slightly more depth to a game that could otherwise be finished just by pressing a single button.

Say No More Nintendo Switch Controls
Next time you have to say “no” to a work colleague, try sarcastically clapping at them while doing so. It’ll go down well, I promise.

Though the gameplay in Say No! More is simple, its comedic delivery is where it truly shines.

COMEDY

I’m in no way exaggerating when I say that Say No! More is quite possibly the funniest game I’ve ever played. Throughout the few hours playing the game, the vast majority of the time was spent either in legitimate laughter or with a big cheesy grim on my face. The game is absolutely packed full of superbly-written clever dialogue, witty responses, and a satirical take on the office lifestyle (which I can really appreciate being an office worker myself).

A few snippets from the game, including a reference to some obscure monster-fighting RPG.

My personal favourite parts of the game are delivered in the form of motivational speeches. The tape which teaches you how to say “NO!” is actually delivered by a character that I can only describe as if Hulk Hogan became a motivational speaker. Levels will be scattered with excerpts from this character as you listen to more of the tape, allowing you to unlock further secrets of this powerful word bestowed upon you by your brawny teacher.

Say No More Nintendo Switch Hulk Hogan Nogan Motivation
Your mentor, or as I like to call him: Hulk NOgan.

VISUALS

As you may have already noticed, the game employs a distinct low-poly art-style with vibrant colours and exaggerated animations. I’d say it has a similar aesthetic to Katamari Damacy, which in my opinion is a very good thing. Though detail is limited, this seems to fit well with the comedic style of the game and means the screen can be full of activity with little-to-no drop in framerate. The game performs well in both handheld and docked mode and looks vivid and visually-pleasing.

The low-poly art style of Katamari Damacy Reroll (2018) vs Say No! More.

AUDIO

The soundtrack is quite simple, comprised of peppy, upbeat music that you might expect to hear in the background of an office training video. During the tape sequences however, you’ll feel as if you’ve been thrown into a workout video, as heavy riffs accompany “Hulk NOgan” yelling motivational lines at you.

While none of the tracks in the game will likely find their way onto your favourite game music playlist, the voice acting and delivery of the game’s hilarious dialogue is something worth writing home about. Every single word in the game is voiced, including all the office worker NPCs you’ll often fling out of the way without a care in the world. If you stop to listen to them you’ll enjoy short monologues that aren’t only amusing, but often also insightful.

Say No More Nintendo Switch Dialogue
Take the time to listen to your co-workers. You might learn something from them.

CONCLUSION

So is Say No! More just another indie game on the Switch that you should ignore? NO!
It’s a unique comedic romp through an office that can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone thanks to its witty dialogue and simple, approachable gameplay. Surprisingly, the game also delivers a deeper message about the importance of being assertive and by the end you might even take onboard some of the life advice it provides.
Completion will only take 2 – 3 hours and you’ll be laughing and smiling the entire time. I’m predicting this game will be quite a hit with YouTube “let’s players” looking to share a hilarious game with their viewers.

So, why should you play it?

  • You enjoy light-hearted games filled with humour.
  • Can’t commit to 100-hour JRPGs? Here’s a brilliant game that you could finish in a single sitting!
  • Work in an office? You’ll relate to this satirical take on the office lifestyle.
  • You’d prefer a game for sheer enjoyment rather than a challenge.
  • Needing to learn to assert yourself? Say No! More.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Bland sense of humour? Don’t enjoy silly games? Maybe not for you.
  • There are NO other reasons not to play this game!

Say No! More launches TODAY for Steam, Nintendo Switch and iOS.
You can find out more about the game here: https://www.saynomo.re/

A Nintendo Switch review code was provided for the purpose of this review.