Thumper Review – Don't Expect The Hits

Thumper is the last thing a beetle imagines when it smacks into a windshield. Thumper is what it’s like to peer into the subconscious of the guitar-playing Doof Warrior from Mad Max: Fury Road. Thumper is a rhythm game stripped down to the rims – a primal, uncomfortable nightmare by design. Though it shares a few DNA strands with other games out there, Thumper is its own unique beast – a mean, unrelenting animal that I wanted to put down after a few hours.

You control a metallic beetle traveling along an autoscrolling trough. You move at a blistering speed, accompanied by a pounding, percussive score. As strange as a metallic beetle may be, it’s that score that sets the game apart from other rhythm games you’ve played. It sounds like something ripped from a dystopian movie, and it’s striking and hypnotic. Unfortunately, it can’t maintain the rest of the game.

(Please visit the site to view this media)

When you begin, you only have a few different things to concern yourself with. You can pick up score-enhancing objects by pressing a button as you pass over them. Holding the button down will allow you to pass through hazards that would otherwise damage your bug. You need to steer through tight turns and jump over spikes or take the hit. Your beetle may be made of chrome, but it’s fragile; take two hits, and you have to replay the stretch you died on – a process that may take you back anywhere from a few seconds to a minute or more. Additional elements, such as widened lanes and enemies, are added as the game progresses, but the core remains.

Unlike traditional music/rhythm games, which focus on a playlist of individual songs, Thumper’s soundtrack doesn’t offer much variety. The sounds move through the levels continuously, rarely changing or building into anything larger. It actually works to its favor in the short term, helping to create a sense of dread and an almost hypnotic state. After a few hours, however, it’s a real bummer. It doesn’t provide those moments of catharsis that come with great music games, and nailing a difficult section – of which there are plenty – doesn’t change the audio landscape in any significant ways. You’re just a bug, propelled along a track, your own personal feelings be damned.

The game starts off fairly easy, but it quickly escalates. I had a tricky time reliably pulling off a couple of maneuvers, such as one where your bug briefly goes airborne and slams back to the trough, which added to the frustration. Even when I pulled things off flawlessly, I sensed a disconnect between my actions and the rhythms that I was hearing. And I lost count of how many times I was certain that I turned perfectly, only to watch as my beetle shattered against the wall. You don’t have any difficulty settings to play around with in Thumper, so as with the rest of the game, you experience it on its own terms.

I enjoy challenging games when there’s a rewarding payoff. With Thumper, the reward of doing well is just more Thumper. If you’re really into the game’s bleak conceit, you may have the patience to hang with it for the duration. Personally, I was ready to leap out of the trough and never look back. 

Thumper In VR
Thumper can be played on traditional displays, but it works quite well with the PlayStation 4’s VR. The visuals are still sparse and abstract, but it adds a sense of being present for it all. That sensation comes through whether you’re looking at the trough behind you or seeing the fragments of your dead bug scatter all around you. It’s definitely not worth buying the hardware for on its own – and I can’t enthusiastically recommend Thumper regardless – but it’s worth experiencing for a while at least.

Beta Test Thumper Review – Don’t Expect The Hits

Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens' First DLC Pack Reveals What Happened To Poe Dameron

The first DLC pack for Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens is available now for download. The core game expanded beyond the film’s story to flesh out stories for many of the characters, including Han Solo who was voiced by Harrison Ford. The first DLC pack, Poe’s Quest for Survival, does the same thing; this time showing us what happened to Poe Dameron after he and Finn crash landed on Jakku. In the film, the story follows Finn, and we’re led to believe Poe died in the crash. We’ll now see what happened following the crash from his perspective.

The DLC pack consists of one story-based level on Jakku, and a variety of characters and vehicles, including Ohn Gos, Naka Iit, Poe Dameron (Jakku), Strus Clan Leader, Strus Clan Raider, Strus Clan Speeder (Full-size vehicle) and Strus Clan Speeder (Microfighter vehicle). Check out the trailer below for a brief look at this DLC in action.

(Please visit the site to view this media)

Beta Test Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ First DLC Pack Reveals What Happened To Poe Dameron

The Shrouded Isle Lets You Manage A Cult And Make Human Sacrifices

A new type of a management experience was announced today by Kitfox Games called The Shrouded Isle. In it, you run a cult and must provide your followers with food and shelter and do whatever you can to ensure survival. This means making a human sacrifice every season.

All the villagers are procedurally generated with their own flaws and virtues. “There’s never a perfect choice – nobody is without redeeming qualities,” says Kitfox Games director, Tanya Short. Do you sacrifice the kleptomaniac who’s a popular musician or a mother of three who’s in poor health? That’s a choice for you, but only part of how the game will test you.

In addition, you have five political families vying for influence within the cult, and you must attempt to balance the power across them. Each family provides a service important to the cult, such as food or joy. The challenge comes from trying to survive as you sacrifice members from these different labor forces. You must do your best to run things smoothly and wisely, otherwise you run the risk of awakening and angering the gods. “There is no hope of salvation,” Short says. “The Shrouded Isle (in art and in design) conveys the bleakness of simply struggling to survive. When the gods are deeply apathetic to humanity at best, what can you do but cherish each season as it passes?”

The Shrouded Isle hits PC via Steam this February. You can check out the announcement trailer below.

(Please visit the site to view this media)

Beta Test The Shrouded Isle Lets You Manage A Cult And Make Human Sacrifices

Batman: Arkham VR Review – Become The Detective

What would a Batman game be like if his feet were glued to the floor? That may sound like one of the worst decisions a developer could ever make, but Rocksteady Studios turns this improbable scenario into an engaging experience in Batman: Arkham VR, a short narrative-driven game designed exclusively for PlayStation VR. 

Batman stands stationary throughout most of this adventure, but his detective skills and wonderful array of gadgets are put to good use. Rocksteady’s other Arkham games give us a more complete look at Batman’s multifaceted capabilities (skilled combatant, acrobatic city navigator, etc), but this VR experience does one thing better: it brings you directly into his suit, and I can’t stress just how cool it is to see Gotham through his eyes.

When you put on the VR headset, you can’t help but think you are dawning the pointy ears and mask. Rocksteady hammers this sensation home numerous times – most notably with mirrors that show your transformation into the Caped Crusader. Having Batman stare back at you and mimic your subtlest movements in a mirror is surreal, and it looks great. If you lean into the mirror, he leans in with you, and gets uncomfortably close.

Although Batman can’t move about an environment freely, two Move controllers double as his left and right hands. As beautifully rendered as Gotham is, immersion is slightly lost when you look at his hands, which are not connected to any limbs, making him a more likely relative to Rayman than Thomas and Martha Wayne. When you look down, you also won’t view Batman’s body, and instead see a floating utility belt outfitted with batarangs, a scanner, and a grapple gun.

Regardless of the ghostly design, Rocksteady does a decent job with the gameplay, which stems from basic hand movements. Simple gestures are your main form of interaction, like reaching out to press a button or open a drawer. You can also toss a batarang at a stationary target (with the heaviest of auto-targeting applied), or aim the grapple gun at a highlighted spot to reach a new area. 

I’m disappointed that the batarang requires little in terms of precision (you basically just have to move your wrist), but using the scanner to hunt for clues is good fun, and it works well. I ran into some instances where the PlayStation camera lost track of my hands and they disappeared, leaving me with no way to interact, though these moments didn’t disrupt the fun for more than a few seconds. The precision the Move controllers enable is captured best in a one-off gameplay sequence where Batman has to reconstruct a broken item in 3D space. You have to rotate the objects and connect them properly; enjoyable moments like this are more Batman: Arkham VR’s specialty than meaty gameplay chunks. Regardless of how little you actually do, the points of interaction are designed well, and reinforce the feeling you are doing the kind of detective work only Batman can accomplish.

So what is Batman doing in this game? Rocksteady begins this short story (40 minutes to an hour) with a scene we’re all familiar with: the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Through VR, we now see this tragic event unfold through the eyes of young Bruce, who is standing behind his parents as the crime unfolds. Seeing it from this viewpoint is disturbing, but shows how much this gaming medium can amplify the intensity of a particular scene. This moment offers no interaction (other than turning your head), and like a lot of sequences in Batman: Arkham VR, is more of a movie than a game. 

(Please visit the site to view this media)

After this brief story moment, the game shifts to Wayne Manor, where trusty butler Alfred alerts Bruce that something terrible has happened. Batman is needed, and Bruce must get to the Batcave as quickly as possible. As luck would have it, the piano he is standing beside holds a secret entrance to his crime-fighting lair. To access it, Bruce simply needs to enter a melody on the piano keys to make an elevator appear. At this point, the player simply needs to reach out and touch the piano (although I banged on it like Animal from The Muppets). The elevator appears below you, and descends into the cave, a great moment that shows how VR can bring a fictional world to life. Bruce quickly learns that Robin and Nightwing have gone missing. Robin’s tracking beacon is no longer working. As I was learning of this distressing development in the Bat family, my focus was elsewhere; instead on the wonders of the Batcave (T-Rex and all). As fun as it is to look around, I wish there was more to do here. It’s more of a museum tour than a place of importance for the game.

After locating Nightwing’s tracking beacon, we are whisked away to a crime scene (something that you definitely won’t see coming), and Batman needs to search for clues. This short sequence begins with Batman recreating the crime through holograms (much like the technology from Batman: Arkham Knight). All the player has to do is rewind and fast-forward the murder sequence to spot specific things that will reveal a clue leading to the killer. The challenge comes from looking around 360 degrees to see if you are missing anything. When you spot something, simply pause the footage and it will be added to the evidence log. That’s all you do here.

Regardless of the light gameplay integration, this sequence shows us just how fun it is to get up close and personal with Batman’s friends and villains. You get closer to most of them than you probably ever would want to. These intimate encounters also provide a great look at the artistry and detailing Rocksteady includes into its character models.

The game is gorgeous, and seeing Batman’s world from his viewpoint is cool (I can’t stress this enough). The game can be completed in one session, and offers little in terms of challenge, which is a bummer because you can see how these gameplay trappings could be used for enemy encounters or more elaborate sequences. The puzzles are fairly simple, but are interesting in design, taking players to the morgue, a rooftop, the sewers, and even a location that Rocksteady can’t seem to get enough of. Rocksteady does a nice job of changing up the gameplay designs in each of these areas, but again, you only have a few tasks to complete in each of them. There isn’t much meat on this gameplay bone. If you eat up this experience, you can jump right back in to New Game Plus to search for hidden Riddler trophies.

Yes, Batman: Arkham VR smacks of a proof-of-concept demo for VR, but even so, it’s a nice treat for Batman fans, and one of those experiences that you’ll want more of.

Beta Test Batman: Arkham VR Review – Become The Detective

Until Dawn: Rush Of Blood Review – You Might Want To Sit Down For This

Last year’s Until Dawn was a pleasant surprise. It turned the teen slasher horror movie genre into an interactive experience with an impressive amount of character and narrative development. Rush of Blood drops most of those elements (character and story) in order to focus on something almost entirely different for this virtual reality experience: on-rails shooting. Rush of Blood’s overlap with the source material is questionable, but the gameplay is fun, and it’s a good showcase for PlayStation VR.

In Rush of Blood, you sit in a roller-coaster car with a pair of guns as it moves through seven different tracks. Some take place in familiar locations from Until Dawn, some take place in more abstract locations, but most of them make their way through caves along minecart tracks. Targets are everywhere, and hitting them without missing keeps your multiplier topped off. Things get a little trickier when enemies start showing up, and affords lots of opportunities for intense surprises and jump-scare moments. I particularly enjoyed the final level which veers the farthest into the world of the strange.

Playing with a DualShock 4 controller is an option, but playing with two Motion controllers is more fun and effective. Aiming and shooting feels solid and I rarely missed a shot. The guns’ consistent accuracy, unfortunately, does involve a little bit of luck. I didn’t have to recalibrate often, but uncontrollable factors (like the lighting in your room) can affect your camera’s ability to pick up the motion controllers. Actions like holding two guns in opposite directions and quickly looking back and forth to take on attackers from all angles is an empowering experience.

Virtual reality, in general, has not made me feel nauseated, but some of the more intense roller-coaster moments did make my stomach turn in Rush of Blood. Rather than get excited about oncoming hills, I quickly learned to dread them and even resorted to closing my eyes during the steeper declines. This aspect of the game will be different for all players, but thankfully it uses this admittedly intense mechanic sparingly if you happen to react to it as I did.

Rather than continue the story of Until Dawn, or expand it in a substantial way, Rush of Blood borrows the creepy, something-bad-around-every-corner tone. The player, who has no personality beyond the visual appearance of their arms and legs, appears to be visiting some sort of therapist who suddenly turns into a carnival proprietor and serves as your tour guide through the assorted horrific roller-coaster tracks. What’s real and what’s in your imagination is unclear, which fits the mysterious tone of Until Dawn and makes everything all the more strange. Siblings Hannah, Beth, and Josh Washington are mentioned in passing, but I didn’t learn anything new about them by the time I made it to the end. Even though the story isn’t the main focus, I still appreciated it, as well as each of the carnival proprietor’s prologues and the actor’s performance.

Rush of Blood is straightforward in its execution. It’s a simple action game that feels like an evolution of the light-gun shooter, but in this early age of virtual reality, it’s the right call. Pointing and shooting at scary things on a fun-house roller-coaster might not seem like the right direction for Until Dawn’s character-focused storytelling, but for PlayStation VR, it’s one of the best ways to get your feet wet, even if it doesn’t do anything bold or particularly innovative in the world of game design.

(Please visit the site to view this media)

Beta Test Until Dawn: Rush Of Blood Review – You Might Want To Sit Down For This

The PlayStation VR Review

The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have enjoyed a healthy seven-month lead in the virtual-reality race due to both launching within a week of one another. Sony stayed out of the early fight as it finished preparations for its home-console VR experience, but now it’s ready to step into the ring. It has a handful of exclusive titles and a cheaper (but still expensive) headset that might be more appealing to those still making a decision about whether to dive into this new medium of entertainment. In addition to its lower price point, Sony’s PlayStation VR has the potential to reach further than its competitors thanks to the PlayStation 4’s install base. While it does have some catching up to do to its competition, Sony’s headset does provide a legitimate virtual-reality experience with plenty of pros to balance the cons.

The first question many have about PlayStation VR is how it stacks up to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and the quick answer is as expected: PlayStation VR is not as great as its main competitors. If you want to go all-in on virtual reality, money is no object, and you have an extra room in your house, then HTC Vive is the one I would personally recommend. That person is rare, however, and they probably bought a Vive back in April. The PlayStation 4 may lack in some areas such as screen resolution and controller-tracking, but this is modern virtual reality as we’ve come to define it. The headset offers a genuine sense of presence in its worlds and offers experiences unlike anything you’ve ever played before in the console space.

The Setup
One of the biggest advantages of the PlayStation VR is its connection to the PlayStation 4. It does not plug into a PC, which means Sony has only had to account for one type of system. The headset comes included with all the cables you need, as well as a separate processing unit that looks a little like an adorable miniature PlayStation 4. The processing unit does require its own power, so you will have to make some room on your surge protector.

The headset and the PlayStation 4 console connect to the processing unit, and the processing unit plugs into your TV. The PlayStation camera stays plugged into the proprietary port on the back of the console. Once that’s all set up, it’s a matter of adjusting the camera so that it can see the headset, and you’re ready. The initial setup process was reasonable, taking about 10 minutes at most, and I took the headset between home and our offices while working on the review encountering few issues when having to unplug and plug it back in.

The Cost
There are a few different options when it comes to picking up a PlayStation VR, depending on how much of the hardware you already own. Despite the large price tag, Sony’s VR device still comes in at a lower price that the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive.
PlayStation 4 console – $299 – $399
PlayStation VR Launch Bundle – $499.99
•    PlayStation VR Headset
•    PlayStation 4 Camera
•    Two PlayStation Move controllers
•    PlayStation Worlds game
•    PlayStation VR Demo Disc
Standalone PlayStation VR Headset – $399.99
•    PlayStation VR Demo Disc
PlayStation 4 Camera – $59.99
Two PlayStation Move controllers – $99.99

The Comfortability
PlayStation VR looks bulky and is made of mostly plastic, but it is the most comfortable to wear of the three main VR headsets. You pull the front and back of the headset apart to place it over your head as you would a hat; once you have it in place, a knob on the back lets you tighten the headset in small increments. The back of the headset also has a button to release the tension when you’re ready to take it off.

The PlayStation VR keeps up with Oculus and Vive’s refresh rates, but the screen is lower resolution. It still looks sharp and is capable of delivering some impressive detail, but there is no denying that games look muddier on VR. This is true of all virtual reality – the games looks sharper on-screen than they do in-headset – but the gap between the visuals is larger in PlayStation VR.

The visor, which houses the screen, can be moved toward and away from your face. Unlike the competition, the PlayStation VR does not entirely rest on your face, which is a good and bad thing. The good thing is since the visor is not pressed against your face, you can comfortably wear glasses. On the competing headsets, I had to resort to not wearing my glasses while playing VR, even though it does make my vision significantly worse. Here, glasses are no problem.

The gap between your face and the visor also means your peripheral vision is not 100% obscured. You don’t get a full view, but if you want to take notice of your surroundings or check your phone, you just press the button to pull the visor away from your face, and push it back when you’re ready to start playing again. A passthrough camera still would have been appreciated, but this a good low-tech solution for making sure you’re at least somewhat aware of your surroundings.

The downside of the gap, however, has the potential to be a much larger problem. Light leaking into the headset can break the immersion, especially when a game requires you to pull a brightly lit Move controller up to your face. I also became nauseated by PlayStation VR often as the leaking light would sometimes reflect on the lenses inside the headset. Playing in a dark room alleviates this problem, but it does not solve it.

A standard 1/8-inch headphone jack is embedded near a set of buttons that hangs by your chest while wearing VR, so wearing headphones is easy. The buttons turns PlayStation VR on and off, control volume, and mute voice chat.

The Controllers
Many games use the standard DualShock 4 controller, and most cleverly superimpose the controller into the virtual space in front of you. The better way to play most of the games though, is with two PlayStation Move motion controllers. These controllers are comfortable, and seeing your two separate hands in a virtual space lends a much better sense that you’re actually there.

The PlayStation VR headset accounts for full 360-degree rotation by embedding sensors in the back, but the same can’t be said for the controllers. The PlayStation Camera needs to see the light from your controller in order for it to function, so if you are facing away from the camera and your body blocks the camera’s view to the controller, it can create a problem.

The Operating System
If you’ve used the PlayStation 4, then you already know what you’re doing to when it comes to navigating the PlayStation 4 in virtual reality. It basically displays the exact same U.I. on a large screen in front of you. There’s no need to sign up for a separate PlayStation VR account, or sit in a fake room to look through your games.

Your normal, non-VR games can be played on this screen, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It basically takes your PlayStation 4 games, makes them look muddy, and makes the screen appear larger. In theory, the idea of playing your PlayStation 4 games on a giant virtual screen is appealing, but in practice it’s just headache-inducing. It’s like sitting in the front row of a bad theater. I only made it through one mission in Destiny before I was back to playing it on my normal television.

The Games
At the time of this review, we have not had a chance to try all of PlayStation VR’s launch titles, but we played many of them. Each headset comes with a demo disc, which is a great inclusion for sampling a variety of new experiences. None of the games offer anything especially innovative in the world of virtual reality, but there are some standouts for those new to the medium.

Kyle Hilliard’s Top 5 PlayStation VR Experiences

1. Until Dawn: Rush of Blood
2. Thumper
3. Batman: Arkham VR
4. The London Heist (PlayStation Worlds)
5. Super HyperCube

Until Dawn: Rush of Blood surprised me, and was one of my favorites. You can find our full review here, but its simplicity is what makes it a good game to really dive into virtual reality. Its ties to the character-focused, narrative experience of Until Dawn from last year are tenuous, but it’s successful as a scary action game that’s fun to shoot targets/monsters in.

Batman: Arkham VR is perhaps the biggest tease for the potential of VR. There are some very interesting moments when you get a real sense of being in Gotham City and doing the work of the World’s Greatest Detective, but it’s short, difficult to set up, and made me almost lose my balance on a few occasions. The head-tracking simply doesn’t seem to be as effective as some of the other games are. You can find our review here.

Thumper is not a PlayStation VR exclusive game, but it ended up being another standout for me, even if Jeff Cork didn’t share my enthusiasm. It’s an intense rhythm game whose intensity is increased in VR. The pulsing soundtrack and bizarre visuals are hypnotic and it was one I was eager to revisit.

The PlayStation Worlds game, which is basically a collection of tech demos for PlayStation VR has a few impressive options. The London Heist is short, but features big action shootouts and angry British gangsters yelling in your face. It’s one I wouldn’t mind seeing expanded into a full game. The other experiences on the disc are simple, mostly passive experiences that are fun to look at once.

Scavenger’s Odyssey, which is also on the PlayStation Worlds disc, is one you can investigate at your own peril. It looks great and has an interesting sci-fi conceit that has you jumping between asteroids in outer space in a mech, but it made me sick almost immediately. I can’t place my finger exactly on what was making me ill. It could have been having full control of the character’s movement, or the antigravity mechanics that had you rotating to jump on vertical walls, but whatever it was, this is the sickest I’ve gotten by playing virtual reality.

The Nausea
This will be different for every player, and unfortunately I can’t predict how it will make you feel, but PlayStation VR did give me the most issues between the three major VR headsets. First-person shooters have never given me issue, nor have intense rhythm games like Rez or Amplitude, but stereoscopic 3D has always given me a headache. Oculus and Vive usually leave me with a headache, but some extended PlayStation VR sessions left me feeling nauseated alongside my normal VR headache, depending on the game. I mentioned Scavenger’s Odyssey above, as well as some balance issues with Batman, but overall, the games that were well-designed left me feeling the same as when I play other headsets.

The Final Grade: C–

PlayStation VR falls under the same argument that has plagued the ongoing war between PC gaming and console gaming for years. By the technical standards, Oculus and Vive on PC are stronger showcases for VR. However, PlayStation VR is cheaper, offers a legitimate virtual-reality experience that is more comfortable, and is easier to use than its competitors. For the console-exclusive gamers looking to enter the realm of virtual reality, PlayStation VR gets the job done. You can enter virtual worlds, get a sense that you’re really there, and have new interactive gaming experiences unlike anything you’ve seen before on consoles. You just might have a little bit of a headache as a result.

Beta Test The PlayStation VR Review

Reader Discussion – What's The Funniest Game You Ever Played?

Today we revealed our latest cover, which is all about South Park: The Fractured But Whole. It’s the sequel to South Park: The Stick Of Truth, which is a hilarious game, and we’re optimistic the follow-up could be even funnier.

Comedy and video games don’t always mesh, but when they do it makes an impression. What is the funniest game you’ve ever played? Was it something where the humor is more player-directed, like Goat Simulator? Or maybe the writing of games like the two Portal games stand out to you? Or maybe all it takes is having Tim Schafer’s name in the credits.

Let us know in the comments below what your funniest gaming experience has been.

Beta Test Reader Discussion – What’s The Funniest Game You Ever Played?

Elder Gods In The Machine – Darkest Dungeon’s Lovecraftian Game Mechanics

Darkest Dungeon is dripping with H.P. Lovecraft: inky alien tentacles protrude through dimensional rifts in the game’s fetid sewers, your characters’ sanity is steadily drained as they trudge further into the darkness, and Wayne June (the narrator of several Lovecraft audiobooks) provides a fraught basso narration throughout it all.

While it’s been out since the beginning of the year on PC, Red Hook Studios’ Darkest Dungeon is now available for PlayStation 4 and Vita, which makes this a perfect opportunity to talk about one of the most interesting games to emerge from Steam’s Early Access program. Daniel Tack reviewed the game in January, praising Darkest Dungeon’s substance and style, and calling it “an incredible take on the classic dungeon crawl.”

As the game begins, you find you’ve inherited a decrepit manor from a relative who died after his quest for riches beneath the estate opened gateways to evil dimensions. Your job is to clean up the mess he left behind – or more accurately, to hire other people to do it for you, and hopefully find some of that treasure your forebear was after.

Darkest Dungeon isn’t just outwardly Lovecraftian – that is, it’s not simply a well-made dungeon crawl covered in a coat of Cthulhu-colored ink. The game’s mechanics themselves are rooted in themes that are integral to Lovecraft’s particular brand of horror, and the result is an experience that can be deeply –and rewardingly – unsettling.

The Basics of Lovecraft
Even if you’ve never read any of Lovecraft’s fiction, you’ve almost certainly felt his far-reaching influence. He wrote about creepy cults and terrible alien gods that sleep beneath the sea, about ancient tomes full of knowledge that drive readers insane, and about deranged scientists who reanimate the dead. The Shadow over Innsmouth introduces the creepy New England town referenced in many of Lovecraft’s stories, where residents were suspicious of outsiders and had a certain “fishy” look about them. In The Call of Cthulhu, which is a good entry point into Lovecraft’s work, he details much of his famous mythos of terrifying “elder ones” from beyond the stars, and the cults that seek to reawaken them.

“Lovecraftian horror” as a genre has long since eclipsed the author’s own extensive body of work. And in many ways, that’s a good thing: written in the 1920s and ‘30s, many of Lovecraft’s stories reflect an unreconstructed racism that can be pretty tough to read. The Rats in the Walls, which is the inspiration for Darkest Dungeon’s setting, is a perfect example of this – the narrator uses a vile racial slur as the name for his black cat. Fortunately, storytellers who’ve followed in Lovecraft’s footsteps (including Darkest Dungeon’s writers) have felt free to leave this aspect of the author’s work in the past and continue exploring his more creative ideas about malevolent alien gods from outside space and time.

Former Game Informer intern AJ Moser compiled a great list of Lovecraft-inspired games, and he hits on several of the author’s main themes: fear of the unknown, the loss of sanity, and the insignificance of humanity compared to cosmic forces. Darkest Dungeon uses these three Lovecraftian motifs to shape its mechanics, so let’s look at them one by one.

Fear of the Unknown
Throughout history, humans have feared the darkness, and to Lovecraft it represented the unknown and unknowable. Many of his stories center on forbidden knowledge hidden in darkness, notably The Call of Cthulhu. Lovecraft’s monsters and cultists crave the darkness, relying on it to help protect them and the secrets they guard. His characters rarely survive contact with the dark, and the ones who do are permanently scarred from the experience.

Games like the original Thief, Outlast, Alien: Isolation, and countless others have used darkness to effectively create unnerving or downright terrifying environments. But in Darkest Dungeon darkness is actually a gameplay mechanic: the darker it gets, the more likely it is that you’ll get ambushed by a group of enemies as you travel between rooms. Darkness also increases your characters’ stress levels. But while the darkness is dangerous, it also has a definite allure. As the light level gets lower, the loot you pick up becomes better and better, and while monsters gain certain advantages in the dark, your characters also have increased chances to score critical hits in combat. Your party can bring torches along to light the way, but these must usually be purchased before an expedition begins, they burn out quickly, and they take up limited inventory space. The game creates a push-pull against the darkness that is full of risks and rewards, but it also reflects Lovecraft’s simultaneous fear of and fascination with darkness.

The procedural generation of each dungeon adds to this tension. Each time you set out on a new expedition, the layout of rooms and hallways is brand new. You can usually only guess which direction your characters should travel, and the map reveals little beyond what you’ve already explored – although you can increase the chance of “scouting ahead” and revealing more of the map by keeping a fully-lit torch at the ready. No matter how well you prepare for a quest, and no matter how many times you’ve already attempted it, each time you set forth in Darkest Dungeon you’re heading into darkness and the unknown.

Your characters encounter enemies in the sewers and warrens below the estate that grow increasingly horrible as you progress through the game. Brigands and ghouls prowl the early areas, but as your party pushes deeper into the dungeons, they’ll run into twisted half-human monsters, eyeless acolytes of evil gods, and fungal abominations. They’re the kinds of horrors we’ve always imagined lurking just beyond the reach of the campfire’s light.

Loss of Sanity and Humanity
Monsters and traps aren’t the only dangers your characters face in Darkest Dungeon. There’s also stress, mentioned above, which builds as the party walks through the dark or when members suffer critical hits. Certain enemies inflict “stress damage” rather than physical damage, implying that they’re attacking characters’ minds rather than their bodies. Just being in the dungeons is inherently stressful for all but the most experienced explorers. Stress, along with the various diseases, parasites, and syndromes your characters can pick up on their way through the underground caverns, persists between adventures and can have long-term effects on their health, behavior, and effectiveness. Managing who is getting treated for which ailment can be a tricky balancing act to pull off between expeditions, and you’ll often find yourself (particularly in the early game) sending characters back into the field before they’ve had a chance to truly recover.

This in itself isn’t particularly new territory for RPGs or management games, but the game’s tuning tests the player’s humanity as much as the characters’ toughness. As more characters amass longer and longer lists of physical and mental ailments from their time in the dungeons, you have to make increasingly uncomfortable choices. Your high-level Crusader might have just returned from a particularly costly expedition and still be completely stressed out, or you might need to send a brand new Vestal (a healing class) in with a more experienced crew on a tougher mission, knowing she probably won’t survive. As Austin Walker wrote in his Darkest Dungeon essay for Paste, “If this were a game of Call of Cthulhu, you’d be the antagonist – the fallen aristocrat so thirsty to recover his family’s power that he sacrifices the lives of dozens to unearth terrible, terrible things.”

Sending characters to their certain doom is uncomfortable, but it’s definitely Lovecraftian. The author’s protagonists very rarely survive to the end of one of his short stories. One of his contemporaries, Robert Bloch, wrote a story called The Shambler from the Stars, in which he kills off a character that he’d obviously based on Lovecraft himself. Lovecraft responded by penning the short story The Haunter in the Dark as a sequel to Bloch’s. Its main character, a writer named Robert Blake, unwittingly activates an ancient relic and summons a monster from another dimension. The nameless horror, which drives Blake insane and eventually kills him, can only move in total darkness.

Powerlessness
In Lovecraft’s stories, the takeaway is often that humanity’s best efforts are ultimately futile in the face of powers that we can’t begin to comprehend. There’s a built-in unfairness and hopelessness in his stories. Building a sense of powerlessness and futility into a game’s mechanics cuts against some core tenets of game design – what’s the point in playing a game if it’s impossible to complete? Darkest Dungeon is a difficult game, but not impossible, and it manages to hint at humanity’s frailty and weakness without stopping the player’s progress.

One way the game does this is by using a probability system similar to the one found in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and countless other turn-based games. Your Arbalest may have a 70-percent chance to hit an enemy in the back row of a group of monsters, and that information is given to you right up front. This means you’re constantly managing risk instead of making moves that have definite outcomes – it might make sense in some cases to take a 25-percent chance to hit shot just in case it saves another party member from taking a fatal blow.

But this means that playing Darkest Dungeon optimally doesn’t always yield optimal results. Despite doing everything right, your party still faces the possibility of permanent injury or death. The only real guarantee is that your characters will definitely suffer a cost, mental and physical, from their adventures in the catacombs.

Characters who persevere through many adventures will get stronger and capable of taking on tougher challenges, but the risk of losing them remains throughout the game. And when the dungeons don’t consume characters, sometimes their own mental demons will do the job. A character who has built up too many negative traits may simply become too expensive to treat, and you’ll have to cut him loose to free up roster space. Sending these broken characters away to wander the world with afflictions you’ve pushed on them is chilling in the way that losing a valued member of an XCOM squad is heartbreaking.
As the in-game weeks roll by, you can recognize a creeping unease building in yourself as well. Your heroes aren’t cut out for the next mission. And what if you have to train up a new team? Can you actually move forward in the game, or has a mistake two expeditions ago doomed your playthrough? You don’t have a choice but to press forward, but that nagging voice will always remind you that success is anything but guaranteed.

* * * * *

Howard Phillips Lovecraft died of intestinal cancer in 1937, having never achieved financial success with his fiction. But his influence is ubiquitous today: H.R. Giger’s design for the Xenomorph in Alien, for instance, and the terrible cosmic mystery of Bloodborne are both explicitly Lovecraftian. Darkest Dungeon’s presentation also exudes Lovecraft’s aesthetic thanks in no small part to dark, angular character designs and backgrounds and moody score.

The game isn’t content to simply look and sound Lovecraftian, though. Darkest Dungeon is a master class in design synthesis, pulling together aesthetic and mechanical elements into a thematically-unified whole that evokes the author’s work both in style and form. It’s enough that a few hours with the game may drive you to start feverishly scribbling notes in a journal to leave as a warning to anyone who might come looking for you…

Darkest Dungeon is out now for PlayStation 4 and PS Vita, and the first DLC, The Crimson Court, is scheduled for early next year.

Beta Test Elder Gods In The Machine – Darkest Dungeon’s Lovecraftian Game Mechanics

New Beyond Good & Evil Officially In Pre-Production

After so many years, vague teases about the possibility of Beyond Good & Evil 2 are just a part of the video game landscape now. Heck, we just had another one last week. However, creator Michel Ancel might finally be ready to back up the teases with something concrete.

According to an Instagram post from Ancel, a new Beyond Good & Evil game is officially in pre-production. The confirmation came alongside a new piece of concept art (pictured above), where Ancel wrote the caption: “Endangered species – now saved – Game in pre-production – Stay tuned!” 

This is good news for fans who have been anxiously following every scrap of info about a possible follow-up. If you want to know what made the first game so special, you can watch our Super Replay of the original Beyond Good & Evil. 

 

Our Take
I guess sitting on the shelf for almost a decade doesn’t count as “pre-production.” After all of the nudges and teases, at least fans have something solid to hang their hopes on – but after all this time, I won’t believe it’s happening until we see something playable.

Beta Test New Beyond Good & Evil Officially In Pre-Production

Google Unveils Daydream View VR Device

Consumers aren’t exactly flocking to VR technology quite yet, but that’s not stopping Google from entering the VR arms race. The Daydream View allows users to access VR from their phones – like a more advanced version of Google Cardboard.  

Google previously announced its plans for the new device, but only unveiled the product during a live event today. 

(Please visit the site to view this media)

The Daydream View is more of a competitor to the Gear VR rather than the more complete platforms like Vive, Rift, and PSVR. It costs about $80, can be used with multiple Daydream-ready phones, and is slated to release in November.

 

Our Take
The Daydream and its capabilities aren’t exactly cutting-edge when compared to more powerful and more expensive options. However, it may be the best avenue to experiment with VR for many users, which gives it an advantage with mainstream audiences. 

Beta Test Google Unveils Daydream View VR Device