This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Carrion and Beyond a Steel Sky.
Nothing better than a nice, fresh, hot indie game, except perhaps TWO nice, fresh, hot indie games standing on top of each other and putting on a big coat to sneak into a bar. So let's have one of our double-bills, starting with Carrion, a rather unique pixel-art Metroidvania that asks the question, "What if Prototype, but the main character didn't even keep up the pretense of being a human, and just lolloped around the environment as a great big cloud of teeth and pancreases, acquiring upgrades as you go that allow you to carry on into new areas, turning all the humans you find into carry-out?"
There's something hypnotic about the animation of what I hesitate to call the main character. I guess we have to call it something; let's go with "Harold". Harold squelches and flutters around the various samey industrial environments like a pile of wet laundry descending a staircase, and it feels as viscerally satisfying as peeling dried glue off your hands. But movement looks a lot more complicated than it is; Harold throws out tentacles to pull himself around, but he does it with such efficiency that all we're really doing is pushing in a direction to go in that direction, and it's about as complex and nuanced as using a giant sticky bun-smeared mouse pointer.
So you start out with 100% unhampered free movement, but that's because you're role-playing as the horror movie monster that the camera never gets a proper look at, lest the viewer notice that the prop department threw it together out of chamois leathers and tinned beetroot, and you need to be able to rapidly cram yourself down the nearest vent the moment your bipedal breakfast burritos pull out the flamethrowers. From there, you can enact hilarious cinematic moments by waiting for the humans to think you've gone and say things like, "Everything's going to be okay now." before you send out a grabby tentacle and yank them into the vents to help you rework the interior design. Or, more likely, accidentally grab the end table next to them and spill everyone's martinis.
Because in contrast to your basic movement, directing your "Grab" ability is like Grandpa's first fishing trip after the stroke, at least with a controller. Harold, you are basically 90% mouth! It should not be this difficult to get you to fucking eat something! I can fucking sit Harold on top of a pile of ripe torsos, and it's like introducing a new food to your fucking cat; you have to get off and grab them with a tentacle in order to pull them to the mouth they were already right next to in the first place. I found the best way to deal with most enemy encounters was to burst in, grab whatever or whoever is closest to hand and, to use the technical term, "spaz the fuck out", at which point, physics does most of the work. But I feel the game would've done better to more emphasize the stealthy predator approach; there's a reason why there was never a bit in The Thing where a giant blob of bloodstained phlegm flung itself around a room, gaily spinning Kurt Russell around its head on the end of a fleshy lasso.
And one final, massive bleeding point to mention: I really wish there was a fucking map. I get why there isn't one - we're a barely-sentient pile of ground pork lost in a facility designed for humans rather than meat clouds, and we lack the limb dexterity to work the buttons on a GPS - but the level design isn't exactly intuitive to navigate. Mixing up the scenery might've helped; have us devour the contents of an elementary school or Blockbuster Video as well as the nineteen decrepit industrial areas. I actually had to restart the whole game at one point 'cos I couldn't find the way forward, and I'd forgotten where I'd already been. Yes, we got by without auto-maps in the olden days, but some would say we "got by" without the polio vaccine; it's reasonable to expect a few perks these days. Still, the game's length makes it inoffensive, assuming you're not offended by humans getting pounded under flailing vent covers like tomatoes under a potato ricer, and it's worth checking out if, say, you enjoy the sensation of sticking your hands in a bucket of warm rice pudding.
But let's move on from an ambulatory dish sponge overindulging in human canapés to me overindulging in nostalgia, because the other game I played this week was Beyond a Steel Sky, sequel to 90's point-and-click adventure Beneath a Steel Sky that about nine people were demanding. But me and 90's adventure games had some good times; we were in high school together, he watched me jerk off in the shower once, and Beneath a Steel Sky was a fun little yarn about a dude in the futuristic Australian Outback who gets brought to a dieselpunk city to liberate it from an oppressive A.I., and perhaps even learn why he's clean-shaven and dressed like a Gestapo officer when he was ostensibly raised by nomads in a wasteland. The plot was decent, and the art was pretty great, and the writing had a sense of humor, and the gameplay was... well, it was a 90's point-and-click adventure game, so it was about as fun as looking for your car keys in a backpack full of forks.
In Beyond a Steel Sky, Robert Foster is now rocking a sort of "Bruce Campbell does Mad Max" look and must return to Union City to get to the bottom of why it keeps kidnapping children from the wasteland and why all its residents are addicted to social media all of a sudden. Ooh, is it because clumsy, topical satire? 'Cos it sounds like clumsy, topical satire! I would grade Beyond a Steel Sky with a very solid C+; the 90's adventure games inventory puzzle-based gameplay - which, to reiterate, is generally about as dynamic and interesting as picking raisins out of your bran flakes - is augmented by a rather nice hacking system based around rewiring the logic of machinery that adds a much-needed extra dimension to the puzzle-solving, even if it's not quite used to the fullest.
The story is quite intriguing, at least early on, with Foster stealing the identity of a dead man and following a breadcrumb trail of clues to what they were getting up to and also having to pretend to be them, but it kind of drifts apart by the end, with one too many things not getting explained well enough. Why were there two Joeys? Why did the people of the city remember the end of the last game as some kind of mythic religious fable when it was, like, a few years ago and most returning characters haven't even visibly aged much? That'd be like someone today talking about the election of Jeremy Corbyn to Labour Party leader the way they talk about the crucifixion of Christ! And it ends on a disappointing note, too: an exciting final, climactic sequence of very easy sliding tile puzzles.
But I'm most let down by the visuals. It's got that Borderlands-y "cel-shaded but in an open relationship and can still see other graphical styles" thing that looks like arse and chips, and the animation is very jank; every time the engine has to none-too-subtly glide Foster into place to interact with something, it's like he's standing on a tea tray on a string. The real tragedy here is that, back in the days of 2D art and animation, Revolution Software were fucking killing it! Beneath a Steel Sky, Broken Sword; for their time, they were like tongue kisses for the eyeballs. Then, suddenly, they decided they had to do 3D graphics like everyone and their greengrocer and it was like a master violinist feeling like they had to take up the ukulele.
I mean fuck me, Dave Gibbons worked on Beneath a Steel Sky! A really good 2D artist; the artist of Watchmen, for fuck's sake! They brought him back on for this one, and then did most of the game in 3D; that's like hiring Professor Stephen Hawking to make YouTube essays about how Rey should've porked Finn.
- Beneath a Teal Sky: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Robert Foster was canonically named after the beer, because as a child he had a tendency to piss himself
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