Welp, after Sekiro, it seems the release schedule is going to be stumbling around in a post-coital funk with a shuriken lodged in its forehead for a while, so let's do one of my indie double-bills with two recent games that have some kind of connection between them. In this case, they're both named after seven-letter words that end in "-ard", and absolutely bugger-all else; I can already tell I'm going to be breezing through this year's drought period like a rowboat on a ball pit. So let's start with Unheard; Unheard is a puzzly detective game thing that I had a go at because the premise reminded me of Return of the Obra Dinn, last year's really gosh-darningly mainbrace-splicingly good puzzly detective game thing that I was very sad to find could only be beaten for the first time once, and then it becomes little more than a very atmospheric corpse party.
Unheard is another spin on the concept of "solving a mystery from listening to snatches of dialogue", and by "snatches", I mean "flipping great wadges of the stuff". The premise is, you're given a floor plan and can skip around the last five to ten minutes before a crime or disaster or the ice cream man comes, moving your invisible avatar from room to room listening to conversations between characters. From these conversations, you must divine each character's name and ultimately answer one or two broad overhanging questions - "Who was the killer?", "Who stole the painting?", "Who was the drummer in Roxy Music from 1980 to 1983?", etc.
And on the whole, I'd say Unheard suffers from a lack of the sheer elegance and design that made Obra Dinn so hatch-batteningly good. Rather than listening to snatches of dialogue in the brief moments of constructive debate and airing of feelings that occur as a person is getting their head split in half by a giant crab monster, Unheard has us listen to entire conversations in hopes that the relevant pieces of information will craftily sneak by unnoticed once we've all been bored to death. The core gameplay is just systematically going from room to room listening to all the conversations in turn, and once you've heard them all, the answers are usually obvious. Naming the characters is easy; there's almost always one moment where another character loudly greets them by name as they enter a room like they're a fucking special guest star on The Simpsons, and there was more than one occasion where the killer turned out to be the guy with the obvious creepy psycho voice.
I didn't get much deductive challenge out of Unheard, is me point; it felt more like constantly moving inexorably towards success the more I listened to. And the scenarios all feel so very contrived, partly because it seems odd that everyone in the building should be having incredibly relevant and exposition-heavy dialogue throughout the entire five minutes up to the incident, when you'd think at least some of them would just be talking about lunch or going to the toilet, partly because the actors were apparently all told that this was their big chance to get out of radio ads and theme park mascot costumes and finally get into big-time shit like anime dubs and softcore porn, so they're all doing massively overblown performances with their best Bugsy Malone accents.
All right, maybe my melancholy-tinged love of Obra Dinn is making me overly cruel about this; it's harmless enough fun, and there are at least a couple of solid "Aha!" moments, so it might be worth a look if you're still jonesing for another hit of that Obra Dinn "you solved three more characters" music. But with its short length and lack of complexity, Unheard has even less replay value than Obra Dinn, and doesn't have that wonderful atmosphere to drink in unless you're keen on the atmosphere of an amateur dramatics class in a Los Angeles rehab center.
So our second game is Outward, an indie open-world RPG with survival-crafting elements. Now, if you're anything like me, that description probably has you nodding and smiling and slowly backing away as your gaze nervously flicks around, checking the exits, but give it a chance, because the emphasis is more on the RPG and the survival than the crafting, and at no point are you given the ability to build a house. I'm here to explore and slit up velociraptors, open-world survival RPG developers! Why the fuck would I want to build a house that (A) cannot move and (B) doesn't go "Rawr"?!
Truth be told, I probably wouldn't have given Outward much of my time if it weren't for two things I found intriguing. First of all, you start the game, wake up in your nice bed, yawn, stretch, put on your jeans, head out the door, and then a crowd of people on your doorstep call you a cunt. Well, that would've livened up the start of Chrono Trigger, or basically any Pokémon game. Not only do they think you're a cunt, but you've got five days to pay 150 Silver, and if you can't pony up, they're going to burn down your house or something. And that's how you get to grips with the game: by immediately having to go out and find a way to pay off the local neighborhood watch cum protection racket.
And only after you do that can anything approaching a plot start. I like this, 'cos while some games will just immediately overload you with plot, characters, and places to go, Outward doesn't give you much beyond one simple goal and leaves you to figure out the rest; maybe you'll do some side quests, maybe you'll hunt and scavenge enough stuff to sell, or maybe you'll just hop aboard the nearest boxcar and resign yourself to a life of furiously sucking dick like a starving hedgehog in a worm farm. The other feature that impressed me early on was the combat, and specifically, the fact that you can press a single button to ditch your backpack where you stand and can come back for it when you're finished dodge-rolling the enemy's balls off. Many things would benefit from a dedicated "immediately strip down to your pants" button: Dark Souls, awkward job interviews, etc. Sadly, Outward couldn't sustain its appeal after the good first impression; mosey on back to the start of this paragraph and note my usage of the phrase "anything approaching a plot", 'cos most of the time, Outward doesn't so much "approach" a plot as "hang around outside its house until somebody calls the police".
The main point of the game is traveling; there's no fast travel, everything's spread out like your mum's legs at a farmers' market, and traveling by night is about as advisable as bobbing for hair-dryers, so every journey is a little mini-adventure in map-reading, resource management, and picking your battles. But the characters you're traveling to are rather hollow and little more than nodes connecting the journeys; I'd finally reach the next city and the person I'm supposed to meet, and they're like, "Good boy! Now, why don't you go back to the starting city and see if they need anything?" I thought this game was called "Outward", not "Outward, Inward, Shake It All About-ward"!
I'm also not a fan of the way you never truly "die"; it's a fairly universal measure of a game's frustration: how long it takes after failure to get back in a position to have another crack, and this game's like, "Oh no, you died! Never mind; just have a six-hour rest to get your health back, scavenge up more food and water, figure out where the fuck we just spawned you, and then tread back over!" Or I could reload a save... "No, you fucking couldn't! We literally won't let you!" And I don't feel enough sense of purpose to mitigate the annoyance. So in conclusion, Outward doesn't go anywhere, and Unheard won't shut up; next week, a game called Piers Morgan about a human being who deserves to be alive.
- Forward and Wellard: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- No RPG should have fewer quickslots than a human being has fingers
- Quite a urine stream of consciousness this week