Following on from our review of unsettling old-school point ‘n’ click indie game Decay -Part 1, we managed to elicit the answers to a few questions from the founder of Swedish-based Shining Gate Software, the developers behind the game and its upcoming installments, of which Part 2 has already been officially announced. Fredrik Westlund tells us how Decay came about, what the future holds for his fledgling company, and which game he would most like to have on his own CV. Full interview after the jump.

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Reviewing Decay – Part 1 using traditional videogaming criteria is a tricky business, as it bears little resemblance to anything else on the Xbox Live Indie Game platform, or any of the current crop of retail titles. Sure, there are puzzles, and the kind of item examination and use that recalls fond memories of a certain Resident Evil, a franchise cited as one of developer Shining Gate Software’s influences. But there is no jump button, no shooting, no health bars, no enemies, no game overs. Just a series of moments, snatches of plot, a few cerebral puzzles and an atmosphere of true dread.

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The newly re-launched website for upcoming FPS Bioshock 2 is exactly the kind of digital experience that a videogame demands – dripping with atmosphere and steeped in the aesthetics of the game. The interactive Flash diorama,  loosely based around a doll’s house, blends seamlessly at certain points with actual gameplay teaser footage, and adds an air of grimy menace with eerie sound effects and unsettling dialogue (click on the doll in the bottom left segment of the house for a chilling example of this).

Everything combines to evoke memories of Rapture, the underwater dystopian city (based on the philosophies of personal favourite Ayn Rand) that comprised the setting for the original game, and returns for the second, albeit 10 years on. As the first title was one of my all-time favourite videogames, the sequel has a lot to live up to; and my expectations are tempered by the fact that the franchise has switched from the hands of developer 2K Boston to those of their colleagues’, 2K Marin. Regardless, if the website is an accurate indicator of the flavour of Bioshock 2, it would appear that all the atmosphere of one of gaming’s most memorable settings has been retained. Roll on February.

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“Why won’t she fucking RUN?

It is a proclivity of all ‘survival horror’ titles that your character must move… agonisingly… slowly…. (the influences of Resident Evil are obvious in the opening stages of Project Zero), but the frustration of this fact ramps up considerably when a wailing spirit emerges from the ether right behind you and your only defence between you and a grisly death is an old camera. Faced with those odds, can you blame a guy for trying to turn tail and flee? Despite the fact that our heroine Miku is seeing things from beyond the grave, she never so much as breaks into a light jog, let alone busting her gut to get away from all the ghosts.

But then, this is ‘survival horror’ after all. Everything is geared towards the atmosphere. And Project Zero delivers atmosphere in spades; slapping it on so thickly that the result is a cloying sense of unease manifesting itself in your very bones within an hour of play. Despite Project Zero being the most quoted title in a thread I started over at Eurogamer, with a question identical to the one posted on this blog (“Has a videogame ever scared you?”), I still wasn’t convinced that I would be genuinely scared by it. How wrong I was.

It’s the sounds that do it. Guttural, tortured chanting. High-pitched screams. Desperate wailing lamentations on the manner of the ghosts’ final moments in the corporeal world – this game is not frightened in piling on the misery. All combine to weave a soundtrack that perfectly compliments the grainy, bleak visuals and left my girlfriend whimpering and goosebumps running up my arms. Well, the first chapter is called ‘The Strangling Ritual’ after all.

Clunky controls and slow heroines be damned; if Project Zero can keep up the intense fear factor of it’s opening stages, I’ll be clinging hold of the controller with cold, clammy hands all the way to the end credits.

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Being a fan of the original Dead Space, of on-rails-shooters in general, and being the only genre where my girlfriend and I can play together in perfect harmony without me screaming at her for constantly making her character either look down at the floor or up at the ceiling; the chances were high that I (or we rather) would really enjoy Dead Space Extraction.

After the histrionics, chronic cussing and B-movie spoof antics of our last lightgun game, House Of The Dead: Overkill, the sinister, dark vibe of Extraction is a rather brutal shock, especially when the earliest chapters insist on allowing you to reload your Rivet Gun with all the urgency of a particularly lazy sloth. Aliens (Necromorphs to be exact) shamble at you with frightening speed, and like the original instalment in the franchise, actively encourage wanton dismemberment by blasting the legs from their malformed bodies.

There is a lot of character-building and story-setting in the opening stages of the game, particularly for a light gun game, and it’s seriousness is hampered by some ropey voice acting and game-slowing text logs. When it forgoes the sense of narrative, Extraction starts to deliver some great action, enlivened with new ideas such as the ‘soldering’ mini-games, statis, and the Glow Worm – a chargeable light stick powered up by a shake of the Wii-mote.

We are too early into the story mode to deliver any definitive assessment of the game’s merits, but early indications show that if it starts prioritising action over laboured story-telling scenes, Extraction could be the most harmonious game experience my girlfriend and I enjoy together before we go back to playing our own games ;)

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After reaching the fantastically creepy morgue section the other night (“When’s it going to stop?” said my girlfriend of the moaning) in Batman: Arkham Asylum, it got me thinking of times when videogames have actually really chilled me.

Two moments come to my mind. One of them is in Condemned 2: Bloodshot (which turned out to be a pretty average experience) where you turn around to see an army of bald, armless mannequins lit up by a flash of lightning and then immediately disappearing, and also the approach to Dr. Steinman in Bioshock where you see him fanatically stabbing a corpse on his operating table as he screams and raves.

Both of these moments actually raised goosebumps on my arms. Has a moment in a videogame had a similar effect on you?

Dead Space // Xbox 360

March 23, 2009

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Dead Space seems intent to make you love and hate it in equal measure. For every three set pieces that have you gaping in wonder, there will be a fourth that has you weeping (or turning the air blue) in frustration. One section in particular, where you have to man a cannon and destroy asteroids flying towards the ship, is so out of character with the rest of the game that it almost derails the entire experience, making you slam the power off switch and swear to never play the game again (or was that just me?)

Perseverance, though, is key. Once you get past the inhuman, sadistic sections of the game, Dead Space then pulls out all the stops. Graphically, it’s a marvel, even in a current generation where gorgeous games are the norm, not the exception. The interface system is subtly integrated into existing elements on screen, thereby reducing the need for big ugly menu systems and health gauges cluttering up the HUD. Weapons are unique and extremely satisfying to use, particularly the Ripper – a gun that sends out a rotating ripsaw that carves into your enemies – I defy anyone not to use it and start cooing contentedly. Only the Pulse Rifle resembles anything from any other games in the FPS genre – by and large, the weapons are innovative and interesting.

The story is worthwhile without being the standout factor, fleshed out with constant communication with your comrades via the Riglink – basically a video connection built in to your spacesuit. These, and text-based logs from the missing crew members, bear a striking resemblance to the devices used in Bioshock, but you can’t begrudge Dead Space for using them when they work so effectively in immersing you in the plot. Credits collected from containers around the ship allow you to buy more weapons, and Power Nodes enable Isaac (your character) to upgrade his existing weapons and suit. And, believe me, this is an essential aspect in your quest to discover the ‘marker’. The Necromorph; mutated, heaving, fleshy lumps hell-bent on your destruction, get progressively more and more hellish – and only souped-up weapons will silence them for good.

Another area in which the game should be praised is in the sound design. Particularly in the sections where you must navigate a vacuum, where all extraneous noise gets muted out and only your echoed and hollow footsteps ring out from your speakers. As a graphical and sonic experience, Dead Space is a gem; a sparkling FPS jewel that only rarely threatens to lose it’s lustre when the game tries it’s hardest to punish you unfairly. Rise above it, grit your teeth and ready your Ripsaw, and the end result is a game that will stay in your games console (and your dreams) for some time.

Resident Evil 2 // PS1

October 7, 2008

I am a massive fan of videogames. I love to collect retro games consoles, and then pick up seminal games of yesteryear that I’ve either owned previously or know is a good franchise, but have never got round to playing. However, despite owning far more consoles and games than the average fan, I very rarely devote much time to playing any one game and it’s even rarer still that I actually finish a game.

Not so with the Resident Evil series. Ever since I played the remake of the original Resident Evil on the Gamecube (I was a late-comer to the survival horror franchise), I’ve been totally hooked, and have completed every Resi game that I’ve managed to get my hands on subsequently. Recently, I bought Resident Evil 2 for the original PlayStation off eBay and settled down to further zombie romps.

Graphically, RE2 hasn’t aged well. The textures are horribly pixellated, the animation is wooden, and the collision detection is laughable – whole pieces of a character might pop in and out of existence as they converse with you. The problems are exacerbated when blown up on a 40″ HD TV, but then the makers didn’t build the game to be played on that format.

But the technical limitations of the game didn’t make one shred of difference to my enjoyment of the game. Featuring full speech, beautifully-scripted set pieces and a general sense of foreboding, Resident Evil 2 still had all the atmosphere that I’d been spoiled with on the Gamecube and Wii previously. And, once again, I found myself playing through the entire game. This equated to roughly 5 hours of play – this struck me how much shorter games used to be; something that I actually pine for again. I enjoy single-player adventure games but today’s offerings are all epic monsters – stretching out into 30+ hours of gameplay before you even begin to approach the end of the game. With so much competing for the consumer’s attention these days, it’s becoming less and less likely that they can invest this much time in any single game. I certainly can’t. My girlfriend won’t allow it… ;-)

So, thank god for eBay and retro gaming – there are still many Resi games I haven’t played, and I can safely say that I’ll be sourcing all of them. I just might have to play them on my old TV instead.

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