Reviews

Far: Lone Sails - Learning to Cope by Caleb Sawyer

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Almost a year ago, my grandfather died. It has been hard to escape feeling like a hack because I keep bringing that up. The reality is, I haven’t written much since that day and what I have written has been punctuated by a tone that overflows with grief that I’m still not sure how to deal with. Nevertheless, here I am, attempting to write again. This time though, I am not going to steer away from that well. Part of that is self-motivated. The other part is Far: Lone Sails.

I watched the trailer for Far: Lone Sails one night while perusing the upcoming games in the Xbox Store. The music, the art, the tone, instantly hooked me. I am partial to games that have a system based in upkeep. I love building cities in City Skylines. I love managing my base, personnel, and resources in XCOM. Maintaining the mechanics of this land ship, traveling across a wasteland was an easy pre-order. 

The first moments of this title froze me. My character sat in front of what I can only assume is the grave of their father. A picture lays propped against a tree. The music is soft and sweeping. The environment monochromatic. Grays and whites punctuated by the red coat and hat of the player. 

If there is one thing that stands out immediately in Far: Lone Sails, it is its ability to deliver an aesthetic swiftly and creatively. As a long time fan of Playdead’s Inside and Limbo, the task of telling a compelling story in the limited space of a side crawling platformer is a challenge not easily overcome. Music and art take center stage, while gameplay often takes a back seat, punctuating the visual tableaus with puzzles. Okomotive’s ambitious entry into this genre is an outstanding accomplishment. 

———

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My grandfather served 23 years in the Navy. A period of his life he spoke of sparingly. To this day I am unsure if that was because it conjured memories he didn’t care to relive, or if there was another reason. The stories he told were always comical. Stepping up several decks in a single bound while the ship flexed in choppy waters. Drinking hot beers on the deck while docked at shore in the Philippines. Nearly missing the boat back while resupplying. His Navy career was a mystery to me. It will always be a mystery.

———

Far: Lone Sails takes place in a world made desolate by a disaster given no explanation. As you step down a sandy beach, the sound of an ocean never comes. Instead a windswept desert stands in its place, the carcasses of various ships strewn about the wastes. As you step into your ship (the eponymous Okomotive), crank up the engine, and pull away from the scaffolding surrounding it, you set off across this lonely place. The destination: unknown. 

Within moments the world begins to unfold itself around you. Broken down ships are everywhere. Dust crept onto their decks. Debris lays scattered, half submerged in the sands of of time and abandonment. Something happened to this place. It is hard to keep from imagining a world full of color. Rippling seas teeming with life. Nothing remains but shattered hope, abandoned dreams, derelict homes. 

———

When my grandfather passed it was sudden. He had interstitial lung disease. One day he felt worse than usual. He and my grandmother went to the Emergency Room. Eleven days later he was gone. Despite the expertise of the doctors that attempted to help, they never found out what caused this flare up. Despite everything they attempted there was no explanation. I remember my uncle, sitting in shock next to his dead father. “My whole life I have believed in science. And science has failed me.” The words were sobering.

———

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As you progress through Far: Lone Sails the obscured history of the world begins to unravel itself. The shallow, dried out seabed gives way to rolling pastures. Billboards pass by for a small farming and industrial town, The Blue Isles. This town, as picturesque as it may look with its rolling green hills, rests abandoned. The hills are washed grey-green, and before long you find barns and farmhouses torn asunder. Cars rest on roofs. 

A tornado appears just beyond the last partially standing buildings. Without words it becomes clear: the damage done to this world is deep and irreparable. 

The game continues this story of unnatural disaster as you progress. Color comes and goes, rarely, but those colors are always bleak. Dreary. Joel Schoch’s score moves emotionally throughout these moments, rising as the Okomotive churns forward, dipping as night falls, rising as the day breaks, the amber glow of the sun projecting into the thick clouds that cover the world. Schoch’s score is incredible. I’ll never forget trudging through the rain, the drops plinking off of the Okomotive, while the score receded. Leaving me to the sound of the rain and my thoughts. One of the best parts of Far: Lone Sails’ score is its willingness to leave you in silence, proving that even in its absence it can have a dramatic impact.

———

It was rainy the day he died. I remember thinking, “thank god no one else will be happy today.” I had always found comfort in rain. Since then, rain has been…different. No longer just a source of comfort, it is a reminder. Every time it rains, I am brought back to that day. Each time a little less, sure, but it is still there. I think it may always be there. I’m not sure I want it any other way. 

The thought that he died of natural causes so suddenly felt, well, unnatural. He was tough, he rarely complained, and to think that one day his body just decided it was tired of struggling was hard to understand. 

For the next six months it was hard to see color in anything. Everything felt greyed out. Food tasted different, sleep was less rejuvenating, laughter didn’t linger like it used to. My inability to write became apparent quickly. I struggled for hours to get singular thoughts onto a page. I was afraid that talking about this loss openly would look like a crutch I was leaning on. So I didn’t write. 

———

The billboard for the Blue Isles says “A Fresh Start” just beneath the name of the town. Another says, “We Build Our Future”. The people of this place tried their hardest to move past the fact that their world was dying. But they don’t appear to have ever attempted to address the issue. The rusted and hulking remains of industry and manufacturing tell a story of a people who believed in science, and who were betrayed by that belief.

As the remains of civilization pass you can see people building escape hatches, not treating a wound.

———

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Writing has always been my release. My means of escape, of coping, of healing. Not writing meant I did none of those things properly. I bottled and distilled my grief, making each moment it returned stronger. I tried everything to get away from it. I hid my pain from my grandmother, trying to be strong for her. I hid my pain from my wife, trying to prove that I was fine. That I was able to hold it together. I tried my best to move past the fact that a part of my world had died. In reality I was building escape hatches. 

Without giving away the ending of Far: Lone Sails, because you should absolutely play it, I realized that part of me needed to let go, sure, but a larger part of me needed to face the problem head on and push through it. My grief is my Okomotive right now. I need to maintain the ship pushing me through life. I need to remember that, even if the ship is damaged, it is fixable. But it won’t be forever. Someday, it will decide it can go no further. When that time comes, it will be okay to let it go. To move on to another vessel. To take a moment and say, “Goodbye old Friend.”

The front of the Okomotive in Far: Lone Sails has two figures etched on its prow. An adult and a child. The house you pass through in the opening moments show you a Father and his child and the machine they created together. I am not entirely self-made. I owe a lot to Timothy Sawyer. His family was the thing he was most proud of. I realize now, that is why he didn’t share a ton about his service in the Navy. It wasn’t what he built with his hands. His family was. Now that he is gone, we must take journey forward, through the waste and colorlessness, to a new place. And he is still here for the ride. Even in his absence he has had a dramatic impact on all of us.

———

I valued every moment I had with Far: Lone Sails. It has brought me a lot of peace over the last few weeks and helped me better contextualize the struggle and pain of moving on. Of pushing through the shit to get to the other side.

Mechanically easy to pick up, hard to put down, a brilliant and evocative score, and entrancing art elevate Far: Lone Sails into the poetic. A contemplative and somber yet unwaveringly charming journey It hooked me immediately. Despite having beaten it twice, I keep finding myself coming back for a little more every couple of days. 


Bravo, Okomotive.

Thank you for making this game.

Heaven's Vault - Deciphering the Truth by Caleb Sawyer

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I went into Heaven’s Vault cautious. Not for any reason I believed to be ill-willed, but rather, simply because Inkle Studios set out to tell a story about the muddiness of history. That is an ambitious task. History is a deep, branching, and twisting thing. Stories evolve as they are passed down, events are remembered differently. Our memory of our own lives is subject to various degrees of fantasy, how fantastical then are the memories of our ancestors? While it is easy to point this out, it is difficult to put together a story with a consistently ambiguous lore. In fact, ambiguous lore is a bit paradoxical for most works of fiction. The backstory is essential in Mass Effect. No one debates whether or not the First Contact war between the humans and Turians happened. Nor are there really any questions about why. Heaven’s Vault tackles this paradox head on and does a surprisingly good job illustrating a world with a history in question.

A lot of the delivery of this rests on the core mechanic Heaven’s Vault is built around: deciphering an ancient and forgotten language. Players take control of Archaeologist Aliya Elasra, an orphan turned scholar, and search the reaches of the Nebula, for ancient scratchings and etchings of a bygone age. Aliya is resourceful, bringing her base knowledge of the linguistic characteristics of this language from the onset. As you progress, that knowledge grows as you discover more and more cast off fragments of a past culture.

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This mechanical core, searching for and finding ancient artifacts, inferring what the runes mean, and fact checking with later discoveries, defines the experience for the player. There is something uniquely satisfying to confirming that a collection of lines and segments means “Pilgrim.” Or realizing that segments of the same collection of symbols mean “Home.” It is in this process of discovery that Heaven’s Vault establishes the aforementioned convolution of history.

The player is forced to guess on translations when the symbols aren’t familiar, those guesses form the information you will act on, and then later translative opportunities confirm or contradict those assumptions. When later translations contradict prior guesses, as educated as they may be, you are forced to reconsider your prior assumptions, often times altering the understanding of how events played out. Even altering your understanding of this forgotten culture as a whole. 

This process is as refreshing and unique as it is challenging. And it is used to great effect in this title. Tasked with hunting down a missing roboticist named Janniqi Renba, Aliya traipses her way around the Nebula looking for signs of his whereabouts. Assembling pieces of his trail of breadcrumbs quickly reveals that there is much more afoot. A darkness approaches and it is up to you, the player, to what that means, and how Renba has gotten himself tied up in all of this. The ensuing pursuit is fascinating, even thought the payoff may seem a bit too encompassing. 

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Heaven’s Vault is worthy of a great deal of praise for its execution of its premise, absolutely. It is important to point out that the execution is perfect in every aspect. Few games ever are. This title opens Slowly, with a capital S. I get that every story needs to open with some kind of expository, I just feel that in this case, a lot of the initial dialogue could have been delivered using alternative means. The game leans heavily on a travel system between destinations that allows for a good amount of disembodied dialogue. 

In fact, that system would benefit from a little more content. Sailing the rivers of this universe that bind the Nebula is at first stunning. The environments and vistas are impressive, and the score is impressive, but after 5-10 hours of playing the game, the slow speed of travel and the lack of an easy fast travel system makes these moments drag a bit. Early in my playthrough I was in the cabin of my ship and I was able to tell my robotic companion Six that I wanted to rest. Six navigated the Nightingale to our next destination. Had this system been more readily available I would have absolutely used it more.

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Interestingly, despite Heaven’s Vaults amazing structure around learning a language, the game’s writing sometimes falters in its ambitions. It is hard to tell if these shortcomings are the result of the game’s thematic ambition, or if they are the result of the story accelerating a bit faster than these individual threads allow. A lot of the characters in Heaven’s Vault have a promising set up while the bulk of their existence never write lives up to that anticipation. While I wouldn’t venture to call these characters themselves thin, the writing often leaves a bit to be desired.

Further, the description of the game totes a flexible narrative. When this assertion is weighed in light of the didactic nature of deciphering a language, the different directions that the story can lead are clear. When you look to the choices the player is able to make, both in conversation and story progression, few of the choices you are able to make seem to make a lasting impact in the overarching narrative. 

After visiting a the site of a crashed ship and abandoned hiding place, Aliya is given a message from a mysterious being that immediately casts doubt on the motives of Aliya’s adoptive mother and boss. Enough doubt, in-fact, that I avoided giving her the relic I had found the entire game and there was really nothing that came of it. Sure, she asked me to deliver the artifact upon learning of my finding it, but not taking it to her seemed to have no real impact on how our relationship played out. On the other hand, a small side story concerning two laborers, one wounded and the other abandoned, I felt I had far more in charge of the events that played out. 

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In the end, Heaven’s Vault is is a complex and interesting narrative with a genuinely unique core and excellent world building. The score is majestic and mysterious, a great accomplishment for composer Laurence Chapman. Truly, the score saved a lot of those moments where the sailing dragged the momentum down a bit. It doesn’t deliver on everything it sets out to do, but for all of its ambition, the amount of time I was drawn in by just the discovery of the language and world it was creating was really satisfying. The many locations you travel between are diverse and beautiful, the characters, while sometimes shallow, are genuinely interesting, and the plot is entertaining and thorough. There is a lot in here for people who love digging into and solving mystery. 

Heaven’s Vault is available on Steam and PS4 for $24.99. Laurence Chapman’s score can be found on Bandcamp for $10.46.

@LubWub

Far Cry New Dawn: A Familiar Walk in Unfamiliar Surroundings by Caleb Sawyer

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In June of last year, a few months after the release of Far Cry 5, Terry Spier (Creative Director, Red Storm) said that the Division 2 would not be making a political statement. The game takes place in D.C. after a plague decimates the population. D.C. is in ruins, and the trailer released at E3 last year says “A remnant of a corrupt state lurks in the shadows, ready to engage in a new civil war. Agents of the Division are the only one standing against it.” So how…what the…?

I brought up Far Cry 5 earlier and I need to explain why these two are inextricably linked. Far Cry 5 could have been very political. The first Far Cry game to take place in the United States dived deep into satirizing what makes America tick: Guns, preppers, piss tapes, and fanatical religion. There was a little Trump, a little Alt-Right, a little religious violence, and for the first time ever, mostly white enemies. Who would have thought people actually would be upset by any of these things (definitely not the author of this [fake?] Petition?). 

What is most interesting about the setting and cast of Far Cry 5 is that, despite the ample material to draw from, it tried so desperately to remain apolitical. In fact, Ubisoft didn’t make a true political statement about the title’s contents, publicly or in the game itself. Something that reviewers and critics would hold issue with as literature began to be written up. So do you side with the petition and get angry at how political it is? Or do you side with the reviewers and get angry at how hard it tries not to offend anyone?

3 months later…

[The Division] is not a political statement? “Absolutely not.”

See, the line isn’t hard to draw here. Extremely mixed response from undecidedly political/apolitical game = Nope. No politics here. But boy would you look at how great D.C. looks? 

Enter Far Cry New Dawn. The first direct sequel to a Far Cry game. 

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SPOILER ALERT

At the end of Far Cry 5. Nukes detonate all across America, making the big, bad, religious creep Joseph Seed “right” (ugh) and then the game rolls credits. New Dawn picks the reins back up seventeen years later. The wildlife has been altered, the flora is colorful, the world is overgrown, largely untouched by the hands of man. In the time that has passed, people have rebuilt, or at least they have begun the process. Within seconds of New Dawn’s establishing shots (you are the hero, you travel the wastelands and help small settlements get back on their feet, you’re on a train full of people and supplies) the antagonists show up. Colorful dirt bikes, wacky attire, fireworks, smoke grenades. 

Essentially you get rolled on by patrons of the post-apocalyptic (regular?) Burning Man and, well, it is kinda awesome.

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Here is where I realized Far Cry New Dawn would be different: in the introduction of its antagonists, two black women, Mickey and Lou. For the first time since I played Far Cry 3, I didn’t hear an ounce of allusion in their intro. They weren’t the personification of anything but post-Collapse, cut-throat survivors that took the dark path. 

This isn’t to say that New Dawn is without its own politics. There are plenty of story beats that lean into corruption, bribery, and religious fanaticism, but there is one key difference: this game doesn’t fee like it is about those things.

Outside of the return of a few of Far Cry 5’s characters, New Dawn largely stays away from what made its predecessor such a split-decision for most people. And while the setting and execution is familiar (think Mad Max, Rage, or a little Borderlands), there is something fresh about playing this setting in Far Cry’s formula, despite Far Cry’s formula being more than a little played out.

That perhaps is my biggest, and only real, gripe with Far Cry New Dawn. It just feels like more Far Cry. 

In many cases this isn’t a problem. When you love the mechanics of a game, when the studio changes those mechanics up it can be disorienting. Even disenfranchising. The thing is, Far Cry 3 released in 2012, and while I absolutely loved that game and its reimagining of what Far Cry was, those changes have remained largely unchanged in its successors. 

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Outposts still operate the same way: Kill everyone silently for a large bonus, knock out alarms and go loud for a small bonus, or throw caution to the wind and kick down the door, no bonus added. The vehicular mechanics remain the same, the shooting feels the same, the hunting and wildlife feels the same (except this time you are getting attacked by Wolverines, not Honey Badgers), and the bow is still the best weapon in the game. Though I want to make sure I don’t knock (get it) the bow - it fucking rocks - I need Far Cry remember how to change again.

The new mechanics introduced to this game are largely inconsequential. You can build up your base by collecting Ethanol, adding a bit of functionality to taking outposts beyond just shooting (or stabbing) people. But that neither feels adequately rewarding, nor does it explain how Prosperity (the base) builds a farm with…Ethanol. Once you upgrade the Workbench to make Epic weapons, you can completely ignore upgrading the rest of the base outside of the story mission that requires it. 

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I should make it clear that New Dawn is a direct sequel to Far Cry 5, and is likely built with the same exact engine and tools. Appropriately, Ubisoft priced the title at only $40. These things together make complaining that New Dawn feels like more of the same, feel a little obvious. That is literally what it is.

Minus one thing: Painfully irreverent and borderline overwhelming political overtones. 

There is a part of me that wants Ubisoft to not be afraid of having political commentary in their games. Then, there is another part of me that believes that there is some kind of political commentary in New Dawn. That perhaps this title feels better because it doesn’t appear to be commenting on current events, but that doesn’t mean it exists without a message. 

Then I come back to Spier’s response to the question about The Division 2 making a political statement: Absolutely not. Perhaps making a political statement means something different here. New Dawn had a message: Do everything it takes to make the world a better place. And that message could be seen as having political applications. But a direct political statement, that forces players to choose a side or fractures your base? Maybe that is what he meant to steer away from. 

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New Dawn appears to be the result of that decision. It wipes the political slate clean with a few dozen nukes and tells a surprisingly human story devoid of Alt-Right mouthpieces and trumpeted up stereotypes.

I want games to have a political voice, to take a stand on something, if they want to. But maybe this isn’t the worst thing ever. 

@LubWub

Thief of Thieves: Volume 1 Review by Caleb Sawyer

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Thief of Thieves released on Xbox Game Pass this week by publisher Skybound Entertainment and developer Rival games. The Point-and-Click, adventure style game shares a likeness to former Telltale titles like The Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us (the former, also a Skybound property). Based on a comic series penned by Robert Kirkman (Creator of The Walking Dead), Thief of Thieves puts you in control of Celia, a punk styled spy protogé of master thief Redmond. Volume One, available now, is an interesting starter for the series but is a bit limited by its length.

Volume One introduces you to Celia and her most recent mission, a motorcycle heist at a swanky party. While Thief of Thieves art direction is stylistically solid, the game breaks down a bit over its oftentimes clunky camera work. While the camera frames the environment well, its utility is undermined by the very same characteristic. Camera angles make it difficult to track patrolling guards, making sneaky entry and swift egress more difficult than it should.

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That being said, the title was still a lot of fun to explore, and the sandbox-style environments were fun to play around in. The UI paints objectives and pertinent information on the environment itself, much like 2010’s Splinter Cell: Conviction. Similarly creative, the games cutscenes are minimalistic motion comics, further lending to draw parallel to Thief of Thieves source material.

Overall, Volume One was fun to play but lacked any length to allow me to really get excited about what is coming in the next installments. Though the incipient episode ends with a genuinely alluring cliff-hanger that promises a far broader experience, I found myself wanting more in the moment, rather than in the future, a tricky line to dance for episodic titles.

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If you have Game Pass give Thief of Thieves a try. The lack of an upfront cost through Game Pass makes content like this far more accessible. For players without Game Pass, I think it would be safe to wait for a few more Volumes to be released. It is a bit too early to pass any real judgment on the title.

@LubWub