review

Creature in the Well - Review by Caleb Sawyer

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Creature in the Well is the distillation of a dungeon crawler, and pinball. As if there were more disparate things in the gaming world. Despite having the urge to say something like, “you can count the number of games like this on one hand,” I am fully aware there aren’t any games like this title by Flight School Studio. The developers of in depth VR experiences like War Remains and Manifest 99. 

Flight School’s repertoire is full of quirky, eerie, spunky little titles that think and interact with more than just a controller. Creature in the Well seems to set out on a different path, but not without strong influences from its studio’s experience. 

Enter Mirage, a desolate, dusty, derelict of a town located in the center of what seems to be a perpetual haboob. The residents are reclusive or vanished, the fate of any foolish enough to try and brave the storm to find what’s on the other side. Those remaining hide from you, save a couple friendly faces who provide lore bits and limited hints.

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The player, a reawakened BOT-C robot, stumbles to their feet and makes their way through the sandy wastes until you make it to the entrance of a mountain. As you approach it is clear there is more to this megalith than simply stone. Large gray pipes and conduits trace up the walls and burrow into the black entrance. 

Once inside, you find out that the machinery and metal around you are the workings of an ancient, weather-controlling machine and your task is to power it on. There’s just one catch, there is a pugnacious and powerful creature in the bowels of this mountain. The very same creature that prevented the machine from powering on all those years ago. 

Creature in the Well takes this simple imperative and puts players through a gauntlet of increasingly tricky and finesse reliant puzzles and challenges. You have to turn all of the mountains subsystems back on again. So as you travel through Power Reserves, Archives, Lockdown Systems, Power Grid, Atmospheric Analysis, Synchronous Field, and the North Star Conduit, the eponymous Creature becomes more and more irate. A fun explanation for the increasing difficulty and complexity of the puzzles. 

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These puzzles prompt the player to charge and propel orbs of light into posts and bumpers, charging them to a point, causing them to collapse into the floor. Its a suspiciously entertaining loop I found myself enjoying from start to finish, despite being unsure how to explain why I liked it. Now, having beaten it, I know what it was: Flight School does a great job of balancing pain and prize. 

Each branch of the machine has hidden rooms to unlock. Sometimes the conditions for these “secret paths” are difficult to suss out, but in my playthrough I had no issue finding each hidden item. Finding these as you progress inevitably evolves your play style. Swapping out Charge and Strike weapons in crucial moments of the game is paramount to your success. Combine the unlockables with the easy to follow level progression and solid feeling of accomplishment when flipping the power switch at the end of each branch, and Creature in the Well makes a point of encouraging its players forward.

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Initially I struggled with the control scheme. There are moments that require high levels of precision to move forward, and without a few new pieces of equipment these tests can be extremely aggravating. In fact, some are aggravating despite having the right gear. While I didn’t have many stages stump me for longer than 10 or 15 minutes, I could see where frustration could settle in pretty quickly. Sometimes it hard to tell if you miss a shot because you misaimed or because the game misfired your shots. 

Death, in Creature in the Well, is punitive/corrective. You’re picked up by the Creature and thrown out of a well on the outskirts of town. As this happened more frequently and as soon as I began to get annoyed by the long walk back inside, I powered a branch up that opened a shortcut. Just like that, the process of Die / Grabbed by Creature / Thrown from Well is made less painful. And trust me, there will be times where you feel like all you do is die, get scooped up, and get tossed out the well over and over again.  

There are also shortcuts like this in each branch, allowing you to die while taking on the boss challenges and get right back to them when you decide to try again.

This title’s story is sparse. Often given to players in pop ups and lore drops you find along the way. You start to uncover the story of the engineers in the mountain trying to turn this weather machine on before you. Their discovery of the Creature. Their failure to get the machine working. As you progress through Creature in the Well that story begins to become your own. But this time you won’t fail. 

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Creature in the Well is smartly designed, beautifully created, and is just downright charming. The eerie creature juxtaposed by Roger T. Frog, the deep blackness of the mountain cut by the colorful and bright palettes of each branch, the low and subtle score punctuated by the twangs of the frying pan I am swinging. All of it combines to make an incredibly refreshing mixture of two genres that I never would have guessed I needed. A Dunge-Pinballer. I’m coining that.  

Falcon Age Review (PC) by Caleb Sawyer

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Have you ever wanted to take back your planet from the colonizers with a battle falcon? I bet you would if I described it like that! Falcon Age places you, an initially nameless character, into an already destroyed world, mined into desolation by ORC, a company that strips planets for their resources. After befriending a baby bird and escaping a labor camp you are tasked by your aunt to take up the fight and reclaim whatever you can at whatever the cost.

As the game walks you through the core gameplay mechanics the bird reaches maturity and your aunt gives you a stun baton. She then gives you the all clear to throw your young inexperienced life away at an army of mechanized laborer and pacification robots. And while that may sound terrifying and daunting I found that combat wasn’t much more than slight obstacle instead and not very much of a challenge. Even the largest combat robots became a pile of parts once I learned the trick: Use the energy lasso to swing his hand into his face, stun him, call the bird in to peel back the armor on his eye and hit it 8-10 times until he goes boom. 

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I found the world a bit uninspiring. I found the assets to resemble placeholder elements up to and maybe even including the final spaceport. Structures were comprised of large blocks of gray and the rest of the world were long empty corridors of lightly textured canyons and valleys. It very much resembled a game from a mobile device ported PC and console. 

The Characters however are fascinating and very highly detailed. Your aunt and the townspeople all felt like the world Outerloop was trying to portray, a sort of Mad Max desertpunk. If only the environment had the same style and quality.

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The controls felt stiff at first and waiting for your bird can be frustrating, especially during combat, but it all falls into place as you become the rebel fighter your aunt demands you to become. Learning each enemies strategies while having your bird drop grenades or pick apart spider robots limb from limb can be gratifying. Without the ability to jump however you will get stuck walking around and through the paths the designers cut for you. It’d be nice to jump off ledges or stairs to speed things up considering how slow navigation can feel at times.

The music and sound in the game also feel like they fit but don’t do much to stand out. The music swells and swoons when appropriate and the sound effects are unassuming and functional. 

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For $20 I feel the game is a little empty. Like a VR experiment with too few side tasks and a world you can’t really fully explore. There is a little too much backtracking for the amount of fun Falcon Age has to offer. The hunting and cooking elements are cute and are necessary tools to keep your bird healthy, and there are a handful of cute cosmetic items if you want your Falcon to be wearing a cowboy hat and a monocle. The whole experience wraps nicely with a few difficult choices and a decent emotional tug, I’m just not sure how many people will play long enough to experience it.

Why I Write About Games by Caleb Sawyer

by @lorenzoherrera

I have been writing about games for 8 years. I started in college, intrigued by an opportunity to write for the Rambler, the school paper. I had just quit playing baseball, a sport I had been committed to for nearly 12 years, and I had an abundance of time, a love for film and games, and an opportunity. I started by reviewing movies. I saw Drive, Contagion, and many other films in the first few months. It wasn’t until I saw an ad for Battlefield 3, an ad with a cheeky dig at Call of Duty claiming that Battlefield went “Above and Beyond the Call”. It was smart. It may seem silly, inconsequential even, but that small ad sparked…something. 

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In the past 8 years I have written about indie games, AAA games, news, studios, conferences. It has been an amazing ride, even if that ride has been bumpy, inconsistent, or even to a smaller audience than I want. I keep writing, as slow or fast as I can, because I couldn’t live with myself if I just decided not to. And that’s just it. I will never stop writing about games, and the reason (for me) is simple: I believe that games have the ability to touch lives deeper than many people think, and I want to make sure as many people realize that as possible. 

When I started writing about games this motivation made itself clear quickly. Unexpectedly, my resignation from competitive sports had a large impact on my immediate mental state. I had a means of expression and a place to take out aggression for over a decade that was suddenly gone. While I continued to play in the summer for a few fo the following years, It never took center stage again. I became depressed, I started smoking, my sleep schedule fell apart. In the spring of 2012 I got the opportunity to go to a journalism conference in Seattle. Within moments of the first session I knew that I wanted to write for the rest of my life. Upon returning from that trip my uncle connected the dots for me. “You love games, you love writing. Why not write about games.” It was like being punched in the face. But in a good way. 

Over that summer I was given the opportunity to work alongside my uncle and write journalistically for several blogs and author a few comic books. Ben (my uncle) is a comic illustrator, and works from home. Adopting his schedule, I wrote forty pieces in the three months of summer for multiple blogs. At the same time we both realized that going back to school in the fall would prove hitting deadlines for other blogs difficult. After a few days of brainstorming, NerdyBits was born. 

I continued to struggle with my newfound depression during this time, and I authored a piece called Why Games Matter. I wrote about how games helped me through my depression in the last year. How Mass Effect 2 helped me feel like I could solve problems. I wrote about how Skyrim saved my life. 

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I don’t want to sound like I’m saying that people who don’t write emotionally about games are doing it wrong. There is a huge need for news, investigative reporting, and editorials based in fact. There are all-stars doing this reporting, this writing. What I decided, in short, was that I would do the writing I wasn’t seeing as much. Drawing from my own life to tell unique stories about the games that I have played. Confident that others would gravitate towards stories with a strong human element.

Over the last several years I have written about criticism in games, why indie games are saving the industry, how playing MLB: The Show reminded me that losing is ok, how a mobile game prepared us for the death of my grandfather, and how Far: Lone Sails helped me cope with that loss. This writing keeps me going. The more I do it, the validation I receive. People connect with these pieces. 

A few months ago I was approached by a friend who wanted to write for NerdyBits. He wanted to tell the story of how Zelda taught him how to be a better brother to his epileptic sister. Learning to help rather than complain, because she needed help, and it’s “dangerous to go alone.”

Last week I met with another friend, and after explaining my credo for writing games, he told me about a story he wants to write about how doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has made Absolver mean more to him. How doing martial arts in real life has shown him the beauty in movement, the power in swiftness, and the place for self-defense in a fallen world. 

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People connect emotionally to their games. Sometimes that emotional connection is peace in a tumultuous world. Sometimes that connection is a new reason to live. For the next adventure. For the next quest. For the next moment. Sometimes that connection goes unnoticed until someone else, someone like me, puts context to content.

I am going to keep writing this way. I have to. And when I get the opportunity, I will do all I can to signal boost others who want to share similar stories. Because people need to hear them. Because people need to know it is ok to feel strongly about something they played. Because games, and those who make them, need know what their creations can, and frequently do, illicit in their players: Emotion. The kind that sticks with you for the rest of your life.

@LubWub