PLAY 2016 Review Roundup: Headlander, ABZÛ, Brut@l, Bound

PLAY 2016

For the past six years, Sony has been running their annual PLAY promotion where they put four indie games in the spotlight and offer deals surrounding pre-orders and picking up of them or more. In the past, this promotion has brought us incredible titles like Journey, Counter-Strike: GO, Rogue Legacy, and plenty of others.

This year’s promotion is already under way. Pre-ordering titles earns you a 20% discount if you’re a PlayStation Plus member. Furthermore, purchasing 2 or more titles in the promotion earns you a 20% off coupon for a future purchase on the PSN store. Not bad at all! Join us as we look at each of this year’s titles to see which ones are worth your hard-earned cash.

Headlander Review: An Out-of-Body Experience

Headlander

I have this all-encompassing policy when it comes to games developed by Double Fine that I buy them immediately. I’ve been a fan of them since Psychonauts, which is one of my favorite games. Headlander, the latest game developed by Double Fine and Adult Swim Games keeps the theme of whacky premises that the developers are known for.

In this game you play as a disembodied human head inside a space helmet that just so happens to have a jet booster on the bottom. Human bodies are so 2022, so in this game’s world, everyone has had their consciousness uploaded to robotic bodies.

Your head is able to detach, fly, and reattach to the “neck holes” of other bodies. Not feeling that outfit? Detach, pluck the robotic head off another body, and take it for yourself. This mechanic works like a charm, and the game is oozing with style. Let’s delve deeper into the world and see if this one should be on your list of indie summer games.

Your told from the beginning by a mysterious voice named ERL that you’re the last flesh-and-blood human in the universe and for some reason an all-powerful A.I named Methuselah wants you captured. Time to run!

Unique Premise, Familiar Gameplay

The head-switching mechanic in Headlander is unique, there’s no getting around that. When you detach and fly around, the controls work perfectly. You can turn on a dime and maneuver with the best of them. You start with very little in the way of abilities, but you’ll soon start finding upgrades that give you new tools to mess around with.

For example, one of the first upgrades you get is a vacuum of sorts that lets you pull hatches off of vents and rip the robotic heads off the people and guards around you. Once you’ve relieved them of their craniums, you can attach yours with the press of a button.

This is used for various puzzle solving and entry into new areas based on the color guards you possess with your head. There’s also combat in Headlander, but this is where things can get a little dicey. You can take cover behind objects and shoot with a gun if your body possesses one.

The trick is that you don’t want to hit their body, just the head. If you damage them, you’ll still be damaged when you take control. This would be fine if the aiming was a little less jumpy. When you aim, you’ll see the trajectory of your laser and this allows you to plan out your attack to perhaps ricochet it off of a wall or ceiling before hitting an enemy in the head.

It suggests that combat should be methodical, but it’s hard to aim that precisely when you have lasers coming from multiple directions. It’s a little chaotic, but really the only way to marry the two concepts would have been to make the combat turn-based, which would rob the game of its pace.

Of course, this isn’t true of every combat encounter, but I did feel like there were situations where I had no choice but to just start firing instead of planning out my approach. Beyond this little gripe, the gameplay is absolutely polished in what it sets out to do, more so than many Double Fine games.

The level design is a metroidvania-lite. You won’t find sprawling maps with tons of different paths and backtracking, but you will find small bite-sized versions of this genre’s typical design. That means that your travels will have you coming across collectibles that upgrade your health, your thrust, and other elements.

Skill points are given to spend as you see fit, but it’s important to properly spec your character. Some skills matter more than others which could put you in a position where you’re underpowered and must grind to earn more skill points.

The game doesn’t hold your hand, but it also doesn’t extend one when you have questions. It’s a small gripe, given the fact that everything about the main mechanic works so flawlessly. Headlander doesn’t go too far from its main gameplay hook, but it does explore the idea very thoroughly across the six to seven hour adventure.

Flashy Colors and Retro Sci-Fi Vibes

Headlander takes 50’s era retro sci-fi approach to its visuals and style. This means everything has that classic sci-fi look and the carpets are all shag. Robots are seen sporting bell-bottoms and afros almost constantly.

Disco balls hang from the ceiling as psychedelic music plays in the background. Even the loading menus have a super neon look that calls to mind the days of VHS tapes and laserdiscs. In terms of style, you cannot beat the dedication that Headlander has in terms of its setting and presentation.

The voice acting is perfectly fine, and the writing is funny, even if the humor isn’t as consistent as we’ve seen from other Double Fine games. Overall, I enjoyed my time with Headlander. If you absolutely love metroidvania style games and you want something with a unique premise and setting, you can’t go wrong.

If those types of games aren’t your thing, this one won’t win you over. Even so, what’s here is a unique twist on a familiar formula.

Final Score: 8.0/10

ABZÛ Review: Uncertain Depths

Abzu

I am fresh off of finishing ABZÛ as I write this and as a huge fan of Journey and Flower, I must say that newcomer Giant Squid Games knows that they’re doing. With Matt Nava, Journey’s art director and Austin Wintory, Journey’s composer, on the team it’s clear to see their influences.

In ABZÛ you play as a voiceless character named The Diver. Much like Journey, this game places you into its underwater world without any explanation of who you are or what’s going on. While my first impressions were that this game was trying too hard to be like the game’s that inspired it, that quickly changed.

Art in Motion

We have to begin with the presentation in this game for two reasons:

  • It’s a primary focus of what makes it great
  • It’s so incredibly beautiful

ABZÛ immediately makes your jaw drop with its presentation. From the very first moment I was tossed into its mysterious ocean, I was floored by the graphics and the style. Matt Nava is a true genius when it comes to use of color and the contrast that exists between a vibrant cove and a gaping abyss.

The game’s opening areas were beautiful, but it wasn’t until I started to see some variety in them that I truly fell in love with the visuals. That first moment that I emerged from a cavern and found myself suspended over an abyss whose ultimate bottom escaped me, I felt the true sense of awe and wonder the developers were going for.

These areas vary in both their size and scope, but suffice to say the game really knows how to play with big sweeping vistas and small coves teeming with life and color. While the game’s world is fictional, many of its undersea inhabitants are not.

You’ll see real world creatures like manta rays, killer whales, hammerhead sharks, barracudas, and plenty more. While stylized, the way these creatures swim and interact feels like you’ve been tossed into a BBC documentary.

Predators will snatch smaller fish before your eyes and schools of tiny fish will twist and turn through the waters as you swim by. All of it feels alive and it’s a true pleasure to be exploring such a beautiful and lively world.

Combine this with Austin Wintory’s masterful understanding of musical theory, and you have a truly engrossing experience. The way his music can breathe life into a scene with whimsical notes, or make you ponder the world around you as a whale ten times your size swims majestically by to the tune of a somber and melancholy theme is just magical.

The story is almost non-existent in ABZÛ, which at first frustrated me. Once I got a little ways into it, I was able to find small tidbits of story and I saw some pretty incredible things that helped me start to grasp what was happening.

At no point does the game tell you what’s going on, and that can be frustrating for those who want some answers with their questions. The story here is purely interpretive with some hints to get you going. It leaves most of the thinking up to you.

Now, some of you may be thinking “okay, so it’s pretty and the music’s great. This is a game though, right?”

If you’re a fan of Journey, you’re probably cracking a smile right now because you know the answer to that question. Let’s discuss.

Are We a Player, Or Simply a Witness?

ABZÛ does ask a lot from the player, in fact, compared to most other games it barely asks anything at all. A simple way to describe it is that this game is extremely “chill” in the sense that it won’t stress you out or test your reflexes.
There’s no timers and very few things that can impede your progress. You’ll hit some switches and dodge mines that only serve to slow you down if you get hit, but otherwise the game moves at your pace.

The main areas offer small stone statues where you can sit and meditate. During these sequences I felt like a kid with his own aquarium screensaver. You can pan to the different types of fish and see their names while meditating. If you’re so inclined you can watch them to your heart’s content as they explore and feed.

As someone who loves marine biology and all things ocean related, I was absolutely fascinated with this mechanic. That’s the thing, though, I would barely call it a mechanic as it’s more of an observation.

Swimming in ABZÛ feels amazing, though. You move through the water with grace and ease. You can toss, turn, or even fly out of the water and doing a flip before plunging back in. Furthermore, you can latch onto some of the larger sea creatures and guide them to flip out of the water or simply catch a ride.

There are a smattering of collectibles and small portal-type areas where you can introduce new creatures into the environment, but beyond this and a few switch-based puzzles that are barely puzzles, ABZÛ doesn’t ask much of you at all.

That’s the conundrum that games like this face. There are people like me who absolutely love it because I can relax, take in the scenery, and piece together the story myself with the hints they offer.

Then you have people who say it’s too slow, there’s not enough interaction, or the story’s too obtuse. I don’t think any game is for everyone, but I can say that if you’re like me and you fall into that first category, that you’re going to love ABZÛ.

Final Score: 9.0/10

Brut@l Review: Time to Kick Some ASCII

Brut@l

Brut@l was a hard game for me to review. If you've read my other work here on PS4 Experts, you'll know that I'm the kind of person who needs a story in my games. I think most people would agree that story is a prime motivator. With a game like this where death is permanent, you need something like that to keep you coming back.

Or at the very least you need the promise that there's something at the bottom of all this dungeon crawling. Unfortunately, Brut@l doesn't provide you with those motivations. It has a unique art style and couch co-op but it doesn't quite capture the magic of other dunegon crawlers like Diablo or Torchlight. Let's dive into the review to see if this game manages to rise from these shortcomings.

Dungeon Crawling 101

Brut@l has a keen understanding of what it is to be a dungeon crawler. All of the elements you expect to see are there. You've got several classes to choose from, a potion and weapons crafting system, and skill trees. The game also adds a hunger meter to keep you on your toes.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that I got XP for smashing things in the environment. Brut@l employs a procedurally generated system that creates randomized dungeons consisting of 26 floors in total. You'll spend about ten minutes per floor, give or take, so it's not the longest dungeons ever concieved, but they are different in their layout each time.

The rooms are filled with various items you can break like torches, chairs, and benches. Altars to some kind of gods give you the chance to offer up your loot in exchange for an extra life as well, but you'd better not be stingy, lest you insult them and get nothing.

While some rooms will require that you find a key to progress, there aren't any puzzles to speak of in the game. The rooms will sometimes introduce hazards like bottomless pits or poisoned floors as well.

Since this is a roguelike dungeon crawler, permadeath is part of the menu. When you die (assuming you didn't get any extra lives) you're sent right back to the main menu without so much as an apology for the time you've lost.

You can't adjust this or choose an easier difficulty, so keep this in mind when deciding if this game is right for you. Honestly, the combat is tight and fun, so the permadeath didn't really bother me until I was forced to do platforming from absurd angles over bottomless pits.

I can't tell you how frustrating (and crushing) it is to make a leap that you're sure is going to end well, only to have the game's considerable lack of depth force you down to a game over and a ticket straight back to the first floor.

Almost all of my deaths in Brut@l were a result of this questionable combination of platforming and camera angles. I never feared the enemies, only the poor level layouts that could result from the procedurally generated designs.

This was a huge negative for me as it made the deaths feel cheap. The great thing about permadeath is that it lends a strong value to your single life in the game. You fight harder and strategize more frequently when so much is at stake.

You can't strategize poor platforming. You just have to hope the weird angle gives you enough to work with that you can make the jump and not miss by an inch, only to lose your progress. The game may be random, but I encountered platforming almost every time I played.

Moving away from that major gripe, Brut@l does have an interesting crafting system for potions and weapons. Weapons can only be created if you've found a codex for them and the specific ASCII symbols needed to craft it. Special colored symbols will add an elemental enchantment to the weapon as well.

Potions can be brewed with the proper ingredients. When you pick one up, you won't know what it does until you try it. You can drink it or throw it, so that gamble adds a nice layer of tension to these mysterious brews. The mage class allows you to quickly learn a skill that can identify potions as well, so there's a way around that.

All of the game's classes start out with certain skills unlocked in the tree, and they have a unqiue ability (the mage can shoot fireballs, the warrior can throw his shield, etc.), but otherwise they have no weapons for defining traits.

The combat, while satisfying does have a few flaws like a finicky dodge mechanic and enemy combos that can get you stuck in a situation where you can't defend yourself until they're done slapping you around.

Brut@l isn't a bad dungeon crawler, but it's not a great one either. The permadeath doesn't pair well with platforming, and the combat can be clunky. There's not a lot of depth or boss fights either which could have added more dynamic gameplay to the experience.

ASCII And You Shall Receive

Old-school gamers will remember the days wen ASCII codes were used for games, and Brut@l plays off of that nostalgia with a 3D twist. The game manages to rock the look well, even if you're not familiar with the style that inspired it. That being said, the black and white graphics tend to wear on the eyes a bit.

It's a unique look for sure and I think it's one of the big things the game has going for it. Just be cautious if you're someone who prefers their games to look normal or standard. This art style may be too much for you.

The blood splatters and visual effects that do add color are a nice touch that keeps the game from looking too bland. The same goes with the vibrant fire seen throughout the various floors. It also runs very smoothly with little to no hitches. I didn't have any crashing either, so fundamentally the game performs fine.

Really what it comes down to is the fact that Brut@l does a lot of things well, but it's lacking in a few areas and it doesn't do anything to make it stand out, other than the unique graphics. If you're a hardcore dungeon crawler fan in need of a new couch co-op game, you could do worse, but you could also do a lot better.

Final Score: 6.0/10

Bound Review: To Game Or Not To Game?

Bound

Plastic Studios, the developers of Bound, have a track record of making very divisive games. Their first effort, Linger in Shadows, was more interactive art than a game. The second game they did, Datura, had more player interaction but ultimately left you confused and unfulfilled.

Now we have Bound; a game where you play as a dancer fighting her way through a beautiful and striking world by dancing through the obstacles in her path. This game marks the end of the PLAY 2016 promotion, so does it go out with a bang, or does this dancer stumble too much?

A Story Told Through Dance

When Bound's developers talked about their game, they referred to it as a "notgame, but also a game." You can see how people like this would make confusing and, dare I say, trippy experiences. The game's story is told without directly giving you information. This game falls directly into the same category as other titles like Journey and ABZÛ, but I would venture to say it's even more abstract than those.

Bound's story is told, quite literally, through dance. The main character rarely speaks, but she conveys a lot of emotion through her movement. During the course of the story, she interacts with fairytale characters like the Monster, the Queen, and so on.

Each of the game's chapters have a singular focus, a fear if you will, that the dancer has to overcome. The game's immediate story is one that should be familiar to most people. The princess must fight the monster that is destroying the kingdom. The story that is told beyond this is one is grounded in reality and touches upon the struggles of life and love.

It's a satisfying tale that Bound weaves, and one that every person can connect to in some way, even if you've never danced in your life. The emotions and major story points that the game presents are universal in their effectiveness, and it's here that Bound reaches the pinnacle of its goal to present an interactive story with meaning and heart.

Gameplay That is Limited in Scope

Bound's gameplay offers a little more than your standard artistic fare, but not a sigificant amount. You'll be able to leap, roll, and shimmy along ledges as you would in any other platformer. When enemies do appear to impede your progress, you can choose to dance with several different moves including piroutettes, ronds, and sissones.

Dancing with these moves creates a barrier around you of ribbons, but it's not needed to progress. It does repell the enemies, but they can't kill you regardless. In addition, falling from a ledge results in an immediate reset where you left off.

This isn't a platformer in the sense that there's a challenge. The game is really here to tell you its story and the gameplay plays second-fiddle to that. I don't mind this type of approach, but Bound doesn't offer any progression or new abilties over the course of its short 2-3 hour journey.

I would have like to see new dance moves as the ones that are currently there are gorgeously animated and incredibly realistic. As it stands, the gameplay is very, very simple and really just there to provide a means of physical progression so you can experience the story.

Incredible Visuals, a Treat For the Eyes

There's no getting around the beauty of Bound's world. The polygonal landscapes burst with bright colors and dynamic undulations. In the opening moments, you can see an ocean of white shapes rising and falling beneath you like waves. As you pass through obstacles, they break apart and offer a glimpse as your character passes through.

Similarly, the main character's design is human mixed with a sort of insectoid appearance. This applies to all of the sentient characters in the game and gives everything a very surreal look and feel. The game briefly jumps between this world and a woman in the real world who has imagined this fantasy as a way to cope with the events of her own life.

The parrallels give concrete grounding for the story to be told in this fantasy landscape. In the end, Bound is an incredibly beautiful game that fans of artistic adventures will enjoy. It lacks that certain spark to make it an instant classic, but it does succeed in creating a world that is meant to be experienced instead of conquered through sheer trial and error.

Final Score: 7.0/10

There you have it! Four games I’m exciting to play and review, and four games that may be finding a new home in your library. Don’t forget that purchasing 2 or more gets you a 20% off coupon to use on the PSN store.

Which ones will you be picking up? What game is your favorite in this year’s lineup? Let us know in the comments!

Article by - Bradley Ramsey

Insert Date - 8/4/16

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