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Game review: Neo Cab 🎮

10 October 2020 - Reading time: 4 minutes

An indie narrative game where you play as Lina, the last human taxi driver in a future Earth, eking out enough cash from her fares so she can pay for a room to sleep tonight. It's about the relationship between two friends, and meeting interesting people (your fares) who lead normal yet fascinating lives in the city of Los Ojos.

The setting is a near-future California: Los Ojos is basically Los Angeles or San Francisco projected 30-odd years into the future. While the scope of the "world-building" is quite narrow (as it would be for a small game), it is done thoughtfully: a realistic and interesting projection of what technology and society in the future might be. I can imagine Los Ojos and Lina's life becoming a reality in a few decades.

Neo Cab is a narrative game with light resource management to give it a smidgin of challenge. There's money, and fuel for your taxi, but the main star of the show is managing Lina's emotions, which is done through a cute mechanic called the "Feelgrid". As you pick dialogue choices with NPCs, Lina's mood changes, which influences her downstream dialogue choices by opening up some options while closing others off. The gameplay mechanics are very light and easy, as the story is the main focus: the friendship between Lina and her childhood friend Savy -- made even more complicated when Savy goes missing.

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Game review: Journey 🎮

10 October 2020 - Reading time: 3 minutes

I'd been interested in studio thatgamecompany ever since I played founder Jenova Chen's Flash games when they were hosted on his uni's server in the early 2000s. I'd wanted to play Journey since its PlayStation release, but never thought it'd happen since I don't and won't own a console. So I was overjoyed when it finally made it to Steam.

I don't know how else to describe Journey save that it's a myth or allegorical story in video game form. You play a pilgrim on a quest to a distant mountain, and you encounter joys and suffering along the way as you climb toward the mountain's summit. The game is pretty short, at most 2 hours if you're wandering around enjoying the sights.

That's all there is to it -- but what an experience that is! While the game is delightful, the greater meaning comes from whatever you experience and remember while you're playing. At the risk of sounding esoteric, the game is a kind of gateway to self-reflection. Indeed, it's more about your personal thought/emotional "journey" as you play, than the surface goals of gaining achievements or completing the game (although the ending is thoroughly satisfying).

Gameplay-wise - the more I play video games in general, the more I discover: the simpler the game on the surface, the more dense and meaningful every gameplay action is. Journey is this kind of simple game. There are no voiceovers or text: the story is told in images, music, and gameplay, all of which are elegantly done and allow for lots of symbolism and layers of meaning. Graphical and auditory cues are subtle but meaningful once you recognize them. The controls are accessible in their simplicity. The game levels are integrated into the story, the few collectables (for achievements) are fun to find and have in-game benefits. The soundtrack in particular is atmospheric and evocative — it won multiple awards, even got nominated for a Grammy. Everything you do in this game is purposeful.

Half of the gameplay experience is the companion you encounter partway through. It's probably not a spoiler, but I started the game with zero prior knowledge, so discovering what/who that companion really is was a wonderful surprise. This alone makes the story so much more compelling and gives it big replay value.

I think Journey is less of a "game to be played" than a story or myth to be savoured with a controller in hand. It moved me in ways that reading good literature or fiction does. (I got the same feeling from another game, Kentucky Route Zero, even though it tells its story quite differently.) This is a game I know I'll revisit periodically, to savour and mull over.

Cross-posted at We The Players.


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Game review: Obduction 🎮

10 October 2020 - Reading time: 4 minutes

The MYST series was my introduction to video games as a kid, Riven: the Sequel to MYST was the first game I ever bought with my pocket money. 20+ years later, my taste in video games has evolved substantially and I don't play adventure-puzzle games anymore. But I still have a soft spot for Cyan Worlds and will play everything they release.

Obduction is a worthy successor to MYST. It contains the trademarks of a Cyan game: spectacular worlds, immersive and clever puzzles, a mysterious story told through journals and notes found while exploring. And there's still live acting: the few NPCs are live actors captured in film and integrated into the world, instead of rendered 3-D models with motion-capture movements -- a nod to the live-action videos in the MYST series. (How often do you see live actors in a video game nowadays?)

It's also a 21st-century modern video game: The world is fully rendered in 3-D and opened for free-roam, but can be converted into a point&click game in settings. There's no fast travel, you still have to walk from point to point, but the exploration areas feel tighter with more short-cuts between them, and in free-roam you can toggle between walking and running.

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Game review: Disco Elysium 🎮

10 October 2020 - Reading time: 5 minutes

Studio ZA/UM's first game takes a literary/magical realist novel, wraps it in the gameplay mechanics of a cRPG, and creates something one-of-a-kind in the RPG genre.

This "novel" is a murder mystery. The setting is a fantastical, magical-realist world that somewhat resembles our own 20th-century Eastern Europe. You play a detective solving the case while struggling with his inner demons and past regrets -- and these struggles forms the other half of the story. There are many mature themes involved: suicide, depression and other mental health issues, drugs, racial prejudice, and class warfare. The story presents those themes meaningfully, but pulls no punches. So be warned.

The detective character is named and has an established storyline. It's a cRPG in the sense that you have a stat sheet/levelling up and skill checks at every interaction, but it's also not a "typical" cRPG because it's primarily a character story about the said detective. Half the skills are associated with detective-ing, the other half are personality traits which reveal a lot about the character himself, on top of contributing to the gameplay.

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Game review: Tyranny 🎮

10 October 2020 - Reading time: 5 minutes

A cRPG by Obsidian Entertainment, in the same family as Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity.

The story is straightforward: You play a justiciar for the tyrant Overlord who rules almost all the known world. You're tasked with rooting out corruption and incompetence in the armies while subjugating the last unconquered region in the name of the Overlord. This setting was an instant sell for me: there aren't enough games out there where you're on the side of the "evil empire" and can play it straight. Indeed, playing as the Overlord's law enforcer felt realistic and meaningful. I was impressed at how NPCs on all sides of the war have nuanced views of the empire (instead of simplistic black-and-white morality), and how the story reflects the complexities of empire and conquest. I'm reminded of the military/dark fantasy series The Black Company authored by Glen Cook, which has a similiar premise and exudes the same type of complexity in its setting and characters.

If Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity are grand and epic, then Tyranny is shorter and less expansive, which are its strengths. Compared to most cRPGs, the main quest is focused and the sidequests are brisk but feel meaty. Gameplay is typical turn-based cRPG with an open skill/levelling system, so while you can pick starting attributes, you aren't locked into a class. The magic spellbook was a fun surprise: it has lots of customization possibilities.

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I'm Vega.

Welcome to my blog.

My Weekly Art Dispatch🎨 is posted every weekend (usually on Sunday) to this blog and email newsletter.

I may occasionally blog about writing other creative projects; book and video game reviews; and real life stuff.

Email me at: vega{at}greatskyriver.net