Summer miscellanous puzzle and narrative games

Monday, July 31, 2023

Tagged: reviews, oxenfree 2, a long journey to an uncertain end, viewfinder, can of wormholes

No particular theme this time.

  • Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals
  • A Long Journey to an Uncertain End
  • Can of Wormholes
  • Viewfinder

Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals

I loved Oxenfree. A gang of raw-nerved teens caught up in a haunted-radio episode of Sapphire and Steel, only they have to rescue themselves. It was charming and creepy and oppressive, never far from the suffocating awareness that the world or your life or your high-school crush could be snatched away and replaced by hostile time-shadows.

Oxenfree didn't need a sequel. It got an expansion which wrapped the story as much as it needed to be wrapped. But the logic of industry dictates that success demands a sequel. So the studio buckled down and wrote one.

Lost Signals is as good as a sequel could be on every axis. The characters are prickly and chatty and affecting. The design has Oxenfree's signature walk-and-talk (or let the other characters talk, it's up to you). The world is beautiful washes of digital watercolor. The creepy radio ghosts are creepy. The structure is deeply dynamic, dense with big and small choices which affect the game's parallel storylines.

The effect of the whole is... well, it's more Oxenfree. I mean, it's different characters -- adults this time. They've added plenty of new stuff: more story variation, a walkie-talkie to let you drive it. A cult. A doggie. But the underlying sense of "the world is cracking apart" has given way to "look, more Oxenfree stuff is happening". You know where you stand. Someone's gonna come to terms with their past or future by tuning a radio. You can't drown in the same river twice.

Look, it's a good game; you should play it. I just wish they could have gone on from Afterparty to the next cosmic ghost story, not the last one.

A Long Journey to an Uncertain End

FTL by way of Becky Chambers, or maybe it's Citizen Sleeper by way of Firefly? With just a hint of Ancillary Murderbot. Visit a planet with your crew/family of misfit weirdos; do some jobs and/or crimes; get paid enough for the jump to the next planet. The role of Creeping Time Limit is played by your creepy abusive ex, who wants you back. Oh, and you're a spaceship.

I liked the writing but the frame story felt thin. Yes, "abusive ex" is more personal than "the Rebellion", but it didn't seem like enough to hang the entire crew's mission on. (The point of Firefly was that everybody had conflicting stories.)

As for the gameplay, it was fun until abruptly it wasn't. On each planet, you look at the jobs board and assign crew members. You're limited both by your crew skills and the time cost (creeping ex, remember), but you can also spend "favors" to improve outcomes. It's a good solid set of luck-in-the-middle mechanics. Except halfway through, I landed on a planet and the game ended without warning. "You are out of time," except I wasn't -- in fact I'd just gotten two bonus hours. Bug? Bad UI?

My second run-through didn't hit that problem, but it didn't feel very different from the first. Same crew members in the same order, same missions on the planets, pretty much the same strategic decisions. I won that time, and it's a good ending, but I wouldn't have gone back if my first session hadn't wiped out. Needs more randomization and maybe different slants on the backstory to feel really replayable.

(I backed the Kickstarter for this one, way back when I was still backing a lot of Kickstarters.)

Can of Wormholes

Yet another intensively-designed thinky puzzle game. (See Monster's Expedition, Architect's Adventure.) Isn't it great that this is now a nearly-mainstream genre?

It's grid puzzles; you're a worm pushing worms around. As is now the custom, the game mechanics develop sneaky wrinkles over time. Also there's sneaky connections between levels and sneaky stuff happening in the world map. "As above, so below" may be my favorite game trope ever. (Not a spoiler; you'll get the idea real fast, although it takes a while to fully get going with the world map.)

Clever as it is, I found myself bogging down late in the game. The puzzles get quite hard, and solving each one becomes time-consuming. I did some cool stuff (two rockets!) and I know there's more, but eventually I realized I wasn't going to come back and finish. Still, recommended.

(Bonus link: the Cerebral Puzzle Showcase starts in a few days.)


Yet another brain-warping puzzle game. (See Superliminal, Maquette, Recursive Ruin.) When you hold up a photograph, it becomes 3D reality. The puzzles aren't that difficult, but the gimmick never loses its thrill so who cares?

It's a pretty powerful gimmick, and the designers lean into that. Once you have the basic idea for solving a level, there's usually a lot of ways to apply it -- it has more of a sandbox feeling than most puzzle games. I liked that. Even when the solution is pretty constrained, you have freedom to pick and place your angles.

My only quibble is that when you get to the end, you need to turn off the timer. (There's an accessibility option for this.) The endgame sequence is great -- a chain of levels that don't reset your inventory each time, which gives you lots of opportunities to sneak stuff around and solve creatively. But there's also a five-minute timer, which is stupid. But you can turn the timer off, so they know it's stupid. Why leave it in? Don't know don't care.

Recommended, and I finished this one.