February is a weird month this year for me; there are a lot of highly anticipated games out this year, but none of them “forced” me to pull the trigger on them. Anthem looks like something I’m not interested in (regardless of quality), Far Cry: New Dawn looks like more of Far Cry 5 and I’m not ready for that, and Metro: Exodus looks neat but I want to finish the first two before jumping in on the 3rd one.
Instead, I searched around the digital store fronts looking for something I might be interested in and giving that a shot; this is where Away and SIMULACRA come in. Starting with the first of the two, AWAY: Journey to the Unexpected describes itself as an ‘FPS’ (First Person Smiling) and has a few interesting things that intrigued me: First, it has a distinctly anime look to it mixed in with Pop-up picture books that certainly make it look distinct; Second, it has a pretty interesting mechanic, where the player collects friends instead of weapons or abilities and can call on them to take their place—they each have their own unique abilities, health bar, and personalities. I found these to be the only interesting and worthwhile features in the game, but the trappings and mechanics around them are what will keep me from finishing it or playing more of it; AWAY is a first-person action thingy, with procedurally generated dungeons and multiple unlockable areas to progress through, and the entirety of that description is kind of frustrating and underwhelming in practice. As a first-person action thingy, it does not work particularly well; I found it extremely hard to understand how close my character is to the enemies, because of their pop-up picture book design, and actually hitting them always felt a bit lackluster, despite the visual feedback provided. As a procedurally generated dungeon crawler with multiple pathways, I found the dungeons to be too random and poorly designed to be any interesting; you can get anything from a cave with a tree in it and 3 enemies, or multi-floor hellscape with dozens of enemies and light platforming elements, on your first dungeon. There’s nothing wrong with variety or ‘pure’ randomness, but it does lead to a feeling of RNG being too important on your run, which I don’t appreciate; it also makes the game feel too stale, like it has only two designs worthwhile and even those aren’t that great. Beyond that, the game is generally fine, although I did encounter severe technical bugs (3 or 4 hard crashes in equal playthroughs) but I have been able to get it running smoothly. Overall, not terrible, but I think it could have used more time in the oven.
SIMULARCA, on the other hand, has even more problems with less good things to discuss; it’s a horror game version of the genre that was popular for a hot second: the “you have the phone of a stranger, now learn all about their lives” type that got popular a few years ago on mobile. I don’t play a lot of horror games (even though horror movies are one of my favorite things in the world), because games tend to overuse techniques like jump-scares and weird, unnatural sounds to scare you—especially since they are more effective on an interactive and more relatable medium like games; you are not watching a character go through some disturbing shit, you are controlling them. SIMULACRA use these ‘cheap shots’ shamelessly to present a rather dull and baffling attempt to create something disturbing; every time the nonsensical plot has nothing new, your phone makes weird sounds and a lady yells. It’s not that these moments didn’t make me jump (I’m an anxious person, so someone knocking on the door too loudly would startle me); it’s more that these ‘jumpscares’ serve no real purpose in terms of building up the actual horror experience. Take “The Conjuring” for example: It is a movie full of jumpscares and nonsensical sounds that startle you, but they are just as important as any other part of the movie and why it succeeds; sometimes that’s because the movie needs a break of pace from introducing or expanding its characters/world; sometimes it’s to elevate the stakes; to make it feel like something that actually happened and was told by the people present. Point being, they add to the experience, they are not the experience. SIMULARCA has nothing else going on: The story of why would someone pick up a stranger’s phone and start messaging people on a dating app is never made believable or any less ridiculous; it’s not an interesting look at a person’s most sensitive data and how the player would react in that situation; the FMV acting is atrocious, but not bad enough to be any entertaining; the voice acting is bad enough to be “so bad it’s good” and it did make me laugh a few times; even the attempt to build up some meaningful stakes and create a sense of anxiety and haste for the player is poorly done. To the game’s credit, it does try to create a disturbing atmosphere by having sounds coming from your character’s environment (like breathing or knockings on doors, which can be pretty effective on a headset), but that’s the only thing I found to be genuinely good; it even has a quiz with increasingly weird questions that’s supposed to freak you out, but instead it made me bored and left me to awkwardly answer bad “would you rather” questions, with the game eagerly expecting me to freak out while I was trying to get it done so I can quit.
Thankfully, I also got CrossCode, which is a pretty fun game so far and I am enjoying that, but that’s how it is exploring the depths of digital store fronts for something interesting: A lot of the time, what you find may disappoint or even frustrate you; but you only need one good game, to make it all worthwhile.