Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Witness Review

Jonathan Blow's "The Witness" was the first game on Steam I downloaded after getting a new PC/gaming rig. I was so taken by Blow's last game "Braid," that I didn't wait for any Steam sales, or humble bundles to pick up his most recent creation. When I first experienced Braid on my Xbox 360, I was treated to a beautifully drawn 2D world with an appropriately matching orchestral score that was pleasant on the ears. As I journeyed through the game I learned more and more about the story of the character I was controlling through passages that were left in between levels and it wasn't until the very end of the game that I truly knew what was going on. I was left with one of the most clever twists in any game that I had played and as a result Braid has stuck with me since as a gaming experience like no other.

The same can be said for Blow's latest offering "The Witness." Taking place on an uninhabited island, the game thrusts you into a land that is begging to be discovered. The main concept of The Witness revolves around drawing lines to solve puzzles as you explore the unknown terrain. Right from the get-go the environment of the island is something to marvel over and the peace and tranquility portrayed within it is like no other game I've played. (All you hear are your character's footsteps as he walks and the sound of the wind and water running through streams). The puzzles start off easy enough as you're introduced to the basic concepts of how to solve them. After leaving the first tutorial-like area you are given the freedom to explore and visit whichever part of the island you wish. Wandering never felt so good! The beauty of having this freedom, allows you to move on when met with an overly tough puzzle or one that you just don't understand how to solve at that particular moment.

Oftentimes I found myself not even caring about the puzzles that were waiting to be solved around me, but instead the colorful and majestic pieces of scenery that were presented to me with each footstep I took. Each new area offered a different feeling of awe from the last, as well as new puzzle types. After admiring my surroundings for longer than I'd like to admit, I dove face first into the new puzzle presented to me. Despite not having any in-game guides or support characters to assist along the way, The Witness does a pretty good job of teaching the player the new rules that are introduced within new areas, but not always. Drawing a line from point A to point B will no longer suffice when new ideas come into the mix and you'll have to use your noggin to its full potential. Without spoiling too much, some puzzles require separating different colored squares when solving them, as well as drawing specific shapes in your solution.

That being said, The Witness is in no way an easy game to complete. Some of the puzzles I encountered, especially later in the game, were mind numbingly difficult and frustrating to boot. Some felt unsolvable and made me feel extremely dumb as I haplessly tried drawing line after line with no success. Even when I was successful, I found myself running out of steam as I got to the end of an area and had to resort to looking up one final solution as my brain could no longer function. I did have a lot of Aha! moments when I finally figured out how to solve certain puzzles, but at the cost of feeling like my head had a Vacancy sign posted outside it.  Nevertheless I felt extremely accomplished when I did solve them on my own.

When first introduced to the orange explosion shapes I was dumbfounded

The Witness is a type of game that is mentally draining and will put your problem solving skills in overdrive. Taking breaks in between playing for an hour or two were necessary for me to get my wits back in order and progress further through the game. When returning a day later, I found that some solutions came to me a lot easier after I had some time to rest my mind. Sometimes all I needed was a different perspective, especially when it came to the environmentally-based puzzles, which there were plenty of.

The main draw for me to The Witness was the sense of wonderment it offered and the mystery of why this island exists and who was here before you. I had a continuous inclination to go further and solve puzzle after puzzle to find new areas and uncover more information. There are various structures that are on the island including a series of tree-houses, a pyramid and a quarry to name a few. Statues of humans also exist as well as audio recordings that can be found and offer quotes from historically famous individuals that may offer some insight to what the island holds.

I don't remember the last time I thought so hard to solve puzzles in a video game and The Witness made sure that my brain was put to the test. The journey I took as I explored some of the most aesthetically pleasing environments is one that I will never forget, not just in a video game, but any form of entertainment.

The Witness cannot be completed in one sitting (at least not the first time playing) and took me a whopping 25 hours to complete from start to finish. That's not including every puzzle that was available as some weren't mandatory to complete to get to the end. As confusing and frustrating as the puzzles found in The Witness were I enjoyed my time with the game and was glad I got to the end of it.

Blow and his team's latest release continues to encompass the same high quality standards that were set with Braid almost 8 years ago. That being said its not for everyone, especially those who don't like puzzles or lack the extreme amount of patience required to do the ones found in The Witness. For those who love beautiful looking games and a sense of mystery/exploration, The Witness will be right up your alley and is highly recommended by this game reviewer.

I give The Witness 4/5 Stars   

The Witness was developed by Jonathan Blow and his team at Thekla, Inc. It was released on January 28, 2016 on both Windows and the PlayStation 4. It is available to download for $39.99 USD.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Miitomo Review

Nintendo is a company that is known for its stellar games, memorable characters and intuitive new experiences that they offer to fans, both old and new. Those who have stuck with the company through the years have come to expect a sense of nostalgia with each release, as well as new and exciting ways to experience some of their favorite game series. Titles such as Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda and Pokemon are still relevant to this day thanks to Nintendo's constant dedication to immersive story-telling and fun and addicting gameplay mechanics.

2016 marks the year that Nintendo has journeyed into a territory they have never ventured into before: Mobile Games. Last year they partnered with mobile gaming giant DeNA, a company based in Japan and responsible for the Mobage platform, Japan's most popular cell phone gaming platform. Together Nintendo and DeNA hope to create and offer new and creative experiences for mobile devices (iOS and Android). Their first project together called "Miitomo," released worldwide a week ago. Me being the avid Nintendo fan that I am, I had to see what this new app was all about.

The name of Nintendo and DeNA's first mobile app is simple enough to pronounce and remember. I like to think of it as a combination of Nintendo's beloved Mii characters, which Wii owners were required to create in their likeness to play Wii Sports, and Tomo which was the prefix of Nintendo's popular offering on the 3DS, "Tomodachi Life."

Miitomo is a free download and is not so much a game, but rather an app which allows users to create a character in their likeness and interact with their friends who they are connected with via Twitter or Facebook and also have the app. This is done by answering questions about themselves and what's been going on in their life recently, as well as their opinions on various subjects. Their friends can then see the answers they gave and give them a like or even comment on those answers. In most cases these friends will then be asked the very same questions and their answers will be shared with the original person who answered.

The more you interact with your friends by hearing their answers and commenting the higher your popularity will go up, which will award various new clothing pieces that you can put on your Mii. In addition, there is a shop where more clothing items and props can be bought to give your Mii an outfit that you see fitting for them.

This creates many different possibilities for customization, as long as you have the coins for the items you want. Nintendo generously gives 2,500 coins to each new player of Miitomo to start. After that coins can be earned by interacting with friends and just by playing the game regularly as part of receiving daily rewards. Some of the more desired clothing pieces and accessories will cost a bundle, which means saving up is a must. Coins can also be purchased with real money, but most players won't have to resort to that as long as they're patient enough.

There's also a Miitomo Drop game that can be played using game tickets (also given to you by Nintendo when you start) or by paying 500 coins per try. In this mini-game you drop Mii characters and try to land them on spaces with new clothing items and accessories. It's a nice diversion from answering questions and commenting, which is what you'll be doing most of the time you're using the app.

Users are also given the ability to create Miifotos of their Miis. These custom photos allow the user to pick out one of the already available backgrounds (or use a picture that's on their device) and put together a scene using text and various expressions and poses. The possibilities are truly endless as you can see from the photo I have below. You can even share these Miifotos to your device or share them to Instagram or Facebook without exiting the app!

Overall, my first week spent with Miitomo was both entertaining and insightful. I learned a handful of facts and opinions that my friends had. I also took some silly Miifotos and acquired clothing pieces that made my Mii look both fashionable and completely and utterly ridiculous. So far I have played the game every day and have had fun with it. I always look forward to hearing more of my friends answers as well as seeing what new clothing items are available in the shop (there's always new items daily!) and seeing what new accessories and costumes pop up in the Miitomo Drop game (changes weekly).

Miitomo is more of a social app than anything and in that regard it succeeds in every way. If you're expecting a full fledged game with a lot to do then Miitomo isn't it. What little there is to do is fun, but may seem lackluster to some. It's staying power is also yet to be determined and will be gauged the further we get from its initial launch. 

As of this writing, I give Miitomo a 3.75/5 and can't wait to see what more it has to offer in the coming weeks.