What do you get when you throw plague doctors into a blender with turn of the century penny dreadful pulp-novels? A lot of noise that attracts all the guards, seriously, might as well use the shotgun at that point.
New Blood Interactive‘s Gloomwood is a love letter to the first person sneak’em’up genre, demonstrating the team’s impeccable ability to zero in what makes beloved cult-classics tick and incorporate those creative influences into something wholly new. It’s hard to decide if the works they produce are remixes, spiritual successors, or homages to the titles they have reverence for, but I do know one thing: they’re incredibly fun and polished to an incredibly high degree.
When iD Software decided to publish future Quake titles with Activision, GT Interactive was in a real bind having now lost one of the most famous intellectual properties in video games. The eventual answer to Quake for GT was signing a publishing deal with Ukranian-based developer Action Forms, who at the time was developing Chasm: The Rift, though largely better known for their most recent release, Cryostasis.
Chasm was a joy, a more technically competent Quake Clone that demonstrated unique features like limb removal and in-game cutscenes with facial animations for each character. As forward thinking as the 1997 game was, it would find a lukewarm reception in the west and ultimately become forgotten in the gaming zeitgeist. Fast-forward to today, solo developer Spytihněv’sHROT picks up right where Action Forms left off, presenting a curious relic fallen out of a mirror universe where Eastern Europe was a hotbed for mainstream first person shooter developers.
I was standing in a breezy field of grass when I first caught sight of movement on the horizon. People began to pour out of the farmhouse on the ridge and began advancing towards my position. I tensed up in anticipation and threw my hands in the air as a show of good faith. My anxiety spiked, there was no way to know their intent. Were they going to make a lead-weighted snap decision to neutralize any potential risk, or take the time to identify me?
With no press credentials or way to set myself apart from any other camo clad operator in the countryside, I was entirely at the mercy of their capricious whims. There were no signs of fighting nearby, all I could do was hope to catch the squad approaching me at a good time and make my proposal. Moments later I had guns pointed at me, two inscrutable faces glaring from behind their sights. A calm but stern voice followed, “State your name! State your name! And your [business]”. A compelling request, although not as compelling as their shouldered rifles. I quickly blurted out my name and that I was here as a journalist to document the conflict by embedding within a local fighting group. After a short pause, the fighter to my left nodded and shrugged to his right, towards the farm house. “Come with us.” I let out a deep sigh of relief.
I had just successfully embedded within a militia in the middle of a small war-torn village, but it was no ordinary village, instead it was a full-immersion virtual locale rather than some geographical breakaway republic: Welcome to Survival Town 2020, population 35, give or take, located in the heartland of Pavlov VR.
(Content Warning: Discussions of mental health and anxiety)
The sounds of rain pattering against nearby windows, the discordant echo of running water, the sensation of a disquiet sleep, not soothed by the melodious backdrop of the world around you, merely brought into an uncomfortably discordant focus.
Boasting a fantastic soundtrack, wonderfully fleshed out characters, and a compelling lead making her way in a world of beautiful environments and hauntingly sombre sounds, She Dreams Elsewhereby Studio Zevere (seriously, go give them a follow) is, without a doubt, one of the best RPGs I’ve played in recent memory, and I’ve only played the first twenty minutes of it. You play Thalia, a black woman getting through her days trying to cope with social anxiety, mental health issues, and bizarre dreams that plague her, dreams that, eventually, bleed into her reality. The apparently waking world becomes less of an escape from the nightmares, eventually turning into merely another avenue for them to intrude upon her every moment.
The year is 199X, you just signed on to your new Personal Computer Machine for the first time and finally finished the arcane incantations to get Windows 95 running. You look at your hands, clasped as they are shakily around the Computer Disc Read Only Memory device that came with your new Machine. You seat it in the CD tray, press the button, and you’re transported to a new world, a better world, a digital world.
If, like me, you grew up in the 90s with nary a console to your name, you were intimately familiar with shareware, endlessly copied to floppies (against contemporary advice regarding copying that floppy) and passed around the playground (or, in my case, church pew). But what always caught my attention was not the veritable jenga tower of small black squares that cluttered my desk and infested my youth, but the new shiniest circle on the market: The CD-ROM. This was the age of the demo disk, and Windows was in ascension, it makes sense then that Microsoft too cornered the market on sneak peeks into the murky future of PC gaming.
Enter Games Sampler for Windows 95, aka Manhattan Space Station Odyssey.
The typical experience of FTL is exploding in space moments after you finally discover the key pivotal item to make that new experimental ship build snowball through the rest of the game. It’s brutal, unforgiving, and ultimately so bite-sized that it compels you to keep playing for hours on end. It’s the unrelenting tension of being hunted across the galaxy, barely making it from waypoint-to-waypoint while your engine huffs fumes, begging for even the dream of a full tank. The metal hull groans, pockmarked by laser burns and penetrated by the sharp teeth of a federation drone still poking through the fuselage, making you wonder if the life support systems will hold for one more desperate jump.
The criminally underrated Pulsar, on the other hand, is more about ensuring that new crew member you picked up at the space station isn’t actually a youtube troll in disguise, threatening to rip out your engine components while you aren’t looking to please his unseen audience of twelve year olds. If that wasn’t bad enough, imagine a prolonged session of hurtling through the galaxy at light speed in a boat that’s on fire, and your entire crew is cats using VOIP with webcam microphones, also, the cats are on fire. Welcome to the outer rim, Commander, otherwise known as the 11th circle of hell, Space Hell.