Papers, Please. Review, Please.

Papers, Please, which celebrated its 1-year anniversary last week, is described as “a dystopian document thriller” – quite an intriguing mouthful for a game description, but nonetheless a very fitting description for a truly unique game. Heavily influenced by the border systems present during World War II, Papers, Please introduces the player to the communist state of Arstotzka, which recently ended a 6-year war with its neighbors and otherwise reclaimed its rightful half of the border town, Grestin.

Winning the lottery would be a nice thing – everywhere but in Arstotzka and in Shirley Jackson’s novel. Unlike Jackson’s novel however, the player gets to live after winning the lottery, but they are forced to take the job as an immigration inspector. And without further ado or formal introduction, day one starts and the player has to face foreigners wanting to immigrate and citizens wishing to return – all with both poor and good attempts to cross the border and (re-)enter Arstotzka.

Papers, Please requires an eye for detail. All papers must be checked properly and the regulations, which are updated daily, must be upheld accordingly.

Papers, Please requires an eye for detail. All papers must be checked properly and the regulations, which are updated daily, must be upheld accordingly.

The gameplay appears extremely simple, but as the game progresses and more regulations are added to the border-security and immigration processes, the harder and more complex the game becomes. The player has to ensure details ranging from name, day-of-birth, sex and passport number to appearance, height and work pass’ are in correct order. Should the player fail to do so, more than three times per shift, a penalty is applied which ultimately hits the player hard as they are under a massive pressure to support a wife, mother-in-law, son and uncle with food, heat, medicine and shelter.

This ultimately introduces a great range of moral choices – should the player bend the rules after hearing some visitor’s heartbreaking stories and let them enter; knowing the consequences? A few achievements are in fact challenging the player’s moral stance – for instance, should an aging woman be allowed to visit her son despite having discrepancy in her papers? Similar, as the entry requirements tightens – following the significant increase in terrorist attacks inside Arstotzka against the oppressive government – more people may be detained. The choice, however, ultimately is the player’s – but as the nearby guard continues to declare his willingness to share his payment, which happens to be based on the amount of detains, the more tempted the player becomes. It becomes a simple matter of survival and thus prioritization.

The player faces several moral choices which directly affects their economy and thus the lives of their family.

The player faces several moral choices which directly affects their economy and thus the lives of their family.

An interesting aspect to Papers, Please is the sound effects, audio and graphics. There are no identifiable voices (in any language), but rather extremely robotic and inhumane voices – something which follows the unidentifiable, gender less and anonymous queue outside the inspector booth. Both elements together with the Kafkaesque, colourless and overall dystopian environment greatly amplifies the alienation between the state and the people.

The lack of human compassion is stunning, but perhaps very fitting for a totalitarian bureaucracy which values the state above everything and everyone. This, once again, introduces the player’s role – no action is inconsequential, and with every coin having two sides nothing is just black and white. Yet the player is ultimately the only one who can question the procedures and do the unexpected and unwanted; show compassion and empathy. The choices will ultimately impact the player’s family directly as illnesses, hunger and cold all follows rapidly though.

No action is inconsequential.

No action is inconsequential.

At first glance the game appears to be completed in just a few hours, and whilst that may be accomplished, then Papers, Please offers twenty different endings – some with very different happenings. The player may find themselves stealing passports for an upcoming escape with their family, disarming a bomb or handing out job-offers for Engineers. It is safe to say that it takes a fair amount of hours to get through all endings, but the game does face some issues when it comes to replayability.

Upon having completed the main endings, the remaining endings appear most attractive for achievement hunters and players who wishes to complete everything. Though it does seem as if developer Lucas Pope (@dukope) made a calculated move in this regard. After completing the game, players are able to re-play the game from any day they wish. Similar, an endless-mode may be unlocked. Both elements help make the game interesting post-completion. This encourages most players to go through all the various endings – something which is very much recommendable.

Not everyone is pleased with the government - but everyone needs to cross the border, one way or another...

Not everyone is pleased with the government – but everyone needs to cross the border, one way or another…

Papers, Please is in truth an unique game which pokes to the player’s moral and human compassion. It introduces the player to a very special and dystopian environment which, if allowed, greatly influences the player. It is not a game for everyone, but those who wishes to find a raw pearl within the ocean of indie-games and for those who treasures great narrative and design, this is the game.

Glory to Arstotzka.

Buy Papers, Please on Steam here:
http://store.steampowered.com/app/239030

Buy Papers, Please on GOG.com here:
http://www.gog.com/gamecard/papers_please

Buy Papers, Please on the Humble Store here:
https://www.humblebundle.com/store/p/papersplease_storefront

Buy Papers, Please from the developer’s website here:
http://papersplea.se/

Kairo – where am I?

If the words minimalistic abstraction ever had to be used to describe a game, then Kairo, developed by British Richard Perrin, would be the most appropriate game. I originally purchased and installed the game without quite knowing what to expect – or what not to expect for that matter. Kairo starts in medias res; something which naturally leaves the player with a fair amount of uncertainty and second-guesses as to what they are meant to do. Unlike most other games however, the uncertainty gradually increases as you progress through the first few stages of the game – a very unusual, yet intriguing, experience. Unfortunately this also represents the barrier where players either decide to delve into this unique and captivating piece of content, or quit. It is important to stress that Kairo is not like any other game – and it may even be discussed whether labelling as it as puzzle exploration rather than game is more appropriate.

Kairo is in truth an atmospheric-puzzle game.

Kairo is in truth an atmospheric-puzzle game.

The fact that Kairo manages to distance itself from most other games within the first few minutes of gameplay is an accomplishment alone though, and perhaps the word distinct is a keyword when it comes to describing the game as a whole. There is no tutorial, no introduction to the story and no explanation to why you find yourself on top of an ancient stone construction. Alone.

The exploration begins psychedelically as you wander into thin air in an adventurous attempt to make it to the next construction. It is evident that exploration indeed is a big part of Kairo – both to complete the individual rooms, but also to locate the correct path(s). It moreover turns out that mastering scrutinizing for close to every sub-dimensional room is crucial and highly rewarding as players will find hidden runes and unlock achievements for collecting these.

Each new room has its own story and sacred mysteries.

Each new room has its own story and sacred mysteries.

In good accordance with the first few minutes of gameplay, the following puzzles presented to the player drastically increases in difficulty – to the point where taking breaks might become necessary. There are a few, fairly straightforward puzzles, but a majority of brainteasing and frustrating puzzles which, without a guide, can take a very long time to solve and requires a very good eye for details – solving these on your own does yield a certain sense of accomplishment and ignites motivation to continue though. This ultimately means that players looking for a casual puzzler will have to look elsewhere – Kairo is hardcore and does not reveal much, if anything at all. This, on the other hand, is a very positive thing when addressing the elite of puzzle-gamers.

As more rooms are unlocked and more puzzles are solved, the player starts to wonder what the purpose of Kairo is, not to mention what Kairo itself is –  if anything at all. It is evident that the player is reactivating – and sometimes literally fixing – ancient mechanisms within the ruins. At times short glimpses of modern- and present-times are shown, which yet again questions the story. Is Kairo a new beginning, or is it a desperate attempt to fix what has been lost and destroyed – or something completely else?

Most rooms have their own unique colour - but all rooms are installed with the same noise-layer.

All rooms have their own unique colour – but all rooms are installed with the same noise(/blurry)-layer.

All rooms are different – and those which requires a re-visit will change to a new colour every time. This empathizes how each room serves its own purpose, has its own (secret) story and function – it moreover means that each room is unique despite being a fully integrated part of every other room. However, while being in one room it is impossible to see any other room – or anything outside that specific room at all. The rooms are thus representing shattered memories, and the player is meant to collect these accordingly in order to figure out what really happened and why – something which greatly depends on the player’s own interpretation.

Every room has its own, unique function and story, but connecting them all seems to be the greatest puzzle.

Kairo is not a game for everyone, and it is a game which requires determination and a genuine interest in solving brainteasing puzzles. The environment and story (or, rather, lack of story given your point of view) can be very appealing, but that alone is not a reason to purchase and enjoy the game. A strong interest in puzzles is essential, but if a genuine interest is present then Kairo does offer some extremely complex, unique and intriguing puzzles which, without a guide, easily can take longer than eight hours to complete. Kairo is thus strongly recommendable for those seeking a unique and brainteasing puzzler with an interesting plot, but should be avoided by those who prefer more traditional puzzle-games.

Buy Kairo on Steam here:
http://store.steampowered.com/app/233230/

Buy Kairo from the developer’s website here:
http://kairo.lockeddoorpuzzle.com/

Fancy Skulls – a procedural death labyrinth

I was super excited back in January when an early-access version of Fancy Skulls from developer tequibo was made available for purchase on respectively the Humble Bundle platform and the IndieGameStand. Arguably the game was still work-in-progress back then, but the Unity-based program already had some interesting and unique elements to offer.

Recently, back in June, Fancy Skulls was released on Steam as an early-access game after being GreenLit by the community. The latter is especially important to bear in mind as this review is based solely on version 0.7.2, and several elements are thus likely still subjects to change in future updates. However, the accomplishment of being GreenLit and the constant flow of updates throughout many months clearly shows a dedicated developer and a game worth writing about.

Fancy Skulls rewards the player for taking their time to aim properly as all enemies have a weak spot.

Fancy Skulls is an interesting, roguelike first-person shooter set in a mysterious, surreal and ever dangerous labyrinth inhabited by a range of monster eggs which comes alive as the player triggers the room. The first thing which strikes the eye is the unique and very abstract graphics – especially the enemies have a very unique and intriguing design, in fact, they stand out as something which you haven’t seen in any game before.

Secondly comes the very straightforward and smooth movement (seemingly inspired by games like Unreal Tournament or Quake) and mouse-control – something which is done very likeable for a game created in Unity. Fancy Skull utilizes the standard WASD-controls, but the player will soon discover that movement and time can be altered and changed. An example hereby is a kite, which instantly changes the gameplay significantly by allowing the player to fly.

Chests and crates are scattered throughout most rooms, adding a treasure-hunter element.

Chests and crates are scattered throughout most rooms, adding a treasure-hunter element.

This brings me to the gameplay. Fancy Skulls has one, seemingly simple and straightforward goal; complete level 1-9. Without dying, of course. Though, after the first few deaths completing all nine levels and all rooms without dying suddenly appears quite a challenge. And truth be told, it is. The different enemies requires an individual analysis – does it move, if yes, how and where is its weak spot. The latter is not always as obvious as you’d like it to be – something which ultimately forces the player to position themselves to get a clear shot – an act which needs to be done flawlessly as each room locks down until all enemies are cleared.

However, the most important aspect the Fancy Skull’s gameplay is the range of items and upgrades gathered from chest and purchased from stores. The different items furthermore appear very balanced as players are forced to wait for mana regeneration before an item may be used again, and since each item and upgrade is done on the cost of another item or upgrade.

Keys, coins or ammo-packs are found in most rooms and rewarding upon clearing a room.

Keys, coins or ammo-packs are found in most rooms and/or rewarded upon clearing a room.

The stores (or, rather, vendors) – which currency is coins picked up after completing a room or gathered from drops – allows the player to upgrade their weapon(s) as they see fit. I found the standard revolver to be very powerful by sacrificing six-shots to just one (but with all six bullet’s damage in one) and purchasing a no-ammo upgrade – effectively creating a sniper rifle. Upgrading weapons does allow for some strategic gameplay as some upgrades are weak against certain type of enemies while some are powerful against other enemies.

A massive difference compared to other similar games is the limited ammunition, required aiming and otherwise strategic planning of weapon upgrades. These elements does all contribute towards making Fancy Skulls truly unique while offering a great replay-ability.

One of the many items ignites nearby enemies.

One of the many items ignites nearby enemies.

Roguelike games have always been a part of the gaming scene, but only a fair few first person shooters are vaguely fitting the sub-genre’s requirements of permanent death and procedural level generation. Not only is Fancy Skulls one of them, but the game is likely to set a new standard and be an inspiration for new games within this genre – especially considering the fact that the game is still being developed!

Fancy Skulls is truly fancy, and it deserves more recognition than it already has achieved. The game is highly recommended with an interesting gameplay, surreal and abstract graphics and hours of re-playability.

Buy Fancy Skulls on Steam here:
http://store.steampowered.com/app/307090/

Buy Fancy Skulls directly from tequibo (and get a Steam key as well):
http://www.fancyskulls.com/