Friday, June 24, 2022

Blue Scarves And Red Motorcycles

Two demos left. Let's hope they're good ones.

First up: Monorail Stories, the bonus entry I grabbed at the last minute, mostly because I liked the thumbnail. It's yet another Kickstarter project. Out of curiosity, I checked to see how that went. It funded with €8k on a €5k bid, with just over three hundred backers. Stelex Software, the developer, is based in Switzerland, which may well make it the first Swiss video game I've ever played.

The game has a faintly science-fictional feel to it. An unlikely monorail stretches rigidly between two mountain cities, high in the air above a lake. Or it could be the sea. Hard to tell. 

I doubt it matters. All the action takes place inside the carriages as they shuttle back and forth. The two protagonists, Sylvie and Ahmal, are commuters. They never meet but their interactions with other passengers cast ripples that affect their lives all the same.

That's the set up, not that you get much chance to experience it in the demo, which is, as Paeroka said, extremely short. It took me twelve minutes to finish and I went out of my way to explore the whole train, speak to everyone and interact with everything. If I'd stuck to the plot I might have done it in half the time. 

A demo doesn't have to be four hours long to make a convincing sales pitch, though. I think sometimes we forget that "Demo" is short for "Demonstration" and this one does an admirable job of demonstrating the whole package, gameplay, aesthetics, mechanics, visuals, soundscape, the lot. All in just over ten minutes.

I really liked it. It reminded me strongly of The Longest Road On Earth although it felt less elegiac, more down to earth. There's only so much philosophizing you can fit into the carriage of a commuter train, after all, even if it does shuttle between cities gnomically named "L" and "M".  

The demo offers a single scenario that's easy to summarize: Sylvie leaves her lucky scarf on the train; Ahmal finds it and puts in the Lost Property box; Sylvie gets her scarf back. Within that simple set-up there's a surprising amount of space for player agency and plot development. 

As Ahmal, you can choose to keep the scarf for yourself. I didn't try that so I can't tell you what happens if you do. I could go back and replay it to find out - it's not as though it would take long - but it's a mean thing to do and a choice I would never have made, so I'll pass. 

As Sylvie you get to talk to everyone on the train as you ask if they've seen your scarf. Among other things, it leads to a surprising revelation from one passenger that you may well find disturbing, although possibly not as disturbing as the insight you get into the worryingly poor recall abilities of the average railway employee. I'd hate to have to ask one of these guys for the first aid box.

The game is fully voiced to a good, professional standard. The writing is solid. The mechanics are all firmly in place. The controls feel comfortable and intuitive. It's pretty to look at and I really liked the music, which complements the visuals admirably.

It's hard to be certain on such a short exposure but if the completed game maintains the levels of quality in the demo, the prospects for the finished game look very good. I've wishlisted it although it's the kind of game I'd probably wait for a sale to pick up. It doesn't really give me a "Must! Play! Now!" kind of vibe.

The final demo was for a game called Yoko Redux: Dreams of a Blue Planet. It didn't feel an awful lot longer than Monorail Stories, so I'm surprised to find, now I check, that I actually spent almost forty minutes with it. 

Some of that was replaying a couple of short sections to see if something different would happen and yet again I had to keep tabbing out to save screenshots the old-fashioned way because no-one seems to bother checking whether the Steam screenshot function works in demos. That probably added a few minutes  but I guess at least half an hour must have been genuine gameplay.

I'm kind of on the fence about whether I liked Yoko Redux or not. Visually, it's an exceptionally highly stylized game, as the screenshots make plain, but it's extreme and uncompromising in other ways, too.  

There's absolutely no concession when it comes to the backstory, the setting or the plot. The demo begins with a cut scene that explains nothing before dumping you in media res to begin your first mission. Nothing tells you who your character is, who they work for, where they are or why they're doing what they do. 

It's by no means clear even what the character you're playing is. It could be some kind of construct, a mechanoid, an android, a robot, a hard light hologram... or maybe you're human and the artist doesn't care to show it. 

Not that it matters. The mechanics are familiar and straightforward - click to move, click to use. If you can interact with something it's indicated in red and the interactions available are handled automatically. Anything you need to pick up, you pick up; anything you need to use, you use. 

The same simplicity extends to the puzzles, most of which involve finding keys or passwords and opening doors. In fact I think all of them do. At one point you have to phone someone but it's only to get yet another password. 

There are no actual conversations, although the character you play talks to himself all the time. For me, along with the graphics, which I absolutely loved, and the music, which once again matches the visuals perfectly, the voice acting was the demo's greatest strength. Tyler Ross, credited with "Narration", has the kind of voice I could happily listen to reading the phone book, as we used to say back in the days when phone people understood what that meant.

I didn't run into any bugs in the demo but once again it suffers from the issue I complained about yesterday, where dialogs repeat when you go back a second or third time. More worryingly, there were a couple of flagging problems, where not having inspected things in a specific order meant dialogs didn't appear when logically they should. That's something that needs to be fixed before the game goes live.

There were a couple of examples of fourth wall breaking, one of them so spectacularly egregious it pulled me right out of the narrative. I'm more than happy to get metatextual in my games but this seemed more like a passive aggressive designer taking out their frustration on the player. Or it did until I got to the ending...

The ending casts doubt on everything that went before and in such a way as to make it clear you're being messed with. There are five or six dialog options, all of them almost identical other than the spelling and syntax. I picked the one with the most fractured language. 

It took me back to the beginning of the demo, only now everything was glitched and corrupted. A large sign on the floor suggested "Give Up". Seemed like good advice although as it turned out I had little choice. There was nothing else I could do.

Far from finding the abrupt and jarring conclusion offputting, it made me considerably more interested than I had been up to then. Some of the aspects I hadn't enjoyed now seemed to make more sense but crucially I found myself wanting to find out what was going on, whereas before I hadn't much cared. 

Reading the full description on the Steam page, something I didn't do until after I finished, I have a much better idea what game it was I just played. As with Hill Agency, though, this seems like a demo that does scant justice to the finished game. I'm not convinced that's the best marketing angle.

I've wishlisted Yoko Redux just so I can keep an eye on it. I don't think there's much chance I'd pay full price for it but it's the kind of game I'd be very happy to see turn up in an Amazon Prime bundle. Look forward to my full review about three years from now!

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