Thursday, August 2, 2018

New Review: Though still held back by the limits of exactly what it is, Detroit: Become Human is Quantic Dream's best game yet




Quantic Dream has become a studio which, for better or for worse, is known specifically for creating a certain type of game, and Detroit: Become Human is very much one of those games. It places its cinematic nature and characters first and foremost, with the most important bits of gameplay taking place from within its cutscenes, during which your responses and actions have major impacts on and determine the narrative. 

That isn’t to say that you don’t have the ability to control your character through various environments and complete rudimentary quests in between the story sequences, and Detroit: Become Human makes this aspect of gameplay more enjoyable than it was in their previous efforts, especially the oddly forgettable Beyond: Two Souls. As with other Quantic Dream games, I still can’t help but wish at times that there was more to sink my teeth into from a gameplay perspective; just a little bit more to explore, a way to pull off interactive action sequences without relying on QTE prompts, and a way to escape the nagging feeling that the story could have been much stronger had it not been so determined by my choices. 

All of that said, Detroit: Become Human can arguably be called Quantic Dream’s best work to date, a game whose futuristic environments are often beautifully realized, its characters easy to become attached to, and, of course, the seemingly endless amount of decisions and dialogue choices that have major effects on the progression of the story. 

As far as the dialogue system is concerned, similarly to Quantic’s past games, you have only a short amount of time to make major decisions during cutscenes, and the studio does a great job of making many of them morally ambiguous; too often these types of games boil down to thinly disguised “good or evil” choices, with the gamer making a choice more because they want their character to be a “good guy” or a “bad guy.” In Detroit: Become Human, it’s very tough to tell which choices are which, and the many possible outcomes of each choice have only a short time to run through your head before time runs out on making your decision. The game isn’t afraid to provide seemingly any type of story outcome, including the ability for any of your main characters to be permanently killed off from a decision that goes badly. A flowchart displays at the end of each chapter, showing the path you took intermingled with the numerous other branching off points, revealing just how many different directions the scene could have gone had you done something differently, and giving you the ability to see the percentage of other players who made the same choices as you did.  I can see why this feature has been Detroit: Become Human’s most controversial aspect, as it does serve as a regular reminder that you’re playing, of course, a video game, but I thought it was an incredible addition, as not only does it show you just how many different paths a given scene could have taken, but it provides an incentive to return to scenes after the fact, potentially improving the game’s replay value for those interested in seeing the many different ways a scene can go, and the effects the various outcomes can have on the rest of the game.

Detroit: Become Human tells the story of three different androids in a futuristic version of the city of Detroit, in a world where androids play a major role in people’s lives, but live in servitude and are essentially treated as second class citizens. This takes place against the backdrop of potential world conflict, as the United States sits on the verge of WWIII with Russia as the country begins making moves to take the Arctic. Detroit stars Kara, Connor, and Markus as androids who co-exist in different parts of the city, working/living alongside humans. The world’s entering a bit of a crisis, as an increasing number of androids are beginning to malfunction; in other words, beginning to develop human consciousness. The game cuts between the characters on a chapter-by-chapter basis, with them having minimal, if any, interaction with each other, but with each scenario blending well together, and all three given strong narratives that propel the game forward. Any of them can live or die, succeed or fail, or seemingly anything in between, based on your choices. It’s here that Detroit demonstrates the largest leap forward for Quantic Dream; in their previous games, and most evidently in Beyond, there was always the feeling that your choices didn’t make a difference except on a mere surface level, and here, from the beginning, that’s clearly not the case. 

Ultimately, this is Detroit’s biggest accomplishment and yet also its biggest weakness. Looking at the Quantic Dream formula, it’s hard to think how the system can evolve much beyond what Detroit has accomplished. The impact that you can have on the story at almost any given second is astonishing, and some of the interactive action sequences, including a showstopping chase through the city’s rooftops, are pretty awesome and inventive. The fear of failure or an undesirable result is ever-present given the game’s ability to present such outcomes, which adds a level of well-earned tension to many of its scenes. 

The downside is of course that it’s very difficult to provide such freedom without it impacting the story. I was ultimately happy with and proud of the ending that I was able to achieve, but at the same time, having a character, one who I’d grown attached to over the course of the game, killed off for something as accidental as failing a QTE, and therefore causing me to miss out on the entire conclusion to the character’s story arc, just wasn’t fun. If this had happened during a movie, it would be so anti-climactic that the crowd would’ve booed the scene. To be fair, such a dire outcome isn’t commonplace, but it did happen to me and as a result it really hurt the story that was told to me. It serves as the clearest example of the game’s most impressive feature also in the end hurting my experience with it, through no real fault of its own; it did what it was supposed to do, and it’s hard to fault it for that. I’m a fan of the deadly consequences lurking within Detroit: Become Human, though I’d say for future games I’d be happier if Quantic Dream made the permanent death of a main character a bit harder to achieve than it can be here.

As with most other of these cinematic types of games, the exploration progresses in a linear fashion, with you limited to small areas dictated by the story. Though the enclosed nature of each environment (such as a single city street or a house’s living room) does occasionally feel constricting, Detroit makes the environments a lot of fun to fully explore, with clues that you find and observations that you make giving you additional (often beneficial) choices during the upcoming cutscenes. In that sense, diving into all that each little environment has to offer almost feels like this game’s version of sidequests, (ones with an immediate payoff, to boot) and the bustling futuristic urban environments you find yourself in look fantastic and give you a great opportunity to experience and explore Detroit’s world firsthand. I did wish there was a bit more of this, and the lack of a “run” button is unfortunate, but the game otherwise controls well as you explore, and these sections add quite well to the rest of the experience.

The music is really the only aspect of Detroit’s presentation that I wasn’t thrilled with. Similar to Heavy Rain, the soundtrack here consists mostly of subdued, melancholy piano tunes and other downbeat music throughout. It isn’t bad, and at many times it sounds pretty and does elicit some emotion, but as with Heavy Rain, I just find this type of soundtrack to be depressing, and especially given Detroit’s sci-fi, futuristic elements, I wish they’d have come up with something different. The voice acting though in general is great, providing the characters with a natural, down to earth feel, and for characters who are androids, that’s definitely an accomplishment. 

Detroit: Become Human was a game that managed to impress me. I’ve had a bit of a declining interest in games from Quantic Dream in recent years, having enjoyed Indigo Prophecy, and finding Heavy Rain to be equally compelling but a good deal less satisfying. Beyond: Two Souls had its moments, but was a game I hadn’t even bothered to review and find myself hard-pressed to remember much of anything about.  I’d had my doubts that Detroit would click with me, especially with my gaming tastes having shifted in a much more exploration-driven and gameplay-focused direction following The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild last year. But I have to say, this game really takes the Quantic Dream formula and evolves it in a major way. The amount of control you have over the narrative and the fate of your characters at almost any given moment feels unprecedented, illustrated between chapters by a great flow chart system that fully and effortlessly communicates this all to you from minute one. The environments you get to explore when not watching cinematics remain limited in their scope, but offer a huge amount of objects and clues to interact with, things to take note of, and atmosphere to take in. Detroit: Become Human isn’t perfect, and the amount of freedom it offers you to shape the story can really take its toll on the story itself, should things not go the way you intended them, especially if it’s due to a simple mistake or to not understanding what the game’s asking of you. I do wonder whether there’s really anywhere for Quantic Dream to go from here, and hope, as I’ve done for years, that one day they attempt to deliver another open world, Omikron style of adventure. Until then, though, Detroit: Become Human is, I think it’s safe to say, their best work yet, and though the limitations that come with such a guided, cinematic experience do hold it back, it does manage to excel within those parameters and deliver a compelling, thought-provoking adventure.  

Detroit: Become Human is available exclusively on the PS4. 

3.5/5 
 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Preview: Though I'm happy it's finally coming West, Shining Resonance Refrain doesn't quite manage to do it for me





So, Shining Resonance Refrain has been given a demo! 

Shining Resonance was an RPG in the Shining Force series, which released on the PS3 in Japan in 2014 and stayed there exclusively, a move fully characteristic of Sega at the time. But continuing a positive trend beginning with the acquisition of Atlus, this recently-released PS4 remaster of the game is this time being granted a worldwide localization on multiple systems, including the PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

I have mixed feelings about it, especially after playing the demo, which just released on its respective eShops. I’m thrilled that a Japanese-looking and playing game is receiving a wide release and a fairly solid marketing push from Sega’s Western divisions, especially after years of this not being the case. I hope it does well enough to encourage this type of treatment in the future, and as a result, really wish Shining Resonance was a game that appeared to hold up better today.

The demo didn’t exactly win me over, to put it mildly. I hadn’t expected it to, given the original release’s somewhat unenthusiastic reception back on the PS3, but it was still a bummer to see that my initial fears about Shining Resonance proved to be correct. 

A decent action-based battle system is on display, with the demo giving you the opportunity to try out numerous characters, who play quite differently from each other. Nothing feels especially mindblowing, but Refrain, at least from a gameplay perspective, seems to be capable of delivering a competent action RPG.

Unfortunately, the game’s clearly low-effort presentation majorly sinks the whole enterprise for me. The story is presented through long cutscenes delivered with zero cinematic flair by character portraits and text boxes, which would be fairly understandable on the 3DS, but easily feels outdated on the PS3/PS4/Xbox One/Nintendo Switch. Adding insult to injury, there seems to be no way to set the text to auto-scroll, forcing you to continually hold the controller and hammer the A button progress the dialogue, something that just doesn’t feel right for a major release in 2018. Two or three cinematic scenes in the demo aside, it appears that the vast majority of the game’s story will be presented in this static, dull fashion, and even in this short time with it, the long lengths of these sequences drove me crazy. 

So yeah. I dunno. I like that Shining Resonance Refrain is being given a larger than expected push by Sega’s Western branches, including a somewhat decent-looking (dialogue-wise) and sounding localization. The battle system seems alright, but even in native 1080p the visuals don’t look great, and the story presentation feels unnecessarily bland and outdated, with its long-winded bits of statically-presented dialogue quickly becoming a chore to sit through. 

I appreciate being given the opportunity to try it out, and encourage anyone who may be interested to do the same, but at this point I can’t say that I’ll be giving Shining Resonance Refrain a purchase when it releases on July 10th. It doesn't seem like a bad game, but a pretty standard JRPG that will likely be of interest to some, who will undoubtedly be happy to finally see it localized. I hope to see future JRPG efforts from Sega that are localized with similar enthusiasm, hopefully games that feature a more compelling presentation.

Note; this preview is based on the demo for the Nintendo Switch version, though the PS4/XBO/Switch versions are said to be more or less the same.