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Viewed in isolation

  • nhubi
  • 12/27/2014 02:46 AM
I felt a bit of trepidation when I began to write this review. It was a little difficult to divorce myself from the hype. This had won the inaugural IGMC, it had to the best that was on offer, it was judged by professionals and icons of the community and industry and they had pronounced it great. So where was it going to fall in my own scoring rubric, would I agree with the judge's acclaim or would I wish for more?

I downloaded the deluxe version, because I wanted to make my judgement call on the latest iteration, not just the one that the official judges had used and then it struck me. I'm not a professional, I'm not an icon, but I don't have to be. What I am conveying is an opinion and in this arena that is more than good enough. So I had to try and forget what I knew, to create a sectioned tabula rasa and evaluate what I saw and felt rather than what I'd heard. I hope I succeeded.

The restrictions inherent in the competition are well known, 30 days to create a game using any engine which the developer has the legal right to use, the option to work solo or to use a team, as in this game the potent combination of Sooz, Unity and Red_Nova, and the guideline of an hour in length or less. So this was never going to be an epic hero's journey spanning years and leagues and a cast of thousands living and dying by the rise and fall of an enchanted blade. It was going to be a concise story, a personal story but in no way that can ever be applied is this a small story.

In fact it covers some of the big subjects, love of course in more than one of its myriad forms, prejudice and acceptance, hope that fleeting thing with feathers that evaded Pandora's careless hands and stayed to comfort humanity, the flaws and joys of innocence, implicit trust and that rare commodity, compassion.

However it is also a game, so let us see what the developers have for us, shall we?

Act 1, Scene 1, an enclosed place, dark and eldritch.

The scene opens on a young woman, pale skinned and arrayed in robes of Tyrian purple playing a melancholy air on a luminous keyboard in an area encompassed by a vertiginous wall behind and palisade of bars weaving between a colonnade that remind me of nothing so much as the dorsal fins of a school of circling sharks in front. A noise disturbs her playing and she dismisses the musical instrument with a flick of her wrist, indicating that she is a mage of no small talent, and turns to find that the door to her cage is gone. Without a moment's hesitation she strides from her confinement and heads out. I am enamoured by this reaction on the part of our as yet unnamed protagonist, whether she has been kept for a day or 10,000 days the opportunity to move beyond the narrow confines of her imprisonment, to seek either freedom or new experiences or both, would be irresistible. It is the drive that compels us to climb mountains and look over the horizon and in truth probably brought our distant ancestors down from the trees to find out what all the fuss was about.

So our magenta maid traverses the unfamiliar territory beyond her prison walls with a growing sense of empowerment as the magic that her cage seems to have suppressed returns to her and lightens both herself and the world around her. There is no trepidation in her, just a sense of wonder which is understandable as there is no indication that anything within the confines of her thus far limited experience have given her a cause to fear. This sense of security however is a false one and she will soon find that this place is more perilous that she realises, but after a brief frantic encounter with a single monster she finds someone else, a young man we will soon learn is called Melchior collapsed on the broken remnant of a magical circle.

I need to take a moment here to talk about the musical score used in the game. It's chosen with some creativity. None of it is familiar to me and it has been applied with a light touch and finesse and aids immeasurably in setting the right mood for the game. This is especially important n the case of our young woman, as she is mute, or at least does not choose to speak so all of her communication has to be achieved through non verbal means, and this music helps immensely in that regard. Almost all the themes within the game have become by default her themes as Melchior needs no aid in his communication skills; in fact he is something of a chatterbox.

Yes, my dear, you do.

I know there has been some speculation to why she trusts Melchior almost from the moment they meet, accepting his company without even a backwards step given that she has seemingly spent her entire life alone. To me though that is why she trusts him, she has no reason not to do so. She hasn't been subjected to the cruelties that people can inflict on one another; she has never needed to learn to defend herself against the vagarity of the human or inhuman mind and the possibilities of lies. She doesn't know what they are, so when someone who appears to be similar to herself materialises in her life the only comparison she can make is internal and there is nothing to indicate she has a cruel or duplicitous bone in her body, she trusts implicitly because she is inherently trustworthy.

So this new and exciting vista unfurls before her and she reacts to it with equanimity, with a certain wonder-tinged calmness that highlights Melchior's much more excitable and flamboyant personality. These two are very different and yet share a common bond and understanding. Melchior takes on the role of advisor, not just of Celesta as she will soon come to be known, but to the player. He is the medium by which information will be imparted, and clues to the mystery of this place and its haunting heterochromic inhabitant will be shared.

Or she's simply never seen a skeleton before.

From our talkative friend we soon learn that this place is a penitentiary of sorts, an oubliette where those of magical talent are sent to be locked away from the rest of the world, for reason which appear to truly have some merit but do raise awkward questions. If the entire place is a gaol designed to enclose and contain those to whom magic is innate until their miserable lives end why was Celesta in a cage? What is there about her than means an extra layer of security had to be applied, and was it applied to keep her in, or to keep the monsters that roam the dungeon out? Not to mention if magic is indeed as destructive to the world as is explained then just how is this place maintained? Luckily for me, all of these answers will be supplied by journey's end.

In search of the answers to these questions Melchior and Celesta traverse the various levels of their bastille and in the process learn much about it and indeed about themselves. Soon after meeting they taste their first combat as a team and this is where things get interested from a game-play standpoint, as story wise it already has. These two can complement each other, combining their magical abilities to create devastating attacks on their enemies. For this first combat most of the mechanics are handled by the game itself in an in-practice tutorial to show how the system works but once the first combat is over the choices as to what spells to combine and the manner in which they are cast are left in the hands of the player.

Magic is split into two components, much like our protagonists, with innate abilities that are permanent and are obtained via levels and spell cards which a magic wielder can equip to cast the spell upon them but that they lose if they change the card they have equipped. Each of our characters have the room to carry four spell cards so the range and depth of the spell fusion system is quite complex for such a simple process. It is innovative and interesting and gives the player a definite sense of ownership, a feeling that the choices they make undeniably affect the outcome of the battles and the growth of the characters. It ties in very well with the way that the story arc within the game is playing out, growth through choice. Decisions here matter, so make the right ones. Also I really like the battle music; it's menacing and triumphal without being martial which is a hard mix to get right.

It is a shame that the number of cards wasn't comprehensive, sticking with the definitive trio of fire/ice/lightning plus a light/dark combo with heal options to keep the party upright. That can be attributed to the foreshortening of the game creation process; I imagine the extended commercial version that is in the works will remedy that lack. The developers have somewhat alleviated this via the fusion system which turns each card from a single use to multiple choice dependant on which innate ability it is partnered with. Still given the limited options I was never in a quandary as to whom to equip with which card and rarely if ever needed to rearrange my choice in order to battle a foe for a second time.

The whole is larger than the sum of its parts.

So with a renewed feeling of power and purpose our unlikely companions venture on.

I'm going to take another moment here to talk about the graphics in the game, most of the mapping is the default, which given the time frame is to be expected, though there are a few different pieces employed in various areas, Celesta's shark-encircled cage being an early example and later the pentacle eyes and thorny columns but on the whole it's the default. It is used very well, each area has a different feel but there was still a sense of continuity throughout. It never felt like stepping through a door led you somewhere that simply made no sense for all that they were very different landscapes. I did, however, notice an odd prevalence early on to have rooms with a lot of ruination on the rightmost side for no reason that I could fathom.

Nonetheless it is in the characters where the visuals really shine, just like the music they are integral to the story, and given that Celesta has no written lines her facial expressions are paramount in portraying what she is feeling. This girl has no mask, she wears her heart firmly on her sleeve and her countenance betrays her thoughts at every opportunity. The character busts and facial expressions are brilliant, I was never in any doubt as to Celesta's intent or the message she was attempting to convey. Melchior with his open style and cheerful demeanour that hides a more thoughtful persona was actually a little harder to read. Perhaps given that he does speak you naturally pay less attention to his face than his words, though this game made me watch him more closely than I would normally watch a character and he definitely conveyed a lot more than his mere words could encompass.

Also, and this is a pet peeve turned joy of mine, you have no idea how much I like the fact that the character sprites are in proportion to their environment. Don't get me wrong I quite like the cute chibi sprites that populate the majority of games but there is a real joy in seeing the work that has gone in to add another layer of immersion to this game, because you know what, characters should be the same height as life-size statues, that's the whole point about them being life-sized!

Now before you think all I'm going to do is wax lyrical about this game, there are some clunky moments and missteps along the way. The use of the signs to help in exposition is quite good, I can see how not only locking people up in this place but also reminding them why could be the behaviour of the sort of people who would subject other people to confinement and death by monsters rather than just killing them, but the additional in game information, like the MP regeneration message and the music direction feels tacked on to the end and indeed is a little immersion breaking. The signs are all in-game references and the information is directed solely at the player. I know there is a connection between the signs and the information they provide, but it feels like a little too much hand-holding. The signs are clues, let the player decipher them.

There is also one particular sequence that felt forced to me, stating it explicitly would be well beyond the spoiler barrier, but suffice to say the juxtaposition between a genuinely emotionally fraught revelation of loss and betrayal and the reaction to it and a later somewhat telegraphed emotional bandage and the charged reaction by the same character just seemed a little contrived. The whole secondary sequence could easily have been removed and the emotions left to roil and fester until the revelation of a character's true persona produced an emotional outburst that would tie in wonderfully with an avowed determination not to betray or lose again.

There is also some oddly placed statuary and graphical elements which interrupt the natural movement flow, but they aren't numerous and were only momentarily inconvenient, I suppose they drew the eye, and ire, simply because everything else seemed to flow so well.

Ok, which one of you bright sparks put a dragon on the pathway?

So after a run in with a shadowy figure who calls either Melchior or the newly christened Celesta the Accursed One, you guess which, our heroes discover the crystal cavern, a room which contains four defunct crystals, a newly glowing one after the defeat of the shadowy trash talker and an ominously barred door. Melchior in his role as Professor Obvious muses as to the significance and the possibility that defeating others of the same ilk as the last will cause the remaining crystals to glow and perhaps open the door. As to where it may lead that is another story, but as there appear little else to do within the confines of the prison, seeking to answer that question seems as likely a way of engendering escape as any other, and will give these two more time to get to know one another.

At this point the developers have handily supplied a resting point free of charge, because it's not like Celesta can go back to her old prison cot, and I mean that literally the game won't let you return there at this moment, as well as a 'shop' in the form of a crafting station with Celesta using her innate magic to transmogrify the souls collected from fallen enemies to create useful items such as healing, weapons and armour. I was left wondering a little at this as it does, as many other things do, lead to speculation. From where do these souls originate? Are the monsters you face collectors of them, do they drain them from previous unlucky inhabitants of this prison and store them to power their own life? Do the numbers of souls they collect transform them over time into stronger and stranger foes? Or are the monsters themselves prisoners too, creatures of innate magical ability consigned to the same bleak labyrinth as their human counterparts? Am I possibly over thinking this? Probably but I must admit I find I am attached to the idea that the souls of those long gone, those other unfortunate mages and wizards, witches and enchanters consigned to a lonely painful death are in their own way aiding in the escape of two of their own.

So a series of sequential mini dungeons begins, with the death of the first of the bosses an area previously unavailable becomes accessible and a new vista is drawn for them to wander through, honing their fighting skills, defeating each boss and lighting another crystal, gaining more abilities and a better understanding of their situation and the place in which they have been banished in Melchior's case and for all intents and purposes born in Celesta's. It's not a pleasant place. Prison is not by and large meant to be, but this abode of the damned is creepy as well. In the first level, the one in which Celesta lived it isn't so obvious, but later dungeons have a much more forbidding tone, the pulsating walls of flesh coloured stone, nightmare vistas with yawning chasms, icebound crypts, even conversely the lush garden level. It is disquieting to have such a verdant landscape inside a place of incarceration, almost as if the gardens themselves has been judged and sentenced by the same sort of maniacal ruler who makes his horse a senator or renames all the days of the week for his family members.

Still through their arduous journey Celesta and Melchior are forced to grow and change both individually and as a team, circumstances sometimes compel them to be apart, a situation that is not unknown to Celesta but which she appears to find more and more abhorrent as her affection for her garrulous companion grows, and Melchior for his part appears equally affected though he does not portray it with such open transparency, at least not until it truly counts.

There are three possible endings to the game, which are fairly obvious, save one (freedom), save the other (sacrificial lamb) or save them both (fulfilment). Personally I'd have named that last one Justice, because given what she is, what she can do and what she's done, that's something that has been well and truly served. Since I wanted to experience the gamut of the experiences the developers had intended I worked my way through them all, and yes my heartstrings did get pulled a little at the self sacrifice one and I was a little annoyed at the other, until I realised what I needed to do, but in truth this is what is it is all about.

After all we've experienced...as if I would leave you behind?

Remnants of Isolation is a wonderful game. Does it have its faults? Yes. Is there room for improvement? Yes. Is it perfect? No. But it has so much potential still stored up in the tight little bundle that we have been given that I do look forward to seeing what a commercial spit and polish can do for this multi-faceted gem. So in the end my original trepidation was unfounded and I met my questioning criteria, it's is both very good and I do still wish for more.

Hopefully I shan't have to wait too long. Until then I'm going to listen to Celesta's theme...on repeat.


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The all around prick
I never did thank you for the review, nhubi. You've given us a lot to think about in addition to the praise. I'm glad you enjoyed it!
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
I did wonder if you had read it, foolish thought since developers thrive on feedback, but I'm gratified to know you've taken something from it. I really am looking forward to seeing the commercial release when it arrives.
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