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Version 28 review: Promising dystopian thriller hurt by narrow focus

  • NTC3
  • 06/07/2015 09:33 AM
  • 1608 views
Let me preface this review by saying that I certainly understand where the five-star ratings for Erias Line come from. Its creator, Elder71, obviously understands deeply that a total union between aesthetics, gameplay and storyline is required in order to create a lasting masterpiece. This understanding, and the obvious level of committed talent involved in its production, already makes The Erias Line markedly superior to the majority of RMN’s output even in its currently unfinished state. (Well, given the upcoming Unity remake, the VX version is about as complete as it's going to be, which is why I'm giving it a score).

However, and like I mentioned earlier in my Her Dreams of Fire review, achieving the union can still fail to work if the quality of the underlying storyline doesn’t uphold its promise. In this regard, OMNIS: the Erias Line certainly feels like it could – and should – have been more, and so the meat of my review will be spent on where its writing could’ve gone differently. However, its creator still has a strong desire to improve, and made no secret of the plans to re-make the project in another engine in order to take it to Kickstarter and ultimately to the commercial level. It bears no mentioning that the competition is significantly tougher there, and so I’m covering the more technical aspects from the perspective of a commercial project (not that my regular reviews are much different, but anyway).

Aesthetics (art, design and sound)

I must say that Erias Line doesn’t leave the best first impression upon booting up, as the player is treated to a very plain menu screen and nothing but dead air. There’s no menu theme, and also no sound playing when switching between the menu options. It’s a bizarre oversight; however, the rest of the game then has a lot of highly fitting custom art. Everything is custom and while some things, like the Solis Enforcers’ models, do feel like they could’ve looked better, the overall impression is still very good. Character animation is a little limited at times, but it does convey subtle changes in emotion, which is most apparent with Orphan’s insecurity conveyed whenever he hunches shoulders and such, and other details like that.

Battles are more impressive still, as they’re fully animated, and while I do have some gripes with its balancing (see Gameplay), the feel of it is done just right. One memorable animation is the Miner’s Plague electrical attack, where it slowly brings two wires together in order to zap one of the characters really hard. It just looks so calculatingly evil while doing so it’s hard not be amused in retrospect, even if the damage is nothing to sneeze at. The real draw of Erias Line’s visuals, however, are all to do with the custom images it uses for things like maps and logs. OFF was the only other rmk game I’ve played so far that did the same, but its book pages and pseudo-medieval schematics were always meant to highlight the weirdness of the world and feed into the symbolism/alternative interpretations, rather than be taken seriously in their own right. OMNIS’ portraits, on the other hand, contribute to the atmosphere immensely and look just perfect. Here’s one example; I would have probably screenshotted them all if I could:



Mapping is also consistently quality... with one notable exception. Most maps showcase great usage of custom art and parallax effects. There’s also a nice touch with the warning text and such written in yellow on the floor in Terminus and on the Solis train, which is then also shown on the floor during the battles there. It really creates the sense of continuity that is lacking in too many games on RMN. Another good touch is that the levels are believably large and never feel cramped, with the on-screen map making sure you don't get lost.

The notable exception I referred to is the Sublevel 33, where there's an outright shift into the survival horror atmosphere with heavy mystic elements. It’s quite reminiscent of Metro 2033, which was also set underground and featured ghost trains and such, although I do believe it managed it a little better. Here, we’ve got the Dolltown that has every wall lined with dozens of dolls, so that it soon adds up to thousands. Here’s a screenshot:



It is certainly quite visually striking, but let’s be honest; the game is set in a resource-deprived world, one where a crèche for poor miners’ children wouldn’t even get its hands on a tenth of the dolls on show, and so this lessens the reality of the situation somewhat. There's also room for improvement with the lighting design. The characters are required to carry a lamp to go through this sublevel, but it hardly seems to do anything at all, and the levels are more dark-grey than actually impenetrably dark, even though one highly memorable journal refers to the “voids of almost negative light”. While a heavily flawed game in many other respects, Cardiophobia managed to push the bar on lighting much further than I thought possible in RM/Ace, and I do suggest the developer to play at least 10 mins. of it just to see the possibilities, and see how they can be replicated in Unity.

Besides the conspicuous lack of a main theme, the soundtrack is very good, and in terms of fitting the scenes, it is likely the best I’ve encountered on RMN so far. I don’t think I can pick out one weak theme here, so full credit to the composer James Wilson. . To Survive and Overcoming, the game’s combat boss theme, are now honourable tenants in my RMN music folder, as well as the first sublevel theme, Terminus theme, and Imlis' Theme, a soulful piano track. The combat sound effects also all sound exactly like they should be, although I did catch a couple of the RTP sounds here and there, notably the sound when you initiate combat with ghosts, which does feel somewhat out of place here.

The environmental sounds are generally good. The first cutscene has very little OST and just uses the sounds of the lift descending, but they’re good enough for it all to work. The sounds used when doors or hatches of any kind open and close (even if it’s just locker doors) are very, very good, with a wide range of sounds that makes it sound really distinct. There also some sounds used for changing clothes at a specific scene and a few other good touches. Disappointingly, though, moving up and down the ladders has no sound associated with it, even though you'll be doing this quite often throughout the game, and was done in Backstage to great effect.

Interestingly, footstep sounds are present, but exactly once, to announce the arrival of the robot boss at the Terminus, while all the regular humans do without in spite of spending most of their time running on metal floors. Admittedly, the question of whether they’re necessary IS a point of contention around here, with an argument made for soundtrack alone to carry the game. While that principle might hold true for lighter/more abstract RPGs, one of Erias Line’s aesthetic drawcards is the all-permeating grit, and the soundtrack here also has very strong industrial elements, and would only be complemented by the presence of such environmental sounds.

Storyline

The narrative of OMNIS: The Erias Line is an interesting case, because its greatest strengths also feed directly into its weaknesses. When it begins, it swiftly grabs one’s attention with how consistently gritty is, and quickly immersing us into its post-apocalyptic cyberpunk, where hope is scarce, and privileges are to be fought for. It has the memorable lines like Handler’s “Beyond that, it’s not my job to give a shit. And believe me, I don’t.” This idea of an uncaring world is contrasted with the bond between Skyler and Orphan, our foster brother and sister duo, and this conflict remains the focal point of the narrative. Their dynamic, with tougher, more experienced Skyler being protective of Orphan, and his desire to repay the debt and avoid coming off as a burden, is well-written and never feels false.

This dynamic is greatly helped by one of Erias Line's truly original moves, where at several occasions an exchange between Orphan and Skyler can begin with dialogue from either her or him. While it has no persistent importance and is not something you ought to be reloading your save for, it does add flavour to the game and draws further accent on the relationship between its two leads. Later on, the more significant choices (like whether to leave train engineers alone or tie them up) are also presented in this manner.

However, there are also some notable issues, especially if Erias Line is treated as a work of art is general. Firstly, one of the reviews here described the storyline as unpredictable; I cannot agree. There’s exactly one interesting and entertaining plot twist to do with the prisoner you’re breaking out, which will probably remind a lot of people of Furious 7. The rest is not done anywhere near as well. The guide escorting Skyler and Orphan is always described as Verdamm (that’s the name of the city of origin) Grunt, and this makes it very obvious that a) he’s not important, and b) that he’s going to die, a suspicion further compounded by gameplay factors (see below). It’s a shame, because at first, he appears more than a throwaway blank; while he obviously has no backstory and such, some of lines still have more charisma then ones of a dozen protagonists from throwaway RPGs.



Yeah, he only levels up once or twice at this rate, and it doesn't really matter.

However, this doesn’t last and it’s soon apparent that his character won't evolve, and he is only there for exposition and gameplay purposes. While he did manage to last a bit longer then I expected, but whatever his death was, it was neither shocking nor particularly tragic. It’s made worse by the fact that the boss fight of sorts where he dies begins with the “little girl who’s not what she seems to be” cliché. It was completely obvious to me as a player, yet the leads, who’ve spent their lives in this run-down world, are taken completely unawares. Likewise, the ambush at the end of level 33 is also completely unsurprising given said level’s nature.

There’s also the gruelling pace, which would make John Wick or any other frenetic action movie proud. Initially, the way the group moves swiftly from one place to another, with us being told only what we need to know, is admirable. However, that pace is then unwilling to ever slow down, to give player breathing room, and this does lead to a fatigue of sorts. Sure, the pacing is justified when you’re racing to Terminus to board the train, and once on the train, the time is similarly short. However, there’s then a natural break in action when the group finally escapes the train and has to stop for night. Great works on here like A Blurred Line, Iron Gaia or A Hint of A Tint have excelled at slotting in cutscenes/conversations during moments like this, to ensure that there's meaningful contrast and to keep the player invested in the storyline. OMNIS: Erias Line fails to do so, and instead, the game immediately skips to morning and you have to go through some more wandering around and throwaway battles before finally having a semblance of conversation at a safe house of sorts. The explanation you get is still rather vague, and doesn’t cover basic things like what do Operatives (group that sent our duo on the mission) actually want and what put them into conflict with Solis in the first place.



Perhaps it was an argument over saving rates; free at Verdamm, not so free at Solis. Great idea, though, and reminiscent of Iron Gaia's prisoner code.

In a sense, though, it doesn’t matter, because everything you’ve played was a set-up before OMNIS could finally become the Lovecraft-lite thriller (in terms of cosmic dread, not body horror... yet) that was promised on the front page. A single, highly predictable case of fridge-stuffing later, and off we go to being a mouse in cat’s paws for what I presume would be most of the full version before the final fight-back. I’ve never been a fan of vague and effortlessly unstoppable antagonists (which is one reason why I defy consensus and consider No Country For Old Men to be mediocre, for instance). Here, it’s also symptomatic of a greater tonal problem, whereas Elder71 has a quite complex post-apocalyptic situation on his hands, yet appears intent to force it into a straitjacket of black-and-white morality. Like I said before, the image of a brother and sister against uncaring world is striking at the start, but by the end of the game, this picture feels reductive and simplistic.

Granted, there are some complex moments, like when we are first shown a cutscene with a likeable and are some slightly apologetic train conductor, and then are forced to kill him alongside a group of regular Enforcers in battle a short while later. These are rare, though, and on the whole, our duo operates under a strange sort of morality, whereas killing anyone directly standing in their way is fine, but being pragmatic about it to any degree is evil. Nowhere is this clearer then during a really stupid scene where they encounter an Enforcer Captain on a passenger car who obviously recognises them, yet they then just watch as he leaves, and even act surprised when he raises an alarm. They don’t even contemplate trying to kill him, if not in the passenger car then somewhere outside it, even though that might well lead to a lower body count, which approaches triple digits by the end of the game. Given that the duo's reasons of seeking better life in Verdamm are never elaborated on, I did wonder whether I should've been rooting for Enforcers all along.

Having said that, Solis Enforcers might make up the majority of casualties by the end of the demo, but for much of Erias Line, you’re fighting against people who were former miners but are now just homicidally crazy. Granted, there is some backstory available through the notes and such that portrays a tale of horrible conditions, industrial accidents and the impending closure of the mine. It is quite compelling even, but it in no way leads up to this bunch of people ending up as mere cannon fodder, with no hopes, dreams or reason for existence besides getting slaughtered at the end of your blade. In fact, I think this is the one time where fewer human enemies would’ve been better. Some so-called liquidflies also appear near the end of the level, and if the notes of backstory ultimately led up to how the people left behind were either slaughtered by them or ended up taking weapons themselves, it would’ve made more sense. As it is, there are scenes when both the liquidflies and crazies are present at the same level, yet they never try to fight each other, just you, their on-map sprites going through each other. It really feels like one of those things that could be genuinely improved in the upcoming Unity remake.



One of the liquidflies as seen on map, alongside some beautiful mapping.

In fact, as a counter-factual, imagine the alternative development. What if, from the start, those miners were actual thinking people, who are still determined to survive in there above all? What if the reason they’re fighting you is not because you’re a random human who wandered in their path, but because Operatives betrayed them once and now they have genuine reasons to hate them? That way, the game would introduce proper ambiguity and foreshadow the role of Operatives early on, and make those early battles seem far more significant. The scenes with non-violent Squatters would instantly make more sense as well; as it is, these are apparently completely weak, unarmed people who’ve nevertheless managed to survive for a long time there in spite of being constantly hunted by dozens of crazies. In the hypothetical above, they would be actively protected by those miners from liquidflies and other threats.

On the bright side, these Squatters' dialogues are the only ones that don't really make sense. Every other character you can talk to has very believable lines to say. I can't say any of them are memorable characters per se, but they're an effective backdrop, which is what the game had always intended for anyone not a main character. The object writing is also very good, and the true stand-out is the field journal you’ll find in Sublevel 33, and can then read from menu. While the idea is not new by any means, its execution is perfect, with about a dozen pages of truly believable and very haunting writing.



Shorter, less important notes are added to a Note Log, where they can then be read at any time. It’s a great idea, although I do wish there was also a bit more traditional object description alongside these, especially at the start of the game. At the Sublevel 32, it’s possible to run through several rooms in a row without coming across anything with description. Items are similar; weapons get no description at all, while armour has dry, stat-only description that is at least fitting the equally dry and merciless world. Consumable items all have interesting and memorable names and similarly fitting descriptions, however.

Gameplay

One of the good things about Erias Line is that it immediately starts you off with a diverse range of consumable items. Too many games on here begin with parties that have apparently started large and difficult quests without anything to aid them besides crappiest sword and armor out there, and unless the party is characterised as consisting of complete idiots (i.e. Fragile Hearts), it immediately creates unnecessary gap between storyline and gameplay. Here’s what it consists of in the very first battle played:



The combat itself is traditional turn-based, but with a few of the VX's quirks. One of those is the Force Point/Action Point system, with the former being akin to typical MP, while the latter is gained every time you attack normally, defend or get hit. Normally, such systems require each battle to begin with several boring attacks to build up to skills, but it's thankfully not the case here, as your action points persist after the battle. In fact, I would say it swings a bit too far in the other direction, as you'll rarely use FP, and thus never particularly need the FP-restoring items. This is because while the AP skills are all directly useful attack skills, FP skills are buffs and such for Skyler, i.e. the kind you only use once per battle. Orphan just has the useless Steal for FP, which is quite pointless, as you'll likely sustain more damage while stealing then the item you're trying to get is worth in the first place.

Anyway, you begin the game with an AP and FP skill for each character, and it's enough to make them feel distinct. Skyler is much tougher than Orphan, but also has lower initiative, and so her FP skill is about drawing damage to herself, while the damaging skill has prohibitive AP cost. Orphan is just the opposite, soon gaining many Knife Skills that cost little AP, but are nevertheless very powerful. To highlight this action focus, they all require a three-four arrow key QTE to execute. It does give it a more action-based feel, but there's not much actual challenge, especially since each QTE always stays the same, and so I hardly ever failed them. Not that randomly failing to use one's skills on a regular basis is good, of course, but I do feel that this was intended as a limiter against Knife Skills' excessive power. As it is, a slight nerf would be more appropriate.

Meanwhile, Grunt’s expendability is then made even more apparent gameplay-wise, as he cannot be controlled in combat, has only a single AP skill with no FP skills unlike our two leads (even though he’s 14 years older than both of them, and so if anything, things should’ve been reversed) and this only skill does not even have a description! Contrast that with temporary companions like Arden from A Blurred Line, who all had their own names, at least some backstory and were all directly controllable. Thus, it actually was a shock when Arden was captured at the Paradise’s entrance (though not as much as the creator hoped because of regrettable cutscene direction).

Now, I’ve mentioned before how the early human enemies are cannon fodder story-wise, but this description holds even truer in battle. They always die in one attack (or at best, in one “strong attack” skill), which is especially weird when you eventually encounter Bersa Hawks, regular-sized birds that deal little damage and yet still take two sword strikes from level 9 Skyler to die. (The fact that they’re living a hundred or so meters away from perfectly peaceful Verdamm Suburbs is just an icing on the cake.) The damage these "crazies" deal is decent but not that high; the only thing that discourages grinding them is their initiative, which means they’ll always get their attacks in before Skyler, and often before Orphan as well. It’s an unusual move, but it does fit here; however, I still wish the actual enemies were stronger.

On the other hand, the battles on the Sublevel 33 against Remnants and Possessed Enforcers are actually the toughest non-story in the game, simply because if there are 2+ of them, they’ll always put someone to sleep, either forcing the other character to waste a turn on using (universal status remover thing) or just attack and hope they’ll be woken soon regardless. In fact, the Possessed Statues at the end of the sub-level are ridiculously fast on-map, but feel a little weaker, as the only key to defeating them is Orphan's Defence Break, gained by that time, after which even a regular attack drops them. Defence Break doesn't do much for Possessed Enforcers, though, and they're are too tough to immediately drop from Orphan’s 3-hit QTE, while Remnants will likely dodge at least one of the blows.



The aforementioned Miner's Plague. They fight pretty well too, but are present on a relatively short stretch of territory.

Actual, living Enforcers have no such luck, especially since Orphan will get a 4-hit QTE by about that time. It costs marginally more than the weaker version, yet always deals enough damage to instantly kill someone at full health. The typical combat against Enforcers is thus reduced to Orphan killing someone and Skyler stunning the Captain on the first turn, then them wiping the rest out in two more turns. Against larger groups (and if they’re already wounded), Skyler’ll need to draw attention to herself first, but there’s no other change in tactics needed. Essentially, the 4-hit QTE needs to be removed/nerfed, and Enforcers themselves need to either gain similarly powerful attacks, have stronger armour so that using Defence Break on them might actually make sense, learn to counter/heal, or do some combination of those.

So, enough about combat, time to consider the way it's initiated. The "Features" sub-page here refers to random encounters, but thankfully, this is not actually the case. In fact, the game uses touch encounters for every non-scripted battle, and with the on-map sprites that are always representative of the enemy you'll be fighting. There's Escape option, but it's hidden from normal view (you have to cancel a character's action twice to get it), and it never seemed to work in my in my experience. The defeated patrols will apparently respawn indefinitely once you head back to the area, an approach I'm not a fan of. Normally, it's done for grinding purposes, but here it doesn't work (thankfully) due to enemies' high initiative. Instead, it's supposed to add tension and such, but it also ends up making each individual fight feel less important.

Thus, I would suggest having a limited number of "patrols" per map (i.e. about 2-3), which are also different every time. Meanwhile, the defeated patrols don't fade away, but instead leave actual, physical corpses on the floor. That way, each battle will feel meaningful, as a player will know they're not fighting against an infinite horde, but against realistically limited number of enemies that are, nevertheless, too difficult to get rid of in full. It only contributed to horror when used in original Silent Hill, and Iron Gaia: Virus tried doing the same on here, but ultimately fell short due to those goddamn cameras. That game also had each corpse left lying in a pool of blood that would squelch if walked over, which really highlighted the gravity of each kill, something Erias Line has obvious problems with.

I suppose the only reasonable explanation for why it's not the case in Erias Line is because persistent corpses would've interfered with a forced stealth section on a train, but honestly, it's not a huge loss. You literally have to move undetected past a single Enforcer patrolling a train corridor, and being detected results first in a battle, and then in another Enforcer being summoned to resume the patrol until you get it right. Fable: The Lost Chapters had a similar attempt at stealth, and it was just as bad there. If you were allowed to just intimidate soldier into staying still, it would've made a nice change from all the other killing going on.

Conclusion

Note that in spite of the tone of my review, I've still largely enjoyed my time with OMNIS: the Erias Line, and it is certainly a great example of what can be achieved in rmk. At the moment, it's somewhat reminiscent of a typical Nolan film. It looks polished, is scored well, the execution is almost universally competent, and there some memorable story moments, but it also has poor supporting characterisation, some logical gaps, and writing that is only deep relative to the action genre. Given that those films find a very large audience, it might well be enough for it to be successful. To me, though, it's still worth asking whether that's the level where the project deserves to stay.

Posts

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A fair, thoughtful review. For the most part, your complaints with the story are ones that I've grown to have myself over the past few weeks.

I agree almost universally with each point you raised, though I'd like to offer some responses:

1 - The mechanics.
I don't mean to offer this as a justification, but a lot of the game play was dictated by what I was capable of constructing with events and with tweaks to existing custom scripts. Now that we're moving into Unity, we've got the power to design everything from the ground up and really make it cohesive (as oppose to a collection of bits and pieces pulled together). The stealth section, for example, was included a) to add a little spice to the maglev area, but also b) to demonstrate that OMNIS wasn't going to be a 20 hour run/talk/battle affair.

2 - The battle system.
The battle system is being redone in Unity and we already have a lot of ideas for bringing a more interesting tactical/aesthetic flavour to it. Things, including the on-map enemies, are admittedly basic at the minute and I make no excuses for that, except to risk it and say: this project is still only in a rough, proof-of-concept phase and is destined to be drastically improved once we raise the funding we need.

3 - The story.
What I want to do most is refine the story, tighten the writing and rethink several (if not most) of the sequences. The third episode (train roof to finish) has felt rushed to me since it was included. It was included to add an area with a none-grey/brown palette to the demo and reassure players that the whole game wasn't going to be set underground.

Significant also is the option to choose which protagonist speaks. I don't know if you noticed, but your choices actually change whether it's Orphan or Skyler who stays behind to hold off the Enforcers while the other goes into the controller car aboard the Maglev. This is one, narrow example of a core mechanic we have planned, namely: player decisions altering key scenes and moments (and opening up optional bits and pieces).

One final note on the story is that, albeit for the worse, I had a lot of information about the setting/scenario that I wanted to work into the exposition. The problem is that I also wanted a fast-paced opening that didn't info-dump, and these two intentions haven't meshed well, which I can see and appreciate.

I'm very glad that you had 4* of enjoyment, though. I don't mean this to sound/feel pandering, but for the most part the things you liked are the things we're planning on keeping/polishing and the issues you raise are the things that I'm very keen to rebuild, restructure and refine.

Thanks for reviewing. You've got an excellent writing style. I genuinely hope you'll keep an eye on things and review again once we've made some progress.
Well, I'm glad you like my writing style, although I wouldn't really have time for any more reviews in the foreseeable future.

I didn't really know that choices had that impact, but it's cool. For me, Skyler was the one staying back, and it just felt natural since she had the heavier armour and such. Guess it is a bit of a second playthrough bonus, kind of like how you don't get the importance of the first choice in A Blurred Line until you replay it and see that the entire first half of the game becomes different.

It's also good to hear that there's a lot more lore that's currently hidden. That way, there's hope we can learn why there are grenades and tanks and such, yet not even the Enforcers use guns, for instance. :) It would also be good to know a bit earlier just why it is that Verdamm is built under a mountain.


Anyway, best of luck.
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