Thursday, July 25, 2013

Second Opinion: Mark Of The Ninja

Made by the same boys and girls who made the Shank games and eventually Don't Starve, Mark Of The Ninja carries a very similar philosophy in that it rides a singular note, but my god, it'll do everything it can to kick your ass until shit comes out of your ear. Unlike Shank, it doesn't flat out fail in every other department, but it's clear that Klei Entertainment pick a main style of play, focus most of their attention on that, add a dash of smooth Flash cartoon looking visuals, and then come up with some other shit at the last minute. In Shank, it was about beating enemies up with a different assortment of weapons; in Mark Of The Ninja, it's about stalking fortresses in the night, sneaking up on your victims until their backs are turned or they're left dazed and confused. From that moment, you draw your sword and stab them in their cold, black hearts, or jam your sword up their jaw bone and right through their cranium. Or both. Either way, nobody has to know that you did it.

From there, it becomes clear that Mark Of The Ninja is a game where you play as a ninja and you have to *gasp* use stealth! I mean, a ninja sneaking around, making sure not to get caught, and killing whenever it's necessary? Holy shit, what a unique concept, I've never seen that before! Seriously, what ninja game besides the Tenchu series can hold such a claim that you play as an honest to god fucking ninja!? Most ninja games focus more on being a badass one man army like Joe Musachi or Ryu Hayabusa, and here's Klei Entertainment, the one company you'd expect to make a sidescrolling Ninja Gaiden-esque game, making a game that feels like a sidescrolling version of the Tenchu games! Mind you, Tenchu actually lets you draw your blade in direct combat while Mark Of The Ninja forces a karate chop combo onto you in a vain attempt to knock a guard down before killing him. But then part of me thinks that it's not only Klei trying their hardest to deviate from the Shank series' blend of relentless, downright badass action (I mean holy shit, he stabs his foes with a running goddamn chainsaw), but also their response to how in the shit the stealth genre is – and how appropriate that it's released at roughly the same time as Dishonored (essentially the yin to this game's yang), Hitman: Absolution (basically Splinter Cell: Conviction with a half broken disguise system) and Assassin's Creed 3 (which was just really, really fucking boring)!

But yeah, to kick things off, the story is... okay. It revolves around an unnamed ninja who must defend his clan from a corporation who had just attacked them. He's branded with a tattoo mark with special ink that sharpens his senses and gives him shaper reflexes, but it comes at the cost of his sanity, meaning that he has to kill himself once the mission is over. But there's more to this mission than meets the eye, and the plot twist in the second half makes you wonder “whoa, what are they going to do next”. Well, just wait for the ending – or should I say, one of two endings, where you'll either find yourself in amazement over what the clan is really about and how badly the ink really screws with you... or just wonder what's going on. At the same time, the last mission is where everything truly comes together; every moment of the story is building up to this entire mission and by the end, you'll be wondering if the story itself was any good, or if it's just the euphoria derived from the last mission. Then you realize that the story, prior to that point, felt like filler. Not counting the mid game plot twist moment, each scene just felt like justification for carrying on your mission without really turning into anything resembling a compelling story. I suppose that's just Klei being Klei, but one day, they'll manage to string together a 100% compelling narrative.

So while it flounders in the story department, it more than makes up for it with the gameplay. As I've mentioned, you basically sneak around and either slip past or kill guards so that you can make your way to Point B. Now, you may be looking at a screenshot and wondering how in holy hell stealth works in a two dimensional setting. Simple – using cones to signify lines of sight and lighting (and that's another thing... lighting, in a MODERN stealth game? Are these guys the most off the rail cunts or what!?), as well as the addition of a run button that'll let you move faster at the expense of silent movement (and soundwaves are generated as clear circles), turns a simple game of hide and seek to a somewhat more complex game of chicken. Should you risk getting seen in the light while running and potentially either distract your foes or get caught and have them call reinforcements onto you, or should you sneak up to them using background objects to hide behind and go in for the kill? Then Mark Of The Ninja throws you a curveball partway into the first level with the addition of darts, which you can throw at enemies or at objects to either shut off light sources and/or distract enemies before either slipping past them or killing them. Doors start to open at that point and then you have to make a decision on whether to use noise as your ally or to bug the guard by throwing a dart at them (they don't kill guards) to draw them close to their death or to at least slip by.

As you're given more toys to play with (either through progression or from buying them at flags found partway into levels and at the beginning of levels), the game further opens itself up and by the end of the game, you'll probably be able to equip what you think sounds good (so long as the game doesn't force something else onto you – not that it'd matter because they give you advice on how to use it) and be able to use it like it's second nature. That's the thing with games like this; it's only as easy as your mental capacity allows it to be. If you're somebody who can use the tools and the environment at your disposal, then it's a matter of timing, patience and knowing how to use everything around you to your advantage. If, on the other hand, you're a fucking idiot who can't learn from your mistakes, well, tough shit buddy, enjoy losing points from setting off the alarm before you die and get sent back to the last checkpoint. Unfortunately, this game does coddle you a bit – there are lots of checkpoints and the points reset to however much you had when you first got to that last checkpoint; can't really say it's 100% idiot proof unless said idiot is lucky enough to get away from the guards or kill them without getting themselves killed and just be 800 points short of what they could've had at the end of the level if they just didn't set off the alarm.

Mark Of The Ninja is both a throwback to when stealth games actually felt like stealth games instead of The Bourne Identity on bath salts, and an accessible game in the stealth genre instead of just trying to be a complete bastard. Because Klei Entertainment had to make sure that their effort felt genuine while having it be a sidescrolling game, they employ a lot of deceptively simplistic design choices to make it happen. On paper, the guards' AI is easy to exploit as they're attracted to noise and will investigate right about where the source of that noise came from; they will investigate where they last saw you if you're caught in a light and they're a fair bit away from you, meaning that you can make a clean getaway if you're quick enough; they hardly get suspicious of the ducts; they almost never leave the area that they're patrolling even when backup is called for (only the guards in the area and MAYBE ones that are nearby will jump in). In practice, you should just not tempt them unless you can make a getaway or kill them before they call for backup. I mean, you might as well just tempt a British royal guard while you're at it! Oh... did I forget to mention that you don't have much health? Did I also forget to mention that, unlike in Whose Line Is It Anyway, the points do kind of matter if you want to unlock everything?

Might as well talk about points, unlockables and all that jazz right now – there are a few things you can do to acquire points. You mainly get points from killing guards, but you can also get points for having them walk past you without you getting noticed, distracting them with noise and hiding their bodies. Just get the button prompt for killing right, because screwing that up means you'll get less points and they'll scream, and since they scream really loudly, you'll have guards around them rousing suspicion, so... don't fuck it up. Getting as many points as possible is great because at the end of each level, you'll be given between one and three honors based on your score. You'll also get points if you scour each level for artefacts and haikus – each haiku collected gives you an honor, by the way. But the third is obtained through a special course where you'll use the ancient ninja arts of climbing walls, pushing blocks, pulling levers and teleportation in order to navigate through lasers and open doors to the end point. They're not as tedious as they sound; they're actually rather cool brain teasers, testing you on how much you've actually learned from that point in the game. Would love to have some with enemies in them to really test ones' skill, but whatever. The third and final way to acquire honors is through mission specific challenges. From getting to an objective as quickly as possible to killing certain guards to restricting the usage of certain items, it really forces you to think outside the circle, especially since some of them force you to use methods that go against your usual stuff. If any of them sound tough, don't worry – the sections and even levels are designed in a way that'll help you (not coddle you, not spoonfeed you; just help you) accomplish each mission and checkpoints, like I said, are pretty forgiving so if you screw up, you can just reset to the last checkpoint and rethink your approach.

“What are these honors you speak of???” - they're currency for upgrades. But if I'm being honest, they range from worthless, to “why don't I have this already” to “oh wow at least this makes sense being an upgrade”. Like how Spec Ops: The Line, Tomb Raider 2013 and The Last Of Us shoehorned multiplayer because the developers thought every game needed it, not even Klei Entertainment is immune to shoehorning elements and making it clear that they're, indeed, shoehorning elements into a game. Not every game needs an upgrade system. Okay, cool, so I can buy a cardboard box and then buy an upgrade that lets me kill from insi-- umm why the fuck can't I do that with my purchase of a cardboard box? Better yet, a lot of methods of assassination have to be unlocked. Methods such as killing while dangling from your chain, to killing from a ledge up above, to killing through doors, to killing through shaft openings – wow what the goddamn shit guys, I should have this crap from the start! This isn't a question of making the game easier; it's a question of making the game more what it is, which is a test of your instincts. When you're dangling from a chain, you're running the risk of exposing yourself to a guard whose gun has a torch. When killing from above, you run the risk of being seen by other guards who may be nearby. Oh, and what kind of master ninja has to learn methods of assassination? Did Master Azai arbitrarily restrict us to only being allowed to stab enemies in the back until we become honorable enough to earn the right to use the other methods of assassination?

I'm sorry for railing on that for so long, but when a game gets damn near everything else right only to have something so jaw droppingly baffling, I can't help myself. Oh and defense upgrades are worthless, especially if you play the New Game+ mode where one hit kills you anyway. The lighter footsteps barely matter because you hardly ever need to drop from really high edges or run at the risk of enemies detecting you. The other upgrades though, like quieter spike traps, more lethal jacks and tranquillizer darts, remote noise making mines and flares and other such items, are worth it. I just get the feeling that they added in the rest or this feature in general because everybody else was. Don't forget X ray vision, Klei; I hear that's a hot feature to include in stealth games. But like I said, this seems like a sore spot in an otherwise fantastic game because not only does every design element congeal into a cohesive and immersing experience that forces you to use your instincts properly, but its deceptively simple design also allows Klei to focus on what makes it feel like a legit stealth game.

The presentation helps it feel like a stealth game – it's easy to tell when you're in the light and when you're in the darkness. In the dark, you're basically an outline, giving the feeling of being hidden in the dark, silent as a mouse with the visibility of somebody's imaginary friend... kind of like a ninja; but in the light, you're in color, giving you the feeling of being exposed to your enemies if any happen to be around. Then you get to the killing, and boy oh boy, I think Klei's animators went above and beyond on this one as each of the animations look pretty fucking brutal. Okay, so on one hand, you have a back stab. On the other, you stab their back, rush right in front of them and slice them up their abdomen. Want more hands? Try stabbing their brain from their chin! Hey, we can go further if you want – let's include the chain by having it wrapped around their necks... after getting stabbed, of course. Look, the point is that these over the top, verging on performing riverdance on their nutsacks style killings are very well animated, with fluid transitioning between frames to give off the feel of a quick, brutal slaying. In general, the game's pretty easy on the eyes with its clean tablet drawn Adult Swim Flash cartoon look. Special props go towards the last level's imagery – fuck, it looks impressive with just the right scenery and colors to give off the impression that it's trying to give!

As for the sound design... well, the voice acting won't be winning any awards, but the soundtrack works pretty well with the rest of the game. The sneakier sections have this quiet sort of Japanese folk music in the background – that, or some quiet symphonics. Each of these songs also give you that feeling of being watched, or the possibility of getting spotted and killed. Then you eventually got spotted (or you're in one of those moments where you have to escape from a building) and the music picks up with either these loud tribal drums or this intense violin track that inspires you to either kick ass or get out of there. Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot to really say about the soundtrack because despite its limited quantity, it's something of a forgettable affair. But man, I swear, the last level was where Klei really pull out all the stops because the sound design there is just fucking brilliant! Like the visuals, it really gives off just the right feeling and given the amount of weight that particular part has, you bet your ass it's a damn good final level!

One question you'd probably be asking yourself throughout this review is “why are you gushing so much, it just sounds like you enjoy the novelty of a sidescrolling stealth game that reminds you of old school stealth games” - it's the fact that what it does right, it does fucking right! Oh sure, the story's a drag until the end and half the “upgrades” seem like filler, but then you get into actually playing the game and it pulls out all the stops. Its brand of stealth is not only something I miss, but it's also very well done with some deceptively simple techniques and multitude of options at your disposal, as well as some well designed levels that let you fully immerse yourself into the game. That's what stealth is all about; immersion. Allowing you to get into hiding in the darkness, only killing your prey when they don't see it coming and stalking through fortresses as if you were never really there. That, my friends, is a true ninja. Look, I love Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi too, but sometimes, you have to remind yourself that ninjas are the assassins of the night, not John Rambo in a robe or tights with a sword. Mark Of The Ninja does just that, and then some.

9/10 (Fucking Awesome)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: Mark Of The Ninja

In October came two stealth games on the PC – one was Dishonored, which was heavily flawed and, had it not facilitated its mechanics towards a more straight up action game, would probably wind up being a bad game. The other was Mark Of The Ninja, which honestly feels like a 2D version of the Tenchu series where you played as an honest to god fucking ninja – the assassin of the night. Funny enough, Assassin's Creed 3 and Hitman: Absolution were on their way... and did absolutely nothing to make you feel like an assassin, at least not without overpowering you to the point where stealth feels like a waste of time when a direct confrontation would lead to a much more favorable result at a much quicker pace. So really, Mark Of The Ninja is a refreshing sight to behold – a stealth game where being stealthy is encouraged? Where direct confrontation might get you killed because ninjas only have a black garb and not heavy armor or superhuman abilities like Ryu “I Can Swim In Lava” Hayabusa? Where staying out of sight and sound, having patience and a well timed strike, concluded with a quick getaway or repositioning to kill the other targets is the preferable method, all supported by the overall design of the game?

Pinch me, because I must be in heaven.

Well, I suppose the story will be doing that for me because it's mostly... blech. You play as an unnamed ninja who is branded with a tattoo that sharpens his senses and reflexes, which is tantamount to being some sort of hero to the unnamed clan of ninjas that you serve. However, it comes at the cost of it chipping away at your sanity, so the precaution to branding such a tattoo is that you commit suicide once the madness begins to take hold, or as you're told by master Azai, when you complete the mission. The mission is to take down a group of people who have attacked the dojo. There is a twist that begins the second half of the story, but it does little to really... matter. It serves as justification for why you're going through a series of strongholds to kill certain people, but to call it a compelling masterpiece would be quite farfetched. I suppose a good story wasn't really Klei Entertainment's intention, but I don't know, if you're going to have a story, at least make it worth a damn. Actually, they do try to make it worth a damn with the last level where everything that's said and done comes down to a decision that you have to make, and while it's brief, for a moment, you believe that you're experiencing a strong ending that makes it all worth it... that, or a crappy ending that makes virtually no sense, depending on your decision at the end.

Thankfully, everything else makes up for the lackluster story. For instance, the gameplay is simply wicked. The idea of a sidescrolling stealth game may seem perplexing at first, but once you start playing through the first level and get an idea of what's going on, you'll catch on quickly. The idea is that you either have to sneak past or kill enemies, making sure that nobody knows you're even anywhere near the area. You're given a sword, a killer karate chop and darts at first in order to carry on your mission. But given that it's on a 2D plane, how would a ninja sneak past his prey without killing it? You're occasionally given pots, dumpsters, doorways and other background objects to hide behind/inside, and at times, you're given alternate pathways. For instance, you can either enter through the front door (so to speak) and try to sneak through lights, praying to the nine divines that you don't get caught (technically in the light, you can get spotted; it's just that a guard will investigate that area rather than outright setting off the alarm – it's when you're close to the guard that they'll call for reinforcements) and get to the next area; or you can enter a ventilation shaft and skip a few lights or even the room altogether. While the game is linear in the sense that you're going from Point A to B, the levels are quite big and there are often some nooks and crannies that allow you to bypass certain areas or cause more trouble for the guards than the main path, and some even have collectibles such as scrolls and artefacts, so it's worth exploring the levels. Not to mention that the way it goes about sound is simple yet effective – walking is quiet while running is noisy, so try not to run unless you intend to distract them.

Speaking of scrolls, you'll earn honors through finding the three scrolls found throughout each level, as well as doing three optional missions and getting a high score. Now, by optional mission, I actually mean that you carry out the main mission, only you do certain things or do it a certain way. Stuff like not breaking a single light or not using any distraction weapons – look, the idea of being restricted may sound like a drag, but the levels are designed in ways to allow you to easily accomplish these missions if you put in some effort. Sure, it might seem tricky to not be able to destroy lights, but if you look around, hide from enemies and get through portions with grace, you won't need to destroy lights. There are plenty of opportunities to hide, stab enemies and hide their bodies (or avoid them) and make your getaway without any issues. This applies to the other optional missions. If you can't accomplish them, then you can simply try again and rethink your approach to it. Mark Of The Ninja offers you, the player, a series of choices as to how you can cover each level. Get all stabby stabby, distract enemies, use traps, go through one of two or even three routes when given the opportunity – it all depends on how you'd rather cover things. It's really refreshing to be given a choice of what you can do in a generation where you're forced upon a set of ultralinear hallways with set pieces and combat zones to look forward to.

Now, you probably just read that last paragraph and wondered to yourself “score? huh?” - well, you acquire points for doing things throughout the level that benefits you. It's not just by killing enemies that you get points; whether enemies walk past you without sounding off the alarm, get distracted by you, get their dead carcasses hidden by you or crap their pants and go crazy by the sudden deaths of their companions... through traps or hanging them with your chain; simply finding dead bodies will have them call for reinforcements. That brings us to when a guard needs his buddies. When you get caught or they suss out a dead body and successfully manage to sound off the alarm or radio some reinforcements, you lose a lot of points. If you're OCD about points, you'll make a point to never get spotted, but for those who don't care about points, all you have to worry about is possibly dying if guards do manage to find you as unlike Corvo from Dishonored or Connor from Assassin's Creed 3, you don't have superpowers or a million hit points. Hell, you don't even draw your sword in direct combat; you just have the karate chop combo. So many times, I just wanted to slice up a guard. I wouldn't even mind if it gave me less points to kill guards upfront like this because that's what the Tenchu games do, but what Mark Of The Ninja does instead is have you use the karate chop combo to maybe knock them out and then stab them for half the points you'd get if you did a stealthy kill, which is half of what you'd lose if you get caught or they find a dead body and call for reinforcements. Thankfully, you do acquire smoke bombs partway into the game, which can aid you in making a getaway.

That's another thing – you're given an arsenal of equipment that can be used to either kill or distract enemies while you make your way through each level. Each of these items have their own distinct use, like killing an enemy as they walk past, making them go “oww my toe” as they step on some three corner jack looking things, make them stare into a pretty light and make them hallucinate, among other things. But of course, what game would be complete without a cardboard box, am I right? To be fair, it's quite useful when dealing with guards that move back and forth, and when you upgrade the cardboard box, you can kill them from inside of it. That's one thing I don't quite like about this game, though; you have to unlock methods of assassination. Seriously? I get unlocking the other bits of equipment; I get upgrading my health and defense; I get upgrading the lightness of my feet; but needing to spend honors just so I can kill enemies from inside a cardboard box, or from above, or from the other side of a door? I don't know, it just baffles me, but it's a minor inconvenience and once you get an upgrade, you keep it forever until you erase your game or install it onto a different PC, so nothing worth getting pissy over.

This game has some replay value, don't you worry if, for whatever reason, 8 hours is too short for you. The New Game+ mode presents a trickier challenge in that your sight is limited to what's in front of you, you have to use your instinct to gauge whether destroying or throwing noisy stuff will get the guards' attention or not as there's no visual on that, guards' field of vision is invisible and you die in just one hit. From there, you're basically forced to further sharpen your instincts, choose your equipment carefully (you can only carry one distraction item and one attack item or trap as I like to call them – same deal in the regular game, by the way) and judge whether your next move is one that'll get you to the next area or six feet under. Liberal checkpoints do make things quite a bit easier as you don't have to redo too much upon death, and you know what, games like this need liberal checkpoints. Leave me starving for checkpoints in games like Thief and Hitman where each and every event is a link in the chain that is the level, influencing events to come in said level; Mark Of The Ninja, even as a score attack game, works best when you're not repeating – frankly - fragmented sections of a level because this one fragmented section had a guard or a laser sensor that caught me by surprise. Each part of the game has its own challenge; repetition of earlier challenges just feels like a waste of time when it's this one you're trying to get done.

Now, if there's one thing I love about Klei Entertainment's games, it's their visual style, and with Mark Of The Ninja, they're in top form! It's very cartoony with some vibrant colors and very smooth animation. It's at its best when it comes to the kills, which look very brutal. I mean, you got this ninja who grabs you, stabs you either in the heart or up your skull, and then either lets you down without alerting so much as a dust mite or slices your abdomen. Naturally, blood splatters everywhere and the way that it spreads is also very well animated. Besides the animation, I found the lighting rather impressive, or more specifically, how they handled the lighting. When you stand in lights, you're fully colored, but in the darkness, you're just a silhouette with a gray outline. It's simple, but it's rather effective in determining whether you're in darkness or not, and hey... at least it matters whether you're in the dark or not unlike in Dishonored! Where the visuals really shine is in the final level... oh my god, it's just so beautiful.

The sound design is also rather good. The voice acting tries to carry the ultimately uninteresting (until the end) story by at least sounding competent enough to work, but nothing about it really stands out in a positive way. Instead, the music is what kicks ass. While you're sneaking around, the music is more low key, just staying in the background. It often sounds like traditional Japanese music, which goes well with the fact that you're a ninja. But then you either get caught or there's a scripted sequence where enemies are out looking for you after you do a mission, and then the strings start to blare out in a fast paced fashion to convey the feeling of excitement. Like with the graphics, the soundtrack truly shines in the final level, and like the visuals for it, the song is just beautiful. It's like a whole otherworldly experience that's like a dream... which I guess is the point when given its context in the story.

A point I made in the introduction was that the design choices were facilitated in a way that made you feel like a ninja. Honestly, with everything that you're given, you do feel like a ninja. Stalking your prey and gracefully moving through levels as if you were never there is about as easy as it gets while offering quite a challenge – it all depends on your instincts. You could either find ways to avoid conflict with enemies or murder all of them. You could graceful leap around and then climb up the sides of buildings to skulk through vents, or run through and murder everyone in your way. It all depends on what the area around you offers. All of this culminates towards an ending that, in and of itself, feels like a journey before the very ending itself satisfies your every orifice.

9/10 (Fucking Excellent)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Review: The Longest Journey

I love me some point and click action, so when a game like The Longest Journey drunkenly stumbles itself into my life, I can't help but want to love it. Not in a way two drunk uni students would in the middle of the uni bar or two trashy bogans would in the middle of whatever pub they happen to be in; more in a way where we're both in my bedroom as we gently caress each other before we make love. In short, The Longest Journey offers naught but excellence in most any given field of not only basic game design, but also in how we truly play video games. For a lot of people, stories are either an arbitrary add-on to justify why we do what we doing in games or can add a layer of depth to a game... for a lot of people, video game stories can be seen as complete shit when taken on their own terms and it's a viewpoint I tend to agree on. Planescape: Torment, Red Dead Redemption and the Mass Effect trilogy may have great stories, but Final Fantasy games have the sort of story that'd bore readers to tears and only really work in context of being a video game. The Longest Journey is the kind of game where the story has more than enough depth to justify its existence, could easily work well in the form of a book and best of all, the setting and the gameplay compliments it to a point where the game flows at a natural pace, swallowing you into the world portrayed in the game. Many games claim to do this kind of thing, but very few actually succeed in truly immersing you into their worlds.

But what is this game actually about? It's about a normal everyday girl named April Ryan, an art student at the Venice Academy Of Visual Arts in the Venice district of Newport City. She is plagued by nightmares involving dragons and black vortexes - among other things – that take place within a world much more colorful than her own. The thing is however, the dreams are real enough to be real as you learn throughout the game that not only are there two parallel worlds, but that April has the power to shift between the worlds. The thing is that she doesn't realize it until she meets a guy named Cortez who reveals to her that there are two worlds and that she can shift between them. The thing is that Newport City is a part of an industrialist world full of gritty landscapes known as Stark. The thing is that outside of some flying cars, this is about as realistic of a portrayal of the future as it gets as while it seems not a whole lot has changed between 1999 and 2209, it just feels rather different given the more corporate landscape. The other world is Arcadia, a world full of whimsy and wonder. Both worlds are full of chatty people as, especially in the beginning of the game, people can and will talk your head off, although unlike a Metal Gear Solid game, the writing comes across as natural and with some genuinely funny lines (along with enough swear words to make Samuel L Jackson blush, though not quite enough references to sex and drugs to ban this in Australia), it never really impedes on the game's progress – if anything, it adds more personality and depth to the game.

The idea is to restore the balance between the two worlds, but throughout the journey, you'll watch April grow and truly develop into a truly amazing character. Her interactions with the worlds – including people she knows, people she doesn't know and each object that she can interact with – allows you to feel for April's character as her dialogue is rather witty and can elicit some chuckles. But where her character works oh so well is in her development. She starts off as a rather plain Jane (albiet one with a good sense of humor) who ran from home to chase her dreams in Venice... by working at a cafe, doing an art class at a school, finds herself annoyed by her best friend and life in a small room, and finds solace in small talk with her landlady while being ignorant of her powers; the world of Arcadia deeply intrigues her as it's vastly different from her own, almost dreamlike in appearance. It's like what she would paint, only it's real. Eventually, she meets a man named Cortez, who tells her about her powers. Over the course of the game, she'll find herself more confident with her powers as she has to restore the balance between the two worlds. Even thirteen years after release, April is still one of the deepest characters in the realm of video games and experiencing her journey is – as much as I hate to use the following term, I feel like it more than applies here – unlike many, if any that you've experienced before, both in the concept and the quality of the writing.

But good writing cannot succeed without some masterful voice acting, so here's some good news - the voice acting is fantastic. It excels where it needs to excel, and that's in April's voice. Goddamn, talk about fantastic voice acting – every breath of every syllable of every word from Sarah Hamilton brings April to life as her voice conveys just the right emotions for the situation at hand. Whether she conveys the humor at a fine tone or distraught at just the right amount without it being hammy, there's no doubt that you'll be more than willing to pay attention to everything she says. Same with a lot of the other voice actors. Sure, they're not quite as good, but they still do a fine job of bringing their respective characters to life and their interactions with April are certainly entertaining to listen to, especially in tandem with the excellent writing on display. If anything resembling a flaw exists, it's that it's rather obvious that multiple characters have the same voice actor, and even then, there are only so many voices out there that some are bound to overlap. So really, the voice acting is fantastic.

The music is just as good. It's not exactly melodic in the sense that you'll be humming it well after playing the game, but it's more melodic in the sense that enhances the emotion conveyed in each and every scene, or it provides the player with the appropriate ambience while sitting in the background somewhere. Stark's music tends to be more classical and feels like you're exploring a cave while Arcadia's music has more flutes and sounds more fantastical than anything else. The music during certain scenes tends to have chanting choirs to build up an epic atmosphere – and why not? The scenes usually depict big events like crossing over into another world or some other huge event. The choir does a fine job of making these scenes dramatic enough to feel significant without going overboard, which is something I can appreciate when games nowadays can hardly, if at all, get that right.

Speaking of the scenes, the graphics... to put it simply, it succeeds more in the mood that's produced rather than raw power. Mind you, they looked good by the standards of its time, but by 2013 standards, it's clear that they haven't aged too well. It's not because they put 3D models on top of 2D backdrops; it's the 3D itself. In particular, the in game 3D models are a tad on the “blech” side of the fence as they tend to look like they're lacking a few polygons, looking all blocky and whatnot, and the animations tend to be indescribably lame. The cutscene graphics scream late 90s CGI as they look more like claymation models than computer generated models. But then you look at the designs of the worlds and their inhabitants, take a deep breath and realize that The Longest Journey has a hell of a look to it. From ugly, grimy looking ghettos to cheery looking villages ripped right out of a Tolkein novel (or some other fantasy adventure novel), the way that everything is constructed manages to suck you right into the experience. The colors, the designs, everything – it all looks as you would expect their respective worlds to look like based on whatever's established by the characters and the music. It's the kind of game that other games wishing to be more then mere play things should aspire to be – ambient. Not just shallow eye candy.

To compliment the overall package is the gameplay – being a point and click game, it's more about interactivity. Whether you're observing objects, putting objects into your inventory for later or talking to people, there's plenty of stuff to interact with. As with any good point and click game, you're given a lot of incentive to interact with everything you can as you can find clues to the puzzles that you'll encounter throughout your journey. Plus... why not get immersed into the worlds presented in this game? The cursor will change its shape depending on what it's highlighting, whether it's broken to signify that you can'd do anything with it or a certain shade of color to signify whether you can simply walk or run there, exit to another screen, interact with an object or use an object that you've just picked up. To help people out a bit, when you've picked up an object, if it flashes when you're highlighting something with it, it can interact with that.

The puzzles are generally what you'd expect from this type of game where you'll either use items in your inventory or interact with objects around you to operate a mechanism or cause an event to happen that'll allow you to proceed. Whether you'll need to search for an item you've missed or combine some items in your inventory together to make a new one depends on what the puzzle needs. There are some puzzles with bizarre solutions, but unlike games with outright ass-backwards solutions like The Whispered World, you'll be able to find the solution if you think a little outside the box. On the whole though, it's not quite as hard as you'd expect from this genre. Besides the cursor highlighting what you can and can't interact with, Oh, and advice to newcomers – pay attention to what's being said, because you can find some helpful clues from their dialogue if an item or a piece of scenery doesn't clue you in as to what you ought to do next. If necessary, you can look up conversations (among other things like saving and loading files, settings, FMV scenes you've already viewed and her thoughts on what's been going on in the game) in her diary.

The best part about the puzzles is how they're integrated into the game. Each logic puzzle, each inventory puzzle, each puzzle that contains both – they flow incredibly well with the rest of the game. They're all based on their location – whether it's a room in Stark or a portion of somewhere in Arcadia, if there's a puzzle, it fits within the context of that location and whatever characters and/or objects just so happen to be there, especially since puzzles are either triggered by interacting with certain items or whenever an event happens. To put it simply, Stark relies on cold, hard logic as it's a science fiction world, and Arcadia's puzzles require more creative logic as it's something of an abstract fantasy world. Understanding these simple rules will allow you to understand what is necessary in order to solve the puzzle. Due to being more story driven than your usual point and click game, The Longest Journey's puzzles are hardly a challenge, especially when compared to some of the brain busting riddles you'll find in Myst and King's Quest games. But given their implementation in the game and its story driven nature, it's more than forgivable.

That's what drives The Longest Journey well and above the rest of its contemporaries – ambience. Every action, every interaction, every piece of scenery, every note of the music, every vocal chord; it all conglomerates into an experience that makes it stand above the rest of its competition. Clearly, the story was the star of the game, but everything this game offers placate themselves to help it further stand out. It's through a culmination of everything that's integrated into the game that it becomes an ultimately captivating experience second to none and sits atop the throne as one of the best games ever made. There's really not much more to say other than this – buy it and experience it. You won't regret it.

9.5/10 (Fucking Excellent)