To Be or Not to Be: The Interactive Shakespeare Experience You’ve Been Waiting For

If you’ve ever wanted a Shakespearian choose-your-own-adventure game, then look  no further than To Be or Not to Be. TBoNtB is a visual novel in which you get to take control of the story of Hamlet. You can stick to Shakespeare’s story, or forge your own path as one of the story’s main characters.

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Playing as Ophelia is particularly fun. Screenshot from Steam store page.

The entire experience is quite tongue-in-cheek and filled with jokes and puns. It’s no serious homage to Shakespeare and his work, but rather a goofy tribute to a timeless classic. I found myself laughing out loud more than once, and played through the story a few times before putting it down. I didn’t get all of the endings, but I certainly got all the ones I wanted.

TBoNtB offers some replayability through virtue of its choice system, but the story does start to get a little stale after a while. After all, the story of Hamlet is one we’ve already heard multiple times, and playing through it has a novelty that wears off somewhat quickly. But it’s fun, and if you can get it on sale, I’d definitely recommend it.

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Always hot stuff! Screenshot from Steam store page.

I would particularly recommend To Be or Not to Be for fans of Monster Loves You!, which has a similar feel and play style.

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Love for Monster Loves You!

Monster Loves You! is a charming, choose-your-own-adventure game in which you play as a monster trying your best to find your place in the world. By playing through short, self-contained scenarios, you define your traits and earn the respect (or not) of your peers.

Monster Loves You! is best enjoyed in small, frequent chunks. The text-based scenarios that make up the game are all self-contained and very short, and each full-game playthrough takes less than an hour. This allows the player to try out lots of different strategies and make a wide variety of choices in a short amount of time, upping the replay value of the game immensely. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been dipping into Monster Loves You! whenever I need a hit of something cute, and I’ve gotten pretty different results each time.

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screenshot from Monster Loves You! store page on Steam

If you’re a fan of short, charming games, go ahead and pick up Monster Loves You!. It’s lots of fun and easy to come back to whenever you just need to get away from everything for a little bit.

The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses (A Lot of Lenses)

Last month, I ran across the YouTube channel Extra Credits, and I have become a creature obsessed. Extra Credits is a shining example of quality game discourse: Every episode is well-written, thoughtful, and informed. They’ve put together a playlist of all their episodes in chronological order, which you can find right here. Sorry in advance for sucking up all your spare time.

In one of their “mailbag” episodes, in which they answer questions sent in by viewers, they recommended a number of books on game design. Now, I’m not interested in becoming a game designer myself, but I am very interested in the game design process, so I decided to write down their suggestions and add them to my TBR list.

Impatience Rewarded

First up was Jesse Schell’s guide, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. My library had a digital copy and I forgot to bring a book for my lunch break, so I started reading it almost immediately.

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I’m glad that I read The Art of Game Design right after watching so many episodes of Extra Credits, when my enthusiasm was way up. As interesting as I think game design is, this is definitely a book written directly to game designers. Coming at it from a player perspective made the whole thing feel a bit off.

Even so, it was a good read. The whole book is organized well, so the sections that are super back-end, hidden-from-view, gritty details that I didn’t care about were easy to skip, and honestly, the “lenses” that Schell highlights throughout the book do a nice job of summarizing each section, making this a book that’s easy to come back to for refreshers, or an easy skim if you just want a basic primer on the subject of game design.

Recommendation

If you’re interested in game design, The Art of Game Design is well worth your time, even if you only want to flip through and read the summaries of each section. As a player, I learned a lot, and if you’re an aspiring or current designer, I’m sure you’ll learn even more.

(This review has been cross-posted to my LibraryThing account.)

The Plan: Meditations on a Housefly

Oh, Steam. No matter how many games I play, you’re always there to show me that there are many, many more that I need to experience. Your algorithms for determining my interests have come a long way since I first started using you back in 2010, and I’m grateful for it.

As usual, I found The Plan through Steam’s recommendation engine. I think it was sent to me after playing Dear Esther, which — despite my lack of enthusiasm for the execution — was an interesting direction for a game to take. I’m down with walking simulators, as long as they tell a good story.

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Promotional image from Steam

The Simplest Story of All

In The Plan, you play as a housefly. There is no voiceover or text to guide you or distract you from your simple fly life. You are a fly, and you exist.

And that’s really most of the game. Just existing. Making it through life trying to find a point when there is no voiceover or game text to guide you.

Silence and Meaning

The Plan is only about four minutes long, so I won’t give away the ending. It’s free, just go give it a shot here.

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Screenshot from Steam

A smidgeon uncomfortable, wasn’t it?

A large part of what makes The Plan so compelling is its relative silence. There is music, but no language. This lack of language, the lack of traditional communication, causes the game to feel much longer than its mere four minute play-time. It’s strange and unnatural feeling.

The Plan is a quiet, contemplative piece in a medium that usually serves to distract us from our own thoughts. It gives our thoughts the quiet they need to peek out and look around with just enough of a direction to focus them. Honestly, playing as that little fly felt more like my daily meditation session than a gaming experience.

But I liked that. It’s nice to slow down and breathe for a few moments. It’s nice to just be without having a larger point. There are no experience points to be gained, no exploration to be had, no grand adventure to embark upon. It’s just you and a fly, meandering through life together.

Recommendation

I wouldn’t call The Plan a great game, but it is an interesting game. It uses the medium in a different way than we usually experience as gamers, and it offers a nice chance for contemplation and reflection.

Go play it. It’s pretty, it’s free, and it’s trying something a little bit different than the norm. Plus, it’s going to take you less than five minutes, so you may as well.

Detective Grimoire: Cute, Simple Fun

Introduction

I know that this is usually the time I would review a Nancy Drew game, but I just don’t have the next one finished yet. To be completely honest, I think I need a break from the Nancy Drew franchise, as playing them all in a row like I have been is beginning to take some of the fun out. I obviously love them, but they do tend to get a bit same-y after a while.

So what did I choose to play instead of Nancy Drew? Detective Grimoire. I know, I know: Playing another mystery game isn’t exactly the most dramatic change from Her Interactive’s portfolio, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for a mystery game.

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promotional artwork from Steam

Discovering the Game

After reviewing a couple of Nancy Drew games in Steam (Secrets Can Kill and Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon to be precise), Detective Grimoire began popping up in my recommended titles list. I clicked around the store page and thought it looked interesting, so I added it to my Wishlist, then forgot about it.

Well, Steam has started sending me emails whenever a game on my Wishlist is on sale, which I both love and hate. I love it because I get games I want for much less, and don’t miss out on the often short windows where their price drops, but I hate it because I wind up spending my fun money in teeny-tiny little bursts, turning Steam into a kind of permanent leak on my funds.

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Oh well. There are worse things.

Detective Grimoire popped up in my email as a game on sale, and since the price was so low, I snagged it immediately. I’m talking absolutely measly price-tag here. Like two dollars. How was I not going to buy it?

Short and Sweet

Despite its very short playtime — only 3 hours for a 100% — Detective Grimoire would have been worth its full price. It’s a tight little game that never gets boring, is beautiful to look at, and has mechanics that never get in the way. Mix all that with a good story and a killer soundtrack, and you’ve got a great game on your hands.

I was a smidge disappointed with the difficulty of the game, since I expected something a little harder. There’s not a lot of mystery-solving on the player’s part, since the game puts clues together for you. That being said, I know that I’m a bit of a mystery nerd, so even though I wanted more of a challenge, other players may find the game more accessible than some more subtle mystery titles.

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screenshot of clues being put together

The charm of the game more than makes up for the straightforwardness of the mystery. It has some basic puzzle elements and character interaction, neither of which are very difficult, but both are super fun. The characters are lovable and intriguing, which makes Detective Grimoire’s focus on talking a treat. And the voice-acting! Be still my heart! The voice-acting was superb.

I was also a huge fan of the art style, which honestly, is going to be a make-or-break thing for a lot of players. If you’re into casual gameplay and lighthearted stories, you probably won’t mind the quirky art style, since it fits with the mood of the game. But if you’re wanting something realistic, look elsewhere.

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screenshot showcasing art style/character design

Recommendation

Detective Grimoire is very short and very light, but showcases how great those kinds of games can be. I would highly recommend it for anyone who likes point-and-click adventures/mysteries, as well as anyone who just wants a little charm in their life.

Whispering Willows: A Beautifully Crafted Disappointment

Introduction

Whispering Willows started showing up in my Steam recommendations last summer, when Steam learned that I favor mystery games and games with an interesting art style. Whispering Willows checks both boxes, so it only makes sense that it wound up in my radar.

I started playing the game last week, after purchasing it for next to nothing during a flash sale. (Side note: I may do a whole side post on Steam sales one of these days, since it’s an interesting business decision on the company’s part.) It’s short, and I figured it would be a good little indie game to write about here on the blog.

I wasn’t wrong when I assumed Whispering Willows would be an interesting game to review, but I’m not going to talk about the reasons I expected. I thought I would be raving about the art and the mysterious story, as well as the interesting core game mechanic. Instead, it got me thinking about disappointment.

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promotional image from Steam

Unmet Expectations, but Charming Story

Don’t take what I’m about to say the wrong way — overall Whispering Willows is a fine game, especially at its low price point. I brought expectations along that were flat out wrong, and that colored my whole gameplay experience.

I expected some sort of murder-mystery/whodunit kind of scenario, and it’s not that at all. I’m not sure where that assumption started, but don’t make the same mistake. Instead, it’s an exploration game. You play as Elena, a girl with shamanistic powers that’s trying to find her dad. He has gone missing within an old mansion that is widely believed to be haunted, and it’s Elena’s job to explore the grounds in order to bring him home.

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image from Steam store page

I actually really enjoyed the storyline. It was a refreshing change of pace to play as a young woman trying to save her father, instead of the stereotypical young man trying to save his lover. I liked the exploration of familial love over romantic/passionate love, and it was also a nice change of pace to explore that love from the viewpoint of the child, rather than that of the parent. I’ve played games where it’s the parent’s mission to save the child — and this makes sense, since the child is usually very young — but I connected much more with this reversal. After all, I don’t know what it’s like to be a mother, but I do know what it’s like to have a father you care for very much.

Beautiful, Atmospheric Environment

On top of the lovely nontraditional plotline, the game is beautiful. I’m a sucker for stylistic games, and Whispering Willows artistic bent leaves nothing to be desired. The flat, graphic novel style works well for a game centered around a rather young protagonist and accentuates the retro feel that the side-scrolling movement creates.

And Elena’s character design? Perfect. She’s a knobbly-kneed, kind of scrawny, totally relatable tween. She’s cute, but her looks are not emphasized as important. The fact that she wears her father’s oversized coat further deemphasizes her figure, which is a very welcome change from all the media that sexualizes females as soon as they hit puberty. She’s expressive and obviously frightened by her creepy environment, which only serves to make her bravery stand out more. She’s courageous and strong without being invincible. She’s human.

And don’t even get me started on how cool her spirit form is. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!

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image from Steam store page

Disappointing Gameplay

So why, after all of these great points, did I fail to finish the game? It’s very short and obviously has some excellent features, so what happened?

It was boring.

The whole game is based on exploration. Elena moves through a giant haunted mansion and its surrounding grounds, picking up notes from previous inhabitants that reveal information about the area’s past and its current ghostly guests. Usually, I love exploring in games and one of my favorite ways to learn about the world is through diary entries — a la Bioshock, which introduced me to the technique.

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image from Steam store page

But rather than uncovering new areas and feeling excited by exploring, I found myself retreading old ground over and over again, which quickly grew old. I was always lost, and when I’d finally find a new area, it was always blocked, because it wasn’t the right new area. And the journal entries were poorly integrated with the overall gameplay experience, so reading them always felt like an interruption, rather than a part of the game. Especially when the notes were found in particularly creepy areas. I would open them up immediately, since I knew I’d forget to come back to them later, making the game’s element of danger moot, since everything halted as the player read.

Recommendation

I’m very torn on whether or not to recommend Whispering Willows. It’s beautiful and well-made with an interesting core story, but it’s just not a very fun game. So I suppose I have to say skip it.

Danger by Design (Nancy Drew #14)

Introduction

Finally, back to Nancy Drew games I remember! I was starting to get worried about my brain after encountering two in a row that I had almost zero recollection of. Unfortunately, I remembered that I found this one just ok.

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promotional image from HerInteractive.com

Review

Nancy is sent off to Paris, France, to investigate an American fashion designer who has started acting positively batty. As someone who is not particularly into either fashion or Parisian culture, this one just didn’t catch my attention the way Secret of Shadow Ranch or Curse of Blackmoor Manor did.

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Minette, being her testy self.

Because the setting and context didn’t interest me, I had trouble really losing myself in the game. When I play Nancy Drew games, time usually just disappears, but not so much with Danger by Design. It was still enjoyable and I had a good time, but it wasn’t all-encompassing the way some the others have been.

A big reason for this is the rather annoying amount of shopping that must be done. Nancy has to visit street vendors to gather items that help her advance the game. Every time the player wants to see what items are in the vendor’s inventory (which changes), they must listen to the seller’s spiel. Then, to buy an item, there is another spiel as the seller tries to justify their inflated price. Then there’s some haggling. Then Nancy can finally leave. It is not a pleasurable experience, and it happens all the time.

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An example of the gorgeous surroundings.

Other than that, Danger by Design is a good time. The puzzles are challenging without feeling impossible and everything is very pretty.

Recommendation

If you don’t mind listening to the same chunks of dialog multiple times, you’ll do fine with one of the more annoying mechanics of the game. And if you’re interested in Paris and/or fashion, you’ll have a great time. It’s not the best game, but I’d recommend it with only the smallest hesitation.

Tales of Destiny

The following is a guest post from my husband, Logan. As part of a project where Logan is playing every JRPG of note in chronological order, he ran across Tales of Destiny and really wanted to write a blog about it.

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Tales of Destiny is the second title in the long-running Tales series of JRPGs, preceded by Tales of Phantasia. Though I found the game enjoyable to play, it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of story and world-building.

Story and Characters

I love the classic JRPG storyline: saving the world through the power of hope and friendship, finding magical artifacts left by lost civilizations, stopping a power-mad demigod from destroying all that you hold dear. A lot of great JRPGs will use these themes as a framework for their story and will add in a cast of unique characters to bring that story to life. Unfortunately, Tales of Destiny fails to do so. Its characters are extraordinarily flat and add very little to the story, which relies heavily on worn out tropes and plot devices. Overall, I feel like the story could have been a lot better. The parts that I found most interesting (talking sentient swords, ancient magic, and an ancient war) were greatly downplayed and not expanded upon. To me, Tales of Destiny had the makings of a great story but squandered it in favor of  a fairly generic JRPG plot.

Most annoyingly, the game has many instances of filler, content that seems thrown in to pad the length of the game. At one point, the King has a special cannon built that uses Lens power to fire, but they are unable to use it as one of the traitorous allies took the kingdom’s supply of Lens with him when he escaped. Now naturally I assumed that he would ask me to collect more, and I was okay with this as I had not had a use for Lens as a currency in quite some time. Instead, the King has you trek across the continent to find “special” Lens to power the cannon. Nevermind that I am sitting on 9999 Lens of the exact type that we were planning on using to power the cannon originally. That Lens is no good, for no other reason than to add an extra half hour to the game. This is but one example of many in which the game seems to be going through the motions of how a JRPG story typically unfolds rather than doing its own thing.

The dialogue in the game and the writing in general seems very poorly done, although this is probably due to a poor localization, which seems to have been the norm for SNES/PSX era games. This is a case where I would suggest looking into a fan translation patch if you plan on playing this game, as the original dialogue has a very wooden and awkward feel to it.

 

Look and Feel

I have mixed feelings on the aesthetics of Tales of Destiny. It is by no means an ugly game, but it also isn’t very impressive. It looks almost identical to its predecessor, Tales of Phantasia, a Japan-only title on the SNES,, and frankly I had expected better from it, considering that it was on the next generation of console. From what I can tell, a lot of people suspect that ToD was originally meant to be a sequel to ToP but was changed in production to be a standalone title. I am inclined to agree with this theory; the two games look and play very similarly.

I will say that the music is very good. I’ve noticed as I have been playing older RPGs that there is a pronounced jump in sound quality between SNES and PSX, and it is very noticeable in Tales of Destiny. Additionally, the game is missing the performance issues that plagues Tales of Phantasia.

 

Gameplay and Controls

Tales of Destiny‘s battle system is very different from the typical menu based JRPG. Instead, it features a 2D side-scrolling battlefield and lets you have almost complete control of the main character. You are able to assign commonly used special moves to button combos for easy use and can also pull up a menu to use items or spells and to direct the rest of the team.

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I don’t have a lot to say about the gameplay besides that it is very engaging and fun. It more or less carried the game as the story was not engaging in the least. The battles are responsive and combine the best of action action elements with a typical stat-based RPG. The game also features a couple puzzles which are neither too difficult nor too challenging. There were a couple of dungeons that were prolonged by excessive battles, but I feel this is more of a reflection on my poor navigation skills that the game’s difficulty.

 

Difficulty/Progression

Many times during my JRPG career, I have come across games that well-written and have a great cast of characters but are so obnoxiously tedious to play that I give up. Whether it is due to a crazy amount of required grinding or unforgiving difficulty, the game mechanics take an enjoyable game and kill off any fun that it might offer. Tales of Destiny is the exact opposite in that is a well-balanced and fun game with an extremely mediocre story. Overall, I found the difficulty of the game to be very well-balanced, though the ending was a bit too easy.

My one strong complaint is about the weapon leveling system. Each character has a Swordian that they can equip as a primary weapon. This lets them cast spells, but it also causes the Swordian to level up along side the hero. At end game, the Swordian is the clear best in slot weapon due to its stat growth as well as the ability to equip Discs, augments to the Swordians that increase the stats even more. All of this is interesting in concept, but in practice it means that the optimal configuration is to equip the Swordian as soon as possible and never switch it out, which is what I did. I then saw chest after chest full of rare and shiny new weapons go straight back to the store as they were either already obsolete or only marginally better than my Swordians. I feel like the Swordian system could have been a bit more nuanced with some advantages for using traditional weapons instead of Swordians being better across the board.

 

Recommendation

If you play games for the story, I highly recommend that you look elsewhere. You have already heard this story before with a few name changes. If you don’t care about story but instead want something with solid gameplay, this might be more up your alley.

Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon (Nancy Drew #13)

Introduction

Much like Secret of the Old Clock, I didn’t remember much about Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon. It’s the first game that Nancy gets to work with the Hardy Boys and it takes place on a train. That was the extent of my previous knowledge.

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promotional image from HerInteractive.com

Story

A rich, wanna-be star, Lori Girard, invites a number of famous personalities onto a mysterious train headed for an unknown destination. The original owner of the train, Jake Hurley, was an eccentric treasure-hunter who hid the entrance to his mine and left clues for finding it on his custom-built train. The train Lori Girard now owns. It’s up to Nancy to discover the mine and uncover the secrets hidden within.

It’s a decent story, but not the best. While the idea of a hidden mine of treasures may appeal to some, it wasn’t really for me. And it’s hard to stick with puzzles that lead to the solution of a mystery you don’t really care about.

Characters

Besides Frank and Joe Hardy, I didn’t recognize any of the characters from my previous playthrough. Probably because none of them are very interesting. They’re all famous people, concerned about getting more famous. Boring.

Frank and Joe Hardy

Setting

The train is pretty, but a frustrating setting to play through. Since everything is in a straight line, it feels restricted and shallow. There’s plenty to explore, but the layout makes it feel like you’ve explored very little. Pair that with the annoying, walking-between-cars cutscene, and you’ve got a recipe for frustration and disinterest.

Train Shot

What Makes This One Special

Last Train is the first game to feature the Hardy Boys as real characters, not just voices on the phone. They’re great fun to talk to on the phone in previous games, and pairing up with them is a treat (even though Nancy totally does all the work). They save what could otherwise be in danger of beating out Danger on Deception Island as worst Nancy Drew game.

It does win the award of worst puzzle, though. These dolls are the creepiest thing, ever.

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Recommendation

Just skip this one. There are so many other great Nancy Drew games that it’s not really worth spending time on Last Train. Though, I did beat it in only 3 hours, so it’s a quickie.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Introduction

While flipping through one of the Game Informers we have lying around the apartment, I saw a small feature for Ori and the Blind Forest. I’m always on the lookout for games with a strong focus on the art, and even from the small stills in the article, it was clear that Ori would fit that bill.
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A Focus on Art and Atmosphere

Ori is all about visual impact. Every single frame of the game is stunning, and I took more screenshots than my poor Steam account knew how to handle. (That’s an exaggeration. I’m actually super-impressed with how Steam handled my barrage of screenshots.) The entire world is a painting come to life with seamless transitions from gameplay to cut-scenes and back again, and no load screens between areas to break the flow of the game. It’s a game that is easy to get lost in. A game I spent many happy hours simply running through and exploring.

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I’ve played other beautifully atmospheric games  (here’s looking at you Journey), but Ori stands apart. It’s so beautiful that while playing, I felt some of the beauty rubbing off on me. Everything was so seamless that, once I mastered the controls, moving through the forest became an act of creative participation. It’s difficult to explain, but once I would hit these states of flow — of perfect forest-creature parkour — I began to feel beautiful. The closest comparison I can make is the feeling that floods my body after a particularly good yoga session.

Gameplay and Control

The controls of Ori are fundamental to its sense of beauty. If things weren’t so tight, the flow of movement that makes the game so enjoyable would never occur. That’s not to say that the whole thing was a big art-fest with no focus on the gameplay. Ori is hard. Its beautiful exterior and story of love and restoration act as a somewhat misleading exterior to a fiendishly tricky puzzle-platformer.

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While the puzzles (mostly levers and block-pushing) are clever and challenging, the platforming is what really gave me trouble during my run-through. I play a lot of puzzle games, but platformers are fewer and further (farther?) between, so I had to work hard for my progress. The feeling of knowing what to do but being not quite able to pull it off was a familiar friend throughout Ori, which was frustrating, but did lead to a lot of moments of pure triumph. Having to really earn progress makes Ori an immensely satisfying game — not just the cute escape that you see in advertisements and features.

But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies — I do have a major complaint. I played Ori on a controller, since I find platforming with mouse and keyboard to be an exercise in needless frustration. And the game boasts its “full controller support.” It has full controller support, but only if you have the right controller. Trying to get things up and running on both the PS3 and PS4 controllers was futile, despite hours wasted trying. I scoured the Steam forums and downloaded all the programs that would supposedly allow me to use equipment I already owned to play the game, all for naught. Nothing worked, no matter how many times I mapped the buttons.

My husband and I had been tossing around the idea of buying a Steam controller anyway, so off we went to the GameStop down the road and bought their last one (because I’m too impatient for online ordering). Less than five minutes after opening the box, I was up and running, no problems at all. Once paired with the controller it wanted, Ori’s mechanics never got in the way.

Story and Characters

Last, but certainly not least, there’s the story. Without giving any spoilers, the story is simple and sweet with a dark underbelly. It’s sad, but in a way that softens the heart, not hardens it like many others. It is a story of love and kindness, despite the violence and anger present within the world.
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This bittersweet tale only works because the characters are so lovable. Though none of them speak, they’re easy to get attached to. Adorable and/or stunning character models have a lot to do with this, but their interactions with each other impart a lot of sympathy as well.

Recommendation

If you have any interest in Ori, but something has been keeping you from pulling the trigger, go ahead and buy it. It’s a great game that’s well worth your time and money.