Madness? This. Is. Japan!

The culprit: Hatoful Boyfriend (PC, Mac, download only)

There are moments in life when you’re left wondering “what the hell did I just see?” Things that baffle you beyond reason. Hatoful Boyfriend is one of those things. It’s no secret that some cultural peculiarities of the Asian world will always puzzle us Westerners (and vice-versa), particularly in the entertainment sector. But this…

First things first:There are no words... Hatoful Boyfriend, as the name indicates, is a dating sim. This is not a genre I would normally touch with a 10-foot pole, but this game was brought to my attention by an utterly fearless forum acquaintance, who pointed out that, not only was it completely insane, but also surprisingly well-thought out (how’s that for a paradox?). My curiosity was piqued and, since it only cost $5, and since I’m always up for unusual experiences, after some deliberation, I decided to take the plunge. For the record, there is a free demo version available, but trust me, you WANT to get the full version. That is, provided you want the game at all. Not only does it include a secret character, but a substantial extra storyline as well. The latter basically explains the entire backstory of the game (you’re in for some shocks, let me tell you), but also puts you in control of a different character and is very different in tone.

The first thought that comes to my mind in association with dating sims is “dirty little secret”. It’s not the kind of game you’d normally go trumpeting around the rooftops about. I’m fairly sure, however, that you’ve never experienced anything quite like this UFO before. I certainly haven’t. Let’s start with the premise: in the not-too-distant future, a particularly Not quite Hogwartsvirulent mutation of the avian flu wipes out most of humanity and simultaneously makes birds sapient. Not exactly your usual sappy romance setting. Be that as it may, the consequence is that birds take over society, and a human girl (that’s your protagonist) finds herself enrolled in a high-school for gifted birds. All the while living in a cave and hunting for her meals. I’ll just let all that sink in for a moment.

Obviously, since there are no humans around at the school, her only romantic prospects lie with birds. And before you start backing off in dubitative disgust, I assure you that nothing sexual ever happens. There isn’t even any PDA to speak of. Thankfully, might I add. That’s not to say that nothing dodgy ever happens, because one of the potential romantic subplots is steeped in textual gore (and some innuendo). And two others are so Overreacting much?WEIRD that no description could ever do them justice. That aside, this premise is also what explains the title of the game; “hatoful” is a play on the word “heartful”: “hato” means “pigeon” in Japanese. Not that “heartful boyfriend” makes very much sense in English, but we’ll just let that slide. The actual translation of the game is fun and well-executed, barring some rare, bizarre cultural references and the odd typo/spelling mistake.

The first part of the gameBad boy is devoted to establishing the setting and introducing the potential romantic interests (except the secret character, whom you’ll have to go digging for). For starters, you can pick your character’s name at the beginning of the game. You can also opt to have a ‘humanised portrait’ of each of the eight romance options displayed. Whenever a potential prince charming is first introduced, a title screen with his name and portrait appears. If you pick the humanised option, there will also be a picture of what he would look like if he were human (well, except one of them…he just looks like a bird in both). This greatly helps to make them more relatable. Uh...nice suitOtherwise, you’re stuck with a pigeon, three fantails, a quail, a partridge, a mourning dove and a bleeding-heart. Sexy (not). They are, respectively, the protagonist’s best friend, two aristocratic fellow-student brothers and a wacky sports enthusiast, the narcoleptic math teacher, the creepy school doctor, a quiet bookworm and a…well, I guess anime-freak will have to do as a description. Yeah, that’s the secret character.

Not very tactfulAnyway, the concept is simple: once you decide which birdie makes your character’s heart flutter (ho ho ho), you then proceed to win their affection by choosing specific actions or lines of dialogue in conversation or at certain events (there’s a sports event, a school festival, fireworks, etc.). You can save at any time, which is helpful if you’re at all unsure of what to do. Every once in a while, you’ll also have an electives day, where the heroine can choose between attending math, music or gym class, which will raise one of her stats: wisdom, charisma or vitality, respectively. This will affect her chances with some of the options. Some of them even have slightly different outcomes, depending on which stat you choose to boost. Finally, you can also buy some beans to gift to the bird of your choice for the in-game equivalent of Valentine’s Day. Each has their preference, so this affects the protagonist’s chances as well.

This is all rather straightforward, and the game, additionally, never overstays its welcome, by making each storyline manageably short (about 30 mins). Moreover, you can fast-forward through parts you’ve already seen by clicking on the arrow in the upper right corner of the screen. Each ending grants you an image in the Gallery, as well as some mysterious notes in the Archive section of the main menu, which add a disquieting undercurrent to things. Once you’ve seen them all, including a side-storyline which involves pairing up two other birds who have nothing to do with the school, and a ‘bad ending’ where the heroine fails to romance anybody–or “anybirdie”, as the game humorously puts it–and, startlingly, gets killed by a group of hawks for it (these two Or is it?endings can be achieved in one go, by the way), you’ll have access to the aforementioned extra storyline. This takes longer than the usual playthrough, restricts saving to certain key moments, involves all potential romantic interests, with you in control of the best friend, and…let’s just say that it’s a mix of crime, thriller, horror, melodrama, comedy, romance, RPG and sci-fi. And that it will blow your mind.

You wouldn’t expect talking birds to make for particularly relatable characters, and, while I’m not familiar with the conventions of the dating sim genre, I don’t suppose that character development is a priority. Surprisingly enough, though, these birds do get their own backstories (most are substantially padded out in the extra Pigeon buddystoryline), and, after a while, they just start feeling like ‘normal’ characters, and you end up empathising with some of them. Not all romances end well, and not all of them are equally successful in their execution: there is, for example, a definite bias towards the best friend, who easily gets the most–rather moving, might I add–content and makes the most sense as a partner. Two of the other romances are also very predictable.

She gets bonus points for quoting Valkyrie ProfileStill, for a game which I had zero expectations for prior to playing, Hatoful Boyfriend turned out to be a pleasant, thoroughly entertaining surprise. This isn’t an all-time-great, by any means, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to everyone (definitely not to male players), but it you’re curious and would like to experience something completely different, original and utterly cuckoo (see what I did there?), go right ahead.

Time and time again

The culprit: Braid (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Mac, available through Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Steam, respectively)

What if you had made a terrible mistake? And what if you could manipulate time to rectify it? No, this isn’t Prince of Persia, but Braid, one of the most famous and critically acclaimed download-exclusive indie games to date. Initially available on XBLA, it has since found its way onto other platforms, thus becoming available to a wider audience. As such things often go, at first glance, it appears to be a simple platformer with a Castles in the sandchildish design and storyline. But if the game’s cover art, depicting a broken hourglass and a crumbling castle made from the spilled sand wasn’t indication enough, playing the actual game quickly reveals that there is more to it than meets the eye. Not only does it display treasures of ingenuity, but its plot also wanders off into distinctly non-childish territory, both wistful and ponderous. All in all, this is still one of the cleverest, most interesting games I have played, and I heartily recommend it.

The"There are some who call me..." game’s protagonist is Tim, a little red-haired fellow in a suit and tie who is trying to rescue a princess. If you did a double-take at the “suit and tie” part, you’d be on to something. The narrative, which consists of Tim’s memories and is presented in the form of short introductory texts before each of the game’s levels, is ambiguous on what the exact relationship between them was, but Tim appears to have made some kind of mistake which resulted in the loss of the princess, and would now like nothing more than to rectify it. This is all very vague, and, on a certain level, remains that way, were it not for several small clues interspersed within the texts which hint at a different kind of story behind Tim’s apparently disjointed musings and his strange quest.

The gameplay revolves around manipulating time by various means to defeat enemies and solve puzzles, some of which are deliciously tricky and require the ability to think outside the box, as well as a good grasp of the game’s mechanics. Tim first appears "Our house, in the middle of our street"against an ominous backdrop of a burning city to eventually reach a quiet, night-time street and a house, which serves as the game’s hub. It contains six rooms, each with an empty picture frame and a door which leads to one of the game’s six levels. Each one of those is subdivided into several sub-levels, which contain puzzle pieces that Tim must collect, to then complete each picture frame. The last level is located in the attic and can only be reached by a ladder which gradually gains new segments as Tim clears the other levels.

Each level features a different time-related mechanic, which is reflected in its name. The first (which is actually number 2; you’ll understand why later on), called “Time and Forgiveness”, introduces the concept of rewinding time if Tim makes a mistake or plummets to his death, although you can also fast forward it when required. The second level is named “Time and Mystery” and introduces objects, outlined in sparkly green, which are unaffected by temporal manipulation (e.g. if Tim activates a green lever, it will remain activated even if he rewinds). These objects also reappear in later levels. “Time and Place”, the third level, links time to Tim’s movements: if he moves to the right, time moves forward, if he moves to the left, it Go ahead, I'm right behind ya...moves backwards. The fourth level, “Time and Decision”, introduces objects outlined in purple: whenever Tim rewinds time, his shadow will proceed to repeat his actions prior to the rewind and will be able to interact with the aforementioned purple objects. This effectively allows him to perform multiple actions at the same time. The fifth level, “Hesitance”, introduces a ring which, when dropped, will create a time-slowing bubble around itself: objects nearer to the centre of the bubble will move slower than objects nearer its perimeter. Finally, in the last level, simply titled “1”, time continuously flows backwards (meaning that rewinding makes it flow normally).

Pastoral symphonyVisually and aurally, the game is enchanting. Each level has its own atmosphere and beautifully rendered, vibrantly coloured, environments and backgrounds, which are somewhat reminiscent of Van Gogh paintings. Each also has its own lovely musical theme, but both look and sound take a distinctly more sombre turn once you reach the final levels. This is also the second major clue as to the game’s most widely accepted interpretation. From then on, it’s very much a ‘so that’s what it was’ process.

You don't say...The game also contains some humorous references, including numerous callbacks to Super Mario Bros.: not only do the most common enemies in the game resemble goombas and piranha plants (and the former can be defeated by stomping on them), but the final sub-level of each level contains a small fortress with a flag, which rises as Tim reaches it, as well as a small, Where's the Holy Hand Grenade when you need it?plushy-looking dinosaur which informs him that the princess is in another castle. Apart from that, another commonly-encountered enemy in the game is almost a dead ringer for the killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In fact, I’m starting to wonder whether Tim’s name isn’t another reference to that film…

Somewhat uncommonly by download-exclusive game standards, Braid has also put some real effort into optional goals. Some of the game’s levels contain hidden areas, accessing which rewards Tim with a star (yet another Super Mario Bros. reference). There are eight stars in total; one of them can be missed if you complete the picture-frame puzzle for the corresponding level before obtaining it, and another one requires obtaining an alternate ending for the game (which isn’t as satisfying as the normal one). "Twinkle, twinkle, little star"Each new star is added to the Andromeda constellation, which hangs above the entrance to the house in the hub level. Tim can look up at it to check his progress, and once all stars have been collected, it will slightly change its appearance, all in coherence with the game’s themes. And if that wasn’t enough, when you’ve finished the game once, a speedrun mode becomes available, netting you an achievement if you manage to complete one in less than 45 minutes.

There are very few genuine gripes I have with Braid. The major one would probably be the fact the game autosaves your progress, but does so on a single save file. Meaning that, should you fail to obtain the aforementioned missable star, for example, you would have to restart a brand new game to do so. It also means that the speedrun must be achieved in a single sitting and that, should you make a major mistake somewhere, say, in level six, you’d have to restart all the way from the beginning as well. I don’t think I need to tell you how aggravating that can be. Another gripe would be that another one of the stars takes an unnecessarily long amount of time (almost two hours simply waiting!) to obtain. Some people have also complained that the game was too short. Obviously, when you’ve cleared it once and are practicing for a speedrun, it may, On fireindeed, seem like it whisks by in no time. Although, if it’s your first playthrough, and you’re racking your brain to figure out a puzzle, but also taking time to admire the artwork and music, chances are you won’t have that impression. Bottom line: do give this little gem a try, it’s well worth it.

He should’ve listened to his old man

The culprit: the Penumbra trilogy (PC, Mac, available through Steam)

That can't be good...It’s off the beaten track that you often come across the most interesting things. This applies to videogames in general, and the horror genre in particular. Like the infamous shortcut through the woods without which some horror films wouldn’t exist, taking a turn into indie title territory can yield spectacular results. Penumbra is a shining example of just such a lucky find. Created by a small Swedish company called Frictional Games, it displays such a mastery of the mechanisms of fear that it simply begs to be tried out. If Dead Space left you unimpressed, Silent Hill barely affected you and even Fatal Frame didn’t quite do the trick, or if you’re simply looking to broaden your horror horizons, do try this one on for size. Sure, the game has its kinks and flaws, and it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t made on a big budget, but let it not be said that more is better. None of the aforementioned games have scared me to this extent.

Cursed legacyPenumbra is technically a trilogy, consisting of Overture, Black Plague and Requiem. However, considering the three games have one common protagonist and storyline–which has all the makings of a good X-Files episode–, take place in immediate succession, are each rather short and use the same gameplay, it makes sense to view them as a whole. The story is narrated in what you eventually find out is an e-mail by Philip, a 30-year-old physicist with an estranged father. On the day of his mother’s funeral, he receives a mysterious letter from said father, directing him to a deposit box in a bank and instructing him to burn everything he finds in there without asking any questions or attempting to locate him. The box contains an indecipherable journal, Dude...BEHIND YOU!but also a set of coordinates, which point to somewhere in Northern Greenland. Three guesses as to what Philip decides to do. The coordinates designate an abandoned mine, where he soon discovers that something is very wrong. You’d think that any sensible person would just try to get the hell out, but curiosity is a powerful drive. It also has a nasty habit of terminating inquisitive felines. But I digress.

The people who made this game understand perfectly well that being isolated, defenceless and confused/disoriented/in doubt of your sanity is an ideal recipe for horror. There’s really nothing scarier than what an over-active imagination can conjure up, even if the game also contains very real hostiles who want nothing more than a tasty physicist snack or some chopping practice. Imagine for a moment how it would I sure hope these beams are safefeel to be stuck in an abandoned mine in the middle of nowhere with strange whispers periodically fading in and out of your hearing range (my god, the pause menu in Overture…), alarming messages left behind by miners and scientists whose corpses you periodically come across, bizarre Inuit artefacts that give you out-of-body experiences (those are the save points), escape and concealment as your best means of defence, and god-knows-what prowling in the shadows. Philip’s frightened gasps, which punctuate some of the more intense events, really don’t help. Contrary to what you might expect, there are other people down there…But a) you can count them on the fingers of one hand, b) they’re really not all that helpful…or reassuring, for that matter, and c) Philip begins and ends the game alone; you do the math. I find that these additional characters only serve to exacerbate the deep sense of loneliness and fear the game instils, with help from a minimalistic, cold and forlorn-sounding musical track. Black Plague also adds a nasty–and very successfully Where's the cleaning crew when you need it?executed, might I add–twist into the bargain, whereby Philip finds that he can no longer trust his perception. I would also like to remark that, if you manage to get through the kennels in Black Plague without having to pause the game to collect yourself at least once (especially with headphones on), you’re a better man (or woman) than I.

Penumbra takes place in first person, with a hand cursor on the screen to handle interactions. It uses a physics engine, whereby controls and movement are influenced by gravity. Say you’re trying to roll a boulder: not only do you need to mimic the movement, but it’ll also keep rolling if it’s on a surface where it would be realistically expected to roll. Same thing when trying to spin a valve or pull out a drawer. It takes The bare necessitiessome getting used to, but the game gives you adequate time to ease into it. Other than that, there’s a basic inventory, available at the press of a key, which you can also use to combine items or assign them to keyboard shortcuts, as well as check on Philip’s general health (which regenerates over time if he gets hurt and can be remedied with painkillers) and the state of the flashlight’s batteries. However, since the glowstick is just as useful as the flashlight and doesn’t need batteries, this is a moot point. There’s also a journal, in which Philip collects the various notes he picks up, as well as jotting down his thoughts on what to do next.

The game’s major downside is combat, but, thankfully, it’s only a factor in Overture. Philip’s only weapons are a hammer, a pickaxe or debris he can pick up and throw. And let’s just say that ‘imprecise’ doesn’t even begin to describe what swinging a pickaxe with that type of game engine is like; ‘extremely frustrating’ is probably a better description. Black Plague mercifully does away with weapons altogether, but not hostile Now would be a good time to...RUN!creatures, thus ramping up the fear factor. Philip can still try fighting them by throwing debris, but it’s really not safe and takes so long that you should understand that you’re simply not meant to do it. The point is that Philip, being a physicist, and not, say, a marine, is just no good in a straight-up fight. What’s more, he’s actually not half bad at hiding: enemies are far less likely to notice him if he crouches in a dark corner with his flashlight or glowstick off. The game even automatically switches to night-vision when he crouches undisturbed for a couple of seconds: this is signalled by a relieved sigh, a slight change of angle and everything taking on a bluish tint. Conversely, you’ll find that staring directly at an enemy for too long will make him panic, jolt out of night-vision and become more noticeable.

Gives a whole new meaning to weight-liftingAnother part which might disappoint some people is Requiem. Developed as an expansion to Black Plague, it serves as a sort of coda to the storyline. It’s much shorter than its predecessors, and while it looks and feels similar, it’s also more unorthodox, in that it clearly doesn’t take place in reality, as indicated by several not-so-subtle hints…such as exploding ketchup bottles or infinite batteries. There are also no enemies. Or well…no real enemies. Just a succession of puzzles. And while some of them are set in rather disturbing environments, the fact that there’s no actual threat of bodily harm, except from falling, does tend to somewhat defuse the sense of fear, which may be disappointing. Still, once you figure out why Requiem is the way it is, I find that it’s not a bad conclusion to the game. Certainly atypical, but…why not? It also has two endings, one of which is more obvious than the other, but this is the only game I know of where the “hidden” ending is actually the bad one.

Other things which might cause minor annoyance are some of the textures (eg. rubbish bags on the floor which should be 3-dimensional, but aren’t) and one particular voice actor. There’s also very little in the way of optional things to do, only a bunch of statuettes located in improbable places, which you can collect to unlock some Easter eggs on a subsequent playthrough. They’re rather underwhelming, though, so I Do I really have to go this way...?shouldn’t worry if you can’t find all the statuettes. Just goes to show that replayability isn’t exactly the game’s strong suit. Still, I find that none of this quite mars its effectiveness. If you’re receptive to psychological horror, you’re in for a treat. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself too frightened to turn a corner or open a door, every once in a while. It certainly happened to me on more than one occasion.

Shadows and tall trees

The culprit: Limbo (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Mac, available through Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Steam, respectively)

Dismal shoresLadies and gentlemen, we have a UFO. If you remember Braid, another download-only indie game which (justifiably) generated rave reviews, Limbo, first release of the Danish developer Playdead, is more in the same vein: artistic, stylish, deceptively simple and intriguing. It shares gameplay similarities with Braid, namely the lone protagonist in a sidescrolling environment and the cryptic storyline. Where it differs sharply, however, is the atmosphere. Yes, Braid had a disquieting undercurrent to it that gradually came to the fore as you neared the end, but the soothing music and beautifully lush environments compensated for it. By contrast, Limbo is unrelentingly bleak, gloomy, lonely and frequently unsettling, especially when you stop to think about some of the situations it puts both you, the player, and its protagonist in. Think of a cross between Tarkovsky’s Stalker and something like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and you’ll be quite close to the mark.

Industrial soloThe entire game is in black and white, reducing everything to silhouettes and making the already far from reassuring environments that give the game its title–a dark forest, some sort of industrial complex, a rainy cityscape, and finally, a nightmarish mix of all of them–even more menacing. There is very little music beyond ambient sounds and discreet aural backdrops, with the occasional swell for dramatic effect. And to top it off, the plot could not be more minimalistic: a nameless, featureless–except for his pin-like white eyes–boyAnonymous hero awakens in a forest and tries to find a way out, while avoiding various natural and not-so-natural hazards, and using the environment to his advantage to make progress. Along the way, you also realise that he’s looking for his sister, although how they became separated and why (and also where exactly they are) remains a mystery. And chances are that the ending will produce more questions than answers.

Apart from the boy and his sister, there are very few other living creatures in the game, and most of them are malevolent. The ones likely to cause most trouble are the very persistent giant spider, It's in my head!!!which features prominently at the beginning of the game (arachnophobes, beware) and the brain worms. These are phosphorescent…blobs, for lack of better word, which will suddenly drop on the unsuspecting boy’s head, burrow in with a rather sickeningly squelchy sound and force him to walk in one direction, disregarding any obstacles along the way. Until he encounters a beam of light, that is, which the worms seem to abhor. This will cause the boy to go the other way. And the only means of removing said worms is to bring them within reach of strange carnivorous plants that sometimes grow on ceilings.

If all this talk of giant spiders, worms and squelchy noises sounds rather morbid…well, it’s because it is. Unlike most videogame heroes, the boy is very vulnerable: he can’t swim, he has no weapons, he’s neither agile nor strong. Just drop from a little too high, and he’s toast. All he can do is run, jump and grab/push/pull things. Not only does it make you feel very small and helpless, but just about any element of the environment becomes potentially lethal. Combine vicious wildlife, bear traps, wood saws, electrified Ow...surfaces, and precariously balanced rusty machinery, and you end up with some rather graphic deaths. There’s no visible blood, but land the boy on a wood saw, and you will see limbs and assorted chunks flying (limb-o, eh? *dodges bricks and tomatoes*). This was meant to encourage players to pay more attention to what they were doing in order to avoid these gruesome fates. In fact, one of the game’s achievements/trophies is finishing it in one sitting with five or less deaths, aptly named “No Point in Dying”. Not an easy task, by any means. Other than that, however, there are no penalties for repeated deaths, besides having to redo the puzzle at hand, as the game helpfully replaces the boy at the start of it should he meet an untimely end during its execution.

Puzzles come in all flavours in this game, frequently challenging your instincts and intuition. They’re usually not too complicated to figure out, but the execution is quite a I told you it was persistentdifferent matter, as some are thoroughly on the acrobatic side, namely the entire final sequence of the game. Many are also timed, involving a room filling up with water, for example, or running away from the aforementioned spider. In short, be ready to experience a wide range of lethal outcomes on your first time through.

MinimalismAlthough there are no save points, the game is subdivided into 24 ‘hidden’ chapters. While you play, there are no interruptions, and the game flows seamlessly from one chapter to the other. But if you want to stop playing midway or to practice a particular puzzle, you can access these chapters through the menu.

I did mention that “No Point in Dying” must be achieved in one sitting, and this is realistically doable: the game is very short. In fact, once you get to the stage where you are trying to minimise deaths, you start learning how each puzzle functions, as well as their order, further shortening the experience. This is probably one of the game’s main flaws, and it has received criticism for not justifying its cost. On the other hand, had it been any longer, it may have run the risk of becoming tedious.

Its other flaw is that, Where did this come from?apart from soldiering on towards the boy’s goal, there’s not much else to do. Admittedly, you probably wouldn’t want to stay in some of the environments he traverses more than absolutely necessary, but it does impair the game’s replay value. The only extracurricular activity available is collecting a bunch of eggs from improbable locations, some of which you get achievements/trophies for.

Is there anybody out there?Still, despite these drawbacks, the game is a success, if only for the novelty of the experience. If you enjoyed the likes of Shadow of the Colossus or Braid, then it’s very likely you’ll enjoy this one as well. A prime example of a good ‘art game’. But don’t be surprised if you feel like you need a hug or some chocolate afterwards.