The Many Sites, Sounds And Smells Of The Arcade

There’s a new game coming soon, based around the idea of running your very own arcade. Arcade Paradise, from Nosebleed Interactive and Wired Productions, is a game that I’ve had my eye on for over a year now. Fingers crossed, I’ll be reviewing it soon-ish too (#ShamelessFreePlug).

Anyway, my excitement for Arcade Paradise got me reminiscing over the good ‘ole days when the arcade was king. To the point where I decided to write an article to remember and celebrate those good ‘ole days of my growing up in and around the arcades of the 80s and 90s. This right here is that article.

Being born in the mid-seventies and growing up, as I did, in the 80s, allowed me to be in the midst of the arcade gaming boom. I began my gaming journey in the late 70s when we, as a family, got an Atari 2600. I may not have fully understood what gaming was back then as a young 4-year-old but I knew that I enjoyed it. Part of the mass appeal of the Atari 2600 back then was the fact it had several really good arcade ports. The likes of Space Invaders may not have been arcade perfect on the 2600, but the simple fact that we could play arcade games at home was awesome.

SPACE INVADERS 2600

See, I grew up in Birmingham, England, which is part of the Midlands. And it’s called the Midlands because it is slap bang in the middle of England. Being in the middle of the country pretty much made it as far removed from the seaside as you could get. This was an issue because, well, the seaside was where most arcades tended to be back then. Being a hundred or so miles away from an arcade meant I had to rely on the 2600 ports for me to get my arcade gaming fix. In fact, I played pretty much all of those classic arcade games on the wood-finished beast that was the Atari 2600. The likes of Frogger, Pac-Man, Asteroids, et al were all first played on our family 2600 before I ever played them in their natural habitat.

There was the rare occasion I would get to venture into an actual arcade though. We had family on the coast in Ramsgate, Kent. Now and again, we’d have a summer family holiday in Ramsgate and when I got bored of building sandcastles or crabbing, I’d venture into an arcade with my older brothers. I remember being quite envious that the arcade games always looked and sounded better than they did on our 2600. I was too young to understand hardware limitations and such back then. I just wanted to know why Galaxian looked so much better in the arcade than when I played it at home.

GALXIAN

Those early 80s of the arcade were where my love for gaming began to grow. As I got older, gaming quickly became my main hobby. Building sandcastles or going crabbing became secondary to visiting an arcade with each successive family holiday and with each year I aged. There was something special about the sounds of the arcade. You’d be walking along the promenade with some seaside fish & chips in your hands, then the all too familiar sounds of Pac-Man’s ‘wacka-wacka-wacka’ would call you into the nearest arcade, like a siren enticing a sailor… only not to your death but to your idea of heaven, an Arcade Paradise if you will (#StillAShamelessFreePlug).

I have a very vivid memory of walking around an arcade with my Nan while on a family holiday. As we walked among the many cabinets, Gorf called out ‘insert coin’, though the Votrax speech chip made it sound more like it said ‘insert cloin’. Anyway, when my Nan heard that, she just stopped in her tracks, looked at the cabinet and said: “Is that thing talking to me?”. She kind of sounded both surprised, impressed and insulted that a machine had dared speak to her. Those sounds of the arcade are little nuggets that have been inserted into my brain for eternity. I hear Pole Position say ‘Prepare to qualify’ now and the hippocampus and neocortex in my brain work together to pull a memory from 40 years ago of my older brother’s obsession with trying to get his name at the top of the high score table… then 6-year-old me would have a go, crash into a billboard and I’d think it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

POLE POSITION

1983s Dragon’s Lair was another game whose sights and sounds spark off memories too. It was the first time I ever heard my older brother swear. He would’ve only been about 12 himself at the time. But when we walked into an arcade and saw Dragon’s Lair… wait, technically we heard it first. There were the usual blips and bloops of the other arcade machines of the day. The occasional very rough speech sample that, in your memories, sounded crystal clear but when you hear them now, you realise how low-quality they were. Anyway, in among all of those very early 80s arcade noises was the always very loud, LaserDisc powered, perfect stereo quality speech of Dragon’s Lair. The booming voice of the announcer drew you to the cabinet, even when it was the other side of the arcade. Me and my brother walked towards the cabinet and the crowd that had amassed to gaze at the game’s beauty. When we saw those Don Bluth animations, that was when I heard my brother say “fucking hell” for the first time.

DRAGON'S LAIR

We also spent a lot of time in Barmouth, Wales for family holidays. That was amazing as there used to be three arcades all within walking distance right there on the seafront. Those three arcades were where my brothers and I would spend most of our holiday money. We’d pretty much live in them for the week we were there. In terms of arcade memories, Barmouth is where most of them stem from and where I played a lot of games for the first time. Paperboy with its handlebar controls and the music that I can still sing (or ‘do-do-do’ to anyway) beat for beat today. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was one of the games I would play often. I was a huge Indy fan back then, to the point that when I grew up, I wanted to be Indiana Jones. To be honest, I only ever really wanted to play the minecart chase bit of the game. I became a bit obsessed with it and I would purposely die when nearing the end of the level so I could stay on the minecart bit as long as I could.

TEMPLE OF DOOM

My brother would play Karate Champ and he was really bloody good at it too. I could never get to grips with the whole double joystick controls thing as a kid and would just jump around or pull off moves that were nowhere near a connecting hit, until I got knocked out or time ran out… and I lost. Then there was Ghosts ‘n Goblins. I didn’t understand at the time just how fucking hard that game was. The idea of a game being unbelievably difficult ever entered my mind back then, I thought I was just missing something and that was why I kept dying. On the first stage, very near the start, there’s a bit where you can go up a ladder and there is a plant that shoots at you. To the left was (what I thought was) a shield pick-up. I got it into my head that you had to grab the shield to help you against the projectiles that the plant shot at you. So I’d spend most of my time trying to perfectly time the climb up the ladder and run to the left to grab the ‘shield’. Of course, it was just a bonus pick-up for extra points and all you had to do was shoot the plant. But my younger brain refused to accept that and I kept dying trying to nab that ‘shield’. I never did get past that part of the game, even after pouring stupid amounts of 10ps into it.

OutRun, I can’t explore my growing up in arcades without mentioning OutRun. I was obsessed with this game as a kid. For me, this Sega classic is still one of the greatest games ever made. It is arcade racing perfected and rarely ever beaten. I loved Ferraris as a kid (who didn’t) and I used to have a big Testarossa poster on my wall, one daydreaming that I’d own one when I was older. Being in the arcades circa 1987 was the only way I could experience driving around in a Ferrari Testarossa back then. Everything about that game just clicked. The graphics, the sense of speed, the sunkissed scenery and of course, that immortal music that you can hear in your head no matter where you are. Being on a summer holiday made playing OutRun just that little bit more special too. There is something that can be said for playing a nice sunny game on a hot summer day that adds to the feeling of the game. And if you were lucky enough to find one of the deluxe sit-down cabinets with the hydraulics and all that. Man, that was the only way to play OutRun properly.

OUTRUN

Double Dragon, I really must give this game a name-check here as it was the first arcade game I ever finished. It was hard too as I didn’t know of the old elbow spamming trick back then. I honestly couldn’t tell you how many 10ps I had to put into this one before I got to the end. There was actually a little bug/trick during the big fight before the credits. You could get hit/thrown up to the area where the big boss would stay while his henchmen would beat the crap out of you. But while you were up there, the enemies couldn’t hit you and the big boss was ‘technically’ out of the game, so wasn’t programmed to attack from there, you could just beat the crap out of him and he’d do nothing. Still, getting to that point was bloody hard. I’ve always had a soft spot for Double Dragon as it was the first arcade game I got to the end of.

DOUBLE DRAGON

There was one game that brought me and my two brothers closer together, whilst making us bicker and argue at the same time, Gauntlet. I still remember the first time I ever saw that 4-player monster of an arcade cabinet back in Barmouth as a kid. The stunning artwork on the sides with the four characters battling monsters. The four joysticks in front of the larger than normal screen was unreal. My oldest brother Rob, he’d always play as Merlin the wizard. Graham, the middle brother, favoured Thor the warrior and I’d play as Questor the elf. Nobody ever wanted to be Thyra the valkyrie. Even today, if I ever play the original Gauntlet, I just instinctively play as Questor. The fact we had to work as a team in the game made us appreciate each other as we played… the fact you could shoot the food caused many an argument, especially when the game was telling us that “Wizard needs food… badly”. This was unlike anything we had played before and a summer holiday in Barmouth just was not complete without us spending a large chunk of our holiday pocket money on Gauntlet.

GAUNTLET

Honestly, I could sit here and type thousands upon thousands of words about arcades in the 80s and yes, I know I’ve not named a great many fantastic games. But I need to move on as I still have the 90s to cover yet. But before I do, I really must mention Dayvilles. This place was an ice cream parlour famed for its amazing selection of ice creams, thirty-two flavours to be precise. Anyway, a Dayvilles opened up in my home city of Birmingham in the 80s and as great as the ice cream was, it was what was under Dayvilles that impressed even more… an arcade. My oldest brother discovered it one day as it wasn’t really advertised and if you were just walking past, you’d never know that underneath all of those thirty-two flavours of that ice cream was a basement arcade. This meant that I didn’t have to wait until the annual family summer holiday to get my arcade fix as this one was a 40-minute bus ride away. Whenever my bother would go into town, which was every weekend, he’d take me along with him and every weekend we’d go into Dayvilles, down the stairs and spend hours playing arcade games.

Being in the basement, the Dayvilles arcade was a very dark and grim place. There wasn’t a great deal of room down there either and the selection of games was a bit slim. I’d say they’d have maybe ten or so cabinets. But to us, it felt so much bigger. It lacked the sunny seaside appeal of going to a bigger arcade during a summer holiday but still, this little underground arcade in the middle of the concrete jungle that was Birmingham City centre was better than a swift kick in the nards. It was where I first played R-Type and my love for the series was born. By the time the latter part of the 80s rolled around, the arcade scene really began to grow too. More and more city arcades began to pop up and there was a handful in Birmingham where I grew up, arguably ‘better’ ones too. Still, there was something special about that Dayvilles arcade, the fact it was hidden away underground made you feel like you had discovered a secret only a few knew of.

R-TYPE

Anyway, the 90s. By now, gaming had exploded and the home market was quickly catching up with what the arcades could do. Home consoles such as the SNES and Megadrive were capable of giving us gamers almost arcade-perfect ports and sometimes with a few extra bells and whistles. I mean, the Megadrive port of Golden Axe was pretty damn great eh? Arcades had also grown and more began to appear too. The 90s was the point where gaming really began to be seen as less of a ‘dirty’ pastime. Oh don’t get me wrong, there was still a bit of a stigma attached to the whole gaming thing, but it was lesser than it used to be in the 80s. We used to take the family dog for a good run at a place called the Lickey Hills. It is this huge park in the middle of the countryside, a few miles away from the city centre of Birmingham. If you grew up in Birmingham in the 70s, 80s and 90s, then you knew of the Lickey Hills. We spent hours there as kids in the 80s and yet, it wasn’t until the very late 80s or early 90s when I learned that it had its very own arcade. This wasn’t some dark and dismal basement-dwelling either. The Lickey Hills arcade was huge, it was like the kind of arcade you’d find at the seaside… only not at the seaside. I’ve only just learned, while researching for this very article, that not only is the arcade still there (changed a lot over the years) but it has been there for a hundred years and has been owned by the same family for all that time too.

All those times that me and my brother would go into the city centre and spend hours underground cramped in at Dayvilles, there was this much bigger, more open arcade with many more games and only a few miles from where we lived at the time and where we often took the dog for a walk. I have no idea how we missed it for so many years. But I guess that was just how it was back then, arcades were not advertised and you only really know of them via word of mouth. Then there was the fact that arcades were most definitely more of a summer holiday thing. You’d expect to find an arcade when on holiday and on the coastline, but not so much a few miles from a major city near a big park in the countryside.

FLETCHERS

Fletcher’s Arcade (as it was called back then) was where I spent a lot of my teenage years. I turned 14 in 1990 and was well into my gaming by then and on my way to becoming an adult. This was where I first saw and played Street Fighter II. I remember it well because it wasn’t a ‘normal’ arcade cabinet, as is the standard kind of stand up arcade cabinet you’d usually see. It had a much bigger screen than the normal cabinet. Then it had an angled bench where you didn’t quite sit down, it was more a case of that you leaned back whilst standing up, resting your arse on the angled bench. It was glorious.

Street Fighter II is a perfect place to bring up the beginning of the death of the arcades, because it was when the home ports came out that we gamers realised that the arcades were becoming less and less of an attraction in the early 90s. I mean, the SNES port of Street Fighter II was so damn good that you really didn’t need to go to the arcade to play Street Fighter II anymore. This was the era when arcades had to do something bold that was hard or impossible to replicate at home.

Street Fighter II

8-player Daytona USA, as an example. I mean a home port of Daytona USA wouldn’t exist for a few years anyway and even then, it wouldn’t be 8-player. So yeah, the early and mid-90s was when the arcade tried to lure us console gamers back into the arcade with technology that you just couldn’t get at home. Sure the Terminator 2: Judgment Day home port was decent enough…. but you couldn’t match the awesome original arcade version with the 2-player, twin uzis. In a way, the early 90s of the arcade were going back a decade to the early 80s, by trying to entice people in with interesting cabinets and peripherals. Terminator 2: Judgment Day was basically Operation Wolf and while we may have had light guns at home, they didn’t have the force feedback as they did in the arcade. The sit-down racing cabinets of the 80s were now the multiplayer sit-down cabinets of the 90s. But it wasn’t just about rehashing old tech as new. Old game ideas were also being updated in an attempt to lure folk back into the arcades.

TIME TRAVELER

Sega’s Time Traveler was really nothing more than a more modern take on Dragon’s Lair… only now with holograms. It was the same (but improved) laserdisc technology, with the same QTE styled gameplay. But instead of hand-drawn animations, it was now ‘live action’ actors displayed using 3D holograms. I mean, both Dragon’s Lair and Time Traveler were designed by the same man, Rick Dyer. It was an interesting age of the arcade, seeing a lot of the older 80s ideas being brought back for a new audience. Sometimes, you could find a real beaut of an arcade cabinet too. Like the full scale Ridge Racer in Blackpool (I got to play this in its heyday). This truly was a thing to marvel at. You sat in an actual Mazda MX-5 (or Eunos Roadster if you’re from Japan) and the controls of the car worked to play the game on three massive screens. You used the actual car radio to select music, the gear-stick changed the gears and the air con threw air in your face as you raced. The full scale Ridge Racer was amazing and was a perfect example of what arcades were doing to try to keep people coming in.

FULL SCALE RIDGE RACER

Anyway, the great thing about Fletcher’s Arcade was that it sat between two pubs. As I got older, the family summer holiday gave way to hanging out with my friends, going to the pub for a few beers, popping in the arcade, going back to the pub for some more beers and rounding the day off with some more games in the arcade. But even so, around the mid-90s, it was fast becoming clear that the arcade was slowly dying out because the home market was not just catching up with the arcades but quite often exceeding it. Fletcher’s Arcade was great, it was big, it had everything covered. Older retro games and the latest cutting edge games too. I could pop in and play some Ghosts ‘n Goblins and still not finish the first level. To then go and play some Virtua Cop 2 just by walking a few feet. It really was the best of both worlds in terms of an arcade. But you know what it didn’t have? The likes of Resident Evil, WipEout and so on.

TEKEN

The ‘PlayStation era’, the 32-bit generation of home consoles, that was the nail in the coffin of the arcade. I mean, I could play Tekken at home now and with a load of extra stuff the arcade version just didn’t have. But I couldn’t play Final Fantasy VII or Grand Theft Auto in the arcade, could I? By the time 1995 rolled around, the home market had all but won. Sega had released its Saturn console and that was more than capable of playing all those great arcade hits. Sega Rally, Virtua Cop, Dead or Alive, RayStorm and so on. Tip-top arcade games that we could now play at home, why would you want to go to the arcade anymore? When the PlayStation became so dominant and popular, the arcade really didn’t stand a chance.

My visits to the arcade became less and less frequent as it was easier to stay at home and play arcade quality games (and more) instead. Of course, the arcade pretty much all but died out over the next few years in the latter part of the 90s. You could find specialist arcades though, the likes of Sega and Namco created their very own arcade entertainment venues to try and keep the arcade alive… but they just weren’t true arcades. They weren’t those dingy basement dungeons that felt secretive and as if you were an exclusive member, they weren’t the seaside escapes that you used to get away when you were bored of making sandcastles and crabbing. They were loud and brash ‘please look at me, I’m still an arcade… honest’ things that certainly had the games to keep you entertained, but they lacked the appeal of the 80s and 90s heydays.

SEGA WORLD

It’s kind of sad to walk along the beachfront here in the UK and see what passes as an ‘arcade’ these days. We took a little family holiday last summer just for a week to Torquay. Myself, my lass and our two young kids. Our daughter is now the age I was when I first got into gaming and arcades. I thought it would be great to take her to a classic arcade and show her the games I grew up playing from 40 years ago, the games I played as a teenager and the ones I played as a young adult in the mid-90s. Could I find one though? Nope. I found loads of ‘arcades’ with claw machines and all that crap. Those semi-fixed machines that spit out tickets, which you can then swap for a shit cuddly toy that you could just buy for £5 anyway. Man, it was depressing to think that crap is what is considered an ‘arcade’ these days.

Still, it’s not all depression though as there are some great retro arcades out there, if you know where to look. Most of them with the business model that you pay a fixed amount for a set time, and you are unleashed on many classic arcade cabinets (set to free play) from the good ‘ole days. They may not be the seaside attractions they used to be, but they do still exist.

ARCADE PARADISE

You see ladies and gentlemen, this is why I’m so looking forward to Arcade Paradise (#YupStillMostDefinitelyAShamelessFreePlug). It’s a chance for me to relive the glory days of the arcade, to revisit my youth and all, rather ironically, by not having to leave the house. Using the very method that killed the arcade in the first place to enjoy the arcade once more that I sorely miss. But seriously though gentle reader, if you are a fan of those classic arcade days, get Arcade Paradise on your radar, ‘cos it really does look awesome.

And if you enjoyed this little trip down gaming memory lane, grab yourself a copy of my book 66 Of The Most Important Video Games Ever! (According To Me) from Amazon. Look, if I’m going to plug Arcade Paradise for free and just because I think it looks amazing, I’m gonna plug my own work too.

Game Review: Martha Is Dead

The walking sim/ horror, a genre of game that I often find to be very hit and miss. In terms of game mechanics, there is usually little to do other than walk around a lot, occasionally interact with an item and watch very predictable jump scares. They are also everywhere these days and rarely offer anything new. Martha is Dead, from developer LKA Games and publisher Wired Productions, is another walking sim/horror title. But does it give the player anything new?

Martha Is Dead is a dark first-person psychological thriller, set in 1944 Italy, that blurs the lines between reality, superstition and the tragedy of war.

As conflict intensifies between German and Allied forces, the desecrated body of a woman is found drowned… Martha!

Martha is dead, and her twin sister Giulia, the young daughter of a German soldier, must alone deal with the acute trauma of loss and the fallout from her murder. The hunt for the truth is shrouded by mysterious folklore and the extreme horror of war that draws ever closer.”

18-02-2022_13-58-39-t2fiq3oq

Whenever a game opens up with a warning screen, I often roll my eyes because the warning rarely fits the content of the game and seems more like a lazy attempt at adding hype. Martha is Dead has such a screen (see above) due to its depictions of certain themes. You even have to pass an age check just to get to the Steam page. So this has to be pretty disturbing, right? Very possibly…

See, the ugly head of censorship has been reared as the PlayStation version of the game has been cut. ‘Censored’ is how this is being labelled but I guess it depends on just how you look at it. I’m not 100% sure what has been cut from the PS version of the game as both developer and publisher are staying diplomatically tight-lipped. However, I believe that in terms of visuals, blood and gore, etc, the PS version has everything intact. What has changed is that certain scenes in Martha is Dead are interactive and it is that interactivity that has been removed. So what are interactive scenes in the other versions of the game are just cutscenes in the PS version.

Don’t quote me on that though because, as I say, it has not been officially revealed how and why the PS version is different (I personally feel that Sony should be the ones to make a statement on exactly what has been changed as they are the ones who ordered the changes). I’ll leave it up to you just how much this ‘censorship’ affects your decision on buying the game. For me, I am against censorship of any kind.

For this review, I played the full-fat Xbox version, so I got to experience Martha is Dead how the devs intended. It is an adult game and is rated accordingly for adults to play. I believe that adults should be allowed to choose if and how they enjoy their entertainment themselves. I don’t agree with what Sony has forced on the developers for this game. I just wanted to get this bit of the review out of the way first so you, the reader, could decide for yourselves which version of the game to get… if it is worth getting at all that is. Speaking of which, on with the review.

MARTHS IS DEAD SCREEN 7

So, what is Martha is Dead all about? As I’m not going to do spoilers here (I’m even avoiding picture spoilers), I can’t really get into the story with any real detail. Set in 1944, Italy and during World War II. You play as Giulia, the identical twin sister of the titular Martha. Anyway, Martha is Dead (cue title) as the game starts, she drowned in the lake near your home where you live with your parents. Playing as Giulia, you explore your home and its surrounding area to discover just how and why Martha is Dead. There’s a lot of walking, a lot of interacting with items and all the usual gubbins you get with this genre. Right off the bat, if the walking sim/horror game is not your cup of tea, I’m not sure if Martha is Dead is going change your mind… but perhaps it could.

Aside from all the walking and stuff, Martha is Dead does throw a bit of variation along the way. You’ll be sending and receiving messages via Morse Code, using Tarot cards to read your fortune. There’s also a photography mechanic where you use an old 1940s camera. Unlike these new-fangled digital cameras that the kids use these days, the old-timey camera is a bit more intriguing to use. There are different filters that you can apply… literal filters too that fit over the lense. Different films produce different effects and suit various weather conditions and more. Then, you have to develop the photos by hand in a darkroom too. You’ll need to line up the image with the photo paper, ensure everything is in focus. You then ‘burn’ the image onto the paper, which you then need to pass through developing fluid for the photo to emerge. This is all done via an extended mini-game and while the photo developing process has been simplified over real-life, it’s still very interesting and exciting to see your photo appear before your eyes.

MARTHS IS DEAD SCREEN 3

The photography mechanic is used in two ways too. You can just go around and take photos of anything you like. Use the various filters and other additions to take some really great pictures. Then there are specific story progression photos, one’s that you have to take as the story plays out. I honestly really enjoyed this element of Martha is Dead and it helped to break up the huge amount of walking around that the game has. You can even find new cosmetic skins for your camera if you wanted to change up its look.

In terms of the horror here, depending on what gets under your skin, you’re going to find that this is where the game really will split opinions I feel. For me, I’ve become desensitised to pretty much anything the horror genre throws at me, film or games. I think I have seen pretty much any and everything the genre has to offer and it just does not affect me anymore. I mean, I think that A Serbian Film is a really good comedy, I’m not joking either. When it does come to the horror elements of Martha is Dead, and if we are talking about sheer blood and gore, then there really is very little here. I think I need to clarify this. There are only two or three scenes of genuine gore here and while they may be few, they really are graphic. Let me put it this way, if Lars Von Trier were to make games, he would probably make something like Martha is Dead.

MARTHS IS DEAD SCREEN 1

The scenes in question (that I’m not going to spoil) managed to make me wince… me, the guy that thinks A Serbian Film is a really good comedy. As I said, I really am desensitised to horror but this game had an effect on me that I can’t seem to explain. I don’t know what it did or how, I just know it did something and made me feel uneasy over what I had witnessed. You know the eye scene in Dead Space 2? Well, that is nothing compared to Martha is Dead. I think it is this element that Sony had an issue with and why they changed these interactive scenes into non-interactive ones because carrying out certain acts in the game did feel different compared to if I had just watched them. While I don’t agree with Sony’s decision, I do kind of understand it, now that I have played the game for myself and experienced those scenes in the context they were meant to be experienced. I’m waiting for 100% confirmation on just what Sony has ordered to be changed, I may have more to say on this matter in another article in the near future.

MARTHS IS DEAD SCREEN 10

Anyway, while the bloody gore of Martha is Dead is infrequent, it is deeply effective and detailed. But really, that’s about it. The majority of the game is far less intense and focuses more on the narrative of Giulia trying to get to the bottom of how and why her twin sister is dead. The game plays more like a family drama than a horror title. In this regard, Martha is Dead is pretty damn great. The story and how it is told offers quite a lot of uniqueness, including the telling of some huge chunks of backstory via the use of an interactive puppet show. This bit even has its own level of disturbing horror, just not blood and gore, more cerebral and psychological.

MARTHS IS DEAD SCREEN 2

Of course, another staple of the horror game is the dreaded jump scare. I really am not a fan at all, I think jump scares are a lazy and predictable way to force a reaction from the player. A game filled with jump scares just proves to me that the team behind the title were not confident in the narrative. As I sit here writing this review, I can only think of one jump scare in Martha is Dead. I’m not going to say if it was a good one or even if it worked. All I will say is that the lack of jump scares is a big bonus in my book and only helps to strengthen the story and how it is told.

I have played a lot of these walking sim/horror titles and I never feel that they stand out in any meaningful way, they all seem to merge into each other. But Martha is Dead is different, it may be not wholly unique but it is definitely different. The narrative is excellent and the infrequent use of bloody horror is seriously disturbing. Oh, and before I move on, the game comes with a good variety of language settings. I suggest sticking with the default Italian spoken language and using English subtitles, unless you can speak Italian. The English voice acting is great but sticking with Italian adds a real layer of authenticity to the narrative. It certainly helped to immerse me into the game.

MARTHS IS DEAD SCREEN 4

Graphically, Martha is Dead is really impressive when setting a tone and atmosphere for the story. The lake in the game looks both stunningly beautiful and seriously foreboding, dripping in dread at the same time as looking gorgeous. Then there are areas which are bathed in glorious sun that look like something from a holiday postcard of the Italian countryside. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition between the stark dark and bleakness of the game, several of its locales and scenes, to the sheer prepossessing and enchanting sunkissed depictions of 1944 rural Italy. There’s some excellent use of musical cues too, especially during the aforementioned interactive horrific scenes. Music that really helped to hammer home the grotesque nature of exactly what you are doing.

I just need to do some very, very, very light spoilers here. I’m going to mention the ending but not go into details of what happens. So, this bit is safe to read as I’m not going to spoil the ending, I just wanted you to know that I am going to mention something regarding the ending though. Feel free to skip this paragraph if you want. So anyway, at the end of the game you are asked a series of questions and have to answer them via multiple choice. The thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter what you pick, the ending is always the same. This would be a bit of a cop-out in other games and I would normally be chastising the point of having the answer multiple-choice questions if it doesn’t affect the end in any way. However, I think the idea is that the multiple-choice questions and how you answer them are actually supposed to reflect on you the player and not the game. I think how you respond to those questions says a lot about how you felt about and perceived certain elements of the story. If this was the intent, then Martha is Dead could have one of the most clever and most cerebral endings I have experienced in recent years.

MARTHS IS DEAD SCREEN 6

Around £25 is how much you are going to have to pay for Martha is Dead, which is about normal for this genre and my playtime came in at a little over five hours, though I did play through the game twice as I enjoyed it so much. The second time I took a bit longer as I wanted to explore the game more. I really am not much of a fan of this genre and yet, this title has impacted me like no other titles in this genre ever has. The story is truly fantastic, it is told really damn well tool with a level of gravitas that plays on your mind, even after the credits have rolled. The use of blood and gore is infrequent but massively effective. The real horror of the game comes from much more subtle elements and some wonderfully nuanced storytelling.

This could be one of the best horror games I have played in a long time. Martha is Dead is worth taking a look at and if you are a big horror game fan, this will probably be the best you’ll play this year. If you’re not into the genre (like me), it still could surprise you with how great it is.

MARTHS IS DEAD SCREEN 9

For me, I’d suggest getting the Xbox or PC version though as they are the purest versions of the game. Left untouched for you to experience just how the developer wanted. The PlayStation version has been changed, to what extent, I’m not 100% sure yet. But it is quite clear that the team at LKA Games didn’t want their game to be altered, otherwise, all the versions would be the same wouldn’t they?

Game Review: Those Who Remain

I love indie games, far more so than big-budget, AAA titles most of the time too. I love giving indie games and developers coverage on my blog, every little helps to get their name and work out there. So it is always a great pleasure to look at an indie game… well, perhaps not always.

If there is one thing I strive for when I review a game, that thing is honestly. I don’t do ‘paid for reviews’ (though I have been offered). I’m always grateful when a developer or publisher sends me a review code. I mean, I get free games, I get to play those games and I then get to write about those games. If they could somehow include beer and sex, I’d have the perfect job. Anyway, recently I played a game that really tested my honesty and love for indie gaming. I played Those Who Remain from developer Camel 101 and publisher Wired Productions.

It’s yet another, by the numbers, completely uninspired walking-survival horror game. Seriously, this genre is everywhere and every indie dev team and their mothers are making them right now. It’s a genre that had already run its course several years ago and needs to be put out to pasture. Now, I’m not saying that the genre can’t still be done well today. It can, I really enjoyed Song of Horror which I played a couple of months back, as an example.

No, the issue is that devs just don’t seem to be trying to bring anything new or creative to the table and Those Who Remain is most definitely one of those games. This is as cookie-cutter a survival horror game as you can get. You’ve seen this all before from other games and done better too. Everything from the very tired gameplay mechanics to the ‘scary’, everything is a dark and gloomy as fuck setting. But it’s not just the stagnant gameplay and setting that is Those Who Remain’s downfall, it’s the god awful controls. The strange thing is that this game has one of the most simple control schemes ever. Here’s a screengrab of those controls.

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See, that’s unbelievably straightforward. Yet, even with such a simple control scheme, the game is massively awkward to actually control. Turning around takes way too long and you feel like you’re waist-deep in wet concrete. Just to check, I timed myself turning a full 360° and that took all of 11.26 seconds. It’s just as slow looking up and down too. Doing something a simple as turning is so… frigging… slow. Remember, this is a survival horror game and there are times when you really need to turn around fast… you just can’t. Yeah, you can increase the sensitivity in the options, but even at full, it still feels awfully sluggish (is this just an Xbox issue?).

Then there’s the inconsistency of the aiming reticle as even if you aim directly in the middle of the item you want to use/pick up, it hardly ever registers. Here are a couple of more screengrabs for your eyes.

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See, the top one is me standing directly in front of a paper that can be read. But even with me aiming directly at the middle with the little white dot reticle (as you naturally would), the pick up/use icon just does not appear. Yet in the bottom image, I have to aim at the bottom corner of the paper to actually use it. This is something that plagues the game throughout and you’ll find yourself continually fiddling around trying to use or pick up items, as there is no consistency as to where you are supposed to look to get the reticle to change so you can then use any of the items. Sometimes it is the middle, other times it’s multiple places but the middle, then it can also be just one very specific spot that is nowhere near the middle. There is one thing I can say is that the game is consistent with, its inconsistency.

There is one thing that I did enjoy about the game and that is its reverse stealth mechanic. I feel that I need to explain. See, in your average stealth game, the idea is to remain unseen and use the shadows to your advantage. Here, you need to do the exact opposite. With Those Who Remain, it’s all about being seen. You need to stay in the light and use illumination to keep out of the dark. As it is in the dark where you will meet your grizzly end the most. You are stalked by mysterious shadow-like figures with glowing blue eyes that will kill you as soon as you step into the darkness. I admit it is a nice idea for a survival horror game like this, but one nice idea in a swamp of bad ones does not make the game any more playable. In fact, this very same gameplay mechanic that I liked is one of the biggest pain in the arse elements of the game too.

THOSE WHO REMAIN SHADOW

See, in order to keep out of the shadows, you will be flicking lights on via light switches. All sounds rather simple so far, but there is a major issue. Pretty much all of the time, these light switches are in the darkness that you can’t go into, so you have to try and flick the switches without going into the room/location it is in. This of course is tricky when you will die as soon as you enter the darkness. So you have to continually do this sideways walk type thing to first, see exactly where the light switch is and second, to try and then reach the switch to turn it on, all while not entering the darkened area itself. This is where a lean option would’ve been perfect, but no. You just have to keep very slowly and carefully nudging yourself sideways into a dark room and if even so much as a little toe goes into the dark, you’re insta-killed. Then, if that is not annoying enough, just remember that inaccurate use reticle I previously mentioned. Pretty much every time I tried to use a light switch in this game, it was never as easy as just aim for the centre of the switch and press the action button. The use icon would often only appear if I aimed above the switch, bellow it, in the corner, etc… to then just go a millimetre too far into the darkened room and be insta-killed Sweet Jebus, this game is infuriating and badly designed. Worst of all, it’s just so ‘effing dull and dated too. If I were playing this game five years ago, I’d still say it was about ten years out of date.

Full discourse. I didn’t finish Those Who Remain to write this review. Yeah I know I’ll get flack and people saying that I can’t give it a fair review if I have not seen all the game. But let me ask you this. If you are served a meal in a restaurant that tastes bad, do you have to eat all the meal to know it tastes bad or is just a bite or two enough? I played a good three hours or so of Those Who Remain and after that much time, I saw all I needed to see to get a firm grasp of the game. I have seen it all before and knew that things were not going to get any better. The sluggish controls, the inconsistent reticle, the uninspired gameplay and bog-standard puzzles are not going to suddenly vastly improve if I play for a few more hours, those problems are there to stay. I did get to experience some of the game’s more surreal, ‘alternate reality’ bits. But again, it’s been done so many time before by others and better too. Plus I just got so pissed off with the inaccurate and treacle-like controls that I got too annoyed to want to play anymore. Even more so, it commits the absolute worst sin for a horror game… it’s just not at all scary and woefully ‘meh’. Life is too short to play bad games.

THOSE WHO REMAIN ARMS

There is one thing that I usually avoid doing when I’m playing a game for review, that thing is that I don’t look at other people’s reviews. I don’t want the opinions of others to influence me when I do my write-ups. However, as I got to the end of this review, I felt that I had to look into what other people have been saying, just in case I was missing something major from the game. I wasn’t, Those Who Remain has been getting some very average and below average reviews and scores across the board. The general consensus seems to be that this is a very mediocre title. For me, even it being called mediocre is too high praise. This is way, way, way below mediocre.

When I end my reviews, what I tend to look at how much the game is going for and tell you if I think it’s worth the money. I’m not going to do that here because I got my review code for free and I’m seriously thinking about asking for a refund. It really doesn’t matter how much this game is going for, it’s not worth it even for free. I honestly don’t like dumping on small, indie developers as they need all the help they can get. But I can’t lie to my readers either, I have too much respect for them to do that. Do I recommend Those Who Remain? Yes, I recommend that you avoid it.