Sunday, August 30, 2015

STASIS Review!




                STASIS was in development for a while before it hit Kickstarter and made more of a name for itself like most of the indie games released in the latest years. The successful crowdfunding campaign which rose over $ 130,000 helped the developers at THE BROTHERHOOD expand the gameplay experience and got Mark Morgan on board for more of his amazing music.

Getting this screen is not a good sign!


                The story starts off in a simple way: John Maracheck wakes up from a stasis pod at the board of an unknown ship and the last thing he remembers is going to drug-induced sleep while traveling through space with his daughter and wife. While walking around in search for medical supplies to help him deal with the traumatic effects of stasis sleep, John discovers he’s at the board of the space station Groomlake, a host for state of the art technology used for medical and scientific research done by Cayne Corporation. But what should have been a highly populated space station is now a deserted area which looks more like a brutal battlefield than a group of research facilities. Blood is splattered everywhere and few of the devices are left intact and everything seems to be on lockdown.
After dealing with the effects of stasis, John is set on finding his family and getting out of this hell hole. As more of the mystery surrounding Groomlake is uncovered the main character has to deal with horrific and inhumane things forcing him to slowly let go some of his principles and beliefs making more room for his preservation instincts (while still remaining quite a nice guy).
                The story might seem a tad cliché and foreseeable as it covers genetic research done with a complete disregard for morals or human lives and which obviously go wrong and put everyone part of the projects in grave danger. Yet, it redeems itself by managing to rapidly arouse my curiosity as it evolves in an interesting way which made me want to find out in detail what happened on this damned ship.
Groomlake
I wonder how I got here!


                As expected from an indie game, the production value isn’t quite there and the developers dealt with the story presentation as they sought fit. Much of the information and background story is delivered through PDA journal entries and computer mails wrote by the people on board of Groomlake. Their stories combine filling up some of the voids and describing interdepartmental relationships and the general situation from an early and peaceful date to the horror moments before the main protagonist wakes up. There is a web of interactions and details that was carefully written for those interested enough to let their imagination do the rest of the work and this caught me the way dialogues in RPGs do.
Reading about low level employees describing their day to day job and lives, wondering about what’s going on in different departments and discussing rumors, while the higher ups were plotting and continuing their secret research made a huge difference for me. I felt that this place was once fully functional and alive and I could put together piece by piece the information I got from people’s entries in order to come up with an explanation for what happened here. There is a point on everyone’s entry when things start to go bad and reading how everyone coped with the situation made this feel so terrifyingly plausible and I felt sorry for some of the characters that suffered such a tragic fate.
Tough society...
Lovely girl!


                The subtlety of information gathered from the stories of the deceased paint quite a picture about this futuristic world unveiling details about Earth, current technology and even gives an insight to our society’s mindset. I found out by reading them that the world was troubled by horrific wars or that the society is quite homophobic and I was not surprised to find out that religion still plays a big role in humanity’s existence. Probably the most notable historic events mentioned in the game are the Eugenics Wars which are something a little different from what one would think when hearing this name and these events tie up with the state of corporation research wars and part of the situation of Groomlake. The philosophy behind these details, even if they are not expanded, it is carefully thought through and makes for a compelling and fascinating interpretation of our future.
The storyline evolves through these short stories and there are enough fascinating texts to keep the player hooked for the whole duration of the game.
This is going to put an end to the DC vs Marvel war!


                STASIS is advertised as a horror adventure video game and while there is much adventurous content in the game there is not so much horror, at least not the kind that will make you turn on the light in your room. The landscape is gory and filled with the remnants of violent fights, but the player is protected by the isometric camera that fades out some of these details. Those searching for game full with jump scare moments might be disappointed as I’ve only encountered a few of such situations that managed to surprise me, but I think this says a lot about the nature of this game and how it was designed. I see it as quite an achievement that a game with an isometric camera managed to wake me up and make me feel the danger. But don’t be fooled, death is an ever present damage and more often than not you will die trying to solve a puzzle or using an item the wrong way. The game does make fun of this, by awarding an achievement for each new way of dying discovered (and there are plenty!).
                Overall, the focus of the game is put more on creating a creepy and twisted environment through its atmosphere which is heavily backed by the mystery, the storytelling, the music and the twisted design of some of the levels you have to pass through. The immersion is there and I got sucked into this video game like I never thought possible and I can only wonder in how much trouble I would have been if this game had 3D graphics and a different camera.
Just sick...


                The classical adventure style gameplay of STASIS feels, to a degree, a little uninspired. There is a reason why this sub-genre is a dying breed and why Telltale’s games are so popular. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind classical adventure games and I don’t mind the fixed camera or the old school point and click mechanic but not everyone shares the same feelings. What I do mind and STASIS has enough to stress me out with is the pixel hunting.
Some of the items required to advance are well hidden and they blend so well into the landscape making them hard to spot. There is always the danger of wasting time on searching something that was in front of you the whole time, at the distance of just a few clicks. On the bright side of things, some of the useable items are marked by a flashing light making things slightly easier.
I miss something!


                Another thing that classical adventures have, which I actually love but it’s probably the main reason why the genre took a 180 degrees turn in the latest years, are puzzles and STASIS is no stranger to this word. Finding items and combining them in the right way in order to trigger a useful reaction is just one of the mechanics involved in dealing with the problems on Groomlake. The variety is wide enough to make things challenging, but the overall mechanics remain the same for most of the puzzles.
One thing that the people at THE BROTHERHOOD did great with the puzzles was keeping the difficulty to a level where everybody can enjoy the game without constantly getting stuck on solving them. Yes, there are a few moments where things get tricky, but in general I think I had a harder time finding the items I needed more than anything else. It helps to read the texts in the game and not only carefully look at the screen for details, but there is logic behind each conundrum and it never goes as far as to enter the abstract territory of puzzle solving. Yet, these puzzles won’t spare you from the exhilarating feeling triggered by beating an intellectual challenge.
                I think the developers found the perfect way to deal with this game mechanic and maybe if more adventure games would have done the same over the years the genre wouldn’t have changed so much.
This is going to be more than just a sting!
Clues can be found everywhere!


                Where I felt that STASIS really bleeds is the graphics. The artistic style is beautiful, if such word can be used when it comes to a huge chunk of metal orbiting Neptune and filled with technological devices, dead bodies and something lingering in the shadows. But the graphics themselves are not serving the game as they should and are put to shame by other 2D games released this year (Pillars of Eternity being one example that comes to mind). They look washed up and pixelated at times taking away from the immersion and atmosphere. The developers did a better job with the animations which make the character movements and actions feel fluid while still blending well in the 2D background.
Not a happy view...
Cinematic experience!


                 As a counterpart to the average graphics, the sound design does its job perfectly. The ambient sound effects are haunting to say the least and resonate with the game’s story. The game also has voice acting, although it’s nothing too fancy compared to what AAA titles deliver and there are very few moments when it is actually used, but it serves its purpose quite well.
The soundtrack is where the quality of the sound shines the most. Composed by Mark Morgan the music is thrilling and immersive, but it does feel a little underused and it’s sometimes covered by the other sound effects. As the game has a barren settings menu with only two options: volume and brightness, the sound volume has to be further adjusted by modifying an .ini file (maybe there will be more settings after release).


A history lesson.
She seems nice!
Another achievement!


                STASIS is at the border between old and new. The transposition of the usual sidescrolling camera to a fixed isometric camera has the same general purpose just with another perspective that serves the narrative in a different way. The point and click mechanic, the pixel hunting and the puzzles are just a number of elements that remind me of adventure games of a different time, when this genre was focused on brainteasers and not a story driven cinematic experience (and by cinematic I don’t mean locked at 30fps!!!). But the game doesn’t go out of its way to address nostalgia. The fully voice acted dialogues and the full motion video cut scenes bring the game to a more up to date standard.
As a horror game it takes inspiration from movies like Alien or Sunshine and applies the theme of being trapped on a space ship with something dangerous on board extremely well. It builds suspense and mystery through storytelling and the use of gore, sound and the fight for survival without having to fight anything.
                Looking backwards and analyzing the elements of this game, it seems STASIS is at a transitional point between the two predominant styles of adventure games (with a little more focus on the retro style) and this might be the key to satisfy both the old school and the newer fans of the genre.
The game has its flaws, but looking at the bigger picture they don't mean much. STASIS is a five years labor of love from two brothers that poured their hearts and souls into this project (which is a little disturbing considering the game's theme) and their debut game is an adventure horror blast. 


(This article is based on a press copy of the game provided by the developer.)


Pros:
+ A gruesome atmosphere for a 2D isometric game
+ Good sound design and music
+ A well written story
+ Intriguing side stories that tie up together
+ Logical puzzles
+ Good level design
+ 8-9 hours of quality gameplay

Cons:
- The graphics seem a little washed up
- Some pixel hunting
- The UI bugs at times
- Only two adjustable settings




Nodrim

2 comments:

  1. Loving the fact that we have a return of the isometric games! I will play it for Mark Morgan (The man is a genius!) and isometric perspective. I had so much fun with Sanitarium back in the days....

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