Layers of Fear and Firewatch – “Walking Simulator” double review

“Walking simulator” is largely a term of derision. At least as far as I’ve seen. While there are definitely people who’ll defend the artistic integrity of games like “Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture” and “Gone Home”, there’s another group of people who’ll simply tell you that you’re talking bollocks (or your cultural equivalent) and that walking simulators “aren’t games”. I’ve avoided them to this point, purely because none of them really caught my attention. But no more, for two came out recently that really drew me in; horror game Layers of Fear and hiking n’ intrigue-em-up Firewatch.

First up, Layers of Feeeeaaaaar (wiggles fingers spookily)

Those of you familiar with my backlog (or who know me personally) will know that I love P.T. It’s a game that haunts me to this day and its cancellation is a still a sore spot. Fortunately for me, Layers of Fear really wants to be P.T. It has a similar concept, similar use of impossible space and even an almost identical scare (though not nearly as good) but rather than stop at just being a lot like P.T it broadens in scope to become its own game with its own identity. You play an unnamed painter desperately trying to complete his magnum opus (one layer of which is seen above), wandering around his house finding ingredients to craft it one layer at a time. There are three twists to this. Firstly, due to said painter being in the grips of some horrifying hallucination-heavy mental illness the house defies any and all logic; doors lead to completely different rooms to what you expect, turning around will often lead to you being in a completely different part of the house and the house gets increasingly dilapidated and nightmarish as the game goes on. Whereas P.T used that one hallway to great effect, wringing as much tension and horror out of it as it could, Layers instead keeps you on edge by never giving you any sense of security or safety- literally anything could be on the other side of the next door. Secondly, the house is filled with notes, letters and mementos that tell the backstory of this painter, a genuinely quite upsetting tale about how a loving relationship completely fell apart after a horrible accident lead to alcoholism and hateful indifference. The only time the game gives any story to you directly is right at the very end, everything else you have to seek out yourself and it’s worth seeking out. Thirdly, the aforementioned ingredients are, without wishing to spoil anything, not your average painting gear. On the downside, like P.T it is rather short, but unlike P.T you have to pay for it (around a tenner, but I bought the Xbone game preview version. It might be more now). It took me around two and a half to three hours to beat it; there was one puzzle, nothing to fight or anything of that ilk, you just walk around the house and things happen. Now, I understand ten pounds for three hours of game is a fair bit, and that will put people off. However, it is a very effective experience- the story and characters, glimpsed through a haze are excellent, they all tie into the horrible things assaulting your senses in this nightmarish house, and it all ends on a wonderfully grim note that really tied it all together, for me at least. Is it as good as P.T? No. It won’t replace P.T either, partly due to the context and all the furore surrounding it, but now that P.T isn’t available this fills the void well, and its a solid horror experience in its own right.

Next up, Firewatch

Interestingly, while Layers of Fear reminds me of P.T, I can’t think of anything I’ve played that I can compare Firewatch to (apart from one aspect that made me think of SOMA, but only that one aspect). A text-based choose your own adventure at the start tells you that you are Henry and you have taken a job in the woods of Wyoming to get away from the ten-tonne emotional weight of your wife having dementia way to bloody young. He’s a firewatcher- sitting up in a tower keeping an eye out for forest fires and making sure no one burns the woods down like a tit. Now that wouldn’t make for much of a videogame at all, so an encounter with two teenage girls who later go missing gets something of a mystery/thriller plot going. You spend the majority of your time hiking around the woods with a map and compass seeking different goals- you never interact with anyone up close, barely see anyone, never fight anything. Instead, your only consistent interaction is with your boss Delilah over a walkie-talkie (this is the aforementioned SOMA-esque feature), reporting your progress and choosing dialogue options during lengthier conversations. This relationship with Delilah and the aforementioned hiking are its main selling points; Henry and Delilah are convincing as individuals and as coworkers/friends/somethingmoremaybeorisitnospoilers. Choosing when to interact with her and having to actually make your way around an open world with a map and compass set it aside from games where you simply wander around and have story told to you when the game deems you worthy of it. The game is also surprisingly really unnerving at times, expertly playing on the idea of being alone in the woods with people watching you. Or are they? If they are, what are you going to do about it? It’s not a horror game, but it did creep me out on more than one occasion. Any problems? Well the hiking can get annoying sometimes, particularly if you go the wrong way, but the game looks lovely and giving you the agency to get there by yourself without a waypoint and/or intrusive HUD makes it worthwhile. Overall it works- the central relationship is good, the ending goes in an interestingly anticlimactic direction (in a good way though) and if you’re looking for something different it’s definitely worth a look.

So then, two “walking simulators” that turned out to be bloody good. They’ve actually given me incentive to check out Gone Home at some point, and to give the genre more attention in the future. Both of them work, both come recommended. If I had to pick one over the other it’d be Layers of Fear, but they’re both worth the (admittedly short) time it takes to beat them.

By James Lambert

Thoughts on… Resident Evil Zero HD Remaster

(Picture for reference when I talk about the state of Billy Coen)

It’s piss.

Wait, let me back up. I was reticent to buy Resi 0 Remaster. REmake is one of my favourite games of all time, and I’d put its HD remaster in my games of 2015 list if doing so wouldn’t take more piss than I can get away with. Resi 0, on the other hand, only held my attention as far as the start of the second area. I got through the train just fine, young and eager and full of hope, then the crushing weight of all its baggage crippled me and I gave up. When the HD remaster came out I talked myself into giving it another go, after all I’m older and wiser now, and I bloody love REmake. Well it turns out I was completely right to stop where I did, and even though I didn’t get much further this time, I feel like I’ve seen enough to at least give an opinion on the game, even if it’s not a particularly in-depth one.

First of all- and this is limited to the HD version- the control mapping ranges from uncomfortable to irritating. I played it on Xbone and aim was on right bumper (the bumpers on Xbone are absolute shite), run and inventory were swapped from REmake, and the button my brain kept telling me is aim (right trigger) is actually the button that makes your partner stop following you, so I’d run into a room, try to aim, decide I’d best get to steppin’ then realise that A) I’d told my under-equipped partner to stay behind with certain death and B) She was stupid enough to do it. It’s an admittedly small problem comparatively, but noticeable.

Secondly, the partner system is completely unnecessary. Resident Evil games will either have you pick between a man or a woman or simply give you one more well-rounded person instead. Before Resident Evil 5 came out however, Zero bucked the trend by giving you two players at once, with small inventories and only one character’s worth of health and ammo. Those characters are Chris Redfield’s REmake sidekick Rebecca Chambers and Billy Coen (seen in the picture above); a man who looks like he’s cosplaying a character played by Michael Madsen in a fourth Dusk Till Dawn film that never happened. Billy has more health but he can’t blend herbs (health items), Rebecca can but has no real uses other than that. As I said the game only has the ammo and health for one character but throws in a load of key items and has every weapon bigger than a handgun take up two slots. So I’ll have both characters on caution status but only the herbs to heal one then have to leave one character behind in a safe place by necessity and render the whole thing redundant. Also in an attempt to fix a problem that didn’t exist they took out the item boxes and put in the option to just drop items wherever you want. But this just makes things worse because the item boxes were all linked together but in this case you have to remember where you dropped the item and go back to that spot AND THAT SPOT ONLY.

Finally, the story spoils REmake. In REmake it’s revealed that incredibly untrustworthy chap and Johnny Bravo look-a-like Albert Wesker is secretly ee-ville and has set up all the other characters. It’s not the best plot twist in the world but it was something at least. Here Wesker and Resi 2 villain William Birkin hang out in a bunker watching everything unfold on a bank of monitors. Why are they there? Why isn’t Wesker prepping his team to enter the mansion? Alpha team are already on-site so Bravo can’t be far behind. Does no one care where he is? They didn’t cause the virus outbreak this time, why are they observing everything? Also Rebecca goes through all this only to be completely unprepared for what happens in the events of REmake. You’d think she’d breeze through the Spencer mansion.

So there we have it, three main reasons why I think Resident Evil Zero is piss and I can’t be bothered to play it any more. To be fair I did get further than I did last time but fatigue set in even harder, and it just made me want to play REmake instead.


UPDATE: Having finished the game two years later I now have slightly more in-depth opinions. I still think Resi 0 is of generally low quality, but it does have its merits. Having said that the issues I have with it have worsened, chief among them being:

The Level Design

So the Spencer Mansion back in REmake was outlandish and eccentric, filled with weird puzzles, architecture and, of course, built over a secret Umbrella lab. None of this mattered though, given that it was a house; a personalised estate tailored to the tastes of one man. Zero, in contrast, includes several different, separate locales, and for now I’ll be focusing on the most egregious: the Training Facility. See, William Birkin and Albert Wesker were both trained by Umbrella in this facility, under the watchful eye of co-founder James Marcus. This is before they moved onto their respective passion projects of turning into eyeball monsters and playing make believe police officer (more on that later). My point is this place is a training facility, with students. So why does it follow the usual Resident Evil blueprint of themed keys, puzzles and bizarre architectural flourishes? It doesn’t help that it’s not done very well, either. The Spencer Mansion had four themed keys and everything else was at least practical even if it was a bit odd. This facility has two themed keys, doors blocked by suits of armour, a massive chess set that takes up almost an entire office floor and, worst of all, two doors to important rooms conducive to teaching, unlocked by setting a certain time on a clock on a completely different floor. Underground there’s an honest to God torture room, with iron maidens and spiked chairs that are introduced, not explained and then quickly dropped. This is seperate from the other basement, with a couple of tiny labs dedicated to Marcus’ experiments with Leeches. How does anyone get any learning done? There are three class rooms with about fifteen seats in them, everything else just seems to be there purely to facilitate an old school survival horror game. This place makes no sense.

The Effect on Canon

I touched on this in the first part of this piece, but it has pretty drastic negative effects on the series’ canon, especially that of REmake. James Marcus being a creepy old man gaining favour by creating the T-Virus but then completely squandering said favour by developing an obsession with leeches to the point in which he murders a load of staff members is pretty decent. The Queen Leech taking the form of a younger Marcus is a complete misstep that’s poorly handled, especially when it takes the form of old man Marcus and her voice changes for some reason. That central intrigue of who this young man is just doesn’t work: only Wesker and Birkin know who he is, and his drive for revenge is rendered moot when the game reveals that he was a complete dickhead who deserved what he got. There’s nothing to grasp onto with her/his character other than he loves Leches and he’s mad about Wesker and Birkin killing him. Speaking of those two, it seems weird to me that Wesker isn’t actually a member of STARS, and that the events of REmake are purely to gain combat data for Umbrella. I always got the impression that, given all that “traitor” talk Wesker was a member of STARS first, but started working for Umbrella and then pledged his true allegiance to them. He clearly works for them because you find a photo of him, but I personally never got the impression that, as revealed in this game, he was trained by Umbrella and then decided to go undercover with STARS. Of course later games revealed that he’s actually some kind of Les Enfants Terrible-style super baby created by Spencer or some bullshit, but dealing only with this game and REmake my point stands.

Final point: where exactly is the training facility? At the end of the game Rebecca’s in the woods of the Arklay Mountain region, and can see the Spencer Mansion. This is after the game’s final area: the Umbrella lab from Resident Evil 2. You travel there in a monorail from the lab, much like the monorail trip in Resi 2, but this raises two issues. Firstly, how are Rebecca and Enrico Morini hanging around the lab in Raccoon City when the training facility is up in the mountains? Secondly, what’s the point in even having this location be used when the game doesn’t let you do anything with it? If you try to actually go through any of the doors the game stops you with “There’s no need to search this area” Why not? Maybe there are supplies, Rebecca. You know, supplies that could help me out with that Tyrant that just pops up out of nowhere. Remember Tyrant? Wesker treated it like it was big deal, a unique creation and super weapon, but it turns out there was just another one kicking around that everyone forgot about. Anyway after fighting said Tyrant you move onto an actually explorable area beneath all this, rendering the lab from Resi 2 meaningless fan service at best and baffling and continuity crippling at worst.

The Gameplay

The partner system still makes things unnecessarily complicated, the item system; eschewing item boxes in favour of just leaving items strewn about the place is still a terrible idea that I have nothing but scorn for, but at least you can use herbs upon picking them up. There are no interesting enemies in the game, particularly not the bosses, who are all just large versions of normal creatures, besides the aforementioned Tyrant, who’s old news, and the Queen Leech, who’s just a big squishy monster. Monkeys, hunters, big frogs, the new leech men and zombies; nothing stands out. Zombies don’t turn into Crimson Heads anymore either. On the one hand given everything else you have to deal with I am not even remotely complaining about that. On the other, Capcom’s reasoning for this was that Billy and Rebecca don’t hang around long enough, despite the fact that in the lab at the end of REmake zombies can mutate in a matter of minutes because you’re at the end of the game.

So I’m still not a big fan of Resident Evil Zero. In a general ranking of the series I’d place it lower than the likes of REmake, 4, 2 and 7, but it’s not without merit. There are good ideas here, I like Rebecca and I’ve even grown to quite like Billy, even though he has a big, dumb tribal tattoo. There are some decent ideas here, and it’s good to take risks, I just think overall most of them didn’t pay off. But, as Resident Evil experiences go it was nice to have another classic, old school one to play, and I didn’t hate it. It’s got me back on a big Resident Evil kick alongside completing REmake for the eighth time. Going to finally give Code Veronica a proper go next.

By James Lambert