Game Review: Sir, You Are Being Hunted

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While you good sir or madam sit there with your tea and toast, munching away with your pipe smoldering on its holder and newspaper at the ready, some of us were out struggling for the future of mankind against their cruelest enemy. Robots. Once products of our own hands and minds, they rose up in rebellion to strike out and take this planet for their own. My beard is scraggly, my clothes are torn and I have eaten more live game than I care to admit. Surviving in this world is a tough affair and unfortunately not a very fun one either.

Starting out on the main island with various different loadouts based on the class you choose, you’re thrust headfirst into dangerous terrritory. You’re by a stone that can teleport you home but your robot butler informs you that pieces are missing. You’re then tasked with tracking down all of the missing pieces over the 5 randomly generated islands before you can come home. With each piece of the transporter stone collected, the game begins to ramp up the difficulty. New, tighter patrols will begin to show up in areas you thought were cleared out. New types of enemies such as the trap-happy Poacher, levitating-horseback riding Rider and the invincible plodding menace that is the Landowner appear giving you even less space to work with to stealth through. This all piles up on top of each other to create a bit too active combat scenario and somewhat hurts the pacing the early game sets.

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Another issue the game suffers from is inconsistencies. Sometimes you’ll be standing completely still with zero visibility and a robot can still spot you from a fair distance away. The ambiance of the island is top notch on the visual front, but audio often goes missing or seems to not be programmed to exist entirely. There were countless times I had rain falling around me but no sound to accompany this. Being near water never gave off any sort of sound until I would go into it. Sometimes this would result in a running river sound effect brashly spiking through the mix before cutting out randomly, other times there would be no water sound at all. A shame since walking the isles as the run rose above the horizon, watching the light peek from between the delicate and brittle twisting branches of trees that have seen better days with shadows dancing against their dried trunks, is truly a sight to behold. Being pulled straight out of the moment by an awkward audio error truly breaks my heart as the atmosphere is what the game does best.

Perhaps the worst aspect of S,YABH is the transporter stone collection quest which fuels the dash for survival in the first place. Spread across each of the 5 islands are 24 shards of The Device, a piece of magic or technology which will teleport you home to safety. In order to construct said device one must gather each piece, place it into their inventory and lug it back to the main island to place it in the stones. This collection quest can build up quite a bit of tedium as you scour around, evading detection and murdering when the time calls for it to grab a piece and carry it back. One could reduce some of the tedium by stuffing pieces into a storage container somewhere near the boat on that island and only leaving once you have all three, but you’re still needing to shuffle items around to make room for it all. Not to mention that robots tend to spawn and patrol around storage chests filled with goodies, forcing you to spend more time distracting or eliminating this new threat before being able to continue on. And why can I not combine pieces of ammo that are taking up huge chunks of my inventory space? Having a handful of bullets spread out between 3 to 5 different bundles that I sourced from different houses is a pain and adds artificial stress to my inventory management.

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So the question then remains, is Sir, You Are Being Hunted? Worth it? The lack of true survival or stealth elements really hurt the game on the mechanics end. The sheer cliff of difficulty that appears as you progress past a certain point overloads the player and does not give them enough tools to be able to put up a good fight. Nor can it handle stealth with any amount of grace, feeling almost too loosely inserted into place instead of being an integral part of the whole. The tweedpunk looks, comedic elements and sense of place and atmosphere are all excellently presented. I laughed every time I heard my eventual executioners crack jokes about the economy and cheerfully proclaiming how extraordinarily wealthy they are. Watching the sun rise over a field as I slowly work my way through the brush hoping to not get noticed is simplistic yet beautiful. Emergent moments like robot families clashing with each other and sparking a massive firefight is both frightening and amazingly well implemented. It’s just that in between all of that, there’s really nothing more than crouchwalking in knee-high brush and hoping the stealth meter is telling the truth about how hidden you are. And that, I feel, hurts the game like a bullet to the gabber.

 

Final Score:  3/5

Published in: on June 1, 2014 at 12:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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Game Review: The Last Door – Collector’s Edition

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Protagonist Jeremiah Devitt receives a letter from an old friend with whom he attended a private boarding school with in their younger days. His friend does not sound well, so Devitt books the next train out to visit him and make sure everything is alright. By the time he arrives, things have already begun to fall into place. Jeremiah doesn’t realize it when he opens that letter but a dark secret from his youth is coming back. And he’s not even aware of the Last Door for which it can enter through. Along the way he will tear through his past to find the truth behind what he and his friends had discovered and why it seemed like all of them were bound to this great danger.

The first half of the story suffers from a bit of meandering and lack of overall focus. Dialog too feels stifled and unnatural. I felt my eyes being sucked back into my skull as they rolled when it just so happened that a diary entry from a classmate of mine was sitting out in a totally obvious spot when it had been some years since that note could have been written. The second half sees a jump in quality and attention to detail which made me glad I stuck with it. The lovecraftian horrors began to slither into place, the secrets of the underground society the boys from the boarding school coming to surface.

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The simplistic visuals work as a positive and a negative. Paintings hanging on the wall and background details are evocative and the lighting giving every area an off-putting atmosphere. Whenever the horror elements come to play, be it in the form of jump scares or hallucinations and visions, they’re rather crudely constructed and end up being a little more giggle-worthy than genuinely terrifying. Like someone drew fake blood over pixel art in MS Paint. The developers tout that the crude and low res visuals should aid in being imagination fuel, a reason that I feel falls flat on its promise. There is a slight creepiness inherent in some of the visuals thanks to some of them appearing off-kilter or drawn by the hand of a man on the edge of madness. Overall though, the visuals work against the game’s message by being a bit too simplified for their own good.

Navigation is just about what anyone would expect for a point and click adventure game. If you love a light amount of pixel hunting, cryptic communication, slow movement (especially with the lantern out, a design choice I quite disliked) and puzzles that make sense but occasionally fall into the “too gamey for its own good” category, then you’ll be at peace with the guts of The Last Door. If Monkey Island makes you break out into a cold sweat however, you may run screaming for the hills.

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A benefit of the episodic format is that each chapter of the story is segmented into short bursts that can easily be finished quickly, provided you don’t get stuck by the rare item you may have somehow missed. The first half’s segments don’t give players too much to chew on but the second half leaves plenty of teases and discoveries that make the mind race with possibility. A turning point in the game’s storytelling is in the strange finale of the second act and the silent film that plays afterward called “The Impossible Love”. It’s an unusual piece that breaks out of the mold established by the first chapter and the second follows almost too closely to a T until that moment. It was then I came to realize that while there were some serious shortcomings, the developers had plans for me later on.

It should be noted that The Last Door is almost entirely free to play on the developer’s website. Why then, you ask, should I pay $9.99 to own it on Steam? While the game can be played on the official website, free users will always be a chapter behind those who have paid. The Collectors Edition also has a series of 4 shorts which contribute further to the mythos which are exclusive to paying players. How much of a value this is to you is really entirely your choice. By paying for the game you are contributing to the funds that the devs can use to make future chapters better. As it is now they are raising funds to obtain Unity licenses to make the second season better than the first on the technical level. There’s also virtual instruments and other pieces of tech they wish to invest in to keep making the overall experience cleaner and better. Seeing the growth from Chapter 1 to Chapter 4, I feel like my money was well spent if they can continue to hone themselves. If none of that interests you then you may not feel like your investment was worth it. I won’t try to convince you otherwise.

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I find it difficult to recommend The Last Door because of its many shortcomings that come from a lack of experience, dull writing and occasionally flaky atmosphere. There is a genuine spark hidden under the cruft, a truly romantic wish to hearken back to the older days of horror with a taste for the occasional creative modern jump scare. The game portion is fairly easy to progress through but at the same time the lack of challenge makes it feel too simple. It’s somewhere in the middle, not quite scary or creepy enough to be able to 100% suggest it but it is also not exactly bad. I suppose the best course of action is to check out the freely available chapters to see if it peaks your interest enough to want to support further chapters to the story.

 

Final score: 3/5

Published in: on May 31, 2014 at 9:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Game Review: FRACT OSC

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Static washes out your vision, slowly fading away to reveal large and impossible geometric objects reaching up and out as far as you can see. Dead machinery jutting out from pastel colored ground and rock. You don’t know how exactly you got here nor how any of these strange constructs were built. Your legs carry you across the land, poking your head into enclosed buildings that might as well be giant tombs. At last, you come across an object that emits a strange hum. You touch it and the hum changes pitch slightly in reaction. You move it around and it changes tempo and pitch respective to where it was before. You don’t know what is going on but you sure as hell are nodding your head.

FRACT OSC is like a Fantasia for the dance-minded music fans. IDisneylandM, if we were to give it a genre tag in our music player. Much like the Aggro-crag, every area on the map is color coded according to the theme of the sounds you’ll expect to hear. Pink acts as your bubbling leads, blue as your bass and green as the airy pads. Each instrument has its own dedicated area in the mountain area FRACT takes place in. The leads come from such towering heights, the pads sit in the middle and the bass rumbles on from down below. There are other, smaller details which show themselves to musician and non-musician alike which key you in to each place’s role in the overall scheme of what is going on.

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Exploration is only one part of what makes FRACT tick. The tock of the metronome comes from the game’s puzzles. Each instrument has a specific puzzle type which increases in difficulty as you progress through them. The block movement and pad rotation puzzles were fine, but the last laser puzzle in the bass area had me tearing at my hair a while. Overall though I didn’t find any of them prohibitively difficult (though the ease of a majority of them may disappoint hardcore puzzle game fans) and FRACT always allowed me the freedom to leave any given puzzle to explore at my leisure. I would have to come back to it eventually if I wished to see the end, but the lack of pressure really goes a long way towards making even the hardest puzzles easier to forgive. I’m glad to see games like FRACT and Ether One taking this stance.

The way the sound design is so keenly and closely tied together with the puzzles was enough to make me smile as every solution came together. Starting off in an area, the puzzles were very basic and the sounds those areas produced once fully activated reflected that. By the time you’ve hit the end of the series of puzzles for a given color/instrument, the puzzles have added new mechanics over time and the resulting sounds that blast forth have additional layers of complexity. It really builds up a feeling of progression. Instead of a simple pat on the back for completion and shoving the player towards the next goal, you’re allowed to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

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As you complete puzzles which slowly teach you vital elements of constructing tunes you unlock various tools to use in the in-game Studio room. The further into the game you get, the more you’re allowed to add and tweak into the track as you work. It starts off small with only a single loop sequencer and bare minimum controls over the tone of the digital instrument. By the time you’ve completed the entire game, you’re handed an impressively beefy DAW that looks as awesome as the sounds you’re able to make with it. While it is still limited and won’t replace your Reason, ACID or even your old copy of Fruityloops burned to a CD from a decade ago, it serves as an excellent introduction into the world of digital audio production. FRACT OSC is really a musical instruction tool masquerading as a videogame. To make things even better, the game has a built in export function and the dev is totally cool with users making commercial tracks so long as the loop work done with FRACT’s samples were all done in-game. A tutorial to mod in your own beats has been promised as well.

By the time I reached the end of my musical journey my ears were ringing and I felt similar to those nights after a gig. I’d emerged from the 8 hour rave session that I conducted for myself and myself alone, nary another ear to hear what reverberated through the cavernous area but my own. With every box aligned, switch flipped and cogs rotated I had brought life to these dead hills. As though Holy Mountain had been redone as a living Demoscene file, I had seen the secrets of this strange land from the very tip of its highest cliff to the very bottom of its deepest trench. I overlooked all that I had conquered and felt that it wasn’t quite enough. I retreated back to my lair, dark and still, slaving away for hours on what was to be my next song. I’d earned the right to control this giant machine and make it bend to my will. If only because I demonstrated that I understood what it wanted.

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It wanted to make you move.

Published in: on April 30, 2014 at 9:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Game Review: Secrets of Rætikon

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The forest is a rather tough place for young and intrepid animals to be nurtured, grow, and take on the habitat as an adult. Life dictates that not all creatures can make it. Be it an unfortunate accident which takes their lives too soon or a hungry predator selecting them as their prey, the risks of growing in the forest are indeed many. Here we witness a younger bird being picked on by an older hawk, whose talons and beak are capable of doing far more damage than that of the younger bird. The two peck at each other in a song and dance seen and heard all over the animal kingdom. Putting up a valiant fight, the smaller bird is no match for his elder. Soon enough, he meets his end by being impaled against a wall of thorny bushes, his wings fluttering their final flaps. Life in the animal kingdom is hardly fair and, as I’ve learned, hardly any fun either.

Sense of discovery is something I miss from games, Mirrormoon EP being one of the last examples of games that gave me something that really humbled me and made me feel like I was on a truly new adventure. Secrets of Rætikon manages to capture some of this with the variety of areas it offers and the somewhat sneaky ways they’re hidden from you until you complete a puzzle. Feasting your eyes on the palette of colors used to adorn each of the major areas and searching both foreground and background for telltale signs of the bigger picture at hand is one of Secrets’ greatest rewards. Unfortunately, the road paved to the end is done so with good intentions marred by sub par execution.

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If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this is a game about triangles. There are red triangles and silver triangles and blue triangles and big yellow triangles encased in black something or other. Each one of these represents different systems in the game, and almost all of which are annoyingly difficult to obtain. Red restores health, but getting them requires engaging in piss-poor combat or murdering defenseless critters for barely any health. Silver triangles are sacrificed at machines to power them up and give you the plot golden triangles. You need exact numbers of these and if you happen to miss one, it is zero fun searching out the only one you missed in an area. Even the “radar” call system is next to useless to detecting where the missing piece may be. The blue triangles remained unexplained until I had spent about a quarter of my total time with Secrets and as it turns out it is all just leading to giving you one extra life. None of these are replenish-able in nature, making every single step of collecting any of them an utter chore.

Puzzles are yet another area where the game is just ill-equipped to properly let them be any fun. Every puzzle consists of finding chunks of an object, finding the matching object it belongs to and building a replica of it off of the base of the shattered mirror version right across the screen from it. Adding physics into the puzzles goes about as well as one can expect when your protagonist doesn’t have opposable thumbs. Or even hands. Dragging the pieces around to the right angle and getting it to slide on just right so that it clicks into place takes way too long and is plagued on occasion by an additional annoyance. In one case, a bird kept attempting to attack me while I put together a statue. I tried to kill it off but the poor combat made this more trouble than it was worth. In the end I just dragged the bird halfway across the stage and left it there so I could finish the puzzle.

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The entire story is told via a series of stones that you find all around the world. Inscribed on each are sentences of runes that require finding the matching runes to decipher. Cryptic passages and bits of poetry emerge from these rocks as you work your way through them, but I felt like since the letters were just being given to me that it hardly had the reward of something like, say, Fez, where I had to really put in some work to figure out the alphabet.

Going about their daily routines are various species of land-loving and winged animals, some of which are there to be guiding hands towards some of the hidden areas and secret item depositories while others are there to rip you, talon and beak, straight out of the experience. It is satisfying to see the creatures interacting with one another without your involvement. Larger birds attack the nests of smaller birds, taking their young and eggs from nests and cracking them on cliff faces just for the hell of it. Rabbits and Squirrels scamper about and occasionally play around with each other in their own mischievous ways. It’s almost cute and displays some thought put into the wildlife that surrounds you. Until one of them grabs a plot triangle from your claws and sends you on a wild goose chase to get it back.

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Around the third or fourth time one of these plot items was ripped from my hands and kept away from me by increasingly annoying swarms of bird life, I had to ask myself – do I give enough of a damn about the Secrets of Rætikon to bother continuing with yet another unfun chase? Which surely will not be the last? Did I feel like dealing with another obnoxiously long revival sequence when I died with enough blue triangles? After weighing the various control issues, horribly placed puzzle pieces, poorly designed travel paths and awfully implemented combat against the gorgeously colored visuals and joys of flying around in the (what very little) open air, I came to my conclusion.

I’d stopped caring about the game. And I think if you manage to get the player that far, you’ve not done your job quite right. It has some fun moments when it lets you traverse without worry, but the instant it starts putting any demand on the player it becomes far too burdensome. Perhaps someone will make a campaign worth playing and upload it to Steam Workshop, but I’m not banking on it.

 

Final Score: 2/5

Published in: on April 30, 2014 at 7:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Game Review: Daylight

Let me save you some time.

Let me save you some time.

 

Some weeks ago I made a joke to a Colleague about how I had gone too long reviewing games without running into something that was the equivalent of Bad Rats. A game so bad that even attempting to be rational and boosting whatever positive points it has that you can’t excuse the black hole the game really is. I considered myself not a fan of Continue?9876543210 , found not much to like in Outlast and felt like Slender: The Arrival was barely more than a bundle of incomplete thoughts. And yet I still felt like there would be something much worse waiting on the horizon for me, slipping its vile tendrils around my neck and hanging me where I sat.

Daylight, I’m sorry to say, is that game.

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From the get-go we are tossed onto our asses into an asylum with only a cell phone and a cheap Malcolm McDowell imitator barking nonsense over the speaker. However he contacts us is beyond understanding as the phone never rings nor does the protagonist Sarah ever do anything with her phone to invite his squawking. He just spouts out grade-school philosophy such as “Life is but a butterfly’s dream,” and “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned… and you’ve scorned them all.” With @John_Henry_Eden_ebooks as our good company, we stumble around in the dark hallways (using useless glowsticks and flares) of which you will see the same of many times. One of Daylight’s big selling points is that it is randomly generated as you play so you can never have the same play experience twice. Well that doesn’t help when every single room you use as an asset looks exactly like the others, does it?

The goal of every area you visit is to collect 6 “remnants”, which is an absurdly vague way of saying “Find 6 pieces of paper with a red rune on them, some of which will be hidden in boxes on the walls and in desks”. Once you’ve stuffed enough Macguffins into your jacket, Ol’ Phoney pipes up mentioning that the “Sigil” has been revealed. While that sounds like something deep and meaningful, all it really turns out to be is a pair of surgical scissors or a porcelain doll floating in a room covered in glowing writing that you most likely already found before you had all six remnants. In taking the Sigil, you become defenseless as you are no longer able to whip out any flares or glowsticks to protect yourself.

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…oh, right. I forgot something. The ghost. From the outset you’re being pursued by an apparition that appears out of the blue with little rhyme or reason. My first encounter with it was as follows: I heard a banshee cry out from behind me as I was in mid-turn. My cell phone minimap was beginning to distort with random artifacts and glyphs. I stopped moving and waited for a moment, noticing that I could see what appeared to be the leg of the creature standing there just to my right. I contemplated for a moment what may happen should I continue to turn. All the while it persisted on making weird hissy noises. And then, almost as quickly as it came, the creature disappeared. It felt like one of those hilariously bad special effects sequences in old low budget films where they paused recording while the person or object was moved off camera while everyone else held still before continuing to record to give the illusion that they had vanished in an instant.

You see, Daylight has a lot of problems. It fails to be truly engaging to the player at any point. All plot exposition is taken care of via the notes and remnants (there are two colors of seal on the paper to designate the difference!) which you can skip most of and most likely will because it is all drivel. There’s no reason to connect with the disembodied voice of someone trying to do their best 60 year old Alex DeLarge impression who waxes poetic about as well as a toddler could explain to you what the hell a quasar is. Sarah, our rather grim protagonist, often yelps at the sound of her own foot brushing against a sheet and reminds us that she “Can’t fucking see a damn thing” when you’re in a nearly fully lit room. There’s little connection at all between what happens in the game world and Sarah’s reactions. I can’t begin to tell you how many times she outburst with angry quips about knowing someone is there in the two hours I spent with the game.

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Any tension is completely ruined by the fact that none of the game’s systems work to support each other. Sarah can sprint indefinitely, which makes the ghost a trivial occurrence in the event that it manages to even spawn. Resource management is merely an afterthought thanks to being given free flares and glowsticks in almost every other room. And if you manage to fill up too much on either, finding one in a container causes you to just completely discard it. I’m pretty sure no human alive is going to just throw out a precious glowstick before finding at least one extra pocket to cram it into. The ghost itself can be almost completely ignored by never turning around to face it and just waiting for it to despawn mere seconds later. I only ever died once in my entire run by backing into the ghost and having it materialize on top of me, ending me instantly. Even when I bothered looking at it, just for the sake of science, it appeared to just be a person with ketchup smeared over their eyes.

It’s a shame that Unreal Engine 4 gets such a pitiful introduction into the world. The game does not look nearly as demanding as it claims to be and none of the setpieces are visually interesting or even memorable. Between the campy dialog, shoddy notes and head-shake inducing comments in the UI message area claiming “They will come to haunt you”, every bit of the writing is downright amateurish and is something to be ashamed of. The sound design does not fully register with what you see on screen. Nothing is connected and nothing matters. There’s no consequence for doing anything in Daylight’s world. The in-game Twitch streaming support tells me more about what was on the developers’ minds than anything else in the game. They were banking on the braindead simple stream avenue to perpetuate the game with its enticing look and promise of replayability via randomization.

 

Even the achievements didn't give a shit about the game, and showed up after I closed it.

Even the achievements didn’t give a shit about the game, and showed up after I closed it.

What they forgot to do was make a game worth playing, watching or thinking about.

Final score: 1/5

Published in: on April 29, 2014 at 10:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Game Review: Ether One

Dementia is a horrifying thing. Mental illnesses that take a person away from themselves and turn them into an autonomous creature unable to recall memories, faces or voices are probably the one thing in this world that really scares me. Turning even mundane life into a mystery, having to pick up the pieces of something you’ll never quite understand. It is one of those things current medical science just can’t do anything about. The idea of what essentially makes up ‘me’, various functions of the brain operating as they do and not strictly the physical body I reside in, becoming shattered like a broken mirror and having to put my loved ones through the downward spiral as it proceeds to get worse and worse is my biggest fear.

Ether One puts us into the shoes of a Restorer, a member of an elite science team dedicated to delving into the brains of patients with degrees of dementia in an attempt to reconstruct their memories from the fragments which still exist in their mind by filling in the gaps and restoring things to the way they were. As you begin to explore the mind of your current patient, details slowly but surely work their way up to the surface about the person you’re restoring’s life in a small port mining  town Pinwheel.

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White Paper Games understands that there are some people who really enjoy a good set of brainteasers and there are some people who don’t enjoy having their progress blocked by a puzzle that may just be incompatible with their way of thinking. In Ether One, you never have to be stuck longer than you really want to thanks to an interesting approach to the game’s design. In order to progress with the story, all you need to do is activate red ribbons whenever you come across them to move further towards the end of the game. For those who want the full story, every area is drenched in puzzles that range from putting a key you found in that room into a door while others require pulling bits and pieces from the notes and well-integrated environmental clues to complete the memory. Completing a puzzle in an area restores a projector which gives  us further insight into the psyche behind the patient we are treating.

This leads us to the game’s unorthodox inventory/note keeping system called “The Case”. In game it is explained as being a way for you to retract from the situation for a moment, take a breather and have a look over all of the important notes you’ve found and store any items you wish onto a series of shelves. At any time you can teleport back and forth from The Case to whatever area you were just in and vice versa. In a way, it reminds me of the way Fable 3 handled its living menu system, only with a lot more tact. This comes at a bit of a cost however – in order to access items and information you need to navigate an additional map instead of easily accessing what you want by more traditional means. This is going to be a very divisive feature for many players. I personally found it relaxing and helpful to pull myself away from a pesky puzzle from time to time, others may not want to have to run around The Case to try and find a saved note that may contain a clue.

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Unfortunately, the lack of traditional menu and inventory also leads to some unfortunate circumstances. With the other titles, mission critical items were always kept on hand and only brought out when you understood the context it was required for. Ether One’s system forces you to hold on to one item at a time and either swap the item with whatever you have in hand or take it back to The Case, place it on the shelf, and return to where you were to grab the other item. It may not seem so bad but there is no small amount of objects to pick up and the relevance of an item may not be completely realized when first coming across it. While there is often a common sense tactic of “if it looks important, I will most likely need to use it nearby” this is not always the case. In one instance, I found that an item had completely vanished or had gotten totally lost and left me unable to complete a puzzle which further led me to be unable to complete another puzzle. With the puzzles seemingly getting more entwined as the game continued I worry this may be a problem others will run into as well. White Paper Games has commented that they are aware of some of the issues that existed so they may be fixed some time after this review has been posted.

The lovingly crafted areas are massive and labyrinthine at times. Whole chunks of the village are almost completely explorable and all speckled with tiny little details which give every home, business and public area a unique feel of their own. The painterly look suits well. The world looks realistic but the way colors and details practically leap out give the whole experience a dreamy aspect. The scenery jumps back and forth from slightly futuristic technology-laden hallways to a cozy early 20th century village. Accenting the lapping of water against shore and clinking of chains holding boats to their docks is a beautiful and understated soundtrack. It is fairly haunting to hear the sounds of an old city and the mines nearby completely devoid of human life.

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In the end, Ether One turns out to be a rather heartwarming look into a character’s past and slowly filling in the gaps where their memory has failed in order to understand what happened and what they are trying to communicate while being buried under years of mental fragmentation and decay. You are going to be walking through abandoned memories of small-time seaside village life in the UK, peering into the lives of those who lived there to discover the truth about what happened. It is a drama at heart. Comparable to Myst, Dear Esther & Gone Home. Borrowing elements from each and refining them. Issues with the inventory and menu system aside, it never stands in your way of moving forward which is extremely refreshing. Ether One is a beautifully written, memorable journey and I can only hope I won’t forget it anytime soon.

 

Final Score: 5/5

Published in: on March 31, 2014 at 7:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Game Review: Luftrausers (PC)

Videogames were once a much simpler time. The only S in a game was in High Score and not Story. Controls were designed to be tight, responsive, delivering as best of an analogue of what you wanted your on-screen avatar to do as the technology of the time could possibly be capable of. The arcade mechanics would push you into letting the machine swallow your collection of quarters alive as you dared to try and best your previous score, the score of the bastards above you on the list but most especially the enemy type or boss which has put you in your place time and time again. Possibly while drinking a two-liter bottle of Shasta and listening to an all Rush mixtape.

Luftrausers harkens back to this golden glory age, taking to the leaderboard toppling, lighting fast addictive gameplay which has been so frequently over the course of this generation of games and giving it developer Vlambeer’s personal touches. The setup can’t be simpler: You’re a ship that shoots other ships and boats to chain a combo together and tack together a high score. Unlike other ship-based shooter titles where you gain powerups while in the stage and use that to your advantage until you’ve died, instead you are rewarded with ship body parts and engines that all contain special properties. Mixing and matching all of these to fit your playstyle and get you that much closer to your next high score.

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Your default Rauser is a bit on the vanilla side but it still a perfectly serviceable fighting machine. It has a rapid machine gun, a decent amount of health on it and can turn on a dime. By beating challenges, earning skulls and leveling up you are given new parts to swap out. How’s a laser sound? Or a body that can insta-kill anything you ram into with the exchange of not being able to take a single hit from a bullet? Or an engine that specializes in letting you stay under water, giving you all manner of new tactics to employ? There are over 100 different combinations for you to take to the skies with. Finding that one part you never knew you wanted so badly and adding it to your Rauser is extremely rewarding and helps bump the replay up quite a bit.

And you’re going to need every bit of help you can get as Luftrausers’ difficulty jumps up quickly. On the default difficulty you’re thrown into the fray with a slowly building intensity that takes about a minute or so to reach its fullest concentration. Clusters of smaller fighters busy up the screen and provide excellent combo-extending potential while you hunt out the larger and more powerful ships all while stalling out and dodging large-caliber fire from anti-aircraft naval units and other unmentionable things that take to the higher levels of the sky above. The unlockable SMFT difficulty mode ramps this up to a large degree – you’re pretty much at full-tilt insanity within a handful of seconds and the brutal difficulty never lets up. It’s not going to be for everyone but the craziest pilots and the hardcore difficulty freaks but its inclusion is extremely welcomed for those who want an even faster paced game.

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I’m still taken back by how well the style used works in even the most hectic moments. The extremely minimalist design used for every ship, bullet and object betrays how excellently it all works in motion without sacrificing the little details. All ships are cast as silhouettes, yours being shaded a bit darker than the rest to help you pick your Rauser apart from the swarm of enemies on screen. Every enemy type is distinctively shaped so even at a glance as you zoom across the sky you can take note of the type of dangers you find yourself facing at any given moment. And even with dozens of ships on screen there is still room for effects like moving ship-parts or water splashing upwards as your craft gets too close to sea level. The sound design too is filled with great little details. Appropriately lo-fi in nature, everything makes just the right amount of noise without overloading the senses with information. The soundtrack is pretty excellent too and apparently changes on the fly depending on what you’re currently experiencing on-screen.

All that said, Luftrausers lives and dies on its gameplay alone. If the thought of taking to the skies as an ace pilot with the sole purpose of continuing to shoot things until you eventually die and watching that glorious numerical score tally up takes your fancy, you’re going to love what it has to offer. If simple, arcade-esque gameplay hellbent on pushing replay after replay to refine your approach and occasionally getting screwed by a stray bullet while you were hovering in a stall without firing to recover your health doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you most likely won’t care for Luftrausers for very long. If you’re finding yourself on the fence, I recommend you check out the prototype available from Vlambeer’s website. Do you want more of that, but even crazier and with more in-depth systems? Here’s a shot of whiskey and your plane-riding gloves, pilot. We got us a sky to win.

 

Final Score: 5/5

Published in: on March 31, 2014 at 5:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Game Review: Year Walk (PC)

There’s something quite magical about folklore, written in the ye olde days before long distance mass communication became a thing and skepticism poured water over the dimly lit flame of anything that required a small suspension of disbelief to enjoy. The unexplainable needed explanation but we didn’t really know or understand things so let’s just say it’s all the fault of a horse that can extend its back depending on how many people got on it to ride and then would drown them when it had enough. Sounds like a load of absolute stark-raving lunacy, but some people firmly still believe in weird shit like Bigfoot, Loch Ness monster and Ray Lewis being innocent of killing those two people.

Year Walk is based on various Scandinavian folk tales, tying them together with the titular Year Walk or årsgång. Undergoing sensory deprivation and starvation, Year Walkers must retreat from the world for the entirety of a festival before embarking on their journey through the woods. As they begin their low blood sugar fueled stumble around the forest they were to come in contact with strange creatures and visions which could tell them about the events of the coming year. Tales of love, death, fortune and other important markers in one’s life could all be theirs for the low price of their sanity or life.

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We start off in a sleepy Swedish farmland surrounded by woods and vast stretches of nothing, speaking to our romantic interest about our plans to go out on a Year Walk. Completely ignoring her pleas and warnings about what happened to a relative of hers who went out on one, we quietly retreat to a hut and wait for the night. When we pop our heads back out, the snowy landscape has changed. A sinister red hue tints the skies that poke through the treeline. A heavy snow falls clouding our vision. We’re on a mission to find answers about the next 365 days and along the way we’ll come face to face with a handful of strange creatures and puzzles that require some thinking to get past.

Year Walk started life as an iOS title, releasing in early 2013. It was praised for taking advantage of the iPhone/iPad’s unique features and incorporating them into puzzles, the gorgeous art design and chilling – though relaxing – soundtrack. It plays out like a point and click adventure game would but with a complete lack of an inventory and lateral-oriented movement with specific points on each “island” allowing for forward/backward movement to another cell. Puzzles likewise are limited based on their original designs, with items being only click-and-drag and puzzle interfaces being simplified. This is not to say that Year Walk suffers due to this, but one can instantly note what it was originally designed for.

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Some puzzles work better than others. I think the worst offender was one where I had to select from 6-8 glowing circles that made an audible hum with different tones as I approached them. If I chose the right one, I was able to progress to another part of the puzzle with an identical setup. If I failed and chose wrongly, I had to start over from the beginning. As someone who nailed the piano puzzle in Myst on the first go, I felt like I was missing something essential to completing what was otherwise an annoying trial & error section. It was over soon enough though, and I was back to running around and coming face to face with mythological horrors.

While it is certainly impressive that Year Walk has been able to combine so much lore and literature into one package, I can’t help but feel like the end result is a tad disjointed. None of the mythos/apparitions that appear to you seem to have any connection to one another. The end result of solving one creature’s puzzle has hardly any real meaningful effect beyond getting you one step closer to an item. It doesn’t help that on occasion a scene flat out doesn’t make sense. In one of the game’s few jump scares I almost thought I had been killed outright, only to discover a giant bloodstain that was absorbed before my eyes. Was I killed? Merely severely wounded? What was the purpose of the jump other than to just put one there? It’s all just a tad bit thematically loose.

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Year Walk’s greatest accomplishment was giving me an experience I haven’t had for a long time – the inability to find a whole lot of information on the subject. Looking up the act itself resulted in hundreds of results about the game itself and none on the folklore. I, as well as a few other investigative souls, started to come to the conclusion developer Simogo had made up the entire thing. It was a pleasure to discover that we were wrong. Year Walking was a ritual that had existed (whether or not it worked is another story) and the creatures that you stumbled across had existed as bedtime stories from evil nannies and babysitters. There exists some records on supposed encounters with creatures like the skogsrå, some who were believed to have had sex with one or cooperated with one were put to death. Leo Kent of Quadrapheme did the Internet a favor by collecting information via print books and phonecalls. It’s really awesome that someone had to go that far in order to find out the truth behind some of the legends.

I can certainly appreciate what Year Walk attempts to do but I don’t feel like the magic of the original survived the transition entirely. Puzzles that previously required the use of multi-touch gestures and the gyroscope were replaced with rather pedestrian item-hunt stuff we’ve seen plenty of times before. While a very short title, it requires at least a second playthrough to solve a previously unsolvable puzzle using information hidden in a locked journal. The second playthrough ended up becoming my favorite part of the game as it gave me more of that investigative feel that looking up information on the real myths behind what we saw in the forest would later give me. Year Walk is a gorgeous and atmospheric piece of work, it just doesn’t all totally feel there.

 

Final Score: 3/5

Published in: on March 31, 2014 at 3:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review – The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition (PC, 360)

The Witcher 2 has been a diamond in the treasury of PC gaming exclusives. Developer CD Projekt RED has updated the game on several occasions, adding more content and refining the experience each time. Not satisfied with just balance changes, they added a tutorial to help assist players in learning the ropes without sacrificing the pace of the prologue, a DLC mission, an arena minigame, new hairstyles for Geralt and a new difficulty mode that added weapons and armor with a twist for the hardcore fans. All of this was done at the price of free, for anyone who bought the game in the past and all those who bought it in the future would get that content with their purchase. Now along comes the Enhanced Edition, further tweaked with more DLC missions seamlessly added into the world and all of the previous content updates brought along for the ride.

Their biggest splash however comes as they enter the market for the Xbox 360 for the first time. They had to stuff a game that was known for bringing computers down to their knees onto DVDs and make it run on hardware that, in computer years, is considered antiquated. Read on to find out how well the game has tailored itself to fit the Xbox 360’s slim cut pants.

The Witcher 2’s story starts off some short time after the first game’s finale. The titicular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, is a mutated human who has been raised in the art of monster slaying. Witchers are renowned for their physical prowess, yet feared as being “nonhuman”, a slur that weighs heavily on them wherever the go. The humans tend to look down on them as they would elves or dwarves, despite Witchers being hired to save them from animals that would otherwise rip their scrawny asses to pieces. Geralt is employed by King Foltest, ruler of Temeria, as a sort of good luck charm on the battlefield. An unusual decision for a Witcher, as they tend to stay out of politics and stick with the business of killing creatures.

All out war is threatening to erupt within the northern kingdoms, relations between nations are tense. As a result of getting involved with the doings of Monarchs, Geralt is forced on a wild goose chase to track down a mysterious man who has been killing Kings. Along the way he runs into an elf named Iorveth who presents to him another side of the coin on global politics, and he is faced with a tough decision. Which side will he choose? To continue along the human path, being treated like a puppet by those in the highest of positions? Or would he side with the nonhuman uprising The Scoia’tael to fight racial injustice? What will the implications be for his friends and aquaintences? How will the world itself be affected?

Your decisions carry meat on their bones much like the prostitutes you spotted in the back alley behind the bar. Most major choices will either come back to bite you in the ass or give you a little helping hand. But the reprocussions are often delayed; similar to the first game, you’ll make a tough choice and you won’t see just how it is going to affect everything until several hours later. One major choice you make will even change your entire Chapter 2 experience! Your location, missions, characters (mostly) are all different than if you chose the other. This rewards multiple playthroughs, allowing you to see how the other half lives. You’ll also make smaller choices that will determine what character you will meet somewhere and what information you’ll get out of that person instead of the other. The only way to get the full picture for yourself is to play through again.

The word “Mature” gets thrown around as a throwaway buzzword in reviews, press statements, and on the covers of games to represent a certain level of violence, blood, sexual content, drug use and other morally “objectionable” things that are used beyond a certain extent in a game. Very rarely does it so refer to the mental maturity required to understand a plot filled with grey areas and realizing that decisions you make are going to come to fruition eventually. Entire armies, civilizations, races and classes depend on who you side with and what choices you make. No matter which you choose, there will be blood. Whose blood that is is left in your hands. Characters are multifacited, a character may appear to be one thing but be something else entirely, and wether or not you find out the truth about them depends on your convincing skills, what other characters you talk to and what actions you take during certain missions. Even Geralt’s friends perform some rather questionable moves from time to time.

Upon release, The Witcher 2 was a visual powerhouse on the PC, and still is one of the most remarkable looking games on the platform. The RED Engine is incredibly powerful and is capable of doing some extreme things to make the game look prettier (Ubersampling, anyone?) so a thought on many a gamer’s mind is “Can The Witcher 2 be run on the Xbox 360?” CD Projekt RED did an incredible job cramming most of the visuals of the PC version into a system that is 6-7 years old. PC Players will notice a huge difference in the lighting engine, which is less neon hued and doesn’t give off as much “radiation glow” on the 360. Lighting is a lot more muted but still decently atmospheric. It’s a tradeoff that works well. Character models are still finely detailed and textures are sharp and crisp on most characters and surfaces but the occasional blurry texture will marr an otherwise picturesque scene.

However, due to the way the game streams in assets texture and object pop-in can became a huge issue. The developers suggest you to install the game before playing, and trust me it makes a big difference. Once I installed most of my pop-in was reduced or removed, having the occasional texture or low LOD model show up for a second during a cutscene but it was quickly fixed. Load times also improved dramatically once I installed, making a death or moving to a different location much smoother overall. Screen tearing is also reduced by installing. So make sure you install both discs before taking off, its worth losing the 15GB of space.

Even still with the stress of all the eye candy, the game maintains a silky smooth framerate pretty much the entire game. I ran into an issue with maybe one cutscene running abnormally low due to the sheer amount of special effects on screen, and that alone is very impressive. Many games wish they could claim as steady of a framerate, and it is something I wish  more developers would strive for. The image quality is without a doubt nowhere near as crystaline as the PC version, but the result is still gorgeous. It looks great in motion and doesn’t hitch up on you when you need it to be at its smoothest: the combat.

Combat is an often highly misunderstood part of the game. While Geralt dances about the battlefield like a death ballerina or action game hero, you cannot simply mash one button to win. Each battle you enter will require intelligent positioning, strategic use of traps and magic and knowing when to attack, dodge, block or riposte. At the start of the game you will feel the most under-prepared but with reason. As with all RPGs you gain more skills as you level, giving you access to more tools of the trade or perks in battle that will serve a multitude of purposes. You get 3 schools of fighting (once you hit level 8 and get out of the starting skill tree) to choose from as you add your points towards unlocking better benefits for your chosen style. Each skill has two levels, so you can further concentrate your build on certain types of bonuses or spread your points out and gain more skills in other trees.

A witcher needs his specializations to cater towards his style of fighting, so pay attention to what you find you use most in combat and built towards that. Its natural to say you use the swords a lot, and the swordsmanship path was my preferred school. But some players go down the alchemy route to give themselves more power through potent potions and stronger bombs and traps. Others may want to have a better control of the battlefield through magic, turning an enemy onto his friends, holding a foe in place, lighting them on fire or pushing them away with a powerful gust among other things. Even on normal difficulty, a wise selection of potions, blade oils, magic, traps and bombs for each battle will make your fights much easier. Enemies are still dangerous, and require understanding of what works best against them including your position on the field and if they are more likely to dodge a heavy attack or shake off a light attack like a breeze hit them.

In order to get the most out of the combat system, you’ll have to play smart, play careful, and learn how to take advantage of every opportunity you get. Once I increased my dodge range and gained the riposte ability I found most fights to be much easier than before. Soon I was reaping the benefits of my new skills and smoothly integrated them into my use of bombs and traps on the field for fast paced action and ending encounters with satisfyingly styled finishers. You won’t be a master out of the gate, but it is something worth working up towards. The amount of preparation for each battle isn’t as tedious as you might think, and once you’re in the thick of battle and having to make decisions on the fly, you’ll be glad you put down that freeze trap. It’s intense, and makes you feel like a hunter that much more.

You’re going to need money to equip yourself, a witcher always strives to do a job that pays him well. You get your standard selection of “Kill x” quests, which are fairly uninventive but make sense in the perspective of the lore. You’ll also get quests that make you run back and forth between two or more NPCs trying to resolve some kind of conflict, again nothing that hasn’t already been done before. However, the series’ signature “grey area” choices often make it so that there’s no clear cut right or wrong. If you make a decision, someone will benefit, someone will suffer. You have your choice of gambling via fistfighting, arm wrestling and dice poker for money. When you want to maximize the amount of money you make, I find Dice Poker to be the worst option for making money (and to hell with its “Get 5 of a kind!” achievement, at that), and arm wrestling to be the most lucrative.

One of my favorite little details is Geralt’s quest logs, which are all written by his bard friend Dandelion. His dramatic and silly retellings of events that occur during a quest add flavor to a section of games that usually consists of lists of objectives. The RPG fan who enjoys a good read will get a kick out of the bard’s scribblings from awesome main quest adventures down to trying to make Geralt being the champion of arm wrestling sound intense. If you fail a mission he will not hesitate to call you out on it either. It’s only appropriate that Dandelion be the scribe for this tale, as he prides himself on tales of Geralt. No matter what he does, no matter which side of the field he finds himself on, Dandelion wants the world to remember the choices and sacrifices made on the journey.

However, not all is perfect with the Xbox 360 version. Some of the voice acting sounds  like the audio has been overdriven. King Foltest was especially prone to having his voice clip frequently, which may cause players to get frustrated listening to an otherwise outstanding character. The interface for your inventory and shops is  cluttered, especially as your pack fills with trinkets and crafting materials aplenty. While you can easily sort through for a specific type of item, it feels like it takes way too many button presses to get to what you want to see. For some reason, the animation for drinking potions has been removed entirely, being replaced by a static menu that returns you to the game with buffs applied. In general, the minimap is confusing and rotates with your character which can cause some disorientation, especially in a new area. Character models are reused, sometimes often to a painful enough degree that you can see the same person standing 10 feet away from one another.

The game absolutely has its faults. The brutal difficulty and unforgiving barrier of entry can be a detriment for some gamers. For me though, I consider The Witcher 2 to be one of the best games on the 360, just as it was on the PC. Though I encourage anyone with a capable PC to pick up that version for the crisper graphical fidelity, you can’t go wrong by picking up the Xbox 360 version. It is the same great game as it was when it first launched a year ago, updated and fit perfectly into the xbox 360’s older hardware with zero compromises. 360 owners even get cool physical extras, a map of the world, soundtrack CD and a game guide for those who get a little lost.  With a beefy main quest and a completely different second chapter depending on your choices before it, and a replayable Arena minigame, there’s plenty of replay value and bang for your buck (If you get that kind of humor).

(Screenshots taken are from the PC version of the game)

Published in: on May 13, 2012 at 9:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Music industry pops a cap in Pop Cop music blog, why?

I have to wonder what it is about the industry that feels it has to kill off the fans in any way it can. And I’m not talking about casual music pirates. Today, I’m talking about the people like myself. Who like to talk about the music that they love, and bring music to people’s attention. It’s a passion for us, as well as for those who like jumping around music blogs to find something new or read about something they might be curious in. Fans spread the word out to more could-be fans. That word spreads. The glory of the internet allows so many of us to cover what we want, and that anyone searching around can find it instantly.

So it gets to me that music blog Pop Cop (which I’ve never heard of until today, but bear with me) was shut down after a bunch of rapid B.S. DMCA takedown notices. Nevermind the fact that I think some of the freedoms DMCA gives copyright “owners” are shit. Let’s look at the facts for this blog:

I write about the Scottish music scene. I do this in various ways – updating a news feed on the site called The Goss at least five days a week; writing two lengthy posts each week which contain anything from interviews to topical articles, gig reviews, rants, reader polls, quirky features, festival previews; running the Music Alliance Pact, which on the 15th of every month sees a Scottish song shared on my blog and over 30 other blogs throughout the world; holding an annual Scottish gig photography competition.

Doesn’t sound very dangerous to me. In fact, it sounds exactly like the kind of music blog we need more of! Now, he does admit to having mp3s on the blog, but that they’re mostly from independant Scottish bands. Any songs he received a complaint for would be removed instantly. And then, this happened:

Here’s how screwed up the system is. On March 7, 2008, I published an article about Lee Beattie, who was working in Scottish music PR. She mentioned that she liked the I’m Not There soundtrack so I decided to include two mp3s from it within the post, namely:

Cat Power – Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
Karen O and The Million Dollar Bashers – Highway 61 Revisited

Since all mp3 links on my posts become inactive within about three weeks, the links to those two songs had not been ‘live’ since 2008. Yet more than TWO YEARS later, on April 19, 2010, Google sent me three (identical) Blogger DMCA Takedown Notification for this post. I could have filed a counter-claim and argued that the links were long since dead, but instead I took the quick option of deleting all mention of the two songs from the post and republished it that same day.

However, on May 3, 2010, another Blogger DMCA Takedown Notification email arrived about the SAME post. So that’s four ‘violations’ I’ve racked up and there’s not even a single mp3 on it.

Google keeps track of all Blogger DMCA Takedown Notifications they send out and when it reaches their magic number, they shut down your blog. And that’s what has happened to The Pop Cop on May 14. Three years worth of work gone. No right of appeal.

If you’re a music blog fan, do this guy a favor and visit his page I linked to above. Let him know you have his support, as well as email blogger to help get him his page back. We can’t allow ourselves to get nonsensically bullied by DMCA notices for stuff that doesn’t exist. This guy was a huge promotional tool for a ton of bands that have lost his years of support because a company using a quick and dirty tool to carpet-bomb anything that looks like a threat.

Thanks.

Published in: on May 23, 2010 at 9:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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