As I expected, the first week of the year is pretty sparse when it comes to new releases, I wouldn’t blame you for just moving on with your day. Our notable titles are pretty neat, though, so let’s just talk about those instead.
Scrap Riders (PC/Switch) – Releases Jan. 9th
Developed by: Games For Tutti
Published by: Microids
Part LucasArts adventure game and part Streets of Rage brawler, Scrap Riders has the makings of a cult classic, but will it deliver the goods? This could certainly be style over substance, though I wouldn’t mind giving this a look if it ever showed up at a nice price.
Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth (PS4/PS5) – Released Dec. 22nd
Developed by: tri-Ace/Tose
Published by: Square Enix
This came out back in December, after I put out my final New Game Releases column of the year. While this isn’t a new game in the series, in fact I think it’s just the PSP version in HD, Valkyrie Profile is a well loved, cult JRPG series that everyone should check out. Just the fact that we have this on modern consoles is a win for game preservationists.
Notable Releases from 10, 20, and 30 years ago:
Kentucky Route Zero: Act I (PC) – Released Jan. 7th, 2013: Wiki Link
Notable Film Release: Texas Chainsaw 3D – Starring Alexandra Daddario, Dan Yeager, Trey Songz, Tania Raymonde, Shaun Sipos, and Keram Malicki-Sanchez
*Click here to watch the trailer*
Notable Album Release: Twenty One Pilots – Vessel
*Click here to listen to the album*
Our first notable title of 2023 is the surreal narrative adventure game Kentucky Route Zero. Released episodically over the course of seven years, players are first introduced to main character Conway and his dog, whose name is left up to the player, in Act I. Conway is a delivery driver for an antiques dealer and is looking for the address 5 Dogwood Drive. Stopping at a gas station called Equus Oil, Conway meets an old man named Joseph who tells Conway that the only way to reach Dogwood Drive is by taking Kentucky Route Zero, though he doesn’t know the way and it does not appear on any maps. Conway uses a nearby computer to try and find the location, and is given a clue that the answers he seeks may rest at a nearby farm owned by the Marquez family. Conway and his dog set off into the night, driving around the Kentucky highways and backroads, going on a surrealistic adventure that even David Lynch might have a difficult time understanding.
Critics were enamored with Kentucky Route Zero, and loved getting lost in its hazy, maze like world that feels like every kind of dream you’ve ever had. One thing that critics pointed out was how the game doesn’t really make you responsible for Conway’s fate, his successes and failures. Instead, players are tasked with creating Conway’s inner being, choosing his dialogue and in a sense, letting the game be a reflection of your own inner thoughts. Kentucky Route Zero truly is a work of art, though its surrealism and absurdities may turn off some players. By the end of 2023, only Act’s I & II would release, though that was enough for website Rock, Paper, Shotgun to call it their 2013 Game of the Year. Act III would release in 2014, Act IV in 2016, with the final episode, Act V, releasing in 2020, which was also released alongside a complete version of the game by Annapurna Interactive, called “The TV Edition”. I strongly recommend giving Kentucky Route Zero a try, it’s not very long (Act I took me less than an hour to complete), and will surely leave you feeling something by the end of it.
Panzer Dragoon Orta (Xbox) – Released Jan. 12th, 2003: Wiki Link
Notable Film Release: Chicago – Starring Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, and John C. Reilly
*Click here to watch the trailer*
Notable Album Release: Children of Bodom – Hate Crew Deathroll
*Click here to listen to the album*
You may have heard the term “comedian’s comedian”, meaning its the kind of comedian that other comedian’s admire and are fans of (often times, they ARE their only fans). The Panzer Dragoon series kind of has that same feel to me, it’s the “gamer’s game”, meaning that people who work in the industry, or have a deeper understanding of it, are the game’s biggest fans. First appearing on the Sega Saturn in 1995, Panzer Dragoon is an on rails shooter where players ride on the back of a dragon that can shoot energy balls out of its mouth. It’s frantic, fast paced, and requires a hair trigger. It’s the kind of game that detracts many just because of how batshit insane it looks, coupled with the lack of true movement on the part of the player. While not a massive seller, Panzer Dragoon was successful enough to get two sequels on the Saturn, with the development team disbanding in 1998. A few years later there were talks of making a fourth entry for the Dreamcast but it was quickly shot down as the console was not powerful enough to incorporate the ideas that the developers had. With the failure of the Dreamcast and Sega’s subsequent venture into software development, the idea of a new Panzer Dragoon was brought up again, this time for Microsoft’s incredibly powerful Xbox console.
After a successful pitch meeting to Microsoft, producer Takayuki Kawagoe and director Akihiko Mukaiyama got to work, gathering up a team that was a mix of the original developers and new staff that were die hard fans of the franchise. The team felt that the original story had been wrapped up neatly in the 1998 game Panzer Dragoon Saga and didn’t want to disrupt that. To get around this, their new title, called Panzer Dragoon Orta, would take place several years after the events of Saga, maybe, perhaps it was an alternate universe. In any case, they wanted to tell an original story that didn’t need to be tied down by the previous games, while also making sure that they were respectful of those games’ legacy. See, Panzer Dragoon is a “gamer’s game”.
In Panzer Dragoon Orta, players take on the role of a young woman named, you guessed it, Orta. The implied daughter of Saga protagonists Edge and Azel, Orta is held captive by the Seeker Tribe, as they fear she will somehow bring about the end of the world. Orta is able to escape when the evil Empire attacked the Seeker’s village and, just as she is about to be killed, Orta is rescued by the Dragon of Destruction, your companion through the remainder of the game. It was really kind of funny/interesting as I played through the beginning of this game and watched the cutscenes, it feels A LOT like Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar films. That players ride on the back of a dragon, something that the Na’vi also do, only makes the connection stronger, in my opinion. Obviously their stories are very different, but I would not be surprised to find out that Cameron was a fan of Panzer Dragoon. (I found ONE guy on Reddit who had the same thought: James Cameron was greatly inspired by the Panzer Dragoon games when creating Avatar)
I gotta tell you, Panzer Dragoon Orta FUCKING RULES, oh man. You can still play this game today on every single Xbox console that exists, either physically or digitally, and I highly recommend you do. Fuck me if this isn’t one of the biggest joys I’ve come across in gaming, and it took everything in me to not wake up at 4am and start playing it again. Critics were also just as enthusiastic about it, calling Panzer Dragoon Orta one of the best games of 2003, while over in Japan, where it released in December of 2002, was given the Platinum Award, alongside other 2002 titles Metal Gear Solid 2 Substance and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Over in the U.S., Panzer Dragoon Orta was nominated in the first annual Spike VGA’s in the “Best Action Game” category, but would lose to True Crime: Streets of LA (which I’m sure is pure dogshit). While multiple outlets were praising Panzer Dragoon Orta and calling it a “must buy” Xbox game, players just did not care. In Japan it sold a modest 33k copies, good enough to be considered an “Xbox Best Seller”, while in North America it would only move about 160k copies, an abysmal amount for a game that was heavily promoted by both Sega and Microsoft, was a critical darling, and would be nominated for several year end awards. Well those people in 2003 were idiots, don’t follow in their footsteps. I urge you, STRONGLY urge you, to seek this game out and play it. Come on, you know you’re one of the people who enjoys a “gamer’s game”.
Alone In The Dark (PC) – Released Jan. 1993: Wiki Link
Notable Film Release: Toys – Starring Robin Williams, Michael Gambon, Joan Cusack, Robin Wright, and LL Cool J
*Click here to watch the trailer*
Notable Album Release: The The – Dusk
*Click here to listen to album*
Horror and video games have enjoyed a long partnership over the years. In the late 70’s and early 80’s you had various games based in horror tropes, such as escaping an alien being hunting you, to exploring haunted houses. These games, however, weren’t quite terrifying, though, and were often seen more as action/adventure games. Over in Japan there were some visual novels that dealt with spooky things, and of course we had the 1989 Capcom game Sweet Home, which some consider the first “survival horror” game. However, in terms of the modern survival horror genre, most gaming scholars seem to agree that Infogrames 1993 PC title Alone in the Dark set the template for all future releases.
The origins of Alone in the Dark date back to 1991, when Infogrames CEO Bruno Bonnell proposed a game in which the player would walk around a dark room, using matches to occasional illuminate the area to set a sense of what was there and where they could go. One of the programmers on staff, Frederick Raynal, was a big horror fan, particularly of the zombie films by George A. Romero, and lobbied to lead the project in order to create a true horror video game. Raynal wanted to create a slow, moody, atmospheric game that worked to keep the player uneasy and on edge, as if they were truly exploring a haunted house. While there would be combat, the game wasn’t necessarily made to be filled with action, instead giving players incentive to avoid fights if possible and focus on exploring and puzzle solving. As the project gained its footing, Infogrames had acquired the license to the tabletop RPG Call of Cthulhu and intended this new title, tentatively named Scream in the Dark, to be the first in this new franchise. However, the publisher of the game, Chaosium, did not think that the slow paced nature of the game would do justice to their property and asked Infogrames to come up with another idea (the 1994 title Shadow of the Comet).
Allowed to continue with his slow and steady horror game, Raynal began looking for an artist to help bring his vision to life. The team held an internal contest, with a young female artist named Yaël Barroz taking the prize (and eventually becoming the wife of Frederick Raynal). Using Barroz’s art, the team decided to create the game using 2 dimensional, pre-rendered backgrounds mixed with 3D polygon characters. In order to make this work, the team had to use fixed camera angles, a technique that proved incredibly useful, giving the game a “cinematic” look and feel, which heightened the tension even further.
Eventually, the game would get a title change, being renamed Alone in the Dark, and its story drew heavily from the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, particularly the Cthulhu Mythos and The Fall of the House of Usher. The story begins with the suicide of Jeremy Hartwood, a wealthy artist in Louisiana, who is also well known as a dabbler in the occult. After the prologue, the game lets players choose from two primary protagonists; Edward Carnby, a private investigator tasked by an antiques dealer to find an old piano in the Hartwood house, or Emily Hartwood, the niece of Jeremy who is also looking for the piano, believing it holds a secret that will explain why her uncle killed himself. Regardless of who players choose, they start in the attic of the house and must somehow escape the horrors that are best upon them. The game alternates between linear and non-linear, with the attic and third floor being linear, the first and second floors being non-linear, and ends with a linear catacomb area, filled with multiple enemy encounters.
As mentioned, combat is a part of the game, even necessary in some parts, but can generally be avoided if you so choose (though it’s quite difficult). Players can typically punch & kick their way through enemies, but will find weapons every so often that make combat easier, such as various firearms and both blunt & sharp melee weapons. These instruments are often fragile or have very little ammunition, again making the game feel that much more terrifying and difficult. On top of the combat, the game is also filled with traps, including books that will instantly kill you if read. These books were added to, again, keep players from feeling safe, but were seen by some critics as annoying. From my personal experience, I found the slow pace and sluggish controls to be quite dull and dated. In 1993 this was passable, and maybe even revolutionary, but today it just makes for a frustrating experience.
Releasing first in Europe in late 1992, the game made its way to North America in January of 1993 and took the PC gaming world by storm. Not only did it feature state of the art, cutting edge 3D graphics, but it gave the world a whole new genre, survival horror (I mean, unless you were Japanese and had already played Sweet Home). The game’s moody atmosphere really engrossed critics, with one saying that the slightest sound could make him jump. The detailed house felt so real that some critics felt like they were actually there, and could picture the spooky home as if it was a real place they had visited. The use of fixed camera angles was seen as a highlight, making critics take notice and say that it made Alone in the Dark stand above the typical adventure game. The game was also a major financial success, selling over half a million copies in three years, and over 2 million copies by the end of the decade.
Based on the popularity of Alone in the Dark, Infogrames would go on to make two more sequels before the end of the decade, while other studios took notice of players appetite for horror games. 1995 would see three major horror titles, Sierra’s point & click game Phantasmagoria, WARP’s interactive film D, and Human Entertainment’s Japan only point & click game Clock Tower. However, it was Capcom’s 1996 masterpiece Resident Evil that would catapult the genre into the stratosphere. Originally intended to be a remake of Sweet Home, the game’s director Shinji Mikami noted that Alone in the Dark had a big influence on the game’s design, particularly in its presentation. Mikami had wanted to make Resident Evil a first person shooter, but after playing Alone in the Dark he became a fan of the pre rendered backgrounds and fixed camera angles. Today, Alone in the Dark is available to purchase on PC from GOG and Steam, and while I appreciate what it did for gaming and the horror genre, it’s pretty clunky and not very much fun to play. If you do decide to check it out, just be sure to lower your expectations a bit.