Resident Sea-vil*

So… Deep Fear: the Saturn’s exclusive own-brand Resident Evil. It has a lot going for it – a mix of military and civilian staff trapped together on an underwater base trying to escape before an unknown infection turns them all into strange monsters. To make matters worse the main air supply system has broken down, leaving it up to the player to manually recharge individual areas and there are flooded rooms that must be navigated to proceed - it all sounds like the perfect setting for a claustrophobic horror game.

Yet somehow Sega still managed to stuff it up.

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It’s not about the stilted voice acting (there are literally lists of especially awful dialogue from Resident Evil), or the naff CG (which is consistently poor on every level), but a fundamental lack of understanding of either the “survival” or “horror” parts of the survival horror genre.

Let’s look at each part individually just to really drive home how far off the mark Deep Fear is -

Survival

You can run out of air – sounds tense! There’s an (almost) ever present air meter on screen, ominously counting down to your inevitable suffocation… so long as you ignore the fact that the game offers infinite air replenishments at a number of points in all areas, and if the air does run out John automatically switches to his rebreather. But what if that also runs out? Not to worry, just throw an AIR GRENADE. Yes, really. Basically there are two fail safes in place if standard oxygen runs out, and in any case the first two can be refilled as often as you like at multiple points in each area literally right up to the last boss.

To make matters worse not only do you never have to worry about running out of oxygen but ammo and health are never a concern either! All storage rooms carry an unlimited supply of ammo for every weapon, and there are storage rooms in every area. This might be a good balance if the game only allowed John to walk around with a small amount of ammo, but right from the start you’re dealing with 50+ shots per weapon, and it only goes up from there. As far as health’s concerned there are three different kinds of first aid sprays, you can carry up to eight of each, and the first aid kits littered around the base always have an endless supply of the most basic type.

This really isn’t sounding too positive is it? That’s OK! Maybe the game has a super-restrictive inventory system, right?

Nope.

You’re never forced to make hard choices about what to keep with you because you can carry everything all the time – in theory this is a good idea – how often have people (myself included) mocked Resident Evil for having to choose between taking a tiny key and a shotgun? But in practise it means you’re always armed to the teeth and ready to heal no matter what.

Even the plot undermines the survival aspect of the game – at one point a plane falls into the ocean and crashes into the Energy Unit area, cutting all the power on the base. This could be exciting. This could change everything. Literally seconds later the boss says “switch to reserve power” and that’s it, everything’s back to normal and it’s never a problem again.

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Horror

So with Deep Fear failing on the survival front how does the horror bit fare? Well, I want to start by stressing that I like my horror games to scare me – I’m a quivering wreck when I play Project Zero/Fatal Frame/whatever we call it these days, Clock Tower has me panicking as soon as I hear those damned scissors and there was genuinely one time I made such a funny noise playing Resident Evil my husband came running into the room to see what was wrong. So when I say “Deep Fear isn’t scary” it’s not a boast, it’s a disappointment.

There’s a reason why zombies work. A reason why zombies are a good “quick” horror fix – rotting dead people are fundamentally frightening to humans on many levels. The dead shouldn’t walk. They definitely shouldn’t walk with their guts spilling out of their bloodied jackets. And nobody likes the thought of being eaten alive, right? So the point is with all this cultural baggage zombies don’t need a lot of explaining or detail to make for uncomfortable viewing.

So what does Deep Fear do? Weird mutated humans! That’s not a bad idea in itself, but the execution is plain awful. For starters, the monsters are too abstract; a combination of poor design and poor texturing means for some you’re genuinely left wondering what the hell they are - it’s hard to be scared of something when you’re honestly trying to work out what it is. This abstraction also makes them feel utterly random; these aren’t people that have died to a single horrifying virus, they’re just… things… sprinkled around the game to make you use a bit of your never-ending health and/or ammo supplies. There’s no story behind them, no tension building up as you realise this was all part of some evil plan - because it wasn’t. There’s no delicious trail of breadcrumbs leading to the shocking truth because you’re generally left in the dark and sent on fetch and carry missions for other people who are either busy or conveniently ever so slightly incapacitated right up to the end.

There are two major plot twists with regard to this mysterious virus (OK, so it’s apparently more of a parasite), and they’re both so bad you’d almost think they were a joke. The first is that anyone that’s already infected with something – anything – is immune. This means that John’s cold keeps him from being infected even though he encounters far more monsters that anyone. Now it’s nice to think that they wanted a reason for the player to remain virus-free throughout the game, but when the centerpiece of your horror angle can be negated by a runny nose then on balance it was probably best to not explain it at all.

The other major point is that this virus has a weakness – that’s great! What is it? A physical weak point on the base of the neck perhaps? An antivirus created in a secret lab? Actually their weakness is… oxygen. What’s worse is that at no point in the game do you defeat any enemy with oxygen, oxygen-imbued bullets (I wouldn’t have put it past the creators of a game that thought a mutant cow was a good idea), weaken them with some kind of atmospheric alteration – you get the idea. If they’d never told you about this “weakness” then nothing would have changed in how you deal with them; it seems this little fact only existed to get your SEAL rescue party off somewhere isolated so they could all get conveniently killed.

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Let’s wrap this post-Deep Fear venting session up.

It’s easy to assume that Resident Evil was the popular one because of the time it was released, or Capcom’s marketing, or the Playstation being cool or whatever – but games like Deep Fear really underline the fact that the reason people think Resident Evil was the best because it really was the best. Deep Fear just doesn’t get it: a survival horror game where you’re never struggling to survive nor afraid.

Now for the £10-ish the Japanese version goes for this is a so-bad-it’s-good B-movie on a Saturn disc, and going into it with that knowledge will give you a good few days of casual play. But this is neither a lost genre classic or even an experimental dead-end the way Sunsoft’s Hard Edge is, it’s just a bad Resident Evil clone that copies only the most superficial elements of the title it so badly wanted to be.

If you’re still in the mood for a disaster adventure sort of thing here’s a selection of better games that cost less (much, much, less) than PAL Deep Fear -

SOS/Septentrion (yep, a 2D SNES game did “Help we’re trapped and we’re going to drown” better)

Burning Rangers (Saturn)

Hydrophobia (XBLA/PSN/Windows)

The Firemen (SNES)

Bag of your favourite snacks and The Poseidon Adventure and/or The Abyss on DVD

90’s Resident Evil of your choice – honestly, even Gaiden gives Deep Fear a run for its money

*Awful pun stolen from the mighty Ant of Gaming Hell

My top ten Saturn games (terms and conditions apply)

So a while back I stressed and stared and wrung my hands and eventually came up with my top ten Mega Drive games, and at the request of the lovely Adam I’m giving the top ten list format an airing for the Saturn and at some point down the line the Dreamcast too. 

As before I’ve given myself a set of three rules to stick to:

  1. The game must be an original Saturn game. It doesn’t matter where it ended up, but it must have started life on the Saturn.
  2. Only games I’ve owned are eligible. It’s very easy to gush over legendary £200+ rarities you can only dream of having but I’d feel a bit insincere doing so.
  3. Nothing too obvious. Thankfully there aren’t all that many obvious Saturn games, but if you’re wondering why <your favourite game here> isn’t on the list then this might be why. The reason for this rule is just to stop the list filling up with games you’ve already played to death when the space could otherwise be used to show something that’s hopefully both more interesting and useful.

Green text = hyperlink – click on any game title in green for further info!

Astal

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When I first bought this I expected Astal to be another cutesy platformer with a cute character and his cute bird sidekick… but as it turns out he’s an angry little chap who’s more than happy to uproot trees and slam them into enemies without a second thought - to be honest it still surprises me how up for a fight Astal is. I haven’t checked recently but I’d bet money that the game was criticised on release for not being modern enough (ie: not being in 3D); but it actually uses lots of clever tricks with sprite scaling and the like that all come together perfectly to both show off the Saturn’s strengths as well as create a beautiful and unique platformer.

Dragon Force II

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Dragon Force was ace. I bet most of the people that wind up on my blog have experienced the original or are at least aware of it. Dragon Force II took an already great game and tweaked it just enough to be an improvement without changing everything that we all loved about the first one – can’t really complain about Dragon Force with knobs on, can we?

Dungeon Master Nexus

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I loved Dungeon Master on the Amiga as a kid even if it did used to scare me and the sequel, Chaos Strikes Back, starts with your team basically naked in the dark in a pit filled with monsters. Anyway, finding out that FTL’s legendary dungeon crawlers had a Japan-only Saturn-exclusive send off was a bit of a surprise, but what was even better was playing it and finding out that it still felt authentically old-school – arguably even more so than the wonderful Legend of Grimrock, and I think that game’s the bees knees.

Enemy Zero

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Kenji Eno, bless him, was one of those developers that you had to admire whether you liked his games or not - when you played a WARP game you knew you were getting their vision, raw and untouched by PR men, focus groups or common sense. Enemy Zero’s sci-fi horror adventure FPS-by-sound ‘em up isn’t really a very good game all things considered, but it’s somehow still a gripping and unforgettable one.

Grandia Digital Museum

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A behind-the-scenes fan disc for an RPG doesn’t sound like something everyone should rush out to grab, but I thought this was really good. When you start the game the museum only has a few items in it, and it’s up to you to go off adventuring and grab the rest. More Grandia’s always a good thing (so long as we’re talking exclusively about the original), so getting a fun little adventure as well as the opportunity to gawp at bonus material at the same time really impressed me.

Sakura Taisen

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The game that launched a thousand drama CDs. I have played this game on every format it’s ever been released on, and I honestly never tire of it. Ogami & co’s adventures are just the best – likeable characters in colour coordinated uniforms off saving the world while making sure they’re back at the theatre in time to perform Cinderella. One of Sega’s flagship series, and a game I’d heartily recommend to just about everyone if only it had an English translation – I really cannot stress just how important this game is to Sega and to well, me, I guess.

Shining Force III Premium Disc

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This fan disc takes a slightly different approach to Grandia’s, although it’s no less thorough for it. It’s especially worth mentioning the model viewer (all characters, all promotions, with all possible weapons) and the sound test that covers every track in the entire trilogy – by comparison the official soundtrack only offers a measly thirteen, and one of those is a medley. But even better than all the glorious art stuffed on the disc are the battles that let you use your own Shining Force III save data to create an all-star team to go up against some of the series most memorable bosses, a Shining fan really couldn’t have asked for more *heart flutters*.

Shiroki Majo ~Mouhitotsu no Eiyuu Densetsu~

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“But Kimimi, you said no ports!” you probably cry. Well OK so this one is a bit of a cheat but it is so different from the original PC-98 Shiroki as well as any and all revisions after it that it may as well be an all-new game. Hudson’s port is a bright-n-breezy adventure with some impressive FMV and absolutely spectacular sprite animation. But they did far more than just give the game a makeover; they completely rebuilt it from the ground up, and cut out all the usual RPG fluff – the game doesn’t even have random battles! You think this’d kill an RPG but in practise it’s perfect for people like me who miss old-school RPGs with towns and magic and kids going on adventures but don’t actually have the time or the will to spend on all the tedious bits that can accompany that sort of thing.

Silhouette Mirage

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Treasure were at their peak on the Saturn, which is a little odd coming from someone that thinks Alien Soldier is the best game they’ve ever made. But the important thing to remember is that Silhouette Mirage is completely nuts, and while I’ll never be any good at it I’ll always enjoy putting it on and grappling with the quirky mechanics and fun encounters.

Terra Phantastica

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Sega systems aren’t really praised for their RPGs the way Nintendo (SNES) or Sony (Playstation) are, so it’s always good to remind ourselves that they do have some brilliant exclusives too. Terra Phantastica is pitched just right for me - an SRPG with some interesting ideas that doesn’t confuse “interesting” with “drowning you in a million stats” or lumbering you with a dozen esoteric battle mechanics. It’s nice to find something with a bit of thought behind it but not demanding that I need to dedicate all my time to it just to get anywhere, and I found this kept me engaged the whole way through.

So, that’s that! What would you include on a similar list? Let me know either here or wherever else I happen to be lurking, OK?

Final Fantasy XIV tries to bring sound to life

It’s 2014. Games have been around for… *checks*… a long time. Yet even though modern budgets for anything that hopes to be Christmas #1 stretch to millions of US dollars simply as a matter of course and we’ve got designers falling over themselves to motion capture anything that’ll fit in one of those ball-covered mocap suits (famously including a bleedin’ dog) by and large developers/publishers still struggle with the idea that maybe it’s not a safe bet to assume that all gamers (or people that would like to be gamers) have a fully functional set of limbs and senses.

Not all gamers have hands capable of operating the now standard twin analogue quad-triggered controllers our consoles and PCs expect us to use. Colour blindness can make some very simple puzzles almost impossible. High quality voice actors are a pretty standard inclusion in most mainstream games – subtitles are not.

So it was with some surprise as I browsed the latest patch notes for Final Fantasy XIV that I came across this little nugget -

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I was as impressed as I was intrigued, so as soon as the game updated I hunted through the menus and had a go with Square-Enix’s attempt to cater for hard-of-hearing and deaf gamers.

As the patch notes say, sound is split into three distinct categories – music (blue), environment (green – anything your character can hear), and system (red). The following screenshots will hopefully show you how it works -

This screenshot shows a normal level of sound: there’s music playing and there’s some environmental noises (birdsong, people running about in the distance, etc.), but nothing in particular is going on -

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Let’s contrast that with the following image – there’s still music playing, but it’s briefly drowned out by a very loud environmental sound that has just occurred close to my (the camera’s) right; in this case, someone successfully synthesising an item -

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Lastly let’s take a look at sound visualisation in battle using probably the most extreme example available – a boss fight against Titan, Lord of Crags. As you can see from the image below not only is the music far louder than in any of the previous situations but Titan crashing into the ground has generated a sound so loud it’s completely overwhelming everything else.

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It might look a bit distracting but in practise I found I soon got used to it and you can alter the transparency level if you do find the default setting too much to take in. As someone without hearing difficulties ultimately I really can’t judge if this is actually useful, but from my position of ignorance it certainly seemed to bring things to life and it’s good to see a big developer other than Valve at least trying to include as many gamers as possible.

Have you used this new feature? What do you think of it? Either leave a comment below or get in touch on Twitter!