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Here’s a genre of horror in gaming we haven’t touched upon yet – the interactive drama survival horror. Although, I’m not certain that it constitutes as its own genre as there are really only two games that come to mind, being 2015’s Until Dawn by Supermassive Games and Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. But if there are any more games of this design out there, please do let me know and I’ll get onto the genre police right away and have interactive drama survival horrors officially instated as an official genre with their minimum three title requirement. Either way, today we’ll be examining the PS4 exclusive Until Dawn and seeing what happens when the Goosebumps choose-your-own-adventure books that I used to hide in the school library from the other kids are made digital,  injected with young adult horniness, and a lot of blood and gore.

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The real challenge is trying not to kill off the annoying ones

It’s hard to talk about the story without talking about the gameplay as the nature of the genre (interactive dramas are a little more common than interactive drama survival horror e.g. Detroit: Become Human) is directly built around the branching narrative thread mechanics that is its main attraction. As such no two play throughs are ever the same, as the advertisements say, due to the game’s ‘butterfly effect’ system that swears even the tiniest decisions can greatly increase and decrease the character’s chances of survivability. With that said, the main premise of the game is that a group of friends are returning to a holiday lodge on a snowy and isolated mountain one year after the accidental death of their two friends at the same lodge through bullying by said group of friends. From the get go we’re not made to like any of the characters but as the game cleverly posits you in the shoes of each of the seven characters at one time or another (sadly Rami Malek is not playable). In doing so you get to see the inner workings of their mind and how they engage with the other characters, forcing relatability. Naturally players will feel more drawn to one character over another (I personally only liked Hayden Panettiere and Mike because he was hot) and wanting to keep each character alive as they all split apart in their own storylines can be challenging. As much as the game boasts the variety of narrative threads to follow, it is rather linear in where characters can go and what they can do, and is more about finding clues along the way to keep your characters from biting the dust while trying to say the right things to get them to bang while being chased by a creepy clown murderer. The story is quite stellar in its pacing though and keeps the mystery interesting and unfolding in an intriguing way, making sure that players are always engaged.

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Quicktime events are not the same thing as fun

I loathe quicktime events, as do a lot of gamers. They’re a cheap way of forcing suspense and risk by making the player press a random button at the exact right time to keep them from dying or stumbling. Until Dawn is full of quicktime event sequences that have the player choose betweeen safe and treacherous paths while escaping danger ot trying to save someone. Too many stumbles in the quicktime events and your character fails, and choose too many safe paths your character fails. Outside of these sequences a chunk of the gameplay is made up of exploration and the aforementioned gathering of clues. But what Until Dawn really brings to the table to innovate the genre (easy to do when there’s only two titles in the genre) is its adaptive horror system. Acting as prologues to each story chapter is the appearance of Peter Stormare (Fargo) as a therapist for the actual player. His purpose is to recount the events of the game, judge the player for their actions, prod them with questions about their decisions, and most importantly to create a pyschological profile of the player. The therapist will ask the player to tell them which they find scarier, spiders or snakes, scarecrows or clowns, barns or caves, knives or guns, and will change certain aspects of the main story to enhance the horror value for the player. While this is certainly welcome and a fun experiment, it isn’t implemented in any meaningful way other than some graphic changes in certain scenes i.e. the killer chases you with an uzi instead of a letter opener.

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When you can’t decide, choose everything

For a game so centred on making their players meditate on their choices and regret them later for not being careful enough, the developers certainly did not share the same philosophy in putting the game together. Don’t get me wrong they clearly love the game and love horror as a whole, but the game is a bit weird and unfocused when one considers the amount of tropes and directions they’ve thrown into the title. The beginning of the game sets up a stalker slash slasher kind of thing, but then there is also a scene with a ouija board (on which I have given my opinion.) which sets up a ghost story, but then there are torture dungeons which feel like Saw, and then things start to go supernatural, and then we go to a mental asylum for reasons, and there’s a cabin in the woods too. All the different directions, plus how keen it is to change things up via the adaptive horror mechanic, leaves the game feeling a bit unrefined. Although for lovers of horror they might take it as pure fun and as a love letter. Until Dawn does also boast some top notch graphics, production design, and aural atmospheres that certainly tie the horror elements neatly together.

Until Dawn is not at all an until yawn

I’ve played this game three times, once when I was 17, another when I was 19, and another when I was 20 which actually was me watching my non-gamer friends play it together for the first time. One of the greatest things about Until Dawn is its core cinematic experience which really lends itself to players not adept at gaming mechanics or keen on contesting with a gun, approaching enemies and a health bar. It really is a lot of fun to play and its story and characters drive the experience more than anything if you push through the quicktime sequences. My only other gripe with the game is its sort of variability in narrative – if characters die it’s more likely that they just won’t show up in following scenes rather than entire narrative threads ending which limits the stakes a bit. Actually, that reminds me, for all the sluething you do to keep your characters alive and all the careful dialogue choices you make to ensure good feelings between the cast, there are a few random choices and quicktime moments that can kill your character in an instant which felt horrendously unfair (see, the final chapter). But all in all I highly recommend playing this game and can’t fault its entertainment value enough. Three Cthulhus out of five. More to be read here.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

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Two-Player D&D with MCDM: A Review

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Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a popular fantasy table-top roleplaying game usually played by four to seven people. However, guidelines have been created for how to play with only two people: a dungeon master and one player character. In this article, I will look at the suggestions for two-player Dungeons and Dragons offered by Matt Colville’s MCDM publications. Specifically, I will focus on Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons, which has historically been MCDM’s content focus.

Matt Colville is a well-respected long-time dungeon master who publishes third-party books for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition through his production company MCDM. Through MCDM, he also operates Arcadia, a magazine devoted to optional rules, items, subclasses, and more. It is through both his YouTube channel and Arcadia that I came across rules for playing Two-Player D&D.

Playstyle Options

From what I’ve seen there are two recommended options: 1) Changing the Player, or 2) Changing the Encounters. In the first option, the player character is altered beyond the base rules of D&D to be more powerful. This option I will cover in depth later, as this is what I tried out. The second option is to stick to the base D&D rules but alter encounters to be accessible for one player. This can be accomplished in many ways. A common solution is to scale down combat and skill encounters to meet an accomplishable difficulty to one player character. Others like to introduce non-player characters operated by the dungeon master. Matt Colville has a really great video on what that can look like linked below.

Matt Colville on One-on-one Dungeons and Dragons

For my own foray into Two-Player D&D, I tried out the Heroic Champions classes created by Will Doyle for Arcadia Issue 22. These classes take the first approach of allowing a player to start the game using alternative rules. In this case, players don’t choose traditional classes but instead a heroic one. At first-level, someone using a Heroic Champion class would have a similar power level to that of four first-level characters.

Within the outlined rules there are three Heroic Champion classes: Heroic Warrior, Spellcaster, and Trickster. Each borrows core elements from either martial, spellcasting, or utility classes respectively. They all gain additional hit points, opportunities for healing, and attacks as well.

The Player Experience

As a player, I had a lot of fun playing Two-Player D&D. Specifically, the experience was very intimate and high stakes. I’d never been emotional about what was happening in a Dungeons and Dragons game until I played in such a setting. Everything about the story was specifically tailored to be about my character and as such the outcome of every situation was directly on my shoulders.

I played the Heroic Warrior class, which was novel as I don’t often play martial classes. It was empowering to be able to cut down my enemies, especially as it fit an emotionally-charged narrative. Often I find in role-playing games that I want to start with a grand backstory of adventure-in-progress but feel limited by the mechanics of being a first-level character. This rules set fixes that idea by making your character truly feel extraordinary instead of just another person with some sword training. 

The Gamemaster Experience

My spouse served as the dungeon master during the experience. He also found the gameplay to be a lot of fun. As someone who loves to worldbuild, he found Two-Person D&D to be an awesome opportunity to collaboratively build out a hero of legend. It was also cool from a novel combat scenarios perspective and the ability to think creatively about enemy composition and tactics.

That being said, he also found it to be a lot of extra prep work in terms of combat and encounter preparation. Because everything moves faster with just two people, he needed to have a comprehensive plan for what I would fight, who I would talk to, and what would happen ahead of time in order to best suit the story and my needs as a player. This is in contrast to games with more people in which he felt like he could do more general prep as it aligned with general party goals versus prep specifically aligned with the thoughts, motivations, and backstory of a single individual. 

Conclusion

The Two-Player D&D experience was great, and I highly enjoyed the classes by Will Doyle. Matt Colville’s advice was also beneficial to prepare for the experience. I would highly recommend trying out Two-Player Dungeons and Dragons if you are struggling to get a group together or just want a more intimate role-playing experience. It could also be really fun as a private session zero to get to know all the characters in a party individually before introducing them to the larger group.

4.7 out of 5 stars (4.7 / 5)

To keep up to date about what MCDM is up to and to learn more about the role-playing game they are making, join their Patreon!

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Blade Runner RPG Starter Set Review

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You walk the streets both badge and boogeyman. This city fears you. Resents that it needs you. Refuses to accept that you’re here to stay. And yet that’s your job. To stand in the rain, steam, and shadows amidst the seething crowds and chaos. Relentlessly pursuing what never wants to be found.

– pg 6 of the Blade Runner Roleplaying Game Starter Set Rule Booklet

The Blade Runner RPG is a tabletop role-playing game released by Free League Publishing in December 2022. The game is based upon the world explored within the Blade Runner movie franchise and the novel that formed the basis for the franchise, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Explore a dark cybernoir world in which corporations rule a planet ravaged for its resources and left for dead. Blade runners, cops charged with finding robots indistinguishable from humans known as replicants, try to stay alive and protect the city. Be vigilant, some blade runners have nobler intentions than others. And replicants and blade runners may have more in common than they know.

The Blade Runner RPG Starter Set features an introductory scenario, abridged rules, four pre-generated characters, and an insane amount of supporting documents and features. It is an introduction to the Blade Runner RPG recommended for one to four players (plus a gamemaster). The Starter Set is available from Free League Publishing for about $50.

An image of all the materials contained within the Blade Runner Starter Set. Image from Free Publishing.

The Gamemaster Experience

My spouse took on the role of gamemaster during our playthrough. He found the scenario to be interesting and thematic, to the point where he was compelled to rewatch the movies after reading the scenario the first time through. The supporting materials were effective in dispersing clues in a way that made the gamemaster’s job easier. The story in the introductory scenario was also intriguing and made for a good introduction to the world.

He found some of the scenario and rules booklet to be lacking. Specifically, he found that the scenario challenged the gamemaster to withhold as much information as possible even when it was unclear why. He also felt like the scripted events in response to specific pieces of evidence being shown to suspects were odd. The conditions that had to have been met seemed a little obtuse in the sense that he wouldn’t have expected us to even consider taking those actions. Because of this, he improvised some changes according to what worked better for the playgroup. Additionally, some of the rules weren’t explained quite well enough so we had to make some stuff up while playing. The scenario pointed to the Core Rulebook for further rules explanations, which seems like a bad assumption that someone that would be trying out the system through the Starter Set would also have a Core Rulebook.

A last note would be that while the included materials were impressive, the Rules Booklet’s binding began to fall apart pretty quickly. This was disappointing, especially considering the price point and how often we referred to the Rules Booklet.

Game Artwork from the Blade Runner RPG

The Player Experience

The resources provided within the Blade Runner RPG Starter Set were absolutely delightful. Supporting documents from faux case files to headshots to crime scene photos made the experience more immersive. By far, they were the most elaborate handouts I’ve ever seen in an RPG Starter Set. As a player, I loved how the handouts were used to advance the storytelling and how well they fit within the theme of the game. Through the handouts I was able to use my own detective skills to investigate the crime in addition to my character’s. I also liked the pre-generated characters provided as they had enough details to have fun with their backstory while also adding your own components. 

Mechanically, I had a lot of fun as well. Combats are punishing for enemies and players alike, which meant every combat encounter felt high stakes. A single good shot can kill an enemy or a player. This means that every round is heart-racing and rewarding. Outside of combat, skill checks were almost always successful, which felt rewarding but also low stakes at times. This was especially true since only one success is needed in most situations. 

My biggest issue as a player was that game is designed for players to split up, which can create an imbalance of experience. For example, one person can get into an exciting high-speed chase while the others spend the same round reading reports or staking out an empty building. This issue can be fixed with a good gamemaster, however, it is an inherent part of the game system that would need to be kept in mind when designing encounters. The Starter Set encounters were tweaked slightly from what was written so that we could have more equitable experiences throughout the game.

Game Artwork from the Bladerunner RPG

Conclusions

Overall, the Blade Runner RPG Starter Set was a lot of fun to play, and I look forward to delving into the Core Rulebook. It is a masterful example of how to convert genre franchises into a role-playing system. The game excels in delivering the desired atmosphere and themes through the rules, content, and introductory scenario. The mechanics are also novel, which was refreshing. I highly recommend the Starter Set for any fans of the Blade Runner franchise but also for anyone looking for an introduction to a cybernoir game experience.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Find my review of another game from Free League Publishing, the From the Loop RPG Starter Set, here.

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Buddy Simulator 1984 Review

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Making new friends can be difficult, but can it really fall into psychological horror? You bet! Buddy Simulator 1984 was released in 2021 by Not A Sailor Studios. You interact with an AI designed to be the perfect best friend, and as time goes on, it becomes more desperate to hold your attention. Going through this game, I felt a wide range of emotions. I flinched at jumpscares, frowned at bad jokes, and smiled at wholesome moments. It was an interesting and unique experience I don’t I’ve ever had with a game in this genre.

If you want to go into this blind, I would recommend you give the demo a try if it seems interesting. Your progress carries over into the main game, so you won’t have to worry about replaying sections. Now that that’s out of the way, here’s the review!

An unforgettable, uncomfortable adventure

From text adventure to pixel graphics to 2.5D, Buddy Simulator 1984 ’s graphical variety is one of the ways it disorients and unnerves the player. You can solve a puzzle while the game is a text adventure, only for the game to show you the same puzzle with pixel graphics hours later. Recognition is horror.

The player character and a stuffed animal sitting on a swing set, in black and white pixel graphics. From Buddy Simulator 1984's Steam page.
The player character and a stuffed animal on a swing set, taken from the game’s steam page.

The soundtrack for this game includes some pleasant chiptune and other memorable tracks. There are some creepy tracks that do a good job of conveying an uneasy, anxiety inducing atmosphere. It really keeps you on your toes.

I do have some gripes with the game, however. There are often loud sudden jumpscares, not for any plot reason but just to spook you. Trying to figure out the sound mixing while avoiding blowing your eardrums out isn’t fun, and I’ll admit I’ve had the game on mute at certain points. There are multiple endings, and some go by rather quickly. This is the kind of game where you need to see all the endings to understand the story, and if you’re a completionist, go for it! Otherwise I would recommend watching them on YouTube.

This is a game about toxic friendships, attachment, attention, and the lengths one will go to to get it. If you have free time and don’t mind the $9.99 price tag, give this a try!

Check out some of the games we’ve been playing at Haunted MTL!

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