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Bridge Constructor Portal Review

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 02/28/2018 - 20:00

Bridge Constructor Portal leans heavily upon its iconic forebears. GlaDOS, an uncaring-though-humorous AI, greets you at the beginning of many levels, setting the stage for the plentiful puzzles that lay before you. It sounds like the setup for another delicious brain-teaser that will tickle your funny bone while pushing your logic muscles. But neither the story nor the puzzles capture your imagination, resulting in a predictable slog that grows more tedious the deeper you get into the adventure. Even worse: I encountered a game-breaking bug that completely halted my progress at the home stretch.

The story in Bridge Constructor Portal is little more than a collection of references to the previous Portal games. GlaDOS is back to make light of your shortcomings, but her insults feel like diluted copies of familiar quips, lacking the clever tongue-lashings that she used to so easily dish out. She's there to greet you with an insult at the beginning of some stages, and then you're left on your own in a bleak and bland test chamber. Periodic cutscenes borrow familiar artifacts from previous games, but do little with these props other than make you fondly remember happier days. During one such segment, a picture of Portal's famous cake appears on a computer screen while an instrumental version of "Still Alive" plays over the loudspeakers. This scene means nothing if you aren't familiar with that game...and it's just a quick nostalgia jab for those who are.

As the name implies, Bridge Constructor Portal has you building a series of bridges in the facility made famous in Portal. The goal is to guide a self-driving forklift full of cute little stick figures from the entry point to a faraway exit--all while avoiding turrets, leaping over acidic lakes, and triggering switches. Building a bridge is no easy task, though; physics are a constant and punishing presence, forcing you to consider the impact of gravity as you build rickety structures. With only metal planks and guy-wires to hold your contraptions in place, you have to make smart use of your materials to ensure that the entire structure doesn't topple as soon as you begin.

A handy "best practices" tutorial teaches you the fundamentals of architecture. Build a series of triangles, for instance, to hold a bridge in place, or affix an arch to add even more support for your road. Bolts in the ceilings and walls can bear a lot of weight if you hook guy-wires up to connecting points, but make sure you balance the bridge properly, or it's still going to cause your forklift to crash and burn as soon as it lays its wheel upon the road.

All of the techniques you need are doled out slowly, so it's easy to get a handle on what the game is demanding of you. While you start out building simple ramps and roadways, you're soon sculpting hundred-piece structures that dangle impossibly high in the air. The early going is tense: I would hold my breath as the forklift sauntered across my swaying bridge, hoping that the guy-wires were strong enough to carry the weight. My forklift would often land on a bridge from too high a distance, and I would watch helplessly as it all toppled to the ground. Then it was a matter of going back to work, adding a few more supports and tweaking the angle of ramps, before once again testing my creation.

It doesn't take long, though, before you've seen all of the obstacles Bridge Constructor Portal can dish out. Once you've mastered suspension bridges, oscillating bridges, and angles of incidence, the stages force you to go through the motions to show--once more--the tricks you already learned. The game tries to keep things fresh by injecting obstacles and items from the original Portal game into this one; you'll encounter talking turrets, companion cubes, speed goo, death lasers, bounce pads, flying balls, and (of course) portals. Later levels throw all of these into a single stage, but that only makes the experience more tedious, not more interesting.

The game often confuses complexity with fun, as throwing in more moving pieces doesn't mean you're going to have to think harder.

Bridge Constructor Portal is at its best when it focuses on one or two key ideas. Figuring out how to use a companion cube as a shield to block the laser attacks from a turret took enough clever construction that I was satisfied when my forklift glided gracefully through the exit. But the game often confuses complexity with fun, as throwing in more moving pieces doesn't mean you're going to have to think harder. Rather, it means you're going to spend most of your time making small adjustments, wallowing in small details instead of appreciating the greater whole that surrounds you.

The best part of puzzle games is figuring out how to overcome a tricky obstacle. That's the easiest and shortest aspect of Bridge Constructor Portal, though. Long after you've devised a way through the portals, off the bouncing pads, and past the lasers, you're fiddling around with one small part of the contraption that is close, but oh so far, from the necessary perfection.

A lot of the tedium comes from how editing works. In test chamber 49, for instance, I had to guide my forklift through a series of portals on the right side of the screen while crashing into turrets from behind, and hitting a button that would release a companion cube on the left side. The cube is supposed to knock down three more turrets and hit a switch that opens the exit. The problem is that I couldn't quite get the angle needed to guide the cube to its destination. So I would tweak a ramp, start the level up, and then wait 30 or so seconds until the forklift hit that switch to release the companion cube. Then, I would watch the cube fall, see where my mistake was, and move a ramp a few more pixels to try to get it in the right spot. And then... I'd start the whole process again. Tweak, wait 30 seconds, tweak, wait 30 seconds, tweak. There's no way to start a run from a certain point to iterate on the one problem area, so I went back and forth with this project for a half hour until I finally got it right.

And then the game crashed.

From beginning to end, it took me about an hour to pass test chamber 49. Most of the later stages take 30 minutes or longer to get right, and some took even more than an hour. Losing my progress after spending so much time constructing the perfect series of ramps and bridges was maddening. But I had no time to pout: I jumped right back into test chamber 49, moving quicker than my first time through, and got my trusty companion cube to knock down the turrets and trigger the exit door in about 20 minutes.

And then I ran into an even bigger problem.

Test chamber 50 is much easier than the previous stage, but I experienced a bug every time I reached the exit that forced the game to crash to the Switch OS. I tried to save my work before exiting, crossing my fingers that I wouldn't have to start from the beginning if the game crashed again--but the save function failed consistently, too. So I never got beyond test chamber 50, and never saw the last 10 challenges.

Obviously, a game-breaking bug is a serious problem, but I was tired of Bridge Constructor Portal long before my progress was abruptly halted. This game falls short in just about every area; an amusing story or eye-catching visual design could have at least distracted from the dull puzzles, but you get no reprieve here. The game doesn't even feature any music while you're building the many bridges. Long after you've figured out how to pass a stage, you're still left tinkering with minute portions, adjusting ramps by mere pixels at a time, crossing your fingers that you landed on the exact angle needed to guide a companion cube or bounce a ball of light toward the wall trigger. Instead of testing your puzzle-solving ability, Bridge Constructor Portal just sees how long you can withstand tedium before you want to walk away from the whole endeavor.

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Where The Water Tastes Like Wine Review: Hard Travelin'

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 02/28/2018 - 16:00

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine defies any sort of comparison to other games. You're tasked with collecting stories and building up folklore across Dust Bowl America, wandering across the land and briefly involving yourself in other people's lives. You're collecting tales so that you can share them with other wanderers who are moving across the country and eventually appease an anthropomorphic Dire Wolf (played, amazingly, by Sting) who, in the game's opening cutscene, beats you in a card game and sets you to work collecting these folk stories as payment for the debt you now owe. It's a wholly unique premise for a game, but not necessarily one that reaches its full potential.

You guide a skeleton avatar around the map, moving between states by foot, by train, or by hitchhiking, and collect stories when you encounter them. These are folktales by and large: animals will talk to you, children will be all-knowing (and often touched by evil in some way), you'll meet ghosts and dying men and people capable of impossible feats. Some will stick with you, offering creepy imagery or neat twists, and others will fade from your memory soon after you hear them, but the hit-to-miss ratio of the 219 stories on offer is pretty high.

The tales you collect fit into one of four basic descriptors: hopeful, tragic, funny, or adventurous. These categories become important as you work your way through the game's main objective--uncovering the life stories of various fellow wanderers. Campfires around the map house other travelers who will exchange their own life stories for some of your collected tales. The characters cover a spectrum of gender, race, sexuality, and your goal is to visit each person as they move between campfires, telling them stories they like, and eventually encounter their "true" selves, having learned everything you can about them. The real reward isn't so much the folktales themselves as the artwork of these final encounters--seeing each figure twist into an artistic representation of their own character's struggles or values is a highlight.

Once you've spread your tales among these campfires, they start to mutate, and you'll begin to encounter retellings of your tales that add or change details as you travel. Telling someone who asks for a scary tale about a demon you met might end in you being chastised for telling a "cheerful" story, while a seemingly hopeful tale about a journalist who always sees the bright side is classified as funny, but as these stories evolve, they become more cheerful and funny, respectively. These versions will have a more significant impact on your future campfire visits and will make it easier to appease wanderers and unlock the next chapter in their story. It can also cause the tale's classification--which you have to decipher--clearer, which is helpful, because it's frequently hard to tell and remember.

After a few hours you get into a good rhythm of uncovering and sharing stories, and the way the game works eventually becomes clear (it's light on instruction). But there's a problem here--you soon realize that wandering the map, listening to stories, and slowly heading towards the next destination is really all there is to do, and with no satisfying overarching narrative to keep you going, the excitement of the process quickly begins to diminish. The game opens by spreading North America out in front of you to explore, and suddenly starts to look incredibly narrow as it becomes clear that you're going to spend the rest of the game just clicking through other people's stories and slowly trudging between campfires.

It doesn't help that getting around the map can be an extremely time-consuming process. Your avatar walks slowly--you can speed up by whistling a song, but this involves a "press direction keys in order" mini-game that ultimately feels like busywork. You can hitchhike, but roads only go one way, and the controls for hitching a ride are inconsistent--sometimes I could hail down a car, while other times my avatar refused to stick its thumb out. Rivers will slow you down, and using trains requires either money or hopping on one without paying. Doing the latter usually ends with you getting injured and dying, and although death isn't a big deal here, it will reset you to the last town you visited, which usually undoes the train ride's progress.

Once you've heard half the game's stories, you start to see where each tale is going from the first paragraph, and it's much easier to find and identify sad or scary stories than hopeful or adventurous ones. When you've had a few dozen tales retold and figure out which classification they fit into, you don't really need to worry about gathering more, either. You can rely on the same handful of tales, both because they're the easiest to remember the details of and because the game doesn't really incentivize diversifying your repertoire, especially since the stores you accumulate at campfires act as wildcards during future encounters. If you're asked for a tragic story, for instance, selecting any of the tales told by someone you encountered at another campfire will make you tell that story while "focusing on the tragic parts." I cleared almost every final encounter by just telling stories from other wanderers, and you don't get to experience this retelling--you just select the option from the menu and get a brief reaction in response.

Over time, even the best parts of the game start to grate. Ryan Ike's soundtrack, which mixes elements of jazz, bluegrass, and folk music, is excellent, and a great companion for the first few hours. But when you're engaged in yet another long trek across the plains, it's hard to resist switching over to your own music. By the end, I was rushing through the stories of the remaining campfires because I just wanted to see what happened when I'd collected them all, and I was skipping over new stories because it had become difficult to keep caring about them.

I spent 12 hours working my way around the America of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, but after the first six hours I felt like I had gotten everything I wanted out of the game. Most of the rest of the time was spent checking the map to figure out where the next campfire was, holding W to move forward, and then clicking through dialog (all of it brilliantly voice-acted, but patience only stretches so far) until I was able to appease the Wolf.

If the basic premise of gathering folk stories across a version of 1930s America strongly appeals to you, then Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is worth a look, but it's probably not worth finishing. Perhaps one day I'll feel the urge to jump back in and encounter a few more tales, but Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, for all its interesting ideas and unique elements, outstays its welcome.


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