Tag Archives: Adventure

Yes, It Is.

Back in early 2017 I made mention that my girlfriend and I had played through the first 4 episodes of Life is Strange and loved it but that our playthrough was “tragically” cut short before we could tackle episode 5. I talked about this a bit more here, but that original allusion was to a pretty shitty “real life” invasion into my gaming life. In the summer of 2016 my house was broken into and burglarized with my video game collection being one of the primary targets. Fortunately, I was in the process of moving at the time so most of my stuff had already been packed away and didn’t get touched, but one of the things that did disappear was my Xbox 360 which was still connected to my TV at the time. I wasn’t using cloud saves as my default save game storage back then so, worse than losing the console itself, I lost my entire history of Xbox 360 saves up to that point. Disheartened by the whole thing and not wanting to replay through almost the entire game in order to finish it, we regretfully put Life is Strange on the backburner.

Our protagonist, Max Caulfield.
“Our protagonist, Max Caulfield.”

While we’d been eyeing all of the subsequent Life is Strange follow-up games like Life is Strange: Before the Storm and The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit with some curiosity, with the release of Life is Strange 2 this year we were finally hyped up enough to revisit the original game. This time around we took advantage of it being on Xbox Game Pass yet again and played the Xbox One version. Jumping in, we found that we both more or less remembered all of the first episode though our memories of specific details slowly began to fade as we progressed, culminating in the entirely unknown episode 5 and a satisfactory ending to the game at long last.

Broadly speaking, the game is a stripped down modernization of the classic graphical adventure game in a similar vein to Telltale’s post The Walking Dead games or Quantic Dream’s adventure games. That is to say, extremely narrative heavy with your choices being reflected in-game, giving an illusion of a complicated branching story. A lot of those choices take place via conversations, and there are also minimal, easy puzzles based on exploration along the way to round out the formula. In Life is Strange’s case, a lot of the puzzle solving involves the main character’s ability to rewind time, also central to the plot itself. There are some more traditional adventure game puzzles early on but, as with The Walking Dead: Season One, that approach is largely abandoned after the first episode.

Light, exploration-based adventure game stuff.
“Light, exploration-based adventure game stuff.”

Despite the similarities, Life is Strange does an admirable job of not coming off as some sort of a Telltale adventure game clone. Its systems don’t feel quite as obvious, at times feeling more like a “walking simulator” than an adventure game, and the total lack of QTEs or any sort of action gameplay goes a long way to helping. The game also supplements the already effective presentation with a phone text messaging system and an in-character log/journal system for even more exposition and depth.

The game starts off with your character, a teenage girl named Max, going about her day in a private school she’s recently transferred to after moving back to the town where she grew up. The mundanity of the high school drama quickly turns much more serious with a startling act of violence, the discovery of the aforementioned time manipulation powers, and an unexpected reconnection with Max’s childhood best friend, Chloe. Those (and other) inter-connected threads end up in a compelling balance of interpersonal drama and mystery with just a touch of the supernatural.

The drama takes no time at all to kick in.
“The drama takes no time at all to kick in.”

The first episode is a little jarring to a lot of people as that’s where some of the game’s more infamous peculiarities are at their worst. Much has been made about the odd, stilted attempts to replicate teenage conversation which had so many people facepalming out of the game, the nonsensical description of Blackwell Academy as some sort of a prestigious art school that sounds like a private college (and indeed, most of the students are college aged) yet is referred to multiple times as a high school, and the sometimes annoying and unlikable personalities and behaviors of the main characters. While I don’t think any of those issues are anything to bail out of the game early over, a couple of them do warrant some further focus here, I suppose.

First, about the odd language that the characters, particularly Max and Chloe, use. Just about everyone seems to agree that it comes across as a little ridiculous and, at best, inauthentic. Some justify it as simply being the way teenagers actually talk, less us out of touch adults forget, while another common explanation is that Life is Strange’s developer, Dontnod, is French and likely even more out of touch about the way American high schoolers talk (which may also explain their lack of understanding about the American school system!) Regardless, this gradually improves as the season continues past the first episode, with the characters sometimes even seemingly jokingly referencing those earlier missteps. It’s no big deal even if it is sometimes incredibly silly.

The infamous 'Go fuck your selfie!' line. Oh, and fuck Victoria Chase!
“The infamous ‘Go fuck your selfie!’ line. Oh, and fuck Victoria Chase!”

Directly related are the characters themselves. Personally, I find their personalities and motivations to be easy to believe. Chloe’s overly rebellious behavior and shitty, selfish attitude is fairly thoroughly justified. This is someone whose struggles with her emotions and her place in the world, already an issue for a lot of teenagers, are amped up to 11 by the trauma of losing her dad and then her best friend when she needed a support network the most. Max, on the other hand, comes across as someone spends far too much time in her own head and, while not incredibly awkward, sometimes comes across as a little shallow when she does decide to come out of her shell and interact with people. When she’s thrown into all of these crazy new situations she’s, of course, thoroughly unprepared to handle them. I’ve known plenty of people with similar personalities as both characters myself, in fact Max reminds me a bit of teenage me – the conclusions about how the world around me works, what is and isn’t cool, etc., forming my own private reality which I did a fairly terrible job of expressing. Honestly, there’s a certain amount of accepting that teenagers can be cringey and a little overly self-obsessed that needs to happen to truly “get” any of these characters. Sure, they can be annoying, but I feel like the people who absolutely hate this game because of the characters probably lack some perspective and maybe even a little empathy. Sorry!

More important than the personalities of the characters are the emotions they manage to convey, and this is where Life is Strange seems to make its improbable grand slam home run. The writing combined with excellent voice acting by the two leads really made the characters feel relatable and realistic, and their friendship (at least when coupled with the choices that I made in my playthrough) felt touchingly genuine. Combined with the intrigue of the plot, the game is astonishingly affecting and absorbing. By the end of the second episode I was totally hooked. From the reviews and impressions I’ve scanned, I believe I’m far from alone here in appreciating this particular aspect of the game as being uncommonly fantastic.

Max and Chloe's relationship steals the show.
“Max and Chloe’s relationship steals the show.”

This is a complete package though. The interface is fairly intuitive and never really gets in your way. The graphics are mostly very good with the only real shortcoming being the character models, which are perhaps slightly more realistic than the game can really pull off, with faces and especially lip-syncing sometimes looking a little janky. I definitely feel like they should have leaned into the stylized approach just a bit more even if they didn’t want to go full Telltale. The soundtrack, save for a couple moments where the songs don’t quite fit the scene, is excellent. Not only does it work well with the perceived tone of the game, but it goes along way to helping set it. I had “Obstacles” by Syd Matters stuck in my head for days after finishing the game. It all feels reasonably polished too.

Your text messages and your journal provide just a little extra exposition.
“Your text messages and your journal provide just a little extra exposition.”

So, after a few years we finally made our way back to (and through) the final episode. I wanted to talk a little bit about the end, and yes, I’ll spare anything but the vaguest of spoilers. Episode 5 culminates in some bizarre and disturbing time shenanigans, the resolution of at least one of our major plot points, and a big, dramatic decision. Not every potential loose end is wrapped up. You never receive any answers about the nature of Max’s powers, for instance. As that’s not really focus of the plot I can’t say it bugged me too much. It also ends up that quite a few of the details introduced in earlier episodes that seemed like they might be important never go anywhere. Regardless of whether these were plot threads that got abandoned as the series developed or they were purposely misleading “red herrings”, they added a lot of intrigue and mystery to the game.

I’ve also seen many more complaints about this last decision being a binary choice which does little to account for all of your previous choices up to that point. While sure, it does feel a little forced and limited, I don’t think it does anything to invalidate all of the choices you’ve made up until then. As I’ve said in the past in reference to Telltale’s games, the choices you’re making aren’t so much about affecting the overall plot as much as they are about affecting the details of the story, particularly when it comes to the actions and reactions of both playable and non-playable characters in the world. It’s less about changing the plot and more about customizing the particulars of it, with some entertainment value coming from standing back and observing the results.

The end times are here!
“The end times are here!”

Perhaps the oddest thing I’ve heard about the end (sometimes, but not always framed as a complaint) was that some players didn’t find Max’s relationship with Chloe to be compelling enough to make that final decision all that difficult. Since, as I mentioned, I found Max and Chloe’s friendship (we definitely read it as a close friendship, NOT romantic, by the way – interesting that such a potentially massive detail is so affected by your choices) to be one of the best parts of the game, this is quite hard for me to relate to. While I wouldn’t say the decision at the end was easy, both my girlfriend and I sided soundly in the same direction and were happy with the ending we got from it. Between that and the occasional complaint about plot holes I see, I’m fairly confounded by some people’s reads of this game. Maybe it’s a lack of empathy or any sort of ability to emotionally connect to a game on the part of some players, like I suggested earlier, or perhaps the differences caused your decisions along the way were greater than I realized.

Regardless, I loved Life is Strange and easily recommend it to those who like newer narrative adventure games and classic adventure games alike. Providing you’re able to fight your way through the all of cringey teenage dialog and drama, I think you’ll end up liking it. As for us, we already have the game’s follow-up prequel, Life is Strange: Before the Storm, installed and ready to start in the coming weeks.

As usual, these screenshots were liberally stolen from numerous places on the Internet. Most of them are from the PC version rather than the Xbox One version, but whatever. Also, the color palette isn’t quite this boring, and Max doesn’t only have one outfit – most of these shots were from the first episode to avoid spoilers!

Mecha Zombies!

As soon as I heard about Iron Brigade (called “Trenched” at the time) I absolutely knew I had to play it. Not only was I already a fan of the humor and fun stylized aesthetics that Double Fine tends to inject into their games but I’ve been a fan of the whole hybrid tower defense / action hybrid genre for quite a while now (as I’m sure I’ve thoroughly documented here with games like Toy Soldiers and Orcs Must Die!.) The fact that the action component looked a bit like the MechAssault franchise and that whole thing was wrapped in a wacky alternate history World War I setting to boot? Sign me the fuck up!

Shooting some Tubes on the beach.
“Shooting some Tubes on the beach.”

So, there it sat, doomed to my backlog forever. I guess the waiting has finally paid off though as when I signed up to Xbox Game Pass there it was, waiting for me to play for sorta-free. Waiting 8 years to save 15 bucks? Seems like a reasonable strategy to me! 😉 Well, at least I didn’t buy it and then let it languish in my backlog like I do with most of the games I’m interested in. Anyway, the time was right to blow through a quick game so I rolled up my sleeves, hopped in my “mobile trench” and set off to blow some Tubes into smithereens.

As billed, the relatively simple action feels a lot like that of MechAssault; somewhere between the huge, slow mechs of MechWarrior and the relatively frantic action of something like, say, Armored Core. You move and look with the analog sticks while each trigger handles the weapons and equipment installed on each side of your mech. Your equipment can vary, as your mech can be customized with a huge array of different specialized parts, weapons, and paint jobs, all of which is slowly acquired in a sort of light version of the loot systems popularized by action RPGs and MMOs. While the customization itself pales in comparison to something like Chromehounds, I still found experimenting with different builds and loadouts to be quite a fun element of the game. Loading up a heavy chassis with a 6 heavy machine guns, or dual huge, heavy cannons is fantastic, and some of the steampunk inspired tech is ridiculously cool.

Customizing our mech... err, I mean Mobile Trench.
“Customizing our mech… err, I mean Mobile Trench.”

The rest of (and the bulk of) the gameplay is total, classic tower assault. Using the same third person perspective, you can place emplacements (turrets/towers) anywhere on the map limited only to the amount scrap you collect from enemies you kill. While there is a respectable variety of emplacements, the game only allows you to carry a certain number of certain categories of each one depending on the chassis of your mech, adding a touch more variety to the whole customization aspect beyond just what weapons you have installed. Of course there are a variety of enemies that demand variation in weapon and turret strategy, changing with each new map, and how efficient you need to be to get the rating you’re after

About the only negative I can attribute to Iron Brigade would be the story and the enemy design, which both feel kind of quick and throwaway. I mean, the Tubes are certainly unique, but I don’t find them to be all that cool. Eh, this is a relatively minor complaint though, as these elements certainly work well enough in service to the gameplay and the overall conceit.

Emplacements absolutely everywhere, as it should be!
“Emplacements absolutely everywhere, as it should be!”

I feel like there’s a lot more I could say about the game, so I’ll just wrap this up with a couple of things. First, for an early entry into Double Fine’s efforts to shift to smaller, lower budget titles, the team developing Iron Brigade put quite a lot into it and you can tell they had to practically restrain themselves for adding even more. The second thing is that funnily, this being a quick playthrough didn’t really go according to plan. You see, I LOVED Iron Brigade so damn much that I decided to keep playing until I achieved a gold rating on every single mission, taking quite a bit more dedication than a quick run through would have. I even ended up buying the game’s single expansion pack “Rise of the Martian Bear” which I’ll give a quick review of in a future update.

Oh, and if all of that wasn’t enough on its own, I also totally forgot to mention that the game also features something of an Horde-like Survival gameplay mode, and both it and the campaign support co-op with up to 3 other players so that you can actually show off your customizations. I never got around to trying either, but I can only imagine how fun this game must be to play cooperatively. Awesome.

You can download Iron Brigade for Xbox 360 (which runs flawlessly on Xbox One) as well as on PC. If you’re into tower defense and big, stompy robots, definitely check this one out.

Back on the road!
“Back on the road!”

I also returned to Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. I ended my last article about Telltale with the semi-optimistic news that all three of the games I discussed had planned sequels in the works for 2018 and 2019, with the first one of those on the list being the finale to The Walking Dead series. Well…

*deep breath*

A hell of a lot has happened since then, hasn’t it? The first episode of The Walking Dead: The Final Season was released in August 2018 to favorable reviews, with the second episode slated for release in late September. Just days before it was to be released Telltale announced they were closing down, immediately laying off most of their staff and killing their in-development and upcoming releases. While they did end up releasing that second episode, with two more episodes to go, it seemed like the series wouldn’t actually receive its finale after all.

Rumors swirled about other companies offering ex-employees jobs, or potentially attempting to pick up The Walking Dead or some of Telltale’s other titles, but it was actually Robert Kirkman’s own Skybound Games that stepped in and negotiated finishing the remaining two episodes, hiring a number Telltale’s former staff on a contract basis to see the season to completion. I’ve got mixed feelings about whether or not it was right to prioritize finishing the game over taking care of the employees who lost their jobs in more substantial ways, or if I should continue to support Telltale with my money, but nevertheless I’m selfishly thankful, as once the fourth and final episode was released and the reviews looked decent, I bought the entire season and my girlfriend and I cautiously jumped in.

Keeping AJ in line is damn stressful work.
“Keeping AJ in line is damn stressful work.”

Almost immediately we were totally engrossed. Taking place several years after the events of A New Frontier, you’re finally back in (a now teenage) Clementine’s shoes, wandering the desolate South with a much older AJ. The change in the character dynamic alone is massive, with Clementine coming across as more and more mature and AJ now a fully fleshed-out character. AJ is by far the more interesting of the two, being raised post zombie-apocalypse, he has his share of childhood trauma induced behavioral issues (to put it in a super generalized, spoiler free way.)

While the gameplay doesn’t stray from the typical post-TWD Telltale formula, The Final Season starts out very strong with a great sense of being able to drastically affect the story with your choices. Telltale fans know by now that this is absolutely essential to keeping the player from feeling somehow “cheated” by choices that ultimately have little real consequence. In fact, I found struggling with making decisions in this season to be particularly intense, especially when it came to those choices that directly related to influencing the young, impressionable AJ. We always felt like we were somehow making the wrong decision and oftentimes we were despite our best attempts to do the right thing. Very effective.

Many new characters join the cast for the finale.
“Many new characters join the cast for the finale.”

As with A New Frontier, the new engine and updated art style are running smooth and looking great. There were some great set pieces this time around, and as usual the voice acting was mostly stellar. Playing the Xbox One version (on a normal Xbox One S) the only real complaint I can leverage is that load times between scenes were much longer than I remembered from any previous Telltale games. I’m really not sure what is up with that, as from a quick glance around the ‘Net it doesn’t seem to be a common complaint. The final two episodes, the ones finished by Skybound, fair slightly worse overall though – it seems like they didn’t quite get as much polish, with noticeably more performance hiccups and glitches. Given how they were developed this is completely understandable.

I had some similar issues with the game’s action scenes which were more palatable in the early episodes and felt more sloppily implemented in the later ones. Even the checkpoints were placed less generously in the last two episodes, and that only served to make those action sections that much more frustrating. Again, this is almost certainly because of the accelerated and probably relatively chaotic development under Skybound resulting in less playtesting and refinement. These issues didn’t ruin the experience for me by any means though they are worth noting given the unusual circumstance.

The Whisperers also make an appearance.
“The Whisperers also make an appearance.”

I’d certainly rank The Final Season above A New Frontier, and I enjoyed that one more than most people so that’s not meant to be faint praise. More importantly, I’m happy that the series didn’t get unceremoniously axed half way through its finale which could have easily happened. Instead, it felt like the series got an appropriate sendoff and given how many people have loved the series, whether they bailed after the first season or made it all the way through the finale, and how influential this new style of adventure game has been, I’d say that’s a pretty big deal. It’s not entirely surprising that Skybound was able to help wrap up the season as one of the more spectacular things about the series is how strong it’s been start to finish despite many of the key players changing over the years. I mean, I was skeptical about Season 2 after finding out that Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin had left and it turned out to be my favorite season.

In summary, if you’re a fan of the series than it’s an absolute no-brainer: play this! If you had your fill after a couple seasons, or the Telltale formula wore out its welcome on you, then it’s probably not worth coming back for this one last hurrah as it’s unlikely to change your opinion.

As usual, what should Xbox 360 and Xbox One screenshots are PC screenshots borrowed liberally from various places on the Internet.

Neuromancer Review

Note: The screenshots posted on this page have been scaled up a little from their tiny native resolutions as well as had their aspect ratios corrected to proper 4:3 dimensions as they should have looked on CRT monitors originally. For posterity’s sake you can also click them to view the “pixel perfect” originals.

Introduction

Neuromancer!
“Neuromancer!”

One of the best part of being into retro gaming and, indeed, doing these reviews, is exploring all manner of interesting and bizarre games that I’ve never played and in many cases had never even heard of before. 1988’s Neuromancer is a standout example of this. Containing so many individual elements that I’m particularly drawn to, from its dark cyberpunk setting to its late 80s adventure game trappings, never mind that William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy are some of my favorite books, on paper, this is my dream game. Yet, it’s a game that I nor practically anyone I know had played, despite being based on a hugely influential novel, being somewhat innovative for its time, and even being considered a bona fide classic in certain circles.

The story goes that at some point in the mid 80s, counterculture LSD fanatic Timothy Leary read William Gibson’s Neuromancer and it changed his life. Not too much earlier, he had also discovered the captivating world of interactive fiction games, which had also changed his life. At some point the potential intersection became obvious, and Leary obtained the rights to make a game based on Neuromancer, eventually partnering up with Brian Fargo at Interplay, who ultimately designed, developed, and published the game. Unfortunately Interplay had just released cult-classic Wasteland under Electronic Arts, and were soon to release an absolute must-have at the time, Battle Chess, sandwiching Neuromancer into relative obscurity.

A robot? What game is this again?
“A robot? What game is this again?”

Adding to that obscurity, Neuromancer’s release fell in what was an extremely awkward period for PC gaming; a transitional time between the end of the 8 bit personal computer era and the beginning of the popularity of the new 16 bit computers like the Amiga and the Atari ST, and of course, the rise of the IBM PC as a popular gaming platform. IBM PCs took a little bit of time to catch up, however; low color but higher resolution EGA was still in vogue, and add-on sound and music cards such as the Adlib and Roland’s MT32 hadn’t begun to see widespread use yet. On the other hand, Neuromancer was somewhat of a tour de force on squeezing content into and power out of its lead platform, the aging Commodore 64.

For this review I’m playing through the inferior IBM PC version, but honestly, this lackluster port probably only adds to the quirkiness of this already unique game.

Gameplay

Another side effect of this awkward, transitional period of gaming, is the gameplay itself. By the late 80s a lot of PC games were extremely creative affairs, including all kinds of new and experimental gameplay concepts, often forced together in unusual ways, and many of the genre tropes we take for granted today hadn’t quite been established. Unfortunately that meant that when those genres did get more established, some of these transitional, experimental games became evolutionary dead-ends, as it were. In my King’s Quest review I talked about the design and even UI differences between King’s Quest’s AGI and SCI versions. Neuromancer takes a lot of adventure game ideas from old AGI games and their contemporaries, but also tosses in a huge helping of roleplay, and then throws in this massive twist of online interfaces including exploring cyberspace itself. You could easily argue that Neuromancer has more akin to classic graphical RPGs than run-of-the-mill adventure games like King’s Quest. That doesn’t make it a bad game by most standards, but it does make it a weird one.

The end of the book would have been a lot shorter if Neuromancer was just chilling in the lobby.
“The end of the book would have been a lot shorter if Neuromancer was just chilling in the lobby.”

Neuromancer is split into several different, distinct gameplay systems, but for the sake of simplification, let’s reduce this down to two halves, which roughly represent the two halves of the game (though it is a semi-nonlinear game, so it’s definitely possible that you won’t have anything even close to a 50/50 split.) First, there’s the offline adventure section.

Neuromancer starts with your character standing on a screen representing a bar, where you’ve apparently just woken up after a rough evening of drinking and eating pasta. A text box describes the scene for you, and the bartender barks at you. From here, the game looks like a traditional adventure game, albeit an archaic, odd twist on some of the more conventional tropes of the genre. You can walk around these screens, navigating the city, and talking to various characters along your way, but that’s about the extent of it. Talking to people can get you some useful information, but it mostly serves as a way to upgrade your skills and equipment. In other words, almost every character is a traditional RPG shopkeeper NPC.

Your other options in the overworld are more interesting – you can access PAX terminals, which let you access basic banking functions, and read message boards, which work a bit like old school BBSes. The messages mostly contain background fluff but sometimes contain useful information too. You can even send messages, which is used once or twice as a solution to a puzzle, as it were.

You'll be entering a ton of linkcodes and passwords early in the game.
“You’ll be entering a ton of linkcodes and passwords early in the game.”

Finally, there are access ports, which is where things really start to get interesting. By using your cyberdeck in an area with a port, you can use a software application called “Comlink” to connect to various databases, or “bases.” Comlink is something akin to a terminal program, and bases are similar to old dial up BBSes: Small, closed off systems that consist of memos, files you can download, more message boards, and sometimes other special functions. As a BBS junkie from way back, it’s pretty fascinating to see a view of what the Internet might be like in the future looking through the contemporary lens of dial-up BBSes and mainframe systems. It’s also interesting to note just how much the users of these apparently futuristic online systems resemble those of the underground BBS scene of the 80s and 90s. This was an unexpected shot of nostalgia for me!

Anyway, to connect to a base you need to know its linkcode, which is something like an AOL keyword, if anyone remembers those. Once connected, you’ll then need a password to get access. Bases have multiple levels, each with its own password. Once you’re on, the main function of these “bases” is essentially to provide more linkcodes and passwords to other bases, or hints to find and figure new ones out, as well as downloads for improved software, to progress, with higher levels usually having some additional, previously inaccessible messages, downloads, or other functions.

In retrospect I'm not sure why I thought online banking would make a good screenshot.
“In retrospect I’m not sure why I thought online banking would make a good screenshot.”

Hints are important in Neuromancer, because, despite being fairly non-linear in terms of structure, progression is generally guided by a series of gates: Do you know a linkcode to connect to a base? Do you know the access code to get into the base? Do you have a high enough version of Comlink to work with a base? Do you have some other required software or know the appropriate level of skill to “solve” a puzzle? These questions are answered one by one in a fairly orderly way. The biggest challenge, generally speaking, is trying to keep track of the vast amount of information you’re given. You may have half a dozen or more of these micro puzzles progressing at any one time. This is a game that requires taking notes if I’ve ever played one. By the time I was halfway through I had a notebook that looked like the scribblings of a madman, filled with linkcodes, encrypted and unencrypted passwords, names, places, account numbers, etc.

Surprisingly, this stage in the game isn’t quite as tedious as it sounds. You don’t have to do too much walking around, the fluff is interesting and even a little funny when it works, and the act of juggling all of this information, manipulating people and systems, connecting to a base, snooping around in it, taking what you’ve learned to connect to the next one, etc. actually starts to feel a lot like something resembling legitimate, largely social engineering powered, hacking. In fact, at this point Neuromancer feels more like some odd twist on a hacking simulator than any sort of adventure game.

Welcome to cyberspace!
“Welcome to cyberspace!”

That, and the puzzles aren’t as frustrating as vintage PC gaming veterans are probably imaging from a 80s game where information gathering and solving puzzles is the order of the day. The fact is, for the most part, the different puzzles and their solutions are strung together fairly well, and there are never too many of these little mysteries sitting there, unsolved, at any one time. That might not sound like a big deal, but it’s far easier to figure out your next move based on a few distinct clues than it is to figure it out when you have 10s of them pointing you in every possible direction.

Eventually with all of the skills you’ve learned and software you’ve gathered, you’ll manage to make some extra cash from all of your hacking exploits, and can upgrade your deck to something “cyberspace capable”. Once you have one of these decks, not only can you use Comlink to connect to bases, but you can enter the Matrix, and thus begins the second half of the game.

Cyberspace is essentially a graphical representation of the back-end infrastructure of the aforementioned individual bases. As you move through the Matrix you can connect to the same databases in virtual space, but this time you can access them through their back doors. People aren’t complete morons in this imaginary future, however: all of these back doors are protected by ICE, or Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics, which means you need to perform some hacking to get in. Hacking ICE requires using a rotation of programs on your deck to damage or otherwise weaken the ICE, as well as occasionally repair your own systems. You select one of your available programs and wait for it to affect the ICE. Meanwhile, the ICE is firing back with its own damaging hacks. It’s honestly not incredibly thrilling, but you still need to be on your toes. Once the ICE is defeated, you have maximum access to the base. Sometimes this means newer information and software than you previously discovered access to, sometimes not, but generally speaking completing these hacks helps you progress your character’s ability to move deeper into cyberspace.

Attempting to defeat an AI.
“Attempting to defeat an AI.”

Sometimes when you defeat a base’s ICE you wind up not in the database, but staring down an AI. Unlike the Sprawl Trilogy this game was based on, their seems to be quite a few AIs running around the Matrix. Each AI has its own personality and take on and involvement in the overarching plot of the game. To defeat an AI you use your various skills in much the same way as you used your deck’s software; rotating through different skills to cause damage and healing yourself when required while the AI takes turns pummeling you back. A lot of these fights can be pretty close, but if you’ve been keeping your skills and warez up, you should beat any AI the game intends for you to be able to beat.

As to that intention, the different areas or “zones” of cyberspace, and to a lesser degree individual instances of ICE and AI, are gated by your level skills and software, which is essentially the gameplay loop of this last section of the game: access an area of cyberspace, hack all of the bases and defeat all of the AIs to upgrade your software and upgrade your skills, respectively, and then move on to the next area. Again, very RPG-like. There are some minor diversions along the way, but at this point the game turns into a bit of a slog until you eventually go head to head with the titular AI, Neuromancer, in one last, climatic battle.

Story

Sadly, despite being based on a celebrated novel, Neuromancer’s story is not one of its strong points.

For one, there’s barely any narrative to speak of. Instead, the game is a bit of a hamfisted execerise in “environmental storytelling”; it seems that you’re supposed to take a lot of context out of the presentation of the world itself, with what isn’t inferred from the setting found in text stashed on PAX and database message boards, crushed between various pieces of fun but perhaps ultimately distracting fluff. In fact, there’s so much of this other stuff that it can be hard to identify what is and isn’t actually supposed to be relevant to the plot. Honestly, I can easily imagine someone who hadn’t read the book being completely lost by this method of delivery.

Maelcum's cringeworthy faux-Jamaica is lovingly recreated. Yay.
“Maelcum’s cringeworthy faux-Jamaica is lovingly recreated. Yay.”

Hopefully you’ll eventually piece together that many of your fellow “console cowboys” have gone missing or have been “flatlined” in what sniffs of conspiracy. You then discover that a group of rogue AIs are responsible and defeat them one by one, leading to a confrontation with Neuromancer. Neuromancer then brags about having manipulated you the entire time into doing its bidding, including taking out the other AIs so that it could assume control of the Matrix. As reductive as that sounds, that’s the plot.

Fans will note the obvious departures from the plot of the novel. While sure, along with Wintermute, Neuromancer, is an AI who manipulates a hacker into serving its cause, there’s quite a bit more nuisance in the original story that is simply left out of the game. While there are quite a few details from the book mentioned in the game, including numerous references to characters, events, companies, technologies, and places, they mostly feel like very surface-level references, or even homages to the original story, than anything resembling an adaptation.

Dixie Flatline's ROM-construct also makes an appearance... for some reason.
“Dixie Flatline’s ROM-construct also makes an appearance… for some reason.”

Here’s my personal “headcanon” take on how the game’s story relates to that of the novel. First, if it’s not obvious, you’re not supposed to be playing Case, the main protagonist of the book, but a different character that just so happens to also be a down on his luck hacker living in Chiba City. Running in the same circles as Case, your character just so happens to interact with some of the same people and somehow wind up in some of the same places as he does. This character’s manipulation by Neuromancer, however, takes place before the events in the book, with Neuromancer attempting to level the playing field for itself before its more existential endgame in the novel. I think that works?

That all said, the story is presented as such an afterthought, that while it may disappoint those looking for a faithful adaptation of the plot of the novel, it didn’t have a major impact on my enjoyment of the game. It succeeds in giving us an interesting setting, at least.

Controls

In the more traditional offline “meatspace” adventure sections of the game, you’re presented with the typical third person view of your character in the immediate area you’re in. Navigating here is fairly rudimentary, with most screens only representing a single room with no scrolling or scaling as you move around. Moving is really only useful for navigating to an exit, as your character’s position is not typically a factor in being able to interact with people or objects. Similarly unsophisticated, each room tends to only have a single exit per side of the screen. Compared to most graphical adventure games, even much older ones, all of this might sound depressingly limited, but it somehow works just fine in practice.

Being able to sell your organs for cash should be a standard feature in games.
“Being able to sell your organs for cash should be a standard feature in games.”

Your ability to move around in the UI tends to be more important, as you’ll be spending much more of your time interacting with it than the world around you, especially as the game progresses and you spend the majority of your time face down in your cyberdeck. There are a handful of menus available at almost any time, most notably your skill and item inventories where the bulk of your actions derive from, as well as dedicated conversation and PAX access options that’ll you’ll be using a lot in the early game while still navigating the world. Anyone who is used to working in command line environments or other text based, hotkey driven programs should be able to pick up on it right away. While it’s a little archaic, the menu-heavy interface probably works better in the context of Neuromancer than other games from that era, and I found that it actually lead to feeling like I was really hacking around in these computer systems, adding greatly to my immersion in the gameworld.

Curiously enough for a game from 1986, I suppose as a nod to the newer, more mouse orientated 16 bit PCs, Neuromancer also includes fairly comprehensive mouse support. Along with performing some extremely basic “click to move” movement in the adventure sections, you can click menu and action buttons in the main UI overlay and most of the hotkey text options in the menus. Between typing in linkcodes and passwords and using the “Tell me about…” conversation option, which requires typing nouns into a simple text parser, I found it to be a lot more efficient just to get used to navigating the UI as well as moving my character strictly via keyboard so I wouldn’t need to keep switching back and forth between keyboard and mouse. Still, even if I didn’t use it, it’s neat that they decided to include it.

Graphics

Neuromancer’s graphics are a mixed bag. While it makes full use of EGA’s 320×200 resolution, packing a fair amount of detail into the world in addition to the descriptive text in the UI, and enough lines of text in the various interfaces to not feel too cramped, it’s default 16 color palette gives the graphics a harsh and primitive look that I, personally, don’t love. If you look carefully at the sprites and backgrounds, Interplay’s artists actually made damn fine use of the very limited palette, but that doesn’t stop the world from feeling drowned in otherworldly hues of cyan, purple, and green as typical of most EGA graphics. I admit, this is mostly a personal preference thing. While the animations aren’t anything to write home about either, the general art style and design of the world, despite not at all what I might have imagined when I read the book, have a distinct and enjoyable character for sure.

Waking up in Chatsubo bar: Commodore 64.
“Waking up in Chatsubo bar: Commodore 64.”

Waking up in Chatsubo bar: IBM PC.
“Waking up in Chatsubo bar: IBM PC.”

Waking up in Chatsubo bar: Amiga.
“Waking up in Chatsubo bar: Amiga.”

Obviously rendered at a lower resolution than its IBM and Amiga counterparts, the stylization in the Commodore 64 version is totally different and, in my opinion, actually superior. Your character has a different hairstyle, resembling the character in the title screen rather than sporting a bizarre flattop. In fact, everything is different, with the amount of detail they managed to squeeze into its few pixels of backgrounds and sprites, including more variety into the otherwise plain PAX and base menus, it’s so much more charming. In comparison to the IBM PC version, the addition of more suitable colors is a vast improvement over characters’ ghoulish white skin and the stark EGA neons on display throughout. The Amiga version rectifies the IBM PC version’s weird color palette, looking more akin to a 90s VGA game, yet the stylization issues remain. While many people probably consider the Amiga port the definitive version, I’d definitely cast my vote for the C64.

Sound

Speaking of the Commodore 64, by 1988 it was a mature machine; developers had figured out ways to squeeze every ounce of potential out of it, including its legendary SID sound chip. Neuromancer is a great example of this all around, but it’s sound is a real head turner. For a C64 game it’s quite technologically impressive, featuring probably the first licensed, digitized soundtrack in a game. Devo’s “Some Things Never Change” provides the opening theme music, and a reworking of it provides occasional loops of in-game music. Of course, it mostly sounds like trash by today’s standards, but compared to the IBM PC version’s (admittedly catchy) blip-bloppy PC speaker rendition, it’s a huge step above. Even the Amiga version’s chiptune composition of the track, while definitely an upgrade, is still a pale imitation of the C64 version.

A rare, not-so-subtle hint... for dumb wilsons.
“A rare, not-so-subtle hint… for dumb wilsons.”

On the other hand, despite each port of the game having some version of this track, it’s rarely played in-game and the rest of the sound effects are almost non-existent. Simple blips and blops for only a very few actions, and the rest of the time… total silence. Great!

Old Age

As usual, I played through the entirety of Neuromancer on my dedicated gaming 486, usually with my internal cache disabled to slow the processor down to 386-like speeds. There weren’t any major speed related issues I ran into with the game. Most noticeably, the scrolling text that appears in various menu interfaces throughout the game scrolls a little quicker than it should. I also ran into a problem where, with my cache enabled, my mouse clicks were often detected twice. This was an easy problem to work around by simply moving my cursor to a non-clickable part of the screen immediately after clicking a menu option, but it could still be annoying if you intend to use the mouse. Given those issues, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn of other speed related issues.

Beyond playing it on the real thing, it appears that the last couple of versions of DOSBox fully support Neuromancer, listing 100% compatibility with it. I never got around to trying it personally, but given its age and relatively simplicity, I’d certainly guess it would run absolutely perfect in DOSBox.

Honesty is the best policy.
“Honesty is the best policy.”

Obtaining Neuromancer is another matter, however. Neuromancer exists firmly in the realm of abandonware these days. I know of absolutely no way to acquire it legally without finding a second hand copy of the physical release, and last time I checked eBay, prices were fairly outrageous. Fortunately, you can find the game on various shady abandonware sites quite easily. The more popular versions, like the Commodore 64 and Amiga ports, tend to be even more widespread, showing up on various enthusiast sites. I should point out that the game does include copy protection, originally coming with one of those annoying “code wheels” that you’d need to use to look up a keyword any time you access a PAX terminal. Of course, just about any version you download these days will already be cracked.

I’ve already talked quite a bit about some of the other versions of the game, but in addition to the awesome Commodore 64 version there is an Apple II port which has the same graphical style though, running at a lower resolution, looks a lot worse. Of course, it doesn’t include the digitized music either. Unusually, there’s also an Apple IIGS port. Very similar to the Amiga version, this one has the same graphical style including the higher color graphics, and similar chiptune music and sound effects.

It's all just a game, after all...
“It’s all just a game, after all…”

Scans of Neuromancer’s documentation are fairly widely available. Reading the manual isn’t necessarily required, but I’d recommend it due to it providing a good introduction to the story and overview of most of the game’s various systems. As usual, ReplacementDocs and Archive.org are places to start. There are also scans of the official hint book floating around. It’s kind of neat, written entirely as an in-character narrative, but I can’t recommend it as more than an interesting artifact since it’s an extremely linear walkthrough that removes any and all challenge from playing the game. I’d recommend at least trying to solve some of these puzzles yourself.

Sequels and Related Games

For what seems like the first time in one of these retro reviews, there are absolutely none. There were no sequels, and to my knowledge there are no other games based on Neuromancer. While you could possibly point to some of Interplay’s other games from around this time as related games, to my knowledge, none of them are directly related to Neuromancer’s engine or play anything like Neuromancer. Yet again, living up to my statement about it being unique.

Closing

Since, as mentioned, Neuromancer and its sequels are some of my favorite books and the game itself is a potent mix of a lot of my favorite elements, I’m definitely glad I played through this. On the other hand, unless you find yourself as similarly drawn to it as I was, it’s hard to recommend. The game is definitely interesting, with its unique mix of adventure, roleplaying, and hacking gameplay, and I haven’t played too many games that feel intimidatingly large and open, yet progress in such a fairly logical and linear way. Yet, the actual mechanics, from the simple implementation of the adventure game sections, to the repetitive and not particularly deep cyberspace ICE and AI battles, don’t quite stand out enough. Even though the Commodore 64 version in particular was technically impressive at the time, the game isn’t particularly historically significant either. If it’s simply the cyberpunk setting you’re after, there are games that pull off the atmosphere better, or you perhaps you could just cut out the middleman and check out the book!

I don’t usually cite sources when putting together these reviews due to the sheer amount of reviews, articles, walkthroughs, and other material that I read while working on them. That said, this awesome article about the history of Neuromancer’s development is just too fascinating not to share.