Close But No Cigar
It seems you can't get away from top-ten lists these days. When the end of each year rolls around, every magazine, website and blog pulls out all the stops to detail their ranked favourites of the year. At Hallowe'en, it's the Top Ten Horror Games. As Easter rolled around, I half expecting Top Ten Games Featuring Eggs And Bunnies, or something.
But what about the games that fall just short of inclusion in these features? The games whose developers clearly poured so much thought, so much creativity and magic into their virtual worlds, only to fall just short of the mark? The games we love so dearly, but could never wholeheartedly recommend? It's about time, I feel, that someone made a stand for those games. So here they are: the almost-classics; the flawed gems.
Alone in the Dark (Xbox 360/PlayStation 3/PC, 2008)
More games should be so absolutely about fire. If there's one thing Alone In The Dark gets absolutely spot-on, it's the power of those shiny yellow flames. Sadly, much of the rest of the game didn't even come close.
There are so many stories about Alone in the Dark, this modern reboot of the classic survival horror franchise. Most of them are bad. They talk of game-stopping bugs. Of ludicrous puzzle sequences. Of horrendous driving mechanics. One of my favourite tales of all discussed the occasion on which the player's car completely disappeared, leaving the driver hurtling down the road at top speed, sitting on an invisible seat attached to nothing but thin air.
When you're making a horror game, it's usually not a good idea to release it so broken it turns into a farce. But for the fire-related puzzles alone, which approached genius at times, it deserves to be at least slightly fondly remembered.
American McGee's Alice (PC, 2000)
There's something timeless about Alice in Wonderland, something that's captured the world's imagination decade after decade. Of course, there's nothing wrong with shaking up the formula every once in a while. That was certainly American McGee's theory, anyway.
This is a dark, twisted take on Alice's tale. Set some time after the events of both Wonderland and Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass, it tells the story of a now grown-up and gothed-up protagonist whose parents have been killed in a fire. Distraught, she descends back down to Wonderland, to find it a rather more twisted place indeed.
The visual design is breathtaking - less so now than it was in the glory days of the Quake 3 engine, but nevertheless spellbinding to this day. And McGee's novel twists on familiar characters and situations meld together to create a vivid and glorious world to explore. Alas, the game itself more closely resembled a barely adequate platformer, with shaky action sequences, clumsy precision jumping and far too much arbitrary lever pulling. A little more care on that side of things, and Alice could have been utterly spectacular.
The Nomad Soul (PC/Dreamcast, 1999)
Dubbed 'Omikron' in North America, The Nomad Soul saw you play as a nomad soul. Which might sound like a redundant statement to make, but it's a very real part of what made the first game from Quantic Dream - who went on to create Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain - so astoundingly forward-thinking. When you die in The Nomad Soul, it's only the body in which you - a spirit - were inhabiting that bites the dust. You simply respawn inside someone else. The game plays out regardless.
The Nomad Soul was an extremely shaky mashup of various different genres, clumsily drawn together into a whole that never felt cohesive enough. Part FPS, part adventure, part beat-em-up, part open-world explorathon, none of its individual elements were in any way refined, and nothing collected them together into one neat package.
What it did have, though, was a dancing David Bowie. It also painted a hugely evocative picture of a seedy cyberpunk world after dark, with one of gaming's first convincing cities as its backdrop. Its brushes with non-linearity predated a great deal of open-world gaming's pioneers. It had a dancing David Bowie in it. That's important to remember.
Still Life (PC, 2005)
It's tragic that Still Life is on this list, and one one of - say - the greatest adventure games ever made. Still Life is beautiful. Properly beautiful. It's artful, and theatrical, and clever, and bold, and striking, and well written, and often genuinely magical. So. Why does it find its way onto this list?
Well, most immediately, the puzzles - the core mechanism of any adventure - are often quite hopeless. Some are fine. Others defy all known logic. It's not acceptable to release a game untested - though so many are - and when it feels as though certain sections of the game haven't actually been played by a human being prior to the game's launch, something rather severely grates.
Perhaps worse, though, is Still Life's ending. Although maybe that claim in itself is a stretch, since Still Life doesn't really have an ending. Tragically, developer Microids exploded before it had managed to finish the story, but - spectacularly - quickly tidied up and released their game as-was. The result was a murder mystery in which the mystery was never solved, and a sudden and unexpected departure of the protagonist. There's a cliffhanger, and then there's just... stopping.
A sequel, released last year, had the chance to round things off nicely. Instead, it emerged as a substantially worse game than its predecessor, rife with bugs, woeful animation, hideous voice acting and some of the most preposterous puzzle design known to man. It also dropped Still Life's extraordinary visual style, and ended up a massive disappointment. Even though Still Life fits loosely into that category as well, it at least had a remarkable creative spark to carry it.
Pathologic (PC, 2006)
A friend of mine always describes Pathologic to curious parties like this: "Playing it feels like doing your homework as a kid. You really don't want to; you know it's going to be tedious and difficult and you'd rather watch the telly... but if you sit down with it every night straight after dinner, you know you'll come away from it enlightened and educated, and be glad you forced yourself through it."
That's a perfect description. Pathologic's an oddity from Russia - part RPG, part adventure, part shooter, not quite any of them. Much of the game consists of walking around a single isolated town, talking to various people who dwell there, trying to fathom a way of stopping an unbearable plague that's so bad even the buildings are dying from it.
It's a fascinating, artful and fearlessly unique videogame whose technology just couldn't keep up with the creativity. Released first in 2005, then in English-speaking regions a year later, it looked at least five years out of date on release. On top of that, a collection of animation glitches and game-stopping bugs regularly ground things to a halt. Not that it was moving that quickly in the first place. It's a meandering, often painfully slow game, 40 hours long when it could easily tell its tale in half the time.
Then again, there's something compelling about how sluggishly it moves. You're forced to stay in this horrifying place for far longer than is comfortable, and it works to create the most extraordinary atmosphere. The final nail in the coffin for many was an utterly atrocious translation job which left much of the script barely comprehensible. But if you can get past the problems, Pathologic's decaying town is an enthralling place to visit.
Far Cry 2 (Xbox 360/PC, 2008)
Perhaps the most accomplished game on the list, there's almost a sense the Far Cry 2 doesn't belong alongside some of the more broken titles documented here. Still, there was an inescapable feeling of disappointment upon Far Cry 2's release in the autumn of 2008. Early reviews were glowing and gushing, and when UbiSoft's mammoth open-world shooter finally dropped into players' hands, many felt it didn't live up to the hype.
Many cited its repetitious nature, with frequent armed roadblocks breaking up any semblence of exploration every couple of minutes. The guards respawned periodically, as well, meaning clearing out an area so as to safely navigate it was never an option. Others criticised the script and voice acting, while others still complained the game was nowhere near as non-linear as it claimed to be.
Where Far Cry 2 absolutely succeeds, though, is in its painting of a vibrant world in motion. Trees sway in the breeze. Animals wander over hills in the distance. Lob a grenade and watch the ensuing blast spread fire through the wilderness. Far Cry 2's huge African world is overflowing with life: it's a digital painting, one that perfectly captures a sense of natural beauty tarnished by human hostility. Combine that with some of the most brutal and tangible gunplay in any shooters, and you're left with something so close to brilliance it's almost painful.
Outcry (PC, 2008)
The Russians do make some crazy games. Warped point-and-click adventure Outcry's psychological and psychedelic tale almost makes that of Pathologic seem tame by comparison. It's a game that begins with your character arriving at his brother's house to find him missing, presumed dead. You explore. You discover he was working on a top-secret experiment, which combined infrasound waves with hallucinagenic drugs in order to isolate the human soul. You take the drugs, sit in the infrasound chamber, and embark on an unforgettable journey.
This is a game so imaginative, so artistically perfect, that there are barely any words to describe how disappointing the game itself is. It's a straight-forward point-and-click affair, but it often feels like the developers have never actually played an adventure game before. Not a good one, at least. Puzzles are complex to the point of near-impossibility. Even the simpler ones are obstrued by terrible signposting. The script is often bloody terrible, and the narrating voice actor reads the whole thing verbatim, including several typos. What should have been fascinating almost ends up being laughable...
...But never quite does, because the level of creativity is so absurdly high that Outcry remains utterly compelling from start to finish. It's a title that really should be played by anyone with an interest in visual design in videogames. Just make sure you have a walkthrough handy.
Rule of Rose (PlayStation 2, 2006)
Rule of Rose is a fascinating game, not just for its content but also for the bizarre overraction to it around the globe. This oddball Japanese survival horror title never saw a UK release (nor one in Australia or New Zealand), thanks to several misunderstandings and several more flat-out pieces of nonsense that ricocheted around European politics and press.
Controversy sparked when some accused the game of focusing on the sexuality of underage girls, and inaccurate rumours about the extent of the game's violence began to circulate. In fact, Rule of Rose is a complex game that explores the differences between adult and child psychology. It's an extraordinary coming-of-age story of the type rarely seen in videogames, and the sort of grown-up thing that absolutely should see widespread release.
Perhaps more people would have pushed for just that, were the game not plagued with archaic controls and forgettable actions sequences. Rule of Rose received mediocre reviews across the board, with many critics simply unable to appreciate the storytelling thanks to the game's substandard mechanics. Still, it remains a vastly intriguing game, and a real shame it never appeared on a wider scale.
The Path (PC/Mac, 2009)
There are parallels to be drawn between these two. The Path, a wildly esoteric sort-of-adventure-game from Belgian art-house studio Tale of Tales, shocked a plethora of less observant critics with its apparently wild requirement of having to kill six little girls should you wish to complete the game. Some even went as far as to say these children were raped in The Path, even though no violence of any kind is at any point shown on-screen.
That's part of what makes The Path so haunting, though: the fact that you're never quite sure what's going on. Its world wraps around on itself, creating an infinite area of dense woodland. The girls' wolves (The Path is a clever twist on the Little Red Riding Hood story, though some critics failed to spot this and bizarrely decided its story was somehow pretentious) represent the negative or more troubling aspects of their personalities; getting the "good" ending requires you to submit to these metaphorical alter-egos. Walk on down to Granny's house without meeting your wolf, and the game's over in just a few minutes, and even though you arrive safely, the on-screen text tells you you've failed.
Like Rule of Rose - though perhaps more explicitly - The Path is a game about a person's growth from childhood into adulthood, and learning to accept the various difficulties this brings with it. It's unlikely to appear on many 'Top Games' lists not only because it's incredibly rough around the ages, but because it's not really a /game/ in the truest sense. Instead, it's a fascinating walk around a genuinely frightening forest, one that invites the player to stop, look at and listen to every meticulously crafted area of the world, and work out what it might all mean.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (PC, 2004)
This is the game that probably sprang to mind when you started reading. Of all the games on this list, Bloodlines is the one that perhaps evokes the strongest feelings at both ends of the spectrum: the utter adoration of its seedy, gothic world and wonderful storytelling; the teeth-grinding, face-punching anger at the bugs, and the pacing, and the abominable final third.
Set in a gritty realisation of Los Angeles, Bloodlines tells the story of a fledgling vampire's rise up the undead foodchain. But it's more a game about the incidental characters you meet along the way, the tales they tell, and the fragments of a bigger picture you slowly begin to piece together. It's an impressively intelligent game, poetically written and exceptionally voiced. And, on release, hopelessly, woefully broken.
As an RPG, it was unbalanced. As a shooter, it was light and weedy. Sometimes people got stuck in pipes. Quests broke. Characters disappeared from the game world. It plainly did not work.
The great thing is, Bloodlines was conceptually so brilliant that it ended up with a dedicated fanbase anyway, who, over the years, have taken the time to patch it to near-perfect condition. It doesn't get rid of the abominable late-game sewer levels, alas, but the community updates do fix a whole plethora of the more egregious bugs. And even though it turns a shade pale towards the end, Bloodlines' opening 12 hours are among the greatest in RPG history.