Echoes from Levia: Echoes From my Mind

There is a game out there for IOS called Echoes From Levia: Soulbound. It is an audio game, made so it can be played by the totally blind. I have recently completed this game, and I have what may be some unique impressions of it that I wish to discuss. Impressions that are, at least, very different from those of my friends. Let’s get into it.

Firstly, I’m going to be completely, perhaps brutally honest. There is a lot wrong with Echoes from Levia: Soulbound. The game controls extremely poorly, feeling unresponsive most of the time, and slow and clunky the rest of the time. There isn’t a moment in the game where this isn’t plain. Movement is slow, and combat which should be, honestly, extremely simple, may not work out that way because of the game’s tendency to fail to recognize your input. Since you can only take a few hits, this just makes the game all the more frustrating.

On top of that, the voice acting is almost universally bad. When it isn’t, when a voice actor demonstrates their talent, they are hampered by poor dialog writing and direction. The editing, too, is a problem, as weird decisions made during editing completely take away any emersion. If several characters are supposed to speak at the same time, say while raising a toast and saying “Cheers,” they are never allowed to do so. Instead, each individual voice plays about a third of a second apart, making the whole thing sound like a seriously coordinated sitcom bit. It is, well, it’s cringeworthy.

It seems clear that Echoes from Levia: Soulbound was inspired by A Blind Legend, which is a game that plays similarly, but does literally everything better. Movement is not clunky, combat while still simplistic is actually fun and responsive, and the story, writing, and voice acting are all decent, though still not great. A Blind Legend is a good audio game that, given its 4 star rating on IOS, I would say did pretty well, and it seems Echoes from Levia is attempting to capitalize on its success.

Now here’s where things get interesting. I am aware that I have been quite harsh with Echoes of Levia, and I think that, given its pricetag, it’s worthy of that criticism. After all, even Frequency Missing is a better game, with better gameplay and voice acting, and it’s free. However, I still believe Echoes from Levia should be acknowledged for its attempt to iterate on games of this type. Yes, it is a bad game, but it did try some new things as well. For instance, when you’re walking through a city in Echoes from Levia, you’ll come across little cut scenes that feature random townspeople discussing events, or in some cases being a part of them on the side. These aren’t side quests or anything, just additional plot development which, I’m pretty sure, you can miss if you choose not to approach them. A Blind Legend, meanwhile, stays very linear and focused on the task at hand. It works well enough for that story, but there are some areas where A Blind Legend could have benefited from a side jaunt or 2. A Blind Legend never really asks you to explore, Echoes does try to do that.

Second, Echoes from Levia contains some pretty neat puzzle segments, requiring you to move carefully with very little room for error in order to find the solution. These are the game’s high point in my opinion, and again A Blind Legend’s focus on story progression and combat means these don’t really exist as much. It’s another touch that makes Echoes stand out, and deserves at least some acknowledgement.

So Echoes critics, I hear you. I am ultimately one of you. However, iteration doesn’t happen without developers willing to take risks and try new things, and I think Echoes at least achieves that. If the good things about Echoes can be applied to a game that plays, and is written as good as or better than A Blind Legend, we’ll have a fantastic product on our hands. I hope you found something to take away from this blog, and as always, I thank you for reading. Continue to be awesome!

Nothing Sharper than ASharp

Recently, one of my viewers pointed out that, if I was going to shower so much love on Choice of Games, I should also give praise to another developer who makes games where choices are impactful. That developer is Asharp, the folks behind the incredible King of Dragon Pass, and more recently, 6 ages. These are very, very different games than the Choice of Games and Hosted Games libraries, but they achieve the same goal for the player. They make you feel invested in your choices. You live to regret, or take pride in the decisions you’ve made, which may take a long, long time to reveal their true implications. I’ll explain why as best I can.

Both games, King of Dragon Pass and 6 ages, are strategy games. They are games of clan management. You have to build your clan into a respectable one by doing all sorts of things. Everything from forming trade routes with other clans to raiding your enemies to calling in favors from clans who owe you one. While doing all this, you must keep your clan happy, decide whether or not to listen to the advice of your advisors, and do what you can to achieve your clan’s goals. As this all goes on, you will have encounters that can help or hinder your progress. Sometimes encounters with other clans, sometimes with outside parties. Depending on the aspects of your clan the encounter calls into question, which can be many, many things including the perception of your clan amongst the others, the encounters can go several ways, regardless of whether you think the decision you ultimately make is a good one. And the best part is, the situation may not end on that one encounter. This is where time comes into question.

You must keep your clan surviving and hopefully thriving for years within the game, and possibly even decades. The decisions you make even early on, even those in the encounters you find, can affect you years, even decades later. You might get a positive outcome for one encounter, and be quite proud of yourself, only to discover a couple of years later that your choice lead to some negative consequences as well, for you or perhaps for a clan that was once a friend of yours. It may require you to rebuild either your own home, or relations with those you may have hurt. You never know, and that’s the beauty of the game. You can do the best you can, but you will still encounter hardship. You may have to make difficult decisions, and you may not realize you made one until you see the fallout. Both games are brilliantly executed in this way, and I love them for it.

Now, I’m going to be flat out honest with you. I am personally not good at these games. I’ve never had a super strategic mind, and the nuances of managing an entire clan tend to escape me a bit. I’m currently playing a game of 6 ages on the easiest level, and my clan’s in trouble. My food is low, I don’t have enough warriors, and they’re stressed out. In spite of all that, though, I’m going to keep fighting, because that’s kind of what the game is about. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll find a way to make it through. Maybe some chance encounter will give me just what I need. You never know in these games.

It’s hard to put into words what this game has accomplished. There is so much to these games, and so many considerations that are made as you play, yet they have managed to squeeze all that into a beautiful, understandable and playable package. These games are, for that reason, and for the power in every move you make, works of genius. Maybe I’m not good at them, but I love them all the same. Thanks so much for reading, folks, and as always, continue to be awesome!

Fear FEER: A Review of FEER: Running Blind

FEER is a new game for the blind out for IOS, and I want to warn you all, the title is apt. Not because the game itself is particularly scary, but because the unstoppable addiction that will grip you once you begin playing is very, very scary indeed. FEER is a game that I can only equate to audio games like Super Egghunt, but even that isn’t quite apt. Allow me to explain.

In FEER, you are in a post-apocolyptic world, and are one of the last vestages of humanity. You’ve heard that premis before, but there’s more. You head out believing you can save the world by collecting the light from fairies, who have made their presence known since the apocalypse. Perhaps if you collect enough of them, you can save this accursed world! Except, not really. The thing is, FEER falls into a game genre called Endless Runner. Yeah, your quest is doomed from the start. Something’s going to get you eventually, but it’s the in-between that matters. Actualy it can even be the dying that matters, but I’ll get to that.

On the surface, FEER’s gameplay is really, really simplistic. You run automatically, dodge zombies by swiping left or right between 3 lanes, just keeping them out of the center, gather light by running through the fairies’ positions, (indicated by a musical phrase), collect powerups like weapons to actually kill the zombies, light doublers which do exactly that, shields to protect you from them, and boosters to speed you along and make you temporarily invincible. You swipe up to jump over zombie hands that grasp at you from the mass graves that dot the landscape, and swipe down to slide under the ravens who have, for some reason, decided that zombies are cool and that they should, instead of eating all the dead flesh around them, peck out your eyes instead. It’s whatever. It’s not the story that matters. The point is, the basic gameplay is just that. That’s all of it.

But then, you see, 2 factors come into play. First, you run faster as time goes on, which is great except it leaves you with shorter and shorter reaction times. Jump quick, swipe fast, because you will get grabbed by something. And second, the game actually has a mission and quest structure. By completing quests, you can gain levels. For every level you gain, your score is multiplied by that level’s number. The quests are just the right mix of things to keep you playing. Fiendishly simple in some cases, and just hard enough that you want to work at it in others. I have seen enough of the quest types to love the variety, and to answer the question I had when I first saw quests. I wondered if there would be quests involving you collecting no light, and indeed there are. It’s fantastic and too much fun.

If you cannot see how those things combine to make a small, but supremely addictive game, you may not have played an addictive game before. Why do you think I’m writing this blog? I just started playing yesterday! But but… I’m ranked 13 in the world as of this writing! Must… Be… Number 1…

Seriously though, check the game out for yourself. It’s only $1.99 for the first 1000 people who purchase it, which apparently hasn’t happened yet. Give it a go, just do so prepared to be absorbed. That about does it for this blog. Whew! Now I can play more! Thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

Frequency Found: An Accessibility Review of Frequency Missing for IOS

Frequency Missing is a game for IOS made with both the blind and the sighted in mind. As I understand it, it does possess graphics, but is also fully accessible to those who cannot see. Its take on the point and click adventure style is a different one than what I previously suggested, but in my opinion is just as valid. Let’s discuss.

A long time ago, I wrote a blog about how a point and click adventure could be made fully accessible to the blind. I discussed turning the clickable objects and people into menu selections that would then basically trigger macros. Frequency Missing uses a different idea. In that game, you hold your finger down on the touch screen, and move it around until you hear the ambient noise created for all objects in the game. You orient on it, moving your finger toward it, and when you’re centered, you hear a click of acknowledgement. If you then raise your finger, you interact with that object.

While I’m still perfectly OK with my original idea, I have to admit this one has a lot of merit as well. Unlike my idea of a menu structure, this allows you to know where items actually are on screen, and thus get a sort of picture of the room you’re in. The gaps left by noninteractable items are filled by voiced descriptions you hear when the character first enters that room. It’s a clever and effective way to immerse a blind player, and it works very well. This became most clear during a tense moment when I quickly had to get to a certain room in a building, and suddenly realized I knew its layout well enough to actually be quick about it. It’s a kind of intensity that would’ve been lessened by menu navigation, and it really made me grow to appreciate the way the game did things.

Its conversations are handled in much the same way, though they are easier than finding things around a room. Just hold your finger on the screen, and move up and down between conversation options. It’s intuitive, and it works. Best of all, the click you get when you’re on an option changes in pitch depending on how high or low in the menu that option is. Very well done.

And speaking of well done, the game itself is well done. Accessibility aside, the story is interesting if not necessarily mindblowing, and the voice acting actually isn’t terrible. Again, I wasn’t blown away by the performances, but I have heard far, far, far worse in games before. I was overall very pleased.

Best of all, though, this game is free! How can one argue with that? A well-done, decently-written, decently-acted fully accessible interactive story that is free! Frequency Missing is a must-try for any blind IOS owner, and for anyone interested in different types of accessible interfaces for games. Check it out, and enjoy the mystery! As always, thanks for reading, and continue to be awesome!

A Love Letter to Choice of Games and Hosted Games

Dear Choice of Games and Hosted Games,
This is a love letter to you from a blind gamer, me. I know you get a lot of these. I know your mailboxes must be full of candy hearts and expensive chocolates, but I couldn’t stop myself from writing one of my own. You see, I unabashedly love you. I love your words. I love your happy moments, and your sad ones. I love the choices you offer, and I love their consequences. When there is a long stretch between new games, I ache. I weep. But then, when that email finally reaches my inbox, when I learn that a new release has finally arrived, my heart soars. I stretch my arms toward the heavens, and I smile, for you have, at last, returned.

It is impossible for me to truly convey what you give to blind gamers like myself. It is a sentiment that I know has been echoed by others, but it is one that I wish every single Choice of Games and Hosted Games author could hear. Your engine, the way it essentially presents itself as web pages, is completely, 100% accessible to us. That outward simplicity which hides so much inner complexity is completely and totally playable by us, and I… We couldn’t be happier.

We live in a world filled with story-driven content that we cannot take part in. So many narrative-based video games are still completely inaccessible to us. We could watch playthroughs of these games, but then we aren’t the ones making the choices. It isn’t our personal experience. Not so with you. You offer us worlds even we can explore. You offer us a moldable, shapeable character that we get to create, and a story in that character’s life that, for a little while, we get to live and experience. There are hundreds of characters to meet, foes to join and defeat, and worlds to either save or destroy, all thanks to the choices we make, and the character personality we crafted.

I just wish I could express to you how big a deal that is. I’ve been a gamer my entire life, enjoying the games I can play, and struggling with those I wanted to, but ultimately couldn’t. I’ve also been a reader, and a lover of stories of all kinds. To have your utterly immense and completely accessible library of stories and experiences literally right at my fingertips is mind-boggling and amazing in a way that I cannot properly convey to you. You are awesome!

I know what you’re thinking. “Why now? We’ve been around for years. Where is this letter coming from?” Very true. This has honestly been building for a long time. With tremendous titles like Zombie Exidus, Hero’s Rise, and perhaps the most technically impressive, Tin Star, my desire to write something like this has steadily increased. The final straw, though, was one of your newest games, Choice of Magics. I have now played through this particular story in its entirety 3 times, and I am considering a fourth. Each time, I’ve gotten an ending that was completely different from the ones before it, but it’s about more than just the ending. The ways in which the story can change, even as it’s going on, are so drastic. There are things that can happen that I didn’t believe until they did. It’s an incredible experience, and up there with your best. It is what made me decide it was time to write this. You should be proud of it, as should its author.

Now I’ll admit that I’m also a lover of audio drama, both for good audio design and great perfomances. For that reason, there’s a part of me that wishes your games had the backing of music, sound effects, and voice acting. I think experiences like that could be incredible, yet I also understand why that’s not a part of your design. To have a fully realized video game version of the adventures you guys create, though, (and a fully accessible one at that), would draw in others who haven’t checked you out for whatever reason, and I guarantee they would stay. Here’s why.

It goes so far beyond accessibility with you guys. Both Choice of Games and Hosted Games stand as proof that it is possible to write games in which your decisions matter, something that it seems most developers struggle with. I don’t know if it’s because of publishing deadlines, or the unwillingness to put in the work, but to reach an ending of a choice-heavy game only to discover it’s basically the same as the last ending you got is never fun, and with you guys that almost never happens. If someone directly transferred some of the amazing works I’ve mentioned here into video games, they would be spectacular.

Please understand that this is basically an idle fantasy. As successful as I think they’d be, I ultimately would not seek to change your vision. Personally, though, I wish EVERYONE appreciated you guys as much as I do. I know you get tons of praise as it is, and I am delighted at your success, but I wish everyone who hasn’t checked you out could tear their eyes away from those graphical masterpieces for long enough to check out the unrivaled stories you have to offer. Don’t get me wrong, I know some of those graphical masterpieces are truly great games, and I wish I could play in them too. Still, you guys deserve to be held high for what you do, and that is my goal with this letter. I’m putting you on a pedestal whether you like it or not.

Aside from being a love letter, this is also a thank you. Thank you to the Choice of Games team for having this vision, and thank you for crafting the choice script engine. Thank you to the authors who spend countless hours creating these masterpieces, and putting in the work to keep all those variables in line. I don’t know how I would manage to do what you guys do. Thanks even to the other Choice of Games readers and Hosted Games, who have given them the attention and success they deserve. Thank you all.

Sincerely,
Brandon Cole
Your not-so-secret admirer

For those who haven’t, seriously, check out their stuff on IOS, or even play it on their web site if you like. I don’t think you’ll regret it. And as always, thanks for reading. Please comment, leave feedback, and conversate. Continue to be awesome!