Sunday, June 3, 2018

Get Even: A Uniquely Fascinating Game With a Generically Uninteresting Name

Get Even (2017) is a first-person psychological thriller with elements of FPS action, stealth, and puzzle-solving wrapped up in a science-fiction detective theme, in which you play as a mercenary named Black being sent into people's memories through a virtual reality machine to try to figure out who's behind the kidnapping of a high school girl named Grace, who was being held for ransom with a bomb strapped to her chest. You wake up in a run-down asylum with no memory except that you were sent to rescue Grace, but failed. The last thing you remember is the bomb exploding as you tried to defuse it. With a VR headset permanently strapped to your head, you find yourself guided through the asylum by a man named Red, who communicates with you remotely through computer screens. The rest of the game alternates between progressing through the asylum while the inmates run amok, and going into memories related to the kidnapping, which act as more conventional "levels" that you can replay searching for more evidence you may have missed, or changing your approach to achieve a different ending.

Developed by The Farm 51, the company behind Necrovision, Painkiller: Hell & Damnation, and Deadfall AdventuresGet Even is predominantly a "story game," the type of thing where narrative presentation takes priority over gameplay systems, as you're mostly there to take part in the story. There's plenty enough gameplay elements involved as you periodically sneak or fight your way past enemies, solve puzzles, and search for hidden evidence, that it doesn't garner the pejorative "walking simulator" label, but you do spend a lot of time simply walking around and watching scenes play out, or reading emails and listening to phone conversations, as you try to piece together the story and solve the mystery. While the gameplay is perfectly fine and serviceable (it even has a few innovative features, like the "corner gun" that lets you aim around corners or use it like a periscope), the story and the atmosphere it creates are the real reasons to play this game; these elements are absolutely top notch, and they work together to create a pretty unique and memorable experience.

A majority of the game takes place inside of memories, courtesy of the virtual reality-esque "Pandora device," developed by one of the game's main characters, which allows its user to relive memories (of their own, or if the memory has already been uploaded through the Pandora device, someone else's), either as an active participant or as a passive observer. As Black, you go through most of the game exploring your own lost memories, retracing your steps and trying to jar your memory through the Pandora device to figure out what happened leading up to the explosion, while Red observes and helps you stitch the memories together. Every now and then, you slip into some of Red's memories, or someone else's. As part of a digital simulation, you're free to follow Red's instructions, trying to recreate the memory as it really happened, or you can veer off the rails a little bit and do things a little differently. In practice, this means that you get the choice of how to deal with hostile enemies, either by shooting them in open confrontation or trying to sneak your way past them, while also trying to explore each memory in the fullest to acquire as much hidden evidence as possible, all of which gets posted on bulletin boards in an "evidence review room" that you can freely consult between missions to try to link everything together on your own.

Some of Black's mission briefings about Grace.

One of Get Even's greatest strengths is the way in which the story is told. The plot plays out like a mystery/thriller as you wonder "who kidnapped Grace," "how am I (Black) involved in all of this," and "who is Red and what's his end game," in addition to other questions that arise as you collect evidence and encounter other characters in memories, who also play important roles in the events leading up to Grace's kidnapping. All of the evidence comes to you in pieces, with entire scenes playing out in non-chronological order, such that each memory you go into gives you but one piece of the overall puzzle. The scenes and evidence give you enough concrete leads that you can follow where the story is going, while also leaving just enough things unresolved and dangling hints about what you might uncover later, that it holds your interest. Memories have a lot of overlapping and interwoven elements; the first time you go through a memory you're bound to encounter something that doesn't make sense on its own, until you go through a different memory and figure out the context. You might, for instance, only hear half a phone conversation (which makes things seem one way) and then later hear the other half (which can change the meaning of what you heard previously).

In practice, the story is told to you through a combination of flashbacks (via memories in the Pandora) and pieces of written or audio evidence (both inside memories, and in the real world), mixed with random trips into some kind of surreal dreamworld when the Pandora glitches. In the asylum, Red has gathered a bunch of relevant evidence, and you might read newspaper articles or police reports from the police department's point of view, detailing the investigation into the explosion at the abandoned warehouse, or emails sent by likely suspects, and then when you go into the memory you see some of the aftermath following the explosion, but before the police arrived. If you're paying attention, then you'll notice some discrepancies between the police reports, the news articles, and what this character saw at the warehouse, which can raise questions about which version is the truth and what missing pieces there might be to the story. Then the Pandora might glitch and send you deeper into someone's memories, going far beyond what you (or Red) intended, to show more about that character's personal life, backstory, and psyche.

Creepy mannequins in a dance position.

Some of these moments can get pretty weird and trippy, like when you try to interact with a locked door, and then turn around to discover that the whole room has changed behind you, or when you walk through an infinitely-repeating set of doors that lead you back to the same office to witness more stages of a montage scene unfolding. Sometimes you're warped into some ethereal plane of existence that seems to house dormant or repressed memories, where you simply walk around a neural network of memories while the floor rushes up to form underneath you, watching scenes unfold while clock gears tick underneath you, or where a character's paintings change in real time from an idyllic landscape to a macabre image of someone screaming. Another section puts you in puzzle situations where a room gets mirrored, and you have to warp between rooms looking at things from a certain perspective, or trying to figure out what the differences are, or trying to synchronize the two images. Then other situations warp you into nightmare scenarios where mannequins come to life and try to kill you.

The game's visuals can be fairly interesting at times, what with the pulsating digital polygons rendering characters who stand frozen-in-time but look like highly realistic glass sculptures that are constantly in the process of shattering and resetting themselves, but it's the sound design that really sets the game's unique atmosphere. Pretty much every level has some kind of repetitive noise or sound effect going on, like crazy inmates chanting about "the party" in the asylum, or the sound of a watch hand and gears ticking, or someone violently pounding on a door, or someone whispering another character's name -- these sounds are usually completely detached from the actual environment you're in, almost like they're glitchy echoes from the Pandora device, but they layer and build in such a way that it gets to feel genuinely tense and oppressive just walking around when something like that door-pounding noise is going on, or wistfully contemplative when that name is being repeated by another character's voice.

It's not just the ambient sound design either; it's the actual musical score, too. One of the memories, for instance, is loosely based on tracking a character's cellphone through a graveyard -- you're following the distant sounds of their cellphone's ringtone jingle to trigger memories each time you find the next place they were at -- and that level's soundtrack is based around that cellphone jingle so that as you get closer to your destination, the music builds and layers more things on top of the basic jingle, until it eventually erupts into a full-on pop song when guards get alerted to your presence. And like, it's just such an interesting juxtaposition of being in a dark, creepy graveyard and dodging enemy gunfire with that kind of bright, up-beat music (complete with disco-esque bass lines and a woman singing bright, cheery vocals) playing prominently over top of everything. That was one of many moments where I felt completely mind-blown over just how weird and different this game can be, and it was this singular moment where I felt completely sold on Get Even. So much about this game is so uniquely interesting, but this level alone was reason enough to justify my purchase.

The graveyard level, with the "Signal Bars" song playing.

The whole game is bathed in a surreal, almost dream-like quality, in large part because the Pandora device is so nebulous in terms of what it can do, how it presents itself, and how it subverts your expectations. Nothing is really ever as it seems, and you can never be sure what's going to happen, because so much of what you do doesn't actually take place in reality, even though it's supposedly based on someone else's reality -- or their perceived version of that reality. As such, there's a literary element of the unreliable narrator at work, since you can't ever really trust anyone, or anything you see, because the perspective of the memory you're reliving may be intentionally trying to hide something by repressing the memory or distorting the facts. That helps to build the mystery, since it really keeps you on your toes and continually adjusts your perspective of things as you witness other people's perspectives, comparing what Black and Red think of a memory, and what you think of a memory, along with what the people in the memory were likely thinking at the time and how they would see things.

Just as the memories captured by the Pandora device can be altered by the owners of those memories, you, as Black, have a similar power to alter memories as you relive them, such as by materializing a van out of thin air to give yourself cover in a fire fight (essentially saying "Wasn't there a van right here? I remember there being one,") or by creating an air vent where there wasn't one to sneak past some guards undetected. This power, unfortunately, isn't a major design element in the gameplay system, since they're all pre-determined for you (your phone map shows icons of where "memory anomalies" are, and you can use the scanner's viewfinder to see, in real time, what would change if you scanned it) and all you really do is press the action button to make the thing happen. That's kind of disappointing from a gameplay standpoint, since it's not a proactive tool for allowing you to solve problems in creative ways, but more a reactionary element of "oh, the game is telling me that there's an anomaly here. I should activate it and see what happens." There's some satisfaction to be had in using these anomalies to plot the correct course through a convoluted network of patrolling guards -- a bit like solving a puzzle in that regard, if you're trying to deduce the developers' intended solution -- but it's hard to feel that much satisfaction when you're just activating a hotspot.

Using the black light to spot hidden numbers.

I should take a moment to note that the game does, in fact, feature actual puzzles scattered throughout some of its memories, although they're generally sparse in number and not that complicated. This is definitely not a puzzle game or a typical adventure game that would rely heavily on puzzles for its primary gameplay elements -- as a game of many different elements, puzzles are but one small aspect of the overall experience. Sometimes you're trying to figure out the combination to an electronic keypad lock, or configuring the circuit breakers in such a way to restore power to the elevator, or tracking heat in pipes to figure out which steam valves to turn off so that you can progress through the level, or other similar types of activities. They're pretty simple, really, but they add to the game's atmosphere by sometimes letting you use special tools on your smartphone, like a black light to track blood splatters, or the thermal vision to trace heat signatures, and so on, a bit like an actual detective might. And although the puzzles aren't challenging enough to be innately satisfying on their own, they complement the game's overall pacing pretty well by giving your enough moments where you slow down and try to solve a problem, rather than always dealing with hostile enemies, or watching story scenes.

Going back to the Pandora device, your main ability to alter memories is in terms of how you engage with hostile enemies (who occasionally patrol areas in the standard memory levels and are ready to shoot on sight if they catch you), either by using stealth to avoid combat and trying to kill as few people as possible, or by using brute force to fight your way past threats and obstacles. In this regard, the game plays a bit like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, except that Get Even is never really that good at either stealth or FPS action. It's generally pretty fine and serviceable, but it's lacking any type of mechanical grit to make it really tense or exciting, because it all feels relatively mundane. The enemy stealth AI, for instance, is kind of primitive, since it relies purely on the old-fashioned "sight cone" rules with basic awareness for sounds you make, but as long as you're crouched and stay out of their sight cone you're basically impossible to detect. In practice, I found that sneaking through a level meant watching the map and paying attention to the guards' icons more so than anything in the actual environment, which demonstrates in a glaringly obvious manner how shallow the stealth mechanics actually are.

Where the combat gets interesting is with its "corner gun," which lets you attach a weapon to a special stock and then bend it 90-degrees around corners, with a camera and screen showing you what the gun sees from that perspective; you can also use it like a periscope to see over obstacles, so it can be a handy tool in stealth as well as in combat (although, again, the map shows you so much information by itself that it renders the corner gun somewhat superfluous in stealth). While this serves an interesting function in the game, and certainly seems pretty innovative for a video game design, it's not really that fun to use in practice, because most of the time it means that you're sitting perfectly still and safe behind cover, and can easily pick off enemies as they expose themselves. I just don't find that very exciting, and it's possibly even less exciting (or tense, or engaging -- whatever adjective you want to use) than traditional cover systems in other first-person shooters, where you're more active popping in and out of cover, timing your attacks, and moving from cover to cover as enemies throw grenades or try to flank you. Here, you pretty much just sit still and shoot stuff from perfect safety.

Using the corner gun to spy on a conversation around the corner.

The actual feeling of combat, meanwhile, seems pretty rudimentary. Most of the guns (you start with a basic pistol and can unlock a variety of other weapons, including a sniper rifle, a shotgun, a sub-machine gun, a crossbow, etc) all look and sound pretty good, but enemy combat AI isn't very sophisticated since they tend to just come right at you shooting. They'll take cover if it's available and periodically pop out to shoot, but they're not particularly smart about group tactics. And with the corner gun's ability to let you shoot safely from behind cover, along with a thermal vision mod that brightly highlights living enemies, it makes combat a simplistic matter of just "point and click." Enemies all die in a few shots, as do you, so there's some tension in terms of being caught in the open and scrambling for cover, or trying to react quickly enough to kill them before they kill you, but it often ends up with you abruptly dying, which is a little more anticlimactic than fun or exciting.

The game (as in, Red, the man guiding you through each of the game's memories) makes a clear point of emphasizing that you should avoid killing people whenever possible, because doing so has the potential to corrupt the memories, and that if you want to see the "true story" you need to not be a murderous psychopath and should only use lethal force as a last resort. In practice, this determines which of the game's endings you get, based on how many people you killed. While I normally favor taking a stealthy approach and avoiding combat in games that give me that choice, it doesn't really feel like much of a choice in this game, because the story is quite clearly the main point of emphasis, and if you're playing this game then you likely want to see as much of the story as possible, which rules out a guns blazing approach. It's also weird that the game is so insistent on not killing people (remember, you're always free to do whatever you want, but there's a voice constantly telling you there will be consequences for killing people) and then gives you zero non-lethal options for dealing with hostile threats, except for the stealth system. There's no way to knock out a guard with a heavy bash to the back of their head (you always break their neck with a stealth take-down), and you don't have tranquilizer darts or stun guns, or the ability to throw objects to distract them, either, so you're forced to either kill them, or just avoid engaging with them altogether, which could mean just running away until their behavior patterns reset, which isn't very engaging gameplay.

Furthermore, it's pretty stupid that the game rewards you with more guns for collecting 100% of the evidence in the level, because they're basically telling you "Hey, do this meticulously time-consuming thing to learn as much of the story as possible, and we'll give you a cool reward, but then we'll yell at you and slap your wrist any time you actually use it." Those rewards are completely pointless, because you're just not going to use them, in favor of playing the game as it's intended and trying to get the "best" ending while seeing as much of the story as possible, and if you're someone who doesn't care about the story and only wants to play around with fun weaponry in an action-shooter, then it's not going to be worth your time and effort to collect all 100% of the evidence in the memories, just to unlock these new weapons to use in a somewhat rudimentary combat system for a game that's not really about combat anyway, when you could just be playing a different game instead.

The evidence review board for one of the memories.

Actually going back to get 100% of the evidence in a level is pretty tedious, too, since whenever you start a memory, you have to play it through to completion, even if you were only missing one little piece of evidence at the very start of the level. The incentive to do this, besides the weapon unlocks, is that you also gain access to "hidden memories" that show more detail on particular story elements, which have to be accessed from within the memory itself by unlocking a previously locked door with a code that you get for getting all 100% of the evidence. In practice, this means you'll likely have to play a memory three times -- once on your first attempt through, a second time with a guide to make sure you get everything you missed, and a third time to actually access the hidden memory -- or even more if you miss something, or have to go back to "reset" your actions to make the right decisions, since those can affect your ending. There was one memory that I had to play through five whole times, and it had a gameplay tutorial in it which meant I had to play that tutorial five whole times. It can be fun to replay an earlier scenario with the knowledge you've gained from later ones, because it can help you understand things a little better and make you realize things you might have missed, but it was more of a chore than fun after a certain point, with certain memories.

I also feel like the game is falsely advertised, to the point that I was misled into thinking I was going to be playing something very different. The #1 user tag on Steam, by a significant margin, labels Get Even as a "psychological horror" game, when it's absolutely not a horror game, by any real definition. It looks like a horror game on a casual glance because you're in a run-down asylum watching and listening to crazy inmates who sometimes attack you, but that's just a lightly horror-themed veneer to make it look like a horror game, aesthetically, without being a horror game mechanically. A select handful of moments feel like they could've been plucked out of something like Condemned: Criminal Origins or Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but the overwhelming majority of the game has absolutely nothing to do with horror, as you go through crime scenes and flashbacks just trying to learn the mystery of what happened leading up to Grace's kidnapping. Really, it's more of a thriller with super light, occasional hints of horror, than a full-on horror game. Which is fine (I really liked the game), but not what I was expecting.

A courtyard outside the asylum.

Despite having pretty linear level design, it's not always clear where you have to go or what you have to do. One of the memories gives you the objective of stealing the corner gun prototype from a research lab, and then just drops you into the level and you're like "Ok, what am I looking for? Where is it? How do I even steal it?" Other games would give you some kind of mission briefing about the building's layout, where exactly you have to get to, any possible security issues you might deal with, and so on, but here it's like you're just expected to wander around until you find someplace that isn't a dead end, and awkwardly stumble forward until you reach the final destination. Even then, it's not always clear where you have to go, such as in that same level when you suddenly have to escape, but you're expected to go out a different way than you came in, except that previously locked doors are suddenly unlocked for some inexplicable reason and so, once again, you're just stumbling around (through heavy gun fire while Red insistently tells you not to kill anyone) trying to figure out what the game actually expects you to do. Meanwhile, the game has a lot of annoying "air lock checkpoint saves" that close doors behind you and prevent you from backtracking, which can be frustrating when you accidentally pick the correct path forward and suddenly can't move back into the previous room to search for evidence you might have missed.

While the game comes up a little short in terms of its more mechanical aspects, the real problem may be that it just doesn't commit to any of its disparate elements as strongly as it could. At times it toes the line of being a horror game, without going the full distance and actually becoming a true horror game. The combat is serviceable, but it doesn't feel as thoroughly fleshed-out as it probably could have been. Meanwhile, it advocates being played like a stealth game but it doesn't give you any real tools (except for the constant map monitor, and the corner gun periscope) to play it like an actual stealth game. So, the game certainly has its shortcomings, but these don't generally feel like flaws, but more like missed potential. For what it is -- a first-person "story game" with light action, stealth, puzzle, and horror elements thrown into the mix -- it's pretty good, especially because the story and the way that it's told are so both so genuinely engaging. I think it's safe to say that Get Even is one of the most uniquely fascinating games I've played in a long time. It's a shame it flew so far under the radar, and I think that's partly because of the name itself (Get Even sounds pretty generic to me) and a general lack of marketing. But, if anything in this review intrigued you (particularly the gameplay video in the cemetery) then I'd recommend picking it up sometime, especially if you can get it on sale.

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