Off-Peak: A Review

Off-Peak, by Cosmo D, drops you off at a train station, next to a musician named Luuuke who offers you his ticket if you can find all the pieces and put it back together. Thus starts your short but absurd journey into this game. The train station is unlike anything we can image, despite being based on Grand Central Station in New York City going by the available stops. I didn’t see a mushroom garden last time I was there though.
 
The station in Off-Peak is grandiose, surreal, and full of oddities. The walls are plastered with posters and paintings. Some are disturbing, such as the Polish movie posters used in the dark stairwell, and others are happy and cheerful. The irregular and haphazard placement of these pieces make the station look more like temporary storage rather than a gallery. Look up and you will even see a whale. Among these disparate and eclectic pieces  are the denizens and passers-by of the station, almost equally as odd as the pieces which adorn the walls. You can talk to them or listen in to their conversations to learn more about the characters and the world. Listen closely, and you will pickup information on “The Circus”. Atop the tracks, upon a throne, sits the station’s owner and leader Marcus.
 
Train stations are transport hubs which are ripe for chance encounters of people going about their business, more so than airports in my experience. A decade and a half ago, I was sitting in Grand Central Station with my partner at the time. We were waiting for our train back after watching an off-Broadway play. A young man with a guitar case and a backpack came up to us and asked if we could buy him a ticket back home. He had lost his money and his train was leaving in ten minutes. I gave him twenty dollars and asked if it was enough, he said it was more than enough. “If you give me your address, I can send you twenty back when I get home,” he offered. I told him not to worry and to have a safe trip as he rushed to the ticket counter. Sometimes I wish I had asked for him to send it back, just to have a letter or some memento of it. If I had been a quicker thinker, maybe I would have asked for a postcard instead.
 
Off-Peak emulates that feeling, of running into people and catching them in a moment of time. We learn a little bit about each of the characters and of the station. We are given a few hints to what to make of this surreal world where giants play pianos and security guards study game design next to giant mushrooms. Marcus and his station might represent two things, the crossroads between music and games, and the evolution of music and its relation to its audience At first, Marcus seems like a patron of the arts because he is providing a space for all kinds of artists and shopkeepers. He supports them as long as they are what his clients want. This attitude has resulted in the station being ranked a glorious #2 ranking in the region’s most enjoyable transit hub. “They don’t get that I’m a curator. I deem each business worthy of the needs and tastes of my customers. Not all these businesses will do equally well, but I do not care. The tastes and whims of my customers are what’s important to me,”he tells you. So the station’s businesses and artists do not necessarily need to turn a profit, they just need to be what the clients want.
 
The more you talk to him and explore the station, the more sinister the whole thing seems. The station houses all kinds of art (and games, in the boardgame cafe) but a gallery or museum it is not. While Marcus might not want to make tons of money, he also does not want anyone to leave. This made me think of the station as a walled garden, or a service which offers things you want but makes it hard for you to switch. Steam is an example of that, and to keep it topical, so is Spotify. Spotify does not have all the music I want, but it has a lot of the music I want. I am reminded of this every time I search for songs and artists I remember from my university days. While I still have mp3 files I have ripped from my CD collection, it is still not as convenient as using Spotify. I mean, I don’t need to transfer these songs to my phone at all, and I can easily share my playlists with my friends.  If I want to listen to my mp3 music files, I need to battle with poor meta data (not even recording studios ever got that right) and clunky interfaces of outdated programs because no one apparently listens to albums of mp3s anymore.
 
So even though Spotify only has most of what I want, I remain. I don’t even pay for it (yet) and the convenience is worth the advertisements, or so I tell myself. Spotify is like Marcus, but less sinister, hopefully. Apparently the pizza isn’t so good at the station either, so maybe Marcus needs to up his curation game.
 
In a corner of the station you find a girl selling old jazz records someone had dropped off. She says she just needs one sale to make it for a month or two. Across the station, there is a sheet music vendor, peddling sheet music dropped off by the same person who dropped off the records. Someone who has abandoned past media formats for newer, digital ones perhaps? Among the records for sale you can find one from Archie Pelago, Cosmo D’s band and the creator of the game’s soundtrack
 
What does this mean? 
 
Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Cosmo D’s game feels small, personal, but at the same time larger than that. Like meeting people in train stations, it is a touch, an impression. Somehow meticulously put together but random enough to tell you that there just might be secrets here you will never discover. The reason I wanted to, in retrospect, for the young man I met in Grand Central station for a minute to send me something back was to extend that moment, uncover secrets. Where they in a band? What kind of music did they play? I could have known more but the only reason I still think about it today is because I do not know. 

Amphora Review

In Amphora, you command a wisp of smoke that lives in a, well, amphora. Like a genie or spirit, your smokey form watches over the life of a girl, guiding her and her family through the major scenes in their lives. Each scene is displayed in colourful environments that draw inspiration both from shadow theater and stained glass windows. The amphora is located somewhere in the level and your area of effect surrounds it. This means that you are not able to manipulate objects everywhere in the scene and may lose control of them if they end up outside this area. If the objects are important, they will spawn back in, giving you a chance to try again. Your task in each scene (or level) is to manipulate certain objects in a certain to complete the task needed to proceed. Usually, the levels are fairly straightforward and the goal is clear from the beginning.

What is not always clear is the way how to solve it. While most scenes are easily breezed through, there were two in particular that were difficult, the sheep and the ship levels. In the sheep level, it was not made clear how to solve it and I got through it by breaking the game. Later, while watching a video of how to complete the level the proper way, the solution required an idea that had not been introduced before and wasn’t used after. The ship level was difficult because the controls were janky and fiddly. This resulted in trial and error as I continuously swept my mouse back and forth trying to launch this item correctly.

The questionable controls and physics prevail throughout the game, but it was only in this instance where I felt it had a detrimental effect on my play. The rest of the puzzles more or less worked as they should have, though if you are going to achievements, you will encounter more jankiness.

When trying to toss objects across the screen is not enough, the smoky amphora unlocks a new mechanic, wispy silver lines. These lines can be drawn and cut and drawn again to hold things in place, kind of. There are some strange rules around how exactly these lines work and what they can do, so experimentation is a must. This mechanic becomes essential in certain puzzles, where you need to hold things in place in relation to other objects or keep certain things in place. A few of my solutions had these ugly spiderwebs all over as I was frantically drawing lines to get one that worked.

Each scene looks great and is something to look forward to, and tells the story of the life of a girl and possibly her family. We see stereotypical phases of her life – falling in love, marriage, playing with toys, going to war, traveling – but there is no explicit narrative. This often leads to confusion about the context of what is happening in the scene. In the aforementioned ship scene, the player has to moor a ship so a passenger can get on and supposedly go to a far away land. We don’t know why, or where and while this may not be important for the actual game, it made the narrative seem superfluous.

A story might be necessary to include to give some context and structure to the puzzles, but I wish it had been implemented a bit better. Since the game is without speech or written text, the stories of each scene rely solely on visuals (and the cultural references of the player) for delivery. Some scenes are quite complex and delightful, but others are bare by comparison. Perhaps more time on each scene and a less ambitious story with more straightforward set pieces would have improved it.

It does not take away from the experience except in implanting the feeling that I had missed something profound. What is this amphora anyway?

In the end, it comes down to inspiration. Some of the scenes are great. Reading bedtime stories to the young girl, love at first sight in the marketplace, the man under the rain of arrows are all superb. The craft of these really highlight where the developer’s inspirations lay and make the less well-thought out scenes stand out even more as filler scenes. Amphora is a game that feels like it started as an aesthetic first and a game second.

But it is a great aesthetic. If you can deal with the inconsistent inspiration and the inconsistent difficulty, it is a nice puzzler for a handful of hours.

 

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