Developer: Spearhead Games
Publisher: Spearhead Games
Format: PC, PS4
Released: May 16, 2018
Ah, early 2016. What a time to be alive, am I right? Loot boxes weren’t being used and abused by publishers under the excuse of giving players “pride and accomplishment”. The Emoji Movie was still nothing more than a laughable pitch idea. And we could still read news articles on a daily basis without first making blood sacrifices to several deities in the hopes that we wouldn’t have to keep hearing about the fucking Space Force.
It was also during this time I took a look at a fascinating little game developed by Montreal-based studio, Spearhead Games, called Stories: Path of Destinies. An action-RPG with a plot that played out as sort of furry Groundhog Day in which you’d repeat the same story that would almost always end in a fatal fate for the game’s protagonist. However, with each replay, you could choose where you went and who you spoke to in order to learn new pieces of information about characters and objects that were integral to the tale in order to find an ending that didn’t end in someone’s tragic demise.
Unfortunately, while its storytelling mechanics were the game’s major draw, the rest of the game felt lacking in comparison. Gameplay felt more like a side-feature that was there to pad out the bits in-between the story paths than an actual part of the game. Sure, there was fairly decent combat and even some RPG elements to tinker around with, but after a few Groundhog Day laps through the plot, it quickly ran out of things to hand out and new enemies to beat down. Which was especially frustrating for people like myself, who wanted to see the all the different ways the the main character could stupidly get himself killed, rather than b-lining for the super-special-awesome-everybody-get-happy ending.
But nevertheless, with one fascinating game, Spearhead managed to grab my attention. So you can imagine how stoked I was to get my hands on their latest game that released in May this year, Omensight. Not only did it have similar storytelling mechanics to Stories, but it stuck them into a tale about solving a time-travelling murder mystery; which coincidentally might just be my new favourite combination of words, perhaps second only to “Yakuza Remastered Collection”.
In fact I’d even go so far as to say that Omensight might be one of the best examples of a developer not only learning from the blunders of their previous work, but also understanding how to tweak their strengths. In this case, Spearhead took the lessons they learned from a fascinating, but ultimately flawed formula to create a spiritual successor with fantastic, tight gameplay while making an already unique storytelling style all the more engaging.
Set in the same universe as Stories, Omensight sees you playing as the Harbinger, a spiritual entity that appears before a catastrophic event as both its warning and deterrent. The apocalypse de jour this time around being a great war that will bring an end to both countries fighting it. Or at least it would be if some git hadn’t decided to summon a world-ending serpent of darkness the same day you pop into existence. Not only that, but the only person who could have stopped it from happening has been murdered!
Thankfully, just before your title of Harbinger becomes meaningless, a mysterious witch grants you the ability to travel back in time in order to slueth out the murder. But as all helpful powers go, this one comes strapped with a heavy bike chain; you can only travel back in time to the beginning of the final day. Which means with only four leads to follow, you’ll only have until sundown to gain the trust of each suspect, figure out their motives, uncover their secrets, and work out their alibis before the world ends all over again. Just another Tuesday at the office, right?
I’ll admit that while I spent a good couple of paragraphs shitting over Stories’ gameplay for the sake of how interesting its story was, “interesting” doesn’t mean “amazing”. I mean sure, it was cool being able to knowingly fuck around with a story by manipulating other characters’ motivations in order to achieve your own personal goals, but there was a lot of faff that got in the way of being able to do that.
Stories had a lot of endings that required you to wait until half, if not three-quarters of the way through a playthrough before you could change a certain decision in order to see something new. Which was especially frustrating if you’d already experienced the parts of the story leading up to those decisions. Sure, it would only take you ten to fifteen minutes to reach those critical decisions, but that quickly starts adding up with each playthrough. You’ll have to play through the same levels, fight the same enemies, and sit through the same cutscenes and dialogue, only to at best be shown a new “bad ending”, or in a majority of cases, an ending similar to one you’ve already seen, just with slightly different wording.
And in a game with multiple endings to experience, but only requiring twenty percent of them to actually finish it, this faff causes two problems arise:
- The game ends up being far too short for those who don’t want to deal with it and beeline the game from beginning to end.
- The game becomes too boring for completionists and/or those who want to see all of the endings the developers put the effort into writing and narrating.
Omensight uses the same formula as Stories, offering four differing paths, with the occasional splitting pathways based on critical decisions. However, it manages to avoid these two issues I mentioned above entirely by making two distinctive changes
The first of these is making the story a more linear experience. While you’ll be exploring and revisiting four story paths, there’s also an overarching plot that develops them even further. As new plot revelations are learned and abilities are discovered, the player is given access to new choices that quickly replace the original ones. Meaning that the player can still experience a decent chunk of the game’s various paths, while still feeling like they’re making progress towards the end of the overall story.
The second, and probably most important of the two is that it just straight out cuts the unnecessary faff. Unlike Stories, Omensight offers you the ability to skip straight to critical branching points each path after you’ve experienced for first time. As a result, the pacing feels a lot snappier, letting players get straight back into the action while still allowing for completionists to see everything without feeling like they’re being punished for it.
What sticks out to me as one of Omensight’s best story telling improvements, however, is the one that was the least necessary: using the choose-your-own-groundhog-day formula in the context of a murder investigation to make the game more personally engaging for the player. The whole point of the player’s role in the story is to uncover as much information as they possibly can about the game’s ultimate mystery. And with this added kick of player agency, the game gives you a compelling reason as to go back through previously explored story paths to uncover as many possible new pieces of information as you can squeeze out of them.
In other words, the player is given a guaranteed sense of satisfaction for what essentially boils down to backtracking by making it feel as though they’re being thorough, leaving no stone unturned. Which is a hell of a lot better than asking them to do it for the sake of a completion percentage.
There’s also been some thankful changes on the gameplay side of things. The most obvious of these being the invigorating reinvention of the combat. While both games have the same Sleeping Dog Creed’s Asylum combat style of attacky, countery goodness, Omensight’s feels not only more fluid, but also gives a great sense of depth and complexity.
Where Stories mostly just saw you blocking and countering with the occasional projectile throwing, Omensight gives you access to so much more. There’s dodge rolls, grabs, projectile attacks, companion characters with team-up attacks, and even time freezing powers. And the game encourages you to use all of them as stylishly as possible, rewarding you with extra experience points and money to buy upgrades for taking down enemies with more than just your basic moveset. Which in turn keeps the player’s attention on the action rather than blindly going through the motions. After all, why just bonk a bunch of dudes on the head with a sword when you could freeze time, throw an enemy into an explosive barrel conveniently placed next to a set of weak-looking pillars and bring them crashing down on the rest of his pals?
And then there’s the more subtle change in Omensight that took me until I was a fair way through the game to actually realise. I was getting my ass handed to me on multiple occasions, and more frequently as the game’s acts continued. There was no feeling of mundanity or boredom with each recurring playthrough. I felt challenged every single time, and the game was actually punishing me for trying to button mash my way through it. I realised that there was an actual difficulty curve here, and one that was manufactured in a way that matched my skills, upgrades and new abilities. And Spearhead managed to blend it in with the story’s progression so wonderfully that I didn’t even notice.
By tweaking the storytelling style in Omensight to have a more linear overarching story, Spearhead in turn had a much easier time scaling the game’s difficulty by using the player’s progression through the game’s four acts to track how powerful they were. So, even as they play through the same various combinations of the game’s handful of levels over and over again, the player is never facing the same sets of foes each time. Instead the player encounters new enemy types in constantly changing groups that force on the fly planning and use of every skill they’ve acquired up to that point to survive, rather than simply brute forcing their way through enemies that had lost their luster hours ago.
As much as it seems obvious to point out how important it is for developers to learn from past mistakes and improve on what makes their games great, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that this isn’t a lesson they can follow. Take for example the now tragically defunct Telltale games. Sure, they’ve learned to fix their clunky gameplay as they’ve gone on, but one of the things that lead them to their downfall was their inability to update and improve on what got them the big bucks with the first season of The Walking Dead: their style of storytelling. While it was certainly a fantastic innovation, it didn’t take long for its limitations, flaws, and tricks to become obvious to its audience. Their famous prompt of “they will remember that” turned from a devastating gut punch to an obvious illusion for the sake of drama. And as a result, sales numbers were severely affected once potential customers realised they could just save themselves the money and watch someone else play what was essentially a fairly linear cinematic experience.
Thankfully, Omensight is showing that, at least for now, Spearhead isn’t going to be falling into those same problems any time soon. Instead, it’s shown that they not only have the ability to craft small, but engaging story-driven action games, but aren’t afraid to learn from and correct their previous failings. It makes me believe that they aren’t willing to settle for making games that are just “okay”, not when they can deliver something great instead.
Writer: Tristan Venables