Tripping over mediocrity: Critical reviews of “Foolish Mortals” and “The Unknown City”

Last week marked the start of the second annual Xbox Summer Game Fest Demo event, which likely came as a surprise to some gamers since, first, the last year’s annual Demo event happened in July, and second, it’s not technically summer yet. All right, so it’s summer now, but it wasn’t when the so-called summer event started.

For those not in the know – I myself being one of them until last night – the Demo event is when a bunch of developers throw their in-process products at the Microsoft Store on Xbox. The demos are made available for about a week, so gamers can have a peek at what might be coming in the future, and developers can have a squad of beta testers who, being culled from the Xbox Live crowd, are known for their politeness, eloquence and sense of fair play.

It’s interesting to see what both Microsoft and gamer media are pushing. Thoughtful, quirky adventure game “The Lake” seems like a popular headline choice, as are stylish action-adventure fantasies “Sable” and “Tunic.” Maybe “Echo Generation” too, which looks like a retro “Stranger Things” RPG… thing. If it were up to me, I’d be pushing “Trigger Witch,” which looks like a pulpy what-it-says-on-the-label story of a magical young woman and her gun. That or the cat one.

Anyway, we’re not talking about any of those games today, but we are talking about demos, ones that have presumably been kicking around and will still be here long after the second annual Demo event has burned itself out. We’re going to be talking about the Lovecraftian arcade game “Foolish Mortals” and the questionably zombie FPS “The Unknown City.” Because that’s what you want to see when it comes to current events, tonstant weader. Two indie game demos from 2018.

We’ll start with “Foolish Mortals.” It’s not technically a demo. It’s a full game, albeit a very fast and very free one. And I mean that precisely. It’s very free, not freemium or free for 20 minutes. I didn’t even notice a tip jar.

The gameplay of “Mortals” is blisteringly simple. You’re Cthulhu, half-emerged from an interdimensional portal. Punch the various army men, tanks and helicopters that pester you. Watch the number in the upper right-hand corner of the screen go up until you die. That’s it.

The enemies are not terribly creative, ranging from pixel dudes with guns to pixel trucks with guns, and their attacks are all accordinly quite pew-pew-pew. The background has a little more style, being a purplish burned-out city. Cthulhu probably fares best. The High Priest of the Elder Gods has two arms that can be controlled independently of each other, so there’s some strategy in placing your hits. The model itself is kinda fun lookin’. I like Cthulhu’s giant quizzical eyebrows. Still, I swear I’ve seen it somewhere else before. If I can think of where, I’ll let you know.

“Mortals” is not a particularly good game, but it’s hard to say bad things about a game that set out to do so little, achieved it in a fully competent way, and essentially costs nothing to play. It’s all very adequate, right down to the design. Still, the lack of variety means you will probably not be firing up “Foolish Mortals” a lot, unless you’re waiting for another, more ambitious, game to finish downloading.

I found “Foolish Mortals” on the Microsoft Store by searching for “cosmic horror.” I found “The Unknown City” while searching for “psychological horror.” If these are the current representatives for those subgenres, we are in some murky waters, mystery-science fans.

“The Unknown City” – more completely known as “The Unknown City” (Horror Begins Now… Episode 1) Demo” – fired a warning shot at me when I became trapped in its settings menu. I could play with such parameters as music volume and sound effects volume and… something else, probably, but I’m not going back to look. Because once I wanted to leave, I realized I could not select the return to main menu option.

I restarted the game – in truth, I restarted the game a few times because it would not load again, but who’s keeping track – then went for new game. See? I’m capable of learning. To its credit as a horror game, “Unknown City” immediately invoked a sense of helplessness, desolation and unease. Unfortunately, the sense of helpless came from a fairly static cut scene of a square little police car driving along while its occupants bickered about directions. These were supposed to be cops, mind you, who presumably know how to navigate their beat. Oh well.

The sense of desolation came from the road, which was basically barren; the city where their car inexplicably breaks down, which was unpopulated by things like trash cans or parking meters or anything that makes a city look like it was ever a city; and the stormy atmosphere, which was nonexistent. The sense of unsease came from the characters who emerged from the car: frightening doll people who sounded like they were voiced by the developer’s dashboard GPS.

The first thing I noticed about my character – I believe his name was “boy cop” – was that he was either very tall or could jump very high. Or both. He towered above his patrol car, and a quick jump put him on eye level with the street lamps. The spring in his step was quickly proven when I learned that, by standing on certain parts of the environment, I could rocket him hundreds of feet into the air. This was gleefully dizzying – I actually laughed – since I could do it repeatedly and without accruing fall damage.

Back to the story. After ducking into a few unlocked, glaringly-lit and unfurnished buildings, the cops eventually found our first zombie. He attacked us, presumably out of frustration at being in this game. Then, in the two seconds it took me to determine his weakness – bullets – girl cop was kidnapped. By other zombies. Who hadn’t been on screen previously, and yet were able to spirit her away to a swimming pool? This was arguably one of the most contrived moments I’ve seen in a game. It was fascinating.

Unfortunately, my “Unknown City” saga was drawing to a close. Not because the demo ran out. Because the game broke. Alas, my ability to jump absurdly high was to be my undoing.

Girl cop urged me to run to the car and get some more guns – I guess her kidnapping situation wasn’t quite bad enough to warrant an immediate rescue – and the game became a gooey shooter rather than a following simulator. Curiously, while the walking controls had been way too loose, the aiming was way too sticky. Gun felt sluggish, and I was constantly fighting against the sights. I’m not sure how to describe it when combined with the movement. It was the equivalent of biting into low quality hamburger meat: unnaturally smooth until you hit some piece of gristle that grinds the experience to a sudden halt.

Still, I found it pretty easy to mow down some zombies, who sort of resembled the ones from the advertised screenshots. The zombies were of the medium speed variety, and the game was very generous with health and ammo. At least, I think it was. There was no ammo counter, HUD or health bar, which I assume was a creative choice done for sake of realness and immersion, but I never ran out of shots.

However, at some point I stepped on a bad piece of reality and found myself once again rocketed into the air. When I came back down, I was on the other side of an invisible wall. I couldn’t get back to the main street and the subsequent mission objective. Interestingly, the zombies could still get to me, but I could never determine how they got “in.” That’s the problem with zombies, I guess. You can never figure out where they’re coming from. All you can do is call an exterminator and tent your house, although you know they’ll just be back in a year or two.

Reviews for the game on Steam are surprisingly mixed, about a 50-50 split between good and bad. The bad reviews are about what you would expect: the janky controls, the ugly design, the lack of anything remotely like horror. Even the good reviews are, shall we say, very aware of what kind of game they’re playing. Those are reviewers after my own heart, because I am genuinely interested in finishing the demo. Would I ever spend money on the game? I doubt it. But I am willing to admit that I can’t encounter a world like “Unknown City’s” anywhere else but in that game, and as long as I enter it with no expectations of a quality story, interesting atmosphere or engaging gameplay, I will be rewarded. I’m curious to see what happens next.

Expectation is a funny thing. “Foolish Mortals” promised little and delivered. “Unknown City” promised little too; its description, screenshots and price promised something, but its atmosphere, narrative and gameplay told me exactly what kind of ridiculous experience I was in for. Curiously, a game like “Past Cure” will frustrate me much more because of its flashes of decency. There is more to lose when playing a game like that. When “Unknown City” sets the bar so low and still finds creative ways to fail, the only thing it could do to frustrate me would be to inexplicably get better.

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