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Game

‘As Dusk Falls’ review: A sluggish small-town soap opera

As Dusk Falls is an ambitious narrative adventure game that fails to execute its grandest ideas, hemorrhaging tension along the way. It attempts to tell a mature, action-packed tale about family and loss, but repeated missteps in logic and emotion strip the story of its power. From the mechanics to the branching narrative itself, As Dusk Falls sets clear goals and then fails to meet them, resulting in a choppy southwestern soap opera peppered with sluggish quick-time events.

It feels like this game was purpose-built for me to review it. I’m an Arizona native and the high-desert regions where most of As Dusk Falls takes place are home for me; I grew up hiking the mountain trails just outside of Flagstaff, camping among the creosote bushes and pine trees, and partying on the edges of the valley, surrounded by saguaros and dust. I know how the landscape shifts along the I-17 from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, the mountains swallowing up flat dry land and spewing out smooth red rocks and craggy black cliffs.

I love my hometown and I was excited to see it portrayed in a video game, especially from a new UK studio headed up by Caroline Marchal, the lead designer of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. As far as the setting goes, As Dusk Falls gets it mostly right. I’m not going to be too precious about the details here — the landscape shifts from northern to southern desert in an unrealistic way and all the exit signs are European — because the environment does its job of grounding the characters in an isolated town.

As Dusk Falls

INTERIOR/NIGHT

What’s actually jarring is the dialect in As Dusk Falls, which leans heavily on stereotypically rural words like “ma” for mom, “pa” for dad and “pappy” for grandpa. These terms aren’t the norm in Arizona, even in small desert towns, and they come across as a cheap attempt to infuse the characters with generic “backwoods” traits.

I’d be able to forget the cliche turns of phrase if they weren’t symptomatic of the game as a whole. As Dusk Falls attempts to tell a realistic story that deals with mature subjects like death, suicide and generational trauma, but it places a Hollywood filter over all of its scenes, complete with small-town caricatures, blubbering deathbed monologues and sociopathic responses to murder. As Dusk Falls fails to let its dramatic moments breathe, choking the tension out of the game as a whole.

As Dusk Falls begins in 1998 and features a wide cast of characters, though the main story focuses on two families — one from small-town Arizona and the other passing through on a drive from Sacramento to St. Louis. The local family consists of three brothers on the brink of adulthood, plus ma and pa. The traveling family consists of a dad and mom in their early 30s, their daughter who’s about 10 and her grandpa. For the bulk of the game, you play as the youngest local and the father of the traveling family.

As Dusk Falls

INTERIOR/NIGHT

These families’ paths cross at a motel in the middle of the desert, where the brothers end up in a standoff with the sheriff’s department, holding everyone in the lobby hostage at gunpoint. As the standoff unfolds, players control the dad of the traveling family, deciding what to say and do in response to the brothers’ orders. The game swaps between past and present for both families, showing how they ended up in such a desperate situation, and players’ choices dictate how the story unfolds.

Though the narrative extends past the motel, there are numerous examples of lost tension in the hostage scenes alone. Details will vary depending on the choices each player makes, but in my time with the game, two significant characters ended up shot and killed inside the motel. These characters had strong, loving ties to the remaining group members, yet their deaths were barely acknowledged. Instead, characters that should have been consumed by grief — or, like, any emotion — were soon having conversations about their travel plans and career moves, with barely a word for the dearly departed.

As Dusk Falls

INTERIOR/NIGHT

In As Dusk Falls, it feels like the second a character dies, they’ve served their purpose; the moment anyone steps off-screen, they’re forgotten. This is a pitfall of interactive storytelling — even hits like Until Dawn have awkward pauses or nonsensical dialogue when the writers haven’t properly accounted for all of the player’s decisions. Still, as a game that relies on narrative-driven progression, these anomalies should’ve been addressed. It’s also worth noting that As Dusk Falls can be played with friends online and locally, though I’ve only tried single-player.

The motel is a mess of dramatic but illogical events: The dad exits the hostage situation multiple times and always ends up running back to his captors, throwing out a line like, “but my family’s in there” as explanation. Characters disappear and suddenly reappear when it’s time for a big story beat — and this includes the entire sheriff’s squad. A woman is allowed to walk into the motel in the middle of an active, already-lethal standoff. And don’t get me started on the dad’s two-way pager, which doesn’t have a keyboard but somehow still functions like a modern text app.

As Dusk Falls expands beyond ‘90s Arizona, traveling across the country and 14 years into the future. Most drama in the game feels forced and unearned, and what remains plays out like a soap opera, subsisting on surface-level emotion and oddly timed monologues.

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Game

The Artful Escape Is a Psychedelic, Cosmic Rock Opera

Even the smallest video game can take a long time to produce. Games are complex beasts at every level and developers can spend years toiling away bringing an artistic vision to life. Just look at The Artful Escape.

First debuted at E3 2017, The Artful Escape felt like it was poised to be the next major release for publisher Annapurna Interactive. The musical indie got a full demo and a colorful trailer at the show, though no release date. In fact, the teaser ended with a message that makes more sense four years later: “Coming when it’s damn ready.”

Well, it’s damn ready. The Artful Escape is finally hitting Xbox consoles and PC on September 9. At a preview event prior to Annapurna’s digital showcase, designer Johnny Galvatron reintroduced the long-awaited game and gave a close look at how the cosmic rockstar adventure works.

Rock on

The Artful Escape is a narrative adventure about an aspiring rockstar named Francis Vendetti. The demo begins with the game’s hero sitting on a bench with an acoustic-electric guitar. A button prompt asks players to start plucking out a folk tune, but Francis’ heart isn’t in it. Instead, he walks up to the edge of a cliff, cranks the volume, and starts shredding out a hair metal solo.

That kicks off a self-discovery story as Francis tries to discover his own rock-and-roll identity, rather than following in someone else’s footsteps.

That narrative arc appears to be at the heart of the game design itself, which goes in some truly unexpected directions. The game is best described as a 2D platformer where Francis runs and jumps around environments while riffing. The serene realism of the opening scene quickly takes a turn into the psychedelic, though. Later parts of the demo show Francis running through unearthly planets and interacting with alien NPCs.

The few gameplay snippets I saw were entirely unpredictable. One section has Francis interacting with a being named Lightman, the captain of an Austrian opera house that’s been turned into a ship that traverses the multiverse. It’s a Grateful Dead t-shirt come to life. While there’s clear visual inspiration here from rock legends like David Bowie, The Artful Escape charts its own course with creative visuals that aid Francis on his internal journey.

The gameplay itself is still a little hard to grasp as a viewer. Francis is shown running through a 2D environment while pressing X to riff. It’s not immediately clear if players have control over the music or if there’s a set soundtrack that plays when pressing a button. The interactions look like they’re more in line with story-driven games like Oxenfree, rather than a rhythm game like Guitar Hero.

Francis plays guitar on a cosmic stage in The Artful Escape.

As is becoming more customary for Annapurna games in recent years, the game has a stacked voice cast of A-list talent. The list includes Jason Schwartzman, Mark Strong, and Carl Weathers, just to name a few. That feels like the biggest thing that’s changed since we first saw the game in 2017. At the time, Annapurna was just spreading its wings into the video game space. Since then, it’s become an attractive publisher for celebrities. Actors like Queen Latifah and Bryce Dallas Howard appear in some of its most recently published titles. The Artful Escape is certainly getting the most out of the partnership in 2021.

One of the main focuses of the demo session was the game’s customization. Players can travel to a changing room later in the game, which allows them to fully customize their rockstar. It’s a surprisingly robust creator tool that allows players to tweak everything down to their guitar style. There’s even a practice stage where players can see their persona in action.

Considering how long it’s been since it was first announced, it’s great to see The Artful Escape so close to release. The snippet I saw promises a hypnotic rock opera filled with trippy visuals and monster riffs. It’s looking like a perfect rock-and-roll fantasy for players who don’t want to go through the hassle of, you know, becoming a rockstar.

The Artful Escape launches on September 9 for PC, Xbox, One, and Xbox Series X/S. It will be available on Xbox Game Pass.

Editors’ Choice




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Tech News

Opera 77 “R5” makes video chats pop out of the way

Video chats, be it personal or meetings, have taken over people’s online lives these days in more ways than one. On the one hand, it has become the prevalent way people communicate safely with family, friends, and colleagues. On the other hand, video conferencing apps are designed to take up your entire screen or even just your browser. In Opera’s latest release, it is giving a little bit of control back to users by letting you go through your other tabs while your video chat is happening in some corner of the web browser.

Video pop-out windows are nothing new but most of those are designed for entertainment sites like YouTube or Netflix. Opera believes that video chat tabs shouldn’t be treated differently and shouldn’t hold the rest of the browser hostage. Now when users navigate away from a Zoom or Google Meet tab, their video chat pops out of the tab so you can multitask (presumably) even while chatting away.

That’s hardly the only new feature that this “R5” release brings to Opera. As much as people browse a lot of websites, they also collect a lot of things from those websites. Some use a browser’s bookmark system for that, while others rely on third-party services like Pocket or Instapaper. Opera now has its own take on that system with Pinboards that, unsurprisingly, has an uncanny resemblance to Pinterest.

While other web browsers are trying to shave off extraneous features and delegating such functionality to extensions, Opera is integrating some of them instead. In addition to social messaging services, Opera also has a sidebar for music streaming services that now include Deezer and Tidal alongside Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube Music.

Although it isn’t a major upgrade, Opera sees version 77 as a huge jump forward, enough to give it an “R5” codename. The browser maker does say that it gave Opera a visual brush up with new wallpapers to choose from and make the browser’s appearance sync with an operating system’s dark or light themes.

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Tech News

Opera GX Mobile gaming browser comes without game boosting perks

Opera is actually one of the oldest names in the web browser market, long before Chrome was even born. These days, however, it has been pushed to the sidelines but still manages to get a loyal following in some niche services and markets. One example of that is Opera GX, a browser designed specifically for gamers, that’s now getting a version for Android and iOS. Strangely but not surprisingly, Opera GX Mobile is just getting its desktop counterpart’s gaming looks but not the features that actually make it notable.

You might wonder what a gaming browser really means since almost any modern web browser can play those browser games anyway. And no, it doesn’t have anything to do with game streaming services via the Web. Opera GX, instead, offers not a customizable style to fit gamers’ aesthetics and shortcuts to gaming news, it also has controls to tweak the browser’s performance in favor of games that might be running.

At least that’s supposed to be the defining feature of the Opera GX on desktop platforms. There, it has a GX Control Panel that lets users monitor CPU and RAM usage and throttle Opera GX’s use of those resources to prevent it from bogging the system down and causing frame rates to drop. It also has integration with gaming social services and platforms like Twitch, making it a sort of one-stop-shop for PC gamers.

Opera GX Mobile, in contrast, mostly has just the theming capabilities of its desktop sibling so that gamers can make their Android or iOS browser match their gaming PC’s looks. It does also have the GX Corner as a hub for gaming news and information. Given how mobile apps work, especially on iOS, it might not be that surprising that Opera GX Mobile doesn’t have as much insight and control over even its own performance, at least for now.

It does, however, have some Opera staples like its one-handed navigation UI and its new Flow syncing system. That said, it still might be a hard sell for Opera GX Mobile unless they’re already deep into Opera’s ecosystem. Still, those who want can try out the beta version on Android and iOS, though the latter will have to go through TestFlight to access it.

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AI

Google’s Blob Opera uses machine learning to emulate classical Christmas carols

Hark! The blobs sing!

Or at least, they do in Google’s latest machine learning experiment, the awe-inspiring Blob Opera, which will see a chorus of four adorable, colorful blobs serenade you with spine-tingling operatic music. Drag a blob up or down, and you’ll change what pitch they sing in; drag them from side to side, and you’ll change the vowel sound. Each blob will also harmonize with the others, in what can only be described as magical.

The Blob Opera just sounds beautiful, with soaring harmonies ringing out from each blob. Four actual opera singers — Christian Joel (tenor), Frederick Tong (bass), Joanna Gamble (mezzo‑soprano), and Olivia Doutney (soprano) — recorded 16 hours of singing (Ingunn Gyda Hrafnkelsdottir and John Holland-Avery also contributed), but it’s not their actual voices you’re hearing when the blobs sing.

Rather, the team trained a machine learning model on those voice recordings. The blobs are singing what the algorithm “thinks” opera sounds like, based on what it learned through the training. An additional model works to enable the harmonizing.

Created by David Li working in collaboration with Google’s Arts and Culture team, the Blob Opera isn’t just a cute toy — it’s a great example of how machine learning can be levered to create something new and unexpected out of existing data.

The machine learning-based nature of the opera is why the blobs are limited to vowel sounds instead of actual words, but the random noises still manage to approximate the gist of a true opera, in spirit if not lyrics.

But the best part of the Blob Opera isn’t just the lovely harmonies or adorable characters — it’s the “holiday surprise” that’s activated by clicking the Christmas tree icons, which will give you the option to let the blobs sing any number of popular Christmas carols.

Joy to the world, indeed.

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Tech News

Opera on iOS ditches Touch name in latest update

Long before there were smartphones, Opera made a name for itself with mobile web browsers running on devices you never thought could run such software. With the arrival of smartphones, however, Opera was slowly pushed to the sidelines as the likes of Chrome and Safari on iOS take center stage. Opera hasn’t completely disappeared, of course, and is now doing a slight revamp of its looks and embracing a shorter name that gets rid of a legacy branding.

Once upon a time, Opera had slightly different names for its mobile browsers. There was Opera Mini, for example, which was built on the ancient Java ME platform used on some feature phones. Then there was Opera Mobile, the proper smartphone app that’s different from Opera Touch, which was designed with touch interfaces in mind.

That confusing distinction does still exist but, at least for iOS users, that will no longer be the case. In its latest update, Opera is giving its iOS browser a visual refresh and a simpler name. No longer Opera Touch, the iOS Opera browser will just be named “Opera” and will ditch the purple icon for Opera’s more iconic red.

Opera on iOS is also getting other visual updates, with a cleaner look. The company, however, assures that the same features are still there, just presented in a simpler way.

Opera for iOS also offers a quick way to connect phones to any other computer running Opera for desktops. Using a simple QR code, users can then share links, images, and files between the two devices without having to go the roundabout method of uploading to cloud services first.

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