A.V. Review: A Little Game With Big Ambitions

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A product of several students from the Rochester Institute of Technology, A.V. is a small game with big ambitions. What it’s trying to do seems clear enough, but it falls short on creating a compelling experience, and even explaining how that experience is supposed to work on a fundamental level. Our A.V. review looks at a game that could have potential down the road, but sits at a rough spot in its current state.
Quick disclaimer before you read the rest of the review. A.V. is compatible with the Oculus Rift, but I do not have access to one. Consider this a review based entirely around the game in its normal, two dimensional state.

Gameplay 

From the second A.V. begins, it’s off on a bad foot. Before you can press Continue, New Game, Settings, or anything else, you’ll have to sit through a 10 second audio loop where nothing much happens on screen. Every single time you exit to the main menu. A minor issue on its own, but the bad U.I design is a sign of things to come for A.V.
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At its core, A.V. is about utilizing a group of powers (dubbed “instruments” in the game) that your character can use, and deciding when to ditch them in order solve puzzles. The powers themselves are pretty basic, and thankfully self-explanatory. There’s a speed instrument that increases your speed temporarily, a jump instrument that helps you jump higher, a couple different ways to disrupt enemies, and one instrument that amounts to an on/off switch. All of these have their own roles in varying degrees in the puzzles you come across, but it just never quite clicks. 
The puzzles themselves are mostly bare bones as can be. This thing needs to slow down so you can get by, so you use the slow instrument. This thing is way up high, so you use the jump instrument, and so on. The on/off instrument does add a wrinkle into this being you can only power up or power down one switch at a time, so it becomes a game of leapfrog deciding which one needs to be powered on or off as the game progresses. Later on, there are also different “fields” that come in to play, that can change how your projectiles fire from your instruments, but they honestly don’t change a whole lot. More often than not, solving a puzzle feels like stumbling into the correct answer more so than coming to a conclusion on your own.
Secondarily, your instruments are also used to feed into “Broadcast Pylons.” There are any number of these Pylons scattered around any given zone, and in order to unlock doors to the next zone, the game requires you to dump off an instrument into a Broadcast Pylon as part of a code. One door in particular might require the speed, slow, and jump instruments so your mission for that segment of the zone will be to high-tail it to the three closest Broadcast Pylons, dump off your instruments, head back to what is called “Distribution Pylon,” and activate it to set off the code and open the door. None of this is particularly hard; there are enemies scattered around but you’d be hard-pressed to find one you can’t just blow by and sneak into a room until they forget about you. The problem is that everything is so vague and poorly explained that nothing feels satisfying when it actually gets completed.
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Broadcast Pylons will also take whatever instrument you put into them (jump, for example) and spread its effect over a certain area. This doesn’t play much of a part in the game at first, but eventually choosing which instrument to put in what Pylon does make a difference. 
And finally, Broadcast Pylons are also used a type of teleporter. If you have an instrument in two different Broadcast Pylons, you can teleport between them. This works, but the way you switch between destinations isn’t the best. The game refrains from having you go into a pause menu and select a destination (which I don’t mind), and instead you hit tab and switch between routes. The main problem with this is that there isn’t nearly enough information on the little map you are given. Often times you’ll have to travel between Pylons to switch out which instrument is in them, but in order to do that you’ll have to travel to that Pylon, take the instrument out, and manually figure out which one was in there. The paths and Pylons are color coded, but that still isn’t enough for you to know which exact instrument is in which Pylon.
The whole process is just bizarrely complex for the simple task you’re actually doing, and explained very poorly. Tutorials and the main character’s text come mostly through triggered segments of a zone, so you will constantly find yourself walking then suddenly come up on a new text trigger which overwrites the old one, forcing you pause the game and go read it in the game’s extensive (yet still unnecessarily complex) in-game instructions.
One of the biggest issues I had in my time playing A.V. is feedback – or lack thereof. There is almost no way to tell if what you’re doing is correct, or even having any kind of effect on an object. When standing on a Broadcast Pylon, for example, the only way you know that anything is happening is a small musical note that repeats and a little sparking animation. In order to put your instrument into the Broadcast Pylon you have to shoot the instrument at it, but it’s almost impossible to tell if the instrument actually went into the Pylon, or somehow missed. You’ll be frequently left staring at Pylons wonder if anything happened.
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Controller support is included, and advertised, but it’s far from ideal. By default, there is no way to switch destinations when you’re trying to teleport between Pylons, and setting a button on the controller oddly only works sometimes. When pressing the button, it would often just not switch to a new destination, so I’d have to press tab on the keyboard as well a few times before it would register. As well, there is no way to fully navigate the information menu (like scrolling through individual sections), and there’s nothing you can do when you die with the controller. To me at least, if controller support is included in the game, it should mean that you can start the game up, sit on your couch, and never have to touch your computer until you’re done. That could very well just be my opinion, so I’m not counting it too harshly against the game, but it is certainly an issue I have.
All of this is made worse by the terribly claustrophobic level design. In order to even see anything you have to send out a “ping,” that helps your character see (since he only sees in with sounds, being a sound algorithm and all). It makes sense enough story wise, but it makes for an extremely frustrating experience trying to get around several corridors and locations that look the same with your limited field of view.
Also, semi-related, having to constantly ping gets old real quick. Not only is the sound grating, but it just adds nothing to the experience. Why wouldn’t the sound algorithm have a way to constantly emit sound and keep his vision up? I can’t imagine this ping mechanic is seen as fun in any way, so it’s just baffling that they couldn’t explain it away somehow and make it a little more optional. Luckily there are segments of the game where everything is illuminated with sound so you have a full field of vision, but when there is not, the game suffers.

Graphics

A.V. draws heavy inspiration from Tron, and for the most part it nails the aesthetic: Total darkness outlined in bright neon lights of various colors. As previously stated, the complete lack of vision hinders the experience quite often, but when everything clicks visually it’s pretty impressive, despite (or because of?) its simplicity. Of course the inside of a computer doesn’t actually look like the game does, but in a weird way it feels very much like you are in a computer. The claustrophobic feel of everything – while 100% damaging to the gameplay – does a good job conveying the sense of being squished inside of a computer well enough.
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Cutscenes are passable on their own, but don’t match the aesthetic of the game at all. It’s jarring at times going from the Tron-inspired visuals, to the clip art-looking cutscenes where nothing quite meshes right.
It’s hard to knock the game’s U.I. too much given its small scope, but it’s pretty rough. Simple fonts, hard-to-see color choices, and everything is just kind of slapped together in tables.
Enemy design is one of my favorite aspects of the game. The antivirus programs roaming the various zones come in all shapes and sizes, from small floating ships to big duck-like enemies that waddle after you and try and chomp at you. They are all stuffed with creativity yet still manage to keep the game’s aesthetic in mind. The design of the Pylons is nice as well – until you actually have to interact with their cumbersome U.I.

Story

Essentially, A.V. tells the story of a music algorithm trapped in a computer gone haywire. Told entirely through voiceovers of the main character, you must help this little algorithm-that-could discover what the heck happened to put everything in this situation. The way the story evolves is interesting enough, and one of the better aspects of the game. I really enjoy how A.V. puts real-world locations (buildings, offices, mailrooms, etc) into the computer setting – almost like those little people living inside our computers are humans too.
There’s also no doubting that the writing has a solid sense of humor. At times it can be a little too self-aware (like having “ZOMG LOOK AT THIS” literally on the screen during a cutscene), but for the most part the humorous bits of the cutscenes and references throughout the actual game are well-done and give A.V. some real personality.

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Sound 

With all the gripes I have regarding A.V.’s gameplay, the biggest letdown is the sound. For a game that is meant to be about sensory and perception, everything you hear is just bland and mixed poorly. The ping sound effects weirdly grow louder as it gets far away (not to mention it’s way too loud to begin with), and there’s just nothing interesting or noteworthy in the sound design in general. Your only feedback a lot of the time in the game is sound. Telling where an enemy is, if what you’re doing is the right thing, etc, are all portrayed with different sound effects. The problem is that there are so many different sounds being fired at once that everything drowns in together to a big mess, making it mostly impossible to tell what is happening most of the time. Was that beep boop sound because of an enemy nearby? Or did you step on a panel that triggered something? Who knows.
Music is also bland and extremely repetitive. Admittedly, playing with a good pair of headphones in a dimly lit room can help you really get into the music and the game, but even then the few tones that are repeated get old real quick.

Concept

For all the issues that A.V. has, it can’t be denied that the game’s developers took a lot of time to make a creative little adventure. A lot of the parts don’t work in the end, and nothing is properly tied together, but the creative ideas are there. It’s a highly ambitious game made with limited resources, and if you have $4 laying around and want to toy around with some unique it may not be a total waste of money. Just don’t expect a fully-fledged game.
Purchase A.V. on Steam

We were given a copy of A.V. for the purposes of this review. 
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