Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

I’m a big Margaret Atwood fan, but there are lots of her books I’ve yet to read and I’m trying to ration them. I first became a fan of Atwood through her science fiction like ­The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake; I ended up studying the latter at university. I was pleased to discover that I like her non-genre stuff just as much. Alias Grace is classic Atwood in many ways, dealing with a woman in a situation entirely beyond her control, who nonetheless mucks through it.

Alias Grace fictionalises the true story of Grace Marks, a famous ‘murderess’ in mid-19th century Canada, who gained infamy for her part in the brutal murders of the gentlemen Mr. Kinnear and his favoured servant Nancy Montgomery. The bulk of the story is Grace, now in an asylum, telling the story of her life that led up to the brutal murders. The framing narrative is the visiting Dr. Simon Jordan, who has an interest in the insane and Grace in particular. Dr. Jordan interviews Grace, with the narrative shifting between Grace in the present day, Grace’s history and the affairs of Dr. Jordan.

Atwood offers no satisfying conclusions in Alias Grace. Her culpability in the murders remains ambiguous, even if the portrayal of Grace is clearly sympathetic. Alias Grace is written in a clearly 19th century Gothic style and owes a fair bit to the genre, although Atwood plays with the form and there’s a tinge of irony to the whole thing. There’s a strain of dark comedy throughout of men becoming obsessed, and clearly aroused, as Grace relates the darkest and most sinister parts of her story. They act horrified, but in reality they’re titillated. This combination of horror and arousal is something the best gothic stories engage with and we see Grace playing up to her audience. In her wonderfully matter of fact style of narration, she states fairly plainly that she is aware of the reactions her story elicits. There are several male characters in the story who Grace ensnares, but all become more fascinated with the idea of the infamous ‘murderess’ rather than the woman herself. Atwood is making fun of not just a general human tendency to prefer simple and exciting myths over messy realities, but also a specifically male attempt to strip women of their complexities and reduce them to one of those two classic roles; angel or demon. Violence and sex are entwined in how Grace is viewed; Grace herself is bemused by the whole thing and is just happy for anything which breaks up the monotony and drudgery.

Of course, as readers we end up getting caught up to, making us culpable as well. There’s an undeniable frisson and sense of excitement when Grace’s story nears the murders; we want all the grisly details too. Atwood holds back on indulging us. Alias Grace is also a compelling portrait of a place and time I’ve never examined before, with the sheer brutality of what it meant to be female and poor in 19th century colonial Canada being pretty tough to stomach. Grace herself remains something of an enigma, with Atwood cannily preserving the mystery which had captured the attention of the Canadian public over 150 years ago. Dr. Jordan is an interesting character, fairly callow and louche but with noble ambitions to open a more humane and modern insane asylum.

Alias Grace is a wonderful book from one of my favourite authors. Netflix are releasing a miniseries adaption in a couple of months, for which I am now very excited. Grace Marks is a figure who will lodge in your head, capturing the imagination as the real Grace did all those years ago,

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Shantae: Half-Genie Hero for Switch, Wii U, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One and PC

I’ve never played a Shantae game before, but I’ve been aware of the series ticking over on a range of Nintendo consoles. Shantae: Half-Genie Hero has an abundance of charm, but ultimately lacks the depth or the tightness of controls needed in the best platformers.

Shantae is, as the title suggests, a half-genie, who protects her town from a range of menaces, most prominently her pirate nemesis Risky Boots. This game focuses on Shantae helping her uncle build a strange machine, as well as uncover some of the secrets of her origin. Half-Genie Hero is a soft reboot and entirely understandable if you haven’t played the previous games. The writing is very self-aware and quippy in a way which treads a very fine line between irritating and endearing. It just about landed on endearing for me, but I suspect lots of people would feel differently. Expect lots of jokes about the game industry and DLC, but it’s the simple but likeable supporting characters that made Shantae’s story a bit more engaging.

Half-Genie Hero, for all its charm, somewhat stumbles out of the gate. The core platforming is pretty unsatisfying, awkwardly floaty with pretty straightforward level design. There are people out there who can tell you exactly what constitute tight controls and strong platformer design and I am not one of those people, but I know it when I see it. The lack of ingenuity in the level design is masked by the charm and style of the environments as well as the range of transformations Shantae can perform. By the end of the game, Shantae had access to eight different transformations with different abilities. Examples include a monkey which can climb walls, an elephant which can smash blocks and a crab which can scuttle around underwater. Transforming to get around is fun and I liked the surprising range of abilities available to Shantae, but I’d prefer fewer transformations and better platforming. One element I did really like were the boss battles; which were generally clever and epic and an area where the game really excelled.

The basic structure of the game annoyed me. You regularly return to a core hub town, where you can purchase upgrades and talk to the locals. Between the levels you will usually need to take part in a Zelda style trading quest, with the items you need usually hidden in previously beaten levels with areas which can now be accessed with new transformations, adding a light element of Metroidvania to the proceedings. I do love a good trading quest, but this felt more like padding than anything else. There aren’t actually that many levels in the game, so Half-Genie Hero seems to feel the need to extend the run time artificially. When returning to the levels you are rarely given a new or fun challenge, it’s more likely going to be crabbing around on the sea floor picking up collectibles, or climbing a tower and elephant stomping on flowers to pick up collectibles and blah blah blah. Games for which the genre are named, Super Metroid and some of the latter Castlevania games, take place in a singular world and the approach doesn’t work nearly so well in discreet, linear levels.

For all I’m complaining, Shantae really is a lovely looking game. The art style is bright and clean and the characters are full of life, constantly moving and jiggling around. My favourite was the zombie girl Rottytops, who seems to never stop dancing. The music is very good too and adds a sense of grandeur, with scatterings of likeable voice acting too. There’s a rather pervasive feeling of style over substance here, but I’d rather have that than neither.

Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is not a bad game, but it lacks the cleverness and tightness of level design the best platformers need. It may not be a bad choice if it goes on sale, but it’s not exactly a classic.

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Mass Effect: Andromeda for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Genuinely bad AAA games are rare nowadays. Your annual Call of Duty is probably always going to be at least competent and well put together; so much money is poured into these things that the most common issue is blandness, rather than actual disaster. Actual disasters are few and far between, with Assassin’s Creed: Unity being one of the few that springs to mind. Mass Effect: Andromeda is one of the roughest, most frustrating AAA games I’ve played in years. Unlike some of the more hyperbolic reactions it has garnered, I don’t think it’s awful. There are things to like here, but troubled game development is writ large over almost every part of the game. Some rough AAA games such as Final Fantasy XV can be so oddball and weird that they loop round to being loveable, despite their flaws, but Mass Effect: Andromeda is simultaneously too ambitious and conservative in design to achieve even this. Mass Effect: Andromeda has its moments, but it’s difficult to view it as anything but a failure.

Sidestepping the endings of Mass Effect 3, Mass Effect; Andromeda takes place 600 years later, in the Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromeda Initiative sent forth massive arks of Milky Way species in stasis, to awaken in their new home and establish a new frontier. Upon arrival, the Initiative discover that the Heleus Cluster of the Andromeda Galaxy is more dangerous than they thought, with a mysterious phenomenon known as the Scourge damaging the ark ships and a hostile alien force, the Kett, determined to wipe them out. Commander Shepard is gone and replaced with Pathfinder Ryder; the Pathfinder is the one who is in charge of scouting planets and establishing new outposts. Only the human ark, the Hyperion, as well as the central hub of the Nexus, have made their way to the intended destination. Ryder must set out with a new crew and her ship the Tempest to establish new homes for the Initiative, fight the kett and find the missing ark ships.

Andromeda’s story stumbles out of the gate. It attempts to take the series in a whole new direction, but in the process forgets what people liked about the original trilogy. The original trilogy had a brilliant sense of humanity as the new kids on the block, the upstarts. There was a real sense of defined history which impacted the events of the story: the Rachni Wars, the Genophage, the Quarian creation of the Geth. The setting felt full and alive and engaging. Mass Effect: Andromeda goes for a more Star Trek approach, focusing on exploration and discovering new lands. Without this sense of culture and society, the whole setting feels unbearably bland. Everyone keeps going on about how utterly alien it is, but it’s no more unique than anywhere from the original setting; we still have an ice planet, a jungle planet, a desert planet etc. The returning races from the original trilogy are the Asari, Salarians, Turians and Krogan. A lot of the weirder and funnier species make no appearance, such as the Quarians, Hanar, Elcor or Volus. The new species don’t exactly fill the void; the Kett are mindless and lack in any sort of personality. The Heleus natives, the Angara, are generally likeable, being built on empathy and emotional connection, but really they just feel like a combination of the original Council races. They have the empathy of Asari, the intelligence of the Salarians and the battle-prowess of the Turians, but I don’t think people are going to be clamouring for the return of the Angara whenever this series comes back. The new galaxy setting had the opportunity to double down on some of the glorious weirdness from the original trilogy, but ends up as far more conservative.

There’s little sense of narrative drive, with frustratingly vague goals. This may be a consequence of the open world approach taken, but Dragon Age: Inquisition did the same thing and I felt still managed to tell a coherent story. Where the original trilogies had an unknowable and terrifying foe, the Reapers, lurking in the background, it was fronted by believable and engaging villains, with even forces like the Geth and the Rachni imbued with depth and clear motivation. The lack of an engaging antagonist makes the whole thing feel directionless. I overall liked the new crew, particularly the elderly warrior Krogan Drack and the Angaran charmer Jaarl. Still, when you look back at the squad in Mass Effect 2, possibly the best team of characters I’ve seen in an RPG, they never come close to the same status. The voice acting is generally good, but the writing is much more mixed. Outside of some core main characters, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of entirely forgettable quest givers and NPCs. Much was made of Hainly Abrams, a transgender woman who within seconds of meeting reveals that she is trans, as well as her deadname. Transgender representation in games is a good thing; Bioware themselves pretty much nailed it with Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Although the dialogue has been altered and patched, it reveals how utterly shallow these characters are. I could tell you much more about Krem than the fact he is trans, but with Hainly Abrams I could tell you nothing else about her. So much of the writing is entirely shallow, with characters I spent hours with but could tell you almost nothing about. The best parts of the game are the loyalty missions and there are some lovely character moments, but we lack the tension and conflict which undercut the ‘BEST TEAM EVAR’ dynamic if the Normandy. One area that did work for me was Ryder herself. She’s a bit more of a defined character than Shepard and you can’t really be a complete bastard, but that wouldn’t have been appropriate for the story told here. More often than not, Ryder is sardonic and irreverent, but never irritating. Overall, I think I liked Ryder more than Shepard but unfortunately the people she was interacting with were never as good.

I normally mention technical issues towards the end of a review, but they have to be brought to the forefront here. Now, I’m played this game a couple of patches deep, so the now infamous animation issues weren’t quite as pronounced as they were at launch but, well, they’re still not good. Almost every scene is undermined by them; the characters always look off, never quite seem right, in the way they stand, the way they move, their facial expressions. I’ve read and watched a lot of interesting stuff about this and I totally appreciate the nightmarish complexity of a dynamic animation system a game like this requires, but taking into account the reasons why this problem exists doesn’t actually stop it from being a problem, as sympathetic as I am for the fact that this likely was not the fault of the animation team themselves. There are major issues with the plotting and writing already, but even the stronger scenes (and there are plenty of good ones) are undermined by the animation issue. I suspect that the issues are more fundamental than any patch can solve.

The core structure to Andromeda is very different to the previous games, and resembles Dragon Age; Inquisition more than anything else. Now, I actually really liked Inquisition, although I’m aware that a lot of people didn’t. Sure, not every side quest was a winner, but the focus on exploration was well married to a central plot and I liked the variety of zones. It got blown out of the water by The Wtrcher 3 a few months later, but I still feel that Inquisition is underappreciated. Andromeda attempts the same structure, but is less successful. There are a handful of explorable worlds, which are usually pretty big. All but one use the Nomad, a replacement for the Mako from the first game, an all-terrain vehicle which lets you race around the planet. It controls pretty nicely and has quite impressive grip for more vertical movement, particularly after a few upgrades. Most of your time in the game will be spent getting a mission, driving somewhere in your Nomad, shooting some stuff, and returning. Mission variety isn’t great, but I did like how the game makes it very clear which missions you can avoid. The missions are categorised four different ways; main story quests, loyalty quests/quests attached to a particular supporting character, Heleus tasks which see you improving the different planets, and ‘additional tasks.’ Do the first three, but ignore the ‘additional tasks’, there’s almost nothing worth doing there. I wish more games made it so clear what was filler; one thing I hated about Fallout 4 was the way I would feel tricked into doing boring procedurally generated quests because they were sorted alongside proper ones made by an actual game designer. If you take this approach and ignore the boring missions, the issue of padding and filler becomes much less egregious.

Possibly the only unqualified success of Mass Effect: Andromeda is the combat; it may initially look similar to the original trilogy, but this is mostly superficial as this is most certainly not a cover shooter. It took a while to adjust, but this is a combat system which relies on constant movement and momentum. I went all in with biotics and shotguns, so my approach was largely based around teleporting across the environments and blasting enemies up close. With some cleverly placed upgrades, you can almost break the entire combat in some quite pleasing ways. It stopped being challenging in any way after a few hours, but as a sheer power fantasy I never quite got tired of it. I don’t know how fun other builds are, but I can’t recommend a biotic/shotgun build more highly. My enjoyment of the combat helped to alleviate a lot of the pacing issues; sure, the side quests mostly are of a ‘go here, kill this’ variety, but that never really bothered me.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a disappointment; it has some strengths, but it’s clear that it’s fascinatingly troubled development has left it damaged in a way no patch can fix. There was a lot of potential here, but I think now the best thing that Bioware could do is give it a few years, then return to the Milky Way for an actual Mass Effect 4, leaving Andromeda as a spin-off. I didn’t have an awful time playing this game, it’s OK, but when it was released in the same month as Breath of the Wild, Nier: Automata and Horizon: Zero Dawn, OK isn’t good enough.

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Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

It’s been a while since a book got under my skin quite like this one. Annihilation is a book that plays with familiar ideas and themes in a unique way, bounding together familiar science fiction tropes with a palpable sense of Lovecraftian cosmic dread. In Annihilation, knowledge is deadly but irresistible, with those who are curious bringing about their own downfall.

Many of the details of the backstory are kept intentionally vague, but we do know that around 30 years before the book begins a bizarre ‘Event’ led to the creation of Area X, a fairly small section of coastal land separated from the rest of the world by a strange border. The exact natures of this land and border are unclear, so the Southern Reach organisation has sent forth 11 expeditions, of which none returned entirely intact. Annihilation is the story of the 12th expedition, as four women, known only by their job titles, set forth into Area X to attempt to unravel its mysteries. Our protagonist is the biologist and she is joined by the surveyor, the anthropologist and the psychologist. It is not long into their journey that they discover something not on their maps; a strange tunnel heading underground, which the biologist can only perceive as a ‘tower.’

Annihilation is told in the first person and is playful with the idea of an unreliable narrator. The biologist can’t quite trust her own senses and is quite upfront about the fact that she is distorting and twisting some of the information for the reader, and that some of what she sees is so indescribably alien it simply cannot be put into words. The atmosphere is pure Lovecraft; a recurring motif is our protagonist, a scientist, at the edge of something dangerous, knowing she should turn back, but utterly ruled by her curiosity and need to know, even if the consequences are hideous. Annihilation is not about eldritch and ancient beings viewing humanity with horrifying indifference, but it channels the same sense of unease.

It is the building of atmosphere which is Annihilation’s greatest triumph, particularly in scenes taking place within the tower. There is a sharpness and precision to VanderMeer’s prose; Annihilation is not a long book and could be called a longish novella rather than a full novel, but no moment is wasted. It is utterly lean and without an ounce of the flab which pervades the genre. I think Area X is meant to sound cliché; it sounds like the title of a cheesy 1950s sci-fi B-movie, but I think this intentionally bland name is to wrong-foot the reader about the kind of book they are reading and the reality of what Area X actually is. Alongside the solid world-building is very strong characterisation. The biologist is insular and driven and I loved spending time in her head.

Annihilation is the kind of book I’m going to be recommending to anyone who will listen, so I will scream into the void (this blog) to tell you to read it. I cannot wait to get to the sequels.

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Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkoswki

Fantasy series often have a ‘middle book problem’, where in telling an extremely long form story, you end up by necessity having an entire book which exits to react to events in the previous book and establish events for the next book, with little memorable actually taking place in the book itself. The absolute nadir of this concept was comfortably Crossroads of Twilight, the 10th Wheel of Time book, the most supremely uneventful book I’ve ever read. Baptism of Fire is very much a middle book, in fact it is the literal middle point of The Witcher novels (not counting the short stories). Although it may not forward the plot of the series as much as I would have liked, Sapkowski’s origin as a writer of short fiction means that the vignettes which make up this book are entertaining in their own right and it never ends up boring.

Baptism of Fire takes place not long after the end of Times of Contempt and the Thanedd coup, which saw the Chapter of Sorcerers torn apart, Ciri flung into an unknown part of the Nilfgaard empire and living as a bandit and Geralt, terribly wounded, being treated by the dryads in Brokilon. When Geralt hears from Milva, a talented human scout, that Ciri is in Nilfgaard and due to be married to Emperor Emhyr, he sets out to rescue her, along with Milva and erstwhile poet companion Dandelion. Along the way they join forces with a few new faces, such as a dwarven band led by one Zoltan Chivay and a mysterious medicine man named Emil Regis. Meanwhile, a group of sorceresses gather, human, elven, Northern, Nilfgaaardian, to form a new, all female, organisation from the ashes of the Chapter; the Lodge of Sorceresses.

The meat of this story lies in Geralt’s journey south from Brokilon, through the wat torn Northlands towards the Nilfgaardian border. Along the way he, along with his group, get caught up in a few scrapes and conflicts. Where Times of Contempt was largely about magic, Baptism of Fire is more grounded, and arguably the grimmest of the series so far. I’ve read a lot of descriptions of the brutality of war in a fantasy setting, so it takes a fair bit to shock me by this point, but Baptism of Fire can be genuinely horrific. True to Sapkowski’s style though, it isn’t all war and suffering and the moments of lightness and humour work well, particularly in Zoltan’s band of dwarves as well as the ever enjoyable fop Dandelion. Still, it’s difficult to shake the sense that Baptism of Fire is an interlude, setting the stage for the next books to come. Sapkowski’s a good enough writer that even his wheel spinning is pretty enjoyable, but obviously I prefer when he is pushing the story onwards.

Geralt is as enjoyable a protagonist as ever, with an interestingly petty and vindictive side coming through, adding further layers to one of the best characters in the genre. I liked the new characters a lot, such as the acerbic but vulnerable Milva. It was also nice to see a couple more characters I was familiar with from the games, such as the generous and kind hearted Zoltan, as well the enigmatic Emil Regis, who I very much enjoyed in the Blood and Wine DLC for The Witcher 3. Geralt has a proper old school fantasy travelling band with him now and I enjoyed seeing them bicker and grow together.

Baptism of Fire is probably the weakest entry in the series so far, but it’s certainly not bad. Not enough happens, but this world and these characters are strong enough that just spending time with them is enough to provide a decent time. It’s not a reason to stop reading the series, and if you’ve got this far you’ll likely find plenty to enjoy in Baptism of Fire.

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Thumper for Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC

Thumper has one of the best marketing descriptions I’ve ever seen; ‘rhythm violence.’ It’s a lovely way to put it and sums up the general vibe of Thumper very well. I’ve played a fair few rhythm games in my time, but none that filled me with the anxiety and genuine sense of dread that Thumper does. A mechanic introduced later in the game killed a lot of my enjoyment, but for most of my time with it Thumper was an intense and unique experience.

In Thumper you play as a little beetle thing, making its way along a track in a bizarre, fractal hell-scape. There are 9 levels, with each culminating in a boss battle with a hideous, demonic face. It may not have a story, but it certainly has an atmosphere and it can be genuinely unsettling and oppressive. You must avoid obstacles in a variety of ways. The simplest are barriers, where you must simply hold a button to smash through them. Some require you to lean your beetle in a particular direction, or change into different lane to avoid sinister snake things. It’s fast, intense and noisy and it’s easy to get into the trancelike groove that the best rhythm games create. The boss battles involve you having to tap a button on these green glowing patches on the track; if you hit them all, you can launch a laser at the evil face and after four hits it goes down. It’s an interesting way to apply the mechanics to a boss fight structure. The whole thing can be punishingly hard, with it only taking two hits for you to die and then have to retry the section you’re on. For most of the early parts of the game, it generally feels fair, but an infuriating mechanic had me turn on Thumper somewhat.

Around midway through you are introduced to these gates, which mean you have to hit blue glowing paths like in the boss fights for the particular run. If you miss even one, a laser descends and damages you. This was fine at first, but when combined into boss fights it becomes punishing for the sake of being punishing. Normally when you are fighting a boss, if you miss one of the green patches you simply restart the section, with no damage or death. There’s an element of trial and error, of getting better and better at each section’s timing that’s very satisfying. In some of the later bosses you’ll hit it three times, with one to go, but then the gates will descend and you know that if you fail you will not be able to try again, but have to start the entire boss fight again. It’s a needlessly cruel mechanic and one which punishes you simply by wasting your time, utterly negating the fun sense of trial and error seen in the rest of the game.

The visuals are striking and there’s a sense of barely restrained chaos at all times. This being a rhythm game, most credit should go to the music. It’s not something I think anyone is going to be listening to for fun anytime soon, being mostly made up of pounding drums and intense synths. The sounds of your beetle as it careens around the track, smashing off walls and through barricades, adds more percussion to the brutal rhythm which pervades the whole experience. I could maybe have done with a bit more musical variety between levels, but I can also see why they went for one style of music and completely leant into that.

Thumper is one of the weirdest rhythm games you’ll play. I felt that in the latter portions its difficulty tipped too much towards arbitrary and cruel, rather than challenging and engaging. Still, when you’re working your way through the levels, utterly immersed in the beat, Thumper takes that classic rhythm game experience and twists it into something evil and oppressive. That’s pretty cool.

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Dreamfall Chapters for PS4, Xbox One, PC, Linux and OS X

1999’s The Longest Journey is one of my favourite games of all time, and certainly my favourite adventure game which doesn’t contain Guybrush Threepwood. Wonderful world-building and a truly epic journey which loved up to the name were held together by April Ryan, one of my favourite game protagonists ever. 2006’s sequel/spin-off Dreamfall: The Longest Journey impressed me less and I feel has actually aged much worse than its 7-year older predecessor. The long awaited Dreamfall Chapters is the third in the series and, unsurprisingly based on the name, is very much is the vein of Dreamfall rather than The Longest Journey. It is likely to be the concluding game of the entire saga and whilst elements work very well, it ultimately falls rather short. It could have worked as a 2017 style adventure game, it could have worked as a revival of a 1990s style adventure game, but instead it feels like a revival of a 2006 adventure game, which I don’t think anyone would argue is the genre’s golden age.

Dreamfall Chapters picks up a few months after the end of the last game; over in our world, the technologically advanced Stark, Zoe Castillo awakens from a coma, having forgotten the events of the previous game. To rebuild her life she moves to the continent wide mega city of Europolis, but it isn’t long before she is caught up in a new intrigue and local politics. Despite Zoe’s efforts in Dreamfall, Wati Corp have managed to release their sinister Dream Machine, which has turned many into lifeless husks, addicted to lucid dreams. Over in Arcadia, the apostle Kian Alvane has been imprisoned for betraying the Azadi Empire, who have invaded Marcuria and begun a system of oppression against magical races. To atone for his part in the death of April Ryan, Kian is recruited into the Resistance to fight his former masters and help the magicals he had previously despised. Finally, in the House of All Worlds, a strange child with mysterious powers, Saga, is born.

I’ll start out with the things I liked about the story of Dreamfall Chapters. The actual dialogue is as good as ever, with the same sharp, engaging and fully rounded characters that the series should be known for. Returning characters form The Longest Journey and Dreamfall are welcome, particularly the cowardly, sarcastic and intensely loyal Crow, my favourite sidekick in gaming history. I also really enjoyed the development of the stoic and powerful Dolmari Likho from Dreamfall, whose character develops in some interesting ways. I also really liked some of the new characters, particularly the nervous and endearing member of the magical resistance Enu, who forms an unlikely and very sweet bond with Kian. Zoe was never the most engaging protagonist, but she’s a bit better here, helped by a new and improved voice actor. I didn’t expect to like Kian as much as I did, but we find out that there is a fair bit more to him than we saw in Dreamfall and he even gets some endearingly funny moments.

There are elements of Dreamfall Chapter’s plot which work very well, but it’s origins as an episodic game expose major plot issues, which are exacerbated when the five chapters are played back to back. Seemingly major plot elements from earlier chapters vanish in later chapters, either without a trace or in brief dialogues. A seemingly key plot point in the first couple of chapters about an upcoming election in Europolis, on which Zoe works as a campaigner, fizzles out into nothing. Seemingly vital characters vanish into the aether, with the final episode in particular introducing a dazzling number of concepts and locations in its dash for the finish line. I totally get why this game had to be episodic due to the realities of crowd funding and publishing, but I can’t deny that it hurt the eventual release. If this is the final Longest Journey game as has been suggested, I would be pretty sad due to the fact that the fascinating reveal at the end of the first game has still not been addressed; the reunification of Stark and Arcadia and the so-called War of the Balance. In fact, a lot of plot points from The Longest Journey are glossed over, such as The Balance itself, the Draic Kin and the multiverse. They are referenced and touched upon, but the focus is always on the vaguer notion of ‘The Dreaming.’ During the Kickstarter, game director Ragnar Tournquist suggested a potential direct sequel to the first game, The Longest Journey Home. He has recently suggested that this is unlikely to happen which is heart-breaking as it honestly feels that there is a story left to be told. Dreamfall Chapters does a decent job of wrapping up the series, but it simply doesn’t have the time to address everything.

Dreamfall Chapters is mechanically very basic, only a very slight step up in interactivity from Telltale. There are a handful of puzzles, but they’re simple and not particularly engaging. The Longest Journey infamously went too far in the other direction, with some the most hilariously obtuse puzzle solutions in the genre. Still, at least The Longest Journey felt like, well, an adventure. Although some other locations are included, Dreamfall Chapters mostly sees you running around a smallish open world in Europolis as Zoe and in Marcuria as Kian. Most puzzles just involve wandering around these environments and there’s little sense of discovery or satisfaction in your travel. I almost wish that they’d gone the whole hog and made Dreamfall Chapters an entirely narrative, Telltale-esque experience rather than this weird hybrid, because it doesn’t really work.

For the relatively low budget, Dreamfall Chapters looks pretty nice. The environments are particularly impressive, bursting with character and life. The character models fare less well, generally stiff and fairly expressionless, but the voice acting and writing are to a high enough standard that it doesn’t feel like a major problem. Some dramatic moments come off as stiff and a bit awkward, with the visuals feeling more like an early Xbox 360/PS3 game rather than something more modern, but it never really hurt the experience for me.

There was a lot I liked in Dreamfall Chapters and I’m happy to have got some kind of ending, but ultimately the stuff I wanted to see the most does not appear. I truly hope that this isn’t the end for the series, but for something as obscure and niche as this to get an ending at all, with roughly a decade between instalments, is a hell of a thing. It may not be exactly what I wanted, but I’m still glad it exists.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – A Criminal Past DLC for PS4, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

The second DLC for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is much meatier than the first and stands out because it offers a much more interesting setting and premise, which feels distinct from anything in the main game, something which could not have been said for the competent but familiar first DLC, System Rift. A Criminal Past starts out very interesting and takes the turn which makes it become much less interesting, but it stays engaging throughout.

A Criminal Past is framed as a therapy session for Jensen at TF-29, as he recalls a mission from before the events of Mankind Divided. He is sent undercover to infiltrate a state of the art prison for Augs, to extract a deep undercover agent who is feared to have gone rogue. Upon arrival Jensen quickly finds himself caught between the callous and sadistic warden Stenger and the charismatic leader among the inmates Flossy and it isn’t long until things escalate out of control. The setup is interesting, but a found myself zoning out of a lot of the story stuff, hitting essentially similar beats to everything we’ve seen before.

The prison setting, seeing Jensen stripped of his Augs and forced to rely entirely on his wits, was interesting in theory and starts out very well. The prison is split into two blocks, with those in one wearing red and the other in yellow. Jensen starts in red but must make his way over to yellow, where you could sneak around or you could simply steal a yellow uniform and walk around freely. There was an indication that there would be some interesting mechanics about having to follow the routine of prison life for a while to find your target, but things go wrong almost immediately and the setting quickly become much like any other Deus Ex location. Much of the DLC takes place during a riot, which is frankly much less interesting than the social stealth elements of the early section. Perhaps I was expecting too much, but there are DLCs out there that do fundamentally interesting and different things with the base game and A Criminal Past initially seemed like it may be doing the same. Instead we have a competent enough Deus Ex experience that offers more of the same.

The future for the Deus Ex series is uncertain at the moment, so A Criminal Past may be the last we see of it for a while. It’s a decent enough experience, and certainly beats the much slighter System Rift, but it doesn’t follow through on it’s interesting premise and ends up feeling like a missed opportunity.

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Watch Dogs 2: Human Conditions DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Watch Dogs 2 was far better than it had any right to be. It ended up being one of my favourite games of 2016, which I don’t think I would have seen coming. Dipping back into it with DLC, I wondered if somehow I’d been bamboozled by its in-your-face energy, but the Human Conditions DLC reminded me that, no, Watch Dogs 2 really is a bloody good game.

The meat of the DLC lies in three new missions, all centred around moral lapses in Silicon Valley. One mission focuses on self-driving cars and an algorithm which determines the value of an individual’s life in the event of a crash. Another brings the return of foul mouthed rival hacker Lenni as you investigate inhumane testing of nanotechnology. The final mission is about a hacking of a hospital, which ties into a storyline involving the Bratva Russian mob. The writing for Watch Dogs 2 was so sharp and fun and it’s all the same here, genuinely well written and charming. The core DedSec team have become a hugely loveable bunch of goons. Sure, the satire hits with precisely zero subtlety, but I enjoy its message about resisting corporate control and taking back freedom. Of course, being developed by megacorp publisher Ubisoft undermines this a little bit, but there’s more political and social engagement in Watch Dogs 2 than most AAA games will attempt. The storyline about the hacked hospital felt particularly relevant, given the recent NHS hack in the UK.

Watch Dogs 2 worked itself into an immensely satisfying groove, as you control your three tools: Marcus, your little RC car thing and your drone. The missions were, in many ways, your standard base assault stuff we see in Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, but the range of genuinely useful and engaging tools at your disposal made them feel more like playgrounds for you to use all your toys. The missions in Human Conditions offer more of the same, but if they’d been a part of the main game I think they’d have been considered among the best. The only real change can be found in the addition of enemies which can jam your hacking. I’m not sure about this; adding difficulty by removing your ability to do what makes the game fun feels artificial, but unfortunately is fairly commonplace. It doesn’t ruin the experience by any stretch, but my feeling upon coming across a jammer was usually more irritation rather than a sense of excitement of a new challenge to overcome.

DLC is almost never worth it full price, so I’m happy I waited for a PSN sale. For what I paid, I think Human Conditions was worth it. If spending a bit more time with Marcus, Wrench, Sitara and Josh appeals to you, Human Conditions is certainly worth a look.

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Snake Pass for Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC

Snake Pass is exactly the kind of game you buy when a new console comes out, software is thin on the ground, and you want an excuse to use your fancy new machine. It’s interesting and something a little bit different, but ultimately something I don’t think will be remembered as much more of an oddity. It asks the question; can you do a platformer without jumping? The answer is technically yes, but you probably shouldn’t.

Snake Pass resembles a 90s mascot 3D platformer, as we control adorable snake Noodle through a series of levels to collect a bunch of maguffins. Snakes aren’t known for their jumping skills, so we instead slither through the semi-open environments, traversing the levels by clinging to poles and stretching your long body across chasms. Controlling Noodle is weird and takes a bit of getting used to. In some ways Snake Pass resembles the ‘fumblecore’ genre, where games have intentionally difficult or fiddly controls for comic effect, like Octodad or QWOP. Moving through an environment in a good 3D platformer should be elegant and satisfying and Snake Pass is rarely either. There is however a certain satisfaction in getting better at the odd controls and I’m sure some people will become very good at moving Noodle around, although I suspect I lack the patience. My main gripe came with the introduction of failure states later on. In earlier levels it’s almost impossible to die, but many later levels have bottomless puts and spike traps and fire which can finish off poor Noodle. In the earlier levels failure felt like an opportunity to just pick up and try again, but regular deaths saw me taking on the same obstacles over and over again. I don’t think this game needed death to be a thing and I think that the core of the challenging gameplay could have been kept without it.

There are 16 levels overall and to complete each one you must collect three gemstones and return them to a plinth. This is far from all the levels have to offer through, and they’re all incredibly dense with extra collectibles to pick up. These collectibles are usually much more difficult to gather than the main gems. There are no difficulty settings in Snake Pass, but the range of collectibles add layers of difficulty within the levels themselves. You can play easy mode like me and just get the gems, but you could also go up to hard or extra hard modes and go for some of the truly evil challenges. This kind of design, simultaneously offering several layers of difficulty, isn’t easy to pull off but Snake Pass does it with an impressively light touch. I was happy with my money’s worth just making my way through the levels. I found that challenging enough, although I suspect that I may just be really bad at this game. If you want more out of Snake Pass it’s there for you; this seems like a game with really interesting speed running potential.

Snake Pass is bright and colourful, with a nice, if slightly generic, Aztek influenced world and cute character design and animation for Noodle. David Wise, best known for Donkey Kong Country, composed the soundtrack and his unique skill for jungle based platformer compositions work unsurprisingly well for Snake Pass.

I liked Snake Pass, but I found difficulty spikes towards the second half of the game more frustrating than anything else, often being based on simply balancing for a longer period of time rather than clever structures to climb. Still, I doubt you’ll play anything else like it and it suits the Nintendo Switch quite well. Digital sales aren’t yet a thing for the Switch, but when they are that might be the time to give Snake Pass a go.

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