Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “January, 2017”

Babylon’s Ashes by James S A Corey

I spent about a year working through The Expanse books and to be honest I don’t really mind the break before the next one. Babylon’s Ashes is very much Nemesis Games 2. All the other Expanse books have been fairly self-contained in setting and story, whilst building towards the larger whole. For example, Abaddon’s Gate concerned itself with Medina Station and the Slow Zone and Cibola Burn with the colony of Ilus, but, for better or for worse, Babylon’s Ashes follows on pretty much directly from Nemesis Games.

Earth is still reeling from the devastating attack from Marco Inaros and his Free Navy, who now seek to consolidate their hold on the Belt and Medina Station, to ensure that the colony gates cannot be used. There are a lot of PoV characters in this one, but the core story lines converge around about three. One is Filip Inaros, son of Marco and Naomi Nagata and orchestrator of the attack on Earth, who now finds himself questioning the competence of his father and his place in the Free Navy, whilst burdened with the unimaginable loss of life he has caused. Next is Michio Pa, returning form Abaddon’s Gate, now a Free Navy captain who goes rogue after Marco’s decisions become more and more erratic. Finally, obviously, we have Holden, desperately trying to hold the system together and re-unite the Inners and the Belters.

Where previous books were strict about numbers of PoV characters, Babylon’s Ashes relaxes this significantly. There are still a few who dominate, but there are also a handful of chapters from characters like Bobbie Draper, Clarissa Mao, Avasarala and Prax Meng, as well as all of the Rocinante crew. There’s a looseness to the structure which feels intentional but not quite successful. For example, the events on Medina Station are shown through four different one-off PoVs, which only has the effect of not allowing us to get particularly attached to any of them. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to return to so many fan favourite characters, but a lot of the time (with the notable exception of Prax who gets a decent subplot of his own) it feels superfluous. This is a book where it felt like a lot was happening, but when it came to actually running through the complete events of the book I realised it was a bit lacking. It also, as with Nemesis Games, pretty much entirely ignores to protomolecule/ancient alien civilisation plot. I have full confidence that following books will return to it, but that’s two books now which lack the most interesting part of the series.

The role of these two books, Nemesis Games and Babylon’s Ashes are clear, to overturn the status quo and install a new one as the series enters its final stretch. I see the narrative necessity, but it doesn’t make it any more interesting to read. They remind me a fair bit of Martin’s A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, books which have also been criticised for pacing and existing largely for place setting. The thing is though, I’m a defender of those books as Martin’s characterisation is so good that following a wonderful character like Brienne of Tarth wandering around for 8 chapters doesn’t bore me. Abraham and Franck aren’t quite in the same league, but who is?

The characterisation is still solid enough, although some character moves are unconvincing. I like Clarissa Mao but her redemption arc feels a bit rushed. Marco didn’t really work for me as a villain; I see what they were going for, he’s like Che Guevara crossed with Osama Bin Laden, but he ends up feeling more like Donald Trump, a blow-hard appealing to populist idiots and fuelling anger to power his own rise. He’s going to Make the Belt Great Again, but the details for exactly how that will work are sketchy at best. Holden is pretty much static as a character by this point, but that’s fine, I quite like him existing as a paragon of ridiculous goodness. I miss proto-Miller though; a bitchy ghost commenting on everything he does certainly livened up his chapters.

Babylon’s Ashes isn’t awful by any stretch, but I’m certainly glad that this subplot is over now. My hope is that the final trilogy of books double down on the protomolecule stuff after its two book absence. As underwhelmed as I was, this wasn’t enough to put me off the series. If I can power through the middle Wheel of Time books I can power through anything. Hopefully, as with Wheel of Time, the conclusion is worth it.

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Titan Souls for PS4, PS Vita, PC, OS X and Android

Titan Souls originated from a game jam, with the original prototype created in merely two days. Although expanded from these humble beginnings, the purity of vision which shines through Titan Souls demonstrates its origin. With the name Souls in the title you’d be forgiven that this is simply something riding on the coattails of Dark Souls, and whilst it was certainly a clear influence it’s still very much its own thing.

The plotting is very minimalistic, with the player simply taking control of a figure who must travel through a strange, empty land, along the way slaying the deadly ‘titans’ he encounters. These monsters don’t attack, in fact they will only fight after you’ve attacked them first, raising some interesting questions about who the real hero is here. This is a common enough theme, but the closest to a narrative hook the game can be said to have. The overall look is very simple but effective, primarily in the design of the titans themselves. An effective soundtrack also helps elevate the experience beyond its humble beginnings.

The core mechanics are incredibly simple. Played from a top-down Zelda style perspective, the player can dodge, sprint and fire an arrow. It is an arrow since you only have one, after firing it you must hold a button to pull it back to you to be fired again. The game is simply a series of boss fights. They’re deadly, fast and aggressive and a single hit kills you. In the game’s most interesting twist, the same applies to them. It only takes one strike on a boss’ weak spot to take them down, but getting a shot in on that weak spot is a hell of a challenge. This means that winning fights are usually over in seconds, but you’ll die over and over again getting to that point. You can’t move whilst firing or retrieving the arrow, so placement in the environment is key. These boss fights are brilliant, frantic and brutal and often seemingly impossible at first, until you learn their rhythms and how to manipulate them. They feel like a boss fight in Dark Souls or Bloodborne, whilst being mechanically nothing like them at all. The euphoria rush of taking down a boss you’ve been throwing yourself against is amazing. If my entire game time had been spent fighting these bosses, Titan Souls would be a perfect game, but there a couple of drawbacks, one not so serious and one more so.

The first drawback is the environments between fights. Clusters of fights are found in certain areas, but you’ve got to explore a decently sized environment to find them. The problem is that this exploration simply isn’t fun or satisfying. This is a fine looking game, but the environments aren’t interesting from a visual or design standpoint. Removing these sections entirely and reducing the game to exclusively a series of boss fights would have tightened up some of the flab. The bigger issue is the checkpointing. After dying you will wake up at a checkpoint near the boss arena. Sometimes these are right next to the boss room and sometimes it’s further away. The boss rooms are never more than 10 seconds from the checkpoint, but when you die as often as you do in this game it adds up. I think it’s trying to capture the bonfires/lanterns from the Soulsborne games, but those are different games. Titan Souls has a more arcade-y ‘just one more go’ feeling than those games, which is undermined by this delay. It may sound like a petty thing, but no one likes the feeling of their time being wasted and I felt that this really did. Simply respawning the player straight in the boss room would have been so much better.

Titan Souls is a very good game which falls short of greatness due to some frustrating issues. I liked it very much and the core concept is so strong that I hope they make another one, but more cut back and streamlined rather than more expansive as sequels generally are.

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Lego Dimensions: The Simpsons Level Pack for PS4, PS3, Wii U, Xbox One and Xbox 360

Ok, this will be the last Lego Dimensions review for a while, I promise! I skipped out on buying this one as the lack of new voice acting put me off, but I saw it on sale so picked it up anyway. Through excellent animation and the already brilliant vocal performance from the show itself, the lack of new voice acting mattered less than I’d expected, at least in the main level.

The level included in an adaption of the classic episode ‘The Mysterious Voyage of Homer’, which sees Homer eat several powerful chillies, hallucinate a strange desert landscape and seek his soulmate. It’s a great episode, one of the most visually experimental episodes with a heartfelt conclusion which shows Simpsons at its best. Lego Dimensions can’t really claim the credit for how entertaining this is, but it certainly does the episode justice.

The actual level felt a bit on the short side as these things go, but it’s certainly fun enough. The level pack gives you Homer Simpson himself, his iconic pink car and, oddly, the TV set which explodes when removed from the portal. It was a smart choice to adapt this episode, as the trippy chilli induced dream scape offers something more visually interesting than Springfield itself. There’s not much to this pack at all, but it’s certainly a fun curio for any Simpsons fan.

The Adventure World is extensive and fun to explore, but here the lack of new voice acting became a much bigger problem for me. Springfield is only such a great setting because of the characters in it and that element is pretty much missing, aside from a few archival recordings from major characters. Considering how much the Simpsons cast costs these days I understand why this wasn’t possible, but it undeniably lessens the experience.

Still, Springfield and its characters are charmingly rendered in Lego. The lack of music from the show is disappointing too, with a grating theme song ‘sound-a-like’ replacing the main tune. I can’t help but compare it to the vastly superior Adventure Time pack, which had much greater attention to detail to things like music and voice than this one.

It’s not a terrible pack all around, but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price for it. It sits above the Sonic the Hedgehog pack because this one is actually fun to play, but it sits below pretty much every other one I’ve played too.

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Day of the Tentacle Remastered for PS4, PS Vita, PC, OS X, Linux and iOS

When it comes to adventure games, I’m a LucasArts man through and through. The first two Monkey Islands are a pair of my favourite games of all time and I really love Sam and Max too, but there are a lot I missed. The Day of the Tentacle is a very well renowned game which I missed first time around (I was two to be fair) so I was happy to see it pop up as a free PS+ game.

The Day of the Tentacle is actually a sequel to Maniac Mansion, one of the earliest Lucasarts games. That said, a few references aside I really didn’t feel like it held back the experience. The game opens with a sentient purple tentacle drinking the toxic run-off from the mansion of scientist Dr. Red Edison. This causes him to mutate, gaining massive intelligence and a desire to conquer the world. The nerdy and hapless Bernard, along with two friends, is summoned to the mansion to stop Purple Tentacle. The three set out in Dr. Red’s time machine to stop the Purple Tentacle from drinking the sludge, but a malfunction sees the three split up across time. Bernard remains in the present, the laid back roadie Hoagie is sent back 200 years to the signing of the United States Constitution and the deranged Laverne arrives 200 years into a dystopian future ruled by the tentacles. The three must work together across time to end the Purple Tentacle’s plans.

The whole thing is suitably silly and deranged for a Lucasarts game. I didn’t feel that it quite holds the cleverness of the Monkey Island games, particularly the cerebral and strange Monkey Island 2. It’s a lighter game, a more-pure comedy lacking in some of the genuinely heartfelt moments some of the other games have. The writing is vintage Tim Schafer, but I’m not sure if it carries the depth and humanity present in much of his other work. The Purple Tentacle itself isn’t quite enough of a presence throughout the game to come across as a genuine threat, but he’s still silly and over the top enough to be enjoyable. I liked the characters, particularly Laverne, a brilliantly unsettling, macabre and twisted figure.

This is a LucasArts SCUMM adventure game and so has all the strengths and flaws that entails. Controlling three figures across time, which can be switched at will, is a neat twist and leads to some interesting puzzles. Items can be freely swapped between the three, with the time travel element allowing events in the past to influence the future. Some of these time meddlings are amusingly clumsy, such as altering the US Constitution to ensure that there is a vacuum cleaner in the basement in the present or changing the US flag to create a tentacle costume. There are some brilliantly clever puzzle solutions, although it is naturally saddled with your classic ‘adventure game logic’ problems. The Day of the Tentacle contains one of the most ridiculous and obscure puzzle solutions I’ve seen since The Longest Journey’s ‘rubber ducky/subway key.’ I have no shame in saying that I freely used a guide whilst playing; I don’t have the time for the insane level of experimentation which would be needed to solve some of these puzzles.

The Remastered version for consoles actually works surprisingly well, with dragging the cursor around being way less irritating than I expected. You can freely switch between the remastered version, with updated visuals and music, as well as a cleaner interface, or the SCUMM original in all its glory. Call me a nostalgia bitch, but I preferred the SCUMM version. The new visuals are just a bit too clean; I liked the jagged edges of the original and seeing how expressive and vibrant the world and characters are with the limited technology. It really is a wonderful looking game in its original form, but if you’re not familiar with the SCUMM engine it may be a bit off putting. The music is really great, although again I preferred the original versions to the remastered versions. The voice acting is good too, hammy and over the top with not a degree of subtlety or nuance, as well it should be.

Without a nostalgic frame of reference, it’s difficult to talk about The Day of the Tentacle. I ran into a similar problem when I played the remaster of Grim Fandango. I just don’t have the time or inclination to play these games as they were meant to be played anymore, but even with regular usage of a guide I still enjoy them. The next LucasArts remaster is supposedly Full Throttle, another one I missed and I look forward to passively enjoying that one with a walkthrough too.

 

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Pokémon Sun and Moon for Nintendo 3DS

With my Switch pre-ordered and all eyes upon Nintendo’s (hopefully) glorious handheld/home console hybrid future, 2016 was largely the death knell for both the Wii U and the 3DS. Where the final Wii U game I’ll buy was the likeable but largely forgettable Paper Mario: Colour Splash, the Nintendo 3DS went out with a much bigger bang: Pokémon. I know that the Game Boy existed prior to Pokémon, but for me it is the series which has defined Nintendo’s handhelds. It therefore seems fitting that what is probably Nintendo’s final pure handheld ends with the latest instalment in this now venerable series with an entry which shakes up the formula to the greatest extent seen in years.

Pokémon Sun and Moon take place in the Hawaii inspired Alola Region, which is structured differently to other regions seen previously. Where in all previous games a rigid structure of collecting eight Gym Badges before challenging the Elite Four has been enforced, Alola instead sees children sent across the four islands of the Alola Region to complete a series of Trials before confronting the leader of the island, known as the Kahuna. This being a Pokémon game there is also an evil team with nefarious aims; this time it is the unbelievably silly but oddly lovable Team Skull.

Pokémon games aren’t exactly known for their story, but since Black and White there’s been a marked improvement and this continues in Sun and Moon. The story goes to surprisingly epic places, from parallel dimensions to personal family struggles. Pokémon Sun and Moon has actual honest to God plot twists and it’s clear that real effort has been put into the writing and localisation. It’s quite funny at times, as most localised Nintendo games generally are these days. Look, I’m not claiming that Sun and Moon are particularly complex, but there’s a genuine narrative impulse to keep on going, something which could not really be said about most past Pokémon games. I particularly liked the dopey and loveable Team Skull, easily the most (only) memorable team since the original Team Rocket. They’re so…silly, with their juggalo aesthetic and white boy hip-hop hand waving. They’re so desperate to seem tough and scary but so not. The world of Alola feels alive and vibrant in a way previous settings haven’t.

Whilst a lot of the trappings have changed, the core gameplay is still much the same as it was 20 years ago. There are lots of big sweeping changes, but the ones that made me happiest were the simple quality of life fixes. When choosing a move, you can now see whether it is effective/super effective/not very effective beforehand, meaning that memorising type charts is a thing of the past, and any changes to stats like attack or defence are tracked and easy to see. There will doubtless be people why decry this as dumbing down, but memorisation was never an interesting part of the Pokémon tactics anyway. A pointless barrier is removed. There are all sorts of little changes like this, such as being able to add a new Pokémon to your party immediately upon catching them. Pokémon has been full of little niggles for years and Sun and Moon obliterate a large number of them. Bigger issues are fixed too; HMs are finally gone, replaced by the Ride Pager which summons Pokémon to do the same thing. Rather than teaching a Pokémon to Surf, you summon a Lapras to carry you. Rather than learning Rock Smash, toy summon a rideable Taurus who can do it for you. The days of having to lug around a Pokémon with ‘Cut’ and ‘Strength’ and all the others are finally gone and good riddance. Another nice change is an expansion of the Pokémon Amie feature from X & Y, which saw you directly petting and feeding you team. Now called Pokémon Refresh, after every battle you can cure any status ailments and boost their affection, which drastically quickens their rate of experience growth. The virtual pet element of Pokémon has never been stronger than it is in Sun and Moon.

Other changes include the addition of ‘Z-Moves’, which largely replaces the previous games’ Mega Evolution. Z-moves can be used once per battle and are essentially super powered version of regular moves. They’re…fine I guess, but don’t feel nearly as interesting or game changing as the previous generation’s Mega Evolutions. The new trials which replace Gym Battles are generally fun and varied, although not that far removed from the simple puzzles which you would often get in previous games’ gyms. There is one addition which I really hated and that was the ability to wild Pokémon to call for help, summoning in another monster. You can’t capture Pokémon with two on the screen at once, so you have to knock one of them down. The real problem lies in the fact that it doesn’t take up a turn to summon a new Pokémon, meaning that battles can get incredibly protracted and there’s essentially nothing you can do about it, as every time you knock down one Pokémon a new one is immediately called in. This mechanic is used to interesting effect in Totem Pokémon battles, which see you battling powered up versions of regular Pokémon during some of the Island Trials, creating some gloriously tense and challenging encounters. The problem lies when the random Zubat you encounter in a cave starts doing that and you’re stuck fighting Zubats in the same battle for five bloody minutes. It’s an annoying blight in an otherwise extremely solid game.

As for the Pokémon themselves? Sun and Moon may very well be my favourite generation in a long time. There are lots of brilliant brand new Pokémon with some interesting type combinations. For example, my adorable grass owl starter Pokémon Rowlet eventually evolved into the mixed Grass/Ghost Decidueye, not the Grass/Flying I was expecting. One of the absolute best additions are the Alola Form Pokémon, which are Gen 1 Pokémon redesigned and given a new type combination. For example, the previously fire type Vulpix/Ninetales become Ice/Fairy. My favourite of these was the incredibly adorable Alolan Raichu, who is now Electric/Psychic and surfs on his own tail. I wasn’t convinced on the concept at first, but now I see it as clever merging of nostalgia with invention. Some of the most unique type combos can be found in these Alolan forms and they play very different roles in the party, but they nonetheless feel familiar and tickle you right in the nostalgia. I played Sun and Moon entirely with new Pokémon and Alolan Forms and felt no temptation to go for any of the old ones.

Sun and Moon are easily the most beautiful Pokémon games ever made, with gorgeous environments and brilliant character designs. The music is solid too and the genuine sense of atmosphere created on the dinky little 3DS is impressive. By far though, the best part is the Pokémon themselves. They are best seen in the Pokémon Refresh mode. Every single Pokémon has several unique animations which are truly brimming with character. Some like to be rubbed certain places and not others; Pichu’s bereft face every time you rub it somewhere he doesn’t like never failed to get a reaction from me. The thing that blows my mind is that there are 802 Pokémon and that’s not even counting alternate forms, which likely add at least another few dozen. Every single one is given this level of love and attention and the work involved, as well as fitting it all on the cart, is truly impressive.

There are lots of other features I haven’t mentioned; like the whole series, this is a very feature rich game. There are whole mechanics and systems I essentially ignore as I’m here for the core gameplay of collecting, battling and levelling up, but as always there’s so much here for you if you want it. Pokémon Sun and Moon has a couple of niggles, but all round it’s a hell of an achievement. It’s the perfect swan song for the 3DS, a console I’m really going to miss. If you like Pokémon you’ll get this anyway, but if you haven’t played Pokémon in a few years and want to get back to it, this is a pretty damn good place.

 

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Lego Dimensions: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Story Pack for PS4, PS3, Wii U, Xbox One and Xbox 360

This is the second of the more extensive ‘Story Packs’ for Lego Dimensions, after 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. My feelings towards Fantastic Beasts as a movie is very similar to my feelings towards Ghostbusters; somewhere between lukewarm and positive. I’m a big Harry Potter fan but Fantastic Beasts as a movie just didn’t quite land for me; nonetheless, I liked it enough that I was happy to receive this pack as a Christmas present.

Just as with the Ghostbusters pack, this is essentially a straightforward retelling of the story of the movie. There are some funny asides and visual gags from other franchises, but nothing side-splittingly hilarious. The presentation is held back by the use of a lot of archive sound from the movie, with more subdued delivery which made sense in the movie just coming off as weird here. The newer voice acting from some of the cast is much better.

As ever, the Fantastic Beasts story pack doesn’t do anything new in terms of gameplay. The pack gives you Newt Scamander and the Niffler. Newt doesn’t offer anything unique; in fact, he has essentially the same move set as Gandalf from the starter pack and the Niffler simply allows you to use dig spots. Playing through the six story missions will take you a couple of enjoyable hours. The same enjoyably structured if entirely uncreative general unfolding of the environments which makes these games so mindlessly satisfying is in full force here and it is lacking the over-abundance of irritating boss fights which can slightly hamstring these games.

The Adventure World is fine and has some nice missions, but I must say that I’m a bit over New York as an Adventure World setting. It’s definitely more exciting than the Ghostbusters one, but compared to the beauty of the Adventure Time world or the labyrinthine complexity of the Portal 2 world, it ends up coming off a bit bland. I think these worlds are better when they move away from cities; it forces the developers to be a bit more creative. The general look is great and the voice acting solid, with the excellent soundtrack from the movie helping to elevate the experience.

These packs are getting harder and harder review because generally I feel the same about all of them. There are some I’m more enthusiastic about (Adventure Time) and some I’m less (Sonic the Hedgehog), but in general they all operate at the level of decent. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is another decent Lego Dimensions entry and I think that’s all I’m really asking for.

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Lego Dimensions: Sonic the Hedgehog Level Pack for PS4, Ps3, Wii U, Xbox One and Xbox 360

There aren’t many Lego games that you’d be able to call genuinely brilliant, but most operate comfortably at least around ‘good.’ Lego Dimensions has held on to that, with the entire experience operating at the boundary between good and great, which is fine, that’s where the series belongs. There hasn’t been much that I’ve actively disliked, until the Sonic the Hedgehog Level Pack for Lego Dimensions which is a rather miserable experience.

There isn’t much story apart from Sonic and pals fight to take down Eggman who has nefarious plans. That’s ok though and the writing is decent in that snarky self-aware way that recent Sonic games have fallen into. I’d always choose genuinely good writing, but Sonic is such a poisoned brand at this point that self-mockery does feel like the only real option left. Inside the pack you get Sonic himself, a pointless Sonic car and Tails’ plane.

The core story Level is a decent length and takes in a series of classic Sonic locations from a range of games, from Green Hill Zone through to the first level of Sonic Adventure with the whale. I’m no massive Sonic fan; in fact, I picked this up to play with a Sonic obsessed friend of mine (poor bastard) through the local co-op. I’ve played the first one and dabbled with some of the 3D ones from the early 2000s like Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic Heroes, then more recently Sonic Generations, but it’s not a series I consider to be a real classic. A lot of the locations went over my head, but my depraved Sonic chum seemed to enjoy visiting a bunch of classic locations, so good for him I guess.

Somewhat appropriately, the Sonic Lego pack holds essentially the exact same issues as the main series; controlling a character like Sonic at high speed through a 3D environment in unbearable. Mario transitioned to 3D perfectly because it was a game about precision and tight control, but Sonic’s speed just doesn’t translate. This level pack has the same problem, with some fun moments of speed (never as fun as a proper Sonic game mind) hampered by the simple ‘puzzle solving’ that you have in the Lego games. I find these incredibly simple puzzles oddly satisfying normally, but they are an infuriating break of gameplay flow here. I was shocked by how well they were able to transfer over Portal to the Lego format, but they really didn’t manage to pull of Sonic the Hedgehog quite so well.

The Adventure World looks pretty nice but made me feel physically sick. Like, actual motion sick. Now, this was admittedly because of the frame rate drop accompanying co-op play combined with the high speed and open world design but when I returned to the open world in solo play I didn’t like it that much either. The same issues that has always plagued Sonic open worlds are still present here; it’s just not fun or exciting to explore. These Adventure Worlds are rarely great, excepting the Adventure Time one, but this is easily my least favourite so far.

The overall look is good, with the Sonic characters translating over to the Lego form surprisingly well. The music not so much, with Sonic falling into the same problem of The Simpsons when it came to licencing music. You don’t get Green Hill Zone, you get something which sort of sounds like it but isn’t as good. This may sound like a minor thing, but when you’re releasing a product which is, let’s face it, primarily trying to capitalise nostalgia, these details matter.
I’m afraid that Sonic the Hedgehog is easily my least favourite of these so far. They made a good stab at converting Sonic into the Lego formula, but it’s hard to claim that they pulled it off. This one is only for the die-hard Sonic fans, although to be fair my die-hard Sonic fan mate thought even less of it than me, so make of that what you will.

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Final Fantasy XV for PS4 and Xbox One

I’m not what you’d call a massive Final Fantasy fan. I’ve only played 1-4, then 8 and then 13 of the main series, although I’ve spent more time with spin offs like Tactics Advance and Crystal Chronicles. Final Fantasy XIII was one of the worst games I’ve ever played; I hated its linearity, its lack of respect for the player and its bland protagonist. I was therefore quite intrigued by Final Fantasy XV, which looked set to reverse all of these problems; a big open world, more challenging quests and a group of loveable boy band protagonists. Final Fantasy XV has all of those things and I frequently loved it, but it shows too many scars from its troubled development to be a classic.

Final Fantasy XV follows Prince Noctis of Lucis, a land which is one of the last hold outs of independence from the conquering Niflheim Empire. The city is protected by the magic of the King, Noctis’ father Regis, who maintains a great shield protecting the capital city of Insomnia. An ambassador from Niflheim has come to offer peace and end a war that has blighted the world for years and King Regis agrees. A condition is that Noctis is to be married to his childhood sweetheart Lady Lunafreya of Tenebrae (a protectorate of Niflheim), as a political union. Noctis, alongside his friends Gladiolous, Ignis and Prompto set forth on a roadtrip to the relatively neutral city of Altissia for the wedding. It is not long before events are complicated and Noctis is plunged into a conflict which threatens the entire world of Eos.

The story for Final Fantasy XV is, unfortunately, an incoherent mess. If you thought the second half of Metal Gear Solid V (a game FFXV shares a lot in common with) shit the bed, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The immediate problem is that it is almost impossible to work out what is going on if you haven’t watched the spin off movie Kingsglaive, which takes place parallel with the opening chapters of the game. For some reason FFXV seems entirely unwilling to give the player backstory; I guess it’s trying to avoid classic exposition dumps, but anything would have been better than this. I dutifully watched Kingsglaive (not an experience I can recommend) which did finally explain what was going on, but I shouldn’t have had to in the first place. Things only get worse as it goes on, with new characters introduced and abandoned with no explanation, shockingly underdeveloped villains with impenetrably bizarre motivations and sudden, disorienting lurches in time and place. Some of these characters are likeable and I’d have loved to see more of them, but there just isn’t enough story here. By the end I had almost no clue what was happening, with major plot twists announced and then never spoken of again. There are some interesting ideas here, particularly in the intriguing and charming main villain, but pretty much every element is shockingly underdeveloped.

The thing is, for all these flaws, there is one element of the story which the developers absolutely nailed and that is the relationship between your four party members. Where Final Fantasy games have tended to have sprawling parties made up of members which join throughout the journey, in FFXV you start and finish with the same core four, outside of a couple of brief guest appearances. I was surprised to see an all male party in this day and age, but after playing the game it feels like a legitimate creative choice. The lovely boys of FFXV are pretty much the least toxically masculine bunch of lads I’ve seen. They clearly love and support each other throughout the entire story, to the point that any tiff is a bit hard to watch. It’s hard not to get attached to this lot, even though they can’t be called complex characters by any means. The tough guy with a heart of gold Gladiolus, the wise-cracking but insecure Prompto and the responsible and fastidious Ignis are characters I became really fond of by the end, with the best moments of writing to be found in their little joke-y asides to each other as they adventure around Eos. One of the most charming details are the passive skills each party member has, distinct from combat. Noctis can fish, Gladiolus can scavenge, Ignis can cook and, best of all, Prompto can take photographs, which was displayed at the end of each day. These skills develop over time, so watching Prompto’s photos get better and better is really charming stuff. The lighter, road trip stuff works really well, but does feel completely at odds with the oppressive ‘evil empire’ narrative looming over everything. FFXV has an interesting approach to open world design mechanically, but it’s story is not built for an open world at all. That said, few open world games do pull this off, with only The Witcher 3 coming to mind as one that does.

FFXV ditches the turn based battles entirely for something much more engaging. All battles are in real time. Holding one button attacks, whilst holding another allows you to dodge. Noctis is the only playable character and can equip four different weapons at once, which can be switched on the fly. Different enemies are weak to different weapons. Noctis also has the ability to warp around the area, sometimes to strike directly into foes and sometimes to reach high ground which speeds up health and MP regeneration. Alongside this, Noctis can also activate techniques to be used by one of his three bros. Positioning is key, as back attacks (as well as parries) can trigger link strikes where Noctis double teams an enemy alongside one of the team. All these elements combine into a system which is fast, frantic and really engaging. It looks hack and slash-y at first, but that will get you obliterated later on and you have to play more defensively and intelligently. Constant motion is key, with magic functioning like a grenade. There are a lot of complex mechanics at play, but they all feel valuable and build towards a genuinely unique and engaging battle system. One flaw is that it perhaps isn’t quite visceral enough, with strikes having that weightlessness which usually comes with MMOs. More visual and audio feedback to make the strikes more satisfying would be icing on the cake, but the cake is still delicious. Delicious FFXV combat cake. Unfortunately, the camera really suffers in indoor locations like buildings and caves and is really made for wide open spaces where you can zip all over the place. Precise placing becomes pretty much impossible and in a lot of these encounters all I could do was spam potions to stay alive.

As is usually the case with these games, the core gameplay mechanic is the combat, but FFXV offers a first for the series in their first truly seamless open world. The world is vast and beautiful and isn’t bound by traditional Western fantasy tropes. In fact, the setting is bizarrely modern for the most part, with mobile phones and cars and advanced technology. I’m a real fan of this sort of science-fantasy setting and wish we saw it more often in games. As strange as it all is, it works in practice and Eos is a genuine pleasure to explore. The landscapes vary from desert to lush plains to rocky volcano, with a good variety of scenery. The game reminded me a bit of Earthbound, in that it evokes 1950s Americana without really understanding it, a style of world building I find oddly endearing. You’ll be exploring on foot, on a chocobo or by your fancy car. The diving is extremely limited, you can’t go off road so generally it’s better to just let your buddy Ignis drive and take in the scenery, all whilst listening to your friends babble away to each other or classic Final Fantasy tunes through the CD player. I quite enjoyed the long drives for the scenery, but if this sort of thing would bore you it could be a turn off. When you’ve been somewhere once you can fast travel, which is somewhat hindered by lengthy load times. Night is dangerous in Eos, so you can stay at motels or caravans or camp in the wilderness, where Ignis can cook you a nice meal (if you have the right ingredients) which offer significant buffs for the following day. There’s a unique rhythm to FFXV that I haven’t seen in other open world games and it evokes the feeling of a road trip with friends very well.

Alongside the lengthy main quest, there are a plethora of side quests, most of which are unfortunately quite bad. The Witcher 3 spoiled me for good quests, but even Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition had better side missions than this. They’re generally repetitive ‘go here – kill this’ or ‘go here- collect this’ affairs. I actually don’t always mind this if it’s wrapped up in an interesting side story, but FFXV’s side missions are so mundane it’s almost funny. There’s a very lengthy quest chain about acquiring vegetables for example. Sometimes these quests will lead you to optional dungeons, which are actually really cool. This is frustrating as there’s no way of knowing which quest chains will eventually become worthwhile and which will stay boring forever. I’m sure I missed some decent content because I couldn’t bear to do another fetch quest. I actually preferred the straight up bounty hunter mission, which simply send Noctis and crew to go kill some monster then come back. The monsters encountered are often rare and these provided some of the more memorable encounters, whilst containing no story at all. I did a fair few side missions because I liked the world and wanted to spend plenty of time in it, but after I finished the main story I couldn’t quite bear to do any more. FFXV has an open world, but in many ways it isn’t designed as an open world game and this is typified through the side missions.

FFXV has the opposite structure to FFXIII. Where FFXIII was linear for the first half and then apparently opens up in the second (I never could make it that far myself), FFXV tears you from the open world in the second half of the story. You can return through hilariously convoluted means, but from a story perspective you’re out and the rest of the game is pretty much linear. It is here that the game falls apart to a spectacular degree. Other games have done this before; Metal Gear Solid V also had a strong first half that fell apart in the second, but at least the core mechanics remained fun even if it was repetitive. Since the second half of the game is mostly set in closed, cramped locations, the previously mentioned camera issues come to the fore making almost no combat encounters in the second half as fun as those in the first. FFXV throws you into some bafflingly awful moments, compounded by the fact that the story utterly collapses at this point too. A truly dreadful boss encounter and a stunningly ill-advised stab at survival horror stand out as memorably awful, but the whole thing isn’t good. The actual final hour is pretty cool, with a great boss fight and a cool location, but overall the whole second half is disastrous. Where the first half is a flawed but loveable diamond in the rough, the second loses everything that makes the core flaws of the game bearable.

Similarly, to The Last Guardian, FFXV shows its age in some places and it’s clear that this is a game originally intended for the PS3. The character models for less important NPCs are pretty poor and a lot of the animations very stiff and awkward. The environment is gorgeous with a genuinely unique setting, but significant texture pop in and an overall fuzziness to the visuals don’t allow it to shine as well as it should. I actually love the visual design for this game and these flaws don’t really hold it back from being a spectacular game to take in at times, but some of the visual impact is undeniably robbed. The voice acting is good for the core four boys and much of the supporting cast, but some of the NPC voice acting is hilariously bad. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between how characters look and how they speak. Although the setting itself feels like a well thought out and plausible, the characters in it really don’t. This would be fine if, instead of believable characters, we had grandiose and silly characters instead, but we don’t get that either. There’s a bizarre sense of lavish attention to detail in things that don’t really matter, such as the wonderfully rendered and believable food, but ignoring things that really do. The music is lovely, obviously, although the excellent main theme isn’t quite heard enough. It would only kick in sometimes whilst in the field and is interrupted with every combat encounter, meaning that it’s impact is robbed by the less memorable battle theme.

FFXV is a frustrating and disappointing game with an undeniable charm. I’ve made the comparison a few times, but FFXV made me think of Metal Gear Solid V a lot. Both were heavily delayed entries in a long running, beloved series. Both were awaited with rabid anticipation. Both are known for convoluted storytelling and melodrama. Both released essentially unfinished, with clear scars from where content was cut. The thing is, I still maintain that for its flaws Metal Gear Solid V is a genuinely great game, even a masterpiece. I can’t quite say the same for Final Fantasy XV. I’ve enjoyed my time with it and I don’t regret it, but this is nowhere near the experience it should be. That said, I love the basic idea of a road trip game and the world itself and I hope they learn lessons from this game and release a sequel. Maybe an all-female team next time?

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The Last Guardian for PS4

I’m sure that the creators of The Last Guardian would prefer it if people just wrote about the game rather than the decade long development cycle, but it’s impossible to talk about this game without touching upon it. Originally planned for the PS3, The Last Guardian in many ways feels even more dated than that, playing more like a late PS2 game than anything else. It’s like playing a childhood classic and realising it’s not as good as you remember but without the lovely cloud of nostalgia. But, despite these admittedly damning flaws, The Last Guardian is genuinely one of the most moving and powerful experiences I’ve ever had in gaming and allowed me to feel something approaching genuine love for a virtual creature.

The Last Guardian opens with a young boy awakening covered in mysterious tattoos in a strange pit in an ancient, ruined castle. Chained with him is a massive creature, part cat, part dog and part bird, who is initially hostile and aggressive towards the boy. When the boy helps the creature to be freed from his chains, he names him Trico and they set forth to escape from the strange castle they are both trapped in. Across the course of the game a close bond forms between the two as they make their journey and begin to understand the strange events that led them both to the where they are.
Although there is narration from an older version of the protagonist retelling his story, the narrative is generally fairly light touch, with the exception of a couple of lengthy cut scenes towards the end. The story isn’t actually that important; what is here is fine, but the minimalistic approach works well and allows the focus to rest firmly in one place; Trico. Trico is the greatest videogame NPC of all time.

Where almost everything else looks dated, like an (admittedly very high quality) HD re-release of a PS2 game, Trico is a marvel. Emotionally, I responded to him just as I would a real animal. Some people see Trico as more like a dog, but to me he’s pure feline. Everything about his animations are perfect, from his little shuffle before he attempts a big jump to his focused gaze when he sees something he wants, to his flattened ears when he’s scared. He’s unbelievably lovable and every moment where he was in peril was unbearable; I found myself shouting encouragement at him at the slightest hint of upset. It’s difficult to put into words or even, really, in video. Not everyone forms the bond with Trico and I don’t know why, but I certainly did.

The problem lies in…well, everything else. Perhaps never having played Ico or Shadow of the Colossus set me back, but I found the controls and camera pretty much unbearable. From a mechanical standpoint, The Last Guardian is a pain in the arse to play from beginning to end. Platforming is clunky and awkward and the puzzles often follow bizarre ‘adventure game logic.’ The camera is constantly wrestling with the player. To traverse the castle you can climb on Trico and issue commands, although he takes these more as suggestions. Trico’s unpredictable AI has been the biggest problem for a lot of people, but it generally didn’t take too long to get him to do what I wanted and I’m one of those weirdos who found this more endearing than anything. The sad fact is that, at its core, The Last Guardian isn’t really fun to play. The level design doesn’t help and I found path finding very tricky. The Last Guardian is a linear game and there is usually only one path to follow, but finding that path is not clear in the slightest. An example of these issues are vines; sometimes they’re climbable and take you to the next area and sometimes they’re not, but they look the same either way. You have no way of knowing whether they’re decoration or not. That feeling of being lost is great in an open world game, but generally frustrating in linear ones and The Last Guardian feels trapped in this frustration.

The exquisitely animated and designed Trico aside, The Last Guardian generally shows its age from a technical standpoint. The environments are pretty enough, with a very strong overall design, but a lot of the textures look a bit muddied and fuzzy. I did quite like the animation for the boy himself, particularly his goofy ‘running down stairs’ animation. The frame rate, at least on a standard PS4, is not good. It didn’t hit anything close to a consistent 30 FPS. This didn’t necessarily ruin more exciting or dramatic moments, but it’s undeniable that they would have been much better at a consistent frame rate. I appreciate what a mammoth task Trico must have been, but it is clear than on a fundamental technical level, The Last Guardian just isn’t good enough.

As negative as the above review reads, I still really loved The Last Guardian. It’s a disastrous mess in many ways, but it’s a beautiful, unique and memorable mess. Trico is a character I will never forget and I’m happy I played The Last Guardian purely for him, but for those whose mileage may vary or who are easily frustrated by dodgy mechanics (which is more than fair enough), I really can’t recommend it.

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Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture for PS4 and PC

I’m a bit of a defender of the ol’ ‘walking simulator.’ Where they don’t seek to engage through mechanics, they do so through atmosphere and story. A lot of them are bad, but often that badness is laid at the feet of lacking mechanics well in reality it’s that the story or world isn’t good enough. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has been out for a while, but it’s only recently I’ve got round to playing it. This is a game which does show some annoying tropes of the genre, but through excellent storytelling and an unbeatable atmosphere manages to stand as an excellent experience.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture takes place during the 1980s, in and around a deserted Shropshire village named Yaughton. All the people are gone and in their place are dancing and shimmering balls of light, whilst ghostly voices and apparitions fill in the player on what befell the town. Yes, you discover the strange events that led to this situation, but you also drop into a lot of smaller, more personal stories about the people who lived in this town. They may not all be tied into the grand events that underpin the story, but everyone in Yaughton is the protagonist of their own lives with their own joys and tragedies.

I won’t go into specifics of the story too much, but suffice it to say that the world of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is extremely powerful. Listening to the shadows of the townsfolk speak about everything going on in their lives provide snippets of information which form part of a larger patchwork whole. I’m sure there are elements I missed; I wasn’t exhaustive in my approach to this game for reasons I’ll mention later, but the sense of piecing together the prior events is very satisfying. Despite never physically appearing in the game, some of these ordinary Shropshire residents’ stories genuinely moved me.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture doesn’t make any pretence to be a puzzle game or anything like that; this is a game where you wander about and that’s all. Thankfully, the setting is unbelievably beautiful and captures how stunningly lovely these sleepy corners of England can be. Nowhere is quite as picturesque and well laid out as Yaughton, but it’s about creating a feeling for a place rather than a faithful representation. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture triggered an odd nostalgia in me, which is strange as I have never lived in a place like Yaughton. There’s something buried into the national psyche that seems to respond to places as quintessentially ‘English’ as this. This nostalgia can manifest in very negative ways, such as calls to return to a mythic past which only worked for one specific demographic, but it’s hard to deny it’s power.

The biggest flaw of this game is an odd one, because it strikes me as an intentional design choice and I totally understand why they did it; your walk speed is too slow. The reason for this is obvious; Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a beautiful, leisurely game and should not be experienced whilst sprinting all over the place like the Doom Marine. I get it, I really do, but the walk speed is just on the edge of annoying. You can ‘sprint’, but in reality this is little more than a brisk walk. This makes backtracking feel far less appealing. I explored pretty thoroughly in the first half, but towards the back end I cut down on this and simply followed the set path. Some sort of system where you must walk slowly the first time you travel somewhere but can speed up whenever you return could have worked? I don’t know, I’m not a game designer, but the current speed is a problem.

To bring it back onto a positive, I want to mention the music, which is nothing short of stunning. A sweeping orchestral soundtrack backed by a full choir truly elevates the experience. I’ve played lots of games with good soundtracks before; Ocarina of Time is my favourite game soundtrack ever, but the game would still be great without it. Not since Thomas Was Alone have I played a game where the music is so tied into my enjoyment of a game. The game is frequently quiet, but at certain moments the orchestra will kick in with full force to an extent that’s actually breath-taking. If taken simply as an interactive showcase for composer Jessica Curry’s work, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a worthwhile experience.

If you hate walking simulators and everything they stand for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture won’t change your mind. I played it as a palate cleanser between big AAA releases, something I think I’m going to do more. I have less time to play games these days so I’ve been sticking mostly to the big releases this past year, meaning I have a backlog of cool indie games to explore. This is a game worth it for the soundtrack alone, but the unsettling and gorgeous village of Yaughton is a worthwhile place to spend a couple of hours.

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