Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the category “Linux Games”

Yooka-Laylee for PS4, Xbox One, PC, Linux and OS X

I still remember the day I got my N64. My mum was pretty strict when it came to game consoles; she didn’t approve at all and was pretty keen to keep controllers out of my hands. My dad was a big softy though and we went to go pick it up from Toys-R-Us for Christmas. This was the UK in the 1990s and the PS1 was culturally dominant in a way I think lots of people have forgotten, but I had eyes only for the N64. My best friend had one and we’d spent countless hours playing together, but one game had caught my eye above all others. Not Super Mario 64, not Ocarina of Time; Banjo-Kazooie. I obsessed over this game, collecting every Jiggy, every Note, every Jinjo. I’ll never forget the day Nintendo Official Magazine published the secret codes to unlock the enigmatic, but ultimately pointless, Ice Key and Special Eggs, ringing my best friend to share my discovery. I awaited Banjo-Tooie with a fervour, and even though with hindsight I can see that it’s a less tight and strong experience overall than the original, I still loved it to bits at the time. The point is, cut me and I bleed Banjo.

It’s 2017 now, and I’m not far from 20 years older than I was when I first played. Some things haven’t changed; I still have Grant Kirkhope’s Spiral Mountain theme etched into my skull and the childhood best friend was my best man, but one area that has changed is gaming. It’s not 1998 anymore. Yooka-Laylee’s reception was likely disappointing to Playtonic, formed largely by people who left Rare after not being able to handle anymore of Microsoft’s bullshit, who demonstrate clear passion for the collect-a-thon genre and a style of game that no longer exists. Yooka-Laylee is quite clearly a labour of love, which makes it all the sadder that it ultimately fails. Some have snapped back at the criticism of Yooka-Laylee by saying that it simply does what was promised, to recreate the gameplay, style and aesthetic of Banjo-Kazooie into 2017. Those criticising it are simply not the target audience.

Unfortunately, I think the issues with Yooka-Laylee run deeper than simply being a matter of personal taste and nostalgia. Banjo-Kazooie was a big, epic game, but it was very tightly designed. In terms of pure square footage, the levels really weren’t that big, but were packed to the rafters with stuff. There was a sense of wonder, as each world felt radically different to the others, offering unique style, gameplay and sweet, sweet Kirkhope music. Yooka-Laylee has fewer worlds than Banjo-Kazooie, only five overall, plus the hub world. This wouldn’t be a problem in of itself, but they’re also much bigger and, overall, have far less personality. There is probably more content in each world than in Banjo-Kazooie, each of which can be expanded, but it’s far less interesting to gather. Yooka-Laylee aims for Banjo-Kazooie, but it lands on Donkey Kong 64.

The Banjo games were never known for complex plots, but you still had a clear motivation. Banjo’s sister has been kidnapped by an evil witch who wants to make herself young again. In Yooka-Laylee the villain is Capital B, an evil businessman who creates a machine to absorb all the books in the world, to horde knowledge to then sell back. He steals the pages from a magical book in the possession of chameleon Yooka and bat Laylee, so the two set forth into his lair to get the pages back. The writing is still good, funny and silly and irreverent and oh-so-very British, as it was in Banjo. An element I really liked is that the whole game can be interpreted as a dig at Microsoft, with constant jokes at the expense of corporations and capitalism. A boss clearly modelled on Microsoft’s Kinect was particularly genius, as perhaps nothing symbolises how far Rare has fallen, or was dragged, than that useless bit of nonsense. Whilst I like the idea of Capital B, he ultimately feels like less of an engaging presence than Gruntilda, whose constant taunting and rhymes during the original game is pretty much iconic.

Although the level design is lacking, most of the core mechanics themselves are really solid. Yooka simply feels fun to control, running at a good speed and with tight platforming. Similarly to the talon trot of the Banjo games, Yooka can roll up into a ball and be ridden by Laylee for extra speed and to climb slopes, with controls that feel tight and responsive. Many people have knocked the camera, but I can’t say I ever had any major issues with it. The sheer joy of movement that 3D platformers really need is present here, even if what is layered on top of these mechanics feels lacklustre.

Yooka-Laylee has moments of greatness and charm but it is lacking something. The writing, music and strong core mechanics of Banjo are there, but the level design, variety and, ultimately, heart are not. This is clearly a labour of love and I’d like to see Playtonic have another shot; I think there’s a solid foundation here to build upon, but I’m as diehard a Banjo-Kazooie fan as you could imagine and Yooka-Laylee fell flat for me.

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Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment DLC for Switch, Wii U, 3DS, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

The third Shovel Knight campaign was the second game I ducked into on the Switch after Breath of the Wild. It was a good choice; after the sprawling grandeur of Zelda, a nice, tight platforming campaign was exactly what I needed and jumping back into the world of Shovel Knight seemed the best way to do so.

Specter of Torment tells the story of how Specter Knight came to be the ghostly presence we see in the main campaign, as well as how he first recruited the Order of No-Quarter for the Enchantress. Yet again, Yacht Club provide a masterclass in how to include story in this kind of games. It’s light, it never gets in the way, but there’s enough to add an extras layer of engagement to the rock solid platforming gameplay.

Ah yes, and speaking of the gameplay, Specter Knight is just as fun to control as Shovel and Plague Knights before him. Just as with Plague of Shadows, Specter of Torment reuses the same locations and boss fights from the base game. Although I certainly hope we get some truly new levels down the line, the subtle alterations that are made to each level make them feel distinct. Alongside Shovel Knight’s bouncing shovel and Plague Knights bombs, Specter Knight has some interesting, fun traversal mechanics. One is the ability to slash towards enemies and certain objects, launching you across the screen. This can be combed to cover large gaps, with close timing being frequently required. Less commonly, you can also grind on your scythe along rails, which is fun but perhaps a little underused.

There’s a lot of joy in catapulting yourself around the areas and the boss fights are as fun as ever, even if Specter Knight’s abilities make them a little too easy. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of an overworld this time around, with Specter of Torment instead simply containing a level select screen inside a small version of the Enchantress’ castle. It doesn’t quite feel as fully formed as Plague of Shadows, but it’s still a really fun, challenging experience.

By this point, the base game for Shovel Knight is bloody good value, with three excellent campaigns. Specter Knight is distinct and fun to play as, although I do hope that Yacht Club begin to move beyond the original campaign as their basis.

 

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XCOM 2 for PS4, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a great little game and the sequel builds upon its predecessor in interesting ways. The core mechanics and loop are the same, but a few clever twists keep things interesting and provide a very strong strategy experience.

In the previous game, the aliens were the guerrilla fighters, popping up, inflicting damage, then vanishing again. XCOM 2, in an interesting narrative twist, assumes that the player failed in Enemy Unknown and so the aliens have taken over the world, with the role now reversed. It is 20 years after the fall of Earth, with the planet now in the grips of the puppet ADVENT administration, with propaganda persuading the people of Earth that the aliens are benevolent and kind. XCOM are now an insurgent group, operating from a mobile military base hidden in the arctic. Word reaches XCOM that the alien administration is pursuing the mysterious ADVENT project. No one knows what it is, but they know it is bad and must be stopped.

XCOM 2 feels a little bit more plot heavy than the predecessor, but as with the last game the real joy will be in the stories you craft for yourself. Your base has a handful of scientists and military men and engineers you may be meant to care about, but I never really did. I did care about my squad of randomly generated squaddies. By sheer chance and not my radical feminist SJW agenda, I ended up with an all-female core squad and by the end I grew rather fond of my ass kicking team of alien stomping women. I felt this way about the first game as well, but it felt like there were more boring cutscenes this time around. Give me the context for what I’m doing then leave me alone, I’m not interested in anything else.

The core feel of the turn based battle system is unchanged from the previous game, but a couple of nifty adjustments shake up how the whole thing feels. Enemy Unknown was a bit easier to cheese, with the Overwatch ability being somewhat overpowered. This move meant any movement by the enemy would then cause them to be fired upon, meaning that a strategy of ‘creep forward, Overwatch, creep forward, Overwatch’ would work more often than not. Most missions in XCOM 2 are on a timer. I thought I’d hate this, but in reality it forces you to play more aggressively. You have to actively pursue your goals with every turn, taking risks to survive. I got through the last game by playing very conservatively, something which XCOM 2 refuses to let you do. The battles themselves are still hugely satisfying, with a simple class system which nonetheless allows for significant customisation. There’s a moment when your squaddies become predators rather than prey which us hugely exciting. The moment for me came when my sniper unlocked the ability to have a move refunded every time they make a kill. This meant that I could operate a strategy of whittling down the alien’s health with explosives before finishing them all off with my sniper, often going through my entire ammo pool in one round. Some may call this cheap, but I had to earn the ability to do this, by keeping my team alive long enough to develop these abilities.

A core part of XCOM is the metagame between missions, which sees you developing your base and researching new weapons and armour. This element was so satisfying in the last game and is even more so now. The sense of satisfaction from developing a new technology or building a new facility is intoxicating, all the more so because the decision about where to allocate resources is so risky. Resources are tight, particularly at the beginning and it’s more than possible to screw yourself over before a battle even begins. The core focus is on linking rebel cells into a global resistance. All the while, a bar counting up to the launch of the ADVENT project is above the map. This can be lowered in a variety of different ways, but it’s a constant reminder hanging over the player. A sense of urgency pervades the whole experience. Something about the XCOM gameplay loop of build/fight, build/fight is just so dang lovely.

The general visual design is decent, with some nasty new alien design and decent music. All told, the actual visual upgrade from the previous game is minimal, minor spit and polish aside. The biggest issue is punishing load times between missions; this is a pretty good disincentive against save-scumming, but I doubt this was intentional. A bit of added visual flair would be a neat little addition, but the general visual conservativeness doesn’t do much harm.

XCOM 2 is, pretty much, more of the same, but seemingly minor tweaks are more significant than they first seem. Strategy games often allow players to retreat to comfort zones, but XCOM 2 refuses to let you do so. It’s always pushing the player on, never allowing them to relax, which can make it an intense, but highly rewarding experience.

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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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The Talos Principle for PS4, PC, OS X, Linux and Android

I picked The Talos Principle because I had nothing to play and just looked at the Metacritic top rated PS4 games and went with the first one I hadn’t played. I was initially worried that the puzzles would hit a difficulty wall which would just infuriate me and well…it did, but despite me being an idiot and relying on guides for the final quarter the interesting story and unique way it is told carried me through.

At the start of The Talos Principle you awaken with no memories in a beautiful garden filled with decaying Grecian architecture and art, when a booming God-like voice identifying itself as Elohim tasks you with completing a series of puzzles to ascend and join him. When you first reach a computer terminal and see your robotic hands, it becomes very clear that this is not a story to take at face value. Elohim isn’t the only person communicating with you, dotted terminals scattered around the world drop hints about the nature of the world you inhabit, whilst an AI masquerading as a library assistant program hides out from Elohim and fills your head with thoughts of rebellion. At the centre of the world there is a tower which Elohim forbids you to climb but…that’s not going to stop you is it?

The Talos Principle is a game with extremely lofty narrative ambitions and genuinely hits almost all of them. It’s very concerned with philosophy, specifically the point where philosophy and technology intersect. If The Talos Principle can be said to have a central argument, it is that the musings of the great philosophers about the nature of humanity are in fact more relevant in our technologically advanced world rather than less. Artificial consciousness raises the question of the soul and the right for humans to assume dominance over other intelligences. Compared to something like the recent Deus Ex games, which explore similar themes with all the subtlety of a claymore, The Talos Principle takes a musing and thoughtful approach and doesn’t offer any answers. The most interesting parts of the game are your discussions with the library AI Milton, who questions you about your assumptions about the world and relentlessly challenges you on every point you make. It’s not a conversation, obviously, but it does sort of feel like one. If you’ve ever got into an argument with someone and realised half way through that there’s no way you can win because your opponent just knows more than you, you’ll know what talking with Milton feels like. If any criticism can be given it is that the gameplay and narrative don’t necessarily feel particularly well entwined, but the two separate elements are so strong individually it’s hard to be too upset by this.

So, the puzzles. There are dozens of them and all see you collecting little Tetris pieces called sigils which are put together into keys to unlock new areas or give access to new tools. The satisfaction of completing a puzzle and unlocking a new area is really lovely. The puzzles themselves are largely based around energy gates which must be kept open a variety of ways, from simple pressure pads to jammers to guiding lasers onto panels. By the end you have around six items available for use in the puzzles and it gets properly, ridiculously, difficult. The satisfaction of success is massive though, from creating a complex laser grids to using items in a less obvious, more ‘outside the box’ way. The game forces you to consider every use for your items; to give a simple example, just because your item is for channelling a laser beam doesn’t mean it can’t weigh down a pressure plate and maybe channel a laser at the same time. The Talos Principle forces you to consider your environment in a way I hadn’t really done since Portal 2; in fact, this game has a fair bit in common with Portal, perhaps with a dash of Myst thrown in. The mechanic which caused me the most grief was one which lets you create time loops to duplicate items for a short amount of time. It’s almost as difficult to explain as it was to use and I felt my heart sink every time I walked into a puzzle and saw the time loop machine there.

Alongside the main sigils are bonus stars which can unlock a new ending. If you thought the main puzzles were obscure these are ridiculous. As intricate and clever as the main puzzles are, they do at least simply require you to work within the individual puzzle room. Some of the stars actually force you to cleverly use elements from other rooms. I only picked up three on my first playthrough and the thought of how long it would take me to get the rest makes me feel a little sick. Still, I massively appreciated the way the game offers extra challenge without the blunt tool of different difficulty modes. I got a very reasonable amount of time out of this game but some people will get dozens and dozens of hours trying to get all those stars.

As much as I liked it, by the end I hit an intelligence wall and found myself grinding to a frustrating stop with every puzzle. This isn’t really the game’s fault though and I still found myself persevering with guides to follow to the end of the story which, by this point, I was pretty in to. I liked The Talos Principle a lot and it still probably isn’t my sort of thing; if you’re majorly into puzzle games I’d imagine that this one would be unmissable.

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Shovel Knight for Wii U, 3DS, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

Every so often I think I’m bored of 2D platformers, until I play the next amazing one. It’s weird that the act of moving left to right and jumping, the most classic of gameplay actions, can be made to feel fresh in so many different ways. Although Shovel Knight evokes an NES aesthetic, it isn’t simply an exercise in nostalgia, being an exceedingly fun and challenging game in its own right.

Shovel Knight instantly separates itself from its NES inspirations by actually having a rather nice little story. Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were friends (or maybe more) who adventured together before a journey to the Tower of Fate sees Shield Knight possessed by a mysterious amulet and sealed inside the tower. Grieving for his lost love, Shovel Knight quits adventuring. In his absence, a malevolent Enchantress rises and brings evil to the land. Upon hearing that the Tower of Fate has been unsealed, Shovel Knight sets forth to rescue Shield Knight, but finds his way blocked by eight Knights loyal to the Enchantress; The Order of No Quarter.

The story line is light, but is pretty much a perfect example of how a little bit of added context can help to elevate an experience. There’s just enough to make me care about what happens to Shovel Knight, but not too much that it gets in the way of the gameplay. This is a lesson that I’d like to see companies like Nintendo learn; I have to say, I much prefer Shovel Knight’s approach to story over the not-really-bothering approach we see in most other 2D platformers.

Shovel Knight gets the basics very right, with tight and responsive controls and a surprising amount of flexibility for playstyle. You fight using your trusty shovel and can also pogo on foes, DuckTales style. It’s the genius level and enemy design that truly sets this game apart. Every single level adds some interesting new mechanic or twist on expectation with some fantastic boss fights to cap off each one. I’m generally not a fan of boss fights in platformers, but Shovel Knight’s combat feels better than any other 2D platformer I can recall. There’s a lot of room for experimenting with different play styles, with a load of extra tools which can be unlocked. All of them are useful in their own way and allow you to approach many challenges in a variety of different ways, building replay value through strong mechanics rather than just a simple NG+ (although there is one of those too). Shovel Knight just feels good to play, which is the strong foundation on which all the other stuff is built.

There’s a fair but more going on in Shovel Knight than just the main stages; there are a handful of optional boss fights as well as two villages where you can purchase upgrades to things like your health, magic and armour. These are all bought with treasure, which can be found scattered liberally throughout the levels. The treasure hunting aspect is built closely into the level design, with all levels containing secret, challenging areas where extra treasure can be gained. The only punishment for death is losing some of your treasure, which appears floating where you died so you can pick it up again, Dark Souls style. Again, Shovel Knight shows an underlying canniness in it’s design; in many games the currency can feel awkwardly separate from what you’re actually doing, but there’s an immediacy to the reward of collecting treasure which other games lack. To be honest, if the treasure was gained by killing enemies and was called EXP we’d be calling this an RPG. Powering up Shovel Knight is satisfying and provides an immediate noticeable boost and can make taking unwise risks for more treasure irresistibly tempting.

I thought I was done with the pixel art thing, but I guess not because Shovel Knight is beautiful. The world and enemies are bursting with character, using the retro style to create something which feels new and fresh. The music is great too, with a lovely chiptune soundtrack. Shovel Knight does well what a lot of other people have done badly and proves that, even if the aesthetic could be described as retro, the experience can still look, sound and feel fresh.

Shovel Knight is a tight, challenging little platformer that is so much more than mere nostalgia. It succeeds in pretty much every goal it sets for itself. In an industry groaning under the weight of quirky indie platformers, Shovel Knight stands apart.

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Dying Light for PS4, Xbox One, PC and Linux

Dying Light is a much more interesting game than it first appears, but significantly let down by it’s stubborn refusal to abandon AAA gaming norms. The open world zombie genre is not a new one any more, but Dying Light manages to breath new energy into the genre, even if it’s not the masterpiece we see glimmers of.

The fictional Turkish city of Harran has been overwhelmed by the outbreak of a zombie virus on the eve of hosting a major Olympics-esque sporting event. The city is quarantined by the rest of the world, with aids packages arriving from the GRE (Global Relief Effort). After a GRE agent goes native in Harran with a file filled with sensitive information, Kyle Crane is hired and sent into the city. Initially simply using the local survivors to achieve his goals, Crane soon comes to suspect that the GRE are not telling the truth and begins to relate more and more with the locals he should be deceiving.

As a concept, the story isn’t particularly unique but certainly has potential. The execution leaves a hell of a lot to be desired though; the characters are flat, twists predictable and machismo overwhelming. If I were asked to demonstrate the most ‘AAA gaming’ story I know, this would be it. It’s strange, the whole plot seems based around choices; GRE or the locals, save this person or that person, this short term good for long term safety etc. I kept expecting the game to let me make a decision and then it…didn’t. That’s not to say every game needs a branching story; if anything it’s an overdone trope! The whole story seems so based around choices that I suspect that there was a branching story early in development which was scrapped; it would explain why Crane is such a blank slate of a character. I could be wrong, but regardless of the reason the story is fairly poor. There is some decent writing in the side quests, where the game lets itself be a lot sillier and stranger than it does in the main story, which makes me suspect that, as with a lot of this game, the talent for a good story is there but was held back by a rigid adherence to AAA tropes.

Dying Light’s big addition to the open world zombie genre are it’s traversal mechanics. Maybe things will change when Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst comes out next year, but for now I’m confident in saying that Dying Light has the best ever first person parkour in an open world game. It achieves that fine balance between being easy to use and allowing you to move swiftly and elegantly and not simply being an Assassin’s Creed style effortless autopilot. You can mess up and mistime jumps and you will die, but the whole thing works incredibly well. Running from zombies is a genuine thrill and you can upgrade Crane with new moves using the skill trees, giving you a palpable feeling of development, with my favourites being a grappling hook and the ability to hop on zombies’ heads as you run past. The parkour ties in really well with the mechanic which gives Dying Light its name; during the day time you’re relatively safe, but at night incredibly dangerous creatures come out and begin to stalk. They’re very difficult to take out in a fight, so you essentially have to run if one spots you. The twist is that all experience points are doubled at night and the longer you stay the larger EXP bonus you get at the end, offering a tantalising risk/reward balance. It’s a simple, clever system which works very well.

Not quite so edifying is the combat. It mostly consists of pressing the right trigger to swing a melee weapon with some simple dodging and power attack mechanics. It’s…fine. It works ok when taking down the odd zombie and there is a visceral and slightly embarrassing thrill to bloodily decapitating a rushing zombie just before it gets you. The problem is that combat should be a last resort, if you end up boxed in and unable to run, but large amounts of the latter half of the game involve monotonously slaying dozens of zombies before you can progress. The weapon crafting system may have been meant to alleviate the boredom, but fundamentally you either have heavy or light weapons and they pretty much handle the same. My only incentive to build better weapons was to make the fights go quicker. Much worse are the gun fights; the guns handle horribly, which would be fine if you only fought zombies, but there are a fair few encounters with other armed human enemies and Dying Light goes into FPS mode. The problem is that if Dying Light was an FPS it would be one of the most basic and dull that I’d played in years. Don’t be an FPS Dying Light, be an open world parkour zombie game, you’re good at that!

You can’t accuse Dying Light of being a slight experience. Dying Light pulls the Far Cry trick of coming to a conclusion before revealing an entire second map, so there’s a lot of game here. The story is lengthy and contains some great set piece moments, particularly the final mission which involves climbing a huge tower whilst being pursued by a zombie horde (even if it does all culminate in a spectacularly anti- climactic QTE). There are many side quests, and while some are simple ‘collect 5 herbs’ type deals, some are really interesting with their own narratives which often eclipse the main story. There are parkour and combat challenges if you’re into that sort of thing too. Dying Light follows the ‘Ubisoft’ formula in many ways (despite not being a Ubisoft game), but one area where it does do better is in the side quests, somewhere Ubisoft hasn’t done particularly well in lately.

Dying Light is a good looking game which runs smoothly. Harran is a cool setting, not really quite like any other open world settings I’ve been unleashed in before. We see a cool variety between the two halves of the map, something lacking when Far Cry games do the same thing. The first half is a shanty town, all rickety shacks and slums. The second is an older, more historical and beautiful side with taller buildings. This commitment to variety goes a good way to making each half feel valuable, rather than a way of artificially making the game seem bigger than it is. The voice acting is fine, although no one particularly stood out, least of all Crane himself. The music is interesting, with a combination of Vangelis-esque synths and Middle Eastern style vocals. Dying Light is refreshingly glitchless and the whole thing all works rather well.

Dying Light is a good game which shows glimmers of a great one. It is a compromised vision, trying to beat the biggest in gaming at their own…well, game. If it had stuck to the purity of its core principles, Dying Light would be a much more fondly remembered experience. Dying Light has two possible futures; in one, it is forgotten and fades into obscurity and in the other they take those core ideas and make a sequel which throws out the AAA crap and gets to the core of what made this game interesting. Fingers crossed for the latter.

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Thomas Was Alone for PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One, PC, OS X, Linux, iOS and Android

I’m an unashamedly emotional consumer of media; I watched pretty much the entirety of How to Train Your Dragon 2 through misty eyes. Games have made me cry, but they have never brought on that unending cascade of emotions some film, TV and books have…until Thomas Was Alone. I spent the final third of this game feeling intensely emotional and I DON’T KNOW WHY OH GOD SOMEONE GIVE ME A HUG.

Thomas is a red rectangle who jumps on stuff. He’s also a newly emergent AI who is just discovering sentience. He’s a curious and affable fellow and is soon joined by a group of other coloured quadrilaterals who use their different abilities to discover more about the world which contains them and, maybe, find a way out.

In a way, Thomas Was Alone tells two different narratives; one is a cosier and whimsical story about the AIs and the relationships they form on their adventure and another in a meta-narrative which lends everything context. It’s a bit like Assassin’s Creed in a way, but done so much better, with each element of the narrative supporting the other beautifully. Thomas Was Alone manages to blend an intimate and personal narrative with an epic context. The wonderful narration from Danny Wallace imbues each coloured shape with a distinct personality. These squares and rectangles are some of the most memorable characters I’ve seen in a game recently. I can barely remember the conflict between the Kyrati freedom fighters in Far Cry 4, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever forget yellow square Chris mellowing out from his grumpy beginnings through his love for the pink rectangle Laura, or the high jumping John’s newfound humility. This game almost feels like an experiment in empathy, as if someone asked ‘is it possible to make people care about a four sided shape?’ Well, the answer is a conclusive yes.

The actual mechanics are really solid as well. It’s a puzzle platformer, with the objective of each level being to get into the portal at the end. Although early on you just play as Thomas, who has no particular abilities, in later levels you are introduced to more and more friends who all have different abilities. For example, Sarah can float in water which kills the other shapes and Laura provides a surface which other shapes can bounce on. Switching between the different shapes and finding out how to get all their abilities to work together to reach their portals is hugely satisfying, although never particularly challenging. It also reinforces the theme of teamwork which suffuses the game, a great example of using the actual mechanics of the game to tell part of the story. The controls are a bit frustrating and I had my fair share of unfairly missed jumps, but Thomas Was Alone never frustrated nearly as much as many indie platformers with floaty controls.

The graphical style is very minimalist but highly effective. In a few years I think it may even be considered iconic. The real star though is the music. You know how I mentioned that I spent much of this game in tears? The music played a pretty massive part in that. A beautiful blend of real instruments and a laid back chip tune influence combined into something entirely unique but supremely effecting. I honestly think Thomas Was Alone may have shot up to join Braid, Banjo Kazooie, Ocarina of Time and Mario 64 in my favourite ever videogame soundtrack charts. I’m listening to it now as I write this and beginning to tear up again and oh God I can’t stop. David Housden is a composer I’ll be keeping a close eye on.

Between them, Mike Bithell, David Housden and Danny Wallace have created a live write straight to my emotional core. I played this game when I was feeling quite down and Thomas Was Alone provided a catharsis and left me feeling moved and saddened yet optimistic. Thomas Was Alone is a triumph.header (1)

Grim Fandango Remastered for PS4, PS Vita, PC, OS X and Linux

It’s always interesting playing a game considered to be a genuine classic. More so than any other medium, games age badly. If we remove nostalgia, I’d say that there’s only a tiny portion of games which remain truly timeless. One of the very few games I’d call timeless is the original Secret of Monkey Island, as adventure games tend to age better than a lot of genres. Grim Fandango though…well I’m not so sure.

Grim Fandango takes place in the afterlife, in a sort of purgatory between life and the mysterious ‘9th Underworld.’ Manny Calavera works for the DoD, the Department of Death, who sell travel packages to the recently deceased to make their journey to the 9th Underworld easier. Only people with relatively clean souls qualify for the more deluxe packages, with the worst of all being forced to walk the arduous journey to the end themselves. Manny uncovers a conspiracy at the heart of the DoD, with good souls having their golden tickets stolen. The game takes place over four years, with each part taking place during the Day of the Dead where most spirits go to visit their families.

Tim Schafer is a hell of a storyteller and Grim Fandango told a story I thoroughly enjoyed. As with games like Psychonauts and Broken Age, Grim Fandango is a whimsical experience which I wouldn’t necessarily call a comedy, although you certainly will laugh. His stories are always very human, making each character, even the minor ones, feel better developed than the cast of your typical AAA blockbuster. Sure, the central conspiracy isn’t necessarily that interesting but the core of Manny’s journey from self serving middle man to genuinely caring and heroic leader is compelling. This is helped by a wonderfully understated performance from Manny’s voice actor.

The game looks great as well, with the remaster tidying up some of the character models and smoothing off some of the edges. It’s not a huge change but it doesn’t need to be. Generally, games from this era don’t age well, but by the sheer quality of the world and character design Grim Fandango has. The voice acting is exceptional across the board and the music is fantastic; that jazz clarinet theme song isn’t leaving my head any time soon.

Sadly, I didn’t like the actual gameplay nearly as much as I did the story and presentation. Now, I grew up on adventure games. I get that they’re trial and error and that the puzzles are obscure, but that’s part of the charm. I even didn’t mind the infamous inflatable duck/subway key puzzle in The Longest Journey. However, there was one reason that adventure games could get away with this sort of design and that was simplicity of their interface. There’s a reason the SCUMM engine was the best possible for game design; any interaction with the world was, at most, three clicks away. You could experiment and try loads of stuff and it wouldn’t waste too much of your time. However, Grim Fandango is not point and click, so traversing the world is a bit clunkier and it can be difficult to interact with the object you want to. The time it takes to remove items from your inventory makes experimentation a drag, with this awkwardness making many puzzles painfully irritating. Fine, call me soft, but a hint system would have been invaluable. Sure, a lot of people would have complained, but keep it optional and who’s harmed? Coming to this as a seasoned adventure game player who missed this one back in the day, Grim Fandango simply isn’t a particularly good adventure game.

Overall though, in the end, Grim Fandango was a positive experience for me. You may perhaps need to adjust your expectations though; as with any classic you have to remember that times have changed and that, as much as we tend to mythologise the past, there are certain ways in which modern gaming has simply gotten better. Regardless,  I’m really glad that I got to play this influential and important game.grimfandangorelease

Teslagrad for Wii U, PC, OS X and Linux

Well, I’m still waiting for Dragon Age: Inquisition and I’ve finished with Bayonetta 2, so that can only mean one thing. Indie platformer time!

Teslagrad takes place in a faintly Russian influenced world, playing as an orphaned child who flees from the men of the corrupt King into a mysterious tower. As he travels up the tower, the boy begins to gain hints about what happened to sow the seeds of conflict in this land. Although story fades into the background, I feel that this is the best way to tell story in a platformer. Rather than abandoning story entirely as many platformers do, Teslagrad is content to let it be suggested in the background, never smothering the gameplay but giving what you do a sense of context.

The main gimmick of Teslagrad is magnetics. While the basic mechanics are standard platformer fare, the protagonist can give certain objects a positive or negative charge. Two objects with a positive charge repel each other and two with opposite charges attract each other. This is used to solve a variety of puzzles in some genuinely interesting ways. You eventually gain the ability to magnetise yourself with a positive or negative charge, allowing yourself to be pulled or launched by different objects. These can all get pleasingly fiddly and balancing all of this can be quite challenging. Sadly the platforming itself isn’t particularly satisfying, I’m not really sure why, but the clever puzzling makes up for it. My biggest problems were with the boss fights; you are killed with one hit and a lot of these fights are very frustrating. I have an abiding hatred for trial and error gameplay, but the boss fights felt like that to me. There was one rather good exception involving launching magnetic attacks back at the enemy but I tended to dread these encounters rather than look forward to them.
Teslagrad has a simple, clean art style. It’s not particularly flashy, but it was nice to see something eschewing the pixelated art style so popular in this genre. Not to criticise that look, but I’m seeing it a lot lately, so something with nice, old fashioned art is good.

The Wii U has a nice little catalogue of indies now, with Teslagrad being another feather in its cap. It’s not as memorable as the Braid or Fez’s of the world, but it has some cool ideas and is a lot of fun.TeslagradSquarePoster_Logov002

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