Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the category “Mac Games”

Bit.Trip.Presents Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien for Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, PC, Mac OS, Linux and iOS

Well, this is a game as fun as its name is long. I haven’t played any other Bit.Trip games, but if they’re all as fun as this one I certainly want to.

Runner2 does have the semblance of a plot, enthusiastically narrated by Charles Martinet, the voice actor for Mario and Luigi. I didn’t really follow though, as hard as Martinet sells it. The whole thing has a goofy Saturday morning cartoon vibe which is nice, but this isn’t a game you’ll be playing for the plot.

Runner2 is…well, an endless runner. You move from left to right, jumping and ducking to dodge obstacles, as well as putting up shields to block projectiles and kicking down barriers, all to a relatively simple beat. In fact, simple is the operative word; Runner2 is simple, but so much fun. There’s not a lot to say about a game like this; it has its simple mechanics and then builds a series of levels around challenging your reflexes and rhythm. That’s all it does and it does it very well.

The game is good value too, with loads of levels spread across five worlds. There are tons of secrets and unlockables, such as extra characters and skins. Runner2 is a great example of a game which opts to do a few things well, rather than being a jack of all trades.

Runner2 is, in many ways, a rhythm game, with much of the dodging and jumping taking place to the beat of the music. The music is therefore very good, pleasant without being too distracting from the gameplay. The visuals are also charming, but necessarily uncluttered; too much going on would make a game like this very difficult to play.

This is a short review because this kind of game is very easy to review. It’s mindless, fun and charming; unless you crave complexity, this is worth a go.runner2

Octodad: Dadliest Catch for PSN, PC, OS X and Linux

Ok, yes, Octodad is very much a gimmick game. It’s all one big joke, and if you don’t fine that joke funny, you probably won’t get too much out of it. Good thing I did find it funny.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch is the story of a perfectly normal family man who lives a life of mundane suburban bliss. Except he hides a dark secret; he is secretly an octopus, and is utterly terrified of him family or the wider world discovering the truth. After fumbling his way through basic home chores, Octodad faces his biggest nightmare; a trip to the aquarium with his family.

Ok, so obviously Octodad is a comedy, and the concept is inherently ridiculous and absurd. There are plenty of laughs both in the script and the emergent gameplay. Octodad didn’t just make me laugh though; I also found it to be oddly moving. There’s something just so loveable and sympathetic about Octodad that he’s impossible not to care for. On a personal level, I’ve struggled with feelings of social awkwardness and anxiety about not fitting in my whole life, and Octodad captures these feelings brilliantly, albeit in an absurd way. There’s probably a bit of Octodad in all of us, and I imagine that this is a game which will mean a lot of different things to different people. Of course, for many people this will just be a silly game about an octopus and that’s just as valid an interpretation as any other!

So; the gameplay. Octodad probably fits into the new-fangled ‘fumblecore’ genre, although it’s a bit more accessible than games like QWOP or Surgeon Simulator. Both of Octodad’s ‘legs’ are controlled independently, with one limb used to manipulate the environment, picking up objects and throwing them around. It’s incredibly fiddly and awkward to control, which is exactly the point. The best game narratives are those where the gameplay actually reinforces the narrative rather than just existing alongside it, and Octodad definitely succeeds there. Basic tasks become impossibly difficult, as Octodad causes chaos around him. Too much chaos however and the ‘suspicion meter’ raises too high and you have to start again, but thankfully the humans of Octodad’s world are a credulous bunch. It can get quite frustration, but that’s all part of the fun. This is an oddly social game, with the most fun to be had in playing in a group and passing around the controller, celebrating each other’s achievements and punishing their failures.

Octodad is brilliantly expressive, and his family are immediately likeable and well voice acted. The music is also rather lovely, with the wonderfully silly theme song being the best piece. Octodad is simple, but drips charm, and is a well polished experience.

Now, this is far from a long game, and if bought at full price you might feel a little short changed. I got it on sale though, and found the whole thing to be deeply charming. Lots of people will not like this game at all, but if you have a taste for the absurd and a fair amount of patience, Octodad is absolutely worth a go.images

Stick it to the Man for PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC and Mac

Oh wow, I really loved this game. I just had such a blast playing it. Stick it to the Man scratched an itch I didn’t even know I had in a big way, and is easily my favourite free PS+ game released so far.

Our hero Ray is a hard hat tester at a local factory; on his way home, he is ironically hit on the head by a falling object from space. After some bizarre dreams, he awakes in hospital with a giant pink arm coming out of his head which lets him read minds. Yep. Pursued by the henchmen of the shadowy figure known as ‘The Man’, our charmingly idiotic hero stumbles from one situation to the other.

So, that itch I mentioned? Let’s call it…Schaferian. As much as I loved Broken Age, its melancholy and gently funny narrative lacked the twisted darkness of Psychonauts or Grim Fandango. Stick it to the Man has that in spades, filling that niche for darkly comic adventure games nicely. Ray is an engaging and likeable protagonist, and supported by a range of hilarious recurring and one-off characters. Most of all, it’s really funny, but there’s a palpable aura of menace to the proceedings.

Stick it to the Man is an adventure game at heart, with the main gimmick being the way in which the player interacts with the world, namely the aforementioned giant pink arm. It can be used to swing Ray through the 2D environments, adding an enjoyable manoeuvrability generally lacking in adventure games. Ray uses this arm to peel objects from the environment to stick elsewhere, solving the generally extremely simple puzzles. It also allows Ray to read minds, which offers more than just amusing dialogue, with their thoughts sometimes manifesting as a sticker to be used elsewhere. It’s odd really; Stick it to the Man has some of the most ridiculous examples of ‘adventure game logic’ that I’ve ever seen, but it commits itself so thoroughly to the insanity that in the end it all works.

What doesn’t quite work are stealth sections of sorts, where Ray must evade henchmen of ‘The Man.’ These are either achieved by skilfully moving through the environment, or using stickers to trick the henchmen. There’s not much thought involved, and a lot of trial and error. There’s very minor punishment for failure, but it’s enough to break up the flow of the game slightly. It does play the role of contributing to the atmosphere of menace, but I wonder if there was a way to do so which was slightly more…well, fun.

The voice acting is wonderful. It’s generally completely goofy and over the top, but always incredibly funny. This world is just packed with character, with everything from teddy bears to goldfish available to mind read. The visual style is striking and oddly creepy, using a paper aesthetic which fits in nicely with the sticker theme. The music is good as well, with the very welcome appearance of Kenny Rodgers with Just Dropped In (To See What Condition my Condition Was In), made most famous in The Big Lebowski, wrapping up the whole thing in an undeniable energy of laid back cool.

Stick it to the Man is probably the best paper style sticker based game ever made (take that Paper Mario: Sticker Star!) It’s hard for me to review this game objectively, because it was free and pushed my buttons so damn much. Leave it to say that I absolutely loved it, and I hope you all do too.stick_it_to_the_man

The Walking Dead: 400 Days for Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, PC, Mac, iOS and Ouya

400 Days is a cheap DLC pack for The Walking Dead, which contains everything that made the original so great in microcosm.

400 Days follows five characters that will apparently appear in the second series of The Walking Dead. We only gain brief snapshots of their lives, but Telltale’s characterisation is still so good that that is really all we need to begin caring for and understanding them. We pick the order that we play these stories, and they intersect and cross over each other, before finally converging in an epilogue at the end.

There’s none of the awkward wandering around busy work that marred the main game, with a simple focus on tight, intense interactive storytelling which was the clear strength of The Walking Dead. The voice acting is wonderful as usual, and the cartoony visuals remain bizarrely effective at creating this sinister and unpleasant world.

For such a low price, 400 Days is an essential toe dip back into Telltale’s marvellous Walking Dead world, offering more of what made the main five episodes so great with an interesting new plot structure to boot. With very little, it makes me attached to five new characters that I cannot wait to meet again in Season 2.images

The Walking Dead for Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, iOS, Ouya, PC and Mac.

I’ve been a fan of Telltale games for a long time. They have a knack for adapting my favourite things into hilarious, tricky and fun episodic adventures games. After adapting Homestar Runner, Wallace & Gromit and Monkey Island, they were cemented as one of my all-time favourite game companies. I wasn’t as much of a fan of their Back to the Future series, but it was the awkward middle part of their transition from old fashioned adventure games to a new kind of interactive story. Although I hope that they one day return to their roots, this exciting new genre is incredibly exciting, and Telltale used it to great effect in the Walking Dead, creating one of the most genuinely moving and emotional game experiences that I’ve ever enjoyed.

The Walking Dead opens with history professor Lee Everett in a police car following his mysterious arrest. The appearance of zombies, here called ‘walkers’, drives the car off the road and Lee makes his escape. Soon he comes across a young girl named Clementine, whose parents are away, and it’s not long before Lee becomes her guardian through the zombie apocalypse. Lee meets up with a small group of other survivors and focuses his attention on protecting Clementine, his new surrogate daughter.

Telltale’s leap into the dramatic over the comic is handled incredibly well. I knew these guys could do irreverent and funny, but moving and tense? They nailed it. Lee is a highly likeable main character, although I suppose depending on the player he could also be an aggressive jerk. Lee is just how characters in games like this should be; plain enough that the player can project their will on them, but also with an independent personality of their own, something even Bioware never quite managed with Commander Sheperd. Although the supporting cast are interesting and likeable, what kept me coming back was the moving and heart-warming relationship between Lee and Clementine. Lee is a man who has lost everything, even before the rise of the walkers, and in Clementine he finds the motivation to be a better man.

The actual gameplay on the other hand? Truly terrible. There are a lot of quick time events and hurried decision making, and these work well, but whenever The Walking Dead tries to be a proper adventure game it fails miserably. The terrible character animations as we move Lee around break the immersion, and the puzzles are never more than a matter of go pick up A and bring to B. Although I liked it when Telltale made adventure games, I’d almost rather they go the whole hog and abandon that element, and focus entirely on the interactive story telling. It’s rare that I’m asking for more QTEs and less gameplay, but I honestly feel that that is what these games need.

The cartoony visual style, reminiscent of its comic book source material, works well and doesn’t detract from the sense of menace. The biggest visual irritation is the poor character animations, and hopefully Telltale with their new success can afford to invest in some motion capture for future projects. The voice acting is, unsurprisingly, superb. Much like with a great animated film, you forget that these figures are just polygons and start seeing them as people, and that’s really all down to the great voice performance. The poor facial animation means that the voice actors have to pull double duty to make their characters convincing, and all of them do.

The Walking Dead is a game which creates a new genre, and one which really nails the episodic gaming concept. After a shaky time with Back to the Future, I’m on board with this new, dramatic Telltale. Telltale is we knew it is dead. Long live Telltale. TWD-game-cover

The Cave for Wii U, XBLA, PSN, PC, Mac and Linux

I really, really wanted to like The Cave. Ron Gilbert is one of the best game designers of all time, Double Fine have released some of my favourite games and it was an excuse to turn on my Wii U. What could go wrong? Turns out; a lot. There’s the nugget of a great game here, let down by possibly one of the most utterly infuriating and obnoxious design flaws that I’ve ever played.

The Cave has, for all of its flaws, a pretty fascinating narrative. The Cave is a place where people can explore the darkest aspects of their personalities to find their ‘heart’s desire.’ The Cave may offer redemption, or simply allow these broken people to revel in their own depravity. The player picks three characters from a cast of seven, and these three go through the cave, each encountering obstacles and challenges unique to them and relating to an event in their past.

The Cave, who talks to you throughout the adventure (don’t question it), is a great setting. The different settings for each of the characters are quite atmospheric and distinct, from the medieval castle for the ‘Knight’ to the futuristic museum of the ‘Time Traveller’ .

The concept of a cave which throws up the darkest secrets of a person’s past is an incredible one, so it’s a just a huge shame that the actual game doesn’t live up to this potential. The stories about each character are fascinating; ‘The Twins’ have a truly dark tale to tell, with the ‘Knight’ falling into the category of grimly hilarious. The sinister, yet charming and witty, voice of The Cave helps to move the subtle story along well. There’s something of a Grimm’s fairytale in to The Cave, with a twisted and dark moral message paired with comedy.

The Cave is an adventure game (it is Ron Gilbert after all), but one in a style which I haven’t really seen before. At the opening of the game, the player chooses three characters from a pool of seven; the Knight, the Hillbilly, the Adventurer, the Twins, the Scientist, the Time-Traveller and the Monk. The game all takes place in 2D environments, and there’s a platforming element in the traversal of the cave. The player solves puzzles, used by collecting items, manipulating objects, often needing to use all three characters in your party at once. The puzzles are often very clever, although there is something of an overabundance of ‘adventure game logic’, puzzles which are oblique rather than clever.

The Cave tries some new and interesting things, but perhaps there’s a reason that this sort of game hasn’t been made before; it just doesn’t quite work. The platforming is cumbersome, irritating and pointless rather than engaging, and the lack of an inventory means a frankly ridiculous amount of ferrying items back and forth. Still, I could forgive these flaws, as I’ll forgive anything ambitious and shows a willingness to try something new, and The Cave certainly does. What I cannot forgive is the incredibly obnoxious requirement to play the game three times to see every character’s individual story. These are the main draw of the game, and there’s several hours of replayed content required to see them all. I gave up half way through my second playthrough; my first had been fun enough, but I wasn’t willing to waste that much time trudging through puzzles that I had just completed before. A major question is ‘why seven characters?’ Six would require two playthroughs, which wouldn’t be nearly so bad, but to experience the whole thing you have to play the game three times, the last with only one new character. Now, I’m sure this was intentional; Gilbert is a canny enough designer to not make these kind of mistakes by accident. That said, I cannot for the life of me fathom what that intention was, and it weakens the game a huge amount as a result.

Overall, this is a nice looking game. The characters all have a style which made me nostalgically reminiscent of classic LucasArts adventure games, as well as Double Fine’s more recent offerings. The voice acting is fun, with the clear highlight being the voice of The Cave itself, charming yet filled with menace. Other characters are voiced in an over the top hammy fashion which is the trademark of Double Fine games, and that’s just fine with me. This game is laugh out loud funny, as any good Double Fine game should be.

Still, it’s not enough, and The Cave stands as a bitterly disappointing experience, crippled by some baffling design flaws. There could have been a great game here, and there certainly are glimpses of something brilliant. This is a rare misstep for Gilbert and Double Fine; despite that, I still have full faith in both. I can’t wait to see where Gilbert goes next, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to Broken Age, Double Fine’s Kickstarted adventure game. the-cave_1_pac_m_121218150144

Bastion for XBLA, PC, Mac, Linux and iOS

Bastion is one of the biggest success stories of the recent indie gaming boom, and it’s not difficult to see why; the beautiful world, wonderful music and best of all, a narration throughout the entire game by a husky voiced gentleman. What’s not to love? Sadly, quite a lot. Like Limbo before it, Bastion is a case of pure style over substance.

Bastion is set in and around the city of Caelondia following a nightmarish catastrophe known as ‘The Calamity’, which has left the world fractured, with the surviving pieces of the once beautiful city floating in a void. There’s a surprisingly complex back story to the game, but it isn’t conveyed particularly well, with a large amount of the details coming from simple messages in the loading screens. Although it’s clear the developers wanted to create a complex and compelling world to underpin the gameplay, and I don’t believe that they quite succeeded. Where they did succeed however is in how utterly beautiful the world of Bastion can be, creating a unique setting unlike any that I’ve seen before.

The player character of Bastion is known only as ‘The Kid’, a young man of a mysterious past, of whom we are only given a very limited understanding. Upon awakening after The Calamity as one of the only human survivors, he makes his way to ‘The Bastion’ a sort of floating shrine to the world before the disaster, under the control of the mysterious Rucks, the narrator of the game. Rucks sends the Kid out into the shattered lands of Caelondia to collect shards of, I don’t know, some kind of vague magicky stuff, which can boost the power of the Bastion. As the Kid’s journey continues the player learns more about the nature of The Calamity and what bought it about.

The plot of Bastion is quite thin, but rather interesting nonetheless. There are a few characters in the game apart from Rucks and the Kid, but it’s rather difficult to get a real feel for them, as they’re simply narrated by Rucks. The success of Bastion’s narrative lies not with the story itself, which is moderately interesting at best, but in how this story is told.

Bastion is an action RPG played from an isometric perspective. There’s little in the way of exploration; the player picks a level from the world map and then plays through in a generally linear fashion, all to the soothingly grave tones of Rucks. The combat is fairly simple, consisting of two weapons and one special attack, which can be customised in the Bastion, which serves as the game’s hub. There’s a wide variety of weapons to choose from, from the hammer seen in the game’s art to pistols and a rocket launcher.

The actual bread and butter gameplay of Bastion leaves something to be desired, usually devolving into fairly uninspired hack and slash. Something I did like was the wide variety of weaponry available and the amount of customisation available to the player; the game does a good job of introducing cool weapons all the way throughout the game, so you’ll never go too long without getting to try out something new. There’s some interest in the customisation of the Bastion, but this mechanic never really reaches its potential. As I mentioned before, like Limbo, Bastion is another indie game which shows style over substance. That said, if the style is suitable good this isn’t necessarily a problem; I actually really liked Limbo! The sad fact remains that Bastion simply isn’t that much fun to play, even if it is beautiful to look at and listen to.

Despite all of my misgivings about the gameplay of Bastion, the narrator is going to keep me looking back at the game with fondness. It’s so elegantly compelling that it’s a wonder no one else has done it before. The voice actor for Rucks was an excellent choice, soothing and mysterious, a trustworthy voice to carry the player through the game. The music for Bastion is also excellent, particularly a sung track towards the end of the game that sent shivers down my spine. The game also looks great, with a lovely art style, although the environments can look a little cluttered. I suspect that the blame for this lies more with the level design than the art design. For all its flaws, Bastion doesn’t look or sound like any other game out there.

I have extremely mixed feelings on Bastion; on one side I love that it took risks with its presentation, delivering something certifiably unique yet I wish that as much attention had been lavished upon the gameplay. I almost want to recommend Bastion solely because I want to support games like this existing, but the game as it stands simply isn’t good enough. If you spot it on sale, and fancy being taken on an interesting and fun narrative ride, pick up Bastion, but if you want an actual fun and satisfying gaming experience, you could do better elsewhere.

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Borderlands 2 for Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Mac

I’ll open this review with a confession; I played Borderlands 2 wrong. One of the defining features of the franchise, perhaps the defining feature, is that it is heavily built around co-op play. However, I have absolutely no time for online co-op, only enjoying local multiplayer. While split screen is offered here, like most games of this generation, it’s terrible and not worth playing. Normally this would have just put me off buying the game at all, but literally everything else about the Borderlands series hugely appeals to me; the humour, the open world, the RPG elements and most of all the incredibly stylish graphics. These factors led to me taking the plunge and giving this game a go, playing solo. I expected to quite like the game, so I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that I absolutely adored it, loving every minute of it, cementing it’s position as one of my favourite FPS games I’ve ever played.

Borderlands 2, like its predecessor, is set on the world of Pandora, a planet dominated by arid wasteland which maintains a wild west-esque frontier feel. One of the major criticisms of the first game was that it’s environments were too same-y; really, there’s only so much you can do with desert, even through such a beautiful art style as Borderlands. This isn’t a problem in Borderlands 2, and while there is plenty of desert wasteland, it’s offset with some beautiful snowy locations, some striking underground locations, and even some areas filled with verdant greenery. There’s even a location which reminded me of Morrowind, and I really cannot give a higher compliment than that. The world isn’t truly open in the vein of the Elder Scrolls or Fallout, and is more like that of Fable in that it is a series of independent hubs. In terms of the lore of the setting, I confess to being lost, but this is somewhat to be expected when entering into a franchise with its second entry. I don’t get the impression that the Borderlands universe is teeming with narrative possibilities the way other gaming settings such as Tamriel are, with the immersion coming more from the striking vistas of the landscape and the beautiful graphics rather than from a feeling of rich and fascinating history, such as in the Mass Effect setting.

Apparently, the original Borderlands had a fairly bare bones plot, and thankfully this cannot be said for the sequel. I was able to discern that the original concerned a rumour of a Vault in the deserts of Pandora filled with unimaginable riches which led four hunters to attempt to seek it out. Upon opening the Vault they discovered that it instead contained a terrifying alien creature, and final boss of the game, before the revelation that Pandora was actually home to other Vaults, each likely containing another devastating biological weapon. Between the original game and the sequel, much of Pandora has been taken over by Hyperion, a huge arms dealing company, headed by the charismatic psychopath Handsome Jack. The player is one of four new Vault Hunters, who at the opening of the game are on a train which is bombed by Handsome Jack, leaving the player crawling from the wreckage in an arctic wasteland, before being rescued by the highly amusing little robot Claptrap. The player embarks upon a journey which brings them up against Jack, as well as intersecting with an incredibly likeable and amusing cast of characters, including the Vault Hunters from the first game.

Probably the first thing that you’ll notice about the plot of Borderlands 2 is how incredibly funny it is. This is without a doubt one of the funniest games I’ve ever played, both through a cast of hilarious characters and, even more impressive, an admirable integration of the comedy into the gameplay itself. One particular mission, named ‘Shoot This Guy in the Face’, had me in stitches. The game is filled with characters who don’t just say funny things, their designs are also top notch; I couldn’t look at the ridiculously proportioned Ellie without laughing, and the excellent character animations led to some decent physical comedy, something often lacking in videogames. Characters like the little deluded robot Claptrap and the psychotic pyromaniac child Tiny Tina charmed and amused me so much that just thinking about them makes me smile. Borderlands 2 did something even more impressive however; it actually made me care. I was invested in what happened to this bunch of ridiculous characters, and the moments in which the plot veered towards the serious and dramatic managed to not feel forced, with the transition working surprisingly well. Where many games build a great narrative out of their world, games such as Skyrim, Bioshock and Fallout, Borderlands is actually more traditional in how it constructs a narrative, by investing the player in characters they grow to care about, for all their strangeness. The villain, Handsome Jack, is a clear highlight; some villains are great because they’re complex and interesting, maybe even tragic (Andrew Ryan is a good example), and some have a strange sort of likeable charisma (think of the Joker or Hannibal Lector), and some are just stone cold, unbelievable pricks. Handsome Jack fits neatly into the latter category  and whilst it may be a cliché to say so, he’s a character you love to hate.

Borderlands 2 is a hybrid FPS/RPG, but unlike Fallout 3 and New Vegas the focus is very much on FPS, with the RPG stuff underpinning excellent gunplay. The player is given a series of missions, including plenty of compelling side quests which often transcend the ‘go here, kill x amount of y’ structure which can tend to pervade the genre (although there’s plenty of that too). The player isn’t given free rein of the world straight away, with new locations revealing themselves gradually, with enemies scaling at a good pace with the player. Borderlands 2 is class based, and it says a lot for this game that as I was researching which class to play as there appeared to be no clear consensus as to which is most fun/useful. I eventually picked ‘Axton’, which gave me a deployable turret which I correctly predicted would be useful if I was to solo the game. The player is able to level up their abilities throughout Borderlands 2, but a singular playthrough isn’t enough to gain all these powers the player may want to, which encourages replayability to unlock the most deadly abilities. There’s also a fun little side levelling system, in which the player is given small stat boosts for gaining ‘badass points’, gained for achieving…well, badass feats. There are thousands of potential weapons to choose from, with some randomly generated and some legendary items offering unique properties. For most of the game you’ll be swapping out your weapon set every few hours or so as new loot presents itself, but by the end of the game you’ll have gained a few favourites which  you can get nice and familiar with. My personal favourite was an acid shooting pistol which was incredibly useful against armoured foes. The game is fairly fast paced, controlling as something of a mixture between Halo and Call of Duty, with the ground speed of CoD and the floaty jumps of Halo. There are a few vehicles to help you get around Pandora, and they handle in a way similar Halo’s Warthogs.

The Fallout games are just as great in their own way, but they don’t really function as shooters, but Borderlands 2 does. It successfully manages to scratch the FPS itch whilst keeping the depth of an RPG. The progression is satisfying, although I’m not convinced that I like the need for multiple playthroughs to reach the level cap, but at least this leaves room for progression in the DLC. I suspect that after this game I’m going to struggle playing straight shooters without RPG elements; I grew too fond of seeing numbers pop up as I shot the enemy, and the ever so satisfying words ‘critical’ in bold red as I gained a head shot. Although this serves a natural gameplay purpose, to show the player how much damage is done, I also just love the aesthetic of it, making even the most robust bullet sponge fun to whittle down. The game handles so well on foot that it’s a shame the same cannot be said for the vehicles, which are floaty and lack weight. Borderlands 2 reminded me a lot of Rage, only with personality and charm where Rage was a largely straight faced and derivative, but the vehicle handling is really the only area in which Rage remained superior. Vehicles are useful for traversing the land quickly, but rarely actually fun to use, which is a shame. Luckily, the majority of the game is experienced on foot, and these sections are always incredibly fun. I generally loathe boss fights in FPS games; remember Fontaine in Bioshock, or the Nihilanth in Half-Life? Awful. The RPG elements save them here however, and the boss fights were genuinely some of the most enjoyable experiences of the game, utterly daunting in scope, so it’s difficult not to feel awesome as you bring some of the tougher ones down.

Borderlands 2 is an incredibly striking looking game, and in a sea of shooters all tending to look the same it’s wonderful to play something which is willing to get a bit colourful. I’m a big fan of the cel-shaded style, I still think that The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker is the best looking game ever, and it’s a pleasure to see some developers still using it. The voice acting is a definite highlight, managing comedy and tragedy equally well. A large burden of the voice work is carried by the four Vault Hunters of the previous game, as well as Handsome Jack, and they all acquit themselves brilliantly. The more minor characters are all excellent as well, with particular credit given for the wonderful Tiny Tina, whose truly bizarre speech patterns never failed to amuse for all of her too brief time in the game. The production values are clearly very high for this game, and it all runs very smoothly as well; this has to be one of the least glitchy open world games that I have ever played.

I expected to like Borderlands 2, but I never expected to love it. This is all the more pleasing considering that I utterly ignored one of the major selling points of the game; if I hadn’t liked it, I’d have only had myself to blame. Borderlands 2 is one of the best games that I have played this year, and I highly recommend it to anyone, solo or co-op.

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VVVVVV for Nintendo 3DS, PC, Mac, Linux and Android OS

The bizarrely named VVVVVV is another of those retro styled platformers that have become the bread and butter of indie game development in recent years. Since these stylish side-scrollers have become something of a cliché, it takes something fairly special to separate your small game from the pack. VVVVVV is just that, through a combination of a unique and simple game mechanic, some wonderful Commodore 64 style graphics and possibly the catchiest chiptune score I’ve ever heard.

The plot of VVVVVV is hardly Planetscape: Torment, but it’s pleasant and gets the job done. It’s certainly got slightly more meat to it than previously reviewed indie platformers such as Mutant Mudds, and oozes charm. When the spaceship of Captain Viridian is caught in some ‘dimensional interference’, they are thrown into a parallel dimension. Viridian is separated from his crew, and so much explore his new surroundings (known as Dimension VVVVVV) to find and bring them all together back to the ship. The little snippets of dialogue between Viridian and his crew after each is found is whimsical and amusing, and lends each crew member a distinct personality in the incredibly brief time we encounter them. My praise may make it sound as if the story is a complex epic, but in reality it’s a very sparse and simply narrative. What sets VVVVVV apart from similar games is that it makes an effort to give your actions some context, without allowing the plot to dominate the gameplay. VVVVVV should be a textbook example in how to handle stories in side-scrolling platformers; Nintendo could learn a lot from this in their increasingly blandly plotted Mario games.

VVVVVV is built around one, simple mechanic; the flipping of gravity. Uncommonly for a platformers, Viridian cannot jump, and can instead only be sent launching towards the ceiling or floor. That’s pretty much it, and it’s amazing how much the developers managed to wrangle out of this simple mechanic. There are lots of spikes to avoid, trampolines which bounce you around and platformers which vanish below your feet. One of the more interesting features of the game is that it takes place in a fully explorable environment, with no linear path from point A to B. From the hub setting there are different colourered environments to find which contain each crew member. These environments tend to shake things up slightly, with slightly different slants on the basic mechanic of gravity flipping. Of course, there is really one thing that VVVVVV is known for more than anything else; it’s difficulty. This game is incredibly, devilishly and delightfully hard. It’s also very fair. Displayed prominently on the title screen is your number of deaths; mine, after the four hour or so of the main game, easily exceeded 1000. The checkpoints are very regular, so there’s almost no penalty for death, and nonexistent load times mean that each time you die you can immediately get right back into the action in a manner similar to Super Meat Boy. Although I would regularly spend ages on one screen, dying again and again, I was never frustrated. There is no chaotic element to grasp victory from me at the last minute, it is simply a matter of refining my own skill and training my muscle memory. This is exactly how to handle difficulty in games, and it just feels oh so satisfying to reach that next checkpoint before launching into the next deadly challenge.

Often, when a game is labelled as ‘retro’, what they really mean is that it’s simply sprite based, but with designs clearly surpass anything that would have been possible back in the days of the NES. This is not the case with VVVVVV; the game has a signature Commodore 64 style that works really well; excessive visual bells and whistles would only serve to distract in a game which can, at times, require absolute concentration. Where the game truly excels in its presentation is in its score, which contains some of the best and most catchy tunes I’ve ever encountered in a video game. I sometimes feel that many chiptune composers are rather lazy, simply building upon nostalgia rather than making the effort to compose any of the truly classic tunes produced by people such as Koji Kondo of Nobou Uematsu. Magnus Pålsson’s score for VVVVVV however is absolutely sublime, catchy, uplifting and never annoying. The pain of dying over and over again is alleviated by the fact that it lets you listen to the incredibly catchy music for a moment longer. As a side note, I played this on 3DS and the 3D is an absolute waste of time, it’s completely unnecessary.

VVVVVV is a brief, yet incredibly fun experience. A lot of hard work and love has been put into this game, and Terry Cavanagh, the game’s creator, should be proud of what he achieved here. If you have a 3DS, the only rival in quality to this on the eShop is PullBlox, and it’s an absolute must.  Although it has more rivals on other platforms, I’m still convinced that VVVVVV is a hell of a lot of fun and worth your time and money.

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 3 for XBLIG, PC, Mac, iOS and Android OS

Penny Arcade’s foray into the actual making of videogames rather than the mockery of them has been far from without a hitch. The first two episodes, created by Hothead, were decent RPGs with a dash of a classic adventure game. They were pretty good games, but fairly simplistic and short, and whilst they were both moderate critical successes, they failed to achieve any meaningful commercial success. It was a shame really, the games were no masterpieces, but the Lovecraft influenced world of New Arcadia was a fun one to explore, and the verbose eloquence of Jerry ‘Tycho’ Holkins and the instantly recognisable art style of Michael ‘Gabe’ Krahulik led to an entertaining script and plenty of fun characters plundered from the 14 year old web comic. Hothead later opted to not produce further Penny Arcade games, in favour of making Ron Gilbert’s Deathspank games. Holkins eventually concluded the series through a short novella that was published one chapter at a time on the website. It was therefore a very pleasant surprise to find that the series would in fact get a (playable) conclusion, and that it would be produced by Zeboyd no less. Zeboyd rose to their modest success with the release of Cthulhu Saves the World in 2010, and have become known for the nostalgic throwback nature of their games, emulating the style of the NES Final Fantasy games which simply doesn’t exist today.

The games are centred around a poem known as ‘The Quartet for the Dusk of Man’, which tells of four Gods, based on the Old Ones from the Cthulhu mythos, who a group of allied cults seek to raise. In the first two episodes, Yog Sethis, the God of Silence and Yog Kathak, the God of Gears had been summoned and destroyed by the heroes. These heroes are the somewhat insane genius Tycho Brahe, last scion of a household bent on ending the world, but won’t let anyone else do it first, and Jonathan Gabriel, his dumb yet rather loveable companion with a passion for violence. At the conclusion of the last game, the gang were betrayed by Dr. Raventon Darkalton Blood (something of a parody of the character design of Todd MacFarlane), as he steals the Necrowombicon, a dread tome which allows the summoning of the final two Gods. It is here that the third episode begins. In the original two episodes, the player created a character who joined Gabe and Tycho on their adventure, but this aspect has been cut from the new release. The player is replaced by two new characters; one is Jim, a head in the jar who in the comics was a former roommate of Tycho and Gabe who had died behind their TV whilst trying to hook up their Nintendo 64.  The other is Moira, an entirely new character, a private detective and ex wife of Tycho. Together, this group attempt to hunt down Dr. Blood, regain the Necrowombicon and halt the rising of the third God. The story is relatively thin, but Holkins, a man who has claimed to ‘have a judo-grip on the English language’, provides consistently funny dialogue, which particularly shines in the glib descriptions of the wide variety of enemies the gang face.

The battle system is class based in a Final Fantasy III sort of way, with each character having a base class alongside the ability to equip two more. These classes are where a lot of the fun comes in, and are as interesting and unique as one would hope for from great minds such as Holkins and Krahulik. My favourites include the ‘Dinosorcerer’ which involves…well, turning into dinosaurs and stomping your foes into oblivion, and the ‘Gardener’ in which ‘gardens’ are laid during the battle which cause different effects, such as persistent damage to the enemy or the healing of the party. Working out which combinations of classes go best with each character is pretty fun, and the feeling of satisfaction of having got together a move set which just works is rather special. The battles themselves are a fairly standard turn based affair, and whilst they may not be the most complex in the world, it really doesn’t need to be. The combat is simple and retro and that’s exactly how it should be. The game is really about ferrying you from battle to battle, and it may perhaps have been nice to have a few differing game play mechanics introduced to keep thing interesting, like the Twisp and Catsby minigame from Episode 2.

The visual style is fairy hit and miss. The character and enemy designs are great, often stylised interpretations of figures from Penny Arcade lore, such as the Deep Crow or Rex Ready the time travelling T-Rex. The actual environments are generally unimpressive however, and at times look like they were made with freeware RPG maker software. I’m aware that the style is intentionally basic, but the classic 2D RPGs of lore never looked this bad. There are some exceptions, such as a sojourn into a parallel universe fantasy land which directly mimics the style of the first Final Fantasy, which is certainly a charming diversion, but these are exceptions to a largely unexceptional style. The music is pretty good, if somewhat repetitive. The main battle theme is fairly catchy, and certainly captures the energy of the battle themes of the early Final Fantasy games.

PAA:OtRSPoD Ep 3 to give it it’s catchy acronym is a fun little diversion, but little more than that. I can’t really recommend this to people who haven’t played the first two, but if you have then there is plenty to enjoy here. It’s damn cheap, which certainly helps.

7/10

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