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Nier: Automata for PS4 and PC

I don’t even know where to start with this one. I never played the original Nier, although I’m aware of its cult following. I approached Nier: Automata more as a fan of Platinum Games than anything, but it’s the storytelling and fascinating themes of the game’s director, Yoko Taro, that ultimately lingers in my mind.

Nier: Automata is a sequel to the original game, but it’s set thousands of years later and the connections are slight. I didn’t feel like my enjoyment was in any way impacted by the fact that I had not played the original. Thousands of years into Earth’s future, the last vestiges of humanity have fled the Earth after an alien invasion, and now live on the moon. The aliens do not fight directly, but instead send machine lifeforms to do their dirty work. Project YorHa is an organisation of androids that fight the Machine menace on behalf of humanity. Androids 2B and 9S are sent to the surface to take down a massive machine, but soon they discover some machines acting strangely, as if they have emotions, thoughts and complex feelings and that the conflict between the androids and the machines may not be as clear cut as first thought.

It’s difficult to talk too much about Nier: Automata’s plot without spoiling what makes it so special. It does all the fundamentals right; likeable characters, clear motivations and satisfying resolution, but it also explores some pretty heady and intense ideas. The machines resemble toys more than anything else, rounded and generally harmless looking, and it is through these that Nier: Automata explores some complex philosophical themes. The nature of humanity is the core theme of this game and Nier: Automata explores this from a lot of different angles. Storylines which would just be too dark to touch with humans become explorable with machines and some of the true horror seen in Nier: Automata isn’t readily apparent. This is a story which sticks around, thought provoking and, at times, desperately moving.

The indie scene is stronger, but AAA games rarely use unique qualities of the medium in interesting storytelling ways. Examples such as BioShock and the Spec Ops: The Line are few and far between, but Nier: Automata is fascinating. I had heard beforehand that the game required multiple playthroughs to get the whole story and I was not really up for it in terms of the time investment. Actually, Nier: Automata’s multiple playthroughs are more like chapters of a larger story and it takes three to see everything. Nier: Automata is very aware of itself as a videogame, but not in an irritating, masturbatory fashion that some post-modern experiences can be. Things get weirder the longer they go on, with the first playthrough is told in a relatively straightforward fashion. It all crescendos into an audacious and hugely moving finale that simply could not have been pulled off in any other medium.

The story was my favourite part of Nier: Automata, but the core mechanics are certainly very solid as well. It’s an action-RPG, but there’s significant gameplay variety. As android 2B you’ll be hacking and slashing your way through a variety of enemies. With two weapons available at a time and a variety of ranged attacks, there are lots of options. You can also heavily customise your character using ‘plug-in chips’, some of which give passive and straightforward buffs to health or attack strength, but some are more interesting, such as introducing a counter attack. You have a limited number of slots, which can be upgraded, with elements of your UI taking up slots. You can uninstall things like the health bar or text pop ups to make room for more interesting things. The game is full of clever little things like this, even if the actual upgrade menu is cumbersome and awkward. The core combat is really fun and never fails to look stylish as hell, but it doesn’t land as one of the better Platinum combat systems. I felt myself missing the heft and variety of Bayonetta, with the combat is Nier: Automata sometimes feeling a big floaty and lacking in impact. I kept waiting for a new layer of complexity to fold into the combat and it never really does. Instead, the game introduces a clever new mechanic, which I won’t spoil, which is a lot of fun but exists almost parallel to the core melee combat rather than as an additional layer. Again, I never had a bad time slicing and dicing hordes of machines, but it would have been nice if there was a bit more to it.

Nier: Automata takes place in an open world, but I’d be hesitant to call it an ‘open world game.’ The world is quite small, and feels more like a series of connected zones rather than a coherent setting. That’s fine! After Zelda and Horizon I can’t claim to have been denied vast worlds to explore, but there is an awful lot of unnecessarily running back and forth. I don’t think a huge amount would have been lost for turning this into a more linear game. There are a range of side quests; some are pretty straightforward, but some are genuinely wonderful and contain some of the most devastating stories in the game.

One area where Nier: Automata really shines is sheer gameplay variety. There are semi-regular shoot-em-up sections in your mech suit, as well as shifts to a 2D platforming perspective. The bullet hell genre, where much of the challenge is focused on simply dodging increasingly dense waves of attacks, is a really interesting influence on Nier: Automata, and pervades all elements of the combat. I haven’t really encountered 3D bullet hell before. I still think it works best from a top down perspective, but it’s still interesting and speaks to Nier: Automata’s ambition to be a genre polymath.

Nier: Automata is a fascinating experience and a testament to the fact that interesting things can be done within AAA game development. It’s a game which waits to reveal its true cleverness and ambition, but the dawning sense of awe at what this game attempts to do was truly special. This is my first Yoko Taro game, but after Nier: Automata I don’t intend it to be my last.

 

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Horizon: Zero Dawn for PS4

I feel bit sorry for Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a hell of an achievement for many reason; the first open world game from Guerrilla Games, starring a kickass female protagonist and refining open world tropes into something interesting and new. It was the talk of the gaming town until less than a week later Zelda came out and pretty much obliterated it. I played Zelda first; as hyped as I was for Horizon, Zelda is…well, Zelda. Going back to Horizon after Zelda was interesting; after the freedom of Breath of the Wild, the first few hours of Horizon felt maddeningly restrictive. As I progressed I was able to appreciate better what this game achieves, but it was never quite able to get out of the shadow of Zelda. Others have made this point better than I, but Horizon: Zero Dawn feels like the apotheosis of an old way of making open world games and Breath of the Wild feels like the first of a newer, more genuinely open development philosophy.

Horizon: Zero Dawn takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth, long after a mysterious calamity plunged the remnants of humanity back to pre-Industrial culture, with the land roamed by increasingly hostile machines. The protagonist is Aloy, a young woman born in the lands of the matriarchal and religious Nora tribe, but branded an outcast since her birth and forced to live away from her community with fellow outcast Rost. At a young age she stumbles upon forbidden secrets of the old world and as a young adult determines to enter the Proving, a test of strength and agility which could grant her membership of the tribe. Events at the Proving catapult Aloy into the wider world as she discovers the range of Tribes and cultures that have sprung up since the apocalypse and a looming threat connected to her own mysterious heritage.

It’s a good story and well told, with some interesting twists and reveals and a successful marrying together of the modern day politics and rivalries of the present with the gradual reveal of the secrets of the past, communicated through holograms and audio tapes. It’s all anchored by Aloy, a wonderful protagonist. Hardened by a tough upbringing, she’s singularly unimpressed with those with puffed up notions of themselves and can indulge in some withering put downs. I particularly enjoyed how several male characters express their affection to Aloy throughout the game, with her brushing them off because she has far more important shit to do. The supporting cast are a bit more mixed, with standouts being Lance Reddick’s Sylens, a mysterious expert in the technology of the old world and some intriguing characters in the side quests, such as Vanasha who seeks to rescue a boy-King puppet of a ruthless Priesthood. Some dodgy voice acting for some supporting characters make some moments a bit silly and a few characters verge on bland, but in general Horizon: Zero Dawn tells a good tale with plenty of strong characters to keep me engaged.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is an action-RPG, as basically all open world games are now. You’ll spend a lot of your time exploring the vast world. It’s a beautiful setting, but the actual exploration feels hampered in some regards. First of all, the waypointing is a bit aggressive and there’s a strong feeling that Guerrilla Games would rather you stick to the path please. There’s little reason to wander off the beaten track. Of course, you could always turn the way pointing off, but where Zelda’s Hyrule was filled with clear landmarks to orient yourself and navigate, trying to work your way through Horizon’s world without way points, or constantly pausing to look at your map, would be pretty much impossible. It just isn’t designed that way. This means that Horizon lacks the sense of adventure open world games, at their best, can have. The other issue is gathering materials for crafting ammo and potions, as well as medicinal herbs for healing. Constantly stopping to pick up every plant on your way, which shows up with a big symbol on your UI, upsets the momentum and pace of your journey. It means that you’re always looking at the next plant, rather than your destination. This isn’t a problem unique to Horizon; the Far Cry games are the worst for it I’ve played, but it’s a shame to see such a beautiful setting bogged down with all these superfluous mechanics. It may be an action RPG, but most of the best moments fit into the ‘action’ category and less into the ‘RPG.’

Where Horizon comes to life is the combat, and this is the main arena where I think Horizon could be said to have bested Zelda. There are fights against human foes, which some have criticised but I found fun enough. The core combat mechanics are very strong, unlike in the similarly bow and arrow focused Tomb Raider reboot series, so popping off bow and arrow headshots didn’t really get boring for me. Still, the main fun to be had are with the machines. There are a good range of machines to fight and you do, genuinely, have to adapt your strategies for each one. Horizon can be punishing if you’re unprepared, you have to think smart and lay traps and plans for taking down the most dangerous foes. Taking down some of the larger machines involved some of the most satisfying gaming experiences I’ve ever had. There’s something tactile about the machines which is wonderful. Different components can be shot off to weaken them in particular ways. It can be tempting to brute force your way through some of these guys, but it’s always more rewarding to give it some actual thought. The highlight for me was taking down my first Thunderjaw, which is essentially a robot T-rex. This involved shooting off its back mounted cannons, removing laser guns from its jaws, pinning it to the ground with ropes, before picking up its own cannon and blasting it to bits. This was my preferred strategy, but I’m sure there are other methods, such as using elemental trip wires or slingshotting bombs. One element which is a little bit underdeveloped is the ability to override machines. The side quests you do to progress this ability are brilliant, but ultimately it’s not as impactful as it may seem. One machine cab be hacked to ride, but all the others just assist you in combat. It’s an interesting idea and one I hope the inevitable sequel does more interesting things with.

The main quest is pretty lengthy and involved, with some fantastic set piece moments. Horizon is a big game with lots to do and in all fairness most of it is worth doing. Many of the side quests are fascinating, with their own stories and unique scenarios, which makes some feel essential and unmissable. We’re not quite at Witcher 3 side quest quality, but it’s the closest I’ve seen any other modern Western RPG reach. Alongside the more substantial quests are a lot of standard open world fare, but even these are made more engaging than usual. You still need to climb towers to reveal the map, but in Horizon the towers are mobile robot diplodocuses which you can hack. There are bandit camps to raid, but there aren’t too many to every get boring and they’re attached to Nils, one of the more interesting supporting characters. There are optional dungeons, known as Cauldrons, which allow you to override more machines. Hunting missions are always more than ‘kill x amount of y’, and usually offer interesting gameplay challenges, such as knocking the cannon of one creature, picking it up, and using it to kill another. Horizon doesn’t waste the player’s time with busywork. It may lack the sense of gentle wonder seen in Zelda, but it also avoids the open world game curse of feeling like a list of boxes to tick.

Horizon’s world is simply gorgeous, taking in several different biomes such as desert, jungle and snowy wilderness. This is a seriously good looking game and relatively free of open world technical snafus, with the few I encountered leaning more towards funny than annoying or immersion breaking. It has a decent soundtrack too, with a soaring main theme and some intense battle music. It’s nothing particularly memorable, but it serves its purpose well. The weaker area lies in the characters, both in the animations and the voice acting. I watched a great Extras Credits video about animation recently which made me appreciate how difficult animating an open world game like this can be, but the reality is that Horizon’s characters often fail to truly come alive due to the stiffness and awkwardness of their animations. It’s difficult not to compare it to The Witcher 3, similarly open world but with much more expressive and nuanced animations. Still, the overall quality of the writing elevates these encounters and the animations were never a serious impediment to my enjoyment.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a very good game and a pretty massive achievement for Guerrilla. I truly hope this is the start of a franchise, a nice replacement for Uncharted in Sony’s line up of AAA single player blockbusters. It does feel constrained by some unnecessarily baggage in the mechanics and could do with some feature trimming, but these issues are never significant enough to ruin such a solid experience. Sony’s had a hell of a Q1 in 2017 and Horizon: Zero Dawn may be the cream of the crop.

 

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Gravity Rush 2 – The Ark of Time: Raven’s Choice DLC for PS4

I’m a big fan of the price point for this Gravity Rush 2 DLC; free. This is partially because free DLC is always welcome and partially because I don’t think I would have been very happy to have paid for this.

Raven is something of a fan favourite character and it makes perfect sense for her to be given her own story. In the confusing jumble that was Gravity Rush 2’s story, we never really found out Raven’s backstory. Taking place between Gravity Rush 1 and 2, this DLC also resolves a plot strand left hanging from the first game, the Lost Children trapped in the Ark, and so depicts Raven’s attempts to save them, as well as uncover her own history.

A lot of this DLC weirdly doubles down on the worst things about the main game, and that applies to the story as well. Gravity Rush as a series gets weirdly bogged down into its own bizarre mythology, which never succeeds in becoming more compelling than confusing and Raven’s Choice, which is a couple of hours long at most, contains all of these flaws in perfect microcosm.

Unfortunately, this extends to the gameplay as well. Gravity Rush is about soaring through the skies and kicking giant monsters in the eye but both games spent an unforgivable amount of time keeping you grounded, forcing you to complete arduous stealth challenges or escort missions. A good DLC either offers something new, or at least what was good about the game in microcosm, but Raven’s Choice blows up everything bad about Gravity Rush 2. There are some good moments, such as a fun boss fight and some neat differences in Raven’s power set to Kat’s, but I can’t see this being something I’d be happy to pay for.

So…good thing I didn’t! Since it’s free there are worse ways to spend your time if you still have your copy of Gravity Rush 2 lying around, but I wouldn’t nudge it to the top of your pile if I were you.

 

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Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

I’m thoroughly enjoying my time ploughing through The Witcher saga, with Time of Contempt building on the successes of Blood of Elves and addressing some of its faults.

Time of Contempt picks up not too long after Blood of Elves. Ciri is now under the tutelage of Yennefer of Vengerberg. Yennefer is taking Ciri to the Island of Thanedd, a safe haven for mages and sorceresses where she plans to enrol Ciri in a school to hone her magical training. It is not long before Geralt is reunited with his surrogate family of Yennefer and Ciri, and the three arrive at Thanedd, for a gathering of the magical users of the Northern Kingdoms, known as the Chapter of Sorcerers. The politics of the North have become more unstable, with the Northern rulers desperate for a pretext to go back to war with Nilfgaard and regain Cintra.

Where Blood of Elves was a bit more unfocused, feeling like a series of connected novellas more than anything else, Time of Contempt is a bit more self-contained, dealing primarily with the internal affairs of the Chapter of Sorcerers and the role of the magical community. The sharper focus benefits the book massively and it moves the story forward in a range of interesting ways. A lengthy epilogue shifts focus for a while, but it leaves a lot of important character sin very interesting places for the next book.

The action scenes are good, but Time of Contempt may be the funniest book in the series so far. A wonderful scene where a proud Yennefer parades Geralt in front of a series of lustful sorceresses, each more ridiculously provocative than the last, is a lot of fun. I had thought that the games had over sexualised characters like Keira Metz and Phillipa Eilhart but…nope, they’re like that in the book too. Geralt struggling to keep composure is a joy to behold. When things get a bit darker it all works well too, particularly during a harrowing scene in a desert which ratchets up tension to almost unbearable levels.

A lot of my favourite characters from the games play large roles here, such as the brilliant Redanian spymaster Sigismund Djikstra and a range of sorceresses. Sapkowski does a brilliant job of making these characters feel distinct; we’re introduced to about 8 new sorceresses all at once, but they all feel distinct and memorable. Ciri seems to be taking over from Geralt in main protagonist duties, but this isn’t a problem because I love Ciri.

I always struggle to write about middle books in a series. It doesn’t shake things up, but Time of Contempt keeps the story ticking on at a nice pace and leaves me excited to get into the next one. What more could you ask?

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Nioh for PS4

I’ve been playing Nioh in fits and starts snce it came out and are finally done. Not quite finished; there’s some side stuff and a post credits final mission I got half way through and quit, but I’m definitely done with this game. I played for a long time and there are many elements that I sort of loved, but it’s also a bit bloated and lacking in some key areas.

Nioh takes place in the early 17th century and follows…er, wait, let me just google his name….William Adams, an Irish sailor and pirate. He has been protected by a strange spirit for most of his adult life. Queen Elizabeth is fighting the Spanish Armada and seeks a secret weapon; the mysterious force known as Amrita. William is imprisoned in the Tower of London when the hilariously evil Edward Kelley arrives and kidnaps William’s guardian spirit and uses her to locate the source of Amrita; Japan. William goes in pursuit of Kelley to rescue his spirit and put an end to his nefarious plans and finds himself plunged into the conflicts of a demon infested feudal Japan. Tokugawa Ieysu, along with his servant ninja Hattori Hanzo, seek to unify Japan and William teams up with them to put down the demons awoken by the arrival of Kelley and in the process become the first Western samurai.

Nioh’s characters are all based on figures from real history, but with the obvious twist of demons, spirits and magic. This is interesting in theory but the reality is that it is so divorced from reality that this separation becomes meaningless. The plot is, simply, incoherent. It’s a load of mad old bollocks which goes on way too long and doesn’t have a single engaging character to shake a stick at. I quite enjoyed the first few hours; it had a bit of goofy, Platinum-esque charm, but that fades away with a story I think we may be expected to take seriously but devolves into madness. There are far too many characters, all real world figures. If you are already familiar with Japanese history then perhaps there might be more of a thrill to this, but aside from the odd reference to Oda Nobunaga I was pretty much lost. The main character looks like Geralt and sounds like Edward Kenway but has neither of their personalities. There was potential here but the story is a pretty massive let down overall.

Thankfully, the actual core mechanics of Nioh are very solid. The key inspiration for Nioh is immediately obvious. I know ‘it’s like Dark Souls but…’ has become a games writing cliché, but Nioh is very clearly inspired by FromSoft’s outings. There are shrines rather than bonfires, elixirs rather than Estus Flasks and Amrita rather than Souls, but if you’ve played a Soulsborne game you’ll know the deal. Nioh mimics so many elements from the Souls games that it becomes impossible not to primarily consider it within that context.

The biggest difference is the combat; both Dark Souls and Bloodborne contain a relatively low number of weapon inputs available at any given time, with combat being more about timing and positioning than using particular moves or combos. In Nioh you can equip two melee weapons, which can be switched freely. Each weapon can be held in one of three stances, a quick and weak low, a slow and powerful high and the average middle. Each stance then has a strong attack and a weak attack. This means that you have potentially 12 different weapon inputs at any one time, and this is before you consider other abilities like ranged weapons, magic and Ninja skills. The sheer number of options for an individual combat encounter adds an enjoyable precision to the combat. It’s very visceral, satisfying and fun. One of the most interesting mechanics is the Ki Pulse; maintaining your stamina, known here as Ki, is as important here as it is in the Soulsborne games. A well timed button press after an attack allows you to regain some of your stamina, allowing you to keep up the offensive. Later, you can also upgrade your abilities to Ki Pulse when you dodge. The interesting thing is that you have to wait a fraction of a second after attacking before you dodge away to achieve the Ki Pulse, meaning that you are encouraged to dodge away in a much more last minute fashion than you may be comfortable with. I love risk/reward mechanics like this. It’s a combination of Bloodborne’s aggressive health regeneration system and Gears of War’s active reload and works brilliantly.

Of course, the combat can only be so good as your foes and they’re generally decent, if a bit limited. You will fight a range of human enemies, some of which are simple victims to slice and dice and some are much trickier and engaging. There are also a range of yokai demons to fight, but not perhaps as many as there should be. The combat is fun, but ultimately most combat encounters are ‘hit hit, dodge behind, hit hit, dodge behind’ and repeat. The core mechanics are so fun that it takes a long time to get old, but ultimately, it does. Some have knocked the boss fights for being less fair than in Souls games, but I’m not sure that’s true. They are punishing, probably worse than in Bloodborne, but seriously fun and clever. They do create massive difficulty spikes, where the Soulsborne games tend to be a bit more gentle in the ramping up of challenge, but I still had a lot of fun taking them out.

The major diversion from the Soulsborne formula is structural. Where the Souls games take place in densely interconnected worlds, not necessarily large but coherently and convincingly put together, Nioh has a more old-school level structure. The levels do contain some Souls style short cuts and doubling back on themselves, but to nowhere near the level of inventiveness and craft seen from FromSoft. This level structure wouldn’t be a problem if the levels were varied and engaging, but they begin to feel very samey towards the end. The first proper level, in a burning Japanese fishing village, is easily the most memorable, but there are only so many caves, temples and mountains you can wander before it gets very familiar. This repetitiveness is only highlighted by how damn long this game is. It’s too long in all honesty, with everything interesting it has to do being thoroughly explored within 20 hours, but Nioh is closer to 50. This includes the side quests, which are pretty much mandatory if you want to avoid grinding. Without a sense of meaningful exploration, Nioh becomes an action RPG much more focused on the action, but there’s a reason action games tend to be shorter than other genres.

Nioh has a good visual design for the characters and monsters, although as I said above the environments certainly begin to wear thin. In a welcome move, you can choose to play Nioh at a higher resolution but capped at 30FPS, or take a resolution hit and play at 60. I chose the latter and recommend you do too; this is a game about maximum precision and the frame rate boost makes all the difference. The music and sound design are solid, but never anywhere near as atmospheric as in the Souls games.

I liked Nioh quite a bit, but it’s not a particularly interesting game. It’s fun and satisfying, but lacks the sense of intrigue and mystery I had hoped for. I imagine that the constant comparison to Dakr Souls might annoy some people, but when a game wears it’s influences so blatantly on their sleeve it’s difficult not to. It’s a very solid and fun action RPG, but it’s no game changer.

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The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I found myself very wound up when this first book came out, because we got a lot of your obnoxious handwringing articles in the vein of ‘it’s fantasy but I like it so it’s not really fantasy’ that come about any time literary genre fiction gets published. The Guardian reviewer called this book ‘A Game of Thrones with a conscience’, literally one of the dumbest phrases I’ve ever seen in literary criticism. The Buried Giant is fantasy, but it wears the genre trappings loosely, creating a blurry dream of a mythic British past.

Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple of an indistinct period of Britain’s past. King Arthur and Merlin are dead, but only recently, with their exploits beginning to blur from history into legend. The couple decide to visit their son in a nearby village after a lengthy estrangement and begin to make the perilous journey. A strange mist has cloaked the land, robbing the people of their memories. As Axl and Beatrice make their strange and fantastical journey, memories begin to reassert themselves with The Buried Giant asking one question; is it better to forget, rather than to pick at the scabs of the past?

The Buried Giant is a book which lends itself towards being read allegorically, rather than as a literal story. If properly broken down, the plot for The Buried Giant may seem thin, like a series of coincidences barely strung together, but that’s not really the point. Memory, and the odd mercy of forgetting, is the core theme of this book. The Buried Giant of the title refers both to a legendary figure referred to throughout, but also the hordes of painful memories lurking just beneath the surface, both as individuals and a society. Tory cabinet member Dr Liam Fox recently made the startling assertion that the UK has no reason to believe that it’s past is shameful. The brushing under the rug of British colonial atrocities, the wilful forgetting in the name of stability and comfort, is the unspoken metaphor which underlines much of The Buried Giant’s world of Saxons and Britons. Ishiguro is ambivalent and uncertain himself on memory; the book posits the thought that if peace can only be assured by forgetting the crimes of the past, surely it is better to forget, even if it leaves injustices unanswered. No easy answers are provided and an unsettling tone persists throughout.
The Britain Ishiguro conjures is itself indistinct and hazy; it never feels like a real place. Even the characters are vague and undefined. What are we if not a product of our memories? Without a clear past, there is nothing to define ourselves. As memories return, Axl and Beatrice don’t always like what they see; they fear that finding out what they were will alter who they are. This book works on a macro and micro level, both exploring societal forgetting but also the personal. Axl and Beatrice are uncommonly and utterly devoted to one another, but would such a pure love be possible if they could remember all the tiny hurts and grievances which build up over the course of any long relationship? However, is their love truly real if they cannot understand the foundations upon which it was built? Again, Ishiguro isn’t interested in answering the question, instead he simply presents the uneasy and uncomfortable thought to the reader.

The Buried Giant is a strange, wonderful book which leaves a lingering sense of unease in the reader. Ignore lazy comparisons to Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings by fantasy illiterate critics, The Buried Giant can’t really be compared to anything else I’ve ever read.

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Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

Blood of Elves is the first full novel in The Witcher series, with the previous two being linked short story collections. Sapkowski’s origin as a writer of short fiction is apparent in this book, since if taken as a novel, Blood of Elves doesn’t quite work. However, each lengthy chapter feels fairly stand alone, so if taken as a series of short stories closely linked by a core narrative, Blood of Elves works much better.

Blood of Elves picks up not long after the concluding story of The Sword of Destiny. Nilfgaard’s invasion has been repelled, but not before the brutal sacking of Cintra and the death of its formidable Queen Calanthe. Calanthe’s granddaughter, Ciri, is thought dead, but has in reality been rescued by Geralt and taken to the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen. Geralt and Ciri are linked by destiny and Geralt makes it his sworn vow to protect Ciri above all else. Rumours of her survival spread, and malevolent forces gather to find her and use her for their own nefarious purposes. Meanwhile, tension between humans and non-humans reach a boiling point and the Scoia’tel, an anti-human guerrilla army, is formed.

This book is oddly structured and not a whole lot happens; it lacks a satisfying conclusion in its own right and is focused towards building towards the sequels. If taken as a series of separate short stories it works much better. There are some delightful chapters, such as the arrival of Triss Merrigold at Kaer Morhen, where she promptly takes the gathered witchers to task for their bungled handling of Ciri’s ongoing puberty. Another involves Ciri training with Yennefer and the bond that builds between them. In fact, any scene involving Ciri is pretty much delightful. Geralt himself takes a bit of a backseat in this one, with Triss, Ciri and Dandelion covering well over half of the novel between them. Sapkoswki relies a bit too much on exposition, with one lengthy scene following the meeting towards the gathered rulers of the North feeling particularly egregious. The thing is, his actual writing is light and buoyant enough than it never feels boring. These pacing issues are ones which I found myself more observing objectively rather than being actively bothered by. There’s a whimsy, tempered by darkness, which is more than little reminiscent of Neil Gaiman. Blood of Elves is just very bloody readable and a testament both to Sapkoswki and the translators from the original Polish.

As mentioned above, characterisation is arguably Sapkowski’s greatest skill. Geralt, Ciri, Triss, Yennefer, Dandelion, all are a joy to spend time with. The bond between Geralt and Ciri is very moving; the well of feeling and love behind the grizzled exterior of Geralt is the reason he’s one of my favourite protagonists in fiction. There’s a lot of humour in Blood of Elves and I’m still amazed by how well CD Projekt captured the tone of the books in the games.

Blood of Elves is an undeniably flawed book, but I enjoyed it a hell of a lot anyway. The characterisation and dialogue are so strong that I could forgive almost anything. It feels like it’s saving the big stuff for later; a table setter it may be, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more enjoyably set table than this.

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Gravity Rush 2 for PS4

Gravity Rush 2 is a game which veers between delightful and infuriating pretty consistently throughout its playtime, but just about balances out on delightful. I played the remastered PS4 version of the Vita original last year and those hoping that leaving a handheld for the PS4 would lead to a massive upgrade may be disappointed. Everything is shinier and bigger, but the core mechanics are the same as they were on the Vita. This leads to a game which somehow manages to have a truly magnificent sense of scale but also, at times, feel a bit small and unambitious.

Gravity Rush 2 picks up with a powerless Kat in the travelling mining colony of Banga, having been flung from Hekseville by a gravity story along with Raven and Syd. It isn’t long before she regains her powers and the colony arrive at the city of Jirga Para Lhao, a beautiful city nonetheless riven my terrible inequality and ruled by an uncaring elite. Kat sets about the save the poor of the city. The closing chapters of the game also address the dangling thread of Kat’s past and how she first came to crash, amnesiac, into Hekseville at the beginning of the first game.

The plot of Gravity Rush 2 is, overall, better than the first, but it still feels a bit incoherent. The inequality storyline in Jirga Para Lhao is easily the best part. The first game was at its best when it grounded itself in the familiar and the same is the case here. A return to Hekseville in the second half of the game strays into more bizarre territory, with a conclusion which dips into Akira-esque body horror. The final section details Kat’s backstory and it is here that the game descends into utter nonsense. The lore of this series is fairly complex and convoluted, much more than it needs to be. Gravity Rush is at its best when Kat is dealing with genuine human problems in beautiful settings. A lot of this is because Kat is so likeable as a character. She is, in many ways, your classic doofy wacky anime girl, but there’s a spine of genuine empathy and toughness which elevates her beyond that. The supporting cast is extensive, probably too much so, but there are some really loveable characters here. None are developed as well as they should be, particularly the villain of the second section who, whilst intriguing, is introduced and dispatched before we get a solid understanding of who he is.

From a mechanical stand point things are much the same, for better or for worse. Soaring through the skies is a joy, particularly in the new, more vertical oriented Jirga Para Lhao. The combat also feels a bit tightened up; I didn’t find myself soaring past enemies and missing entirely quite as much as I did in the last game. I honestly couldn’t tell you how they tightened this up, but clearly they did something because the combat actually feels good in this game which it didn’t really in the last one. A series of excellent boss fights showcase the combat best, with the level of frantic madness and escalation beginning to stray into Platinum Games territory. They’re exciting, challenging and, most importantly, really fun. New gravity powers are introduced in the ability to switch between different ‘gravity styles.’ Alongside the default we’re familiar with, Kat can also switch into the ‘Lunar style’, which makes her lighter and floatier with a range of new combat techniques, as well as ‘Jupiter style’ which makes her heavier and more powerful. Switching on the fly between the three lends combat a more tactical edge and by the end I was freely switching between the three during all combat encounters. Many games like this offer you loads of powers but you only really use a few, but I found myself using almost the entire toolbox of Gravity Rush 2, which is impressive.

There is a lot to do in this game, with 27 core main story quests and many more side quests. Some are simply fun little challenges to earn experience for powering up, but a lot are more involved, containing story to flesh out the world and the characters. All round, the mission design is the game’s biggest flaw. Some of the missions are brilliant and exciting, using the gravity powers in a range of interesting and fun ways. A baffling number however, both in the story and in side missions, strip your powers from you. This is pretty much always a bad design decision; feeling powerless is not fun in a game about the joy of having super powers. To make matters worse, a lot of the time these are stealth missions, which are all awful. Stealth missions in non-stealth games were so universally bad that it became a bit of a cliché a few years ago and they started to drop off. After Final Fantasy XV did the same thing late last year, I’m scared that the dodgy stealth mission is making a comeback. Kat doesn’t control subtly, she moves in big swinging motions, which is fine because the game is meant to be about soaring through the sky, but it doesn’t work for stealth.

Visually Gravity Rush 2 is lovely, and Jirga Para Lhao deserves to be considered alongside the best cities in gaming. The mid game return to the smaller, less vertical Heskeville is therefore underwhelming, which makes sense; Heskeville was designed for a PS Vita and Jirga Para Lhao for the PS4. As soon as I was taken from Jirga Para Lhao I wanted to go back. The comic book story panels are back, which is fine, with the characters still babbling in their vaguely French sounding nonsense language. The music is lovely, with a lot of very catchy new tunes around Jirga Para Lhao. I liked the character designs much more than the last game, particularly for Lisa, the matriarch for the mining community of Banga. Gravity Rush 2 does still look like an upscaled Vita game and I suspect it was produced for around the same budget as the first game. It’s no visual marvel, but for a game where the camera spins around so much a steady frame rate is pretty vital for avoiding nausea and it remained good throughout.

Gravity Rush 2 is a game which is intensely likeable, but too irritating to love. The charming world, characters and core mechanics do manage to save it from being dragged down too far by some very suspect mission design and storytelling, and I still feel that this series has yet to reach its true potential.

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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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