Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the category “XBLA Games”

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons for XBLA, PSN and PC

Stories about young boys undergoing severe trauma and fear are becoming quite the XBLA Indie theme isn’t it? I guess there’s some primal part of us that engages with children more readily than we engage with adults, and that we can form an emotional connection with the speed that these, often briefer, indie games require. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons falls firmly into the ‘artsy’ game category, and your ability to enjoy it will come with many caveats; namely, whether you can forgive distinctly iffy gameplay for the sake of ‘art.’

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons follows a pair of erm…brothers, whose father has been taken with a mysterious illness. Their mother had drowned not long before, so the two set out to retrieve a strange medicine from a magical tree which can save their father’s life.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons takes place in a faintly Nordic inspired fantasy land, which starts out with a pleasantly twee, Fable-esque tone to it. This doesn’t last long though, and Brothers takes a massive turn for the dark a bit later on, with some genuinely chilling and horrifying environments, and an unsettling feeling that the idyllic charm of the beginning village is a front for a brutal and violent world. Don’t get me wrong, this world is frequently incredibly beautiful, and the game knows it, offering you regular benches that you can sit upon and get a great glimpse of the surprisingly huge vistas on offer, but behind that beauty is some truly horrific and violent imagery.

Although there is voice acting in this game, they don’t speak in any language, instead in a garbled gobbledegook. Dialogue really isn’t needed though, and it’s not difficult to tell what’s going on, with the voice actors doing an admirable job conveying their feelings purely through the tone of their voice without any reliance on actual words. The plot is well told overall, and we genuinely get a real understanding for the characters of the two brothers based on their reactions to the world. The older is more responsible, tough and chivalrous, and the younger is more playful, more sensitive and has a slight cruel streak common in young boys. The fact that these characters end up so well defined with the limited tools they can use is very impressive.

A few reviewers have called Brothers a co-op single player game, and there really is no other way to describe it. Each brother is controlled with an analogue stick, with their interactions with the world mapped to the trigger buttons. Although this is initially a highly off putting control scheme, by the end I got the hang of it, and it’s a great case of using the basic mechanics of the game to reinforce your ideas. You’ll mostly be running around looking at stuff, and there’s a lot of reward in slowing down and exploring your environments; all the achievements are tied to optional little secrets rather than the main story, and I encountered less than half even while I was trying to take it slow. There are plenty of simple puzzles, although none are too taxing, with many being typical ‘co-op adventure game’ puzzles mapped to a single player game, giving the familiar a new spin. There are some great set piece moments too, with the highlight of the game being a section where the brothers are tied together and must swing each other up platforms to climb a tower. It’s a simple mechanic, but requires a fair bit of concentration and dexterity.

That said, this game is horribly clunky, and without the ability to control the camera with the right stick, seeing where you’re going is a pain. The best ‘artsy’ indie games have really great gameplay alongside their interesting narratives, such as Braid, but Brothers is more like Limbo, serviceable gameplay which is upstaged by its atmosphere. Brothers is frequently enchanting, moving and funny, but it’s not always a lot of fun.

Although the environments are gorgeous, the character models are actually quite hideous, but I suspect that resources were tight and they absolutely made the right call putting the world first. Brothers has a lovely soundtrack, which varies from grand and uplifting to absolutely heart wrenching.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a great piece of interactive art, but not necessarily a great videogame. If you’re looking for excitement or refined gameplay you won’t get it here, but you may end up with one of the most stirring and moving gaming experiences you’ll play all year. brothers-tale-of-two

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Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon for XBLA, PSN and PC

I think when people were guessing where Ubisoft would go with Far Cry 3 DLC, no one would have guessed this. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon isn’t technically DLC; it’s a standalone download, but for all intents and purposes that’s what it is, and as a piece of DLC it’s remarkably ambitious. That ambition doesn’t quite transfer into a great game, but I’d like to see more DLC releases as audacious as Blood Dragon.

Blood Dragon has nothing to do with Jason Brody and his violent island adventures, and instead takes place in the desolate nuclear wasteland of 2007. The protagonist is Rex Powercolt, a ‘Cyber Commando’ who is sent to an island to investigate the rogue Cyber Soldier Colonel Sloan. Blood Dragon is a parody of 80s action sci-fi cinema, as well as gaming in general, with an overblown and ridiculous story wrapped in 80s cheese and nostalgia.

Sadly, the setting, so full of promise, doesn’t really work. The post apocalyptic nuclear wasteland is thoroughly unconvincing, largely achieved by placing a haze-y red fog over the existing tropical islands of Far Cry 3. I understand that a complete overhaul of style is a big ask, but it does lead to the open world of Blood Dragon being no fun to explore at all. Far Cry 3 motivated exploration by being beautiful, but it is possible to inspire exploration through desolation (just look at the Fallout series). Blood Dragon does not succeed here, with the red haze simply making everywhere feel this same, as well as providing an abominable draw distance. Still, I’m optimistic for the future of this setting; the lead voice actor Michael Biehn has implied that Blood Dragon may trigger its own franchise and get away from its Far Cry roots, which is exactly what it needs to do.

I wasn’t expecting a complex or nuanced story, but I was hoping for an entertaining one, and Blood Dragon is thoroughly lacking in that department. There’s that saying that any parody must be distinguishable from what it is parodying, and Blood Dragon really doesn’t succeed there. It doesn’t help that the majority of the story is told through, initially charming, 16 bit cutscenes. These gave a nostalgic kick at first, but they’re far too long and thoroughly outstay their welcome. The plot of Blood Dragon isn’t even funny; there are lots of laughs here, but they’re largely in moments unrelated to the plot, in amusing codex entries and a hilarious tutorial.

Happily though, Blood Dragon is a lot of fun to play. The mechanics of Far Cry 3 are subtly tweaked to create a fresh feeling experience; the main difference is that Rex Powercolt is much faster than Jason Brody, leading to a more ‘run and gun’ feel to Blood Dragon. Stealth is still an option, and generally nets greater EXP rewards for the linear levelling system, but running and gunning is just as viable an option. The most obvious gaming addition are the titular Blood Dragons themselves, which are essentially dinosaurs which fire lasers out of their heads. They function like a souped-up version of the predators in Far Cry 3, and can be lured into enemy encampments to wreak havoc. Although they’re not particularly well implemented, it’s hard to complain about any game which lets you summon laser dinosaurs to kill your foes whilst you watch on and cackle with glee.

Blood Dragon looks like it should be a decently lengthy release, but it really isn’t. The handful of main missions are fun, but it’s otherwise packed with short, underwhelming side missions. The side missions were weak in Far Cry 3 too, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. There just isn’t nearly enough bang for your buck here, although this package does show surprising value in other ways.

Although as I mentioned before I through that the physical setting was weak, almost every other element of the presentation is excellent. Michael Biehn’s rasp serves as a great double parody of both his own 80s film career as well as other videogame protagonists, and the voice acting is able enough for the supporting cast as well. The real highlight of this game for me had to be the soundtrack, filled with pumping synths and the odd hilarious power ballad. The music was provided by the videogame metal band Powerglove, and it’s their contribution which really sets this release apart.

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is fun whilst it lasts, but it doesn’t live up to its potential. Still, you’ve got to respect a release as audacious, and even if Blood Dragon doesn’t work, I still respect the effort and care which went into this release. Blood Dragon feels like a prototype for something better, but as a product in itself I can’t really recommend it until it gets a price cut. far-cry-3-blood-dragon_1_pac_m_130412160904

Mark of the Ninja for XBLA and PC

The most surprising thing about Mark of the Ninja is that there hasn’t been a game like this before. A side scrolling stealth ninja game seems like a no brainer now, but I’ve never played one before, and Mark of the Ninja makes a rather brilliant introduction to this new genre.

Mark of the Ninja follows an unnamed ninja, part of the Hisomu Clan in the modern day. Ninjas receive mystic tattoos with magical ink which give them strange powers, but after a while these tattoos sink their wearer into madness, at which point the Ninja must kill themselves. A ruthless corporation known as Hessian have attacked the Hisomu Dojo, seeking the secret of the tattoos, so our unnamed protagonist and fellow ninja Ora work together to bring down Hessian and it’s cruel leader, Colonel Karajan.

Mark of the Ninja is a wonderful looking game, highly stylised without being distracting. There’s an impressive sense of atmosphere to the environments. There are three main environments, each containing a handful of missions; these don’t feel particularly distinct from one another, and a bit more variety would have been nice, but it doesn’t change the fact that this game looks great.

The actual plot of Mark of the Ninja is utterly forgettable, which is a shame as the cut scenes are beautifully animated. The actual story has some potentially interesting elements, particularly the oncoming madness of the tattoos, but nothing is really well done with this. There are twists, but they’re highly predictable, with the plot becoming rather incoherent and hard to care about.

Mark of the Ninja is very much about the stealth aspect of ‘ninjaing’, unlike Ninja Gaiden which is about the fighting aspects. Our Ninja creeps through levels, fairly linear but still with multiple paths to the targets, assassinating foes either with simple stealth or with a range of optional gadgets. Keeping an eye on light sources is a must to stay hidden, with sounds made producing a little ring which shows whether nearby guards can hear you. A grappling hook helps for speedy traversal of the levels, but a lot of your time will be spent creeping through vents. It’s a lot of fun, and getting around unnoticed gives a real thrill. There are direct combat options, but they’re pretty useless, and if you’re spotted you’ll likely be dead in seconds.

There’s an upgrade system, with extra experience gained by dispatching your foes in clever ways and by maintaining a low profile, as well as completing little mini challenges in the levels. The upgrades contain new moves and items, and are generally very rewarding. The game is a good length, offering decent value for money. A new game plus rewarded upon completion will offer some more content for people who like a bigger challenge.

Mark of the Ninja is a huge amount of fun, satisfying and precise. Stealth gameplay is at its worst when the mechanics are imprecise and failure is the fault of dodgy AI and controls rather than lack of player skill. This was one of the primary flaws of Assassin’s Creed III, and thankfully Mark of the Ninja delivers one of the most engaging and enjoyable stealth experiences which I’ve ever played. I’m not really into stealth games; I could never get a grip on Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid, but Mark of the Ninja has changed that. It’s a masterfully designed game, the work of people who think carefully about each moment and mechanic to make sure that it’s balanced and fair. There is a notable drop in quality in the last third of the game however, with the introduction of exploding traps adding an unfortunate element of trial and error to the gameplay, and breaking the previously flawless sense of flow Mark of the Ninja generates. It’s an annoyingly artificial way to ramp up the difficulty, and ensured that I enjoyed the last third of the game much less than the first two. Still, Mark of the Ninja is brilliant fun to play, and quite unlike anything else.

This is, like Outland, a game which is really made by the slickness of its animations. The brutal kill animations are cool, switching over to an oddly ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ style for the cutscenes. It really shouldn’t work, but it does! Mark of the Ninja is a great looking game, with decent voice acting for Ora, your regular companion, helping the package along. The villainous roles aren’t quite so well cast, with their ridiculous exaggerated accents sapping these figures of any menace they might have.

Mark of the Ninja is a must play for anyone who’s into stealth games, but also a worthy introduction to the genre for people like me. It’s such a basic idea, but still feels so unique and polished, offering good value for money too. Mark of the Ninja isn’t like anything else you’ll play any time soon, so give it a try if you like new things. ninja_w_bg

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

Outland for XBLA and PSN

Outland is a game which flew entirely under my radar. I generally have a fairly good idea of most major gaming releases, but I somehow missed this one entirely. I only gave it a try when it popped up on an XBLA sale, and I’m very glad that I did.

The protagonist of Outland is an unnamed and unspeaking man who, receiving dreams of a mythical and magical past, visits a shaman to get an explanation. The man is the heir to a great hero of the past, who had battled the two ‘Sisters of Chaos’, imprisoning them and dying in the process. The Sisters have escaped their imprisonment, so the shaman sends the hero on a journey to gain the powers needed to stop the Sisters.

Much of the plot is told through a gravelly voice narrator. There’s actually possibly a bit too much plot here, with a bad case of telling rather than showing. We’re informed after defeating each boss that they weren’t always bad, that they were once pillars of goodness, but this isn’t really relevant and doesn’t at all come across in the design or behaviour of the creatures themselves. There’s a potentially interesting world here, but it’s story isn’t told particularly well, and the game wouldn’t have suffered at all for paring the plot back even further.

Outland is, superficially at least, a platformer. The player is a silhouette who leaps and kills his way through the environment, gaining abilities which can be useful to access secrets in previous levels, giving this game something of a ‘Metroidvania’ feel to it. Outland’s twist comes from a mechanic stolen shamelessly from Ikaruga; the player can change between being red or blue, with lasers of that colour not effecting them. This starts out simple enough, but by the end you’ll be switching back and forth constantly, dodging between lasers and trying to take out enemies that can only be destroyed whilst the player is the opposite colour. Outland gets very difficult, and at times it strongly reminded me of the ‘bullet hell’ genre of shmup. The boss battles are fun and inventive too, usually involving taking out some giant horrible monster, and these can also get incredibly hard.

Probably one of this game’s biggest flaws lies in its weak opening. The player doesn’t actually gain the colour swapping ability until the second world, with the first world acting as a stylish, and not unentertaining, platformer. It doesn’t help that your given one of those moments where it shows you at full power before the game gets going, as in Metroid Prime, before yanking them away from you. This makes the wait until you get these abilities rather dull; it’s not good game design to withhold your main mechanic for a fifth of the game!

Outland takes place in five worlds, which do a good job of not being simply driven by the standard ‘grass world fire world ice world’ archetype. That said, there’s not that much of a distinction between these worlds. It’s visually very stylish, and this minimalist style is actually for the best; with the red and blue lasers flying everywhere as the player soars between them, dynamic backdrops would only serve as a distraction.

This is an incredibly stylish game, with the substance to back it up. The animation for our hero really contributes to the experience. There’s a sense of exhilaration as the player soars through the levels which simply wouldn’t have been possible with lesser animation, so a lot of credit is due there. The visual design of this game is subtle, not as obviously stylised as Limbo or as beautiful as Braid, but all the better for being understated.

Outland is a really cool, fun game. It takes plenty of elements from other games, and combines them to create something completely new. I’ve never played a ‘bullet-hell’ platformer before, and I’m grateful to Outland for giving me the opportunity to do so.

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Alan Wake’s American Nightmare for XBLA and PC

Alan Wake was a classic example of a diamond in the rough, something which entirely exceeded the sum of its parts. The actual combat didn’t really do anything special, but the atmosphere was truly sinister, creating a creepiness which didn’t simply rely on jump scares. Suffice it to say that Alan Wake 2 would be very welcome in my eyes. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, a spin-off of sorts released on XBLA a couple of years after the first game was released, is not Alan Wake 2.

At the beginning of American Nightmare, our author hero Alan Wake is still stuck in the predicament he was left in at the conclusion of the last game, trapped within the strange, dark dimension beneath Cauldron Lake and thought dead by his family, friends and fans. The appearance in the real world of Mr. Scratch, a doppelganger of Alan and an avatar of pure evil and chaos, necessitates  Alan to force his way into our world. Since the world of darkness is influenced by creativity, in Alan’s case writing, he uses a script he once wrote for the Twilight Zone parody ‘Night Springs’ to enter into an Arizona town of the same name to take down Mr. Scratch.

As with almost everything in this DLC, the ‘Night Springs’ setting feels half baked and never succeeds in living up to its potential. Where the original game did a great job of evoking a strong Twin Peaks/Stephen King vibe, the Twilight Zone pastiche never really picks up. Sure, the odd bit of Twilight Zone style narration is fun, but the environs of American Nightmare never really impress. Part of what made Alan Wake work was that we started out in the day; seeing these pristine and picturesque environments transformed into chilling and oppressive hells was why they worked. American Nightmare skips all that, refusing to take it’s time or pace itself, which cheapens the atmosphere. Possibly the single most egregious element of this game was the repetition of environments. Now, I really hate when games do this, and this is possibly the most obnoxious example that I’ve seen, pathetically justified by the plot. At least in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, a game let down by repetition of environments, a concerted effort was often made to make these environment feel new, such as the flooding of the forest area. This isn’t the case in American Nightmare. There is a motel, an observatory and a drive-in movie theatre. You will fight your way though each three times before this product limps to a close. This is unacceptable, and clearly signals a sharp cut off early in development before this could be properly fleshed out. I honestly think Remedy are better than this.

Alas, the plot of American Nightmare never really comes together either. Mr. Scratch is a great villain; I always enjoy campy villains who know they’re evil, and love it, and Mr. Scratch is certainly one of those. Mr. Scratch and Alan could have made for some interesting duality, but it never really manifests. Alan is basically the same, which is odd considering that he spent the last two years trapped in an unimaginable alien hellhole. American Nightmare employs a time loop structure to justify its repeating use of locations; I love this idea in theory, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is one of my favourite games ever and absolutely mastered the ‘Groundhog Day’ structure, but American Nightmare squanders the potentially interesting idea, just as it squanders almost every bit of potential it has. I did enjoy the return of the manuscript pages, but where in Alan Wake these were used intelligently, sometimes illuminating the past and sometimes giving the player terrifying glimpses into the future, here they seem pretty random, giving us the odd little detail which, whilst usually interesting, never really coheres.

American Nightmare, lacking the atmosphere of the original game, has to fall back on the somewhat suspect mechanics of the old ‘flashlight then shoot’ technique. This actually works really well in small groups of enemies, but with large groups it just doesn’t work. You won’t be doing much else apart from shooting your way through enemies, with little room given for exploring or straying from the track. Don’t get me wrong, the mechanics of Alan Wake’s American Nightmare are functional and solid, but uninspired, and difficult to get excited about.

The voice acting, a high point of the last game, is pretty weak here. It’s a bit difficult to tell whether it’s the writing holding the actors back though, as these characters are written truly awfully. The game actually looks very nice for an XBLA title, with the lighting effects of the torch as impressive as ever, and there are some stunning pre-rendered cut scenes bookending major events in the game. A major step back can be seen in the character animations, which are as stiff and awkward as one would expect in a PS2 game, making potentially tense scenes feel somewhat ridiculous. Now, one element which does live up to the original is the soundtrack. Much as Stephen King packs his novels with references to bands which he loves, Alan Wake was filled with musical cues from figures as diverse as Roy Orbison, David Bowie and Depeche Mode. American Nightmare isn’t long enough to do this, but it’s licensed music still packs a punch, with ‘Club Foot’ by Kasabian used to great effect. Best of all is the return of Poets of the Fall performing as ‘The Old Gods of Asgard’. The Old Gods, aging prog rockers who once fought the darkness with their music as Alan fights it with writing, were probably my favourite element of Alan Wake’s plot, so the return of their music was entirely welcome and works incredibly well. I truly hope that Remedy manage to keep Poets of the Fall on board if they ever make a proper Alan Wake 2.

This review probably reads more negatively than Alan Wake’s American Nightmare warrants. There’s a lot done well here, and at times American Nightmare evokes what made Alan Wake great, but it falls very short of the mark. There’s a laziness to this release which infuriated me, and the plot, so strong in the original, doesn’t really work here. Now, I bought this for half price, and, if you liked Alan Wake, it’s probably worth the money at that cost. At full price? Don’t even think about it. AlanWakesAmericanNightmare

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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Dust: An Elysian Tail for XBLA

Ok, to enjoy this game you’re going to have to get over one thing. The art style of this game is extremely reminiscent of the ‘furry’ style. For those who haven’t been around this funny old internet as much as I have, ‘furries’ are people who have a sexual attraction to anthropomorphic creatures, usually furry humans with pointy ears and tails and improbably huge breasts. ‘Furries’ are one of the most widely mocked and vilified sub-cultures online, although I find it hard to bring myself to care what they do; it doesn’t affect me what people choose to masturbate to. If you can get past the furry aesthetic, there’s a lot to like about this game, which seems somewhat doomed to fly under the radar as an underrated gem. I was particularly interested in this release due to it having been almost entirely the work of one man, Dean Dodrill. With the exception of voice acting, soundtrack and parts of the script, all of the work was done by Dodrill. I was interested to see whether one person could create a full gameplay experience, and am pleased to report that, by and large, they can.

The game opens with the eponymous Dust awakening in a glade, with no memory of his previous life, a talking sword named Ahrah beside him. The sword tells him to move on, but the sword’s guardian, the tiny flying Fidget, insists on joining him. Dust and his band move around the land, righting wrongs and helping the people, whilst the military campaign of the brutal General Gaius builds in intensity in the background, soon moving to the forefront of the tale.

The plot of Dust: An Elysian Tale is probably the most pleasant surprise in the game. An amnesiac hero, a squeaky voiced side kick, a talking sword, all played out in a land of talking animals? A recipe for utter horror. Instead, we get a plot which has clearly been given much thought, and although it’s not necessarily anything special, I was certainly invested in the characters and their fate. Bolstered by surprisingly good voice acting, the script manages to balance comedy and drama well. Some of the characters Dust  encounters on his journey are genuinely hilarious creations, and the more dramatic scenes are handled relatively well. If there is any flaw, it is that the motivations of its villain is rather opaque; I suspect that a sequel is planned, which may shed more light upon this.

Dust: An Elysian Tail is a side scrolling action RPG, with the content split pretty evenly between RPG and action gameplay mechanics. Those expecting serious depth in the mechanics themselves may be somewhat disappointed; the combat is pretty simple and will often devolve into button mashing, but it’s certainly fun enough. There’s a basic crafting system to keep things interesting, although the items you equip have no effect upon Dust’s highly stylised appearance, a gaming pet peeve of mine. The game is quest based, with two main towns acting as hubs. There’s a slight element of Metroidvania to the game, with backtracking and returning to previously visited locations encouraged. However, the rewards rarely match the effort required, so I doubt many players will be scouring the world for every chest as the developer probably hoped. This may read negative, but in reality it’s certainly not bad. It’s very competent,  but with few moments where the gameplay surprises you. There are very few moments which are truly bad however, with the lowest points in the game probably being the uninspired and frustrating boss fights, which are usually simple damage sponges rather than exhibiting interesting attack patterns.

The real high point of this game is in its presentation. The animations for Dust are breathtaking, rivalling those in Rayman Origins. The backgrounds have a wonderful, hand drawn feeling to them, making each location feel an absolute joy to explore. If there is any weakness in the presentation, it would be in the character design, which all feels a bit ‘Deviant Art’, but when the world these characters populate is so gorgeous it’s hard to care. The voice acting is, by and large, excellent. I suspect that many of the voice actors were amateurs, which far from taking away from the game, gives the dialogue a pleasant naturalism. The surprising high point is in the voice of Fidgit, your sidekick, who should be incredibly annoying, but is in fact a genuinely funny and charming companion. Sure, this game is pure style over substance, but when the style is this good it’s hard to care.

Dust: An Elysian Tail isn’t for everyone, but it is an incredibly achievement of singular determination. I certainly don’t regret my time with Dust: An Elysian Tail, but I’m not quite sure if I would necessarily recommend it to many others and its current price. When this pops up in the Microsoft’s XBLA sales, don’t hesitate, buy it. Before then, it’s probably worth holding off a while.

Quantum Conundrum for XBLA, PSN and Steam

Quantum Conundrum is the new game from Kim Swift, the creative genius behind Portal. It bears many similarities to her opus; it’s a first person, physics based puzzle game. Swift wasn’t involved in Portal 2, leaving her to create this new game with new game play mechanics. I’m sure that Swift doesn’t appreciate that almost every review for this game compares it to Portal, but that’s just what happens when you create one of the most innovative and influential games ever made. So, does this game live up to is spiritual predecessor, or should Swift have stuck with Valve?

Whilst the gameplay of Portal was utterly sublime, it is arguably just as respected for its witty and sinister story and atmosphere, bolstered by exemplary voice acting and sharp humour. Sadly, these elements do not translate into Quantum Conundrum, although not for lack of trying. In Quantum Conundrum you are a young boy sent by his mother to visit his uncle, the mad scientist Professor Quadrangle. Upon arriving, some kind of weird science-y stuff happens and the good Professor becomes trapped in a small pocket dimension with no memory of how he got there, and it is up to his young nephew to rescue him. Our young hero uses this game’s equivalent of the Portal gun, the IDS, a glove which allows the player to switch between four different ‘dimensions’ which cause objects to have different properties. The attempts at comedy tend to fall fairly flat, whilst not being actively annoying. Quadrangles narration never matches that of GLADOS, tending more towards somewhat self consciously ‘quirky’ statements, and without the air of subtle menace which made Portal so special. The story certainly isn’t bad, just easy to ignore, which is what I suspect the vast majority of players shall be doing.

Luckily however, the game play of Quantum Conundrum is easily enough to make up for its forgettable narrative. The player is given access to each dimension gradually throughout the game, creating a nicely smooth learning curve. The player character is unaffected by these dimensional changes, so the player handles the same in every dimension. The first dimension the player is given access to is the ‘light dimension’, where everything is fluffy and, well…light! Safes which would normally be too heavy to move can now be picked up and thrown to pressure switches etc. The next dimension the player is given is, unsurprisingly, the ‘heavy dimension’, which does the exact opposite. The third is a dimension in which time slows down to a crawl, allowing precision jumping between objects normally moving too fast to traverse. The fourth and final dimension flips the gravity in the room, making all objects float to the ceiling. The rapid manipulation of these dimensions can lead to some truly complex and ingenious puzzle designs, although there are certain tricks which will be used over and over again. There has been a large amount of criticism of the amount of that much maligned gameplay mechanic, first person platforming, in this game, but I’m not sure if that is entirely fair. Although it is easy to miss the odd jump, the checkpoints are so regular and the load times so quick that it can be difficult to get too frustrated. The jumping around can lead to some pretty epic moments as the player zips around the room, reacting quickly to whatever object happens to block your path. Many players will not be satisfied with this game for one simple reason however; it is a rather easy, and although solving the puzzles does release that little rush of endorphins so vital to the genre, there are few which I can say left me truly stumped. Throughout the game I was waiting for a level of complexity which simply never appeared, it just..ends. Perhaps the clearly forecasted sequel will bring on the complex puzzles not quite featured here. This is another of the problems with this game; whilst Portal, despite its short length and position as part of The Orange Box, felt like a complete game in of itself, even if it didn’t have the length or budget of its sequel, the same cannot be said for Quantum Conundrum. Despite these issues however, the game is still damn fun to play.

The visuals are sadly lacklustre throughout. The mansion which the player explores is singularly uniform and drab, and not in a cool stylistic way like the Aperture Science complex of Portal. Between each puzzle chamber the player commutes through a series of insultingly similar rooms, with the very low number of visual assets repeating over and over again. It’s a rather surprising laziness, but it doesn’t really take away from the core gameplay. Star Trek’s Jon de Lancie’s performance as Professor Quadrangle can’t really be faulted; the uninteresting narration stems from unimaginative writing rather than poor voice acting. Ike, a cute little critter who pops up every so often, is really the only dynamic creation in the entire game, with his clumsy slapstick antics raising a smile in a way that none of the narration succeeds to. I suspect that with a proper, Valve sized, budget, Swift could have done great things with this setting, but the opportunity is sadly squandered.

Quantum Conundrum is a lot of fun, and worth a play. The fun of the basic gameplay overwhelms the disappointing setting and narrative. Swift has cemented her position as one of the most interesting developers in gaming, and I thoroughly look forward to her next product, whether a sequel to Quantum Conundrum or something entirely new. 

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