Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “games”

Snake Pass for Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC

Snake Pass is exactly the kind of game you buy when a new console comes out, software is thin on the ground, and you want an excuse to use your fancy new machine. It’s interesting and something a little bit different, but ultimately something I don’t think will be remembered as much more of an oddity. It asks the question; can you do a platformer without jumping? The answer is technically yes, but you probably shouldn’t.

Snake Pass resembles a 90s mascot 3D platformer, as we control adorable snake Noodle through a series of levels to collect a bunch of maguffins. Snakes aren’t known for their jumping skills, so we instead slither through the semi-open environments, traversing the levels by clinging to poles and stretching your long body across chasms. Controlling Noodle is weird and takes a bit of getting used to. In some ways Snake Pass resembles the ‘fumblecore’ genre, where games have intentionally difficult or fiddly controls for comic effect, like Octodad or QWOP. Moving through an environment in a good 3D platformer should be elegant and satisfying and Snake Pass is rarely either. There is however a certain satisfaction in getting better at the odd controls and I’m sure some people will become very good at moving Noodle around, although I suspect I lack the patience. My main gripe came with the introduction of failure states later on. In earlier levels it’s almost impossible to die, but many later levels have bottomless puts and spike traps and fire which can finish off poor Noodle. In the earlier levels failure felt like an opportunity to just pick up and try again, but regular deaths saw me taking on the same obstacles over and over again. I don’t think this game needed death to be a thing and I think that the core of the challenging gameplay could have been kept without it.

There are 16 levels overall and to complete each one you must collect three gemstones and return them to a plinth. This is far from all the levels have to offer through, and they’re all incredibly dense with extra collectibles to pick up. These collectibles are usually much more difficult to gather than the main gems. There are no difficulty settings in Snake Pass, but the range of collectibles add layers of difficulty within the levels themselves. You can play easy mode like me and just get the gems, but you could also go up to hard or extra hard modes and go for some of the truly evil challenges. This kind of design, simultaneously offering several layers of difficulty, isn’t easy to pull off but Snake Pass does it with an impressively light touch. I was happy with my money’s worth just making my way through the levels. I found that challenging enough, although I suspect that I may just be really bad at this game. If you want more out of Snake Pass it’s there for you; this seems like a game with really interesting speed running potential.

Snake Pass is bright and colourful, with a nice, if slightly generic, Aztek influenced world and cute character design and animation for Noodle. David Wise, best known for Donkey Kong Country, composed the soundtrack and his unique skill for jungle based platformer compositions work unsurprisingly well for Snake Pass.

I liked Snake Pass, but I found difficulty spikes towards the second half of the game more frustrating than anything else, often being based on simply balancing for a longer period of time rather than clever structures to climb. Still, I doubt you’ll play anything else like it and it suits the Nintendo Switch quite well. Digital sales aren’t yet a thing for the Switch, but when they are that might be the time to give Snake Pass a go.

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Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture for PS4 and PC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Destiny (2016) Re-review for PS4 and Xbox One

So, I’ve been playing Destiny on and off since it first came out back when I was a wee lad in 2014. I played the Taken King expansion and more recently, Rise of Iron, but I never felt like I had enough to say to justify a review. Instead, I’m going to look at where Destiny is now and my experiences with the game as a complete package in 2016.

Destiny was a familiar story in gaming, a victim of its own hype. Bungie aren’t blameless here; they promised something which wasn’t delivered. We had been led to expect a massive Mass Effect style story driven open world RPG MMO with the gun play of Halo. In retrospect this seems like a bit of an insane proposition, but this is what was arguably marketed and faith in Bungie as a company was high enough that lots of people thought they could pull it off. When Destiny released in 2014 it was a competent shooter/MMO with not enough content but excellent FPS mechanics. Two years later Destiny is unburdened of the hype and able to be appreciated for what it is and it turns out that what it is is excellent. I know that sentence was bad but I like it so I’m keeping it.

The story of OG Destiny was so incoherent that I still can’t quite believe it; it wasn’t even bland bad, it was an epic Phantom Menace/Batman v Superman level disaster. I don’t know how this happened but, well, it did. Taken King and Rise of Iron improve things somewhat; it’s clear what is actually happening and I know what’s going on, even if that doesn’t actually make either story particularly interesting. People still insist that the Grimoire cards contain some fascinating lore but that simply isn’t good enough, especially considering that they still can’t be read in game. I never rated the Halo story nearly as much as some, but at least it made sense. The characters were clearly defined and had relationships with each other, there were stakes to the action, Destiny still takes place in this weird ethereal void where nothing you do seems to matter. I really hope this is something Bungie touches up in the sequel, because whilst the storytelling has improved in later releases it’s improved from ‘unmitigated nonsense bollocks’ to ‘boring, bland bollocks.’

Now, before I go any further I need to explain what kind of Destiny player I am, because there are people who play Destiny and people who play Destiny. I’m the former; I’ll play each mission once and all the strikes maybe twice. I’m not into grinding for the best loot, or taking on ridiculous challenges, or mastering the PvP. I’m not going to talk in massive detail about Engrams and strange coins and Exotic Gear. I will say that levelling after 40 has gotten faster, with better loot drops to raise your light level meaning that the grind is significantly curtailed, which I massively appreciated. If you’ve bought every expansion you’ve paid a lot of money on Destiny, and a lot of people certainly got their money’s worth, but I’m not sure I did. That said, if you were to buy the complete package at full price today, you absolutely, undeniably would. It’s definitely worth picking up now.

The thing is, for all these problems, I just love playing Destiny. I love the gunplay, I love the way it looks, I love the music, I love the boss fights. The strikes in Destiny have provided me moments of gaming bliss only rivalled by Bloodborne and some Nintendo games. The weirdest thing is that I haven’t even touched what most call the best part of the game, the raids. They’re still locked behind matchmaking which simply isn’t an option for me. Out of my circle of friends around 2/3 aren’t active gamers and most of the remaining are PC master race types. Getting together six people for a Destiny raid just isn’t an option for me. Game journos have hyped these up, but they by the nature of their profession will have nowhere near the trouble getting these groups together than a normal person with a full time job will. Some of these raids take hours apparently; the most I can game in an unbroken period is maybe an hour sometimes. It’s a testament to how much I bloody love Destiny that I enjoy it so much whilst bypassing what is unanimously considered its best feature.

The Taken King and Rise of Iron certainly make improvements, but they are held back by the somewhat creaky framework of the main game. The mission design improves significantly across the releases, particularly the final story mission of Rise of Iron, which takes clear inspiration from Halo. If the inevitable full sequel can build on this, I honestly think Destiny 2 will be something incredible. Destiny remains the maddening contradiction it always has been, but riven of the hype we can now see the remarkably solid underpinnings of the whole thing. It remains a flawed experience, but I really do love it. I genuinely have faith in Bungie to learn from its mistakes and make Destiny 2 the best game it can be; I for one cannot wait.

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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a strong release surrounded by little irritations. On a mechanical and level design basis this is possibly the best that Deus Ex has ever been, but in many other ways it’s hard not to feel that Mankind Divided is a bit lacking, holding far too much back for a sequel or, worse, DLC.

Mankind Divided takes place a couple of years after Human Revolution, with our reluctant augmented hero Adam Jensen now working for Interpol in Prague. However, he is a double agent, also working for the hacker group known as The Juggernaut Collective who seek to expose the Illuminati Jensen discovered in Human Revolution. The Incident of two years before, where every augmented person in the world was thrown into a murderous rage by a force beyond their control, has left a world deeply distrustful of augs, with Prague being among the most repressive places, descending into a police state. A run in with a mysterious group of mercenaries in Dubai and a terrorist attack on a train station sees Jensen thrown back into the fray, with the future of all augmented people at stake.

I’ll say this for Mankind Divided’s story; it is ambitious. Much has been made of this games politics and the controversial adoption of the language of Black Lives Matter and apartheid, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong in using science fiction to hold a mirror up to the world; arguably that’s what sci-fi is for. That said, Deus Ex pretty much completely bungles its lofty aims. There is a clear attempt to make the player understand what it means to be an oppressed person; as you wander the streets you’ll suffer many slights such as abuse in the street, police harassment and ‘aug only’ train carriages. The latter is really interestingly handled because your HUD always leads you onto these carriages, although you can just choose to get onto the ‘normal’ carriages anyway. Having the actual HUD conspire in the oppression is really interesting, but the clever handling of this situation pretty much begins and ends there. The big problem is Jensen himself. I’m a straight white male living in the West, I don’t know what oppression feels like. I can hazard a guess however that it doesn’t feel like being a heavily armed cyborg killing machine. Deus Ex plays into being a power fantasy; getting stronger and stronger as Jensen is very satisfying, but this runs directly counter to the feeling of oppression we’re clearly meant to experience. This makes the whole thing seem shallow and very surface level. However, before I lay into this game too much I do want to say that I like that they tried to do more with the AAA narrative, a space which seems determined to be as apolitical as possible even whilst pumping out extremely political games like Call of Duty.

Unfortunately, the narrative problems with Mankind Divided don’t end there. Put simply, this game doesn’t really have an ending. A conspiracy is hinted at but very little is revealed. There are several plot threads which just drop off, either for a sequel or for DLC. There is nothing wrong with teasing a sequel, but the story presented must in itself be satisfying. Serialised storytelling works for TV shows where you have a new episode every week, but for games which may have a 2-4 year gap between them it just doesn’t work. The consequences of your choices are handled in an almost hilariously poor fashion, with a TV presenter literally talking to the camera for five minutes explaining all of your choices and then a cut to credits. I could not believe it. There is good stuff here, particularly in some interesting side quests, but Mankind Divided is left feeling like a transitioning story between the globetrotting grandeur of Human Revolution and a larger scale sequel in the future, but not memorable in its own right.

Thankfully, the actual minute to minute gameplay of Mankind Divided is superb. Although I’m sure it’s possible to play this game as a guns blazing killing machine, I played as a stealthy hacker type and this remains hugely satisfying. Jensen feels comfortable to control in a way he didn’t in Human Revolution. The augmentations from the previous game return; you have the classic Mega Man/Metroid problem of losing all your upgrades at the beginning, but for whatever reason it didn’t feel too irritating to me. You also have a whole load of new augmentations, a lot of which are aggressive and murder-y and so didn’t really suit my playstyle. I really only used remote hacking, which is really useful and a paralysing laser beam thing which suited my non-lethal ways. The dreaded outsourced boss fights from the last game are thankfully gone. In fact, Mankind Divided only contains one boss fight which is hilariously easy. I don’t think this is a series which needs boss fights at all; if given the option I always talked myself out of any situation anyway.

Mankind Divided is a much more focused game than its predecessors, which generally featured a couple of hubs. Prague is the sole hub setting in Mankind Divided, although you will make three jaunts off to more linear areas outside. The first of these areas, an augmented city/concentration camp, is fascinating and compelling; I could have played a whole game set there, but the following two aren’t quite as interesting. Prague itself is a great hub, with three phases throughout the story; day, night and curfew lockdown, the latter of which is deeply irritating as you have to sneak around to get anywhere, even travelling between side quests. Oh, and those side quests! While they’ve always been present in previous games, it was always the main story which stuck in my head, but the side quests in Mankind Divided are excellent, arguably the best part of the game. Don’t miss a single one. Overall, this is actually quite a short game, definitely the shortest in the series. I don’t really think this is a problem, if not for the fact that it’s hard to shake the feeling that things are being held back for DLC. I got an extra mission as a Day 1 purchase reward thing, which in the end felt quite substantial from both a gameplay and a story perspective. IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN PART OF THE MAIN GAME. The missions that are there are superbly designed, with a genuinely open structure. If you only ever follow the HUD markers, you’ll miss stuff and often get lesser outcomes in the missions. Ignoring the HUD and experimenting often pays off in a way which is quite rare in open world games. Even in games I adore like The Witcher 3, each mission plays out in a linear fashion with little real choice from the player, but in Mankind Divided you can really get quite clever with the immaculately designed environments.

The environments in Mankind Divided are beautiful. Prague is the best hub in the series, with a wonderful combination of classic architecture and over the top sci-fi silliness. Exploring the city streets is hugely atmospheric and the general visual design is very strong. The same cannot be said for the character animations, which are stiff and awkward. The voice acting is a mixed bag too; there’s some good work here, but also some irritatingly bad accents, particularly some awful grating English ones. The original Deus Ex had some shocking voice acting too, but at least there it was hilariously bad (I’ll never forget that Australian bartender) but here it’s just annoying. The music is a bit of a let-down too; Deus Ex has one of the best themes in gaming so bloody use it! The moody electronica is gone and replaced with nothing memorable. I hope that in the inevitable follow up the same attention to detail is given to the other elements that was given to the environments.

Mankind Divided reminds me a bit of Metal Gear Solid V; a really good game with rock solid mechanics which just ends up feeling…lacking. I appreciate what’s there, but it’s difficult not to feel like it needs a bit more. Hopefully next time Square Enix divert resources away from microtransactions and pointless free to play game modes and put everything into making the best Deus Ex game they possibly can. I wouldn’t count on it though.

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Gone Home for PS4, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

Gone Home has become an odd vector for controversy since it was first released back in 2013, being a favourite punching bag for Gamergate knuckle-draggers bemoaning the success of something that isn’t a ‘real game.’ In the years since, this attitude has only become more ridiculous, as more and more games in the vein of Gone Home have come about, although this may have had the effect of slightly robbing the original of its impact.

In 1995 Kaitlin is returning to her childhood home after a lengthy period travelling. Arriving to an empty house, the player moves around using visual and audio clues to piece together what happened in her absence. The plot is fairly slight, but deals strongly with a theme little seen in gaming back in 2013 (and still very little today); LGBT love. Kaitlin’s sister had fallen for a young female army cadet, with the strong implication of serious disapproval from her parents. The actual story isn’t actually that interesting but it is one of the first time that this kind of stories has been the focus of a game. There have been strides towards LGBT representation in games; from the transgender mercenary deputy in Dragon Age: Inquisition, to your gay boss Miller in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and not forgetting the varied player controlled protagonists given gay romance options. Still, what none of these games do is put LGBT experience at the core of the narrative/ They may contain gay characters, but the stories aren’t about them and in some case gloss over them, filling a diversity quota but not much more. It is still inconceivable to imagine a AAA action game with an LGBT protagonist. Gone Home proudly stands as a noble exception.

That said…I still didn’t really like it much. I actually have little problems with walking simulators if the environments are beautiful or interesting enough, but Gone Home’s house simply isn’t that enjoyable to explore. It’s small, boxy and annoying to navigate. The story isn’t actually interesting beyond the overdue pleasure in seeing an LGBT narrative at the core, but if you’d taken the exact same gameplay and story and made it about a straight couple I don’t think I could have cared less.

Overall though, it undeniably was a pleasure to see an LGBT relationship at the core of a videogame and I hope to see more of it soon, but preferably in a more interesting game than this.

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Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest for Nintendo 3DS

Two down, one to go! This probably won’t be a long review as much of what I said about Birthright applies here, but overall I enjoyed Conquest much more.  
 
When the prince/princess Corrin is forced to choose between her birth family, the noble and peaceful Hoshido, or her adopted family, the aggressive and mighty Nohr, Conquest sees Corrin choosing the latter. This is a much darker tale than Birthright’s, which was a relatively straightforward march towards the enemy and revenge. It’s also a lot more interesting. Nohr are very much the more evil of the two choices and seeing Corrin and her friends try to balance their inherent kindness and nobility with the evil asked of them is quite interesting to follow. One of my biggest issues with Birthright was the lack of memorable characters and this is an issue which Conquest does not have at all. From the melodramatic sorcerer Odin to the psychopathic bloodthirsty Peri to the unlucky chivalrous knight Arthur, Conquest is packed with memorable and entertaining characters. It’s difficult to express just how much of a difference this makes; levelling up and building a warrior is pretty satisfying when they’re bland warriors but having them be a likeable eccentric elevates the experience. These aren’t complicated characters and frankly they’re better for it; Fire Emblem characters don’t need to be complicated, they need to be memorable.  
 
Mechanically Conquest is naturally very similar to Birthright, but a fair bit trickier in a number of ways. First of all is the lack of challenge missions to grind; as with the pre-Awakening Fire Emblems, EXP is a valuable and finite commodity which has to be shared tactically. Getting the best out of my forces was an added layer of strategy I really enjoyed. The actual mission variety itself is also greatly increased; in Birthright almost all missions simply involve killing everything. There are loads of very interesting missions in Conquest, which genuinely force you to adjust your strategies and play style. It makes for a much more challenging experience, but an all round better one.  
 
Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is an excellent game and one which I enjoyed quite a lot more than it’s sister release Birthright. Only one left to go now; onto Revelation! 

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Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE for Wii U

I don’t think this was the game that anyone was expecting. I was quite excited when Nintendo announced a crossover between the Fire Emblem series, which I love, and the Shin Megami Tensei series which I’m less familiar with but have liked what I’ve played. I imagine that most of us were predicting a dark fantasy tale and not something based around JPop idols. Taking the weeaboo plunge, I went for it anyway and quite enjoyed it, although I did leave still feeling that the overall aesthetic definitely wasn’t for me.

Itsuki is a normal high school student in Tokyo whose best friend since childhood, Tsubasa, is trying out for a competition to become an ‘Idol’, an all round performer with a focus on singing. When the compare for the event is possessed by a sinister entity, Tsubasa is pulled into the ‘Idalosphere’, a dangerous parallel realm and Itsuki must head in to save her. Mysterious beings known as ‘Mirages’ have been attacking Toyko, with the most significant event being the mysterious vanishing of hundreds of people at an Opera House five years previously, including Tsubasa’s sister. These beings seek ‘Performa’, a mysterious force generated during performance for nefarious purposes. Itsuki, Tsubasa and a group of other young friends are bonded with friendly Mirages, who are familiar characters from Fire Emblem, to keep Tokyo safe from the mysterious threat. They are all performers themselves, working for the agency Fortuna Entertainment.
The plot for Tokyo Mirage Sessions is all fairly predictable, with little in the way of interesting plot twists or even a feeling a genuine peril. A lot of the story relies on comedy and, to be honest, the Japanese sense of humour has never really worked for me. That’s not to say that an odd smile wasn’t raised, but I personally found it more annoying than anything else. The main characters are likeable, but very broad with no complexity or depth. Some interesting ideas are touched upon; Eleanora is a party member of mixed race heritage, being half Japanese and half European. The effect of this heritage on her career in the entertainment industry is hinted at, but Tokyo Mirage Sessions doesn’t really have the courage to explore the bigotry she has experienced in any depth. Any potentially interesting moments are undercut with a need to keep everything light. That’s not to say that a JRPG can’t be light and comic; I love the humour of the Mario RPGs and Earthbound, but a lot of that is due to excellent translation but the Tokyo setting means that many of the cultural references flew over my head. If you are a full on weeaboo I think there may be more for you in the story of Tokyo Mirage Sessions. I actually love Japanese culture, but not this particular facet of it.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions is primarily a straight forward JRPG, with a really fun and stylish battle system. The elemental weaknesses of Shin Megami Tensei is paired with the weapon triangle from Fire Emblem to give each enemy a complex list of weaknesses and resistances to exploit. Where most Shin Megami Tensei games provide extra turns when a weakness is exploited, Tokyo Mirage Sessions triggers combos called ‘Sessions.’ For example, if a sword aspected attack is used on an enemy with that weakness, another member of the party can use a passive move which converts to another element or weapon, such as fire or axe, which then in turns converts into another. Initially you’re limited to combos of three with your party members, but later on party members held in the reserves can join in Sessions too, allowing you to chain together some pretty massive combos. It’s an inherently satisfying system, but one which doesn’t really involve a huge amount of player agency. Towards the final hours of this lengthy game I was desparate for the ability to skip watching these attacks and the stylishness of the presentation only got me so far. There are also random attacks which can trigger, called ‘ad lib’ performances which got me out of a few tricky boss fights. There are some really cool boss fights with some interesting mechanics, like shifting weaknesses and the like and it gets really tricky.

There’s a lot of content to this game, with most of your time being spent in dungeons. Compared to a lot of JRPG dungeons, which are often essentially paths for you to travel down while fighting battles, each dungeon has a different puzzle mechanic. They’re not particularly clever or intricate, but they do a good job of making what is often the blandest element of the genre interesting. Between dungeons you’ll be wandering around a few areas of Tokyo buying items and accessories and taking part in side quests. These quests are quite interesting, with each focusing on different party members. Some are very straightforward and just involve wandering around Tokyo a bit and some are a bit more elaborate, but it’s here that the better storytelling is to be found. You’ll also be powering up and crafting new weapons with your spoils from battles and it is from these weapons, called ‘Carnage’ for some reason, that you gain new abilities for your party to use in battle. You can also develop passive abilities and eventually Fire Emblem style class changes. This is all fine if not for the fact that the only place you can do this is behind two loading screens. If you’re in a dungeon and your weapon maxes out and you want to go upgrade it or make a new one, you have to leave the dungeon, go into the Bloom Palace where the upgrades are made, make the upgrade, move back through Tokyo to the dungeon entrance, enter the dungeon and then warp to where you left from. I did this dozens of times as I was playing and it’s a bit infuriating to think of how much time I wasted. That’s an issue this game has overall; wasting the players time. A good JRPG should have a solid curve that removes the necessity of grinding. If you fight every battle offered you should be able to, with skilful play, fight any boss you come to. In Tokyo Mirage Sessions you will need to grind. In the 45 or so hours I spend with this game, I estimate that around 10 were from time wasting activities like this.

Appropriately considering that performance is the key theme of the game, the battles in Tokyo Mirage Sessions are really flashy and fun to watch. The combined visual design of JPop Idol culture and Fire Emblem high fantasy actually ends up working bizarrely well. Although the story never really lives up to the crossover potential, the overall design works very nicely. That said, the whole thing is very much 80% Shin Megami Tensei with 20% Fire Emblem sprinkled on top and I think I would have preferred it the other way around, but that’s likely just down to my own tastes. A strong area is the music; there are a few JPop tracks which are fairly catchy, although my favourite piece of music is a reworked version of the Fire Emblem theme which shows up fairly regularly. The voice acting is good and only in Japanese; this is a good shout as this is a story so heavily meshed into Japanese culture. It’s a miracle it was released here in the first place!
All said, Tokyo Mirage Sessions wasn’t quite my cup of tea. My love of Fire Emblem and desire to actually use my Wii U drove me to give it a go. I wouldn’t say that I regret my time with it, but I’d say that this is a game more for fans of Japanese Idol culture than for fans of Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei. It’s mechanically strong but with far too much time wasting, something which the best JRPGs manage to streamline away. If you’re desperate for a traditional JRPG on the Wii U you could do worse than Tokyo Mirage Sessions.

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Doom for PS4, Xbox One and PC

I have no nostalgia for the Doom series. The original was a bit before my time; the oldest FPS I’ve played all the way through is Half-Life. I appreciated what Doom did for the genre, but a reboot was not exactly on my agenda. After giving it a go though, I ended up really liking it. It felt retro but with enough concessions to modern gaming to make it still feel accessible.

Doom has a story but you won’t be worrying about it much. Demons have overrun a station on Mars after a misguided attempt to harness energy from Hell as an unlimited fuel source. The player character is the Doom Slayer, a warrior who was imprisoned by the demons in a mythic sarcophagus who has now been freed to slaughter demons and close the portal to Hell. Doom has just the right amount of plot, rarely breaking up the action to talk to us. The story isn’t actually bad at all. That said, the player will mostly just be itching to reduce demons to lumps of flesh. The clever part is that the protagonist feels much the same way. He’s silent, but the way he moves makes it clear that he is mostly interested in killing demons and not much else. This creates what I can only call the exact opposite of ludonarrative dissonance; the protagonist’s desires and actions match pretty much entirely with the player’s. It seems obvious, but very few games have pulled this off as well as Doom.

Doom is a mechanically pure game; you’ll do very little that doesn’t involve slaughtering hordes of demons. Doom makes the rare choice to only do One Thing, but to do that One Thing incredibly well. This is shooting at its purest; no cover mechanic, run and gun. This type of shooter has almost died in AAA gaming; even Halo, one of the last bastions, is shifting away from this sort of thing. The first thing that a coddled modern FPS player will notice is that Doom is fast. The pace is frantic and you must be constantly moving; as a loading screen tells us, to stand still is death. You don’t need to reload the guns, meaning that you essentially never have to stop shooting. When you’ve done enough damage to a foe they begin to glow orange and at that point you can come in close for a violent melee ‘glory kill.’ I wasn’t sure how this would work, but in practice it’s wonderful. There’s a sense of rhythm to the core gameplay loop of Doom which I loved; shoot, get close, kill, shoot, get close, kill. Doom almost put me into the trance like state that rhythm games like Guitar Hero can bring about, which is pretty insane for a shooter. The best way to play Doom (at normal difficulty at least) is to turn your brain off and allow instinct to take over, giving Doom a sense of purity missing in many modern shooters. Doom has one of the most solid mechanical bases in any shooter I’ve played; it’s a shame that the bells and whistles on top didn’t quite appeal to me as much.

Doom is a decent length and has a good variety of weaponry. They fit within the standard mold of FPS guns, but are extremely satisfying to use and handle beautifully. Most guns can be modified one of two ways, allowing you a bit of control over your play style. Even after I started picking up chainguns and gauss rifles my favourite was still the trusty double barrelled shotgun. Doom also has a couple of platforming sections, which stunningly actually work rather well. Good platforming in an FPS, I never through I’d see the day. I found the level design a bit less inspired and it’s here where my lack of nostalgia may have affected the experience. I get that Doom is about Martian space stations and Hell, but I got pretty bored of the same-y environments. The Hell setting is open to some weird designs, but mostly it’s fairly conservative fire and brimstone or sinister tomb stuff. If this game gets a sequel (and I hope it does) I would like them to taken us to some more varied and interesting locations within which to reduce demons to their component pieces. All said though, when the core mechanics are this good any other criticisms feel like quibbles.

There’s a good level of attention to detail in Doom. The demon designs are brilliant, with a wide range of enemy designs all looking good and providing a unique challenge. The general feel of the guns are incredible, helped in no small part by excellent visual and sound design. The sound guns make when they fire is an underappreciated art in FPS design and Doom nails it. The soundtrack is classic obnoxious metal. In any other context I don’t think I could bear to listen to it for more than a few seconds but in the heat of the moment it just works. I mentioned before that I didn’t love the general design of the setting, which may just be down to personal taste. I think Doom achieves visually in what it sets out to do, but what it sets out to do just isn’t particularly interesting to me. A choppy framerate would (ahem) doom a fast game like this so thankfully the game ran perfectly throughout, without a hitch.

Doom is a rock solid foundation that I hope is built on in a sequel, which the story does set up. Where violence in games can sometimes just be nauseating, Doom is so ridiculously over the top that it feels like a cartoon. Doom is a hell of a lot of fun and I recommend it to anyone who misses the purity of run and gun.

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The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Blood and Wine may very well be the best piece of DLC I’ve ever played. I’m not as dogmatically anti-DLC as some; there has been some wonderful stuff out there from companies like Bioware and Bethesda but Blood and Wine blows them away, offering an experience which I would have been happy to pay double for and an almost perfect conclusion to the Witcher. If this is the last time I get to play with Geralt then at least I’ll know he got a great send off.

Blood and Wine takes place in Toussaint, a small French inspired duchy in Nilfgaard. A series of murders by a mysterious beast have set off panic in the usually courtly and peaceful land and Duchess Anna Henrietta summons Geralt, an old friend, to find the beast and put it down. Unsurprisingly, things are not what they seem and the seemingly idyllic land of Toussaint is revealed to harbour dark secrets and a history steeped in blood and betrayal.

Toussaint is rather different to anything seen in the Witcher series so far. Some are populated war zones such as Velen and others are relatively untamed and wild like Skellige. Toussaint is a courtly land out of a fairy tale, where tournaments are fought for honour and monsters are only slain to gain the hand of a fair maiden. The arrival of the grizzled and sardonic Geralt into this gives Blood and Wine and entertaining fish out of water feeling. A great side quest sees Geralt having to deal with the bureaucracy in a bank; the sight of the hulking, scarred, twin sword wielding Geralt queuing impatiently is hilarious whilst remaining true to the character. Blood and Wine tells a brilliantly compelling story with a strong streak of moral ambivalence running through it. There are two figures who could convincingly be described as villains, but neither are true monsters and have been hurt greatly and most people would likely do the same as them in their shoes. The main weakness lies in the fact that the core antagonist simply isn’t given enough screen time. We hear a lot about what he has been through, but there’s a bit too much telling and not showing. This is a quibble though; the writing for Blood and Wine is as top notch as it always has been in this series.

Ultimately though, Blood and Wine mostly just reminded me of how much I bloody love Geralt. Most modern Western RPGs have you create your own character, which naturally results in a slight blandness in their characterisation. They can be fun and likeable; I particularly liked my Inquisitor in Dragon Age and my protagonist in Fallout 4, but the very nature of the design means they can never achieve any sort of complexity. Geralt is a deceptively brilliant character; someone hated and distrusted wherever he goes who has moved past anger into an amused sardonic looseness. There’s a feeling that he is gently mocking almost everyone he encounters. The phrase about the deepest waters being the stillest applies to Geralt; he may not show it, but we are given enough to see that Geralt is a man with deep wells of feeling and emotion, which rarely surges to the surface. More so than in many other games, I’m really going to miss Geralt. I suppose the time is right to read the original novels and get my fix.

Blood and Wine plays much the same as the main game, with the slight addition of a new levelling system tied to the Witcher mutations, which gives you something new to plough your points into. The bread and butter is the same, but there are some really cool, fun, interesting missions. I loved how almost every mission in The Witcher 3, no matter how trivial it seemed, had some kind of twist to make it feel special and Blood and Wine continues this. Some of the quests are scary, some are deeply tragic and epic and some are just plain silly. An example would be a Gwent tournament which is being protested by a group furious at the addition of a new deck (which I can only assume is a dig at irate internet commenters.) They didn’t need to do this; I would have been perfectly happy with a straightforward Gwent tournament (I bloody love Gwent) but CDProjekt always do that little more work than they have to. This is a massive expansion which would put many full priced games to shame with Toussaint being roughly the size of Velen from the main game, if more densely populated.

Toussaint is sickeningly picturesque and a true delight to explore and marvel at. It may not compare to the PC on top settings, but I was still bloody happy on my trusty PS4. The new monster designs are brilliant and the characters look appropriately silly; there are definitely a few visual nods to Monty Python’s Holy Grail. The voice acting is outstanding, naturally, with richly realised and complex characters. The Witcher 3 is confident in the willingness of its audience to simply watch its characters talk, which suggests that CDProjekt knew how good the writing is. There’s a bit on jankyness at times, in line with the main game, but nothing which ever drew me out of the experience.

Blood and Wine is a perfect end for an almost perfect game and the send of that Geralt of Rivia deserves. I’m truly going to miss this series. Sooner rather than later I’ll read the books; I’ve grown to love this world and need to spend more time in it. They may not have created it, but CDProjekt did an incredible job bringing it to life.

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Entwined for PS4, PS3 and PS Vita

Entwined is a game which threatens at times to become profound but doesn’t ever get there. In some ways, this feels like a parody of the ‘art game’ genre. These kind of games don’t necessarily rely on fun as an engagement tool, but they must provoke some kind of reaction. Entwined gave me very little to react to.

In Entwined you play as an orange fish and a blue bird as you make your way through nine levels. Each level begins with each creature being given a side of the screen, orange fish on the left and blue bird on the right. You control each creature with an analogue stick and must maneuver the creatures through gates with their colour. This starts out simple but gets quite tricky as everything speeds up and the gates begin to shift and move as you get closer. When you have done this enough to fill up a gauge, the bird and fish fuse and become a dragon creature, where you enter a more open area where you can fly freely and collect coloured orbs. You must then draw a line of rainbow and enter a portal to end the level.

Neither side of the gameplay in Entwined works particularly well. The first part of each level is too fiddly and challenging to end up feeling profound, but the arcade-y style gameplay simply isn’t fun. Getting through these parts was a complete chore. The open dragon areas were more promising, but far too limited, filled with invisible walls. The flying controls themselves are stiff, weighty and unsatisfying, utterly failing to give the feeling of liberation we are clearly led towards.

It’s a shame, because Entwined can be visually stunning. The opening parts of the level aren’t especially interesting, but the environments you fly around are simply gorgeous. With a decent control scheme these sections really could have been something. The music is good, but often doesn’t fit the rhythm of what you’re doing, making some of the trickier parts unnecessarily difficult.

Entwined is nothing special and you’ll find much better ‘art game’ experiences out there. It’s both shallow and boring and not worth your time.

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