Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “pc”

Thumper for Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC

Thumper has one of the best marketing descriptions I’ve ever seen; ‘rhythm violence.’ It’s a lovely way to put it and sums up the general vibe of Thumper very well. I’ve played a fair few rhythm games in my time, but none that filled me with the anxiety and genuine sense of dread that Thumper does. A mechanic introduced later in the game killed a lot of my enjoyment, but for most of my time with it Thumper was an intense and unique experience.

In Thumper you play as a little beetle thing, making its way along a track in a bizarre, fractal hell-scape. There are 9 levels, with each culminating in a boss battle with a hideous, demonic face. It may not have a story, but it certainly has an atmosphere and it can be genuinely unsettling and oppressive. You must avoid obstacles in a variety of ways. The simplest are barriers, where you must simply hold a button to smash through them. Some require you to lean your beetle in a particular direction, or change into different lane to avoid sinister snake things. It’s fast, intense and noisy and it’s easy to get into the trancelike groove that the best rhythm games create. The boss battles involve you having to tap a button on these green glowing patches on the track; if you hit them all, you can launch a laser at the evil face and after four hits it goes down. It’s an interesting way to apply the mechanics to a boss fight structure. The whole thing can be punishingly hard, with it only taking two hits for you to die and then have to retry the section you’re on. For most of the early parts of the game, it generally feels fair, but an infuriating mechanic had me turn on Thumper somewhat.

Around midway through you are introduced to these gates, which mean you have to hit blue glowing paths like in the boss fights for the particular run. If you miss even one, a laser descends and damages you. This was fine at first, but when combined into boss fights it becomes punishing for the sake of being punishing. Normally when you are fighting a boss, if you miss one of the green patches you simply restart the section, with no damage or death. There’s an element of trial and error, of getting better and better at each section’s timing that’s very satisfying. In some of the later bosses you’ll hit it three times, with one to go, but then the gates will descend and you know that if you fail you will not be able to try again, but have to start the entire boss fight again. It’s a needlessly cruel mechanic and one which punishes you simply by wasting your time, utterly negating the fun sense of trial and error seen in the rest of the game.

The visuals are striking and there’s a sense of barely restrained chaos at all times. This being a rhythm game, most credit should go to the music. It’s not something I think anyone is going to be listening to for fun anytime soon, being mostly made up of pounding drums and intense synths. The sounds of your beetle as it careens around the track, smashing off walls and through barricades, adds more percussion to the brutal rhythm which pervades the whole experience. I could maybe have done with a bit more musical variety between levels, but I can also see why they went for one style of music and completely leant into that.

Thumper is one of the weirdest rhythm games you’ll play. I felt that in the latter portions its difficulty tipped too much towards arbitrary and cruel, rather than challenging and engaging. Still, when you’re working your way through the levels, utterly immersed in the beat, Thumper takes that classic rhythm game experience and twists it into something evil and oppressive. That’s pretty cool.

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Dreamfall Chapters for PS4, Xbox One, PC, Linux and OS X

1999’s The Longest Journey is one of my favourite games of all time, and certainly my favourite adventure game which doesn’t contain Guybrush Threepwood. Wonderful world-building and a truly epic journey which loved up to the name were held together by April Ryan, one of my favourite game protagonists ever. 2006’s sequel/spin-off Dreamfall: The Longest Journey impressed me less and I feel has actually aged much worse than its 7-year older predecessor. The long awaited Dreamfall Chapters is the third in the series and, unsurprisingly based on the name, is very much is the vein of Dreamfall rather than The Longest Journey. It is likely to be the concluding game of the entire saga and whilst elements work very well, it ultimately falls rather short. It could have worked as a 2017 style adventure game, it could have worked as a revival of a 1990s style adventure game, but instead it feels like a revival of a 2006 adventure game, which I don’t think anyone would argue is the genre’s golden age.

Dreamfall Chapters picks up a few months after the end of the last game; over in our world, the technologically advanced Stark, Zoe Castillo awakens from a coma, having forgotten the events of the previous game. To rebuild her life she moves to the continent wide mega city of Europolis, but it isn’t long before she is caught up in a new intrigue and local politics. Despite Zoe’s efforts in Dreamfall, Wati Corp have managed to release their sinister Dream Machine, which has turned many into lifeless husks, addicted to lucid dreams. Over in Arcadia, the apostle Kian Alvane has been imprisoned for betraying the Azadi Empire, who have invaded Marcuria and begun a system of oppression against magical races. To atone for his part in the death of April Ryan, Kian is recruited into the Resistance to fight his former masters and help the magicals he had previously despised. Finally, in the House of All Worlds, a strange child with mysterious powers, Saga, is born.

I’ll start out with the things I liked about the story of Dreamfall Chapters. The actual dialogue is as good as ever, with the same sharp, engaging and fully rounded characters that the series should be known for. Returning characters form The Longest Journey and Dreamfall are welcome, particularly the cowardly, sarcastic and intensely loyal Crow, my favourite sidekick in gaming history. I also really enjoyed the development of the stoic and powerful Dolmari Likho from Dreamfall, whose character develops in some interesting ways. I also really liked some of the new characters, particularly the nervous and endearing member of the magical resistance Enu, who forms an unlikely and very sweet bond with Kian. Zoe was never the most engaging protagonist, but she’s a bit better here, helped by a new and improved voice actor. I didn’t expect to like Kian as much as I did, but we find out that there is a fair bit more to him than we saw in Dreamfall and he even gets some endearingly funny moments.

There are elements of Dreamfall Chapter’s plot which work very well, but it’s origins as an episodic game expose major plot issues, which are exacerbated when the five chapters are played back to back. Seemingly major plot elements from earlier chapters vanish in later chapters, either without a trace or in brief dialogues. A seemingly key plot point in the first couple of chapters about an upcoming election in Europolis, on which Zoe works as a campaigner, fizzles out into nothing. Seemingly vital characters vanish into the aether, with the final episode in particular introducing a dazzling number of concepts and locations in its dash for the finish line. I totally get why this game had to be episodic due to the realities of crowd funding and publishing, but I can’t deny that it hurt the eventual release. If this is the final Longest Journey game as has been suggested, I would be pretty sad due to the fact that the fascinating reveal at the end of the first game has still not been addressed; the reunification of Stark and Arcadia and the so-called War of the Balance. In fact, a lot of plot points from The Longest Journey are glossed over, such as The Balance itself, the Draic Kin and the multiverse. They are referenced and touched upon, but the focus is always on the vaguer notion of ‘The Dreaming.’ During the Kickstarter, game director Ragnar Tournquist suggested a potential direct sequel to the first game, The Longest Journey Home. He has recently suggested that this is unlikely to happen which is heart-breaking as it honestly feels that there is a story left to be told. Dreamfall Chapters does a decent job of wrapping up the series, but it simply doesn’t have the time to address everything.

Dreamfall Chapters is mechanically very basic, only a very slight step up in interactivity from Telltale. There are a handful of puzzles, but they’re simple and not particularly engaging. The Longest Journey infamously went too far in the other direction, with some the most hilariously obtuse puzzle solutions in the genre. Still, at least The Longest Journey felt like, well, an adventure. Although some other locations are included, Dreamfall Chapters mostly sees you running around a smallish open world in Europolis as Zoe and in Marcuria as Kian. Most puzzles just involve wandering around these environments and there’s little sense of discovery or satisfaction in your travel. I almost wish that they’d gone the whole hog and made Dreamfall Chapters an entirely narrative, Telltale-esque experience rather than this weird hybrid, because it doesn’t really work.

For the relatively low budget, Dreamfall Chapters looks pretty nice. The environments are particularly impressive, bursting with character and life. The character models fare less well, generally stiff and fairly expressionless, but the voice acting and writing are to a high enough standard that it doesn’t feel like a major problem. Some dramatic moments come off as stiff and a bit awkward, with the visuals feeling more like an early Xbox 360/PS3 game rather than something more modern, but it never really hurt the experience for me.

There was a lot I liked in Dreamfall Chapters and I’m happy to have got some kind of ending, but ultimately the stuff I wanted to see the most does not appear. I truly hope that this isn’t the end for the series, but for something as obscure and niche as this to get an ending at all, with roughly a decade between instalments, is a hell of a thing. It may not be exactly what I wanted, but I’m still glad it exists.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – A Criminal Past DLC for PS4, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

The second DLC for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is much meatier than the first and stands out because it offers a much more interesting setting and premise, which feels distinct from anything in the main game, something which could not have been said for the competent but familiar first DLC, System Rift. A Criminal Past starts out very interesting and takes the turn which makes it become much less interesting, but it stays engaging throughout.

A Criminal Past is framed as a therapy session for Jensen at TF-29, as he recalls a mission from before the events of Mankind Divided. He is sent undercover to infiltrate a state of the art prison for Augs, to extract a deep undercover agent who is feared to have gone rogue. Upon arrival Jensen quickly finds himself caught between the callous and sadistic warden Stenger and the charismatic leader among the inmates Flossy and it isn’t long until things escalate out of control. The setup is interesting, but a found myself zoning out of a lot of the story stuff, hitting essentially similar beats to everything we’ve seen before.

The prison setting, seeing Jensen stripped of his Augs and forced to rely entirely on his wits, was interesting in theory and starts out very well. The prison is split into two blocks, with those in one wearing red and the other in yellow. Jensen starts in red but must make his way over to yellow, where you could sneak around or you could simply steal a yellow uniform and walk around freely. There was an indication that there would be some interesting mechanics about having to follow the routine of prison life for a while to find your target, but things go wrong almost immediately and the setting quickly become much like any other Deus Ex location. Much of the DLC takes place during a riot, which is frankly much less interesting than the social stealth elements of the early section. Perhaps I was expecting too much, but there are DLCs out there that do fundamentally interesting and different things with the base game and A Criminal Past initially seemed like it may be doing the same. Instead we have a competent enough Deus Ex experience that offers more of the same.

The future for the Deus Ex series is uncertain at the moment, so A Criminal Past may be the last we see of it for a while. It’s a decent enough experience, and certainly beats the much slighter System Rift, but it doesn’t follow through on it’s interesting premise and ends up feeling like a missed opportunity.

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Watch Dogs 2: Human Conditions DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Watch Dogs 2 was far better than it had any right to be. It ended up being one of my favourite games of 2016, which I don’t think I would have seen coming. Dipping back into it with DLC, I wondered if somehow I’d been bamboozled by its in-your-face energy, but the Human Conditions DLC reminded me that, no, Watch Dogs 2 really is a bloody good game.

The meat of the DLC lies in three new missions, all centred around moral lapses in Silicon Valley. One mission focuses on self-driving cars and an algorithm which determines the value of an individual’s life in the event of a crash. Another brings the return of foul mouthed rival hacker Lenni as you investigate inhumane testing of nanotechnology. The final mission is about a hacking of a hospital, which ties into a storyline involving the Bratva Russian mob. The writing for Watch Dogs 2 was so sharp and fun and it’s all the same here, genuinely well written and charming. The core DedSec team have become a hugely loveable bunch of goons. Sure, the satire hits with precisely zero subtlety, but I enjoy its message about resisting corporate control and taking back freedom. Of course, being developed by megacorp publisher Ubisoft undermines this a little bit, but there’s more political and social engagement in Watch Dogs 2 than most AAA games will attempt. The storyline about the hacked hospital felt particularly relevant, given the recent NHS hack in the UK.

Watch Dogs 2 worked itself into an immensely satisfying groove, as you control your three tools: Marcus, your little RC car thing and your drone. The missions were, in many ways, your standard base assault stuff we see in Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, but the range of genuinely useful and engaging tools at your disposal made them feel more like playgrounds for you to use all your toys. The missions in Human Conditions offer more of the same, but if they’d been a part of the main game I think they’d have been considered among the best. The only real change can be found in the addition of enemies which can jam your hacking. I’m not sure about this; adding difficulty by removing your ability to do what makes the game fun feels artificial, but unfortunately is fairly commonplace. It doesn’t ruin the experience by any stretch, but my feeling upon coming across a jammer was usually more irritation rather than a sense of excitement of a new challenge to overcome.

DLC is almost never worth it full price, so I’m happy I waited for a PSN sale. For what I paid, I think Human Conditions was worth it. If spending a bit more time with Marcus, Wrench, Sitara and Josh appeals to you, Human Conditions is certainly worth a look.

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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – System Rift DLC for PS4, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided didn’t exactly set the world on fire and I was lukewarm on it too. It was a decent enough experience, but it felt ultimately lacking. Oddly enough, System Rift in its microcosm helped me to appreciate Mankind Divided a little more.

System Rift sees Adam Jensen contacted by former colleague from Human Revolution Frank Pritchard to execute a data heist. It’s your standard Deus Ex plot and could have been one of the meatier side missions from the main game, but it contains a few twists and turns and has a bit more to it than you might expect. It doesn’t tell a vital story to the Deus Ex canon but it’s DLC so it probably shouldn’t.

Aside from some brief prep work, the vast majority of System Rift lies in the heist itself, which is a lot of fun. For all Mankind Divided felt a bit undercooked, the core mechanics really are bloody solid. As a stealth-RPG, it’s difficult to fault. System Rift is largely vertical in construction, as you make your way upwards through a facility. The only real gameplay change lay in heat sensors, which require you to mask your body temperature by hiding next to other heat sources. It seems at first like this is going to be a bigger deal than it is. You rebuild your Jensen from scratch, so it’s easy to min-max your way into an unstoppable killing machine/hacking ninja, whatever suits your preferences. Again, System Rift offers nothing more than more Deus Ex, which I didn’t realise I wanted until I started playing.

It’s not a long DLC by any stretch, but if picked up on a digital sale for a couple of quid like I did it’s hard to fault. It’s a really solid couple of hours if you fancy dipping a toe back into the Deus Ex universe, but you won’t exactly be missing out if you give it a miss.

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Prey for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Prey is a game which has been through many iterations, so it’s impressive that such a well realised and coherent product was eventually produced. Prey is a game with a lot of really interesting ideas which don’t always amount to much and I wish had pushed further down some of its weirder paths, but functions well enough as an enjoyable and sometimes clever experience.

Prey takes place in an alternate timeline where JFK was never assassinated and his presidency led to massive expansion in the pace and ambition of the space race. It is 2032 on the research space station Talos I, which orbits Pluto on the far edge of the solar system. The protagonist, who can be male or female, is named Morgan Yu and their brother Alex runs the station. Alex has been experimenting on the Typhon, alien beings who have been harvested to bring humanity Neuromods, which alter the user’s genetics to instantaneously give them skills and powers. Predictably, the Typhon have escaped and overwhelmed the station and an amnesiac Morgan Yu must discover what happened, how to stop the Typhon, and escape Talos I.

The actual narrative at the heart of Prey is competent, but never really climbs above that. There are some very cool ideas at the beginning and again towards the end, but it’s pretty straightforward for the vast majority of its run time. Convoluted ways to get you to explore the station make the plot feel a bit cumbersome; you must get two keys, you must get to the top of the station, then go to Deep Storage but the door is voice activated so you have to go to the Crew Quarters to get a voice sample blah blah blah. The plot rarely elevates above an excuse to send you to cool places, but those cool places really do save the experience. Environmental storytelling is somewhere Arkane have really excelled in the Dishonored series and they bring that expertise to Prey. It’s a bit of a cliché by now to say that the setting is the main character but, er…well, the setting is the main character. Sorry. Where settings in similar games, such as BioShock’s Rapture, position you long after it’s downfall, Prey’s Talos I only fell hours before and there’s a constant eerie sense of being just too late. The bodies are fresh and so the little tragedies and stories you find scattered through the environment all the sadder.

The actual atmosphere in Prey is, at least in the early stages, incredible. The world design is fantastic. Unlike Dishonored, Talos I is open and explorable, with some light Metroidvania elements. Talos I holds together as a coherent location, with a sense of variety matched with a general tonal consistency. I like settings which place you in one, dense, fully realised location and Prey pulls this off well. The thrill of exploration is somewhat hindered by brutal load times on PS4, which becomes a particularly significant issue during backtracking heavy later portions of the game. Exploring the station, poking about and finding little secrets, is the best part of the game by far. Alongside the main quest there are a handful of side quests, some of which are straightforward but some are really interesting and can directly affect the ending. There are some really interesting NPCs clinging onto life on Talos I, and I enjoyed lending them a hand.

The Typhon foes themselves are a bit of a mixed bag; the humanoid Phantoms aren’t particularly intimidating and some of the latter foes are more annoying than anything else. The standout enemies are the Alien facehugger-esque Mimics, which can disguise themselves as random objects. This is such a clever idea I can’t believe it’s never been done before. As you walk around you might see an object that seems a bit out of place, or catch a movement out of the corner of your eye. When you return to a location you’ll be asking yourself ‘was that mug there last time?’ At least in the early stages, it’s genuinely frightening. Of course, when you batter a few dozen with a wrench they become less engaging and more of a nuisance. The weapons don’t feel great in general, but the most interesting is definitely the multi-purpose glue gun, which can freeze enemies in place, put out fires or even create platforms allowing you to get to out-of-reach areas. It’s another clever idea in a game with plenty of them.

The actual core feel of the controls take a while to get used to, with a clunkiness that never quite goes away. This isn’t necessarily an issue at first; this is a horror game after all, but it becomes more and more pronounced as the game goes on. There are a range of upgrades available, some being to improve hacking and physical strength, as well as your standard health or stamina, but later on you can access Typhon abilities, with powerful attacks or the ability to transform yourself into any object like a Mimic. These work really well from a traversal standpoint; the promise of genuinely being able to pursue your own playstyle persists from Dishonored. You could hack open a door, or crawl through vents, or you could turn into a mug and roll through a gap. It really does work very well, but the combat abilities never quite work so well. The game speaks to you like you’re becoming an inhuman badass as you amass powers, but everything feels so clunky that you never feel it. I avoided combat at all costs, which was fine because for much of the time Prey is a perfectly serviceable stealth game. A late game twist makes stealth much more difficult and combat harder to avoid, but despite being bulked up with powers I never wanted to use them because they weren’t satisfying and the enemies were bullet sponges. I resorted to just running everywhere dodging enemy fire, which worked a little bit too well and got me thorough most encounters quite nicely, even if I did have to contend with the horrendous load times. It’s not exactly the way I think the game was meant to be played, but unfortunately that way just wasn’t fun. As I said, this only really becomes an issue in the latter parts of the game, but it did leave a stain on the experience.

Prey looks very nice, both in the setting and in the stylised human characters. The Typhon are creepy enough, but a bit vague and shadowy and PG. Aside from the Mimics, their designs are generally a bit lacklustre. An area Prey really shines in in the sound design. Prey uses ambient sound very well, where the falling of a coffee mug can herald the launch of a Typhon ambush. The voice acting is solid as well, but Prey also has a hell of a soundtrack. Heavy on the synths, it avoids feeling too kitschy and retro. The soundtrack elevates otherwise irritating action beats. It runs well and I encountered no glitches, so Prey seems to be a well put together package.

Prey is an interesting game, but I don’t think it’s a classic. It pulls from many sources of inspiration, but aside from the already iconic Mimics, it’s difficult to imagine it having much of an impact of its own. I had a good time for the most part, but the truly dreadful final act mars the experience, for the sake of what feels purely like an artificial inflation of the play time. Still, this is exactly the kind of game worth picking up in a couple of months after a price drop. In fact, considering the sales weren’t great, you probably won’t have to wait that long.

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Nier: Automata for PS4 and PC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Titan Souls for PS4, PS Vita, PC, OS X and Android

Titan Souls originated from a game jam, with the original prototype created in merely two days. Although expanded from these humble beginnings, the purity of vision which shines through Titan Souls demonstrates its origin. With the name Souls in the title you’d be forgiven that this is simply something riding on the coattails of Dark Souls, and whilst it was certainly a clear influence it’s still very much its own thing.

The plotting is very minimalistic, with the player simply taking control of a figure who must travel through a strange, empty land, along the way slaying the deadly ‘titans’ he encounters. These monsters don’t attack, in fact they will only fight after you’ve attacked them first, raising some interesting questions about who the real hero is here. This is a common enough theme, but the closest to a narrative hook the game can be said to have. The overall look is very simple but effective, primarily in the design of the titans themselves. An effective soundtrack also helps elevate the experience beyond its humble beginnings.

The core mechanics are incredibly simple. Played from a top-down Zelda style perspective, the player can dodge, sprint and fire an arrow. It is an arrow since you only have one, after firing it you must hold a button to pull it back to you to be fired again. The game is simply a series of boss fights. They’re deadly, fast and aggressive and a single hit kills you. In the game’s most interesting twist, the same applies to them. It only takes one strike on a boss’ weak spot to take them down, but getting a shot in on that weak spot is a hell of a challenge. This means that winning fights are usually over in seconds, but you’ll die over and over again getting to that point. You can’t move whilst firing or retrieving the arrow, so placement in the environment is key. These boss fights are brilliant, frantic and brutal and often seemingly impossible at first, until you learn their rhythms and how to manipulate them. They feel like a boss fight in Dark Souls or Bloodborne, whilst being mechanically nothing like them at all. The euphoria rush of taking down a boss you’ve been throwing yourself against is amazing. If my entire game time had been spent fighting these bosses, Titan Souls would be a perfect game, but there a couple of drawbacks, one not so serious and one more so.

The first drawback is the environments between fights. Clusters of fights are found in certain areas, but you’ve got to explore a decently sized environment to find them. The problem is that this exploration simply isn’t fun or satisfying. This is a fine looking game, but the environments aren’t interesting from a visual or design standpoint. Removing these sections entirely and reducing the game to exclusively a series of boss fights would have tightened up some of the flab. The bigger issue is the checkpointing. After dying you will wake up at a checkpoint near the boss arena. Sometimes these are right next to the boss room and sometimes it’s further away. The boss rooms are never more than 10 seconds from the checkpoint, but when you die as often as you do in this game it adds up. I think it’s trying to capture the bonfires/lanterns from the Soulsborne games, but those are different games. Titan Souls has a more arcade-y ‘just one more go’ feeling than those games, which is undermined by this delay. It may sound like a petty thing, but no one likes the feeling of their time being wasted and I felt that this really did. Simply respawning the player straight in the boss room would have been so much better.

Titan Souls is a very good game which falls short of greatness due to some frustrating issues. I liked it very much and the core concept is so strong that I hope they make another one, but more cut back and streamlined rather than more expansive as sequels generally are.

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