Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “playstation”

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice for PS4 and PC

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of my favourite games of this year, an experience which I found profoundly distressing, anxiety inducing and, ultimately, hugely moving. I’m very fond of Ninja Theory; I loved the underrated Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and the criminally unfairly treated DmC: Devil May Cry. Hellblade is something else entirely though, telling a story in a way that could not be done in any other medium and exploring themes almost any major game studio would either never touch, or do so in the shallowest and most exploitative ways.

Senua is a young Pict woman whose partner dies, prompting her to journey to an underworld based on Norse and Celtic mythology to rescue the soul of her lover. However, Senua suffers from what modern doctors would call psychosis, constantly hounded by voices whispering in her head.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the best depiction of mental illness I’ve ever seen in a game, or possibly any medium. Psychosis is a complex condition and Ninja Theory resisted painting it simply. Mental illness in games is often exploited as an excuse to have a character behave in an outrageous way; GTAV’s Trevor Phillips is the first example which comes to mind, but gaming is littered with, usually male, characters like this. Hellblade does not glorify mental illness, far from it. This game is very distressing; my wife had to actually leave the room and her tolerance for horror is far above mine. It is emotionally intense in a way few games are. A lot of the reason for this is how incredibly good the animation for Senua’s face is; during cutscenes the camera will usually pan around and focus on her expressions, with the camera usually from the perspective of whoever is speaking to her, giving the impression that Senua is talking directly to us. The haunted look in her eyes is utterly believable, and when her face crumples in extreme anguish it’s almost unbearable to watch. If you cannot be captured by Senua I don’t think you have a heart; I wanted nothing else but for her to find some kind of peace. The writing, combined with stunning visuals and sound design conspire to make Hellblade one of the most engaging game narratives I’ve ever come across.

The core gameplay matches the story very well. Although much of the game involves walking through stunning environments, Hellblade is no walking simulator. The combat is excellent, heavy and intense. The battle system is fairly simple, based around light and heavy sword strikes along with block breaking kicks, as well as parries, dodges and dashes. There’s a sense of real danger in the combat and it captures the sense of weight and tension which pervades the story brilliantly; no ludo-narrative dissonance here! Fighting multiple enemies is dangerous, with the camera saying fairly tightly to Senua meaning that strikes from behind, out of sight, are common. This would normally be infuriating in almost any other game, but before being hit one of Senua’s voices will warn her and you can attempt a last minute dodge. It’s shouldn’t surprise me that the developers of the excellent (shut up it was) DmC would nail melee combat, but it’s rare to see something so clearly built to deliver narrative to also be so satisfying from a purely mechanical perspective.

The other part of the gameplay lies with the puzzles, which many seem to have disliked but I wasn’t particularly bothered by. You will regularly come across doors locked by strange runes; you must then wander the environment trying to find something in the shape of the rune, which you can then ‘focus’ on, unlocking the door. I know this sounds pretty awful, but in reality the environmental design is strong enough that I didn’t spend long wandering around aimlessly. Sometimes you need to manipulate the environment to create the rune shape, such as a torch casting a shadow. There are other sections with different mechanics at play, such as a stealth section and one involving switching between two different time periods/ The puzzling is simple, but satisfying. They’re not the most memorable aspect of the game, but they didn’t bother me and were actually sometimes quite fun.

Ninja Theory have referred to this game as a AAA indie; a shorter, more experimental game made with the same production values and aesthetics of a AAA game. I love this idea and would like to see it explored further. Games with simpler visuals and sound can, of course, still be emotionally resonant. I remember being reduced to a blubbery mess by Thomas Was Alone where the main characters are quadrilaterals. However, it’s difficult to deny that Hellblade would not be as successful at achieving what it sets out to do if it’s visuals were not so stunning. The environments are stunning, sometimes beautiful, particularly early on, but descending into truly nightmarish as the experience carries on. As mentioned above, it is the facial animation for Senua which truly elevates the experience and allows her to stand as one of my favourite game protagonists of all time. I’m a bit of a philistine when it comes to audio, but even I could tell how good the sound design was, with the constant whispering of the voices and the gently haunting soundtrack perfectly capturing Senua’s descent into her own personal hell. I think Hellblade is a game which would have been make or break depending on the level of polish, with no distractions of irritations to take away from the impressive story woven here.

As you can probably tell, I loved Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. It provided one of the most genuinely profound gaming experiences of my life, with a kick-ass combat system to boot. I cannot recommend it more highly.

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Dark Souls III: The Ringed City DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

After being mildly underwhelmed by Ashes of Ariandel, The Ringed City DLC for Dark Souls III shows the series at its absolute best, offering what is probably my favourite slice of content from the whole game.

The Ringed City is the home of the Pygmies, ancestors to humanity. Located at the end of all things, The Ashen One is transported to the blasted Dreg Heap and instructed to make their way to the mythical city and discover the secrets within. If Dark Souls III was apocalyptic, The Ringed City goes beyond even that. The Pygmies are a much discussed element of Dark Souls lore and we find a bit more about them and the way they lived. This DLC also provides some closure for characters from the main series, as well as tying back to the Ashes of Ariandel DLC. The Ringed City evokes perfectly the feeling of arcane ruin the series is known for and, whilst it doesn’t clear anything up (nor should it), it does feel like a good way for the series to end.

The Ringed City is structured as a descent, from the valleys surrounding the Ringed City which give it its name, down to the city itself and then further into its depths. The stunningly clever verticality of the level design has long been my favourite thing about the Soulsborne game and was something that Ashes of Ariandel lacked somewhat. The feeling of opening a shortcut back to a bonfire after a long and terrifying run and finding yourself back where you were several hours ago will never get old. Where Ashes of Ariandel lacked in boss fights, The Ringed City has four, and they’re generally really good. I won’t spoil the identity of the final boss of the DLC, and possibly the series, but it was one of my favourite boss fights both in the series and possibly of all time. The foe is fast, terrifying and humanoid; my favourite kind of Soulsborne boss.

The sound design and voice acting is as unsettling as ever, but it’s the way The Ringed City looks that took my breath away. This is only a DLC so we only get to see a small portion of it, but what we do is genuinely stunning. I’d love to have explored more of this place. I mentioned in my Ashes of Ariandel review that I think the series fares best in city environments and I think this DLC proves that.

The Ringed City is a perfect way to, perhaps, wrap up this series. It feels like the right time too, with Bloodborne paving a way to show how you can craft a different experience form the same template. Whether it’s Bloodborne 2 or something new entirely, I can’t wait to see where FromSoft go next.

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Yakuza 0 for PS4

This has been a hell of a year for AAA games; there are a huge number of predictably brilliant blockbusters like Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn, with plenty more coming soon. This has been backed up with a steady stream of lower profile releases that have unexpectedly blown people away, such as Nier: Automata and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Yakuza 0 was one such game and slipped through the cracks until the summer, when a gap in the release calendar finally gave me some breathing room. Yakuza 0 is deeply bizarre game and kept me entertained largely through its sheer weirdness.

Yakuza 0 follows two protagonists in Japan in the late 1980s. The first is Kazuma Kiryu, an up and coming yakuza within the Dojima Family of the Tojo Clan. Kiryu becomes implicated in the death of a man he had beaten for debt collection, although it is clear that he is simply a patsy for the games of senior members of the Dojima Family. They seek the Empty Lot, an extremely valuable piece of real estate in the bustling red-light district Kamurocho, as securing it for the Tojo Clan will all but guarantee promotion to the high table. Meanwhile, Goro Majima is a disgraced former yakuza in the Sotenbori area of Osaka, now running a highly successful hostess club and hoping to re-enter the criminal world. When he is sent to assassinate a target in exchange for re-entry to the clan, he is pulled into a web of criminal intrigue and forced to examine his own morality and humanity.

Some games dabble in environmental storytelling or believe that game stories should be told through gameplay and mechanics rather than lengthy cutscenes; not Yakuza 0 though! It is not uncommon for cutscenes to run for as long as 15 minutes, with significant portions of the game involving simply walking to a location, watching a cutscene, then walking to the next location, watching another cutscene and so on. I must confess that this bothered me hugely in the first few hours; I haven’t played a game designed like this in years, but, for me, as the story went on it became less and less of an issue for one simple reason; the cutscenes are actually bloody good. The writing is deceptively excellent; it’s very hammy in the way that an awful lot of Japanese media can be, but it also has that emotional honesty of the best modern Japanese stories. Characters screaming their feelings is an anime cliché, but usually I’ll take it over stoic, calm Western protagonists. It’s hard to picture an Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty protagonist freaking out the way some of the characters do here. It’s over the top, sure, but endearing and at times genuinely moving. The characters are very strong; I liked the stoic and honourable Kiryu, but the ever so slightly unhinged and rougher round the edges Majima appealed to me more. Both have stories about trying to be a good man in an organisation designed to crush compassion out of you. They’re backed by an extensive and engaging supporting cast, such as the mysterious real estate mogul Tachibana and Nishki, Kiryu’s snappily dressed best friend (or bro as they ironically, and adorably, call each other). While it took a while to get its hooks in me, I can’t deny that it really did by the end. This being a prequel, and remakes of the orignal games on the horizon, I can’t wait to see where Kiryu and Majima go next.

So, after waxing lyrical about the story, what about the actual gameplay? First of all, the combat is a lot of fun. It involves switching between three different stances for each character, with some better for taking on large groups of weaker enemies and some better for pummelling bosses, but you can also tailor to your own preference through an extensive skill tree, slightly too extensive for my tastes but if you enjoy tinkering around with these things there’s a lot to…well, tinker around with. The combat is a lot of fun and becomes genuinely quite challenging during some of the boss fights. Between fights you’ll be wandering the streets of Kamurocho as Kiryu or Sotenbori a Kiryu. They’re small, but dense and packed with stuff. Not all of that stuff is good, but an awful lot of it is. As you wander, you’ll encounter a range of side stories, which is where the most bizarre parts of the game take place. Where the main story is still completely over the top, the tale of criminal power struggles is taken seriously in the writing, pulling off the Kojima trick of playing something silly straight and it genuinely working. The side missions allow the weirdness to cut loose, and involve a range of weird and wonderful characters, which usually end up pushing Kiryu or Majima out of their manly comfort zone into something weirder. The series is known for a large number of minigames, but a couple of notable exceptions I’ll get to later, this part of the game didn’t work for me, simply because the majority of them are bad and not fun. I didn’t mind the karaoke or dancing games, but stuff like bowling or baseball bored me to tears.

The most extensive side missions involve running a business, with two separate ones for Kiryu and Majima. They have their own extensive storylines, with many fully voice acted cutscenes as in the main story. Kiryu’s involves real estate, buying up property and raking in profits. It’s quite basic, but I’m a sucker for these real estate games, like in Fable 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. There are some added complications, such as the ability to choose who runs your businesses and manages security, with more competent employees requiring higher wages. New employees are recruited though the side missions. You will sometimes need to defend your properties in the streets and, when you amass enough property in one of the five districts of Kamurocho, fight the previous real estate boss of that area, who are all as flamboyant and bizarre as you would expect. Majima’s business is focused on lifting a small, struggling hostess club into success. This is done partially by making links with local businesses, but most prominently through a fun minigames where you manage the club. You have the send different hostesses to different clients depending on their preferences. The individual hostesses all have stats and experience. A couple are fully fleshed out characters, with little side missions where you give them individual training. The whole thing is silly, fun and very satisfying. Similarly to Kiryu’s side mission, when your club takes enough custom from a rival Sotenbori club, their bizarre manager will challenge you to a fight. I loved this element of the game, but my one issue is that they are introduced way too late in the game. Missions like this are best when spread out between the main story missions, but to complete either storyline you’d need to spend a lot of time grinding that same minigame over and over again for Majima or waiting for payments to come in as Kiryu.

Yakuza 0 was also released on PS3 in Japan, and you can sort of tell. It doesn’t look quite as sharp as most current gen AAA games, but strong art and character design mean that this is never an issue. The dense and bustling locations, as well as the distinctive character designs and strong facial animation help the world of 1980s Japan come alive. The music is generally very good and the voice acting, which is only available in Japanese, is excellent; often hammy, but genuinely impactful when it needs to be.

Yakuza 0 did not make a good first impression, but as it went on I grew to like it more and more. If your tolerance for cutscenes is low, fair enough, but this game won’t be for you. I’m definitely going to pick up the remake of the first game, Yakuza Kiwami, when there’s another gap in the release schedule, although looking at the next few months that won’t be anytime soon.

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Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

I really enjoyed Dark Souls III, but as a Bloodborne man at heart Dark Souls III spent a lot of it’s time lurking in its shadow. I took a while for me to go for the Dark Souls III DLC and I’m glad I did. Ashes of Ariandel is the first of the two DLC packs, binging us to a new location, with new things to find and monsters to be murdered by.

Ashes of Ariandel opens with the Ashen One transported to the Painted World of Ariandel by the mysterious Slave Knight Gael. The snowy and pristine land, held within a painting, has been infected with a strange rot, with conflict within Ariandel about how to deal with this threat, burn away the rot and begin anew, or allow the rot to continue. Dark Souls is always going to Dark Souls so Ashes of Ariandel is as cryptic as ever, but this DLC does operate as an interesting microcosm for the main thrust of the series, about whether or not to link the fire.

Ariandel itself is a beautiful location, although I do generally feel that the series fares better when in city environments, allowing more complex geometry and clever pathways than will occur in a natural environment. Ariandel is still fun to explore, but it does lack some of that cleverness of world design which is my favourite thing about the series. There are a range of fun and challenging enemies to fight, such as wolves or the twisted Corvian bird people. One potential disappointment is the lack of boss fights; there is only one mandatory one at the end, with another that is optional. The optional fight is fun, but doesn’t really do anything which hasn’t been done in other boss fights throughout the series. The final boss fight is a bit more interesting, a multi-stage monster of a fight with three distinct stages, and health bars. It’s utterly brutal and at times felt a bit cheap, but at its best it reminded me of the superlative Maria boss fight from the Hunters Nightmare DLC for Bloodborne.

Ashes of Ariandel isn’t massive and doesn’t really represent the best of the series, but Dark Souls III is so solidly constructed that just adding more isn’t really a problem. On its own it may be a bit unsatisfying, but taken within the grand swatch of the game it’s difficult to fault it too much. If you’re sold your copy of Dark Souls III, Ashes of Ariandel isn’t a reason to rush out and buy a new one, but there are far worse ways you could spend your time.

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Mass Effect: Andromeda for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Genuinely bad AAA games are rare nowadays. Your annual Call of Duty is probably always going to be at least competent and well put together; so much money is poured into these things that the most common issue is blandness, rather than actual disaster. Actual disasters are few and far between, with Assassin’s Creed: Unity being one of the few that springs to mind. Mass Effect: Andromeda is one of the roughest, most frustrating AAA games I’ve played in years. Unlike some of the more hyperbolic reactions it has garnered, I don’t think it’s awful. There are things to like here, but troubled game development is writ large over almost every part of the game. Some rough AAA games such as Final Fantasy XV can be so oddball and weird that they loop round to being loveable, despite their flaws, but Mass Effect: Andromeda is simultaneously too ambitious and conservative in design to achieve even this. Mass Effect: Andromeda has its moments, but it’s difficult to view it as anything but a failure.

Sidestepping the endings of Mass Effect 3, Mass Effect; Andromeda takes place 600 years later, in the Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromeda Initiative sent forth massive arks of Milky Way species in stasis, to awaken in their new home and establish a new frontier. Upon arrival, the Initiative discover that the Heleus Cluster of the Andromeda Galaxy is more dangerous than they thought, with a mysterious phenomenon known as the Scourge damaging the ark ships and a hostile alien force, the Kett, determined to wipe them out. Commander Shepard is gone and replaced with Pathfinder Ryder; the Pathfinder is the one who is in charge of scouting planets and establishing new outposts. Only the human ark, the Hyperion, as well as the central hub of the Nexus, have made their way to the intended destination. Ryder must set out with a new crew and her ship the Tempest to establish new homes for the Initiative, fight the kett and find the missing ark ships.

Andromeda’s story stumbles out of the gate. It attempts to take the series in a whole new direction, but in the process forgets what people liked about the original trilogy. The original trilogy had a brilliant sense of humanity as the new kids on the block, the upstarts. There was a real sense of defined history which impacted the events of the story: the Rachni Wars, the Genophage, the Quarian creation of the Geth. The setting felt full and alive and engaging. Mass Effect: Andromeda goes for a more Star Trek approach, focusing on exploration and discovering new lands. Without this sense of culture and society, the whole setting feels unbearably bland. Everyone keeps going on about how utterly alien it is, but it’s no more unique than anywhere from the original setting; we still have an ice planet, a jungle planet, a desert planet etc. The returning races from the original trilogy are the Asari, Salarians, Turians and Krogan. A lot of the weirder and funnier species make no appearance, such as the Quarians, Hanar, Elcor or Volus. The new species don’t exactly fill the void; the Kett are mindless and lack in any sort of personality. The Heleus natives, the Angara, are generally likeable, being built on empathy and emotional connection, but really they just feel like a combination of the original Council races. They have the empathy of Asari, the intelligence of the Salarians and the battle-prowess of the Turians, but I don’t think people are going to be clamouring for the return of the Angara whenever this series comes back. The new galaxy setting had the opportunity to double down on some of the glorious weirdness from the original trilogy, but ends up as far more conservative.

There’s little sense of narrative drive, with frustratingly vague goals. This may be a consequence of the open world approach taken, but Dragon Age: Inquisition did the same thing and I felt still managed to tell a coherent story. Where the original trilogies had an unknowable and terrifying foe, the Reapers, lurking in the background, it was fronted by believable and engaging villains, with even forces like the Geth and the Rachni imbued with depth and clear motivation. The lack of an engaging antagonist makes the whole thing feel directionless. I overall liked the new crew, particularly the elderly warrior Krogan Drack and the Angaran charmer Jaarl. Still, when you look back at the squad in Mass Effect 2, possibly the best team of characters I’ve seen in an RPG, they never come close to the same status. The voice acting is generally good, but the writing is much more mixed. Outside of some core main characters, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of entirely forgettable quest givers and NPCs. Much was made of Hainly Abrams, a transgender woman who within seconds of meeting reveals that she is trans, as well as her deadname. Transgender representation in games is a good thing; Bioware themselves pretty much nailed it with Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Although the dialogue has been altered and patched, it reveals how utterly shallow these characters are. I could tell you much more about Krem than the fact he is trans, but with Hainly Abrams I could tell you nothing else about her. So much of the writing is entirely shallow, with characters I spent hours with but could tell you almost nothing about. The best parts of the game are the loyalty missions and there are some lovely character moments, but we lack the tension and conflict which undercut the ‘BEST TEAM EVAR’ dynamic if the Normandy. One area that did work for me was Ryder herself. She’s a bit more of a defined character than Shepard and you can’t really be a complete bastard, but that wouldn’t have been appropriate for the story told here. More often than not, Ryder is sardonic and irreverent, but never irritating. Overall, I think I liked Ryder more than Shepard but unfortunately the people she was interacting with were never as good.

I normally mention technical issues towards the end of a review, but they have to be brought to the forefront here. Now, I’m played this game a couple of patches deep, so the now infamous animation issues weren’t quite as pronounced as they were at launch but, well, they’re still not good. Almost every scene is undermined by them; the characters always look off, never quite seem right, in the way they stand, the way they move, their facial expressions. I’ve read and watched a lot of interesting stuff about this and I totally appreciate the nightmarish complexity of a dynamic animation system a game like this requires, but taking into account the reasons why this problem exists doesn’t actually stop it from being a problem, as sympathetic as I am for the fact that this likely was not the fault of the animation team themselves. There are major issues with the plotting and writing already, but even the stronger scenes (and there are plenty of good ones) are undermined by the animation issue. I suspect that the issues are more fundamental than any patch can solve.

The core structure to Andromeda is very different to the previous games, and resembles Dragon Age; Inquisition more than anything else. Now, I actually really liked Inquisition, although I’m aware that a lot of people didn’t. Sure, not every side quest was a winner, but the focus on exploration was well married to a central plot and I liked the variety of zones. It got blown out of the water by The Wtrcher 3 a few months later, but I still feel that Inquisition is underappreciated. Andromeda attempts the same structure, but is less successful. There are a handful of explorable worlds, which are usually pretty big. All but one use the Nomad, a replacement for the Mako from the first game, an all-terrain vehicle which lets you race around the planet. It controls pretty nicely and has quite impressive grip for more vertical movement, particularly after a few upgrades. Most of your time in the game will be spent getting a mission, driving somewhere in your Nomad, shooting some stuff, and returning. Mission variety isn’t great, but I did like how the game makes it very clear which missions you can avoid. The missions are categorised four different ways; main story quests, loyalty quests/quests attached to a particular supporting character, Heleus tasks which see you improving the different planets, and ‘additional tasks.’ Do the first three, but ignore the ‘additional tasks’, there’s almost nothing worth doing there. I wish more games made it so clear what was filler; one thing I hated about Fallout 4 was the way I would feel tricked into doing boring procedurally generated quests because they were sorted alongside proper ones made by an actual game designer. If you take this approach and ignore the boring missions, the issue of padding and filler becomes much less egregious.

Possibly the only unqualified success of Mass Effect: Andromeda is the combat; it may initially look similar to the original trilogy, but this is mostly superficial as this is most certainly not a cover shooter. It took a while to adjust, but this is a combat system which relies on constant movement and momentum. I went all in with biotics and shotguns, so my approach was largely based around teleporting across the environments and blasting enemies up close. With some cleverly placed upgrades, you can almost break the entire combat in some quite pleasing ways. It stopped being challenging in any way after a few hours, but as a sheer power fantasy I never quite got tired of it. I don’t know how fun other builds are, but I can’t recommend a biotic/shotgun build more highly. My enjoyment of the combat helped to alleviate a lot of the pacing issues; sure, the side quests mostly are of a ‘go here, kill this’ variety, but that never really bothered me.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a disappointment; it has some strengths, but it’s clear that it’s fascinatingly troubled development has left it damaged in a way no patch can fix. There was a lot of potential here, but I think now the best thing that Bioware could do is give it a few years, then return to the Milky Way for an actual Mass Effect 4, leaving Andromeda as a spin-off. I didn’t have an awful time playing this game, it’s OK, but when it was released in the same month as Breath of the Wild, Nier: Automata and Horizon: Zero Dawn, OK isn’t good enough.

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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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