Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “ps vita”

I Am Setsuna for Switch, PS4, PS Vita and PC

I’m really into the idea of Tokyo RPG Factory, a smaller studio within Square Enix who will make shorter, more compact classic JRPG experiences. However, their first result leaves a little bit to be desired.

I Am Setsuna’s protagonist is Endir, a mysterious masked protagonist who is sent to kill Setsuna, a young woman who has been chosen as a human sacrifice to keep the hordes of monsters which threaten their world at bay. Instead of killing her outright, Endir joins her on her pilgrimage to the Last Lands, where she must die, although this being a JRPG there have to be a lot of distractions along the way, whilst meeting a colourful band of characters. The best thing about I Am Setsuna is the premise itself, and the mournful, melancholy tone. The idea of your quest being to escort someone to their death is brilliantly dark, but the game fails to explore it with enough nuance.

I Am Setsuna’s combat is mostly inspired by Chrono Trigger, and is mostly fine. There’s a gauge that increases and when full you can perform an action, such as attack, use a special move or an item. Certain special moves can be used in conjunction with each other to form combos, some of which are deliciously overpowered, although this led into an issue I’ll discuss later on. You can also wait on your turn to boost up a second gauge, which allows when full allows you to boost the power of your attack or technique. It’s a simple matter of deciding whether to launch fewer more powerful attacks or more frequent weaker strikes, but particularly during boss battles the decision stayed interesting. Still, I didn’t find the combat particularly engaging, particularly coming straight from the much more fun Persona 5.

Outside of battles you’ll follow your standard structure of wandering between dungeons, towns and the overworld and there’s little of note mechanically outside of the combat. There is an interesting method for unlocking new techniques, involving selling particular monster parts to be able to access them. Killing monsters in different ways give different paths; if you chip away the tiny bit of health with surgical precision, you’ll get something different to if you overwhelm them with a massive strike. It’s an interesting idea but in practice isn’t particularly fun and I found myself wishing that this game had a simpler approach to upgrades and its economy.

Confession time: I didn’t finish I Am Setsuna. I got 4/5 of the way through which is, in my opinion, enough to form a judgement, but I didn’t finish. I ran into a boss for which I was staggeringly underleveled, having essentially managed to sweep away all fights beforehand. Upon looking up the recommended level I was aghast to see that I was a full 10 levels below where I needed to be I was aghast. I was not going to use my precious time to sit and bloody grind. Grinding may have been a part of old school JRPGs, but they’re a failure of design and have no place in modern gaming. I couldn’t help but compare it to the smooth and satisfying increase in difficulty in Persona 5, the fact that I never felt the need to grind once and comfortably completed the game, and get quite irritated. I suppose I could have whacked on a podcast and mindlessly killed monster penguins for a couple of hours to get my level up but, well, why the bloody hell should I?

It’s a shame because I liked the world they created. It’s all quite same-y, with a snowy and beautifully bleak aesthetic throughout, but it’s very effective. Comfortably the best thing about I Am Setsuna is the gorgeous soundtrack, with every single one being a simple piano piece. Where JRPGs are known for grand scope and orchestra, I Am Setsuna’s restraint here is genuinely revelatory. The simplicity and beauty of the single piano, arguably the most versatile instrument around, provides one of the most interesting soundtracks I’ve heard.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game can’t match that piano. It was a decent enough JRPG experience I would have been happy to play to the end. There are games out there I like so much I’d grind for if absolutely necessary, but I Am Setsuna is not that game.

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Severed for Switch, 3DS, Wii U, PS Vita and iOS

I really enjoyed the Mexican themed Metroidvania Guacamelee, the last game from DrinkBox Studios. Severed retains a similar art style, and a small element of Metroidvania, but other than that it’s a different beast entirely, both in gameplay and tone.

Severed takes place in some kind of underworld, with a young woman with a severed arm arriving to find the bodies of her dead family, to attempt to lay her to rest. Along the way she encounters several figures, some friendly, some antagonistic. As you can probably tell, Severed is a fair bit darker than the generally comic and upbeat Guacamelee. I felt like Severed was a little bit too ambiguous for its own good; I didn’t really know what was happening, which made it a fair bit harder to actually care. There are some striking images, such as the corpses of our protagonist’s family and the hollow, dead eyed stare in her eyes, but these images don’t really come together to form a cohesive whole.

Severed was designed for touch screens. The combat involves hitting enemies with your sword, using your finger to swipe across the screen. Longer swipes do more damage. Some enemies will block, meaning that you have to attack around them and some have more interesting defences. You also have to parry incoming attacks by swiping against it. This basic mechanic is a lot of fun. You will end up facing multiple enemies at once, with the need to swap between them and parry when they’re about to attack. This can get hugely frantic, but seriously fun and rewarding. Things are complicated further when enemies get particular buffs, such as boost to attack or speed. The simple act of swiping across the screen ends up being less important than managing a large number of foes, keeping in mind factors like the time it takes to parry their attacks and how many shots you can get in before you have to defend from somewhere else, There’s a surprising amount of depth, with an upgrade tree powered by body parts you sever from your foes. You get interesting attacks of your own and we end up with a combat system which is deceptively complicated and engaging.

Between fights you’ll be wandering the world in first person, through a series of distinct rooms. The different environments represent Zelda dungeons more than anything else, dense and layered. You’ll be collecting keys, backtracking, finding unlockable boosts to health and mana (for special attacks), as well as solving some simple puzzles. Severed ends up having more than a little in common with the much maligned Skyward Sword, in things like combat and dungeon design. You do this exploration one handed, as you need your other for the combat. As a lefty I’m pleased to report that moving with your right hand and swiping with your left feels fine.

Severed has a dark and unpleasant tone, with some genuinely distressing imagery within the cartoonish art style. The horrors that we face throughout the game are also darkly beautiful. The soundtrack is moody and atmospheric. Just as with Guacamelee, the extra layers of polish help to elevate an experience which may otherwise be more rote.

I’ve never quite played anything like Severed. It doesn’t necessarily do anything new, but it takes a bunch of disparate elements I’ve never really seen combined before in interesting new directions. I didn’t like it as much as Guacamelee, but it has cemented DrinkBox Studios as one to watch.

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Shantae: Half-Genie Hero for Switch, Wii U, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One and PC

I’ve never played a Shantae game before, but I’ve been aware of the series ticking over on a range of Nintendo consoles. Shantae: Half-Genie Hero has an abundance of charm, but ultimately lacks the depth or the tightness of controls needed in the best platformers.

Shantae is, as the title suggests, a half-genie, who protects her town from a range of menaces, most prominently her pirate nemesis Risky Boots. This game focuses on Shantae helping her uncle build a strange machine, as well as uncover some of the secrets of her origin. Half-Genie Hero is a soft reboot and entirely understandable if you haven’t played the previous games. The writing is very self-aware and quippy in a way which treads a very fine line between irritating and endearing. It just about landed on endearing for me, but I suspect lots of people would feel differently. Expect lots of jokes about the game industry and DLC, but it’s the simple but likeable supporting characters that made Shantae’s story a bit more engaging.

Half-Genie Hero, for all its charm, somewhat stumbles out of the gate. The core platforming is pretty unsatisfying, awkwardly floaty with pretty straightforward level design. There are people out there who can tell you exactly what constitute tight controls and strong platformer design and I am not one of those people, but I know it when I see it. The lack of ingenuity in the level design is masked by the charm and style of the environments as well as the range of transformations Shantae can perform. By the end of the game, Shantae had access to eight different transformations with different abilities. Examples include a monkey which can climb walls, an elephant which can smash blocks and a crab which can scuttle around underwater. Transforming to get around is fun and I liked the surprising range of abilities available to Shantae, but I’d prefer fewer transformations and better platforming. One element I did really like were the boss battles; which were generally clever and epic and an area where the game really excelled.

The basic structure of the game annoyed me. You regularly return to a core hub town, where you can purchase upgrades and talk to the locals. Between the levels you will usually need to take part in a Zelda style trading quest, with the items you need usually hidden in previously beaten levels with areas which can now be accessed with new transformations, adding a light element of Metroidvania to the proceedings. I do love a good trading quest, but this felt more like padding than anything else. There aren’t actually that many levels in the game, so Half-Genie Hero seems to feel the need to extend the run time artificially. When returning to the levels you are rarely given a new or fun challenge, it’s more likely going to be crabbing around on the sea floor picking up collectibles, or climbing a tower and elephant stomping on flowers to pick up collectibles and blah blah blah. Games for which the genre are named, Super Metroid and some of the latter Castlevania games, take place in a singular world and the approach doesn’t work nearly so well in discreet, linear levels.

For all I’m complaining, Shantae really is a lovely looking game. The art style is bright and clean and the characters are full of life, constantly moving and jiggling around. My favourite was the zombie girl Rottytops, who seems to never stop dancing. The music is very good too and adds a sense of grandeur, with scatterings of likeable voice acting too. There’s a rather pervasive feeling of style over substance here, but I’d rather have that than neither.

Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is not a bad game, but it lacks the cleverness and tightness of level design the best platformers need. It may not be a bad choice if it goes on sale, but it’s not exactly a classic.

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Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment DLC for Switch, Wii U, 3DS, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

The third Shovel Knight campaign was the second game I ducked into on the Switch after Breath of the Wild. It was a good choice; after the sprawling grandeur of Zelda, a nice, tight platforming campaign was exactly what I needed and jumping back into the world of Shovel Knight seemed the best way to do so.

Specter of Torment tells the story of how Specter Knight came to be the ghostly presence we see in the main campaign, as well as how he first recruited the Order of No-Quarter for the Enchantress. Yet again, Yacht Club provide a masterclass in how to include story in this kind of games. It’s light, it never gets in the way, but there’s enough to add an extras layer of engagement to the rock solid platforming gameplay.

Ah yes, and speaking of the gameplay, Specter Knight is just as fun to control as Shovel and Plague Knights before him. Just as with Plague of Shadows, Specter of Torment reuses the same locations and boss fights from the base game. Although I certainly hope we get some truly new levels down the line, the subtle alterations that are made to each level make them feel distinct. Alongside Shovel Knight’s bouncing shovel and Plague Knights bombs, Specter Knight has some interesting, fun traversal mechanics. One is the ability to slash towards enemies and certain objects, launching you across the screen. This can be combed to cover large gaps, with close timing being frequently required. Less commonly, you can also grind on your scythe along rails, which is fun but perhaps a little underused.

There’s a lot of joy in catapulting yourself around the areas and the boss fights are as fun as ever, even if Specter Knight’s abilities make them a little too easy. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of an overworld this time around, with Specter of Torment instead simply containing a level select screen inside a small version of the Enchantress’ castle. It doesn’t quite feel as fully formed as Plague of Shadows, but it’s still a really fun, challenging experience.

By this point, the base game for Shovel Knight is bloody good value, with three excellent campaigns. Specter Knight is distinct and fun to play as, although I do hope that Yacht Club begin to move beyond the original campaign as their basis.

 

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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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Day of the Tentacle Remastered for PS4, PS Vita, PC, OS X, Linux and iOS

When it comes to adventure games, I’m a LucasArts man through and through. The first two Monkey Islands are a pair of my favourite games of all time and I really love Sam and Max too, but there are a lot I missed. The Day of the Tentacle is a very well renowned game which I missed first time around (I was two to be fair) so I was happy to see it pop up as a free PS+ game.

The Day of the Tentacle is actually a sequel to Maniac Mansion, one of the earliest Lucasarts games. That said, a few references aside I really didn’t feel like it held back the experience. The game opens with a sentient purple tentacle drinking the toxic run-off from the mansion of scientist Dr. Red Edison. This causes him to mutate, gaining massive intelligence and a desire to conquer the world. The nerdy and hapless Bernard, along with two friends, is summoned to the mansion to stop Purple Tentacle. The three set out in Dr. Red’s time machine to stop the Purple Tentacle from drinking the sludge, but a malfunction sees the three split up across time. Bernard remains in the present, the laid back roadie Hoagie is sent back 200 years to the signing of the United States Constitution and the deranged Laverne arrives 200 years into a dystopian future ruled by the tentacles. The three must work together across time to end the Purple Tentacle’s plans.

The whole thing is suitably silly and deranged for a Lucasarts game. I didn’t feel that it quite holds the cleverness of the Monkey Island games, particularly the cerebral and strange Monkey Island 2. It’s a lighter game, a more-pure comedy lacking in some of the genuinely heartfelt moments some of the other games have. The writing is vintage Tim Schafer, but I’m not sure if it carries the depth and humanity present in much of his other work. The Purple Tentacle itself isn’t quite enough of a presence throughout the game to come across as a genuine threat, but he’s still silly and over the top enough to be enjoyable. I liked the characters, particularly Laverne, a brilliantly unsettling, macabre and twisted figure.

This is a LucasArts SCUMM adventure game and so has all the strengths and flaws that entails. Controlling three figures across time, which can be switched at will, is a neat twist and leads to some interesting puzzles. Items can be freely swapped between the three, with the time travel element allowing events in the past to influence the future. Some of these time meddlings are amusingly clumsy, such as altering the US Constitution to ensure that there is a vacuum cleaner in the basement in the present or changing the US flag to create a tentacle costume. There are some brilliantly clever puzzle solutions, although it is naturally saddled with your classic ‘adventure game logic’ problems. The Day of the Tentacle contains one of the most ridiculous and obscure puzzle solutions I’ve seen since The Longest Journey’s ‘rubber ducky/subway key.’ I have no shame in saying that I freely used a guide whilst playing; I don’t have the time for the insane level of experimentation which would be needed to solve some of these puzzles.

The Remastered version for consoles actually works surprisingly well, with dragging the cursor around being way less irritating than I expected. You can freely switch between the remastered version, with updated visuals and music, as well as a cleaner interface, or the SCUMM original in all its glory. Call me a nostalgia bitch, but I preferred the SCUMM version. The new visuals are just a bit too clean; I liked the jagged edges of the original and seeing how expressive and vibrant the world and characters are with the limited technology. It really is a wonderful looking game in its original form, but if you’re not familiar with the SCUMM engine it may be a bit off putting. The music is really great, although again I preferred the original versions to the remastered versions. The voice acting is good too, hammy and over the top with not a degree of subtlety or nuance, as well it should be.

Without a nostalgic frame of reference, it’s difficult to talk about The Day of the Tentacle. I ran into a similar problem when I played the remaster of Grim Fandango. I just don’t have the time or inclination to play these games as they were meant to be played anymore, but even with regular usage of a guide I still enjoy them. The next LucasArts remaster is supposedly Full Throttle, another one I missed and I look forward to passively enjoying that one with a walkthrough too.

 

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Minecraft: Story Mode for PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, OS X, iOS and Android

So…this was a weird one. I have no particular love for the Minecraft brand; I’ve dabbled and I have huge respect for it as a game and learning tool, but it’s just not for me. Telltale’s brand of narrative games are almost as far from the huge freedom of Minecraft that you can get, but I fancied a narrative game to play over 5 episodes and thought what the hell. I bit off a bit more than I could chew because it wasn’t long until the series was extended to 8. Last year I was surprised to find myself enjoying Tales from the Borderlands much more than Game of Thrones despite massively preferring the latter franchise and this year I’ve been surprised to find myself enjoying Minecraft: Story Mode far more than Telltale’s Batman.

Minecraft: Story Mode is split into two distinct arcs across the first and final halves of the season. The protagonist is Jesse, male or female, who alongside his friends and trusty pet/bestie Reuben (a pig) enters a building competition in his home town. It isn’t long before Jesse is pulled into world changing events as maniacal genius Ivor releases a ‘Wither Storm’, a huge creature which grows continuingly, destroying the land. Jesse and his friends set forth to find the Order of the Stone, legendary warriors who slew the Ender Dragon many years earlier for their help in stopping the Wither Storm. The second half sees Jesse and his friends expelled from their world and unable to find their way back, wandering between a series of strange alternate worlds on their quest back home.

Recent Telltale games have struggled with openings and Minecraft: Story Mode is no exception. The tone is oddly dark and portentous; I had been expecting a lighter and breezier affair. The whole Wither Storm arc doesn’t really work; the general aesthetic doesn’t match a bizarre sense of impending doom the game aims for and the characters are too broad to carry this sort of emotional range needed to support this kind of story. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the characters, but most never get beyond that point of likeability into being something more interesting. There’s a general feeling that things just aren’t as funny as they should be. There are some heartfelt moments towards the end of the first arc when I realised I was genuinely invested in what was going on, but it just takes too long to get there. There are some great moments in this first arc, but it is in the second that the potential for this series comes into its own. Seeing Jesse and his friends travelling to a new world each episode opens up the range of scenarios that can be explored and the most interesting moments can be found here. From a murder mystery pastiche in a mansion to a rogue AI to a Hunger Games style tournament, there’s a feeling of looseness and fun in the final four episodes somewhat lacking in the earlier ones. If Telltale choose to do a second season (and I would be surprised if they didn’t) I hope that this is the approach they stick with.

Minecraft: Story Mode is a Telltale game and plays as such. There are some nods towards the normal Minecraft experience; there are crafting tables and you will sometimes have to…y’know, craft things, but this is very limited. You are essentially just arranging the items you will have picked up automatically to advance the game in a particular order. There’s nothing more to it than that. There are hints towards a more full-fledged combat system than the usual QTEs, but it’s not particularly fun and drops off towards the end. If ever there was a time to get out of the comfort zone and open up the experience a bit, it was here, but Telltale played it safe and stuck with the formula. It’s one that worked well, but it’s hard not to feel that diminishing returns are setting in, or perhaps already had set in a while ago.

The blocky look of Minecraft works surprisingly well, particularly in the character models which are much more expressive than you would expect. The voice acting is to a high standard as it has to be for this sort of game. I normally choose female characters in games, but I had to go for the male this time so I could hear Patton Oswalt, who I’m very fond of, as Jesse. He does a great job and the supporting cast do too although I struggle to think of any truly stand out performances. Telltale games are often unforgivably janky, with low framerates and dodgy textures. Minecraft: Story Mode doesn’t really have this problem, probably due to the simpler art style and runs as well as a game like this should. The music was surprisingly good too, with lots of keyboard and synths making action scenes genuinely exciting.

Minecraft: Story Mode does very much feel like Telltale on autopilot but is a decent enough experience despite all that. I enjoyed the hour or so a week I played with my fiancé, an approach which perhaps softens some of the flaws. This is far from the best Telltale game and doesn’t come close to The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us or Tales from the Borderlands, but it’s still likeable enough anyway.

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Gravity Rush Remastered for PS4

I feel pretty sorry for PS Vita owners, but seeing all the major Vita releases make their way to PS4 has been great. Gravity Rush Remastered does feel like a handheld game blown up onto console, but a reduced price and solid porting work make it a really good experience.

Gravity Rush takes place in the floating city of Heskeville, which has been threatened by a mysterious force known as the Nevi. Kat, an amnesiac girl, awakens in Heskeville and meets Dusty, a strange black cat who grants her control over gravity and allows her to become a ‘Shifter’. Kat sets out to be a hero to the people of Heskeville, but faces opposition from many sources, from the Nevi to the military to fellow Shifter Raven.

There are some rather interesting moments in Gravity Rush’s storytelling, but sadly the whole thing is largely incoherent. The core narrative of the goofy Kat building an identity as a hero in a city which seems to instinctually blame her for their problems is interesting. Early on, in the prologue, you save a little boy whose father promptly chastises you for failing to save their house too. I liked this stuff, but Gravity Rush goes a bit off the rails and frankly winds up making very little sense. A lot of stuff seems held back to set up a sequel, but if you take Gravity Rush as it’s own thing the story ultimately doesn’t feel satisfying. Like I said, there’s some interesting stuff here and I hope Gravity Rush 2 is able to make sense of the mess.

Gravity Rush is an open world superhero game, with a few similarities to Crackdown. Your main power is the ability to shift the direction which gravity pulls you from. So, if you point at the sky and press R1, you start falling towards the sky, which essentially works as a charmingly wonky version of flight. You can run on walls and soar through the skies and it’s genuinely thrilling. Pretty much everything comes out of this mechanic, with combat involving launching kicks towards glowing weak spots on foes. The further away you kick from, the more powerful the attack and landing a hit from a huge distance and destroying a foe in one hit is highly satisfying. As with Crackdown, there are glowing orbs everywhere which you use to level up, incentivising exploration. That said, the upgrades don’t feel hugely exciting, with the only one which significantly boosts fun being the ability to fly around for longer without needing to recharge.

The core mechanics of Gravity Rush are really solid, but sadly the things you actually have to do in the missions and challenges are less inspired. The better ones are simple and involve essentially flying around and then fighting things, but there are a few disastrous missions which attempt things like stealth. Probably the only different mission type which worked was in one of the DLC missions (which are included in the Remastered PS4 version) and involved having to alternate putting out fires in the city and on a flying battleship. It was frantic and fun, but overall an exception. I hope that Gravity Rush 2 finds more interesting stuff to do to provide mission variety.

Gravity Rush does look like an upscaled portable game, but the lovely art style still makes everything pop. Everything runs at a slick 60 FPS and Heskeville is a truly gorgeous setting. The story is mostly told in manga style cartoon panels, which is…well, understandable but somewhat off putting. I’m not in love with the character designs, which tend to range from stereotypical anime designs to pointlessly skimpy outfits. The French inspired Heskeville more than makes up for it though. The music is good too. I really look forward to seeing what can be done with the full power of the PS4 in Gravity Rush 2.

Gravity Rush Remastered is a lot of fun. It’s a bit bare bones and doesn’t quite live up to its potential, but for a £20 release it’s definitely worth it. It’s got me excited for the sequel, which I suppose was the entire point of this release!

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Shovel Knight for Wii U, 3DS, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

Every so often I think I’m bored of 2D platformers, until I play the next amazing one. It’s weird that the act of moving left to right and jumping, the most classic of gameplay actions, can be made to feel fresh in so many different ways. Although Shovel Knight evokes an NES aesthetic, it isn’t simply an exercise in nostalgia, being an exceedingly fun and challenging game in its own right.

Shovel Knight instantly separates itself from its NES inspirations by actually having a rather nice little story. Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were friends (or maybe more) who adventured together before a journey to the Tower of Fate sees Shield Knight possessed by a mysterious amulet and sealed inside the tower. Grieving for his lost love, Shovel Knight quits adventuring. In his absence, a malevolent Enchantress rises and brings evil to the land. Upon hearing that the Tower of Fate has been unsealed, Shovel Knight sets forth to rescue Shield Knight, but finds his way blocked by eight Knights loyal to the Enchantress; The Order of No Quarter.

The story line is light, but is pretty much a perfect example of how a little bit of added context can help to elevate an experience. There’s just enough to make me care about what happens to Shovel Knight, but not too much that it gets in the way of the gameplay. This is a lesson that I’d like to see companies like Nintendo learn; I have to say, I much prefer Shovel Knight’s approach to story over the not-really-bothering approach we see in most other 2D platformers.

Shovel Knight gets the basics very right, with tight and responsive controls and a surprising amount of flexibility for playstyle. You fight using your trusty shovel and can also pogo on foes, DuckTales style. It’s the genius level and enemy design that truly sets this game apart. Every single level adds some interesting new mechanic or twist on expectation with some fantastic boss fights to cap off each one. I’m generally not a fan of boss fights in platformers, but Shovel Knight’s combat feels better than any other 2D platformer I can recall. There’s a lot of room for experimenting with different play styles, with a load of extra tools which can be unlocked. All of them are useful in their own way and allow you to approach many challenges in a variety of different ways, building replay value through strong mechanics rather than just a simple NG+ (although there is one of those too). Shovel Knight just feels good to play, which is the strong foundation on which all the other stuff is built.

There’s a fair but more going on in Shovel Knight than just the main stages; there are a handful of optional boss fights as well as two villages where you can purchase upgrades to things like your health, magic and armour. These are all bought with treasure, which can be found scattered liberally throughout the levels. The treasure hunting aspect is built closely into the level design, with all levels containing secret, challenging areas where extra treasure can be gained. The only punishment for death is losing some of your treasure, which appears floating where you died so you can pick it up again, Dark Souls style. Again, Shovel Knight shows an underlying canniness in it’s design; in many games the currency can feel awkwardly separate from what you’re actually doing, but there’s an immediacy to the reward of collecting treasure which other games lack. To be honest, if the treasure was gained by killing enemies and was called EXP we’d be calling this an RPG. Powering up Shovel Knight is satisfying and provides an immediate noticeable boost and can make taking unwise risks for more treasure irresistibly tempting.

I thought I was done with the pixel art thing, but I guess not because Shovel Knight is beautiful. The world and enemies are bursting with character, using the retro style to create something which feels new and fresh. The music is great too, with a lovely chiptune soundtrack. Shovel Knight does well what a lot of other people have done badly and proves that, even if the aesthetic could be described as retro, the experience can still look, sound and feel fresh.

Shovel Knight is a tight, challenging little platformer that is so much more than mere nostalgia. It succeeds in pretty much every goal it sets for itself. In an industry groaning under the weight of quirky indie platformers, Shovel Knight stands apart.

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Tearaway Unfolded for PS4

I’ve long been curious about the PS Vita; it has some really interesting looking games in its library and a fiercely devoted fanbase. Sadly, I already have one underdog console I love irrationality despite a dearth of games; Wii U. Thankfully, Sony seem to have read the writing on the wall and seem in the process of porting most of the best looking exclusives over to PS4. This must be a bit galling for the Vita owners and I sympathise, but for me, it’s great!

In Tearaway you can choose to play as the male Iota or the female Atoi, a letter made sentient and given limbs that must be delivered to the player. You must make your way to rift in the sky, a rift to our ‘real’ world while You manipulate the world to help your protagonist make their journey as a godlike figure from the rift. The actual narrative itself in Tearaway is likeable, but the way that it brings the player themselves in as a figure is really interesting. It’s all very meta and interesting and succeeds in making you feel more personally involved in all the whimsical silliness going on.

I normally don’t talk about visuals until the end of a review, but the visual style is so tied into the core mechanics of Tearaway that I can’t avoid it. The world of Tearaway is based almost entirely on papercraft and this ties into the core mechanics in a way more profound than the similar concept Paper Mario series. It looks lovely, with a massive variety which ranges from colourful and lively to genuinely spooky and striking. The attention to detail is astonishing, with simple things like the way your character moves becoming a joy to behold. The music is very nice too, with a strong Celtic influence featuring lots of violin. There are two voiced roles who do a good job narrating the plot. All tied around a lovely 60FPS framerate, Tearaway is a feast for the senses.

Tearaway Unfolded instantly appealed to me because it’s a colourful 3D platformer, a neglected genre which first brought me into gaming. The core jumping and running mechanics aren’t really the best and can’t compete with the precision of a 3D Mario game, but that doesn’t end up being the focus. Tearaway Unfolded feels like a really good console launch game, in that it uses pretty much every bit of functionality that the PS4 controller has. You’ll be swiping the touchpad to create gusts of wind, tilting it to move things around and shining a light from it onto the world. Yes, these are gimmicks, but they are actually used for some pretty clever tricks. Unlike a lot of games like this where you simply get a new trick for a level and mostly abandon the old ones, Tearaway crescendos as you end up using pretty much every mechanic in the final sections, making things complicated but never convoluted. This being a 3D platformer there are the expected camera issues, which wound up being my biggest irritation. It’s not a deal breaker or anything, but it doesn’t always work as well as it should. Precise jumping is tricky too and Tearaway is at its best where it focuses on its unique gimmicks rather than clever platforming. There is a combat system, but it’s not particularly fun or challenging and I almost always wanted it to be over.

Although obviously not so much so as LittleBigPlanet, Tearaway Unfolded is a love letter to creativity. You’ll frequently be asked to draw new things to put on to the environment, which I’m sure worked well on the Vita’s touch screen but really doesn’t on the PS4 touchpad. It’s a nice touch and I’m such a crap artist it makes little difference, but I imagine that if you take pride in your artwork this may be an irritation. Your creations pop up regularly and it’s nice to feel that you’ve put your stamp on the world. Tearaway is very concerned with making your experience feel personal and while I suspect that most of this personalisation is an illusion it is a convincing feeling one.

Tearaway Unfolded lacks the simple purity of other 3D platformers, but it makes up for it in imagination and engaging gimmickry. Tearaway bamboozles you with charm and ideas and it’s easy to let yourself get carried along for the ride; it’s not the deepest or most fulfilling experience and I doubt I’ll be thinking about it for weeks afterwards, but as a light gaming snack it cannot be faulted.

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