Friday, 9 February 2018

Assassin's Creed Origins - Review

Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), PC 

There was a great sense of expectation with Assassin’s Creed Origins. For the first time in almost ten years, Ubisoft’s monolithic franchise had decided to take a year off in order to hone its latest offering into something that wasn’t simply a morass of bugs and re-hashed mechanics.

I don’t mean to sound too harsh when I talk about the series either. For all my criticisms of its more recent instalments, I want the series to be good, and regardless of what Ubisoft choose to do with it each year, I always find myself curious enough to play the darn things, even if they don’t end up being all that impressive or different from one another.

Assassin’s Creed Origins longer development is immediately noticeable. Locations and environments have never been a weak point in the series. After all, it’s arguably the primary idea at the heart of the games; letting players clamber all over historical locations.

Yet, visually at least, Ancient Egypt is a step forward for Ubisoft. The atmosphere, the cities, the pyramids. It’s the first time since Assassin’s Creed 3 that the developers have carved out a game space that looks and sometimes feels like a real place, rather than simply a host to slap a load of map icons.

The game’s sweeping vistas and epic scope are fitting, considering the rest of the game has undergone a similar overhaul. Gone is the Batman-esque rhythm combat that had been tinkered and tweaked to oblivion over the course of numerous instalments. In its place is part Witcher 3 and part Destiny, as Ubisoft have the series go full RPG. Numbers flash up when you hit enemies, weapons have dps ratings, and quests have recommended levels.

The combat has changed dramatically in order to fit this new focus. Origins adopts a typical third-person fighting system, along with a standard lock-on button and light and heavy attacks. I could at this point compare the system to a certain game by From Software, but I won’t, because at least five other reviews have already done so.

In actual fact, the combat has less in common with that particular game and more in common with Ubisoft’s own For Honor. Fighting is slow and sluggish with a heavy weight behind it, even when you’re wielding the lighter weapons. Enemy attacks flash briefly before connecting, highlighting when and where you should be timing your parries.

It’s an intriguing system for the series to adopt, and definitely makes for more involving fights than in the previous games. Between the five or so different weapon types, there’s a little variety here; with some weapons being lighter and faster, such as daggers and swords, whilst clubs and axes are slower but with better reach and damage.

Other game elements return but have been given a significant trim even as the scope and size of the game has grown. Scrounging up crafting materials to upgrade your gear is still present but isn’t the giant, unwieldy and convoluted nonsense it had become in the later instalments, as well as in the more recent Far Cry games.

With no base to upgrade, ship to improve or random areas to free from enemy control, the game instead devotes most of its time to expanding on its side missions. Pulling straight from the Witcher 3 handbook, these are little “mini-episodes” of story and gameplay that dot the map and have you doing everything from helping a family dealing with rampaging hippos, to helping a small village cure a plague.

It’s here where Assassin’s Creed Origins stumbles the most. It’s easy to see what the intention was. Coupled with more time and effort, each of these side quests has been given more attention, fleshed out with their own stories and locations.

However, that writing simply isn’t very good. Origins side stories are worse than filler, they’re simply boring. It’s painfully obvious from the outset that Ubisoft’s writers aren’t equipped to write good RPG-style quests, and this is compounded by the fact that the player has no choice in how these episodes play out in terms of dialogue choices and what have you.

This would perhaps be fine if the side content were optional, but even describing it as side content is somewhat misleading. Assassin’s Creed Origins takes its obsession with numbers and damn well runs with it in the most cack-handed fashion. Should you fall a level or two below the recommended level for a quest you can almost guarantee getting one-shotted by whatever enemy happens to be roaming around. Likewise, find yourself a few levels above a given mission and it ceases to be a challenge at all.

This means that, regardless of your investment in the game’s side quests, you’ll have to hunt them down because you’ll need the experience, and given that experience is higher on the more higher ranked side quests, you’ll constantly be chasing after a vague Goldilocks zone of quests with decent enough rewards but that are at just the right level range that you don’t get obliterated by attempting them.

All of this then, is in service of the game’s main thrust: its story, its main quest. It could be argued that, in some of the previous games, the story had become secondary to the myriad of “additional content” and hoards of map icons to chase after. Here, though, given the games stripped back mechanics and less things to do it becomes a much bigger focus.

Unfortunately, Ubisoft take the blunt cookie-cutter approach here that they do with the rest of the game’s writing. Bayek is a man out for revenge. The Order (read: Templars) have murdered his son and now he’s out to kill of the bastards.

Origins does mix this rather bland and basic revenge plot up a little bit by also involving Bayek’s wife, Aya. Throughout the game the pair work together to check everyone off their hit list, with some missions having you switch over to Aya.

Initially, there’s some interesting drama to be mined out of how each of the parents deals with their grief, which is helped by some surprisingly strong voice acting from its two leads. Abubakar Salim, who plays Bayek, is especially good. Bayek is consumed by revenge to the point where it’s all that matters, whilst Aya puts her faith in helping Cleopatra secure the Egyptian throne. On the odd occasion, the game seems to hint that becoming a pair of kill-happy thugs in service to a monarch might not be the best way to overcome the loss of your only child, but any self-reflexive writing on Ubisoft’s part is quickly buried long before the game rolls around to its climax.

The best way to describe Assassin’s Creed Origins is as a MORPG: a massive online role-playing game. From its Destiny-style equipment system, to its “go here do A, do B, get reward” mission structure, it’s an MMO in every way except that it’s played solo. Its world is massive, and gorgeous, but is also a hollow and empty time sink. A few of the game’s side quests are perhaps more engaging than others, but that involves sifting through all the chaff to get to the few good ones. And it’s a moot point because the game expects you to clear out most of them regardless, so that you level up enough.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is this is another Assassin’s Creed, and by now you should know what that entails.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy - Review

Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PS4

I’ve described Gears of War as the meat and potatoes of gaming; attractive visuals, third-person cover shooter, perfectly passable campaign, online multiplayer, totally forgettable once you’ve finished it. Everything that Microsoft wants to sell with its brand, in particular the Xbox brand, Gears of War is designed to do.

It’s safe to say that Uncharted is Sony’s twist on a meat and potatoes game to sell its brand. There’s differences, a heavier focus on platforming; a holdover from Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter games, a bigger technological push in regards to motion capture as well as a more cinematic focus overall. Still, Sony’s meat and potatoes.

Despite ostensibly being a DLC expansion, rather than a full-fat fifth instalment, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy sticks to this mantra. Go places, platform, shoot some guys, platform some more, rinse and repeat.

It’s a formula that’s been in place for four games now, five if you count the PS Vita instalment. I wrote last year that I felt Uncharted 4 was something of a dull exercise in repeating what had already gone by, suffering both from a sense of “here we go again” and a weird tonal shift that I suspect came from Amy Hennig no longer being at the director’s helm.

That being said, The Lost Legacy does initially seek to shake things up. A neon-stained trek through India during the game’s opening chapter is by far the game’s standout moment, ditching the typical Indiana Jones schtick for something that’s a little different.

Claudia Black reprises her role as Chloe Frazer and is instantly one of the best things about the entire game. She’s by far the best of the series’ supporting cast; a devil on Drake’s shoulder during the second game. Not a bad person, but a subtle contrast to Nolan North’s clean-cut everyman.

The game also brings back Nadine Ross. Ross was a weird character in Uncharted 4, the “sub-boss” if you think of the game as following the Indiana Jones plot formula, and a character that seemed to linger around for far longer than necessary only to not really do anything by the game’s climax.

Her appearance here seems to be to rectify her rather bland writing in the previous game by giving her a little more depth. Whilst you play as Frazer, Nadine is present throughout almost all of the game’s runtime, the two making for an unlikely duo as they traipse across India looking for a new McGuffin, the legendary tusk of Ganesh.

Thematically, this does enable The Lost Legacy to ameliorate some of the series’ issues. Part of the problem of emulating pulpy serial adventures is that you inevitably recreate some of the political baggage that comes with it. Despite Nolan North being as affable as he is, there’s still the awkward act of playing as a white guy traipsing through foreign country after foreign country, leaving it a pile of rubble as Drake loots another priceless artefact.

The game is able to side-step that a little by having you play has Chloe instead. And the game’s script is keen to impress on the play that Chloe’s quest is one not (solely) driven by money, but rather one of family, as both her parents (and her father’s death) are directly tied with the search for the tusk.

All this plays out over the backdrop of the typical array of explosive gunfights mixed in with bouts of exploring and platforming. An early chapter sees the game open up, Assassin’s Creed-style and have the player visit several locations in a non-linear fashion.

Other things remain the same, and it’s here where it’s hard not to just shrug my shoulders and glibly say, it’s Uncharted, you know how it plays already. There’s a slightly heavier focus on stealth that comes from the game’s brief flirtation with open-world gameplay. The looser shooting, along with the “3D” nature of many gunfights means you can be firing at enemies from the side of walls, clambering up cliffs to drop down on them or dragging them off the edge of ledges. In whatever way possible, Naughty Dog make a concerted effort for the game to not become a case of simply crawling forward from cover to cover.

Perhaps the most resounding criticism of The Lost Legacy is just that. That’s it. You’ve played an Uncharted game? You’ve played this one. The original trilogy had a neat visual structure that had each game divided into different environmental types; jungles for the first, snowy mountains for the second, deserts for the third. Here, it’s just pretty vistas in another gorgeous location.

It’s hard not to shake the fact that Naughty Dog couldn’t have done more to mix up the formula. The push to go for a lead cast made of two women of colour is commendable but isn’t matched by any similar progressive or experimental outlook when it comes to the gameplay.

Even the plot itself suffers from the same predictable beats. The villain is cookie-cutter, the pacing dictated by a loud moment, gunfight, set-piece followed by intimate moment as Chloe and Nadine learn a bit more about one another. Rinse and repeat.

Five games in the formula has become somewhat tired and rot. More needed to be changed than simply using a different lead. The game comes across as an exercise in franchise management; a brief reshuffle whilst Naughty Dog work out where to go from here, than as unique experiment for the franchise, something which the smaller development time and slimmer budget would have presumably enabled.

If that’s what you were after. Great! It’s Uncharted, you’ll find it here. If you were after something more original you’ll only find an increasingly old and tired legacy here.

Friday, 22 December 2017

LogicButton's Best Games of 2017

The last few months have been a bit hectic, hence the haphazard update schedule on the site. Still, I thought it would be good to sign the year off with a look of what I found to be the best games of the year.

I should preface this by saying there were loads of really obvious releases that I haven’t got around to playing yet. Super Mario Odyssey, Assassin’s Creed Origins, Wolfenstein 2...and that’s just the AAA stuff. I’m waiting to get cracking with Danganronpa 3, a series that I’ve already made clear how much I adore.

All in all, one hell of a backlog.

Putting all that aside for the moment, I still played through loads of games this year, many of my thoughts on them documented over the course of (*checks site*), thirty or so posts this year. So, with the obvious caveats in mind, here’s my picks for the best games of 2017.

Minimalist platformers are easy to find post-Ico, and it’s a genre that both indie developers and the AAA crowd are happy to pull from. I’ve just gotten around to playing Breath of the Wild and you can see Fumito Ueda’s style all over it.

Rime is very similar, and it’d be easy to brush it off as just a small budget imitator. Between the gentle pace, the art style and the terrific sound design however, it manages to strike a great balance that works incredibly well.

It can be hard to really “sell” Rime as a concept or game since so much of what it does well has already been done. It’s not particularly challenging, nor all that original, but that doesn’t always matter so long as you get the execution (and emotional pay-off) just right.

Take the bare bones structure of X-COM and Mariofy it. That’s all that happened here, but it worked so darn well. Ubisoft got to show that they can do things that don’t involve farming out ubiquitous sequels for their primary franchises and instead captured how Mario should look and play perfectly, only with a genre that he’s never gotten to grips with yet.

X-COM purists might recoil at how it stomps all over the deep, complex mechanics of Firaxis’ classic, and I’d be lying if parts of Mario + Rabbids aren’t a little shallow, but that’s not enough to prevent it being thoroughly playable from beginning to end.

I am the primary target of Resident Evil 7. I get the level design nods and winks, and the throwbacks to the original game. There’s the obvious references; the shotgun in the dining room, the “mansion” followed by the trip to the other part of the house and a Hunter-style POV shot.

Beyond that though, there’s all the really clever elements of its design. How the Baker family are a retooled and repurposed Nemesis for a new blend of survival horror. In fact, anything to do with the Bakers in Resident Evil 7 is pure gold. How many ways are there to finish that encounter in the garage again?

Despite its critics, Resident Evil 7 isn’t a hashed-together cash-in on fan nostalgia. I mean, nostalgia is baked into how the game works but it’s not specifically the reason that makes it good. Sure, the ending hour or two are pretty poor, but this is the closest that Capcom have come to getting what to do with their most prized series in well over a decade.

Persona 5 is a good game, but it’s an incredible game trapped under some mediocre writing and/or an iffy translation.

The first episode of Persona 5, that has you dealing with both teen suicide and child abuse at a school, sets up exactly what the game is going for. This is a darker, moodier piece than Persona 4. Persona 5 manages to do this without exploiting its topics. Anne and Ryuuji’s twisted relationship with the gym teacher, Futaba’s battle with social anxiety, everything this game deals with it has a genuine warmth and earnestness to it…

...but it had the potential to be so much more. It’s clear that there were reams of extra material that had to be cut due to time constraints. Shido’s role as a corporate snake playing with fascist/hard-right politics is alluded to very weakly rather than dealt with head on. There’s so many great themes that Persona 5 touches on without really going all the way and the fearlessness of the opening ten hours or so sets up expectations that then don’t pay off.

All that aside it really is fantastic and is only a slight disappointment when compared to how good the previous two games were.

I finished this game and my first thought was that I wanted to play more of it. Even good games these days seem anxious about having smaller runtimes. Little Nightmares does its thing however, and then it’s gone.

As with Rime, it’s the execution that works here more than the concept. This is little more than a reworked series of LittleBigPlanet levels, but the atmosphere, story and world design, all of which are conveyed through play, make it way more than the sum of its parts.

Signing Off

So there’s my games of 2017. Like I said, the last few months have been pretty chaotic and have eaten into the amount of time I’ve been able to devote to the site. I’ll be back next year though, and I’m hoping to expand on the typical review format with some pieces focusing on elements of game design and generally expanding the site some more.

Oh, and keep an eye on the YouTube channel, too. I’ve been meaning to put a few more commentaries together over there so be on the look out for those next year.

Have a great Christmas folks, and I’ll be seeing you again in January!

Friday, 15 December 2017

Outlast - Whistleblower - Review

Developer: Red Barrels
Publisher:  Red Barrels
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

[Note: I've written reviews for various sites over the years and, inevitably, things get removed, disappear or generally vanish into the deep spaces of the interwebs. I figured some of those pieces could be put to better use up here on the site. So, voila, every now and then you'll see something I wrote for somewhere else.]

There are some truly appalling sights in Outlast: Whistleblower. Horrible things are done to bodies, and nasty people chase you around threatening to do unspeakable things. It's really, really, bleak. But is it scary? That's a little more complicated.

To anyone that played Red Barrel's original Outlast earlier this year (or last year, if you're on PC), this DLC expansion is very much the same kind of thing. Taking the general hide-and-seek template that can be traced back to Capcom's Clock Tower, the game has you scurrying around environments in the dark, with the only tool at your disposal being a HD camera and a few spare batteries.

Whistleblower is less a sequel to the original game and more of a parallel story. One of the main flaws Outlast had was the vague, rather annoying, cliff-hanger ending, and, without going into spoilers, this expansion doesn't do all that much to clear that up. Instead, with this DLC we get to see what happened to Mount Massive Asylum from the inside. As Miles Upshur, we only got to see the proverbial poop after it had hit the fan; probing the haunting, blood-covered hallways as an outsider. With new protagonist Waylon Park however, we're much closer to the horror, and pretty much from the outset are just trying to escape.

Whistleblower opens in a very Half-Life-style fashion, with our protagonist being ordered to carry out his job in the labs by fixing a computer. After a brief set-up we're thrust in to a very similar nightmare, albeit with a few new environments and some new characters.

Red Barrels do a pretty good job upping the stakes for a game that's built around nothing more than running and hiding. One early scenario sees you creeping through a section of the asylum whilst you're doggedly pursued by a bone saw-wielding cannibal. He's an interesting villain and the tell-tale "whiz-whiz" of the bone saw is both chilling and at the same time an inspired touch of game design; allowing you to better pin-point his whereabouts without exposing yourself too much. 

On the whole, this expansion is a bit tougher. It's clear that Red Barrels assumed you've honed your running and hiding skills on the original game and so up the challenge pretty much from the get go. Some locations don't always have obvious exit points, and escaping from enemies still requires you to have to get uncomfortably close to them at certain points, skirting around their field of vision so you can escape through a nearby ventilation shaft.

For the most part, if you enjoyed the original this is essentially more of the same. Problems arise however, when we start asking whether Whistleblower is actually scary and, unfortunately, it's not. What's ironic is that this isn't down to any lack of trying, Red Barrels to their utmost to try and unsettle you. As previously mentioned, there's some truly horrible sights Whistleblower, and its final "villain", who I won't spoil, definitely helps end the game on a high note much more than the entity that chased you around at during Outlast's conclusion.

No, Whistleblower's problem, scare-wise, is that it tries too hard. Booming orchestral stings, copious amounts of blood, and the constant sight of dead bodies desensitizes you to the horror the game is trying to create. The game is at its creepiest when it simply drenches you in the crushing atmosphere of Mount Massive Asylum. Unfortunately, the developers seem to be so worried that you'll not find this scary that they accompany every new location with an abundance of jump-scares and heaps of gore. At some point it simply goes over-the-top and almost risks becoming a parody of itself: a gory, overly loud theme park ride with almost non-stop "boo" moments.

If it were just a little more subtle then, in many respects, the game would have been much better. There's no denying Red Barrels talent, and spotting an asylum patient at the other end of the hall with your camera's night-vision still has the power to unsettle you.

There's still plenty to enjoy here with Whistleblower however, it's almost as long as the original game for starters, and as a conclusion to the Outlast story it's much more satisfying. With a bit more restraint here and there, this could have been a genuinely disturbing survival horror outing. As it stands, it's a gory thrill ride through a spooky building, which is still worth playing.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider - Review

Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks 
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

Dishonored is a series I find endlessly frustrating. On the one hand, it’s a set of games that I think I should really like; there’s the unique art style, the (in theory) interesting world, and a fairly flexible game system that allows you to play in multiple ways.

All this is scuppered however, by the fact that there’s something inevitably bland about the game’s design, despite its attempts to avoid typical fantasy tropes. The game would seem to want players to care about its world; after all, a big element of the game is its chaos system, yet, most Dishonored characters are dull robots with little in the way of character. As I said in my previous review, Arkane Studios seem to care a lot about making an intriguing world but don’t seem as desperate to tell interesting stories in that world that they’ve gone to the trouble of creating, and I think that’s a huge part of the series’ problem.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider switches up a few formula staples. For starters, all of your powers are available right off the bat. Playing as Billie Lurk, you have three special abilities at your disposal; a teleportation skill, basically Billie’s version of the typical Blink ability that forms the foundation of Dishonored’s level design, a disguise power that allows you to assume the faces of enemies and pass as them for a limited time, and Foresight, which freezes time and enables you to scout ahead outside of your body.

The streamlined approach to your skill suite does a lot to help Death of the Outsider keep its focus. Without a broad spectrum of powers to check and balance, Arkane are better able to grasp the myriad ways that a player can approach each challenge.

This does come at the expense of some of the previous games’ freedom, mind. There’s a clear focus on stealth this time around. Of course, that’s always been a heavy focus for the series but here it borders on mandatory. Billie’s combat equipment lacks some of the heavier arsenal that Emily and Corvo had access to. Her gun for instance, is a silenced wrist shooter.

The game’s levels have been designed around this narrower skill-set. Earlier chapters have you skulking around Karnaca, trying to track down clues about the Outsider. It’s the third act that’s the most engaging however; an elaborate heist inside a bank vault. It plays to the game’s stealthy focus whilst still giving players a broad range of ways to tackle the challenge; with multiple entry points and ways to get to your target.

Other sequences suffer from the short development time, however. Sections of each level have characters parading around that you need to off or steal something from in a really clunky and artificial manner, emphasizing that this is in fact a game space and not a lived in world. In another game this wouldn’t be too bad, but if there’s one thing this series has nailed its the ability to immerse the player. Throughout Death of the Outsider though, that illusion regularly dissipates as the game makes concessions to its time and budget.

It doesn’t help that many of the series’ flaws haven’t been fixed. Combat is still a clunky button-mash that’s not made any better now that most of the cooler toys have been removed. Meanwhile, whilst stealth is clearly the way to go, the game has a wonky system even at the best of times, with some characters lacking any peripheral awareness whatsoever, whilst others spot you from a mile away.

It’s the game’s finale that’s the most frustrating. As I’ve said, Dishonored is a series with impeccable world building but frankly dreadful writing. Hiring Rosario Dawson and Michael Madsen to voice your characters will only get you so far, and by about the halfway mark, any attachment you (tried) to have with these characters will be long gone. This is a game where Daud, Billie Lurk’s mentor, chides her on snooping through his journal which he hints that he’s hidden...only it was hidden right on top of his bed, in plain sight.

Without the cookie-cutter revenge plot that the previous two games used, Death of the Outsider struggles even more than its predecessors did. The Outsider makes for an annoying, bland and vague villain, spouting nonsense and gibberish which, whilst that might be the point, (he’s somewhere between an Alistair Crowley-type and something out of Lovecraft) doesn’t make for engaging storytelling. It’s frankly laughable when, during the game’s final scenes, you’re left to decide whether to save this stupid character or murder him. There’s zero attachment there, zilch, I wasn’t feeling remorse or anger towards this figure, simply indifference.

Perhaps the biggest risk that Death of the Outsider takes in its trimming down of the game’s structure is the removal of the chaos system. This is the one game mechanic that directly tied into its best feature; its world design, and is sorely missed here. Without any incentive to play a certain way, and with the breadth of your skill-set curtailed by the smaller pool of powers, the game frequently feels hamstrung and limited, lacking the replayability that the previous instalments offered.

To be fair, the game does provide some incentive to stick around in levels and root out some extra things to do. Each chapter has a series of contracts; basic assassinations and thefts that you can carry out. The big reward for doing them, aside from the satisfaction, is the money you accrue can be spent on upgrades to your gear. Only, the upgrades are trivial at best, bigger ammo pouches, quieter footsteps, it’s rarely interesting and makes you less inclined to risk being spotted in a level just to go after an additional mark for some extra cash.

It’s a little unfair to compare Death of the Outsider to the previous games simply because this clearly doesn’t have the same time and budget spent on it. It’s a DLC expansion and should be treated as such. However, the best expansions do just that, they expand the concepts of their parent game in new and interesting ways. Death of the Outsider tries to do this by shrinking back its scope and focus on a narrower array of gameplay options in a more intimate fashion. In doing so however, it robs the series of its greatest strengths whilst also highlighting many of its weaknesses.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Outlast - Review

Developer: Red Barrels
Publisher: Red Barrels
Platforms: Linux, PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

[Note: I've written reviews for various sites over the years and, inevitably, things get removed, disappear or generally vanish into the deep spaces of the interwebs. I figured some of those pieces could be put to better use up here on the site. So, voila, every now and then you'll see something I wrote for somewhere else.]

There is a school of thought within horror film theory that the rise of the found-footage genre is a direct response to the growing popularity of video games. After all, how could horror films compete with the terrifying experience of actually being chased by a monster? Games didn't just let you watch horrible things happen, they made you a part of it. Hence the need for a first-person perspective within a horror film.

Outlast sees this idea go full-circle with the main character armed not with a gun, but with a humble HD camera and a couple of spare batteries. The most prevalent theme within modern survival horror has been the quest to disempower the player character as much as possible; harkening back not only to Frictional Games' Amnesia and Penumbra series but also earlier, to the likes of Clock Tower.

Playing as oddly-named journalist Miles Upshur, the game has you investigating Mount Massive Asylum, a mental-health institute that has long been associated with patient abuse and MKUltra-type experiments. It's classic pulpy horror and story-wise the game is effectively an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's From Beyond short story, albeit with a healthy dollop of other influences thrown in.

However, it's not necessarily the plot that makes Outlast so compelling but the tangible, crushing atmosphere that hangs over the entire asylum. Creeping about, with the night-vision setting on your camera being the only way to peer into the darkness, Outlast's best scares are those that result from you psyching yourself out.

Of course, the monsters that stalk the asylum's halls are pretty unsettling too. The chunky, mutant humans are a slight disappointment after the incredibly unsettling opening segment. Whilst they're certainly going to give you a fright, there's none of the terrifying "what the hell is that" moments that you get from say, classic Silent Hill.

In a surprise turn, not all the characters you encounter in Outlast are a threat. Many people, despite suffering from some mysterious illness that has left their flesh hideously disfigured, are still happy to talk to Miles and in some cases even offer him help. It's here that developer Red Barrels manage to play with your expectations; by not making every figure immediately hostile, you never know when the game is going to pull the rug out from under your feet.

And be prepared to have that rug pulled a hell of a lot. Outlast is a game built on its ability to make you jump, sometimes when you genuinely least expect it. Since you're unable to fight enemies, much like in Amnesia your only solution is to run and hide until the horrible thing(s) chasing you give up. Scrambling underneath a filthy, rusted bed while a knife-wielding freak stalks the corridor nearby will have you craning the view has far as possible in order to keep track of where he is, your heart still racing even when he's wandered off to check somewhere else.

Every area of the game is essentially a slightly different spin on these hide and seek mechanics. Exploring Mount Massive Asylum is enjoyable in itself however. Picking up medical documents will shine some light and what seems to have gone off here and the frantic bloodied scrawls and terrified mutterings of some of its more lucid patients allows you to steadily piece together bits of the story.

Whilst the Lovecraft influence is obvious, there's also a strong influence of Clive Barker nestled in there, especially in some of the character designs, along with a strong nod to various horror films from Saw all the way to Jacob's Ladder.

Outlast's biggest problem is arguably the fact that it's most eager fans; the people craving for the abundance of horror games that came out in the late '90s, are likely the ones that are going to be most disappointed, or at the very least, the least likely to be scared.

It's quite easy for those that regularly play video games to notice the chinks in Outlast's armour. The boxes that you have to occasionally have to squeeze through aren't there just for the sake of a different animation, but so that the enemy's A.I. path-finding can't follow you too far. Likewise, picking up a quest-related item is bound to cause something to jump out, and it does. Every single time. So you're always prepared for it.

Outlast is effectively an interactive thrill-ride and the minute you begin to see the strings attached and begin second-guessing the developers its power to scare you quickly wanes. There's also the problem that the enemy designs simply aren't varied enough, eventually one rotting naked man, begins to look like every other rotting naked man.

This isn't to say that Outlast fails in what it sets out to do. Throughout its four to five hour runtime it maintains a remarkable feeling of tension and its level design alone puts many bigger budget games to shame. Likewise, the limited mechanics which amount to just running and hiding manage to remain engaging for far longer that you'd expect them to. Again, the design of the asylum manages to ensure that each encounter feels unique and unsettling in different ways, challenging players to remember their surroundings and make note of potential hiding places and dead-ends.

With the first batch of DLC content being released in April we're certainly not finished with the mystery that surrounds Mount Massive Asylum. Hopefully, this episode will shed some more light on the game's rather ambiguous ending, and more importantly provide us with some more nerve-jangling scares.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Sexy Brutale - Review

Developer: Cavalier Game Studios/Tequila Works
Publisher: Tequila Works
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Switch, Xbox One 

A puzzle game doesn’t have to be complex or even all that difficult to necessarily be fun. The Sexy Brutale is a perfect example of that.

Messing around with Groundhog Day-time loops is nothing new for video games, and indeed, the basic gameplay in The Sexy Brutale is nothing new or overwhelmingly original, but it is well executed.

The game effectively plays out as a series of “anti-hitman” puzzles, as you go about exploring the Sexy Brutale casino and attempting to undo the mysterious murders that take place there. Characters roam about the casino on a strict timetable, turning up in certain rooms at specific times of day. Given the game’s time travelling concept, you’ll quickly be “killed” (i.e. forced to start the day over) should you linger too long in a room with another guest, or when the entirety of a day has passed.

It makes it so the basic fun of The Sexy Brutale is about pinning down who is where at what time. An early encounter involves stopping two murders at once; a blind singer and her gambling-addicted husband. The singer gets gobbled up by a giant spider, whilst the husband gets poison added to his last round of drinks. It’s your job to make sure the husband doesn’t get poisoned, and also figures out what’s happened to his wife before it’s too late. Like with any game about people being assassinated, whether you be the one stopping the assassination or carrying it out, there’s a weird, morbid thrill about preventing these elaborate and bizarre crimes.

In part, this is thanks to the game’s gorgeous art style. It’s reminiscent of Viewtiful Joe; squat characters with giant heads and exaggerated faces. The casino opens up almost like a little toy set-piece, the camera almost firmly stuck above the action as if you’re hovering above and peering down at it.

Whilst the basic gameplay is a case of working out routes, solving a few puzzles by using item A with item B, there’s a steady trickle of additional abilities rolled out across the game’s svelte runtime to keep things from becoming stale. Each mask you acquire from rescuing one of the casino’s inhabitants imparts a new ability, such as improved hearing or the ability to shatter glass with your voice. This means the casino opens up in a logical fashion, with areas gated off until you’ve acquired a new ability by solving whatever murder is next on your list.

By doing so the developers manage player progression and reduce frustration. Rarely is there an area or encounter where things are too vague or cryptic to solve. The game world expands with each murder prevented, but never growing to the point where it becomes overwhelming.

In fact, if The Sexy Brutale has any major problem it’s perhaps that it’s too simple for too long. Anyone brought up on classic adventure games or survival horror titles will likely find the challenges here surprisingly simple, even when the game gears up for the climax. In one sense, this could be a criticism, but by keeping the game’s mechanics bare bones and instead focusing on the look and style of its world, The Sexy Brutale pitches itself as a game that just about anyone can enjoy, regardless of their knack for puzzles.

That being said, it feels as if something more could have been done with the game’s plot. It’s not terrible, but when the focus of the game is on basic puzzles, and you have an interesting world that has a funky, unique sense of style, the writing would have helped bring it together for the finishing touches.

Instead, the end game is somewhat disappointing. After slow-rolling its weird mystery throughout the rest of the game, the finale quickly tries to ape Undertale without any of the necessary character work or set-up to make that kind of thread pay off. It means that the story, while enjoyable enough, is slight and threadbare; fun whilst it’s unfolding but forgettable once it finishes.

That’s something that could summarise the whole of The Sexy Brutale come to think of it. Everything here works seamlessly; it’s fun, charming, fascinating to play and, hell, simply watch the game world hum along, and it paces itself perfectly through its short runtime. The only gripe is that it ends without much impression, once the credits roll, there’s little reason to return, and its writing and characters don’t leave you with enough impact to feel as if that was the point. A handful of collectibles and notes give completionists something to hunt after, but there’s hardly a great incentive to go rooting around for anything that’s not on the main path.

The Sexy Brutale is a fascinating, intricate little clockwork puzzle of a game. It’s well worth spending time with, just with the acknowledgement that, when it’s all over, it’s a case of having more style than substance.