Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Assassin's Creed : Syndicate - Review

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

The grappling hook, one of the few new additions in this latest Assassin’s Creed instalment, sums up all of the series problems. In theory it’s a pretty good addition to the game, it allows you to traverse London at a much faster rate. A jab of a button will send you hurtling up to the top of a building in mere seconds. Yet, despite all the good it does, it almost feels like it doesn’t belong in the game. After all, when this series started, wasn’t one of the core joys of the series the ability to climb anywhere? In its quest to make constant minor adjustments to an aging formula Assassin’s Creed Syndicate threatens to make its original gameplay obsolete.  

Now, it should be stressed that Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is an improvement on last year’s abysmal Unity, a game that was barely in working order upon release, and, even after an abundance of patches, still felt like little more than a lazy afterthought from Ubisoft. Initially, there’s quite a bit to get excited about with Syndicate; it feels like its stripping back the bloat of the series. After Black Flag and Rogue stretched the game into an almost overwhelming adventure, being left to simply explore London can be something of a relief.

Yet, it’s not long before the disappointment sets in. Ironically, Syndicate feels most like the original Assassin’s Creed game, in that it re-uses the same three or four activities in order to bulk out the majority of its gameplay. Whether its rescuing child labourers, assassinating Templar agents, or kidnapping criminals, all of the game’s moments essentially operate in the same way, merging into the same bland activity. That’s right, your modern shiny new game running on shiny new hardware feels like just like a game you played back in 2007…only now it has more glitches. 

The other major change this time around, aside from the aforementioned grappling hook, is the chance to play as two characters. The Frye twins are certainly more interesting than many other recent protagonists in the series, and their bickering and wobbly cooperation makes for more interesting characterization than the usual, dull, ominous-spouting bores that have usually taken up centre stage in these games since Ezio’s passing. 

Sadly, Ubisoft don’t leverage this element nearly enough, either in a narrative or gameplay sense. In terms of the story there’s an attempt to pit the brother and sister off as two different approaches to the same ideology, and, to begin with, it threatens to become somewhat interesting. Evie is the straight and narrow character, the one that does things by the books but also understands that the ends don’t always justify the means; blowing up a room full of Templars doesn’t do much good if you’ve also severely damaged the city’ infrastructure.

Jacob, meanwhile, is an Assassin more out of his own self-interest than for any lofty goals. Following the code is more an excuse to get into a fight or shoot someone than it is to genuinely change the world.

I give credit to Ubisoft for at least trying to explore this idea. For far too long now the Assassins have been little more than kill-happy thugs; little better than the Templars they despise. Their concept of “freedom”, as it’s depicted in most of the games, is crude and childish, seeing as the series attempts to comment on concepts such as freedom and equality without really addressing politics whatsoever. 

Yet, the rushed development still means that any hope for an entertaining plot is quickly scuppered. The Assassin’s overall goal is still nebulous and bizarre, with the only real objective being to steal the latest MacGuffin from the Templars. The game has the Frye twins up against Crawford Starrick, a Templar mastermind, yet, throughout the entire game he’s little more than a moustache twirling villain. It’s a great performance by Kris Holden-Ried but there’s little for him to do other than grumble incessantly as his entire Templar operation is slowly dismantled by two Assassins. It’s an episodic “villain of the month” affair as you slowly work your way through Starrick’s crew.

The Assassins are incredibly hypocritical too, I should point out. Whilst the previous games have had the Assassins aid revolutionary movements, by the end of the campaign, Evie and Jacob are happy to be knighted by Queen Victoria. This is minutes after, Evie angrily shouts at Starrick that “London belongs to the people!” Monarchy is great for the UK, apparently, but must be overthrown in America and France.

It doesn’t help that the open-ended nature of the game (you can continue playing any remaining side quests after the credits) means that the story must ensure that all the characters remain in exactly the same state before any major events happened. In other words, no one dies, everything remains the same, all to ensure you can keep running around the little virtual world completing all the identikit missions.

Sadly, the gameplay doesn’t benefit from two playable characters either. There’s some slight variations between Evie and Jacob. Whilst Evie is overall better at stealth, her brother is more capable in a fight. Yet, when it comes down to actually playing the game, you’d be hard-pressed for the most part to discern any tangible difference between characters, even after selecting different upgrades.

Syndicate’s RPG-lite elements occupy that space of looking important but not really doing anything that’s all that tangible. Levelling up your health, or how long it takes enemies to detect you, is about as exciting as it gets. Furthermore, some of the upgrades are downright stupid, with one granting you the “ability” to not have to press a button anymore whenever you’re threatening a guard. 

The equipment is hardly any better and suffers from that ugly, asinine menu-overload that Unity had smeared all over it. There’s dozens of weapons, and Ubisoft are keen to advertise that there’s more available on the online store, yet they all function exactly the same (provided they are of the same arbitrary level), with differences being entirely cosmetic.

The weapon system itself is split into three different types: knives, canes, and knuckle-dusters, all with variable stats. Canes, for example, are better at stunning, whilst knives kill faster. Yet, regardless of your weapon type of choice, the combat is still little more than vague button-mashing. It sort of plays like Rocksteady’s Batman games, but also has a very strange and poorly thought out combo system, which, when mapped to some frankly unresponsive controls, means fights are a total bore. 

That leaves stealth as the alternative option, but this oscillates between “merely bad” and “downright terrible”. Guards don’t have the same bizarre binocular vision that they had in Unity but instead suffer from some strange selective myopia. Sometimes they’ll spot you straight away, other times they’ll ignore you even when you’re right in front of them as they plod on along their robotically-planned routes.

Even the setting, that one consistently solid element of Assassin’s Creed, suffers this time around. Whilst Victorian London is impressive, it lacks the uniqueness of, say, Renaissance Italy or 18th Century America. Ubisoft’s guiding mantra has been to take players to historical periods they’ve never visited before in video games, and, whilst that’s technically true, even with Syndicate, we have played plenty of Steampunk games. It’s not a gigantic leap to get from Dishonoured to Victorian London.

Even the famous faces seem to have been selected in a hectic manner. Previous games weaved in characters from actual history with some degree of care, and had them fit organically into the story. By contrast, Syndicate simply lobs them at your face, or buries them away in the side content. Charles Darwin only turns up because he coincidentally finds himself creeping into a factory that Jacob’s trying to sneak into. Meanwhile, Karl Marx and Charles Dickens only bother to show up if you go and hunt down their bland “go here do A, then go here do B” bonus missions.

Everything about Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is half-hearted, which makes sense when it’s spent less than two years in development. It’s rushed, bland and suffers from the growing sense that this series has no idea where it’s going. The constant, incremental tinkering with the core mechanics is actually making them worse not better. Combat here is far clunkier and less satisfying than it was in Assassin’s Creed II.  

No doubt the annual release of this series will continue while ever there’s money to be made. Ubisoft have already announced two more instalments to their spin-off series, so another full-fledged release next year is highly likely. At one point, Assassin’s Creed, for better or worse, was the benchmark for open-world exploration; striking, original and accessible. Now though, in comparison to plenty of other more exciting, fresher and better made games, it’s beginning to look embarrassing. More so, year after year. 

Monday, 7 December 2015

Halo 5 : Guardians - Review

Developer: 343 Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform: Xbox One

Halo 4 marked the biggest creative turning point in the entire Halo series. It was the moment where Bungie handed the reins of their green-suited space marine to another developer and left. It’s for that reason that you can almost forgive Halo 4 for its safe approach, after Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach attempted to experiment with the core tone and formula of the series, Halo 4 stuck firmly to the original game’s roots. It’s a game that effectively shouts out “hey, look, we can do this too”, in an attempt to placate what could otherwise have been a nervous fan base.

So, with Halo 4 having laid out the groundwork of 343’s approach to the series, Halo 5: Guardians should be there shot at improving upon the formula. They’ve shown they can do Bungie, and emulate them fairly well, now’s the time to pull something new out of the hat.

Except, Halo 5 doesn’t do that. It’s perhaps the most safe and predictable instalment that the series has ever had. At least Halo 4 introduced the Prometheans and their weaponry, for better or worse. All we get here is the Prometheans all over again. 

That’s the major crux with Halo 5. Hardcore fans will no doubt be up in arms at anyone criticizing their gun-toting space man. After all, on the surface there’s seemingly nothing wrong with it: it looks great, sounds great and shooting that classic assault rifle still feels as satisfying as ever. All those little check boxes that the mainstream gaming press loves so much, well, Halo 5 pretty much checks all of them. Yet, dig around a little and you start asking for something more, something new and fresh. It’s a game that’s lacking and it’s not always entirely clear why that is. 

I once joked that Bungie got away with making the same game three times with the original Halo trilogy. The original game was so polished and unique for its time that they simply went and remade it twice over and hoped no one would notice. They even went as far as to practically reuse the same narrative beats in the story; introducing the Flood at the exact same point in both sequels and expecting the player to be just as shocked. In contrast to Halo 5, Halo 2 and Halo 3 feel like bold reinventions.

The most significant change this time round is that the single player campaign can played through with up to three other players. Should you play on your own those three spots are filled with A.I. companions. It informs a lot of the level design. There’s plenty of moments where it’s clear the game wants two players to act as an anvil, drawing the Covenant or Promethean’s fire, whilst the remaining two players wing around and flank from either side.

Halo 5’s campaign is serviceable but its beats all feel like weak copies of what the earlier games set out to do. There’s the same wide combat spaces to navigate, and there’s still some satisfaction to be had flanking enemies as you weave in and out of cover. There’s a fight with a Kraken at one point too, except this time, rather than taking place in a wide open battlefield like in Halo 3, it’s lodged in the middle of a cliff, making the whole thing less impressive because it feels that much more staged and controlled.

It’s a testament to the lasting quality of Halo’s core gameplay that, when it’s done right, it feels so fluid and has some genuine depth to it, and Halo 5 is no exception. Yet, for every engaging firefight that occurs they’ll be several battles that are lacklustre and have the game cramping you down bland, narrow hallways, rather than giving you the breadth and diversity that the best parts of the series are known for. 

The other major change this time around is the introduction of the jet pack. I say jet pack, it’s more of a speed boost, allowing you to zip left or right, preferably into cover. Likewise, if you’ve jumping in the air, looking down the iron-sights will slow your descent, allowing you to pull off that perfect headshot in mid-fall.

It explains why, even when the game forces you down those less interesting and narrow corridors, they typically remain much more vertical. There’s a real “height” to Halo 5’s gameplay and it’s perhaps the most significant change that the game does to the core level design. Sometimes it’s less Master Chief and more Mario as you clamber from ledge to ledge to get the drop on your enemies. Quite literally, I should say, as you now come equipped with a pretty satisfying ground pound. 

It’s something of a shame then, that those enemies remain disappointing. The Covenant comprise about half of the game’s enemies and still remain the most satisfying to fight. There’s an interesting dynamic going on as each enemy type requires different tactics. The Elites are more dangerous and require dedicated focus fire, but the little Grunts can be dangerous in numbers, especially if one decides to go suicidal and run at you with live grenades.

The Prometheans though, still remain the blandest of any Halo enemy. I grew tired of the original games continuing to rehash the same Flood monsters but I’d give anything to have them replace the dull, Tron-meets-Transformers aesthetic that the Prometheans have. It’s odd, but there’s little “weight” to the Promethean units, shooting at them lacks the visceral feedback that the Covenant possess and they likewise don’t have the same interesting hierarchy of Grunt-Jackal-Elite that’s been at the core of Halo’s combat design from the very beginning. 

There’s a similar like of inspiration when it comes to the boss encounters. Although, “encounters” is something of a misnomer. There’s one boss in Halo 5; singular, and you’ll encounter him god knows how many times throughout the course of the campaign. Sometimes he’ll multiply which means more of the same fight that feels less like Halo and more, ironically, like Destiny. It’s a dull grind as you wail on his health with the strongest weapon you have.

That’s one of the major problems with Halo 5’s campaign: its focus. It introduces four-player co-op but rather than enhance the gameplay it begins to morph it into a bland multiplayer off-shoot. Halo has never been a series heavy on story, but the focus on catering to a bunch of gun-happy players over the internet means that there’s a distinct loss of atmosphere and tension that was present in earlier instalments.

And while the “single” player takes the lion’s share of the flaws in Halo 5, the actual multiplayer is essentially more of the same. Granted, I’m not the kind of person to play endless amounts of online matches but the overwhelming feeling after several hours of play was a resounding “meh.” It suffers from an astonishing sense of playing it safe, and whilst the new Warzone mode makes for bigger battles with potentially greater scope, it’s still hard to imagine whether the overall online package is going to tempt diehards away from their Halo: The Master Chief Collection. 

Halo 5 is arguably the worst instalment in the core series. On the surface it looks perfectly good but dig a little deeper and you’ll find it’s altogether hollow. It’s never horrendously bad, it’s just painfully average, afraid to do anything new or challenging for fear it’ll somehow upset someone.

In short, it’s like the video game equivalent of a politician; it tries to act like Halo, talk like Halo and have all the trappings of Halo, yet, in reality, it’s nothing but hollow promises. 

Monday, 30 November 2015

Metal Gear Solid V : The Phantom Pain - Review

Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Konami 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One, PC, PS3, 360 

There’s moments, quite a few, actually, when The Phantom Pain feels like the best game you’ll play all year. It’s fun, responsive, and as deep as the series has ever managed to be and does so without barely a stumble. Yet, at the same time, it’s the most bizarre, often frustrating mess of contradictions. It sprints up to the finish line, waits for the crowd to cheer, and then backpedals back five steps.

In other words, it’s also the most frustrating game to have been released all year.

Not in terms of its gameplay though. No, the core loop that beats at the heart of The Phantom Pain is some of the best slices of Metal Gear Solid you’ll ever have the chance to play. Remember, Ground Zeroes? Well, now you get that on an epic scale.

Whether it be Afghanistan or Central Africa, The Phantom Pain simply gives you a bunch of toys and asks you to go about your mission as you wish. You want to take the rocket launcher? Go right ahead. How about the sniper rifle? Well, take that as well. There’s an absurd amount of variation to even the most simple of the game’s missions.

There’s the buddy system, which allows you to kit out four different characters; a horse, a dog, a robot walker and fellow soldier Quiet, with a variety of different equipment. It’s a great addition to the series and each buddy is genuinely different from the others, expanding your strategic options in different ways. 

Quiet, as a trained sniper, can provide you with cover fire from a distance. The dog meanwhile, helps scout out enemy units and marking them on your map. The robot walker you get is by far the most interesting in terms of customization, giving you a stealthy sidekick should you choose, or building it into a flamethrower-spouting war mech if sneaking around is not your thing.

At its core, this is Peace Walker finally expanded to the scope that Kojima and the development team clearly envisioned. Gone are the bite-sized screens of action, the fiddly control scheme (at least for the PSP release), and the over-reliance on dull boss fights. In their place is miles and miles of map just waiting for you to explore.

As the first truly open world Metal Gear Solid a lot of responsibility is placed on you the player; you get as much out of the game and its constructed encounters as you put in. Reach a Russian encampment where you’re tasked with extracting a prisoner and you can go about it however way you choose. Hit the button for your scope and you’ll handily tag enemies, making stealth easier but at the same time making you actually work for it. 

The Phantom Pain is a game that rewards the patient. The untold number of little hidden elements and “oh I didn’t know I could that” moments is ridiculously high. After over twenty hours of play I only just realized that there was a cardboard box system that’ll have different enemy bases cart you around to various locations if you hide in a box near a base’s supply point. It’s like that whole secret route/Easter egg in Sons of Liberty where you could pack yourself away in the Parcel Room of the oil plant and be taken to practically any strut, only this time it’s on a much bigger scale.

Each action comes with consequences. Shoot up a base and the guards will call in extra units the next time you turn up there. Keep going for head shots and you’re likely to find men touting helmets pretty soon. There’s no “right” answer in The Phantom Pain, no correct way to play, and the focus on creating a game space that treats stealth as a tactical option, rather than the “right” way to play, is commendable.  

There’s even been some effort to force conservative players from their predictable ways. Just as aggressive players will find guards getting stronger and more resilient, there’s been an attempt to water down the, frankly, overpowered nature of the tranquilizer gun. It’s still there, and it’s still one of the best guns in the entire game, and a must have for when it comes to expanding your team back at base, but it’s been weakened somewhat. The suppressor breaks more easily this time around, especially during those first few hours before it gets an upgrade, meaning you either risked being heard, or spend time calling in a replacement.

There’s an attempt to force players to think a little more creatively and interact with the abundance of systems that are on offer, reducing the reliance on the “sleep and creep” mentality. 

The base mechanics have undergone a subtle change, and, on the surface, are not radically different from the system that was in place in Peace Walker. Enemy guards can be “Fultoned” back to base and placed into a variety of different positions depending on their skills. There’s a small, and somewhat tedious addition, where certain troops you’ve captured may cause trouble and lead to fighting breaking out on Mother Base. To be honest, it’s an unnecessary addition to a game system that works best when it’s left behind the scenes.

There’s an oddly moreish aspect to slowly levelling up your crew and unlocking new weapons. Just getting one more level up in the R&D Department so you can stick a suppressor on your sniper rifle is oddly compelling. Yet, the constant need to screen units for unhelpful “abilities” like being unsanitary or aggressive doesn’t especially add to any tactical decisions, and just leads to menu-clicking busy work. I never want to stop my sneaking around to enter a menu and order the guy who can’t wash his hands after taking a shit to leave Mother Base. That should be Miller’s job, not Big Boss’.

For all the tactical freedom and open world splendour, there’s this niggling feeling that Kojima and his team have somewhat “sold out” by morphing Metal Gear Solid into the Ubisoft school of game design. Bite-size missions and simple RPG elements are at the core of Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, and The Phantom Pain essentially builds upon that style of gameplay. Likewise, the game’s side missions, where you send troops to do various tasks across the world, blurs the line between clever world building and dull padding as you simply wait for a cooldown to be over and your reward to come in.

There’s a blandness to The Phantom Pain at times, and it almost begins to infect the gameplay. For all the tactical freedom given on missions there’s sense of repetitiveness that begins to rear its head during the game’s second half. Every mission begins to blur into one. “Go here and rescue this guy”, becomes “Go here and rescue these two guys…or kill them if you can’t be bothered to that”. 

By giving you more freedom The Phantom Pain also, naturally, has less structure, and by doing so it lacks the stand out moments that you remember from Snake Eater and Sons of Liberty.

Likewise, this isn’t helped by the poor excuse for bosses that show up. The Parasite Unit is a sorry attempt at a rogue’s gallery compared to the previous games. Even Metal Gear Solid 4, with all its dragging cut-scenes and convoluted plot, at least plumped up some interesting boss fights. Here you simply get an average attempt at recreating the infamous The End encounter from Snake Eater, and a few other fights that simply feel like cheap knock offs from previous instalments.

All of this, in an odd way, can probably be traced back to the game’s absurd plot. There’s no character to the cast in The Phantom Pain, no interesting people or exciting things happening. Instead its one portentous, dull conversation after another, and one where the bizarre tonal shifts begin to unsettle anything that the game sets out to achieve.

Granted, the previous games have had to try and marry the threat of nuclear war with a character that can shoot bees out of his mouth, yet here the tonal inconsistencies seem more pronounced and harder to just brush off. This is a game that wants you to think about the travesty of children being raised as soldiers but also has time to have what amounts to Johnny Storm chase after you on a unicorn. The Phantom Pain, more than the previous games, seems to highlight the problem between Kojima the game designer and Kojima the hack film director, and the end results aren’t particularly pretty. 

Replacing David Hayter with Keifer Sutherland hasn’t done the game any favours either. While Hayter’s grizzled tone might not be to everyone’s taste, it is Big Boss/Snake, and hearing Sutherland’s voice come out of the character’s mouth just doesn’t sound right. It doesn’t particularly help either, like a lot of writers and reviewers have mentioned, that Sutherland’s cadence is a lot similar to Robert Atkin Downes delivery for Miller, meaning it can initially be confusing whenever the two are having a conversation and you’re listening to it on audio cassette.

Mind you, there’s actually not a lot of times that Big Boss does actually talk, rendering the decision to have Sutherland voice the character even more odd. This is a much quieter and withdrawn Big Boss than the one we saw in any of the previous three games that he’s been in.

All these little flaws and niggling decisions drag The Phantom Pain down from what it tries to do. It’s a game bursting with frustrating internal contradictions. The vast open world is fun when you’re on a mission, and provides tactical depth, but step away from that and it comes across as nothing more than an empty game space, lacking the character and history of, say, Groznyj Grad, or Shadow Moses. It’s set in the 1980s but it might as well be set anywhere, there’s no context to where you are like there was in the previous games. Snake Eater bravely took away your soliton radar because it would have been impossible for Snake to have it, whilst Metal Gear Solid 4 gave you that sweet octocamo which felt like a natural progression of the previous games mechanics and fit with the world it was set in. The Phantom Pain simply gives you what amounts to a futuristic iPad and then doesn’t comment on it.

Now I know this is a series that’s not trying to be “realistic”, it’s named after giant walking nuclear tanks for crying out loud. That being said, there’s something lacking about the world of The Phantom Pain. It’s certainly not memorable, and won’t stick in my mind like previous series locations have. Ironically, it has more in common with those VR missions in Sons of Libertys “Substance” re-release; functional game spaces that offer no real world context.

I suppose, in its own bizarre way, it’s a perfect send off for Metal Gear Solid and Kojima’s relationship with the series. It manages to sum up the best and the worst that the series has to offer.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Danganronpa : Trigger Happy Havoc - Review

Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: NIS America
Platforms: PSP, PS Vita (version played), iOS, Android

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is one of the best games I’ve played this year. It’s that simple. I could have written this opening paragraph more eloquently, made you want to read on, but there’s very little point. It’s best to simply say that Danganronpa is incredibly good.

Right, with that out of the way, let’s actually discuss what makes it so great.  

Danganronpa’s single greatest strength is its story. That, frankly, should be taken for granted. It’s a visual novel after all; placing narrative and story above gameplay conceits.

Yet, it’s the way the game manages to tell its absolutely bonkers story that makes it fascinating. You play as Mokoto Naegi, a young student whose been given the honour of enrolling at Hope’s Peak Academy; a school for the gifted. Naegi, though, has no gift, not one that he can think of anyway. In fact, his reason for being enrolled is because he’s been listed as the “Ultimate Lucky Student”. He only got a place at the school because he won a lottery. 

After arriving he’s greeted by all of the other new arrivals, all of whom are elites in one field or another. There’s the “Ultimate Baseball Star”, the “Ultimate Pop Sensation” and so on. 

Shortly after though, things take a turn for the worse. Makoto and the others find themselves trapped inside the school…with an evil robotic teddy bear. An evil robotic teddy bear that says that the only way to escape is for one of the fifteen students to kill another and get away with it. 

Cue a kind of bizarre, somewhat surreal take on the psychological thriller that’s common among visual novels. Story-wise I suppose the closest comparison would be Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, with Danganronpa utilising a similar mystery within an enclosed environment; swapping the cramped confines of a cruise ship, for the twisting corridors of a high school.

In terms of the gameplay, it’s very much in the vein of an Ace Attorney game. Each chapter involves investigating another murder (which I’m going to try and talk about as little as possible for fear of spoilers) as you roam about the mysterious school in search of clues. Once everything has been found there’s then a dramatic courtroom battle, similar to what Phoenix Wright has to endure. 

The thing about Danganronpa is that it manages to balance everything just right. There’s some point-and-clicking to be done, but it’s never enough that it begins to slow down the plot. It’s not the kind of game where you have to conjure up fifteen different items only to have to use a paperclip lined with toothpaste, attached to a piece to string, to unlock a door or some other such nonsense. The parts that are deliberately “gamey”, in other words, are rather easy.

Yet, it’s clear they need to be. This is very much a narrative game, with all of its interactivity being in service to that.

Still, some gameplay elements creep into the murder investigations, and for the most part they’re handled really well. Clues take on the form of “truth bullets” which allow you to, quite literally, shoot down incorrect statements made by Makoto’s classmates during trials. Likewise, you’ll occasionally have to shoot floating letters in order to form a word or two that’s vital for the case. It’s all very simple stuff, at least on the standard difficulty, and, like I said earlier, it almost needs to be; you don’t want random janky bits of poorly implemented gameplay getting in the way of what’s happening. 

And it’s all there to serve a fascinating story, which, despite all the bizarre plot twists and wacky characters, is one that keeps its writing grounded with a solid focus on its characters. Monokuma, the evil robot teddy bear, brings in temptation after temptation, motive after motive, in order to drive the various students to attempt to kill one another. It’s genuinely disturbing in parts, and the strong characterization means that it’s a real emotional gut punch when one of the characters gets killed off, worse still when you realize that it’s one of your favourites that dealt the killing blow.

Danganronpa neatly sidesteps the predictable, cookie-cutter character designs that normally creep into a lot of these anime-styled games. Granted, some of the cast fit into typical moulds; there’s the snobby rich kid, the quiet girl with a nasty streak, but the writing avoids turning them into complete stereotypes and in many instances smartly plays around with your suspicions. The people you expect to make it through to the end aren’t likely the ones that actually do, it’s like watching a slasher movie but one where the roles are being constantly switched around to play with your expectations.

There’s a cute little game mechanic that lets you spend some spare time between investigations (people aren’t always killing each other) in order to get to know your classmates better. It amounts to little more than talking to whichever person you want and maybe giving them a gift or answering a question or two.

In effect, it’s like a really shallow version of Persona’s social link mechanic and it would have been nice to see it fleshed out a little more. “Level up” a friendship and you’ll get a new ability you can use during the courtroom sessions. The power-ups are all really minor though, and the whole mechanic is somewhat shallow and limited. The chance to get to know people better does at least lend the subsequent murders and trial verdicts a little more weight though, so it’s not a complete miss by any means. 

Danganronpa is that kind of game that’s really hard to define, and, the less you know about it going in the better. It’s utterly weird, and tonally straddles a very bizarre sweet spot that balances black comedy, horror and high school drama.

At its core Danganronpa is about maintaining hope in the face of overwhelming nihilism. The fact that it manages to tell such a story using a robot teddy bear with a penchant for murder and unbearable puns, that’s what makes it so darn special.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Transformers : Devastation - Review

Developer: PlatinumGames
Publisher: Activision 
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4 (version played), PC, 360, PS3

Hit, hit, hit, vehicle attack combo, hit, hit, dodge, sweet slowdown. That’s the core rhythm that beats at the heart of Transformers: Devastation and, yes, you’d be absolutely right that it’s practically lifted wholesale (minus the vehicle attack bit) from Platinum’s other high octane action game, Bayonetta.

The crucial thing here is, that isn’t a point of criticism. Yes, Transformers: Devastation is essentially the same game as Bayonetta, albeit replacing witches, angels and fancy hair-does with toy cars and plastic robots, but it works. Why mess with the mechanics themselves? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and this is the axiom that Platinum go by with this particular game.

All that being said, Transformers: Devastation isn’t the kind of game to rest on its laurels. There’s oodles of depth to be played around with here, and it’s clear the developers got a kick out of moulding the Transformers franchise to their own brand of action game.

Combat retains a simple core, and then carefully builds upon it. Attacks are carried out with two buttons, one delivering light attacks, the other heavy. However, certain combos will end with a mighty satisfying vehicle attack, with Optimus Prime walloping enemy robots by switching into a truck mid combat, only to be back into his robot form a second later.  

I’d go as far to say that that this is what makes Transformers: Devastation so darn enjoyable. Sure, it’s tactically and mechanically deep (more on that in a moment), but it’s also instantly satisfying on a player-feedback level: you don’t have to be particularly good at the game in order to appreciate what makes it so good. Combos blend into each other seamlessly, and that slow-motion dodge mechanic feeds into that perfect level of risk versus rewards behaviour.

So, for the seven chapters that comprise the game’s campaign, you’ll be left to fiddle with these basic mechanics to your hearts content. Whilst not especially long (the entire thing could feasibly be completed in one sitting) Transformers: Devastation instead packs oodles of depth, not just into its combat, but into its level design. The opening level for instance, is surprisingly spacious, as you traverse the city running to and from objectives. It’s by no means so big that you’ll get lost, but it’s bigger than the typical corridor gauntlet you’d get in, say, Bayonetta or Devil May Cry.

And it’s chock full of little collectibles to earn and bonus missions to complete. Transformers: Devastation thankfully avoids the by-the-numbers padding that plagues many a title, especially ones on a tighter budget, and instead opts for a basic solution with its bonus stages; simply having you complete various challenges (kill x number of enemies, collect x number of boxes) within a certain time limit.

In fact, the game goes one further by grading each fight, including those in the main campaign. Success isn’t finishing Transformers: Devastation, its finishing each mini chuck of gameplay with that coveted SSS ranking. 

Platinum also leverage the source material in terms of the characters you play. Perhaps this’ll mean more to fans of the show (I was more of a Beast Machines fan as a kid) but there’s a roster of five different characters to play as. Rather than simply act as a cosmetic change, each character; be it Optimus, Bumblebee, Sideswipe, Wheeljack or Grimlock, all come with a unique ability and a slightly altered basic move set. Take Wheeljack, who boasts better ranged combat than the other Autobots, and also boasts a unique shield to better help him in long range firefights, or Grimlock, who transforms into a hulking great T-Rex rather than a vehicle.

Likewise, the game’s equipment system allows for greater customizability for each Autobot. Optimus and Grimlock, for example, are the only characters capable of wielding heavy weapons. It makes for a more RPGish aspect to the core gameplay than is typically seen in most Japanese action games. Part of me isn’t particularly a fan of this aspect. Many games now seem fit to shoehorn in MMO-RPG elements, bogging down their sleek design, with too much number-crunching, percentage fiddling nonsense that’s almost never needed and usually slowing games down with irritating grinding for level-ups or item drops.

That being said, Transformers: Devastation manages to sidestep these issues for the most part. There’s tweaking and fiddling to be done if you want, but it rarely gets in the way of the core high octane gameplay.

In fact, everything in Transformers: Devastation just…clicks. It all hums along at a great pace, with oodles of experimentation on off and a bevy of weapons to try out. Fists are fast and help rack up huge combos, especially when doled out to Bumblebee, but don’t have particularly high damage. At the opposite end are hammers, great clunking monstrosities that’ll shred through enemies in seconds but, naturally, plague you with slow movement. 

There’s a few weaker moments in there to be sure. Whilst the game nails the vehicle transformation aspect in terms of combat, there’s a few chase sequences that are very ropey indeed. The game doesn’t seem to take into account that you’re typically much faster than your adversary, resulting in “chases” where you have to slow down or stop, in order to find whoever it is you’re meant to kill, simply because you were that fast you went hurtling past them.

Despite doing their best on a limited budget, sometimes that smaller budget does catch up. Areas regularly repeat themselves, with some samey-looking environments, and, more crucially, enemies are recycled frequently during the games second half, lacking the same unbounded creativity you see in Platinum’s other titles.

Moreover, despite my attempts to stress just how deep Transformers: Devastation is, they’ll no doubt be some people put off by the games short length. It’s an unusual game in that the people that’ll get the most out of it aren’t the casual fans of the TV shows and kids, but those that really enjoy complex action games, and breaking down the mechanics and system that are hidden within.

It also poses an interesting crux with Transformers: Devastation; it’s an incredibly smart game wrapped up in a bizarrely kid-friendly packaging. Everything, in theory, was working against this title, simply because it would have been such an easy game the phone in.

If there’s something that really gets me excited about this game, it’s the possibility of similar titles with other licenses. Can you imagine Platinum getting their hands on Dragonball Z? Now that’s the kind of game I’d be really excited for.

That being said, Transformers: Devastation is simply one of the best games of 2015. It’s smart, fun to play, and pays perfect homage to the series it’s based on. It’s fascinating in that, for a game that appeals to kids, and lazy geek nostalgia, that could just have easily be phoned in, it ends up being one of the most thought out, carefully crafted games of the year.   

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Fran Bow - Review

Developer: Killmonday Games
Publisher: Killmonday Games
Platform: PC

Taking fairy tales and twisting them into horror games is an idea that numerous game developers have made use of. American McGee’s Alice, and its sequel, Madness Returns, take the basic concept of their source material and then warp it into something horrific. Even a game like Limbo, which I’ve already discussed on this blog, takes a similar approach, creating the appearance of a humble children’s adventure and then transforming it into a nightmare.

Fran Bow follows in the same vein. Developed by the two-person team at Killmonday Games, takes the basic point-and-click mechanics of a classic adventure game and uses them to tell a story that skirts the borders between surreal and horrific 

And, granted, it’s a hard game to dislike. The animation style is gorgeous, with its own distinct charm. Again, it’s fascinating to watch but also slightly unsettling. Fran, with her bug-eyed expression and curious personality, is a wonderful main character, and I’d argue that a lot of what makes the game work comes down to her characterisation.

It’s hard not to sympathize with Fran either, because the world she lives in is so damn repulsive. Set in the 1940s, Fran is locked in a children’s mental hospital after the death of her parents. Without any idea who the culprit was, Fran now only has one goal in life; find her cat, Mr Midnight.

Cue, the first chapter involves walking around the hospital chatting to fellow patients. It’s here where Killmonday don’t pull any punches. Kids shuffle around the corridors drugged up on drugs, it’s clear (although rarely explicitly stated, another example of good writing), that many of them have been abused. In fact, one early encounter with a lecherous security guard is possibly one of the most unsettling moments in a game that regularly throws up disturbing ideas and imagery. 

Later chapters go for even more bizarre imagery, mixing Lewis Carol with William S. Burroughs. Giant insects in a pub, a pig/woodlouse hybrid, a family of sentient pinecones. There’s certainly plenty of originality going on in Fran Bow.

Now, for the most part the game consists of the typical point-and-click affair: find items, click on things, solve puzzles, and Fran Bow sticks to this concept throughout its runtime. The one unique element however, that the game throws up, is Fran’s use of her medicine.

Ingesting pills causes the world around her to shift from one that’s unsettling, to one pulled straight out of a nightmare. Shadowy creatures crawl out of the walls, animal carcasses inexplicably appear hung across the ceiling. It’s a smart way of reusing the same rooms twice, but it also fits straight into the story’s themes and nestles itself in there as a solid game mechanic. 

One particular chapter even takes it further. Rather than the typical “reality”/”drugged-reality” concept, there’s instead the options of shifting the world through all four seasons, with different areas opening up depending on the time of year. Mechanically, it’s reminiscent of Silent Hill Origins mirror gameplay, with puzzles requiring you to frequently shift from one reality to another.

If there’s one thing that Fran Bow never quite nails however, it’s the overall tone. After an opening chapter (and arguably the best chapter) that sets the game up as a horror game, subsequent levels reign it in, ramping up the surrealism and nonsensical elements but losing the more unsettling aspects. Make no mistake, it still remains a creepy game, but it certainly loses its bite after its initial opening.

In fact, Fran Bow in general peters out as it progresses. As the horror begins to get toned down, so too does the unique reality-hopping mechanic, with later areas actually becoming much simpler and linear, lacking the unique touches that the initial chapters have. Fran Bow is by no means a short game, but there’s definitely the impression that it runs out of fresh ideas long before the credits begin to roll. 

Likewise, its storytelling suffers from a similar schizophrenic approach, which I suppose if you look at it in a certain way is actually rather appropriate. After an opening that sets itself up well with a clear quest: find Mr Midnight the cat, later chapters devolve into the more mushy Lewis Carol-style nonsensical story telling of Alice in Wonderland. This is fine of course, and fitting, given the game’s inspirations, but it suffers from an annoying whiff of “kids protecting themselves from danger by conjuring up fantasies” vibe; a somewhat simplistic and twee message for a game that starts out much more daring.

Of course, without entering spoiler territory the ending can be interpreted in several different ways but there’s a sense that the dark, adult punch that opens the game is swapped in favour of a whimsical childish vibe that sort of aims to give a Studio Ghibli feel but ends up a few notches short, instead coming across as simply being vague for the sake of it.

As you can see, it’s hard to comment on Fran Bow too much without actually discussing spoilers. Simply put, for fans of point-and-click adventure games, this is well worth checking out. It’s incredible work from a two-person team and I’m genuinely intrigued to see what they turn their hand to next. It doesn’t manage to pay off with everything it tries its hand at, but, for the first half at least, this is an engaging, not to mention disturbing, rabbit hole to travel down.