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.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Halo Wars 2 - Review

Developer: 343 Industries/Creative Assembly
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox One (version played)

As I explained in my Halo Wars retrospective earlier this year, the most interesting aspect of this series isn’t the games themselves, but rather their ability to work with an input device that’s hardly suited to the demands of a real-time strategy game. It’s also worth noting that there’s been a long gap since the initial Halo Wars release. Eight years is a long time for a sequel, long enough that a lot of your potential player base perhaps never got around to playing the original.

This might explain Halo Wars 2’s attitude of playing it safe. Everything returns pretty much intact from the original. The rock-paper-scissors structure of units still forms the foundation of the game’s combat, with each unit type, be it air, infantry or vehicle, being weak to one type and strong against another.

This makes for a broad brush approach to strategy. The main challenge comes largely from working out what the enemy force is specialized in, and then finding the appropriate counter measure. So, if the enemy is building up tanks, you send in an aerial force. If they’re building up lots of marines and other infantry, some tanks of your own will put a stop to it.

Of course, there are a few additional wrinkles in order to complicate the typical combat encounter. Whilst vehicles are typically at a disadvantage when it comes to aerial units, the Wolverine comes with potent anti-air capabilities, meaning that, even if you invest heavily in one unit type, you always have some counter for an opponent’s counter.

The game’s base-building has also undergone some minor alterations and improvements from the original, whilst still remaining pretty much the same as it was. There’s now two resource types; supplies and power, that must be acquired in order to expand your forces. This presents an interesting tug-of-war for base-building decisions that wasn’t in the original game. Supplies, typically, are used for building forces, whilst power is mostly used for improving said forces and upgrading your base. Too much supply and you’ll end up with an underpowered army that’ll risk being wiped out by a more advanced force, too much power and you’ll not have much of a force at all.

The macro-focus of the game’s general flow culminates with the leaders that each force can select prior to a skirmish or online match. Here again, it’s the decisions that a player makes before the game even starts that have the most impact. Ostensibly, each of the three factions leaders for both forces (there’s a bevy of additional leaders as part of the game’s extensive DLC) focuses on one third of the game’s units. This is especially true of the game’s human forces; pick Capatain Cutter and it’s clear his focus is on infantry, whilst A.I. assistant Isabel is slanted more towards vehicles. Each leader comes with an array of powers, with more potent ones being available to unlock as battles progress and fights breakout and are a mix of cooldown-based abilities and passive bonuses.

It’s here where the Banished, the rag-tag coalition of Brute and Covenant forces, seem to have had a little more love poured into them. Whilst the UNSC’s core leaders all fit into cookie-cutter strategies; take Cutter if you want squads of marines, Isabel if you want tanks and so on, the Banished are far more loosely defined and offer a broader array of tactical applications, making them more interesting.

 Atriox’s focus is on area control, he wants to literally colonise the map as you play, with cheaper forward bonuses in order to produce a stronger economy for late game fights. His underling, Decimus, meanwhile, is happy pounding everything into the dirt at the nearest opportunity. It’s a minor aspect of Halo Wars 2 but it’s moments like this, when its game design creeps out of that nice comfortable shell and tries to experiment, as it does with the Banished, that it becomes a little more interesting and grabs your attention a little more.

Whilst the leaders, powers, build-orders and economies are all important for the game’s multiplayer, and that’s clearly the game’s focus, there is still a story mode buried in here. It plays out like a tutorial mode for the human side, slowly unveiling new units to play with each chapter, and switching back and forth between full-blown engagements which involve defending positions and building up your bases, to quieter more micro-oriented scenarios such as navigating a series of snipers and artillery along a cliff side to take out the enemy.

The game’s story mode isn’t going to win any awards, it’s hamstrung, more so than the multiplayer, by the fact that you can’t really organize individual elements of your forces. Even with the new gamepad shortcuts, which, to be fair to make wielding a pad less cumbersome, this is still a game that’s always making allowances for the hardware it’s being played on.

It explains the focus on pitched battles so much throughout the campaign. Defending fixed locations is still the primary goal for most chapters, as it was in the original, almost transforming some of the levels into a quasi tower defence game as you shuffle your forces to whichever choke point is in most need of support.

The story itself is the same convoluted mush of swishy alien tech, with the fun, gloopy Flood being replaced by no one’s favourite morass of bland Sentinel designs. The game’s plot, what there is of it, is always hamstrung by the fancy cutscenes that bookend each mission. Oh, don’t get me wrong, those cutscenes developed separately by Blur Studio, are gorgeous. However, they force whatever story-telling the game makes a stab at to bend to the whim of the game’s slick post-chapter animations, resulting in a plot that’s not just convoluted but bordering on incomprehensible, not to mention culminating in a frustrating non-ending.

The biggest bugbear here inevitably goes to the way the game’s been released. Whilst the multiplayer is undoubtedly the game’s strongest suit, anyone wanting to try out any of the new leaders is going to have to fork out for the season pass in order to get hold of any of them. Likewise, a series of new story missions are delivered as DLC.

Halo Wars 2 isn’t the worst offender with how it markets its paid expansions, but at this point it does feel like players are only getting half a game unless they shell out for that season pass. It perhaps explains why the game retails for slightly less than other AAA titles, with Microsoft perhaps experimenting with lowering the entry fee in order to pull in more revenue with the DLC pass.

Whilst charging for the additional story content is perhaps understandable, the actual “meat” of the DLC, the new leaders, doesn’t really warrant charging an arm and a leg for what amounts to a slight tactical variation on whatever force you happen to use. When Overwatch can dole out new characters for free, it’s baffling that Halo Wars 2 would let half of its potential player base feel left behind for what amounts to a few additional character types. Halo Wars 2 is too shallow for the additional leaders to dramatically change the way the game is played, but by actively cordoning them off behind a paywall (and advertising them each time you boot up the game) it leaves the impression that part of Microsoft’s intent with the game is exploring new ways to reduce the title’s pre-owned value, by all but forcing invested players to shell out for the game’s season pass. All this does is gut whatever draw the game’s otherwise competitive, multiplayer focus would seem to set out to achieve.

This becomes more apparent with Blitz mode, a horrible aberration that fuses the game’s RTS structure with that of a collectible card game. Any other time this would be casual fun; a throw away mini-game that has players building decks of “cards” (read: units/powers) and battling against other players in an area-control map. Needless to say, it’s an unbalanced mess and reeks of a developer trying to foist what would otherwise be a free-to-play title onto a paid release.

Taken on its own terms Halo Wars 2 is a decent(ish) real-time strategy game. As a way for newcomers to dip their toe into the genre, it does a good job, whilst the Halo brand helps paper over the shallowness of it all. Were it a little more daring, and didn’t nickel-and-dime its playerbase, this could have been something more, but as it stands, it’s safe, predictable, and just about pulls it off.

It has the tactical depth of a paddling pool, but it’s a comfortable paddling pool.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Tekken 7 - Review

Developer: Bandai Namco Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: Arcade, PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

As a general rule of thumb, I try and keep up with a series if I’m planning to write a review. I’d argue that to effectively write about video games (or any medium for that matter) having a firm grasp on the evolution of long-running series is important to determining whether or not a new instalment is good, bad or different in some way.

Bar a slight mess around with the Wii U version of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (yes, I’m one of the five people to have that version), my last real experience with Tekken was with the original PS2 release of Tekken 5.

Coming into Tekken 7 the most notable thing for me, despite the ten or so years away from the series, is that not a whole lot has changed. Many fighters, especially 2D ones, tend to shift and morph from instalment, changing significant gameplay elements in order for each title to encourage certain aspects and dis-incentivize others.

The evolution of the core Street Fighter games highlight this. Street Fighter 2 is dramatically different from Street Fighter 3. Similarly, regardless of where your opinion on it falls, Street Fighter V is a direct response to what Street Fighter IV did over its lifetime.

In contrast, Tekken is just Tekken, and if you’ve ever touched the series at some point, it’s something that’s immediately understandable. Everything “feels” the same as it’s always done, characters connect with the same satisfying oomph, complete with wall bounces, splats and juggles. In its core state Tekken 7 is a job well done, which is as it should be, considering it’s one of the few modern fighting games to still be ported from a tweaked, refined and expanded arcade release.

The biggest change is the introduction of Rage Art moves, a sort of super move similar to many 2D fighters. They certainly help adjust the pace of any given match, allowing the defending player an effective catch-up mechanic when they’re lagging behind in health. There’s also a nice bit of technically to them in that, in addition to a super move, each character can spend their rage mode to unleash a powered-up version of one of their regular attacks, typically giving it additional juggling properties to allow further combos.

The character line-up is solid as well, with most of the favourites there. The highlight goes to the guest character this time around. Whilst we may never see Tekken X Street Fighter in the future, we can at least be certain that Bandai Namco nailed the feel of inserting a Street Fighter character into the Tekken universe and made it work. Akuma plays like he should, with ambiguous jumping attacks, that satisfying sweep, and most importantly, those uppercuts and fireballs. The fact that he works so well in this game is a testament to the developers, and whilst I’m not so thrilled with the constant barrage of DLC, (more on that later), it’ll be interesting, from a design standpoint, whether the game can work the same magic when Geese Howard is introduced.

The rest of the cast, like I said, is solid, if playing it somewhat safe. There’s the usual suspects here; the Mishimas, King, Law and Nina for long-time veterans of the series, as well as other standouts such as Steve, Feng and Dragunov. Some of the “new” characters raise a few eyebrows, simply because they’re not as new as they might initially seem. It’s hard to look at Gigas and not think he’s a reworking of Marduk’s moves and playstyle. The same can be said for Josie adopting many of Bruce’s moves from earlier games.

There’s a few noticeable characters missing from the roster. Lei Wulong, Tekken’s very own Jackie Chan, is suspiciously missing from the starting line-up and suggests that maybe Bandai Namco are slow-rolling some of the series’ fan favourites as DLC fodder.

Which brings us to the typical gripe when it comes to most fighting game releases. Tekken 7 is by no means the worst offender when it comes to the array of DLC it already has lined up, but it’s still a sad display. Several characters have already been announced for the game’s first “season” of DLC, which includes SNK’s Geese Howard.

Where this gets frustrating is in Bandai Namco’s decision to cordon off little extras as additional paid content. Tekken Bowl, a fun mini-game added to Tekken Tag Tournament, is now stuck behind a pay-wall and tied to the first set of additional characters. Likewise, Eliza is only available to those who’ve shelled out for a new copy of the game or are willing to stump up extra money to unlock her.

This might, might have been easier to stomach were it not for the fact that, as a port at least, Tekken 7 is a sloppy, lazy affair. Street Fighter V was rightly criticised for a rushed released that left its single player content incredibly thin on the ground, and Tekken 7 has similar problems.

If anything it’s more frustrating here, considering how long the game has been evolving during its arcade run. The arcade mode that’s in the game is shallow for starters, consisting of nothing more than four random fights followed by a showdown with Kazumi, the newest addition to the Mishima clan.

The story mode meanwhile, is downright laughable, not to mention cheap. The mode consists of nothing more than a few basic fights, hastily strapped together with a bored narrator and a ridiculous doomsday plot that sees Heihachi and Kazuya at war with each other. It’s the laziness on Bandai Maco’s part that’s the worst however. The mode is padded out with cut-scenes that are nothing more than repurposed trailers from the game’s launch, not to mention dredging up Tekken 5’s opening cinematic because damn if any more effort was going to be put into this mode.

It means that the focus, for better or worse, is on the game’s multiplayer. Which, to be fair, the game excels at, both in terms of the core gameplay and in its online functionality. Matches are snappy and easy to get into, with a match-making system that is far better than many of its rivals. I got through far more fights in Tekken 7, with much better connections, than I did in Street Fighter V or Injustice 2.

Given the competitive focus, it begs the question why a comprehensive tutorial wasn’t introduced. I’ve mentioned this several times in regard to fighting games, but one of the biggest gateways to getting into the genre is the fact that many of the biggest titles seem unwilling, or simply can’t be bothered, to provide a solid explanation of the fundamentals of the game’s mechanics. The internet goes some way to solving this problem, but doesn’t excuse the fact that the game’s don’t go nearly far enough into explain how they actually work to players that are new to them.

As with many of my fighting game reviews recently, the game itself isn’t in question, and that’s very true of Tekken 7. It plays it safe, very safe in fact, and it’ll be a question of how long the series can go merely incrementally improving on its nearly twenty year formula. That being said, the game is incredibly fun to play, it’s everything surrounding the game that’s the problem.

As a single player experience, Tekken 7 simply isn’t worth your time, especially compared to NetherRealms titles. The reams of DLC that are promised are also annoying, especially when there seems to have been an almost concerted effort to ship this console port out with as little new content as humanly possible, and then to charge for any content that it does add.

That leaves the hardcore Tekken fans as the primary target. Whether that’s enough is down to what you want to get out of it. As it stands, it’s a very solid game trapped under a cheap release and the usual array of penny pinching tactics.

Looks like I’m going to have to dust off my copy of Tekken Tag Tournament if I want to play some Tekken Bowl.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Nier: Automata - Review

Developer: PlatinumGames
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played) 

There’s arguably two kinds of people coming to play Nier: Automata. First, there’s those coming as fans of Platinum Game’s unique brand of hack ‘n’ slash; one of the few developers that manages to grasp the acrobatic, swishy coolness of anime fight sequences and marry it to mechanics that are both deep and satisfying to play.

Then, there’s those coming at the game as fans of Yoko Taro’s games. The developer has built up a reputation over the years working on the Drakengard series, which Nier is loosely connected to. So, between his cult following and Platinum’s tight design skills, Nier: Automata would seem like perfect match.

Things start off well. Perhaps the most curious element, especially earlier on, is the game’s willingness to play with entire genres, let alone mechanics. Short bursts of frenetic gameplay switch from standard third-person combat straight to bullet-hell segments as you fly your hover mech through wave after wave of enemy fire, blowing up reams of ships in the process. Even then, the game refuses to sit still, flipping to a 3D shooter sequence as enemies wrap around from all sides, abandoning the conventions of a side-scrolling shooter.

All of this is overwhelming in a thoroughly intoxicating way, and the game manages this without ever alienating players who never got to grips with the original Nier.

Its characters and world also make for an interesting start. You (initially) play as 2B (get it?), an android sent down from the moon in order to rid Earth of a plague of alien-designed robots so that the last remnants of humanity can return safely. It’s a ridiculous premise, touching on everything from Terminator to The Matrix.

It only really works thanks to the coating of anime style that drips from everywhere else. Characters are either dressed like Gothic lolitas or moody emo bad-asses, and the game just, just, has enough of a tongue-in-cheek vibe to pass it off without it all becoming too ridiculous.

It’s just as well, too, because the game is still very much an RPG as opposed to Platinum’s typically more linear affair. The stretches of barren landscape are striking enough, trading on the same beautiful apocalyptic imagery that The Last of Us used to such good effect. Human life has been wiped from the planet for so long that the Earth has achieved some kind normality, and your presence as these hyped-up sword-swinging androids can almost seem intrusive; invaders on an otherwise peaceful co-existence between the planet and its new machine lifeforms.

This open-world also sets up the core structure of the game’s main story and side quests. Missions are doled out Assassin’s Creed style, with markers on your map highlighting your way around. Side quests are handled with surprising care too, even if they suffer from bland objectives (go here and kill these enemies, pick up that item etc.). Each typically has some story or hook to underpin it and there’s not so many that they simply dissolve into the flavourless mush that can plague many open-world titles.

It’s not all smooth-sailing, mind. It’s clear quite early on, that, for all their skill, Platinum aren’t particularly adept at handling an open world. For each striking location, they’ll be an awkward invisible wall where there really shouldn’t be one. And whilst the world itself is open; vast and ripe for exploration, it’s also too open, too vast, with much of your time spent jamming the sprint trigger as you dash for the next objective marker at the other end of the entire map. The main quest-line has a habit of structuring itself so that you’re required to run all the way to one end of a zone only to then double back and go to the opposite side of the area.

Nier: Automata’s world lacks enough details to make repeat runs back and forth engaging for as long as it does, and this is exacerbated by a fast travel that’s not unlocked for the first few hours of the game.

Of course, you’d expect the combat to hold off any sense of repetition...and it does...for a little while. As with most of Platinum’s post-Bayonetta output, the combat is primarily governed with a two button combat scheme, with heavy attacks and light attacks that can be mixed and matched mid-combo to carry out a variety of stylish flourishes. A dodge button with the accompanying “Witch Time” rounds out the core combat, encouraging you to land a critical dodge at just the last second.

It’s a perfectly serviceable system and makes for some cinematic moments as you zip from enemy to enemy carving them up in epic fashion. Yet, serviceable is all it can really be described as. Sure, there’s a few additional RPG elements to add the odd tactical wrinkles here and there. A bevy of weapons can be bought and upgraded with a basic crafting system, and a generic collection of upgrade chips can provide you with a number of different bonuses to your health, attack power or certain move properties.

The whole thing seems lacking though, underwhelming when compared to the likes of Bayonetta, Revengeance and even Transformers. The RPG elements in particularly seem tacked on, and all of this is exacerbated by a dearth of unique enemy designs, with around three to four comprising most of the challenge throughout the game’s thirty to fourty hour runtime.

You see, Nier: Automata is a lot longer than it would initially seem. After “completing” the game’s first playthrough, which in essence is only the game’s first act, you’re left to restart the game only to play through it with 2B’s companion, 9S, and see events from his point of view.

Only, there’s little that’s new here. Entire chunks of the game are rehashed during the game’s second act. Only 9S’ hacking skill, a repetitive, bullet-hell mini-game that deals massive damage to enemies in a short space of time is really all that new, and compensates for his otherwise weaker combat abilities.

It’s not even as if the “revelations” that come with this second act are really all that shocking. A striking early game boss, a robot singer that cavorts around the battlefield like a dancer, reveals some (rather cliché) tidbits about her past when played through with 9S; but this isn’t so much seeing the story from a different viewpoint but rather revealing little bits of lore that it neglected to show you in the first place.

By the time the second act is through, Nier switches things up finally, doubling down on its existentialist plot of androids, free-will and self-determination. The game’s final act is certainly better that its tiresome middle slog but is bogged down by a combat system that’s not expanded in any way after those first few hours and also begins to suffer from enemies with bloated health bars. Fights aren’t so much a challenge later on in the game as they are a problem that you beat your head at, (and mash buttons), until they finally end.

Nier: Automata is a game that severely tests your patience. How much you’re willing to stick through it will depend on your tolerance for undergraduate level Existentialism; name-dropping Sartre and having dour conversations about free-will on the one hand, whilst wrapping it all up in an otherwise generic anime schtick about fighting giant robots.

There’s some interesting ideas here, but to get to them means suffering from a good deal of bloat, both in its gameplay and in its storytelling. Its mash-up of genres is far more interesting than its attempts at clumsy exploration of Existentialist philosophy. Furthermore, its genuine attempts to make the logic of the plot fit the game mechanics is laudable, with every “death” in Nier: Automata simply being another copy of 2B or 9S, their consciousness being uploaded into new bodies. It's a playful, fun concept, and does more for what the game is aiming for than its poorly paced and over-plotted story.

Nier: Automata manages to boast some incredible creativity but mars it by going on for far too long with mechanics that simply don’t boast enough depth. It’s understandable why the game has received so much praise, but this involves overlooking the numerous flaws in its combat, clunky writing and bloated runtime.

It’s never terrible, and better a creative misfire than a bland, forgettable success. Still, Nier: Automata is game that requires far too much patience to get the most out of it.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Rime - Review

Developer: Tequila Works
Publisher: Grey Box/Six Foot 
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Switch, Xbox One 

[Warning: This review contains potential spoilers for Rime. Read on at your own risk.] 

Rime, as with many independent adventure games, starts by making you ask questions. Why is my character here? What is he doing? What’s happened? It’s an obvious “hook”, something that any good story, regardless of medium, is likely to do, and it serves Rime well.

Developed by Tequila Works, the developers of zombie-horror side-scroller Deadlight and co-developers of the recent Sexy Brutale, Rime plays out, visually at least, like a love letter to Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Left shipwrecked on the edge of an island, the game subtly nudges you in the right direction as you guide the nameless protagonist, a young boy, inland, clambering around cliff faces and scuffling over rocks.

It’s basic platforming, but is strengthened both by Tequila Works strong sense of atmosphere and their level design. Rime is linear in the sense that there’s a clear endpoint in every location, with only a few non-essential doo-dads for the completionists to force you off the beaten track. Yet, the design of each of Rime’s locations, rather than feel like “levels” simply feel like an environment, something to explore and wander through and be gently nudged (but never cajoled) in the right direction.

The developers soon swap Windwaker for Ico/The Last Guardian, as you’re introduced to a fox companion who gently points out where you’re supposed to go with a helpful bark every now and then. After laying out its basic structure of platforming and basic puzzles, the game settles into a rewarding hum as it shuttles along its five to six hour runtime.

Rather than simply stick to one basic location, the developers structure the game around specific areas, each with their own gimmick and set of challenges to overcome. After making your way across the island, you’re transported to a desert, where a bird monster constantly harries your progress by threatening to pluck you out of the sand unless you intermittently find cover beneath rocks or structures. Meanwhile, a later area takes place in a flooded temple (again, very Zelda) and has you attempting to reawaken stick-legged robot creatures from their slumber, slowing down the pace and introducing more puzzles.

The environmental changes from area to area, along with the simple yet satisfying puzzles, help Rime to maintain a gentle but effective pace without ever becoming plodding or dull. As with Little Nightmares earlier this year, Rime has a masterful sense of incorporating storytelling into its gameplay whilst rarely breaking player control. More importantly, it serves the game’s simplicity well, with everything playing out like a charming interactive animation.

Despite the simplicity of much of its mechanics, Rime is never tedious or boring to play. Its puzzles typically revolve around the boy’s “shout” which can interact with blue structures in the environment, be they switches or jars. Likewise, later sequences expand on this concept as you lug around shiny blue orbs that both function as keys, and can be used to “super-charge” the area around you, activating multiple switches simultaneously.

By the time the game reaches its final area, there’s a sense that Rime has morphed into something very different entirely. Like I said, it’s a game that tells its story through its gameplay but in a way that never feels obscure or vague for the sake of it.

It comes with something of a surprise when Rime delivers a “twist” in its closing act, shifting into very different territory than where it started. The emotional gut-punch of its climatic reveal is genuinely moving. It was there all along, staring you right in the face.

The fact that Tequila Works manage to craft such a story and tell it through a game that’s primarily about jumping around ledges and shouting at orbs is what makes it so engaging. Granted, it’s far from original as far as writing goes, and I criticised Outlast 2 earlier this year for doing something similar with its story.

Yet, it’s how Rime achieves its story as much as the one it tells that makes it satisfying in a way that Outlast 2 could never achieve. Ever since Silent Hill 2, game worlds as a metaphor for a character’s mental state have almost become something of a cliché, a shorthand solution for creating weird imagery and not needing to have a coherent story to tie everything back to.

The reason why Rime works in this sense is twofold. For starters, it simply avoids beating you over the head with its subtext. Instead, it trusts the player to simply enjoy the journey that’s unfolding and then allow the story underneath to emerge naturally, without reams of redundant dialogue or overdone visual metaphors.

Its other strength is its art-house sensibility. Rather than clutter its story and world with hints and nods to the story that’s emerging it instead takes a minimalist approach, trusting in the mood, atmosphere and beautiful soundtrack to communicate ideas that in most games would be stuffed into reams of backstory, notes and audio logs.

It's only when the absolute final reveal comes, and you finish the game, and open up the chapter select screen. All of the levels, the desert, the forest and so on, are each named after the stages of grief.

I’ve danced around the truth of what Rime is about rather than outright spoil it, but all I can say is it’s an absolutely wonderful game. It’s far from original perhaps, but that doesn’t matter so much when it’s delivered so effortlessly and in such a satisfying fashion.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Walking Dead: The New Frontier - Review

Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: Android, iOS, PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

[Warning: This review contains spoilers for previous seasons of The Walking Dead game. Read on at your own risk.]

The first season of The Walking Dead game was one of the highlights of 2012. It cemented Telltale’s now long-running formula, for better or worse, with a modified form of point-and-click adventure games. 400 Days continued that trend with its novel story-telling structure, and Telltale showed that their formula wasn’t simply a one-hit wonder when they released The Wolf Among Us, perhaps the most underrated of their licensed adaptations so far.

Then, season two hit, and I don’t think I’m the only who’d suggest that it was perhaps something of a disappointment. An awkward pace and some dumb character writing didn’t help matters, but it was the season’s muddled focus that ultimately made it a much weaker offer than its predecessor. Characters like Luke and Sarah were built up over the course of four episodes only to be unceremoniously killed, seemingly at random, with very little pay-off. Meanwhile, far less interesting characters (like Jane), were thrust into the limelight. In short, season two was not all that good, meaning The New Frontier had a lot to make up for.

And does it? Well...that’s debatable. What’s interesting right off the bat is how the game sets up the player’s relationship to Clementine. Season 1 had players interact with Clementine through Lee; shaping her world-view, for better or worse, as her teacher and guardian. Season two then had the interesting twist of having players directly control Clem, which was interesting if only because it made you wonder whether, in order to protect her, players would make more selfish decisions than usual; an intriguing aspect of the season that Telltale never really explored.

In contrast, The New Frontier casts you as Javier, a disgraced professional baseball star, who, following the onset of the outbreak, is left to take care of his nephew and niece alongside his sister-in-law, Kate. With his brother missing, Telltale cast Javier as the reluctant father figure (how reluctant depends on your dialogue choices), in effect mirroring Lee.

This is interesting precisely because of how each season has explored the player’s relationship to Clementine. In many ways, The New Frontier is the reverse of season two: you’re no longer controlling Clem, aside from a few minor flashback sequences, but are instead interacting with her through another character like in season one. Except, this is a very different Clementine from the we first encountered five years ago.

I bring up Clementine a lot, because, despite not being the focus of this season in the way she previously was, she’s still the heart and soul of this series and by far the best written part of it. Seeing her turn up, toting a shotgun, is both hilarious and horrifying. Many doomsday-based shows have explored the way that the new world order, or lack of it, changes children the most, but for The Walking Dead game this notion is far more earned. We’ve seen Clementine transform over the course of the series, giving the process that much more impact.

It’s a good job she’s there, too, because the rest of season is rather limp when left to stand on its own merits. Javier and Kate make for decent central pair for the plot to revolve around, the two are relatable, and have their share of flaws. Both are thrust into the role as makeshift parents that they never really asked for (Kate is only a step-mum to David’s kids), and a central theme of the season is the concept of what family is when everything begins to fall apart.

This would be interesting, even if it is the same, slightly hokey and somewhat overwrought ground that the rest of the The Walking Dead franchise, in all its forms, has mined for some time now. Yet, aside from Javier and Kate, almost every other character is either thoroughly unlikeable, or a complete moron.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with Javier's brother, David. Without going too far into spoiler territory, the relationship between Javier and David is the focus of a large portion of The New Frontier’s storyline, with the game even playing out flashbacks pre-apocalypse in order to flesh out the two characters and how they interact with one another. David is an ex-military man, the good son who thinks he’s done the “right thing” all his life only to find that, when he returns to civilian life, he doesn’t really fit in.

This would be a decent topic to explore and Telltale do, to a degree, do that, only they drop the ball when it comes to writing the characters. David is a thoroughly loathsome character by the end of the game, both idiotic and patronising depending on the given scene. It’s clear what the intention was; contrasting Kate’s optimistic idealism with David’s military hard-headedness, yet that doesn’t play out in the game. David’s choices are almost always entirely wrong, and the fact that the character remains unlikeable to boot makes many of the decisions in The New Frontier even easier to "solve", because there’s not really a choice to be made.

It doesn’t help that Telltale’s writing frequently positions the main female character as little more than a “thing”; a prize for both Javier and David to fight over. There’s a flashback sequence later on in the series where Javier can throw a game of baseball, deliberately missing the shot in order make his brother feel better. Likewise, there’s another scene where the brothers play dominoes, and let’s just say David doesn’t like it if he loses.

There’s a metaphor here; Javier can “lose” in order to satisfy David; hiding his (potential) feelings for Kate. Blood is thicker than water and all that. Only, this metaphor leaves Kate as merely a game piece; a ball between two squabbling brothers with little agency of her own. Considering that Kate is one of the few things that Telltale gets right with The New Frontier, it’s baffling that this subtext permeates the whole season and that Telltale deliberately place emphasis on it.

The New Frontier is a strange addition to The Walking Dead series. It’s arguably tighter and better thought out than season two ever was, mainly thanks to the fact that it doesn’t feel as if it’s being made up on the fly. There are interesting moments here, mainly thanks to its central cast of Clementine, Javier and Kate. Everything around them is poorly stitched together, however, leaving most of The New Frontier disappointing to play through, as it reaches for something interesting, and then goes and scuppers it all with dumb and lazy writing.

“Clementine’s adventures will continue”, the game cheerfully announces when you finish the fifth episode. Given how the series has played out so far, and given how lacklustre Telltale’s other, recent efforts have been, it’s debatable whether or not this is a good thing…

Friday, 1 September 2017

Hitman - Season One - Review

Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Linux, PC, PS4 (version played), Mac, Xbox One 

Hitman Absolution wasn’t completely without merit, but it wasn’t Hitman. Having a linear structure destroyed what is arguably the best thing about the series; its freedom. Hitman is at its best when it simply plays out like a murder-happy sandbox, allowing players to do with it what they wish.

Hitman Season One gets this. Developers IO Interactive understand that the central appeal of the series is in giving players plenty of threads to follow, and then allowing them to do what they please with those different options and opportunities.

This is something that’s immediately apparent in the level design. The first major level of Season One takes place at a fashion event in Paris. There’s the main building, the cellars, the grounds out back. It’s refreshing to play a modern game that places this much focus on its level design. Each level is a puzzle, one with multiple solutions.

In fact, many of the levels can be overwhelming. The range of choices, options, angles of attack, how to get to your target and assassinate them, it's a lot to handle. It can be frustrating, not because it’s poorly made, but because there’s so much to take in.

Purists might cringe at the thought, but IO seem to have been aware of this train of thought. It’s been over ten years since Blood Money first released, and many of Hitman’s potential players might never have played a classic Hitman game before. Therefore, there’s the obligatory “assassin vision” that highlights targets and objects of interest; handy in a game that’s brimming with things that can be picked up and wielded as murder weapons.

Likewise, unique kill opportunities can be tracked via a quest marker for those wishing to follow them. Again, veterans might baulk at the idea, but it’s a welcome addition for those new to the series or struggling to find their feet. Hitman’s levels are large, dense, and, dare I say, sometimes a little convoluted, so the help is always nice for those that want it, whilst those looking for a bigger challenge can ignore them.

Over the course of the game’s six episodes you’re sent to various locations; Paris, Italy, Marrakesh and Japan, to name but a few, all with a different focus or pace to further set them apart. Sapienza, Italy, is arguably the game’s highlight, a classic Hitman level with you tasked with taking down two targets and destroying the virus one of them has been working on in their underground lab. It’s a wide open level, a sprawling puzzle as much as much as it is a stealth-action game.

Later levels riff and play off the earlier levels to keep things fresh. Marrakesh is a mass of crowds and clustered buildings, perfect for lining up an easy sniper spot...provided you can get hold of your sniper rifle without attracting attention. Perhaps because of the game’s otherwise slim number of levels, later chapters up the difficulty considerably. Colombia is by far the game’s toughest area, and it’s most frustrating, with Agent 47 tasked with taking down four different targets across an expansive farmhouse, filled to the brim with armed security.

The levels themselves are only the beginning however, a large portion of Season One’s longevity comes from the assumption that you’ll replay the levels multiple times. Additional challenges are on offer in the form of escalation missions, with you being required to off a target in a particular fashion, and then do it again, only with another target being added each time you succeed.

Likewise, the levels themselves have more to offer the more you level up your “mastery” of each respective location. This unlocks additional equipment, disguises and starting locations for Agent 47, allowing you to further hone your plan of attack to a razor sharp edge.

It quickly comes clear that, in part, this is why Hitman fits an episodic release. It’s a series that rewards obsession and demands a certain OCD mentality in order to get the most out of each environment. The first, second, even third time you play through an area can be frustrating, because you don’t understand everything that’s at play yet, you don’t know each guards’ route, what disguise will get you into what area, and so on. It’s when you’re on your tenth or fifteenth try, that the game, strangely, becomes more interesting.

That episodic release however, deserves to be brought up because it’s at the heart of so many of Hitman’s problems. On the surface, the piecemeal release, provided it was appropriately costed, wouldn’t be an issue.

Square Enix however, have foisted so much nonsense onto the game’s serialized structure that it quickly becomes suspect. Hitman all but requires that you remain connected to the internet. Should your connection drop, you’ll be kicked back to the start screen mid-mission. Likewise, booting up a save takes longer precisely because the game seems to be communicating with online servers, despite the fact that what you’re playing doesn’t really have any online functionality besides a few specific game modes, and sharing your scores with the rest of the world.

These problems quickly make other issues immediately suspect. The hefty price tag for just half of the game creates the impression that the game was broken up in order to justify costing more, rather than because the game genuinely worked as an episodic release. Additional challenges were “timed exclusives”; available for a limited time and then struck from the game entirely.

I deliberately waited to review the game until after its physical release, primarily because others likely did the same in order to get more value for their money. The result is clear, people that waited, bided their time in order to make an informed purchase, are punished, not just with exclusive DLC nonsense, but with the game actively removing content if you didn’t buy into it early enough. This is a frankly disgusting business practice.

Several games this year have suffered as result of nonsense like this. Publishers trying to deliberately eke more money out of customers with bogus methods of buying the games is nothing new, but Hitman Season One might actually mark a new low. A largely single player game, forced to be online, and having the experience actively waste away for those that come to it later on. It smacks of Square Enix experimenting with anti-consumer release models, presumably designed to undercut the used-sales market, and the game clearly suffers for it.

The mixed response the series has received, amongst stalwart fans, seems to suggest that fans won’t be suckered into a game that’s being sold to them deliberately to hoover up more of their money with very little in return. It’s a shame that the casualty of that has been IO Interactive. For all the problems that Hitman has, the developers certainly aren’t the ones at fault, even if they’ve been the ones left to suffer the consequences.

Is the game worth playing, then, should you still be compelled to go near it? That depends. It’s a selection of great maps tied to a collection of sometimes great and sometimes mediocre targets. Almost all of Hitman’s levels have two targets. One is almost always great, and the other feels largely like an afterthought, as if there wasn’t enough time to work both targets up to the same standard.

It’s a bizarrely shallow game in others words, each level is crawling with depth, experimentation, but that only comes from constantly plugging away at the same area, again and again, with its copy-and-paste additional challenges. The game’s “mastery level” alone feels more like a free-to-play mechanic, than something that should be within a full-priced game release.

Even in this abominable state, it’s still keeping more in the spirit of Hitman than Absolution ever was, but that’s about where the positives end.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Persona 5 - Review

Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus/Deep Silver 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), PS3

Persona 5 had a lot to live up to. I don’t exaggerate when I say that Persona 3 & 4 are two of the greatest J-RPGs ever made. Persona 3 made the series what it is today; rebooting the older games and melding classic RPG mechanics with a layer of social simulation. Its successor, meanwhile, has some of the strongest character writing...well...ever.

One of the strengths of the previous two games was how unique they both were on a thematic level. Persona 3’s exploration of existentialism, and a melancholy look at death contrasted with Persona 4’s more light-hearted, but still poignant, examination of hope versus nihilism.

Persona 5 continues that tradition, bowling over any assumptions that this was going to be a safe and predictable sequel. As with the last two games, it has a primary colour, and it’s bright red. Fitting, given the subject matter. This is a game that’s about freedom, challenging authority and facing injustice.

It wastes no time setting up these themes either. Within the first hour you’re introduced to a host of characters who, quite frankly, don’t seem to want you around. The head teacher of your new school sees you as a problem student, and the guy you’re sent to live with stuffs you in the attic and tells you not to cause trouble.

This is a gritty, grimy contrast to the otherwise innocuous charm of the previous games’ school environments. Persona 5’s opening arc, essentially a tutorial, is about a gym teacher who abuses his students, driving one of them to commit suicide.

It’s a blistering gut-punch to start your game on, mining some genuinely disturbing emotional mileage from themes and story beats that other games wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Persona 5 though, is all the better for it.

This story thread soon results in your character and his friends forming the Phantom Thieves; anarchic warriors committed to rooting out injustice. As with Persona 3’s Tartarus and the Midnight Channel from Persona 4, the Phantom Thieves have to visit another world, this time through an app on their mobile phones. In this case, it’s to root out a particular villain’s subconscious, stealing their prized treasure, and forcing them to undergo a change of heart.

If the story and themes are a deviation from the previous instalments, the combat and dungeon-crawling remains relatively familiar territory. Given that you’re playing as thieves, there’s a general emphasis on stealth, ambushing enemies as you slowly explore your target’s “palace”; the home of their subconscious desires.

There’s an indication that Atlus have wanted to make these sections more evocative and tighter than in other Shin Megami Tensei games. The dungeons are more linear than before, comprised of fixed rooms and locations, rather than the procedural generation of the last two games. Likewise, the focus on stealth, ambushing foes in order to initiate combat, is given greater significance than before, bordering on a stealth mini-game. Get spotted by too many foes and you risk being booted out of your targets palace early, forcing you to return on another day in order to complete your mission.

The focus of these dungeon-crawling sequences still remains the same, however. Bonus turns are doled out for successfully striking weaknesses or inflicting critical hits. It makes for tactical forward-planning when constructing your team; whilst each party member has their own particular Persona, your main character has access to a menagerie of alter-egos that you accumulate as you progress. Since your opponents benefit from the bonus turn system in the same way that you do, there’s a Pokemon-like mentality to building up your collection of Personas, attempting to diversify their weaknesses and ensure you have a broad range of strengths.

Talking to enemies makes a return from other MegaTen games as well, adding a little more nuance to acquiring new Personas for your main character. There’s a smart risk versus reward element here, as a conversation that goes south will leave the enemy with the initiative, turning what was initially an advantage (you have to down all the enemies with super effective hits in order to initiate a dialogue), into a potentially dangerous situation.

This is still a game that rewards wiping out enemies as quickly as possible. Fights might be turn based but there’s a breezy quality to encounters, with taking down enemies with that important all-out attack being almost always the primary goal.

Series veterans will also be right at home with the game’s fusion system. As in other MegaTen games, fusing monsters isn’t just a quirky pass time but an outright requirement in order to stay ahead of the curve. Personas level up far too slowly to justify keeping them around forever, and so frequently making trips to the Velvet Room in order to splice various creatures together is something of a necessity.

It’s arguably even more important here than in other instalments because of the game’s social simulation mechanics. Part of what makes these Persona games what they are is that a significant portion of your playtime is devoted to building up your relationships with the people around you. Persona 5 is no different.

Atlus have made some tweaks to the social side of things by threading them back into the core theme of working as the Phantom Thieves, with each social link you acquire also providing a number of different bonuses as you level it up. Make friends with a socialist politician running for office and you’ll unlock abilities that make it easier to recruit new Personas, build up stronger connections with your party members (as with Persona 4 each of them comes with a unique social link) and they’ll gain additional abilities for use in combat.

It’s a nice touch, and one that adds even greater strategy when it comes to working on the game’s relationships. Prioritising some social links in order to gain access to specific bonuses is a valid tactic throughout the game, and all the while you’re fighting against the fact that you’re on borrowed time. There’s never enough time to do everything you want in Persona 5 and so you have to make decisions, who to spend time with, what to do after school. It’s not long until your social schedule is overflowing with things to do.

Between completing palaces and building social links, there’s also Mementos to tackle. If the game’s main dungeons have become more linear and story driven, then Mementos is the more typical, randomized floors seen in the other game. Like Tartarus, Mementos is divided up into a series of floors and zones as you progress deeper.

I’ve avoided talking about the game’s story largely due to spoilers. Atlus, likewise, seem especially nervous about spoilers, with my PS4 repeatedly telling me that every other scene is blocked from recordings and screenshots.

Thematically, Persona 5 is easily on par with its predecessors, exploring freedom, youth and, most importantly, anger at institutions of power in a way that feels earnest, genuine and remarkably poignant given the times we’re living in. It’s easily the most overtly “political” game that Atlus have written in recent years, with an anarchic sensibility. It touches on anti-capitalist themes here and there, with one villain being a business owner who sees his staff as nothing more than wage slaves, and makes for one of the game’s most interesting dungeon designs as you explore the subconscious version of his factory reimagined as a giant science-fiction fantasy staffed by robots.

Atlus manages to do all this without the themes themselves feeling pat or hokey. The game tackles these elements with enough subtlety that the player isn’t being beaten over the head, whilst still ensuring that those themes are resonant enough that it never feels flaky or vague.

It’s in the plot, then, the story that strings all these fascinating ideas together, that Persona 5 risks stumbling. The characters this time around are less engaging and memorable than those in Persona 3 & 4. It was always going to be a tough standard to live up to, but both the main party members, and the social links, never leave quite the same impression. There’s no relationship here that catches you off-guard, like Akinari in Persona 3 or Rise in Persona 4. It’s also hard not to look at some of the new teammates and just see older ones pasted over with a few different character traits; is Ryuuji really all that different from Yosuke and Kanji, isn’t Makoto just Mitsuru done all over again?

Persona 5 is so focused on its central story that the sub-plots and downtime, the moments that are arguably just as important to these games, is made much weaker. It’s made worse by the fact that the later parts of the game suffer from some poor pacing. Again, it’s difficult to articulate this without revealing massive spoilers but, as the game progresses, there’s little build-up to its climax, scenes can feel repetitive or altogether redundant (it wasn’t necessary for characters to repeat the same phone text dialogue every three or four days) as the game seems to shuffle towards its ending rather than build up to it in a suitably dramatic fashion.

None of this takes away from the fact that Persona 5 is  a fantastic game. It’s made by a team that’s still at their peak when it comes to crafting J-RPGs. It might stutter a little when compared to Atlus’ other efforts, but, barring some miracle, it will easily go down not just as one of the best RPGs of the year, but as one of the best games of 2017.