Friday, 27 January 2017

The Last Guardian - Review

Developer: Sony Interactive Entertainment Japan
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment 
Platforms: PS4 

The Last Guardian begins with a complete inversion of Shadow of the Colossus. Controlling the young protagonist, you’re gently instructed to pull the giant spears out of the injured Trico’s body. It’s a striking moment to begin a game with, and perfectly sums up the relationship that defines The Last Guardian throughout its runtime.

It’s been a whole decade since we last explored Fumito Ueda’s unique brand of game design. As with Final Fantasy XV, it’s something of a miracle that we’re getting to experience The Last Guardian at all. Games that spend this long in development hell usually don’t turn out so well, (Final Fantasy and Duke Nukem can attest to that), so the fact that it’s out and that it’s incredibly good is something to celebrate.

The Last Guardian is unique in the sense that it’s the end of a trilogy, not necessarily in a story sense but in terms of its gameplay. Ueda and his team treat the game as a mirror to the previous instalments, and playing through it is like playing both an amalgamation and reflection of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of The Last Guardian however, is less to do with the series it belongs to, and more to the fact that it simply avoids the tiresome trends of modern big-budget game design. There’s no tacked-on multiplayer (thank goodness), no bland level-up screen to pretend you’re playing an RPG, and no hollow open-world either. This is a game with a beginning, middle and an end.

A lot has been said in the gaming media about how The Last Guardian suffers from being born out of ten year old design elements that haven’t age well. The argument generally being that it looks like a PS4 game, but plays like a PS2 game. What that argument fails to acknowledge however, is that sometimes not being beholden to modern trends can be something of an advantage.

There’s a humble, no-frills, joy to simply exploring the game's world. After escaping from the opening make-shift prison with your cat-bird buddy in tow, there’s a charming simplicity to the game that makes clambering over ruins and rooting around caves therapeutic and oddly relaxing. There’s just enough challenge to keep you hooked, but never too much to break the immersion.

Of course, all of this gameplay is underscored by the primary relationship between boy and cat-beast. Trico is a wonderful creature to behold, one that feels, quite believably for the most part, like an actual creature, rather than just an awkward bit of AI that you have to tow/escort around the environment.

Make no mistake, Trico is awkward. Sometimes he’ll not listen to your commands, all of which are vague, general instructions rather than direct orders. Sometimes he’ll stubbornly sit there and do nothing whilst you flail your arms trying to get the damn thing to simply stand up against a wall to climb up him. You’ll curse, call him names, and decry the game as a mess at times. The Last Guardian’s long development time can perhaps best be felt, not in its game design, but in Trico, he’s a fascinating creation, but one that only seems to function properly about 75% of the time.

And yet, that stubbornness and refusal to directly obey the player’s commands is sometimes what makes Trico appear so real. Like any animal he’s not inclined to directly obey commands the instant you say them, and that says something about the relationship that the boy and Trico have throughout the game. This is a game of two equals, rather than some dumb beast that you’re forced to cajole. Whether all of the AI foibles are deliberate or not, in some bizarre counter-intuitive way, they end up serving the story that’s being told.

Whilst the core focus is on puzzles that involve both the boy and Trico, there’s a variety of scenarios that crop up throughout the game to break up any sense of monotony. The “protect the girl” central mechanic of Ico, where the player had to worry less about themselves and more about stopping the shadow creatures from stealing away the girl, is flipped on its head here. Now, you’re the target that can be hauled away through mysterious doors by stone soldiers, and it’s up to Trico to protect you.

This combat system is slowly played with as the game progresses. Early on, it’s just about getting Trico into a particular room to protect you, but later, enemies will come wielding stain-glass shields, which, you’ll learn early on, Trico really doesn’t like. And so now the onus is on you to push these enemies over and give Trico long enough to clean up. It’s a simple gameplay system, but one that’s gently weaved together with new elements to keep it fresh and more importantly continue to expand the growing relationship between the two main characters.

The most striking moment occurs after an encounter, however. Trico will continue to snap and snarl until the player clambers onto his back and gently pets him. It’s little more than climbing on Trico and holding down the circle button but says more about The Last Guardian’s design philosophy than any other. It has a dedicated comfort button.

It should also be stressed that Ueda’s team haven’t lost any of their knack for creating stunning environments. Their particularly unique style of fantasy is stunning to look at, and even since Ico’s release in 2002 you can see its influence on many other games. Just go play Demon’s Souls' Shrine of Storms area and see what I mean.

Whilst the platforming remains simple, it does so while still being engaging. Clambering atop a nest of wind chimes is a particular highlight. As bizarre as it sounds, there’s a genuine sense of vertigo to The Last Guardian’s platforming that sets it apart from other games (Shadow of the Colossus was similar), and the boy lacks the sticky-handed safety of Nathan Drake, making these sequences both a little more difficult, as well as carry a greater impact.

Like any important work of art, The Last Guardian is at times frustrating and maybe even a little obtuse. Like its titular beast, it’s a game that will no doubt test your patience at times, but rarely does that ever take away from its overall impact. Its long development time certainly hasn’t done it any technical favours between the wonky camera controls and occasional performance issues, but neither do these problems fundamentally take away from what the game is trying to do.

Like with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, its finale is heartfelt and gently melancholy without ever falling over into maudlin, or tugging at the heartstrings merely for the sake of it. The Last Guardian is one of the most thoughtful and engaging releases of 2016; not even a decade in development hell can take away from its central emotional spark.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Dishonored 2 - Review

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

Dishonored was a decent game. I say decent, rather than incredible or excellent, because, whilst its non-linear scope was impressive, it suffered from a gameplay system that punished you for doing things “correctly”. Non-lethal, stealthy playthroughs were left with almost no way to play with the game's toys; wasting the assortment of spring razor traps, cool powers and stylish executions.

Meanwhile, going in all guns blazing felt wrong to me somehow, like this wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing; it was making the world actively worse. The gameplay punished you for playing stealthily and the world punished you for indulging your inner-maniac.

Dishonored 2 continues in a similar fashion to the original game, updating the core gameplay and continuing Arkane Studios goal of creating what is effectively a spiritual successor to Thief. The sequel goes one step further even, casting Thief voice actor Stephen Russell as Corvo.

In some respects, Dishonored 2 is less a direct sequel to the original game and more a quasi reboot. Sure, the game takes place after the events of the first game, but it avoids heavily referencing the previous game (presumably because of its multiple decisions/endings) and instead straight up rehashes the game’s plot for the sequel.

Emily’s empire has been stolen from her, again. This time by her mysterious aunt, Delilah Copperspoon. Cue, another revenge tale as Corvo or Emily butcher the new empresses' cohorts and topple the attempted coup. Dishonored 2’s opening is nothing short of clunky. It’s reasonable, but the wonky dialogue and on-the-nose lines do little to endear you to a fairly unlikeable cast of characters.

But then you get to Serkonos and things get demonstrably better. Arkane Studios have a bizarre strength and weakness in their writing and design in that they’re incredibly good at designing worlds that seem lived in, but seem woefully inept at populating those worlds with interesting or believable characters and stories.

That means you get a fabulous sun-dappled city, a stark contrast to the Victorian sprawl of Dunwall, one that’s oozing with atmosphere and buckets of whale blood, only to get vague, underwhelming motivation on who you’re going to kill next.

Although I have to stress, Dishonored 2’s level design is fabulous. Arkane Studios seem conscious of the fact that, whilst their games technically allow you to play however you want, they always run the risk of slipping into the same old routine once you find a strategy that works.

Because of this, it seems each level of the game is designed to push you out of your habits. After the early levels exploring Serkonos, there’s a stand out moment inside a twisting and labyrinthine mansion that seems to turn itself inside out at the flick of a switch. Similarly, one mission later on strips you of all your powers and instead gives you a time-travel device, enabling you to zip back and forth between two time zones at will.

It’s moments like this that show off Arkane Studio's ingenuity. Each unique gimmick or concept is left to breathe just long enough before it’s switched away for something else. The locations likewise, are gorgeous to look at; Sebastien Mitton's designs make for a world that’s genuinely unique. It’s part fantasy steampunk, and part science fiction, but also mixed with curious real-world elements that make the game’s universe feel vibrant and unique in a way that many other game worlds simply don’t.

The gameplay has undergone a similar update since the first game. Corvo returns relatively unchanged from the previous game, maintaining his (incredibly overpowered, to the point of game-breaking) Blink ability, allowing him to zip from one point to another instantaneously.

The more interesting addition this time around is the option to play as Emily Kaldwin. In many respects, her skill set is an attempt to “fix” the more “broken” or overbearing elements of Corvo’s powers that threaten to warp the game. Her teleportation, for instance, isn’t instant, but rather has her throw out a string of dark energy before hoisting herself up to her new destination. Meanwhile, her invisibility skill causes her to melt into the ground and crawl about with two gangly shadow arms creeping across either side of the screen. Think a less sweary, Jackie Estacado from The Darkness games and you’ll not be far off.

The most intriguing aspect about Emily however, is her more creative powers. Doppelganger allows you to summon one or two duplicates that can distract enemies, and even fight them once the skill has been suitably upgraded. More impressive however, is the Domino ability that enables you to “link” multiple characters together; meaning that, should one become unconscious or get killed, so will all the others. It’s incredibly fun to tinker around with these abilities, and there’s plenty of fun to be found, figuring out the most convoluted or tricky way to slip past a bunch of guards.

Despite this though, most of Dishonored 2’s mechanics seem almost unnecessary. All the convoluted power combinations are arguably less efficient than simply loading up on sleep darts, or taking out your targets with a silent knife in the back. Likewise, for those going in heavy, the basic melee combat makes most fights a case of simply mashing away with the attack button.

Worse though is the childish “morality” system that rears its head again. This was never all that impressive in the first game, and the chaos element to each level barely had any noticeable effect other than a slight change to the enemy count and a few visual alterations. Dishonored 2 still makes the mistake of giving you an abundance of ridiculous toys to go stabbing folks with, only to condescendingly wag its finger and tut, tut at you for killing people.

This silliness extends to the plot. I’ve already mentioned the uneven writing, but the fact that the game chooses to explore morality, at least in a superficial way, only to ignore the political and societal complexities that its unique world would provide. This is a game that, for all its posturing, never once questions whether or not Emily should rule an entire city-state as some supposed benevolent dictator. Emily Kaldwin is at best naive and at worst a smug hypocrite; desperately wanting her throne back even as regular people in Dunwall seem to have it just as bad as always.

You might argue that these contradictions don’t matter in a game that’s primarily about sneaking around and stabbing people, and there is perhaps a little justification to that. The problem with Dishonored 2 is that it toys with all these interesting ideas without giving them suitable enough attention. Its world is fascinating and intricately crafted; but the people in it lack any real depth. Meanwhile, the combat and skills enable a morass of different strategic options but most of them are made redundant by the game's dull challenges (guards, and harder robot guards). It has a morality system, sort of, but then doesn’t really do anything with it other than stick more bloodflies in a level if you’ve been killing too many people.

Dishonored 2 has some terrific ideas, and whilst this review has perhaps been more negative than positive, I’ll definitely add the caveat that if you liked the first game, you’ll almost certainly like this. As a hint of what the series could be however, Dishonored 2 is tantalizing but never quite gets there on any front; be it it through its world or its gameplay.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Batman: The Telltale Series - Review

Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: Android, iOS, PC, Mac, PS3, PS4 (version played), 360, Xbox One 

Batman: The Telltale Series is something of a misnomer in many respects. It’s a game about Batman, for certain, but primarily it’s one that focuses on Bruce Wayne; his relationships, and the things that drive him.

Telltale’s got something of a difficult job with Batman. As with Game of Thrones last year, it’s tough to navigate a series which already has so much established lore. Worse still, there’s already been three great Batman games (well, two and a half, Arkham Knight is very much the odd one out in that trilogy), that have established Batman in video games. It’s difficult to know where to go from there.

The decision to focus on Bruce, rather than Batman, is an inspired one, and by far the most intriguing aspect of the game’s storyline, separating the game from previous takes on the masked vigilante. Telltale games are at their best when they are tugging on your morality; it’s not always about giving the player multiple distinct choices to make but rather pitting intriguing moral questions at the player. When it’s done right the consequence of your choice is sometimes less important than why you made that particular decision in the first place.

The first two episodes of Batman handle this pretty well. The major players are introduced; Harvey Dent, Oswald Cobblepot, Lieutenant Gordon and Vicki Vale, amongst others. Whilst Batman might be the brute force solution to many of Gotham’s problems, Bruce Wayne is portrayed as the manipulator, pushing Harvey Dent in the right direction (what’s “right” is entirely up to you) as he backs his campaign for mayor, whilst also having to manoeuvre around both the Gotham police force and the media.

Each character has their grievances, not to mention their own angle. Game of Thrones did this well enough last year, expanding the inter-group squabbles of The Walking Dead to instead encompass  a swathe of characters all with their own agendas.

Batman does something similar. Vicki Vale wants a scoop on what’s going on, Cobblepot wants his family’s wealth back, Selina Kyle is looking out for number one, and Gordon...Gordon just wants to put the bad guys away.

It’s far from perfect, and one of the biggest criticisms of Batman’s plot is that some characters lack suitable motivation. It’s difficult to set up any question of a characters loyalty when some of these characters are defined by the fact that they are clean-cut and all above board. You don’t have to be a fan of the comics to know that Gordon is probably the kind of guy you can trust, whilst the Penguin is absolutely the opposite.

Which is where Telltale’s take on Batman begins to get bogged down by what’s come before. It doesn’t help that the writers bite off far more than they can chew. Between Harvey Dent, the Penguin and Lady Arkham, that’s far too many villains for a five episode series and it quickly shows. What starts as a tightly crafted story around Bruce and Dent’s friendship and Dent’s subsequent transformation into Two Face, quickly gets sidetracked by the myriad of side stories, drowning out the most interesting dynamics that Telltale bring to their game.

The Penguin in particular is a character that’s both poorly written and sticks around for far too long. A spoilt rich kid now devoid of his wealth, the early episodes pitch him as some kind of class warrior gone bad. He talks about “revolution”, one that conveniently allows him to get back the wealth that his family lost. There’s a whiff of Heath Ledger’s Joker about him between the unhinged performance and the nods to class warfare.

It’s initially interesting. So much of Batman: The Telltale Series is about its central character balancing his two identities; the man and the mask. Even more so is the interesting notion that whilst people might appreciate the Batman, Bruce Wayne is just another rich asshole, and that the real source of Gotham’s problems might be its super-rich upper-class. The early episodes of the series have a stab at this, and the subsequent revelation that the Wayne family is responsible for a lot of what is wrong about Gotham is an interesting premise.

Like so much of the series however, any initial interest quickly begins to wane. Around the halfway mark, the Penguin’s importance to the central story is all but spent. Rather than solely focus on Harvey Dent however, the game instead throws in yet another villain with the shoehorned Lady Arkham, and then decides to throw in a Joker cameo to boot, teasing future series even when it’s not done with this one.

The latter episodes, particularly the final one, “Child of Light”, suffer from increasingly sloppy writing. Two Face’s storyline; ostensibly the initial focus of the entire series, is concluded in around two scenes, with the emotional payoff being blunted by the bloated cast and rushed scenarios. Even the choices that the player has to make seem less interesting or indeed relevant as the game progresses. It doesn’t help when the game seems to outright ignore them. After witnessing Wayne Manor get burned down at the beginning of the final episode, Bruce returns to speak to Alfred later on only to find the place miraculously restored and spotlessly clean. Alfred is damn good at his job it seems…

Stepping away from the story for a moment, the changes to the basic point-and-click gameplay are also underwhelming. There’s a few moments where Batman is left to piece together clues in the environment. Now, it’s understandable that Telltale want to keep these sections relatively simple; their style of game definitely benefits from a brisker pace and doesn’t want to get bogged down by adventure game minutiae. Yet, these sequences are so laughably simplistic that they undermine Batman’s identity as a super-smart detective. Literally linking a nearby murder weapon to a pool of blood is hardly an incredible feat of deduction and is arguably simpler than the “puzzles” featured in other Telltale fare.

The biggest complaint however, goes to the technical aspects once again. Telltale games have never played all that well, which is rather baffling when you consider they are not that resource intensive. Things were improving however, and from what I remember, Game of Thrones ran substantially smoother than, say, the first season of The Walking Dead.

Batman is the first time Telltale have worked with a new and improved engine, and let’s just say it’s not all that improved. The usual bugbears are in attendance, most notably the awkward judders and stalls between scene transitions, along with awkward pauses mid-scene as the game shifts camera angles. Stiff character models plague the game, and worst of all are combined with poor lip-syncing, with entire lines in some cases becoming out of sync with the character models. It’s baffling that this in particular should be an issue in a game where the major focus is on characters talking to one another.

All of these problems could have potentially been fixed had the developers taken more time between episodes. Given the fairly fast release time (an episode a month), at least by Telltale standards, Batman is clearly a game that suffered from its developers attempts to get the episodes out on time to meet their schedule.

All of these criticisms might give the impression that Batman simply isn’t worth it, but it’s frustrating to criticise a game like this because there’s genuine potential had the story been given some more work. The first couple of episodes definitely hint at something more interesting than where the game ends up; the question of “what makes a hero” being replaced by more and more bland QTE fight sequences.

As it stands, Batman is definitely somewhere alongside Game of Thrones as one of Telltale’s more recent, weaker attempts. Had they taken more time with this, it would have made for an interesting take on the caped crusader, one that, curiously, chose to focus more on the fun to be had playing as Bruce Wayne, rather than his brooding alter-ego.