Friday, 19 May 2017

Little Nightmares - Review

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

Little Nightmares, even if the title wasn’t a clue, immediately gives away its inspirations. The pseudo-2D level design and simple minimalist mechanics, that almost solely consist of a grab and a jump button, have their roots in the platforming gameplay of Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet.

This should be expected, of course, Tarsier Studio have cut their teeth working on numerous ports and supporting titles for Sony’s do-it-yourself platformer. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Little Nightmares often feels like you’re playing a user-created level from LittleBigPlanet, only with considerably more polish.

This wouldn’t quite do Little Nightmares justice, however. For such a simple concept; you play as a weird girl/gremlin creature in a yellow anorak, Tarsier Studios pack plenty of interesting ideas and concepts into the game’s svelte five chapters.

The game’s strongest aspect is its atmosphere. Calling it survival horror, or horror in any real sense would perhaps be exaggerating, but the developers do a great job of imbuing each sequence with disturbing imagery designed to unsettle and unnerve. Creeping through a room early on, all you can make out are a pair of legs dangling above a chair, listen closely and you just might just hear the creak of the rope as the legs swing back and forth.

Despite not being a “pure” horror game in the traditional sense, Little Nightmares does a great job of crafting scenarios that are unsettling and tense, and sometimes a little scary. Better yet, the game achieves this without relying on a constant barrage of shock moments and jump scares. Its world is dripping with a sense of unease and threat that’s always present.

In fact, environmental story-telling as a whole is the game’s strongest element. Much like Abe’s Oddysee, Little Nightmares uses its world to craft its story. Events play out in the background as you shift from scene to scene, moving the action forward with a touch of light platforming or basic puzzle work. Unlike say, Limbo, a game which Little Nightmares has a lot in common with, it’s rarely frustrating or difficult largely because it doesn’t need to be. This is a game that wants you to experience everything it has to offer.

While platforming and puzzles comprise two thirds of the gameplay, the rest is made up of some basic stealth mechanics. Each chapter has a central villain that the girl-thing has to overcome. In the kitchens it’s a gang of lumpen-faced chefs intent on catching you, whilst one of the earlier levels has you avoiding a gangly armed creature, (describing anyone in Little Nightmares as a person is perhaps being too hopeful), that can’t see.

The game’s strong attention to pacing serves it well here. Stealth is basic, sneaking under tables or behind objects is almost certain to keep you hidden, and that’s all there really is to it. Tarsier Studios never bog down their set-pieces with fussy mechanics or complex challenges. In fact, in many instances, the simplicity of most of the stealth sections is what makes it them so tense: there’s nothing else to do but dive under the bed lest the horrible monster catch you. There’s a raw, primal urgency and satisfaction to many of Little Nightmares key moments and it’s a part of what makes them so enthralling.

Even better, the developers know when to switch up the pacing. A chapter in a packed, Japanese-themed dining hall, with hoards of screaming, obese men-monsters chasing after you, is a brilliantly crafted set-piece in a game with plenty of them. It’s Spirited Away’s bathhouse sequence played out as a video game level.

In fact, there’s very little to criticise about Little Nightmares. I might sound a hypocrite for saying it, but my biggest gripe is that the game is perhaps too short, not something that you see me write all that much on this website. I’ve lamented many a game, regardless of budget, for bloating their designs with too many mechanics and tedious micro-management (cough...crafting...cough), or stretching their open worlds to breaking point. Little Nightmares is one of the few games in recent memory that I actually wanted more of once it had finished. Its short runtime can easily be completed in one sitting, clocking in at around three hours or so.

Yet, that’s part of the beauty of Little Nightmares. It’s simple, concise and humble. It does its thing and then scurries away before you can catch hold of it, much like its protagonist. Tarsier Studios have created a wonderful little gem here; a game that’s creepy, weird and charming in equal measure.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda - Review

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

BioWare’s work was always going to be cut out for them with Mass Effect: Andromeda. This is a series brimming with unresolved conflicts. It would be difficult for any long-running series to reconcile, but for Mass Effect, the challenge is absolutely gargantuan. BioWare’s sci-fi series was built on its promise of giving players ramifications to their choices, of creating outcomes based on situations that had occurred hours earlier in the campaign. All of this came undone with that colossal mess of an ending (regardless of any indoctrination shenanigans) that left Mass Effect 3 so unsatisfying.

The big question then, was, what the hell were they going to do about the previous three games? And, more importantly, what were they going to do about the giant (space) elephant in the room? That dreadful non-ending.

The answer? Do what any savvy politician does; ignore the question completely. You want to know what happened in the previous games? Tough, Mass Effect: Andromeda doesn’t want to provide any answers, as it takes place both between and (presumably) after the events of the original trilogy. What happened to the rest of the Milky Way galaxy, you ask? Look, here’s Andromeda, go explore, don’t mention anything else, follow the icons, enjoy yourself, forget those other games, focus on this one.

As snarky as this opening might sound, I can actually understand BioWare’s reasoning on this one. Mass Effect: Andromeda needs to essentially stand out as its own game, potentially, the start of a whole new trilogy. In order to do that it effectively needs to sever all ties with the previous games in this regard, in order to have the time and space to tell its own tale.

So, what then, is Mass Effect: Andromeda? What’s interesting about BioWare’s approach to the series up until this point is that each game has had its own distinct and unique identity. The original game is a space exploration game, a romantic sci-fi epic, Mass Effect 2 is an Ocean’s 11 heist tale, where the individual, character-driven stories are arguably more important than the overarching plot, a perfect topic for the middle part of a trilogy to handle. Finally, Mass Effect 3 was a war movie played out through a video game, with all of the previous decisions and choices (in theory) coming together in an explosive and bloody finale.

Mass Effect: Andromeda sticks closest to the original game in the series in terms of style and gameplay, placing a priority on its scope and the ability to explore and navigate to your heart’s content. There’s a main storyline in Mass Effect: Andromeda, but it’s hardly the game’s focus; far more effort seems to have been placed on the game’s open-world and its sheer scale, than on its central narrative.

Normally, this would be an instant criticism. Far too many games in the past decade have sacrificed good pacing and gameplay systems at the expense of bloating their game spaces to gargantuan proportions. Worse still, Mass Effect and BioWare have been defined by their ability to provide interesting linear gameplay and story-telling, so to see them move away from that as part of a box-ticking exercise, or to satisfy EA, is cause for concern.

What Mass Effect: Andromeda initially does however, is surprisingly clever; it makes the exploration the centre of the story. After creating your Ryder avatar, be they female or male, the primary goal, throughout a good portion of the story, is not solving some great danger to the universe, but simply finding a home. Colonizing Andromeda's harsh environments is at the forefront of the game’s themes and issues that it chooses to deal with. Early on you must decide whether to make your first base a military outpost or a research centre, for instance. Do you reach out to the other species throughout the galaxy in friendship, or force them in line?

That being said, Mass Effect: Andromeda arguably has less genuine choices than any of the previous games in the series. Even Ryder has less dialogue to manipulate, with the primary decision being whether to have her be a by-the-book officer or a quip-heavy joker, as the Paragon/Renegade dichotomy has been ditched completely. All of this is almost beside the point however, because, for all the stripped-down nature of many of the game’s story elements, it’s the focus on making a story about the myriad little stories and overall exploration that’s one of the game’s more fascinating aspects.

This means that the best moments, writing-wise, in Mass Effect: Andromeda are when you’re talking to your shipmates, or settling a new planet and helping out the local inhabitants. Visit snow-covered Voeld and you’re left to assist the Angara, the major new race to the series, against the primary villains, the Kett, in what’s essentially all-out war. On Elaaden meanwhile, you’re left to negotiate with the Krogan of New Tuchanka following a split between most of the Krogan colonists and the Council races.

BioWare make this new world, or galaxy in this case, interesting in a different way to many similar open-world games. The initial goal  isn’t to simply stuff you with a bunch of different quest tabs and be done with it, but hang a bunch of vaguely intriguing plot threads and then leave you to wander in whatever direction you want. It’s similar to a smart dungeon master in many respects; tempting the players with plenty of juicy threads but not goading them one way or the other.

Your crew, likewise, remain a fun bunch. A few skirt too close to previous cast members. It seems BioWare are incapable of writing a Krogan that isn’t dry, witty and sardonic, and others, such as Asari-trained human Cora, are just so utterly dull I have nothing else to say about them. Still, a few stand out. Vettra, a sort of Han Solo Turian, is a great addition to your crew, and chirpy robot-obsessive PeeBee is another fun character that fits perfectly into this game’s, lighter, almost Whedonesque tone. Better yet, each character comes with even more little plot threads and individual stories to be teased out as you get to know them.

Granted, the resolution to many of those plot threads is the same; shoot everything until its dead or, in some cases, talk your way out. It’s here where the stripped down dialogue system is most sorely felt, but the focus of Mass Effect: Andromeda is rather bold in many respects, simply because it avoids treading over the same ground that the previous games in the series did.

It’s when the game wheels around to telling its central narrative that things become forgettable. There’s a very Marvel-like feel to Mass Effect: Andromeda, thanks to the game’s overall quippy tone and eclectic cast of characters.

Unfortunately, this similarity also extends to the games central villains, the Kett. The MCU has never been all that good at creating memorable bad guys and neither is Mass Effect: Andromeda, with the generic do-badder wanting some equally generic doomsday tech to snuff out half the galaxy. It’s an incredibly dull plot line that pales in comparison to the first game’s finale. Mass Effect took steps to make Saren a sympathetic individual in a certain light, one that, whilst clearly “bad”, was potentially carrying out bad things for some greater good in his own warped sense. By contrast, Mass Effect: Andromeda’s chief baddie is as bland as they come, along with the rest of the main storyline; an afterthought to the open galaxy it would rather have you invest your time in.

The combat, likewise, gives with one hand and takes with the other. BioWare have meshed together the central character development system with the game’s (still forgettable) multiplayer component. What this means is that you get a surprisingly robust level up system that allows you to tweak your Ryder to how you see fit, choosing from a maximum load-out of three powers along with passive abilities. It’s a slimmed down, streamlined approach, but one that makes for a good amount of depth, not to mention preventing your character from being a steaming juggernaut by the end game, regardless of how much time you put into the ample side content.

Most of the abilities from previous games have made it intact, and each of the game’s seven classes has a slight gimmick or tweak, along with a handful of passive bonuses to shape their playstyle. Veterans will be right at home here. The Infiltrator is still the stealthy long-ranged execution specialist, the Vanguard, the up-close expert, but some of the other classes have been given an overhaul to make them more interesting. The Engineer in particular is great fun with the Assault Turret and Remnant robot pal that can accompany them, sort of playing like a sci-fi equivalent of a necromancer.

All of this, however, has come at the cost of the rest of your team. Whilst Mass Effect: Andromeda might expand the scope of your character’s options, your party members are nothing but an afterthought, glorified bullet-sponges that cannot be equipped with anything or even instructed to use their powers on specific foes.

The decision also, to simplify the “defences” system that Mass Effect 2 and 3 used, doesn’t go down all that well. The previous games had a tight tactical system of matching powers to various different types of defence, be they Shields, Armour or Biotics that forced you into creating a diverse squad for combat. Andromeda guts Biotics as a shield-type entirely, which, in combination with the more limited squad member functionally, forces the game to play out more like a twitch-heavy cover shooter rather than a RPG hybrid.

Other design decisions are also bizarre when you take the game as a whole. Great pains have been taken to provide the player with a complex array of different weapons and armour to customize and craft. It’s all handled in a clunky interface that, frankly, didn’t need to be in the game at all. What’s absurd though, is that, for all the time spent making it a big part of the game, the only character who can be customised in any way, is Ryder. It’s a stupid decision, not only bogging the gameplay down with fussy crafting and menu management, but then also making it so inconsequential (the weapons you can simply buy or pick up are more than adequate) that it’s a mystery why so much emphasis was placed on this one aspect of the game.

And if the game wants to be seen as a more fast-paced cover shooter, it only half nails that. The added manoeuvrability, thanks to your jet-pack, make for more energetic fights that aren’t simply about being bogged down behind cover, but are undercut by the poor enemy variety. Humans, Kett, Angara, robots and maybe one or two alien fauna (the same fauna I might add, regardless of the planet you are on) are all the enemies you face in Mass Effect: Andromeda, and it gets old very quickly. Combined with the more twitch-heavy focus and you have a game that wants to be more focused on the combat but then hardly seems to do anything to make that combat more fun than in the previous games. In fact, it arguably does the opposite in many instances, slimming down the mechanics so much that they risk becoming shallow.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a strange game. For all its attempts at being a safe, self-contained reboot of a long-running series, its design decisions are all over the place. It places more emphasis on the emergent stories that come about from exploring this new galaxy, but then hastily throws in a doomsday plot that it can’t be bothered to make interesting. Likewise, it wants to streamline its combat system to appeal to more casual shooter fans, but then simplifies those systems without adding anything new.

Mass Effect: Andromeda should be applauded for making a genuine break from the rest of the series. It’s surprising to find a game like this that doesn’t feel the need to pander to its past, instead charting a new direction, tone and themes. However, that’s arguably come at the cost of any real sense of direction. This is a confused game, one that doesn’t really know what it wants to do or be. It’s far from an outright failure, but if this new (potential) series wants to live on, it first needs to decide, ultimately, what story it wants to tell.