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.