Review

Killer Instinct: A Blast from Two Pasts.

Growing up I spent many hours playing fighting games with my brother and our friends who lived just up the road from us. We only owned a few titles, Street Fighter 2 Turbo being among them, but we’d always try our hand at others when we got the chance to rent them. Killer Instinct was one of our rental favourites, the announcer’s overacting coupled with the weird and wonderful cast kept us entertained for hours on end. I can vaguely remember Killer Instinct Gold but I think it was overshadowed heavily by Goldeneye 007 which consumed the vast amount of time I spent on that console. So of course I was intrigued when I saw it was getting a revamp although, if I’m honest, I never thought to try it until it released on Steam.

Much to my surprise the Killer Instinct you see today is actually a 4 year old game, having been released on Xbox One back in 2013. A free to play version of it was released through the Windows store last year and it was only this year when the Steam version got released. This particular version comes loaded with all the DLC that has been released over the game’s life and also adds support for Windows 7, something the Windows Store version didn’t have. At its core though Killer Instinct is still the same game it was 4 years ago, just with a bunch more characters and few game modes that tempt you to open up your wallet to appease the microtransaction gods.

As you’d expect from a game that was released so long ago the graphics are pretty far behind the mark, even by fighting game standards. Killer Instinct uses Double Helix Games’ in-house HEX engine and is the developer’s third release based on it. The game does manage to look quite good during high action scenes, the high amount of motion blur and other effects culminating in a visual spectacle that feels like what I was seeing back when I was playing the original all those years ago. It’s not all roses though as there seems to be some commands that will freeze the action for a good couple seconds. Whether my PC is to blame for this or not is a question I’ll leave up to the reader but, for comparison’s sake, I had no such issues with Tekken 7.

Reading up on the game’s history it appears that getting into Killer Instinct now means having missed out on a large section of what the game was. When I burled it up for the first time I looked for the standard “fight your way through everyone” campaign mode but none was to be found. Instead I was directed to the Shadow Lords mode which was added in sometime late last year. Looking into it further it seems like the regular campaign missions were part of previous seasons and, as far as I can see, aren’t available to play anymore. It’s a bit of shame since this is supposedly a reboot of the lore of the world, something which I didn’t pay much attention to when I played the original all those years ago.

Killer Instinct manages to feel very familiar, bringing back its trademark fighting style that no game has really attempted to replicate. The game’s simulation engine runs at 90 fps whilst capping the frame rate to 60 fps, ensuring that input lag is kept to a staggeringly low 81ms. This translates into a brutally fast pace, favouring long chain hit streaks and well timed c-c-c-combo (sorry) breakers. The entire original Killer Instinct cast makes a return along with another 18 characters, most of which haven’t featured in any other game previous. Whilst all of them have their own signature moves, power ups and special abilities the game’s construction means that, unfortunately, a lot of them start to feel very similar after a while.

You see if you want to win fights, either in the single player modes or (I assume, more on this in a tick) in multi, you’re going to want to be pulling off long combos. Whilst each character’s opener’s and combos has their advantages/disadvantages (Spinal’s, for instance, being incredibly fast but not particularly damaging) there’s just not as much variety in how the combat plays out. For the most part it goes opener -> combo -> finisher, with a breaker or two in there and maybe a shadow move to finish things off. I’m willing to admit that this view may be born out of the fact that I didn’t spend as long as I used to playing games like this and the mechanical depth might show itself more in the multi.

That, however, is where we run into another issue.

With the game now being 4 years old the player base isn’t as big as it used to be. Indeed the Steam version averages a measly 100ish players at the best of times and, even with cross-play enabled, I could not for the life of me get an online match. Part of the attraction of fighting games is seeing how you match up against others and, like I mentioned in my Tekken 7 review, without that there’s not much to keep you coming back. Sure, the Shadow Lords mode is interesting if you’re into that kind of Roguelike perpetual mission thing, but after grinding that for an hour or so it felt like I was just being pushed to buy some Ki Gold so I could actually get some progression. Had I played this game back when it initially released, either on Xbox One or on the PC, my experience may have been very different.

Killer Instinct captures the essence of what made the original great with it’s lighting fast game pace, ridiculous combos and over-acted narration. Coming in at this point, where the game has been out for nearly 4 years, however feels like coming to a party long after its started to wind down. Reading up on the game’s history shows that much of what I’m seeing now would have been fantastic when it was first released. However today, with a dwindling player base and much of the content no longer available, it feels like a shell of what it could be. Had I still my bunch of fighting game friends I could see the fun extending for a few more hours but even then, without a bustling online community, there is little more to keep you coming back. It’s a shame but, hopefully, the developers have made enough from this instalment to make another. If they do I’ll be sure to be there on launch day as I’d hate to repeat this experience again.

Rating: 7.0/10

Killer Instinct is available on Xbox One and PC right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC (with a controller!) with a total of 2 hours play time and 2% of the achievements unlocked.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider: My Name Was Taken From Me.

I have to give it to those behind the Dishonored series as it really doesn’t take much from them to bring me back. I played the Knife of Dunwall expansion based on a single screenshot, the sequel simply because it’d been too long between drinks and, most recently, because of the name of the next instalment. For those familiar with the series the title “Death of the Outsider’ is an incredibly provocative one, almost begging to be played just so you can see if that title is justified. Whilst the game doesn’t bring anything particularly revolutionary or unique to the series or stealth games in general it is, for this writer at least, the best experience to be had in the Dishonored series.

Taking place shortly after the events of Dishonored 2 Death of the Outsider puts you in control of Bille “Lurk”, the right hand of The Knife of Dunwall: Daud. You awake aboard the Dreadful Wale, moored just outside of Karnaca, armed with the information that your former master is being held captive by a cult called the Eyeless. After you free him you learn that he is not long for this world and he has one last task for you: put an end to the outsider and the chaotic influence he has on the world. The plan is simple: find the knife that created him all those years ago and use it to end him. Of course things like this aren’t always as simple as they sound.

As you’d expect from a game released not a year after Dishonored 2 Death of the Outsider doesn’t bring with it massive improvements in the graphics department. The game’s big vistas and open environments are definitely its strongest point but the sheen wears off when you start to get up close and personal. This is also when the asset reuse starts to become painfully apparent with everyone have the same kind of cabinet, the same bathroom layout and a myriad of other things that are repeated ad-nauseam everywhere. Typically this wouldn’t be much of an issue as you’d be switching up scenes every mission but the majority of Death of the Outsider takes place in the same location. This issue isn’t unique to this instalment however so there won’t be much to be disappointed here for long time Dishonored fans.

Whilst Death of the Outsider retains most of the core game play aspects of the Dishonored franchise pretty much all of them have been streamlined considerably. No longer do you have the choice of what powers you get or upgrade; you get 3 and that’s it for the game. You no longer need to manage your mana closely as it regenerates back to full over time. Bone charms are still around but you can’t craft them until late in the game and the various “mechanical” upgrades are still available through the black market. Side missions are now contracts which you’ll gather off a sign outside the black market as well. There’s a grand total of 5 missions, each of which will probably take you around 2 hours (give or take) which puts it as the shortest of the stand alone Dishonored titles by a small margin.

As you’d expect everything about Death of the Outsider will familiar to those who’ve played any of the previous Dishonored titles although it is closest to Dishonored 2. Whilst you don’t have an extreme amount of flexibility in how you build your character your bone charms will dictate whether you’re a fighter or a stealth based player. I, of course, chose the stealth route for the most part although there was one contract which required me to literally kill every hostile in the level which put my stealth-first build to the test. Since there’s no levelling or chaos system to speak of the stealth/guns blazing kill/no-kill choice is largely symbolic however (save for a few achievements). The new powers aren’t different enough to set the game apart from its predecessors but, for me at least, that wasn’t really an issue.

Stealth and exploration is as good as ever, if a bit more involved than I would have liked. Instead of having a heart to squeeze and follow around (you still have one, it just lets you listen to rats instead) one of your powers is dedicated to marking things whilst your in a stopped time ghost form. No matter the mission there’s several ways to approach it, both from a physical and logistical perspective. A lot of these choices are lot more involved than I first expected too, sometimes finding what was the shortest route to finish a section only to backtrack “just to check” only to find what was essentially an entire other level. Interestingly I never found a route that required violence, instead all of them allowing a full stealth approach. Sure some of them would’ve been easier had I started killing right off the bat but I would’ve thought at least a few options would’ve forced my hand.

Some of the side missions are a bit buggy, two of which come to mind immediately. The first was one where you’re supposed to kidnap a bar tender then put him in a box somewhere. After spending far too long knocking out everyone in the bar I took my leave of it, bartender slung over my shoulder. However when I got to the area to drop him off a cutscene began playing and, I’m guessing here, in the interim I dropped him off the roof to his doom. No problem I can just load up my last save, except the game saved immediately after, obliterating my chances at a retry (without investing another hour at least). The second was the mime suicide one where, for some reason, it’d fail the mission randomly. I still had his unconscious body but it was simply not registered as the NPC I needed and the contract was failed. These are both minor glitches which can be circumvented with good old save scumming but it can be a rather frustrating thing to have to deal with multiple times over.

Maybe I’m getting older or more lenient on the Dishonored franchise as a whole but I felt that both the story and its delivery were the strongest yet. Dishonored’s voice actors typically delivered their lines flat and the story’s predictable nature didn’t help. This time around however the voice acting feels a lot better and the story, whilst still being somewhat predictable, was a lot more engrossing than I remember its predecessor’s being. Seeing as this might be the last instalment in the franchise, at least in this timeline with these characters anyway, it does feel like a fitting send off.

Should Dishonored: Death of the Outsider be the last we see of this series in its current state it will be a grand farewell, being the series’ best instalment to date. It’s not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, still retaining some of the issues that have plagued the series from day 1. However the streamlined game play, better story telling and overall tighter implementation (bar a few issues with some of the side missions) means that it’s much more easier to gloss over those rough edges than it ever was. Even if you haven’t played a Dishonored game before Death of the Outsider could be a great introduction into the franchise. Although if you do that know that it’s only downhill from here.

Rating: 9.0/10

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours playtime and 50% of the achievements unlocked.

Milkmaid of the Milky Way: Rhyming Couplets Isn’t Clever, No Matter Your Endeavour.

Even if I don’t manage to get 1 review per week out I do try to make sure I’ve at least played one game a week. That does become a little troublesome when I’m travelling for work, like I was all last week. Fear not, I thought, I’ll peruse the Google Play store and something will catch my attention. After an initial burst of excitement seeing Monument Valley 2 available I was inevitably let down by the fact that it’s not available on Android yet and was left to the pit of sorrow that is app discovery on the Play store. Eventually I came across Milkmaid of the Milky Way, a simple point and click adventure game that seemed perfect for playing through on the plane ride over to Singapore.

Ruth’s life has never been easy. Her mother disappeared when she was young and her father passing away many years later. Now she is in charge of the farm, churning out butter and making cheese that she sells at the local markets. Ruth can’t help but wonder if this all that there is for her in this life, doing the same things day in and day out. That all changes very suddenly when a UFO flies overhead and (predictably) steals away her cows, something that she just can not abide!

Milkmaid’s art style is now somewhat typical blend of traditional pixel art with a smattering of modern effects that we see in many modern adventure games. The detail is certainly on the low side, with most of the environments being decidedly uncluttered and most textures being solid colours. Considering most games are now overflowing with detail it’s refreshing to see a title that pairs it down a bit, letting the story and other elements do a bit more of the heavy lifting. Speaking of which the soundtrack to Milkmaid is top notch and is one of the things that will likely leave a strong impression on you. From there though things start to get a bit mixed.

Milkmaid is an adventure game, albeit a very short one. All the base elements you’d expect to see are there: a small inventory system, different areas that you’ll click madly around trying to figure out what you can interact with and some kind of challenge you need to complete before you can move on. There’s really nothing else of note to talk about from a base game mechanics perspective but, since I played this on my phone, there are some issues that I think are platform specific which bear mentioning.

Now I don’t know if Unity, Android or the game itself are to blame here but the touch detection on objects and UI elements is down right terrible. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to move an item out of my inventory only to have it not respond at all. Worse still tapping on the screen doesn’t always seem to register on interactive screen elements, leading to a bunch of highly frustrating incidents where I was stuck on a puzzle because I thought I’d already clicked everything, only to find out that nope, that thing I thought was unclickable actually was. Worse still is the fact that some elements are so small on screen (and it’s not like I’m using a small device either, it’s a Pixel XL) that it’s nigh on impossible to actually see them. This ultimately left me thinking the game was bugged as I simply couldn’t find anywhere else to explore. Checking a walkthrough showed that there was a screen I hadn’t got to yet, one which had an impossibly small area to click on to get to it. Suffice to say, whilst this game can be played on mobile, I’m not sure it’s the best platform for it.

From a story perspective it’s certainly not bad, indeed I’d rate it above most story-second games, however the developer made the horrendous choice of using rhyming couplets for all text. I’ve lamented the use of this kind of dialogue style before and my opinion hasn’t changed since then. For me it feels like it removes a dimension from the characters, constraining them all into the same cadence and making it hard for them to differentiate themselves properly. Worse still it seems like the dev actually started off with a more traditional script and decided to change it after writing the first chapter. How I’d feel about the story if it wasn’t told in this way is something we’ll never know.

Overall Milkmaid of the Milky Way is an average adventure game, one that’s probably better played on the PC rather than on a mobile device. The uncluttered pixel art style and great backing sound track are its stand out achievements, both of which are let down by the so-so mobile implementation and the honestly bonkers choice of writing in rhyme. Of course I’m willing to admit my impression might just be due to this old writer’s biases so take that into consideration. Though for the price of admission, and the fact I could play it on the go, Milkmaid of the Milky Way was a perfectly acceptable way to spend part of my plane trip overseas.

Rating: 7.0/10

Milkmaid of the Milky Way is available on PC, Android and iOS right now for $5.99. Game was played on a Pixel XL running Android Oreo with approximately 2.5 hours of total play time.

The First Tree: Through The Woods of Grief.

Sometimes I forget what drew me to a game. You see I maintain a list of games I’d like to review when they come out, saving me (sometimes) from having to trawl through the new release to see if there’s anything that catches my fancy. Of course some games stay on that list for quite some time and the reasons as to why they made it there are lost in time. Such is the tale of The First Tree, a game which, in my head, was completely different from the actual experience. As an interactive story it certainly hits home, but there’s definitely room for improvement from indie dev David Wehle.

The First Tree follows the recounting of the narrator’s dream with his wife. The dream follows a tragic story of a mother fox whose cubs have gone missing. However like all dreams the world the fox passes through is interspersed with elements of the narrator’s life, bringing back memories of the past. The dream is a journey through the narrator’s life, his relationship with his dad and what that all means to him.

From an aesthetic perspective The First Tree makes use of the highly popular low-poly/simple texture style that’s become quite popular among this style of game. The execution is quite simple as well with the mass re-use of numerous assets being very noticeable, especially in particular levels. Animation is also quite simple as well, appearing to be hand done. All this being said though it still managed to slow my PC down a bit after I cranked everything up to max. Whether that’s an optimisation issue or not I’m not sure but there have been a couple updates since I finished my playthrough. After saying all this though The First Tree does manage to pull off the simple visual style well, providing you a perfect visual background to the game’s narrated story.

The First Tree is predominantly a walking simulator style game with the narrator drip feeding you bits of story as you explore the various environments. There are platformer and puzzle elements included but they’re very basic, all done in aid of getting you to explore a bit more. As you explore you’ll encounter points of light which you can collect, areas to dig up that trigger dialogue sections and other collectables. However all these mechanics are background to the game’s story which is told in retrospect through a conversation between the main narrator and his wife.

Before I jump into the story though it’s worth mentioning that some of the platformer and exploration parts could have been a little better done. The light collectables are 2D sprites which are really hard to get a visual fix on which makes collecting them a challenge (especially if they’re in mid air). Considering that only 28% of players who own this game have gotten 50 stars I get the feeling I’m not the only one that found that a little frustrating. This ties into what I felt was a lack of rewards for exploration as there’s no obvious reason for collecting the stars (although at the end it’s revealed to you). If the story elements were paced a little better this would have been less of an issue, however.

You see whilst The First Tree’s story is engrossing (especially when coupled with the great backing soundtrack) it struggles to pace itself out well. This isn’t a particularly easy thing to do, indeed the only similar game that I can think of that pulled it off was The Turing Test, but The First tree has long gaps without narration or music. Sure, I can appreciate that sometimes just having the foley sounds can be relaxing, but to me it usually meant I’d obviously been exploring for far too long without finding anything. To the developer’s credit though it did get better in the latter levels, although that may have been due to me finally starting to understand the developer’s logic.

The story hit pretty close to home for me, having just gone through similar events in my life this year. The narration could have been a little better as the delivery of the bulk of the lines felt like they lacked the emotional investment that I think they needed to really have an impact. It’s possible that this was meant to be more “realistic”, since the story is being told in the middle of the night and after the narrator woke up from a dream, but most people are able to sound semi-normal after a couple minutes of conversation. All this being said though the game’s 2 emotional climaxes did manage to bring a few tears, so there’s something to be said for that.

The First Tree, whilst far from perfect in many respects, does manage to deliver a competent story that avoids many of the pitfalls that its peers have fallen into. The core game play mechanics are simple and don’t get in the way of the story but could use some more polish. The sound track is fantastic and it’s unfortunate that the game’s pacing means that it disappears more often than I’d like. The story will resonate strongly with those who’ve suffered loss, even if the delivery from the main narrator could use a little work. Overall The First Tree is an adequate story first game, one that I’m sure fans of the genre will enjoy.

Rating: 7.5/10

The First Tree is available on PC right now for $7.99. Total play time was approximately 1.7 hours with 33% of the achievements unlocked.

Last Day of June: Some Things Can’t be Changed.

When playing games that wouldn’t fit the typical definition of the medium there’s always one question I ask myself: was this the only way this story could be told? Certainly for games where your choices matter there’s a strong argument (although who didn’t love those choose your own adventure books as a kid) but for linear, narrative focused games the choice is less decisive. There’s a lot to be said for interactivity, which can drive immersion in a story, but for some titles this can actually be a distraction. Such is the story of Last Day of June, a story that could have been served just as well, if not better, if presented as a short movie rather than as an interactive title.

Last Day of June follows the story of Carl and June, two people who are so adorably in love that you can be absolutely sure that tragedy is just looming around the corner. The sun is setting on a beautiful autumn day which you’ve spent down at the lake together. However it starts to rain and you both make a beeline to the car before you get soaked. On the trip home however tragedy strikes and you awake as Carl, alone in your house and wheelchair bound. What follows is a story of uncovering the events that led up to that tragedy and, interestingly, giving you the chance to undo the damage that has been wrought on you.

On first look Last Day of June’s visuals appear simple though they are anything but. The aesthetic is a combination of Picasso-esque caricatures and dreamlike visual effects which give it this kind of surreal cartoon feel. The characters big heads and lack of eyes do make them a little disconcerting to start off with but that fades relatively quickly. The amount of detail put into the areas you’ll be wandering around is impressive until you realise that you’ll be retreading it multiple times over throughout the course of your play through (more on that later). If nothing else Last Day of June is a visual marvel, one that manages to escape the Unity look-and-feel trap that many other titles fall into.

Whilst not strictly a walking simulator Last Day of June plays a lot like one. The same day is presented to you through different perspectives and the only way to progress is to figure out the way to change their outcome. Each of the different puzzle perspectives are simple enough but changing actions in one can have effects on another. This is all interspersed with flashbacks to the character’s memories, hidden collectables and a few other things which tilt this more towards a story focused puzzler than a more traditional walking simulator. Last Day of June’s biggest flaw isn’t from the execution of its core mechanics however, it’s from the ungodly amount of retreading a path already taken to progress the story.

Each of the new perspectives brings with them a new puzzle to solve and all of them will require you to undo things that you’ve previously done with another character. This means re-watching the same cut scenes over and over again as you stumble your way through each of the puzzles. Worse still all of them require you to go through the motions of failing the puzzle first before giving you the freedom to fix them, even if you’ve already managed to figure out a solution in the first place. This is only exacerbated by the lack of any skip function, even for cut scenes you’ve already seen multiple times before. I can partly understand this from a game length perspective, with my play through only clocking in at around 3 hours, but padding a game out with repetition isn’t something I’m in the habit of commending.

Last Day of June is also not free of technical issues, one particular one which I couldn’t get a fix to for several days. After playing for an hour or so I decided to call it there for the day but, upon launching it again, the game would crash just before the main menu. I traced the issue down to my save file (renaming it allowed the game to run) but nothing could cajole it to run with that file. After logging a support ticket and getting told to reinstall and verify the cache files (something I had already done but did again anyway) I was able to get back in. I’m not the only one suffering from this issue either as there’s quite a few people reporting the same problem both on Steam and on the official forums. I’m sure issues like this will get ironed out eventually but it did mean that I spent an hour or so on troubleshooting when I could have otherwise been playing.

I’m on the fence with Last Day of June’s story. Sure some parts of it resonate with me but the lack of dialogue does mean that there’s a certain lack of depth to most of the character’s development. Carl, for instance, doesn’t really receive enough development for me to empathise with him and June’s best friend’s crush on him feels like an unnecessary aside. I can identify with the themes of dealing with grief, wanting to change things that you can’t and all that but if I’m not invested in the characters their struggle will just feel hollow. It’s possible that a lot of my feelings are born out of the frustration I felt with having to retread the same path so many times which is why I thought that this story may be better served as watched rather than played. I would be interested to hear what anyone who watched it on Twitch or YouTube has to think as my money’s on the experience being just that much better.

Last Day of June comes out strong with it’s beautiful visuals and wonderful sound track but falls short in most other respects. The constant replay of puzzles you’ve already solved means that a lot of time is burnt on repetitive tasks, something you wouldn’t usually see in a 3 hour game. The short play time also means that most of the characters aren’t given enough time to develop fully, at least not to the point which this writer empathised with them enough. I’m willing to admit that it might be my frustration that was boiling over into other aspects of the game that’s influencing my feelings here, so your mileage may vary.

Rating: 7.0/10

Last Day of June is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours playtime and 71% of the achievements unlocked.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice: I Just Want the Voices to Go Away.

It’s been the better part of a decade since I played a game from Ninja Theory. Whilst not everyone enjoyed Heavenly Sword as much as I did (although I do agree with many of the criticism levelled at it) I thought they had potential as a developer and hoped they’d go on to bigger and better things. The following decade has given them a modicum of success, although not with any titles I’ve cared to play over the years. When I saw some of the tech demos for Hellblade though I was reminded of what drew me to Heavenly Sword back in the day, and ever since then I’ve been eagerly awaiting its release. Whilst Hellblade isn’t what I had expected it’s an exceptional game in its own right, even if it will drive you slowly insane.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s plot is hard to give an introduction to without diving deep into spoilers but I shall endeavour to do so. You play as Senua, a member of a Pict who’s made a pilgrimage to…somewhere… in order to save the soul of your beloved one. You’re haunted by numerous voices who speak to you incessantly, voicing all your inner doubts, fears and, sometimes, granting you strength to push through your turmoil. The path you’re following is one dictated by Norse mythology and will ultimately lead you into one of their other worlds: Hellheim. Reality, illusions and delusions all blur together in a mess of truth and fiction, one that Senua must follow to its ultimate conclusion; wherever that takes her.

The visuals of Hellblade are stunning, utilising many of the modern features of the Unreal 4 engine to their fullest extent. Whilst the environments you’re placed in may seem large however that in of itself is an illusion as the traversable world is actually quite a lot smaller. I believe the reasons for this are two-fold: primarily it’s for performance as larger environments would necessitate heavy compromises in other areas to keep it performing at a consistent level. Secondly Hellblade isn’t a game about exploration and whilst there are a few things to be discovered if you move off the beaten track it’s certainly not the game’s main attraction. If I was being childish I’d say that was the protagonist’s hair, given Ninja Theory’s penchant for wanting to show off their physics engine, but I won’t do that…

Hellblade is billed as a action-adventure/hack and slash type game and, whilst it has elements of that, it’s actually a bit closer to a walking simulator in most respects. For the most part you’ll be walking through the environments, mis/guided by the voices in your head as others narrate your journey. There’s no levelling, loot or crafting systems to speak of but you will get some different abilities unlocked for you as the game progresses. The combat sections inbetween there are a mix of hack and slash coupled with some Souls-light style game play, focusing on movesets and reaction times. Puzzles are mostly visual in nature, pushing to you look at things in different ways in order to unlock doors, restore objects or transport you to between worlds in order to move onto the next room. In this era of modern games that attempt to do everything Hellblade is a refreshing lesson in focus, leaving all the unnecessary game elements at the door in favour of spending more time on the ones that matter.

The combat is quite enjoyable for an experienced Souls player like myself, mostly because it’s a lot easier by comparison. The standard enemy tropes are all there and their movesets are relatively predictable, meaning that for even inexperienced players it shouldn’t be too much of a blocker. The boss battles too are quite enjoyable, providing a different challenge to break up the other combat engagements. Unfortunately the ramp up in difficulty comes from the game simply throwing more of the same types of enemies at you, culminating in a final battle which is no different from all the other battles you’ve fought before. Considering the game only runs for about 6 or so hours this highly noticeable repetition is unfortunately one of Hellblade’s biggest flaws.

Puzzles are for the most part straightforward once all the mechanics have been demonstrated to you. Initially it can be a bit confusing as the solution can be visible but the way to get to it very unclear. Once you’ve figured out the various mechanics for seeing through illusions, changing perspectives and whatnot it becomes a lot easier. Hellblade does a good job of guiding you through the puzzles however there were still a few that stumped me, mostly because I couldn’t distinguish a certain visual element. Searching around for answers I can see I’m not alone with this so there’s definitely some room for improvement from a design viewpoint. Still I think that overall the puzzles are well designed, intuitive and feel like an organic part of the experience rather than an artificial blocker to progression.

Hellblade announces at the start that it’s best experienced with headphones and, whilst I largely agree with this, the reason isn’t so much due to the game’s general audio experience (although that plays a part). The reason for headphones is for the voices in your head which, maddeningly, do everything you’d expect voices in someone’s head to do. Most voices prefer one ear over another, they’ll quite often talk over the top of each other and they’ll continually provide commentary on everything that’s happening. It’s done deliberately, and for that I applaud them, but it’s also one of the reasons why I couldn’t play for more than an hour at a time. Having that going on constantly is an extremely draining experience, so much so that when they went away for the first time I had a palpable sense of relief. Hats off to Ninja Theory for developing an experience like that but make no mistake, it can make playing Hellblade an exhausting experience.

By and large the game is well polished although there are some weird glitches that can occur. Senua’s hair can go a bit wild from time to time which, whilst distracting, isn’t game breaking. I did have a few times where I got stuck in or behind invisible barriers, most notably during Sut’s trial where you are supposed to get pegged in a ring of fire to fight some Northmen. For whatever reason I was outside the barrier when it got erected which restricted my movements considerably. I was able to finish the fight and progress however but it could have easily gone the other way. I didn’t get any performance issues like others had described however I did play after the first round of patches came out. I’d hazard a guess then that these minor gameplay issues would also be sorted out in future patches.

Hellblade’s story is an extremely tragic one, something you learn about very early on. As one of the game’s core tenants is that it will lie to you with reckless abandon (as shown by the whole “All progress will be lost” thing if you die too much being a lie) it’s hard to discern just what’s true to the story and what’s not. Certainly much of it makes a lasting impression and it’s delivery is exceptional. However at the final conclusion I found myself feeling a little hollow with how things turned out. I’m not sure if it was the exhaustion from dealing with voices in my head or the fact that I didn’t quite understand what the objective truth was but that’s the feeling I was left with. Unlike similar stories that left me questioning just what happened though I didn’t turn to the Internet for answers. Maybe I will later, I don’t know. Suffice to say that whilst I think the story is well told I’m not quite sure how I feel about it overall.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an exceptionally well crafted game from Ninja Theory, showing that they’ve been no slouch in the decade since I last played one of their games. The visuals are stunning, both in terms of raw graphics as well as the visual theme and the environments its set in. The game’s focus on a few key elements rather than a whole lot of ancillary mechanics is refreshing, putting the focus firmly on telling the story. Some of its major flaws are that its combat becomes repetitive quickly, escalation in challenge only coming from increasing numbers of enemies, and that the overall story feels a little hollow at its conclusion. Still overall I think Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is still worth the price of admission, if you feel you can deal with the voices in your head that is.

Rating: 8.75/10

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 93% of the achievements unlocked.

LawBreakers: Unreal Tournament 2017.

The class based shooter genre has seen a massive uptick in popularity over the past couple years, built off the back of exceptional titles like Overwatch and Titanfall. With that popularity comes a struggle for originality as new titles attempt to lure players in with the promise of fresh ideas. However new ideas are only part of the equation, the core game mechanics also need to be solid in order for those ideas to be able to shine through. LawBreakers, a game from Cliff Bleszinski’s new development house Boss Key Productions, brings some new ideas and solid core mechanics but has little to keep you coming back.

LawBreakers is a class-based arena shooter with 9 classes and 4 distinct game modes. The game’s tagline of “gravity defying combat” comes from the various micro-gravity zones that are scattered around the map, drastically altering your ability to move around it. The character classes are all on the RPG holy trinity spectrum with various shades of tank/healer/DPS mixed in. Of the 4 game modes 2 of them are pretty much identical (overcharge and uplink) whilst Blitzball is just capture the flag and turfwar is domination. At the conclusion of each game you’ll be given a score which determines your XP and, with each level up, you’ll be given a shiny stash box that contains decals, sprays and gear to customise your favourite character with. All in all it’s your pretty standard arena shooter affair with the low grav zones being the only real differentiator.

As you’d expect (given the developer’s pedigree) LawBreakers is built on the Unreal 4 engine and looks quite good, opting for a more realistic art style. Much like Bleszinski’s previous games it’s lavished with bright colours, outrageous neon lights and an all round exuberance of colour. When you get in the thick of the action this can be somewhat confusing visually but I’ll take that over the drab, uniform visuals so many shooters prefer any day. These visuals are also well optimised with LawBreakers never experiencing any noticeable slowdowns or lockups during my time with it.

The 9 different character classes largely follow the same pattern: a couple core abilities on short-ish cooldowns with a big ultimate which is on a timer. Everyone has a “fuel” resource which, depending on your class, influences how you can use certain abilities. Mobility is a non-obvious stat which will greatly impact how you play certain characters as, depending on what skills you have, certain parts of the map will be far easier to navigate than others. Indeed a big part of LawBreakers’ game play is your movement and momentum as players who are able to move swiftly and accurately around the map will likely perform far better than others who try to play LawBreakers in a more traditional way. All that being said however the character classes all follow the standard class based shooter tropes pretty closely with easy parallels drawn between them and the classes of other games in the genre.

In terms of how LawBreakers plays it falls into the mid-TTK (time to kill) bracket, not being as fast an spammy as say Call of Duty or Titanfall but definitely faster than something like Overwatch or Team Fortress 2. This means you’re unlikely to get one shot out of no where (although that can still happen) but you’re unlikely to have a fire fight that lasts longer than 5 seconds. Changing class is relatively painless, the only thing that you’ll lose being the charge on your ultimate. If I’m honest though ultimates in LawBreakers aren’t as game changing as you’d expect them to be with some of them being quite lacklustre. Of course the character classes with not-so-great ultimates make up for it in other ways. Overall the core game mechanics feel solid but it’s the things beyond that which leave a bit to be desired.

LawBreakers playerbase has been steadily decreasing ever since launch and it shows when you go to find a match. I’ve had it take upwards of 10 minutes to find me a match at one point and, even then, it wasn’t a full one. Worse still it appears that unbalanced matches won’t get filled with new players, leading to a lot of games with one team having more players than the other. As far as I can tell there also doesn’t appear to be a punishment for leaving games either so those who choose to leave and, by consequence ruin a game, aren’t discouraged from doing so. What this has meant for me is that rarely is a game decided on which team is better, it’s the one that has more players on its team.

After sinking 3 hours into LawBreakers I felt like I’d seen it all, having played all game modes and nearly all of the character classes. The loot boxes are obviously meant to be the carrot that keeps you coming back but, honestly, I didn’t really feel any compulsion to play to farm them. Thinking about it more I just didn’t feel like there was much mechanical depth to LawBreakers for me to explore. Whilst it is a team game, and those that play together well are more likely to succeed than otherwise, it didn’t have the same “team” feeling that a game like say Overwatch had. Instead it very much felt like the Unreal Tournament of days gone past, where that one good player could easily carry a team to victory.

LawBreakers is a solidly executed class based arena shooter that lacks the required elements to take it from good to great. It follows many of the standard tropes that have defined this genre whilst attempting to carve out its own niche with some unique features. Whilst these all work well the overall game experience isn’t that far off what’s already available. Couple that with the issues with match making, no punishment for leavers and a lack of a compelling reason to keep playing and you have a game that’s great for a few hours and nothing beyond that. In retrospect the change from F2P to pay-for-play model might be a blessing for Boss Key as at the very least they’ll make some money off the actual game sales. Suffice to say whilst LawBreakers is a mechanically solid game it’s little more than that and, unfortunately, I don’t think it’ll be enough to carry the game going forwards.

Rating: 7 / 10

LawBreakers is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with 3 hours of total play time and 23% of the achievements unlocked.

Tacoma: The Human Part of the AI Equation.

It’s been almost 4 years since Fullbright released their seminal title: Gone Home. It was a game that hit close to home for me, the story echoing parts of my own life which I had similarly had to overcome. When I heard that their next game was set in a space station in the future I was incredibly excited for a similar kind of storytelling experience. Whilst the game is far more deep mechanically than its predecessor was, giving me a lot more to talk about before getting into spoilers, the overall narrative failed to capture me in the same way. I’ll dig into this a bit more later but suffice to say the reason Gone Home did so well was because of how relatable its story was, something that Tacoma unfortunately lacks.

Taking place some 70 odd years in the future Tacoma puts you in charge of Amy Ferrier, a contractor who’s been hired to retrieve an AI from an abandoned space station. You’re given strict instructions to retrieve the AI’s data and do nothing else, as your contract stipulates. Downloading the AI’s data takes quite some time however and, of course, your mind (and legs) begin to wander. This is when you start to unravel the mystery of why the station was abandoned and how the crew dealt with the crisis.

Tacoma uses Unity with what appears to be little modification. The visuals are simplistic and functional although there’s a great amount of attention paid to things that don’t matter in the overall theme of things. For instance the developers have made numerous brands for things like food, medical supplies and even cigarettes which litter around the space station. Sure it adds a little bit more depth to the environment but after you’ve seen the same brand of snacks 10 times over it starts to just look like mess. Some of the items do have a game play purpose but they’re few and far between. Given that this is a walking simulator/story first game though Tacoma gets a pass for its run of the mill visuals.

All of the game mechanics in Tacoma are centred on discovering more about the characters, their interactions with each other and the overall plot. You’re viewing everything in retrospect, able to move about through the recording as you wish both in time and space. At certain points people’s VR desktops will become available, giving you an even deeper look into their lives. Quite often you’ll play through the same scene several times in order to follow all the various conversations that are happening simultaneously. This does give Tacoma’s storytelling a very natural feel to it, especially when events in one scene affect another. There’s also a few hidden areas that can be unlocked if you pay attention during the VR playbacks or if you track down the various clues hiding in plain sight.

There’s no real blockers to you progressing apart from the timer on the AI download which, I believe conveniently ticks itself up to 50% after you view one half of the VR recording and then to 100% after you view the other. Either that or I had amazing timing every time I finished an area. Interestingly though I think these mechanics are more of a distraction than anything else as Tacoma’s predecessor had nothing like this and still managed to tell a deep, engrossing story. Whilst I won’t specifically lay the blame at Tacoma’s more ambitious game mechanics it does feel like some of the effort expended there might have been better spent elsewhere.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

Tacoma’s plot seems to meander between various ideas without feeling like it comes together into a cohesive whole. Gone Home, by comparison, kept building up the tension right until the last moment, pulling you ever deeper into the mindset of its main characters. Tacoma on the other hand throws up various different red herrings, none of which have enough time to mature in order to be realised as a credible threat. Is it Odin that’s out to kill the crew because it’s finally become self-aware? Did the crew perish in an attempt to save themselves by modifying a cargo drone? Did some of the crew die in cryosleep? All of these ideas and more are explored in the games short 2 hour play time and most of them are dealt with in the same scene as they’re brought up in.

The ending also feels weirdly tacked on. I mean it’s great that Odin got to survive but I didn’t really see it hinted that you were someone from the AI Liberation Front in any of the in-game material. They were alluded to as an entity in the larger world but there was nothing to suggest you were part of it. For me this fits into Tacoma’s larger overall issue of not giving enough time for the various story elements to develop. Instead the focus seems to have been more on telling that story in a more inventive way which, whilst commendable, doesn’t feel like it worked out as intended.

Perhaps the whole reason I feel this way is due to how much the story of Gone Home resonated with me by comparison. The experiences detailed in that game were very close to my own life in many respects and so I felt a deep connection with the characters. Tacoma by comparison feels alien. I mean sure, some of the things the crew goes through are relatable, but not in the same way the events in Gone Home were. Combine this with the lack of overall story development and, for me at least, you’re left with a game that falls short of the high standard its predecessor set.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

There’s no denying that Tacoma is much more mechanically deep than its predecessor was but that’s about as far as the improvements go for Fullbright’s second title. The graphics feel about the same, although there is a lot of attention paid to details that I feel many will never see. The way Tacoma tells its story is unique and interesting, giving you the ability to see the same story from multiple angles and see how they interweave with each other. Unfortunately the story failed to resonate with me in the same way its predecessor did, possibly due to the fact that it’s just not as relatable. The game’s short length also didn’t allow for many of the story elements to mature as much as they needed to, leading to a feeling that many purported threats weren’t as bad as they could have been. Suffice to say I’m somewhat disappointed in Tacoma as it fails to reach the same heights as Gone Home did.

Rating: 7/10

Tacoma is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.

Pyre: We Will Be Together Again Under the Stars.

We’re now at the point where Supergiant Games doesn’t need much of an introduction. Their breakout hit Bastion won many people over with its unique visual style and expertly delivered running commentary. Transistor, to me at least, felt like the ultimate refinement of what a Bastion-esque game would look like and for that it took my Game of the Year for 2014. Like many I had expected Supergiant to once again return to their isometric roots with their next release but that was not to be. Instead we were given Pyre, a kind of hybrid visual novel/sports game that, apart from its visuals, shares little with its developer’s previous games. It’s a massive risk, leaving behind what made you great, but the risk has paid off as Pyre is another exceptional (albeit far from perfect) title from Supergiant Games.

For your crimes against the great Commonwealth empire you were cast into the Downside; a horrid, desolate place where no one expects you to survive. As you lay there, where death seemed certain, you were saved by a trio travelling past in a large black wagon. They soon discover the reason you were cast down: you are a Reader, a skill that’s forbidden in the Commonwealth. However in the Downside this skill makes you valuable, able to discern meaning from text and various other things that can be “read”. They hand you a book, one which in it contains the means by which one may return to the Commonwealth. The path is not easy however and you’ll all need to work together as one if you are ever to make it.

Pyre’s visuals are in Supergiant’s trademark style, combining hand drawn elements with cel-shaded 3D models to give you the feeling of playing in a living cartoon. It’s still in isometric perspective too however there’s no real game play reason for this, done more for style than anything else. The maturity of Supergiant’s tools and processes using their custom MonoGame engine is quite evident now showing that there’s just as much time to developing it as the game itself. If pressed I’d say that they were only a small step behind Moon Studio’s (of Ori and the Blind Forest fame) in terms of producing this kind of visual aesthetic. Suffice to say Pyre’s visuals are beautiful, bursting with colour and are sure to keep visual boredom at bay.

Pyre’s mechanics are a complete step away from it’s predecessor’s isometric, hack and slash game play. Instead you command a triumvirate of characters who’s job it is to grab a celestial orb and dunk it into your opponent’s pyre. That does an amount of damage depending on which character does the dunking and then the round starts again. The first one to have their pyre fall to 0 loses. Each of the characters have different attributes, skills and talents that make them better/worse to use depending on the kinds of opponents you face. After each rite those who participated in it will gain experience and those on the bench will gain “inspiration” (basically rested XP). Additionally each character can hold a single talisman which can bestow on them a number of other abilities or buffs. Whilst the combat didn’t feel as deep as Transistor’s there’s still a lot to uncover with many viable builds.

Initially your pool of heroes is relatively small and so rites will feel pretty similar for the first few hours. As your party expands your options open up and things start to get a little more interesting although if you’re like me you’ll tend towards the combo that works best for you. You can probably continue to run that one combo for about half the game before you’ll have to make some tough decisions about how you want the game to progress from then on out. When I realised this I was a little annoyed that I was being forced away from the combo that had worked so well for me but after a little while I started to like the other available characters a lot more. Sure they weren’t as simple in their use but there were some match ups with them where they were outright broken. Indeed I think a couple of the character’s skills probably need a bit more tweaking to be a little more fair, as much as that means for a single player game.

Pamitha, for instance, can get a talisman that allows her to do extra damage and not be banished when dousing a pyre, if she’s flying when she does it. Combining this with the other flight based talents she has you can essentially always have your entire team of 3 up. If those other 2 characters happen to be the more defensively inclined ones you can pretty much guaranteed that they can never get to your pyre and you can always attack theirs. Of course if you’re finding it all a bit too easy you can ratchet up the difficulty considerably using the titan stars although the risk vs reward in that situation isn’t as great as it’s made out to be. I personally only ever used them once and was still able to max out most of the characters without too much hassle so I wouldn’t worry about not using them too much.

The combat certainly starts to lose some puff around the halfway mark, even if you’ve been using different combos. It starts to pick up again as you acquire a few more levels and sol (the in-game currency) which allows you a bit more freedom to experiment but the core mechanic never really shifts. Transistor by comparison felt a lot more rewarding when experimenting, especially when you hit on a combo that just did ridiculous things. For what its worth though when Pyre starts to lag mechanically its plot starts to kick which was great since I had struggled to engage with it during the first 4 hours or so.

Now I’m not sure if Pyre was set up like this intentionally but it has a lot of the trappings I’ve come to expect from mobile games. Each of the various sections of the game can be completed in short bursts, perhaps anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes. Early on this makes it pretty easy to put the game down as you feel like you’ve gotten somewhere and there’s little impetus to keep going. Since Pyre isn’t available on mobile yet I can only assume this is an unintentional side effect of the game’s design more than anything else.

The vast majority of the game’s story progression comes in visual novel format, walls of text flying by accompanied by various noises and unintelligible words to set the mood. This time around you won’t have the signature Logan Cunningham narration however he makes several appearances in the form of various characters in Pyre. The voice acting and backing soundtrack are as amazing as ever demonstrating once again that Supergiant Games knows how to put all these elements together in a cohesive whole. Of course if the story wasn’t any good this would be all for naught but, I’m glad to say, it is well worth the time.

It took me a while to warm to Pyre’s story and I think that’s due to a few factors. For starters I’m not the biggest fan of the visual novel format although I did like Supergiant’s take on the style. The game also doesn’t settle into its own groove until about 4 or so hours in, with new mechanics still being thrown at you up until that point. Once you get past that point however you get a bit more breathing room to focus on the various story elements and that’s when it starts to grab you. Whilst it didn’t reach the same emotional heights that I recall Transistor hitting it still managed to tug at my heartstrings at times. From what I’ve read the story has a near infinite amount of variations built into it so it’s likely your experience will vastly differ from mine depending on what choices you make and when you make them. No matter what path you take though the theme of redemption shines through and is well explored through all the various character’s story arcs.

Pyre’s deviation away from the formula that made its developer great was a risk but one that has paid off for Supergiant games. The trademark visual style continues to improve; the maturity of Supergiant’s tool chain and processes continuing to bear some exquisitely beautiful fruit. The core game mechanics are unique and manages to retain some of the more interesting aspects from previous titles. The story’s narrative around redemption takes some time to get going but once it does it sucks you right in, pushing you to do just one more rite before you put it down for the night. Before then Pyre feels a lot more like a pick up/put down kind of game but it is relatively quick to redeem itself. Pyre is most certainly a game that will delight fans of the developer but I’m sure it will have wider appeal among those who enjoy games from those who are looking to experiment a bit more with the medium.

Rating: 9.0/10

Pyre is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.

What Remains of Edith Finch: Growing Up Surrounded by Death.

Maybe I’m getting older or maybe I just have less time but walking simulators fill a perfect niche for me. Their short play times, slow pace and (typically) well crafted stories make them a great escape from my usual diet of non-stop work and rage-inducing DOTA 2 matches. It’s also been quite some time since I got to play one, the last being Event[0] towards the end of last year. So when a friend mentioned that I should look into What Remains of Edith Finch, a game from the same developers who brought us The Unfinished Swan, I was instantly intrigued. Like all walking simulators it’s certainly not for everyone but, if you like a gripping (albeit tragic) story, then it’s definitely up your alley.

The Finches are an unfortunate family, one that appears to be pursued by a curse that befalls nearly all of them to untimely deaths. You play as Edith Finch, returning to your ancestral home for the first time in many years. What unfolds from there is the story of how your family came to be in this place, the stories of their deaths and why you left. Much of the family’s history had been hidden from you as a child, your mother refusing to discuss anything. However with her death she had relinquished to you a key, one that unlocked the many tragic tales that befell your family.

What Remains of Edith Finch is built on the Unreal Engine 4 and whilst it does a good job of hiding that “Unreal” feeling there are a few telltale signs that give it away. The visual aesthetic fits in between realism and fantasy which is tied in heavily to the story’s themes. The visuals excel in the wide open spaces, with lovingly crafted vistas sprawling out before you. Up close the lack of detail in some areas becomes apparent but, for the places you’re meant to explore in depth, you can definitely see the extra effort that’s been put in. Overall I’d say that What Remains of Edith Finch’s visuals are above par for the genre, even if they’re not a selling point.

As is expected for this genre What Remains of Edith Finch’s mechanics are simple in their execution. Typically you’ll be locked inside a room or area which you need to find one clue or dialogue trigger. You’ll be rewarded with additional dialogue and story development the more you explore although, thankfully, the game keeps red herrings and dead paths to a minimum. All of the flashback sections have their own little twist on story telling, blending in different story telling elements to make each of them unique. Beyond that there’s not much I can say without spoiling certain story elements but, if you’re a fan of the walking simulator genre, then I’m sure what I’ve described appeals to you.

SPOILERS BELOW

Knowing that all of the flashbacks would result in that family member’s death ignited something of a moral conundrum for me. In order to progress the game I had to do as the game requested but this, essentially, meant I was condemning them to their fate. Like when you were the child swinging over the cliff it was obvious what the outcome would be. However if I did nothing I could go no further and morally speaking they had already died, so I wasn’t changing anything. I guess the feeling came from the deep engagement I had with the game and the sense that I should have some form of control over the outcome, even if it’s already set in stone.

Whilst, overall, I think that the tragic tale of the Finch family was told well I didn’t like the fact that the narrator was killed off in the end. Sure, I understand that this is part of the “Finch Family Curse” motif the developers are going for but it just didn’t seem necessary to the overall plot. Perhaps my feelings about this come from the sense of loss that the game instils in you, wanting the stereotypical Hollywood ending to soften the blow, so to speak. Of course how you react to the story will be unique to you and there is no right or wrong way to feel when the credits begin to roll.

SPOILERS OVER

What Remains of Edith Finch well executed tale of tragedy, taking you through the history of family that has been forever surrounded by death. It’s visuals straddle the line between realism and fantasy, echoing the story. As you’d expect the mechanics are simple and unobtrusive, focusing you on the story. The dialogue and story elements are well paced and delivered excellently, ensuring that you’ll want to complete this game in one sitting. The genre suggests that this game is likely not for everyone but, if you’re a fan of a good story (even if it’s a sad one) then What Remains of Edith Finch is worth your time.

Rating: 8.75/10

What Remains of Edith Finch is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours play time and 56% of the achievements unlocked.