Half Life: Alyx: The Horror of City 17.

I think I’m officially old now.

So my friend offered to lend me his Oculus Quest which, after putting it off for an inordinately long time, I did. The system itself is pretty great, basically working seamlessly out of the box with only a few little bits of setup required. There are still hiccups of course, like it not behaving if you unplug and plug it back in (it wants another USB port) nor it wanting to power on until the battery is somewhat charged even if its plugged in. Then there’s the issue of the cord which, if you don’t cable manage it properly, becomes an annoying additional challenge to navigating whatever VR experience you find yourself in. Suffice to say there’s a lot of annoyances in just getting to the VR experience in the first place and from there you have another set of challenges to overcome.

You see I, like many others, usually play games to relax or unwind. It’s a decidedly non-physical activity and VR well… it is. So there I am, late at night, standing in the middle of the room ducking and weaving around working up a sweat when that’s really the last thing I want to do. I’m not unfit either but a combination of eye strain and the physical effort usually capped most sessions at an hour or less. I tell you all this as I think the simple experience of this being my first, true long form VR experience is as much a part of the experience as the game of Half Life Alyx is. So take what I say with consideration as whilst this is probably the best VR experience I’ve played it wasn’t exactly the most enjoyable experience.

Set 5 years before the events of Half Life 2 Alyx puts you in charge of the game’s namesake as she works against the combine to establish the resistance on earth after the Seven Hour War. You’re immediately captured by the combine but luckily the resistance is able to stage a rescue but only Alyx is able to be saved. Her father, Dr Eli Vance, is taken away and will likely be enroute to the horror prison Nova Prospekt for interrogation and execution. The game follows your quest to rescue your father in the now alien infested world of City 17.

Alyx, even through the screen door effect of current gen VR headsets, looks pretty great. It took some fiddling to get my eyes aligned just right with Quest’s limited adjustability but once I did it was pretty impressive. Playing around in the initial environment was also pretty great fun too, interacting with objects in a really natural way, even without the freedom of full hand tracking or controllers like the Valve Index has. There are some stark limitations though which crop up more often than not with a lot of things appearing like you can interact with them but are non-physics objects. Where Half Life 2 showed what was possible with good game physics Alyx does showcase what’s possible in VR but it just doesn’t seem as impressive as the former did. To be fair I haven’t played a ton of other VR games, so it’s possible that the leap in mechanics is greater than what my feelings would imply.

I’m not exactly sure how to label VR games in terms of their genre. I mean basically everything is first person in VR right? So saying it’s a VR-FPS is kind of redundant, but I don’t see anyone else calling Alyx a VRS or some other new nomenclature to distinguish it from it’s more traditional brethren. Regardless Alyx is a shooter with a heavy focus on making the most of VR as a platform. This entails puzzles which are made for manipulation with your hands rather than a mouse and keyboard, secrets that are hidden in places that require contorting your body in all sorts of weird ways and the usual mix of VR tricks just to remind you that THIS IS VR HOLY COW! There are a few notable mechanics that I think will end up becoming the norm for future VR games whilst others are things that only really work within the confines of the Half Life IP.

Combat is, to put it frankly, fucking terrifying as you’ll quickly learn that your mad gamer skillz mean nothing when you have to physically aim the weapon you need to shoot. Of course there’s also a bunch of other issues with how it works too, like closing one eye not really helping at all and the controllers being close, but not 100% 1 to 1 with your actual hand position in real life. This leads to combat that’s more akin to survival horror than a real FPS as the controls are more getting in the way than helping you. The enemies are coded not to take advantage of this too much however as combine soldiers who would’ve sprayed you with a full clip in 10 seconds in the original Half Life series are a lot more forgiving this time around. Still it is rather satisfying when you pop around a corner, squeeze off a few rounds and have all of them land perfectly or when you just offhandedly shoot a man-hack and it goes plummeting down without even getting near you.

Exploration is fun but it highlights just how limiting a space can be when you need to move around it like VR requires you too. I don’t have the recommended amount of space in my room to full utilise VR (it’s about 2.4m x 1.8m of useable space) and you’ll quickly run up against the guardian pretty much every time you’re doing a puzzle or engaging in intense combat. Combine that with the screen going full orange on you whenever you poke your head through something you shouldn’t and you’ve got a lot of moments that’ll break the immersion really quickly and remind you that you’ve been standing for 30 mins straight and oh god I just want to sit down.

I do like the puzzles in Alyx as a lot of them are things that really only make sense if you have both your hands working in 3D space. The same goes for some of the exploration puzzles which rely on you popping your head through areas or exploring objects in a way that’d be really cumbersome if it was implemented on a mouse and keyboard. That being said however there’s an awful lot in Alyx that straight up doesn’t need VR to work or the addition of VR doesn’t add much to the equation. So whilst I’d agree that, holistically, Half Life Alyx is a VR first experience I think the delta between it and a mouse/kb version isn’t as great as Valve would have you believe.

Putting aside the issues that can be attributed to VR as a platform there’s still some wonky parts to Alyx even months after its release. There’s the usual array of weird physics bugs which admittedly are pretty fun to mess around with from time to time but aren’t something I’m used to seeing in titles from developers like Valve (even if this is what you’d call a 1.0 VR game from them). There’s also issues around hit detection which show themselves most prominently with the barnacles as you’ll often chart a path seemingly past them only to get snagged. The glove detection is also pretty wonky sometimes, often not registering flicks for a couple tries in a row before finally working (which sometimes includes shooting the item right past you). A good chunk of these can be attributed to this being the first amongst its kind in terms of a VR experience but I guess I was expecting more from the great and mighty Valve.

The story is, at best, inconsequential given it takes place between the two major half life games and you know exactly what happens on either side of them. To be sure it has its moments, like discovering that Alyx is afraid of the dark or the on-going banter between her and Russell, but overall apart from usual in-scene tension moments the story doesn’t seem to add much to the Half Life world nor to the characters that are in it. It does avoid making things worse or retconning in things which is honestly all too easy to do, especially when all the original writers left Valve over 3 years ago.

Half Life: Alyx is probably the most in-depth and well polished VR experience to date but, at least for this old man, that doesn’t make for a spectacular gaming experience. To be sure there’s a great lot of moments when you’re fooling around in VR and you can see the potential the platform has but then that’s quickly swept away by all the negatives that come along with it. It is also highly possible that VR as a medium is just not my cup of tea in its current iteration and needs a few more iterations to reach the level I expect of it. I was somewhat expecting Alyx to be the one game where I’d finally make the splash to buy a VR headset of my own but it’s instead confirmed that I’ll stay away for another generation or two as both the hardware and the experiences just aren’t enough for me to justify the asking cost. Indeed it’s been enough of an experience that I’m not even sure I want to give Boneworks a go and I’ll maybe just give my mate his headset back earlier than I expected.

Rating: 7.0/10

Half Life Alyx is available on PC right now for $84.95. Total play time was 6.3 hours with 46% of the achievements unlocked.

Sky: Children of the Light: Rebirth in the Stars.

Journey is an incredibly influential game; it’s concepts weaved throughout numerous titles who sought to emulate their ways and perhaps earn some similar levels of acclaim. Indeed the concept I’ve dubbed “That Journey Moment”, the one where you first skate your way down a long dune past a ruined city, has been copied so much that it has almost become a genre defining idea in itself for these indie exploration games. So it’s been a long wait whilst Thatgamecompany worked on their next title, something which I’d left myself completely blind on so I could enjoy it without having anything ruined. Whilst the spirit of Journey lives on strongly in Sky: Children of the Light its soul has been crushed by that evil which comes for many games should they live long enough.

That evil is microtransactions.

Your world was once one filled with infinite light with the constellations filled with stars who shone down upon you. However over time those stars fell to earth and their light no longer brightened the sky. So it was that your kingdom began to fall into disrepair until it found itself in the desolate state that it is today. Your task, little child of the light, is to find those lost stars and return them to their constellations and reignite the cycle of death and rebirth that everything, even the stars, are bound to.

Sky does a fantastic job of painting a beautiful world with the limited hardware that’s provided by mobile devices. The art style will look incredibly familiar to anyone who’s played Journey with similar colour palettes, styles and animations. The near decade between the titles has seen significant leaps in technology and Sky makes good use of them with lavish particle systems, lighting effects and wide open vistas that you’ll spend a good amount of time simply soaking in. Layered on top of these stunning visuals is an amazing soundtrack, one that’s beautifully tied into the events that are happening on screen. My only gripe was that the foley mastering seemed a bit off as the numerous bass-y things that happened seemed to peak out my headphones, even after turning the base down completely. I didn’t try any other headphones though so this could be a non-issue. It goes without saying then that Sky’s craftsmanship is superb and is likely the best I’ve seen on mobile platforms to date.

The core game mechanics will be familiar to those who’ve played Journey although I wouldn’t go as far to say that playing its predecessor is necessary reading to play Sky. The main aim is simply exploration as you seek out the lost stars, relive their memories and find other collectibles along the way. The main mechanic is, of course, flight although this time around you can basically glide for forever but to gain height will cost you one of your wing energy things. Right from the start though you’ll be surrounded by other players and, should you choose to cooperate with them, you’ll be able to soar to even greater heights. There’s 7 different worlds to explore, each with a different theme, challenges and collectibles for you to track down. There is also (rather unfortunately) a microtransaction store where you can purchase cosmetics and something called an Adventure Pass which I’ll touch on a bit later.

Exploration is a rewarding activity in Sky as they’ve taken out a good chunk of the frustration in tracking things down by highlighting things of interest with sun dogs that you can see from a decent distance away. Depending on how many players are in your zone though you might find some things already done or completely locked out to you and the game doesn’t do a great job of informing you about what’s happening. After a while though you get a feel for when an area has been completed even though you haven’t done everything and should you find yourself in a fresh area it’s almost guaranteed to fill up before you reach the end.

The puzzles and other mechanics are pretty light on in terms of challenge but that’s largely to be expected for a game that’s supposed to have wide reaching appeal. The community is also pretty great too with most players all too happy to help out where they can, sometimes even offering to friend you and grab your hand if it becomes apparent that you’re really not understanding what you should do next. This is, of course, the main thrust of the game which Thatgamecompany experimented with in Journey: the idea of helping each other out even though you only have limited means by which to communicate with each other. If the stars align just right for you this can mean some incredible emotional moments as you share pivotal moments of the game together with strangers you will likely never know or meet ever again.

However there are 2 major issues with the game that fundamentally tarnish what would have otherwise been another masterpiece from Thatgamecompany. The first, and honestly probably the worst of it, is the fact that the game is free and powered by microtransactions. Now the full game is available to you at no charge and, for the most part, you won’t be locked out of anything if you decide not to spend real money on it. But things like the adventure pass ($15) only last one season and need to be rebought for each of them, costing you a total of $60/year if you so wish to indulge. It’s also unfortunately obvious right from the get go as one of the most prominent UI elements is the god damn shopping trolley in the right hand corner. That instantly ruined the entire mood of the game for me as no longer were the symbols people carried with them signs of mastering the game, they were more likely real dollars. I feel that this really crushed the soul of Journey that this game inherited and there’s really nothing that can be done to Sky to recover from it. I’d personally suggest hiding the fact that there were any microtransactions until you’ve completed your first playthrough so you could have that emotional journey without the baggage of the F2P model hanging around you.

Secondly the control system is finicky, unreliable and down right frustrating to use. Some of the more complicated platforming sections are incredibly frustrating because your character won’t respond like you want them to and there are other times where it’s impossible to tell if you’re just not doing something right or if you’re really not able to do what you’re trying to do. This could potentially be solved by pairing a controller to your phone (something I only found out about after I’d completed the game) but still, the game was meant to be played on your phone as is. It’s incredibly frustrating to have such a well crafted game that’s so horribly let down by its control scheme. I don’t believe this is beyond fixing but I know I’m not the only one to be frustrated by it.

MILD PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

Sky’s story is very middle of the road, thanks in part to the fact that it shares a lot of tropes with its spiritual predecessor which has been copied to death by numerous indie exploration titles in the years since its release. However I do have to admit that it has its moments and, should you be lucky enough to be playing with people at the right times some incredible emotional moments. For me it was when I was finally heading to be reborn in the stars and I found myself walking through the pools of light towards the door. It was there that someone who was with me in the level just before appeared, and the first showed me where to get a free heart. From there they walked with me towards the door, cheering for me along the way. Then, just before I entered the door, they waved goodbye as I was sent down to be reborn. Honestly without someone else there at the end with me I wouldn’t have thought much more of it but the fact that I wasn’t alone at the end was an exceptionally powerful moment for me, one that’s still bringing a tear or two to my eyes as I write this.

Does that mean I can forgive the games various sins? Possibly as I can see the beauty that they wanted to achieve but honestly without knowing there was a store and with a better control scheme Sky would’ve been competing head to head with Ori and the Will of the Wisps for my game of the year. Now though? It’s not even close.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Sky: Children of the Light is an exceptionally well crafted games with a couple deep flaws that tarnish what could otherwise be yet another genre defining experience. The graphics and soundtrack are both exceptional in their own right but down right amazing when paired together. The core game loop is fun and rewarding, encouraging you to work with others and explore the gorgeous world that the developers have created for you. Sky also provides fertile ground for those emergent narrative moments that games like these are renowned for, something I’m incredibly glad I got to experience at the game’s emotional peak. Unfortunately the microtransaction store and the horrendous control scheme are painful wounds on an otherwise great experience, severely detracting from the game’s spiritual core. Overall though it’s still very much worth playing, if only to support Thatgamecompany so they’ll hopefully make another game in 8 years time.

Rating: 8.0/10

Sky: Children of the Light is available for free on iOS and Android right now and will come to Nintendo Switch soon. Game was played on an Android Pixel 3 XL with a total of approximately 4 hours play time.

Cloudpunk: I Don’t Think We’re in the Eastern Peninsula Anymore Camus.

You know, I’ve really missed driving games. I spent a great deal of my youth in seminal titles Gran Turismo and the early Need for Speeds, even playing some of the more esoteric titles like the very first cel shaded game I ever played Auto Modellista. Later on I’d spend countless hours with my mates playing Need for Speed Underground, spending most of the time customising our rides before spending what time we had left together racing or trying to beat each other’s drift scores. The want to go back is definitely still there, heck I was staring down buying a racing wheel for far too long recently, but I just haven’t dived fully back in yet. So dipping my toes back in with something that notionally straddled the “driving” genre with one I’ve gravitated more heavily to over the past few years seems like a good middle ground to start off with. Cloudpunk is that game and there’s certainly a lot to love here, from the unique visuals to the simple pleasure of simply driving around the surprisingly large world, the open world tropes that have made their way into the game really detract from the game’s solid core.

You are Rania, a young woman from the Eastern Peninsula who’s moved to the big floating city of Nivalis to escape the debt corps who chased you out of home. You’ve taken a job with a delivery called Cloudpunk; their business? Simple: they’ll deliver a package from A to B for you without any questions asked and they’ll do it faster than anyone else can. This is your first night on the job and it becomes clear that life in the city is nothing like where you come from and just making it through this first night is going to be a challenge in and of itself. You don’t have much time to think about that however as Control tells you that you have a delivery and it’s time to get to work.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I played a voxel based game (quick search shows it was over 5 years ago, The Deer God) so it was refreshing to see agame go back to this art style. Given that you spend a great deal of the game zoomed out though it’s easy to forget that it’s essentially 3D pixel art that you’re looking at, especially given the incredible amount of detail that the developers have packed into the game. Truly the game’s scale is really impressive, especially with the amount of diversity there is in the various details (like different levels having different styles befitting their status). Of course when you do get to zoom in close the extreme lack of detail in things becomes abundantly clear, like just how few blocks make up the majority of the items on screen. Still though it’s the best looking voxel game I’ve seen to date so hats off to the art team behind this.

As the opening plot summary would indicate this is basically a game of fetch quests, sending you between two points with the usual array of challenges mixed in. It is an open world game though, allowing you pretty much free reign of the entire game right from the get go. Exploration is encouraged and rewarded too as you’ll find tons of items, side quests and other tidbits of plot or worldbuilding scattered around everywhere. Thankfully everything is helpfully displayed on your map too, ensuring that if you want to go item hunting you won’t be spending a lot of time trying to discern one clump of voxels from another. There’s also some market mechanics although they’re never explained, but should you want to make a bucket of lims you could do trade runs once you find some arbitrage to exploit. Finally there’s a whole host of cosmetic upgrades for your character and apartment although they have absolutely no impact on the game whatsoever. All said and done there’s quite a bit to unpack in Cloudpunk and for those who simply love driving around and exploring I’m sure this is a game that’d give you quite good value for your money.

The main campaign ticks over at a steady pace throughout game, which you’re most welcome to ditch at any particular point (save for a few specific missions) to go off and do other things that interest you. All of the side missions are self-contained as well and don’t have any bearing on how the main campaign plays out. Your choices in the main campaign will have an effect on the story and the world however, although in all honesty I don’t think you can really move the needle too much in one way or the other.

After a while though the monotony does start to set in however as you’re often sent from one side of the map to the other only to find out that you’ll have to switch to another level and then traverse that to get to your destination. This wouldn’t be so bad if the driving was a bit tighter, or at the very least had upgrade options that’d make it a lot more enjoyable. To be sure there are upgrades but most of the handling ones didn’t seem to make much of a difference. I can understand that it’s part of the game’s design, hover cars after all probably wouldn’t drive like they’re on rails, but when the main thing you’ll be doing for more than half the game isn’t particularly enjoyable perhaps it’s worth looking at sacrificing authenticity for enjoyment.

It’d also help if the upgrades were somewhat rewarding but they’re honestly not. I was pretty excited to see that there was a retro console upgrade and retro game cartridges as collectible items. Figuring that I’d put 2 and 2 together and get something cool, maybe even an achievement, I bought the upgrade. Trouble is I couldn’t tell you where in my apartment it was nor could I interact with it at all. This goes for basically all the upgrades which are simply just more voxels for your PC to render. The clothing upgrades for your character are worse still, some of them just being basic colour changes. It feels as if the game was built with a reason for you to need a truckload of lims but never got around to implementing it fully. So instead we just have what amounts to cosmetics in a single player game, not particularly worth it if you ask me.

There’s also a few items which could use some fine tuning. The physics engine sometimes gets real confused when you bump into another car and shoots you directly upward as far as you’re allowed to go. This would be an edge case issue if the hitboxes for the cars weren’t quite a bit bigger than the models themselves, making unintended bumps and skyward punts more common than you’d expect. It would also be nice to have a way to upgrade your walk speed (for the record I did try the caffeine drink, whatever it was, and it seemed to make Rania run faster but I couldn’t tell you if she really did) as walking back through the same area for the 5th time does get a bit laborious and it’d be nice to be able to rush through them. Apart from those small issues though the game is basically fault free.

The story is kind of middling although it does have a great cast of characters that are given enough screen time to build them out substantially. In the beginning it is a bit much to have everyone you meet vomit their life story at you but after a while they do start to build together into an expansive world which is quite intriguing. However the story told within that just doesn’t really hit the mark and the emotional highs it tries to put forward feel unearned. The ending is also sub-par, taking the end-o-tron 3000 approach after spending most of its time trying to impress upon you the gravity of the choices you’ve been making. I’d definitely play a sequel if the devs choose to revisit this world, though.

Cloudpunk crams a lot into one place with vast voxel environments for you to explore from the comfort of your trusty hover car. There’s been a lot of care and attention paid to the visual experience and they’ve really managed to capture that dystopian, cyberpunk future feel. However the actual gameplay is very middle of the road, with the repetitive nature of the core game loop, unrewarding progression mechanisms and so-so story making for an experience that’s good, but not great. If all you’re looking for is an excuse to drive through a neon-soaked futuristic dystopia then I don’t think there’s many better alternatives around right now.

Rating: 7.25/10

Cloudpunk is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with 7 hours of total playtime and 63% of the achievements unlocked.

Bright Memory: Proof of Concept.

The level of content coming out of one person studios these days is frankly astounding. Part of that is definitely due to the great level of community developed IP available for anyone on their engine of choice as well as the host of ancillary tools and assets available that can make some challenging tasks trivial. I’m also a fan of short concept games that are then used to garner interest from the general public or from publishers as they’re much, much better than a short Kickstarter video which always writes more cheques than the developer could ever cash. Bright Memory is the latest one-person studio wonder to hit Steam and whilst there’s only a morsel of a game here what’s there is good and worthy of being developed further.

The game opens with a rapid fire of what I assume are relevant plot details but they’re largely forgotten in the unrelenting combat that begins pretty much immediately. The best way to describe it would be Bulletstorm meets a JRPG (I’d say Devil May Cry but I’ve never actually played it, just seen a few vids). Whilst the mainstay is the gunplay there’s a trove of abilities to go along with it, all the while you have a points meter ticking over up in the right hand corner, grading you on your every move. You’ve also got something resembling a talent tree powered by XP that drops from all the enemies you defeat. Honestly even taking into consideration the game’s short length the amount of stuff crammed in here is pretty darn impressive.

The combat is ridiculously fast paced and thoroughly enjoyable. From memory there’s only 2 guns to choose from: your standard assault rifle and a somewhat disappointing shotgun. You also seemingly have a limited ammo supply with no drops in sight but even if you miss every second shot I doubt you’d run dry. The guns seem pretty effective although there’s a couple types of enemies which don’t seem to really react to the numerous bullets you put into them which is why, of course, you have your magical abilities to fall back on.

The abilities follow the standard RPG tropes pretty closely, giving you all the kinds of choices that wouldn’t be out of place for a caster class in another game. None of them drastically change how combat encounters play out but there’s a couple of them that will make your life easier at some points (like the giant dome of slashy things that basically levels all the low level enemies for you). The combination with the gunplay makes for a great experience, even if it’s not exactly an original concept. Being fair of course though games that have done a similar kind of FPS/RPG hybrid like this have usually had a few more developers on the books.

Of course there’s a ton of rough edges but they’re mostly forgivable. Enemies can get themselves stuck in all manner of places which can make for a rather frustrating time as you try and track them down so you can trigger the next section to open up for you. The double jump is a bit finicky in its implementation which isn’t a problem for most of the game but when it’s part of a platforming puzzle it does become a little frustrating. There’s also some really wooden animation, not to mention the fact the dev apparently nicked a bunch of models from other games to bolster his game a little more. All these are sins that can either be fixed or made up for when they start working on the full game, something which they should be able to do given the’ve sold almost 200,000 copies of it.

When all is said and done Bright Memory is mostly just a testament to how far one person can go these days when they’ve got an idea and time to see it realised. There’s nothing particularly novel or new here but the game’s short play time manages to demonstrate the majority of core mechanics that we’ve come to expect from AAA developers. The experience could use a couple layers of polish and a fleshing out of the core ideas the dev wants to explore to make this concept really shine but honestly, at this point, I think it’s probably done its job. Should you buy it though? That I’m less sure of as at this point it’s really only for those who’ve bought into the concept in one way or another. If you’re looking for the next game to really sink your teeth into this isn’t it but hey, if you’ve got a few dollars and 30 minutes to kill well there isn’t much else out there at the moment.

Rating: 8.0/10

Bright Memory is available on iOS and PC right now for $14.50. Game was played on the PC with a total of 37 minutes play time and 50% of the achievements unlocked.

LOST EMBER: The Sins We Carry With Us.

If you’ve been reading my game reviews for any length of time it’s probably quite clear that I have a few…types that I like. Of course there’s the usual mix of must-play AAA’s and the long running franchises that I’ve become a fan of but mixed in between all that is a subset of games that I’ll dub review-bait. Basically any indie/small studio title that’s pretty looking, has a good narrative or is experimental in some way is likely to catch my eye. LOST EMBER fits into that subset perfectly and was on my to-play list last year but I just never got around to giving it a go. It seems I wasn’t missing out on too much as whilst it’s a competent game in many respects the overall experience is decidedly middle of the road; the sum of its parts not being anything greater than its whole.

The people of the Inrahsi believe that those who follow their religion faithfully are rewarded with entry to the City of Life upon their deaths. For those that stray from the path however they’re cast back down into the world as beasts, forced to roam the world once again. You are Wolf, a beast of this world who appears to have the uncanny ability to see the spirits of the Inrahsi people and to possess all other animals in this world. You’re approached by a wayward spirit who’s become lost on his way to the City of Light and seeks out your help. What follows is a journey through the memory of the world that you live in and the spirit’s journey to the life hereafter.

The hallmarks of the Unreal 4 engine are all over Lost Ember from the various particle and lighting effects to just that overall “feel” you get from Unreal games that don’t muck with the underlying engine code too much. Lost Ember is at its best when you’re playing in the wide open spaces, able to soak in the seemingly endless vistas in front of you. That facade disappears quickly when you get up close to anything however where the lack of detail in both the modelling and the textures becomes readily apparent. Some of this can be explained away by artistic choices but in reality it’s more an artefact of trying to make large environments without spending an inordinate amount of time populating in the detail (something indie/kickstarter funded devs rarely have the opportunity to do). Worse still it’s clear that a lot of the animal is hand done with a lot of the animals seeming stiff or incredibly unrealistic in their motion. Lost Ember certainly has its moments, as my screenshot directory will attest to, but it’s very middle of the road when all is said and done.

Lost Ember is effectively a walking simulator, not really requiring much from the player in order to progress to the next section. There are some levels which will require you to possess a certain animal in order to progress but every time that animal will be right there next to the puzzle, making the challenge of figuring out what to do rather moot. There is an exploration aspect to it as well with a bunch of collectibles and “legendary” animals to find but apart from getting an achievement or two there’s really no reason to track them down. Checking out its Kickstarter page it’s clear that the gameplay was supposed to be mostly second to the narrative but what they’ve delivered here is pretty far from that original vision.

The exploration, for instance, is absolutely not worth your time at all. The collectibles are either “artefacts” which are random things that are partially related to the memory that you’ve just seen/about to see but they don’t include more than a sentence or two about them. For instance one item, which would be pretty central to one of the main characters, is given a single sentence simply restating what was said in one of the memories. At the very least the collectibles should give you something you can’t get elsewhere to make seeking them out worthwhile. Collecting the mushrooms is 100% pointless as far as I can see as the game doesn’t give you an indication of whether or not anything will happen should you collect all of them. Finally the “legendary” animals are simply glowing versions of the ones you already had access to, giving no benefits or deeper insights into the story.

The game also could use a couple layers of polish as there’s some unrefined edges that make themselves apparent far too often. The controls feel mushy and unwieldy most of the time making it rather annoying to control the majority of the animals. This is exacerbated by the camera which gets a real mind of its own in certain places and will routinely clip through the level, especially in tunnels or when you’re underground. The platforming controls are also incredibly wonky, often taking several attempts to get them to register what you’re trying to accomplish. Many animals will also get stuck in animations for seemingly no reason at all, some will even get stuck in animations that seemingly affect your input keys as well. The levels are also not 100% vetted as there’s numerous places where you can get yourself into a situation which you can’t get out of (save for hitting a checkpoint). All of these issues are fixable of course but we’re 5 months post-launch now so I can’t say my confidence is high to see them remediated anytime soon.

The main issue I have with Lost Ember’s narrative is that it’s all delivered via endless exposition from your spirit companion and the various cutscenes. The Kickstarter page billed it as a joint exploration that led to a deep bond between you both but in reality all it boils down to is your spirit telling you what you’re seeing. You, as the Wolf, have absolutely zero to do with anything that the story is putting forward and the relationship you have with the spirit is really only skin deep. Now to be fair there are some emotional moments later in the game but they don’t feel like they’ve been earnt, instead relying on cheap narrative tricks to make you care about the characters put forward in the game. All said and done it’s a very mediocre story, made all the worse by the fact that the overall game experience does nothing to add to it.

Lost Ember certainly started out with all the best intentions but it’s lack of polish, uninteresting core game loop and mediocre story make for a rather lackluster experience. On the surface it has all the elements of something that I’d thoroughly enjoy: pretty (even if simplistic) visuals, light gameplay mechanics and a focus on storytelling. But whilst all those elements are there none of them are interlinked with each other, nor is any one of them a standout in its own regard. To sum it all up: Lost Ember is neither good nor bad, it’s just rather forgettable. Fixing up some of the core gameplay issues would push it more towards the good end of things but there’s some serious rework needed if it could ever be considered great.

Rating: 6.0/10

Lost Ember is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $42.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3.9 hours playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.

Kentucky Route Zero: Everything Changed When the Power Company Showed Up.

You know how there’s always a few games or a series you missed when it came out and just never got around to playing? One of them for me was Kentucky Route Zero as ostensibly it’s right up my wheelhouse: indie, story heavy adventure with a bent for the experimental. Heck I even had a friend of mine recommend it to me when it first came out but still I just let it slip by. Then as the years rolled on I kept hearing about it, learning that it was an episodic adventure that’d be released over the course of many years. So I resolved myself to play it end to end when it finally finished and it just so happened that the final episode was released this year. Imagine my surprise too when I found out that I already owned it, picking it up over 4 years ago. What’s followed over the last week has been an incredible journey, witnessing nearly a decade of work and experimentation unfold before me.

If I’m honest though, I’m glad I waited.

Conway, a truck driver, works as a delivery man for an antique shop owned by a woman named Lysette. Being hired to make a delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive, Conway travels the roads around Interstate 65 in Kentucky to locate the address, accompanied by his dog, Blue. After searching around, Conway elaborates that he is lost and stops off by a gas station, Equus Oils. It’s here where your surreal journey into this slice of the rust belt begins as you try to track down the elusive address which apparently can only be found by taking the road that can’t be mapped, the Zero.

So much of the recent indie fare I’ve played has utilised similar low poly stylins and if I’m completely honest I had a hard time seeing where they would’ve drawn the inspiration from. Given that Kentucky Route Zero is nigh on a decade old (and extremely popular in the indie/experimental game scene) I feel somewhat confident in saying it’s likely that it is the one who popularised this art style. There are some trademarks that are unique to it though, things like the low poly foliage that appears to be 2D or the slow fade to black of the background as you dive deeper into a text block. Backing all this is some solid foley work and an absolutely stunning soundtrack, the highlight of which is each of the act’s bluegrass standards performed by one of the developer’s bands, the Bedquilt Ramblers.

Kentucky Route Zero fits firmly within the point-and-click adventure genre although most of the usual mechanics (like inventory management) aren’t present. Instead the game is more of a wandering adventure, inviting you to explore around, see what’s what, and carve out your own path through the game’s surprisingly large world. Whilst most of the traditional mechanics aren’t present there are numerous progression blocking puzzles that you’ll need to solve although, thankfully, they are all self contained. Each of the acts has its own…theme so to speak, constructed in such a way to change how you interact with it and, by extension, how you view the story. Played as they came out it certainly would’ve been quite the whirlwind of different styles but played through from start to finish the various elements actually blend together rather well.

The adventure game elements are pretty basic, verging on walking simulator territory given that there’s not a whole lot of puzzles to solve. However there’s exploration aplenty to be had, both in terms of actual exploration around the map (in the many forms that it takes) and through the various dialogue choices that the game presents to you. This does then beg the question of whether or not the exploration is worth it and the answer is: well it depends. At a nuts and bolts level most of the exploration you’ll undertake will build out the world first and, only if you’re lucky, give you a little more insight into the characters. However herein lies the rub for pretty much everything that goes on in Kentucky Route Zero: none of it really matters.

The game has an inordinate amount of dialogue choices for you to pick through however I’m 99% sure, bar for a few choice sections, your choices have basically no impact on how the story plays out. There are various dialogue options which are obviously in direct contrast to each other but often they’re backstory elements or other things which don’t really matter to the core narrative per se but, in a larger sense, are part of the who the characters are to you in the story. For instance the dog that accompanies you for much of the game could either be your loving pet which you confide in regularly or simply that mangy mutt you keep around for whatever reason. Does that change how the story plays out? Not in the slightest but it does change what you think about that character, how they interact with others and ultimately the kind of person you want them to be.

Digging more into the construction of the narrative it’s interesting to try and figure out which parts are allegorical and which parts are true to the world. Obviously quite a lot of the world built up in Kentucky Route Zero is surreal however the game bills itself as being “magical realist” which would then lead you to believe that much of what you’re seeing is 100% true to (this world’s) life. Much like the game’s namesake trying to figure this out is likely to lead you in circles which, I gather, is pretty much the point of the whole thing. I can’t say much more before I dive into spoiler territory but suffice to say the world built up in Kentucky Route Zero has a lot to pick through no matter which way you look at it.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

With the benefit of only just finished my full playthrough a couple days ago, completed mostly in single chapter per night stints, I went through a lot of different emotions over the course of the game. The initial chapter hooked me into the concept, giving me just enough to want to see where things led from there. The second, with its proper introduction and implementation of the Zero route, piqued my interest further. However Act 3 (and to a lesser extent, the last few sections of Act 4) began to drag somewhat, the game dwelling a little too long on some of the more esoteric narrative concepts that I simply didn’t find that interesting. However Act 5 brought everything back home, giving the game the emotional climax that I think many had been seeking but may not have appreciated the brevity in which it was delivered.

Though had I played this before it was completed I don’t think I would feel the same way I do now. Back in the day episodic content was all the rage to keep players coming back time after time, but it’s fallen out of fashion lately and for good reason. Many gamers, myself included, simply don’t come back around when the content is drip fed to us over a long period of time. Played all the way through Kentucky Route Zero feels like a masterpiece, an experience that’s been carefully crafted to elucidate a particular feeling. Played over the better part of a decade? I would’ve forgotten character’s names, the reasons they were there and all sorts of other things that made Kentucky Route Zero as enjoyable as it was. I know this opinion will run contrary to most who’ve enjoyed every morsel they’ve been able to savour but I know myself, and I’m glad I didn’t cave into it beforehand.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Kentucky Route Zero is an exceptional storytelling experiment in the medium of games. The craftsmanship is absolutely top notch and played as an entire experience it’s amazing to see their progress as developers over the over 10 year journey it took to bring this vision to life. It may be a little simplistic and slow for some but for those of us who relish the opportunity to play something truly different to the norm there’s not many other titles that can be thrown in the same basket as this one. If you are like me and have snoozed on Kentucky Route Zero for all these years then I’m glad to say that now is the time to get into it, you won’t regret it.

Rating: 9/10

Kentucky Route Zero is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $35.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 7 hours play time and 54% of the achievements unlocked.

DOOM Eternal: The Only Thing They Fear is You.

This blog is basically just my gaming journal at this point but that serves an important purpose for me: capturing what I felt about a game at a particular time. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about a game many years after I’ve played it, figured I had kept the same opinion about it only to then go back to the blog post I wrote to see how differently I actually felt. This has taught me an important lesson about a lot of things, chief among them is that time brings with it new experiences, opinions and it tends to colour our past with its own brush.

I tell you this as with DOOM Eternal, as it has been with many games and genres of late, I felt that I had drifted away from the intense action that I seemingly loved in the original DOOM in 2016. Talking to my mates about it they were all loving it, whilst I was struggling to really find something to enjoy. That changed over the course of my playthrough but even after finishing the game I feel like something fundamental has shifted in my tastes over the past few years and I don’t find myself agreeing with my opinions of the past.

DOOM Eternal takes place 8 months after the original and Earth has been overrun by demonic forces, wiping out two thirds of the planet’s population. What remains of humanity has either fled Earth or have banded together as part of ARC, a resistance movement formed to stop the invasion, but they have all gone into hiding after suffering heavy losses. The Doom Slayer, having previously been betrayed and teleported away by Dr. Samuel Hayden, returns with a satellite fortress controlled by the AI VEGA to quell the demonic invasion by killing the Hell Priests. These priests serve an angelic being known as the Khan Maykr who seeks to sacrifice mankind in order to save her own world from destruction. So continues the saga of a man too angry to die, hellbent on saving humanity no matter the cost.

This DOOM, like many before it, brings with it an update to the id Tech engine, taking it up to version 7. The list of improvements in brings in are mostly focused on the backend for the most part although it does claim to bring with it 10 times more geometric detail and higher texture fidelity than when compared to the previous engine’s iteration. Comparing some of my screenshots against each other the differences are pretty hard to spot, save for things that honestly could just be down to aesthetic choice. The addition of “destructible demons” is definitely noticeable although it’s honestly a bit of a gimmick considering you’re not going to be spending long looking at them. To id’s credit the game runs perfectly well on my now aging hardware, something I didn’t really expect without having to make a few tweaks to it. I’m sure there’d be a more stark contrast between the games if I’d upgraded my rig in the interim. All this being said DOOM Eternal is still a very good looking game, especially some of the later levels like Urdak.

At a fundamental level DOOM Eternal is very similar to its predecessor, copying and pasting all the core elements that made the original as good as it was. The progression system has been revamped significantly though, breaking up various elements into their own systems most of which can be progressed through simply playing the game and doing the usual hunt for secrets. There’s definitely been an investment in quality of life improvements to take the edge of the original’s more frustrating elements, making overall progression a bit more predictable. All this being said that if you liked the original then you’re probably going to like this one as well, that is unless you’re like me.

Fundamentally I think keeping the same combat loop was probably a good thing as it shook up the established formula enough to make things interesting and that hasn’t really changed in the interim. I couldn’t tell you of any other games that have tried to emulate DOOM’s style with most corridor shooters instead keeping true to their namesake. So DOOM Eternal then still feels like a fresh perspective even though it isn’t given that everyone else has stuck true to their roots. However for me I think there’s one key element that made the first 30% or so of my playthrough not as enjoyable as I would’ve liked it to be.

That would be the game’s unrelenting intensity.

I remarked in my review of DOOM 2016 that I couldn’t really play for more than one level at a time due to how exhausting it was to play and nothing has changed in that regard. My first few hours with DOOM Eternal were split between multiple sittings because I was mentally exhausted at the end of them and I didn’t really feel like putting myself through another level until I’d had some time doing other, less intense activities. Perhaps it’s an artefact of the times we’re living in now as it’s far more common for me to be mentally exhausted at the end of the day, what with all the video conferences and calls I have to be on given that we’re now all working remotely. Whatever it was this meant that I struggled to a) spend time with the game which meant that b) I just couldn’t find much about it to like.

This steadily changed as I was able to progress a little more and gain a few more upgrades, things that didn’t make the game that much easier but did make me feel like I had more options available to make up for any mistakes I might make. This got me through the middle third of the game pretty easily and for a good while I figured it was just that I wasn’t used to the real challenge that DOOM Eternal was throwing up when compared to other FPS titles of recent memory. However after a while the addition of certain enemy types (like the Marauder and Doom hunter) and the extended fights which were just more waves of the same enemies made the game a right chore to churn through. The final boss is probably the best example of this, effectively making you repeat the same bullet sponge fight twice over.

This was made all the worse by the fact that the various progression mechanics don’t feel as effective towards the game’s latter points. Half of the suit upgrades are effectively just quality of life improvements and once you’ve settled on a decent rune combo you likely won’t be changing it at all for the rest of the game. The weapon mastery upgrades are also pretty lacklustre, the initial upgrade points necessary to offset the downsides of the particular mod and the mastery usually just making things a little more convenient to use. At a base level there’s really no way to increase a gun’s overall effectiveness, meaning that every enemy is basically as challenging from the first time you meet it until the last. I get why that’s done from a game design and challenge perspective, but it would’ve been nice to be able to more easily deal with trash monsters rather than them being an continuing annoyance throughout the game.

There were no noticeable bugs or glitches in my playthrough, even in the few times where I was trying to deliberately break things in order to cheese my way through a section. I do have some qualms with some design decisions made about certain interactions (like not being able to dash past certain enemies or terrain of a particular height) but those are obviously intentional so I don’t really count them as a bug. The id Tech 7’s focus on simplifying the codebase seems to be paying off in spades here as I remember the original DOOM needing a little more polish than Eternal does.

Now the story is, to be blunt, completely opaque should you not spend an untold number of hours reading through all the in-game lore pickups. To start off with it’s not made clear at all how you ended up hovering over earth in a spaceship that’s built like a castle and it’s even less clear as to why (or how) the demons are invading earth. To be sure your character’s motivations are made clear enough but there’s no reference I can recall to the 8 month gap between the end of DOOM and the start of Eternal. Towards the end of the game they do a better job of revealing the game’s plot elements without resorting to walls of text but it’s honestly too little too late. Of course you don’t need to understand the story to enjoy the game but it certainly doesn’t help if the game’s narrative is actually detracting from what’s happening on screen.

This puts me in a bit of an odd spot with DOOM Eternal. On the one hand there’s dozens of improvements made to the original DOOM that I think are for the better and the core elements that made it great are still there. On the other though I really struggled to enjoy a good chunk of this game which made those improvements feel less innovative than they really are. Even looking at reviews things are mixed with no real agreeance as to whether or not DOOM Eternal is as good, better or worse than its original. For me I’m definitely in the worse camp, but the things that made that experience worse for me are the same things that I thought were great all those years ago. So honestly I don’t know and all I can really say is that those who enjoyed the original seem enjoy this one too. Objectively I think it has all the hallmarks of a great title, I just didn’t enjoy it as much as the review score might indicate.

Rating: 8.0/10

DOOM Eternal is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $99.95. Game was played on the PC with around 10 hours of total play time.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps: The Life of the Spirit Willow.

Strap yourselves in everyone, we’re taking a feel trip today.

Ori and the Blind Forest took out my game of the year for 2015, beating out many other worthy competitors such as The Witcher 3 and Bloodborne. The reason at the time, and it still holds true today, is that there’s been no other game that’s made me care so deeply about the characters so quickly and then used that against me. From the early moments on I was hooked and all the other aspects of the game’s craftsmanship just served to amplify those deep feelings I had. So to say that I had high expectations for the sequel is putting it lightly; I was expecting the kind of near perfection that they had delivered the first time around and was extremely nervous that they wouldn’t be able to match it. Spin forward to the game’s first moments and suddenly I’m back there, 5 years ago, just after the game finished with all those feelings rushing back again. Now here I am today having finished the game and taking a good week to process it emotionally before I could write the review.

Suffice to say, Moon Studios has done it again and I’m an emotional wreck because of it.

SPOILERS FOR ORI AND THE BLIND FOREST FOLLOW

Picking up right where The Blind Forest left off you follow the story of how Ori, Naru and Gumo raised the lone hatchling of Kuro (the original’s protagonist) who they’ve named Ku. She was unfortunately born with a broken wing, rendering her unable to fly. However Gumo finds a feather which he then attaches to Ku’s wing, giving her the ability to fly. Her and Ori then set off on their first journey together and follow a band of owls to the old forest of Niwen. However before they can return a storm hits and the pair gets separated. This is how your journey begins, a simple quest to reunite with your little owling, but the destination is far more meaningful than you can possibly imagine.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps maintains the original’s art styling with a little more emphasis towards the 3D elements than the 2D ones. The environments still have that wonderful dreamlike quality about them with their lavish use of bright colours, unreserved use of bloom and lighting effects galore. The simple fact that I have a screenshot directory with some 34 screenshots in it is a testament to just how gorgeous this game is, every one of the frames it renders not feeling out of place in a concept art reel. The only downside with the heavier focus on the 3D elements is that during some cutscenes the resolution of some models becomes apparent which draws away from the impact those close in scenes should have. There are some solutions for this available thankfully although none of them natively supported by the in-game graphics options. I’m hopeful that these will become available in future patches however as I’d love to play this again in full 4K resolution with all graphics settings pushed right to their limit.

I also have to give a special mention to the soundtrack that Gareth Coker, who was responsible for the original’s as well, created for The Will of the Wisps. Once again he’s managed to create a brilliant set of emotional pieces of music that beautifully match the events happening on screen. For many games the sound track is an afterthought so it’s always great to see when it’s given just as much care and attention as everything else that’s put in.

The Will of the Wisps retains the same core game loop as the original with some of it’s newer elements borrowed some elements from some modern metroidvania titles. The progression system has been significantly increased in breadth and complexity, no longer being a simple choice between a couple different skill talent trees. Instead you’ve got multiple different paths to progress through, each of them with different mechanics for their progression. The level design has also been significantly improved as whilst it follows the standard metroidvania trope (I.E. unlocking new areas in already completed mission with new abilities) not once did I feel like I was missing a significant part of a level because I didn’t have a certain ability. There’s also a myriad of quality of life improvements as well, making the journey to 100% a run through something I actually considered doing for the first time in…quite a long time. With this release Moon Studio has proven that they’re dedicated to developing extremely high quality titles and aren’t satisfied with simply retreading old successes.

The game’s platforming starts off from the basics once again, a good thing considering it’s likely been quite a while for many players since they played the original. Some of my old muscle memory was still there, like expecting double jump and wall sticking from the get go, but it didn’t take long before I had those few abilities and the game started lumping on more things on me to make the platforming sections more varied and challenging. Each of the games…I want to call them biomes… comes with a new ability that will be the main trick that you’ll use to progress through it. That ability then also unlocks other areas in other biomes as well, typically granting access to upgrades and other collectibles that you couldn’t get ahold of. Towards the end of the game this will also get you into situations that were obviously not designed for, like skipping entire sections, but that’s mostly to your benefit. There’s also a bit of emergent behaviour you can exploit here too, like in the main Moki town which you can easily clear out of most of its collectibles before you complete the requisite side quests. Overall the platforming is as solid as it ever was.

Combat feels much the same as it used to although, I admit, this may partly be because I didn’t invest as much time in progressing the combat abilities as I did the other parts of the game. There are new abilities, some of which are also required for unlocking certain areas of the game, but for the most part it’s still a dodge/attack game loop. To be sure there’s going to be some broken skill builds out there that will have you wrecking all sorts of havoc but I played it safe for the most part, favouring instead being able to recover from my mistakes rather than going full glass canon. Still though for a few of the boss encounters I’d switch out to a different build that then made those encounters a lot easier going as without some kind of damage buff some of them could take forever to complete.

Progression comes at a pretty steady clip thanks to the multiple different progression mechanics. For starters you’ve got your simple life/mana orbs which you can easily find throughout the levels and most will be available to you immediately or soon after unlocking the biome’s ability. The main avenue for progression is spirit shards which modify your current abilities or attributes. Initially you can only equip 3 at a time but that can be upgraded to a total of 8 if you complete all the combat shrines. Most of the shards can be found around the place but a choice few will need to be bought. About half can be upgraded as well, although none need to be upgraded to be useful. You can purchase and upgrade new combat abilities from a vendor as well, a couple of which you’ll need to purchase in order to unlock some of the areas of the map. I tried the spirit surge initially but it’s pretty underwhelming. The spear was by far my favourite as it did an absolutely insane amount of damage and is pinpoint accurate. The downside is the mana cost but that can be made up for with the appropriate shard selection. There’s also a myriad of side quests which change the world around you although I don’t believe they have an appreciable impact on how the game plays out (apart from opening up more secrets to you).

There’s also a bunch of time trials scattered throughout the game, pitting you against a ghost Ori in a race to the finish line. I think originally they may have included a wide variety of rewards but they only now give spirit light, the game’s main currency. Whilst this is certainly helpful it’s not like you’re always scrounging for it. Indeed if you complete the side quests and find most of the secrets then you’re likely going to be rolling in it. I usually kept above 6000 as I wanted to max out the damage buff from a shard I had but even when I did go and splurge on something I don’t remember it taking that long to get it back up again. Regardless the challenges themselves aren’t too difficult, especially considering you can just follow the ghost and then overtake them quickly right at the end (doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile, right?).

You’d be forgiven for thinking that all these mechanics would make for a game that’s too busy but they all work together to give the game a steady, moderate pace. There’s always something you need to do but the game doesn’t punish you for taking your time to explore around and uncover all the secrets they’ve hidden around the place. This makes it really enjoyable to simply take your time with the level, figuring out all the tells they’ve built in that lead to secrets or hint at how the current blocking puzzle could be solved. The fact that I only got stuck a couple times is a testament to how well the game is designed.

The same niggle I had with the original makes an unfortunate return in The Will of the Wisps; that being the use of long platforming sequences that must be completed in one shot. There’s more than one in this but they’re thankfully 1) shorter than the original’s final boss fight and 2) somewhat better designed so that you don’t feel like you’re running up against unfair mechanics designed to make you fail. That improvement is then offset by some slight…mushiness in the keystroke detection which makes doing some of the more involved platforming a bit clunkier than it should be. To be fair it could be that I was attempting things you weren’t intended to do as I distinctly remember this grumble coming to the front when I was clearing out the Moki town before I’d done all the plants and building improvements.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

The game’s narrative follows a very similar trope to the original but god damn do they know how to find your heart strings and tug on them relentlessly. It wasn’t enough that the game’s opening moments made me remember the original’s tragedy with such vivid recollection that I needed a minute to compose myself before playing they then had to set up yet another tragedy after I had already bought into the game’s premise emotionally. To be sure the plot is simplistic and predictable but I couldn’t help but feel for each and every one of the characters. This is only made better by the fact that it didn’t rely heavily on the story that came before it either, the original’s characters only having a passing role in this game.

Probably the biggest thing that stuck with me, which is possible fertile ground for a sequel, is that they didn’t resolve Shriek’s storyline positively, instead condemning her to misery that she’s known her entire life. That honestly hurt me more than anything else given what you know of her backstory. But, having had some time to process it, I can see it for what it is: great storytelling that didn’t go the way I wanted to. That doesn’t make it bad, just sad for me.

Now I’d usually chide a game for hinting at a sequel but I’m happy with the way it was done here, for a couple reasons. Firstly it’s already established canon in the world and the current story threads (bar Shriek’s) are resolved. That means that any further games in the series will have to stand on their own and, quite likely, lose “Ori and” from the title. Whilst it’s beautifully sad how Ori’s thread resolved I’m glad it did as it’d be all too easy to keep riding that cute little spirit’s goodwill until all the money was squeezed out of him.

SPOILERS OVER

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is an exceptional sophomore release from Moon Studios, demonstrating that they’re exceptional craftspeople when it comes to the genre of metroidvania that’ll make you cry. If you’ve made it this far in the review then you know what I think about the game’s various elements and I’m not going to rehash them again. All I’m going to do is say that, no matter what kind of gamer you are, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is worth your attention. If you haven’t played the original then do yourself a favour and give it the once over so you can play its sequel immediately, I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: 9.75/10

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $39.95. Game was played on the PC with 11 hours of total play time and 43% of the achievements unlocked.

The Division 2: Warlords of New York: You Have No Idea What’s Coming.

It’s been just under a year since I last spun up The Division 2 as whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the numerous hours I dropped into it that initial wall I hit with the raid meant I ended my time with it shortly after the review. The various drops of content between now and then didn’t really pop up on my radar. Indeed I was beginning to get worried that we’d seen the end of expansions or other meaty DLC drops given other games like Destiny have switched to the more regular drip feed of tiny updates, none of which are ever enough to bring me back into the fold. Imagine my surprise when I started to see The Division 2 subreddit lighting up with excitement about the impending launch of Warlords of New York for The Division 2, promising a return back to the place where the original took place and even the return of the main antagonist. Given I’d spent the last couple weeks playing casual-ish games I was ready to get into something a little more engrossing and boy was it ever.

You receive a distress call from Faye Lau who’s still the lead agent in charge back in New York. Agent Keener has unleashed a new and instantly lethal version of the original Green Poison bioweapon which has been called Eclipse. Upon arrival you’re informed that Agent Keener’s current whereabouts are unknown however they’ve identified 4 of his lieutenants and with their SHD watches they should be able to triangulate him. So with little more than that to go on you’re sent out into lower Manhattan to start the brutal search for the rogue agent once again, hoping to find him before he’s able to strike again and put an end to him once and for all.

As you’d expect from an expansion there’s no real changes graphically apart from the differences in the setting of DC vs New York. It’s definitely a major shift in the feel of the game as I distinctly remember DC feeling a bit more flat and open, whereas New York retains its usual high skyscrapers and dense urban environment. The change from winter to summer is interesting too as that, combined with the dynamic weather systems, means that this feels very different to the New York I remember from the original Division.

There’s been a few tweaks to The Division 2’s core game loop since I’ve been away and a few changes which I believe are unique to this particular expansion, although I couldn’t tell you which is which. For starters loot now drops less frequently, with the idea that there should be less trash and hopefully more useful pieces of gear. On the surface that doesn’t really ring true however the inclusion of the new re-roll system, which allows you to extract a single stat roll from a piece of gear and save it for use forever, suddenly means that trash drops with god rolls are no longer trash. The skill power system has also been reworked, now being fixed to “tiers” which each piece of armour can provide 1 of. There’s also now an infinite progression system in the form of your SHD Watch which is basically The Division’s form of the paragon levels from Diablo III. There’s a bunch of stuff I don’t even remember coming across listed here so if you want the full story I’d say head over there and get it directly from the horse itself.

The core fighting mechanics feels identical, save for the fact that skills appear to regenerate a lot quicker but are also a lot weaker as a result. My chem launcher no longer instantly heals me up to full, instead taking quite some time to get me even to halfway health. On the flip side my artillery turret, which use to feel like it was always on cooldown no matter what, was seemingly up every 30 seconds which seemed ridiculously broken given how good it is at clearing out large groups or slow moving elites. That seemed to be counterbalanced by the specialist weapon now feeling downright useless, especially considering my turret seemed to do the same thing and could manage more than 2 shots every 30 seconds. I’m not sure how all of this plays out at higher gear levels though as I haven’t put in the requisite grind hours to get there. Looking at some of the absolutely silly builds I’ve seen online though it seems like there’s a lot of fun to be had mixing things up, which is a good thing my opinion.

I did however run out of puff with Warlords of New York once I got past the missions and started on the end game grind proper. Part of this was a lack of direction for what the grind would be for as in the original game it was clear what I needed the upgraded gear for. With Warlords of New York, even though it’s now got one of the best progression systems I’ve seen in any looter shooter to date, it’s not so clear what I should be gearing up for. The raid? But technically I was already gear for that when I left the game last time, I just couldn’t be arsed manually looking for a group to do it. I did a quick search around to figure out what exactly I should be aiming for but it seems like it might just be the gear for gear’s sake at this point. Well that and the Dark Zone but I’ve never been one to solo in there.

The expansion’s story is what we’ve all come to expect from The Division: linear, predictable and chock full of action. I think my friend said it best when he mentioned that Massive and Ubisoft are known for creating great worlds, but not amazing characters or narratives within it. To prove his point he then asked us to name one NPC in the game and it was honestly embarrassing how long it took to come up with someone (even the main antagonist, this was during the original campaign). Still it’s enjoyable, following the not-so-subtle plot threads through to their conclusion. The expansion does setup the core game for some shenanigans down the line so I’m hopeful for another juicy story expansion in the not too distant future.

So for those of us who enjoyed The Division 2 and have been back since Warlords of New York is definitely a great time to come back. Much like the original release it’s familiar yet different enough to be engaging and all the changes seem for the better. The lack of a clear endgame goal (and a squad of mates also) meant that the end-game grind doesn’t seem like it’ll be for me this time around but I might find myself back in here again should any of my mates pick it up soon. There’s also the 3 episodes to catch up on (which I haven’t) so if Warlords doesn’t satiate you then there’s still enough drip content left to chew on. Overall I very much enjoyed my time with the expansion and hope for another one like it in the near future.

Rating: 9.25/10

Tom Clancy’s The Division 2: Warlords of New York is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 11 hours played, bringing the total time in The Division 2 to 53 hours.

Taur: Defend the Prime Canon.

I can remember getting into the custom Warcraft 3 map scene back in the day, churning through map after map just to see what people had created. This is where my love of DOTA came from but I also lost many an hour on the other, less strategic maps like the numerous variants of X-Hero Siege or Tower Defense. The latter spawned its own genre of games which, due to their relatively low barrier to entry (both in dev and player terms), have mostly remained squarely in the casual/mobile space ever since. That’s the main reason I haven’t played any of them in quite some time as they just don’t provide the kind of gaming experience that I’m usually looking for. Taur however looked to be an interesting blend of strategy and tower defense mechanics so I figured it was worth chucking a few dollars at. Whilst it’s certainly a competent enough game it’s longevity feels somewhat limited as the challenge/risk vs reward just isn’t there to keep you long term.

The setting of Taur is simple: you’re a high tech race focused on weapons development that, for some inexplicable reason, hasn’t invested anything into your own defenses. So when the Imperion comes knocking demanding that you surrender all your technology to them your only hope is to deploy it on your home soil to defend yourself from the incoming invasion. This is what sets up for the game’s main loop: you’re put in control of the Prime Canon and given free reign to build out the requisite defenses to ensure that you don’t lose territory. You’ll do this by building out towers (duh), various small units and upgrading your canon with different weaponry and special abilities to fend off the oncoming onslaught.

Taur’s graphics are simplistic by requirement as whilst initially you’ll only be fighting a handful of enemies at any one time it quickly ramps up to dozens, if not hundreds, of units on-screen. The devs have taken the typical low poly no texture route for the models, relying on the standard red vs blue colour palette to make enemies and friendlies visually distinct. There’s liberal use of advanced lighting effects and particle systems, all of which seem to be well optimised even when there’s a good number of things happening on-screen. The only downside is that your buildings are a little hard to distinguish visually, both when they’re built and even in the build screen itself. Other than that the graphics are wholly appropriate for a game like this.

Unlike other tower defense games where you’re either building a maze or attacking waves of enemies as they walk a defined path Taur instead places you right in the middle of the battle field and enemies will trudge their way towards you. You have control of the main canon which allows you to pick off enemies directly whilst your various buildings either provide support in some way (like units on the ground or a shield for instance) or attack the enemies directly. The blend of units does matter as the various different types of enemies have differing strengths and weaknesses, so you’ll have to have the right blend if you want to take on any situation. The mission structure takes one of a few different forms, most of them wave based but some with specific unit types (like all heavy tanks or just air units). Suffice to say there is a decent amount of variety in how each of the battles play out, even if it is slow going initially.

Progression is a mixed bag as it can come in a couple forms, one of which is gambling and the other is the more tried and true research system. Both of these rely on specific kinds of resources that will drop from the missions you choose. Whilst there’s some correlation between the difficulty of a particular mission and the rewards you get it’s honestly pretty weak and the lack of a system to trade one kind of resources for another often has you in a situation where you can’t make any meaningful progress for multiple turns because the key resource you need just simply doesn’t show up. Worse still should you attempt the gambling part (upgrading the damage of the Prime Canon) you can end up with something much, much worse than you currently have which can gimp your entire build. This is the kind of mechanic that makes me steer clear of Roguelikes as I much prefer having a steady path to progression rather than random chance dictating whether or not I’m able to get the next upgrade.

Which is why, after about 3 hours of play time, I gave up on playing any more of Taur. Once you reach level 50 you get the big bad bossman and he’s likely downright impossible to beat the first time around. However from there it was a steep step up in difficulty but no additional rewards to go along with it. This made continuing on a rather pointless affair as I didn’t feel like I could keep up with what was happening. Sure I could’ve started again but the amount of downtime between missions early on is phenomenal and I didn’t really feel motivated to try again with a more optimised build. For some though I can imagine this is part of the charm but for me I just wasn’t interested in trying again.

Taur certainly delivers on what it promises, giving you an interesting tower defense experience that can be played infinitely if you find yourself getting into it. The graphics are simplistic but well done, fitting both the game and the setting perfectly. The combat is varied enough to keep you going and with the deep customisation there’s obviously numerous strategies to explore for those who wish to. However progress is a haphazard beast, relying on resources that randomly drop and even including gambling mechanics that can set you back significantly if the roll doesn’t go your way. It’s why I’ll say that, whilst I enjoyed my time with Taur, it hit a hard wall once I saw how much influence RNG had on everything and I just wasn’t interested past that point.

Rating: 7.0/10

Taur is available on PC right now for $35.95. Total play time was 3 hours.