Soulcalibur VI: A Tale of Souls and Swords.

It’s 2006 and I’ve just moved into a new house with 2 of my friends. It was all our first time living in a share house but we were convinced that we’d avoid the disasters that had befallen all those before us. That hubris lasted about 3 months before the expected happened but shortly after something happened: we started playing Soulcalibur III together. From then on we spent many nights and weekends battling each other, refining our skills on our chosen characters. We played so much that the edges of our thumbs callused over, which we nicknamed the Soulcallus. It was also the only time I’ve ever thrown a controller across the room in frustration after an appalling 12 run losing streak against one of my mates. So the Soulcalibur series holds something of a special place in my heart and the long time between drinks for the series (6 years since V was released) has left me very much wanting. Whilst that special ingredient of my mates sitting around the couch might still be missing it’s been great to see that the Soulcalibur series is still very much in form so many years on.

Soulcalibur VI takes us back to the beginning of the series, taking us back to the 16th century. The stories will be familiar to long time fans of the series although if you’re like me, joining the series somewhat late in the piece, the campaign missions give you a good insight into the background to the main recurring characters of the series. Similarly the Libre of Soul missions, which put you as an unknown character in the same world, explore some of the events that happened around the main plot. So whilst there might not be much added to the main plotline of the Soulcalibur series it does build out the history a lot more. It should also help to attract those who may have given the series a miss until this point, even though no one really plays fighting games for the plot.

As you’d expect from a fighting game, where framerates are key, the graphics aren’t cutting edge and the art style is reminiscent of previous instalments’ highly stylized art direction. There’s certainly a lot more particle effects and in-battle cutscenes though following the current trends among fighting games to make them feel grander in scale. It certainly achieves that as pretty much every fight feels like a scene out of a shonen anime. It follows then that performance is consistent across the board with even the most visual heavy moves unable to bring about a drop in framerates. This being built on the Unreal engine (just as Tekken 7 was) I’m sure the look and performance will be the same across the multiple platforms.

Soulcalibur VI builds upon the series’ long heritage by adding on a few new mechanics and reverting others. The largest addition to the core fighting mechanics is the reversal edge, a defensive counter that locks you into a kind of rock-paper-scissors mini-game. Guard impacts have reverted back from their change in Soulcalibur V, making them a lot more straightforward in their execution. The Soul Gauge remains but now has 2 levels to it and can be used to execute high damage attacks. The previous soul gauge mechanic, whereby blocking for a long time drained it, is still there although it’s decoupled from the gauge and will now show up as a red outline on your health bar. The changes follow the larger fighting game trend to make games faster, flashier and to prevent long beatdowns from which you have little hope of recovering from. For a mostly aggressive player like myself I like these changes, even if it means that I’m more open to counters than I ever was before.

The returning characters retain their signature styles and will be instantly familiar to long time fans of the series. My personal favourite character, Ivy, felt a lot more streamlined than I remember her being with the previous instalments making her feel clunky and slow when compared to previous instalments. Looking at the world leaderboards it’s quite possible that’s due to her being a current top tier pick so maybe I’ve just lucked out this time around. Raphael by comparison feels a little more unwieldy than I remember him being although I will admit I never really did get a good handle on his preparations. I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly test out Talim, a character I lamented the omission of in Soulcalibur V (I replaced her with Viola in my roster). Suffice to say Soul Calibur VI retains the tradition of keeping the cores of the characters consistent whilst mixing them up slightly, ensuring that it doesn’t feel like the same old game.

The main campaign is well done, following Kilik’s origin story with his quest to destroy the Soul Edge. Whilst I do appreciate that there’s been a bit more effort put in than what has been done in the past I’m still not a huge fan of the visual novel style. Sure, it allows a lot more content to be created for the same price, but it’s always a lot less immersive than in-game or cinematic cutscenes. Part of this is also due to the pace, which is a little stilted thanks to the numerous loading screens that you have to go through in order to watch the dialogue, load into a fight (which you only get to do a couple of in the first hour of the campaign, which was a little annoying) and then load again to see the post-fight scenes. Still once the pace starts picking up towards the end it stands out as the best fighting game campaign I’ve ever played, even if that’s a relatively low bar to jump over.

Libre of Soul is the ancillary mode where you can level up a character of your own creation. It has all the trappings of a light RPG game with weapon upgrades, XP and gold that you’ll need to gather to do things like travel, hire mercenaries to fight for you and buy food to regen health between fights. It’s a similar mode to what Killer Instinct has, essentially pitting you against an endless stream of enemies. There is a storyline in here but it’s pretty minimal and mostly serves as background to the main campaign mission to give you an insight as to why certain characters were there when they were. I played a decent amount of it and it certainly served well as a kind of extended tutorial, allowing me to get familiar with my preferred character whilst still making some progress. After spending some time in that I decided it was time to test my meddle against some real human beings and this is unfortunately where Soulcalibur VI is a bit of a let down.

Fighting games have always struggled to get online right, owing to their unique set of challenges in requiring low latency between players and the niche appeal of the games limiting the size of said playerbase. Perhaps it’s better in more populated countries but here, in Australia, I can’t name one fighting game where I’ve been able to get matches consistently. Soulcalibur VI is no exception as I’d often be waiting 5+ minutes for a ranked match, if I could ever find one. Worse still is the casual mode which takes the form of a King of the Hill game style. Essentially whoever won the last round is at the top and you have to wait your turn to beat them. If you lose, back to the bottom of the pile. When I did get in the matches were great though, the lag seeming to make little impact on my ability to pull off big combos.

What keeps me, and many others, coming back to games like this is a solid quickplay mode where we can drop in, play a few matches and then bug out. I mean sure, the ability to train while you wait is nice but it’s not enough to keep you coming back time and time again. This, coupled with the fact that I don’t live in a house with multiple other Soulcalibur players anymore, means that I haven’t put much more time into this one than I would have otherwise. It’s a bit of a shame really as I was certainly hyped for the release, hoping that I’d get suckered back into the fighting game world. Maybe it’s a good thing that I didn’t splurge $300 on that Hori Real Arcade Pro N

Soul Calibur VI revitalises the series that’s laid dormant for the past 6 years. I’d usually lament retreading ground but, as someone who came to the series late in its life, going back to the beginning has been great in order to see the game’s history that I was only vaguely familiar with. The campaign and its ancillary story mode are great additions, even if they’re not enough by themselves to keep me coming back. The online is, unfortunately, the biggest mark against this instalment, lacking the right mode to keep people coming back for that quick fighting game hit. Still I’m hopeful that it’ll improve and hopefully the dedicated niche of fighting game enthusiasts will mean that I’ll be able to get my fighting game fix for a long time into the future.

Rating: 8.75/10

Soulcalibur VI is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours of total playtime and 12% of the achievements unlocked.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4: There is no Mason.

The past 2 Call of Duty games weren’t really up to the standard that I’d come to expect from the franchise. Part of this can be attributed to Black Ops 3 being my favourite in the series, the multiplayer keeping me going for a good 150+ hours before I decided to call it quits. So my expectations were probably higher than they’d otherwise be for Black Ops 4, hoping to rekindle that love of the COD multiplayer which I’d lost for the last couple years. Whilst on one hand all the ingredients are there for that to happen again there’s been some glaring omissions and strange launch-day decisions that have marred what could’ve otherwise been yet another solid COD game from Treyarch.

This is typically where I’d give a brief synopsis of the initial plot for the game but since Black Ops 4 lacks a single player campaign I have none to give. Sure they’ve buried some meagre bits and pieces on the specialists training modes, giving you a brief cutscene here or there that speaks to why each of the character classes have their abilities, but that does not a single player campaign make. After it was announced that this was the case Treyarch confirmed unequivocally that they never intended to put a single player campaign in, citing the fact that most players simply jump straight into the multi. I have no reason to doubt that but out of the 3 Call of Duty developers they were always the ones who made the most interesting and engaging stories. Leaving that out seems like a missed opportunity, one that this reviewer certainly laments. Of course it wasn’t taken away for just any old reason as it was replaced with Blackout although whether or not the trade off was worth it will be entirely up to you. For me it certainly wasn’t (more on that later).

The Call of Duty games were never known for their cutting edge visuals, instead favouring higher performance to go along with the game’s rapid pace of combat. This trend continues with Black Ops 4 with the game striving to maintain a smooth, high frame rate experience over providing Crysis-like eye candy. There’s also less opportunity for level and set designers to showcase what the engine is capable of doing due to the game being multiplayer only. All things considered though the game looks perfectly fine for what it wants to be: a fast paced shooter. I will admit though that I figured that for the handful of cutscenes they created they would’ve spent a little more of their ridiculous budget on making them a little more cutting edge.

Black Ops 4 retains its 2 core game modes that most players will know, regular multiplayer and zombies, along with the new Battle Royal mode called Blackout. The base multiplayer games don’t deviate from the COD formula much, retaining the same Pick 10 system alongside a familiar cast of weapons. Some weapons now have the option of an Operator Mod which will significantly change the way the gun operates from simple things like massive rates of fire increases to strobe lights for one of the shotguns. Deviating from the last few titles as well is the lack of loot boxes with the only microtransactions in sight being used for buying different cosmetic skins for the specialists. Perhaps the biggest change though is the lack of automatically regenerating health, instead relegated to a piece of equipment which you’ll have you manually trigger to regenerate health. Most interesting of all is that the stim pack is actually a choice, you can replace it with another piece of gear if you so wish. For those who are really at the top of their game this gives them a very high risk/reward balance to play with, one I’ve seen used to both great and ill effect. Suffice to say the core of Black Ops 4 doesn’t deviate too much from the formula with the exception of Blackout.

To be completely open here I’m not the biggest fan of the Battle Royal format. I’ve played my share of PUBG, both on PC and mobile, and it can be enjoyable with a bunch of mates. However I like my FPS games fast and furious, something which the COD franchise has supported me with for many years. Battle Royal on the other hand is very much a slow and considered game, one that favours being patient and formulating a strategy if you want to win. Sure I could just parachute into a hot zone and likely die in the first couple minutes if I wanted to speed things up a bit but honestly, given that there’s a much more capable TDM and other modes available right there I’m far more likely to want to play that. Still in the interests of seeing everything that Black Ops 4 had to offer I figured I should give Blackout a try and, well, it’s pretty much as you’d expect: PUBG with COD weapons. I’ve heard from many that it’s a pretty great experience (which is likely given that Black Ops 4 has seen incredible sales) but for me, as a rusher type player in these kinds of games, it’s the antithesis of what I want from this kind of game. Your mileage may vary, though.

A good chunk of content for Black Ops 4 comes from 3 so right off the bat you’re going to be back in familiar territory. The same goes for the character classes with half of them being direct copy and pastes of their former selves. At first I was a little miffed at that, wanting a whole new experience, but I got over that relatively quickly as I realised it gave me a headstart on knowing the maps and which character classes I’d fit best into. A lot of the weapons have been changed around and there’s a much more wide variety of mods to choose from, making a great deal of the game’s weapons viable in PVP (so long as you can get the right unlocks done, of course). The starter classes are also well rounded as well, one of them coming with a fully kitted out gun that you won’t be able to get until level 50 or so. I’ve found the most success running with the Spitfire SMG, a bullet hose of a weapon that feels like a long range shotgun when you upgrade it with laser sights 2 and the extended mag. The ARs and shotguns were also somewhat viable depending on the map but SMGs felt like the better all round weapon if I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into.

The class abilities are a bit of a mixed bag given that they all seem to have rather lengthy cooldowns and can be real hit and miss affairs. The shock drone, radar beacon, assault pack and razor wire ones seem to be the most useful, having a direct impact on your performance in a match. Other ones like the cluster grenade and trip wire feel hit or miss, unlikely to provide a consistent boost to your ability to win matches. For some of the ultimate abilities you’ll be lucky to get 1 off per game (like the vision pulse one) whereas the other, less impactful ones (like Crash’s overheal) you’ll likely be able to get off 2~3 times easily. I’m sure this is going to be a boon for competitive teams as there’s a clear delineation between support and offensive ultimates, allowing them to fine tune team comps quite well. For pub players like me though it’ll just come down to whichever one feels best to you. I’ve standardised on Crash for the most part since that seems to help my team out the most.

I couldn’t do this review without talking about the current state of the multiplayer networking, specifically the 20hz server debacle. To put it simply the Black Ops 4’s server engine runs at 20hz, meaning all in-game events are updated 20 times per second. That sounds plenty fast enough however most modern games run at double or triple that and even Black Ops 4 itself ran at 60hz during its beta phase. The problem with this is that it leads to really inconsistent play with players able to one shot kill each other, seemingly land shots on you when you’re around a corner or, if you’re lucky, seemingly grant you super powers with the ability to kill anyone before they have a chance to react. This issue only seems to be amplify the host advantage problem as well, making some games an absolute nightmare for the opposing team. Treyarch has said that the limit on server tick rate was done to ensure that they could maintain the service during the initial rush and that it would eventually be put back up to 60hz. If they stay true to their word then Black Ops 4 might actually be a great game to pick up around the holiday season but for now, if you’re someone who’s interested in playing competitively, it may be best to give it a miss until 60hz makes a return.

The lack of single player and the 20hz servers might not sound like big issues but for someone like me, who really enjoyed Treyarch’s cerebral plots and glass smooth multi, they’re huge marks against the best Call of Duty game I’ve played in the last 3 years. To be sure I still feel that Treyarch is the one the others should follow but even this instalment feels like the weakest one from the developer to date. Perhaps I’ve begun to outgrow the series or maybe it’s taking a new direction that leads it away from me, I’m not sure, as all I really know is that the near unmitigated fun I found in previous titles has been gone for some time. Black Ops 4 has a potential redemption story ahead of it in the form of better multiplayer servers but I’ll still have that hole in my heart which only a Treyarch COD story can fill.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 retains the trademarks of the Treyarch style that, in my opinion, makes their version of the IP the best. The combat is still great, the various weapon options still a joy to fiddle with and the familiarity of old maps made the transition in that much smoother. Blackout is something that I personally could do without but it’s likely to be a drawcard for the numerous players out there who love the format and have tired of current offerings. The lack of a campaign is certainly disappointing and the inclusion of a token effort felt more insulting than if they had just left it out completely. The 20hz server issue is certainly annoying but I’m hopeful that it will be fixed as the player base declines from its launch highs. For what it’s worth I’m still enjoying the multi and I’ll probably put a few more good hours into it before I call it quits completely. Perhaps the residual hype from Black Ops 3 is what has doomed me here but I can’t help feeling that I wanted just a little bit more from Treyarch this time around.

Rating: 8.0/10

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $89.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 8 hours of play time.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider: To Remake the World.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s release surprised me as I hadn’t really kept track of where the next instalment was at. You’d think then that I’d have no big expectations for it but reading back over my reviews though I think they were set high given the previous game, Rise of the Tomb Raider, rated up there among many of my favourite games of that year. This is always a challenge for follow up titles and it seems that unfortunately the developers just weren’t up to the task this time around. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot to like in the newest Tomb Raider game, but like many other long running AAA titles they’ve stumbled and they’re going to have to shake things up considerably if they want the IP to be successful.

Following almost directly on from the events at the end of the previous game we find Lara and Jona tracking down the leaders of the Trinity cult. They track them down to a town in Mexico where they discover that they’re looking for an ancient artifact that can bring about the remaking of the world. Lara then finds her way into an ancient temple and steals the Dagger of Ix Chel, one part of the two things needed to accomplish this. Shortly after however she’s captured by Trinity who take the dagger from her, informing Lara that she’s just begun the end of the world. You then follow Lara’s quest to find the other half piece, the Silver Box of Chak Chel, so she can stop Trinity before they remake the world by purging everyone from it.

I can strongly remember Rise of the Tomb Raider opening with a wide sweeping in-game cinematic that was absolutely stunning, showing right from the start that it was a visual marvel. Shadow of the Tomb Raider by comparison doesn’t, feeling decidedly last-gen with its muted colour palettes and tendency towards tight, closed in set pieces. Now I’ll admit that it’s quite possible some of this is due to the limits of the hardware it’s running on, given my PC is nearing 4 years old at this point, but even looking back at my old screenshots they just look so much better than the ones I have here. Rise of the Tomb Raider still has its moments, some of them which can be improved dramatically by using the built in photographer mode (not used for any of these shots), but on the whole it feels like a step back in visual quality. Given that this was supposed to be the biggest budget Tomb Raider game yet, up to $100 million possibly, it does make me wonder why the graphics took a bit of a back seat.

Where Tomb Raider reinvented, Rise refined and Shadow, unfortunately, simply copies most things wholesale from its predecessors. The game play will be familiar to those who’ve played the previous two instalments with a handful of new mechanics being thrown in. You’ll start off with a lot of abilities now I vaguely remember requiring skill points to unlock previously, many of which were necessary quality of life improvements. The upgrade and crafting system is much the same, requiring a mish mash of different items gathered from both humans and beasts in order to get the best items the game has to offer. There’s also a bunch of outfits and other weapon types available for you to find if you’re into exploring every inch of the maps that the game has to offer. Many other reviews have criticised the game for becoming stale and it’s a valid point as Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t bring enough new things to the table to make it feel truly distinct from its predecessor.

The stealth/combat is almost identical to Rise of the Tomb Raider with really only two new notable mechanics: covering yourself in mud and hiding on leafy walls. They’re introduced early but they don’t really make much of an impact in how combat plays out. It’s only towards the end when the enemies get infrared goggles does the mud mechanic make some sense but even then it’s not a huge change in the way stealth sections play out. So the combat flow follows the same pattern that a lot of games do: stealth around and take out as many enemies as you can before you inevitably trip up and have to go full gunslinger mode. There doesn’t appear to be much (if any) penalty for just shooting up everything in sight either so if you’re not really a fan of the stealth sections then you can simply blast right past them all. This would be more glaring if there was the same amount of combat in Shadow of the Tomb Raider as there was in previous games but I probably spent less than half of my total game time in combat.

There’s definitely a much heavier emphasis on platforming this time around with a lot more of the environments explorable. Shadow of the Tomb Raider does make that most annoying choice of showing you parts of the map you can’t access until you get a certain item, something which always gives me the shits. This was especially annoying given that the fast travel system never seemed to be available for me, preventing me from going back to places even after I had unlocked the requisite gear. There also appears to be some gear that you don’t get from completing the campaign missions as well (the rope ascender being the first that comes to mind) and I never saw it at any vendors either. So I’m not sure what happened there but even at the end of the game I didn’t have all the tools I needed to explore every part of the game. I’ll admit that towards the end I was starting to lose interest quickly so I might have missed some important side quest or some such which might’ve given me those tools I needed. Still my point stands: showing a player somewhere they can explore but forcing them to come back later is crap and I don’t like it.

Progression comes at a pretty steady pace throughout the game with basically every action you take giving you XP. There’s still a lot of skills which aren’t particularly useful and some that honestly shouldn’t be there at all. For instance the one that allows you to buy bigger resource bags from vendors feels a bit shit, it should just increase the one you have already. In fact the steady levelling is offset somewhat by the rather high cost of items bought from vendors and the fact that you have to buy the lesser version of something before you can buy the bigger one. Had I known that going in I might’ve been a little more strategic with how I spent my cash. Still it’s not like anything I bought from the vendors make a great deal of difference to how I played. The different bows and other types of weapons all feel basically the same, none conferring any real advantage or disadvantage over the other. Indeed you’re probably best placed just fully upgrading the defaults as you won’t really need much else.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider has a few rough edges, most notably in the platforming sections when Lara doesn’t respond to inputs as you’d expect her to. Quite often I had her leap in an unintended direction because I wasn’t angled in exactly the right way, causing her to leap to her doom. There’s also a few sections which, for some reason, instantly kill you when they shouldn’t, like the big tower which you can explore if you take one path down but will die instantly if you jump to it (even though it’s a fully survivable jump). The aiming also feels a little unrefined with a lot of shots that should have connected whiffing their target completely. None of this is game breaking but it does feel a little more rough than an AAA title like this should.

The story dives deeper into the Lara’s family history and the ties it has to the Trinity organisation which is, on the whole, not bad. It does jump around a fair bit with events unfolding a bit too fast which makes some plot points a little unbelievable. This has nothing to do with the mystic elements either, more you have character relationships developing too fast, events taking place in weirdly accelerated time frames and a lack of moments to let the story breathe. Indeed a lot of the flavour of the game is hidden in the collectibles which are all fully voiced but will only play if you stay in the inventory screen. It’s a big missed opportunity to have them playing in the background as you walk around as some of them are quite interesting. It’s not like they didn’t do that for other parts of the story too, like when you sit around the camp to upgrade your skills and Lara will either chat with people that are around or go through her internal monologues. Overall I think the story was probably one of the stronger elements of this instalment, it was just let down by the so-so game play.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider would be a fine game by any other standards but it seems small compared to the shoulders of the giants it stands on. The game feels like a step back for the series as a whole, with a lack of innovation and refinement in nearly all aspects of the game. It’s still very much the kind of game that rekindled the IP over 5 years ago, which might be great for some, but I’d want to see a lot more for the kind of investment the developers have made in it. To be fair it would’ve been hard to continue going from strength to strength, the weight of the hype train always weighs heavily, but for this reviewer Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels to be the weakest in the series. I still have hope for the franchise but at this time of year, when competition for a gamer’s attention is never greater, these kinds of missteps can be lethal.

Rating: 7.5/10

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 11 hours of total playtime and 52% of the achievements unlocked.

Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna: Humanity’s Last Chance.

There comes a time in every game’s development when the call to ship it needs to be made. For some games this comes at the right time in their dev cycle where the incremental improvements are hitting diminishing returns. For most though it happens as the budgets start to run dry and the need to ship something forces the game out the door. Such is the case with Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna a game that, according to its Kickstarter, was meant to release its first episode some 2 years ago. That most certainly didn’t happen and the resulting game heavily points towards them needing to ship now rather than shipping nothing at all. To their credit the developer, KeoKen Interactive, has committed to providing a free DLC in the near future to make up for it but haven’t committed to a timeline.

Not that anyone would believe it even if they did.

The Earth has been plundered for nearly all of its natural resources, sending Earth into an extended energy crisis. To solve this our world leaders formed the World Space Agency, tasked with exploiting the Moon’s plentiful He3 reserves and sending the energy back to Earth. To their credit it worked and for many years the Moon beamed back nearly limitless energy, staving off the death of civilisation on Earth. However one day the energy stopped flowing and the colony on the Moon ceased all contact leaving Earth to plunge back into darkness. However one team, dubbed Fortuna, put together a last ditch attempt to get back to the Moon and restart the energy grid. What follows is your tale of making it to the Moon and figuring out just what happened to the colony all those years ago.

Deliver us the Moon has that typical Unreal engine feel to it with seemingly unnatural high levels of specularity in some places and a weird plasticy feeling to most assets. It’s not that this is a limit of the engine per-se, more it’s what will happen if you use the engine in its default state (much like Unity in the same way). That being said there has been quite an investment in developing assets for the game and it’s conceivable that the early release was due to a heavy investment for assets. Had this released 2 years ago, as planned, I’m sure it would’ve been considered among some of the top tier visuals of its peers. Now however it feels just a little bit dated, something that’s not helped by the use of (what I assume is) hand crafted animations rather than mo-cap which make everything look needlessly robotic. Since this is their first game I’ll give them a pass, for now.

Deliver us the Moon is primarily a walking simulator game with a few puzzle mechanics thrown in (ala Tacoma). That’s in stark contrast to what their Kickstarter page promised, which had aspirations of letting you roam free on the Moon’s surface to explore at your leisure. Of course anyone who expects a Kickstarter to live up to its campaign page promises is almost certain to be disappointed but I mention it to set the scene of what to expect if you decide to dive into this game. The beginnings of all the things the developers wanted to include are there but none to the level required to fulfill that vision. Combine that with the game ending just as the story starts to find its feet and you’re left wanting more with no indication of that will ever come.

Unlike other games which are built on the broken dreams of the developers Deliver us the Moon is thankfully a full playable and mostly trouble free experience from start to end. The puzzles are pretty simple affairs, typically requiring you to find a couple things within a single room and get them in the right places. Navigation around the various bases can be a bit of a chore though as there’s no HUD pointing you in the right direction and the maps on the walls aren’t the easiest to follow. Still there are some good quality of life things included that even AAA games still miss these days; like voice recordings playing in the background as you explore and already viewed cutscenes highlighted in blue so you don’t accidentally play them again. The breaks between levels are indicative of the developer’s original intent to make the whole thing episodic and indeed the levels were big enough in scale for that to be a possibility. However that’s not the game we’ve got and instead you’ll blast through most of those levels in the space of 30 minutes or so.

Optimisation of the game also appears to have taken a back seat as there’s numerous times when the game starts to struggle noticeably. This is at its worst when you’re outside on the Moon’s surface as the framerate (and subsequently the physics engine tick rate) drops through the floor. It’s not just the vehicle simulation that does it either as the performance problems continue when you’re on foot. I didn’t check if my GPU was fully utilised at the time so not sure if its bottlenecking there (indicating poor model optimisation) or elsewhere so the jury’s out on the actual root cause. Suffice to say that whilst my PC is over 3 years old at this point it hasn’t had trouble like that with much more graphically intense games.

Deliver us the Moon’s story starts out by violating the first rule of storytelling by running through long exposition pieces, explaining in detail things that your character would likely already know. It extends as far as the flavour text for exploration items as well making the game’s opening moments feel like a high schooler’s creative writing project they did the night before it was due. However the game gradually starts pulling back from this as you dive deeper into the narrative and does a good job of drip feeding you enough details so you start theorising about what happened. Then, just as you start to get leads on a major plot point in the narrative, the game abruptly ends. For those poor souls who backed the game or bought it early they were then left wondering just what the hell was going on. The discussion forum is filled with threads about this and the developers have stated that everyone will get the free DLC that closes the story off, when its available. Hopefully the game sells enough copies to make that a reality but honestly I’m not particularly confident we’ll see it inside 6 months.

Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna is one of the few unfinished games I’ve played that’s left me wanting to see it in its full glory. There was an obvious investment in making a lot of assets, many of which would’ve been utilised fully if the game’s vision was realised. What we’re left with is still a competent game in its own right but it’s clear that the game had aspirations of something far greater. The upcoming DLC will likely give us the story closure many of us are seeking but it’s unlikely it will realise the full vision that it developers laid out when they first embarked on their Kickstarter campaign. For what it’s worth I did enjoy my time with it, warts and all, but until the promised DLC is out I’d recommend you leave it on the wishlist.

Rating: 7.0/10

Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 57% of the achievements unlocked.

Donut County: 🦆🦆🦆

Given my last 2 reviews have been for MMOs you can probably guess that I’ve been a little strapped for time to get around to playing other titles. It even got to the point where I was playing Destiny and WoW in the same night, something which I knew wasn’t going to be particularly sustainable if I wanted to keep my 1 review per week cadence going. So I went in search of some shorter titles and stumbled across Donut Country, another Annapurna Interactive published title, which seemed to be charming and, thankfully, quite short. Whilst I might have been drawn in by the game’s brevity the visual style, kitschy dialogue and simple mechanics made it far more enjoyable than I was expecting.

Racoons have moved into the quiet town of Donut County, taking over the local donut shop. Every time someone orders a donut however a mysterious hole shows up at their house, devouring everything in sight. The hole is piloted by none other than BK, one of the new racoon residents, who’s doing so in order to get enough points to get his hands on a sweet new drone. However once he falls into one of his own holes he finds the citizens of Donut Country trapped 999 feet below the surface and they’re understandably quite mad about his recent shenanigans. What follows is the story of how the town became swallowed up and their journey to get back out.

The single developer behind Donut County, Ben Esposito, set himself a few constraints when designing the game’s visual style: no lighting effects, textures or gradients. Whilst those rules aren’t adhered to 100% they are the driving force behind the games minimalistic aesthetic. The result is a kind of flat, cartoon like environment filled with bright, solid colours which is really quite charming. Indeed whilst there’s a lot of games with a similar visual style I’m actually struggling to come up with one that’s exactly like it as most games won’t go so far as to abandon the use of textures, nor even simple gradients. As someone who’s worked as a sole developer on a couple projects I can definitely appreciate setting yourself boundaries and working within them; sometimes there’s really nothing as liberating as working within a strict ruleset.

The game’s mechanics are simple: your a small hole which grows bigger as it consumes things (kind of like a reverse Katamari Damacy). There are a bunch of small challenges which will require you to get a little inventive with how you use a few mechanics but other than that the game play doesn’t deviate too much. That being said it’s kind of fun to try and figure out which things will fit and which ones don’t as sometimes you can get away with getting bigger things in if you know how to position them right. That being said this is a physics based game so there’s many opportunities for things to go pear shaped, with items flinging themselves wildly across the level and getting stuck in areas that you won’t be able to reach. Of course you’re only a restart of the level away from fixing that so it’s not that much of an issue.

The story is a simple affair, seemingly reflective of the developer’s own conversational style (as evidenced in their Gamasutra interview here). It’s a lighthearted commentary on their experiences in Los Angeles and it issues they want to touch on certainly come through. Overall though there’s not much to write home about, it’s simply there to set the scene for the various puzzles and to tie the whole thing together.

Donut County is a fun little distraction, combining simplistic art work with lighthearted dialogue for an interesting experience that’s really like no other. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a game idea that was born out from Peter Molydeux; something completely left of center that pays little heed to the creed and conventions of modern game design. After chewing my way through too very heavy game experiences over the last couple weeks I was incredibly glad to cleanse my palate with something a little lighter. So if you like me are experiencing a little fatigue with the AAA barrage that comes this time of year then Donut County is most likely the game for you.

Rating: 8.0/10

Donut County is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $12.99. Game was played on the PC with 104 minutes  of play time and 55% of the achievements unlocked.

Destiny 2: Forsaken: The Dark Side of the Light.

Destiny 2 wasn’t in a great spot. The last 2 expansions were met with derision from the community and many were questioning whether or not Bungie was really listening to the community. Curse of Osiris might have been a well timed injection of content for PC players but for others it didn’t even touch the sides after months of waiting. Warmind did little to address this, failing to bring enough to the table to even keep casualcore players like myself interested. For many then Forsaken was a make or break moment, either bringing them wholly back into the fold or pushing them away for good. Thankfully it seems Bungie took some inspiration from The Taken King expansion and revamped many aspects of the game, providing a vastly improved experience for all players. Whilst the changes might not be for everyone, indeed more casual players might feel a little left out in the cold, there’s no denying that this expansion has breathed much needed life into the franchise.

The Prison of Elders has suffered another breakout and you travel there alongside Cayde-6 in order to put a stop to it. When you arrive there however you discover that Uldren, brother to Mara Sov Queen of the Awoken, has escaped from his prison and now commands a bunch of Fallen with disturbing new powers. It is there, in the depths of the prison, that Cayde falls to Uldren; his light snuffed out. Upon returning to the tower the Vanguard is split about what to do: Zavala stating that they’re not an army and they won’t step into a war with the Reef and Ikora grieving heavily for the loss of one of her closest friends. It is there where you, the Guardian, begin to walk the path of revenge seeking out Uldren by picking apart his army and discovering the darkness that now binds the Reef.

Destiny 2 is looking is as good as always, exemplified by the absolutely incredible level design that has become their signature style for this franchise. All the new areas are simply stunning, smothered in details both large and small that make exploring each environment an absolute joy. I wasn’t on board with it the initially, the cramped confines of the Tangled Shore feeling somewhat antithetical to the typical massive, open space environment. However that all changed once I was in the Dreaming City which was a visual marvel all of its own. I’ve yet to explore all of the strikes, dungeons and the raid yet but I’m sure the trademark visual style is present there too. Whilst games are rarely made or broken by their visuals it certainly doesn’t hurt when they’re as good as what Bungie is putting out here.

Forsaken shakes up Destiny 2 significantly by adding in a lot of mechanics (some new, some old), integrating various quality of life improvements and revamping the progression systems. Each of the subclasses get a new talent tree that comes along with a new super, giving players a whole bunch of new mechanics to tinker with. The max light level is now a whopping 600 although you’ll find yourself at 500 before the campaign ends. The various kiosks that were present in the original Destiny have now come back in the form of a collections tab, enabling you to track your various armour sets and access them instantly from anywhere. Bounties have returned and function much like they used to, although they now (thankfully) share their own inventory tab with other pursuits and quests. A new PvEvP mode called Gambit as been added in, something which both myself and the wider community enjoys immensely. The end game area of the Dreaming City is a seemingly ever changing landscape, one that is still yet to reveal all of its secrets to us. Suffice to say Forsaken is the shot in the arm that Destiny 2 needed, even managing to bring back many players I never thought I’d see playing Destiny again.

Progression up to 500 is a whirlwind of loot, much of which you’ll be casting aside as you push your way up through the levels. For someone like myself who wasn’t 400 at the start of the expansion there’s a little bit of grinding to do between missions to ensure you’re at the right light level but once you’re beyond 440 or so it doesn’t appear to be an issue anymore. Once you’re at the first soft cap things slow down a little bit, powerful engrams being your primary source of power ups moving forward. There’s a second soft cap at 520 where powerful rewards outside of the Dreaming City only bump you up one light level or so, making them far less useful for progression. For casuals like myself this means you’re not going to be hitting the max light cap anytime soon and unfortunately there’s no real way to catch up either. This is directly geared towards those who view Destiny as their hobby with 3 characters that they max every expansion. Whilst I admit it was somewhat disappointing to learn that I probably couldn’t raid for a month or two I’m hopeful that it’ll be worth it once I do finally get the chance to do it. Going by the light levels in the tower it seems like there’ll be a lot of people who will be right there with me.

The return of random rolled loot, along with the much more expensive infusion system, is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand it does make duplicate drops less of a let down as there’s always the option of getting a god roll on one of your favourite weapons. On the other because infusion costs so much you’re likely going to be wearing a mixed bag of items for quite some time as keeping your favourite items upgraded is going to be too expensive. This does mean you’re far more likely to experiment with your loadout than you previously were which is probably a good thing (especially given that I’d been using the same armour and weapon set for the last 2 expansions). One of the saving graces is that infusion the same items into each other is very cheap, just glimmer, giving you a relatively easy way of keeping your god rolled items around. The previous item type lockout has been reverted to the old Destiny 1 style as well, meaning if you do really want to keep an item in a particular slot at max light level you’re no longer restricted. That’s probably out of necessity however, given the radical changes to the weapon system.

Weapon variety has been dramatically increased thanks to nearly all weapon types being available for all slots. Power weapons are still restricted to their slot but fusion rifles, sniper rifles and shotguns can now roll for both your kinetic and energy slots. This means that, if you’re so inclined, you could roll a build that’s all shotguns but you’re likely not going to want to due to the ammo types. You see weapons now also carry with them an ammo type which is aligned to the old Destiny 1 style. That means the more powerful special ammo weapons, even if they roll in the kinetic slot, will still use that ammo type. They all have independent pools , so say if you’re using 2 primary ammo type weapons and run one dry the other one won’t run out as well, but you’ll still probably want one of each type for a balanced load out. If that sounds confusion it is a bit but once you’ve figured out what kind of load out you want to run balancing around it isn’t too much of a challenge. To be honest I’ve been running 2 primary and 1 power weapon for most of the game, only switching in a shotgun or fusion rifle when it makes sense.

My love/hate relationship with Destiny’s PVP scene continues with Forsaken although the reasons for each have shifted somewhat. The core PVP remains unchanged although the meta has shifted significantly from what I remember (pulse rifles being the bees knees? Weird…). Gambit is certainly one of the more enjoyable modes, even if it’s being ruined somewhat by the overuse of Sleeper Simulant, something which can’t be nerfed fast enough. Iron Banner was honestly a complete shit show for someone who was somewhat underleveled like myself, being routinely matched with guardians 20+ light levels above me. The new talent trees seem to be dominating over their older companions, much like they were back in the Taken King. Given that there’s one for each subclass though that’s less of an issue than what it was back then but it still feels a little sad that the old guard has been left out in the cold once again. Still I’ve managed to top out my share of games here and there, both in Gambit and regular PvP, so it hasn’t been all bad.

The story takes a while to find its feet due in no small part to the whole CAYDE IS GOING TO DIE IN FORSAKEN hype that Bungie unceremoniously engaged in leading up to Forsaken’s release. The initial part of hunting down the Barons and chasing after Uldren though is really just a long setup for this expansion’s on-going story which keeps on evolving as the game progresses. I mean Cayde’s death was treated well given the pivotal role he’s played in the franchise up to this point but really it’s a secondary point to the game’s main story: that of the Awoken and the dreaming city. Given that I was discovering new story elements even as recently as yesterday says something about the narrative depth of this expansion. I’m quite keen to see how it progresses and am excited to see how the story evolves as I get to experience more of the content.

Destiny 2: Forsaken is the expansion that many of us long time fans of the franchise were hoping for. The improvements to the game’s various core mechanics, quality of life improvements and the large injection of content are all things that the community had been desperately waiting for. Some of those things might not be for everyone, like those of us who don’t have nor want to dedicate the time to the new grind, but it’s undeniable that the game has been vastly improved. This does mean that some of us will have to wait until we can fully experience everything that this expansion has to offer but, strangely, I’m ok with that this time around. I may not hit max light again this time around but I certainly feel like I’ll be sticking around to get a few raid completions under my belt. That’s honestly all I’ve ever asked of Destiny in the past anyway so it’s great to have the franchise back in full form.

Rating: 9.25/10

Destiny 2: Forsaken is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.95. Total time spent in Destiny 2 is now at 130 hours with approximately 44 of those spent playing the Forsaken expansion.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth: Jaina’s Homecoming.

I finally did it; that one thing that no long time World of Warcraft player should ever do: I added up all my playtime across all my characters.

The damage? 207 days. Two of my original characters, my rogue and alt-paladin, account for about 145 of those days most of which was accumulated during vanilla. Considering this was right in the middle of my university studies I’m still not quite sure how I managed to graduate, what with me spending an average of 4 hours a day in-game. My hunter and shaman that I rolled to play with a work mate of mine account for another 46 of those days, all due to us trying to clear the Ulduar raid back in the day. Finally the Paladin which has seen me through the last few expansions has a measly 12 days, still a lot by any standards but a mere blip in the time that I’ve spent with the game. That includes the time I just spent playing through the most recent expansion: Battle for Azeroth. Whilst this is probably the shortest time I’ve ever spent with an expansion to date it was by far one of the most memorable from a story perspective.

The titan Sargeras has been imprisoned but not before he drove his demonic sword deep into the heart of Azeroth. This then caused a highly potential magical substance called Azerite to begin leaking out into the world. Sylvanas saw this new resource as an opportunity to unify the horde together and began a brutal campaign to seize all of Kalimdor. In retaliation Anduin lays siege to the undead’s capital city of Lordaeron, driving the horde out. However as a last thumb of the nose at the Alliance Sylvanas drenches the city in blight, rendering it uninhabitable for anyone, including her own people. With Azeroth now primed for war both the Horde and the Alliance set out in search of new allies in the battle that lies ahead.

The graphics of Battle for Azeroth feel about on par from the previous expansion Legion, with no real notable improvements. There’s DirectX 12 support in there but that’s mostly to help with performance rather than taking advantage of new graphical APIs. Unfortunately the issues that plagued it last time remain with the World of Warcraft engine struggling to take full advantage of modern hardware. I spent the first couple hours of my time back in WoW searching for ways to improve the performance, hoping to get it to fully utilise the system I have. Unfortunately I couldn’t make that happen, my graphics card usage middling around 70% and my CPU 50% or below. I could get a somewhat stable framerate of 60fps in most areas but anything with more than a dozen or so players in it really started to tank my performance. For Blizzard it’s a tough problem to solve as they likely can’t improve the engine without also revamping most of their content as well. Perhaps they may do it in the future but I’m not holding my breath.

 

Battle for Azeroth once again takes the ideas of expansions past and refines them, often streamlining them to take away the pain whilst keeping the same rewards. Artefact weapons are now gone, replaced with a legendary necklace that levels up in much the same way whilst unlocking attributes in some armour pieces. The garrison mechanic is now just a mission table, providing you with an avenue to get additional rep and azerite power. The delineation between PvE and PvP servers has disappeared, now replaced with “War Mode”, allowing you to set whether or not you can be engaged in PvP activities and getting a small boost if you choose to do so. World quests are kept and are broadly the same, giving you a daily opportunity to upgrade your gear and grind out some more rep. New (to me, at least) is the inclusion of mythic dungeons, essentially a raid level difficulty encounter for a 5 man team that you can increase the difficulty of in search of more rewards. Other than that it’s the same tried and true World of Warcraft experience, for better and for worse.

Unlike previous expansions, which often completely revamped skills and talent trees, Battle for Azeroth didn’t change much. After doing the usual post-login cleanup I noticed that most of the abilities remained as I remembered them and even had a few removed. Instead of doing my usual retribution levelling and then transition to prot when it came time to do dungeons I stayed prot the whole time and, honestly, it wasn’t the most exciting experience. Prot has always been famous for tanking large groups of adds but being god awful at single target DPS and that made certain parts of the levelling experience pretty painful. To be sure running in a group made this a lot more enjoyable, and indeed I feel like a lot of activities in WoW aren’t well served if you’re playing solo, but I can distinctly remember having more abilities in the previous expansion that helped out a lot in situations like that. I’m not sure how it is for other character classes but from a pure combat perspective Battle for Azeroth definitely felt like a step back for me: too simplified and monotonous. This unfortunately extended to tanking dungeons as well which is why I don’t think I’ve actually played through all of them.

Overall progression still comes at a predictable pace, one that can be accelerated substantially if you have large gold reserves or are part of an active guild. Even then it doesn’t take long to get ready for the end game content, I managed to get to ilvl 320 in under two weeks without farming the auction house or dumping too much gold into professions. Of course my gear is far from optimal but that’s the level at which most people say you should be more than capable of doing mythics with a group of randoms. It is rather frustrating though that some of the avenues for progression, like crafting, are essentially useless as by the time you can craft the awesome gear sets you likely won’t need them since the materials to craft them come from the end game dungeons. This is somewhat offset by the fact that reputation grinds aren’t as unforgiving as they once were, bolstered by the daily world quest sets and numerous other ways of gaining reputation with a particular faction.

The azerite armour system is interesting in theory although reading up on how it compared to the artefact power system reveals that it’s essentially the same thing, just spread over multiple pieces of armour. Essentially you’ll get azerite power from various sources and that will level up your Heart of Azeroth necklace. Certain levels will unlock a kind of mini talent tree on some pieces of armour, augmenting some abilities or granting you whole new ones. Whilst its nice that you have a little more control over how to mix and match everything it feels like yet another grind to get pieces of armour that roll with just the right talents. I’m sure some of the higher tier sets have fixed talents though but I never saw any of those pieces myself (being the solo pleb that I am).

It wouldn’t be a WoW expansion without some post-launch issues and Battle for Azeroth was certainly not immune from them. Aside from the general graphics performance issues I mentioned earlier the world servers would often have their ping times rocket through the roof, causing simple things like looting a corpse to take 20+ seconds. This wasn’t just something that would come and go either, when it started happening you’d usually be in for a good hour of it before the servers would start to come right again. There’s also the usual mix of quest bugs with some quest chains not working properly, quests bugging out if completed in weird ways and some of the more inventive mechanics wigging out on you in weird and wonderful ways. These things are, for the most part, expected aspects of any WoW experience so for a long time player like me they’re not show stoppers. However for those who for, whatever reason, may be getting into WoW at this late juncture it pays to know that even 14 years of polish won’t remove all the rough edges.

What kept me playing however was the story and my desire to see how Jaina’s arc played out in this expansion. Whilst it’s probably not going to win any awards for originality it certainly drew me in as a long time fan of the lore of the Warcraft universe. It was also great to see characters which have, so far, played minor roles in the greater lore brought to the forefront, making the whole world more richer for it. The tale of rescuing Jaina was honestly one of the most heartwarming arcs I’ve played in this game and it was what kept me playing for quite a long time. Then, right as it felt like the story was about to climax, I hit a wall: I’d need to complete a mythic dungeon to see the end of it.

I almost quit the game right then and there as I didn’t want to be forced into having to gear up just to see the end of the story. However as I inched closer to that coveted 320 ilvl I figured it’d be worth the time invested and soldiered on. However once I got there I run right into the shit fight that is running mythics with pubs, even those who were trying to do the storyline missions like myself. Look, I get it, mythics aren’t meant to be readily puggable, but having a significant part of the storyline locked behind them was a real let down. 3 expansions ago it wouldn’t have been an issue, I’d simply hit up my guildies and we’d get it done, but those times are long behind me. I know I’m not alone in this feeling either as many posts on various forums will attest to. So there my paladin will likely sit, outside the Siege of Boralus dungeon entrance, never to complete the story.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth had all the trappings of being a solid repeat of Legion’s performance however, for some reason, it just fell flat for me. The changes feeling like a shuffling of all the components that have been around for some time and the new parts not interesting or varied enough to keep me engaged. This was counterbalanced by the story which got me really engaged but then ran into a brick wall of progression that killed that intrigue dead. Maybe it’s me that’s changed too much this time around as before it felt like the developers at Blizzard were catering directly to folk like myself. Now though it feels a little left of center, retaining much of the things that should make it more appealing but somehow failing to do so. I really don’t know what’s driving this feeling of ambivalence but suffice to say, whilst I did get a good couple weeks out of this latest expansion, I’m pretty sure I won’t be renewing my subscription past a single month.

Rating: 7.5/10

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is available right now for $69.95. Total play time was approximately 20 hours achieving an ilvl of 323.

Unavowed: The Demon Within.

Wadjet Eye Games have made a name for themselves in the adventure game space, not only for the numerous titles they’ve published but also the many they themselves have developed. With the closing of the Blackwell series, which had been their flagship series for the better part of a decade, many were wondering what would be next for them. Sure we could assume a few things, like it being a pixel art adventure game, but the rest was anyone’s guess. With Unavowed they’ve stuck to the supernatural theme, going as far as to use the previous protagonist’s abilities as a basis for one of the characters in this new title. The game prides itself on enabling the player to have a great deal of choice over most of the pivotal parts including your gender, origin story and the various ways in which you can solve the puzzles put before you. That freedom comes at a price however and it’s probably the biggest mark against an otherwise stellar release from Wadjet Eye Games.

The opening scenes of Unavowed will vary depending on which origin story you select but one thing is common throughout them all: you were possessed by a demon who set upon unleashing all sorts of mayhem around New York.Thankfully you were rescued by the Unavowed, a team of supernatural beings and those abilities beyond scientific understanding. Given that you’re now a wanted criminal they take you under their wing and enlist your help in figuring out where the demon had been and what its plans were. You’re also given a crash course into the world of the supernatural, one that the Unavowed tries hard to keep separate from the mundane. As you soon find out that doesn’t always work as planned and those two worlds are becoming increasingly intermixed.

Like all of their previous titles Unavowed comes to us via Adventure Game Studio and retains that nostalgic pixel art aesthetic of their previously published titles. It’s a true to the era implementation as there’s nary a modern visual effect or flair to be seen. This is even done to a fault in some parts with certain animations having incredibly low frame rates, like the walking or idle animations for the characters. Of course this doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to the game’s visuals as it’s clear there was a lot of time put into creating the various set pieces that you’ll explore throughout your time in Unavowed.

Unavowed is likely the most mechanically deep adventure game to date, incorporating many elements from other genres that must have been an absolute nightmare to program in. Whilst the different origin stories and genders would be easy enough to incorporate this is then multiplied 5 fold by your ability to choose your party each time you go out on a mission. This is offset somewhat by each of the missions being wholly self contained (I.E. you don’t need an item from one place to solve a puzzle in another) but it would still necessitate creating the requisite mechanics in each level to accommodate for that choice. If that wasn’t enough there’s also a bunch of banter dialogue between each of the party members which plays out during missions, something I’m sure the writers thoroughly enjoyed having to write out. Suffice to say that whilst the core game of puzzle solving might not be too different from your run of the mill adventure game the story mechanics surrounding it are second to none.

This narrative freedom does mean that your choice of party members is effectively pointless as each of the game’s levels can be completed with any of the two you’d care to pick. I honestly didn’t notice this at first but when I took the Fire Mage with me twice in a row it became pretty obvious that I didn’t just happen to make the right choice. This does eliminate a particular frustration that many people have with adventure games, making incorrect choices that get you stuck, but it does also remove a lot of the impact those choices would have. Indeed there doesn’t seem to be a penalty for choosing a sub-optimal group or a bonus for choosing the correct one, all of them will have the same number of puzzle elements you need to solve. To be sure the puzzle mechanics aren’t the game’s main attraction, that falls to the story, but it does highlight a big challenge in making a game like this. Choices are great, but only when they matter.

There’s also a few tiny areas that could use a bit of polish to improve the game’s overall useability. For instance dragging items from your inventory onto a character in the main screen won’t work the same as dragging it onto the icon in the inventory bar. This led to a few frustrating moments where I was pretty sure I had solved the puzzle but it wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. Reading a couple guides revealed the mistake I made but, honestly, it should just work as the interaction is the same from the player’s perspective. The game also doesn’t like being alt-tabbed, putting the sound on loop which makes for a rather annoying background when you’re trying to quickly do something else in the middle of your session. These aren’t game breaking but would make the overall experience of playing Unavowed just that much better.

Unavowed’s story takes a little while to get going, mostly because a lot of characters are introduced in rapid fire in the game’s opening hour. After that though it begins the process of building them all out, fleshing out their backstories well and building up a good pace of plot developments to keep you playing. Part of this is due to the overall story itself but the other half is most definitely due to the dynamics between each of the character pairs. I even ran one particular pair a few times in a row and still had new dialogue come up between them. Despite all this though the overall story didn’t leave too much of an impression on me. To be sure I think it’s well crafted and executed it just didn’t leave that emotional mark that adventure games of past have. I’ve said much the same about games with budgets far beyond Unavowed however so it’s not the worst sin a game can commit.

Unavowed is yet another treat from the team at Wadjet Eye Games and a great next step in their game developer journey. It’s a very ambitious title, incorporating multiple branching storylines and puzzle mechanics to give the player a lot of control over how it plays out. Whilst some of those choices are ultimately moot at a mechanical level it certainly does make for a much richer narrative experience. Indeed for the amount of choice given to the player the story of Unavowed is probably one of the most well rounded I’ve played in recent memory. Whilst it ultimately failed to resonate with me at an emotional level that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my time with it. For those who’ve been left wanting this year’s offerings in the adventure game space you really can’t go past Unavowed.

Rating: 8.75/10

Unavowed is available on PC right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 6 hours play time and 27% of the achievements unlocked. A copy of the game was provided to The Refined Geek by Wadjet Eye Games for the purposes of review.

Monster Hunter World: Being an A-Lister Ain’t Easy.

Eastern styled RPGs have a bit of a… reputation. The most notable part of this reputation is their penchant for horrendous grinds, forcing you to spend hours upon hours drudging your way towards that next level or shiny purple. They’re also renowned for being mechanically dense, often with multiple interwoven systems that all need to be understood and exploited fully if you want to live out your power fantasy. My first brush with these kinds of games came almost a decade ago with Aion: Tower of Eternity, a game so grindy and dense that I gave up when I reached level 30, which is saying something from someone who levelled 2 characters to 60 in vanilla World of Warcraft. This was why I originally passed on Monster Hunter World when it first came out as it looked chillingly like the eastern MMORPGs I’d played in the past. However with few good titles out at the time I figured I had nothing to lose and so I gave it the old college try. Unfortunately in this instance I didn’t find a whole lot to like about the Monster Hunter experience, the depth and complexity of the games numerous mechanics lost in the seemingly endless grind that I’d have to go through to exploit them.

You are a Hunter who is traveling to the New World as part of the Fifth Fleet. As part of the Research Expedition your job is to help out in determining why the Elder Dragons migrate to the New World every ten years as part of an event called the crossing. However on your way there your fleet is attacked by Zorah Magdaros, an elder dragon the size of a mountain that was making its journey to the New World. Thankfully you wash up on shore and are able to make it to Astera, the Research Expedition’s main base of operations in the new world. From here you begin your quest to understand the elder dragons, the reason behind the crossing and how to survive in this new land filled with monsters looking to make a meal out of you.

Monster Hunter World has that distinct, eastern RPG art style to it which (for whatever reason) tends to favour slightly worse graphics that are made up for with lavish amounts of detail. Honestly it feels like a game that would’ve came about at the end of the PlayStation 3’s development cycle, not a current gen title. Part of that is likely due to the multiplayer components with the potential for a lot to be going on at any one time. Still there are current generation MMORPGs with higher player caps that have managed far better visuals so I’m guessing that this was a stylistic choice more than anything. This all aside Monster Hunter World is a visually diverse and detailed game, overflowing with colour and visual spectacles. The areas might not be large in scale but they’re full of hidden paths and secret areas, making them feel a lot larger. If this kind of game appeals to you though the visuals aren’t really going to matter, it’s the grind you’re really here for.

Monster Hunter World embodies the eastern RPG archetype to a T, favouring deep mechanical systems that give the player seemingly endless choices in how you approach the game. There are no classes or talent trees to speak of, instead your progression is tied to your weapon of choice and armour set, both of which you’ll upgrade numerous times over the course of the game. The core of the game’s progression centers on the various crafting and upgrade systems, most of which require you to go out and hunt certain monster types to get the items required. Sprinkled over the top of all this is your usual RPG flair with town hubs, vendors and side quests galore that are certain to keep the completionists out there busy for hundreds of hours. Combat comes in the form of a kind of dark souls-esque type experience although it feels thoroughly less refined than its FromSoftware counterparts. In all honesty in the 16 hours I was playing it I still felt like I hadn’t scratched the surface of the game with many of the game’s mechanics still left untouched. Monster Hunter World certainly demands a lot from its players and unfortunately, for this old gamer, I just couldn’t find the strength to keep going back.

Now I’m not one to shy away from the kind of combat that Monster Hunter World puts forward but it honestly felt incredibly unrefined in its implementation. The Dark Souls inspired combat system brings with it a good set of mechanics but utilising them feels like a real hit and miss affair. For starters a monster’s hit box seems to be a finicky affair, sometimes registering as a hit on you whilst at other times simply moving you out of the way. Similarly the target lock mechanic flails wildly whenever there’s more than a few places you can target, often whipping you between different parts of the monster (or other monsters in the vicinity) as you try to position yourself around it. Getting on a monster’s back also doesn’t seem to work as it demonstrated most of the time, often failing to latch when I landed directly on the monster’s back but inexplicably working when I’d barely brush the top of their head. Even the resistance/weakness system felt really ineffective as I ground specifically for a set of weapons to fight one beast only to find that they didn’t make a lick of difference in the actual fight. Maybe I’m just not getting it, but if you can’t understand a game’s combat system after 16 hours then honestly I fault the game, not the player.

 

I’ll partly lay the blame of that at Monster Hunter World’s utterly glacial pace of progression. Even the most basic of upgrades requires gathering a substantial amount of materials and then, when you do craft it, the benefits are slim at best. In typical min/maxer fashion I tried dumping all my mats and time into crafting a decent set of starter gear (the bone set you see above) and honestly I couldn’t really tell you how much of a difference it made. I even tried grinding out some of the higher level sets of gear but with each monster kill taking 20 minutes or so to complete (if the fucker didn’t “leave the area” right at the end) getting a new set of gear would likely take hours. It got so bad that in the end I simply crafted a hodge podge set made up of the best crafting mats I had and even then that didn’t seem to reap any kind of benefit. Again I’m happy to admit that this is likely a failing on my part to understand the greater complexities that are hiding within Monster Hunter World’s various mechanical systems but if 16 hours of gameplay and intense Googling can’t get me there I’m really not sure what can.

Credit where credits due though, Monster Hunter World does have one of the deepest and most integrated crafting systems I’ve seen in quite some time. For most games there’s going to be a stock standard build that you can head straight for that will ensure your victory. For Monster Hunter World though there’s really no one-size fits all build that’s guaranteed to turn you into an overpowered god. Instead you’ll need to tailor your gear to your weapon choice, play style and prey that you’re chasing. This results in a near infinite number of builds, all of which appear to be viable (at least from what I can glean from various Reddit threads). I can definitely understand the appeal of such a system, heck I myself have invested many hours in games that had similar deep mechanical roots, it’s just unfortunate that I wasn’t able to find that hook to keep me playing.

There are some pretty notable issues with game on a technical level, some of which I think are inherent and others that are most certainly due to the porting process. The game’s graphical performance was horrendous when I started playing, something which I found out was a known issue. This was mostly fixed by using the Special K mod developed by Kaldaien which also allowed me to run the game in borderless windowed mode (although the game still seemed to have some teething issues with that). The netcode also seemed extremely fragile, something which is wholly attributable to Capcom. This is because there’s no native network framework for Monster Hunter World to make use of like it does on consoles (think PSN and Xbox Live) which mean they had to develop their own. When I first started playing it seemed to work fine but however after a week or so I found myself unable to get into any online games at all. Then, inexplicably, it started working again with no changes made on my end. I then foolishly decided to try a multiplayer quest only to have my teammates drop from my game session halfway through a monster fight. Honestly whilst its admirable that Capcom didn’t want to outsource the porting I can’t help but feel that maybe, just maybe someone else could have done a better job.

This isn’t also mentioning the various game design issues with the game’s core being focused on controller based play that doesn’t translate well to the PC platform. The default layout that’s chosen for you isn’t exactly congruent to keyboard and mouse play and even the MMORPG styled layout isn’t a whole lot better. The various menus are also incredibly obtuse with numerous different options hidden in random areas, necessitating a whole lot of flipping around in order to find the thing you’re looking for. I’m sure given enough time I could remap the keys or find mods that would make it better but honestly it’s not like UI design for games like this is an unsolved problem space. I managed to stumble my way through, to be sure, but honestly it feels like a game made for a different kind of gamer playing on a different kind of platform. If it’s any consolation I’m happy to admit I’m likely not Capcom’s target demographic for this particular title.

I figured that I’d at least play the campaign through to completion just to see how the game’s story pans out. I didn’t manage that as the overall plot is just too shallow and the use of a mute protagonist just served to highlight all of its flaws. I certainly liked the premise, travelling to a new world to understand a phenomenon that has eluded everyone so far, but there just wasn’t enough character or plot development to keep me that interested. Some of the things also don’t make a terrible amount of sense, like the fact that the various fleets don’t appear to talk to each other very much or why parts of the island are seemingly inaccessible despite you being able to fly everywhere. Again maybe the story depth is buried somewhere I didn’t look but if the game can’t at least tempt me in that direction then I’m more likely to conclude nothing is there.

Once again I find myself on the opposite side of popular opinion, gazing at a wildly successful title and wondering what everyone sees in it. I can certainly appreciate the depth of game play that Monster Hunter World presents, embodying (for better or worse) the stereotypical JRPG grindfest that so many people enjoy. However for me I just couldn’t find the appeal, even after ploughing in more hours than I typically would in an attempt to find that hook. I’m willing to admit that there might be something in there that I’d enjoy but I just couldn’t find it. Perhaps playing with friends could have changed my opinion as I’ve enjoyed many a trashy online experience so long as I had my mates by my side. Maybe the game is just for a different demographic than the one I fit into, I don’t know. It’s quite possible you’ll look at all the gripes listed here and chide me for my opinion, thinking that’s the whole reason you should be playing Monster Hunter World. If that’s the case then you’ll likely find the enjoyment I missed in Monster Hunter World.

Rating: 6.5/10

Monster Hunter World is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 16 hours play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked. 

Unravel 2: Between Two Yarns.

A tried and true path to making a successful sequel is to hone in on what made the original great and build from there. For some games this is an easy road to tread, sometimes involving just dusting off ideas that couldn’t make the cut originally or streamlining certain things to focus on the game’s core. For others though it can be a more painful process, forcing the developers to shed parts of the game that they felt were core to the overall experience. Unravel 2 feels like a combination of these two ideals, adding in something that I never I knew I wanted in the original (co-op) whilst dropping what I felt was the weakest part of the game (the story) which I know the developers felt was the cornerstone of their game. The result of those two changes is an experience that far exceeds that of the original, one that my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed playing together.

Whilst there appears to be some semblance of a story going on in Unravel 2, told through ghost like figures playing out scenes in the background, it is most certainly not the focus of the game. Instead, if you play the game the way I feel it’s meant to be played (with another person), the story that will develop is one of the trials and tribulations you face as you try to progress through the game. For gamer/gamer pairs it’s possibly not one of much note, but for any other kind of pairing it’s going to be about how you figure out how best to work together, the hilarious situations that evolve when you don’t and the joy you’ll experience when everything just starts working.

Unravel 2 retains the same gorgeous, lovingly detailed art style that made the original so distinct. The models, texturing and environment design are all done with near photorealistic accuracy, aided by the clever use of other visual tricks. I have the feeling that, had we played this on PC, the visuals would have shown a marked step up but regardless they still looked absolutely amazing on the PS4. Yet again the backing soundtrack is wonderful, flowing along with you as you progress through a level. Coldwood Interactive have proven yet again that they’re capable of some exceptional levels of craftsmanship when it comes to a game’s audio visual experience. I look forward to whatever project they throw themselves into next just based on that alone.

At a nuts and bolts level Unravel 2 retains the same basic mechanics as its predecessor in its puzzle/platformer mechanics. The main difference is, of course, the fact that you have another player with you and most of the novel puzzle mechanics are based around that. I’m sure there’s some differences in the single player version since not all of the puzzles could be done with just one person, even if you were controlling both Yarnies. The challenge, for me at least, was helping my dear wife through various sections and the various hilarious things that would happen along the way. To her credit though she became quite apt at the game as we continued through the levels, even completing a few of the challenges once we really started to find our groove.

Many of the puzzles aren’t exactly novel in their design, taking the form of one player needing to do X so the other player can do Y which unlocks the path to the next section. The more advanced puzzles later on and the challenges do require a good amount of lateral thinking, some of them stumping us for a good few minutes before we could carry on. The later puzzles end up mostly relying on timing and your platforming prowess which, whilst a good challenge for a gamer like myself, proved to be extremely challenging for someone like my wife who doesn’t play as often. Of course for those sections you can just hitch a ride on the more capable player, something we did every so often after a few solid tries.

The team work aspect of Unravel 2 isn’t to be underestimated and you won’t simply be able to rely on a single skilled player to make it all the way through. For instance if you’re swinging around or in mid air and your partner decides to grab the yarn (to climb up to you, for instance) you’ll instantly lose all momentum and, if you’re airborne, fall to the ground like a rock. Initially I couldn’t figure out what was happening until I accidentally did it to my wife at one stage and it was then I realised that she was the cause of the seemingly random physics engine quirks that had been plaguing us to no end. Additionally there’s a number of puzzles where you won’t simply be able to run to the end and then hoist your partner up with you as your yarn simply isn’t long enough. This means either finding a creative way to get them closer or attempting the puzzle together.

Probably the most challenging (and by extension enjoyable) puzzles were the ones where you had to each get on a platform at opposite sides of the screen. This often required a bit of lateral thinking and planning your moves out in order for it to all work out. Some of those later puzzles use mechanics which you’d either not been introduced to or weren’t explained well (like the tension of a string when you’re tying it off) which can make them a tad frustrating to solve. The hint system here was good though, initially giving you a few nudges in the right direction before just outright telling you what to do. We only needed to use that once though but for lesser skilled players I’m sure it’ll be a saving grace.

There’s definitely been a lot of improvement in terms of the game’s overall polish when compared to its predecessor. Most of the original issues with Yarny are gone and the platforming mechanics feel a lot more solid than they previously did. Part of that is due to the lower reliance on physics based puzzles as the ones that do make use of that are still some of the more janky experiences the game has to offer. We did end up breaking the game completely at one stage where our respective Yarnies were on two sides of a stick which, for some reason, caused the physics engine to freak out and dropped the frame rate through the floor. This then buggered up the sound engine and made the game’s music start looping in a really weird fashion. Try as we might to fix it we had to restart to a previous checkpoint which, thankfully, solved the issue.

The story of my wife and I playing through Unravel 2 was an exceptionally enjoyable one, warts and all. She’s your typical sometimes gamer, able to grasp the basics quickly but hasn’t got the tens of thousands of hours of game time that I do which has honed my hand/eye coordination significantly. This lead to many great moments where she’d inadvertently hit buttons, controller flailing and all sorts of other amusing behaviours that made our time together with Unravel special. To be sure I’m not blameless here either, my bravado often resulting in my untimely demise because I figured I could make it through a puzzle quickly without considering the consequences. We did give up after doing a couple of the challenges though as they just weren’t as fun given their reliance on timing and technical skill rather than problem solving.

Unravel 2 took the best elements of the original and made them better through the addition of the co-op mechanics. The gorgeous visuals and amazing soundtrack are now signature items of Coldwood Interactive’s games, something I hope they continue to work on with any upcoming titles. Defocusing the story in favour of letting players craft their own through the simple act of playing the game results in an experience that will be very personal to those who play it with someone else. The increased polish on the core mechanics is very much welcome, even if there’s still a few minor edge cases to sort out. The original was a game that struggled to achieve its ambition whilst its sequel does so admirably, making it a much better experience overall. For gamers and non-gamers alike Unravel 2 is an experience that is well worth investing the time in.

Rating: 9.25/10

Unravel 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 8 hours of total game play and 14% of the achievements unlocked.