Monthly Archives: June 2019

A Plague Tale: Innocence: A Brutal Coming of Age.

There are some rules of thumb in game development that can help ensure a studio is successful. The first is once you’ve discovered a successful formula, whether that’s an original title or say a deal with a publisher to make a certain type of game, stick with it and iterate on it. Another is to never build your own engine, lest you spend the majority of your budget developing it and not the game itself. Finally if you’ve got a publisher it’s likely best to stick with them, especially if you’ve had success with them previously. So for Asobo Studios to ignore all those rules in developing A Plague Tale: Innocence many would’ve thought them down right crazy, given the line of successful (albeit not exactly groundbreaking) titles they’d released in the past. The gamble has paid off in spades however as this game stands out as one of the more unique experiences of 2019; bringing together a beautiful world and great storytelling.

Set in 1349 France A Plague Tale: Innocence puts you in control of Amicia de Rune, a young noble in the rural province of Aquitaine. The plague grips the country but has thankfully yet to make its way to your lands. Things take a dark turn when the English Inquisition invades, taking your father hostage and demanding that you hand over your brother. When he refuses the Inquisition brutally murders him and anyone who stands in their way as they search the property for your brother. Your mother urges you to escape and seek out Laurentius, a doctor friend who has been treating your brother for a mysterious illness that has long plagued him. This begins your long and tortuous journey to find out why the Inquisition is after your brother and what they intend to do with him.

Asobo Studio developed their own in-house engine to power A Plague Tale: Innocence and I have to say the results are absolutely stellar. Building an engine capable of graphics like this from the ground up couldn’t have been easy, especially considering that this is also a cross platform release. Suffice to say the screenshots in this review speak for themselves, all of them taken from directly in game. Performance is also rock solid to, even when you have what appears to be thousands of rats on screen at once. The game does demand a bit of your hard disk though, enough that I moved it onto my SSD in order to play it. Still all things considered I’ve seen many more well funded development houses attempt to build engines and get nowhere near as good as what Asobo has put out here so hats off to them.

From a core gameplay perspective A Plague Tale: Innocence is a kind of stealth action game, starting off initially as a kind of stealth walking simulator before graduating more into a typical action-oriented game with largely optional stealth elements. Unlike other games which reward you more for taking the harder option (I.E. stealth) this game doesn’t really seem to mind if you go all out against every enemy, save for a few choice voice lines. Indeed the game’s progression system, whilst having a myriad of different options, heavily favours enhancing your combat abilities rather than your stealth. That being said whilst there’s a couple different routes to be taken for each level they are, for the most part, linear experiences that have a distinct right and wrong way of completing them. There are times when you can create some emergent gameplay opportunities but they’re rare and usually ill-advised. Overall it’s not a mechanically deep game but it doesn’t really need to be, the focus much more on the story and its telling.

Combat revolves around Amicia and her sling which is unfathomably accurate and ludicrously deadly. Once your combat abilities are unlocked you can one shot any unhelmeted guard which makes the stealth aspects so much easier. There’s a host of different types of ammunition you’ll be able to craft later on that unlocks the ability to get guards to take off their helmets, sick rats on them and all sorts of other abilities which have both combat and puzzle functions. About two thirds of the way through the game you’ll have all the required ammunition types and enough of them crafted to be able to take out all enemies in a level and, honestly, there’s no reason you shouldn’t. Most games would punish you severely for doing this so it’s pretty refreshing to play a game that has an obvious bent towards stealth but doesn’t really mind if you go on a murderous rampage. I’m not sure if that fits with the theme of the whole game but hey, it was fun.

Upgrades come through crafting, driven by finding various different kinds of materials around the world. Most of the upgrades rely on “blue” materials which aren’t particularly common and are shared with some of the more high end consumables. The game does try to play this off as some kind of a trade off, I.E. if you want to have that consumable (which usually gives you a second life, effectively) you might not have enough for that upgrade you’re lusting after. In my experience though you’re better off not crafting those consumables at all as all the times when you’d end up using them are encounters where you shouldn’t be needing them anyway. Hunting for these materials feels a little hit and miss as quite often most of the upgrade materials are clustered near the workbenches. There are some hidden elsewhere in the world but they’re mostly stuff you’ll already have max of anyway. I don’t think there’s enough materials in the game to upgrade everything but there’s certainly enough to get all the upgrades that matter.

It’s through these upgrades that the game slowly transitions from a game that requires stealth to one where it’s completely optional. Initially you have to be pretty tactical about who you take out and how with your limited ammo supply and the long time it takes to wind up the sling. However after a few choice upgrades you’re basically unstoppable as there’s more than enough ammunition and crafting materials around to keep you fully stocked pretty much all the time. I had figured that there might be some consequence to just taking out everyone I saw but as far as I can tell there wasn’t one. Perhaps it was the Dishonored-esque setting and gameplay setting that was making me feel that way.

A Plague Tale: Innocence is largely bug free and didn’t have any performance issues once I got past the incredibly long load times due to my RAID 10 array playing up. As I mentioned before there are some instances where you can do what appears to be something that wasn’t intended by the developers although most of the time that leads to breaking the encounter completely. The game also doesn’t do a great job of letting you know when you’re attempting something that is 100% impossible, leading to a few instances where you can think you’re doing the right thing and just failing at it when, in actual fact, you’re breaking the encounter completely. Thankfully there aren’t too many of these but there could be a few more dialogue cues or other things that would indicate when you were barking up the wrong tree completely.

The story is one of the stand out features of A Plague Tale: Innocence as it’s all fully voiced (save for a few bits of flavour text here and there) by some great voice actors. It’s somewhat confusing to begin with as the game doesn’t reveal much to you early on, leading to some slow pacing to begin with. However in the last half or so things really start to pick up and it became quite enjoyable to play through. I’m not typically one for period pieces like this but the story gave all the characters enough air time to build them up enough for me to care about them. I might not have come to like Hugo as much as other reviewers did, but I can at least see where they’re coming from.

A Plague Tale: Innocence was a nice surprise, coming out of left field in the middle of a deluge of AAA titles and standing out among them as one of the more well crafted experiences of this year. The graphics are phenomenal, brought to us by an in-house engine that I hope Asobo continues to make use of for future titles. The gameplay is an eclectic and evolving beast, one that transitions from a kind of stealth walking simulator to an almost full action RPG by the end. The story brings everything together, starting off slow but building up to a great ending that wraps everything up without committing the cardinal sin of teasing a sequel. There’s a few rough edges but nothing that’s beyond patching. So if you’re looking for a narrative focused game that doesn’t ask too much from you then A Plague Tale: Innocence could be right up your alley.

Rating: 9.0/10

A Plague Tale: Innocence is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 9 hours play time and 57% of the achievements unlocked.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice: The Wolf and the Dragon.

You can’t really call souls games an acquired taste as it’s not like you can train yourself to like them. No they have to speak to you on some level, tickling a competitive part of your brain that urges you to go on despite the unrelenting challenge that lies before you. It took me a good while to understand that and I’ve come to enjoy the challenge that they provide ever since I got started with Bloodborne. I’ve even enjoyed some of the more off-brand souls experiences like The Surge which, I heard, had many a souls veteran throwing their hands up in frustration. So I feel somewhat odd saying that my experience with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has been…less than stellar. To be sure the essence of the souls series is there but there’s just something missing from the experience; that little thing that keeps me playing despite my numerous failures. It’s a shame because I was kind of looking forward to this one, if only because it was another From Software title.

Set in 16th century Japan Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice puts you in charge of Wolf, an orphan who was trained in the ways of the shinobi by his master, Owl. The Ashina clan is on the brink of collapse due to a combination of the now elderly Isshin having fallen ill and the clan’s enemies steadily closing in from all sides. Desperate to save his clan, Isshin’s grandson Genichiro sought the Divine Heir Kuro, who you have sworn to protect, so he can use the boy’s “Dragon Heritage” to create an immortal army. In the ensuing showdown you lose your left arm while failing to stop Genichiro. However instead of perishing in the field where you were struck down you awake in an abandoned temple, an aging sculptor watching over you. Your purpose remains unchanged however, you are driven once again to seek out the divine heir and protect them.

I had never really understood why the souls games always looked like a generation behind but, as it turns out, there’s a pretty good reason for this. Under the hood it’s powered by the Sony Phyre engine, something that was developed originally for the PlayStation 3 and was only given a revamp for the PlayStation 4 in 2013. Sekiro certainly has its moments though, making the very most of what that engine is able to deliver, but there’s no denying that most current gen games have looked a lot better for a long time. Still the one benefit that comes along with somewhat dated graphics is the buttery smooth game play that you’re going to enjoy regardless of how busy things get on screen. As with any souls game that’s going to be key to ensuring that the game is challenging without being frustrating, something that a lot of the souls clones typically don’t get right.

The essence of the souls franchise is strong in Sekiro with many familiar mechanics remaining but a lot more being thrown into the mix to shake up the formula. It feels a lot closer to the traditional souls game than Bloodborne did, however. The biggest change is the lack of a stamina bar and enemies health bars not being as meaningful as they once were. No instead the posture bar is what counts now and if you wear that down, whether by attacking, countering or doing other special moves, you can then perform a one hit kill on them. Stealth also plays a larger part with enemies having a detection bar rather than simply knowing/not knowing that you’re there. Movement is also a bit more varied thanks to the grappling hook, meaning you’ll spend a lot more time maneuvering around than you would have in previous souls games. The traditional upgrade systems are also gone, replaced instead with a more regimented progression based around collecting specific items to increase your various attributes. There’s also a bunch of other minor systems around, as there always is, but given I didn’t spend as long in Sekiro as I usually do with a souls game I couldn’t tell you what they are. So overall it’s very much the format that we’ve all come to know and love, for better and for worse.

Without a stamina bar to hold you back combat is a lot more fast paced than you’d first expect, allowing you to really go ham on enemies should you so desire. Of course any mechanic in a souls game that invites you to be reckless is likely to cause you issues and Sekiro does a great job of lulling you into thinking this could be a beat ’em up title before ratcheting up the difficulty significantly. After then it’s back to the usual routine of figuring out how to pull the smallest number of enemies, deal with them, and then keep moving forward. There’s a greater variety of enemies earlier on than I remember in other souls games which initially threw me a bit, especially when I hadn’t picked up the requisite special moves to deal with a particular enemy that I was coming up. There also doesn’t appear to be any delineation between normal areas and boss areas like there are in previous games, something that kind of throw you off when you encounter what looks like a regular enemy but then turns out to be a boss. It does help keep the pace of the game up though.

A particularly large deviation from previous souls games is the heavy defocus on gear and stats. Whilst the souls games were never particularly loot bound to begin with there was always certain combinations or particular pieces of gear which could make your life a lot easier for certain encounters. Instead you’ve now got various shinobi implements which you can swap around giving you a bunch of different abilities. Some of them are a necessity for certain enemies, like the axe for the shield enemies, but others are your run of the mill damage/status modifiers like the gun that lets you set oil covered enemies on fire. This certainly one of the parts of Sekiro which I think I didn’t enjoy as much as whilst I’m a huge fan of loot fests (The Division 2 felt exhausting at times) I did like the min/maxing or cheese builds you could do in the souls games that made you feel stupidly powerful, right up until you got pummelled by something of course.

The game loop plays out much the same as it does in other souls games: follow the path, usually die, optimise the path you follow until you either find a shortcut or fast travel point, repeat until end of game. With the ability to come back after death though you have some options available to you, like legging it through a bunch of enemies, dying, and then waiting for them all to wander off before you continue on. Given that you’ve got a few more movement options at your disposal this can be quite a viable strategy some times, indeed that’s how I found my way to a second boss after failing hard at the first one I came across. Sekiro is pretty open in comparison to other souls games from memory although there are a few hard and fast blockers which you’ll need to do in a particular order to keep on progressing. Indeed it was one such blocker that made me put Sekiro down for good as I just didn’t have the will to keep on with it.

Honestly I couldn’t pinpoint one thing which led up to that feeling. To be sure it’s probably the hardest souls game I’ve played, partly because it’s different to the others but also because there’s a much, much higher reliance on player skill rather than items or levels. But mostly it was that I just wasn’t getting that same rush I used to get from souls games when I’d found a shortcut or beaten a boss. Even the boss battles didn’t feel as engaging as they used to. I used to feel like they tempted you in initially, usually soft balling you with some easily dodged moves and whatnot, before changing it up with a second boss phase or something that’d then dash your confidence all over again. This time around I just felt woefully underprepared for the boss fights when they finally did come along. I did eventually get around to beating one of them but only by cheesing it. Whilst I usually wouldn’t feel too bad about that, this is a souls game after all, this time around it just felt really hollow and I think that’s what killed it for me for good.

Layered on top of that is the story which, whilst being far more direct in its telling than any other souls game I’ve previously played, just wasn’t particularly engaging. There are some cool elements to it, ones I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed exploring further, but it just didn’t hook me in enough to make me want to keep playing. Reading a few wiki articles shows that it’s as deep as any souls game that’s come before it so I’m sure fans of the genre will find a lot to love there. It just wasn’t there for me.

It’s a right shame that I haven’t found joy in FromSoftware’s latest title as I figured that, given the numerous souls games I’ve played before, it’d be a shoe in for something I’d enjoy. All the right ingredients are there and whilst I don’t like some of the new changes I don’t think they’re all to blame for my lack of engagement with Sekiro. Whatever it was it means that Sekiro: Shadows Die twice will go down as one of the more average games of me for this year, being neither terrible nor one that I’ll recommend. It’ll be interesting to compare and contrast this to The Surge 2, due out later this year, as if I find myself enjoying that one I’ll really not know what to think.

Rating: 7.0/10

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 4 hours play time and 3% of the achievements unlocked.

Rage 2: Ranger Danger

It’s been 8 years since id released Rage and I think I speak for most gamers when I say we didn’t expect to see a sequel to it. At the time it was an amazing demonstration of what the new id Tech 5 but the game itself was sorely lacking. What was particularly odd was that, had the game just been a grand marketing exercise, the game would’ve done its job exceptionally well as it demonstrated graphics beyond its time that was accessible to a very large crowd. However it was only ever slated to be used internally and powered a meagre 7 (well, 5 technically) over the course of its lifetime. So when along came Rage 2, co-developed by Avalanche studios and id, I was interested to see where they’d take this IP but didn’t have high hopes for what it might deliver. Much like its predecessor there’s some great things about Rage 2 but the whole package is somewhat lacking, disappointing considering there’s 2 veteran developer houses behind this title.

Rage 2 takes place 30 years after the events of the original and shows a world that’s beginning to rebuild after the Authority was pushed back. It seems that the Authority wasn’t lying fallow and they unleash a devastating attack on your home base. Your settlement is all but wiped out in the resulting clash, saved only at the last second when you don a fallen Ranger’s suit of armour and proceed to wreak havoc with the new powers it grants you. It’s then you learn of a secret plan to destroy the Authority once and for all: Project Dagger. To complete it you’ll need the help of 3 key people in the wasteland and they’re not going to help you for free. So begins your journey into the wild wasteland left behind after the apocalypse brought by 99942 Apophis but how it unfolds is (somewhat) up to you.

Now whilst my rig is old-ish it’s by no means a slouch and so when I booted up Rage 2 to find it blurry I wondered what the heck was going on. Was it finally getting to that time when my system just wasn’t up to snuff? Did the auto-configure take a look at my computer, scoff silently, and set everything to low just to make sure I wasn’t playing a slideshow? Nope, it seems that by default dynamic rendering size is set quite aggressively and even for those rocking the latest cards you could end up with a blurry mess as the game tries to maintain 60fps. Funny thing is once I disabled everything the game ran perfectly well and looked far better to boot. Now this game isn’t running id tech unfortunately, it comes to us via the Apex engine developed by Avalanche studios which has powered other games like Just Cause 4. Comparatively Rage 2 looks a hell of a lot better but it’s far from the graphic marvel that its predecessor was. I must say as someone who’s been a big fan of the id Tech games for a long time I think it was a bit of a misstep not to use it here but I guess Avalanche must’ve been doing most of the heavy lifting on this project.

Whilst Rage 2 retains the spirit of the original’s mechanical stylings it’s a very different game to its predecessor. It’s still an open world/FPS hybrid but they’ve thrown in all the usual open world trappings we’ve come to expect and numerous RPG inspired upgrade systems just for good measure. Cars are once again a central theme with their own upgrade paths, missions and special mechanics but it’s largely a part of the game you can ignore if you so wish. There’s a heavier focus on crafting although it’s mostly rudimentary, just enabling you to craft some of consumables you’ll be blowing through routinely. It definitely feels like a more well rounded game than its predecessor does but many of these systems are quite shallow in their implementation. Indeed in the almost 9 hours I spent with it I maxed pretty much everything out, leaving little more for me to do. Given that the original, which I swore I originally gave up on finishing but apparently stuck through to the end, clocked in at 12 with much less going on you can get a sense of what I’m alluding to.

Combat is one of the standout features of Rage 2, feeling very DOOM like in its implementation. The main mechanic is overcharge which fills up as you kill enemies. The more you chain together the higher the multiplier ticks up which, when it’s maxed out at 10x, can fully charge your meter in 2-ish kills. This encourages aggressive gun play which I thoroughly enjoy although early on you won’t have the upgrades required to sustain that indefinitely. I didn’t go hunting around for the arks so I didn’t get all the weapons but I was perfectly fine standardising on the assault rifle and shotgun to get things done. The added abilities, whilst incredibly awkward to use, do help to break up the monotony of killing wave after wave of dudes, especially when you get some of the more interesting upgrades. Unfortunately the game gets pretty stagnant quickly as the enemy variety is quite low, especially with the boss fights which are all just carbon copies of each other (save for the final one). Indeed most of the game suffers from heavy asset reuse with many of the places in the open world being effectively identical to each other with just a few things changed.

The cars also feel like this thing that should mean a lot more than they do given the amount of driving you’ll have to do. I’m not sure if I’m not getting this or something but as far as I can tell there’s only one car you can upgrade, the first one you get, with all the others being set at whatever they come with. Your car is also the only one that comes with limited ammunition which is rare as hen’s teeth in the open world, necessitating regular trips back to base to make sure that you’re fully stocked up. That being said the default car, even without upgrades, is perfectly sufficient for everything you need to do in the game. Sure the upgrades make some things easier (like taking on sentry turrets) but there are usually even easier ways of doing those things than using your car. The one exception to this is doing the convoy raids which were honestly pretty damn fun, mostly because there was a lot of variety between them. Again this seems to follow the thread for the entire game: one standout thing mashed in with a whole bunch of other mediocre nonsense.

The numerous upgrade systems (there 4 total) are a bit overwhelming to start off with but thankfully most of them can be progressed by simply playing the game how you wish. Of course figuring out how to spend your various resources on things is a bit of a balancing act to start off with as there’s a smattering of things that will accelerate your progress but they’ll come at the cost of quality of life features. Now you might be thinking that’s a smart game design choice but I don’t think it’s deliberate. More I think it’s that they wanted to cram as much stuff in there so that there was a motivation to drive you to do all the things in the open world. If you’re 100%ing this game then sure, you’re going to have to do a lot of things, but for most of us mere mortals I think we’re going to get away with doing the bare minimum amount of grinding required. Towards the end of my playthrough I was just dumping points in randomly whenever I felt like it so I don’t think anyone will be wanting for upgrades.

Beyond the graphical issues there’s still a few rough edges on Rage 2, some which I didn’t really expect in this day and age. There’s a lot of interactions that require you to hold down a key in order for it to complete, pretty standard way of avoiding accidental interactions, however for some reason Rage 2’s key press detection is super janky. It’s not just one screen or a certain kind of interaction either, all things that require you to hold down a key just don’t register smoothly, if at all. Vehicles also feel a little mushy and, given that there’s no way to upgrade the handling on them, that makes driving a bit more of a chore than it needs to be. There’s also numerous issues with event triggers which most often manifests as characters simply not talking to you for 5 minutes, delaying quest completion. These sorts of things are a symptom of the larger issue of just trying to stuff to many things into the game, leaving precious little time to polish up the little greviances that are sure to dog every player’s experience.

The game seems to think that you’ll remember most of the story elements from the previous game, even though it’s been 8 long years since it was released. That’s the only reason I can come up with for the drastic pace of the first hour of the game where a bunch of stuff happens and dozens of plot threads get setup without the requisite time needed to develop them fully. From there it’s pretty light on from a story perspective with most of the characters really not given much time to develop. Maybe if I did more of the side missions there was more in there but given that the main story line didn’t even flesh out the main bad guy’s story much makes me think that I didn’t miss much of anything. I mean, I wasn’t expecting miracles here, but I would’ve thought that the writers would’ve known that most people wouldn’t really remember much about the previous game and would’ve spent some time building everything up a little more.

Rage 2 has some great stand out features but all of them are lost in the wash of the numerous mediocre pieces that come along with it. The combat feels great, giving you that same kind of visceral enjoyment that DOOM managed to bring back. The convoy events are great fun, doing a better job of car combat than even the Mad Max game did. But alongside all of this is a repetitive set of enemies, massive asset reuse, too many pointless upgrade systems and a story that’s mediocre and far from engaging. Compared to its predecessor it’s a better game but only just and that’s saying something when it’s been 8 years between drinks for this IP.

Rating: 7.5/10

Rage 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $99.95. Game was played on the PC for approximately 9 hours.