Games

DOOM Eternal: The Only Thing They Fear is You.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That would be the game’s unrelenting intensity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.0/10

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILERS FOR ORI AND THE BLIND FOREST FOLLOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

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

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

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

SPOILERS OVER

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

Rating: 9.75/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9.25/10

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

Taur: Defend the Prime Canon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.0/10

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

The Pedestrian: I Was Strolling Through the Park one Day…

Way back at the very first PAX Australia (which was, gosh, 7 years ago now) I remember roaming through the indie booth and stumbled across FRAMED. I’m ashamed to admit that I never actually got around to playing it even though I was thoroughly intrigued by it’s panel puzzle design that was unlike anything I’d seen before. Since then there’s been a few imitators but none of them really caught my attention. That was until I stumbled across The Pedestrian in the Steam recommender and it’s combination of the panel puzzle design and absolutely fantastic background art design. That was enough to get my attention and keep my curiosity for a little while after however unfortunately I didn’t find much to keep bringing me back after just an hour or so of play time.

The premise of the game is pretty easy to understand: you’re a little man trapped inside the various signs , drawings and other wall coverings that are part of our everyday life and you want to travel through them. It starts off easy enough, you just need to run from one side of the screen to the next, but you’ll quickly find yourself needing to rearrange panels in certain ways to make sure you can progress. Initially this is just a simple task of not dead-ending yourself but it’ll quickly turn into a problem of figuring out which order events can happen and when they need to happen. It’s kind of hard to explain via text but you’ll immediately understand the premise when it’s first presented to you.

The Pedestrian’s graphics are, put simply, wonderful. A lot of attention has been paid to the smallest of details like the metal grains you can see on the outside of galvanised metal pipes, the various textures of the different kinds of signs you find yourself in and even the vast detail in areas that the camera whips past in just a few seconds. That kind of dedication to detail is, to be honest, quite astonishing and reflects the high level of craftsmanship that’s gone into developing this game. It does make you wonder what kind of person loves the minor details of the mundane world so much that they want to make a game that’s ostensibly honouring it in this way. Possibly someone who’s able to see the joy in the little things… 😉

The puzzle mechanics build up over the course of the game, starting as a simple platformer (with an extra step or two) but quickly adding in more and more mechanics as the levels go by. There are some really clever ones in there, like the puzzles where you have a hole through the card that you go through, but for the most part they’re the standard 2D puzzle tropes that you’ve seen before. The rearranging frames part is the game’s main claim to fame and it uses it to good effect, often making you wonder just how the heck things are meant to go together and forcing you to just try things out.

However past a certain point I just lost interest in seeing more puzzles as, whilst the game does add more mechanics and challenge, I just didn’t feel motivated to go back. Part of this could be because of the lack of story, although there seems to be some narrative around somewhere if the achievements are to be believed, as once I’d lost interest in the puzzles themselves there wasn’t anything to fall back on. That’s saying something given the fact that I think the game is probably only 2 hours long total, and really I could probably slog through it, but I just don’t feel like going back to it. Perhaps if I’d played it through to the end in one sitting I’d be singing a different tune.

The Pedestrian is a well crafted game with it’s beautifully realised renditions of the everyday world around us. The mechanics are a solid blend of the traditional and the new, slowly building the challenge as you tick over each of the levels. However for me it just failed to capture my attention much beyond the first hour, the repetitive nature of the puzzles and lack of any other driving factor (such as a story) making it far easier for me to put it down than to pick it back up again. All this being said I still think The Pedestrian is worth playing for those who enjoy these kinds of games, and those with perhaps a little more patience than I.

Rating: 7.5/10

The Pedestrian is available on PC right now for $28.95. Total play time was 78 minutes with 40% of the achievements unlocked.

Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem: I Can’t Believe it’s Not Diablo/Warhammer/etc.

Ah the launch days of a new online game. They’re almost always filled with bugs, server problems and teething issues the developers and their play testers never managed to come across. You’ll be forgiven for thinking that Early Access would be a solution to this, even if you spent oh I don’t know something like 4 years in it. Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem debuted to an audience that was hungry for a new arpg and the hype it had built up to its release ensured that its release date was not so dissimilar from the AAA games it sought to emulate, plagued with numerous issues that made the game chuggy and problematic for many and downright unplayable for an unlucky minority. However like many of its other brethren after the initial furor died down what was left was an extremely competent arpg, just one that I lost interest in after the real grind set in.

In Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem, you, Valeria, and Edric, are the three only survivors of the slaughter of Castagath. Rescued by Grand Inquisitor Heimlock, you were drafted into the Republic’s Army of the Purifiers at a very young age to be trained in the military academy and become perfect soldiers. You also had the chance to benefit from Heimlock’s occasional advice and training. This special treatment led you and your childhood friends to be named the “Children of Heimlock”. However one day it’s revealed that you’re able to channel some devastating forms of magic, something that’s very much frowned upon in this world. This begins your quest to survive and determine what your true fate really is.

I honestly couldn’t believe that the dev team chose Cryengine as the basis for their game, given its propensity for seriously high end graphics and not-so-great multiplayer support out of the box. However what the team has created is really quite something, making full use of the engine’s capabilities. The environments are massive and filled to the brim with detail although in the later, predominantly procedurally generated levels, things do start to get a bit samey. The game does shy away from the Blizzard/Diablo style of using more bright and varied colour palettes to keep visual interest up but there’s still a good helping of lighting and particle effects to keep everything from blurring into a dark background. All of this runs amazingly well, even when you get a good number of enemies on screen. That’s not to say I didn’t have any performance issues at all but I do have to admit I was trying to see how far I could tilt the thing before it fell over.

Wolcen follows the standard isometric dungeon crawler formula pretty closely with its own spin on the various tropes that I’m sure we’ll see emulations of in future games in this genre. There’s no formal classes to speak of however what weapon you decide to wield dictates which skills you’ll be able to use and, by consequence, which talents and attributes you’ll be prioritising. Skills themselves aren’t a given either, you’ll have to find them in drops from enemies or purchase them with a particular kind of currency from the right vendor. The talent tree is also quite novel, consisting of 3 rings that branch out in a constellation like fashion allowing you to choose your own path to the talents you want. There’s also a rudimentary crafting and gem system although if I’m honest I don’t think they’re actually worth using at all. Finally there’s a kind of rift like system which makes up the bulk of the end-game content, servicing as an endless grind to help rebuild a city which will confer back to you some benefits. Honestly using the term “Diablo clone” here would be a disservice to Wolcen as whilst it certainly draws inspiration from it there’s enough new things in here that I think Blizzard will be taking notice.

Combat is, for my build at least, a fast paced balls to the wall killfest that literally doesn’t stop for anything. Now I’m quite sure that the build I was running has likely been nerfed into oblivion since I stopped playing but suffice to say, when I can 2 or 3 shot pretty much any boss or mob I come across in the game it’s not likely to be long for this world. Still it was certainly fun, especially considering that it was such a glass cannon build that I had to ensure I was actively using particular skills constantly lest I cop a few hits in a row which would see me downed in short order. Of course being basically unstoppable did also mean that there wasn’t a lot of challenge left for me in the game once I reached that point, especially without an end-game grind that was building to something interesting.

It probably also didn’t help that I settled on a skill build and playstyle early on and all other variants seemed to be far, far less effective. To be sure there seems to be a lot of build variance available but speaking with my mate who tried numerous other builds none of them were as effective or useful as the good old slow 2 hander with bleeding edge. Some of the skill modifiers did make for more interesting rotations but most of the time they just allowed me to do the one thing I needed to do more efficiently or with a greater margin for error. I’m sure for those seeking to craft the one true ultimate build there’s a lot to explore and experiment with here but without a goal to work towards I can’t imagine there’s going to be much enjoyment in doing so.

Like most arpgs the progression comes thick and fast at the start but begins to slow down measurably once you hit the end game. When once you’d be able to find an upgrade or two during a dungeon run now you’re likely to go multiple runs without finding anything. Worse still you’ll likely have to spend quite a bit of time sifting through all the gear you’ve picked up to find that one upgrade, a rather tedious chore that’s unfortunately not made much easier by the inclusion of gear archetypes that are supposed to make the culling easier. I found a pair of rogue gloves early on in my endgame grind that were just flat out better than anything else the other types could provide, even though I should’ve rightly been using bruiser or heavy gear. Towards the end I was just looking for gear that appeared to be as good or better than what I was currently using and then saw if equipping it upped my character sheet DPS. A blunt tool, to be sure, but comparisons beyond that just aren’t really feasible.

It doesn’t help that the crafting system is pretty much useless, allowing you to reroll or add random attributes to your gear. Gems are also somewhat moot as you can’t combine lower tier gems to higher tier ones and the effects they provide are minimal at best. Not having a comprehensive crafting system isn’t really a major issue but it does mean that there’s really only one path for progression in the end game and that’s to grind, grind away at those dungeons. For some this is probably exactly what they want but for me? I’d kind of like the option of doing something else with my overflowing pack of loot other than vendoring it all. That or some semi-meaningful goal to grind towards.

All this taken together you’d think that I was somewhat dour on the whole Wolcen experience but apart from the last couple hours I actually really enjoyed it. Tooling around in the campaign was always fun, especially when I teamed up with my mate and we had stupid banter over the dialogue whilst we waited for the next quest step to appear. With loot being so plentiful too it was a no-brainer to share everything as well and the game’s catch up mechanics made questing with my much higher level mate very much worth it for both of us. It’s just that it feels like there’s an expiry date on the experience as once you hit a certain point with the game there’s likely not going to be much going back to it. This was much the same as Diablo III for me as whilst I spent a good lot of hours in it initially after hitting Inferno 1 and seeing the grind ahead I just decided to call it quits. I think I’ve only been back a couple times since.

There’s no denying that Wolcen was a buggy mess during its 1.0 week. For the first few days my group of mates and I would routinely get put on servers all the way around the globe which led to a less than stellar experience, even at 180ms ping. There were also the raft of issues around joining games in progress, how quest progress was handled and just a general set of problems that could only be ascribed to launch week teething issues. To be sure a lot of these got better but for one of my mates the game remained unplayable for a week and when it was useable he’d frequently crash if he used certain skills. Right now though the game seems to be in a good spot so if the initial negative press put you off it might be time to revisit it.

The world and story of Wolcen is certainly interesting although it is somewhat predictable given its use of the standard tropes for many of the game’s protagonists and their motivations. The whole thing is predicated on the big bag thing coming to town and you doing everything you can to stop it. There’s definitely more of this world to explore and I can definitely see myself coming back if they drop any story content in the near future. However for this particular instalment it’s decidedly middle of the road but hey, at least you’re not going to be playing this for the narrative right?

Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem is an extremely well thought out arpg, taking inspiration from all the right places and then applying their own brand of creativity to provide a game experience that’s quite different to what you’d expect from a run of the mill Diablo clone. The game’s initial teething issues appear to be sorted out for now and hopefully, if you’d decided to give it a miss because of that, this review can convince you that it’s still worth a look in. You might not sink as many hours as you did in Diablo or Path of Exile but it’s still something to tide you over until Diablo 4 releases sometime this year.

Rating: 8.75/10

Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem is available on PC right now for $56.95. Total playtime was 18 hours with 36% of the achievements unlocked.

Speaking Simulator: GREETINGS, FELLOW HUMAN.

You really have to marvel at the thought process of developers who make games in the frustration genre. I’m sure a healthy portion of it is done “for the memes” as kids say these days but at the same time you need to figure out how you’re going to make something that’s a) funny, b) somewhat approachable so people just don’t give up on it straight away and c) actually masterable in some way so the streamers have a goal to shoot for. I’ve seen many, many games that meet 2 out of 3 of those criteria crop up in the Steam store and you’ll likely never hear of them because they’re missing one of those 3 key pieces. Speaking Simulator manages to tick all those boxes, managing to keep the comedy up the entire time whilst also giving you the impression that, should you try hard enough, you could very well 100% every one of the levels.

Not that I’d want to though, of course.

You are our representation in the human world however we’re not ready yet to conquer them so you must blend in. We’ve discovered that humans communicate by wagging their tongue and flapping their lips so you too will do this in order to convince them that you are DEFINITELY NOT A ROBOT. Unfortunately, there were some corners cut on your safety features. If you make errors your systems will overload and your AI will be forced to relieve pressure by triggering one of the various array of facial explosions and mechanical glitches. Since you are a perfect AI however this should not happen and we shall conquer the humans in no time at all.

Speaking Simulator has that distinct default Unity game feel to it with a healthy dose of b-game styled art thrown in for good measure. All of the visual effort has gone into your face, with good reason as it’ll be the thing you’ll be starting at for most of this game. Everything else in the game is very bare bones with minimal animations or work on the background environments. Of course you’re never really playing these kinds of games for the visuals and what Affable Games has done here fits in with the overall theme of this particular genre.

There is a core of frustration game in Speaking Simulator (mostly related to the tongue mechanics) however it’s more akin to something like Bop It! or Whack-a-Mole as you’re constantly tweaking a bunch of different things in order to say the next word. It starts off with you just needing to click buttons with your tongue (which is very hit and miss) and moving your mouth around. However from there you’ll unlock your eyes, eyebrows and whether your expression is happy/sad/neutral. You’ve got about 8 seconds to say each word and should you not manage to say something in time or, should you miss a cue, whatever part of your face you were meant to manipulate will start malfunctioning. This only serves to make it even more challenging as you might not be able to be sure if you’ve moved everything into the right position, triggering even more chaotic facial expressions.

At the start it’s actually pretty fun and not particularly challenging. It’s even pretty fun to mess up a couple times just to see what will happen, although sometimes the consequences can be rather annoying (nothing like continuous lip smacking to set the mood, amiright?!). However it quickly becomes quite the challenge, so much so that I ended up only playing a mission or two most times because it was just such a mentally exhausting experience to manage all the different mechanics. It is pretty rewarding though when you manage to pull off a couple words in a row quickly but that quickly wears off as you have to adjust a dozen things just to get the next one out.

This is definitely a game that could heavily benefit from multiplayer. Whilst you could kinda do it now (one person on the tongue and the other on…well all other bits of the face) I think there’s a great party game hiding in here for up to 5 people, each one controlling a different aspect of your robots face. I’m not sure if that’s something that’s on the dev’s TO-DO list but I know a couple of my friends would love to give this thing a crack if that option was ever made available.

With these kinds of games it’s always hard to tell what’s something that’s in need of patching/fixing/polish and what’s been deliberately left like that as part of the game experience. There’s definitely a little more work to be done on some of the UI elements as they tend to blend into the background a bit, making it hard to know what you need to do next. There’s also a log ticking over in the top right hand corner but you’ll barely ever notice it, which can lead to you not being completely sure if you’ve actually completed a move or not. Having the text from there pop in saying “perfect!” or “good!” or something DDR like would go a long way. I could complain about the lack of precision in some things but honestly that cuts both ways as quite often there were times where I got something right when I really had no reason to. Overall it’s pretty much in-line with what you’d expect for a game of this genre.

Speaking Simulator is a great example of what this genre can be: fun and challenging but not in such a way as to deliberately punish the player. The dev team has focused all their efforts on what matters: making a robot face contort and bend in all sorts of whacky ways for our enjoyment. That means that the rest of the game is very basic but that just means you’re clearly focused on the core game play. If you’re just after a lark or are a fan of the frustration game genre then there’s really no going past Speaking Simulator.

Rating: 8.25/10

Speaking Simulator is available on PC right now for $17.50. Total play time was 2.5 hours with 63% of the achievements unlocked.

Greedfall: Good Day. I’m De Sardet, Legate of the Congregation.

Oh my word would you look at that, it’s another RPG from our good friends over at Spiders. If you are unfamiliar with them (although how could you having read every single one of my reviews!) they are a small developer who has aspirations of being the next Bioware but not where near the prestige nor funding to achieve it. Their previous run of games, which are all startlingly similar in their construction, have all been firmly in the B-grade category; having many of the trappings of its AAA brethren but nowhere near the same level of polish, finesse or integration of mechanics that would make it seem somewhat similar. Over the years then I’ve grown to love seeing Spiders releasing things because it means that they’re somehow still making money despite peddling some of the most mediocre titles for years on end. However, and I feel strange for saying this, their latest game Greedfall actually manages to be a half decent game, even if the spectres of its past are still very much visible. So this may be the first time ever that I say I’m actually looking forward to seeing what Spiders comes up with next.

You are De Sardet, legate of the Congregation of Merchants and you’ve been tapped on the shoulder to accompany your cousin to a newly discovered island called Teer Fradee. He’s to be the governor there and it’s your job to assist him in ensuring that the will of the Congregation is executed over there. At the same time you’ve been tasked with trying to find a cure for the terrible sickness that has been plaguing everyone on the content, a disease that has been named the Malichor. Your journey is not simply one of bashing heads and saving those in distress; no instead you’re there to ensure political stability on the island, including finding a way for those of the continent to get along with the natives of the island. That’s going to be something of a challenge considering the number of different factions, all of whom have their own ideas of what this new island should be used for.

The graphics of Greedfall are brought to us by Spiders’ own game engine called Silk which itself was based off the free Sony engine called PhyreEngine. The graphics it delivers though are more akin to the best we’d seen out of the previous generation, although when compared to previous Spiders titles it’s definitely a major step up. Whilst there’s a healthy dose of asset reuse the environments are still more detailed than they ever have been before. They will start to blend into each other after a while as all the forests look pretty much the same as do the towns save for the few custom designed areas that each of them has. Heck even the various governor houses are basically identical save for the texture jobs. There’s also some noticeable differences in the game’s framerate and the physics engine’s rate which is probably most notable in your cape which stutters along rather than flowing like you’d expect. Credit where it’s due though this is a pretty big step up for Spiders and I’m not one to chide someone for making progress.

It seems that after making ostensibly the same game 4 times over Spiders has finally managed to streamline it to the point where they’ve actually managed to make most of the systems work properly. You’re still going to have to choose to main one of three character classes, each of which largely fits into the regular RPG tropes. The multiple different attribute and talent systems make a return although at least this time around there’s a respec facility that gives you the ability to tweak things if you happen to make a wrong decision early on. You’ll still be saddled with AI companions that you have zero control over however and their AI hasn’t really improved much in the years since the Technomancer. Crafting once again makes a return although it suffers from the same problems at it always has. Overall whilst the theme of “put everything in that the AAA guys do” is still very much prevalent in Greedfall at least this time it’s a lot better done making for a game that’s actually kind of fun to play.

Combat is still a very simplistic affair, being mostly focus on you whacking at enemies and dodging their more obvious telegraphed attacks whilst waiting for your abilities to come off cooldown. The game asks you what archetype you want to be at the start and, for a change, I decided to see what being a spellcaster would be like. To their credit this was actually quite a viable build although, unfortunately, it still meant that I’d spend about half of most combat encounters meleeing things as I waited for my mana to regen. However there were also times that I could completely wipe out an entire group with 2 spells, something which I sorely needed to do later in the game when I was over everything and just wanted to complete the story. I still have the feeling that going for the warrior tree might’ve been the smarter move overall as it seems all the good weapons and armor require you to invest in points that that tree makes use of. Having to split my points a bit between things to support my spellcasting whilst also wearing armour that wasn’t total shit was a bit of a pain, although it wasn’t too much of a drag for the last 5 or so hours of my playthrough.

Like most things in Greedfall though the combat gets extremely repetitve after not too long. The enemy variety is very low and doesn’t really change much throughout the game. This unfortunately means that the increased challenge usually comes from the game throwing more of those enemies at you or simply giving them a truckload more health and armour. This turns most fights into drawn out slugfests and with an unfortunate late of variety in spells and skills there’s not much to really keep you interested. To be sure I could’ve easily respecced between any of the 3 trees anytime I wanted to (you’ll pick up more than enough items to cover them all off) but I shouldn’t have to completely up-end my build just to keep things interesting. The games that Greedfall aspires to be (Dragonfall: Origins should I take a wild guess) managed to keep me interested without the need for me to change things up so I definitely feel like it’s a lack of time and/or resources on Spiders’ part here.

Pro-tip: there’s basically no reason to invest any points in crafting as there’s NPCs who can craft everything for you. Not only that but all crafting recipes are available to you right from the get-go so there’s really nothing else for you to do but to go and find the required mats. This is made incredibly easy by the fact that every time you travel you have to camp, which also brings with it a vendor who always has every crafting item in stock. It’s probably still worth picking up various mats along the way as you’ll sometimes need to craft something or use them to complete a quest but other than that you’re going to end up with a bunch of materials that you’re not going to have any use for. Thankfully they don’t weigh particularly much so you can still indulge in your packrat ways if you so wish. Once I’d found a good set of unique armour and an associated weapon I maxed out crafting to upgrade everything to the fullest and then respecced into something more useful right away. I think I ended up using that setup for over half the game.

Progression is a muddled affair as you’ll get skill points every level (and can even find “skill shrines” that give you additional points) but will only get attribute and talent points every so often. This means that if you find a sweet piece of armour that needs endurance 2 it’s not going to be 2 levels to use it, no more like 5+. Whilst this does mean that the early game is a bit of a balancing act to get the most out of the loot you have it ends up being a pretty big source of frustration later in the game. This is most apparent when all the good loot requires the higher tiers of attributes unlocked or not having a particular skill (like say vigor) levelled up enough means taking the very long way around something. Of course I totally get the idea that this is meant to make you specialise in something but given the loot isn’t particularly diverse it kind of means that non-warrior builds are less viable than their melee focused counter-parts. This is honestly par for the course with Spiders games though so I really shouldn’t be surprised.

There have been some major quality of life improvements over previous Spiders games like, finally, a fast travel system. Unfortunately this is tied up with a completely unnecessary (but mandatory) “camp” intermediate level which basically means you’ll always see 2 load screens unless you’re travelling within a current map. It would be so, so much better if you had the choice of camping or not as later in the game there’s really not a lot of reason to spend any time at camp. Other improvements include item comparison, so you can see if what you’re looking at is an upgrade, a useable map and a UI that isn’t complete garbage. It’s still probably about 5+ years behind what I’d call AAA but at the very least we’re streets ahead of what I’ve come to expect from this developer.

Of course the game is still riddled with issues, some of which may be due to their continued use of the Silk engine or perhaps just straight up lack of polish. Pathing is a major issue and you’ll routinely get cornered or stuck by NPCs or your companions alike although they’ll usually figure out you’re trying to get past them after a 30 seconds or so. There are missions in the game that are obviously related to each other but haven’t had alternative voice lines recorded from them so you’ll often have your character experiencing weird bouts of amnesia about things that they really should know about. Whilst the level of the jank in the combat is certainly decreased the same issues in Spiders’ previous games still exist, like spells or melee hits just straight up not connecting for no reason at all and enemies straight up ignoring terrain to get at you. A lot of these things can be patched out though and hopefully Spiders does invest some time between this game and the next on improving the overall experience.

The story is passable as it’s rather predictable but at least many of the characters are given time to develop and there appears to be a much richer world behind everything than previous Spiders’ games had. Even with that said though there were a good number of characters I was just straight up not interested in talking to, including 2 of the companions that are introduced much later in the game and as such feel like strangers in your tightly knit crew. I will admit that I played for much, much longer than I would have otherwise just because I wanted to see how everything panned out but even that became quite the chore towards the end. Overall it’s a vast improvement but there’s still a lot of room to grow here.

After 7 years of not really improving at all it’s heartening to see signs of life from the Spiders team. Whilst Greedfall is certainly still in B-grade territory it’s very, achingly close to tipping over to into A. There’s still tons of room for improvement here and a “less is more” approach could still help immensely in focusing more on what matters to the core game rather than trying to emulate what others deliver in the same kind of experience. Still I hope that the success that Spiders has found with Greedfall either gives them bigger budgets or allows them to attract more top tier talent as it’s clear there’s something going on there, they just need the right guidance and resources to make something truly AAA worthy.

Rating: 7.0/10

Greedfall is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and XboxOne right now for $69.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 22 hours play time and 51% of the achievements unlocked.

Control: Welcome, Director.

Ever since I started keeping a list of games I’d like to review (some 6 years now) it’s become clear to me just how many I don’t get around to playing. Still I try to make time for the ones that everyone seems to enjoy or have seen wide critical acclaim. Which is why I went back to play Control as it has managed to snag many Game of the Year awards and nominations from many of the top game reviews websites. My opinion differs significantly to those as whilst I think Control is a very competent and novel game it’s far from game of the year material. Perhaps the most grievous sin it commits is to follow in the footsteps of the many Assassin’s Creed and Ubisoft open world titles that came before it, introducing the concept of grind into a single player game. Combine that with a game that’s still needing some polish 5+ months after its release and I really have to wonder why so many think Control is a better game than the numerous other contenders for the 2019 release year.

You are Jesse Faden and have arrived at the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, a place called the Oldest House. However upon your arrival you find it practically deserted the only person around being an old man called Ahti who appears to be to be bureau’s janitor. He then points you towards the director’s office for your interview, commenting that he could really use a new assistant to help him out. Upon arriving in the directors office you find his body, apparently dead from suicide. As you grab his weapon from the table you’re transported to another realm where it becomes clear that there’s much more to the bureau, and the world at large, than you first thought.

Control uses Remedy’s proprietary engine called Northlight which was first used with Quantum Break back in 2016. Back then I commented on how good the game looked but it seems like Control hasn’t really improved much on the visuals that the engine is able to offer. I think a large part of this is the fact that the vast majority of Control takes place in smaller spaces, making the lack of detail in some areas a lot more apparent than they otherwise would be in a more open setting. There also isn’t a great amount of variance in the environments either which makes the blandness stand out even more. This isn’t to say Control is a terrible looking game, more that it’s a half step or so behind what I’d consider to be the norm for a AAA title. No doubt part of it is also my now 5 year old rig which seemed to struggle in some places, even at 1080p, but given I had similar troubles 3 years ago with Quantum Break I have my suspicions that the engine could use a few more optimisations.

Control is a third person shooter/RPG hybrid with a healthy dash of open world elements thrown in for whatever reason. Whilst there’s a main campaign mission to follow there’s dozens of side quests, tasks and other errands for you to run that’ll reward you with varying amounts of resources, crafting materials and, if you’re really lucky a skill point or two. You don’t technically find new weapons instead you craft new forms of the “Service Weapon”, most of which fall into the typical archetypes we’re familiar with (pistol, machine gun, shotgun, etc.). Progression comes in 3 different ways: skill points, weapon mods and personal mods. The former is granted on completion of some, not all missions, and feels like it’s mostly tied to the main missions and a few of the longer side missions. Mods can drop from basically anywhere and are randomly generated, meaning it’s quite possible to pick up a mod with a god like roll that won’t get replaced for some time. This is where the game starts to tend towards endless grind territory as you attempt to seek out the best mods to tweak your preferred build. There’s even endgame level activities if you’re so interested although honestly I can’t really see why you’d bother.

Combat is typically medium paced as pretty much every encounter will have a couple waves of enemies and whilst your ammo and powers are unlimited they’ll need recharging pretty often, slowing down how many bad guys you can dispatch in any one go. After the first couple hours you will have seen basically every enemy archetype there is though and so after then it just becomes a matter of numbers and how many waves get thrown at you for any particular combat encounter. For the most part if you take your time there’s not much in the game that can kill you, especially considering that most encounters you can simply just walk away from and leash the enemies, giving you time for round 2. This makes for an overall combat experience that’s OK but somewhat boring after a while as you’re literally just doing the same fights over and over again.

It probably doesn’t help that the progression in the game is kinda meh for the most part. All of the upgrades you get, apart from the 3 or so new abilities and new weapon forms granted to you over the course of the game, are percentage based stat increases and so don’t feel particularly impactful to how you play the game. To be sure there’s a couple skill upgrades which make can change things a little, but even then not by much. Really the only one I got any kind of use out of was the levitating enemies when their health was low perk and even that was only useful because the enemy bodies were usually bigger than the other bits of crap I could hurl around.

If I was able to stack a ludicrous amount of mods then I could see myself having a lot of fun with some really stupid builds but unfortunately you’re limited to 3 weapon mods (per weapon type) and 3 personal mods. Whilst that makes for a large amount of build variety I don’t feel many of them are particularly viable as you’re going to want a health upgrade and, by consequence, the upgrade that makes the little health thingies that the enemies drop more effective. Either that or waste your valuable skill points on the same things which would limit you to the vanilla base skills. Really I feel like Control could’ve been a lot more fun if they just let you go hog wild with these things and become a complete wrecking ball like many other RPGs do.

Control also suffers from a few issues which at this late juncture I would’ve expected to have been ironed out by now. Switching from the menu to the game triggers a good 3 seconds of single digit frame rates which is a real pain in the ass when you have switch in and out of it all the time to read the various files strewn about the place just so you understand at least the basics of the plot. Since a good chunk of the game is physics based you’ve got the usual emergent behaviour issues that goes along with it, something that becomes readily apparent when you say, walk through a room with stuff strewn everywhere and Jesse seemingly forgets how to walk around or over things. In the grand scheme of things these are minor issues but given this is a AAA title, from a big name house and it’s been out for a while now I figured it should be basically issue free.

The story is interesting enough, being a kind of X-files meets the Twilight Zone kind of deal. The game does go out of its way to be especially obtuse with the various plot elements it introduces you to directly, forcing you to sniff around all the various files to find context and detail that you’ll so desperately need to have any clue about what’s going on. The main character’s inner dialogue also started to grate on me after a while as I didn’t feel like it added much and almost felt like a remnant of a choice system that was implemented and then scrapped halfway through the game’s development. If anything it’s reflective of the game as a whole: well built but just lacking that hook to really get me to buy in to the whole thing.

Control is a well constructed game that’ll tick a lot of boxes for many people but seems to lack that certain something to bind everything together to make the concept really sing. Indeed all of the individual elements are good to begin with but fail to evolve or improve over time. So the experience you get at the start feels largely the same as the one you have at the end which, for 10 hours invested, does make you question why you’d bother in the first place. I’m sure there’s some out there with dozens more hours invested in the game’s various end game and open world activities but, for me, I just couldn’t get invested enough to want to keep playing. Just goes to show that what makes something game of the year material will be different for everyone and, for me, it seems that I simply can’t find what others see in Control.

Rating: 7.75/10

Control is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time.

The White Door: At a Loss.

The journey through mental illness is a deeply personal one, intertwined with the life events that lead to the eventual manifestation of symptoms that we label depression, anxiety and so on. I think that’s why exploring these themes in games is often done in a highly allegorical way that, on the surface, appears to be completely disconnected from what the stereotypical experience of these health conditions are. In that sense whilst games like The White Door would in one view be seen as a surrealistic exploration of the grieving and trauma process it could very well be exactly what it was like for someone to go through it. In terms of an actual game it’s definitely not bad and likely best enjoyed on your mobile platform of choice over many, small sessions.

Your character, Robert Hill, wakes up in a Mental Health facility and suffers from severe memory loss. The facility enforces a strict routine to help patients remember their past and what led up to them being there. Scattered throughout the room are remnants of your past, little details that’ll help jog your memory and, hopefully, bring about some resolution to the troubles of your past.

The White Door splits your screen down the middle, the one on the left being a kind of interactive map whilst the one on the right being what your character is currently focused on. That, combined with the simplistic graphics consisting of mostly bold outlines and limited coloured panels, gives The White Door a comic book like aesthetic. The use of colour (and the lack thereof) is one of the game’s primary storytelling mechanics, highlighting the difference between the past and the present, the times of emotions and feeling and the times of emptiness and thoughtlessness.

Mechanically the game is pretty simple, requiring you to go through the day’s routine step by step so you can progress to the next day. Whilst there’s no tutorial to speak of the game does guide you in the right direction should it see that you’re taking quite some time to finish a particular puzzle. That being said there were a few times I had to consult a walkthrough guide as I just couldn’t figure out exactly what the game was driving at. Still the game’s logic is consistent enough that once you’ve figured it out for the first time the deviations from there on out are relatively easy to understand.

The story, at its core, is a simple one although the heavy use of surrealism does lead you to question just exactly what is real and what isn’t. There are some parts of the narrative that are obviously completely disconnected from reality but making the connection back to real world events isn’t really possible since you don’t have much of a reference point. To be sure, as I alluded to in my opening remarks, some of these things are certainly allegorical elements reflecting a personal experience and are most likely representations of feelings more than they were actual events. Suffice to say it’s interesting even if it does leave you a little dazed and confused throughout.

The White Door is an interesting experiment in surrealistic storytelling, combining various narrative elements together to tell a much larger story than what it’s few words put forward. Its simple mechanics get out of the way for the most part leaving ample room for the story to develop. Apart from that there’s not much more to say about The White Door and, should this short review piqued your interest in it, then it’s likely worth investing the couple hours to explore it yourself.

Rating: 7/10

The White Door is available on PC, iOS and Android right now for $5.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 102 minutes play time and 6% of the achievements unlocked.