Review

Ballistic: Like Playing Pool in 3D.

I’m not usually a fan of reaction based games, mostly because they do a great job of highlighting just how bad I am at them. Sure there’s a sense of accomplishment once I get there, but it often feels like I’ve either brute forced my way through or just lucked out. However seeing people master games like that can be quite entertaining, like watching Rocket League pros juggle a ball like it’s nothing. Ballistic falls along similar lines for me, being incredibly frustrating to play but would definitely make for good watching should someone decide to take the time to master it.

There is a vague notion of a plot in Ballistic, you being some kind of weapon of mass destruction set out to stop someone from capturing a planet (or something along those lines). What you are is a giant geodesic ball that can roll along any surface, shooting itself in any direction at incredibly high speed. Anything you come into contact with is instantly obliterated and that includes any innocent bystanders who happen to be in the way. That sets up the premise for the game: wreck a bunch of things and then find the teleportation pad to take you to the next level. Like many skill/twitch/reaction based games it’s a simple concept that’s incredibly difficult to master.

Ballistic uses the Unreal Engine 4 which means that, at a base level, the graphics aren’t bad. They’re quite simplistic, consisting mostly of highly glossy surfaces and geometric shapes, which is fitting given the Outrun-ish theme it seems to be going for. When you’re moving everything turns into a glorious blur of neon but, when you inevitably hit something you get an up close look and things aren’t as great. All the people models have to be store bought assets as they simply don’t fit the aesthetic of the game at all. The other various models (like the guns and whatnot) fit a little better but they’ve obviously been designed to not be looked at too closely. For more skilled players this might not be an issue but for someone like me, who seemed to spend more time still than blasting past, it was hard not to notice it.

The challenges the game presents you are usually pretty simple. Most of them will be a variation on move here, kill this thing and then find this other thing to complete the level. Sounds easy in theory but wrangling the ball to do what you want it to do is a challenge all in of itself. You have a couple controls at your disposal: roll, which allows you to move whilst you’re flat on a surface. Boost which pushes you in the direction of the camera and bullet time allowing you to more precisely aim your shots. You’d think that with these tools it’d be relatively easy to navigate your way around however it’s akin to trying to play billiards in three dimensions more than anything else. In order to get to a certain point you’ll have to estimate your current momentum, what you can add via boost and your time in flight before you hit there. Doing all these things whilst you’re blasting past everything at a million miles an hour is quite the challenge.

That being said once you get a handle on how things all slot together you can more accurately place yourself than you would otherwise. Mashing the boost button the second you leave a surface is most certainly the wrong thing to do, often leading you into unrecoverable situations. Nor is attaining maximum speed the solution to everything as once you get past a certain point the amount of influence you have over where you’re going is diminished significantly. In the end the challenge that Ballistic provides is one of balance: you have to figure out the right mix of everything to achieve your objective. Suffice to say it’s not the easiest game around, one that’s barely deserving of the “casual” tag it’s got itself on Steam.

Ballistic is an extremely challenging momentum based skill game, one that this writer would likely recommend for fiends who enjoyed similar games like Rocket League. The retro soundtrack is what attracted me to it in the first place and, unfortunately, the game play wasn’t enough for me to stick around for too long afterwards. Make no mistake, this is a challenging game, one that will reward those who take the time to master its momentum based mechanics. If, like me, you were seeking something a little less intense though it might be the wrong thing for you. For a specific subset of gamers Ballistic’s challenges will provide the kind of intense action they crave however, for this old gamer, I think I’ll leave my play time with it where it stands.

Rating: 6.5/10

Ballistic is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was 1 hour.

Game of the Year 2016

Better late than never, right?

Last year, due to my increasingly busy work schedule and my first holiday in 5 years, saw me review a meagre 42 games. Still in that bunch are all of the big hits of last year, some ones I had been looking forward to and, of course, one so-bad-it’s-bad title I played to remind me of how good we have it. Yet again I found myself struggling to crown a winner this year although this time around there were no less than 6 titles that could have easily taken it away. As always here’s the list of last year’s games in chronological order so you can refresh your memory if you so see fit.

First off I’ll award this year’s wooden spoon to The Technomancer from consistently B-grade developer Spiders. They’re a developer that has ambitions of being one of the top RPG developers like Bethesda or Bioware but unfortunately they just don’t have the resources to do so. Every one of their games is packed with all the features you’d expect of a larger RPG but, unfortunately, none of them work properly or integrate well. So what you end up with is a mish-mash of mechanics that are loosely coupled together, never quite reaching the level to which the game aspires to. Honestly all they need to do is narrow their focus and get a few core things right to make the next step up. However that never seems to happen and they continue to aspire to greatness they simply can’t yet achieve. Still The Technomancer was their best game yet, but that was a low bar to jump over.

This year I want to give honourable mentions to 3 titles that are fantastic games in their own right but didn’t make the top 3. Rise of the Tomb Raider is one of those rare sequels that manages to surpass its predecessor. It also managed to set up its sequels without ruining the plot of the current instalment, something which is almost never done well. Uncharted 4 was the conclusion that the franchise needed and was done so well that few could argue there was a better way to send off Nathan Drake. Whilst it might be sad to say goodbye to the franchise, at least in this form, it will long stand as one of the must-have titles for the PlayStation platform. Lastly Firewatch, whilst not sharing the same high score as the rest of the honorable mentions, was by far one of the most engrossing experiences to come out of 2016. If you haven’t yet taken the time to play it I very much recommend you do as its 3 hour play time just rushes by.

So without further ado my Game of the Year for 2016 is:

Blizzard’s Overwatch, rising from the ruins of the failed next-gen MMORPG Titan, is yet another testament to the venerable developer’s prowess when it comes to game development. I had been involved in the closed beta for some time before it launched and was still thoroughly excited to play it again on launch. The nearly 100 hours I’ve spent in game after then is a testament to just how well crafted Blizzard’s new team based shooter is. Combine that with the world building that Blizzard has continued to do long after its initial launch and you have a game that’s engrossing both from a mechanical and story telling perspective. Whilst my views on it may have soured since then (most likely due to the pressures that come from ranked play) there’s really no disputing that, at the time, it was head and shoulders above every other game I played last year.

Titanfall 2 comes in at a very close second as I’ve put in just as many hours into it as I did Overwatch. With the Call of Duty instalment lacking somewhat this year it was great to see Titanfall 2 step up into its place, providing the fast paced run and gun action that I enjoy. Considering how flat the original Titanfall fell after its first few weeks it was great to see the community stay stable for months after launch in the sequel. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, the low time to kill meaning that the skill gap isn’t as big as it is in other shooters, but for spammy rushers like myself it’s just the right blend of balls to the wall action and mech based combat.

Lastly Inside, the spiritual successor to Limbo, comes in at third. For Playdead it was a pivotal moment, one that would either cement them as the king of the genre they helped create or see them cede it to others. Suffice to say Inside managed to improve on the Limbo formula in almost all regards, modernising the idea in just the right ways. It’s short play time, speculative story and carefully crafted visuals all combine together into a seamless experience that few other developers would be able to replicate. If you played Limbo or any of its numerous clones then it’s well worth spending the afternoon playing through Inside.

We’re already in the thick of 2017’s releases and I’m already impressed at the calibre of AAA titles that have come out this year. I’m going to have to make a concerted effort to keep up the 1 game per week cadence, something which I’m already unfortunately behind on. However it’s looking like another solid year for us gamers, one that I’m very much looking forward to.

Onwards and upwards, dear readers!

For Honor: War is the Natural State of Things.

My history with fighting games runs long and deep. Street Fighter 2: Turbo was my introduction to the scene with my brother and my local friends often battling it out for hours on end. The obsession continued through multiple console generations and titles like Tekken and Soul Calibur. It’s always been a genre that has only ever done well with local multiplayer, the few forays I’ve had into online fighting games stymied by lag (a sin in a frame perfect world). So when I saw For Honor, a fighting game/hack and slash hybrid, I was instantly intrigued. However the execution has unfortunately brought back some bad memories whilst cementing a few not-so-great ones.

For ages the world of man has been at war, spurred on by the upheaval of the world that came without warning. But the world has always searched for peace and for a time it has come. However there are those who seek to return the world to war; to find the strongest to rule over the weak. You are but a pawn in this war, ordered to do the bidding of Apollyon: the one who seeks nothing more than eternal conflict. Are you a sheep who awaits their slaughter? Or will you rise as a wolf among those sheep and feast upon those who fall to your blade.

For Honor is a spectacular looking game, one that’s sure to make good use of all the horsepower available to it. This comes to us care of the AnvilNext 2.0 engine which has powered the last 2 Assassin’s Creeds, Steep and Rainbow Six Siege. All the modern trimmings like physically based rendering, proper global illumination and realistic cloth and weather systems are all present and very noticeable. It’s one of the few games which, at least on my system, looks far better in the cut scenes that aren’t pre-rendered. If you’re playing on PC it’s probably worth tweaking a few settings as the selected defaults are a little weird, like turning v-sync on by default (a sin for us G-Sync/FreeSync users). It also manages to maintain fairly consistent performance even when there’s a lot going on, something which is unfortunately rare these days.

The combination of a fighting game with a hack and slash is For Honor’s selling point; an attempt to recreate the kind of epic knightly battles we’re all used to seeing in movies. How it works in practice is thus: you’re on a battlefield with other players (and AI, if you’re playing a mode with them) and when you and another player lock eyes with each other you go into fighting mode. After that point it’s quite like a traditional fighting game with all the combos, blocks and parries that fighting game veterans will be familiar with. Of course if you’re playing with more than one other player there’s every chance you’ll be ganged up on (or be doing that yourself to others) which changes the fighting dynamics considerably. Outside of that part of the game you’ll likely be running around slaughtering the AI whilst capping points. There’s 12 classes to choose from and as you play through the game you’ll unlock new abilities and loot to customise both your looks and stats. It’s a lot to take in at first look but the mandatory tutorials ensure that you’ll have a firm grounding before you’re thrown into the mix with other players.

The online combat however unfortunately suffers from what all online fighting games have: lag. For Honor is probably the only game that I know of that utilises a peer to peer netcode that also includes each player running their own simulation. What this means is that, instead of one player keeping the game state consistent (which can give rise to the “host advantage” issue) each and every player is calculating the game state. When you’re playing this means that your ping is different to each and every player on the battle field, leading to rather inconsistent results. Moves that would appear to work perfectly on one player will seemingly fail to work on others, some players will glitch around whilst others don’t and, worst of all, one person desynching can end up completely trashing the entire game state and killing the game (I had this happen no less than 3 times).

Part of this is due to the matchmaking which seemingly struggles to find a game even at the busiest periods of the day. Even during “very high activity” periods, as identified by the game itself, it would still have to look at all regions and all player skill levels to find me a game. Undoubtedly this has led to me being matched with people who have pings in the hundreds of milliseconds to me which means we’re dozens of frames apart from each other. It might not sound like much but it can be the difference between being able to parry attacks and getting hit every single time. This lacklustre matchmaking meant that no two games played out the same way, each of them having some kind of annoying lag or netcode related glitch that impacted on game play.

The UI, which was obviously designed with consoles in mind, also needs some love in order for it to be usable. Menu items appear to defy common conventions for where they should be with numerous things stashed under Social or Multiplayer for inexplicable reasons. Further to this the party system, whilst allowing you to send invites in game, requires you to Shift + F2 to accept an invite through Uplay instead. I wouldn’t even bother mentioning a minor annoyance like that if it wasn’t for the fact that the parties also seem to randomly drop players whenever the game feels like it. Honestly for a game that had a relatively long closed beta, as well as a shorter open beta, I would have expected teething issues like this to be sorted already.

The loot system teeters on the edge of being pay to win with obvious gaps between players who’ve dumped cash on it and those who haven’t. Whilst it’s tempered by the fact that all loot is a trade off some are far, far better trade offs than others. This means that, when you’re not matched against similarly geared players, it’s an order of magnitude harder to win than it is otherwise. If you’re skilled enough sure, you can still beat them, but if they’re even mildly co-ordinated there’s really no point in sticking around. Indeed since there’s no penalty for leaving games you should do exactly that if winning is a distant possibility.

The amount of effort put into the single player is surprising, given that much of the game’s marketing focused on the online multi aspect. Unfortunately it’s not particularly engaging as fighting AIs are either outright cheaters or a push over. The story is also somewhat confused, seemingly searching for a reason to match up all the various factions against each other at least once and to demonstrate all the multiplayer maps. Personally if they had gone multi-only I don’t think I would’ve missed the campaign as it felt like a chore more than anything else. After I got bored of playing on hard I dropped it down to easy hoping that would improve things (being an unstoppable killing machine can be fun, for a while) but even that couldn’t slake my boredom.

Despite all this I do appreciate what Ubisoft Montreal tried to accomplish here. It’s rare these days that a game can be truly unique and For Honor, for all its faults, really is a new kind of game. There are some issues that could be fixed easily enough, like the UI and loot system, but further fundamental improvements likely aren’t possible. Fighting games and online play have always had a troubled past and Ubisoft’s attempt at fixing it simply doesn’t work as intended. I honestly don’t know how you’d go about making this work either but there has to be a solution that doesn’t lead to the consistently inconsistent experience that I had whilst playing For Honor. Hopefully Ubisoft sells enough copies this time that they can revisit the IP, potentially with a new idea for improving the netcode in hand.

Rating: 6.5/10

For Honor is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 13 hours of total play time and 78% of the achievements unlocked.

Linelight: I Shall Guide You, Little Light.

Atmospheric puzzlers have typically been bound to the mobile market. The bite sized puzzles lend themselves well to the platform, allowing you to work through a few when you have a moment or two spare. This often means they don’t translate well; it’s rare that you’ll want to boot up your PC or console just to play for a couple minutes. Some do better than others though and Linelight, which is only available on PC and PlayStation 4, manages to be better than most. It is, however, still a step below story based puzzler games, but that’s par for the course in this genre.

The game’s core mechanic is simple: you’re a little green light and you have to collect the yellow stars by following a pre-determined path. At first this is pretty easy, simply follow the route and you’re done. As the puzzles roll on though more and more mechanics will get thrown at you, requiring you to figure out how best to use them. Towards the end of each world you’ll then also be greeted by a sister line that will follow you around, presenting another layer of challenge. There’s also a bevy of secret puzzles laid around for you to find, all of them hiding in plain sight.

Linelight takes an extremely minimalistic approach to visuals, favouring soft colours bathed in neon glows from all the little lines. There’s the odd particle effect here or there for when you pick up something or complete a level, but nothing more beyond that. The backing soundtrack though is decidedly pleasant, providing a lovely ambience that casually reacts to whatever is happening on screen. This makes playing Linelight quite a relaxing and zen-like experience which is probably my favourite thing about atmospheric puzzlers. Well that and their shorter lengths, something this reviewer appreciates when he’s short on time!

The mechanics are relatively straightforward with the “tutorial” for each mechanic built into the puzzles themselves. You’ll be introduced to the mechanic using a simple puzzle and after there it quickly ramps up, requiring a healthy dose of non-linear thinking. Quite a few will also require semi-precise timing in order to pull off, lest you find yourself trapped or dead. Also unless you’re probing every nook and cranny of Linelight’s puzzles you’re not likely going to trip over any of the secrets. Indeed I didn’t know there were any secrets until I accidentally managed to go in a direction that appeared to be impossible.

The puzzles don’t lend themselves well to emergent solutions but I did manage to encounter a few issues when I solved something in particular ways. For instance it appears when you get the “tail” addition that part isn’t capable of progressing you to the next section, only your front line is. Of course this only necessitated a restart to checkpoint to solve so it was no big deal. Other than that there really were no technical issues to report.

However, even though Linelight does a lot better than its peers in terms game play, I still couldn’t do more than about 20 minutes per session with it. Like all games based on a core mechanic with slight variations there’s not much to drive you on once you reach a good stopping point. I mean I still came back 3 times over a few days but past that I didn’t really feel compelled to go back. I’m really not sure what games like this can do to keep people like me coming back though.

Linelight is a great distraction that combines minimal visuals with a great backing soundtrack. The simple mechanics make for frustration free play, the puzzles whizzing on by as your little light speeds from one side of the screen to the other. It is a little lacking in the (re)playability department though with most of my sessions not exceeding 20 minutes or so. That being said I think it’s still worth the price of admission, if only for the lovely piano plinking.

Rating: 7.5/10

Linelight is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $9.99. Game was played on the PC with 84 minutes of total play time and 24% of the achievements unlocked.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard: We Can All be Family.

If there’s one genre I’ll go to great lengths to avoid it’s survival horror. This wasn’t always the case though. Back in my youth I spent many a night playing my way through the top titles of the genre like Silent Hill and Resident Evil. However after about Resident Evil 3 I found myself attracted to other genres and left survival horror behind me. Looking back over my reviews the only real game I’ve played in this genre recently would be Dying Light, some 2 years previous. Try as I might to avoid the hype around the latest Resident Evil it seemed like, if I was ever going to dive back into the series, now would be the time. I’m glad I did as whilst I’ve affirmed that survival horror still isn’t my favourite thing in the world it’s hard to deny that Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is a very well crafted game.

In a stark departure from (what I remember of) the Resident Evil series you play as a civilian called Ethan. Your wife, Mia, went missing 3 years ago after taking a job at sea for an undetermined period of time. Out of the blue you received an email from her, saying that she needed help and to come and get her. So you make your way down to a derelict plantation estate in Dulvey, Louisiana to try and find her. What you discover there though is beyond any reasonable explanation and you soon discover the horrors that have kept Mia away from you all that time.

Biohazard is Capcom’s first full game to use the new RE Engine which, if I’m honest, doesn’t seem that impressive on first blush. There are some parts which are definitely impressive, like Mia’s hair and some of the more…lively parts of the environment. However the level of detail is probably a step or two behind what I’ve come to expect in games of this calibre. Since the majority of the game is spent in dark areas this isn’t an issue most of the time. However when you get up and close the lack of detail becomes readily apparent. This is made up for somewhat by the animations which are much better done. Of course you’re not playing a survival horror game for the visuals, you’re playing it to get the pants scared off of you.

 

Biohazard’s game play feels similar to other successful survival horror games like Outlast and Amnesia. The trademark mechanics of the series are still here, like the inventory management, crafting and obscure puzzles. However with everything taking place in the first person you’re now up close and personal with everything that’s going on (and for those brave enough to try this out on PlayStation VR you can fully immerse yourself in it, joy!). This does make some things easier, like combat, but of course there’s trade offs like not being able to see around corners to see some things before they have chance to induce a pants soiling moment. Indeed Biohazard tends much more towards horror than previous instalments have.

Combat is as you’d expect it to be: frustrating, panic inducing and often at times completely futile. This is, of course, by design as something that had the glass smooth FPS combat mechanics of Call of Duty would not make for great survival horror. Still your FPS skills aren’t completely useless with well placed head shots ensuring that you use less ammo overall, giving you a bit of a buffer to play with. Mastering the block will ensure that you don’t burn through as many healing items but, honestly, you shouldn’t need to use it most of the time if you know how to kite the enemies around properly. One thing (and most survival horror games are guilty of this) that really irritated me is that it’s sometimes impossible to tell when an enemy has actually died save for pumping a few more bullets into them. Again, this is a design decision (done to make ammo even more precious) but it does get annoying when that moulded gets up for the billionth time in a row.

Biohazard isn’t a fan of holding your hand and will only sparingly grant tips upon your death. For the most part this is fine as it encourages you to explore and figure things out for yourself. Sometimes though it’s an exercise in frustration, like when you learn that the first big enemy you face can’t actually be killed (only after wasting several clips on him). After a while though you’ll get familiar enough with the various quirks and things start to get a lot better from then on. There are some parts that are maybe a little too subtle in the way they hint at what you’re supposed to do, leading to a lot of unnecessary back-tracking to try and figure out what you missed. This might just be me though, having not played the Resident Evil series for the better part of 15 years.

The horror aspect is done exceptionally well, making you scared of the smallest bump or scrape that you might here. I can’t tell you how many times I had to step back and forwards over a little patch to make sure it was me making the noise and not something else. The jump scares are used sparingly enough that they really are quite shocking and do their job in putting you on edge for the rest of the game. Moments of panic are used to great effect, ensuring that you’ll blow through a lot more ammo than you’d otherwise would have. Whilst this isn’t the type of game I’d regularly play it’s hard not to admire the way they use the environment to keep you on edge all the time. It does start to run out of puff in the last third of so, which is probably my biggest gripe with Biohazard.

You see in games like this I pride myself on being able to build a massive stockpile in order to take some of the “survival” out of the horror. Now it seems most games have a horrible habit of stripping that horde away from you in aid of an artificial challenge bump. Biohazard does this at a pivotal moment, forcing you to start from the beginning again. The game does provide context for this, and to its credit does give you back everything at the end of that section, but that means that particular part drags on significantly. The last section then just feels unnecessary as you’re packed to the rafters with very little that can challenge you. I’m sure veterans of the series could blast through this in no time flat, and thus the last third be much less of an issue, but 8 hours of being on tenterhooks did tire this old gamer out.

The story is somewhat predictable with the standard “Choose A or B for a different ending” scenario presented to you just before the final third. Ethan seems weirdly at peace with a lot of the crazy stuff that goes on around him (although that changes during cut scenes), something which, if changed, might have added a bit more depth to the experience. There’s also one character which we’re supposed to empathise with but, since your interaction with them is severely limited and they’re given no backstory, it’s pretty hard to care for them. I’ve also checked both endings and, honestly, choosing the non-obvious path seems like a total waste of time. It’s a bit of a shame as previous Resident Evil games had some cool, super secret endings that completely changed how you’d view the entire game. That’s what I remember of playing Nemesis at least, anyway.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is a fantastic horror experience. Whilst the visuals might not win any awards they serve their purpose well, creating a foreboding environment that keeps you suspicious of every shadow. The lean towards horror makes for a high adrenaline experience with every creak, scrape and whine cause to get your gun ready. The game does include my usual gripes about games in this genre, namely the artificial challenge increase through taking away your stash and the lack of a decent story. Still I can recognise quality when I see it and, whilst I personally won’t rate this game as high as some of my peers, it does stand above others that I have played in this genre.

Rating: 8.5/10

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 8 hours played and 57% of the achievements unlocked.

Aragami: Darkness and Light.

There are two distinct types of stealth games. The first are the ones built around the mechanic, designed in such a way that stealth permeates throughout the game. The second, and sadly much more common, is where stealth is added on as a mechanic at a later point. The difference between these two types of stealth games couldn’t be more stark, with the latter feeling out of place. The former however usually results in a much better experience as stealth is an incredibly hard mechanic to get right, if your game isn’t built around it. Aragami thankfully falls into the former camp, nailing the stealth mechanics beautifully.

You are an Aragami, a spirit of vengeance summoned by Yamiko, a young girl who has been imprisoned by the Kaiho. Her captors are adepts of the light, able to control it with deadly effects. Yamiko tells you that the Kaiho are oppressors of her people and have imprisoned her Shadow Princess along with her. It is then up to you Aragami to free her and take down the Kaiho army to free the shadow realm from oppression. How you go about this however is your choice, although sticking to the shadows is likely a wise choice.

At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Aragami was coming from Telltale as its visual style is very similar. It’s based on the Unity engine however (not Telltale’s aging game engine) and the look is generated by good old fashioned cel shading. Overall the visuals are simple and clean, with little extraneous detail thrown about. Performance on my current rig was perfect, as you’d expect, however I think it’d run perfectly fine on current generation smart phones with little change. The only complaint I’d have is that it starts to get a bit repetitive after chapter 7 or so. It does get better towards the end though as the environments get a little more varied, however.

Aragami, as I mentioned before, is a stealth game. You’re put in an area, given a goal to reach and are left up to get to the other end. Combat is non-existent as one hit from any threat will instantly kill you however you are able to dispose of your enemies, if you deem it necessary. Whilst you’ll initially have to rely on your wits to get through each level you’ll find scrolls that grant you talent points along the way. These will give you a smattering of different abilities to deal with the various situations that the game presents you with. The puzzles are pretty basic however, varying little beyond disabling barriers. Mechanically it’s a simple game but the difficulty comes in how you choose to play it.

Like most stealth veterans I immediately chose the no-kill, complete stealth route. Surprisingly though this is probably the easiest (or second easiest, possibly) route to choose as all you have to contend with there is making it through in one piece. So for the next chapter I attempted to kill everyone which proved to be a much more challenging task. Not only do you have to avoid being spotted you also have to ensure no one finds the corpses you leave behind. I eventually gave up doing it as it always seemed like someone would stumble across the bodies, no matter how well I thought I had cleared out a particular area.

Of course doing that becomes a lot easier if you invest a few points in the right talents, one of which allows you to completely remove bodies. There’s enough scrolls about the place that you could easily max out most of the useful talents in a single play through. Of course there’s a few quality of life ones you probably want to go for first, like the one that reveals where all the scrolls are. Others like the invisibility one are quite useful for just blazing through otherwise laborious sections, something that becomes a life saver later on in the game. There’s definitely a good amount of replayability in Aragami because of these talent choices, something which I’m sure the completist crowd will enjoy.

Aragami is mostly mechanically sound, however there are a few quirks which can trip you up if you’re not careful. It’s clear there’s certain places you’re not supposed to be able to shadow step to, but you can if you get the angles right. Things like tree branches, leaves or other semi-odd geometry provide ample places for getting yourself stuck or completely bypassing an otherwise mandatory challenge. Additionally the invisibility power, with its upgrade to make you apparently completely silent, doesn’t seem to work that way 100% of the time. There were a couple times I ran past someone only to have them alert the entire place I was there. Whilst I can understand that happening if I ran directly into them I can remember not even being near them when it happened on more than one occasion. Overall these issues aren’t massive, but are annoying when they happen.

The lack of variety in the layouts and mechanics does start to wear on you after a while. Around the halfway point I found I could really only play a chapter or two before getting bored. Towards the end things started to get a little more interesting but the first 3 hours or so felt like they dragged on quite a bit. Since the game announces to you just how many things you’re going to have to do (get 5 talismans! yay!) it instantly makes you feel like you’re on an extended fetch quest. Couple that with trying to find the scrolls and you’re probably not going to enjoying yourself that much. Indeed I think the middle couple hours could’ve probably been removed without much impact to the game or narrative.

The story is, unfortunately, quite mediocre. It’s clear pretty early on what the twist is going to be which is only made worse by the weirdly out of place dialogue. The writing wouldn’t be out of place in say, a modern anime or something similar, but Aragami seems to want to be taken seriously. However that’s just not possible with the way the main characters interact with each other. Towards the end things start to work out a little better but since there’s really no build up it’s all quite hollow. It also appears that there must’ve been a big rewrite of the story at some point as the final lines, which allude to the game’s previous name Twin Souls: The Path of Shadows, reveal information that had not been spoken of or alluded to at all. Considering this is Lince Works’ first game I’ll give them a pass, for now.

Aragami is a competent stealth platformer with beautiful cel shaded graphics and a great backing soundtrack. Taking the notion that the no-kill, full stealth route is the hardest and turning it on its head is a great twist on the regular stealth idea. Aragami is however let down by its repetitiveness and lacklustre story, a mistake many first time indie game developers make. Still for those of us who enjoy a good stealth-first game there are few titles like Aragami and fewer still from indie developers. If you’re looking for something to bridge the gap between the next bout of AAA releases and need a stealth fix then Aragami might just be for you.

Rating: 7.5/10

Aragami is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 5 hours of total play time and 67% of the achievements unlocked.

Bound: Life Through Dance.

The question of “Are games art?” has been asked long before the indie renaissance. However it comes up more frequently now that more games attempt to explore the idea. Indeed there are many games that take their inspiration from various other forms of artistic expression, reinforcing the idea that at least some games could be considered art. Bound draws inspiration from the abstract art movement and modern dance, combining them into a kind of surreal platformer. I have to admit to putting this one on the back burner for quite some time due to its release being so close to many AAA titles. Whilst I don’t think this needs to be on everyone’s must-play lists I am glad I went back and played it as it is one of the more interesting experiences of last year.

You play as the unnamed princess of a blocky, abstract world. There is a monster that is destroying you mother’s kingdom, wrecking havoc on everything. Your mother charges you with finding the saviour, the only one who can save your world from this monster. All of this however is just a retrospective view of the real world, a surreal reflection of the events that happened in your childhood. The metaphors used throughout this game are your way of dealing with those events and what that means for your future is up to you to decide.

Bound is visually stunning; its utilisation of simple geometry and low-poly modelling at a grand scale giving it a style that’s not like any other. The environment reacts to your every move with your footing shifting uneasily at your feet and a sea of cubes undulating around you. It takes some getting used to as the twitchy environment is reminiscent of other games where that would form part of the challenge. Bound instead takes a much more relaxed approached to platforming and so the jittery terrain is simply a visual aspect, nothing more. Surprisingly even with the extremely busy visuals Bound manages to stay at a near constant 60fps even on my last gen PlayStation 4 hardware. As someone who has the hardware to see the difference I can say it’s most certainly appreciated.

At a game play level Bound is a relatively simple platformer with generous edge detection that will stop you from falling off the edge (most of the time). Initially most of the challenge comes from figuring out what you can interact with and what you can’t. This stems primarily from the busy visuals which make it hard to discern one thing from the other. There’s rudimentary combat, insofar as you having to perform certain dance actions to protect yourself from various threats in the world. Other than that Bound focuses heavily on the audio-visual experience, reminiscent of similar titles like Journey or ABZU.

The platforming is pretty straight forward once you’ve figured out the basics. The edge/hit detection is pretty generous, often saving you from an otherwise fatal fall. However it’s not complete foolproof and the princess will fall to her doom if you do mess up badly enough. There are, of course, the standard set of issues that come with 3D platforming such as it being really hard to judge distances. It also doesn’t help that the camera controls get taken away from you every so often, sometimes locking them in a position that’s not at all conducive to playing properly. There’s also some secrets to be found around the various worlds of Bound however with the jittery terrain it can be a little hard to find the clues to get at them. I only found one in my play through and I was pretty sure I was looking in all the right spots.

Bound’s short length mean that it’s biggest flaw, it’s repetitiveness, isn’t too much of an issue. After 2 levels or so you’ve basically seen everything the game has to offer mechanically and all that’s left is the audio visual experience. Don’t get me wrong, that was enough to carry me through to the end of the game, however it does mean that the developers idea of playing this all the way through in one sitting is probably a little ambitious. Sure you could do it, but I don’t think it would improve your overall experience of the game.

The story of Bound is one of reflection, an abstract representation of a woman’s childhood. In the beginning it’s not completely clear what’s going on, mostly due to the heavy use of metaphors and surreal visual imagery. However it starts to make a lot more sense as more real world scenes are revealed to you. Since the majority of this story is told abstractly though it’s hard to empathise with the characters beyond a rudimentary level. This means that the ending, which is driven by a single choice by you, is somewhat hollow in its execution. Compared to the audio and visual aspects of the game it’s a little bit of let down honestly and a well executed story could have taken this game from good to great, no question.

Bound is an interesting foray into the ever blurring lines between games and art. The combination of surreal, abstract art with modern dance makes for an experience that very few games even come close to providing. It is however very rudimentary at a game play level, the platforming providing little challenge apart from the usual tribulations that come from 3D platformers. The repetition and hollow story mean that Bound fails to achieve the same greatness that similar titles have making it a good, but not great, game. If these kinds of games appeal to you the Bound is certainly worth playing however, for your run of the mill gamer, it’s probably best left to the Let’s Play crowd.

Rating: 7.0/10

Bound is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours.

Space Hulk: Deathwing: We Are The Emperor’s Blade.

Like many of my peers I spent many of my afternoons loitering around a Games Workshop store. The displays of intricately painted models tempting me to spend my meagre retail earnings on that next model to round out my army. I was rubbish at painting though, often just playing with unpainted models or enlisting my more talented friends to do the work for me. Once I was hooked into PC gaming however I left the models behind, but the love for the Warhammer universe was still very strong. So when I heard about Space Hulk: Deathwing I was incredibly excited as it’d been far too long since my last dip in this universe with Warhammer: Space Marine. However Deathwing falls appallingly short, so much so I couldn’t be bothered playing beyond the first hour.

You are a Librarian of the Deathwing force, the most secret and feared arm of the venerable Dark Angels chapter. You have stumbled across an ancient craft known as a space hulk, likely teaming with relics and technology from a forgotten age. It’s your charge to investigate the space hulk and to uncover the secrets locked away within its walls. This won’t be an easy task however as it is infested by armies of Tyranid genestealers, eager to tear into space marine flesh. Your powers as a psyker however give you an advantage few others have, allowing you to decimate hordes of enemies with a single thought. You are the blade of the Emperor space marine and it is time to cut through the blasphemers.

Deathwing does a great job of capturing the Gothic feel that Warhammer 40K games are renown for. The bigger environments do a great job of selling that feel with high cathedral ceilings dripping in banners and other Gothic imagery. It does have that Unreal engine vibe to it though which does make the graphics feel a step or two behind current generation titles. Since I came into this game past its initial few patches I didn’t have any performance problems to speak of, the game running fine even in high action scenes. That being said however any performance problems encountered are surely in the realm of poor optimisation or porting issues as I don’t think it’s that graphically intense.

This is where the positives of Deathwing stop however.

Taking inspiration from the tabletop game Deathwing puts you inside a massive ship laced with corridors punctuated by massive rooms. You’ll be given an objective to walk towards but you’re also free to explore the ship to find secrets. Along the way you and your squad will be set upon by the Tyranids that infest the ship and it’s your job to take them out. You’ll do this using your various bits of weaponry and psyker powers. Overall it has a very Left 4 Dead kind of feel, pitting you and a couple team mates against a horde of enemies. You’d think this would be great, the game format and IP are both exceptional in their own right, however this implementation is anything but. Indeed it commits probably the worst sin you can make with the Warhammer 40K universe.

It makes being a Space Marine boring.

The combat is just simply not enjoyable at all. Walking through hallways your radar will ping up with enemy activity and, inevitably, you’ll be jumped by something. These enemies aren’t varied nor are they smart so you’ll just sit there killing one after the other. Unlike Left 4 Dead or other similar games there’s no sense of tension at all so it’s just long periods of plodding along that are broken up every so often by holding the trigger down. This is made worse by the fact that you have a limited amount of sprint, meaning that exploration takes forever. It’d be ok if the rewards were worth it but from what I can tell they’re only cosmetic. Even the one end part of the mission, where I was supposedly set on by a “massive horde” turned out to be nothing more than me standing at a ladder and whacking at genestealers for 5 minutes.To top it all off your AI companions, whilst having some interesting banter, are as dumb as they come. Whilst this isn’t unexpected it’s yet another thing that detracts from the small amount of fun you might derive from playing Deathwing.

You’ll get upgrade points after each mission, up to a total of 4, for your performance in the mission. According to other reviews there’s only enough points to max out one of the talent trees and no way to go back and play through again with your now unlocked powers. Considering that the only interesting abilities appear to be at the end of the trees this seems a bit short sighted, severely limiting the game’s replayability appeal. Not that it really matters though as I doubt anyone who buys this game will play it more than once. The 3 talent points I got were invested in getting a psyker ability upgrade which, upon using, appeared to simply be a fire variant of the storm ability I already had. Not the most enthralling upgrade, if I’m honest.

I tried to play more, I really did, but there was simply nothing in Deathwing that kept me coming back. Many other reviewers have praised how true to the lore Deathwing is but that does little to make the game enjoyable. By contrast Space Marine did a great job of making you feel like an unstoppable war machine whilst still providing challenge. Deathwing instead makes it so a handful of genestealers could take you out whilst your brothers sit there and watch. I had really low expectations on Deathwing going in and even then I’ve been left disappointed.

Space Hulk: Deathwing does exactly what it shouldn’t: taking the idea of the venerable Space Marine and turns it into something mundane. The only commendable feature is the graphics, which do a great job of capturing the gothic feel of the Warhammer 40K universe. Apart from that all you’re left with is mediocre combat with confused AI partners at your side. Maybe this game gets a lot better past the first hour, I don’t know, but the fact of the matter is I honestly couldn’t bring myself to find out. I tried multiple times over several days but every time I just gave up, I was just not interested at all. Perhaps lore fans will find something to love here, but I certainly didn’t.

Rating: 4.5/10

Space Hulk: Deathwing is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $39.99. Total play time was 65 minutes with 17% of the achievements unlocked.

Hyper Light Drifter: A Perfect Immortal Cell.

This time of year lends itself to catching up on things that may have otherwise passed you by. For this humble game reviewer it means looking back at those titles I missed, looking for something to fill the usual holiday lull. Quite often I’ll find something that I regret not playing on its release, the most obvious of which was The Talos Principle. Hyper Light Drifter was one game that I passed on multiple times: first when it found success on Kickstarter and secondly when I saw it released on Steam. When I saw it come up again during the Steam Winter sale I figured, with nothing else better to play, it was time to give it a look in. I’m glad I did too as it hearkens back to games of yesteryear, and not simply because of its graphics.

I’d usually give you a brief summation of the starting plot here but I don’t think I could rightly do that here. Hyper Light Drifter is very much a game of “show, don’t tell” and to explain the opening scenes would be reveal too much of the story. Indeed the entirety of the main plot is told through pictures and simple in-game cut scenes, leaving the interpretation of what’s actually going on up to the player. So I’ll leave the usual plot analysis until the end but I’m more than happy to discuss the various theories about the game in the comments.

Hyper Light Drifter takes the traditional approach to its pixelart visuals, favouring a more authentic recreation of the styles of games long past. Numerous new wave pixelart games favour high definition versions of pixelart graphics which, technically, aren’t faithful to what was possible during the period. Hyper Light Drifter retains much of the other aesthetic elements, such as limited colour palettes and fixed lighting, which were also present in titles from this generation. There are some elements I’m not quite sure are completely true to the era, like the overlayed glitch effects, but I’m no purist by any stretch of the imagination. It’s one of the few games that’s built on GameMaker Studio that doesn’t look like every other title built on it, a testament to the amount of effort put into honing Hyper Light Drifter’s visual aesthetic.

Hyper Light Drifter takes after classic games like Zelda: A Link to the Past and other top-down adventure games. There’s a large map with distinct sections that you’re able to walk around at your leisure, although some parts are locked off until you complete certain actions. There are various upgrades scattered around, some of which can only be obtained through defeating certain bosses or completing challenges. Where it differentiates itself is through the combat which is much more twitch focused and relies heavily on precise timing by the player for certain moves to be pulled off perfectly. Honestly it was hard to shake the “Zelda set in a sci-fi landscape” feeling when I was playing it, a feeling that it seems many other fellow reviewers share. In my opinion this is the best way to utilise a player’s nostalgia: use it as a basis to create something new and interesting rather than beating them over the head with it.

Combat has an almost Dark Souls kind of feel to it; where the real boss of the game is yourself. I can’t tell you how many times I died just because I wanted to do something fast rather than taking my time with each enemy. Indeed none of the regular enemies are that complicated and most have really obvious telegraphs that you can pick up on quickly. However, if you’re like me, you’ll want to try and kill as many as you can as quickly as you can. This will often lead to you making mistakes and, of course, your inevitable demise. Once you get a feel for the enemies, and have a couple upgrades under your belt, the combat becomes both challenging and rewarding. This is then most expertly demonstrated in Hyper Light Drifter’s standout feature: the bosses.

The bosses of Hyper Light Drifter aren’t going to win any awards for originality but they are the most enjoyable aspect of the game. Nearly all of them are multi-phased, meaning that you’re unlikely to one shot any of them. It’s refreshing to see that many upgrades, like the projectile deflecting upgrade for dash and the sword, working on bosses as well. This leads to some interesting approaches to bosses and, of course, far more interesting ways to die to them. Overall the bosses themselves aren’t particularly challenging (I don’t think I was stuck on any particular one for long) but they are hard enough to ensure that you feel somewhat accomplished when you do finally beat them. The final boss is by far the coolest out of the lot and makes for a fitting finale when you finally get to face it.

The upgrade process is done well, consisting of finding little upgrade parts all over the map which you can then spend how you wish. There are some must have upgrades, like the aforementioned projectile reflecting ones, whilst others can probably be left behind (like the unlimited dash upgrade, you get 3 dashes by default). There’s also 5 additional weapons you can find scattered around the map which are mostly a matter of preference. Sure some of them help in certain situations, like the rain gun, but I stuck with the normal blaster for the most part. If you fancy yourself something of a completionist then there’s also numerous sets of armour around the map, each of which bestows a certain unique bonus to you if you’re wearing them. I myself didn’t go after them and didn’t struggle at all.

My main gripe with Hyper Light Drifter would have to be the lack of visual clarity. It’s a very busy game with highly detailed environments however it’s not completely clear what’s say, navigable ground, a drop into a bottomless pit or just part of the background scenery. Whilst the punishment for falling off the edge is low (1 health bar and being sent back to your last safe location) it can become somewhat frustrating when you’re searching for secrets. The forest map is the worst for this, its visual cues for “hey there’s something over here” often confused with your run of the mill props for the area. Further this means that some of the visual story telling is simply lost unless you really know what you’re looking for. It’s a shame because in certain aspects, like the above screenshot, it’s done brilliantly but in others it’s simply a visual mess.

Much like Dark Souls again Hyper Light Drifter’s story is told mostly through vague allusions to events with drips and drabs of text around the place explaining some points in a little detail. This means that the events of Hyper Light Drifter are very much up for interpretation and you’ll find many fan theories out there to explain events. Whilst the game play is more than sufficient to keep you engaged throughout the game’s duration it would have been nice if there was a little more of the story built into the main narrative. This is one of the cases where the lack of direct storytelling doesn’t harm the overall game that much and a troll through the forums after finishing it was a rather rewarding experience.

Hyper Light Drifter is a prime example of nostalgia done well; using the past as inspiration for a new experience that captures many of those feelings many of us felt all those years ago. The visual style is very true to the time, eschewing the current norms of high definition pixelart for a more traditional aesthetic. The combat is approachable yet challenging, ensuring that all players approaching this game will find reward in it. The bosses are by far the best aspect of Hyper Light Drifter, conjuring up many memories of the times I spent beating similar bosses back in my younger days. The only faults I can level at Hyper Light Drifter are its lack of visual clarity and direct storytelling, things that don’t detract too heavily from the core game but could definitively be improved. Overall Hyper Light Drifter is an exceptional title, one that I now wish I hadn’t passed on all those times.

Rating: 9.0/10

Hyper Light Drifter is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with approximately 5 hours of total play time and 13% of the achievements unlocked.

The Technomancer: The Secrets We Keep.

There are some games I play for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes it’s to reaffirm certain biases (although there have been titles that have changed my mind) but other times I just want to play something horrendous to remind me of how good some games are. Here enters the developer Spiders, a French developer who routinely puts out B-grade games that always aspire well beyond their station. Their two previous titles, Bound By Flame and Mars: War Logs, both tried ever so hard but failed in almost every account. The Technomancer, set in the same universe as Mars: War Logs, again aspires to be an AAA title but fails in such a delightfully horrible way.

You are Zachariah Mancer, a young cadet aspiring to join the ranks of your fellow Technomancers. Your quest begins as you are initiated fully into the rank of lieutenant by journeying to an old settlement dome with your master, Sean. There you learn of the secret that Technomancers have kept ever since their founding: your powers are born out of genetic engineering that caused mutations in your body. Such a secret would see all the Technomancers enslaved like the rest of the mutants are and you are sworn to keep the secret. However one colonels obssesion with learning the secret forces your hand, pitting you against the very corporation that has been your home since birth.

The Technomancer’s graphics are a generation behind in most aspects, lacking any of the graphical enhancements that many games of this generation now have as standard. The environments have a decent amount of detail in them but it’s all relatively low poly work. The lighting effects help to hide the more egregious faults but they aren’t enough to wash away that previous gen feel. Considering other games that use the same engine (like Unravel) seem to do a lot better in this department it does make you wonder just what modifications Spiders made to the engine and if it was really worth the development time.

The Technomancer is a mostly standard RPG affair; taking inspiration from other, better games in this genre and attempting to make its own special version of it. There’s 3 different fighting styles, each of which roughly equate to something from the RPG holy trinity. Each of them has a talent tree to match with an additional 4th talent tree for your Technomancy (read: electricity) spells. There’s also an additional 2 talent trees which are used for further character customization, focusing on what gear you can use and what ancillary abilities (like crafting) you have. There’s a mediocre crafting system which appears to be half done which coupled with the mediocre loot system makes for a repetitive and lacklustre gearing experience. You can also bring along 2 companions with you as well, each of which will mimic one of your fighting styles. Honestly there’s a surprising amount of stuff in The Technomancer but, unfortunately, that’s probably why it has so many issues.

Combat is unintuitive, confusing and worst of all unreliable. I can’t tell you how many times I’d appear to hit an enemy with my staff only to have it whiff through them completely without a hint of why. No damage meter saying “Miss!” or “Dodged!”, just the sound of my staff sailing through the air like it wasn’t touching anything. The combat is a half hearted attempt at recreating the Dark Souls system but unfortunately fails miserably. It doesn’t help that most of the stats appear to be totally meaningless, like when I had 140% disruption but still wouldn’t disrupt enemies when hitting them. Maybe there’s an explanation somewhere about how these stats work but they’re not explained in the game at all, not even in the stats spreadsheet that lists all these things off. So in the end you’re left to simply flip the coin at most encounters, hoping the RNG swings in you favour this time around.

Loot and crafting are similarly disappointing. The loot you’ll get will be all the same based mostly on which chapter you’re in although it seems that old areas have a high chance of yielding old loot when you revisit them. Strangely it seems like there was supposed to be more variety to this since there are some named items in the game but no where near enough to build a full character out of. Worst of all is the fact that you’ll be flooded with mats, most of which become entirely useless once you move up to the next level of crafting. Previous Spiders games allowed you to combine lower mats into higher ones, and indeed there’s text in the game that implies that this can be done, but there’s no way to do it. This wouldn’t be so bad if the system to sell the mats wasn’t so annoying to use, requiring a single click to increase the quantity you want to sell. This means that if you want to sell 200 mats, you’ll click 200 times.

Questing is also pretty unrewarding with nearly all the quests simply awarding XP and maybe some serum (cash). There are some multi-part quests which span chapters, something which you would think would lead to some awesome quest reward. Unfortunately that never happens which is a real disappointment, especially for the more involved side quests. This wouldn’t be so bad if there were amazing items that you could only buy from vendors but there aren’t and so you’re just left with a pile of serum and nothing else to show for it.

Worst of all is the endless retreading of ground you’ll do throughout the game. Sure you’ll visit new areas as the chapters roll on but the vast majority of the game takes place in the first town, Ophir. This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that enemies will respawn pretty much every time you traverse through there, necessitating a laborious 10 minute trudge to get to where you’re going every time you go there. There’s no fast travel system to speak of either, so once you’ve finished what you needed to do you’ll have to walk (and likely wade through respawned enemies, again) back to your rover to return home. I can understand that creating new levels is one of the most expensive things developers will have to do (something even legendary developer Bioware got raked over the coals for) but setting more than half the game in one area is just…boring.

As always I could forgive the majority of this game’s sins if the story was passable but, frankly, it’s not. Whilst it is interesting to see the world that was set up in Mars: War Logs continued in The Technomancer there’s just not much about it that is captivating. This is probably not helped by the fact the lines are delivered in a flat and lifeless way by pretty much all of the voice actors involved and the poor quality of the lip syncing with the character models.

Realistically all these issues are symptomatic of one thing: trying to do too much with not enough resources. All of the ideas that are implemented in The Technomancer are solid however their execution is sorely lacking. It smacks of a development team that simply didn’t have enough people or time to get the things done that they wanted to. With the average game completion hovering around 26 hours or so they could have easily cut it in half and still had a great length RPG on their hands. Instead however Spiders chose to try and pack as much in as they could and the overall quality of the game suffered as a result. Whilst this should be unsurprising (since this is kind of their thing) if Spiders ever wants to drag themselves out of the B-grade hell they’ve found themselves in they’re going to have to change the way in which they approach building games.

The Technomancer is another unfortunate swing and miss for Spiders, once again aspiring to the greatness that it never achieved. Whilst The Technomancer has all the trappings of an AAA RPG none of them are implemented well or fully, leaving the resulting experience feeling half-baked at best. To be sure though this is Spiders’ best effort to date but the mistakes that they’ve made before still seem to haunt them even to this day. I can really only recommend this if you’re as twisted as me and like playing a train wreck from time to time, just to remind you how good most games are these days.

Rating: 6.0/10

The Technomancer is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $45, $57 and $57 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 14 hours of total play time and 40% of the achievements unlocked.