Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9.0/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.0/10

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

Rage 2: Ranger Danger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.5/10

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

Snakeybus: Long Bus is Long.

Sometimes I just want to play something dumb.

That’s partly the reason I keep playing Call of Duty; it’s the definition of “turn off your brain” kind of entertainment. But this also extends to experimental games their either throw convention to the wind (like the entire frustration game genre) or just those whose premise is silly enough to entice me. So is how I came across Snakeybus, a new take on the game which made Nokia phones the brand to have back when I was in high school (errbody wanted that snake action). You probably won’t play it for long, nor will you have to try especially hard to get most of the achievements, but it was pretty much exactly what I needed: a silly, short game that provided some good distraction between the myriad of AAA titles that have been banking up on me.

The premise is simple: you pick up passengers, deliver them to a destination and based on the number you deliver your bus gets longer. Initially this poses no challenge but you’ll quickly end up with a bus so long that you’ll be tripping over yourself in no time. So begins the challenge of figuring out strategies to ensure that you can make your way around the map without running into yourself whilst still being able to pick up and drop off passengers. Unlocks come fast as they’re just based off the number of times you play any level or some random currency that you get awarded far too much of. In a nutshell this is a game that does what says on the box and doesn’t make any attempt to stop you from playing it out as quickly as you want.

Snakeybus has simple graphics and each level has its own unique style. The initial level is kind of what you’d expect for your run of the mill indie title, but the later levels include one with cel shading, an outrun styled Miami and even a rotating space structure. At the time of writing performance was unfortunately pretty poor given its simplistic graphics although it appears that the developer has been feverishly at work attempting to rectify the problem, netting everyone a 20%+ performance improvement. The game could also use some more and varied sound tracks to go with it as it becomes repetitive quite quickly, even when you’re only spending a few short minutes in each session. Overall Snakeybus’ graphics are passable which, honestly, is exactly what you’d expect.

The core mechanic is pretty fun and quickly becomes quite the challenge, even in levels where you’d expect to have quite a lot of freedom to move around. Strategies in one level will likely not work in others as their layout will dictate what you can get away with. The above screenshot for instance is all about managing which side of the road you’re using because, if you don’t and snake around everywhere, you’ll have no room to move. Other levels though, like the space one, work best if you weave around like you’d do in the original snake game. Honestly I originally just tried to make sure I took the longest route I possibly could before working out that each level had its own strategy.

Of course part of the attraction of games like this is unintentional shenanigans you can get up to with a less-than-great physics engine implementation. The below screenshot is just one example of me getting into a situation which honestly should have been game over but the physics engine couldn’t really figure out if I was stopped or not. So instead it ended up with this weird tangle of buses all on top of themselves, seemingly flitting in and out of existence before righting themselves again. This cuts both ways of course as there were many times when my bus was only just barely stopped and the game cut me off. Whilst this is technically an issue really it doesn’t detract from the game play. In reality it’s a core part of it.

Snakeybus is the kind of title you play when you don’t want a game that asks too much of you. It’s B-grade implementation, OK graphics and numerous rough edges are all part of the charm of games like this. Sure every single part of the game could be done better but it doesn’t need to be. Snakeybus exists to explore the core game mechanic and little more beyond that. In that mission it succeeds in spades, providing a fun little distraction that you’ll likely play for a couple hours before putting down for good. In the end it’ll come down to whether or not you’re willing to part with a few dollars for something as silly as this. For this old gamer it was very much worth it.

Rating: 7.5/10

Snakeybus is available on PC right now for $14.50. Total play time was 92 minutes with 88% of the achievements unlocked.

The Division 2: Washington’s Deep Crisis.

It’s been interesting to chart the course of The Division and Destiny as they’re both games I’ve played a lot of and each of them have had their own challenges over the years. Destiny started out strong and built on that, managing to bring me back into the fold with nearly every expansion that they released. The Division on the other hand couldn’t bring me back until Patch 1.8 when I came back into a game that had grown substantially. From there Destiny began to waver until it found its feet again in Forsaken (although I’m yet to go back after Black Armory). So I had some trepidation stepping into The Division 2, fearful that Massive might pull a Bungie and uproot all the good work they had done with the original. I’m glad to say that this isn’t the case, there are changes to be sure, but all of it seems in aid of making the game more accessible (bar one recent development, of course). At a nuts and bolts level it’s more of the same but given it’d been over a year since I last played basically everything old was new again. That and the fact that there was a renewed interest from my crew to play it meant that I had a grand old time shooting up Washington DC over the last couple months.

It’s been seven months since the Green Poison attack and Division agents have spread far and wide to help support the survivors in rebuilding society. You’re helping defend a civilian settlement when the SHD Network goes down, preventing you from communicating with other agents both locally and abroad. It’s right at this point that you receive a distress call from Washington DC: they’re under attack by a large force and need The Division’s help to repel it. You arrive on the scene shortly later and, after defeating the attack, learn that Washington has fallen into the control of 3 large factions. Your job, Agent, is to help the JTF retake the city, restore the SHD network and begin the process of rebuilding everything that has been lost.

The Snowdrop engine returns in The Division 2 with a minor tweaks to make the DX12 experience a lot better. There are some notable additions though like numerous different dynamic weather events (some which drastically change how missions play out) and an even more attention paid to the smallest of details in the game. The development team apparently used LIDAR and other GIS data to build out the bones of Washington DC before they turned it all post-apocalyptic. Now I’ve never been there myself but many I’ve played with have and they’ve all stated unequivocally how eerie the levels feel because of it. Right alongside this is the great foley work and sound track which is usually pushed aside as a small detail but it goes a long way with making the experience feel a lot more complete. Performance is also really good, even in the middle of heavy firefights with numerous things on fire. I had expected no less from Massive but it’s always nice not to be disappointed.

The Division 2 retains much of the original’s core game mechanics and structure with major changes to the loot system, abilities/talents and the gameplay loop. The major part of the game is still going to be centered around hiding in cover and shooting bad guys however how you progress is completely different. You’ll still find drops and chase the dragon for that perfectly rolled whatever which you need complete your build but the system has been revamped somewhat to dissuade you from doing that for days on end. The introduction of specialist classes is a nice way to make all of the builds more active than the previous class system was which often saw healers like me hiding behind cover for most of the mission. There are an overwhelming number of stats to min/max now which, depending on whether spreadsheets appeal to you or not, could be a good or a bad thing. Progression towards endgame is nice and linear, with predictable stage gates that you can work towards by simply playing the game in any way you want (or getting someone with higher gear score to feed you drops which works so well it feels like you’re cheating). I could go on describing the minutiae of the game but realistically it’s not going to make much of a difference to whether you’ll play it or not. That, my friends, is going to be wholly decided by whether or not you like the kind of loot grind that The Division 2 has on offer.

Combat is more refined and a whole lot more punishing than it was in the original game. Gone are the days when enemies would predictably spawn in front of you, take their cover positions and then take pot shots at you from there. No instead the AI now flanks, suppresses and is generally a royal pain in your ass which during the first few hours feels quite rough. Part of that is due to how I play games like this, favouring being right in the enemy’s face, which is a recipe for disaster most of the time. It got so bad that my mates eventually coined the term “Going Full Dave” when I’d inevitably end up face down in the middle of a bunch of enemies, a term I think I fully deserved. However as you gear up and understand how the AI works it becomes quite an enjoyable challenge, especially with some of the newer abilities like the mortar turret which is just a joy to use.

I still ended up sticking to the same weapon archetypes that I became comfortable with in the original. I mostly stuck with LMGs in the original due to their stupidly large magazines that countered the long reload times well and SMGs for their ridiculous DPS at close range. The same combo works well in The Division 2, even if I can’t get myself a 200 round LMG or a SMG that removed armour instantly. Much to my dismay shotguns are basically worthless, doing about the same amount of damage as a sniper rifle but carrying with them so much more risk that they’re just not worth using. I didn’t have much luck with sniper/marksman rifles but I’ve never really favoured them in any game I’ve played anyway (and by all accounts they are quite effective). Everyone I played with had their own set which they relied on so overall I’d have to say the weapon design is on point.

The skills are a blend of old ones that have been revamped (like the Seekers), new takes on old skills and completely new ones that shake up the game play significantly. I went back on my old faithful building initially, using the chem launcher with the heal and the hive, again with the heal, to supplement my reckless playstyle. This worked ok for the majority of the campaign however I found that I wasn’t really using the hive much and, when I did, it wasn’t particularly effective. When I chose the demolitionist specialisation though I replaced the hive with the mortar turret and, oh boy, am I glad I did. The game could have been a little clearer that it has friendly fire (just for you) as there were a couple deaths that I had no idea why they happened until I realised that I had the mortar pointing at the back of my head. Hilarious in retrospect though. Much like the weapon builds my friends and I had a diverse range of abilities selected so once again I’d say the ability design is well done, ensuring that all options are viable.

The progression through to endgame is refreshingly linear with clear activities and stage gates that you’ll need to complete in order to get through. Playing everything normally you’ll likely get to the last mission of the campaign either bang on or just before level 30. I myself had to do about an hour or so of grinding to get that last level out but you could probably skip that if you’ve been grouping for most of the game. From there you have to progress through 5 “World Tiers” which are effectively just gear score gates, forcing you to grind a bit to get enough gear up to take out a stronghold before you progress to the next one. In all honesty after doing the requisite precursor missions and a couple control points you’re likely going to be there already. Even better still if you have a friend like me who’s on WT5 and you’re on a lower tier all the gear that drops for your buddy will be at the max level for your world tier. I took one of my friends from newly minted 30 to gear score 325 in the space of 2 missions, absolutely fantastic if you’re gearing up people for end game content. I think this clear, defined progression path is what kept me coming back for so long as I always had a clear goal to work towards. Indeed it was so clear that I’ve yet to really dive into any other areas of the game except for the PVE components.

Which is why it was slightly disappointing to see that, despite basically everything in the game having a matchmaking component to it, the raid won’t. Now I’m no stranger to this challenge, I’ve made my raid career in Destiny out of grouping up with 5 other strangers on DestinyLFG.net, but I was hoping to not have to resort to that for once. It’s especially disheartening as whilst I could probably get a crew of 4 mates together to give it a crack finding another 4 is going to prove to be a royal pain in the ass. Thankfully it seems like the developers are hearing our concerns and will be bringing it in eventually although strangely cites concerns that I’d say are pretty easy to deal with. Heck DestinyLFG dealt with them years ago with a few drop down boxes. I don’t think that’s beyond Massive’s ability to deliver.

As with any of these large, open world games there’s going to be some level of jankiness that comes along with them. Typically they’re small issues, like sounds repeating themselves or models glitching out in fun and weird ways, but there’s also been some persistent crashing problems that have plagued the playerbase. I myself have only had 2 crashes in the time I’ve been playing but mates of mine had them at least once or twice a night. This does seem to have gotten better over time though so there’s hope that one day they’ll be gone for good. It does appear though that the raid isn’t immune to the plethora of small issues that dog the main game like an overly aggressive AI, sound problems and textures no loading correctly. Again I don’t believe these are beyond fixing but they are a small black mark against an otherwise stellar game.

The Division 2’s plot is fairly generic, as are pretty much all of the characters. Quick, name a main character in the game without looking them up. Pretty hard isn’t it? That’s because, as my good friend put it, Ubisoft and Massive are great at building out awesome, expansive worlds but suck hard at filling them with memorable characters. The good news is that you don’t really need to enjoy the overall plot to have fun and many of the missions stand on their own quite well without context from a larger overarching story. There’s numerous things that happen “because plot” which likely won’t get explained anytime soon but at the least they’re not so bad as to distract from the gameplay itself. I guess the biggest sin here is that the story is forgettable and, in all honesty, there’s far worse things that it could be.

The Division 2 is, I think, the right way to do a sequel to a game. It’s got the core of what made the original great with enough new things to keep it interesting. The lessons learnt from the past aren’t forgotten and have heavily influenced the new game loops that are core to The Division 2. There’s still improvements to be made, mostly around squashing the remaining bugs/glitches and introducing matchmaking for the raid, but otherwise I think there’s no better base for this sequel to start off from. The question is where do they go from here? These initial content tranches have been great but it remains to see if the upcoming content is going to be enough to bring me back to the fold on the regular. I’m very keen to see that though as my time with The Division 2 has been well spent and I look forward to more of it in the future.

Rating: 9.25/10

The Division 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $79. Game was played on the PC with a total of 43 hours of game time and 62% of the achievements unlocked.

Burning Daylight: Ascend, Naked One.

Games built by students are, for the most part, completely terrible. Many of my friends went into game development courses and the games they developed as part of them were clunky, god awful messes that never made it onto their resumes. That’s part of the learning experience though as it’s one thing to play games and think you understand how they’re crafted and a completely different thing to actually sit down and do it yourself. With the democratisation of game development and distribution tools however we’re starting to see more games from students that will likely become the foundation upon which their creators look to build their future careers. Burning Daylight, made by a team of 12 students from The Animation Workshop, is likely to be one of those games as, whilst far from perfect, it does showcase just what that team is capable of producing.

Waking up naked in a grotesque slaughterhouse, you have no recollection of who you are or where you come from. Your only clue is a mysterious tattoo on your chest. You must now escape and travel through a dystopian society in order to uncover the mysteries of your origin. The story is set in the future where life cannot sustain outside, what remains of human society, now lives in megastructures waiting for the day, when they once again can live outside.

Burning Daylight’s artwork is quite an interesting array of barren dystopian corridors, oversaturated neon futurscapes and minimalistic nature scenes. Given that the game is really just a walking simulator these different landscapes are mostly just there for you to get a sense of the world you’re in, giving you different views of what life in the the giant megastructure is like. The artwork simplistic but still above par for what I’d expect from an all student team. The animation could do with some work though as all the interactions feel incredibly stiff and unnatural. Strangely the team did a good job of making the Unreal engine feel like Unity, something about the modelling style and lack of overused specular maps. All things considered though Burning Daylight does a good job of communicating story elements through its visuals, a key concept in walking simulators like this.

There’s really no mechanics to speak of, save for a few extremely rudimentary puzzles that you’ll have to solve. That’s likely for the best too as the ones that are implemented are a little janky, both in their implementation but also in their logic. Indeed whilst I’d consider the visuals above par the rest of the game’s implementation is very mediocre. The game crashed on me once and for some reason didn’t record that I’d actually gone past a checkpoint, forcing me to replay an entire section for no reason at all. In a 45 minute game this is no real drama of course but it’s not like checkpointing is a NP hard problem.

The story is an interesting one, told mostly though the activities of those milling around in the background as you run past. It’s nothing original but thanks to its short duration it gets right to the point. There’s some overemphasis on things that don’t mean anything to the overall story, like your character being naked from the waste down for half of it, but thankfully you can ignore them. The story in the game is self contained however the Steam page paints a picture of a bigger world that I think the developers want to explore. Given the game’s success I think there’s a real possibility of that happening.

As a standalone game Burning Daylight isn’t much: a 45 minute walking simulator experience with good artwork that’s marred by its janky animations and rudimentary mechanics. However what it represents is something much more: students can now go from concept to public release, giving them real world experience that they can then leverage into something more. Whilst Burning Daylight isn’t exactly game of the year material it is a solid first try from those who’d never attempted the craft before.

Rating: 7.0/10

Burning Daylight is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 47 minutes.

Rise of Industry: Our Profit Runneth Over.

Transport Tycoon has a very special place in my heart. It started back when I was a young lad, the game likely coming to me from my father who’d got it from some friends at work. I remember loving building little bus networks and trying to figure out just exactly how to make a business profitable. I was so proud when I made my first virtual million, ever so slowly creeping towards the goal as I finally began to understand the mechanics. Decades later I’d revisit it with my wife and house mate. All of us installing OpenTTD and having a blast competing with each other for hours on end. So when I saw Rise of Industry I was instantly intrigued, the gameplay giving me instant waves of nostalgia for those times. Whilst I can very much appreciate the mechanical depth that’s been built into this game there just wasn’t that something, that X factor, to keep me coming back after I’d grasped the base mechanics. It’s a shame really as I think that there’s probably a great game in there somewhere, it’s just not where I’m looking for it.

The premise is easy to understand: you’re a new business owner seeking to profit from the old fashioned game of supply and demand. You’ll choose a place to plonk down your headquarters which gives you the rights to build various gathering and production buildings in the region. The town has demands that you can meet, although you’ll want to pick your products carefully as not all of them will put you on the path to wealth. From there you’ll work through a tech tree to build even more elaborate products and infrastructure, allowing you to extract even more profit from your town. Over time you can expand your empire to other regions and you’ll have to set up transport routes between your different areas as there’s likely going to be things one place has that the other needs. As you’d expect this can all get pretty complex and whilst the tutorial does a good job of giving you the basics from there on out it’s up to you figure out how you and your company will profit.

Rise of Industry has the tried and true low poly look that’s very much in vogue these days. For the most part the developers have done a good job of keeping the visual confusion down with most buildings being recogniseable from a decent distance, saving you the trouble of hunting for that one factory you put in the middle of everything. Performance is also quite good, only really suffering when you fully zoom out and numerous other towns come into view. By default the UI is painfully small but thankfully there’s an option to increase the scale of it, making the game quite a lot easier on the eyes. The developers have also done a good job with the sound design, emulating a lot of other simulation style games. I’m not sure how to describe it, just that there seems to be a certain kind of soundscape that screams “You’re playing a simulation game!” which everyone uses. It seems the 2 or so years it has spent in various beta and Early Access forms has paid off.

Where TTD was focused just on the transportation of a few kinds of goods Rise of Industry takes it well into the next level with multiple different industry types all requiring their own specific set of resources. The staple is the Farmers Market which is mostly focused on items that can be built directly but the rest of them typically have requirements for products that you’ll need to manufacture. Of course that then means there’s usually inputs to those factories that you’ll have to gather first before you can start generating that item. From there you can start moving up different tiers of products which will likely require input of products from the previous tier. This then progresses up a further 2 more tiers, finally culminating in “prototype” products which win you the game once you sell one. There’s also a city levelling system built in, essentially allowing you to help the city expand and, by extension, get more shops for you to profit from. I believe there’s also trade built in here somewhere but I never got to the point where I needed to do that. Suffice to say there’s an absolute truckload of stuff to explore in Rise of Industry which is both a blessing and a curse.

Logistics will play a large part in your success and whilst the tutorial gives you the basics of how to run things it also sets you up for a micromanaging nightmare. Warehouses by default will gather everything produced in their radius, you don’t need to set up requests for them like the tutorial tells you to do. You can, however, direct places outside of their gather radius to send things to them, something which helps immensely if you didn’t plan your layout particularly well. You’ll probably need to make use of the manual routes quite often regardless as it seems that, even in an abundance of a particular resource (say water) some places will still not get their needs filled for whatever reason. Further on you’ll also have numerous routes going everywhere, something that’s easy enough to keep track of whilst you’re building them but becomes a tangled web of crazy once you’ve moved onto the next item you want to build.

There were two things that killed it for me: the feeling that every product is essentially the same and a lack of overall driving force to keep me playing. The first is easy enough to explain: basically every product you produce is basically the same in the end. Progressing through the tech trees really doesn’t reward you much more than giving you another building to look at. TTD at least gave you new vehicles, different kinds of transportation and a changing landscape with the passage of time. Rise of Industry by comparison feels pretty stagnant once you get everything set up and all you end up doing is counting down the time till the next research project completes. It’s much the same feeling I got after playing Stellaris for some time as the mechanical depth feels great initially but after a while it gets tedious as you simply wait until you can do the next cool thing.

The lack of meaningful competitors is probably what’s driving the latter as it’s blindly easy to build a profitable business, taking a lot of pressure away from you. Sure, your competitors pop up from time to time when an event or auction happens but they don’t ever seem to want to muscle in on your turf or say trash talk you when you’re trying to expand and losing cash like mad. The game itself does warn you about these things though, so the mechanism is in there for them to make the AIs something more than the one dimensional automatons that they are now. Without a meaningful adversary and little drive to want to achieve the next tier of products I ended up just getting bored each time I played, ultimately only ever making one save and even then I didn’t go back to it more than once.

Rise of Industry is a game I was so sure I’d like as it had everything that I’d want in a spiritual successor to one of my favourite childhood games. The aesthetics, mechanics and sound design were all done in a way that made buying it a no-brainer. However it just didn’t grab me in the way I expected it to, instead lacking that driving force that used to keep me glued to my seat for hours on end. To be sure I recognise that it’s a very well built game, one I’m sure many will find countless hours of enjoyment in, it’s just that it just didn’t hit the mark for this old reviewer. Perhaps if I’d been involved in it from its early days I might be singing a different tune but for me, today, Rise of Industry is something I’ll be leaving up on the shelf.

Rating: 7.5/10

Rise of Industry is available on PC right now for $42.95. Total play time was 4.5 hours with a total of 29% of the achievements unlocked.

Katana ZERO: Yes, That Should Work.

Steam’s recommendation engine, despite the unholy treasure trove of data they have on what everyone plays, is total arse. Even the new discover queue is a hit and miss affair; weighted extremely heavily towards the last handful of games you’ve played. I’d know too as I got recommended dozens of visuals novels after playing Dream Daddy and not a single other visual novel game (I don’t count Pyre in that genre, for what it’s worth). Suffice to say I don’t have a lot of trust in it and there’s not many games from there that I end up buying. Katana ZERO is an exception to this rule however as it popped up as a recommended game for me and was bought shortly after. The videos were just enough to grab my interest but its solid mechanics, great artwork and perfect game length is what makes it one of 2019’s more interesting titles to date.

You are a samurai assassin, blessed with the gift of precognition. This allows you to look into the future and plan out your moves, ensuring that no target is outside your reach. However you know nothing of your past, save for the fact that you were involved in a great war some time ago and you’re haunted by nightmares from your childhood. Your therapist is helping you though and thankfully the dose of the drugs he gives you is going down. So you keep doing his bidding, taking out targets that he gives to you after each session. Still though something feels off, time seems to flow strangely every so often, the past, present and future mixing together until they all coalesce back together. Although that can’t be right, time always flows forward right?

Katana ZERO has some of the best pixel art I’ve seen in recent times, seamlessly mixing in modern elements that give it a really nice visual flair. This is made all the more impressive that it’s created in GameMaker, something which has a reputation much like Unity for having a certain kind of aesthetic for all titles built with it. The frame rate was also consistently high, something that I’ve definitely not seen done a lot with other GameMaker based titles. On top of this Katana Zero has a great original sound track, one that’s available in ogg format in the game’s base directory should you happen to want it. Overall I’m very impressed with Katana ZERO’s level of craftsmanship.

Mechanically Katana ZERO is a kind of beat em up puzzler as every level is about planning out your moves, figuring out what triggers what and how to overcome seemingly impossible scenarios. You have a couple key mechanics at your disposal: roll which makes you invulnerable, the ability to slow down time significantly for a short period and your usual array of 2D melee combat mechanics. You’ve got one life and a single hit will take you down so you’ll have to plan your attack route carefully. There’s no upgrades, items or inventory to manage; all you have to do is make it to the end of the level by laying waste to everything in your wake. Of course that’s much easier said than done but Katana ZERO provides ample challenge without being unnecessarily difficult. A fine line to walk in this age of Dark Souls clones who are trying to out compete each other in brutality.

The combat is incredibly satisfying when you’re able to clear a stage in a single section, giving you that lovely feeling of being the badass ninja assassin. Of course there’s certain levels which have the “fuck you player” mechanics in them, I.E. things right at the end of levels that’ll kill you instantly and the only way to know about them is to play the level. The boss fights could also prove challenging for some as they all have very particular mechanics that aren’t particularly straightforward. Still Katana ZERO’s combat feels a lot more forgiving than other, similar titles that I’ve played in the past and I think that’s one of the reasons that it didn’t feel like a complete chore to play through to the end.

I only have minor gripes about Katana ZERO which says a lot about it’s quality. Every so often the game would lose its capture of the mouse which meant that it’d shoot out the side of game window and onto my browser running on the second monitor. Clicking would then minimize the game and, most often, lead to a death. The game can also be quite visually confusing when a lot is happening on screen, something which can make it rather hard to understand exactly why you died at one particular time. For me it always seemed to be the shotgunners because, despite being able to reflect the projectiles, it appears you can only reflect one of them. Given there’s like 20 of them coming at you it’s pretty much guaranteed death, even if you hear the ting of the reflected shot. Other than that Katana ZERO was pretty much solid.

The story of Katana ZERO is really what brings it all together though as it’s well thought out and given ample time to develop over the course of your playthrough. Initially it just seems like another typical super soldier story but it quickly starts morphing as you uncover other elements that I can’t discuss without spoiling it. I’m not quite sure how much control you have over the various elements but there was definitely enough freedom of choice to make me feel like I had some control, which is probably all you really need in the end.

Katana ZERO will go down as one of my big surprises for 2019, coming out of nowhere and providing an experience that is just well done all round. The art, music and mechanics are all on point, providing ample amounts of challenge without making it difficult for difficulty’s sake. The story is engaging, well written and appears to give you just enough influence to make you feel like you’re in control of what’s happening on screen. I could go on but realistically if your interest is piqued I don’t think you could go wrong by giving Katana ZERO 4 hours of your time.

Rating: 9.0/10

Katana ZERO is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $21.50. Game was played on the PC with a total of 4.6 hours playtime and 16% of the achievements unlocked.

Supraland: Red vs Blue.

The one thing I’ve always hated about most Metroidvania games is when they show you something that you’re not able to access with your current abilities. Often this manifests extremely early on as you explore the level only to find there’s a part you can’t get to with no indication of when you’ll get the requisite ability to explore there. Quite often those areas aren’t even necessary for you to explore, just a bonus or something, so their inclusion is merely to draw you back to earlier levels. To be fair there are some examples where this is done well, the revisiting of the level being driven by story or other mechanical elements, and for those I have far more leniency. I tell you this mostly preface my thoughts on Supraland as it’s this particular mechanic, as well as a handful of other issues, that made this a game I didn’t want to play past a couple hours.

The Steam store page for Supraland proclaims, among many other things, that the story is “minimal” and that’s absolutely true. Whilst the premise is quite cool, all the characters are toys in a kid’s sandpit, the plot itself is ridiculously basic: you’re the red guys and the blue guys have shut off your water supply and it’s up to you to turn it back on. However to actually get to the blue guys you have to make your way through numerous different challenges, many of which will require you to upgrade your equipment and skills in order to do. I’ve read elsewhere that there’s a little more too the story later on in the game but it does nothing to expand upon it at all, save for having little dialogue instances between NPCs which have nothing to do with the plot at all.

The graphics of Supraland are heavily stylized and simplified, giving it a very cartoony feel. The developers have managed to avoid the typical Unreal engine game feel, keeping the use of specularity to a minimum. There’s a heavy use of depth of field which is supposed to give you the feeling that you’re a very small being in a large world. To some extent this works however it can have the effect of simply making everything disorienting like in the screenshot below. The issue here is, of course, perspective as whilst the game touts that it only has a tiny map of 9m2 that’s somewhat meaningless if you’re scaled down in size. So try as you might to make it feel like a small world with tiny people it’s going to end up feeling just like normal anyway, no matter how much you try to use depth of field or tilt shifting to change that.

Supraland bills itself as a combination of games like Portal, Zelda and Metroid which is horrendously disingenuous as it’s much more akin to the run of the mill indie puzzle platformers we’ve seen many of over the past decade. To be sure there are elements that you could say are borrowed from each game: the platforming from Portal (although that’s a stretch), the semi-open worldedness of Zelda games and the reexploration mechanic from Metroid. Realistically it’s just a bog standard first person puzzler with a tacked on RPG progression system. There’s really nothing wrong with that but the appeal to authority of titles with much greater pedigrees is what’s getting me. Honestly I was going to write this off as just your average indie puzzler until I reread the Steam page but now I feel compelled to point out all the faults given that it thinks it’s a combination between 3 of arguably the most influential titles in the puzzler space.

The combat is simple and implemented poorly. There’s really no nuance to it at all with enemies just running directly at you or standing dead still whilst they shoot from you at a distance. There’s also no way to block so you’ll likely end up dying to the first enemies since their melee range is the same as yours and there’s nothing you can do to stop them from hitting you. Once you get the gun you can basically just kite everything around but in its default form it’s annoyingly slow. Not that you’ll be wanting for upgrades for long though, even with rudimentary exploration you’ll be unlocking the upgrades in no time flat, even with the requisite barrel running task that serves no other purpose but to burn more of your time. But let’s not judge the game based on the one attribute which it doesn’t trumpet the most, let’s take a look at its puzzles and exploration.

The puzzles are incredibly simple, most of which you’ll solve pretty much straight away without too much of a thought. Others are easily solvable with emergent behaviours that the developer hasn’t taken into account, like being able to bypass entire sections of the game by walking on terrain that hasn’t been properly walled off. This only gets more ludicrous the more mechanics you have access to, giving you all sorts of means to break the game and bypass core game mechanics. This would be fun if it weren’t for the fact that it also means that there’s a certain level of gank to puzzles you can’t bypass, necessitating replaying certain puzzles over a few times in order to get them to complete properly.

Exploration is rewarded, although most of the time it’s just a few coins hidden around a corner or somewhere else rather obvious. The other parts are, of course, hidden behind mechanics you don’t yet have access to, something which will necessitate you trudging all the way back through the levels in order to get back to it. There is a rudimentary fast travel system however you can’t access it from a map (I don’t believe there is a map, actually) and it takes a good 20 seconds for it to travel you somewhere. This makes retreading ground a pretty annoying experience and, given that most of those hidden rewards are just basic upgrades, there’s no real compelling reason to do so.

It’s for these reasons that I didn’t find myself drawn back to playing Supraland after the first night I sat down with it. The fact that most of the work was done by a single developer is commendable but the marketing of it could not be further off the mark. The game is simplistic in all the wrong places, making combat a chore, puzzles easily waltzed through and the prospect of going back to retread old ground something I don’t think any sane player would want to do. Of course the reviews on Steam paint a much different picture and so it’s quite possible I’m on the wrong side of the fence for this, but in all honesty I simply cannot see what others find enjoyable in this game.

Rating: 6.5/10

Supraland is available on PC right now for $28.95. Total play time was 2 hours with 27% of the achievements unlocked.

Feather: Fly Free.

The biggest problem with having a game you really enjoy is that it sucks up all the oxygen for other titles. For me currently that’s The Division 2, a game that I will definitely review in the near future, but between it, our new baby and work I’ve had little time to look at many of the other top tier titles that have been released of late. So once again I turn to the indie scene, looking for more casual experiences that don’t ask much of my time but hopefully provide a good experience nonetheless. Feather, from Melbourne based developers Samurai Punk, fit the bill perfectly with its simple visuals, great music tracks and stress free mechanics.

The premise of the game is simple: you’re a bird and there’s a big island you can explore. As you fly around it you’ll find different things you can interact with, most notably the large circular totems that, when flown through, change the music to a new track for you to fly around to. There are no objectives, no enemies to fight or even an end to the game; it’s just simply a place to explore with a handful of different songs for you to enjoy. When we’ve been inundated with numerous games overflowing with mechanics, many designed to keep us coming back or to spend more money on microtransactions, it’s nice to have something that is as simple as it looks.

The graphics are a very low poly affair with little to no texturing, just plain solid colours. This simplicity is augmented slightly by the implementation of some more complex lighting effects and the inclusion of a full day/night cycle for the island. I played this on my now 3 year old XPS, which happens to rock a Geforce 970M, and initially had some issues with the frame rate not being the greatest. Granted it’s not as powerful as the desktop equivalent I have in my gaming rig but it was a little disappointing to see it struggle with something so simple. It may just be how the default configuration was set up as it does have a very high DPI monitor and running the game again on my home rig showed no issues.

The flight mechanics of Feather are pretty great; simple enough to be approachable yet there’s a few subtle things thrown in that you’ll need to master if you really want to explore the island fully. Climbing high and diving down will allow you to approach speeds that you won’t be able to normally and using space bar to hover is a necessity if you want to explore the underground cave system. Unfortunately other players (who will drop in you session from time to time, ala Journey) don’t seem to be as masterful of the controls and so interaction with them can be a little hard. I often found myself and another player going in circles trying to look at each other.

You’re probably not going to spend too long in Feather as even exploring at a leisurely pace would see you get around the island in under an hour or so. That’s likely to make the $15 asking price a little high for some, especially with no plans for the game to grow beyond currently what it is today. This is certainly one of those titles that could benefit from integration with the Steam Community Workshop as there’s already a solid fanbase who love the game for what it is. I don’t usually gripe about price and playtime but it’s sure to be a key deciding factor for many.

Feather is a fantastic, if a little short, experience. The simple premise and it’s solid execution make it a great distraction, something to play if you’ve got a bit of time to spare and don’t want something that asks much of you. However its greatest attributes may be the thing that drives some players away, not wanting to spend their money here when there are many other greener pastures to farm. Still I enjoyed my time with Feather and hope that the concept helps Samurai Punk delve further into developing titles like these.

Rating: 8.5/10

Feather is available on the PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $14.50. Game was played on the PC with 27 minutes total play time and 100% of the achievements unlocked.