Review

Last Day of June: Some Things Can’t be Changed.

When playing games that wouldn’t fit the typical definition of the medium there’s always one question I ask myself: was this the only way this story could be told? Certainly for games where your choices matter there’s a strong argument (although who didn’t love those choose your own adventure books as a kid) but for linear, narrative focused games the choice is less decisive. There’s a lot to be said for interactivity, which can drive immersion in a story, but for some titles this can actually be a distraction. Such is the story of Last Day of June, a story that could have been served just as well, if not better, if presented as a short movie rather than as an interactive title.

Last Day of June follows the story of Carl and June, two people who are so adorably in love that you can be absolutely sure that tragedy is just looming around the corner. The sun is setting on a beautiful autumn day which you’ve spent down at the lake together. However it starts to rain and you both make a beeline to the car before you get soaked. On the trip home however tragedy strikes and you awake as Carl, alone in your house and wheelchair bound. What follows is a story of uncovering the events that led up to that tragedy and, interestingly, giving you the chance to undo the damage that has been wrought on you.

On first look Last Day of June’s visuals appear simple though they are anything but. The aesthetic is a combination of Picasso-esque caricatures and dreamlike visual effects which give it this kind of surreal cartoon feel. The characters big heads and lack of eyes do make them a little disconcerting to start off with but that fades relatively quickly. The amount of detail put into the areas you’ll be wandering around is impressive until you realise that you’ll be retreading it multiple times over throughout the course of your play through (more on that later). If nothing else Last Day of June is a visual marvel, one that manages to escape the Unity look-and-feel trap that many other titles fall into.

Whilst not strictly a walking simulator Last Day of June plays a lot like one. The same day is presented to you through different perspectives and the only way to progress is to figure out the way to change their outcome. Each of the different puzzle perspectives are simple enough but changing actions in one can have effects on another. This is all interspersed with flashbacks to the character’s memories, hidden collectables and a few other things which tilt this more towards a story focused puzzler than a more traditional walking simulator. Last Day of June’s biggest flaw isn’t from the execution of its core mechanics however, it’s from the ungodly amount of retreading a path already taken to progress the story.

Each of the new perspectives brings with them a new puzzle to solve and all of them will require you to undo things that you’ve previously done with another character. This means re-watching the same cut scenes over and over again as you stumble your way through each of the puzzles. Worse still all of them require you to go through the motions of failing the puzzle first before giving you the freedom to fix them, even if you’ve already managed to figure out a solution in the first place. This is only exacerbated by the lack of any skip function, even for cut scenes you’ve already seen multiple times before. I can partly understand this from a game length perspective, with my play through only clocking in at around 3 hours, but padding a game out with repetition isn’t something I’m in the habit of commending.

Last Day of June is also not free of technical issues, one particular one which I couldn’t get a fix to for several days. After playing for an hour or so I decided to call it there for the day but, upon launching it again, the game would crash just before the main menu. I traced the issue down to my save file (renaming it allowed the game to run) but nothing could cajole it to run with that file. After logging a support ticket and getting told to reinstall and verify the cache files (something I had already done but did again anyway) I was able to get back in. I’m not the only one suffering from this issue either as there’s quite a few people reporting the same problem both on Steam and on the official forums. I’m sure issues like this will get ironed out eventually but it did mean that I spent an hour or so on troubleshooting when I could have otherwise been playing.

I’m on the fence with Last Day of June’s story. Sure some parts of it resonate with me but the lack of dialogue does mean that there’s a certain lack of depth to most of the character’s development. Carl, for instance, doesn’t really receive enough development for me to empathise with him and June’s best friend’s crush on him feels like an unnecessary aside. I can identify with the themes of dealing with grief, wanting to change things that you can’t and all that but if I’m not invested in the characters their struggle will just feel hollow. It’s possible that a lot of my feelings are born out of the frustration I felt with having to retread the same path so many times which is why I thought that this story may be better served as watched rather than played. I would be interested to hear what anyone who watched it on Twitch or YouTube has to think as my money’s on the experience being just that much better.

Last Day of June comes out strong with it’s beautiful visuals and wonderful sound track but falls short in most other respects. The constant replay of puzzles you’ve already solved means that a lot of time is burnt on repetitive tasks, something you wouldn’t usually see in a 3 hour game. The short play time also means that most of the characters aren’t given enough time to develop fully, at least not to the point which this writer empathised with them enough. I’m willing to admit that it might be my frustration that was boiling over into other aspects of the game that’s influencing my feelings here, so your mileage may vary.

Rating: 7.0/10

Last Day of June is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours playtime and 71% of the achievements unlocked.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice: I Just Want the Voices to Go Away.

It’s been the better part of a decade since I played a game from Ninja Theory. Whilst not everyone enjoyed Heavenly Sword as much as I did (although I do agree with many of the criticism levelled at it) I thought they had potential as a developer and hoped they’d go on to bigger and better things. The following decade has given them a modicum of success, although not with any titles I’ve cared to play over the years. When I saw some of the tech demos for Hellblade though I was reminded of what drew me to Heavenly Sword back in the day, and ever since then I’ve been eagerly awaiting its release. Whilst Hellblade isn’t what I had expected it’s an exceptional game in its own right, even if it will drive you slowly insane.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s plot is hard to give an introduction to without diving deep into spoilers but I shall endeavour to do so. You play as Senua, a member of a Pict who’s made a pilgrimage to…somewhere… in order to save the soul of your beloved one. You’re haunted by numerous voices who speak to you incessantly, voicing all your inner doubts, fears and, sometimes, granting you strength to push through your turmoil. The path you’re following is one dictated by Norse mythology and will ultimately lead you into one of their other worlds: Hellheim. Reality, illusions and delusions all blur together in a mess of truth and fiction, one that Senua must follow to its ultimate conclusion; wherever that takes her.

The visuals of Hellblade are stunning, utilising many of the modern features of the Unreal 4 engine to their fullest extent. Whilst the environments you’re placed in may seem large however that in of itself is an illusion as the traversable world is actually quite a lot smaller. I believe the reasons for this are two-fold: primarily it’s for performance as larger environments would necessitate heavy compromises in other areas to keep it performing at a consistent level. Secondly Hellblade isn’t a game about exploration and whilst there are a few things to be discovered if you move off the beaten track it’s certainly not the game’s main attraction. If I was being childish I’d say that was the protagonist’s hair, given Ninja Theory’s penchant for wanting to show off their physics engine, but I won’t do that…

Hellblade is billed as a action-adventure/hack and slash type game and, whilst it has elements of that, it’s actually a bit closer to a walking simulator in most respects. For the most part you’ll be walking through the environments, mis/guided by the voices in your head as others narrate your journey. There’s no levelling, loot or crafting systems to speak of but you will get some different abilities unlocked for you as the game progresses. The combat sections inbetween there are a mix of hack and slash coupled with some Souls-light style game play, focusing on movesets and reaction times. Puzzles are mostly visual in nature, pushing to you look at things in different ways in order to unlock doors, restore objects or transport you to between worlds in order to move onto the next room. In this era of modern games that attempt to do everything Hellblade is a refreshing lesson in focus, leaving all the unnecessary game elements at the door in favour of spending more time on the ones that matter.

The combat is quite enjoyable for an experienced Souls player like myself, mostly because it’s a lot easier by comparison. The standard enemy tropes are all there and their movesets are relatively predictable, meaning that for even inexperienced players it shouldn’t be too much of a blocker. The boss battles too are quite enjoyable, providing a different challenge to break up the other combat engagements. Unfortunately the ramp up in difficulty comes from the game simply throwing more of the same types of enemies at you, culminating in a final battle which is no different from all the other battles you’ve fought before. Considering the game only runs for about 6 or so hours this highly noticeable repetition is unfortunately one of Hellblade’s biggest flaws.

Puzzles are for the most part straightforward once all the mechanics have been demonstrated to you. Initially it can be a bit confusing as the solution can be visible but the way to get to it very unclear. Once you’ve figured out the various mechanics for seeing through illusions, changing perspectives and whatnot it becomes a lot easier. Hellblade does a good job of guiding you through the puzzles however there were still a few that stumped me, mostly because I couldn’t distinguish a certain visual element. Searching around for answers I can see I’m not alone with this so there’s definitely some room for improvement from a design viewpoint. Still I think that overall the puzzles are well designed, intuitive and feel like an organic part of the experience rather than an artificial blocker to progression.

Hellblade announces at the start that it’s best experienced with headphones and, whilst I largely agree with this, the reason isn’t so much due to the game’s general audio experience (although that plays a part). The reason for headphones is for the voices in your head which, maddeningly, do everything you’d expect voices in someone’s head to do. Most voices prefer one ear over another, they’ll quite often talk over the top of each other and they’ll continually provide commentary on everything that’s happening. It’s done deliberately, and for that I applaud them, but it’s also one of the reasons why I couldn’t play for more than an hour at a time. Having that going on constantly is an extremely draining experience, so much so that when they went away for the first time I had a palpable sense of relief. Hats off to Ninja Theory for developing an experience like that but make no mistake, it can make playing Hellblade an exhausting experience.

By and large the game is well polished although there are some weird glitches that can occur. Senua’s hair can go a bit wild from time to time which, whilst distracting, isn’t game breaking. I did have a few times where I got stuck in or behind invisible barriers, most notably during Sut’s trial where you are supposed to get pegged in a ring of fire to fight some Northmen. For whatever reason I was outside the barrier when it got erected which restricted my movements considerably. I was able to finish the fight and progress however but it could have easily gone the other way. I didn’t get any performance issues like others had described however I did play after the first round of patches came out. I’d hazard a guess then that these minor gameplay issues would also be sorted out in future patches.

Hellblade’s story is an extremely tragic one, something you learn about very early on. As one of the game’s core tenants is that it will lie to you with reckless abandon (as shown by the whole “All progress will be lost” thing if you die too much being a lie) it’s hard to discern just what’s true to the story and what’s not. Certainly much of it makes a lasting impression and it’s delivery is exceptional. However at the final conclusion I found myself feeling a little hollow with how things turned out. I’m not sure if it was the exhaustion from dealing with voices in my head or the fact that I didn’t quite understand what the objective truth was but that’s the feeling I was left with. Unlike similar stories that left me questioning just what happened though I didn’t turn to the Internet for answers. Maybe I will later, I don’t know. Suffice to say that whilst I think the story is well told I’m not quite sure how I feel about it overall.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an exceptionally well crafted game from Ninja Theory, showing that they’ve been no slouch in the decade since I last played one of their games. The visuals are stunning, both in terms of raw graphics as well as the visual theme and the environments its set in. The game’s focus on a few key elements rather than a whole lot of ancillary mechanics is refreshing, putting the focus firmly on telling the story. Some of its major flaws are that its combat becomes repetitive quickly, escalation in challenge only coming from increasing numbers of enemies, and that the overall story feels a little hollow at its conclusion. Still overall I think Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is still worth the price of admission, if you feel you can deal with the voices in your head that is.

Rating: 8.75/10

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 93% of the achievements unlocked.

LawBreakers: Unreal Tournament 2017.

The class based shooter genre has seen a massive uptick in popularity over the past couple years, built off the back of exceptional titles like Overwatch and Titanfall. With that popularity comes a struggle for originality as new titles attempt to lure players in with the promise of fresh ideas. However new ideas are only part of the equation, the core game mechanics also need to be solid in order for those ideas to be able to shine through. LawBreakers, a game from Cliff Bleszinski’s new development house Boss Key Productions, brings some new ideas and solid core mechanics but has little to keep you coming back.

LawBreakers is a class-based arena shooter with 9 classes and 4 distinct game modes. The game’s tagline of “gravity defying combat” comes from the various micro-gravity zones that are scattered around the map, drastically altering your ability to move around it. The character classes are all on the RPG holy trinity spectrum with various shades of tank/healer/DPS mixed in. Of the 4 game modes 2 of them are pretty much identical (overcharge and uplink) whilst Blitzball is just capture the flag and turfwar is domination. At the conclusion of each game you’ll be given a score which determines your XP and, with each level up, you’ll be given a shiny stash box that contains decals, sprays and gear to customise your favourite character with. All in all it’s your pretty standard arena shooter affair with the low grav zones being the only real differentiator.

As you’d expect (given the developer’s pedigree) LawBreakers is built on the Unreal 4 engine and looks quite good, opting for a more realistic art style. Much like Bleszinski’s previous games it’s lavished with bright colours, outrageous neon lights and an all round exuberance of colour. When you get in the thick of the action this can be somewhat confusing visually but I’ll take that over the drab, uniform visuals so many shooters prefer any day. These visuals are also well optimised with LawBreakers never experiencing any noticeable slowdowns or lockups during my time with it.

The 9 different character classes largely follow the same pattern: a couple core abilities on short-ish cooldowns with a big ultimate which is on a timer. Everyone has a “fuel” resource which, depending on your class, influences how you can use certain abilities. Mobility is a non-obvious stat which will greatly impact how you play certain characters as, depending on what skills you have, certain parts of the map will be far easier to navigate than others. Indeed a big part of LawBreakers’ game play is your movement and momentum as players who are able to move swiftly and accurately around the map will likely perform far better than others who try to play LawBreakers in a more traditional way. All that being said however the character classes all follow the standard class based shooter tropes pretty closely with easy parallels drawn between them and the classes of other games in the genre.

In terms of how LawBreakers plays it falls into the mid-TTK (time to kill) bracket, not being as fast an spammy as say Call of Duty or Titanfall but definitely faster than something like Overwatch or Team Fortress 2. This means you’re unlikely to get one shot out of no where (although that can still happen) but you’re unlikely to have a fire fight that lasts longer than 5 seconds. Changing class is relatively painless, the only thing that you’ll lose being the charge on your ultimate. If I’m honest though ultimates in LawBreakers aren’t as game changing as you’d expect them to be with some of them being quite lacklustre. Of course the character classes with not-so-great ultimates make up for it in other ways. Overall the core game mechanics feel solid but it’s the things beyond that which leave a bit to be desired.

LawBreakers playerbase has been steadily decreasing ever since launch and it shows when you go to find a match. I’ve had it take upwards of 10 minutes to find me a match at one point and, even then, it wasn’t a full one. Worse still it appears that unbalanced matches won’t get filled with new players, leading to a lot of games with one team having more players than the other. As far as I can tell there also doesn’t appear to be a punishment for leaving games either so those who choose to leave and, by consequence ruin a game, aren’t discouraged from doing so. What this has meant for me is that rarely is a game decided on which team is better, it’s the one that has more players on its team.

After sinking 3 hours into LawBreakers I felt like I’d seen it all, having played all game modes and nearly all of the character classes. The loot boxes are obviously meant to be the carrot that keeps you coming back but, honestly, I didn’t really feel any compulsion to play to farm them. Thinking about it more I just didn’t feel like there was much mechanical depth to LawBreakers for me to explore. Whilst it is a team game, and those that play together well are more likely to succeed than otherwise, it didn’t have the same “team” feeling that a game like say Overwatch had. Instead it very much felt like the Unreal Tournament of days gone past, where that one good player could easily carry a team to victory.

LawBreakers is a solidly executed class based arena shooter that lacks the required elements to take it from good to great. It follows many of the standard tropes that have defined this genre whilst attempting to carve out its own niche with some unique features. Whilst these all work well the overall game experience isn’t that far off what’s already available. Couple that with the issues with match making, no punishment for leavers and a lack of a compelling reason to keep playing and you have a game that’s great for a few hours and nothing beyond that. In retrospect the change from F2P to pay-for-play model might be a blessing for Boss Key as at the very least they’ll make some money off the actual game sales. Suffice to say whilst LawBreakers is a mechanically solid game it’s little more than that and, unfortunately, I don’t think it’ll be enough to carry the game going forwards.

Rating: 7 / 10

LawBreakers is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with 3 hours of total play time and 23% of the achievements unlocked.

Tacoma: The Human Part of the AI Equation.

It’s been almost 4 years since Fullbright released their seminal title: Gone Home. It was a game that hit close to home for me, the story echoing parts of my own life which I had similarly had to overcome. When I heard that their next game was set in a space station in the future I was incredibly excited for a similar kind of storytelling experience. Whilst the game is far more deep mechanically than its predecessor was, giving me a lot more to talk about before getting into spoilers, the overall narrative failed to capture me in the same way. I’ll dig into this a bit more later but suffice to say the reason Gone Home did so well was because of how relatable its story was, something that Tacoma unfortunately lacks.

Taking place some 70 odd years in the future Tacoma puts you in charge of Amy Ferrier, a contractor who’s been hired to retrieve an AI from an abandoned space station. You’re given strict instructions to retrieve the AI’s data and do nothing else, as your contract stipulates. Downloading the AI’s data takes quite some time however and, of course, your mind (and legs) begin to wander. This is when you start to unravel the mystery of why the station was abandoned and how the crew dealt with the crisis.

Tacoma uses Unity with what appears to be little modification. The visuals are simplistic and functional although there’s a great amount of attention paid to things that don’t matter in the overall theme of things. For instance the developers have made numerous brands for things like food, medical supplies and even cigarettes which litter around the space station. Sure it adds a little bit more depth to the environment but after you’ve seen the same brand of snacks 10 times over it starts to just look like mess. Some of the items do have a game play purpose but they’re few and far between. Given that this is a walking simulator/story first game though Tacoma gets a pass for its run of the mill visuals.

All of the game mechanics in Tacoma are centred on discovering more about the characters, their interactions with each other and the overall plot. You’re viewing everything in retrospect, able to move about through the recording as you wish both in time and space. At certain points people’s VR desktops will become available, giving you an even deeper look into their lives. Quite often you’ll play through the same scene several times in order to follow all the various conversations that are happening simultaneously. This does give Tacoma’s storytelling a very natural feel to it, especially when events in one scene affect another. There’s also a few hidden areas that can be unlocked if you pay attention during the VR playbacks or if you track down the various clues hiding in plain sight.

There’s no real blockers to you progressing apart from the timer on the AI download which, I believe conveniently ticks itself up to 50% after you view one half of the VR recording and then to 100% after you view the other. Either that or I had amazing timing every time I finished an area. Interestingly though I think these mechanics are more of a distraction than anything else as Tacoma’s predecessor had nothing like this and still managed to tell a deep, engrossing story. Whilst I won’t specifically lay the blame at Tacoma’s more ambitious game mechanics it does feel like some of the effort expended there might have been better spent elsewhere.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

Tacoma’s plot seems to meander between various ideas without feeling like it comes together into a cohesive whole. Gone Home, by comparison, kept building up the tension right until the last moment, pulling you ever deeper into the mindset of its main characters. Tacoma on the other hand throws up various different red herrings, none of which have enough time to mature in order to be realised as a credible threat. Is it Odin that’s out to kill the crew because it’s finally become self-aware? Did the crew perish in an attempt to save themselves by modifying a cargo drone? Did some of the crew die in cryosleep? All of these ideas and more are explored in the games short 2 hour play time and most of them are dealt with in the same scene as they’re brought up in.

The ending also feels weirdly tacked on. I mean it’s great that Odin got to survive but I didn’t really see it hinted that you were someone from the AI Liberation Front in any of the in-game material. They were alluded to as an entity in the larger world but there was nothing to suggest you were part of it. For me this fits into Tacoma’s larger overall issue of not giving enough time for the various story elements to develop. Instead the focus seems to have been more on telling that story in a more inventive way which, whilst commendable, doesn’t feel like it worked out as intended.

Perhaps the whole reason I feel this way is due to how much the story of Gone Home resonated with me by comparison. The experiences detailed in that game were very close to my own life in many respects and so I felt a deep connection with the characters. Tacoma by comparison feels alien. I mean sure, some of the things the crew goes through are relatable, but not in the same way the events in Gone Home were. Combine this with the lack of overall story development and, for me at least, you’re left with a game that falls short of the high standard its predecessor set.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

There’s no denying that Tacoma is much more mechanically deep than its predecessor was but that’s about as far as the improvements go for Fullbright’s second title. The graphics feel about the same, although there is a lot of attention paid to details that I feel many will never see. The way Tacoma tells its story is unique and interesting, giving you the ability to see the same story from multiple angles and see how they interweave with each other. Unfortunately the story failed to resonate with me in the same way its predecessor did, possibly due to the fact that it’s just not as relatable. The game’s short length also didn’t allow for many of the story elements to mature as much as they needed to, leading to a feeling that many purported threats weren’t as bad as they could have been. Suffice to say I’m somewhat disappointed in Tacoma as it fails to reach the same heights as Gone Home did.

Rating: 7/10

Tacoma is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.

Pyre: We Will Be Together Again Under the Stars.

We’re now at the point where Supergiant Games doesn’t need much of an introduction. Their breakout hit Bastion won many people over with its unique visual style and expertly delivered running commentary. Transistor, to me at least, felt like the ultimate refinement of what a Bastion-esque game would look like and for that it took my Game of the Year for 2014. Like many I had expected Supergiant to once again return to their isometric roots with their next release but that was not to be. Instead we were given Pyre, a kind of hybrid visual novel/sports game that, apart from its visuals, shares little with its developer’s previous games. It’s a massive risk, leaving behind what made you great, but the risk has paid off as Pyre is another exceptional (albeit far from perfect) title from Supergiant Games.

For your crimes against the great Commonwealth empire you were cast into the Downside; a horrid, desolate place where no one expects you to survive. As you lay there, where death seemed certain, you were saved by a trio travelling past in a large black wagon. They soon discover the reason you were cast down: you are a Reader, a skill that’s forbidden in the Commonwealth. However in the Downside this skill makes you valuable, able to discern meaning from text and various other things that can be “read”. They hand you a book, one which in it contains the means by which one may return to the Commonwealth. The path is not easy however and you’ll all need to work together as one if you are ever to make it.

Pyre’s visuals are in Supergiant’s trademark style, combining hand drawn elements with cel-shaded 3D models to give you the feeling of playing in a living cartoon. It’s still in isometric perspective too however there’s no real game play reason for this, done more for style than anything else. The maturity of Supergiant’s tools and processes using their custom MonoGame engine is quite evident now showing that there’s just as much time to developing it as the game itself. If pressed I’d say that they were only a small step behind Moon Studio’s (of Ori and the Blind Forest fame) in terms of producing this kind of visual aesthetic. Suffice to say Pyre’s visuals are beautiful, bursting with colour and are sure to keep visual boredom at bay.

Pyre’s mechanics are a complete step away from it’s predecessor’s isometric, hack and slash game play. Instead you command a triumvirate of characters who’s job it is to grab a celestial orb and dunk it into your opponent’s pyre. That does an amount of damage depending on which character does the dunking and then the round starts again. The first one to have their pyre fall to 0 loses. Each of the characters have different attributes, skills and talents that make them better/worse to use depending on the kinds of opponents you face. After each rite those who participated in it will gain experience and those on the bench will gain “inspiration” (basically rested XP). Additionally each character can hold a single talisman which can bestow on them a number of other abilities or buffs. Whilst the combat didn’t feel as deep as Transistor’s there’s still a lot to uncover with many viable builds.

Initially your pool of heroes is relatively small and so rites will feel pretty similar for the first few hours. As your party expands your options open up and things start to get a little more interesting although if you’re like me you’ll tend towards the combo that works best for you. You can probably continue to run that one combo for about half the game before you’ll have to make some tough decisions about how you want the game to progress from then on out. When I realised this I was a little annoyed that I was being forced away from the combo that had worked so well for me but after a little while I started to like the other available characters a lot more. Sure they weren’t as simple in their use but there were some match ups with them where they were outright broken. Indeed I think a couple of the character’s skills probably need a bit more tweaking to be a little more fair, as much as that means for a single player game.

Pamitha, for instance, can get a talisman that allows her to do extra damage and not be banished when dousing a pyre, if she’s flying when she does it. Combining this with the other flight based talents she has you can essentially always have your entire team of 3 up. If those other 2 characters happen to be the more defensively inclined ones you can pretty much guaranteed that they can never get to your pyre and you can always attack theirs. Of course if you’re finding it all a bit too easy you can ratchet up the difficulty considerably using the titan stars although the risk vs reward in that situation isn’t as great as it’s made out to be. I personally only ever used them once and was still able to max out most of the characters without too much hassle so I wouldn’t worry about not using them too much.

The combat certainly starts to lose some puff around the halfway mark, even if you’ve been using different combos. It starts to pick up again as you acquire a few more levels and sol (the in-game currency) which allows you a bit more freedom to experiment but the core mechanic never really shifts. Transistor by comparison felt a lot more rewarding when experimenting, especially when you hit on a combo that just did ridiculous things. For what its worth though when Pyre starts to lag mechanically its plot starts to kick which was great since I had struggled to engage with it during the first 4 hours or so.

Now I’m not sure if Pyre was set up like this intentionally but it has a lot of the trappings I’ve come to expect from mobile games. Each of the various sections of the game can be completed in short bursts, perhaps anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes. Early on this makes it pretty easy to put the game down as you feel like you’ve gotten somewhere and there’s little impetus to keep going. Since Pyre isn’t available on mobile yet I can only assume this is an unintentional side effect of the game’s design more than anything else.

The vast majority of the game’s story progression comes in visual novel format, walls of text flying by accompanied by various noises and unintelligible words to set the mood. This time around you won’t have the signature Logan Cunningham narration however he makes several appearances in the form of various characters in Pyre. The voice acting and backing soundtrack are as amazing as ever demonstrating once again that Supergiant Games knows how to put all these elements together in a cohesive whole. Of course if the story wasn’t any good this would be all for naught but, I’m glad to say, it is well worth the time.

It took me a while to warm to Pyre’s story and I think that’s due to a few factors. For starters I’m not the biggest fan of the visual novel format although I did like Supergiant’s take on the style. The game also doesn’t settle into its own groove until about 4 or so hours in, with new mechanics still being thrown at you up until that point. Once you get past that point however you get a bit more breathing room to focus on the various story elements and that’s when it starts to grab you. Whilst it didn’t reach the same emotional heights that I recall Transistor hitting it still managed to tug at my heartstrings at times. From what I’ve read the story has a near infinite amount of variations built into it so it’s likely your experience will vastly differ from mine depending on what choices you make and when you make them. No matter what path you take though the theme of redemption shines through and is well explored through all the various character’s story arcs.

Pyre’s deviation away from the formula that made its developer great was a risk but one that has paid off for Supergiant games. The trademark visual style continues to improve; the maturity of Supergiant’s tool chain and processes continuing to bear some exquisitely beautiful fruit. The core game mechanics are unique and manages to retain some of the more interesting aspects from previous titles. The story’s narrative around redemption takes some time to get going but once it does it sucks you right in, pushing you to do just one more rite before you put it down for the night. Before then Pyre feels a lot more like a pick up/put down kind of game but it is relatively quick to redeem itself. Pyre is most certainly a game that will delight fans of the developer but I’m sure it will have wider appeal among those who enjoy games from those who are looking to experiment a bit more with the medium.

Rating: 9.0/10

Pyre is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.

What Remains of Edith Finch: Growing Up Surrounded by Death.

Maybe I’m getting older or maybe I just have less time but walking simulators fill a perfect niche for me. Their short play times, slow pace and (typically) well crafted stories make them a great escape from my usual diet of non-stop work and rage-inducing DOTA 2 matches. It’s also been quite some time since I got to play one, the last being Event[0] towards the end of last year. So when a friend mentioned that I should look into What Remains of Edith Finch, a game from the same developers who brought us The Unfinished Swan, I was instantly intrigued. Like all walking simulators it’s certainly not for everyone but, if you like a gripping (albeit tragic) story, then it’s definitely up your alley.

The Finches are an unfortunate family, one that appears to be pursued by a curse that befalls nearly all of them to untimely deaths. You play as Edith Finch, returning to your ancestral home for the first time in many years. What unfolds from there is the story of how your family came to be in this place, the stories of their deaths and why you left. Much of the family’s history had been hidden from you as a child, your mother refusing to discuss anything. However with her death she had relinquished to you a key, one that unlocked the many tragic tales that befell your family.

What Remains of Edith Finch is built on the Unreal Engine 4 and whilst it does a good job of hiding that “Unreal” feeling there are a few telltale signs that give it away. The visual aesthetic fits in between realism and fantasy which is tied in heavily to the story’s themes. The visuals excel in the wide open spaces, with lovingly crafted vistas sprawling out before you. Up close the lack of detail in some areas becomes apparent but, for the places you’re meant to explore in depth, you can definitely see the extra effort that’s been put in. Overall I’d say that What Remains of Edith Finch’s visuals are above par for the genre, even if they’re not a selling point.

As is expected for this genre What Remains of Edith Finch’s mechanics are simple in their execution. Typically you’ll be locked inside a room or area which you need to find one clue or dialogue trigger. You’ll be rewarded with additional dialogue and story development the more you explore although, thankfully, the game keeps red herrings and dead paths to a minimum. All of the flashback sections have their own little twist on story telling, blending in different story telling elements to make each of them unique. Beyond that there’s not much I can say without spoiling certain story elements but, if you’re a fan of the walking simulator genre, then I’m sure what I’ve described appeals to you.

SPOILERS BELOW

Knowing that all of the flashbacks would result in that family member’s death ignited something of a moral conundrum for me. In order to progress the game I had to do as the game requested but this, essentially, meant I was condemning them to their fate. Like when you were the child swinging over the cliff it was obvious what the outcome would be. However if I did nothing I could go no further and morally speaking they had already died, so I wasn’t changing anything. I guess the feeling came from the deep engagement I had with the game and the sense that I should have some form of control over the outcome, even if it’s already set in stone.

Whilst, overall, I think that the tragic tale of the Finch family was told well I didn’t like the fact that the narrator was killed off in the end. Sure, I understand that this is part of the “Finch Family Curse” motif the developers are going for but it just didn’t seem necessary to the overall plot. Perhaps my feelings about this come from the sense of loss that the game instils in you, wanting the stereotypical Hollywood ending to soften the blow, so to speak. Of course how you react to the story will be unique to you and there is no right or wrong way to feel when the credits begin to roll.

SPOILERS OVER

What Remains of Edith Finch well executed tale of tragedy, taking you through the history of family that has been forever surrounded by death. It’s visuals straddle the line between realism and fantasy, echoing the story. As you’d expect the mechanics are simple and unobtrusive, focusing you on the story. The dialogue and story elements are well paced and delivered excellently, ensuring that you’ll want to complete this game in one sitting. The genre suggests that this game is likely not for everyone but, if you’re a fan of a good story (even if it’s a sad one) then What Remains of Edith Finch is worth your time.

Rating: 8.75/10

What Remains of Edith Finch is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours play time and 56% of the achievements unlocked.

Black The Fall: Fleeing the Oppression.

When I reviewed Inside last year I remarked that Playdead had modernised the formula they pioneered with Limbo many years prior. With Limbo it took many years before other games seeking to emulate the style would come out and I had expected similar with Inside. However here we are barely a year later and we have a game that, on first glance, seems to be heavily influenced by Inside both in terms of aesthetics and mechanics. Indeed even digging into the game’s development history you see how heavily Playdead’s games influence Black the Fall, with the original bearing an uncanny resemblance to Limbo and the subsequent versions looking a lot more like Inside. Of course emulating greatness doesn’t mean that you’ll attain it and whilst Black the Fall is good simulacrum of a Playdead game it fails to attain the same heights as that developer’s titles do.

Black the Fall transports you back to an alt-history communist Romania, putting you in charge of an old machinist who’s lived in the oppressive regime for decades. However today he decides that enough is enough and it is time to make his escape. Along the way he discovers an unlikely companion: a small robot who was caged up and left behind to rust. Will their quest to escape their oppressive leaders be successful? Or will the world devour them before they ever get the chance.

Black the Fall has the unmistakable Unity game feel, lacking the finesse that other titles have in hiding the telltale signs that the default engine configuration leaves behind. The low poly/cartoony look is very reminiscent of Inside, as is the use of a fixed camera that pans around the environment for cinematic effect. Truth be told the Inside-esque visuals were what drew me to the game in the first place and whilst they might not be up to the same standard they are most certainly a step above similar Unity based titles. What could really use some love is the animations, especially the main character. Looking at them closely they all have the signs of hand-animation, something which is honestly a rarity to see these days. Considering that all you need is a Kinect to get decent motion capture data I’m not sure why you’d go the manual route these days.

Unsurprisingly the game play of Black the Fall is a side-scrolling, puzzle platformer. Pretty much all the puzzles are single rooms with everything required to solve them available in the one spot. None of them are very complex and thankfully the time limited puzzles are limited. The tutorial for mechanics are cleverly hidden in various signs and artefacts that make up the game’s background, meaning that every time a new mechanic is introduced you should have a general idea of how it functions. For myself there were a few instances where the developer’s logic didn’t gel with mine however most of those could be put down to me misinterpreting various visual cues. There’s really not much more to Black the Fall than that and for the most part it’s executed well.

There is some issues with the hit detection however which can cause an incredible amount of frustration. One section in particular, the one in the factory where you have to avoid being cut into strips by big spinning blades, stands out in my mind. At the end it’s obvious you have to jump onto an overhanging bar to proceed. However just jumping straight up isn’t sufficient, you have to do a running jump. “That’s obvious!” I hear you say, well it’s not when your character’s jump height doesn’t appear to visually change between a running and standing jump, but it does in the code behind. Other sections had similar issues with my character not latching onto ledges, refusing to interact with objects and other slight annoyances which made otherwise simple sections horrendously irritating. I’d like to say that a little more dev time could have polished over these rough edges but Black the Fall was already released 2 years after their original Kickstarter promised delivery date.

The story likely has more of an impact for those who lived under such regimes but for someone like me there wasn’t much to appreciate. Sure, I can understand the oppression that these regimes imposed on their people but Black the Fall doesn’t provide a new perspective on the matter. Instead it’s your run of the mill escape the oppressive regime story, one that doesn’t have anything unique or interesting about it. In this case the addition of a narrator or something else to give a deeper insight into what was happening on screen could have done much to improve player immersion and the emotional impact of the story. As it stands Black the Fall doesn’t do much of anything, at least not for this writer.

Black the Fall pays homage to Playdead’s masterful side-scrollers but does little to push that genre forward itself. The graphics, whilst retaining some of the default Unity engine’s branding, are a solid emulation of the Playdead style although the animations could use some work. The mechanics are simple, and, for the most part well implemented save for some hit detection issues that plague certain sections. The story may resonate for some but does little to show an unique perspective on well trodden ground. Overall Black the Fall is an adequate game but one that stays firmly in the shadows of the games it seeks to emulate.

Rating: 6.5/10

Black the Fall is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with 3.2 hours of total playtime and 43% of the achievements unlocked.

Tekken 7: Heihachi’s Betrayal.

Tekken and I go a long way back. It wasn’t my first fighting game, that honour belongs to Street Fighter, but it was the first one I played on my original PlayStation. My character of choice was Hwoarang and I’d spend hours practising his 10 string combo in the hopes of using it to decimate my friends. However after Tekken 4 I never made my way back to the series, instead spending my fighting game time on Soul Calibur with my housemates and friends who’d come over to join the fray. When I saw that Tekken 7 was announced and was getting good reviews I figured it was finally time to revisit the series. Whilst I’m glad I did there was one thing I was missing from the experience, something which I think all fighting games need.

The world is still ravaged by the massive war between the Mishima Zaibatsu and G Corporation. The war, started by Jin Kazama to awaken Azazel (the source of the devil gene), has now turned into a power struggle for control of the world. Without Jin to lead the Mishima Zaibatsu Heihachi retakes control of the corporation and formulates a plan to end the war and take control of the world for himself. The story is told from the viewpoint of a unknown reporter whose family was killed in the war, seeking to find out the truth about each of the organisation’s motives for participating in it. What he finds though is the troubled past of the Mishima clan and the supernatural forces at play.

Tekken 7 has been around since 2015 in the arcade and so it’s somewhat understandable that the graphics feel like a generation or so behind. Of course with fighting games that rely on frame perfect execution visuals will often have to take a back seat to performance. Still even the cinematics seem oddly underdone, the character animations usually stiff and stilted, especially when compared to their in-game animations. Interestingly this is probably the first game in a while to run on the Unreal 4 engine that has that “unreal engine” look about it, especially with models that have high specularity. I haven’t gone to an arcade to compare the visuals however, so I’d be interested to see if this is an artefact of the porting process.

Tekken has certainly come a long way in the almost 15 years since I last played it, although there are still some things that remain the same. The core fighting feels very much the same with the same combos still working a decade and a half later. There are two new mechanics introduced in Tekken 7: rage art and power crush. Rage art activates when your health is critical, giving you a damage boost and can be used to execute a devastating attack (at the cost of the rage state). Power crush allows you to continue a move even if you get hit, although you’ll still take the attack’s damage. Included alongside this are the usual trappings we’ve come to expect from current generation fighting games including an online mode, customisable player icons and health bars, a story mode and the traditional arcade mode.

Whilst both of these new mechanics are used to frustrate the hell out of you in the campaign they actually make for a much more action packed game in the traditional 1 on 1 bouts. Rage art ensures that battles are much less one sided than they used to be, giving you a chance to even the odds if you find yourself getting pummelled relentlessly. Of course Tekken’s fighting style is still very much that of long combos and juggling, making sure your opponent doesn’t have the opportunity to respond. It also took me a while to get back into the Tekken button combination mindset as it’s vastly different to that of the fighting games I’ve recently played. Still the fighting felt familiar once I was in control of the characters I used to play which is saying something when I haven’t played Tekken for so long.

Now early on I mentioned that I was missing one key ingredient that all fighting games need. This isn’t a fault of Tekken at all, instead it was mine. After playing through the campaign and the arcade mode a few times I started to lose interest quickly and for a while I wasn’t entirely sure why. Then I remembered all the times I used to play fighting games and it was always ringed by a bunch of mates who’d be there with me for hours on end. You’d have your set of characters, who could beat who with what and inevitably there’d be the person who just unstoppable for a week or two before everyone figured out how to counter them. I didn’t have that this time around and, as a consequence, I didn’t feel as engaged with Tekken as I would have before. Perhaps the online mode could’ve been a decent substitute but I’ve never had much success with them, always feeling like I was a dozen or so frames behind where I needed to be. I may go back and try it again sometime in the future but if this experience has taught me anything its that fighting games are meant to be shared.

The story of Tekken is your pretty stock standard fighting game affair although there has been a lot more care and attention put into its telling. The Mishima Saga does a good job of exploring the back story of the series’ main characters although, honestly, the voice actor for the reporter sounds like he wants to be somewhere else. The individual character sections after that give you a little more insight into what they were doing during the main campaign’s events but are too short for any meaningful character development. Additionally whilst I’d love to believe the ending at face value if the Tekken series has taught me anything its their main characters always manage to find their way back from whatever fate befalls them.

It’s somewhat reassuring that a series like Tekken can feel so familiar after a 15 year break. Whilst the controller and platform may have been wildly different the movement, combos and other mechanics all felt instantly familiar. With all the other modern fighting game trimmings it would seem that Bandai Namco has been no slouch when it comes to modernising the series, ensuring that it has stayed relevant all this time. Indeed playing this now I feel remiss that it has taken me this long to come back, especially without my cadre of fighting game companions at my side. With all that said though Tekken 7 is still an outstanding game, something that’s easy to see even with the small amount of time I’ve put into it.

Rating: 8.5/10

Tekken 7 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $49.99. Game was played on the PC (with a controller, of course) with a total of 3 hours play time and 24% of the achievements unlocked.

Nex Machina: A Synthwave Bullet Hell.

Whilst I spent quite a lot of my childhood playing games like Raptor: Call of the Shadows I never really got into the whole bullet hell/twin stick shooter scene. Indeed my recent experience with bullet hell sections in Nier: Automata reinforced that as I didn’t find much to like in them there. However when scrolling through the popular new releases section on Steam Nex Machina caught my eye, both for it’s outrageously neon visuals and synthwave sound track. Whilst I may have once again affirmed my aversion for the genre it’s hard not to appreciate what Nex Machina brings to the table, especially for the fact that it heavily rewards those with skill.

If there’s a story in Nex Machina I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. As far as I can tell Earth is being invaded by an alien force and it’s up to you to push them back. You’ll do this by slaughtering untold numbers of aliens whilst rescuing what humans you can, progressing through each self contained level until you reach the final boss. The challenge comes from not dying, finding all the secrets and, of course, beating each section in as fast a time as possible. At its heart Nex Machina is a mechanically simple game but it does a great job of ensuring that you’re never left without another challenge, especially if leader boards are a motivator for you.

Initially I thought Nex Machina was just another indie game based on the Unity engine but, as it turns out, it’s from Housemarque, a veteran indie developer of over 20 years. Nex Machina is based on a reworked version of the Resogun engine which itself was based on the Super Stardust Delta engine. The visuals themselves are pretty simplistic with the environments utilising voxels for some interesting destruction physics. Where the game shines is in its lavish use of neon lighting effects often to the point of utter visual domination where it’s hard to figure out just where the hell you are. The aesthetic is well matched with its backing sound track however, giving the whole game this great retro-future vibe.

In terms of actual game play though there’s really not too much to talk about. It’s a twin stick shooter, meaning you’ll be surrounded on all sides by enemies which you’ll have to do your best at avoiding whilst you gun them down. As you kill enemies random power ups will drop, making the game ever so easier. If you die however you’ll drop one power up and if you don’t pick it up before you die or complete a section you’ll lose it forever. In this sense the game rewards those who are able to skillfully complete sections without dying, making it easier to do so in future sections. Indeed your first playthrough is likely to be a frustration ridden affair as you figure out what the environmental hazards are, how the different enemies behave and how you can use certain mechanics to your advantage.

However what Nex Machina is quite lacking in is variety. Whilst each different world has its own theme with accompanying enemies they really aren’t that all different when you sit down and compare them. The environmental mechanics are also pretty much all the same, even if they have slightly different triggers or look visually different. Thus, for someone like me, there’s really not a whole lot of replayability as it all starts to feel very samey quite quickly. If, however, mastering a game’s challenge completely is the kind of thing that appeals to you then I’m sure there’s endless hours of enjoyment in Nex Machina. It’s just not there for me.

Nex Machina is a solid twin stick shooter with an excellent retro-future vibe. Whilst this is a genre I’d typically not even bother foraying into the visuals and driving sound track were enough for me to want to give it a go. It might not have swayed me on the genre, indeed it reaffirmed it more than anything else, but I do feel like Nex Machina is a great example from a veteran developer in the genre. If you lust for the old days of twin stick arcade shooters then Nex Machina is right up your alley.

Rating: 7.5/10

Nex Machina is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 1 hour of total play time and 21% of the achievements unlocked.

STRAFE: Sometimes Nostalgia is Just That.

A sizeable percentage of the games I own are wholly or in part due to my feelings of nostalgia towards them. Some are originals, games I keep around because of the fond memories I have of playing them and have grand ideas of going back to replay them one day. Others are there because they invoke the feelings of that era, with simpler graphics and without all the trimmings that modern games bring with them. STRAFE got attention and Kickstarter backing because of the latter, promising to bring the best of what the 90s shooters had to offer. Unfortunately all it seems to have done is provide a strong reminder of how far we’ve come.

You play as an unnamed “scrapper”, a person who’s job is to collect scrap so they can get paid. Your corporation has sent you to the ship Icarus which is on the outer limits of humanity’s reach in space. No other scrapper has returned alive from the Icarus so, the logic goes, surely its littered with tons of scrap just waiting for collection. Of course the corporation takes no responsibility for what happens to you whilst you’re there so it’s up to you, dear scrapper to make sure you stay alive. That’s about all the motivation you’re given before being thrown back several decades to a low poly hell filled with monsters, scrap and a varying array of weapons.

STRAFE comes to us via the Unity engine which, for once, isn’t to blame for the way the game looks. The visuals are reminiscent of the early Quake era although its obvious that the textures are much higher resolution and the low poly models likely having several times more polys in them than they did back in the 90s. The aesthetics are quite confusing at times, making it extremely hard to work out things like what constitutes a door or an elevator at a glance. Due to the game’s fast paced action and use of semi-procedurally generated terrain this is a bigger deal than it would be in other games as it can make it quite hard to actually figure out just where the hell in a level you are. Overall it does a good job of emulating the 90s shooter experience, warts and all.

STRAFE is a fast paced FPS centred on clearing a level as fast as you can whilst discovering all the secrets and collecting as much scrap as you can. The levels are semi-procedurally generated, a random grab bag of rooms selected and then cobbled together every time you load a new section. What this means is that secrets will never be in the same place, enemies will never be where you expect them to be and, most annoyingly of all, the vendors where you can buy ammo/armour/upgrades are never where you need them to be. The variety of enemies is low and the challenge comes from the game throwing ever more of them at you whilst you struggle to find enough ammo to take them all out.

Now I’m as much of a fan of spammy, fast paced combat as the next person but STRAFE’s was just straight up boring and frustrating. Sure it was fun to line up a bunch of enemies and take them out with a grenade, but having to do that 20 times over per level meant it lost its lustre very quickly. The weapons also felt very samey, none of them feeling particularly unique or interesting in their own right. Couple this with the deluge of samey enemies and you’ve got a recipe for combat that’s uninteresting, repetitive and frustrating. I honestly couldn’t play for more than 15 mins at a time before getting horrendously bored and giving it up for another day or two, it was that bad.

Some may say that it’s simply too hard for someone like me or I don’t enjoy this kind of challenge. To counter that argument I’d point you to my reviews of games like Bloodborne or Dark Souls III both games which punish its players but I found far more rewarding than anything STRAFE had to provide. Sure, I’ll grant you those games probably had several times the budget that STRAFE did but the point still stands: I do enjoy a good challenge and I don’t believe STRAFE provides one. Instead it provides a samey, randomised experience that does far more to frustrate than it does to challenge and reward the player.

STRAFE had grand ideas of being the best 90s shooter ever but falls incredibly short of that mark. Indeed whilst STRAFE borrows a lot of elements from FPS games of yesteryear, like its visuals and fast paced action, it fails to do much with them in order to make a good gaming experience. The visuals, whilst staying largely true to the 90s formula, are a visually confusing mess that only serves to amplify the game’s less than stellar qualities. The combat is repetitive with a distinct lack of variety in weapons, enemies and level design. The Roguelike elements simply add another level of frustration rather than challenge, leaving this reviewer feeling that his time was better spent playing almost anything else in his library.

Rating: 5.0/10

STRAFE is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.96. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours played.