Review

Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna: Humanity’s Last Chance.

There comes a time in every game’s development when the call to ship it needs to be made. For some games this comes at the right time in their dev cycle where the incremental improvements are hitting diminishing returns. For most though it happens as the budgets start to run dry and the need to ship something forces the game out the door. Such is the case with Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna a game that, according to its Kickstarter, was meant to release its first episode some 2 years ago. That most certainly didn’t happen and the resulting game heavily points towards them needing to ship now rather than shipping nothing at all. To their credit the developer, KeoKen Interactive, has committed to providing a free DLC in the near future to make up for it but haven’t committed to a timeline.

Not that anyone would believe it even if they did.

The Earth has been plundered for nearly all of its natural resources, sending Earth into an extended energy crisis. To solve this our world leaders formed the World Space Agency, tasked with exploiting the Moon’s plentiful He3 reserves and sending the energy back to Earth. To their credit it worked and for many years the Moon beamed back nearly limitless energy, staving off the death of civilisation on Earth. However one day the energy stopped flowing and the colony on the Moon ceased all contact leaving Earth to plunge back into darkness. However one team, dubbed Fortuna, put together a last ditch attempt to get back to the Moon and restart the energy grid. What follows is your tale of making it to the Moon and figuring out just what happened to the colony all those years ago.

Deliver us the Moon has that typical Unreal engine feel to it with seemingly unnatural high levels of specularity in some places and a weird plasticy feeling to most assets. It’s not that this is a limit of the engine per-se, more it’s what will happen if you use the engine in its default state (much like Unity in the same way). That being said there has been quite an investment in developing assets for the game and it’s conceivable that the early release was due to a heavy investment for assets. Had this released 2 years ago, as planned, I’m sure it would’ve been considered among some of the top tier visuals of its peers. Now however it feels just a little bit dated, something that’s not helped by the use of (what I assume is) hand crafted animations rather than mo-cap which make everything look needlessly robotic. Since this is their first game I’ll give them a pass, for now.

Deliver us the Moon is primarily a walking simulator game with a few puzzle mechanics thrown in (ala Tacoma). That’s in stark contrast to what their Kickstarter page promised, which had aspirations of letting you roam free on the Moon’s surface to explore at your leisure. Of course anyone who expects a Kickstarter to live up to its campaign page promises is almost certain to be disappointed but I mention it to set the scene of what to expect if you decide to dive into this game. The beginnings of all the things the developers wanted to include are there but none to the level required to fulfill that vision. Combine that with the game ending just as the story starts to find its feet and you’re left wanting more with no indication of that will ever come.

Unlike other games which are built on the broken dreams of the developers Deliver us the Moon is thankfully a full playable and mostly trouble free experience from start to end. The puzzles are pretty simple affairs, typically requiring you to find a couple things within a single room and get them in the right places. Navigation around the various bases can be a bit of a chore though as there’s no HUD pointing you in the right direction and the maps on the walls aren’t the easiest to follow. Still there are some good quality of life things included that even AAA games still miss these days; like voice recordings playing in the background as you explore and already viewed cutscenes highlighted in blue so you don’t accidentally play them again. The breaks between levels are indicative of the developer’s original intent to make the whole thing episodic and indeed the levels were big enough in scale for that to be a possibility. However that’s not the game we’ve got and instead you’ll blast through most of those levels in the space of 30 minutes or so.

Optimisation of the game also appears to have taken a back seat as there’s numerous times when the game starts to struggle noticeably. This is at its worst when you’re outside on the Moon’s surface as the framerate (and subsequently the physics engine tick rate) drops through the floor. It’s not just the vehicle simulation that does it either as the performance problems continue when you’re on foot. I didn’t check if my GPU was fully utilised at the time so not sure if its bottlenecking there (indicating poor model optimisation) or elsewhere so the jury’s out on the actual root cause. Suffice to say that whilst my PC is over 3 years old at this point it hasn’t had trouble like that with much more graphically intense games.

Deliver us the Moon’s story starts out by violating the first rule of storytelling by running through long exposition pieces, explaining in detail things that your character would likely already know. It extends as far as the flavour text for exploration items as well making the game’s opening moments feel like a high schooler’s creative writing project they did the night before it was due. However the game gradually starts pulling back from this as you dive deeper into the narrative and does a good job of drip feeding you enough details so you start theorising about what happened. Then, just as you start to get leads on a major plot point in the narrative, the game abruptly ends. For those poor souls who backed the game or bought it early they were then left wondering just what the hell was going on. The discussion forum is filled with threads about this and the developers have stated that everyone will get the free DLC that closes the story off, when its available. Hopefully the game sells enough copies to make that a reality but honestly I’m not particularly confident we’ll see it inside 6 months.

Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna is one of the few unfinished games I’ve played that’s left me wanting to see it in its full glory. There was an obvious investment in making a lot of assets, many of which would’ve been utilised fully if the game’s vision was realised. What we’re left with is still a competent game in its own right but it’s clear that the game had aspirations of something far greater. The upcoming DLC will likely give us the story closure many of us are seeking but it’s unlikely it will realise the full vision that it developers laid out when they first embarked on their Kickstarter campaign. For what it’s worth I did enjoy my time with it, warts and all, but until the promised DLC is out I’d recommend you leave it on the wishlist.

Rating: 7.0/10

Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 57% of the achievements unlocked.

Donut County: 🦆🦆🦆

Given my last 2 reviews have been for MMOs you can probably guess that I’ve been a little strapped for time to get around to playing other titles. It even got to the point where I was playing Destiny and WoW in the same night, something which I knew wasn’t going to be particularly sustainable if I wanted to keep my 1 review per week cadence going. So I went in search of some shorter titles and stumbled across Donut Country, another Annapurna Interactive published title, which seemed to be charming and, thankfully, quite short. Whilst I might have been drawn in by the game’s brevity the visual style, kitschy dialogue and simple mechanics made it far more enjoyable than I was expecting.

Racoons have moved into the quiet town of Donut County, taking over the local donut shop. Every time someone orders a donut however a mysterious hole shows up at their house, devouring everything in sight. The hole is piloted by none other than BK, one of the new racoon residents, who’s doing so in order to get enough points to get his hands on a sweet new drone. However once he falls into one of his own holes he finds the citizens of Donut Country trapped 999 feet below the surface and they’re understandably quite mad about his recent shenanigans. What follows is the story of how the town became swallowed up and their journey to get back out.

The single developer behind Donut County, Ben Esposito, set himself a few constraints when designing the game’s visual style: no lighting effects, textures or gradients. Whilst those rules aren’t adhered to 100% they are the driving force behind the games minimalistic aesthetic. The result is a kind of flat, cartoon like environment filled with bright, solid colours which is really quite charming. Indeed whilst there’s a lot of games with a similar visual style I’m actually struggling to come up with one that’s exactly like it as most games won’t go so far as to abandon the use of textures, nor even simple gradients. As someone who’s worked as a sole developer on a couple projects I can definitely appreciate setting yourself boundaries and working within them; sometimes there’s really nothing as liberating as working within a strict ruleset.

The game’s mechanics are simple: your a small hole which grows bigger as it consumes things (kind of like a reverse Katamari Damacy). There are a bunch of small challenges which will require you to get a little inventive with how you use a few mechanics but other than that the game play doesn’t deviate too much. That being said it’s kind of fun to try and figure out which things will fit and which ones don’t as sometimes you can get away with getting bigger things in if you know how to position them right. That being said this is a physics based game so there’s many opportunities for things to go pear shaped, with items flinging themselves wildly across the level and getting stuck in areas that you won’t be able to reach. Of course you’re only a restart of the level away from fixing that so it’s not that much of an issue.

The story is a simple affair, seemingly reflective of the developer’s own conversational style (as evidenced in their Gamasutra interview here). It’s a lighthearted commentary on their experiences in Los Angeles and it issues they want to touch on certainly come through. Overall though there’s not much to write home about, it’s simply there to set the scene for the various puzzles and to tie the whole thing together.

Donut County is a fun little distraction, combining simplistic art work with lighthearted dialogue for an interesting experience that’s really like no other. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a game idea that was born out from Peter Molydeux; something completely left of center that pays little heed to the creed and conventions of modern game design. After chewing my way through too very heavy game experiences over the last couple weeks I was incredibly glad to cleanse my palate with something a little lighter. So if you like me are experiencing a little fatigue with the AAA barrage that comes this time of year then Donut County is most likely the game for you.

Rating: 8.0/10

Donut County is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $12.99. Game was played on the PC with 104 minutes  of play time and 55% of the achievements unlocked.

Destiny 2: Forsaken: The Dark Side of the Light.

Destiny 2 wasn’t in a great spot. The last 2 expansions were met with derision from the community and many were questioning whether or not Bungie was really listening to the community. Curse of Osiris might have been a well timed injection of content for PC players but for others it didn’t even touch the sides after months of waiting. Warmind did little to address this, failing to bring enough to the table to even keep casualcore players like myself interested. For many then Forsaken was a make or break moment, either bringing them wholly back into the fold or pushing them away for good. Thankfully it seems Bungie took some inspiration from The Taken King expansion and revamped many aspects of the game, providing a vastly improved experience for all players. Whilst the changes might not be for everyone, indeed more casual players might feel a little left out in the cold, there’s no denying that this expansion has breathed much needed life into the franchise.

The Prison of Elders has suffered another breakout and you travel there alongside Cayde-6 in order to put a stop to it. When you arrive there however you discover that Uldren, brother to Mara Sov Queen of the Awoken, has escaped from his prison and now commands a bunch of Fallen with disturbing new powers. It is there, in the depths of the prison, that Cayde falls to Uldren; his light snuffed out. Upon returning to the tower the Vanguard is split about what to do: Zavala stating that they’re not an army and they won’t step into a war with the Reef and Ikora grieving heavily for the loss of one of her closest friends. It is there where you, the Guardian, begin to walk the path of revenge seeking out Uldren by picking apart his army and discovering the darkness that now binds the Reef.

Destiny 2 is looking is as good as always, exemplified by the absolutely incredible level design that has become their signature style for this franchise. All the new areas are simply stunning, smothered in details both large and small that make exploring each environment an absolute joy. I wasn’t on board with it the initially, the cramped confines of the Tangled Shore feeling somewhat antithetical to the typical massive, open space environment. However that all changed once I was in the Dreaming City which was a visual marvel all of its own. I’ve yet to explore all of the strikes, dungeons and the raid yet but I’m sure the trademark visual style is present there too. Whilst games are rarely made or broken by their visuals it certainly doesn’t hurt when they’re as good as what Bungie is putting out here.

Forsaken shakes up Destiny 2 significantly by adding in a lot of mechanics (some new, some old), integrating various quality of life improvements and revamping the progression systems. Each of the subclasses get a new talent tree that comes along with a new super, giving players a whole bunch of new mechanics to tinker with. The max light level is now a whopping 600 although you’ll find yourself at 500 before the campaign ends. The various kiosks that were present in the original Destiny have now come back in the form of a collections tab, enabling you to track your various armour sets and access them instantly from anywhere. Bounties have returned and function much like they used to, although they now (thankfully) share their own inventory tab with other pursuits and quests. A new PvEvP mode called Gambit as been added in, something which both myself and the wider community enjoys immensely. The end game area of the Dreaming City is a seemingly ever changing landscape, one that is still yet to reveal all of its secrets to us. Suffice to say Forsaken is the shot in the arm that Destiny 2 needed, even managing to bring back many players I never thought I’d see playing Destiny again.

Progression up to 500 is a whirlwind of loot, much of which you’ll be casting aside as you push your way up through the levels. For someone like myself who wasn’t 400 at the start of the expansion there’s a little bit of grinding to do between missions to ensure you’re at the right light level but once you’re beyond 440 or so it doesn’t appear to be an issue anymore. Once you’re at the first soft cap things slow down a little bit, powerful engrams being your primary source of power ups moving forward. There’s a second soft cap at 520 where powerful rewards outside of the Dreaming City only bump you up one light level or so, making them far less useful for progression. For casuals like myself this means you’re not going to be hitting the max light cap anytime soon and unfortunately there’s no real way to catch up either. This is directly geared towards those who view Destiny as their hobby with 3 characters that they max every expansion. Whilst I admit it was somewhat disappointing to learn that I probably couldn’t raid for a month or two I’m hopeful that it’ll be worth it once I do finally get the chance to do it. Going by the light levels in the tower it seems like there’ll be a lot of people who will be right there with me.

The return of random rolled loot, along with the much more expensive infusion system, is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand it does make duplicate drops less of a let down as there’s always the option of getting a god roll on one of your favourite weapons. On the other because infusion costs so much you’re likely going to be wearing a mixed bag of items for quite some time as keeping your favourite items upgraded is going to be too expensive. This does mean you’re far more likely to experiment with your loadout than you previously were which is probably a good thing (especially given that I’d been using the same armour and weapon set for the last 2 expansions). One of the saving graces is that infusion the same items into each other is very cheap, just glimmer, giving you a relatively easy way of keeping your god rolled items around. The previous item type lockout has been reverted to the old Destiny 1 style as well, meaning if you do really want to keep an item in a particular slot at max light level you’re no longer restricted. That’s probably out of necessity however, given the radical changes to the weapon system.

Weapon variety has been dramatically increased thanks to nearly all weapon types being available for all slots. Power weapons are still restricted to their slot but fusion rifles, sniper rifles and shotguns can now roll for both your kinetic and energy slots. This means that, if you’re so inclined, you could roll a build that’s all shotguns but you’re likely not going to want to due to the ammo types. You see weapons now also carry with them an ammo type which is aligned to the old Destiny 1 style. That means the more powerful special ammo weapons, even if they roll in the kinetic slot, will still use that ammo type. They all have independent pools , so say if you’re using 2 primary ammo type weapons and run one dry the other one won’t run out as well, but you’ll still probably want one of each type for a balanced load out. If that sounds confusion it is a bit but once you’ve figured out what kind of load out you want to run balancing around it isn’t too much of a challenge. To be honest I’ve been running 2 primary and 1 power weapon for most of the game, only switching in a shotgun or fusion rifle when it makes sense.

My love/hate relationship with Destiny’s PVP scene continues with Forsaken although the reasons for each have shifted somewhat. The core PVP remains unchanged although the meta has shifted significantly from what I remember (pulse rifles being the bees knees? Weird…). Gambit is certainly one of the more enjoyable modes, even if it’s being ruined somewhat by the overuse of Sleeper Simulant, something which can’t be nerfed fast enough. Iron Banner was honestly a complete shit show for someone who was somewhat underleveled like myself, being routinely matched with guardians 20+ light levels above me. The new talent trees seem to be dominating over their older companions, much like they were back in the Taken King. Given that there’s one for each subclass though that’s less of an issue than what it was back then but it still feels a little sad that the old guard has been left out in the cold once again. Still I’ve managed to top out my share of games here and there, both in Gambit and regular PvP, so it hasn’t been all bad.

The story takes a while to find its feet due in no small part to the whole CAYDE IS GOING TO DIE IN FORSAKEN hype that Bungie unceremoniously engaged in leading up to Forsaken’s release. The initial part of hunting down the Barons and chasing after Uldren though is really just a long setup for this expansion’s on-going story which keeps on evolving as the game progresses. I mean Cayde’s death was treated well given the pivotal role he’s played in the franchise up to this point but really it’s a secondary point to the game’s main story: that of the Awoken and the dreaming city. Given that I was discovering new story elements even as recently as yesterday says something about the narrative depth of this expansion. I’m quite keen to see how it progresses and am excited to see how the story evolves as I get to experience more of the content.

Destiny 2: Forsaken is the expansion that many of us long time fans of the franchise were hoping for. The improvements to the game’s various core mechanics, quality of life improvements and the large injection of content are all things that the community had been desperately waiting for. Some of those things might not be for everyone, like those of us who don’t have nor want to dedicate the time to the new grind, but it’s undeniable that the game has been vastly improved. This does mean that some of us will have to wait until we can fully experience everything that this expansion has to offer but, strangely, I’m ok with that this time around. I may not hit max light again this time around but I certainly feel like I’ll be sticking around to get a few raid completions under my belt. That’s honestly all I’ve ever asked of Destiny in the past anyway so it’s great to have the franchise back in full form.

Rating: 9.25/10

Destiny 2: Forsaken is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.95. Total time spent in Destiny 2 is now at 130 hours with approximately 44 of those spent playing the Forsaken expansion.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth: Jaina’s Homecoming.

I finally did it; that one thing that no long time World of Warcraft player should ever do: I added up all my playtime across all my characters.

The damage? 207 days. Two of my original characters, my rogue and alt-paladin, account for about 145 of those days most of which was accumulated during vanilla. Considering this was right in the middle of my university studies I’m still not quite sure how I managed to graduate, what with me spending an average of 4 hours a day in-game. My hunter and shaman that I rolled to play with a work mate of mine account for another 46 of those days, all due to us trying to clear the Ulduar raid back in the day. Finally the Paladin which has seen me through the last few expansions has a measly 12 days, still a lot by any standards but a mere blip in the time that I’ve spent with the game. That includes the time I just spent playing through the most recent expansion: Battle for Azeroth. Whilst this is probably the shortest time I’ve ever spent with an expansion to date it was by far one of the most memorable from a story perspective.

The titan Sargeras has been imprisoned but not before he drove his demonic sword deep into the heart of Azeroth. This then caused a highly potential magical substance called Azerite to begin leaking out into the world. Sylvanas saw this new resource as an opportunity to unify the horde together and began a brutal campaign to seize all of Kalimdor. In retaliation Anduin lays siege to the undead’s capital city of Lordaeron, driving the horde out. However as a last thumb of the nose at the Alliance Sylvanas drenches the city in blight, rendering it uninhabitable for anyone, including her own people. With Azeroth now primed for war both the Horde and the Alliance set out in search of new allies in the battle that lies ahead.

The graphics of Battle for Azeroth feel about on par from the previous expansion Legion, with no real notable improvements. There’s DirectX 12 support in there but that’s mostly to help with performance rather than taking advantage of new graphical APIs. Unfortunately the issues that plagued it last time remain with the World of Warcraft engine struggling to take full advantage of modern hardware. I spent the first couple hours of my time back in WoW searching for ways to improve the performance, hoping to get it to fully utilise the system I have. Unfortunately I couldn’t make that happen, my graphics card usage middling around 70% and my CPU 50% or below. I could get a somewhat stable framerate of 60fps in most areas but anything with more than a dozen or so players in it really started to tank my performance. For Blizzard it’s a tough problem to solve as they likely can’t improve the engine without also revamping most of their content as well. Perhaps they may do it in the future but I’m not holding my breath.

 

Battle for Azeroth once again takes the ideas of expansions past and refines them, often streamlining them to take away the pain whilst keeping the same rewards. Artefact weapons are now gone, replaced with a legendary necklace that levels up in much the same way whilst unlocking attributes in some armour pieces. The garrison mechanic is now just a mission table, providing you with an avenue to get additional rep and azerite power. The delineation between PvE and PvP servers has disappeared, now replaced with “War Mode”, allowing you to set whether or not you can be engaged in PvP activities and getting a small boost if you choose to do so. World quests are kept and are broadly the same, giving you a daily opportunity to upgrade your gear and grind out some more rep. New (to me, at least) is the inclusion of mythic dungeons, essentially a raid level difficulty encounter for a 5 man team that you can increase the difficulty of in search of more rewards. Other than that it’s the same tried and true World of Warcraft experience, for better and for worse.

Unlike previous expansions, which often completely revamped skills and talent trees, Battle for Azeroth didn’t change much. After doing the usual post-login cleanup I noticed that most of the abilities remained as I remembered them and even had a few removed. Instead of doing my usual retribution levelling and then transition to prot when it came time to do dungeons I stayed prot the whole time and, honestly, it wasn’t the most exciting experience. Prot has always been famous for tanking large groups of adds but being god awful at single target DPS and that made certain parts of the levelling experience pretty painful. To be sure running in a group made this a lot more enjoyable, and indeed I feel like a lot of activities in WoW aren’t well served if you’re playing solo, but I can distinctly remember having more abilities in the previous expansion that helped out a lot in situations like that. I’m not sure how it is for other character classes but from a pure combat perspective Battle for Azeroth definitely felt like a step back for me: too simplified and monotonous. This unfortunately extended to tanking dungeons as well which is why I don’t think I’ve actually played through all of them.

Overall progression still comes at a predictable pace, one that can be accelerated substantially if you have large gold reserves or are part of an active guild. Even then it doesn’t take long to get ready for the end game content, I managed to get to ilvl 320 in under two weeks without farming the auction house or dumping too much gold into professions. Of course my gear is far from optimal but that’s the level at which most people say you should be more than capable of doing mythics with a group of randoms. It is rather frustrating though that some of the avenues for progression, like crafting, are essentially useless as by the time you can craft the awesome gear sets you likely won’t need them since the materials to craft them come from the end game dungeons. This is somewhat offset by the fact that reputation grinds aren’t as unforgiving as they once were, bolstered by the daily world quest sets and numerous other ways of gaining reputation with a particular faction.

The azerite armour system is interesting in theory although reading up on how it compared to the artefact power system reveals that it’s essentially the same thing, just spread over multiple pieces of armour. Essentially you’ll get azerite power from various sources and that will level up your Heart of Azeroth necklace. Certain levels will unlock a kind of mini talent tree on some pieces of armour, augmenting some abilities or granting you whole new ones. Whilst its nice that you have a little more control over how to mix and match everything it feels like yet another grind to get pieces of armour that roll with just the right talents. I’m sure some of the higher tier sets have fixed talents though but I never saw any of those pieces myself (being the solo pleb that I am).

It wouldn’t be a WoW expansion without some post-launch issues and Battle for Azeroth was certainly not immune from them. Aside from the general graphics performance issues I mentioned earlier the world servers would often have their ping times rocket through the roof, causing simple things like looting a corpse to take 20+ seconds. This wasn’t just something that would come and go either, when it started happening you’d usually be in for a good hour of it before the servers would start to come right again. There’s also the usual mix of quest bugs with some quest chains not working properly, quests bugging out if completed in weird ways and some of the more inventive mechanics wigging out on you in weird and wonderful ways. These things are, for the most part, expected aspects of any WoW experience so for a long time player like me they’re not show stoppers. However for those who for, whatever reason, may be getting into WoW at this late juncture it pays to know that even 14 years of polish won’t remove all the rough edges.

What kept me playing however was the story and my desire to see how Jaina’s arc played out in this expansion. Whilst it’s probably not going to win any awards for originality it certainly drew me in as a long time fan of the lore of the Warcraft universe. It was also great to see characters which have, so far, played minor roles in the greater lore brought to the forefront, making the whole world more richer for it. The tale of rescuing Jaina was honestly one of the most heartwarming arcs I’ve played in this game and it was what kept me playing for quite a long time. Then, right as it felt like the story was about to climax, I hit a wall: I’d need to complete a mythic dungeon to see the end of it.

I almost quit the game right then and there as I didn’t want to be forced into having to gear up just to see the end of the story. However as I inched closer to that coveted 320 ilvl I figured it’d be worth the time invested and soldiered on. However once I got there I run right into the shit fight that is running mythics with pubs, even those who were trying to do the storyline missions like myself. Look, I get it, mythics aren’t meant to be readily puggable, but having a significant part of the storyline locked behind them was a real let down. 3 expansions ago it wouldn’t have been an issue, I’d simply hit up my guildies and we’d get it done, but those times are long behind me. I know I’m not alone in this feeling either as many posts on various forums will attest to. So there my paladin will likely sit, outside the Siege of Boralus dungeon entrance, never to complete the story.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth had all the trappings of being a solid repeat of Legion’s performance however, for some reason, it just fell flat for me. The changes feeling like a shuffling of all the components that have been around for some time and the new parts not interesting or varied enough to keep me engaged. This was counterbalanced by the story which got me really engaged but then ran into a brick wall of progression that killed that intrigue dead. Maybe it’s me that’s changed too much this time around as before it felt like the developers at Blizzard were catering directly to folk like myself. Now though it feels a little left of center, retaining much of the things that should make it more appealing but somehow failing to do so. I really don’t know what’s driving this feeling of ambivalence but suffice to say, whilst I did get a good couple weeks out of this latest expansion, I’m pretty sure I won’t be renewing my subscription past a single month.

Rating: 7.5/10

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is available right now for $69.95. Total play time was approximately 20 hours achieving an ilvl of 323.

Unavowed: The Demon Within.

Wadjet Eye Games have made a name for themselves in the adventure game space, not only for the numerous titles they’ve published but also the many they themselves have developed. With the closing of the Blackwell series, which had been their flagship series for the better part of a decade, many were wondering what would be next for them. Sure we could assume a few things, like it being a pixel art adventure game, but the rest was anyone’s guess. With Unavowed they’ve stuck to the supernatural theme, going as far as to use the previous protagonist’s abilities as a basis for one of the characters in this new title. The game prides itself on enabling the player to have a great deal of choice over most of the pivotal parts including your gender, origin story and the various ways in which you can solve the puzzles put before you. That freedom comes at a price however and it’s probably the biggest mark against an otherwise stellar release from Wadjet Eye Games.

The opening scenes of Unavowed will vary depending on which origin story you select but one thing is common throughout them all: you were possessed by a demon who set upon unleashing all sorts of mayhem around New York.Thankfully you were rescued by the Unavowed, a team of supernatural beings and those abilities beyond scientific understanding. Given that you’re now a wanted criminal they take you under their wing and enlist your help in figuring out where the demon had been and what its plans were. You’re also given a crash course into the world of the supernatural, one that the Unavowed tries hard to keep separate from the mundane. As you soon find out that doesn’t always work as planned and those two worlds are becoming increasingly intermixed.

Like all of their previous titles Unavowed comes to us via Adventure Game Studio and retains that nostalgic pixel art aesthetic of their previously published titles. It’s a true to the era implementation as there’s nary a modern visual effect or flair to be seen. This is even done to a fault in some parts with certain animations having incredibly low frame rates, like the walking or idle animations for the characters. Of course this doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to the game’s visuals as it’s clear there was a lot of time put into creating the various set pieces that you’ll explore throughout your time in Unavowed.

Unavowed is likely the most mechanically deep adventure game to date, incorporating many elements from other genres that must have been an absolute nightmare to program in. Whilst the different origin stories and genders would be easy enough to incorporate this is then multiplied 5 fold by your ability to choose your party each time you go out on a mission. This is offset somewhat by each of the missions being wholly self contained (I.E. you don’t need an item from one place to solve a puzzle in another) but it would still necessitate creating the requisite mechanics in each level to accommodate for that choice. If that wasn’t enough there’s also a bunch of banter dialogue between each of the party members which plays out during missions, something I’m sure the writers thoroughly enjoyed having to write out. Suffice to say that whilst the core game of puzzle solving might not be too different from your run of the mill adventure game the story mechanics surrounding it are second to none.

This narrative freedom does mean that your choice of party members is effectively pointless as each of the game’s levels can be completed with any of the two you’d care to pick. I honestly didn’t notice this at first but when I took the Fire Mage with me twice in a row it became pretty obvious that I didn’t just happen to make the right choice. This does eliminate a particular frustration that many people have with adventure games, making incorrect choices that get you stuck, but it does also remove a lot of the impact those choices would have. Indeed there doesn’t seem to be a penalty for choosing a sub-optimal group or a bonus for choosing the correct one, all of them will have the same number of puzzle elements you need to solve. To be sure the puzzle mechanics aren’t the game’s main attraction, that falls to the story, but it does highlight a big challenge in making a game like this. Choices are great, but only when they matter.

There’s also a few tiny areas that could use a bit of polish to improve the game’s overall useability. For instance dragging items from your inventory onto a character in the main screen won’t work the same as dragging it onto the icon in the inventory bar. This led to a few frustrating moments where I was pretty sure I had solved the puzzle but it wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. Reading a couple guides revealed the mistake I made but, honestly, it should just work as the interaction is the same from the player’s perspective. The game also doesn’t like being alt-tabbed, putting the sound on loop which makes for a rather annoying background when you’re trying to quickly do something else in the middle of your session. These aren’t game breaking but would make the overall experience of playing Unavowed just that much better.

Unavowed’s story takes a little while to get going, mostly because a lot of characters are introduced in rapid fire in the game’s opening hour. After that though it begins the process of building them all out, fleshing out their backstories well and building up a good pace of plot developments to keep you playing. Part of this is due to the overall story itself but the other half is most definitely due to the dynamics between each of the character pairs. I even ran one particular pair a few times in a row and still had new dialogue come up between them. Despite all this though the overall story didn’t leave too much of an impression on me. To be sure I think it’s well crafted and executed it just didn’t leave that emotional mark that adventure games of past have. I’ve said much the same about games with budgets far beyond Unavowed however so it’s not the worst sin a game can commit.

Unavowed is yet another treat from the team at Wadjet Eye Games and a great next step in their game developer journey. It’s a very ambitious title, incorporating multiple branching storylines and puzzle mechanics to give the player a lot of control over how it plays out. Whilst some of those choices are ultimately moot at a mechanical level it certainly does make for a much richer narrative experience. Indeed for the amount of choice given to the player the story of Unavowed is probably one of the most well rounded I’ve played in recent memory. Whilst it ultimately failed to resonate with me at an emotional level that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my time with it. For those who’ve been left wanting this year’s offerings in the adventure game space you really can’t go past Unavowed.

Rating: 8.75/10

Unavowed is available on PC right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 6 hours play time and 27% of the achievements unlocked. A copy of the game was provided to The Refined Geek by Wadjet Eye Games for the purposes of review.

Monster Hunter World: Being an A-Lister Ain’t Easy.

Eastern styled RPGs have a bit of a… reputation. The most notable part of this reputation is their penchant for horrendous grinds, forcing you to spend hours upon hours drudging your way towards that next level or shiny purple. They’re also renowned for being mechanically dense, often with multiple interwoven systems that all need to be understood and exploited fully if you want to live out your power fantasy. My first brush with these kinds of games came almost a decade ago with Aion: Tower of Eternity, a game so grindy and dense that I gave up when I reached level 30, which is saying something from someone who levelled 2 characters to 60 in vanilla World of Warcraft. This was why I originally passed on Monster Hunter World when it first came out as it looked chillingly like the eastern MMORPGs I’d played in the past. However with few good titles out at the time I figured I had nothing to lose and so I gave it the old college try. Unfortunately in this instance I didn’t find a whole lot to like about the Monster Hunter experience, the depth and complexity of the games numerous mechanics lost in the seemingly endless grind that I’d have to go through to exploit them.

You are a Hunter who is traveling to the New World as part of the Fifth Fleet. As part of the Research Expedition your job is to help out in determining why the Elder Dragons migrate to the New World every ten years as part of an event called the crossing. However on your way there your fleet is attacked by Zorah Magdaros, an elder dragon the size of a mountain that was making its journey to the New World. Thankfully you wash up on shore and are able to make it to Astera, the Research Expedition’s main base of operations in the new world. From here you begin your quest to understand the elder dragons, the reason behind the crossing and how to survive in this new land filled with monsters looking to make a meal out of you.

Monster Hunter World has that distinct, eastern RPG art style to it which (for whatever reason) tends to favour slightly worse graphics that are made up for with lavish amounts of detail. Honestly it feels like a game that would’ve came about at the end of the PlayStation 3’s development cycle, not a current gen title. Part of that is likely due to the multiplayer components with the potential for a lot to be going on at any one time. Still there are current generation MMORPGs with higher player caps that have managed far better visuals so I’m guessing that this was a stylistic choice more than anything. This all aside Monster Hunter World is a visually diverse and detailed game, overflowing with colour and visual spectacles. The areas might not be large in scale but they’re full of hidden paths and secret areas, making them feel a lot larger. If this kind of game appeals to you though the visuals aren’t really going to matter, it’s the grind you’re really here for.

Monster Hunter World embodies the eastern RPG archetype to a T, favouring deep mechanical systems that give the player seemingly endless choices in how you approach the game. There are no classes or talent trees to speak of, instead your progression is tied to your weapon of choice and armour set, both of which you’ll upgrade numerous times over the course of the game. The core of the game’s progression centers on the various crafting and upgrade systems, most of which require you to go out and hunt certain monster types to get the items required. Sprinkled over the top of all this is your usual RPG flair with town hubs, vendors and side quests galore that are certain to keep the completionists out there busy for hundreds of hours. Combat comes in the form of a kind of dark souls-esque type experience although it feels thoroughly less refined than its FromSoftware counterparts. In all honesty in the 16 hours I was playing it I still felt like I hadn’t scratched the surface of the game with many of the game’s mechanics still left untouched. Monster Hunter World certainly demands a lot from its players and unfortunately, for this old gamer, I just couldn’t find the strength to keep going back.

Now I’m not one to shy away from the kind of combat that Monster Hunter World puts forward but it honestly felt incredibly unrefined in its implementation. The Dark Souls inspired combat system brings with it a good set of mechanics but utilising them feels like a real hit and miss affair. For starters a monster’s hit box seems to be a finicky affair, sometimes registering as a hit on you whilst at other times simply moving you out of the way. Similarly the target lock mechanic flails wildly whenever there’s more than a few places you can target, often whipping you between different parts of the monster (or other monsters in the vicinity) as you try to position yourself around it. Getting on a monster’s back also doesn’t seem to work as it demonstrated most of the time, often failing to latch when I landed directly on the monster’s back but inexplicably working when I’d barely brush the top of their head. Even the resistance/weakness system felt really ineffective as I ground specifically for a set of weapons to fight one beast only to find that they didn’t make a lick of difference in the actual fight. Maybe I’m just not getting it, but if you can’t understand a game’s combat system after 16 hours then honestly I fault the game, not the player.

 

I’ll partly lay the blame of that at Monster Hunter World’s utterly glacial pace of progression. Even the most basic of upgrades requires gathering a substantial amount of materials and then, when you do craft it, the benefits are slim at best. In typical min/maxer fashion I tried dumping all my mats and time into crafting a decent set of starter gear (the bone set you see above) and honestly I couldn’t really tell you how much of a difference it made. I even tried grinding out some of the higher level sets of gear but with each monster kill taking 20 minutes or so to complete (if the fucker didn’t “leave the area” right at the end) getting a new set of gear would likely take hours. It got so bad that in the end I simply crafted a hodge podge set made up of the best crafting mats I had and even then that didn’t seem to reap any kind of benefit. Again I’m happy to admit that this is likely a failing on my part to understand the greater complexities that are hiding within Monster Hunter World’s various mechanical systems but if 16 hours of gameplay and intense Googling can’t get me there I’m really not sure what can.

Credit where credits due though, Monster Hunter World does have one of the deepest and most integrated crafting systems I’ve seen in quite some time. For most games there’s going to be a stock standard build that you can head straight for that will ensure your victory. For Monster Hunter World though there’s really no one-size fits all build that’s guaranteed to turn you into an overpowered god. Instead you’ll need to tailor your gear to your weapon choice, play style and prey that you’re chasing. This results in a near infinite number of builds, all of which appear to be viable (at least from what I can glean from various Reddit threads). I can definitely understand the appeal of such a system, heck I myself have invested many hours in games that had similar deep mechanical roots, it’s just unfortunate that I wasn’t able to find that hook to keep me playing.

There are some pretty notable issues with game on a technical level, some of which I think are inherent and others that are most certainly due to the porting process. The game’s graphical performance was horrendous when I started playing, something which I found out was a known issue. This was mostly fixed by using the Special K mod developed by Kaldaien which also allowed me to run the game in borderless windowed mode (although the game still seemed to have some teething issues with that). The netcode also seemed extremely fragile, something which is wholly attributable to Capcom. This is because there’s no native network framework for Monster Hunter World to make use of like it does on consoles (think PSN and Xbox Live) which mean they had to develop their own. When I first started playing it seemed to work fine but however after a week or so I found myself unable to get into any online games at all. Then, inexplicably, it started working again with no changes made on my end. I then foolishly decided to try a multiplayer quest only to have my teammates drop from my game session halfway through a monster fight. Honestly whilst its admirable that Capcom didn’t want to outsource the porting I can’t help but feel that maybe, just maybe someone else could have done a better job.

This isn’t also mentioning the various game design issues with the game’s core being focused on controller based play that doesn’t translate well to the PC platform. The default layout that’s chosen for you isn’t exactly congruent to keyboard and mouse play and even the MMORPG styled layout isn’t a whole lot better. The various menus are also incredibly obtuse with numerous different options hidden in random areas, necessitating a whole lot of flipping around in order to find the thing you’re looking for. I’m sure given enough time I could remap the keys or find mods that would make it better but honestly it’s not like UI design for games like this is an unsolved problem space. I managed to stumble my way through, to be sure, but honestly it feels like a game made for a different kind of gamer playing on a different kind of platform. If it’s any consolation I’m happy to admit I’m likely not Capcom’s target demographic for this particular title.

I figured that I’d at least play the campaign through to completion just to see how the game’s story pans out. I didn’t manage that as the overall plot is just too shallow and the use of a mute protagonist just served to highlight all of its flaws. I certainly liked the premise, travelling to a new world to understand a phenomenon that has eluded everyone so far, but there just wasn’t enough character or plot development to keep me that interested. Some of the things also don’t make a terrible amount of sense, like the fact that the various fleets don’t appear to talk to each other very much or why parts of the island are seemingly inaccessible despite you being able to fly everywhere. Again maybe the story depth is buried somewhere I didn’t look but if the game can’t at least tempt me in that direction then I’m more likely to conclude nothing is there.

Once again I find myself on the opposite side of popular opinion, gazing at a wildly successful title and wondering what everyone sees in it. I can certainly appreciate the depth of game play that Monster Hunter World presents, embodying (for better or worse) the stereotypical JRPG grindfest that so many people enjoy. However for me I just couldn’t find the appeal, even after ploughing in more hours than I typically would in an attempt to find that hook. I’m willing to admit that there might be something in there that I’d enjoy but I just couldn’t find it. Perhaps playing with friends could have changed my opinion as I’ve enjoyed many a trashy online experience so long as I had my mates by my side. Maybe the game is just for a different demographic than the one I fit into, I don’t know. It’s quite possible you’ll look at all the gripes listed here and chide me for my opinion, thinking that’s the whole reason you should be playing Monster Hunter World. If that’s the case then you’ll likely find the enjoyment I missed in Monster Hunter World.

Rating: 6.5/10

Monster Hunter World is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 16 hours play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked. 

Unravel 2: Between Two Yarns.

A tried and true path to making a successful sequel is to hone in on what made the original great and build from there. For some games this is an easy road to tread, sometimes involving just dusting off ideas that couldn’t make the cut originally or streamlining certain things to focus on the game’s core. For others though it can be a more painful process, forcing the developers to shed parts of the game that they felt were core to the overall experience. Unravel 2 feels like a combination of these two ideals, adding in something that I never I knew I wanted in the original (co-op) whilst dropping what I felt was the weakest part of the game (the story) which I know the developers felt was the cornerstone of their game. The result of those two changes is an experience that far exceeds that of the original, one that my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed playing together.

Whilst there appears to be some semblance of a story going on in Unravel 2, told through ghost like figures playing out scenes in the background, it is most certainly not the focus of the game. Instead, if you play the game the way I feel it’s meant to be played (with another person), the story that will develop is one of the trials and tribulations you face as you try to progress through the game. For gamer/gamer pairs it’s possibly not one of much note, but for any other kind of pairing it’s going to be about how you figure out how best to work together, the hilarious situations that evolve when you don’t and the joy you’ll experience when everything just starts working.

Unravel 2 retains the same gorgeous, lovingly detailed art style that made the original so distinct. The models, texturing and environment design are all done with near photorealistic accuracy, aided by the clever use of other visual tricks. I have the feeling that, had we played this on PC, the visuals would have shown a marked step up but regardless they still looked absolutely amazing on the PS4. Yet again the backing soundtrack is wonderful, flowing along with you as you progress through a level. Coldwood Interactive have proven yet again that they’re capable of some exceptional levels of craftsmanship when it comes to a game’s audio visual experience. I look forward to whatever project they throw themselves into next just based on that alone.

At a nuts and bolts level Unravel 2 retains the same basic mechanics as its predecessor in its puzzle/platformer mechanics. The main difference is, of course, the fact that you have another player with you and most of the novel puzzle mechanics are based around that. I’m sure there’s some differences in the single player version since not all of the puzzles could be done with just one person, even if you were controlling both Yarnies. The challenge, for me at least, was helping my dear wife through various sections and the various hilarious things that would happen along the way. To her credit though she became quite apt at the game as we continued through the levels, even completing a few of the challenges once we really started to find our groove.

Many of the puzzles aren’t exactly novel in their design, taking the form of one player needing to do X so the other player can do Y which unlocks the path to the next section. The more advanced puzzles later on and the challenges do require a good amount of lateral thinking, some of them stumping us for a good few minutes before we could carry on. The later puzzles end up mostly relying on timing and your platforming prowess which, whilst a good challenge for a gamer like myself, proved to be extremely challenging for someone like my wife who doesn’t play as often. Of course for those sections you can just hitch a ride on the more capable player, something we did every so often after a few solid tries.

The team work aspect of Unravel 2 isn’t to be underestimated and you won’t simply be able to rely on a single skilled player to make it all the way through. For instance if you’re swinging around or in mid air and your partner decides to grab the yarn (to climb up to you, for instance) you’ll instantly lose all momentum and, if you’re airborne, fall to the ground like a rock. Initially I couldn’t figure out what was happening until I accidentally did it to my wife at one stage and it was then I realised that she was the cause of the seemingly random physics engine quirks that had been plaguing us to no end. Additionally there’s a number of puzzles where you won’t simply be able to run to the end and then hoist your partner up with you as your yarn simply isn’t long enough. This means either finding a creative way to get them closer or attempting the puzzle together.

Probably the most challenging (and by extension enjoyable) puzzles were the ones where you had to each get on a platform at opposite sides of the screen. This often required a bit of lateral thinking and planning your moves out in order for it to all work out. Some of those later puzzles use mechanics which you’d either not been introduced to or weren’t explained well (like the tension of a string when you’re tying it off) which can make them a tad frustrating to solve. The hint system here was good though, initially giving you a few nudges in the right direction before just outright telling you what to do. We only needed to use that once though but for lesser skilled players I’m sure it’ll be a saving grace.

There’s definitely been a lot of improvement in terms of the game’s overall polish when compared to its predecessor. Most of the original issues with Yarny are gone and the platforming mechanics feel a lot more solid than they previously did. Part of that is due to the lower reliance on physics based puzzles as the ones that do make use of that are still some of the more janky experiences the game has to offer. We did end up breaking the game completely at one stage where our respective Yarnies were on two sides of a stick which, for some reason, caused the physics engine to freak out and dropped the frame rate through the floor. This then buggered up the sound engine and made the game’s music start looping in a really weird fashion. Try as we might to fix it we had to restart to a previous checkpoint which, thankfully, solved the issue.

The story of my wife and I playing through Unravel 2 was an exceptionally enjoyable one, warts and all. She’s your typical sometimes gamer, able to grasp the basics quickly but hasn’t got the tens of thousands of hours of game time that I do which has honed my hand/eye coordination significantly. This lead to many great moments where she’d inadvertently hit buttons, controller flailing and all sorts of other amusing behaviours that made our time together with Unravel special. To be sure I’m not blameless here either, my bravado often resulting in my untimely demise because I figured I could make it through a puzzle quickly without considering the consequences. We did give up after doing a couple of the challenges though as they just weren’t as fun given their reliance on timing and technical skill rather than problem solving.

Unravel 2 took the best elements of the original and made them better through the addition of the co-op mechanics. The gorgeous visuals and amazing soundtrack are now signature items of Coldwood Interactive’s games, something I hope they continue to work on with any upcoming titles. Defocusing the story in favour of letting players craft their own through the simple act of playing the game results in an experience that will be very personal to those who play it with someone else. The increased polish on the core mechanics is very much welcome, even if there’s still a few minor edge cases to sort out. The original was a game that struggled to achieve its ambition whilst its sequel does so admirably, making it a much better experience overall. For gamers and non-gamers alike Unravel 2 is an experience that is well worth investing the time in.

Rating: 9.25/10

Unravel 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 8 hours of total game play and 14% of the achievements unlocked.

Florence: Love, Heartache and Learning to Live Again.

One of the secrets behind the Nintendo Wii’s wild success was how it was able to tap into one of the largest markets that had been largely ignored for decades: non-gamers. The games industry might eclipse other entertainment but it’s still doesn’t have the same level of penetration among the wider community. So when my non-gamer friends recommend games to me it’s always worth looking into as the design, objectives and mechanics are completely different than those I regularly play. That’s how Florence, an interactive story from the developer Moutains and published by Annapurna Interactive, made its way to me. I’m very glad it did too as the short experience is a great example of how simple mechanics, good story building and a wonderful soundtrack can come together into an emotional experience.

This review is mostly for people who’ve already played the game, so SPOILERS BELOW.

Florence follows the tale of a relationship between the protagonist (from whom the game draws its name) and Krish, a street performer. Whilst there are some bits of dialogue scattered throughout the game most of the communication is nonverbal, done through mini-games and graphic novel styled panels. The game has 20 chapters, each of which focuses on a different part of Florence’s life. You don’t have any real influence over how the story plays out, I believe, but you are able to put your own touches on some things, like a childhood painting that reappears in a couple scenes. This creates a narrative that, whilst guided by what you’re seeing on screen, is largely built out of your own imagination as you fill in the gaps between scenes. That’s what makes Florence’s story feel so personal to us all because, in the end, it’s us who’s building out her story.

The visuals are a simple, whimsical style reflective of our protagonist’s love of watercolour paints. The colours are usually solid with dark pen outlines, something that certainly felt reminiscent of a time when I used to dabble with them. Colour (and the lack of it) is also used to draw your attention to things or to reflect the mood of the characters on screen, with high tension moments taking on sharper, more aggressive tones and times of emotional lows reflected in the colour draining away. This is then all backed by an absolutely wonderful soundtrack by Kevin Penkin. This makes Florence an absolute joy to play just from an audio-visual experience which is then amplified tenfold by the narrative.

 

Florence starts of with a deliberately slow pace initially, reflecting the monotony of everyday life that everyone finds themselves in at some stage in their life. Then everything starts to pick up dramatically as a single event changes everything, in the case of Florence that’s meeting Krish. From there it’s a wonderful tale of seeing their young love blossom as they get to know each other at a much deeper level. The game mechanics start to come into play wonderfully at this point, like the conversations initially starting off difficult with lots of puzzle pieces but then, at its climax, turning into a single piece that just fits. Honestly I would’ve been quite happy with Florence if it just kept along that trajectory and never explored any of the more challenging aspects of being in a relationship. However I feel the developer wanted to explore relationships in a more realistic way, which is why the second half of Florence is dedicated to the breakup and how Florence recovers after.

For me personally this is where Florence started to really hit home. Not so much from the relationship perspective (although I’ve been there, but I’ve also been extremely lucky with my dear wife) but more in rediscovering something of yourself that you’d left behind and how sometimes tragedy is what leads you to rediscover that. That, I feel, is something universal to the human condition; we’re all pushed to pursue certain things in our lives and quite often a piece of ourselves might get left behind. Even when others recognise it in you and try to bring it out it can be hard to take the leap to begin the process of rebuilding yourself. The ending then is somewhat bittersweet, Florence has discovered how to be true to herself but only through gaining some emotional scars. Perhaps that’s why it’s stuck with me because it feels so true to life.

Florence is one of the best examples of a game that has universal appeal. The barrier to entry is low with it being available on iOS and Android and the mechanics being simple and easy to understand. The story it tells is one that I feel anyone can take something away from, whether it’s being stuck in a routine life, the joy of a new relationship, the pain of a breakup, rediscovering a lost passion or the process of rebuilding yourself up from your lowest point. On top of all of this it’s simply a wonderful audio visual experience with its whimsical art style and gorgeous backing soundtrack. Florence is hard to pass up because it asks so little of you yet gives so much in return, especially for lovers of a good story.

Rating: 9.25/10

Florence is available on iOS and Android right now for $4.49. Game was played on Android with about 45 minutes of total play time.

Subnautica: We Need to go Deeper.

Survival sandboxes have never really been my cup of tea. I get the appeal, crafting your own story however you see fit, but if I’m going to engage in the kind of repetitive activities that most of them make you do I’ll go back to my MMORPGs (at least I can get those SWEET SWEET PURPLES). However I’ve long had a large group of my friends pester me to play some of them and whilst I’ve inevitably left most of them behind one managed to get its hooks deep into me. As you’ve likely guess that game was Subnautica, one I had avoided for its entire life until it came up in conversation once again. With my dumpster diving in the Steam new release section wearing me down I figured it was time to try something that had a better chance of capturing my attention. Boy, did it ever.

Subnautica takes place in the far future, putting you in control of an unnamed protagonist (well I never figured out his name, but apparently it’s Ryley Robinson) aboard the spaceship Aurora. As you’re approach a planet your vessel is struck by an unknown energy pulse, sending it tumbling down to its surface. You manage to escape aboard one of the ships escape pods and upon landing find yourself stranded in a vast ocean. The aurora crashed close by, its reactor heavily damaged and spewing untold amounts of radiation into the surrounding environment. Your life pod has all the basics to keep you alive but you’ll have to draw on the resources on the planet if you’re ever going to make it off. What follows is a tale of survival that you’ll largely define yourself although it’s clear that this planet is hiding a secret that you’ll need to understand if you’re ever to get off it.

For a Unity based game Subnautica sure is a pretty one, making full use of all the features available to the engine. The level of detail could be tuned a little better as quite often you’ll see a lot of asset and texture pop-in. This wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t so reliant on those details to navigate yourself around and locate the things you’re looking for. There’s also quite a lot of simulation going on, even for stuff that’s no on screen, which means as your time in game stretches on your performance is likely going to start taking a bit of a dive (pun…yeah intended). I definitely enjoyed the slightly simplified, stylized art direction that they took for this game though, especially with the huge variety of different environments you can find yourself in. That’s only made better by the great voice acting, sound track and substantial foley work that went into rounding out the rest of the experience. Overall, whilst Subnautica might still have a few Early Access rough edges to polish out, it’s definitely one of the better looking games I’ve played this year.

In the heavily oversaturated sandbox survival simulator genre Subnautica stands out as the one that went full in on the nautical theme. Sure you’ve got the standard things that you’ll need to take care of like food, water and health, but all the progression mechanics are based around diving to deeper depths in the ocean world you find yourself stranded on. All the things you craft will either help you stay underwater for longer, move faster so you can explore more or craft vehicles that will allow you to go on longer and longer journeys. You’ll also build yourself a base (or twenty) to generate and stockpile resources, build upgrade stations and serve as a place of respite between your expeditions. All of this is in aid of exploring as much of the map as you want and by golly there’s quite a lot of it. More impressive is that it’s all hand crafted too and often updated so things aren’t always where you (or people on the forums) expect them to be. Driving all of this is a kind of campaign story that also entices you to dive to deeper depths whilst revealing to you the fates of your fellow crew and the efforts that are being undertaken to rescue you. Suffice to say there’s quite a lot to do, so much so that I lost almost 30 hours to it without really trying.

Exploration is the main aim of the game and for the most part Subnautica does it well. The game does a good job of giving you a safe area to explore around in initially, one that isn’t too demanding and gives you a decent intro into the main mechanics. A more directed tutorial would’ve been nice as it’s not completely obvious where you’d go about to find certain materials, making those first few items a bit of a chore to get done. Once you’ve got a few basics completed and some form of vehicle built though things start to progress a little faster and the campaign missions start coming thick and fast. Things can get really non-linear though as somethings will likely be easier for you to find than others. For instance I had a Seamoth fully completed before I managed to get everything together for a Seaglide, including having the blueprints for the powercell charger before I had the respective ones for my batteries. Similarly it took me quite some time to track down the multi-purpose room (yeah I know, I know, I didn’t explore the island enough) which limited my capabilities somewhat for a good few hours.

The crafting system is deep and rewarding, giving you ample things to shoot for throughout the course of the game. It’s almost always worth picking up as many crafting materials as you can carry as you’ll never know when you’ll next need them to craft the next upgrade. Probably my biggest gripe with the whole system is that the various drop rates for different materials doesn’t seem to be inline with the amount you’ll need. For instance diamonds, lithium and gold all drop from shale outcrops but always ended up with more diamonds than I needed and little of the precious lithium which seemingly all the higher end upgrades crave. Things only get worse with higher end materials, especially if you’re like me and built your base in the safe shallows near the escape pod (since that’s where I had all my stuff). Of course I could’ve built another base further out if I so desired but honestly the amount of times I had to dive back out to get more titanium meant that I’d probably be doing just as much travel no matter where I decided to put down my roots. If they ever add something like a mining rig which produces some of the minerals from that depth I think that’d make the whole experience a little better, at least for people like me who don’t really want to grind a lot in a single player experience.

I didn’t spend too much time on building out my base, basically just fleshing out the bare necessities I needed and a few other things to make my life a little easier. It took me a while to understand the whole structural integrity thing and how other modules affected it. I think that’s part of the experience though as there’s a whole bunch of mechanics based around not doing it properly (those who’ve played that will know what I mean and yes, I did do that, multiple times). I did engage in a little mobile base building towards the end of my play time though, keeping enough resources with me to be able to build a single multi purpose room, a hatch, two power cell chargers and a nuclear reactor. I only ever ended up using it once (and discovered a limitation I didn’t know of, you can’t remove the reactor rods) so it was probably not completely needed. Still it was a nice little safety assurance to have.

I almost gave up on Subnautica after I finally built my cyclops as I wasn’t particularly interested in the effort required to kit it out and transfer all my stuff into it for the long journey into the deep. However I just went and did that for a couple hours one night, fully equipping it with everything I’d need to make the long journey down. Honestly I think the amount of effort I had to go through to do it suddenly made the whole thing feel a lot more worthwhile; this wasn’t something that you could just blast your way through. No if you wanted to see the story through to the end you’d have to equip yourself with all the things you’d need as coming back might not be possible. Whilst I didn’t go as crazy as some people did I had more than I ever needed for the long journey down and boy, that was some intense gaming.

Going from piloting the Seamoth and Seaglide the Cyclops is an exercise is slow, steady precision. Of course the first thing I did was to put it up to full speed to see what it was capable of and promptly caused massive cavitation, damaging my propeller and causing a fire. It was then I realised that this vessel wasn’t built for speed but endurance and I’d have to be very careful how I handled it going forward. Once you get a handle for it though the cyclops is very maneuverable and is nigh on invulnerable to you bashing it around. Creature attacks are a different story however and once you’re in the deepest depths it becomes a real balancing act of movement speed, damage from creatures and how much charge you’ll lose if you don’t find all those fscking Lava Larva that have attached themselves to the outside of your ship.

Given that Subnautica has been out for about 4 years now most of the egregious bugs have been fixed but a few still remain. Lockers and other interactable items can glitch out on you if hit a hotkey when you’re interacting them, preventing you from interacting with anything and hiding your HUD from you. This can usually be fixed by walking away or just spamming buttons but it is rather annoying when it happens. Hitboxes can also be a bit iffy, like when you’re trying to say interact with a part of the Seamoth and end up entering it instead. Base building too can be a little weird, like when you place 2 multi-purpose rooms on top of each other. The green indicator would make you think that everything is fine but no, there is actually a wrong way to do it which will prevent you from putting in a ladder between them. There’s also the performance and LOD detail issues I mentioned before, something which I would have expected to be fixed by now. None of these things are game breaking experiences and all of them are things I think will be fixed in due course.

Subnautica was sold to me as the kind of survival game I’d be able to get into because of the story and, by and large, I’d agree with that. To be sure the first 8 or so hours were quite engaging because there was always an objective for me to go to, one that would show me a bit more about the world. After that though things started to get a little thin on the ground. Sure there were a few tidbits here and there but for the next 14 hours or so I was in something of a narrative hole. That picked up swiftly towards the end of the game with the last 6 or so hours filled with a lot more excitement, especially towards the end. If I was playing more efficiently I’m sure the story would have felt a lot better paced but even for a min-maxer like myself, one who was routinely consulting with the wiki and forums, I don’t think a genuine first playthrough could be done much quicker. With that in mind I’d like to see another 4~5 hours worth of story content to help drive things along as I’ve heard a lot of people drop the game as they get their cyclops which usually coincides with the dearth of story elements. All that being said though I thoroughly enjoyed Subnautica’s story and would happily recommend it to people who’d traditionally shy away from games in this genre.

Subnautica was one of those games I went into thinking I wouldn’t like it and was gladly surprised to be proven wrong. There’s always this sense of just needing to go a little deeper to find that next thing, whether it be story related or that item you need to make your life that much easier. The story that plays along helps to keep you engaged as you scrape together the upgrades you need to get to the next chapter. There’s still a few rough edges from its Early Access days, including a glaring lack of story for a good half of my time spent in it, but these aren’t things I think are beyond fixing. So it seems my friends were right, this is the kind of game for people like me who’ve given the whole survival genre a miss because we do like a good story that we don’t craft ourselves. Subnautica seems to strike the right balance here, giving you ample room to craft your own tale whilst giving you a trail to follow if you so wish. Whilst the AAA drought is soon to be over it’s still probably worth giving Subnautica a look in as it really is worth the time, especially if you can get through to the end.

Rating: 8.75/10

Subnautica is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $24.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 29 hours playtime and 82% of the achievements unlocked.

The Free Ones: Swing Free.

This is the last week I go Steam new release diving, I promise.

I mean I’m sure there’s a ton of gold in there somewhere but the process for discovering new titles that are worth playing couldn’t be worse. Valve has made something of an attempt with their discovery queues but they rarely recommend anything new and I’ve yet to hear of a viable alternative (and no, I’m not going to try and put something like that into Completionist, that idea died when Valve killed the data I relied on). So it’s up to us, dear gamers, to churn through the hundreds of games released every week to try and hone in on something that might take our fancy. This week it’s The Free Ones and whilst I’m not about to throw it under the same bus as Elementium or NUMERIC it’s certainly not going to make any must play list anytime soon.

The Free Ones puts you in control of Theo, a captive who’s been working as a slave in the mines for most of his adult life. One day however a mysterious glove finds its way to him, accompanied by a note telling him that they can make him free. Soon after he comes across a group of escaped slaves, living on a nearby island away from the watchful eye of their captors. There he learns of their plan for escape and agrees to help them. What follows is a tale of his journey to regain his freedom and grant it to those who’ve known nothing but slavery their entire lives.

Graphically The Free Ones isn’t anything to write home about, being about a generation and a half behind the trend. The environments are definitely not made to be explored in detail and that’s by design, you’re meant to swing on through as fast as possible in order to get to the next section. This wouldn’t be an issue if there was a little more love given to the parts that you can’t blow past, like the cut scenes or some of the slower sections. It’s at this point that it becomes painfully clear just how basic most of the assets and other elements are which in this day and age is a big detractor from the overall experience. Couple that with extensive asset reuse and you’ve got a relatively bland, repetitive visual experience. Considering that it was only in development for 1 year and 8 months I can see why better visuals took a back burner to other things.

The one sentence overview of The Free One’s core mechanics is that it’s a momentum based 3D platformer akin to similar games like A Story About My Uncle or Valley. The main part is the grapple hook, allowing you to latch onto wooden objects in the environment and pull yourself towards them. This allows you to build up some momentum and fling yourself across the map. The challenge starts to build up as the things you’re able to grapple to start moving, forcing you to figure out how best to latch onto them in order to gain the greatest momentum. There’s also numerous challenges based on threading the needle through various tight spaces which aren’t particularly forgiving if you don’t hit the mark. There’s also a bunch of collectibles to get, ones that are only collected if you land back on solid ground, something which will provide an extra layer of challenge to those seeking it. Achievement hunters will also love the no death and time limited runs but I personally didn’t find them compelling. At a mechanical level I think The Free Ones is implemented well but it’s not the kind of challenge I’d typically seek out for myself.

For me the game excels in the large, open environments where you’re able to fly past large areas in a single go. It’s a pretty great feeling when you get on a roll and manage to clear a section or two without stopping, even if there is a couple desperate moments where you’re searching for the next thing to latch onto. The tighter, closed in environments are much less satisfying mostly because there’s usually a lot more that can go wrong, requiring a lot more attempts to clear a section which can be a little frustrating. This is made worse by the fact that the hit detection in the game isn’t as polished as I’d like, leading to a lot of furious clicking as I plummeted down to my death.

Indeed this lack of polish is present through all of the game and it becomes painfully apparent in the late stages of the game. There were numerous times when I fell through the world or got out of bounds, sometimes triggering a respawn and sometimes others requiring a checkpoint restart. There’s also a lot of sections where you can end up in places that the developers didn’t intend you to be, like on some of the levels with trains and the islands that surround them. If you manage to get on one of them accidentally you can walk around it but it’s pretty clear that the developers didn’t intend anyone to be on them. Similarly latching onto train tracks is a real hit and miss affair as there were times when it made the “clang” noise indicating I’d latched on while I fell back down to my death. Of course this is the product of only 2 full time devs so this lack of polish is somewhat expected and it’s not something a couple more months in dev would’ve fixed.

Unfortunately the story can’t make up for the game’s faults as it’s rudimentary, predictable and oddly paced. It’s pretty standard in terms of your motivation (I need to get out of here to get back to my real life) and follows the well trodden story path along that. The pacing is odd in that the characters go through wild swings of emotional development over what appears to be a couple days. If they’d broken the sections up a bit more and given it time to develop it’d be a bit more believable but as it stands today it just doesn’t have enough investment for the emotional outcomes it presents.

As a standalone game The Free Ones isn’t anything to write home about, as it doesn’t really excel in any particular category. The so-so visuals wouldn’t be out of place a generation or two ago, even for games that came from similarly sized development teams. The core game play works well enough although the lack of polish is quite noticeable, especially towards the later sections of the game. Finally the story does nothing to tie this all together nor make up for the more egregious missteps that the game makes, instead serving as another reminder that the game is decidedly mediocre. Compared to what I’ve been playing recently it was definitely a step above but that’s not saying much. I’m sure fans of these kinds of games will find something to like here but in all honesty if you haven’t heard of The Free Ones you really don’t need to worry about missing out on it.

Rating: 6.0/10

The Free Ones is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 3.2 hours with 44% of the achievements unlocked.