Review

Mass Effect Andromeda: Pathfinder Ryder, Reporting In.

Almost 10 years ago the original Mass Effect debuted on the Xbox 360. The hype around it had been building for some time and I, not wanting to miss out, had purchased the console based on the rumours it was to be forever a platform exclusive. I don’t regret my decision at all and I completed the whole trilogy on the Xbox 360, even upgrading to a newer revision so that I didn’t have to deal with the jet engine that was the original’s disc drive. With Shepard’s journey over however I decided that I’d come back to PC for Andromeda, the next instalment in the Mass Effect universe. With such a high bar set for the previous trilogy (bar some inexcusable missteps) it was always going to be tough for Andromeda, but the mistakes that BioWare have made with this latest instalment go beyond reality not lining up to the hype.

Andromeda takes place between the events of 2 and 3 of the original trilogy where the races of the Milky Way have formed the Andromeda initiative. The Citadel’s council has decided to arks to the nearby Andromeda galaxy, each of them populated with 20,000 citizens and a leader known as the Pathfinder. You play as Scott/Sarah Ryder, a twin and child of humanity’s Pathfinder Alec Ryder. Your job is to find humanity a new home and begin the formation of a new galactic government in the Andromeda galaxy. Upon arrival however you quickly discover that everything isn’t as the initiative had first hoped, the Andromeda galaxy significantly changed in the years since it was first scouted. It is up to you then to make Andromeda viable, paving the way for a sustainable colony for generations to come.

Mass Effect Andromeda drops the Unreal 3 engine that powered the last trilogy in favour of the Frostbite engine. This, coupled with the significant leap in computing power afforded to us, means that Andromeda’s graphics are a massive step up over its predecessor. However this also meant that BioWare had to spend significant resources in redeveloping tools, workflows and assets which led to some significant teething issues. This most obviously manifested in “my face is tired” lady and other quirks which made it feel like the series was a generation or two behind where it should be. The patches that have come out since then have made a significant difference but it just goes to show that even the big name players can suffer when it comes to an engine change. Still, at a pure visual level, Mass Effect Andromeda is quite a looker.

In a departure from the series’ action-RPG roots Andromeda tends heavily towards an open-world game, giving you an absolutely massive galaxy to explore. Whilst the core of the series remains largely the same there’s a bevy of additional things thrown in to keep you playing. There are numerous planets which you can put outposts on but only after you’ve raised their “viability” to a certain level. In order to do that there’s dozens of tasks available like completing quests, eliminating hostile forces or unearthing an ancient technology with the power to terraform worlds. Completing these tasks also raises Andromeda’s overall viability, allowing you to bring more people out of cryopreservation which unlocks certain benefits for you. You’ve also got strike teams which you can send on missions to get you resources, items and credits. There’s also a research and crafting system which allows you to build your own customised versions of weapons and armour you find in the game. This is all on top of the run of the mill action-RPG trappings we’ve come to expect from the Mass Effect series, meaning that the scale of Andromeda is much greater than any of its predecessors.

Andromeda’s combat system has been reworked, most notably scaling down the number of abilities you have on tap at any one time (3, maximum) whilst allowing you to fully max out any of the 3 talent trees if you so wish. Additionally your control over your team mates is significantly diminished, the ability to target their powers gone and the only command you can give them is “go here”. Combat scales to your current level which means that, at the start, it’s probably a bit more challenging than it should be. Later on, when you’ve got a good set of gear and maxed out talents, things become a lot easier. Whilst I’m usually a fan of streamlined combat systems the changes made in Andromeda feel like a step back overall as it removes some of the depth that its predecessors had. No longer can I set up a devastating combo with my team mates, instead I’m left to watch over them and time my abilities that way. In the end I opted for a pure tech build with multiple constructs to do most of the work for me. There’s also a distinct lack of variety in the combat encounters as after about 6 hours you’ve probably seen every enemy, bar a few boss fights. Overall the combat feels competent but lacking the components which made it so much fun in the previous Mass Effect titles.

Progression comes in numerous forms and so often that it can be hard to figure out where you should be focusing your effort. There’s the standard levelling up and talent points which allows you to craft your ideal character. Unlike previous games where your original character class limited your talent choices Andromeda instead uses that as a kind of boost to give you access to some talents earlier than you’d otherwise be able to. From there you can either build on it or mix and match as you desire. How you spend your points also unlocks additional “profiles”, essentially another choice which allows you to bolster certain aspects of your character, which can be changed at any time. In addition to this there’s the usual loot drops which, like the combat, scale to your character’s current level. You can also research and craft your own weapons and armour, even augmenting them with different mods to give them a considerable edge over their dropped versions. However the research and crafting system requires such a heavy investment, in both time and resources, that it’s honestly not worth it when the difference is maybe a few percentage points. If you’re really, truly into making the most broken character possible then it’ll be right up your alley but otherwise it’s better to spend your time elsewhere.

Once you’ve got a handle on just where you want to go with your character it becomes easier to tune out the noise but that’s also the point where progression starts to slow considerably. Higher tiers of talents will require 2 levels worth of points to acquire, new armour upgrades (through drops or crafting) only come every 5 levels or so and quality of life upgrades (from cryo pods) require a significant time investment on making planets viable. Again this comes back to the game’s more open world ethos, giving the player numerous means of progression in the hopes of keeping you around longer. In any other open world game this would just be par for the course but for the Mass Effect series it feels like a big step away from what made it great.

Indeed the open-world-ness of Andromeda is, I feel, the game’s Achilles heel. Open world games tend to try to cram as much as they can in and often end up relying on repeatable missions that can be adapted easily. Andromeda is no different with many missions coming down to simple fetch quests or a small variant there of. Any of the worlds you go to are either inhabited by Kett (the enemy alien race), colonists or the Angara (the new alien race). Whilst all the worlds have their own distinct feel the all play out the same, especially when it comes to reactivating the monoliths. Whilst the planet exploration is done far better than it has ever been in the series (the Nomad being a much better version of the Mako) you’ll still be doing the exact same thing on each planet: driving around, sometimes stopping for mining nodes or a combat encounter as you trundle your way to your objective. Sometimes it can be fun when you stumble across something but it starts to wear thin pretty early on.

What this means is that the core focus of the game is somewhat blurred. With so many things to do it can be hard to discern what the main thrust of the game really is as they’re always pulling you in multiple different directions. Sure you can look to the main missions for direction but unlike previous ones it wasn’t so obvious how the side missions built up into it. Indeed one of (what I had assumed was) the core aspects of the game, finding all the other race’s arks, is actually nothing more than a side quest and completing them appears to net you no significant advantages at all. Previous Mass Effect games heavily leaned on the fact that your choices, even those outside of the main story line, had a meaningful impact. In Andromeda that really doesn’t feel like the case. It’s possible that some of my decisions might mean something in future instalments but even the original Mass Effect managed to have meaningful choices within its own play time. Suffice to say I think that Andromeda could have done with a significant reduction in scope in order to better focus on what made the series popular in the first place.

As many others have pointed out the initial release of Andromeda was plagued with various issues that made the game less than ideal. The varying quality of animation across different characters was improved significantly in the most recent update but some other fundamental issues remain. During dialogue the camera has a mind of its own, sometimes getting stuck on geometry that means it won’t have Ryder, or anyone else, in frame. There were also numerous quality of life issues like being unable to skip certain things which really should have been skipable from the start. The multiplayer experience was also something of a crap shoot, taking forever to find a game and then being a buggy mess when it finally did. The only game I managed to get into had me with unlimited abilities, ammunition and health, something which (whilst fun) I don’t think was completely intended. This may be one of those games that gets considerably better as patches and DLC are released however, so if you’re reading this in the far future take note.

The premise of the game’s story is a good one, allowing the series to continue without having to lean on the previous games’ canon to succeed. However it takes forever to become even the slightest bit interesting, requiring at least 6 hours of investment to understand just what is going on and another 14 hours to actually start piquing your interest. This is most certainly due to the disjointed, fractured nature of how the greater narrative is told, split up amongst so many different side missions that it’s hard to make sense of how it’s all supposed to fit together. The game’s overall narrative, which feels dangerously close to the previous trilogy’s in some respects, tries its best to set up the universe in which this new trilogy takes place. However this time around you’re not struggling against some unseen foe which is pulling the strings, instead you’re the glorious, benevolent colonists who’ve come to save the Andromeda galaxy from itself. In that respect a lot of the struggle feels hollow, failing to kindle a sense of purpose or drive in you.

It’s a shame because I feel like the character development is actually done pretty well for most of your crew. Jaal, the Angaran resistance fighter, is an incredibly interesting character and one that helps give you a deep insight into his people’s culture. Some of the others could use work, like Cora’s weird interactions with Asari, but overall if you want to really get to know your crew there’s every opportunity to. I, as always, seemingly feel for the one I couldn’t have her romance options locked away from me because of my gender. That was slightly disappointing and so the romance I did pursue afterwards felt a little hollow. Still I can’t blame the game for not allowing me my heart’s want.

Mass Effect Andromeda is an uncharacteristic misstep by BioWare, seemingly forgetting what made the original trilogy great in favour of expanding its horizons. The elements are there, but they’re buried underneath a trove of open-world garbage that does nothing to enhance the experience. In order to get any enjoyment out of the game you’re looking at a least 20 hours, something which makes it hard to recommend to all but the most dedicated of Mass Effect fans. There’s also a lot of teething issues resulting from the transition to the Frostbite engine, but these are things that can be fixed in patches over time. The more pressing issues, like the lack of focus and repetition that comes with open world games, is a harder challenge to solve. However BioWare is nothing if not adaptable so there’s every chance that future DLCs and patches will transform this game from its current, lacklustre state into something that is more worthy of your time.

Rating: 7.0/10

Mass Effect Andromeda is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $69.99, $79 and $79 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 32 hours of total playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands: I’m Feeling Clenchy.

If you’ve ever played GTA V online you’ll know that one of its standout features is the heists. A good group of mates and I have run through them numerous times, usually late at night with each of us cradling a wine glass in the other hand. So when we starting hearing that Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands was basically just the heists part of GTA Online we decided that we’d give it a shot. Whilst it’s not exactly as we expected there are aspects that heisters from GTA will adore, especially if you’re after a game that you’ll be playing for dozens of hours.

The year is 2019 and Bolivia has fallen victim to the ruthless drug cartel, Santa Blanca. Now a narco state, producing the lion’s share of the world’s cocaine, it has caught the attention of the United States government. However it took the bombing of their embassy, and the death of one of their DEA agents, before they felt compelled to intervene. Not wanting to be seen interfering in a sovereign state’s affairs they have decided to send in you: a member of the elite unit called the Ghosts. It will be up to you to see the completion of operation Kingslayer, with its ultimate target being the leader of the cartel.

Wildlands uses the AnvilNext engine which has brought us other stunning titles such as For Honor and Steep. The environments of Wildlands are massive, spanning dozens of in-game kilometers. It makes the usual open-world trade offs, sacrificing scale for detail. The result is a game that’s exceptionally pretty when you’re flying over or driving through it but up close the repetitive assets and lack of detail start to become apparent. Performance is good overall, striking a good balance between pretty visuals and consistent frame rates. Overall it feels like a step up from similar open world titles and aptly demonstrates the versatility that the AnvilNext engine is capable of.

The core game of Wildlands is your typical open world game, throwing you into a big wide space that’s filled with missions, collectibles and random encounters that you can partake in at your leisure. Progression is a two part mechanic: the first is skill points that are gained through completing missions which can then be spent on skills but only if you have the requisite resources, collected from just about anywhere. Weapons and their various upgrades are scattered around the map, requiring a bit of leg work to craft the perfect gun for your play style. The game is always played with 4 total people in your team, whether they be friends you’ve brought in or AIs if you’re playing alone. If you’re playing on anything but the hardest difficulty the game could easily just be a run of the mill third person shooter but at the peak difficulty it’s necessary to take a far more tactical approach.

In general a mission will usually go through a few phases. The first will be recon, where you’ll utilize a drone to scout the area and tag as many of the enemy as you can. You’ll then attempt to take out as many of them as you can without alerting the rest of them which you’ll sometimes be able to do without incident. However, 9 times out of 10 I’d say, you’ll end up making a mistake that alerts everyone to your position and from there it’s a no-holds barred shoot out until one of you is dead. If you’ve got the patience though you can retreat and reset for another stealth attempt, although it’ll likely be a lot harder the second time around. After that there’s usually some objective to complete which often sends through another wave of enemies for you to take care of. Overall it’s not the most inventive game in terms of mechanics but they do blend together quite well.

Progression is pretty steady throughout the game, so long as you take the time to tag enough supplies to ensure you can level up your skills. In between levels and runs for supplies you’ll typically stumble across a weapon or mod blueprint which you can then use straight away if you get to a load out point. It’s slow enough that you don’t feel overwhelmed with options but also fast enough that you’re never wanting for the next step up. If the open world genre appeals to you then it’s likely to keep drawing you in for multiple hours. For me however things started to wear thin rather quickly.

Like all co-op games Wildlands is better with friends but even then it becomes quickly apparent just how same-y everything is. Most missions play out roughly the same, although they do get more interesting as you unlock some of the more ridiculous upgrades. Most weapons in the same class aren’t different enough to make them feel satisfying when you acquire them and you’ll often get lots of upgrades for weapons you don’t currently have. It has the same feel as a MMORPG grind but without the payoff of showing off your gear in the armory. It’s a criticism I’ve leveled at other open world games before so it’ll be a red letter day when one game manages to address it successfully.

Another notable misstep is the vehicle physics which, whilst slightly improved from the open beta, are still janky and weird when compared to other similar titles. Helicopters have a weird flight model which appears to function purely based on momentum, usually whichever vector has the highest value at any point in time. Ground vehicles are neigh on impossible to keep flipped over which leads to a whole bunch of weird and wonderful interactions. It might sound like a minor gripe but when you spend so much of the game going from point A to point B small things like this are unfortunately very noticeable. It’s not beyond fixing however, but the last patch or two didn’t make any noticeable improvements.

The story is average, not terrible but not particularly noteworthy. There are some nice touches, like the various bits of banter the team has between missions which helps flesh out the main characters. The main story line though isn’t particularly interesting as, thanks to the open world construction, there’s no real impetus driving you forward to any one objective. Indeed even the over-arching goal that the game sets out early on seems to be a million miles away all the time. Perhaps it gets better with more time invested but if a story can’t grab me in the first 4 hours then it’s not likely to do it in the next 20.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a decent open world/RPG hybrid, one that I’m sure a certain type of player will find a lot to love in it. The visuals are definitely a step above its current peers, made even more impressive by the fact that the engine isn’t specifically designed for this type of game. The combat is challenging and rewarding, even if it starts to feel a little bit repetitive after a while. It suffers from the same spread of issues that plague all open world games, something I hope one day to see solved. The vehicle mechanics could be improved on significantly, something which would make a good bulk of the experience just that much better. Finally the story is nothing to write home about but, considering I couldn’t push myself to put more time into it, there’s every chance it gets more engrossing with a few more hours chucked in. Overall I think Tom Clancy’s Wildland’s is a competent game, just not one I think I’ll be playing without friends or sober, if I can manage it.

Rating: 6.5/10

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $49 on all platforms. Game was played in both the open beta and full release with approximately 8 hours spent equally across both.

Horizon: Zero Dawn: By All Mother’s Grace.

Publishers will try their hardest to time releases right, something that’s become inexorably harder due to the sheer volume of games that are released these days. It’s not uncommon now to hear of several titles, all ostensibly vying for the same market, releasing within a short period of each other. Last year’s hat trick of Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is the perfect example of this, something which you would assume was to the detriment to them all. However it seems that timing might not be everything as all of the games did respectably well. Horizon: Zero Dawn’s launch, coming in just before Zelda: Breath of the Wild, would have similarly seen foolish but it’s success says differently, its sales even eclipsing that of Zelda in its opening weeks. The reasoning for that is simple: it is an absolutely spectacular game, one that many will point to as a reason to own a PlayStation 4.

In the far future humanity has regressed back to its tribal roots. The ruins of the Old Ones are all around them, a reminder of the time when the world was dominated by metal rather than by nature. You play as Aloy, an orphan who was put in the care of Rost, a tribal outcast. He teaches you how to survive in this world but will not speak of your past, his banishment from the tribe or why you were entrusted to his care. However he does tell you of a way to learn all these things: you must win The Proving to become a brave of a tribe and win a boon from the matriarchs. This begins your journey of self discovery, one that will take you deep into this world’s past and will put you in control of its future.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is an absolutely stunning game, setting the bar for what’s possible on the PlayStation 4. This is saying something considering that I’m still playing on an original PS4, which doesn’t have all the added goodness that’s available to pro owners. As the screenshots in this review will attest to you can see just how big, expansive and detailed the environments are. They are then lavished with all the modern effects you’d care to name, making them some of the most immersive graphics I’ve seen to date. Surprisingly none of this comes with inherent performance problems either, the main game able to maintain a stable 30fps for the majority of the game. Interestingly the UI does render out at 60fps but the game itself is locked at 30fps, even on the Pro. This is all thanks to the Decima engine which has powered similar spectactular titles such as Killzone Shadow Fall and Until Dawn (it will also be bringing us Death Stranding, which is rather exciting). Suffice to say after the low-fi experience I had with Zelda it was great to have a graphical marvel like Horizon: Zero Dawn to go back to.

From a core game perspective Horizon: Zero Dawn is a traditional open-world RPG, taking inspiration from other similar AAA titles. There’s the campaign missions which will be the main source of story progression coupled with dozens of side missions, errands and various other quests to help you progress Aloy. Completing quests and killing monsters earns you XP which will level you up and grant you skill points to spend in one of 3 different trees (ostensibly combat, stealth and crafting). The crafting takes a leaf out of the Far Cry book, requiring you to hunt down certain animals for rare components to upgrade your inventory. Additionally, whilst you can purchase weapons and armour from vendors, you’ll need to hunt down certain beasts in order to be able to buy them. There’s also the usual open world trappings like climbing towers to reveal areas, hidden collectables hidden around various areas and random encounters that appear to change slightly as the game progresses. In terms of scale it might not be quite as big as Zelda was but it’s still definitely big enough to satisfy even the most hardcore open world completionist.

Combat sits inbetween Zelda and Dark Souls, being somewhat approachable but still requiring a base level of skill to get things done efficiently. Unlike some games where you can just blast your way through Horizon: Zero Dawn is much more focused on finding an enemy’s weak points and exploiting them. This can be as simple as figuring out which points to hit to give extra damage all the way through to complex mini-games that involve figuring out which component you can blow off, removing it without damaging it, then using said component against the enemy that you’re fighting. This can be somewhat frustrating at times as you might not get the opportunity to scan an enemy for its weaknesses before it engages you, leading to a drawn out engagement where you try to figure out what you need to do. Other times however the fights can be incredibly satisfying as the biggest of enemies can be felled easily should you know the right sequence of events to do in order to take them down.

One part where the combat does fall down a bit is with the camera. There’s no lock-on in Horizon: Zero Dawn, meaning that you are always going to be hunting around to ensure your enemies are within your vision. Sure, you can tag enemies to make this a bit easier, but that doesn’t save you from problems like the camera doing an about face if you dive head first into a boulder. The reasoning behind the lack of lock on is due to the focus on targeting weak points at range, rather than trying to beat your quarry into submission. A good fix would be a “snap to tagged target” button which would still require you to aim properly but would alleviate rather irritating camera wrangling that you have to do. Still it’s far from a game breaking issue and it can often be overcome by taking a more stealthy approach.

Stealth is done superbly well with most missions able to be done completely via stealth. There’s no non-lethal option here and the game won’t reward you for avoiding taking out enemies. Most small to medium sized enemies can be taken out in a single blow, although the animation is relatively long and so requires a decent amount of precise to pull off properly. Larger enemies need some more diverse tactics in order to take them out stealthily but it’s certainly still doable for some enemies. Indeed I managed to take out a bunch of shell walkers by silent striking them then disappearing behind a rock, saving me the trouble of dealing with their shields. The biggest enemies unfortunately still require a head to head fight but those are probably the most fun fights and would be a waste if they could be done via stealth.

Progression comes thick and fast in Horizon: Zero Dawn, ensuring that you’re never too long without some kind of improvement coming your way. Levels and skill points are plentiful; so much so that about half way through the game I couldn’t find a single mission that I hadn’t already out levelled. Taking the typical “take all the things” approach works a treat, ensuring that you’ve always got enough supplies to upgrade everything and for trading with vendors to get awesome gear. The RNG can be a little unforgiving at times, leaving you to constantly hunt down certain animals or machines in order to get that one part you need. However if you’ve saved basically everything you can carry you’ll often be able to craft a bunch of upgrades all in a row. Unfortunately your main spear can’t be upgraded like your other weapons can be, save for a few talents and a single upgrade that comes late in the main campaign. It’s a bit annoying since everything else goes up significantly in power, leaving the spear a feeble option in late game.

Before I get into the story there’s one weird quirk that I think bears mentioning. For some reason the facial animations seem to be a bit hit and miss in some areas. Every so often characters will appear to completely lose control of their eyebrows, something which is both hilarious and disconcerting. Additionally some character’s upper lip animations seem to fail to apply which makes them appear to be talking through gritted teeth. Most of the time it’s not particularly noticeable but it can be an immersion breaking occurrence once you notice it.

The plot of Horizon: Zero Dawn is fantastic, starting out from simple roots and slowly building up to a crescendo that you’d be hard pressed to predict from the outset. All of the characters are given ample opportunity to develop through on-screen events with little additional flavour given by the numerous journal entries you can pick up everywhere. The pacing of some of these elements could use some work, like when you’re exploring the old metal ruins and there’s numerous audio logs around. Often in those areas I’d just end up standing still for ages whilst the audio played as otherwise it got too hard to listen to it and the normal in game dialogue. Putting that part to one side however you have a story that’s deep and rewarding, especially for those who take the time to uncover all the additional items scattered around the world.

This is only made better by the absolutely stellar cast of Horizon: Zero Dawn who do a great job of bringing the script to life coupled with the fantastic sound work. The cast consists of some big names, both from within the gaming community and from Hollywood. The soundtrack of Horizon: Zero Dawn ebbs and flows at just the right time, providing punctuation to the game’s pinnacle moments. There is one grievous fault however: it unabashedly screams sequel right after the game’s closing credits roll. Whilst I am excited at the prospect of revisiting this world there was no need to seemingly ruin the game’s ultimate climax with that post credit scene. It’s still worth experiencing but they could have done a better job at that point.

Horizon: Zero Dawn takes the mantle of queen of the PS4 exclusives now that the Uncharted series has come to a close. It’s visuals are second to none, making great use of all the power the PlayStation 4 has to offer and further amping that up for Pro owners. The game is deep and complex, it’s mechanics not offering anything particularly new but certainly showcasing an implementation that others should take note from. The story is likely to be one of the best for this year, setting up the IP for a good long time to come. There are a few small issues that bring the game down a peg or two but none of which are beyond being fixed in a future patch. Horizon: Zero Dawn is this year’s first must-play title on the PlayStation 4 and one I think many will come back to for years to come.

Rating: 9.5/10

Horizon: Zero Dawn is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $78. Total play time was approximately 20 hours with 20% of the achievements unlocked.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild: The Cycle of Calamity.

For the gamers who grew in the age where Nintendo dominated the home console market there’s no series more ingrained in our psyche than that of The Legend of Zelda. I can remember spending countless hours on each of the titles, from A Link to the Past all the way up to Twilight Princess. I haven’t been back since then however, the few titles that came out over the past decade passing me by. So when I saw the first few screenshots of Breath of the Wild I was lost for words; it looked to me now what Ocarina of Time, my personal all time favourite Zelda game, looked like to me back when I was 13. Instantly I was sold, not just on the game but on it’s accompanying console. Sure I may never use it again but it was either a Switch or a WiiU and, honestly, the Switch was the better of the two. So there I was on launch day to pick up my new console and copy of Breath of the Wind and I’ve spent a great deal of the following weeks playing through it.

Truly, this is a Zelda game for the ages.

Awakening in a tomb you find yourself, Link, without any memories of what led you to here. You quickly learn that you’ve been asleep for 100 years with the land of Hyrule beset upon by the ancient evil of Calamity Ganon who is sealed inside Hyrule castle by Princess Zelda’s magic. There are a few who recognise you and are able to give you an idea of the person you once were. One thing is clear however: you are the champion who must take purge Calamity Ganon from Hyrule. Doing so won’t be easy however as the vast array of mechanical beasts that were designed to protect Hyrule have been usurped by Ganon for his own nefarious means. It is up to you then to purge the corruption from these beasts and bring them back to the light for only then will you be strong enough to face Ganon in a final battle of good and evil.

At a fundamental level Breath of the Wild’s visuals are one step behind the current generation, which is par for the course for titles on the Nintendo platform. It uses a style similar to that of Windwaker, favouring a kind of cartoony visual aesthetic. This is boosted significantly by the inclusion of modern lighting techniques, higher resolution models and textures and generous use of particle systems. For the most part things run pretty well however there are quite a few cases when the Switch would get bogged down. This is most notable in towns with a lot of NPCs in them, areas with quite a lot of visible grass or when you manage to give the physics engine a lot of work to do when you get “creative” with combat or puzzles. There’s also the issue of pop-in for larger areas on the Switch, an issue I’ve heard is a lot worse on the WiiU version. For a first party title on a new console things like this aren’t entirely unexpected, however this is their flagship title and these issues should have been caught in QA. It’s also strange to note that this is apparently completely avoided by undocking which, whilst a solution for some, isn’t the way I wanted to play Breath of the Wild.

Like all Legend of Zelda games before it Breath of the wild is a deep and expansive RPG, putting you in an absolutely massive world with countless things to do. There’s the main story line of course which follows the shrine/temple trope that’s well established in the series. There’s also just over a hundred smaller shrines which are short, self contained puzzles that award your spirit orbs (equivalent to the quarter heart containers, but can also be traded for stamina) on completion. Like many open world RPGs there’s also about a dozen or so towers for you to climb in order to unlock the map for the area, each of which presents its own set of unique challenges. Along your way you’ll collect various bits of armour, weaponry and crafting materials to make your journey easier. Gone are the gadgets of Zelda games of past (a single tear may have been shed for the lack of a hookshot) replaced instead by “runes” which allow unlimited use of a few choice abilities. You can now also climb pretty much every surface under the sun, limited only by your stamina wheel. Further to this you have a glider which allows you to leap from any height and glide gracefully down. Even this list probably only touches on less than half of what you can actually do in the game as there’s just so many things to do.

Combat is a kind of “Dark Souls Light” experience. Enemies telegraph their moves well in advance of executing them allowing you to dodge, parry or interrupt them. Depending on the enemy you’re facing they may have certain weak points you can exploit or elemental weaknesses you can make use of. Additionally some enemies are better blocked than dodged, parried rather than interrupted and so on. With previous Zelda games mostly focusing on enemies having one trick you need to work out a deeper combat experience like what Breath of the Wild provides is refreshing. There are still tricks of course (like stasis working on pretty much every enemy in the game) and learning them will make the difference between a frustrating grind and a swift beat down. The combat however highlights probably the worst mechanic in Zelda, one that tarnishes the game’s core tenet of rewarding exploration significantly.

Every item you get in the game (bar a couple, like the Master Sword and a few rewards weapons) have a limited durability. Now this isn’t the normal kind of durability which would require you to shell out cash to repair them. No instead any weapon, shield or bow you find as a limited lifetime before it breaks and disappears from your inventory. Whilst this does encourage some…creative ideas to ensure that your weapon stash is always stocked with what you need (like using crap weapons against crap enemies, since the durability hit is the same regardless) it takes out all the fun of spending ages exploring a random area in the hopes of getting rewarded with a really cool item. Every item you get is going to disappear and so you’ll horde as many as you can, using whatever is available even if its sub-optimal just so your best ones are ready just in case. Even worse if you happen to accidentally throw your weapon or use a shield to parry something that shouldn’t be parried you’ll instantly break them, potentially leaving you scant for better options. To be sure the game throws a fair amount of kit at you to ensure you’re never left wanting but it means that getting, and keeping, the best items in the game is an exercise in farming, not in rewards born out of discovery or hard work.

After an initial stint in the starting area Breath of the Wild becomes a true open world experience, allowing you to complete missions in any way you deem fit. There is, of course, an optimal way to do some things but it doesn’t appear to affect things too much. This will mean that everyone’s experience will be unique, the way in which they played through the world of the Breath of the Wild dictated by numerous factors. For instance whilst my friend and I both coincidentally did the elephant divine beast first we didn’t do any of the others in the same order, meaning the tools we had available to each other were wildly different. We were also playing the game in very different ways: me with Google and the Zelda wiki open on a second monitor and he not wanting to cheat himself (although he said asking me didn’t count!). As with all open world games this does mean there’s a bunch of repetitive stuff to do if you’re so inclined but there’s also a bevy of random encounters that are delightful (and sometimes rewarding) if you happen across them.

The more concise and logically laid out (looking at you Water Temple) temples in the form of the divine beasts really are the standout feature of Breath of the Wild. Using your map to physically alter the entire environment you’re in, whilst not a completely original concept, is executed brilliantly. It forces you to not just think of the puzzle at hand but also how the environment can be changed in order to solve it. Out of all of them my favourite has to be the camel divine beast as it was the most complex of the lot. The salamander and bird by comparison felt relatively simplistic, however that may have just been because they were the last 2 I did and I had cottoned onto all the tricks that the game designers were using. Again it’s a bit of a shame that exploration isn’t as rewarding as it could be here, with limited durability weapons and run of the mill consumables the typical reward, as some of the environment interactions needed to obtain them border on the clinically insane.

The shrines, which are kinds of mini-temples, are also great little distractions. The fact that you’re given all the tools to complete them right at the beginning of the game is very much appreciated as it means you’re not constantly re-treading ground in order to get the next item or upgrade. I do wonder if some of them were fully tested before release however as some of them can be completely bypassed with what appears to be emergent game play mechanics. Some things seem intentional, like circuit puzzles being able to be solved by using metallic weapons or shields, but others, like the ball rolling puzzles that use motion controls, can be bypassed by turning the controller upside down. Either way the fact that you won’t be stuck in one for more than 15 minutes or so is great, especially when there’s over 100 of them to complete.

 

Crafting, whilst functional and rewarding, could do with a few tweaks to make it a little bit more useful. For instance, in order to cook something, you have to go to your inventory, select the ingredients, get out of the menu, throw the ingredients into a cooking pot and then wait for them to cook (skipping saves you about 2 seconds, total). You can discover various recipes by combining things together, although most of the time you’ll be focused on effects or the number of hearts something it restores. The problem here though is that if you want to make say, 10 of something, there’s no way to quickly churn them out. Instead you’ll have to repeat that process I outlined 10 times over. Worse still whilst you can “discover” recipes there’s no book or anything in them, all you can look at is food you’ve already made to see what went into it. There’s also no real way to tell an ingredients effect relative to others in its category (besides heart restoration), something which is rather annoying when it comes to making elixirs. Sure you can hazard a guess that the more rare monster part is better but it’s nigh on impossible to understand just how much better it is.

The inclusion of something like a recipe book, one that would let you say queue up cooking multiples of recipes you discovered, would go a long way to solving this issue. Additionally having something like an ingredients page in the same book, one that details relative strengths of ingredients, would make cooking a little less…messy. Sure I understand that the whole idea is to get you to explore and experiment but, honestly, after a certain point I’d like to be able to min/max things without constantly referring to wikis and Google if at all possible. There’s also a missed opportunity in allowing you to craft bits of armour, arrows and other things which could add yet another level of depth to the crafting system. Overall it’s not bad, I mean who doesn’t love the little cooking tune, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement here.

Where Breath of the Wild really starts to shine is in the absolutely staggering breadth of the world you’re in. I spent countless hours exploring numerous areas, finding inventive ways to climb mountains and trying to see how I could glide from peak to peak so I didn’t have to wrangle my horse around everywhere. Even at the point where I figured I had explored pretty much all the game I discovered not 1, but 2 whole new zones that were packed with quests and new areas to explore. If I’m honest I was only in those areas to chase down a specific set of armour for my final fight with Ganon but just getting to those points required a good hour or two of walking around to get to where I was going. It was on this specific journey I also found out that there was a kind of NPC I didn’t know existed in the game and, had I known about them earlier, it may have changed my idea on how to approach certain parts of the game.

Whilst the in-general exploration is tarnished somewhat by the lack of strong rewards (as I mentioned before) the targeted, specific exploration that you’ll do to unlock certain key things is most certainly rewarding. The master sword quest, one which sees you follow an incredibly long chain of events (if you do it normally) showcases a lot of things that you’d be kicking yourself if you missed, especially if you’re a long time Zelda fan. My quest to get the barbarian armour, and then upgrade it, took me to 3 different corners of the map and then all around the place hunting Lynels so I could get their horns. Ask anyone who’s played Breath of the Wild and they’ll likely have another story about how they spent an inordinate amount of time chasing something down and just how much of a delight it was. It was the same kind of feeling I felt when I eventually caught that blasted eel in Ocarina of Time, one of those moments that will be hard to forget.

Of course the real attraction of any Zelda game is the story and Breath of the Wild most certainly delivers here. All the usual suspects are here: you have no memory of anything, Zelda is the princess you need to save, Ganon is the evil you must defeat and the various races are still their charming selves. Strangely, unlike previous Zelda games, there’s little talk of the triforce and its influence on those who wield it. There are some references to it, mostly through the various shrines that have the same names as each of them (courage, wisdom and power) but they are no longer what imbues each of the main characters with their respective traits. However the characters are given an in depth exploration of their backstory, thankfully without resorting to massive gobs of text. Finding your lost memories reveals the nature of Zelda’s relationship with Link, her father and the people of Hyrule in great detail, something which makes the final battle with Ganon all the more satisfying.

MILD PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

Whilst not every quest or story is something I’d hold up as an example of good storytelling Breath of the Wild has some exceptional moments. Freeing each of the divine beasts, and the conversations you have with your former companions, is both an exhilarating and heart wrenching experience. The Mipha story stands out particularly in this regard, her love for Link being the link which converts even the most hardened Zora to begin to trust the people of Hyrule once again. The final battle with Ganon (which I had all 4 beasts for) had me loudly cheering at my screen, the culmination of the dozens of hours I had put into this game coming to a massive crescendo. When most games’ endings are trite, littered with not so subtle references to an incoming sequel, Zelda’s is one of perfection. It’s also very much worth collecting all the memories before you embark on the final battle as it adds another scene, one which honestly melted this jaded gamer’s heart. Just thinking of it brings back tears, it was that beautiful.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a shining example of what Nintendo is capable of when they put their minds to it. The world is incredibly expansive, begging to be explored and filled with all the story elements that we long time Zelda fans desire so much. It’s hard to summarise what makes this game great in a single, or even multiple, paragraphs as there’s just so much to love. I will temper that by saying that it is not a perfect game, like so many other reviewers are saying, but it is most certainly a title to which I will compare many to from now on. Breath of the Wild managed to do what a decade of Zelda games has failed to do before it: convince me that it was worth playing and then blow away my expectations. I don’t think I can name a game that will be forever defined by its flagship launch title but Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be forever synonymous with the Switch and all other releases will have to live in its shadow.

I don’t care what kind of gamer you are: Zelda: Breath of the Wild is worth your time.

Rating: 9.75/10

Ballistic: Like Playing Pool in 3D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6.5/10

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

Game of the Year 2016

Better late than never, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onwards and upwards, dear readers!

For Honor: War is the Natural State of Things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6.5/10

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

Linelight: I Shall Guide You, Little Light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.5/10

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.5/10

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

Aragami: Darkness and Light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.5/10

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