Review

Epitasis: Alien Shapes.

Everyone who’s tried to use Steam’s various recommendation engines over the years knows that they’re more miss than hit. Indeed most of the examples I’ve found diving through the “New and Trending” section or using the Discovery queue have usually been mediocre, if not downright terrible. So when I saw that Valve had put up a new type of recommendation engine, one that allows you to play with a few of the parameters that drive it, I was very intrigued. Setting the timeline to recent and turning the popularity to niche put up quite a few examples that looked good on first pass, Epitasis among them. Whilst this particular game might not have hit the mark, owing to its incredibly basic implementation, it was still a title that I would’ve never come across if not for the new engine.

The setup for Epitasis is done through a couple pages of text on screen, telling you that you’re a scientist combing through deep space signals for signs of intelligent life. One day you get one and it points to a set of coordinates on Earth. A team, led by yourself is put together to go and investigate whereupon you find out that the location houses a portal to an alien world. In there is a strange world of shapes and puzzles laid out before you, almost like some kind of test. It’s then your job to solve the puzzles of this world to see where they lead.

Right off the hop you can tell that Epitasis was built in the Unreal engine as it has that certain feel about it that most bargain basement games made in it have. The environments are sparse and lacking in detail, seemingly built to have a lot more put into them than what’s currently there. Some of the lighting effects are done well but honestly I don’t believe there’s anything there that isn’t built into UE4 by default. The trailer basically shows all the best looking parts of the game with the rest of it being a dull, lifeless landscape. The game world really didn’t need to be as big as it is and a lot more effort should’ve been spent on making the area that mattered tighter in its implementation and adding some detail.

Mechanically Epitasis is a simple puzzler, mostly consisting of making sure switches stay on or juggling boxes between gated sections. They weren’t particularly well playtested as some of them require an inordinate amount of legwork to complete, pinging back and forth between puzzle sections in order to complete them successfully. Then there are other sections which are quite obviously not intended to function together, allowing you to completely bypass the intended mechanic. The logic of the puzzles is also quite bizarre, with some of them giving you the impression they should function in a particular way but work completely differently, making some puzzles challenging as you try to work out the developer’s internal logic. All in all it feels like a decidedly unfinished game; barren and simplistic, falling short of what I feel was the creator’s intended dream.

Indeed looking at the game’s Kickstarter campaign which finished some 2 years ago it looks like a good chunk of what’s in the game currently was already there and the intent was to flesh out the world a lot more. Like nearly all Kickstarters it delivered late, over a year past the initial forecast date, showing that the developer must have been a lot further away from an actual game than they thought. Of course I understand the challenges that face a single developer but too often I see newcomers try and make something grander than they can ever accomplish. Games don’t need to be long or great in scale to be good, they just need to be enjoyable experiences. Epitasis could’ve done a lot more with the time invested if it pared back its ambition and focused on the core of what it wanted to achieve.

I will admit that it does have a good soundtrack however it’s decidedly out of place for the environment you’re playing in and is often out of kilter with what you’re doing on screen. Games like this live and die by their pacing and a key part of that is how the soundtrack ties into on-screen events. Epitasis doesn’t really appear to have much of that, leading to a very weird atmosphere.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on a university student whose only real world experience in the games industry is being a QA tester but even if I simply judge this game by how well it achieves its own vision it still comes up lacking. The environments are far too large for a game like this where exploration is beyond pointless, serving only as a monument to ambition that was never realised. The simplistic puzzle mechanics aren’t going to challenge anyone for long, even the ones whose logic are somewhat mystifying. Finally, whilst the game does have a good soundtrack it feels disjointed and out of place, lacking the tight coupling that these kinds of puzzler/walking simulator type games require. As a first title for a nascent game developer it’s not completely terrible but even among peers it’s not much to write home about.

Rating: 5.5/10

Epitasis is available on PC right now for $28.95. Total play time was 104 minutes with 90% of the achievements unlocked.

Sea of Solitude: The Monster in All of Us.

Exploration in games used to just be about finding the secret room or a hidden easter egg that the developers left behind. For many games now exploration is a key part of the experience, sometimes completely changing the narrative or mechanics leading to a whole different kind of experience for those who invest the time to explore deep and wide. Further the exploration of things outside of the game has also become an integral part of many titles, including Sea of Solitude which seeks to explore the emotions of depression, loneliness and loss. It unfortunately does so in a rather ham fisted, stereotypical way; it’s apparent metaphorical storytelling being far more direct than I think it’s creators intended. To be sure I’m not denying that the feelings that went into creating this story aren’t real, indeed the creative director states that it was due to a breakup of hers, but it’s clear that that experience has been workshopped and massaged into a very middle of the road experience.

You play as Kay who finds herself in a world that’s been consumed by the sea with only a few scarce buildings popping out over the waves. Her boat is her only respite from the deep waters that are inhabited by monsters who taunt her endlessly. Those monsters are of her own creation however, stemming from events in her past that she has yet to deal with fully. Your journey is then one of exploring her past, uncovering the trauma that has created the monsters that now inhabit this sunken world. It’s up to you to guide her through the pain and, hopefully, come out the other side healed.

Sea of Solitude’s art style is the ever-trendy low poly chic that nearly every indie game seems to be implementing these days. The wider world isn’t exactly filled out well with a lot of noticeable asset reuse, making a lot of the more open parts of the world feel very samey. However the internal level parts are brimming with detail, each which their own distinctive style (something which I’m sure the level designers are quite proud of). Animations are a little on the simplistic side however, feeling like they’ve mostly been hand cranked which makes some characters look a lot more stilted than they should be. Overall the games visuals are quite good for Jo-Mei’s first all inhouse, standalone title.

I’ve shied away from calling games like Sea of Solitude “adventure” titles as, in my mind, that’s games like the old school LucasArts titles and their more modern equivalents. Instead I feel that games like this are more akin to puzzle platformers as their puzzles are typically self contained and usually heavily blended in platform elements. Indeed that’s pretty much Sea of Solitude in a nutshell: you’ll move between various different platforms (quite literally most of the time too), working your way through until you hit a puzzle that requires you to solve before going on. There’s two sets of collectibles for you to track down although whether or not they actually change the game in any appreciable way is unclear. Altogether Sea of Solitude is a pretty simple game mechanically and isn’t likely to challenge most players.

With all the puzzles being self contained it’s usually not terribly difficult to figure out what needs to be done. Some of them are unforgiving though, sending you all the way back to the start of the puzzle should you happen to time something wrong. Many of them are platform based which, as anyone who’s played 3D platformers before will tell you, means there’s a certain unwieldiness to them. There’ll be times when you’re pretty sure you’ve made a jump or calculated your timing perfectly only to be slapped down unceremoniously. Thankfully the game doesn’t require frame level precision nor are any of the puzzles minutes long sequences that need repeating upon failing so you won’t be struggling for hours on end to get past something.

The game also has a few rough edges that could do with some sorting out. For starters it’s not completely clear on communicating its mechanics to you, most notably during the first light beam puzzle which tells you to “focus” with the mouse…somehow. I tried doing everything I could think of with my mouse and nothing seemed to work, until I started wiggling it wildly only to find that the game had dropped the sensitivity way down, requiring quite a few long passes across the mouse pad to get the beam moving. This then extends to the rather unwieldy controls which make most things a little more challenging to navigate than they otherwise should be. Most notably this happens with the boat which makes navigating around with it quite a pain. These things aren’t beyond fixing so I hope future patches will smooth these things out.

Sea of Solitude warns you straight up that it’s going to deal with some heavy emotional content but what follows fails to really deliver any emotional impact whatsoever. There’s no real one issue at play here, more the culmination of the various storytelling choices removed any kind of empathy I had for any of the characters. The voice acting isn’t particularly great, feeling devoid of emotion save for a few choice scenes that happen later in the game. The ham-fisted approach to working through the various emotional challenges, typically done by using stereotypical exposition of scenes associated with them (Bullied at school, career focused father, depressive boyfriend), makes it hard to truly resonate with the story. Given that I’ve been through most of the trauma that the game describes myself you’d think it’d be a slam dunk but, in all honesty, it felt like someone from the outside trying to tell my own story back to me. It simply didn’t hit the mark at all.

That is really the true failing of Sea of Solitude. For all the effort put into making a great looking game the substance needed to back it up, either in the form of great mechanics or an intriguing story (perhaps both, if we’re lucky) just wasn’t there. The CEO describes this as her most personal game to date but I just don’t really get that feeling. The story, even if born out of true events, feels like it’s done at arm’s length, almost as if there’s a fear that doing so would alienate those seeking to play it. Really that was done the second they decided to partner up with EA and therefore only be allowed to release on Origin, not exactly the platform known for its vibrant indie scene. For what it’s worth I’d still like to see more from Jo-Mei but only if they can take the lessons learnt from this and make something that actually achieves some form of emotional impact.

Rating: 6.5/10

Sea of Solitude is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours playtime and 73% of the achievements unlocked.

BirdGut: The Hatless One.

Free to play used to be a taboo word for me, usually indicating that the game was some microtransaction infested hell hole that would do little more than soak up my time in an effort to get to my wallet. More recently though it seems a lot of developers, including a non-zero number of really talented ones, are choosing to release their games for free with no other strings attached. To be sure most of them are usually pretty short and light on other features you’d see in big name titles but I doubt most of them would lose many players if they’d asked for a dollar or two. Such is the case with BirdGut, a bizarre hand drawn platformer that is equal parts fun as it is weird and obtuse.

A bee hatches in the hive, but something’s wrong. Born different from the others, the bee is exiled from the hive and forced to survive the world on its own. That is, until a bird attacks and eats it. Inside the bird, all of the bugs that it eats are brainwashed and put to work in fantastical, mechanical factories that exist in the place of its organs, except for the outcast bee, whose very disability prevents them from being brainwashed. The bee takes it upon itself to destroy the massive bird from the inside out, and free all the enslaved critters within.

BirdGut’s visuals are all hand drawn in a greyscale colour palette. Honestly the amount of effort that went into putting these visuals together is quite phenomenal, even for a less than 2 hour game. Each of the screens is its own little unique world, filled with all sorts of random detail. The animations are buttery smooth too, something you don’t see often with hand drawn games. This is all then juxtaposed with ludicrousy that this is all supposedly taking place inside a bird’s digestive system, something you’re reminded about in the most weird and unusual ways. It was this weird styling that first attracted me to the game as it’s rare enough for a game to be done this way and rarer still for it to be free.

The main game mechanics are puzzle platformer based with all the usual tropes making a showing in BirdGut’s short play time. You’ll start off slow, just needing to jump your way past a handful of obstacles, and will gradually move up to more complicated maneuvers, many of which will require semi-precise timing to pull off. The game’s simplicity negates many of the opportunities for emergent gameplay to occur so if you find yourself struggling against a particular challenge it’s quite likely that you’re approaching it the wrong way. Other than that there’s not much more to the game other than trial and error.

That of course means that the main increase in difficulty comes from the lengthening of time between checkpoints and the game exploiting that relentlessly. The later platforming sections consist of minutes long timed encounters that will take you at least a couple tries to get past as there’s no way of knowing what obstacles are coming up before you hit them for the first time. I’m not a huge fan of these “fuck you player” kinds of moments as it just punishes you for not knowing something that you had no way of figuring out. That being said it’s not like these challenges waste a ton of time but it still feels like a kick in the pants every time you have to repeat the same section again.

BirdGut’s story is lighthearted and tongue in cheek, with some sparse bits of dialogue providing some comic relief between the longer puzzle sections. It’s not particularly deep but I didn’t expect to be so it did its job of providing a little bit of background whilst I stumbled my way through the various platforming puzzles.

BirdGut was a surprisingly fun distraction that I still can’t believe is free. The hand drawn visuals alone warrant a small entry price and the decent platforming with the lighthearted story make it all worth playing. Is it perfect? Absolutely not but even at $5 I’d say I got my money’s worth with it. So if you’re in the market for something quick, concise and a little weird then BirdGut is likely to fit the bill.

Rating: 8.0/10

BirdGut is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 88 minutes with 50% of the achievements unlocked.

AMID EVIL: Back to the Present.

Reviving the old school 3D shooters simply can’t be done. Pixel art adventure games, point and click stories even old school styled platformers still seem to be able to work and be innovative in this modern day. Shooters in the vein of the original Quake or Duke3D however have just never really been that great, with notable examples like the Rise of the Triad¹ reboot and the recent Kickstarter disappointment STRAFE. I had thought that AMID EVIL might be different in that regard, seemingly having some small influences from the modern day in it, but they are unfortunately not enough to save the dreary and simplistic combat that was the 3D shooters of old. So I don’t blame the developers for the game they’ve created, no it is the idea that these kinds of games are still good when they are simply not.

Each level of AMID EVIL has its own little story, told through little nuggets of text that are scribed on the walls. It’s nothing particularly deep or meaningful, mostly just a kind of flavour text that gives you some insight into the various enemy types and the boss of the particular level. There might be more to it but honestly I don’t think it’s worth chasing down. If the devs really wanted you to engage with the story they would’ve done something more with it like, say, voice the lines or something like that. Still you’re not going to be playing AMID EVIL for the story so I’m not going to count that against it too heavily.

The graphics try to strike a balance between being old school and modern which makes it end up feeling more dated than anything else. The old school style UI elements overlaid on a low poly environment that has decidedly modern lighting effects removes any illusion that this was an old school game that never saw the light of day. Instead you know that it’s a modern engine (Unreal 4, although that’s easy enough to tell from the way it handles specularity) and it’s been implemented deliberately this way. If you’re trying to make me think I’m playing an old school game then you’d better try your darndest to avoid any cues that remind me I’m playing this in 2019.

As you’d expect the combat is pretty straightforward, you’ve got half a dozen weapons each of which is reminiscent of similar archetypes from games of yesteryear. AMID EVIL’s spin on the traditional shooter mechanics is the overdrive system whereby each enemy you kill fills up a meter that, when unleashed, changes the secondary fire of each of the weapons into a horrendously overpowered version of itself until the meter runs dry. That’s fun enough although after a while you’ll find yourself saving it up “just in case” and then find yourself rarely needing to use it at all.

Each episode has different enemies but they’re dumb as rocks, walking directly at you for the most part and not having more than a couple different attacks. The old circle strafe strategy works far too well here which, depending on what you’re looking for here, is either an extremely faithful rendition of what these old school shooters were like or simply a lazy way of implementing an AI. The bosses do exhibit some more novel behaviour but even then it only took me a couple tries to get past the first boss, his only real challenge being that you needed to DPS him as fast as you could before he had a chance to fill up the room with thousands of projectiles for you to dodge.

Similarly the game also has many opportunities for emergent gameplay, some of which are fun but others are clearly not intended by the developers. Like the games it’s inspired by quite often you can skip large parts of levels or find secrets by exploiting parts of the geometry. Indeed there were a couple sections with certain kinds of angles that allowed you to jump off them when you clearly weren’t supposed to be able to do so. Again if you truly are seeking an experience like the shooters of old then that’s going to be what you’re after but frankly I’ve come to appreciate my games working as intended more than I have come to want to exploit them. I leave all that up to the speedrunners.

Depending on which side of the fence you’re on you’ll either love AMID EVIL for its rather faithful recreation of the shooters of the early 90s or hate it for the exact same reason. If it isn’t already painfully clear I’m very much in the later camp, not really finding any enjoyment in revisiting that part of my gaming history. You might be different however, as are numerous people over on the Steam page who are loving the experience that AMID EVIL provides. So if all the issues I’ve been bellyaching about sound like a good time for you then please, be my guest, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Rating: 5.0/10

AMID EVIL is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 68 minutes play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked.

¹ Upon reading the Steam page I see that the people behind this are also the ones behind the Rise of the Triad reboot. I really should have read further before I hit the buy button…

KIDS: Pitter Patter.

I am…truly at a loss to set the scene on this one.

In my regular dive through the dumpster that is the Steam new releases page I came across KIDS and, given that it was free, I figured it was probably worth the price of admission. What followed was a surreal 20 minute experience that could be a commentary on how we interact with each other or some kind of weird ASMR tech demo.

Suffice to say it’s the first game where I’ve felt that screenshots aren’t going to be sufficient to demonstrate the rather bizarre mechanics it brings to bear.

There’s not much to say about it from an art style or graphics point of view, it’s just hand drawn black and white sketchbook art. The sound design does stand out though with all the animations being accompanied by some great foley work. There’s nothing quite like hearing the footsteps of a few onscreen figures slapping around before it turns into an ungodly stampede of the buggers trampling across your screen.

Mechanically it’s like 2D walking simulator as all you need to do is click in places to make things happen. Given that it’s only 20 minutes it’s really worth just going and playing it to see them for yourself but some choice moments are: moving through what I assume is someone’s digestive system, throwing countless figures into bottomless pits and starting a mexican wave of claps.

Like I said before, truly bizarre.

KIDS feels like the kind of game you used to find on places like Newgrounds or Albino Black Sheep. It’s a surreal experience that doesn’t really have a premise or a story to tell but it’s intriguing all the same. If I didn’t think it’d horribly scar children in some way I’d say it’d be a great little title for the iPad as the interactivity had a very tactile feel to it, even behind a mouse. In all honesty I have no idea if this game will appeal to you but for 20 minutes of your time I don’t think that’s a huge investment to find out either way.

Rating: 8.5/10

KIDS is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 19 minutes.

APE OUT: Cold Train of Destruction.

I gotta admit, my backlog of games I want to play ran out a while ago. Sure there’s a few titles on there that I could catch up on but most of them have some barrier to entry (looking at you, Metro Exodus) which I can’t be arsed getting around. So I’m left to scour the Steam releases each week, hoping to see something that catches my eye. Unfortunately the pickings have been slim and so I’ve resorted to playing things that are somewhat interesting but usually not what I’d typically find myself playing. APE OUT, whilst having most of the trappings that you’d usually assume would be right up my alley, was just missing that extra something to keep me coming back. The concept and execution are both extremely well done however so it’s not for a lack of craftsmanship, more it just doesn’t have the mechanics I’d seek out in this kind of game.

You’re an ape in a laboratory and you’ve decided it’s time to get out. Of course the lab can’t have what appears to be a super-intelligent ape running about the shop so they’ll do anything they can to stop you. Of course you’re quite a bit bigger than them and can easily paint the walls with their corpses should they get in your way. Your goal is simple: find a way to escape without getting shot to bits. All this happens whilst a wild jazz soundtrack plays in the background.

Visually APE OUT is very striking with its top down perspective, lack of texturing and use of vibrant colouring. Whilst this does make it rather easy to distinguish foes from furniture the top down perspective could use a little work as quite often pillars get in your way when it feels like they shouldn’t. There has been a lot of attention given to making the visuals feel as chaotic as the background track with numerous overlays, changing colours and other weird and wonderful VFX making for a kind of visual bonanza I haven’t really come across before. I honestly would expect no less from the crazed mind of the great Bennett Foddy (you know, the one behind QWOP and Getting Over It).

The soundtrack deserves its own mention as it’s a reactive mish mash of jazz percussion. Each playthrough will have a slightly different track due to the generative nature of the backing track, even down to things like events on screen driving which part of a drum kit gets played. Each of the albums has its own theme so all those different samples do work together to produce something coherent but it’s still very chaotic. I’m not really a fan of jazz but I certainly appreciated the effort that went into building up the engine that drove APE OUT’s wild soudtrack.

The objective of each level is simple: just get to the other end. You’ll be met with a wide variety of enemies, themed to the current album you’re playing. The levels themselves aren’t particularly big but it’s never going to be as simple as just legging it from one side to another. Curiously you can do it without killing a single person as there’s an achievement to that effect. How you’d do that for some sections is beyond me though as there’s situations where I couldn’t see an easy route around flattening a few folks.

For the most part the combat feels fair as the enemies telegraph their moves and the AI isn’t particularly smart in how it approaches you. Of course when you’re cornered by more than a couple of them things start to get real tricky fast and many of the special types of enemies are designed to make simply crushing everyone more challenging than finding a way around them. Even with the short levels though I found the enemies to get repetitive pretty fast and I think that’s probably what made me give up in the end. I mean sure, part of it was also the difficulty of it, but since there’s no real progression system or anything else to keep you coming back (bar the new levels) I didn’t really feel like the challenge was worth it.

APE OUT is a finely crafted game that I just didn’t find myself enjoying all that much. The visuals, soundtrack and mechanics are all on point, delivering the exact game experience that it set out to achieve. However I felt that it was mostly a game for the speedrunner/Twitch crowd, something that people would love to watch but not necessarily play themselves. That’s why after just a paltry 36 minutes with it I decided to call it quits, lest I give this game a score that’s much further below it’s true value. If you favour that kind of reaction based, beat ’em up gameplay then you’ll surely enjoy APE OUT but for me it just didn’t hit the mark.

Rating: 7.0/10

APE OUT is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $21.50. Game was played on the PC with a total of 36 minutes play time and 4% of the achievements unlocked.

There The Light: Be Not Afeard .

We now find ourselves in that time of the year between the two major release seasons. For most this is a great time to catch up on the glut of titles that have been stampeding their way onto their platform of choice over the past few months. For reviewers like me it’s something of a double edged sword: no longer are we spoiled for choice, instead finding something that’s worth playing becomes a bit of a challenge. On the flip side though this does mean it’s the indie developer’s time to shine and it’s during times like these that I find myself playing all sorts of weird and wonderful titles. There The Light, which I stumbled across on /r/IndieDev, is a short, simple puzzler that’s gets a lot of things right, even if its a little rough around the edges.

In true walking simulator fashion There The Light doesn’t have any particular plot per se, although the world is littered with various plot styled objects that allude to an underlying narrative. Your only objective is to walk from one room to another, solving puzzles as the music builds and swirls around you. The small bits of text lying around talk a bit about how the light and the music of the island are intertwined and the visuals indicate that the island was once home to a larger civilisation that worshipped the light. But realistically I don’t think there’s a deep story to be uncovered here, it’s just there to provide a bit of flavour for the walking.

There The Light appears to take heavy inspiration from Journey both from an overall aesthetic but also from the way some of the animations work (like how the paintings light up). In terms of graphical fidelity it’s about half a step above most of the other games that use the same low-poly stylings, packing a little more detail into the models and environment. It also does a great job of getting away from the usual Unity-esque styling, enough so that looking back at my screenshots I thought it might’ve been an Unreal 4 game. There were a few places where performance suffered a bit so there’s still room for optimisation to be done.

The puzzles are, for the most part, very simple affairs of simply connecting the dots. The basic puzzles never get any harder than that so if a “joining the dots” mechanic brings back your PTSD from The Witness then don’t worry, it won’t have you curled up in a corner like that one did. The exception from this rule is the dial puzzles as I’m not quite sure how they’re actually supposed to work. I tried most of the combinations I could think of and none of them appear to make logical sense. However simply spamming them over and over eventually got them to change something that would then allow me to complete them. Looking at others playing it online it seems that most of them ended up doing much the same. I’m sure there is some kind of internal logic there but the game doesn’t do enough to surface that to the player.

The tie in between puzzles and the music is great but I think the pacing of it needed to be tightened up somewhat to make it really shine. There were long periods of walking around with not much at all happening, even when I was interacting with a bunch of different things that were scattered around the level. The build up to the game’s main song is done well enough so the potential is there it just needs a fair bit more playtesting in order to really get it all aligned perfectly. That, combined with making the later puzzle mechanics a little more intuitive, would turn this good game into something great.

There The Light is a good first release from CasualBebop, showcasing their strengths well whilst still showing they’ve got room to improve. The visuals, music and most of the puzzles are done well, easily equalling other indie developers who’ve been making games for many more years than they have. The puzzles and pacing could do with some work however as these two elements are what drag the experience down. Overall I enjoyed There The Light and it’s renewed my faith in the /r/IndieDev subreddit. Here’s hoping that CasualBebop found enough success with this game to take on another, perhaps more challenging, project.

Rating: 7.0/10

There the Light is available on PC right now for $14.50. Total play time was 103 minutes with 100% of the achievements unlocked.

Anno 1800: Rebuilding a Legacy

Anno has always been an interesting blend of different genres, enough so that I’ve spent a good deal of time in its last two instalments. When I heard that the next instalment was going to be set in the 1800s I was intrigued as I had always thought it was a futuristic title. As it turns out that’s not the case as the original Anno game was set in 1404 and it just so happened that I got into the series when it took on its future bent. However it seems the setting matters little as this is very much an Anno game at heart, much more so than 2205 was. For the purists it will be a welcome return to form however for me, someone who quite enjoyed the streamlining, it reminded me of the endless frustration I had in balancing the equation that every Anno game puts before you. Therein lies the rub: this is most certainly a game for fans of the Anno series, just not ones like me.

You father was imprisoned for a crime he swears he didn’t commit and his near allies all fled from his side. Seemingly unable to live with the guilt of the shame he brought upon his family your father took his own life whilst still in gaol. With the little inheritance you’ve been bequeathed at the mercy of your uncle you buy a small island and set about rebuilding your name. In your travels however you find out that your father was telling the truth and it looks likely that the crime was a plot conspired by your uncle to snatch away your father’s fortunes. So you must now become the person that your father raised you to be: a cunning but compassionate business person who can take down your dastardly uncle once and for all.

The engine powering Anno 1400, which from what I gather is Blue Byte’s own internally developed one, appears to have received a few improvements for this instalment. Most notably this comes in the form of NPCs wandering around your town, something that I don’t recall either of its predecessors having. It might sound small but simulating those things in addition to the rest of the game whilst maintaining performance can’t have been an easy challenge to solve. The artwork is, once again, top notch even if the animations still leave something to be desired (would it really kill you to do the lip synching?). I did need to give the game a few tweaks to get it running properly but after that the game has been quite smooth, even at late game stages. For such a long running series it’s good to see Blue Byte still investing in keeping their games up with the times.

If 2205 was a simplification and streamlining of the core game mechanics 1800 is a regression back to its true roots with the mechanical complexity of previous games back in spades. The core game loop is still very much the same: you have one island which support so much so you have to expand to others in order to keep progressing your citizens up the hierarchy. One influence from 2205 remains though in the form of the “New World” map which has resources that you can’t get in the Old World. There’s also an item system for getting buffs for certain things like your trade union or ships, although nothing that makes a game breaking difference. There are some remnants of the streamlining still there like the buildings being hidden behind the citizen’s needs which makes it quite easy to ensure they’re properly satisfied. One last new feature is the expeditions, essentially side missions that you send a ship off on in order to get some item or unlock something. It’s pretty much blow for blow the same game as I remember 2070 being, albeit with just a single race to play.

The RTS aspect of Anno 1800 is very much secondary to the rest of the game, really only there to function as another part of the overall political landscape that you’ll be playing in. In any engagement it’s going to come down to raw numbers rather than the skill of any one player so your best bet in winning is just to have as many of the biggest ships you can manage. To be frank you can get away without having much military for the majority of the game as it really only starts to become a concern later on when your allies start declaring war on others which you are unfortunately obligated to do as well (lest you then end up in a war with them). This time around the combat at least felt like it was serving something of a higher purpose, I.E. leveraging a NPC a bit more to get something you wanted out of them. Still in the grand scheme of Anno 1800 it’s not much more than a distraction.

Anno 1800 follows the series’ formula very closely with the standard tech tree advanced through meeting your citizen’s needs so they can then be upgraded to the next tier. Being able to see exactly what’s needed to meet that need through the build menu is a nice touch as whilst it wasn’t terribly difficult to find out in the last couple games it was a bit of a chore to have to remember it all the time. Other parts of the UI have also had some good quality of life improvements as well, like the shortcuts on the build menu that let you define a few often used buildings that are a single click away. Your also unlikely to go bankrupt as easily this time around as I noticed it was far, far easier to run a sustainable business than it has been before. Fans of the Anno series will feel right at home as pretty much everything else is identical from a mechanics perspective.

Starting off things are easy enough as you only have one type of citizen and their needs are basic. Moving up the chain is, as it always was, where the difficulty starts to ramp up exponentially as you have to find the balance in providing all the resources needed so that your colony can keep growing. It gets even worse at higher populations as you’ll usually have multiple islands, both in the old world and the new, which all need trade routes to each other to ensure that you’ve got enough supplies in the right spot to do what you want to do. This is then exacerbated by the constant onslaught of on-screen events like the newspaper guy asking for you input on the latest issue, the various factions commenting on your actions and the expeditions needing your attention.

It honestly got to be too much for me this time around and I found myself simply giving up and shutting the game down every time I hit yet another roadblock for something. Keeping a colony going is easy enough, even at higher populations, but once you’re in the multi island, new/old world end game it can get really tiring dealing with all the goings on. This is, of course, what most people play Anno for and to a certain extent that’s what I like playing these kinds of games for to. However Anno felt like it rubber banded back just a bit too far towards the old school way of doing things as I really quite enjoyed the simplification of 2205 as it kept me playing for longer.Of course I know I’m likely in the minority for that given the backlash 2205 saw.

There’s also room for a little polish in a couple of places. For instance it’s not entirely clear that if you select a shipyard and then click somewhere else on the map you’re actually setting the rally point for it. The game doesn’t have a line marker or anything for it so I routinely had ships disappearing to all sorts of weird places until I figured out what was happening. This is the same for any unit as well and the only remedy is to deselect the unit with esc to get around it. A highlight mode for resource nodes (or even a list like the fertilities) would be nice as it can be quite a chore to track down what resources an island has. Changing these probably wouldn’t do much to remedy the ungodly complexity that the core game loop has but it would at least make it somewhat more tolerable.

Give it’s wild commercial success, shipping 4 times the units in its first week than 2205 did, I’m sure there’s no one out there reading this review to decide if the latest Anno game is worth it. Indeed you probably shouldn’t be reading this to decide either as if this is the first you’re hearing of the series then it’s likely not for you. However if you’re like me, one of the odd few who enjoyed 2205 for what it did to the then 6 year old formula then Anno 1800 likely isn’t for you. Sure it has all the trappings we’ve come to expect from the series but its regression back to the mean assures that your time spent with it will be a taxing one. For some that’s exactly what they’re after however, for me, I’d prefer a little more sugar with my coffee.

Rating: 7.5/10

Anno 1800 is available on PC right now for $59.99, Total play time was almost 7 hours with a total of 19% of the achievements unlocked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9.0/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.0/10

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