Just Cause 4: Army of Chaos.

There aren’t many games that can get away with providing essentially the same experience over and over again whilst still being successful. Rarer still are long running IPs that, when they try to change up the formula, get lambasted for deviating from their core experience. So it seems is what has drawn the ire of many a gamer with Just Cause 4 as it’s move away from the core destruction mechanic has seen many long term fans unhappy with the direction that the game has taken. Once again though I find myself on the opposite side of popular opinion as Just Cause 4 managed to keep me engaged far longer than any of its predecessors did. Not that that means a whole lot given that many of the issues that plagued the past instalments are still present in this most recent instalment.

Once again you take control of Rico Rodriguez, former Agency operative and freedom fighter who’s been liberating dictatorships for most of his adult life. After the events of Just Cause 3, you are approached Mira Morales who convinces you to come to Solís to uncover the truth about Project Illapa, a weather weapon that Rico’s father had a hand in creating. What follows is the usual tale of fighting back against the oppressive dictatorship using any means necessary, picking apart their power structure whilst bolstering your own.

The Just Cause series has never been known for being graphically advanced and the latest instalment is no exception. Whilst the open world environments can certainly have their moments that all fades away rather quickly when you get up close, revealing previous generation graphics that are focused on performance more than anything else. There’s good reason for that of course as you’ll be taxing the physics and rendering engine constantly with all the random chaos you’ll be creating as you play. You’ll also need to do some tweaking as some of the more modern settings will do nothing but highlight the flaws in the graphics, like the motion blur and level of detail settings which can make everything look truly horrific if set incorrectly (which they are, by default). You will encounter performance issues but this is largely expected for games like this, ones where the whole point of the game is to get the physics engine to freak out and do some impressively crazy things.

Just Cause 4 retains many of the features of its predecessors whilst changing the fundamental progression mechanic (much the chagrin of its fans, so it seems). Instead of simply causing chaos by blowing this up and being a general nuisances now you’re the head of an army and you’ll need to gather troops in order to liberate areas. You still earn troops by increasing your chaos level but it’s painfully slow and other mechanics provide a much faster route to progression. Other than that the game is the same as you’ll remember it from previous instalments including the grappling hook (which now has a bunch of mods built in), leaderboards for feats that let you battle with friends and a whole raft of open world missions for you to do in order to unlock upgrades for your gear.

The combat in Just Cause 4 feels like it did in the past: chaotic, awkward and mostly enjoyable. The main issue is mobility as there’s no sprint, instead you’re suppose to grapple your way around. This is equal parts fun and frustrating as its quite easy to get yourself into awkward positions in the heat of battle. Thankfully the combat is pretty forgiving, only requiring a couple seconds of not getting shot to get you back up to full health. The weapons are also a bit samey and many of them are really ineffective against the higher tiers of enemies you’ll face. There are, of course, some absolutely ludicrous guns which are a bunch of fun to use, one of which (the lightning gun) can be both the best and worst thing for you and your enemies. After the first few fights though there’s not much variation in the encounters, the challenge instead coming from increasing numbers of enemies and waves. All in all it’s a very middle of the road experience.

The progression mechanic, where you need to acquire troops to push the front line forward and unlock a new area (giving you access to new things in your supply drops), is honestly quite laborious at first. In the early days the only way to get more troops is to increase your chaos level and this is painfully slow. I vaguely recall there being increasing multipliers in previous instalments that went up as you chained more destruction together. In Just Cause 4 there’s only one, when the “heat” is on, which is 2X and doesn’t seem to make much of an impact. This means that for the first couple hours you’re basically going to be grinding chaos in order to progress and, honestly, it was at this point that I almost put down the game.

After the first few areas though you’ll be able to unlock areas that give you troops rather than use them and you’ll quickly have more than you can use. Most areas will still require you to complete an in-region mission in order to unlock them and they are unfortunately quite repetitive, all requiring you to perform a multi-stage task in order to unlock the region. If you’re a fan of well laid out progression paths, as I am, then this is something that will keep you coming back as you’ll know how much effort you need to put in to unlock the next thing. If you were a fan of the previous system however it’s likely to be a right pain in the ass as the free form “just blow shit up” progression is gone, replaced with a repetitive grind. As someone who’d previously cheated his way through the game to unlock the campaign missions I actually prefer the way Just Cause 4 does it but I completely understand those who aren’t exactly enamored with the change.

Of course it wouldn’t be a proper Just Cause release without it being riddled with bugs, glitches and crashes galore. I had the game crash on me multiple times, sometimes when I was deliberately testing its limits and other times when nothing particularly special was happening on screen. The physics engine is as complete as any other Just Cause game, meaning there’s going to be a lot of interactions that don’t make a ton of sense. For instance I tied two of the large round fuel tanks together with the pull grapple and they started rolling towards each other. Instead of exploding in a glorious fireball they instead rolled through each other which was both disappointing and confusing. I also won’t delve into what a mess the vehicle system is, nor the default control scheme which circumvents all major game conventions for its own brand of weirdness. All of this won’t come as a surprise to fans of the series but if you’re new to it be warned, this is a high budget game that comes with high levels of jank.

The story has thankfully shed much of its borderline racist parts whilst still retaining its rather light on approach to character and plot development. It’s certainly built for long time fans of the series, bringing back the usual cast of returning characters whilst attempting to flesh out Rico’s backstory a little more. The rest of the characters are pretty one-dimensional, serving really only to support the cliche action movie style plot that’s common to the Just Cause franchise. Of course no one is playing Just Cause games for the story, although it seems a few reviews don’t seem particularly happy with the new tact that Avalanche has taken here, but if you were hoping that the narrative here would be one of the things that’d keep you engaged you’d be sorely mistaken.

Just Cause 4 is more of the same from Avalanche Studio’s flagship IP with one small difference which seems to have gain the disapproval of many of its fans. For myself I did manage to find more enjoyment in this instalment than I have in previous ones, however many of the core issues that have plagued the series for almost a decade now are still there. It’s certainly a fun distraction, likely worth picking up on sale, but if this is going to be your first time in the Just Cause series your money might be better spent elsewhere.

Rating: 7.0/10

Just Cause 4 is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $89.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 13 hours play time and 32% of the achievements unlocked.

We Happy Few: There’s so Much Joy in Forgetting.

Kickstarter, Early Access and all the other tools that enable developers to get an idea in front of players before it’s fully formed are both a blessing and a curse. They’ve brought a lot of ideas to reality that otherwise wouldn’t have happened otherwise, bringing us unique game experiences that have helped shape the medium for the better. On the other hand they have also seen many great ideas fall prey to the tyranny of the crowd or the popular idea of the day. That is the fate that has befallen We Happy Few, a game I Kickstarted back in 2015 as it is not the game I remember backing all those years ago. The mechanics that drew me to the it initially, taking a new approach to how stealth games could function, and the intriguing narrative they sought to craft were usurped by a procedurally generated survival sim. That’s not what I, nor I think a lot of their original backers, were seeking to support.

You are Arthur Hastings, a redactor working for the Wellington Wells’ Department of Archives, Printing, and Recycling whos job is to censor and approve old news articles to make sure that only good news makes it to the good citizens of your town. In completing your job though you come across an old news article of you and your brother and suddenly it dawns on you: the whole town did a Very Bad Thing a long time ago. You refuse to take your joy and quickly discover that the town of Wellington Wells isn’t all it appears to be. Not long after skipping your prescribed medication you’re chased out of the town and find yourself among the downers, the ones who can’t or won’t take their joy. You resolve yourself to find your brother by any means necessary, even if it means remembering what that Very Bad Thing was.

We Happy Few’s graphics are heavily stylized, taking a lot of inspiration from other retrofuture games like Bioshock. The game’s visuals are at their best in the city when you’re on Joy, the vibrant and oversaturated colours really selling the idea that none of this could possibly be real and it’s all a drug induced fever dream. Unfortunately the first few hours of the game have you out in the more drab areas which are nowhere near as interesting visually. The graphics are also more inline with previous generation games, something which isn’t completely unexpected given how long it has been in Early Access. It’d probably be a little less noticeable if the procedural generation was a little more varied with the supposedly “random” bits usually consisting of the same building blocks and NPCs repeatedly. All this being said it does run particularly well, even with a lot of things on screen, so it’s got that going for it at least.

From a gameplay perspective it’s neither a true survival game nor a traditional single player RPG as it takes cues from both. You have your usual survival mechanics like food and water but they’re not critical to keep up, you’ll just have a few negative buffs applied to you if they run out. Progression comes in the form of a very traditional XP and talent system with weapon and gear upgrades coming from crafting. The world you’ll be running around in is mostly procedurally generated with certain fixed areas for story missions and the like. There’s a small smattering of open world things around as well with random encounters and side missions scattered around the map. All in all whilst it’s a pretty comprehensive game there’s a noticeable schism between the handcrafted parts and the world that the procedural engine generates. Honestly there’s large chunks of the game I think that could be wholly abandoned which would make for a much tighter experience but unfortunately I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.

Combat takes the form of the typical first person melee style, along with all the issues that come along with that. All your weapons have durability as well, meaning that you’ll need to carry an array of different implements to ensure you can whack your way out any situation you find yourself in. The game is most certainly designed with stealth in mind so it’s somewhat understandable that the combat didn’t get as much love as it should’ve. It does make for an unfortunately frustrating experience when you don’t have much choice in whether you can fight or not. On the plus side though you can walk/run faster than anyone else in the game so realistically there’s not much stopping you from simply legging it to a safe spot if you ever find yourself in a pickle.

The stealth system is much better than other comparable games although given it was meant to be the game’s flagship feature it is a bit of a let down. The traditional stealth mechanics all work as you’d expect like hiding in tall grass, getting out of line of sight and NPCs being able to be distracted by thrown objects. The social stealth system however is the real disappointment as it was originally billed as a balancing game of using Joy in order to blend in appropriately. The long and short of it is that you don’t really need to take Joy at all unless there’s a specific progression blocker for it. You can freely walk around the towns off your joy and no one will say anything and the cameras that detect you can be easily run past without causing too much of a fuss. I had hoped that once I got back into the town proper the game would start to pick up a bit with the additional mechanics at play but unfortunately it didn’t.

Progression comes in random bursts, typically at the end of story missions. Doing anything in the open world doesn’t seem to reward you with much as I never appeared to level up when I was traipsing around so in the end I just gave up on it. Crafting is also a bit of a crapshoot too as whilst you can carry a lot there’s not a lot of useful things for you to make. There’s blueprints for you to track down but honestly I never found anything worthwhile in them. That, combined with the utter lack of accessible stashes, means that you’re often carrying around a ton of useless stuff that you feel like you need to hold on to “just in case”. I toyed with the idea of tracking down a mod for the game to lift the inventory limit but frankly at that point I was already done with what We Happy Few had to offer.

The story was probably the standout part of We Happy Few which is a shame that it wasn’t given a better vehicle to shine. You see with all the running about between missions through repetitive procedurally generated terrain the pacing of the story gets completely lost. There are numerous memorable scenes, even in the game’s opening moments, but they’re then lost when it takes you half an hour of wandering about to get to the next small tidbit. The voice actors should be commended for the incredible job they did with making the characters come alive as it was during those moments that I really started to feel like there was something to like in We Happy Few. Maybe I should’ve just watched a stream of the game instead.

We Happy Few is a game that started out with a great concept that unfortunately failed in its execution. The grab bag of mechanics coupled with the procedurally generated open world meant that there was no real single driving force that pushed me to keep playing more. Instead I felt like there was just too much time between the games stand out moments, taking a bat to the story’s pacing and, most unfortunately, my enjoyment of it. I really do hope that some of the remaining games I’ve Kickstarted don’t go down a similar path as I’m beginning to lose faith in my ability to pick good ideas when they’re at such a nascent stage of their development. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong soon.

Rating: 6.0/10

We Happy Few is available on PC, Xbox One and Playstation 4 right now for $84.95. Game was played on the PC with 3 hours of total playtime and 8% of the achievements unlocked.

Cheeky Chooks: Clicker With a Cacophony of Cluckers.

I never reviewed Adventure Capitalist but boy, did I put a lot of time into that game. It started when I met up with some friends of ours when we were on holiday and one of them kept whipping their phone out every so often to check up on their progress. I had avoided the game up until that point but, with time to kill between things, I installed it and instantly fell prey to the clicker genre. So it was that every spare moment was filled with me spinning it up, checking on my progress and buying upgrades so I could reach that next level. I’ve since then avoided everything to do with the genre, not wanting to fall into that same trap once again. Cheeky Chooks however managed to fly under the radar, seemingly being a farm management simulator on first blush but is really a clicker at heart. Thankfully it’s one that can be completed in a reasonable amount of time and is completely free of microtransactions. With it being free to play I’m not quite sure what Trilum Studio’s play is here, but it’s at least a fun distraction whilst we’re in the middle of a lul in big name releases.

The premise of the game is simple: you’re an aspiring chicken farmer with a small space to start pursuing your dream of raising chickens. You’ll get a set amount of cash to start you off and you’ll build out your farm from there. Once you’ve exhausted your initial cash reserves though you’ll need to rely on selling eggs to make enough money to upgrade your farm. The mechanics follow the usual affair, your base income determined by the number of chooks with multipliers for “egg quality” that come from various sources like rare chooks or buildings that provide a small benefit. This has to be balanced with the chooks’ happiness, so you’ll also have to provide them with various items to ensure that they can happily lay eggs in your little chook pen.

Cheeky Chooks is visually quite simple with most models being highly stylized, devoid of textures and utilizing a very simple muted colour scheme. That simplicity flows through into the menu systems and other UI elements as well, having an almost childlike feel to them. The sound track and foley work is equally simple as well, giving the whole game a very minimalistic feel. Overall it’s quite nice and given that I feel like the game is designed to either be played in short bursts or left on in the background the visuals fit that idea well.

The game starts off with a pretty decent tutorial, walking you through the main mechanics before setting you off on your own. There’s a list of missions for you to do, most of which will help in pushing the farm towards the next level. Whilst you can likely progress without achieving all of them you’ll likely hit most of them by default and others you’ll want to get anyway in order to get certain achievements or just make your life a little easier. Annoyingly the Legends missions will always be highlighted after a certain point and, unfortunately, there’s no way to get rid of it since it’s tied to a specific event that has since passed.

Certain missions are pretty pointless to overall progression though, like the one requiring you to max out the level on a certain number of buildings. As you can see from my nearly completed farm below achieving those meant spamming lots of low level structures so that they could be upgraded cheaply. The game does increase the cost of each subsequent structure as you place them but the upgrade costs remain the same regardless of how many are placed. Sure, if you were truly min/maxing, I could see reasons for using the other buildings in order to jack up the egg quality but for the most part that doesn’t seem necessary. I think I could’ve completed the game in half the amount of time I played if I hadn’t stayed logged in, having the game on in the background whilst I watched videos on my second monitor.

The game was developed in collaboration with the RPSCA to be an educational tool for kids, teachers and parents which is a commendable feat. In that regard it succeed for the most part although nothing can replicate the true horror that is cleaning out a chook cage. That also explains why it’s a free to play game that’s devoid of microtransactions, something which is usually par for the course for these kinds of games. It’s also not an endless game either (although you can play for as long as you want) and given that they’ve only had a single event so far there’s no much reason to come back once you’ve blasted through all the achievements. Of course if you just like ambient clucking in the background and seeing numbers go up then you might get more out of it than I did.

Cheeky Chooks is a simple, straightforward game that many will be able to find several hours of enjoyment in. Whilst it is most definitely a clicker game the more nefarious mechanics that are typical in the genre are nowhere to be found. Instead what you have is a light-hearted take on what it’s like to raise chickens, something which hopefully will have an impression on those who play it. If you just want something simple to pass the time then there’s really not much reason to not give Cheeky Chooks a go.

Rating: 8.0/10

Cheeky Chooks is available on Android and PC right now for free. Game was played on the PC with a total of 5 hours playtime and 100% of the achievements unlocked.

Red Dead Redemption 2: The Last of Our Kind.

I, and many other gamers, hold the original Red Dead Redemption in high regard. It was a breath of fresh air for the open world genre, bringing with it not only a new setting but also a different take on what the genre could be. It’s also one of the few games that I’ll hold up as an example of a sad ending done well, one that carried some serious emotional weight that resonated strongly with those who managed to finish it. So the follow up instalment in the series was always going to have high expectations put on it, both from this reviewer and the community at large. For many the game has lived up to their expectations, delivering that open world western that many had been waiting some 8 years to see. For this old reviewer though, whilst I certainly appreciate the astonishing depth and craftsmanship behind Red Dead Redemption 2, it falls a little short but I think that says a lot more about me as a gamer than it does about the quality of this game.

RDR2 takes place some years before the original, taking you back to the time when the Van der Linde gang was still riding high as outlaws in the west. You’re Arthur Morgan, a long time and loyal member of the crew, who’s fled into the mountains after a botched robbery job in the town of Blackwater. Your motivation is simple: survive long enough until the heat dies down and you can return to the scene of the crime and collect your loot. The trials put before you will be numerous, from simple tasks of keeping your gang alive and healthy to trying to make enough money so you can realise Dutch’s vision for the new world.

As you’d expect from a several hundred million dollar production budget RDR2’s visuals are absolutely stunning, even when they’re pumped out of an aging, original PS4. The sprawling vistas of the world that Rockstar created are simply incredible and the attention to detail is second to none. The same place can seem completely different depending on the time of day or the weather which is nuanced enough to include things like dust storms or light rain vs a thunderstorm. Whilst it’ll take a little time to load initially everything after that is smooth, the game rarely needing to take a break to load you into a new area or generate an event. I’m honestly sorely disappointed that the PC didn’t get a release at the same time the consoles did as I would’ve loved to seen this game dialled up to the 9s, even on my aging beast. Perhaps we’ll see it one day but I don’t know if I’ll make the journey back to play it then. Maybe if they add a similar online mode like they did for GTA V.

As you likely already know RDR2 is an open world western game done in the tried and true style that Rockstar has perfected over their numerous hit titles over the years. The amount of things to do is huge, dwarfing any other game I’ve played. The core structure remains the same: campaign missions, side missions and progression in the form of weapons and cosmetics, with a very generous helping of additional mechanics in there to keep even the most dedicated player occupied for 100 hours or more. I’ve been playing RDR2 for about as long as I played the original, sticking to my usual campaign-first approach, and it appears I’m about 25% of the way through the main story (closer to half if you don’t count the epilogues). Honestly it’d probably be easier to list features that it doesn’t have as it really is the most complete cowboy simulator ever created.

Combat doesn’t deviate much from the original’s formula, retaining the same third person, infinite regenerating health mechanic. There are a number more weapons to choose from although most of them feel pretty similar given that the auto-aim is set quite high by default. So you’ll usually end up using whatever the most powerful gun you have at your disposal which is either your carbine or perhaps the sawn off shotguns if enemies wander in a bit too close. It might have been a bit better if the encounters weren’t all so similar, either being a one-off firefight with a few guys or a multiple wave fight where you’re basically locked in position the whole time. It’s quite clear that out and out combat like that wasn’t a particular focus for Rockstar with RDR2, mostly just serving as another mini-game among the dozens the game will offer up to you. For the kind of player who’s going to get a lot out of this game though I don’t think they’ll mind that one bit.

Unlike the original progression in RDR2 is a bit more of a nebulous affair, coming in the form of a few upgrades to your cores (health/stamina/dead eye), items in your camp and a slathering of cosmetic items that have little effect on the overall game. It’s a pretty stark contrast between the two as I remember the original having a fairly well defined upgrade path for a lot of things, like having to hunt a certain type of animal a number of times or doing a particular quest. Those kinds of missions are still around however their rewards are often just cosmetic items, meaning there’s no real reason to go after them unless you want to. That honestly took the wind out of my sails a little bit as without clear goals and their associated rewards it can feel kind of pointless to do something that might take you some time to complete. I mean, I spent a good 30 mins or so tracking down the best horse you can find in the wild and taming it because I knew where it was, but I don’t believe there’s a set of clothing that helps anything past giving me a bigger satchel.

On the flip side the lack of definitive progression mechanics means it’s largely up to you how you want to push things forward in RDR2. No longer is a toss up between doing what you’d like to do, say fishing for the world’s largest bass for hours on end, and what you need to do to improve your character or move the story forward. In the 20-something hours I’ve spent with the game not once have I hit something I wasn’t able to get past. Given that the game’s overall objective seems to be more about the world itself rather than any one particular thing within it this design choice is key to ensuring that everything remains accessible to the player. Gating things off would instantly remove that feeling of freedom which so many of Rockstar’s playerbase crave.

Going into RDR2, which I started shortly after finishing the latest Call of Duty, I had friends caution me that I might be in for a bit of…let’s call it gaming whiplash going from something so focused on constantly triggering your dopamine centers to a game that likes to take its time with you. To be honest they were 100% on the mark as originally I was really frustrated with the game’s slow pace and lack of definitive progression. Talking to them about how they play it though it became clear that RDR2 strives to be a very different kind of game, one that doesn’t much care about how long it takes for something to get done. They’d come home from a day at work, put RDR2 on and maybe fish or go hunting for a while, only doing missions if they really felt like they wanted to. For this kind of gaming, one that can be enjoyed by itself over an extended period of time, RDR2 is absolutely perfect. For someone like me? It’s antithetical.

You see my (near) weekly gaming reviews predisposes me to a certain kinds of games, usually ones that can be done in a weekend or possibly over the course of a few weeks if I can find titles to fill the gaps in. This has also meant that I’ve tended towards games that provide one or more of a few key game features: clear progression, strong narrative or shorter playtimes. RDR2 doesn’t really fit any of those particularly well (more on the narrative in a second) and so over the last 2 months I haven’t really found more than a couple hours a week here or there to go back to it. I’m not exactly bored when I’m playing it but I’m also not exactly wanting for more every time I put down the controller. Your mileage will vary of course but suffice to say I think RDR2 appeals to a wide variety of gamers but I may have excluded myself from them, given my habits.

This might have all been different if RDR’s story was going somewhere which, in my playtime, it decidedly wasn’t. For starter’s there’s a noticeable lack of an overarching narrative, something which I think the original did quite well. Sure there’s the whole “we need to get back to Blackwater” thing but that’s nothing more than a catchphrase for a couple of the characters. Instead the majority of the story is caught up in either self-contained vignettes or in short story arcs that don’t last longer than a single chapter. I had hopes for it early on when Arthur gets reacquainted with an old flame, but after that mission it wasn’t mentioned again. I’ve read stories of people having some interesting encounters, like freeing a convict on the side of the road only to meet them in town later, but that’s just an interesting tale to recount over beers, not a solid story. Perhaps I’d be a little more engrossed in it if I hadn’t completed the original over 8 years ago now as I had to look up just how many of them were in it (more than I remembered, honestly).

I think a lot of this has to do with the schism between the open world and crafted elements of the game, something which YouTuber NakeyJakey summed up in is (admittedly long but well worth it) video on the topic of Rockstar’s game design. RDR2 has a desire to be a lot of things to many different kinds of people and, as a consequence, kind of ends up somewhere in the middle. For those who find what they want in there it’s great but those who are looking for a more coherent game experience (which doesn’t preclude open world games by the way, Horizon Zero Dawn did it well) it leaves us wondering just what Rockstar was thinking. For me the end result is an exceptionally well crafted game that has a lot to offer but just didn’t manage to hook me in the same way its predecessor did.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is likely to go down for many as 2018’s game of the year but for this old gamer it sadly won’t. I can certainly appreciate the countless man hours that went into developing it as the world that they created is breathtaking in its beauty and depth. But all of this just feels like a large bag of tricks cobbled together to please those who like to make a single game their hobby. The things that elevate games like this above others in the genre, like a strong narrative or progression systems, just aren’t there, leaving players like myself wanting. Given I have a lot of time left before I go back to work in the new year I might get around to playing it more but I don’t feel I have a lot of reason to. Is it worth playing? Certainly, if only for the fact that everyone else is and you want to have something to talk to them about for the next 6 months. Honestly though you likely already know whether or not you want to play it and a rating from a single reviewer on the Internet’s backwater isn’t going to change that.

Rating: 8.5/10

Red Dead Redemption 2 is available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $78. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 20 hours total play time and 7% of the achievements unlocked.

Below: One Light to Guide Me.

The term “Dark Souls-like” has lost a lot of its original meaning; now being applied to nearly any game that’s somewhat challenging and includes a death/recovery mechanic. Using that term to describe a game is usually part of its marketing campaign, hoping to draw in a percentage of the Dark Souls crowd with the promise of a similar experience. Such is how I first came to know about Below, the latest title from Capybara Games, which promised a fresh take on the genre. Whilst it does include many of the trappings of the games that inspired it Below’s added mechanics do nothing to improve the experience, instead turning it into a slower, less rewarding experience that simply bored me. There might be something buried deeper within the game that might interest me but I simply didn’t find enough to keep me interested past the first couple hours.

Below is a tale of a string of adventurers who venture to an island and set about exploring what lies below its surface. There is only ever one of them and should one die another will arrive to take their place. As I understand it there’s more to the story, potentially locked behind the game’s main collectibles or maybe in other areas I didn’t explore but I simply didn’t have the patience to find out. That could partly be due to the game’s irritatingly long opening cutscene which adds nothing to the story and only serves to make you think the game is stuck trying to load.

The game’s visuals are simple, utilising the low-poly aesthetic that has proven popular over the last couple years. It’s also very dark 90% of the time with much of the environment hidden from view. This is then cast in stark relief when there’s any kind of lightsource, illuminating a world that’s brimming with colour and detail. Whilst the decision to hide much of the environment away from you is purely a mechanical one (which is core to the game) it is a bit of a shame that the game’s beauty is hidden from you. That being said when the game does showcase itself to you through the use of generous particle and lighting effects the results are quite stunning.

At its heart Below is a roguelike, throwing you into procedurally generated environments that you reveal as you wander through them. Everything is dark, something which you can alleviate through the use of torches or your lantern, the latter of which consumes gems that enemies drop. In addition to the standard health gauge you also have 3 others: food, water and heat. The first two deplete slowly over time, needing to be replenished by finding a water source or finding food respectively. The last only comes into play in certain sections and will deplete quickly, needing to be refilled by sitting next to a fire. There’s also a crafting system, enabling you to fashion numerous helpful items including elixirs that will give you certain benefits for a short time. All in all whilst Below is a simple game on the surface there’s certainly a good depth to the mechanics. The main problem is that they’re just not particularly enjoyable.

Combat is a pretty straightforward affair as you’re equipped with a sword and shield that function as you’d expect. Most enemies in the beginning simply run at you and die in a single hit but they quickly evolve into more complex enemies with varied movesets. The health system is a little different in that taking damage will turn part of your health red which, if you’re quick enough, can be bandaged up. However to recover health that’s been completely lost you’ll need to find food. It’s definitely on the challenging side but it didn’t feel as punishing as the Souls games were when I first started playing them. Combat isn’t what bored me about Below though, it was the exploration and survival mechanics.

Exploring the levels is meant to be part of the challenge, and that I’m on board with, however having to go back through them to find level keys or other things in order to progress is a real chore. This is made worse by the fact that when you die the level gets regenerated again, meaning you have to not only fight your way back to your body at a disadvantage, the path to get there won’t be the same. This made death more of a chore than I felt it needed to be, even when I had the closest bonfire available for me to travel to. I didn’t even die that many times during my time with Below either, maybe 2 or 3, but even that was enough for me to want to stop playing.

The survival mechanics only exacerbate that issue, forcing you to dedicate even more time to keeping those meters filled. The water one is usually easy enough, either you just need to remember where a pool was or keep plodding along and you’ll eventually find one, but the food is a different story. It seemed early on in the game I’d get enough to keep me going, not enough for a large stockpile but sufficient to ensure I wasn’t constantly in peril, but later on that petered out completely. Even hunting everything in sight didn’t net me enough food to stop me from starving, clocking up another death because I simply couldn’t find enough food. Sure, this could be RNGesus screwing me over just that once, but that’s exactly the reason I usually steer clear of Roguelikes. Reading through other reviews it seems I’m not alone in feeling this way either, so hopefully the developers address it (maybe even make a mode that has it removed and blocks your achievements or something).

Below is a mechanically deep and well crafted game that struggles to capture your attention. The environments are truly beautiful, something which is unfortunately only revealed to you in fits and starts when you’re able to use a precious light source to see them. Combat is simple but challenging enough to be rewarding which is a hard balance to strike. Unfortunately the real let down of the game is in the exploration and survival mechanics that do little more than add tedium to the game. This is why I put it down after just 2 hours of game time, I simply couldn’t drive myself on with it any longer. Perhaps there’s something beyond level 4 that might’ve enticed me to stay but I’ll never know.

Rating: 6.5/10

Below is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $22.49. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours playtime and 50% of the achievements unlocked. 

Gris: The Colour Has Left My World.

We sometimes forget just how young video games are as a creative medium and how far they still have to go as methods of expression. But that relative youthfulness brings with it an incredible amount of experimentation with the many centuries of artistic expression that preceded the medium suffusing themselves into the storytelling lexicon of game developers. When all those elements come together it can create some of the most beautiful experiences that we’ve ever created. Gris, by Nomada Studios, is a fantastic example of what games as a medium can be, combining stunning hand animated visuals, a deeply moving soundtrack and game mechanics that evolve alongside the game’s visual style. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful games of this year, both in terms of visuals and its story.

Your world is filled with beauty; fantastic colours swirl around you as you raise your voice in concert. But suddenly your voice leaves you and the world begins to crumble, dumping you down into a place drained of colour and life. As you begin to stumble forward you notice that the world reacts to the small points of light that have followed you, allowing you to move onwards. There’s no telling if the path forward will bring back the world you once knew, nor if your voice will ever return, but you continue on hoping that one day you’ll see the world brighten once again.

Gris’ is a hand animated game that uses a watercolour palette and art style, giving you the feeling of a children’s book come to life. The developers favoured a simplistic art style although they thankfully didn’t skimp out on the animation frames (unlike a recent, similar title). Each of the different sections has its own distinct visual style which forms a key part of the game’s mechanics. Supporting all of this is an absolutely amazing soundtrack done by Berlinist, a music group from Barcelona. The whole album is up on Spotify and is honestly worth a listen just by itself. Suffice to say from a craftsmanship level Gris achieves a level of refinement I wouldn’t expect from a first time developer, even if it was founded by 2 long time developers.

Mechanically Gris is simple, essentially being a platformer with a few interesting mechanics. Most of the puzzles you’ll encounter are fairly straightforward, only requiring you to figure out the right sequence of moves in order to get past them. If you’re chasing momentos though there’s going to be a slight increase in the challenge, often including a timing element that’s not present in most of the required puzzles. You’ll gain new abilities as you progress but unlike many other platform puzzlers they’ll always be used individually or in sequence. This means that puzzles towards the end of the game aren’t really that much harder than those at the start. Mechanical complexity isn’t really a focus of the game however and nor should it be. Far too many games have ruined themselves by letting the mechanics get in the way of the core story.

Exploration is usually rewarded through giving you a momento although they don’t do anything beyond playing a cool sound (at least, nothing I saw when I was collecting them anyway). If I was to level one criticism here though it’d be that in the larger environments exploration feels cumbersome and the lack of a good reward doesn’t motivate you to seek them out. This is especially true for some sections where the game takes you through a large spanning environment for minutes on end, making you wonder where they could’ve hid things. Thankfully not exploring at all doesn’t detract from the overall experience but it could be rewarded just a little better.

PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW

Here’s where I step into pure speculation about what I believe the story is about because, well, I had a fun time speculating as to what each of the game’s visual elements meant. The colour leaving the world feels like an allegory for depression, something which I think many of us who’ve struggled with it can attest to. The bird that torments you is doubt, the thing that keeps coming back and screaming at you, threatening to knock you down if you don’t prepare yourself for it. The small lights are akin to hope, building the bridges you need in order to push on as you try to restore colour to your world.

So the story is one of succumbing to doubt and falling into a depression so deep that it drains the colour from your world and preventing you from doing the one thing that will bring it back. It might not be the most unique of stories but it’s relatable and told beautifully which is really all I can ask for from most games. I haven’t yet gone around yet to see if my interpretation lines up with anyone else’s so I’d be keen to hear anyone else’s thoughts on what the visual story of Gris means to you.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Gris is a masterpiece, telling a beautiful story through the use of wonderful visual artwork, a great soundtrack and simple but solid game mechanics. It came at the perfect time for me to, after having put a bunch of hours into no less than 3 different shooters I was ready for something that favoured beauty over action. Nomada Studio has set themselves a strong precedent with this and I’m very much looking forward to what they start working on next.

Rating: 9.25/10

Gris is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $16.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 horus play time and 29% of the achievements unlocked.

Destiny 2: Black Armory: Forge Onward, Guardian.

The revamp that Forsaken brought to Destiny 2 was sorely needed, giving it the shot in the arm that many players were longing for. To be sure it was aimed primarily at a certain crowd, those who make Destiny their hobby, but at this point in the game’s life those are the ones who Bungie needs to please the most. For myself it was a reawakening of that original Destiny spirit I had been longing for, giving me enough drive to grind out gear for the raid and ultimately, for the first time in a long while, max out my character at 600 light after some 41 more hours after I wrote my review. So when I saw Black Armory was coming out, the first of its kind of mini-expansions, I was intrigued to jump back in to see some new content and maybe even try the new raid in the first week.

Unfortunately it seems those many hours I put in beforehand just got me a ticket to the dance. To really enjoy the new mini-dlc fully I’d have to go back to the grind.

Black Armory gives you an extremely short bit of story which introduces Ada-1, the purveyor of the DLC’s namesake. Essentially they’re a weapon maker whose clientele is those not blessed with power, I.E. not you, guardian. However your relationship with The Spider has granted you access to them and Ada-1 quickly puts you to task in reclaiming their forge in order for them to start cranking out weapons again. So after about an hour or so of following a quest chain to unlock the first forge you’re then introduced to the game’s new mode, a kind of revamp of the escalation protocol with a few new mechanics thrown in the mix.

Jumping into this headfirst on day 1 wasn’t the greatest experience, something that was echoed by many other 600 light level players who tried the new content day 1. The main issue was that the light level for the first encounter started out at around 610, topping out at 630 for the final boss. This meant for those of us diving headfirst into the new encounter, especially considering it was a matchmade event, were usually met with defeat. Bungie then lowered the light level by 5, which made it a little more doable but still anything but easy even for previously maxed characters, necessitating a need to go back and begin the same grind out all over again. For some this is a non issue, indeed there were numerous examples of people reaching 640+ after the first day, but for those of us playing a single character with little interest in redoing much of the grind we just went through this experience didn’t resonate well.

You see for those who run 3 characters the 50 light level bump isn’t going to mean a lot to them, maybe a week or two of their regular grind in order to get there. For people like me though, who run a single character since that’s all they have time for, that level cap is more like 3+ weeks worth of work. That puts half of this expansion’s content (I.E. the raid) out of reach for some time. With the lack of story or other interesting activities to keep driving me forward, like the ever changing Dreaming City dialogue and ascendant challenges, the will to plough through the grind again just wasn’t there. To be sure part of this is to blame on expectations, I was somewhat hoping for a little bit of a campaign that would then plonk me into a new set of activities to grind but instead what I got was mostly the old grind with a few new things tacked onto it. I’ve already done my dash on that part and really have no interest in re-grinding all the same things again just so I can run the raid a couple times.

I think it’s clear that this kind of expansion isn’t really designed with players like me in mind. Forsaken was, to be sure, a rather long and drawn out grind but there were enough new and cool things to push me forward towards an ultimate goal. Black Armory adds all of the key trappings that used to keep me coming back but lacks that hook to keep driving me forward. This isn’t to say it’s a bad expansion, more that it’s directed at a certain subset of players who’ve been craving some kind of new content for a little while now that they’ve run the raid, got all their curated rolls and haven’t had much of a reason to login for the past month or so. I’m not one of those players, I had a goal of running the raid, which I did, then it progressed into completely smashing the raid with the best weapons, gear and mods available, and I did that too. Now though I don’t feel compelled to grind forges for new weapons, seek out the new exotics or even look into the raid. Maybe that’s because I have other games to fill that need that Destiny once met or maybe it’s due to the lack of story content, maybe it’s all those things but the long and the short of it is I don’t see much reason to log back into Destiny to play through Black Armory.

I don’t begrudge Bungie for releasing Black Armory like this though, they’re making content for their dedicated player base and I’m simply not one of them. I come back for every expansion, play it until I’ve had my fill and then I leave it again waiting until I’ve got a good reason to invest my time in it again. This time around I simply didn’t find that one hook, that one thing that pushes me to want to achieve something. That doesn’t mean it isn’t there, indeed it seems a lot of people are finding their own reasons to keep playing it, just it didn’t surface in time for me. Maybe the additional content drips for Black Armory will tempt me back eventually but, for now, Destiny 2 will remain on ice for me.

Rating: 7.0/10

Destiny 2: Black Armory is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now as part of the Annual Pass for $34.99. Total time spent in the expansion was about 3 hours, with total playtime in Destiny 2 now totalling 171 hours. 

Battlefield V: A War Fought by All

Quite often I surprise myself when I go back to previous reviews. I’d forgotten just how much I had enjoyed Battlefield 1 when it came out, seemingly loving the new Operations mode which kept me coming back for a while (although no longer than what I did for the review it seems). I hadn’t really been following the development for Battlefield V but on the surface it’d seem that, if you liked its predecessor, you’d like the enhancements that were coming along with this latest instalment. However this time around it felt like more of the same as there was nothing particularly innovative or novel about this latest Battlefield that grabbed me. That coupled with some rather egregious launch day issues made for a very middle of the road experience, neither completely terrible nor something I’d recommend you’d seek out and play.

Much like its predecessor Battlefield V retains the same story vignette style for its campaigns, although there was far fewer of them this time around. They all follow pivotal stories of World War II but they are all, of course, entirely fictional which seems to annoy the history buffs to no end. They’re incredibly simple in their construction, taking place in the multiplayer maps and almost entirely consisting of running from one base to another, completing some rudimentary objective before moving onto the next. It seems that DICE is taking a kind of softly-softly approach to killing off the single player experience, rather than take the direct (and more controversial) route of just killing it off completely. 

The Frostbite 3 engine is looking as good as it ever has although it is starting to show its age in some places. Mostly this comes up when you’re in tight environments or up close to things where the numerous visual tricks that the engine uses start to come into stark relief. The Battlefield games have always been at their best in giant environments where you can enjoy the wide vistas before a sniper takes you out from the other side of the map. Performance is still workable although it seems that DirectX 12 support is still a little patchy, glitching out hard on me and causing a few crashes even after installing the latest drivers. I’ll touch more on that later though as there’s definitely some larger issues at play here with the usual DICE jankiness turned up a couple notches in this release.

At its core Battlefield V feels the same as it has for quite a while now, retaining its penchant for large battles on in huge spaces with all the trimmings you’d expect from a large war simulator. The classes are the same, sticking to the same 4 tropes that were defined so long ago. There’s supposedly some improved versions of other game modes but, in all honesty, I never really got around to playing them. No I spent the majority of my time in the game playing with friends in the one game mode that they never get wrong: conquest. In that regard the Battlefield experience I had felt pretty much the same as it always did, for better and for worse.

Combat remains much the same, favouring a slower paced strategic type of engagement rather than say Call of Duty’s flurry of bullets and respawns. That still brings with it all the less desirable aspects of course, like snipers being able to one shot you from places you can’t see them and one shot kill headshots from guns that really have no right to be that effective (like the Medic’s MP5 which netted me far more kills with that then even I felt was fair). The large scale battles in conquest do retain their larger than life feeling though, something which precious few games have been able to achieve. Surprisingly though even with many players taking advantage of the insane 11 day head start (my mate being one of them, dumping some 52 hours into the game before its official release) I didn’t feel as disadvantaged as I previously did. Indeed unlike previous games where a maxed out tank player could ruin the game for an entire team this time around things felt an awful lot more balanced. Either that or I’ve improved dramatically over the last few years but I doubt the countless hours I’ve spent in COD have really helped me that much in Battlefield…

The single player missions are a relatively short affair with most of them being over in an hour so. If you’re so inclined there’s a bunch of hidden collectibles strewn about the place which, if you complete the associated challenges for the mission, will give you an unique melee weapon for use in multiplayer. Honestly given how basic they are I really wasn’t inclined to search blindly around the giant maps looking for them, especially when the combat wasn’t exactly fun or enjoyable. You see most of the missions are meant to be tackled stealthy, but they don’t equip you with many tools for doing so outside of throwing shells to distract people or highlighting them with your binoculars. The AI is so extrucingatly dumb that DICE counteracted that by making them all top tier marksman, able to hit you with a pistol with sniper like accuracy. Of course you can counter this by alerting them and then running behind a door, which they’ll all then happily run towards allowing you to mow them all down.

Honestly I’m starting to get on board with the idea of not having a single player campaign at all if they’re going to be this basic. I can understand the idea of wanting to provide glimpses into various parts of the setting but I’m not particularly interest in that as a subject and, from what I’ve seen, the things depicted in there aren’t exactly what the history buffs enjoy either. Honestly I’d prefer a shorter campaign, maybe say 3~4 hours or so, that was a polished end to end experience. Heck that used to be what most of these games delivered (although I admit many derided them for the short length) so maybe their return to their roots simply hasn’t gone far enough.

I’d probably be a little more generous if Battlefield V wasn’t so unpolished on release, both for the single and multiplayer experience. Every new release of Battlefield seems to bring with the same old bugs, chief of which is a physics engine which gets routinely confused on how to simulate the most rudimentary of things. I had one instance in the single player campaign where someone spawned inside a vehicle, immediately died then started to vibrate violently as they bounced between the outside and inside of the vehicle. I had the bomb on a couple maps spawn in the ground (in an area that wasn’t destructible either, see below screenshot), preventing the team from picking it up and forcing the game into a neverending stalemate. This is somewhat par for the course with Battlefield games but, honestly DICE, it’s time for you to either develop Frostbite 4 to address these problems or find a new engine entirely.

All of this culminates into an experience that isn’t so much different from those of Battlefield games past which, depending on what you’re looking for in this game, can be a good or a bad thing. For me personally the Battlefield games have always had a pretty limited lifetime for me; the lack of repetitive hits to my dopamine centers that other competitive shooters provide meaning I’ll go and seek out my fix elsewhere after I’ve had my fill of Battlefield. For others though, those who play Battlefield as their goto hobby, it’s going to mean that they’ve got more of the same experience that they want. 

For me though? Battlefield V feels like it was off the mark a bit, getting just enough things wrong to make it feel a bit more middle of the road than it otherwise has. Many of the things that make the series great are still there: the massive environments with huge battles, a deep progression system that will keep players engaged for ages and new game modes which, whilst I didn’t particularly engage with them, shows that DICE at least wants to try some new things. But for every one of those positives there’s a handful of negatives as well, enough so that after 12 hours in the game I think I’ve had my fill. Sure, part of that is because Black Ops 4 has managed to get its hooks into me again, but even then I’ve played this Battlefield for longer than its predecessor and I liked that one far more. I know there’s precious few people who read these reviews to figure out what game to play but if you’ve been sitting on the fence for this one, waiting patiently for my opinion on it, I’d probably say give it a miss for now.

Maybe pick it up just before Christmas so you can own all the noobs when they get their copy 😉

Rating: 7.5/10

Battlefield V is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59. Game was played on the PC with a total of 12 hours play time and 26% of the achievements unlocked.

The Quiet Man: Walking a Path of Good Intentions.

Back in the day when computer graphics weren’t as capable as they are today the inclusion of full motion video was a pretty standard affair. As time went on it faded away and was mostly relegated to being a novelty for the few games that used it. The last few years have seen a resurgence of these mixed-media titles with some great examples like Quantum Break and The Late Shift showing what is possible when the line between games and movies begins to blur. Then you get the horrific messes like The Quiet Man which makes all the mistakes you could possibly think of when it comes to crossing media bounds; both in terms of how it tells a story from a cinematic perspective and how to deliver an actual, functional game.

I’m just thankful that no one but the most avid of game reviewers is likely to ever come across this.

There’s a plot in here somewhere however you’re not likely to understand what it is, I sure as shit don’t, because apart from a few breadcrumbs of dialogue at the start the game’s audio is all weird muffled sounds. Now this wouldn’t be an issue usually, I’ve played my fair share of games without a lick of dialogue, but the problem here is that much of the story is bound up in that dialogue. The game tells you at the start that subtitles will only appear for stuff you’re supposed to know but even that’s not consistent as you don’t even get subtitles when your own character is talking. So what you get is a bunch of FMV vignettes interspersed with short game play sections that appear to tell some kind of story but without any scraps of that dialogue making it through to you what you get is really a horrendously confused mess.

The Quiet Man has the audacity to bill itself as a game that(and I’m quoting from the Steam page here) “delivers an immersive story driven cinematic action experience seamlessly blending high-production live action, realistic CG and pulse-pounding action gameplay”. If you would care to cast your eyes down to the screenshot below you’ll see an example of their “realistic” CG which is honestly about 5 years behind what I’d consider passable for good graphics these days. Even worse than this is all the animations are horribly stiff and unrealistic, making the below par visuals stand out even more. Honestly I would’ve given them a pass on it if they hadn’t lauded it in their opening statement on the sale page but, come on guys, when you say realistic CG and then deliver this you deserve to get criticised for it.

Now mixed-media games, depending on how they blend the various elements together, aren’t renowned for having in depth game mechanics. Still that doesn’t usually matter as long as whatever is there is in aid of the story (since most games like this tend to be narrative-first) but The Quiet Man’s beat em up mechanic is simplistic, repetitive and worst of all terribly inconsistent. It definitely takes inspiration from other games like Batman: Arkham Asylum but it lacks any shred of refinement. There’s a bunch of fight mechanics in there that are available to you however the game never tells you how to use them, nor does it introduce challenges to you in such a way as to demonstrate how they should be used. The only way the challenge increases is that the game will throw more enemies at you in one go which just invites the already janky mechanics to start spazzing out with reckless abandon making even the simplest fight a real chore. Again I was almost willing to forgive this until the game threw about 10 fights in a row at me that were basically all the same and then the game crashed, forcing me to replay all of them again as it only checkpoints at the start of scenes.

All of this isn’t the game’s greatest sin however, that lies in the horrendous approach they took to building a story around the fact the main character is deaf. Instead of building a game (and the associated FMV sections) up from the point of view that your character can’t hear, making use of other storytelling mechanisms to convey its meaning across, they did the opposite. This means that they essentially finished a full game and move, sound design and all, then bastardised the thing into a muddled mess by removing a critical piece of the narrative structure. It wasn’t even done in a way that makes logical sense, I.E. I don’t understand when people sign at me nor do I even understand anything when the character I’m playing is speaking to others.

If this was some experimental, indie project it’d be one thing but this is Square Enix publishing something from Human Head Studios, you know the ones who gave us the original Prey. That means this entire experience, end to end, made it through various levels of testing and review before it was dumped on the market. How they didn’t pick up on the fact that this was such a hot mess is beyond me. Of course there’s a possibility that they did and just wanted to make whatever cash they could but honestly, the people involved in this should have known better. They had aspirations of doing something like Quantum Break but should have tilted much more towards something like Late Shift as the actual game components add absolutely nothing to the story at all.

The Quiet Man fails to achieve anything that it set out to do, instead providing a frustrating, confusing experience for those who’d dare give it the time of day. The approach and execution of the creative vision is completely backwards, failing to make a compelling narrative or a game with any merit. As a mixed media production this is probably as bad as I’ve ever seen as even the games of yesteryear, with their cheesey overacting and extraordinarily poor writing, still at the very least had a kind of kitschy appeal to them. The Quiet Man lacks any of this and should serve as a black mark against the companies published it. To those who worked on these titles I’m so sorry this happened to you, I know marketing and publishing are likely the cause for this trainwreck (and not your skill as a developer), but that still doesn’t mean that the sins that The Quiet Man commits can be forgiven.

Rating: 3.0/10

The Quiet Man is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $17.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours play time and 77% of the achievements unlocked.

The Gardens Between: The Joy We Shared.

5 years ago I attended my first (and, as it turns out, only) PAX event in Australia and, despite the teething issues, managed to have a rather enjoyable time. Whilst I was there I went through the expo hall and picked my way through the various indie developers who were there to showcase what they’d been working on. There I stumbled across The Voxel Agents and I spent a few moments talking to them about their game, though for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. I asked if the game contained any voxels, to which they replied no and, in what I now see as a total dick move I asked them if any of their games did which they answered no. Sensing that I was probably being one of those people, something that might be especially considering I was in full Adam Jensen cosplay at the time, I made a swift exit stage left. Imagine my surprise then when I stumbled across The Gardens Between, an intriguing time puzzle game, by those very same developers I annoyed all those years ago.

Although, and I can’t stop myself from writing this, it appears that their most recent game is still voxel-less. Sorry…I’ll see myself out…

Arina and Frendt are best friends who’ve shared many pivotal moments of their childhood together. However one day Frendt tells Arina that he’s moving away for good and they head up to their tree house to spend one last night together there. They then embark on a whimsical journey through their collective past, reliving their most cherished memories together through fantastical worlds littered with the everyday objects that played background to their story. Arina, the headstrong one, pushes forward lighting the way for the pair whilst Frendt is the thinker, manipulating the world’s objects. It’s a bittersweet tale that many of us can relate to, of close childhood friendships that are torn apart by circumstances beyond our control, but also a reminder that we’ll never lose those memories we forged together.

The Gardens Between has a stylized, simplistic art style that’s light on the textures but heavy on environmental detail. The fantastical worlds it presents are cobbled together out of everyday objects that are scaled, warped and twisted making the environments seem paradoxically real and otherworldly at the same time. Under the hood its powered by the Unity engine and thanks to the heavy investment in assets, lighting and shading effects it avoids that typical unity game sheen. Working hand in hand with the great visuals is a fantastic backing soundtrack and extensive foley work which makes the whole world come alive. Looking at their back catalogue at games it’s honestly out of left field for them and shows that they’re wanting to grow as game developers. Kudos to you.

The game’s main mechanic is a Braid-like time travel mechanic where you move time forwards and backwards to complete the puzzles. There are various items that are time independent which you can then use to change the flow of how events come to pass. How you manipulate time also has an impact on many puzzles, like some requiring you to stop time and hold it there or moving back and forward a certain amount to repeat actions. There’s also a bunch of achievements for doing less than intuitive things in certain puzzles which can be a bit of fun to chase down if the main puzzles don’t feel challenging enough. All in all it’s a relatively simple game mechanically but therein lies its charm as you’re unlikely to get stuck for very long, ensuring the story keeps moving at a steady pace.

Probably the only gripe I have is that moving forwards and backwards through time is a little slow for some of the larger puzzles which can take quite some time to unwind. This becomes quite noticeable for puzzles where you have to follow (sometimes multiple) things bouncing around a level to figure out which one you need to put your lantern on. With a start to finish time of only 2 hours though I get why they might not want to put that in, the game is short enough as it is, but even something like speeding it up the longer you hold it down would be much appreciated.

If I’m honest the story didn’t do much to grab me early on, feeling like I was looking through someone else’s picture album: interesting to be sure but no emotional involvement from my side. Towards the end though, and I can’t quite put my finger on what did it, I started to get more invested in their story. Perhaps it was remembering similar stories from my childhood that did it, the many people I spent so much time with but then lost them to moving away or them growing apart from me. Whatever did it though the story hit home and that bittersweet feeling hit me like a truck. Growing up is filled with such sweet sorrow as what The Gardens Between shows us and, whilst we may not like to be reminded of it, I’m sure we can certainly all relate to it.

If annoying developers at conventions can lead to games like The Gardens Between I’ll be sure to do it more often as what The Voxel Agents have done here is certainly worth the price of admission. The audio visual experience is exceptional, defining a style that I hope they take forward into whatever they choose to pursue next. The game mechanics, whilst not exactly novel, do bring a new view to what time travel games can do. The story, whilst it takes some time to find its feet, is one that I feel is quite relatable  to a lot of people, especially those who aren’t lucky enough to still be in contact with their childhood friends. Suffice to say if you’re looking for a break from the AAA release firehose (like I have) then The Gardens Between is certain to fit the bill.

Rating: 8.5/10

The Gardens Between is available on PC, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total playtime and 35% of the achievements unlocked.