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.

Return of the Obra Dinn: Oh What Terrible Fate Befell Thee.

The indie scene loves a breakout hit; especially those that either defies or creates a genre. Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please is a fantastic example of this creating a new genre of documentation review based games like Cart Life, This is the Police and Va11-Hall A. This always then begs the question as to how they’ll follow up the breakout hit: iterate on the formula, try something completely different or pursue a passion project. Pope appears to have gone for option 2, wanting to challenge himself with a lot of creative constraints to build something quite different to anything else he had done before. The result certainly achieves that, enough so that I didn’t even know it was done by him until I saw the developer name on the Steam page. I can certainly appreciate the level of craftsmanship brought to bear here however putting a good 4 hours into the game I don’t feel much compulsion to go back.

The good ship the Obra Dinn disappeared some six months ago, taking with it 200 tons of cargo and all of its crew. One day however it strangely turned up in port, bereft of any crew. You are an insurance assessor, tasked with boarding the ghost ship and figuring out what happened. Your tasks are simple, identify the crew, how they perished and who was responsible for it. What follows is a tale of endless tragedy that befell the crew of the Obra Dinn, their journey seemingly cursed from the start to fail. That is of little concern to you however, you are merely there to document everything and report back to your superiors. You may never be the same again, though.

Obra Dinn utilises a 1 bit colour palette in the vein of computers from another era. You can even switch between different models of computers, although all that really does is change the 1 colour you’ll be staring at. It’s still a 3D game though so the effect is a really unusual one. Indeed I’m struggling to think of another 3D game that utilised dithering to achieve shading so from a visual perspective the game is truly unique. This also gives rise to some really interesting visual effects, like when the background fades away to an image (like the screenshot below). I’m typically a very visual person when it comes to games but what Pope has achieved with the Obra Dinn is quite astonishing, even with just 1 colour to work with.

The game play takes the form of an investigation whereby you’re tasked with figuring out who died (or didn’t) when and who or what was responsible for it. You do this by reliving the last moments of most of the crew through the use of your pocket watch. Reliable information is incredibly scarce and so you’ll have to rely on various other things in order to make your judgement calls. This can be things like someone’s position on the ship, their race, their relationship to others or even where they were. When you make 3 correct guesses the game will confirm them for you, preventing you from simply spamming the options and hoping for a hit. If this sounds like a challenge it most certainly is, one I’m not ashamed to say got the best of me.

You see as you relive the last moments of the crew’s life you’ll get to see the story of how the ship met its fate. Following this thread until the end probably lasts a couple hours or so when the game will indicate to you that you’ve seen everything and should get on with solving the puzzle. This will of course mean revisiting a lot of the memories, looking for clues and trying to figure out what information you can glean from where. For some this is going to be a great experience, following the chain of clues to find that one nugget that lets you seal away a fate or two. For me though? It became a chore, not least of which was due to the annoying way in which you have to go to find the memories in order to review them. I did give it the old college try though, solving 15 fates total, but after that point, knowing all there was to know of the story, I didn’t feel like there was much left for me to enjoy.

Perhaps my brain is currently wired for short term gain, thanks to the almost embarrassing amount of hours I’ve put into Black Ops 4 even after panning it, but I couldn’t help but feel much like I did when playing The Witness. The level of care and attention to detail is obvious but I just couldn’t find the joy in there that others seemed to. To be sure this is a game the creator wanted to make, not something that was driven by community or by a large customer research team. There’s beauty in that, and I wholeheartedly support developers attempting this if they have the means, but it also seems to have a trend where craftsmanship can sometimes overpower enjoyment. The usual line I’d quip here is that this game isn’t for everyone but then really, what game is?

The Return of the Obra Dinn is a fantastically crafted game from Lucas Pope, showing the kinds of creativity that can blossom in the face of severe constraints. Everything about how the game was built is unique from the art style to the unique investigative mechanics to the wonderful sound and music design. However beyond the first couple hours, where the story drives you forward, the game peters out considerably and I could only manage to stick with it for another couple hours before putting it down. Credit where credit is due though there are a lot of people out there who are finding much to like about this title and an astonishing 31.5% of players have managed to fully complete the game. So this may simply be a case of this game not being for me but if the idea of playing a time travelling insurance assessor is apealing then it might just be for you.

Rating: 7.0/10

Return of the Obra Dinn is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 4 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.

Soulcalibur VI: A Tale of Souls and Swords.

It’s 2006 and I’ve just moved into a new house with 2 of my friends. It was all our first time living in a share house but we were convinced that we’d avoid the disasters that had befallen all those before us. That hubris lasted about 3 months before the expected happened but shortly after something happened: we started playing Soulcalibur III together. From then on we spent many nights and weekends battling each other, refining our skills on our chosen characters. We played so much that the edges of our thumbs callused over, which we nicknamed the Soulcallus. It was also the only time I’ve ever thrown a controller across the room in frustration after an appalling 12 run losing streak against one of my mates. So the Soulcalibur series holds something of a special place in my heart and the long time between drinks for the series (6 years since V was released) has left me very much wanting. Whilst that special ingredient of my mates sitting around the couch might still be missing it’s been great to see that the Soulcalibur series is still very much in form so many years on.

Soulcalibur VI takes us back to the beginning of the series, taking us back to the 16th century. The stories will be familiar to long time fans of the series although if you’re like me, joining the series somewhat late in the piece, the campaign missions give you a good insight into the background to the main recurring characters of the series. Similarly the Libre of Soul missions, which put you as an unknown character in the same world, explore some of the events that happened around the main plot. So whilst there might not be much added to the main plotline of the Soulcalibur series it does build out the history a lot more. It should also help to attract those who may have given the series a miss until this point, even though no one really plays fighting games for the plot.

As you’d expect from a fighting game, where framerates are key, the graphics aren’t cutting edge and the art style is reminiscent of previous instalments’ highly stylized art direction. There’s certainly a lot more particle effects and in-battle cutscenes though following the current trends among fighting games to make them feel grander in scale. It certainly achieves that as pretty much every fight feels like a scene out of a shonen anime. It follows then that performance is consistent across the board with even the most visual heavy moves unable to bring about a drop in framerates. This being built on the Unreal engine (just as Tekken 7 was) I’m sure the look and performance will be the same across the multiple platforms.

Soulcalibur VI builds upon the series’ long heritage by adding on a few new mechanics and reverting others. The largest addition to the core fighting mechanics is the reversal edge, a defensive counter that locks you into a kind of rock-paper-scissors mini-game. Guard impacts have reverted back from their change in Soulcalibur V, making them a lot more straightforward in their execution. The Soul Gauge remains but now has 2 levels to it and can be used to execute high damage attacks. The previous soul gauge mechanic, whereby blocking for a long time drained it, is still there although it’s decoupled from the gauge and will now show up as a red outline on your health bar. The changes follow the larger fighting game trend to make games faster, flashier and to prevent long beatdowns from which you have little hope of recovering from. For a mostly aggressive player like myself I like these changes, even if it means that I’m more open to counters than I ever was before.

The returning characters retain their signature styles and will be instantly familiar to long time fans of the series. My personal favourite character, Ivy, felt a lot more streamlined than I remember her being with the previous instalments making her feel clunky and slow when compared to previous instalments. Looking at the world leaderboards it’s quite possible that’s due to her being a current top tier pick so maybe I’ve just lucked out this time around. Raphael by comparison feels a little more unwieldy than I remember him being although I will admit I never really did get a good handle on his preparations. I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly test out Talim, a character I lamented the omission of in Soulcalibur V (I replaced her with Viola in my roster). Suffice to say Soul Calibur VI retains the tradition of keeping the cores of the characters consistent whilst mixing them up slightly, ensuring that it doesn’t feel like the same old game.

The main campaign is well done, following Kilik’s origin story with his quest to destroy the Soul Edge. Whilst I do appreciate that there’s been a bit more effort put in than what has been done in the past I’m still not a huge fan of the visual novel style. Sure, it allows a lot more content to be created for the same price, but it’s always a lot less immersive than in-game or cinematic cutscenes. Part of this is also due to the pace, which is a little stilted thanks to the numerous loading screens that you have to go through in order to watch the dialogue, load into a fight (which you only get to do a couple of in the first hour of the campaign, which was a little annoying) and then load again to see the post-fight scenes. Still once the pace starts picking up towards the end it stands out as the best fighting game campaign I’ve ever played, even if that’s a relatively low bar to jump over.

Libre of Soul is the ancillary mode where you can level up a character of your own creation. It has all the trappings of a light RPG game with weapon upgrades, XP and gold that you’ll need to gather to do things like travel, hire mercenaries to fight for you and buy food to regen health between fights. It’s a similar mode to what Killer Instinct has, essentially pitting you against an endless stream of enemies. There is a storyline in here but it’s pretty minimal and mostly serves as background to the main campaign mission to give you an insight as to why certain characters were there when they were. I played a decent amount of it and it certainly served well as a kind of extended tutorial, allowing me to get familiar with my preferred character whilst still making some progress. After spending some time in that I decided it was time to test my meddle against some real human beings and this is unfortunately where Soulcalibur VI is a bit of a let down.

Fighting games have always struggled to get online right, owing to their unique set of challenges in requiring low latency between players and the niche appeal of the games limiting the size of said playerbase. Perhaps it’s better in more populated countries but here, in Australia, I can’t name one fighting game where I’ve been able to get matches consistently. Soulcalibur VI is no exception as I’d often be waiting 5+ minutes for a ranked match, if I could ever find one. Worse still is the casual mode which takes the form of a King of the Hill game style. Essentially whoever won the last round is at the top and you have to wait your turn to beat them. If you lose, back to the bottom of the pile. When I did get in the matches were great though, the lag seeming to make little impact on my ability to pull off big combos.

What keeps me, and many others, coming back to games like this is a solid quickplay mode where we can drop in, play a few matches and then bug out. I mean sure, the ability to train while you wait is nice but it’s not enough to keep you coming back time and time again. This, coupled with the fact that I don’t live in a house with multiple other Soulcalibur players anymore, means that I haven’t put much more time into this one than I would have otherwise. It’s a bit of a shame really as I was certainly hyped for the release, hoping that I’d get suckered back into the fighting game world. Maybe it’s a good thing that I didn’t splurge $300 on that Hori Real Arcade Pro N

Soul Calibur VI revitalises the series that’s laid dormant for the past 6 years. I’d usually lament retreading ground but, as someone who came to the series late in its life, going back to the beginning has been great in order to see the game’s history that I was only vaguely familiar with. The campaign and its ancillary story mode are great additions, even if they’re not enough by themselves to keep me coming back. The online is, unfortunately, the biggest mark against this instalment, lacking the right mode to keep people coming back for that quick fighting game hit. Still I’m hopeful that it’ll improve and hopefully the dedicated niche of fighting game enthusiasts will mean that I’ll be able to get my fighting game fix for a long time into the future.

Rating: 8.75/10

Soulcalibur VI is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours of total playtime and 12% of the achievements unlocked.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4: There is no Mason.

The past 2 Call of Duty games weren’t really up to the standard that I’d come to expect from the franchise. Part of this can be attributed to Black Ops 3 being my favourite in the series, the multiplayer keeping me going for a good 150+ hours before I decided to call it quits. So my expectations were probably higher than they’d otherwise be for Black Ops 4, hoping to rekindle that love of the COD multiplayer which I’d lost for the last couple years. Whilst on one hand all the ingredients are there for that to happen again there’s been some glaring omissions and strange launch-day decisions that have marred what could’ve otherwise been yet another solid COD game from Treyarch.

This is typically where I’d give a brief synopsis of the initial plot for the game but since Black Ops 4 lacks a single player campaign I have none to give. Sure they’ve buried some meagre bits and pieces on the specialists training modes, giving you a brief cutscene here or there that speaks to why each of the character classes have their abilities, but that does not a single player campaign make. After it was announced that this was the case Treyarch confirmed unequivocally that they never intended to put a single player campaign in, citing the fact that most players simply jump straight into the multi. I have no reason to doubt that but out of the 3 Call of Duty developers they were always the ones who made the most interesting and engaging stories. Leaving that out seems like a missed opportunity, one that this reviewer certainly laments. Of course it wasn’t taken away for just any old reason as it was replaced with Blackout although whether or not the trade off was worth it will be entirely up to you. For me it certainly wasn’t (more on that later).

The Call of Duty games were never known for their cutting edge visuals, instead favouring higher performance to go along with the game’s rapid pace of combat. This trend continues with Black Ops 4 with the game striving to maintain a smooth, high frame rate experience over providing Crysis-like eye candy. There’s also less opportunity for level and set designers to showcase what the engine is capable of doing due to the game being multiplayer only. All things considered though the game looks perfectly fine for what it wants to be: a fast paced shooter. I will admit though that I figured that for the handful of cutscenes they created they would’ve spent a little more of their ridiculous budget on making them a little more cutting edge.

Black Ops 4 retains its 2 core game modes that most players will know, regular multiplayer and zombies, along with the new Battle Royal mode called Blackout. The base multiplayer games don’t deviate from the COD formula much, retaining the same Pick 10 system alongside a familiar cast of weapons. Some weapons now have the option of an Operator Mod which will significantly change the way the gun operates from simple things like massive rates of fire increases to strobe lights for one of the shotguns. Deviating from the last few titles as well is the lack of loot boxes with the only microtransactions in sight being used for buying different cosmetic skins for the specialists. Perhaps the biggest change though is the lack of automatically regenerating health, instead relegated to a piece of equipment which you’ll have you manually trigger to regenerate health. Most interesting of all is that the stim pack is actually a choice, you can replace it with another piece of gear if you so wish. For those who are really at the top of their game this gives them a very high risk/reward balance to play with, one I’ve seen used to both great and ill effect. Suffice to say the core of Black Ops 4 doesn’t deviate too much from the formula with the exception of Blackout.

To be completely open here I’m not the biggest fan of the Battle Royal format. I’ve played my share of PUBG, both on PC and mobile, and it can be enjoyable with a bunch of mates. However I like my FPS games fast and furious, something which the COD franchise has supported me with for many years. Battle Royal on the other hand is very much a slow and considered game, one that favours being patient and formulating a strategy if you want to win. Sure I could just parachute into a hot zone and likely die in the first couple minutes if I wanted to speed things up a bit but honestly, given that there’s a much more capable TDM and other modes available right there I’m far more likely to want to play that. Still in the interests of seeing everything that Black Ops 4 had to offer I figured I should give Blackout a try and, well, it’s pretty much as you’d expect: PUBG with COD weapons. I’ve heard from many that it’s a pretty great experience (which is likely given that Black Ops 4 has seen incredible sales) but for me, as a rusher type player in these kinds of games, it’s the antithesis of what I want from this kind of game. Your mileage may vary, though.

A good chunk of content for Black Ops 4 comes from 3 so right off the bat you’re going to be back in familiar territory. The same goes for the character classes with half of them being direct copy and pastes of their former selves. At first I was a little miffed at that, wanting a whole new experience, but I got over that relatively quickly as I realised it gave me a headstart on knowing the maps and which character classes I’d fit best into. A lot of the weapons have been changed around and there’s a much more wide variety of mods to choose from, making a great deal of the game’s weapons viable in PVP (so long as you can get the right unlocks done, of course). The starter classes are also well rounded as well, one of them coming with a fully kitted out gun that you won’t be able to get until level 50 or so. I’ve found the most success running with the Spitfire SMG, a bullet hose of a weapon that feels like a long range shotgun when you upgrade it with laser sights 2 and the extended mag. The ARs and shotguns were also somewhat viable depending on the map but SMGs felt like the better all round weapon if I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into.

The class abilities are a bit of a mixed bag given that they all seem to have rather lengthy cooldowns and can be real hit and miss affairs. The shock drone, radar beacon, assault pack and razor wire ones seem to be the most useful, having a direct impact on your performance in a match. Other ones like the cluster grenade and trip wire feel hit or miss, unlikely to provide a consistent boost to your ability to win matches. For some of the ultimate abilities you’ll be lucky to get 1 off per game (like the vision pulse one) whereas the other, less impactful ones (like Crash’s overheal) you’ll likely be able to get off 2~3 times easily. I’m sure this is going to be a boon for competitive teams as there’s a clear delineation between support and offensive ultimates, allowing them to fine tune team comps quite well. For pub players like me though it’ll just come down to whichever one feels best to you. I’ve standardised on Crash for the most part since that seems to help my team out the most.

I couldn’t do this review without talking about the current state of the multiplayer networking, specifically the 20hz server debacle. To put it simply the Black Ops 4’s server engine runs at 20hz, meaning all in-game events are updated 20 times per second. That sounds plenty fast enough however most modern games run at double or triple that and even Black Ops 4 itself ran at 60hz during its beta phase. The problem with this is that it leads to really inconsistent play with players able to one shot kill each other, seemingly land shots on you when you’re around a corner or, if you’re lucky, seemingly grant you super powers with the ability to kill anyone before they have a chance to react. This issue only seems to be amplify the host advantage problem as well, making some games an absolute nightmare for the opposing team. Treyarch has said that the limit on server tick rate was done to ensure that they could maintain the service during the initial rush and that it would eventually be put back up to 60hz. If they stay true to their word then Black Ops 4 might actually be a great game to pick up around the holiday season but for now, if you’re someone who’s interested in playing competitively, it may be best to give it a miss until 60hz makes a return.

The lack of single player and the 20hz servers might not sound like big issues but for someone like me, who really enjoyed Treyarch’s cerebral plots and glass smooth multi, they’re huge marks against the best Call of Duty game I’ve played in the last 3 years. To be sure I still feel that Treyarch is the one the others should follow but even this instalment feels like the weakest one from the developer to date. Perhaps I’ve begun to outgrow the series or maybe it’s taking a new direction that leads it away from me, I’m not sure, as all I really know is that the near unmitigated fun I found in previous titles has been gone for some time. Black Ops 4 has a potential redemption story ahead of it in the form of better multiplayer servers but I’ll still have that hole in my heart which only a Treyarch COD story can fill.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 retains the trademarks of the Treyarch style that, in my opinion, makes their version of the IP the best. The combat is still great, the various weapon options still a joy to fiddle with and the familiarity of old maps made the transition in that much smoother. Blackout is something that I personally could do without but it’s likely to be a drawcard for the numerous players out there who love the format and have tired of current offerings. The lack of a campaign is certainly disappointing and the inclusion of a token effort felt more insulting than if they had just left it out completely. The 20hz server issue is certainly annoying but I’m hopeful that it will be fixed as the player base declines from its launch highs. For what it’s worth I’m still enjoying the multi and I’ll probably put a few more good hours into it before I call it quits completely. Perhaps the residual hype from Black Ops 3 is what has doomed me here but I can’t help feeling that I wanted just a little bit more from Treyarch this time around.

Rating: 8.0/10

Call of Duty: Black Ops 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 8 hours of play time.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider: To Remake the World.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s release surprised me as I hadn’t really kept track of where the next instalment was at. You’d think then that I’d have no big expectations for it but reading back over my reviews though I think they were set high given the previous game, Rise of the Tomb Raider, rated up there among many of my favourite games of that year. This is always a challenge for follow up titles and it seems that unfortunately the developers just weren’t up to the task this time around. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot to like in the newest Tomb Raider game, but like many other long running AAA titles they’ve stumbled and they’re going to have to shake things up considerably if they want the IP to be successful.

Following almost directly on from the events at the end of the previous game we find Lara and Jona tracking down the leaders of the Trinity cult. They track them down to a town in Mexico where they discover that they’re looking for an ancient artifact that can bring about the remaking of the world. Lara then finds her way into an ancient temple and steals the Dagger of Ix Chel, one part of the two things needed to accomplish this. Shortly after however she’s captured by Trinity who take the dagger from her, informing Lara that she’s just begun the end of the world. You then follow Lara’s quest to find the other half piece, the Silver Box of Chak Chel, so she can stop Trinity before they remake the world by purging everyone from it.

I can strongly remember Rise of the Tomb Raider opening with a wide sweeping in-game cinematic that was absolutely stunning, showing right from the start that it was a visual marvel. Shadow of the Tomb Raider by comparison doesn’t, feeling decidedly last-gen with its muted colour palettes and tendency towards tight, closed in set pieces. Now I’ll admit that it’s quite possible some of this is due to the limits of the hardware it’s running on, given my PC is nearing 4 years old at this point, but even looking back at my old screenshots they just look so much better than the ones I have here. Rise of the Tomb Raider still has its moments, some of them which can be improved dramatically by using the built in photographer mode (not used for any of these shots), but on the whole it feels like a step back in visual quality. Given that this was supposed to be the biggest budget Tomb Raider game yet, up to $100 million possibly, it does make me wonder why the graphics took a bit of a back seat.

Where Tomb Raider reinvented, Rise refined and Shadow, unfortunately, simply copies most things wholesale from its predecessors. The game play will be familiar to those who’ve played the previous two instalments with a handful of new mechanics being thrown in. You’ll start off with a lot of abilities now I vaguely remember requiring skill points to unlock previously, many of which were necessary quality of life improvements. The upgrade and crafting system is much the same, requiring a mish mash of different items gathered from both humans and beasts in order to get the best items the game has to offer. There’s also a bunch of outfits and other weapon types available for you to find if you’re into exploring every inch of the maps that the game has to offer. Many other reviews have criticised the game for becoming stale and it’s a valid point as Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t bring enough new things to the table to make it feel truly distinct from its predecessor.

The stealth/combat is almost identical to Rise of the Tomb Raider with really only two new notable mechanics: covering yourself in mud and hiding on leafy walls. They’re introduced early but they don’t really make much of an impact in how combat plays out. It’s only towards the end when the enemies get infrared goggles does the mud mechanic make some sense but even then it’s not a huge change in the way stealth sections play out. So the combat flow follows the same pattern that a lot of games do: stealth around and take out as many enemies as you can before you inevitably trip up and have to go full gunslinger mode. There doesn’t appear to be much (if any) penalty for just shooting up everything in sight either so if you’re not really a fan of the stealth sections then you can simply blast right past them all. This would be more glaring if there was the same amount of combat in Shadow of the Tomb Raider as there was in previous games but I probably spent less than half of my total game time in combat.

There’s definitely a much heavier emphasis on platforming this time around with a lot more of the environments explorable. Shadow of the Tomb Raider does make that most annoying choice of showing you parts of the map you can’t access until you get a certain item, something which always gives me the shits. This was especially annoying given that the fast travel system never seemed to be available for me, preventing me from going back to places even after I had unlocked the requisite gear. There also appears to be some gear that you don’t get from completing the campaign missions as well (the rope ascender being the first that comes to mind) and I never saw it at any vendors either. So I’m not sure what happened there but even at the end of the game I didn’t have all the tools I needed to explore every part of the game. I’ll admit that towards the end I was starting to lose interest quickly so I might have missed some important side quest or some such which might’ve given me those tools I needed. Still my point stands: showing a player somewhere they can explore but forcing them to come back later is crap and I don’t like it.

Progression comes at a pretty steady pace throughout the game with basically every action you take giving you XP. There’s still a lot of skills which aren’t particularly useful and some that honestly shouldn’t be there at all. For instance the one that allows you to buy bigger resource bags from vendors feels a bit shit, it should just increase the one you have already. In fact the steady levelling is offset somewhat by the rather high cost of items bought from vendors and the fact that you have to buy the lesser version of something before you can buy the bigger one. Had I known that going in I might’ve been a little more strategic with how I spent my cash. Still it’s not like anything I bought from the vendors make a great deal of difference to how I played. The different bows and other types of weapons all feel basically the same, none conferring any real advantage or disadvantage over the other. Indeed you’re probably best placed just fully upgrading the defaults as you won’t really need much else.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider has a few rough edges, most notably in the platforming sections when Lara doesn’t respond to inputs as you’d expect her to. Quite often I had her leap in an unintended direction because I wasn’t angled in exactly the right way, causing her to leap to her doom. There’s also a few sections which, for some reason, instantly kill you when they shouldn’t, like the big tower which you can explore if you take one path down but will die instantly if you jump to it (even though it’s a fully survivable jump). The aiming also feels a little unrefined with a lot of shots that should have connected whiffing their target completely. None of this is game breaking but it does feel a little more rough than an AAA title like this should.

The story dives deeper into the Lara’s family history and the ties it has to the Trinity organisation which is, on the whole, not bad. It does jump around a fair bit with events unfolding a bit too fast which makes some plot points a little unbelievable. This has nothing to do with the mystic elements either, more you have character relationships developing too fast, events taking place in weirdly accelerated time frames and a lack of moments to let the story breathe. Indeed a lot of the flavour of the game is hidden in the collectibles which are all fully voiced but will only play if you stay in the inventory screen. It’s a big missed opportunity to have them playing in the background as you walk around as some of them are quite interesting. It’s not like they didn’t do that for other parts of the story too, like when you sit around the camp to upgrade your skills and Lara will either chat with people that are around or go through her internal monologues. Overall I think the story was probably one of the stronger elements of this instalment, it was just let down by the so-so game play.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider would be a fine game by any other standards but it seems small compared to the shoulders of the giants it stands on. The game feels like a step back for the series as a whole, with a lack of innovation and refinement in nearly all aspects of the game. It’s still very much the kind of game that rekindled the IP over 5 years ago, which might be great for some, but I’d want to see a lot more for the kind of investment the developers have made in it. To be fair it would’ve been hard to continue going from strength to strength, the weight of the hype train always weighs heavily, but for this reviewer Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels to be the weakest in the series. I still have hope for the franchise but at this time of year, when competition for a gamer’s attention is never greater, these kinds of missteps can be lethal.

Rating: 7.5/10

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 11 hours of total playtime and 52% of the achievements unlocked.