The Wolfenstein series’ soft reboot with The New Order back in 2014 was a gamble for then nascent developer MachineGames. The previous instalment in the franchise hadn’t performed well and many were left wondering if it would have a future at all. However they managed to release a game that was good in its own right, keeping the core old-school FPS feel and integrating it with modern-day improvements. The Old Blood was seen as a small stumble by most, the stand-alone prequel story not bringing enough to the table and being released barely a year after its predecessor. Suffice to say feelings were mixed around the announcement of The New Colossus as history showed that this game could potentially be a return to form or a continuation of its slow downwards trajectory.
For this writer, I’m glad to say, The New Colossus signals a big step forward for the franchise.
SPOILERS FOR PREVIOUS WOLFENSTEIN GAMES BELOW
You return again as B.J Blazkowicz, lying broken and bloody atop Deathshead’s fortress after defeating him. As your world darkens you give the order to fire on your position, hoping to rid the world of the foul technology that helped the Nazis conquer the world. However before you black out you see that your friends of the Kreisau Circle have come to rescue you, taking you away before they lay waste to the Nazi stronghold. Your recovery is long and just as you awake your location comes under attack by Frau Engel. With your broken body you haul yourself into a nearby wheelchair and return to what you do best: killing Nazis by the truckload. From here you continue your journey to free the world from Nazi rule.
The New Colossus is the second game to come to us via the id Tech 6 engine, the first being the DOOM reboot of last year. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was developed on a completely new engine as the graphics are a massive leap forward in almost all respects. However the release day version of the game was plagued with performance issues, something I noted early on after attempting to tweak my settings. After reading some forum posts I found that my drivers were 1 version out of date and, upon updating them, everything improved dramatically. The game still suffers greatly in outdoor areas, an ailment that seems to plague all id Tech games. Still this is one of the few games where I’ve been unable to max all the settings lest I turn the game into a slideshow. Kuods to MachineGames for continuing the trend of high quality visuals.
The core game play mechanics of The New Colossus remain largely the same as its predecessors being your typical mix of FPS and light-RPG elements. You’ll spend the majority of your time gunning down all sorts of different Nazis and their contraptions but how you go about that will be shaped by how you play and what upgrades you choose. The perk upgrade system is mostly the same, requiring you to perform certain actions in order to unlock them. Weapon upgrades are streamlined significantly, allowing you to unlock up to 3 upgrades for all of the normal weapons. Later on in the game you get access to contraptions which are another set of upgrades that unlock various areas of the game that are otherwise inaccessible. This then dovetails into the Ubercommander missions, which are essentially replays of missions you’ve already completed, allowing you to tackle them again with your newfound powers. All in all it feels like a tighter, more concise game overall which is saying something given that my campaign-only playthrough clocks in at just under an hour shorter than my The New Order playthrough.
Combat is mostly mid-paced, often starting with a stealth section followed by your typical corridor shooter affair once you are inevitably detected. There are some high action scenes where you’ll just be sending endless streams of lead down range but for the most part you can take your time when it comes to engaging The New Colosuss’ enemies. The shooting does feel a little on the rough side, the generosity of previous game’s hit boxes reduced somewhat requiring a greater level of skill on the player. Some of the guns feel completely ineffectual until you get one or two of their upgrades which, thankfully, won’t take too long if you take some time to explore a little bit. The game isn’t stingy with ammo drops either so no matter what gun you prefer you’ll most likely be able to use it as often as you want. Despite the slightly slower pace and less polished feel overall I’d rate the combat as equal to its predecessors.
Progression is broadly broken up into 2 main systems, perks and weapon mods, but you’ll also change the mix of your base stats as you progress through the game. Initially you’ll have a max of 50 health and 200 armour which, after a certain mission, will change to 100/100. This might not sound like much but it does change the flow of the game significantly, especially considering the game’s focus on over-charging your health rather than allowing you to increase it permanently. Thus the start of the game actually feels a lot easier than it does towards the end since you won’t be able to overcharge your health to 200 and also run around with 200 armour. If this is your first foray into Wolfenstein it might actually be a great way to ease you into the flow of the game.
The perks level up as you perform various feats and, curiously, don’t reset their counter upon death. This does mean that, if you’re so inclined, you could grind them out by save scumming but honestly most of them will come easily as long as you know which one to go for. They don’t provide massive benefits, usually just small benefits that will make your life a little easier, but all of them together do make a noticeable impact. The weapon mods are much, much more impactful often turning lacklustre guns into absolute beasts. The Sturmgewehr for instance when upgraded fully is by far the fastest way to take out armoured enemies and the Pistole is really the only gun that can be used in stealth when you get its suppressor. Progression stalls a bit towards the end since you’ll have upgraded your weapons of choice and unlocked most of the perks that aligned to your playstyle. The contraptions do add a little bit more flavour there but I didn’t bother unlocking the other 2 as I didn’t want to grind out the ubercommander missions. I’m sure if I did though I’d feel a little different about the progression stalling at 2/3rds through the game.
Whilst there are still some performance issues, predominately in outdoor environments, The New Colossus also seems to suffer from some weird bugs either due to running in borderless window mode (something which it natively supports), the Steam overlay or being alt-tabbed. Essentially whenever focus was taken away from the game and then returned to it there was a 50/50 chance of a crash happening. Often this wasn’t too much of an issue, the checkpoint system working well, however a few times it got me stuck in unskippable moments which I’d have to repeat a few times over to get past. Unfortunately I couldn’t figure out the cause of these errors as the crash reporter always alerted me that it couldn’t write the crash dump. I’m sure there’s a simple explanation to this and it will likely be patched in the future. Still if you’re wanting to avoid this it’s probably worth running it in exclusive fullscreen for now.
The New Colossus’ story telling feels head and shoulders above its predecessors, giving many of the characters and their relationships ample time to develop. To be sure the plot follows your typical action movie trope with few, if any, real surprises to be had. However there’s some great moments of levity and self-awareness showing that the writers knew that they were making yet-another Nazi story that needed something to liven it up. There is a bit of an obsession with long, drawn out scenes where you’re basically locked in place, some of which could have been trimmed down a bit and still had the same amount of impact. Still for a series where I used to rate the story as “interesting but forgettable” The New Colossus is one that I think I’ll remember fondly for some time.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a big step forward both for the franchise and MachineGames as a developer. The core of what made the original great is still there, retaining much of that old-world FPS charm whilst including modern mechanics to amplify that experience further. The game still suffers from some of the issues that seem to plague all id Tech based games but these are things that will hopefully be fixed in future patches. Over the top of all this, and likely the reason why I feel this particular game is a step ahead of its predecessors, is the story which does a great job of giving all the characters time to shine whilst steering clear of all too popular LOOK OUT FOR A SEQUEL cliffhanger. If Call of Duty: WWII left me wanting Wolfenstein: The New Colossus has me wanting for more.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 9 hours of total play time and 38% of the achievements unlocked.
The sophomore release in a new game IP is always a telling experience. For the developer it means that the original release had merit, enough to warrant a sequel getting the green light. This provides them with an opportunity to hone in on what made them successful and what else they could do to improve the experience. Most critically though it sets the expectation for the overall direction of the series, showing us gamers what the developers want the game to become should it garner further future releases. For Shadow of War that direction is clear: it’s aiming to be the next big open world RPG to rival those from other veteran developers like Bioware and Bethesda. In many respects they have met this goal, delivering a game that’s several times the size of its predecessor, but that size has come at a cost.
SPOILERS FOR SHADOW OF MORDOR FOLLOW
Shadow of War takes place directly after the events of Shadow of Mordor with Celebrimbor’s memory fully restored he agrees to join with Talion to fight Sauron. Together they journey to Mt. Doom and forge a new ring of power, one that is free from Sauron’s corrupting influence. However shortly after crafting it the spider Shelob takes Celebrimbor hostage and forces Talion to hand over the newly crafted ring. Not all is lost however as she uses the ring to provide visions of the future to Talion who uses them to keep the human denizens of Mordor safe. However the ring, whilst free from Sauron’s control, still draws his eye and it’s only a matter of time before the Nazgul will come to take it away.
Just like its predecessor Shadow of War is a visually stunning game, absolutely overflowing with detail in all aspects. The aesthetic remains true to the original, retaining a muted colour palette with few flashes of colour to break things up. Whilst the opening credits of the game would have you believe it’s developed on a whole engined, dubbed Firebird, it’s still the same LithTech engine under the hood, albeit likely without the cruft required to support previous generation consoles and some improvements that 3 years worth of development typically brings. The visual fidelity didn’t come at a heavy cost either with my near 3 year old rig still able to run it at high FPS at 1080p. I’ll admit that good graphics are a shortcut to my heart and it’s great to see the series continue with the high standard that was set in the original.
On the surface Shadow of War feels familiar with the main game mechanics staying the same. The combat retains the same beat ’em up core however it’s now augmented by a whole slathering of new mechanics which add a lot more diversity to how your typical encounter plays out. The nemesis system is back again and the procedural generation system backing it now includes a whole swath of additional traits, adding a lot of variety to the Orcs that you’ll be facing. The world you’ll be playing in has also grown considerably with 5 different areas to explore, 4 of which contain keeps for you to overthrow to gain control of the region. The loot system has been significantly revamped and, much to the chagrin of everyone, now includes a microtransaction system which allows you to swap real world dollars for in game loot. Finally an online element has been added into the game, allowing you to avenge other player’s deaths and assault their keeps (both in a “friendly” way and in a ranked system). If I had to guess I’d wager that there’s about 3 to 4 times the content in Shadow of War when compared to its predecessor. Depending on how you feel about these kinds of open world games that’s either a great thing or giant red flag.
The increase in overall scale applies to the combat as well with Shadow of War really feeling like an all out war whereas Shadow of Mordor felt a lot more like isolated skirmishes. The reaction based beat ’em up core is still there however you’ll quickly find yourself dealing with many more enemies than you ever did in the original. Unfortunately the difficulty curve is mostly numbers based, throwing ever more grunts and captains at you in order to increase the challenge. The revamped nemesis system does mean that there are some ability combinations that are more deadly than others (like a top level cursed, no chance, assassin class orc that managed to kill me no less than 5 times before I could get rid of him) but once you get to level 30 or so you will have seen every combination the game has to offer. There also seems to be less tools available for dealing with large groups although I’ll admit I can’t exactly remember what made my build in the original so overpowered. Towards the end I did find a gear set that added explosions to the glaive attack, something which was an incredible amount of fun, but there wasn’t much beyond that.
Progression comes regularly both in terms of gear and skills. Unlike most RPGs where your early choices will dictate how the rest of the game unfolds for you Shadow of War’s skill trees are non-exclusive and unbound to your level. Some of the skills require campaign missions to unlock and most of the skill upgrades are level bound but, for all the base skills, there’s nothing stopping you from getting them at whatever level you chose. Considering the numerous different paths you have to get skill points (levelling, certain missions, side quests and collectables) it’s rare that you’ll ever find yourself wanting for a skill or upgrade. Indeed after about halfway through my playthrough I struggled to figure out where to spend my skill points because I already had basically everything I wanted. Of course if you want to unlock every upgrade you’re going to need all those skill points but, honestly, I don’t think there’s much point to doing so. Once you have all the base skills you’re basically as combat ready as you’ll ever be with a few key upgrade points giving you that slight extra edge should you want it.
Loot comes thick and fast but it’s tied to a RNG system that ensures getting the perfect piece for your build and/or playstyle will take some grinding to get. Pretty much every captain you defeat will drop a piece of gear and, should they have the Epic or Legendary title, a piece of gear will drop with that level. There’s some 54 pieces of legendary gear to collect and, unfortunately, they all drop at a random level that’s close to your current one. That means finding that sweet legendary early on is no where near as good finding it 10 hours later and there’s also no way to upgrade them, meaning they’re destined for the trash bin. This is, of course, part and parcel of why the microtransaction system exists, giving you a shortcut from the gear grind should you want to shell out a few bucks. There are in-game ways to earn some currency of course, the weekly challenge giving you enough to score a few chests, but the one you earn the most of can really only get you a few pieces of epic gear. The gem crafting system I pined for in Shadow of Mordor actually made it into Shadow of War and, honestly, if they had extended that to the entire loot system in some way I think it would’ve been fantastic. Instead the only way to make use of loot you don’t use anymore is to recycle it for silver which isn’t as useful as it first seems.
The grand scale of Shadow of War comes from taking the original’s ideas and copying them out about 4 times over. You now have about 5 areas to explore, 4 of which include fortresses for you to capture. So now you’ll spend a good chunk of time hunting down captains, turning them against their warchiefs and taking down fortress defences all so you can then overtake it and claim the region for yourself. The orc captains also seems to be far more aggressive in terms of when they’ll show up with the number of ambushes, blood brother revenges and other random encounters being far more frequent than I ever remember them being in the original. Indeed it got so ludicrous at one point that I had a betrayal, ambush and blood brother revenge all in one fight, pitting me against no less than 4 captains and their associated armies. I’m all for mechanics that enable emergent game play but honestly this was probably a little too much at times.
The fortress and nemesis system now extends online with you being able to take revenge on captains for killing other players and being able to attack other players fortresses with your own army. Both of these reward you with various chests and a spoils of war currency which, you guessed it, can be spent on more loot boxes. Whilst its kind of cool to see another player taking revenge for you there’s really no interaction beyond a notification. The fortress assaults are similar, only showing who was victorious. Personally it would have been nice to see something like a small movie of the player taking out the captain or the assault on your fortress as otherwise it’s just another piece of noise in the already overflowing world that is Shadow of Mordor. Of course if ranking high on a leader board is your thing then there might be a bit more in it for you with the ranked play but honestly I can’t see the attraction.
With a game of this size it’s inevitable that there’s going to be some bugs that slip through the cracks and boy, there are some doozies in Shadow of War. The physics system can get confused at times, contorting your character into all sorts of weird shapes or doing other amazing things like launching you in random directions when it can’t figure out what it should do with you. The free run system is also a little janky, at times being too aggressive in locking onto climbing points whilst at others being completely oblivious, sending you flying down to your doom. I also had numerous times when orcs voice lines would just refuse to play, the camera locked on their faces as their expression changed randomly whilst it waited on the sound file to time out. There is a watchdog timer for that thing though so whilst it appears that the game is stuck there it will eventually recover. This happened a lot during one of the scenes where you face a horde of undead orcs who, presumably, had their voices replaced with zombie like noises. These are all things that can be addressed in patches going forward so those of you who are waiting I’m sure your experience will be more polished than mine.
The story of Shadow of War is a step up from its predecessor, partially because it has a lot more room to explore the various elements it introduces. Of course thanks to the open world nature of the game the various story lines are almost wholly separate from each other which means there’s not a lot of depth to be garnered from completing them all. I was annoyed that different versions of the game seemed to include more story than the others but it seems that those campaigns are just ancillary ones, not forming part of the main story line. The retcons to the Lord of the Rings story are an odd duck to say the least, transforming some characters into different entities completely whilst also changing the main story arc in ways that only support the game’s version of the story. I’m not a die hard Lord of the Rings fan by any stretch of the imagination but the developers had to know that making such changes wouldn’t exactly be welcomed by long time fans of the IP. Still it was interesting enough, even if I didn’t have much emotional investment in any of the characters.
One main gripe I do have to level at the overall construction of Shadow of War is the final act called Shadow Wars. After spending 21 hours in the game, 7 more than I did in the original, I thought I had come to the game’s ultimate conclusion. Not so I was told, instead I would now have to do 10 siege missions to get through to the end. Considering the grind required for 1 was on the order of an hour or so I wasn’t entirely keen to spend another 10 hours going through non-story based content to see the ending. Indeed all the reviews I’ve read since then have said that the Shadow Wars grind was simply not worth it and instead I tracked down the 3 minute ending on YouTube. Let’s just say that I’m glad I didn’t waste my time on it.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War is a monster of a game, growing the scope of the original to something that’s numerous times its size. The core of what made the original good remains in Shadow of War, providing a solid base upon with Monolith has added in a truckload of more content. However much of that content is simply copy and pasted versions of the same thing, something which open world fans are likely to enjoy but those who fell in love with the original are likely to find tedious. For this reviewer I certainly enjoyed the majority of my time with Shadow of War however I can’t say that there weren’t times I wanted to shortcut the grind. That is, of course, why the microtransaction system exists but I’ll be damned if I spend money on digital items in a single player game. Overall, whilst I think Shadow of War is a successful sequel in its own right, it is weaker in comparison to the original, if only because it seeks to exploit the success of the past rather than build on it.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War is available on PC, Xbox One PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99 (base edition). Game was played on the PC with 21 hours of total playtime and 52% of the achievements unlocked.
Even if I don’t manage to get 1 review per week out I do try to make sure I’ve at least played one game a week. That does become a little troublesome when I’m travelling for work, like I was all last week. Fear not, I thought, I’ll peruse the Google Play store and something will catch my attention. After an initial burst of excitement seeing Monument Valley 2 available I was inevitably let down by the fact that it’s not available on Android yet and was left to the pit of sorrow that is app discovery on the Play store. Eventually I came across Milkmaid of the Milky Way, a simple point and click adventure game that seemed perfect for playing through on the plane ride over to Singapore.
Ruth’s life has never been easy. Her mother disappeared when she was young and her father passing away many years later. Now she is in charge of the farm, churning out butter and making cheese that she sells at the local markets. Ruth can’t help but wonder if this all that there is for her in this life, doing the same things day in and day out. That all changes very suddenly when a UFO flies overhead and (predictably) steals away her cows, something that she just can not abide!
Milkmaid’s art style is now somewhat typical blend of traditional pixel art with a smattering of modern effects that we see in many modern adventure games. The detail is certainly on the low side, with most of the environments being decidedly uncluttered and most textures being solid colours. Considering most games are now overflowing with detail it’s refreshing to see a title that pairs it down a bit, letting the story and other elements do a bit more of the heavy lifting. Speaking of which the soundtrack to Milkmaid is top notch and is one of the things that will likely leave a strong impression on you. From there though things start to get a bit mixed.
Milkmaid is an adventure game, albeit a very short one. All the base elements you’d expect to see are there: a small inventory system, different areas that you’ll click madly around trying to figure out what you can interact with and some kind of challenge you need to complete before you can move on. There’s really nothing else of note to talk about from a base game mechanics perspective but, since I played this on my phone, there are some issues that I think are platform specific which bear mentioning.
Now I don’t know if Unity, Android or the game itself are to blame here but the touch detection on objects and UI elements is down right terrible. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to move an item out of my inventory only to have it not respond at all. Worse still tapping on the screen doesn’t always seem to register on interactive screen elements, leading to a bunch of highly frustrating incidents where I was stuck on a puzzle because I thought I’d already clicked everything, only to find out that nope, that thing I thought was unclickable actually was. Worse still is the fact that some elements are so small on screen (and it’s not like I’m using a small device either, it’s a Pixel XL) that it’s nigh on impossible to actually see them. This ultimately left me thinking the game was bugged as I simply couldn’t find anywhere else to explore. Checking a walkthrough showed that there was a screen I hadn’t got to yet, one which had an impossibly small area to click on to get to it. Suffice to say, whilst this game can be played on mobile, I’m not sure it’s the best platform for it.
From a story perspective it’s certainly not bad, indeed I’d rate it above most story-second games, however the developer made the horrendous choice of using rhyming couplets for all text. I’ve lamented the use of this kind of dialogue style before and my opinion hasn’t changed since then. For me it feels like it removes a dimension from the characters, constraining them all into the same cadence and making it hard for them to differentiate themselves properly. Worse still it seems like the dev actually started off with a more traditional script and decided to change it after writing the first chapter. How I’d feel about the story if it wasn’t told in this way is something we’ll never know.
Overall Milkmaid of the Milky Way is an average adventure game, one that’s probably better played on the PC rather than on a mobile device. The uncluttered pixel art style and great backing sound track are its stand out achievements, both of which are let down by the so-so mobile implementation and the honestly bonkers choice of writing in rhyme. Of course I’m willing to admit my impression might just be due to this old writer’s biases so take that into consideration. Though for the price of admission, and the fact I could play it on the go, Milkmaid of the Milky Way was a perfectly acceptable way to spend part of my plane trip overseas.
Milkmaid of the Milky Way is available on PC, Android and iOS right now for $5.99. Game was played on a Pixel XL running Android Oreo with approximately 2.5 hours of total play time.
It’s been the better part of a decade since I played a game from Ninja Theory. Whilst not everyone enjoyed Heavenly Sword as much as I did (although I do agree with many of the criticism levelled at it) I thought they had potential as a developer and hoped they’d go on to bigger and better things. The following decade has given them a modicum of success, although not with any titles I’ve cared to play over the years. When I saw some of the tech demos for Hellblade though I was reminded of what drew me to Heavenly Sword back in the day, and ever since then I’ve been eagerly awaiting its release. Whilst Hellblade isn’t what I had expected it’s an exceptional game in its own right, even if it will drive you slowly insane.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s plot is hard to give an introduction to without diving deep into spoilers but I shall endeavour to do so. You play as Senua, a member of a Pict who’s made a pilgrimage to…somewhere… in order to save the soul of your beloved one. You’re haunted by numerous voices who speak to you incessantly, voicing all your inner doubts, fears and, sometimes, granting you strength to push through your turmoil. The path you’re following is one dictated by Norse mythology and will ultimately lead you into one of their other worlds: Hellheim. Reality, illusions and delusions all blur together in a mess of truth and fiction, one that Senua must follow to its ultimate conclusion; wherever that takes her.
The visuals of Hellblade are stunning, utilising many of the modern features of the Unreal 4 engine to their fullest extent. Whilst the environments you’re placed in may seem large however that in of itself is an illusion as the traversable world is actually quite a lot smaller. I believe the reasons for this are two-fold: primarily it’s for performance as larger environments would necessitate heavy compromises in other areas to keep it performing at a consistent level. Secondly Hellblade isn’t a game about exploration and whilst there are a few things to be discovered if you move off the beaten track it’s certainly not the game’s main attraction. If I was being childish I’d say that was the protagonist’s hair, given Ninja Theory’s penchant for wanting to show off their physics engine, but I won’t do that…
Hellblade is billed as a action-adventure/hack and slash type game and, whilst it has elements of that, it’s actually a bit closer to a walking simulator in most respects. For the most part you’ll be walking through the environments, mis/guided by the voices in your head as others narrate your journey. There’s no levelling, loot or crafting systems to speak of but you will get some different abilities unlocked for you as the game progresses. The combat sections inbetween there are a mix of hack and slash coupled with some Souls-light style game play, focusing on movesets and reaction times. Puzzles are mostly visual in nature, pushing to you look at things in different ways in order to unlock doors, restore objects or transport you to between worlds in order to move onto the next room. In this era of modern games that attempt to do everything Hellblade is a refreshing lesson in focus, leaving all the unnecessary game elements at the door in favour of spending more time on the ones that matter.
The combat is quite enjoyable for an experienced Souls player like myself, mostly because it’s a lot easier by comparison. The standard enemy tropes are all there and their movesets are relatively predictable, meaning that for even inexperienced players it shouldn’t be too much of a blocker. The boss battles too are quite enjoyable, providing a different challenge to break up the other combat engagements. Unfortunately the ramp up in difficulty comes from the game simply throwing more of the same types of enemies at you, culminating in a final battle which is no different from all the other battles you’ve fought before. Considering the game only runs for about 6 or so hours this highly noticeable repetition is unfortunately one of Hellblade’s biggest flaws.
Puzzles are for the most part straightforward once all the mechanics have been demonstrated to you. Initially it can be a bit confusing as the solution can be visible but the way to get to it very unclear. Once you’ve figured out the various mechanics for seeing through illusions, changing perspectives and whatnot it becomes a lot easier. Hellblade does a good job of guiding you through the puzzles however there were still a few that stumped me, mostly because I couldn’t distinguish a certain visual element. Searching around for answers I can see I’m not alone with this so there’s definitely some room for improvement from a design viewpoint. Still I think that overall the puzzles are well designed, intuitive and feel like an organic part of the experience rather than an artificial blocker to progression.
Hellblade announces at the start that it’s best experienced with headphones and, whilst I largely agree with this, the reason isn’t so much due to the game’s general audio experience (although that plays a part). The reason for headphones is for the voices in your head which, maddeningly, do everything you’d expect voices in someone’s head to do. Most voices prefer one ear over another, they’ll quite often talk over the top of each other and they’ll continually provide commentary on everything that’s happening. It’s done deliberately, and for that I applaud them, but it’s also one of the reasons why I couldn’t play for more than an hour at a time. Having that going on constantly is an extremely draining experience, so much so that when they went away for the first time I had a palpable sense of relief. Hats off to Ninja Theory for developing an experience like that but make no mistake, it can make playing Hellblade an exhausting experience.
By and large the game is well polished although there are some weird glitches that can occur. Senua’s hair can go a bit wild from time to time which, whilst distracting, isn’t game breaking. I did have a few times where I got stuck in or behind invisible barriers, most notably during Sut’s trial where you are supposed to get pegged in a ring of fire to fight some Northmen. For whatever reason I was outside the barrier when it got erected which restricted my movements considerably. I was able to finish the fight and progress however but it could have easily gone the other way. I didn’t get any performance issues like others had described however I did play after the first round of patches came out. I’d hazard a guess then that these minor gameplay issues would also be sorted out in future patches.
Hellblade’s story is an extremely tragic one, something you learn about very early on. As one of the game’s core tenants is that it will lie to you with reckless abandon (as shown by the whole “All progress will be lost” thing if you die too much being a lie) it’s hard to discern just what’s true to the story and what’s not. Certainly much of it makes a lasting impression and it’s delivery is exceptional. However at the final conclusion I found myself feeling a little hollow with how things turned out. I’m not sure if it was the exhaustion from dealing with voices in my head or the fact that I didn’t quite understand what the objective truth was but that’s the feeling I was left with. Unlike similar stories that left me questioning just what happened though I didn’t turn to the Internet for answers. Maybe I will later, I don’t know. Suffice to say that whilst I think the story is well told I’m not quite sure how I feel about it overall.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an exceptionally well crafted game from Ninja Theory, showing that they’ve been no slouch in the decade since I last played one of their games. The visuals are stunning, both in terms of raw graphics as well as the visual theme and the environments its set in. The game’s focus on a few key elements rather than a whole lot of ancillary mechanics is refreshing, putting the focus firmly on telling the story. Some of its major flaws are that its combat becomes repetitive quickly, escalation in challenge only coming from increasing numbers of enemies, and that the overall story feels a little hollow at its conclusion. Still overall I think Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is still worth the price of admission, if you feel you can deal with the voices in your head that is.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 93% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s been almost 4 years since Fullbright released their seminal title: Gone Home. It was a game that hit close to home for me, the story echoing parts of my own life which I had similarly had to overcome. When I heard that their next game was set in a space station in the future I was incredibly excited for a similar kind of storytelling experience. Whilst the game is far more deep mechanically than its predecessor was, giving me a lot more to talk about before getting into spoilers, the overall narrative failed to capture me in the same way. I’ll dig into this a bit more later but suffice to say the reason Gone Home did so well was because of how relatable its story was, something that Tacoma unfortunately lacks.
Taking place some 70 odd years in the future Tacoma puts you in charge of Amy Ferrier, a contractor who’s been hired to retrieve an AI from an abandoned space station. You’re given strict instructions to retrieve the AI’s data and do nothing else, as your contract stipulates. Downloading the AI’s data takes quite some time however and, of course, your mind (and legs) begin to wander. This is when you start to unravel the mystery of why the station was abandoned and how the crew dealt with the crisis.
Tacoma uses Unity with what appears to be little modification. The visuals are simplistic and functional although there’s a great amount of attention paid to things that don’t matter in the overall theme of things. For instance the developers have made numerous brands for things like food, medical supplies and even cigarettes which litter around the space station. Sure it adds a little bit more depth to the environment but after you’ve seen the same brand of snacks 10 times over it starts to just look like mess. Some of the items do have a game play purpose but they’re few and far between. Given that this is a walking simulator/story first game though Tacoma gets a pass for its run of the mill visuals.
All of the game mechanics in Tacoma are centred on discovering more about the characters, their interactions with each other and the overall plot. You’re viewing everything in retrospect, able to move about through the recording as you wish both in time and space. At certain points people’s VR desktops will become available, giving you an even deeper look into their lives. Quite often you’ll play through the same scene several times in order to follow all the various conversations that are happening simultaneously. This does give Tacoma’s storytelling a very natural feel to it, especially when events in one scene affect another. There’s also a few hidden areas that can be unlocked if you pay attention during the VR playbacks or if you track down the various clues hiding in plain sight.
There’s no real blockers to you progressing apart from the timer on the AI download which, I believe conveniently ticks itself up to 50% after you view one half of the VR recording and then to 100% after you view the other. Either that or I had amazing timing every time I finished an area. Interestingly though I think these mechanics are more of a distraction than anything else as Tacoma’s predecessor had nothing like this and still managed to tell a deep, engrossing story. Whilst I won’t specifically lay the blame at Tacoma’s more ambitious game mechanics it does feel like some of the effort expended there might have been better spent elsewhere.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Tacoma’s plot seems to meander between various ideas without feeling like it comes together into a cohesive whole. Gone Home, by comparison, kept building up the tension right until the last moment, pulling you ever deeper into the mindset of its main characters. Tacoma on the other hand throws up various different red herrings, none of which have enough time to mature in order to be realised as a credible threat. Is it Odin that’s out to kill the crew because it’s finally become self-aware? Did the crew perish in an attempt to save themselves by modifying a cargo drone? Did some of the crew die in cryosleep? All of these ideas and more are explored in the games short 2 hour play time and most of them are dealt with in the same scene as they’re brought up in.
The ending also feels weirdly tacked on. I mean it’s great that Odin got to survive but I didn’t really see it hinted that you were someone from the AI Liberation Front in any of the in-game material. They were alluded to as an entity in the larger world but there was nothing to suggest you were part of it. For me this fits into Tacoma’s larger overall issue of not giving enough time for the various story elements to develop. Instead the focus seems to have been more on telling that story in a more inventive way which, whilst commendable, doesn’t feel like it worked out as intended.
Perhaps the whole reason I feel this way is due to how much the story of Gone Home resonated with me by comparison. The experiences detailed in that game were very close to my own life in many respects and so I felt a deep connection with the characters. Tacoma by comparison feels alien. I mean sure, some of the things the crew goes through are relatable, but not in the same way the events in Gone Home were. Combine this with the lack of overall story development and, for me at least, you’re left with a game that falls short of the high standard its predecessor set.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
There’s no denying that Tacoma is much more mechanically deep than its predecessor was but that’s about as far as the improvements go for Fullbright’s second title. The graphics feel about the same, although there is a lot of attention paid to details that I feel many will never see. The way Tacoma tells its story is unique and interesting, giving you the ability to see the same story from multiple angles and see how they interweave with each other. Unfortunately the story failed to resonate with me in the same way its predecessor did, possibly due to the fact that it’s just not as relatable. The game’s short length also didn’t allow for many of the story elements to mature as much as they needed to, leading to a feeling that many purported threats weren’t as bad as they could have been. Suffice to say I’m somewhat disappointed in Tacoma as it fails to reach the same heights as Gone Home did.
Tacoma is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.
This may come as a surprise given my gaming pedigree but I never really got into the old Lucasfilm adventure games. It wasn’t a lack of interest, more that we were a MS-DOS/PC house and my friends who loved those games were all Mac families. So I stuck to my titles and they to theirs and so I was left to discover adventure games much later in life. I tell you this because I feel a lot of what should make Thimbleweed Park good is tied up in the nostalgia associated with those games. Don’t get me wrong, nostalgia is a completely valid thing to base a game on, however for those lacking the requisite history with the product/franchise/developer those same elements can be confusing, kitchsey or downright trite. Such is my experience with Thimbelweed Park, one where I can see a lot of what I know is likely to be a huge draw card for many but simply not for me.
Thimbleweed Park puts you in charge of a whole host of characters, ranging from two detectives who couldn’t be more different, to a young girl with aspirations to become a game developer and even a clown cursed to never be able to remove his makeup. The game starts off with the detectives investigating a murder in this sleepy town of just 81 people. What follows is a deep dive into the town’s history, how it came to be and why everything seems to hinge on a single dilapidated pillow factory on the town’s outskirts.
As the game was developed by the very same people behind all those Lucasfilm Games titles it should come as no surprise that its art direction reflects them to a tee. The art is perhaps a bit more detailed than its predecessors were with things like better shading being quite noticeable on comparison. Thimbleweed Part definitely leans more towards a stylized, cartoony feel rather than a pixel-art imitation of the real world which, again, is reminiscent of its spiritual predecessors. The simplistic graphics do belies a great amount of detail in some areas however, like the bookshelves (which in most adventure games would just be decorative) containing hundreds of titles in them. This is, of course, all part of the game’s core mechanics.
There’s nothing new or inventive about how Thimbleweed Park plays out and that’s very much by design. Long time fans of these specific kinds of games will be instantly familiar with the trademark grab-bag of verbs at the bottom left-hand side of the screen which dictate how you can interact with objects and NPCs. There’s your inventory which will contain a bevy of both useful and useless items, although which is which is an exercise left up to the reader. Every room is filled with details, some of which you’ll need to solve the current issue du-jour and others that will come in handy later. Indeed the structure of Thimbleweed park is done in such a way that there’s no dead-ends and no way for your character to die so you should (hopefully) never get stuck. Combine this with witty quips from all the characters, constant breaking of the fourth wall and not-so-subtle references to the developer’s previous employer and you’ve got a campy but interesting trip down memory lane…I assume.
As the game will tell you (if you listen to the pigeons, that is) Thimbleweed Park is a well designed adventure game in terms of mechanics and puzzle layout. For the first few chapters there’s always something to do and a pretty logical construction to all the puzzles. The inclusion of a to-do list for every character means that you’ll always have at least half a thought towards what you should be doing, even if it’s not immediately obvious. You will however still spend your time doing what you always do in these adventure games: trying a whole bunch of different item combinations and interactions until you finally figure out which one works. Of course once you figure it out it all makes sense, but the journey to that point can be quite frustrating at times.
Thimbleweed Park’s puzzle construction and layout might be both its greatest strength and weakness. Whilst it’s great to have a lot of avenues for progression having them early on can be something of a mixed bag. If you’re like me then you’re quite likely to chase down a bunch of red herrings that aren’t related to your current objective, just because they seem like obvious problems to solve. A good example of this is a puzzle in the diner which I cottoned onto very early on in my play through. Trouble with that was that puzzle didn’t need to be solved until right at the end of the game and so I ended up wondering what the point of it was, thinking I had wasted my time. This is in stark contrast to my general experience with adventure games (both new and old) which gate puzzles like that to keep you on track.
For people who really like to explore through everything though I don’t think this will be much of a problem. The amount of content in Thimbleweed Park is pretty impressive, putting the average completed play through at around 16 hours or so. For people like me though, those without the background in these titles or a deep interest in the story (more on that in a second) it can lend itself to frustration. This is why at around the 4 hour mark or so I gave up any semblance of dignity and headed for the walk through guides with reckless abandon. I do this because otherwise I’d be likely to quit the game in frustration and this way, at least, I can see how the story ends.
The story didn’t do much to grab me, unfortunately. Sure it’s refreshing to see a game not conform to the current norms for adventure games (both new and those in a similar style to this) but after a while some of those aspects start to lose its sheen. Breaking the fourth wall can be funny and thought provoking, but you can only do it so often before it becomes repetitive. The one-liners, repeated jokes and other story mechanics are good in moderation but that’s not something Thimbleweed Park has in large supply. I’m sure all these things that I’m mentioning as negatives are things that long time fans of these types of games say they love, and I’m not trying to take away from that. More I’m trying to show you what it looks like from an outsider coming in and, honestly, it just wasn’t all that and a bag of chips.
It probably doesn’t help that I didn’t really engage with the story past the first 4 chapters or so. The various character’s story arcs were only loosely coupled together which made their required co-operation to solve puzzles even more confusing. Again this comes back to the no-dead-end policy which, whilst ensuring the player can’t find themselves irrevocably stuck, means that certain things aren’t as tight as they could be. For me this appeared to be the story as the connecting elements just weren’t there to pull the whole thing together. Couple that with the items I mentioned before and the overall story experience just wasn’t up to the level that the hype surrounding this game would have you believe.
Thimbleweed Park is most certainly a game for the fans of the Lucasfilm Games series of years gone past, something which this old writer unfortunately let slide by. Had I not my experience of this game would likely be worlds different; a trip down nostalgia lane rather than a mediocre adventure game. All this being said though there is an inherit quality to the game, one that has obviously been shaped by the decades of experience by those who created it. So whilst it might be making my game of the year list I’m sure it’s going to be a delight to those it was made for: those with an inner child who still hold Lucasfilm Games in high regard.
Thimbleweed Park is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, iOS and Android right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 7 hours of total play time and 55% of the achievements unlocked.
For the gamers who grew in the age where Nintendo dominated the home console market there’s no series more ingrained in our psyche than that of The Legend of Zelda. I can remember spending countless hours on each of the titles, from A Link to the Past all the way up to Twilight Princess. I haven’t been back since then however, the few titles that came out over the past decade passing me by. So when I saw the first few screenshots of Breath of the Wild I was lost for words; it looked to me now what Ocarina of Time, my personal all time favourite Zelda game, looked like to me back when I was 13. Instantly I was sold, not just on the game but on it’s accompanying console. Sure I may never use it again but it was either a Switch or a WiiU and, honestly, the Switch was the better of the two. So there I was on launch day to pick up my new console and copy of Breath of the Wind and I’ve spent a great deal of the following weeks playing through it.
Truly, this is a Zelda game for the ages.
Awakening in a tomb you find yourself, Link, without any memories of what led you to here. You quickly learn that you’ve been asleep for 100 years with the land of Hyrule beset upon by the ancient evil of Calamity Ganon who is sealed inside Hyrule castle by Princess Zelda’s magic. There are a few who recognise you and are able to give you an idea of the person you once were. One thing is clear however: you are the champion who must take purge Calamity Ganon from Hyrule. Doing so won’t be easy however as the vast array of mechanical beasts that were designed to protect Hyrule have been usurped by Ganon for his own nefarious means. It is up to you then to purge the corruption from these beasts and bring them back to the light for only then will you be strong enough to face Ganon in a final battle of good and evil.
At a fundamental level Breath of the Wild’s visuals are one step behind the current generation, which is par for the course for titles on the Nintendo platform. It uses a style similar to that of Windwaker, favouring a kind of cartoony visual aesthetic. This is boosted significantly by the inclusion of modern lighting techniques, higher resolution models and textures and generous use of particle systems. For the most part things run pretty well however there are quite a few cases when the Switch would get bogged down. This is most notable in towns with a lot of NPCs in them, areas with quite a lot of visible grass or when you manage to give the physics engine a lot of work to do when you get “creative” with combat or puzzles. There’s also the issue of pop-in for larger areas on the Switch, an issue I’ve heard is a lot worse on the WiiU version. For a first party title on a new console things like this aren’t entirely unexpected, however this is their flagship title and these issues should have been caught in QA. It’s also strange to note that this is apparently completely avoided by undocking which, whilst a solution for some, isn’t the way I wanted to play Breath of the Wild.
Like all Legend of Zelda games before it Breath of the wild is a deep and expansive RPG, putting you in an absolutely massive world with countless things to do. There’s the main story line of course which follows the shrine/temple trope that’s well established in the series. There’s also just over a hundred smaller shrines which are short, self contained puzzles that award your spirit orbs (equivalent to the quarter heart containers, but can also be traded for stamina) on completion. Like many open world RPGs there’s also about a dozen or so towers for you to climb in order to unlock the map for the area, each of which presents its own set of unique challenges. Along your way you’ll collect various bits of armour, weaponry and crafting materials to make your journey easier. Gone are the gadgets of Zelda games of past (a single tear may have been shed for the lack of a hookshot) replaced instead by “runes” which allow unlimited use of a few choice abilities. You can now also climb pretty much every surface under the sun, limited only by your stamina wheel. Further to this you have a glider which allows you to leap from any height and glide gracefully down. Even this list probably only touches on less than half of what you can actually do in the game as there’s just so many things to do.
Combat is a kind of “Dark Souls Light” experience. Enemies telegraph their moves well in advance of executing them allowing you to dodge, parry or interrupt them. Depending on the enemy you’re facing they may have certain weak points you can exploit or elemental weaknesses you can make use of. Additionally some enemies are better blocked than dodged, parried rather than interrupted and so on. With previous Zelda games mostly focusing on enemies having one trick you need to work out a deeper combat experience like what Breath of the Wild provides is refreshing. There are still tricks of course (like stasis working on pretty much every enemy in the game) and learning them will make the difference between a frustrating grind and a swift beat down. The combat however highlights probably the worst mechanic in Zelda, one that tarnishes the game’s core tenet of rewarding exploration significantly.
Every item you get in the game (bar a couple, like the Master Sword and a few rewards weapons) have a limited durability. Now this isn’t the normal kind of durability which would require you to shell out cash to repair them. No instead any weapon, shield or bow you find as a limited lifetime before it breaks and disappears from your inventory. Whilst this does encourage some…creative ideas to ensure that your weapon stash is always stocked with what you need (like using crap weapons against crap enemies, since the durability hit is the same regardless) it takes out all the fun of spending ages exploring a random area in the hopes of getting rewarded with a really cool item. Every item you get is going to disappear and so you’ll horde as many as you can, using whatever is available even if its sub-optimal just so your best ones are ready just in case. Even worse if you happen to accidentally throw your weapon or use a shield to parry something that shouldn’t be parried you’ll instantly break them, potentially leaving you scant for better options. To be sure the game throws a fair amount of kit at you to ensure you’re never left wanting but it means that getting, and keeping, the best items in the game is an exercise in farming, not in rewards born out of discovery or hard work.
After an initial stint in the starting area Breath of the Wild becomes a true open world experience, allowing you to complete missions in any way you deem fit. There is, of course, an optimal way to do some things but it doesn’t appear to affect things too much. This will mean that everyone’s experience will be unique, the way in which they played through the world of the Breath of the Wild dictated by numerous factors. For instance whilst my friend and I both coincidentally did the elephant divine beast first we didn’t do any of the others in the same order, meaning the tools we had available to each other were wildly different. We were also playing the game in very different ways: me with Google and the Zelda wiki open on a second monitor and he not wanting to cheat himself (although he said asking me didn’t count!). As with all open world games this does mean there’s a bunch of repetitive stuff to do if you’re so inclined but there’s also a bevy of random encounters that are delightful (and sometimes rewarding) if you happen across them.
The more concise and logically laid out (looking at you Water Temple) temples in the form of the divine beasts really are the standout feature of Breath of the Wild. Using your map to physically alter the entire environment you’re in, whilst not a completely original concept, is executed brilliantly. It forces you to not just think of the puzzle at hand but also how the environment can be changed in order to solve it. Out of all of them my favourite has to be the camel divine beast as it was the most complex of the lot. The salamander and bird by comparison felt relatively simplistic, however that may have just been because they were the last 2 I did and I had cottoned onto all the tricks that the game designers were using. Again it’s a bit of a shame that exploration isn’t as rewarding as it could be here, with limited durability weapons and run of the mill consumables the typical reward, as some of the environment interactions needed to obtain them border on the clinically insane.
The shrines, which are kinds of mini-temples, are also great little distractions. The fact that you’re given all the tools to complete them right at the beginning of the game is very much appreciated as it means you’re not constantly re-treading ground in order to get the next item or upgrade. I do wonder if some of them were fully tested before release however as some of them can be completely bypassed with what appears to be emergent game play mechanics. Some things seem intentional, like circuit puzzles being able to be solved by using metallic weapons or shields, but others, like the ball rolling puzzles that use motion controls, can be bypassed by turning the controller upside down. Either way the fact that you won’t be stuck in one for more than 15 minutes or so is great, especially when there’s over 100 of them to complete.
Crafting, whilst functional and rewarding, could do with a few tweaks to make it a little bit more useful. For instance, in order to cook something, you have to go to your inventory, select the ingredients, get out of the menu, throw the ingredients into a cooking pot and then wait for them to cook (skipping saves you about 2 seconds, total). You can discover various recipes by combining things together, although most of the time you’ll be focused on effects or the number of hearts something it restores. The problem here though is that if you want to make say, 10 of something, there’s no way to quickly churn them out. Instead you’ll have to repeat that process I outlined 10 times over. Worse still whilst you can “discover” recipes there’s no book or anything in them, all you can look at is food you’ve already made to see what went into it. There’s also no real way to tell an ingredients effect relative to others in its category (besides heart restoration), something which is rather annoying when it comes to making elixirs. Sure you can hazard a guess that the more rare monster part is better but it’s nigh on impossible to understand just how much better it is.
The inclusion of something like a recipe book, one that would let you say queue up cooking multiples of recipes you discovered, would go a long way to solving this issue. Additionally having something like an ingredients page in the same book, one that details relative strengths of ingredients, would make cooking a little less…messy. Sure I understand that the whole idea is to get you to explore and experiment but, honestly, after a certain point I’d like to be able to min/max things without constantly referring to wikis and Google if at all possible. There’s also a missed opportunity in allowing you to craft bits of armour, arrows and other things which could add yet another level of depth to the crafting system. Overall it’s not bad, I mean who doesn’t love the little cooking tune, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement here.
Where Breath of the Wild really starts to shine is in the absolutely staggering breadth of the world you’re in. I spent countless hours exploring numerous areas, finding inventive ways to climb mountains and trying to see how I could glide from peak to peak so I didn’t have to wrangle my horse around everywhere. Even at the point where I figured I had explored pretty much all the game I discovered not 1, but 2 whole new zones that were packed with quests and new areas to explore. If I’m honest I was only in those areas to chase down a specific set of armour for my final fight with Ganon but just getting to those points required a good hour or two of walking around to get to where I was going. It was on this specific journey I also found out that there was a kind of NPC I didn’t know existed in the game and, had I known about them earlier, it may have changed my idea on how to approach certain parts of the game.
Whilst the in-general exploration is tarnished somewhat by the lack of strong rewards (as I mentioned before) the targeted, specific exploration that you’ll do to unlock certain key things is most certainly rewarding. The master sword quest, one which sees you follow an incredibly long chain of events (if you do it normally) showcases a lot of things that you’d be kicking yourself if you missed, especially if you’re a long time Zelda fan. My quest to get the barbarian armour, and then upgrade it, took me to 3 different corners of the map and then all around the place hunting Lynels so I could get their horns. Ask anyone who’s played Breath of the Wild and they’ll likely have another story about how they spent an inordinate amount of time chasing something down and just how much of a delight it was. It was the same kind of feeling I felt when I eventually caught that blasted eel in Ocarina of Time, one of those moments that will be hard to forget.
Of course the real attraction of any Zelda game is the story and Breath of the Wild most certainly delivers here. All the usual suspects are here: you have no memory of anything, Zelda is the princess you need to save, Ganon is the evil you must defeat and the various races are still their charming selves. Strangely, unlike previous Zelda games, there’s little talk of the triforce and its influence on those who wield it. There are some references to it, mostly through the various shrines that have the same names as each of them (courage, wisdom and power) but they are no longer what imbues each of the main characters with their respective traits. However the characters are given an in depth exploration of their backstory, thankfully without resorting to massive gobs of text. Finding your lost memories reveals the nature of Zelda’s relationship with Link, her father and the people of Hyrule in great detail, something which makes the final battle with Ganon all the more satisfying.
MILD PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Whilst not every quest or story is something I’d hold up as an example of good storytelling Breath of the Wild has some exceptional moments. Freeing each of the divine beasts, and the conversations you have with your former companions, is both an exhilarating and heart wrenching experience. The Mipha story stands out particularly in this regard, her love for Link being the link which converts even the most hardened Zora to begin to trust the people of Hyrule once again. The final battle with Ganon (which I had all 4 beasts for) had me loudly cheering at my screen, the culmination of the dozens of hours I had put into this game coming to a massive crescendo. When most games’ endings are trite, littered with not so subtle references to an incoming sequel, Zelda’s is one of perfection. It’s also very much worth collecting all the memories before you embark on the final battle as it adds another scene, one which honestly melted this jaded gamer’s heart. Just thinking of it brings back tears, it was that beautiful.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a shining example of what Nintendo is capable of when they put their minds to it. The world is incredibly expansive, begging to be explored and filled with all the story elements that we long time Zelda fans desire so much. It’s hard to summarise what makes this game great in a single, or even multiple, paragraphs as there’s just so much to love. I will temper that by saying that it is not a perfect game, like so many other reviewers are saying, but it is most certainly a title to which I will compare many to from now on. Breath of the Wild managed to do what a decade of Zelda games has failed to do before it: convince me that it was worth playing and then blow away my expectations. I don’t think I can name a game that will be forever defined by its flagship launch title but Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be forever synonymous with the Switch and all other releases will have to live in its shadow.
I don’t care what kind of gamer you are: Zelda: Breath of the Wild is worth your time.
This time of year lends itself to catching up on things that may have otherwise passed you by. For this humble game reviewer it means looking back at those titles I missed, looking for something to fill the usual holiday lull. Quite often I’ll find something that I regret not playing on its release, the most obvious of which was The Talos Principle. Hyper Light Drifter was one game that I passed on multiple times: first when it found success on Kickstarter and secondly when I saw it released on Steam. When I saw it come up again during the Steam Winter sale I figured, with nothing else better to play, it was time to give it a look in. I’m glad I did too as it hearkens back to games of yesteryear, and not simply because of its graphics.
I’d usually give you a brief summation of the starting plot here but I don’t think I could rightly do that here. Hyper Light Drifter is very much a game of “show, don’t tell” and to explain the opening scenes would be reveal too much of the story. Indeed the entirety of the main plot is told through pictures and simple in-game cut scenes, leaving the interpretation of what’s actually going on up to the player. So I’ll leave the usual plot analysis until the end but I’m more than happy to discuss the various theories about the game in the comments.
Hyper Light Drifter takes the traditional approach to its pixelart visuals, favouring a more authentic recreation of the styles of games long past. Numerous new wave pixelart games favour high definition versions of pixelart graphics which, technically, aren’t faithful to what was possible during the period. Hyper Light Drifter retains much of the other aesthetic elements, such as limited colour palettes and fixed lighting, which were also present in titles from this generation. There are some elements I’m not quite sure are completely true to the era, like the overlayed glitch effects, but I’m no purist by any stretch of the imagination. It’s one of the few games that’s built on GameMaker Studio that doesn’t look like every other title built on it, a testament to the amount of effort put into honing Hyper Light Drifter’s visual aesthetic.
Hyper Light Drifter takes after classic games like Zelda: A Link to the Past and other top-down adventure games. There’s a large map with distinct sections that you’re able to walk around at your leisure, although some parts are locked off until you complete certain actions. There are various upgrades scattered around, some of which can only be obtained through defeating certain bosses or completing challenges. Where it differentiates itself is through the combat which is much more twitch focused and relies heavily on precise timing by the player for certain moves to be pulled off perfectly. Honestly it was hard to shake the “Zelda set in a sci-fi landscape” feeling when I was playing it, a feeling that it seems many other fellow reviewers share. In my opinion this is the best way to utilise a player’s nostalgia: use it as a basis to create something new and interesting rather than beating them over the head with it.
Combat has an almost Dark Souls kind of feel to it; where the real boss of the game is yourself. I can’t tell you how many times I died just because I wanted to do something fast rather than taking my time with each enemy. Indeed none of the regular enemies are that complicated and most have really obvious telegraphs that you can pick up on quickly. However, if you’re like me, you’ll want to try and kill as many as you can as quickly as you can. This will often lead to you making mistakes and, of course, your inevitable demise. Once you get a feel for the enemies, and have a couple upgrades under your belt, the combat becomes both challenging and rewarding. This is then most expertly demonstrated in Hyper Light Drifter’s standout feature: the bosses.
The bosses of Hyper Light Drifter aren’t going to win any awards for originality but they are the most enjoyable aspect of the game. Nearly all of them are multi-phased, meaning that you’re unlikely to one shot any of them. It’s refreshing to see that many upgrades, like the projectile deflecting upgrade for dash and the sword, working on bosses as well. This leads to some interesting approaches to bosses and, of course, far more interesting ways to die to them. Overall the bosses themselves aren’t particularly challenging (I don’t think I was stuck on any particular one for long) but they are hard enough to ensure that you feel somewhat accomplished when you do finally beat them. The final boss is by far the coolest out of the lot and makes for a fitting finale when you finally get to face it.
The upgrade process is done well, consisting of finding little upgrade parts all over the map which you can then spend how you wish. There are some must have upgrades, like the aforementioned projectile reflecting ones, whilst others can probably be left behind (like the unlimited dash upgrade, you get 3 dashes by default). There’s also 5 additional weapons you can find scattered around the map which are mostly a matter of preference. Sure some of them help in certain situations, like the rain gun, but I stuck with the normal blaster for the most part. If you fancy yourself something of a completionist then there’s also numerous sets of armour around the map, each of which bestows a certain unique bonus to you if you’re wearing them. I myself didn’t go after them and didn’t struggle at all.
My main gripe with Hyper Light Drifter would have to be the lack of visual clarity. It’s a very busy game with highly detailed environments however it’s not completely clear what’s say, navigable ground, a drop into a bottomless pit or just part of the background scenery. Whilst the punishment for falling off the edge is low (1 health bar and being sent back to your last safe location) it can become somewhat frustrating when you’re searching for secrets. The forest map is the worst for this, its visual cues for “hey there’s something over here” often confused with your run of the mill props for the area. Further this means that some of the visual story telling is simply lost unless you really know what you’re looking for. It’s a shame because in certain aspects, like the above screenshot, it’s done brilliantly but in others it’s simply a visual mess.
Much like Dark Souls again Hyper Light Drifter’s story is told mostly through vague allusions to events with drips and drabs of text around the place explaining some points in a little detail. This means that the events of Hyper Light Drifter are very much up for interpretation and you’ll find many fan theories out there to explain events. Whilst the game play is more than sufficient to keep you engaged throughout the game’s duration it would have been nice if there was a little more of the story built into the main narrative. This is one of the cases where the lack of direct storytelling doesn’t harm the overall game that much and a troll through the forums after finishing it was a rather rewarding experience.
Hyper Light Drifter is a prime example of nostalgia done well; using the past as inspiration for a new experience that captures many of those feelings many of us felt all those years ago. The visual style is very true to the time, eschewing the current norms of high definition pixelart for a more traditional aesthetic. The combat is approachable yet challenging, ensuring that all players approaching this game will find reward in it. The bosses are by far the best aspect of Hyper Light Drifter, conjuring up many memories of the times I spent beating similar bosses back in my younger days. The only faults I can level at Hyper Light Drifter are its lack of visual clarity and direct storytelling, things that don’t detract too heavily from the core game but could definitively be improved. Overall Hyper Light Drifter is an exceptional title, one that I now wish I hadn’t passed on all those times.
Hyper Light Drifter is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with approximately 5 hours of total play time and 13% of the achievements unlocked.
It is rare to find games that manage to blend all of their components together into a cohesive whole. Even the most well resourced project will still suffer from the pains of integrating everything together, often leading to one or more parts just not feeling right. Games that do manage to do this however set the standard for those to come, showing that mechanics, story and sound can all be joined together to become greater than any one component. Such is The Turing Test, a near perfect combination of all its elements that makes for one of the most enthralling gaming experiences of this year.
You play as Eva, a pilot put into hibernation in orbit around Europa to act as a safe guard for the ground team on Earth. You are awoken to find out that your station AI, Tom, has lost contact with the ground team and needs you to re-establish contact with them. Upon landing you find that the entry to the base has been reconfigured in such a way that Tom cannot make his way past it alone. It is now up to you to make your way deep into the base to find out what happened to the crew and, hopefully, bring them back under the watchful eye of Tom.
The Turing Test does quite a lot with very little, the graphics erring towards visual simplicity more than anything else. It’s very reminiscent of Portal with all of the set pieces feeling like they were born out of the same design team. In puzzle based games like this such simplicity is definitely a plus, drawing your focus to the challenge at hand. The game definitely has that Unreal engine feel to it with its trademark visual flairs like its specularity mapping. It should come as no surprise then that The Turing Test ran flawlessly on my current rig and I’d suspect it’d run just fine on run of the mill hardware.
Mechanically The Turing Test is just your typical first person, physics based puzzler. Each room contains within it all the tools for you to progress through to the next challenge which is always just getting to the next room. The puzzles start off simple, requiring you to just find the right combination of what goes where, but quickly ramps up after that. In the end you’ll be facing timing puzzles, non-linear progressions and various other challenges that all seem impossible at first until you look at them from the right angle. The simple mechanics means it’s very quick to pick up and, honestly, not too hard to master either.
Now for some this might be seen as a downside as the satisfaction in puzzlers comes from the challenge in solving them. However in The Turing Test’s case the simple puzzles are part of the game’s overall rhythm. They’re designed to be solved at a certain rate, one that allows the story to progress at a steady rate. Indeed even with perfect knowledge of how to solve them I believe you’d still only just get through one puzzle before the dialogue dried up. Too often developers would include other time-wasting mechanics to extend the game’s play time but The Turing Test doesn’t. This means that both the story and game progress together, ensuring that the neither one gets in the way of the other.
This is then all brilliantly amplified by the sound track which ebbs and flows in sync with the game. Too often game soundtracks are overlooked, left as just something that needs to be there rather than an integral part of the game. Indeed for many of the recent games I’ve played I couldn’t really tell you if I enjoyed the sound track or not, it simply left no impression on me. The Turing Test however does a wonderful job of integrating the background music into the events happening in the game, amplifying all of the game’s pivotal moments.
The story itself, whilst not original nor inventive by any stretch of the imagination, is aptly paced and perfectly in sync with all of The Turing Test’s other elements. That is on the proviso though that you only play through the main areas and don’t go to the sides however. If you do unlock the secret rooms (which aren’t hard to find nor solve) the story has a very weird disconnection between what your character should know and what they appear to know. Whilst I’m sure there are some great theories as to why that could be due to the way the game’s world is set up that’s a conversation for another day.
Each of these elements, simple and concise in their own right, would only make for an average game if simply thrown together. The real beauty of The Turing Test is how well these are all worked together, the various elements integrated so well that they are much more than they are separately. Had this game been released in a world that was bereft of Portal or The Talos Principle it would be a shining star of inventive, thought provoking game play. Even in the shadow of those titles The Turing Test still stands out as an excellent piece of craftsmanship, one that should be lauded for aspiring for greatness that it easily achieves.
The only real niggle I’ll have at this otherwise exceptional game is that, due to the nature of its physically based puzzles, emergent game play can sometimes lead you astray. I’m quite sure there were several puzzles I solved in ways that wasn’t intended, mostly because I ended up at the exit door with more puzzle pieces than were required to solve it. Depending on how you swing though this might be part of the charm as I’m sure there’s numerous ways to break the puzzles. It should say a lot that that’s my only complaint about this otherwise fantastic game.
The Turing Test is a brilliant, well crafted example of what games can accomplish when all of their elements work with each other. Each element on its own is simple, from the visuals to the mechanics to the sound track, however together they form a cohesive whole that’s very much greater than the sum of its parts. The total game time doesn’t run long, maybe 3~5 hours depending on how much of a puzzle nut you are, but that entire time could be easily done in a single sitting. The Turing Test is one of those games that I will wholeheartedly recommend to any gamer as it really is worth the time.
The Turing Test is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $19.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 3 hours of total playtime and 93% of the achievements unlocked.
The work of Team ICO is renowned among the PlayStation faithful. Their two titles, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, have attained the status of cult classics and this meant that anticipation was high for their next release. However an entire console generation came and went without a peep from them and the studio shut down in 2011. For many this was thought to be the end of their next title however work was then transferred to genDESIGN, a new studio which was filled to the brim with Team ICO staff. Development then continued on The Last Guardian and hope was renewed that we would eventually see it. Here we are, some 9 years after initial development began, and it has finally been released to us, the unwashed masses. Has the near decade of development time resulted in a game that’s worthy of the Team ICO pedigree? Or is this another Duke Nukem Forever moment?
You are a boy; an unnamed boy who finds himself trapped in a towering city of ruins. How you got there is not known but when you awoke your body was covered in markings that were not there before. Beside you lay a great beast, a Trico, chained down and in great pain. It becomes clear at that point that if you are to return to your village you will need to work together as the challenges this place poses are not to be faced alone. This realisation begins your journey, one that will see you scaling the incredible heights of these ruins, navigating the trials and tribulations that it will place on you both.
The Last Guardian’s long development cycle are obvious in the graphics which are rooted in the previous console generation. To be sure there are some impressive elements, the beast’s flowing feathers being one of them, but all the environments feel decidedly dated. There’s also some distinct performance issues in certain areas, indicating that the environments haven’t been fully optimised for the platform, an indication of issues in porting code and assets across. All this being said though The Last Guardian does manage to impress with its diverse scenery ranging from towering vistas to cramped caves and ruins. Had this been developed from the ground up for the PlayStation 4 I’d imagine it’d be vastly more impressive but such are the costs of long development cycles.
In terms of how The Last Guardian plays it’s essentially your run of the mill puzzler. The main mechanic comes from the difference in abilities between Trico and the boy, the former able to reach and leap to great heights whilst the latter able to fit into small areas. The game plays off this dichotomy, forcing you to think about who you need to use to complete a task. However you don’t have direct control over Trico’s actions, instead you issue him commands which then get interpreted depending on a number of conditions, some of which aren’t exactly that predictable. Indeed The Last Guardian does a good job of simulating what it would be like to try and wrangle a beast like this but the unfortunate reality of this is that it doesn’t exactly make for what I’d call a fun experience.
So say you need the beast to jump over a particular obstacle. Typically what you’d do is call the beast over and then climb on its back. Then, with the camera pointed in the direction you want to go, you’d do the “Jump” command (which is just the boy jibbering a bit and jumping up and down), and then hope Trico followed it. Sometimes this will work and Trico will leap successfully across. However, most of the time, Trico will either sit there, looking around at nothing in particular, or do something completely different. So what follows is an exercise in troubleshooting: am I actually able to jump that gap with Trico? Is there another location I need to be in to do that jump? Have I not satisfied all the right conditions to make him jump? What this means is you can never be quite sure if you’ve got the right solution and Trico just isn’t co-operating or if you’re barking up the wrong tree.
I can understand the design choices that influenced the creation of the beast AI mechanic and, honestly, I think it’s a brilliant idea for telling a story through mechanics. However the trouble is that with an AI that is so unpredictable the player is left guessing as to whether or not they’re playing the game correctly. Thus, for me, this meant that the moments where Trico and I are meant to be getting ever more in-sync didn’t feel like that at all. Instead it felt like I finally just got lucky enough that the bloody dog finally listened to me. I can’t tell you how many times I got stuck and had to consult YouTube videos to make sure I wasn’t going completely insane only to find out that I was doing it right all along and my AI dog just wasn’t as co-operative as the other ones.
This isn’t an unsolvable problem in my mind. The easiest way to tackle this would be to put say little white dots at places where you could command the beast to do something. Then, if you centre your camera on them, an outline of what the beast could do would appear. This would then give you some certainty over what actions are going to happen, removing the second-guessing which was my main source of frustration when playing. Sure this would reduce the length of the game significantly but honestly we’re long past the point of where play time is a sign of overall quality. Unfortunately I don’t think this will ever happen, especially considering the rather cryptic nature of the patch notes.
Putting the core game mechanic issues aside there’s still some other niggling issues which don’t do anything to help. The camera is a wonky beast at the best of times, often whipping around wildly when it can’t quite figure out where it should be pointing (often when you’re trying to climb Trico). The platforming mechanics are hit and miss with the boy sometimes just straight up failing to grab onto a ledge or Trico, sending you to your death. There are also some triggers which don’t seem to work initially, preventing cut scenes from occurring and blocking your progress until you retreat from the area completely or reload a checkpoint. Suffice to say that you’d think most of these kinds of issues would’ve been straightened out in the game’s long dev cycle but unfortunately that’s just not the case.
Now the story is the part which many say redeems The Last Guardians glaring faults and, personally, I’m in two minds on this. For the vast majority of my play through I didn’t think there was much to it, the various bits of dialogue so brief that they really didn’t add anything to the experience. Combine that with an uncooperative companion and I really couldn’t care what happened to the pair of them. That was until the last 30 minutes which, I admit, managed to tug on the heart strings in just the right way and for a brief moment I forgot all about the frustrations that had led to this point. So whilst I’ll commend genDESIGN for managing to do that I will not (now that I’m clear headed) give them a pass for the incredible missteps they made in designing the core game.
The Last Guardian stays true to the Team ICO formula, seeking to tell stories through game play rather than dialogue. It is, unfortunately, plagued by horrendous game design decisions that force the player to second guess not just themselves, but the game as well. This leads to an incredibly frustrating experience where you can never be sure if you’re anything right, making almost all puzzle challenges an unrewarding chore. When it works it’s brilliant and something I’d like to see more of but those moments are so rare that they’re lost in a wash of frustration and swear words. I will admit that I did a 180 on the game in its final moments, the game able to grab a hold of that tenuous connection I had built up with that dumb beast and squeeze it for all its worth. It’s hard for me to recommend the game solely on that however but if you’ve read all the way through this and are still interested in playing The Last Guardian then it might just be worth it for you.
The Last Guardian is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $99.95. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.