Rewind the clock a decade or two and co-op games found themselves in something of a dark age. Most publishers were attempting to get players on the multi-player bandwagon, driven by increasing Internet penetration and a want to keep players engaged for longer on big name IPs. Titles like Left 4 Dead and other small squad based games breathed new life into the co-op playstyle and the indie renaissance brought with it the innovation to keep players interested. For many of the games co-op is an add-on, something to be enjoyed if you and your friends have the time to play together. Fewer are the games in which co-op is a hard requirement like it is for A Way Out. The premise, a co-op prison break, was enough to interest me with the developers (those who brought us Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons) sealing the deal. Whilst it falls a few steps short of my must-play games for this year it was certainly an interesting experience, if only for the fact that my wife and I shared a good few laughs while playing it.
Vincent Moretti is freshly incarcerated and sent to jail for murder. In jail, he meets thief Leo Caruso who had been arrested for grand theft. A group of thugs sent in by crime boss Harvey tries to murder Leo, but Vincent intervenes. While the two recover in the infirmary, they get to know each other and Leo requests Vincent’s help to steal a file from the office. Vincent complies. After the theft, Vincent senses that Leo is planning on a prison break and offers to help so he can escape too. Leo initially refuses, but begrudgingly agrees to collaborate when Vincent reveals he also has a grudge with Harvey. So begins their quest to hunt him down and exact the vengeance they crave.
Considering that this is Hazelight Studios first game (although not their first title as a team) the quality of their visual work is quite impressive. Whilst it might not reach the dizzying heights that say Far Cry 5 did it still does manage to do a lot with what its got. For people like me who are playing the game on a single console (original PlayStation 4 for reference) there are definitely some sacrifices being made in order to support the split screen parts of the game. Mostly this comes in from the lack of detail when you get up close which can become quite noticeable in the in-game cutscenes. I haven’t done a blow by blow comparison between my screenshots and the same from PC but I can hazard a guess that they wouldn’t suffer the same fate, given that the Unreal 4 engine is powering everything.
A Way Out is a split screen co-op game where you’ll be tasked with all sorts of different challenges, most of which will require you cooperating with your partner in order to complete. Some of these take the form of the usual co-op puzzle affair, like you holding down a switch to keep a door open while they go through, to some unique and interesting puzzles which I don’t think I’ve ever come across before. All the scenes are also littered with things for you to interact with from people (providing dialogue and story background) to objects which may or may not be related to the puzzle at hand. All the challenges will have multiple ways of approaching them, something which is not always readily apparent. There’s stealth and combat sections as well which will quickly make you realise that even the biggest TV will feel cramped when half of it is gone. If it sounds like there’s a lot to this game then you’re right and one the game’s weaknesses is the lack of focus on the elements which mean the most to the overall experience.
The core puzzle solving mechanics are well done, making good use of the fact that you’re required to work together. Most sections play out in a similar way: you’re given your object, a little spiel about how you might go about it and then are let loose in the room to figure it out. That room will usually have a bunch of things for you to look through although, honestly, most aren’t worth your time. Whilst its nice that some of the NPCs have a background story none of them will ever help you with anything, nor will learning random things about your environment. Indeed the objective you’re given is pretty much all the info you’ll need, all you need to do is find the requisite items and execute the right sequence. If you’re a seasoned gamer you’ll likely breeze through most of them however if, like my wife, you’re not exactly the gaming type things can get…well…
You see my wife, bless her socks, whilst having a solid history of titles she’s enjoyed (Animal Crossing, World of Warcraft and Until Dawn to name a few) she doesn’t have the same twitch reflex muscles that someone who’s invested over 200 hours into Destiny might. So there were quite a few puzzles where we’d fail in spectacular fashion, often with quite hilarious results. To her credit though towards the end she started to perform quite well, even saving my ass a couple times during the shooting sequences. This is, of course, one of the joys of local co-op and A Way Out does ensure that mismatched experience levels are catered for relatively well. Suffice to say if you’re thinking of giving this game a go the only thing stopping you was the experience of your chosen co-op partner I don’t think you have that much to worry about.
Combat could really have used more attention as the shooting feels clunky and unrefined. It’s your typical third person, cover based shooter with infinitely regenerating health but even I was struggling to reliably take down enemies. There’s also not a great deal of room to experiment with the different weapon types as you select one to begin with and there’s only a few places where you can change your selection later on. Combining this with the 50% loss of screen real estate, which makes enemies just that much harder to make out, and the shooting sections are more of a chore than they need to be. I’ll lay the blame for this partly on the fact that there are so, so many mini-games in A Way Out that it’s not surprising that some aspects received a lot less attention than they should have. Given the pedigree of the developers I had expected a relatively high amount of focus on the core elements they wanted to make good. Maybe the combat just wasn’t one of them.
A Way Out is a mostly trouble free experience although it does still have a few issues that will crop up from time to time. The above screenshot is a great example of what happens when the physics engine gets confused, rocketing my wife straight up after she rolled into a crate. The cover system is also a little finicky, sometimes not responding in the way you’d expect it. Thankfully these issues are both minor and uncommon so they don’t mar the overall experience too much. We did avoid a great number of the mini games however so it’s quite possible there’s all manner of bugs hiding in places I simply didn’t look.
The story of A Way Out takes a really, really long time to get going enough that my wife wasn’t particularly interested in picking it back up after our initial 2 hour session. I did manage to convince her to come back to it and, whilst the second half is a lot better, it’s probably still a bit too drawn out. Additionally given that a great deal of the story is told in retrospect a lot of tension is taken out of many of the critical plot points. Given the fact that the strongest part of the game, the final hour, is the only part that’s not told in retrospect I have to wonder why it was presented in that way in the first place. All things considered A Way Out’s story is probably best described as interesting but forgettable.
A Way Out brings another unique perspective on what co-op games can be, eschewing the current trend for drop-in/drop-out play. Hazelight Studio’s first release is of a very high standard, especially considering that it’s available on all major platforms. The game is bristling with detail something which is both one of its strongest points and also its greatest weakness. Certain parts of the game that could have used a little more love, like the stealth and combat, don’t feel as polished as they need to be. The mini games and other parts are nice but I’d trade most of them out for more focus on the core elements of the game. Finally the story suffers in its delivery, only finding its feet once it casts off the shackles of its retrospective narration. All this being said I don’t regret giving A Way Out a go and I’m sure more gaming couples could find something to love in it.
A Way Out is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 5 hours of total play time and 29% of the achievements unlocked.
Games as a medium have matured extensively over the past decade or so. Numerous ideas and stories which would have never previously been explored now find their way into game form. Increasingly we’re seeing games based around cultures and their mythologies, providing a new and interesting lens into these worlds that typically wouldn’t have been explored in this medium. Mulaka, the second game from indie developer Lienzo, explores the lore of the Tarahumara people through a 3D platformer beat ’em up. It’s one of the few examples where I can say that the developer knew their limitations and chose to focus on where to best spend their effort. The result is a simple, relatively short game that achieves what it set out to do with only a few minor hiccups along the way.
You play as one of the Sukurúame, a Tarahumara shaman who has tasked themselves with ridding the world of the corruption that has begun to plague it. To do so you will have to enlist the help of the demigods who will imbue you with their powers in order to cleanse the corruption from the land. The path before you won’t be easy however as many of the normal creatures of the land have been warped and changed by the corrupting magic that now infuses the world.
Mulaka utilises a low poly visual style with bright, solid colours and little texturing to be seen. The art style is somewhat reminiscent of older Nintendo 64 like Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Goemon’s Great Adventure with the NPCs having flat faces with simple textures. Under the hood this is all powered by Unity but, thanks to the customised art style, manages to avoid that trademark look and feel. Consequently the game runs absolutely lightning fast on any semi-modern PC and, given it has a Switch release, would likely run quite well on nearly anything you cared to throw at it.
The game can be largely categorised into 2 major parts: the 3D platforming and puzzle sections, and the now standard “Dark Souls-esque” style of combat. Each of Mulaka’s levels requires you to find 3 stones in which to unlock a door to progress to a small final section, most of which are found via exploration or completing a quest set by one of the NPCs. Initially they’re your stock standard platforming puzzles but as you unlock new abilities they change into more of a traditional puzzle experience. The combat follows a similar progression, starting off with your typical dodge/roll/parry and quickly building into more complex encounters thanks to multiple different types of enemies and the new abilities you unlock. There is a small progression system in the form of currency you’ll receive from defeated enemies but, honestly, I did the vast majority of the game with only buying one (and that was actually a mistake). Overall there’s actually not that much to Mulaka in terms of game mechanics but for things it does do it does them well.
Combat isn’t exactly a challenging experience as most enemies can be defeated by simply spamming one attack at them. Whilst challenge initially comes from trying to figure out how to tackle new enemy types it unfortunately tends towards simply throwing more enemies at once at you. The upgraded enemies you’ll come across later in the game are simply bigger, badder versions of their earlier incarnations and so they don’t really feel like that much more of a threat. The bosses are however all quite interesting, attempting to recreate that same feeling you get in the Dark Souls series of being a very small person going up against an unbelievably giant threat. Suffice to say you’re not going to be playing this for the challenge (or taunting your friends to “git gud” at it) but it was somewhat refreshing to have a combat experience that didn’t feel like it was getting in the way too much for once.
The puzzles are similarly none too difficult with the majority of them being a follow the bouncing ball kind of deal. The 3D platformer puzzles can be solved in numerous ways, many of them I’m sure weren’t entirely intended by the developer. Other smaller puzzles (like the water one shown above) only have a single solution and can usually be solved in a few minutes. Mulaka could do a slightly better job of communicating when you’re not able to solve a particular puzzle due to you not having the requisite ability as this is one of those games where not everything in every level is available to you from the start. For instance you’ll likely find items behind a big rock with red claw marks on it, something which can’t be cleared until you get the bear ability. The game doesn’t tell you this (nor for any of the other blockers) so it can sometimes be a bit of a guessing game as to what you can access right now and what you’ll have to come back for.
There’s also some quality of life improvements that could be made, 2 of which jump immediately to mind. First off the upgrade vendor is only in one map which means you’ll have to trek back there every time you want to purchase one. Since the game already has characters that travel from map to map with you it’s not out of the question to bring said upgrade vendor along with you. Secondly the potion crafting, whilst simple and concise, is needlessly laborious in its resource collection mechanic. In order for you to craft a single potion you’ll need to get 4 of a certain item and then you’ll automatically create one. As far as I can tell those resources will spawn an unlimited number of times meaning that the second you find a resource you can, in theory, fill your potion inventory. However the time taken to do so is a little bit too long in my opinion and instead could take inspiration from the estus flask idea in Dark Souls (I.E. refilling them all at certain points). I admit that there is a small lore reason for the gathering mechanic but I’m sure that could be worked in other ways.
The game is well polished in most respects although there are a few minor issues here and there that could use addressing. As the above screenshot shows there are numerous places on several maps where you can fall through the world. Thankfully instead of outright killing you the game will simply teleport you back to a safe place after you fall for a while so it’s not a major issue when it happens. The hit detection, both for your character and enemies, could do with a little tuning as well as some of the enemies attacks connect when you’d think they’d miss. Thankfully these are minor gripes in the overall scheme of things and I’m sure future patches will work most of them out.
The story is steeped in the mythology and culture of the Tarahumara people with many of the places, stories and even game mechanics taking inspiration from it. With your character being an entirely mute protagonist it is a little hard to engage fully with the story. There are some interesting pieces here and there and the story’s ultimate climax is cool but, overall, I didn’t get that much out of it. Looking at the Steam page there’s a bunch of videos that the developer made diving into the culture and how it influenced the game so had I watched those before playing I might be saying something different.
Mulaka’s greatest strength is that it achieved what it set out to. Too often I’ve seen both indie and AAA developers strive for grand visions that can never be fully achieved, resulting in games with half baked ideas and broken implementations. Mulaka instead had a simpler, narrow vision which helped it focus more on what mattered. The game that came out the other end is simple, short and concise. There’s improvements to be made though with some levels needing a little more polish, a few quality of life improvements here or there and a little more story work could elevate this title to much greater heights. None of these are terminal issues though and, should the developers decide to revisit this world, I’m sure a follow up game could strive for a much greater vision.
Mulaka is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 5 hours play time and 50% of the achievements unlocked.
Ever since I gave myself new, unknown forms of RSI playing games like Super Meat Boy I’ve had an aversion to twitch based platformers. The challenge can certainly be rewarding but the games can be exhausting to play, needing to be put down after an hour or so. Trouble is when I feel forced to put a game down, rather than feeling like I’ve come to a good place to stop, they tend to not get picked up again. That is the unfortunate tale of Celeste for this old reviewer as whilst it’s a very competent platformer I simply haven’t had the drive to go back to it after I last decided to give it a rest.
You play as Madeline, a young woman out on a quest to conquer the mighty Celeste mountain and, in the process, confront her own inner demons. The journey to the summit is fraught with all sorts of fantastical dangers that will push you to your limits. There will be those who belittle you for daring to take on such a challenge, some who support you and those whose intentions aren’t particularly clear. The reason as to why you’re climbing the mountain isn’t particularly clear but one thing is for sure: Madeline will make it to the top no matter what.
Celeste takes its artistic inspiration from fellow low detail pixel art platformers, emulating the style of games of yesteryear that weren’t capable of pushing more than a handful of pixels at a time. The attention to detail is impressive though, using each pixel to convey much more information than would otherwise be from say larger images that had been downscaled. The higher resolution images have that old Flash game feel about them which isn’t surprising given the developer’s heritage in making games on that platform. Overall it’s a pretty stock standard pixel art affair.
As I alluded to in the opening paragraph Celeste is a platformer, one that takes much of its inspiration from the bevy of similar games that have been released over the past decade. Its signature mechanics are simple: a dash and the ability to hold/climb on walls for a limited amount of time. Each level will have its own unique additional mechanic which it will make use of to provide additional challenge, leaving your in-built abilities unchanged. Each of the levels ends with what you could call a boss which typically takes the form of something either chasing you or making your platforming journey just that extra bit more difficult. Scattered throughout the levels are dozens of collectibles, all of which are trapped behind harder than usual platforming puzzles. All in all, from a base game perspective, there’s not much I haven’t seen before and this doesn’t feel like a case where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
The platforming mechanics are crafted well enough, rarely did I find myself in a position where the journey from beginning to end of a particular puzzle wasn’t clear at the outset. Indeed Celeste does a pretty good job of demonstrating the mechanics to you, ensuring you have all the tools at your disposal. Of course using them correctly is where the challenge comes in as, if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to forget which finger does what when you’re in the middle of a complex puzzle. Thankfully all the harder challenge puzzles are completely optional so I never really felt like I was being put up against an unfair challenge. No, instead where I started to lose interest in Celeste was in how it ramped up the challenge.
You see there’s really only so much you can do with a simple bag of mechanics that are augmented with a single additional one per level. So instead the challenge typically comes from extending the puzzles length, meaning the distance between checkpoints progressively gets longer and longer. This means that the later puzzles are more difficult not because they’re more complex but because it takes longer to get to the point to retry that particular section. This is especially true for the boss sections which are the longest by far and include another additional irritating mechanic that makes completing those puzzles just that little bit harder. Sure the sense of accomplishment is very real when you finally complete a level but I could never really push myself to attempt more than one level in a sitting.
For those who enjoy platformers though these things are likely to be what makes a game like Celeste worth playing in the first place. There’s certainly a lot of content packed into Celeste with the strawberries, b-sides and what have you scattered around. I simply don’t enjoy chasing those kinds of rewards and so, when I put down Celeste on Sunday for the final time, the compulsion to go back simply vanished.
STORY SPOILERS BELOW
Had the story found its legs earlier I may have played it through to completion however. In the beginning the game doesn’t do much to build out the greater narrative except for hammering home the fact that Madeline is flawed. There is one incredibly touching moment when Madeline has a panic attack in the cable car, something I think anyone who’s dealt with anxiety before can relate to, but that comes over halfway through the game. Perhaps the story develops at a much faster rate in the sections which I haven’t played yet but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough to keep me engaged to want to see if that was the case. Perhaps I’ll watch a run through on YouTube or something one day but, sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever see it of my own volition.
STORY SPOILERS OVER
Celeste is a competent platformer that is sure to delight fans of the genre. Whilst none of its features stands out as the main reason you’d play it what they have done does fit together well. For me though this is probably one game where my biases against this type of game are showing through as I simply didn’t find enough reward in its challenge. To be sure it’s a well designed platformer, carefully guiding you through each of the level’s signature mechanics before hitting you hard with more challenging puzzles. Good design does not guarantee a fun game, however. Perhaps if I sunk another hour or two into Celeste I may sing a different tune, especially if the story manages to find its feet beyond that point, but for now it shall join the rest of the platformers I’ve laid to rest.
Celeste is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 3.5 hours of total play time and 20% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ve been staring at this page for far too long trying to figure out how to open up this review of The Red Strings Club. Sure I could take the easy route and direct you my review of Gods Will Be Watching, the previous game from Deconstructeam, but that feels disingenuous given how different this title is. I could mention that this is the first 2018 game I’ve played although that really means little in the grand scheme of things (except that I should probably do my Game of the Year post sometime soon). Even the fact that I was drawn to this game just on the mention of “cyberpunk bartending” doesn’t seem like good opening fodder. So instead you get an opening ramble of all of those things combined with my one line summary for this game: it may not do anything new but it is one of the more interesting adventure games I’ve played of late.
You’ll take control of several different characters throughout the game however you’ll mainly be playing as Donovan, the proprietor of The Red Strings Club. On the surface it’s simply a bar with amazing drinks, ones that are said to be tailored to your emotions. Under the surface however Donovan is a powerful information broker, holding secrets on anything and everything that goes on in the city. When a broken down android stumbles into his bar one night he becomes privy to some information that no one outside of an elite group of people inside Supercontinent megacorporation had seen before. This sets off a chain of events which will see Donovan pulling all the little red strings he has tied around his clientele in order to advert the subjugation of all mankind.
The Red Strings Club’s visuals are a blend of more traditional pixel art styles and the more modern high resolution versions of the same. It’s definitely a step up from the art style of Gods Will Be Watching which used the very low resolution style which I think was born more out of the game’s Ludum Dare roots. Under the hood it’s powered by GameMaker which honestly surprised me as games made using that platform typically have a very distinctive look and feel to them. Given that it’s been nearly 3 years since their last release I’d hazard a guess a good chunk of time has was dedicated to getting the artwork right and I’m glad to say it was time well spent.
Unlike its predecessor (which I’m very grateful for as I didn’t want to pray to RNGesus again) The Red Strings Club is more of a traditional adventure game affair. The game is primarily dialogue focused with most of the puzzles based around getting information from someone or influencing them to act in a particular way. The two interesting mechanics that the game brings with it are the bartending and what could be best described as bionic pottery. The former is the main mechanic of the game, allowing you to influence the mood of a person in order to pump them for the right kinds of information. The second is only done right at the start but cements some of the core aspects of the game, changing what options will be available to you. There are a few other mini-games but none that are different from your usual adventure game affair. Overall it’s a pretty stock standard experience which means most of the value comes from how well these things interact with the story.
Initially the bartending mechanics are simple, making it rather easy to figure out which emotion is the “best” one to use (it was usually the one that was hardest to mix up). However as more and more options are added it starts to become a lot more involved and it gets quite a bit harder to both make the drinks and judge which one you need to serve. There’s really no way to utterly fail, it seems there are certain pieces of information you’ll get regardless, but the better you do in these things the easier time you’ll have towards the end. There’s also a couple achievements dedicated to unlocking some special things through this mechanic but I couldn’t figure them out in my playthrough. It’s quite possible that some of my early choices precluded them happening however.
There are a few little annoyances in the 1.0 release of The Red Strings Club that I hope are addressed in future patches. Sometimes bottles won’t pour their contents for you, even if they’re tipped upside down. This appears to be related to how close the bottle is to other bottles, the shaker or the glass and if more than 2 of those kinds of objects are in the way it will refuse to pour. Additionally there seems to be something finicky with the “no spill” mechanic as I completed at least one drink without spilling a drop but did not get the achievement for it. The shaker will also sometimes mix drinks into a single one of their components, forcing you to redo it. None of these are game breaking but they can be a little frustrating. I’m sure these can be easily fixed in the next few updates.
All of these things are simply an aid to the overall narrative which, whilst thoroughly thought provoking, didn’t elicit much of an emotional reaction from me. The game does a great job of revealing information to you in a slow and respectful way, giving you just enough information to figure some things out whilst you have to guess at others. However whilst Donovan is given enough of a build up the rest of the characters don’t receive similar treatment, making it hard to empathise with them when certain events take place. Thinking about it more though the characters might be secondary to the overarching narrative itself which is why they don’t receive as much attention as you’d otherwise expect they would. It feels weird to say that the story is a great thought provoking narrative that has little to no emotional impact as that’s typically the basis upon which such stories will cement themselves in your mind.
Perhaps I just need a little more time to digest it.
The Red Strings club was a great game to open up my 2018 list to. Deconstructeam has evidently gone through a lot of growth over the last couple years, bringing everything that was good from Gods Will Be Watching and leaving everything else behind. At a technical level the game isn’t anything to write home about, feeling like a very traditional pixel art adventure game, but the overall experience feels well above par. This is most likely due to the strong narrative, one that manages to intrigue and provoke a lot of thought whilst, strangely, failing to drive a heavy emotional impact. If you had asked me after I played Gods Will Be Watching would I look forward to the next game from this developer I would’ve told you no but now, having played The Red Strings Club, I’m very keen to see where Deconstructeam goes from here.
The Red Strings Club is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours with 37% of the achievements unlocked.
To The Moon was far from a perfect game. Its disjointed pacing, rudimentary game mechanics and inability to deliver a compelling story until its final chapter are all things that I’ve dropped lesser games for. However those final moments of the game are where it finally finds its feet, bringing forth an emotional ending that I certainly wasn’t prepared for. That was enough to make it my game of the year for 2012, edging out many other worthy contenders. Since then I’ve wondered if the developer would ever return to this universe or would simply let To The Moon stand alone. Had it not been for the joke trailer that did the rounds a while back I may never have known that Finding Paradise was Freebird Games’ second instalment in the series and was due out before the end of the year. Just like last time however Finding Paradise stumbles its way through most of the story before finally finding its feet right at the end.
The two doctors (Dr Watts and Dr Rosaline) make a return in Finding Paradise however their no longer from “The Agency”, it’s now Sigmund Corporation. Their mission however is the same: to grant a dying patient’s last wishes in the form of memory manipulation. This client is different however, there’s no one thing they want. Instead their only request is that they make them happy, ensuring that they don’t change anything relating to his family. What starts out as a routine dig into the patient’s memories soon takes a strange twist and the two doctors struggle to find out just what exactly it is that will make their patient’s last moments everything they wished for.
Finding Paradise retains the same look and feel of its predecessor with the typical trappings of a RPG Maker based game. The colour palette is a lot more vibrant and bright this time around however which initially led me to think that the graphics were much higher fidelity than they previously were. Looking back over my screenshots however this is definitely not the case. Yet again the soundtrack to Finding Paradise is exceptional with the title track setting the scene beautifully for what is to come. The credit song is also a hauntingly beautiful track, one that would stand well on its own without the game to back it up. Overall the game manages to feel new but familiar which is certain to delight fans of Freebird’s games.
The overall game structure hasn’t changed at all with it following the same puzzle structure as its predecessor did. Each scene is essentially a small puzzle, requiring you to track down memory orbs which you then use to unlock a memento in order to travel through the patient’s memories. To unlock the memento you then have to complete a puzzle which now takes the form of a Bejewled-esque matching game with a number of ancillary mechanics to give you a little bit of a challenge. Most of them however won’t take you very long to solve, indeed even the ones that appear challenging typically only require a few moves to complete. Just like before however these are not the focus of the game and simply serve as organic progression blockers between the individual scenes.
Despite the game’s simplicity and ostensibly similar construction to its predecessor there’s a few areas which are lacking in polish. Some of the mechanics don’t trigger properly, either requiring a restart of the game or loading up of a checkpoint in order to get them working as expected. There’s been a few patches since launch day so some of the more glaring issues have been worked out but there’s still a few teething issues as at time of writing. I’m sure these will be addressed as time goes on but it’s one thing I don’t remember experiencing in its predecessor. These small issues don’t detract much from the game itself however, the story does a good enough job of that.
Just like its predecessor Finding Paradise meanders along during the early events of the story, spending a lot of time building up the backstory to a lot of the characters. The game also spends far, far too much time on throwing out red herrings and building up the greater world outside of the main story, ostensibly setting it up for a sequel with a much grander vision than the previous two games had. Whilst I’m all for developers building out a bigger world that a small story can exist in Finding Paradise goes out of its way to spend a lot of time on doing this long before its revealed what its ultimate intentions are for doing so. This means that the first 2 hours or so of game play are largely irrelevant to the core narrative as the core of the story doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
The developers, who cheekily note on their website that they’re “Ruining sentimental moments, one badly timed joke after another”, manage to do that with surgical timing for about 75% of the games play time. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of levity in games like this, indeed sometimes it’s necessary to save you from being emotionally drained with topics like this, however there were several key moments that were utterly ruined by sequences that added absolutely nothing to the story, world or the characters themselves. At this point I understand that this is the developer’s style and is done deliberately but that doesn’t mean it’s a good way to tell a story like this. If there’s one bit of advice I can give them it’s this: don’t sacrifice the small emotional climaxes for a laugh. Those small moments will mean so much more if they’re not devastated by a juvenile joke the second after they’re told.
However, right at the end, is where Finding Paradise begins to find its legs. As you begin to discover the core of what the patient’s last wishes are the revelations start to come thick and fast. The final moments are, just like they were in To The Moon, incredibly bitter-sweet and are sure to bring a few tears forth for those whose hearts aren’t made of stone. Finding Paradise does lose a bit of cred for loudly screaming about the potential for a sequel right at the end but all shall be forgiven if they can take some lessons learned from their last few games to heart and build it into something truly sensational (and free of emotional moments ruined by jokes).
Finding Paradise keeps the same formula of what made To The Moon great and, unfortunately, many of the things that should have been left behind. The visual style and accompanying soundtrack are both stand out items of the game, each of them contributing greatly to the telling of the main narrative. The mechanics are largely the same with the new puzzle mechanic being a nice touch. However the disjointed pacing, sacrificing the story’s key moments for the sake of a joke and the attention given to building out the world for an impending sequel are missteps that Freebird Games should not look to repeat in future games. The ultimate conclusion does save the game from itself however but that doesn’t mean that the developers should simply look to repeat this yet again. Finding Paradise might not reach the same heights as its predecessor but it still managed to evoke the same bittersweet feelings that brought this old reviewer to tears.
Finding Paradise is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 4 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked.
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.