Oh my word would you look at that, it’s another RPG from our good friends over at Spiders. If you are unfamiliar with them (although how could you having read every single one of my reviews!) they are a small developer who has aspirations of being the next Bioware but not where near the prestige nor funding to achieve it. Their previous run of games, which are all startlingly similar in their construction, have all been firmly in the B-grade category; having many of the trappings of its AAA brethren but nowhere near the same level of polish, finesse or integration of mechanics that would make it seem somewhat similar. Over the years then I’ve grown to love seeing Spiders releasing things because it means that they’re somehow still making money despite peddling some of the most mediocre titles for years on end. However, and I feel strange for saying this, their latest game Greedfall actually manages to be a half decent game, even if the spectres of its past are still very much visible. So this may be the first time ever that I say I’m actually looking forward to seeing what Spiders comes up with next.
You are De Sardet, legate of the Congregation of Merchants and you’ve been tapped on the shoulder to accompany your cousin to a newly discovered island called Teer Fradee. He’s to be the governor there and it’s your job to assist him in ensuring that the will of the Congregation is executed over there. At the same time you’ve been tasked with trying to find a cure for the terrible sickness that has been plaguing everyone on the content, a disease that has been named the Malichor. Your journey is not simply one of bashing heads and saving those in distress; no instead you’re there to ensure political stability on the island, including finding a way for those of the continent to get along with the natives of the island. That’s going to be something of a challenge considering the number of different factions, all of whom have their own ideas of what this new island should be used for.
The graphics of Greedfall are brought to us by Spiders’ own game engine called Silk which itself was based off the free Sony engine called PhyreEngine. The graphics it delivers though are more akin to the best we’d seen out of the previous generation, although when compared to previous Spiders titles it’s definitely a major step up. Whilst there’s a healthy dose of asset reuse the environments are still more detailed than they ever have been before. They will start to blend into each other after a while as all the forests look pretty much the same as do the towns save for the few custom designed areas that each of them has. Heck even the various governor houses are basically identical save for the texture jobs. There’s also some noticeable differences in the game’s framerate and the physics engine’s rate which is probably most notable in your cape which stutters along rather than flowing like you’d expect. Credit where it’s due though this is a pretty big step up for Spiders and I’m not one to chide someone for making progress.
It seems that after making ostensibly the same game 4 times over Spiders has finally managed to streamline it to the point where they’ve actually managed to make most of the systems work properly. You’re still going to have to choose to main one of three character classes, each of which largely fits into the regular RPG tropes. The multiple different attribute and talent systems make a return although at least this time around there’s a respec facility that gives you the ability to tweak things if you happen to make a wrong decision early on. You’ll still be saddled with AI companions that you have zero control over however and their AI hasn’t really improved much in the years since the Technomancer. Crafting once again makes a return although it suffers from the same problems at it always has. Overall whilst the theme of “put everything in that the AAA guys do” is still very much prevalent in Greedfall at least this time it’s a lot better done making for a game that’s actually kind of fun to play.
Combat is still a very simplistic affair, being mostly focus on you whacking at enemies and dodging their more obvious telegraphed attacks whilst waiting for your abilities to come off cooldown. The game asks you what archetype you want to be at the start and, for a change, I decided to see what being a spellcaster would be like. To their credit this was actually quite a viable build although, unfortunately, it still meant that I’d spend about half of most combat encounters meleeing things as I waited for my mana to regen. However there were also times that I could completely wipe out an entire group with 2 spells, something which I sorely needed to do later in the game when I was over everything and just wanted to complete the story. I still have the feeling that going for the warrior tree might’ve been the smarter move overall as it seems all the good weapons and armor require you to invest in points that that tree makes use of. Having to split my points a bit between things to support my spellcasting whilst also wearing armour that wasn’t total shit was a bit of a pain, although it wasn’t too much of a drag for the last 5 or so hours of my playthrough.
Like most things in Greedfall though the combat gets extremely repetitve after not too long. The enemy variety is very low and doesn’t really change much throughout the game. This unfortunately means that the increased challenge usually comes from the game throwing more of those enemies at you or simply giving them a truckload more health and armour. This turns most fights into drawn out slugfests and with an unfortunate late of variety in spells and skills there’s not much to really keep you interested. To be sure I could’ve easily respecced between any of the 3 trees anytime I wanted to (you’ll pick up more than enough items to cover them all off) but I shouldn’t have to completely up-end my build just to keep things interesting. The games that Greedfall aspires to be (Dragonfall: Origins should I take a wild guess) managed to keep me interested without the need for me to change things up so I definitely feel like it’s a lack of time and/or resources on Spiders’ part here.
Pro-tip: there’s basically no reason to invest any points in crafting as there’s NPCs who can craft everything for you. Not only that but all crafting recipes are available to you right from the get-go so there’s really nothing else for you to do but to go and find the required mats. This is made incredibly easy by the fact that every time you travel you have to camp, which also brings with it a vendor who always has every crafting item in stock. It’s probably still worth picking up various mats along the way as you’ll sometimes need to craft something or use them to complete a quest but other than that you’re going to end up with a bunch of materials that you’re not going to have any use for. Thankfully they don’t weigh particularly much so you can still indulge in your packrat ways if you so wish. Once I’d found a good set of unique armour and an associated weapon I maxed out crafting to upgrade everything to the fullest and then respecced into something more useful right away. I think I ended up using that setup for over half the game.
Progression is a muddled affair as you’ll get skill points every level (and can even find “skill shrines” that give you additional points) but will only get attribute and talent points every so often. This means that if you find a sweet piece of armour that needs endurance 2 it’s not going to be 2 levels to use it, no more like 5+. Whilst this does mean that the early game is a bit of a balancing act to get the most out of the loot you have it ends up being a pretty big source of frustration later in the game. This is most apparent when all the good loot requires the higher tiers of attributes unlocked or not having a particular skill (like say vigor) levelled up enough means taking the very long way around something. Of course I totally get the idea that this is meant to make you specialise in something but given the loot isn’t particularly diverse it kind of means that non-warrior builds are less viable than their melee focused counter-parts. This is honestly par for the course with Spiders games though so I really shouldn’t be surprised.
There have been some major quality of life improvements over previous Spiders games like, finally, a fast travel system. Unfortunately this is tied up with a completely unnecessary (but mandatory) “camp” intermediate level which basically means you’ll always see 2 load screens unless you’re travelling within a current map. It would be so, so much better if you had the choice of camping or not as later in the game there’s really not a lot of reason to spend any time at camp. Other improvements include item comparison, so you can see if what you’re looking at is an upgrade, a useable map and a UI that isn’t complete garbage. It’s still probably about 5+ years behind what I’d call AAA but at the very least we’re streets ahead of what I’ve come to expect from this developer.
Of course the game is still riddled with issues, some of which may be due to their continued use of the Silk engine or perhaps just straight up lack of polish. Pathing is a major issue and you’ll routinely get cornered or stuck by NPCs or your companions alike although they’ll usually figure out you’re trying to get past them after a 30 seconds or so. There are missions in the game that are obviously related to each other but haven’t had alternative voice lines recorded from them so you’ll often have your character experiencing weird bouts of amnesia about things that they really should know about. Whilst the level of the jank in the combat is certainly decreased the same issues in Spiders’ previous games still exist, like spells or melee hits just straight up not connecting for no reason at all and enemies straight up ignoring terrain to get at you. A lot of these things can be patched out though and hopefully Spiders does invest some time between this game and the next on improving the overall experience.
The story is passable as it’s rather predictable but at least many of the characters are given time to develop and there appears to be a much richer world behind everything than previous Spiders’ games had. Even with that said though there were a good number of characters I was just straight up not interested in talking to, including 2 of the companions that are introduced much later in the game and as such feel like strangers in your tightly knit crew. I will admit that I played for much, much longer than I would have otherwise just because I wanted to see how everything panned out but even that became quite the chore towards the end. Overall it’s a vast improvement but there’s still a lot of room to grow here.
After 7 years of not really improving at all it’s heartening to see signs of life from the Spiders team. Whilst Greedfall is certainly still in B-grade territory it’s very, achingly close to tipping over to into A. There’s still tons of room for improvement here and a “less is more” approach could still help immensely in focusing more on what matters to the core game rather than trying to emulate what others deliver in the same kind of experience. Still I hope that the success that Spiders has found with Greedfall either gives them bigger budgets or allows them to attract more top tier talent as it’s clear there’s something going on there, they just need the right guidance and resources to make something truly AAA worthy.
Greedfall is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and XboxOne right now for $69.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 22 hours play time and 51% of the achievements unlocked.
Sekiro rattled me a little bit, making me wonder if I was no longer “gud” enough to play these soulslike games anymore. Part of it is definitely time, I have a lot less of that to dedicate to challenging titles ever since I became a dad, but there’s always that lingering thing in the back of my head that’s telling me father time is catching up to me. So when I saw The Surge 2 appear on Steam I was conflicted, knowing that if I didn’t smash this one then it could be the beginning of the end for me with this genre. I’m happy to report that my fears were just that and I quickly found myself thoroughly enjoying the soulslike experience that Deck13 has built with this franchise. It’s still got some very rough edges however but if you can get past them what lies beneath is a pretty great game, one that’s definitely found a comfortable niche for itself.
Taking place right after the events of the original game The Surge 2 puts you on a plane that was enroute to Jericho city at the time of the rocket launch. Unfortunately your plane is struck by the rocket after it launched, sending it careening down on the outskirts of the city. You somehow manage to survive and are evacuated to a nearby medical facility. Months later you awaken to visions of a young girl speaking to you, calling her your warrior. You quickly find out that you’ve been put in a prison medical facility and it’s been thrown into disarray as a nanite infused beast tears through it, killing anyone in its path. With little more than a hospital gown and the remnants of your restraints for weapons you set out to find out why you’ve been imprisoned and what the hell has happened to Jericho city.
Deck13 has mentioned that there has been a lot of improvements made to the FLEDGE engine in order to support the larger, more open world of The Surge 2. For many that’s meant a marked decrease in performance, myself included. Indeed to start off with the game was aggressively down-resing, so much so that it was rendering in what I can only assume was 640 x 480. Fixing that made the game a lot more legible but it quickly became apparent that my rig wasn’t really up to the task. The first performance patch and a driver update addressed it somewhat, but it’s still clear that whatever is going on under the hood is either poorly optimised or requires a ton more grunt than my near 5 year old rig can provide. It’s somewhat of a shame given that The Surge 2 doesn’t look much better than its predecessor and that ran perfectly fine. Perhaps the improvements Deck13 made become more apparent at higher resolutions, something that only a really modern PC is going to be able to provide.
The Surge 2 is an evolution of its predecessor, streamlining the experience considerably whilst leaving the core game loop mostly intact. The same soulslike combat experience is back again, requiring you to learn the movesets of your enemies so you can pummel them down and lop off their limbs. Tech scrap is still the currency and main source of progression, levelling up your core power that will enable you to use better armour and mods. The drone is now more of a standalone mechanic in its own right, no longer using energy and instead having its own ammo and differing mods that provide a whole range of different combat options. What’s really changed however is the inclusion of the online social interactions that the Dark Souls series has become famous for, allowing for a limited set of interaction with other players by leaving messages and playing an interesting version of hide and seek. The world is also much more open than it used to be with a lot more options for exploration and a truckload more sidequests for you to tackle if you want. The improvements are very much welcome, even if the game still has a little ways to go if it’s ever going to be considered to be in the same league as the games that inspired it.
Combat retains the same structure as the original with you focusing on a particular body part to wail on (either for damage or to cut off to get their armour or crafting mats). It didn’t take long for me to get back into the swing of things although there was a good 5+ hours there where things were definitely a bit of a struggle. Part of this is due to the lack of options you have at that early stage of the game, limiting your ability to craft a build specifically designed to counter the challenges you’re facing. However this is a game where certain weapons, armour and mods are simply straight up better than others and as you progress through the game it becomes possible to construct a build that renders you untouchable within certain limits.
The sharp difficulty jumps are still here, although they were a non-issue for about 60% of the game after I settled on a build that seemed to be able to deal with pretty much anything that came my way. My weapon of choice was the double-duty style, specifically the spark disciple one that did added electric damage. It was possible to blow all my stamina on attacks before they had a chance to fight back and, most of the time, would net me a stun so I could then take a beat and begin it all again. To be sure there are some enemies where this was a sub-optimal strategy, especially those that couldn’t be staggered for whatever reason, but with the amount of energy that my build would generate I never had an issue out healing them before I could get a stun off and then finish them. Later on the only mods I made to the build was to swap out the electric weapon for a nano one when enemies were immune to electric damage.
Bosses were, of course, a different beast entirely as most of them would require their own unique build in order to get past them. Mostly that was to make up for whatever weakness I had in my playstyle that the boss was able to exploit, like my penchant for dodging over blocking or the lack of a particular resistance. There were a couple where I could just go ham on them with my default build and, shockingly, was able to one shot a couple of them without too much difficulty. The harder bosses though often challenged me to change up my playstyle a bit in order to be able to get through them, like the Delver which is an absolute nightmare to get past if you don’t know how to counter block correctly. I didn’t try any of the drone focused builds although I can’t say I wasn’t tempted for a few of them as being able to rain down hell ala Remnant: From the Ashes style was quite appealing.
The progression system feeds you a steady stream of upgrades to keep you going and is thankfully well designed enough so you don’t feel completely locked into the one build you’ve optimised everything for. Scrap is easy enough to come by, especially if you’ve got a solid route to run that allows you to execute a number of enemies along the way (which increases your multiplier for tech scrap generation). At the start you’ll most likely want to be dumping your scrap into your core over upgrading your gear as later sets of gear have a large core power requirement that you won’t be able to meet. Later on it’s all about upgrading your preferred set to the maximum whilst keeping an alternate set of gear at a similar level should you find the need to switch. That being said though crafting and upgrading is pretty cheap so if you find yourself needing or wanting another gear set it’s usually not going to take you that long to get it.
The new social system is good although it does seem to take out a massive part of the game’s challenge when everyone and his dog is putting up graffiti that points towards all the secrets that the devs have tried to hide. Sure you could still try to troll with them but given there’s a rating system for them it seems like all the troll ones have long since disappeared and the only ones left are the beneficial ones. I did quite enjoy the hide and seek mini game though as it was always fun to try and find places that players wouldn’t be able to figure out or those that others simply wouldn’t be able to get to. The tech scrap you get from that early on is a real lifesaver to, often netting you a free level.
Most of the issues of the past have been dealt with although a trove of new ones have sailed in to take their place. Alongside the graphics performance issues I also got some strange glitching that would often occur at game start and, every so often, in the game itself. It was obvious the game was running in the background but the game itself didn’t render correctly at all. The UI still worked and changing the resolution seemed to fix it. The game also crashed numerous times, sometimes for no reason and others for specific encounters with certain enemies. Some of the in-game interactive elements can take a few tries to work properly, making you wonder if you’re actually meant to interact with them at all. Pathing is still an issue, something that’s made all the worse by the more complicated environments. Most of the time it’s just funny but there’s certain times where my character inexplicably pathed off something or enemies got stuck on geometry and couldn’t figure out how to get themselves out of it. Suffice to say I think, given the fact that the series has now firmly established itself as an ongoing concern, Deck13 could spend a little extra time on polishing these various elements so that future instalments in the franchise aren’t so janky.
The Surge 2’s story is pretty straightforward, if a little forgettable and simplistic. Characters from the previous game (including the player’s character) make a return and knowing the previous story does help explain some of the more esoteric elements. However if this is your first foray into the world of The Surge then you’re not going to struggle to understand what’s going on as it’s a largely standalone narrative. The story also wraps everything up pretty nicely with some potential avenues for a sequel that were left there subtly rather than being shouted loudly at the end of the main narrative. The Surge 2 definitely isn’t a game you’d play for the story but it’s at least not a massive detractor from the game.
The Surge 2 is a solid step forward for the franchise, keeping quite a lot the same and refining the rest. The game has now carved out its own little niche in the soulslike genre, extending on the formula and defining its own little tropes. One of those is an unfortunate penchant for a lack of overall polish, resulting in some fundamental issues that Deck13 should have addressed before release. Beyond those issues however lies a game with solid mechanics that will challenge your skills as a player and reward them handsomely. I have no doubt that we’ll soon be seeing another instalment in this franchise and if they can make a similar level of improvements in that as they did here I can see them continuing on for a good long time to come.
The Surge 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $69.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 22 hours play time and 59% of the achievements unlocked.
There are some rules of thumb in game development that can help ensure a studio is successful. The first is once you’ve discovered a successful formula, whether that’s an original title or say a deal with a publisher to make a certain type of game, stick with it and iterate on it. Another is to never build your own engine, lest you spend the majority of your budget developing it and not the game itself. Finally if you’ve got a publisher it’s likely best to stick with them, especially if you’ve had success with them previously. So for Asobo Studios to ignore all those rules in developing A Plague Tale: Innocence many would’ve thought them down right crazy, given the line of successful (albeit not exactly groundbreaking) titles they’d released in the past. The gamble has paid off in spades however as this game stands out as one of the more unique experiences of 2019; bringing together a beautiful world and great storytelling.
Set in 1349 France A Plague Tale: Innocence puts you in control of Amicia de Rune, a young noble in the rural province of Aquitaine. The plague grips the country but has thankfully yet to make its way to your lands. Things take a dark turn when the English Inquisition invades, taking your father hostage and demanding that you hand over your brother. When he refuses the Inquisition brutally murders him and anyone who stands in their way as they search the property for your brother. Your mother urges you to escape and seek out Laurentius, a doctor friend who has been treating your brother for a mysterious illness that has long plagued him. This begins your long and tortuous journey to find out why the Inquisition is after your brother and what they intend to do with him.
Asobo Studio developed their own in-house engine to power A Plague Tale: Innocence and I have to say the results are absolutely stellar. Building an engine capable of graphics like this from the ground up couldn’t have been easy, especially considering that this is also a cross platform release. Suffice to say the screenshots in this review speak for themselves, all of them taken from directly in game. Performance is also rock solid to, even when you have what appears to be thousands of rats on screen at once. The game does demand a bit of your hard disk though, enough that I moved it onto my SSD in order to play it. Still all things considered I’ve seen many more well funded development houses attempt to build engines and get nowhere near as good as what Asobo has put out here so hats off to them.
From a core gameplay perspective A Plague Tale: Innocence is a kind of stealth action game, starting off initially as a kind of stealth walking simulator before graduating more into a typical action-oriented game with largely optional stealth elements. Unlike other games which reward you more for taking the harder option (I.E. stealth) this game doesn’t really seem to mind if you go all out against every enemy, save for a few choice voice lines. Indeed the game’s progression system, whilst having a myriad of different options, heavily favours enhancing your combat abilities rather than your stealth. That being said whilst there’s a couple different routes to be taken for each level they are, for the most part, linear experiences that have a distinct right and wrong way of completing them. There are times when you can create some emergent gameplay opportunities but they’re rare and usually ill-advised. Overall it’s not a mechanically deep game but it doesn’t really need to be, the focus much more on the story and its telling.
Combat revolves around Amicia and her sling which is unfathomably accurate and ludicrously deadly. Once your combat abilities are unlocked you can one shot any unhelmeted guard which makes the stealth aspects so much easier. There’s a host of different types of ammunition you’ll be able to craft later on that unlocks the ability to get guards to take off their helmets, sick rats on them and all sorts of other abilities which have both combat and puzzle functions. About two thirds of the way through the game you’ll have all the required ammunition types and enough of them crafted to be able to take out all enemies in a level and, honestly, there’s no reason you shouldn’t. Most games would punish you severely for doing this so it’s pretty refreshing to play a game that has an obvious bent towards stealth but doesn’t really mind if you go on a murderous rampage. I’m not sure if that fits with the theme of the whole game but hey, it was fun.
Upgrades come through crafting, driven by finding various different kinds of materials around the world. Most of the upgrades rely on “blue” materials which aren’t particularly common and are shared with some of the more high end consumables. The game does try to play this off as some kind of a trade off, I.E. if you want to have that consumable (which usually gives you a second life, effectively) you might not have enough for that upgrade you’re lusting after. In my experience though you’re better off not crafting those consumables at all as all the times when you’d end up using them are encounters where you shouldn’t be needing them anyway. Hunting for these materials feels a little hit and miss as quite often most of the upgrade materials are clustered near the workbenches. There are some hidden elsewhere in the world but they’re mostly stuff you’ll already have max of anyway. I don’t think there’s enough materials in the game to upgrade everything but there’s certainly enough to get all the upgrades that matter.
It’s through these upgrades that the game slowly transitions from a game that requires stealth to one where it’s completely optional. Initially you have to be pretty tactical about who you take out and how with your limited ammo supply and the long time it takes to wind up the sling. However after a few choice upgrades you’re basically unstoppable as there’s more than enough ammunition and crafting materials around to keep you fully stocked pretty much all the time. I had figured that there might be some consequence to just taking out everyone I saw but as far as I can tell there wasn’t one. Perhaps it was the Dishonored-esque setting and gameplay setting that was making me feel that way.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is largely bug free and didn’t have any performance issues once I got past the incredibly long load times due to my RAID 10 array playing up. As I mentioned before there are some instances where you can do what appears to be something that wasn’t intended by the developers although most of the time that leads to breaking the encounter completely. The game also doesn’t do a great job of letting you know when you’re attempting something that is 100% impossible, leading to a few instances where you can think you’re doing the right thing and just failing at it when, in actual fact, you’re breaking the encounter completely. Thankfully there aren’t too many of these but there could be a few more dialogue cues or other things that would indicate when you were barking up the wrong tree completely.
The story is one of the stand out features of A Plague Tale: Innocence as it’s all fully voiced (save for a few bits of flavour text here and there) by some great voice actors. It’s somewhat confusing to begin with as the game doesn’t reveal much to you early on, leading to some slow pacing to begin with. However in the last half or so things really start to pick up and it became quite enjoyable to play through. I’m not typically one for period pieces like this but the story gave all the characters enough air time to build them up enough for me to care about them. I might not have come to like Hugo as much as other reviewers did, but I can at least see where they’re coming from.
A Plague Tale: Innocence was a nice surprise, coming out of left field in the middle of a deluge of AAA titles and standing out among them as one of the more well crafted experiences of this year. The graphics are phenomenal, brought to us by an in-house engine that I hope Asobo continues to make use of for future titles. The gameplay is an eclectic and evolving beast, one that transitions from a kind of stealth walking simulator to an almost full action RPG by the end. The story brings everything together, starting off slow but building up to a great ending that wraps everything up without committing the cardinal sin of teasing a sequel. There’s a few rough edges but nothing that’s beyond patching. So if you’re looking for a narrative focused game that doesn’t ask too much from you then A Plague Tale: Innocence could be right up your alley.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 9 hours play time and 57% of the achievements unlocked.
Dontnod almost didn’t make it to where it is today. Whilst I quite enjoyed their first game, Remember me, the wider gaming community wasn’t as enthused. To be sure it sold well enough, some 2 million copies or so, but it was Life is Strange that brought them the commercial and critical success they needed to survive. Not one to rest on the laurels it seems they quickly got to work on Vampyr with many of the Life is Strange team moving across to work on their next major title. It’s most certainly an aspirational title for them, yearning to be included alongside other RPG greats like the titles from BioWare, Bethesda and CD Projekt Red. However much like other developers with such aspirations (I’m looking at you Spiders) Vampyr falls short, including too much of some things and not enough of others.
The Spanish Flu grips London, striking down even the strongest in mere days and forcing much of the city into quarantine. You are Dr. Jonathan Reid, recently returned from the front lines of the war to help London overcome this gripping epidemic. However before you can make it all the way home you’re murdered by an unforeseen foe, only to rise once again stricken with an insatiable lust for blood. You are so blind with bloodlust that you don’t notice you first victim is your sister who came looking for you after you didn’t return home on time. After being chased through the streets of London by vampire hunters who saw your first feed you stumble into a local bar and try to make sense of what has happened to you.
Vampyr’s development began just after the release of current generation consoles so it surprises me that it looks as dated as it does. The Unreal 4 engine that powers it is capable of some quite impressive visuals (Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and LawBreakers are two recent examples) so it’s most certainly not a failing of the platform. My best guess is that it was a deliberate choice due to budget constraints with much of their resources spent on other aspects of the game. Honestly if it was from some small time indie studio or a Kickstarted game I’d understand but Dontnod has 10 years of experience in the industry. Heck even Remember Me looks better than this and that game is 5 years old at this point. The upside of this is that it’ll likely run like it was a game from that long ago, giving some reprieve to those who’ve put off buying a new graphics card for the last few years.
Mechanically Vampyr is an action-RPG with a heavy focus on dialogue, both in terms of narrative as well as a core part of the game play. There’s all the usual trappings you’d expect in a modern action-RPG: levels, talent trees, crafting, items and a combat system that took some inspiration from the Dark Souls games. The levelling system isn’t a straightforward kill things/get XP/get levels deal however (although that is part of it) as to make any meaningful progress you’ll have to feed on people, all of which play a part in the story. This ties into the game’s larger emphasis on player choice, giving you a lot of control in how the larger story plays out. Indeed this appears to be where Dontnod spent the vast majority of their resources in building Vampyr as the game can play out vastly differently depending on what you do and what you don’t.
Combat is a little unpolished, suffering from many of the same issues that other games have when trying to replicate a Dark Souls-lite type experience. It’s set up much how you’d expect, with your main combat resources being stamina and blood (to power your abilities). Enemies telegraph their moves pretty openly although their movesets are much more random than I’d ever encountered in a Souls game. The hitboxes act a bit weird at times, with hits that shouldn’t have connected managing to land and vice versa. Locking onto enemies is a bit of a mixed bag too as it seems to limit your movement options somewhat, making dodging a lot harder than it should be. The jumps in difficulty are also area dependent and not at all smooth so you’ll likely find yourself going from competent to struggling at the drop of a hat.
All of this is a bit of a shame as when you’re extremely overpowered the game actually becomes quite fun, allowing you to run through areas without a care to who might be in your way. Whilst I understand that the game wants to make the choice of levelling up impactful (I.E. you can only be that powerful at the cost of others) if you, like me, didn’t enjoy the large amount of dialogue that the game throws at you then it’ll be hard to find a lot of enjoyment in Vampyr. Indeed this is one of the few games where I felt like the heavy amount of dialogue was getting in the way of the larger game; bogging me down in meaningless interactions that didn’t add much to the overall story.
This is probably my biggest gripe with the game as it takes quite a long time to churn through all the dialogue options with all the characters. Indeed past the first 2 chapters I simply stopped bothering with the majority of it. Sure, I probably missed out on some quests and some other bits and pieces, but honestly finding all the clues to unlock all the dialogue options just didn’t feel worth it. I mean it’s great that they endeavoured to give nearly everyone in the game a backstory but most of them only exist within the confines of the area you find them in. Only the campaign missions seem to build the story in any meaningful way, the others are just there as flavour text. I’m sure there’s probably 40 or 50 hours worth of game in here but honestly I would’ve preferred a solid 15 with better mechanics, tighter story and maybe a little more time spent on the visuals.
The other parts of Vampyr are similar to the combat in their implementations: rudimentary implementations of otherwise good ideas. None of the choices in the talent tree will impact the game in a major way (I.E. no abilities will unlock otherwise hidden parts of the map, say) but there are some cool things in there. I ended up with a simple build relying on the blood spear and the shadow ultimate as Vampyr tended to only throw a few enemies at me at any one time. My weapons were focused similarly, using a hacksaw for my main and alternating between the blood knife and stun focused gun for my offhand. Given the steep cost for levelling abilities there wasn’t much room for experimentation unfortunately. That is unless you decided to go on a mass murdering spree.
Which I did once, after I was able to clean out the hospital when my mesmerise level was high enough. That bumped me up around 12 levels in one sitting and was enough to ensure that I didn’t need to do it again for the rest of the game. However whilst there weren’t any direct consequences in the game doing so meant I was locked out of all but one of the endings, something I wasn’t aware would happen until right at the end of the game. Now the game does mention that it’s up to you to choose how difficult the game will be, indicating that feeding on London’s residents will lead to very bad things, however in the grand scheme of things I didn’t chow down on that many people. To be sure I devastated the hospital but the rest of London was untouched and that gave me the absolute worst ending in the game (although, to be honest, I liked it). Reading more into it you have to be very strict with your feedings to get the other 2 endings and the “best” one can only be obtained without feeding at all. The latter is especially devious given the game essentially guides you into feeding on the first one, making it look like a tutorial rather than an actual choice.
Credits where credit is due though the amount of effort put into crafting the story elements is quite phenomenal. Should you want to dive deep into this world and its inhabitants you can, even going as far to have some modicum of influence over it should you want. Although it’s not always exactly clear what your decision will lead to and often you won’t find out that until it’s far too late to undo it. I didn’t mind that so much as it meant that some of the throwaway choices I made did come back to bite me in some of the most interesting ways. It’s reminiscent of older BioWare games in that way with dialogue being the main mechanic by which the game revealed itself to you.
Unfortunately I found it quite hard to engage with the overall story for a number of reasons. The greater story moves far too slow at the beginning with the major questions getting basically no air time until the final couple hours. I couldn’t really empathise with the main character at all and the fact that all the NPCs would spew forth their life story at the drop of the hat just didn’t feel that believable. Towards the end I simply ignored all the ancillary dialogue and quests and, honestly, the game started to feel a lot better. Perhaps my completionist tendencies worked against me in this instance, my want to min max everything I could being at odds with my actual enjoyment of this game. I will never know but if you, dear reader, find yourself in much the same position hopefully that may help you.
Vampyr is an aspirational title from Dontnod and, unfortunately, it didn’t pay of well for this time around. Released some years ago it may have found itself among good company but in today’s market it feels two steps behind the norm. The graphics, combat and other mechanics are all simplistic in their implementation with the vast amount of effort spent on the dialogue and interaction with NPCs. It strives to be among games from the RPG greats but fails to do so, maybe not as badly as others have, but still fails nonetheless. I honestly had zero expectations going into Vampyr (only finding out it was made by Dontnod after I bought it) and have come away from it wanting more. I applaud Dontnod for experimenting as much as they have but, perhaps, in future they could limit their vision a little bit in order to make a stronger overall game.
Vampyr is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $49.99. Game was played on the PC with 17 hours of total play time and 71% of the achievements unlocked.
I’d still consider myself something of a newcomer to Souls-like games, having played a grand total of 2 of them so far. It’s a style of game that, once I’m in the thick of it, I really quite enjoy but there’s a lot of mental inertia to get over before I’ll have the courage to spin them up. So when I saw The Surge pop up (both on Completionist and through Steam directly) I kept a wary eye on it for a couple weeks before I bought it. Then, the second I spin it up, I get a message from one of my friends informing me that it was far more punishing than any of the recent souls games had been. Overall I don’t think he’s wrong in that assessment although the reasons for that aren’t so much to do with the challenge itself, more from the rough edges which could do with a little more polish.
It’s the far off future and the world is in a state of ecological peril. Because of this the world economy is shattered and numerous nation states have fallen. There is one company, CREO, who is working to right his wrong by launching numerous satellites to begin rebuilding the atmosphere. You’re just an average Joe who’s been fortunate enough to land a job with them and, as part of it, you’ll be granted an exo-rig that will grant you the ability to walk again. During the installation process however something goes horribly wrong and you aren’t sedated while it’s attached to your body. Passing out from the pain you awake in what looks like a scrap yard, surrounded by people who look just like you but without their exo-rigs. What follows is your journey to discover what happened and what it means for the world.
The Surge uses Deck13’s custom, in-house engine called FLEDGE. Details are somewhat scant on what its capabilities are but this isn’t the first game that Deck13 has released using it. From the screenshots you can see that it’s definitely in-line with what we’ve come to expect from current gen games with things like dynamic lighting and realistic shadows. Some areas don’t seem as polished however with physics based objects having severe limitations in computation, often only reacting once to input before freezing in place (this is most noticeable when you break crates, for example). Additionally whilst the game has a decent amount of detail, especially when you’re in larger environments, that disappears quickly when you get up close. Overall The Surge does well visually but there’s definitely room from improvement on the in-house engine.
Mechanically The Surge is very much a souls inspired game, taking much of the core mechanics and translating them for its sci-fi setting. Combat is the same kind of punishing, reaction based affair that we’ve all come to hate/love, pitting you against the hardest opponent possible (yourself). The levels are laid out in much the same way as well, being relatively small in the grand scheme of things but feeling much larger due to their labyrinth like layouts. The currency of choice is “tech scrap” which is the same as souls/blood echoes, dropping from defeated enemies and found in clumps lying around. The Surge’s claim to fame is its unique upgrade system which is centred on crafting and upgrading various parts of rig using the same parts gathered from enemies. This has an interesting impact on combat, making you choose between dispatching enemies quickly vs getting the materials you’ll need for an upgrade. The mod system, which is somewhat akin to talent points (although they’re infinitely swappable), allows you to further customise your character by giving you various choices such as healing items, damage boosts and other improvements which can help refine your character. Honestly I was expecting this to be a kind of cheap Dark Souls clone (partly due to Focus Home Interactive publishing it) but it’s a fully fledged game in its own right.
Combat is punishing, frustrating and rewarding; all those things that you’ve come to expect from titles in this genre. If you’ve developed habits from other souls games they won’t help you here as the movesets are nothing like them at all, although you will be more aware of when an enemy might not be finished attacking. The extra layer that The Surge brings is in the form of being able to target various body parts, allowing you to go for more vulnerable areas that are highlighted in blue. As you attack you’ll build up energy which can be used for various abilities of which there are 2 innate ones (execution and drone) and a myriad of others. Choosing to execute will, if you selected a body part, have a chance to lop that bit off so you can pick it up and use it in crafting. However, and this is a key point that the game does not make clear, if you are after crafting materials the part you’re targeting must be armoured. Whilst you can retarget mid-fight to get damage in first and then change to your chop target your chances are far higher to successfully harvest a part if you wail on it first. For the most part it’s worth just going for the unarmoured part and using your energy for healing or other abilities, only going for armoured bits when you know what you need to farm.
Which brings me to The Surge’s progression mechanisms which, at a base level, are similar to the souls games. You gather tech scrap and can use that to level your core power. Whilst there are no stats to level up each time you will need a certain amount of core power to be able to use upgraded armour and mods (some of which scale with core power). In order to get those upgrades you’ll have to lop parts off enemies (1 time each of head, leg, weapon arm, other arm and chest) which will unlock the blueprint for you to craft it back at your safe house. You’ll also level up your weapon proficiency as you battle enemies, meaning that whilst you can use any weapon you pick up it will take some investment to make them worth while. The weapons also have a bunch of stats on them but they’re much more straightforward in terms of which one will be best for your particular play style or combat situation. So whilst the system might not be as deep or esoteric as the souls system it still offers an immense amount of customisation, something which you’ll need to make good use of unless you enjoy butting your head against a brick wall constantly.
One non-technical issue that The Surge struggles with is smooth changes in difficulty from section to section. Quite often I’d go from being comfortable in battling enemies in one section to being one shot by anything in another. Unlike other souls games, where the delineation between areas can be somewhat vague and so it’s hard to judge challenge between sections, The Surge has definitive sections marked by you using a train to travel between them. Thus it’s easy to see when the difficulty level has been ratcheted up a notch or two. Most of the time this meant struggling through the first section to unlock a shortcut before spending a bit of time farming up to get the next round of upgrades before continuing on, something which the game makes rather easy to do. Thinking about it more this could be a design decision, forcing you to upgrade before you can progress, but it could definitely have been done in a smoother fashion.
From a technical standpoint The Surge is fairly well polished, running both smoothly and at a consistent rate on my (admittedly overkill) rig. However the camera system needs some hefty work as it has a tendency to get confused, especially during high action. There were numerous times when the camera would pan to a view where my character simply wasn’t visible, often leading to a swift death as I try to right it and run away. This is not to mention that it’s quite clear that the AI is using my inputs to change it’s actions a couple frames ahead of me, like when enemies can turn around and attack you before they see you when you sneak up behind them. Once you know this you can adjust for it, baiting the enemies into actions that you’re not going to follow through on, but it can be a real pain in the ass when it uses that advanced information against you to say, interrupt a combo or prevent an execution. There’s also some pathing issues that can occur both with your character and with the NPCs, although they’re relatively small in the grand scheme of things. These are issues that I believe are solvable and would hope that Deck13 tackles them in a future patch.
Thankfully unlike other souls games The Surge doesn’t hide the best bits of its story in vague passages hidden away in the hardest to find secrets. Most of the story progression comes through interaction with other characters, listening to audio logs and reading small tid bits of information on a few consoles. The story builds up well, feeding you small bits of information which start to come together about halfway through the game. After then the various parts of the world start getting explained more explicitly and you uncover just what is happening and what your part to play in it is. The ultimate conclusion is a little unsatisfying, mostly because it leaves things wide open for interpretation. Even the choice of endings doesn’t appear to change much although there’s the possibility that it might have some impact on a sequel. Overall I’d say the story was above average and was definitely one of the aspects of The Surge that I enjoyed.
On first look The Surge might seem like a pale imitation of the games that inspired it but it becomes much more than that upon actually playing it. Sure the combat system is fundamentally a carbon copy but the additions make it different enough that I still found it enjoyable. Progression again is largely the same with the deviants being interesting and providing a solid mechanic to build up your character from nothing to someone who takes all comers. The overall experience could do with some polish such as upgrading various parts of the engine, reworking the camera code and changing some of the AI’s behaviour to be a little more fair (but still as punishing). The story is solid and well executed even if the ultimate conclusion could have been done better. For what its worth The Surge surprised me and whilst I might not yet be a souls veteran I definitely think fans of this genre could find a lot to like in it.
The Surge is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $49.99. Game was played on the PC with 21 hours of total playtime and 49% of the achievements unlocked.
There are some games I play for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes it’s to reaffirm certain biases (although there have been titles that have changed my mind) but other times I just want to play something horrendous to remind me of how good some games are. Here enters the developer Spiders, a French developer who routinely puts out B-grade games that always aspire well beyond their station. Their two previous titles, Bound By Flame and Mars: War Logs, both tried ever so hard but failed in almost every account. The Technomancer, set in the same universe as Mars: War Logs, again aspires to be an AAA title but fails in such a delightfully horrible way.
You are Zachariah Mancer, a young cadet aspiring to join the ranks of your fellow Technomancers. Your quest begins as you are initiated fully into the rank of lieutenant by journeying to an old settlement dome with your master, Sean. There you learn of the secret that Technomancers have kept ever since their founding: your powers are born out of genetic engineering that caused mutations in your body. Such a secret would see all the Technomancers enslaved like the rest of the mutants are and you are sworn to keep the secret. However one colonels obssesion with learning the secret forces your hand, pitting you against the very corporation that has been your home since birth.
The Technomancer’s graphics are a generation behind in most aspects, lacking any of the graphical enhancements that many games of this generation now have as standard. The environments have a decent amount of detail in them but it’s all relatively low poly work. The lighting effects help to hide the more egregious faults but they aren’t enough to wash away that previous gen feel. Considering other games that use the same engine (like Unravel) seem to do a lot better in this department it does make you wonder just what modifications Spiders made to the engine and if it was really worth the development time.
The Technomancer is a mostly standard RPG affair; taking inspiration from other, better games in this genre and attempting to make its own special version of it. There’s 3 different fighting styles, each of which roughly equate to something from the RPG holy trinity. Each of them has a talent tree to match with an additional 4th talent tree for your Technomancy (read: electricity) spells. There’s also an additional 2 talent trees which are used for further character customization, focusing on what gear you can use and what ancillary abilities (like crafting) you have. There’s a mediocre crafting system which appears to be half done which coupled with the mediocre loot system makes for a repetitive and lacklustre gearing experience. You can also bring along 2 companions with you as well, each of which will mimic one of your fighting styles. Honestly there’s a surprising amount of stuff in The Technomancer but, unfortunately, that’s probably why it has so many issues.
Combat is unintuitive, confusing and worst of all unreliable. I can’t tell you how many times I’d appear to hit an enemy with my staff only to have it whiff through them completely without a hint of why. No damage meter saying “Miss!” or “Dodged!”, just the sound of my staff sailing through the air like it wasn’t touching anything. The combat is a half hearted attempt at recreating the Dark Souls system but unfortunately fails miserably. It doesn’t help that most of the stats appear to be totally meaningless, like when I had 140% disruption but still wouldn’t disrupt enemies when hitting them. Maybe there’s an explanation somewhere about how these stats work but they’re not explained in the game at all, not even in the stats spreadsheet that lists all these things off. So in the end you’re left to simply flip the coin at most encounters, hoping the RNG swings in you favour this time around.
Loot and crafting are similarly disappointing. The loot you’ll get will be all the same based mostly on which chapter you’re in although it seems that old areas have a high chance of yielding old loot when you revisit them. Strangely it seems like there was supposed to be more variety to this since there are some named items in the game but no where near enough to build a full character out of. Worst of all is the fact that you’ll be flooded with mats, most of which become entirely useless once you move up to the next level of crafting. Previous Spiders games allowed you to combine lower mats into higher ones, and indeed there’s text in the game that implies that this can be done, but there’s no way to do it. This wouldn’t be so bad if the system to sell the mats wasn’t so annoying to use, requiring a single click to increase the quantity you want to sell. This means that if you want to sell 200 mats, you’ll click 200 times.
Questing is also pretty unrewarding with nearly all the quests simply awarding XP and maybe some serum (cash). There are some multi-part quests which span chapters, something which you would think would lead to some awesome quest reward. Unfortunately that never happens which is a real disappointment, especially for the more involved side quests. This wouldn’t be so bad if there were amazing items that you could only buy from vendors but there aren’t and so you’re just left with a pile of serum and nothing else to show for it.
Worst of all is the endless retreading of ground you’ll do throughout the game. Sure you’ll visit new areas as the chapters roll on but the vast majority of the game takes place in the first town, Ophir. This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that enemies will respawn pretty much every time you traverse through there, necessitating a laborious 10 minute trudge to get to where you’re going every time you go there. There’s no fast travel system to speak of either, so once you’ve finished what you needed to do you’ll have to walk (and likely wade through respawned enemies, again) back to your rover to return home. I can understand that creating new levels is one of the most expensive things developers will have to do (something even legendary developer Bioware got raked over the coals for) but setting more than half the game in one area is just…boring.
As always I could forgive the majority of this game’s sins if the story was passable but, frankly, it’s not. Whilst it is interesting to see the world that was set up in Mars: War Logs continued in The Technomancer there’s just not much about it that is captivating. This is probably not helped by the fact the lines are delivered in a flat and lifeless way by pretty much all of the voice actors involved and the poor quality of the lip syncing with the character models.
Realistically all these issues are symptomatic of one thing: trying to do too much with not enough resources. All of the ideas that are implemented in The Technomancer are solid however their execution is sorely lacking. It smacks of a development team that simply didn’t have enough people or time to get the things done that they wanted to. With the average game completion hovering around 26 hours or so they could have easily cut it in half and still had a great length RPG on their hands. Instead however Spiders chose to try and pack as much in as they could and the overall quality of the game suffered as a result. Whilst this should be unsurprising (since this is kind of their thing) if Spiders ever wants to drag themselves out of the B-grade hell they’ve found themselves in they’re going to have to change the way in which they approach building games.
The Technomancer is another unfortunate swing and miss for Spiders, once again aspiring to the greatness that it never achieved. Whilst The Technomancer has all the trappings of an AAA RPG none of them are implemented well or fully, leaving the resulting experience feeling half-baked at best. To be sure though this is Spiders’ best effort to date but the mistakes that they’ve made before still seem to haunt them even to this day. I can really only recommend this if you’re as twisted as me and like playing a train wreck from time to time, just to remind you how good most games are these days.
The Technomancer is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $45, $57 and $57 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 14 hours of total play time and 40% of the achievements unlocked.
The indie dev scene seems to go through periods of obsession with different genres. In the past it was with platform puzzlers as it seemed that every other week brought to me several new titles attempting to put their own twist on the tried and true genre. More recently it seems to have shifted to survival horror as many seek to replicate the success of DayZ. So when Contrast, a platforming/puzzler from Compulsion games, I felt a distinct twinge of nostalgia, harking back to the indie renaissance that was built on games such as this. Like many from that time it’s taken the puzzler/platformer genre and placed its own unique style on top of it resulting in a game that’s quite interesting, even if it has its faults.
It’s not quite clear who, or more importantly what, you are when the game starts but all you know is that only a small girl, Didi, can see you. In fact this bond seems to be somewhat mutual as you can’t see anyone else but her and the shadows of others that are in the room with you. You and Didi seem to share a bond however as she’s always getting into mischief, usually with your assistance, much to the chagrin of her mother. Still, Didi’s mother tries hard to support her, hoping to rise to fame as a wonderful singer and actress. Everything starts to change when Didi’s deadbeat father comes back into the picture, promising to make everything right.
The art style of Contrast feels like you’re in the mind of a child with many typical elements, such as houses, having a very whimsical nature to them. It’s all heavily inspired by the art deco movement of the 1930s and 40s with many of the environments having a really distinct BioShock-esque feel to them. They do feel a little dead and empty however which I do believe was done deliberately however it means you feel compelled to not stay in one area for too long, even though the game tries to encourage you to explore. Potentially this could have been solved by adding in more light sources that had shadows walking past it which wouldn’t seem out of place and would make everything feel a little more alive.
As I alluded to earlier Contrast is a platform/puzzler that has an unique mechanic to spice things up a bit. The puzzles are all fairly basic in nature, usually consisting of getting yourself from one place to another or moving an item into another spot that’s not exactly obvious when you first start out. Contrast’s twist however is that when a wall is lit up you can “shift” into it, becoming a 2D shadow on the wall that allows you to move in ways that would be impossible otherwise. This leads to some rather intriguing puzzles where you’re always looking for where the source of light is and how the shadows you can create will help or hinder you in your goal.
There’s also a set of collectables called “Luminaries” which are hidden in various locations throughout the game. They function as an exploration mechanic as well as a kind of in-game currency to progress past certain obstacles. Their presence isn’t fully explained however, although Didi is aware of them for some reason, so the motivation to collect them really only comes about if you’re a natural explorer or you happen to see one that isn’t far out of your reach. Indeed there was only once when I didn’t have the required luminaries on me to immediately continue a puzzle and then it took me less than a couple minutes to find the requisite number.
Unfortunately whilst this mechanic is indeed novel it suffers heavily from glitchy behaviour. True flat surfaces with light projected onto them appear to work quite well however anything with a ridge or a bump in it, like the numerous columns that dot the landscape, have a tendency to shift you back out of the shadow plane. It’s hard to tell if this is expected behaviour or not as you can walk through them, some times, and you can also blast past them again only randomly. The shadow detection itself can also get a bit buggy as Dawn’s hitbox appears to be significantly bigger than the character model, leading to some puzzles either being more complicated than they need to be or being trivialized.
Indeed there were quite a few puzzles where I figured I’d be restarting from the checkpoint again only to find myself standing on air next to the ledge I was trying to jump onto. Whilst I was somewhat appreciative of this at the time it does mean that the game doesn’t function as you’d expect leading to some rather undesirable behaviour. Worst still there are many places where you can find yourself caught in the environment for some inexplicable reason and while I never had to reload to get unstuck it certainly didn’t endear the game to me when it happened.
Contrast’s story, whilst clichéd, does help to smooth over some of the more rough edges of the game. The majority of the voice actors are great with the notable exception of Didi who’s lines seem to be heavily disjointed between sentences. The music is quite good, suiting the art deco environment aptly. Whilst it might not have the depth of other indie titles it certainly has a little bit of charm to it with everyone being able to identify with the idea of giving someone a second chance.
Contrast is a unique concept, filled with brilliant ideas that are unfortunately hindered by a less than ideal execution. The story, music and scenery are all above average, crafting a whimsical art deco world that’s incredibly delightful. However the core game mechanics suffer from inconsistent behaviour and glitchy collision detection turning the otherwise novel idea of moving through shadows into a laborious experience. Lovers of indie puzzlers will find a lot to enjoy in Contrast however I think that’s the limit of its appeal, at least in its current state.
Contrast is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4 and Xbox360 right now for $14.99, $14.99, $21.49 and $14.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 3 hours of total play time and 68% of the achievements unlocked.