My history with fighting games runs long and deep. Street Fighter 2: Turbo was my introduction to the scene with my brother and my local friends often battling it out for hours on end. The obsession continued through multiple console generations and titles like Tekken and Soul Calibur. It’s always been a genre that has only ever done well with local multiplayer, the few forays I’ve had into online fighting games stymied by lag (a sin in a frame perfect world). So when I saw For Honor, a fighting game/hack and slash hybrid, I was instantly intrigued. However the execution has unfortunately brought back some bad memories whilst cementing a few not-so-great ones.
For ages the world of man has been at war, spurred on by the upheaval of the world that came without warning. But the world has always searched for peace and for a time it has come. However there are those who seek to return the world to war; to find the strongest to rule over the weak. You are but a pawn in this war, ordered to do the bidding of Apollyon: the one who seeks nothing more than eternal conflict. Are you a sheep who awaits their slaughter? Or will you rise as a wolf among those sheep and feast upon those who fall to your blade.
For Honor is a spectacular looking game, one that’s sure to make good use of all the horsepower available to it. This comes to us care of the AnvilNext 2.0 engine which has powered the last 2 Assassin’s Creeds, Steep and Rainbow Six Siege. All the modern trimmings like physically based rendering, proper global illumination and realistic cloth and weather systems are all present and very noticeable. It’s one of the few games which, at least on my system, looks far better in the cut scenes that aren’t pre-rendered. If you’re playing on PC it’s probably worth tweaking a few settings as the selected defaults are a little weird, like turning v-sync on by default (a sin for us G-Sync/FreeSync users). It also manages to maintain fairly consistent performance even when there’s a lot going on, something which is unfortunately rare these days.
The combination of a fighting game with a hack and slash is For Honor’s selling point; an attempt to recreate the kind of epic knightly battles we’re all used to seeing in movies. How it works in practice is thus: you’re on a battlefield with other players (and AI, if you’re playing a mode with them) and when you and another player lock eyes with each other you go into fighting mode. After that point it’s quite like a traditional fighting game with all the combos, blocks and parries that fighting game veterans will be familiar with. Of course if you’re playing with more than one other player there’s every chance you’ll be ganged up on (or be doing that yourself to others) which changes the fighting dynamics considerably. Outside of that part of the game you’ll likely be running around slaughtering the AI whilst capping points. There’s 12 classes to choose from and as you play through the game you’ll unlock new abilities and loot to customise both your looks and stats. It’s a lot to take in at first look but the mandatory tutorials ensure that you’ll have a firm grounding before you’re thrown into the mix with other players.
The online combat however unfortunately suffers from what all online fighting games have: lag. For Honor is probably the only game that I know of that utilises a peer to peer netcode that also includes each player running their own simulation. What this means is that, instead of one player keeping the game state consistent (which can give rise to the “host advantage” issue) each and every player is calculating the game state. When you’re playing this means that your ping is different to each and every player on the battle field, leading to rather inconsistent results. Moves that would appear to work perfectly on one player will seemingly fail to work on others, some players will glitch around whilst others don’t and, worst of all, one person desynching can end up completely trashing the entire game state and killing the game (I had this happen no less than 3 times).
Part of this is due to the matchmaking which seemingly struggles to find a game even at the busiest periods of the day. Even during “very high activity” periods, as identified by the game itself, it would still have to look at all regions and all player skill levels to find me a game. Undoubtedly this has led to me being matched with people who have pings in the hundreds of milliseconds to me which means we’re dozens of frames apart from each other. It might not sound like much but it can be the difference between being able to parry attacks and getting hit every single time. This lacklustre matchmaking meant that no two games played out the same way, each of them having some kind of annoying lag or netcode related glitch that impacted on game play.
The UI, which was obviously designed with consoles in mind, also needs some love in order for it to be usable. Menu items appear to defy common conventions for where they should be with numerous things stashed under Social or Multiplayer for inexplicable reasons. Further to this the party system, whilst allowing you to send invites in game, requires you to Shift + F2 to accept an invite through Uplay instead. I wouldn’t even bother mentioning a minor annoyance like that if it wasn’t for the fact that the parties also seem to randomly drop players whenever the game feels like it. Honestly for a game that had a relatively long closed beta, as well as a shorter open beta, I would have expected teething issues like this to be sorted already.
The loot system teeters on the edge of being pay to win with obvious gaps between players who’ve dumped cash on it and those who haven’t. Whilst it’s tempered by the fact that all loot is a trade off some are far, far better trade offs than others. This means that, when you’re not matched against similarly geared players, it’s an order of magnitude harder to win than it is otherwise. If you’re skilled enough sure, you can still beat them, but if they’re even mildly co-ordinated there’s really no point in sticking around. Indeed since there’s no penalty for leaving games you should do exactly that if winning is a distant possibility.
The amount of effort put into the single player is surprising, given that much of the game’s marketing focused on the online multi aspect. Unfortunately it’s not particularly engaging as fighting AIs are either outright cheaters or a push over. The story is also somewhat confused, seemingly searching for a reason to match up all the various factions against each other at least once and to demonstrate all the multiplayer maps. Personally if they had gone multi-only I don’t think I would’ve missed the campaign as it felt like a chore more than anything else. After I got bored of playing on hard I dropped it down to easy hoping that would improve things (being an unstoppable killing machine can be fun, for a while) but even that couldn’t slake my boredom.
Despite all this I do appreciate what Ubisoft Montreal tried to accomplish here. It’s rare these days that a game can be truly unique and For Honor, for all its faults, really is a new kind of game. There are some issues that could be fixed easily enough, like the UI and loot system, but further fundamental improvements likely aren’t possible. Fighting games and online play have always had a troubled past and Ubisoft’s attempt at fixing it simply doesn’t work as intended. I honestly don’t know how you’d go about making this work either but there has to be a solution that doesn’t lead to the consistently inconsistent experience that I had whilst playing For Honor. Hopefully Ubisoft sells enough copies this time that they can revisit the IP, potentially with a new idea for improving the netcode in hand.
For Honor is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 13 hours of total play time and 78% of the achievements unlocked.
Flying Wild Hog’s successful reboot of Shadow Warrior three years ago was a boon for the fledgling development studio. Their initial title, Hard Reset, was a good but not great release, one that failed to attract mainstream attention but was successful enough to ensure the studio could carry on. Shadow Warrior did a good job of revitalising the IP for a new generation, capturing that same 90s feel whilst bringing some fresh ideas and experiences to the franchise. Shadow Warrior 2 looks to expand upon this idea, again retaining that 90s shooter feel whilst mixing in even more mechanics. The resulting game is far more varied but unfortuantely the veins of nostalgia only run so deep and I think they were bled dry with the last title.
It’s been 5 years since your failed attempts at protecting the world from the Shadow Realm resulted in it colliding with outs. Now humans and demons live side by side, for better and for worse. Lo Wang, after the betrayal of his employer, has escaped to the woodlands far away from the cybernetic metropolis that Zilla has created. To make ends meet he’s been doing jobs for the local Yakuza, using his skills and charm to get by. However when a regular job goes wrong he quickly finds himself caught in a battle between a mad scientist, the demons from the Shadow Realm and a new drug called Shade.
Shadow Warrior 2 uses Flying Wild Hog’s own Roadhog Engine which has seen significant development work between titles. It’s still a step or two behind what I’ve come to expect from the current generation but with the game’s focus on fast paced action the sacrifice is understandable. The environments of Shadow Warrior 2 are far more expansive than its predecessor, often with many more areas to explore and much more detailed environments. The colour palette is also much more varied, the mostly red/orange tones of the predecessor replaced with neon cities, dark jungles and tormented hellscapes. Like it’s predecessor Shadow Warrior 2 isn’t a game that’s meant to be gawked at, you’re meant to use it as a canvas upon which to reap your destruction.
At a core game level Shadow Warrior 2 doesn’t change much from its predecessor. The focus is still on fast paced, gore filled combat with an arsenal of weapons that will fit any occaison. The difference comes from the progression mechanics which are more geared towards an open world, Borderlands-esque system. Now enemies will drop varies bits of loot including weapons, augments and even new skills for Lo Wang to use. You’ll still level up your character by killing enemies and earning karma but now you also have the option of earning skill points through doing missions. The missions come to you via a board which allows you to pick and choose what you do, even allowing you to free roam areas to find secrets, defeat boss for loot or just grind karma to level up. There’s also a crafting system that enables you to improve your upgrades by combining 3 lesser ones together, although that system is a little more hit and miss than I’d like. Overall in terms of scope Shadow Warrior 2 is a much grander game than its predecessor was, one that will certainly appeal to the completionists out there.
Combat retains much of what made the original great: fast paced action, waves of enemies to dispatch and numerous skills with which to deal unending hurt on them. The various weapons and upgrades feel a bit more balanced this time around with the swords no longer being the one and only weapon you should use. Part of this comes from the crafting/upgrade system which limits certain augments to certain kinds of weapons, making some vastly superior for some fights. Shadow Warrior 2 also brings with it an elemental combat system with some (initially, eventually it’s all of them) having elemental resistances and weaknesses. This means you’ll have to swtich between weapons if you want to get anywhere. Other than that though most of the enemies are pretty generic with the good old fashioned circle strafe making short work of them. Not that I was expecting much more from a hack ‘n’ slash game, though.
You’ll progress at an unrelenting pace in Shadow Warrior 2 with all the skill, item and weapon upgrades that get thrown at you. On the one hand it’s great as even a short session means you’ll come away feeling like you’ve accomplished something. On the other though it can be a little overwhelming when you’ve got a massive inventory of upgrades to choose from and you’re trying to figure out which one you should use. Overall I like it and I definitely spent longer playing than I otherwsie would because of it. It could definitely use a little tuning to make it a little more approachable however, given the fact that not all players are obssessive min/maxers like myself. That being said it’d be hard to go really wrong with selecting upgrades and skills and, even if you did, it wouldn’t take long to realise it and rework your build in response.
The crafting system could use a little more polish as whilst it’s a good way to progress (especially when other avenues run dry) it’s far too random for my liking. For instance putting 3 of the same elemental upgrades together typically results in you getting the same element out, but usually with completely different stats than what you put in. Putting in different elements means you’ll randomly get one of the ones you put in and again with random stats. It’d also be good to be able to re-roll one aspect of an upgrade (by paying the requesite cash or whatever) so you could turn your trash high end upgrades into something useable, especially those ones with heavy negative bonuses. I think Flying Wild Hog is on the right track here, it just needs a little more polish before it can become what I think they want it to be.
For the most part Shadow Warrior 2 runs well however there’s one technical and one design issue that I think bears pointing out. Enemies have a terrible habit of leashing and teleporting around, feeling like you’re playing on a laggy server (even though you’re playing locally). This can be quite frustrating when an enemy decides to teleport inside a wall or behind you and then ruins you before you can react. This behaviour was particularly noticeable in the larger environments with multiple levels, something that seemed to confuse the AI to no end. Additionally the game’s difficult goes up in fits and starts, meaning that you can go from feeling like the game is far too easy to punishingly hard in the space of a single mission. This is something of a solved problem these days and, whilst I get that might be part of the appeal of 90s nostalgia titles like this, it doesn’t make for the greatest experience these days.
The story is, as expected, light on with the plot and heavy with the wang jokes. It’s a little more heavy handed than its predecessor was, lacking some of the seriousness and reflection of its predecessor to contrast Wang’s irreverant humour. Not that you’d be playing this for the plot, mind, but the previous instalment did a better job of striking a balance between the two aspects. Indeed the best comedic titles are the one that aren’t all comedy all the time, something which a few developers have forgotten of late (I’m looking at you Gearbox).
Shadow Warrior 2 brings with it the 90s nostalgia that many of us enjoy with numerous modern mechanics that ensure this is much more than a simple re-release. It’s much more broader than its predecessor was, taking on many characteristics of open world titles but on a smaller, more manageable scale. The introduction of multiple progression systems can be a little overwhelming at first but it does mean that you won’t be wanting for skill points or upgrades for long. Combat retains that 90s feel, favouring fast action over realistic encounters. The grander scale brings with it a few issues, both in technical and design terms, but none of these are beyond fixing. Overall, whilst I think Shadow Warrior 2 isn’t as great of a game as its predecessor was, it’s still worth playing.
Shadow Warrior 2 is available on PC right now (with PlayStation 4 and Xbox One coming in Q1 2017) for $39.99. Total play time was 12 hours with 54% of the achievements unlocked.
The number of games I know that have made the transition from a mobile platform to the PC is vanishingly small. Primarily this is due to the limitations of the mobile platform that necessitates simplicity in almost all respects, something that is at odds with the expectations of gamers of other platforms. Some do make the jump, indeed they can even be quite palatable if some effort is given to the transition, however their roots are always indisputable with the trade mark multiplicities baked into the very core of the game. Echo Prime, a new title from Robot Entertainment who are behind the Orcs Must Die! series, is a textbook example of a game with a primary platform in mind that suffers when translated elsewhere.
You’re an elite enforcer on a quest to protect the galaxy from an alien threat. During an engagement with the enemy however your ship becomes damaged and drifts slowly towards a black hole. However this black hole is actually a tear between this universe and the wider multiverse allowing you to establish a link with a race of beings called the Echoes. This link grants you abilities far beyond that of any normal human, enabling you to protect the galaxy from the imminent alien threat. From then on its up to you to fight your way through untold hordes of enemies ranging from robots gone awry all the way up to massive alien commanders, ready to squash you without a second thought.
As is the case with all mobile ports the graphics of Echo Prime are incredibly simplistic, done so that it can run on the widest range of devices possible. There’s no option to crank them up to ridiculous levels on the PC unfortunately, so you just end up with the same thing running at a larger resolution. This means it runs well but honestly there’s rarely enough happening on screen to stress even a decade old PC, even if you try to do something silly like run through the whole level to bunch up all the enemies together (there’s rarely more than 20, total, in a level). This makes it somewhat obvious that the target market was most certainly not the PC and more on the mobile market.
Echo Prime is a hack ‘n’ slash time waster with every level being no longer than a couple minutes long and you never being swamped with more than a handful of enemies at once. There’s 2 basic forms of combat the first being a simple ranged attack that you can spam by holding down. The second is a melee attack that you’ll automatically switch to when enemies are in range. The enemies you’ll face are just about as varied with them being designated as either melee or ranged and acting accordingly. If this isn’t sounding incredibly nuanced to you then you’d be right on the money as it’s catered more towards spamming attacks, either kind will do, than any kind of meaningful strategy.
It became clear early on that the AI in the game is rudimentary, to the point where I’m sure that the path finding algorithm is a straight “walk directly at the player” for 90% of the enemies. Whilst there are some elements of strategy that you can potentially take advantage of (environmental hazards like oil slicks and toxic gas) you likely won’t need them once you figure out that you can shoot nearly every enemy before they get on screen. This is because enemies are placed all over the level before you start and will remain there until their either hit with a projectile or they come within a certain range of you (which, you’ll note, is after you can see them).
This is not to say that playing a true melee character wouldn’t be viable, it certainly is given the fact that melee weapons are usually an order of magnitude more powerful. Consequently if you’re a classical min-maxer like myself you’ll quickly learn that there’s no need to buy any weapon but the very best you can for your level bracket. The first time doing this is a little bit of a struggle (time wise more than anything else) but after that you’re pretty much guaranteed to waste any enemy near you without having to think about it. This means that the challenge of the game is almost non-existent, removing any sense of driving purpose to improve on your character.
I will admit that the Echo system is pretty cool, allowing you to choose from an incredibly massive range of augmentations to spice up the game play. Better still you’re allowed to choose one from another player to use for that campaign, something which can lead to awfully broken builds like my double-double shot build which could spawn upwards of 20 bullets with a single click. This also sends back credits and upgrade points to the people you borrowed them from, encouraging you to upgrade your Echoes fully in order to have them picked before anyone elses. Unfortunately once you find a build you’re comfortable with you’re quite unlikely to stray from it, even if you happen to borrow an Echo that has some cool abilities.
It’s painfully obvious that the whole game is designed for fat fingering on a tablet screen with all the buttons being huge and all the controls having touch centric ideals built into them. This works horribly on PC with the dodge function detecting “swipes” all the time, often leading your character to dive in a direction that you didn’t expect them to. Worse still the large collision radius used for the cursor can mean that you sometimes end up clicking on things that you can’t see, like when you’re clicking on the edge of the screen to move forward. It’s highly frustrating to use and the game’s simplicity is its saving grace in this regard as any kind of twitch reaction is nigh on impossible.
The story is incredibly basic, being told primarily through small chunks of text before the mission begins. It’s little more than a bit of flavour text as it often doesn’t amount to much more than “You need to clear this place out” or “We need to defend this because of X”. Indeed past the initial set up the story seems to be a second thought something which is entirely a symptom of the game’s design to be picked up, played for 5~10 minutes, and then put away. This might be passable on a mobile device but in a PC title it really doesn’t cut it.
Echo Prime is a perfect example of why straight ports of a mobile game are just not compatible with the PC platform. The simplistic graphics, pick up/put down nature and extreme simplicity is perfectly suited to a platform where those things are key but when brought to the PC it just feels cheap. The idea has a lot of potential and I believe that Robot Entertainment could make a great version of it for the PC, however this current incarnation is far from that, showing its mobile roots almost too proudly. For PC gamers I’d rethink buy this on your PC as it’d be much better suited to your phone or gaming tablet.
Echo Prime is available on PC and iOS right now for $9.99 and $5.49 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours total play time and 25% of the achievements unlocked.
Reviving old IPs has proved to be something of a double edged sword. There’s definitely a lot of demand out there as many successful Kickstarter campaigns have shown but the resulting games have always been something of a mixed bag. For the most part the ones that simply try to recreate the old game with modern technology tend to fair worse whilst those that actually attempt a faithful reboot using the world and characters fair a lot better. This was the difference between Rise of the Triad and Tomb Raider for me, although the latter’s budget probably had a lot to do with it. So you can imagine when I saw a Shadow Warrior reboot I was hesistant to try it out for fear that it would have been yet another straight port, even if came with Lo Wang’s signature tongue-in-cheek humour.
You are Lo Wang, general badass and agent to the Zilla corporation, working directly with the company’s head doing whatever is required. Your first mission is simple, offer up $2 million in exchange for a single sword and bring it back. The deal, predictably, goes south and after dispatching numerous guards you find yourself confronted with another foe: demons from the shadow realm. As it turns out that sword you were sent to retrieve was none other than the Nobitsura Kage, an ancient katana which is the only weapon that can destroy beings from the shadow realm. Guided by your new demon friend Hoji you’re sent on a quest to retrieve all the pieces in the hope that you can stop the unrelenting demon invasion. Of course not everything is as it appears and Zilla’s intentions are far from being that of a simple collector.
All aspects of Shadow Warrior have been tuned for fast paced, hack ‘n’ slash combat, including the graphics. If I’m honest they’re at the level I would have expected from a cross platform release however with Shadow Warrior being a PC exclusive that excuse doesn’t hold up unfortunately. It’s not that they’re bad or dated, indeed as some of my selected screenshots will attest to it can be quite pretty at times, but apart from those set pieces it definitely has not been designed for you to gawk at. Combine this with a healthy dose of asset reuse that you’ll see throughout the game (which includes everything from the treasure chests to whole sections of levels) says to me that the graphics weren’t the highest priority but they do serve the purpose well, even if it gets a little samey as the game goes on.
Shadow Warrior is a first person hack ‘n’ slasher, throwing hordes of enemies at you which you can dispatch in numerous ways. Your primary weapon in nearly all of these encounters will be your katana as only it has the clearing power required to churn through enemies fast enough. There’s a ton of other weapons available all of which are made available to you a various sections in the game and you’re not likely to be wanting for ammo thanks to it being strewn everywhere. However chances are if you can get within melee range of your enemies you’ll want to use the katana over everything else thanks to the synergy it has with the other primary combat mechanic: dark powers.
There are 3 separate upgrade systems in Shadow warrior, each having their own unique upgrade currency and all of them affecting different aspects of the game. The primary upgrade system, or at least the one you’ll be using the most often, is the karma system which is levelled up by defeating enemies. Using special abilities and varying your approach will also net you karma bonuses, allowing you to attain upgrades quicker. The skills you get in this tree are augments to your other powers as well as direct stats boosts which can be your saving grace in the middle of a giant firefight. There are also some unique abilities available which can radically change how you play the game although, in all honesty, you’re crazy if you don’t focus everything on the katana and the skills surrounding it, especially the life stealing abilities.
The other 2 upgrade systems focus on dark powers (upgraded through Ki Crystals of which there are usually 1~2 per chapter) and weapons (which use money). The dark powers system feels like an organic progression mechanic more than anything else as the upgrades come regularly and predictably and, past a certain point, don’t heavily influence the game play. Your initial choices will heavily influence your choices down the line however as it’s pretty clear that you can either favor an offensive or defensive style. Weapon upgrades are probably the least influential out of any of them since the katana is just so much more powerful by comparison except when it comes to the boss fights. Thus I usually found myself with a horde of cash up until I got to a point where I felt a certain weapon needed upgrading to help me out. It’s also worth noting that whilst the katana appears in this menu you will never be able to upgrade it using money, so don’t bother waiting for the unlocks to happen.
All of this combines into a combat system that is fast paced and utterly enjoyable. You’ll start off with small engagements with only a handful of enemies but it will slowly ramp up to the point where you won’t be able to remember how many enemies are on the field. Over time new enemies get thrown into the mix, including giant warlords, warlocks that raise the dead and beasts covered in metal that can only be taken from behind (snicker). Unfortunately it does start to wear on you towards the end because the only way the difficulty increases is by adding extra enemies or reducing the amount of space you have to move around in. Additionally a lot of the cool abilities you unlock will simply not work on the higher tier enemies which kind of makes them pointless, making you reliant on the one move which does the most damage.
Despite this the boss fights are probably the strongest aspect of Shadow Warrior as whilst each encounter uses the same mechanic for defeating them (shoot the glowy bits until the fall down then kill the crystal inside) they each have unique abilities and all of them are just epic in scale. They can be a tad frustrating as there are some one hit kill mechanics and the checkpoint system doesn’t always save at critical points but honestly that was only a big issue with one of them. The rest were a hell of a lot of fun as you spam all your weapons at them to bring them down and nothing can beat the exhilaration you get after you’ve spent 30 minutes circle strafing your way to victory.
Shadow Warrior unfortunately suffers from a few notable glitches as well as having some outright game crashes that happen without warning. The screenshot below shows how shurikens will sometimes just float around in space forever. This usually isn’t an issue however I sometimes heard the shuriken noise coming from behind walls which, for a game that uses sound cues for certain things, can be quite distracting. I also experienced game crashes twice which I can directly attribute to some unknown edge case in ability use as they both happened instantly after I used an ability (circle of iron was the last one I could remember and it happened right after I released it). Key press recognition also seems a little flakey when you start to get dozens of enemies on screen which can be a little frustrating when you’re trying to heal yourself or trying to clear a path so you have some breathing room.
Of course it wouldn’t be Shadow Warrior if it didn’t have signature style of humour including numerous Wang jokes as well as other tongue-in-cheek humour. Thankfully, unlike other titles that tried to use similar humour techniques, it doesn’t get overplayed at every opportunity. Sure you’ll hear the same jokes every so often but it at least doesn’t scream “HEY WE’RE FUNNY RIGHT? YEAH WE TOTALLY ARE” desperately, hoping you’ll give them some laughs out of sympathy.
This then flows onto the story which, admittedly, isn’t anything to write home about but surprisingly is far above what I expected. I guess I was somewhat let down by Rise of the Triad (which was more of a direct remake of the original than anything) and thought Shadow Warrior would be the same but it’s so much better. Whilst the shift in tone towards the end comes at the cost of the humour it does help to round out the story well and thankfully avoids the pitfalls of screaming for a sequel. Overall it’s not the dramatic story telling experience that you might expect from some games but then again you’re not playing Shadow Warrior for that, you’re playing it for the fast action and wang jokes.
Shadow Warrior is a shining example of what a reboot can do to an old IP. Instead of trying to recreate the past exactly with modern tools Shadow Warrior is instead a homage to the title of yesteryear, one that takes all the things we loved about it and bundles them up in a completely new game experience. It’s not without its faults, especially with the rudimentary challenge scaling and game crashes, but I’m hopeful that the latter will be fixed in future patches. For me Shadow Warrior is the standard to which I’ll hold future remakes as it’s faithful to the original IP without relying on nostalgia to drive it. Fans of Wang should definitely check this out.
Shadow Warrior is available on PC right now for $39.99. Game was played on the Hard difficulty with 10 hours total playtime and 59% of the achievements unlocked.
There were a lot of games I wanted to check out after doing several tours of the indie area at PAX. Unfortunately most of them aren’t available yet, at least the ones I wanted to play anyway, and so after I got home I did the usual scroll through Steam looking for something that caught my interest for this week’s review. Thankfully the Steam Summer Sale was in full effect and many titles that I had passed over (mostly due to price) were on sale and so I quickly filled my library with several games I had been meaning to play. Dust: An Elysian Tale was one of these titles and I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.
You, playing as Dust, awaken in a meadow in the middle of a forest. You’re then approached by a strange floating sword who calls itself Ahrah, followed closely by a small flying creature called Fidget who claims to be the sword’s guardian. Whilst they don’t provide you any clue as to who you are or how you got to here they direct you to the local town of Aurora in the search for answers. The town is overrun with monsters however and after dealing with them the town’s mayor asks that you track down their leader in order to get the attacks to stop. This begins your journey to find out who you are and what your real purpose is.
The art style of Dust is quite spectacular as it manages to feel like you’re playing inside an epic Disney animated movie. I’ll admit that it was a little off-putting at first, mostly because I felt like it was going to be skewed towards being a kids game, however I found myself becoming more and more impressed with it as I progressed through the game. Mostly this was due to the added environmental effects like snowstorms on high peaks but there were also very atmospheric set pieces like the haunted mansions. Overall though being able to capture that Disney like feeling, both in terms of visual style and storytelling, is something the developer behind Dust should be commended for.
Dust is a 2D hack ‘n’ slash platformer where you’ll be put up against massive hordes of enemies which you’ll be able to dispatch readily. I’m not usually a fan of these kinds of games, I usually get bored with them as the combat starts to feel repetitive, but Dust manages to keep things fresh by gradually introducing new abilities to you as the game progresses. There’s also some rudimentary RPG elements included as you’ll gain experience and levels by defeating enemies and completing quests. There’s also an inventory system, which thankfully needs no management whatsoever, and a crafting system that will allow you to create some of the most powerful gear in the game. All of these elements bind together quite well providing a game experience that’s very different from anything else I’ve played in recent times.
The combat frustrated me at first since the tools I had at my disposal were quite limited. However after the introduction of the Dust Storm ability, essentially projectile based attacks that your companion Fidget shoots which you then amplify, made it far more enjoyable. At the same time though it felt like it trivialized the encounters somewhat, even playing on the Tough difficulty level, although this is countered by the fact that anything can drop your health to almost zero (but not zero if you’re above say 40HP, giving you a chance to heal). In fact you can play Dust as a button masher for the majority of the game, it’s only later when enemies start requiring certain abilities, like parrying or using special abilities to kill them, that some form of strategy starts to enter in the equation.
Although this seems to go to the extreme towards the end of the game where (seemingly) every enemy gets the ability to parry you making continuing combos and using your special abilities (which has an energy bar) very frustrating. Indeed it gets even worse when I started to notice that they could parry whilst seemingly incapacitated and, randomly, my attacks would simply fail to connect with them for no reason in particular. It’s a drastic uptick in challenge, I’ll give them that, however it feels more like a hacked in solution to ramping up the difficulty than anything else. Perhaps utilizing some of the non-combat platforming abilities as augments to the combat would’ve been a better way to do it as there are several of those introduced after you get all your combat abilities.
The platforming is relatively easy as all the jumps you’ll be required to make can be done without the use of your Dust Storm (which allows you to move a little further in the air than you would be able to otherwise) and the use of randomly moving/disappearing platforms is kept at a minimum until towards the end. It’s to your advantage to explore everywhere you possibly can as well since there’s treasure chests and keys scattered everywhere which usually contain a bunch of gold and health items. You’ll be struggling for keys initially as they’re just as hard to find as the chests themselves but I found that towards the end I had more than enough to open every chest I came across, even without purchasing them.
One thing that did irritate me about the platforming in Dust was the fact that early on you’ll be shown areas that look like there’s a route to get to them but you have no way of getting to them. Of course later on in the game you’ll unlock the required ability to traverse the obstacle and, should you want to return to that area, you’ll be able to make your way through there. I really don’t like it when games do this as I’m not someone who likes going back to retrace their steps every time I get a new ability. It just doesn’t feel like progress to me and instead makes me feel like I’m missing out on something whenever I see an obstacle I can’t yet tackle. It might increase the play time for some but, honestly, I don’t believe that most gamers are judging games by the number of hours it takes to complete anymore.
The RPG elements serve their purpose, giving you that lovely thrill of leveling up every so often that brings with it new levels of power. Since you only have control over 4 of your stats, and can only level up one of them at a time, the progress granted to you through levels doesn’t feel anywhere near as impactful as the upgrades you get from gear. I can remember getting a really good piece of armor before I was probably supposed to have it which made me near invincible against the enemies I was facing but up until that point I still felt like a glass cannon in battle. In fact the only upgrades that feel like they’re making any difference are the ones to defense. Even the 2x attack ring I got towards the end seemed to make little difference to the time it took ti dispatch enemies which was a little disappointing.
The crafting however feels rather well done as instead of forcing you to constantly reload sections to farm up the required materials you can instead sell one of them to a vendor who will then proceed to sell them back to you and restock them periodically. This means its advantageous to sell one of your materials to them whenever you pick it up as the vendor will stock up on it over time so when you need it, to craft that amazing item blueprint you just picked up, it’ll be there for you. This was my primary source of items as whilst I got a couple good drops most of them came from crafting and whilst I didn’t manage to catalog all the materials (some of the earlier ones just didn’t drop for me at all) I had more than enough to craft most of the things I wanted to.
I was honestly surprised by the story of Dust as whilst it’s rated at E (Everyone 10+) and starts off with some rather shaky premises the characters undergo some serious development, to the point where you really start to care for them. Dust also pulls no punches when it comes to dealing with real topics like death and betrayal, something that I did not expect given its very Disney like qualities. Dust does lose a little sheen by doing the cliched screaming for a sequel at the end but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to another installment of this game and the stories it contains.
Dust: An Elysian Tale goes down as one of the bigger surprises for me of this year, seamlessly combining beautifully evocative artwork with a hack ‘n; slash 2D RPG. It has its flaws, although they’re surprisingly few for a first time game developer, and could deal with difficulty ramping better. That being said however the issues melt into the background as you blast your way through hordes of enemies and revel in the deep story line. I’d highly recommend a playthrough, especially for those who love the Disney art style.
Dust: An Elysian Tale is available on Xbox and PC right now for $15. Game was played on the PC on the Tough difficulty with 8.6 hours played and 50% of the achievements unlocked.
I was a real late comer to the Trine party, only getting around to playing it early last year after it had been out for almost 2 years prior. Looking back over the review I wonder how much my opinion of the game would have changed had I played it soon after its release as for its time it would have really been quite a stand out title. In 2011, with the indie revolution in full effect, it’s unique take on the platformer genre was probably lost among other titles like Super Meat Boy. Still the game stuck with me and whilst I might be somewhat late to the party again I decided to venture back into the Trine world yet again.
Trine 2 puts you back in familiar territory, starting off with the wizard Amadeus being awoken from his slumber by an unearthly glow coming from his windows. Rushing out to investigate he finds that the glow was coming from the Trine itself, the magical artifact that had bound him in the previous games to Pontius the Knight and Zoya the Thief. Upon reaching the Trine Pontius appears from within the artifact and informs Amadeus that they have to once again save the kingdom from an as of yet unknown threat.
Everything about the look and feel of Trine 2 feels so much more ambitious than its predecessor. Whilst you could chalk much of this up to the 2 and a bit years between releases it still feels like a lot more effort went into the art direction, cinematography and art work. There’s heavy use of advanced lighting effects, depth of field and extensive camera work that I don’t remember being present in the original. The original Trine was colourful and vibrant and Trine 2 builds on that base to create something that, whilst possibly being a bit too colorful in some points (making it hard to determine what’s what on occasion), is a definite step up.
The core physics based platformer/puzzle solving game play remains true to the core of the original Trine whilst streamlining some aspects and adding in new types of puzzles that makes the sequel quite distinct. The wizard still conjures up objects, the thief can still grappling hook onto things and the warrior is still used purely for combat and has little to do with puzzle solving unless it involves smashing through a wall (although even that is made redundant by certain talent choices). The changes are for the most part positive with only a few minor issues that I feel need to be raised.
Both Trine and Trine 2 have the same shared experience leveling system but Trine 2’s deviates from the original’s significantly. Instead of getting 1 point to spend in each character’s talent tree you’re instead given 1 point per level to spend on any one of the 3 talent trees. The difference is quite stark as whilst in the previous game the puzzles could be designed around knowing what kind of abilities a player might have in Trine 2 you can pretty much short circuit most challenges by going a specific build. To be upfront about it you can pretty much make the game easy mode by dumping all your points into the wizard, letting you do things like this:
Now I have no idea how the developers intended to have that puzzle solved but I have the feeling it wasn’t supposed to be anything like what you’re seeing above. That’s part of the charm of the physics based game play, letting you create solutions that weren’t exactly intended, but when most of the puzzles were trivialized by a power leveled wizard it made me wonder why there weren’t some limits in order to stop you from doing this. I guess Frozenbyte thought that was part of the fun and I can’t say I disagree with them on this.
The combat of Trine 2 is pretty much identical to that of its predecessor; being a fun distraction from the core puzzle based platforming but not a whole lot more than that. For the most part it’s very hack ‘n’ slashy with you being able to spam your way through hordes of enemies even without the aid of additional talent tree upgrades. The boss fights start off interesting although they’re also prone to being beatable through mouse and keyboard spam. The final boss fight was actually pretty intense even if it felt like it was designed with only one of the 3 characters in mind. Overall I’d rate combat as passable, being more of a distraction than a core piece of the game play.
There are some notable bugs with combat however. Some enemies are easily confused by standing near or on top of them and not in an intentional this-is-part-of-the-game way. The type that I most often found this worked with was the dual fire blade wielding goblins who if you got close enough to then jumped behind would think you were still right in front of them. They’d then get stuck in a loop of attacking in that direction, allowing you to wail on them from behind with no consequence. Some of the boss fights bugged out in a similar way to a lesser extent but it was obvious that the enemies were coded with a rather simplistic AI. It’s a relatively small complaint in the grand scheme of things but it was definitely noticeable.
As a I alluded to earlier the talent tree has also been greatly simplified allowing you to level each character as you see fit. The choice of power leveling the wizard was a simple one, the more I leveled him earlier the more experience I got access to, leveling the others faster. As you can see from the screen cap above, taken about an hour before the end, I had nearly all the abilities. In the end I think there was only 2 I didn’t manage to get but even that doesn’t really matter considering that there’s a respec button at the bottom, one that can be used as often as you want with no consequences.
Additionally All the ancillary aspects of Trine 2 have been stream lined from the original. The mana bars for every character are gone completely which I thought was weird to begin with but after playing through the entire game without it I’m glad they took it out. All the mana bar did was add tedium to the game, forcing you to go back to check points in order to restock if you accidentally created the wrong object (which was far too easy in the original) or lost it all from spamming flame arrows.
The story of Trine 2 is somewhat thin on the ground, at least in comparison to recent releases, but it is serviceable enough to keep the game driving forward. Although there’s not a whole lot of dialog in the game the voice acting is above the level of what I’ve come to expect from games like these, with each of the character’s voices fitting well with their perceived personas. Just like the original Trine I’ll have to commend Frozenbyte for not taking the cheap option and leaving the ending open for yet another sequel, something that never fails to annoy me.
Trine 2 is a definite improvement over its predecessor in almost all respects. The visuals and art direction are a lot better, a definite sign that Frozenbyte has confidence in the IP and is willing to invest more heavily in it. The streamlined game play takes away the tedium making the game much more enjoyable overall. Overall I was quite impressed with Trine 2 not feeling the compulsion to play through to the end just for the review like I did with the previous one. Even if you haven’t played the original I would still recommend Trine 2 as it stands alone well, especially if you’re a fan of platformers or puzzle games.
Trine 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox360 right now for $14.99, $14.99, and 1200 Microsoft Points. Gane was played on the hard difficulty with around 7 hours of total play time with 23% of the achievements unlocked.