Thinking about my journey as a gamer it’s interesting to note how I’ve ebbed and flowed between being focused on single player experience and those enjoyed with others. To be sure part of this was due to the way I came to games in the first place, sharing the family PC with my brother and later moving onto the first generation NES console which we’d waste endless hours on. Later on, when I was blessed with my own personal PC, that I started to find an interest in gaming by myself. That was upended when I got into the LAN scene and continued in strength as the world of online gaming was unlocked when I was graced with the wonderful gift of broadband. The last decade has been a good mix of the two although I’ll admit that most of my gaming time is more on the single player side than otherwise.
Suffice to say I don’t often go looking for co-operative experiences these days, especially if they don’t come with a single player option. However Degrees of Separation caught my eye early last year and it had long been in my review queue to play with my wife when we got the time. Well, once again thanks to the bushfires that continue to rage on, we managed to sit down and make our way through it. Whilst it’s core mechanic is somewhat novel it is a rather run of the mill puzzle platformer. That being said it can be a good bit of fun when you’re playing with another, especially if they aren’t exactly experienced with this kind of game.
Ember and Rime are from two different sides of the same world: hers a warm one of endless sunshine blessed with boundless heat and his, a world of frozen beauty. They are separated by an enigmatic force, unable to reach each other nor visit each other’s world. It’s clear however that their world has suffered some great tragedy at the hands of despotic ruler and they set out together to uncover the mystery of their shared world. Working together is the only way that they’ll be able to uncover the mystery of what happened and why they both are separated from one another.
Degrees of Separation is crafted in the style of Flash games of yesteryear with its flat 2D environments, simplistic animations and limited use of modern effects. There’s an unfortunate amount of asset reuse which makes a lot of the areas feel very samey, even though they’re supposed to be completely different environments. That being said it’s not like it’s an ugly game, more that it’s just very simplistic in its implementation. I can hazard a guess that’s likely due to the developers needing to create 2 of everything: one for Ember’s world and one for Rime’s. Combine that with the various interactions that needed to be coded in and I can see why they wanted to keep things simple from a visuals perspective.
The game’s claim to fame is the two worlds of the main characters: one world is hot and the other is cold. Initially that’s all there is to it and solving most puzzles is just figuring out the order in which things need to be done with the various worlds so you can progress forward. The later worlds start to play on the divide a lot more, bringing in mechanics that make use of it in some way. However all of these new mechanics are contained within the level that they’re granted in, so this isn’t some kind of metroidvania style game where you’ll be unlocking different parts of past levels with new skills. The only metroidvania style thing in here is the main overworld which is non-linear, but realistically you’re going to have to complete a number of levels in order due to the number of unlocks required to open them.
The puzzles are almost all self-contained and we only came across one that required us to bring something in from another puzzle in order to solve it. I personally prefer it this way for a co-op setting as otherwise you end up second guessing each other’s ideas endlessly, spending countless hours trying to drag things from other puzzles around in order to try and solve them. It also means that you’ll need to be aware of the developer’s logic as you progress through the levels as if you lose sight of that then there’s going to be puzzles that you won’t be able to solve. Thankfully those seem to be few and far between as I can only remember skipping maybe 3 or so in our full playthrough.
The puzzles are also predominantly physics based with a good chunk of them requiring precise platforming and/or timing in order to complete them. Given the game’s less than stellar control implementation this can make some puzzles a little more frustrating than they need to be as objects might not react the way you expect them to or you’ll find yourself having to repeat sections over and over again because you mistimed a jump. Even I, the seasoned puzzle platform gamer that I am, struggled at times much to the delight of my wife. This could also partly be due to us playing it on console as, I’ll admit, I don’t usually do most of my platforming with a controller.
All this being said the puzzles are, for the most part, pretty straightforward and most of them should be doable for even novice gamers. Thankfully not every puzzle must be solved as you’ll only need a certain amount of scarves (the game’s collectible) to progress to another level. The only improvements I’d seek to make would be the inclusion of a map and a reworked checkpoint system as it’s something of a pain to get back to where you were after you’ve put the game down for the night.
The story is told via a voiceover that’s triggered on every new puzzle screen, which is nice, but the story itself is pretty forgettable. I think this is partly because it’s told in the third person and the characters themselves rarely interact on the screen so it’s hard to really empathise with them at all. To be sure I prefer having the story told to me as I’m playing it rather than being presented with walls of text every so often, but having the entire thing told in the third person just seemed to take a lot of the emotional investment out of it.
Degrees of Separation is a solid co-op platformer with a novel take on the genre’s mechanics. Whilst its visual style and story err on the side of simplistic the puzzle/platform mechanics are on point, requiring some real lateral thinking and cooperation to solve. Its casual nature will make it attractive to those who are looking for something to play together but can only do so in short bursts. Other than that there’s not a terrible amount to say amount Degrees of Separation and hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you know if it’s for you.
Degrees of Separation is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with a total of approximately 4 hours playtime and 38% of the achievements unlocked.
My history with the Trine series is long, stretching all the way back to 2011. However it could have never happened at all as I missed the game when it first came out, it not really registering as a blip on my radar back then. It was on the recommendation of a friend, one who had noticed the uptick in my gaming consumption, who recommended that I give it a shout. What’s bloomed from that is a love of the quirky series that I’ve seen go through ups and downs over the decade of its existence; from it’s awkward beginnings as a quirky physics based platformer all the way through to its latest incarnation which, I’m happy to say, is the best one in the series to date.
This time our intrepid trio of heroes isn’t summoned to adventure by the Trine, instead the request comes from the Astral Academy. Prince Sellius, one of their “students”, suffers from intense nightmares. This would be one thing but he’s also gifted with potent magic abilities and those nightmares are starting to invade the waking world. So the call goes out once again to the Wizard, the Thief and the Warrior to help save the kingdom from this threat and, hopefully, save the prince in the process.
Trine has always had amazing visuals and the latest instalment is no different. The trademark dreamlike quality is retained, coming to us through the liberal use of bloom and bright lighting effects. The 3D backgrounds and set pieces have become even more elaborate, becoming bigger and more detailed than they ever have before. The game still runs on the in-house proprietary engine and it appears that Frozenbyte has done a great job in improving its capabilities and optimising the implementation as the whole game runs very smoothly, even on old hardware. Suffice to say that Trine continues to be one of the most visually impressive platformers in the market and I’m glad the developers keep pushing themselves to improve upon what they’ve delivered before.
As anyone who played Trine 3 could predict the game has returned to its 2D platformer roots, removing the 3rd dimension and going back to what they know. For fans of the series this is a great thing as whilst the 3D version of Trine was indeed a step up the fact that they could only deliver a third of the game they wanted to with 3 times the budget of Trine 2 says a lot about the effort required to make it work. So in that respect Trine 4 is much more of an evolution of what Trine 2 was rather than a rework of 3 and the mechanics are all back to their roots. There have been some changes to make all characters more equally a part of the overall experience however, notably with the Wizard now having substantial combat capability and the Warrior being a key piece of numerous puzzle mechanics. Progression is now split into 2 tiers: one from combat and one from finding experience jars. The former is effectively the unlock for new puzzle mechanics whilst the latter unlocks augments to those abilities, effectively being quality of life improvements. Frozenbyte describes this as the “most complete Trine” experience they’ve ever created and, I’m glad to say, I wholeheartedly agree with them on that.
Combat is, as it always was, something of an also ran in the Trine experience. To be sure, there’s a more comprehensive combat experience to be had there than there ever has been, but pretty much all the engagements play out in the same way. The addition of more combat abilities to the Wizard, in the form of abilities that allow you to slam objects and levitate enemies, does make for a more varied experience but in all honesty most of them will get done with a lot of hack and slashing. The resurrection mechanic is also very, very forgiving ensuring that you’re unlikely to actually die and need to go back to a checkpoint at any time. To be fair this kind of combat fits into the whole overall zeitgeist of what Trine aims to be: a casual puzzle platformer that could be enjoyed by anyone. In that respect I don’t ever envision the combat aspects getting much more complicated than they already are.
The puzzles have gone back to their roots with physics based problems being the name of the game. The wizard still has the ability to conjure boxes and platforms, the thief grappling hook things and now the warrior’s shield forms a core part of the experience with its reflecting ability. There are numerous augmentations to all of these abilities which bring with them a wide variety of challenges for you to solve. For the most part though the majority of puzzles are going to be heavily focused on the last mechanic you unlocked with only a couple other abilities required to solve them, at least for the main puzzles. The secret ones do ramp up the challenge somewhat although they, like pretty much every puzzle that’s ever been created in Trine, is subject to the whims and whiles of the emergent gameplay that the series is well known for.
Initially you’re pretty limited in the shenanigans that you can get up to as your abilities are significantly limited. However once you’re able to summon 2 items things start to get pretty interesting and only start to rocket up from there. Indeed the combination of multiple boxes plus the fairy rope means you’re able to make platforms of arbitrary height that you can grapple onto, meaning that no matter what the height of something is you’ll be able to get to it. Combine that with the fact that the developers have still not solved the likely unsolvable issue of the Wizard levitating things he’s standing on in some capacity (this time you can grapple 2 boxes together and then levitate one of them, which can fling you basically anywhere) and you’ve got a recipe for some rather whacky solutions to the puzzles at hand. Additionally, and I don’t remember noticing this in Trine 2, but the co-op aspects have obviously played a bit into the level design as there are some puzzles that have multiple solutions, most only requiring one character. So for those it’s usually very easy to get past them with all 3 abilities at your disposal.
Despite all of that though the game is very well polished, not really suffering from any major game breaking issues or glitches. I mean sure, there were times where something happened that I wasn’t exactly expecting but I was deliberately trying to find ways to break the game’s physics engine in order to solve a puzzle in an easier way than intended. Perhaps my most enjoyable moments was when I was trying to grappling hook 2 boxes together, one of which was directly on top of the other. Doing that is fine however the second you start to levitate them things go wildly out of control as they start to clip and bounce off each other. I’m sure there’s easy fixes for edge cases like that but honestly, I think the game is better off with them in.
The story is perhaps the most well fleshed out of the Trine series but it’s not like that was a high bar to get over. The focus of Trine has always been on the visual and puzzle experience, notsomuch the characters or the world that they reside in. To be sure this does expand the world of Trine a little but it’s a pretty standard affair with a rather predictable outcome. Thankfully the story doesn’t get in the way of the game at all, mostly playing as background to what’s happening on screen.
Trine 4 is a return to form for the series, taking the essence of what made it great originally and building that up significantly. The more varied and deeper puzzle mechanics make for some truly interesting game play, especially with the trademark exploitable physics engine that allows you to do all sorts of things that the developers never intended you to do. The visuals are once again of AAA quality, retaining the same stylings that have become a trademark of the game. The usual not-so-great features are still present in this instalment with the middling combat experience and a run-of-the-mill story that you’re likely to forget shortly after playing. Still what makes a Trine game great is here in spades and for fans of the series this is a definite must-play.
Trine 4 is available now on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $42.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 9 hours playtime and 53% of the achievements unlocked.
One of my favourite games to play on my PlayStation Portable back in the day was Lumines. Something about the combination of pop hits with an easy to understand but hard to master block dropping mechanic made it the perfect little time waster game. I haven’t gone back to the series in a long time however and until I opened up Sayonara Wild Hearts I didn’t know how much I missed these kinds of games. You see, whilst there is very much a challenging game to master under the hood, the overall experience itself is enough to carry the game along. Indeed much like Lumines, which took me forever to get through all of its songs, I doubt I’ll ever master what Sayonara Wild Hearts has to offer but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a great time playing through it.
As the heart of a young woman breaks, the balance of the universe is disturbed. A diamond butterfly appears in her dreams and leads her through a highway in the sky, where she finds her other self: the masked biker called The Fool. To restore balance you’ll have to do battle with the elements of the universe that seek to disrupt order and bring chaos. You’ll do this through riding motorcycles, skateboarding, dance battling, shooting lasers, wielding swords, and breaking hearts at 200 mph.
Sayonara Wild Hearts’ visuals are a striking combination of low-fi textureless models and a colour palette* that shifts and morphs as you play through each of the levels. It almost feels inspired by the early days of 3D graphics in games with some of the models feeling like they were ripped out of Star Fox 64. These low poly visuals ensure that the game will run lightening fast on pretty much any platform which is likely going to be a necessity if you’re playing it on an iOS device. You’re not going to have much time to gawk at the visuals though as they’re going to fly by you at a rapid clip.
At its core Sayonara Wild Hearts is a rhythm game, its pace directly tied to the game’s pumping soundtrack. Now it’s been some time since I’ve played a game in this genre as I’m not usually a fan of them but it feels like Wild Hearts has taken a grab bag of basically every single mechanic in the genre and smashed them together. I don’t think this is a bad thing as it keeps you engaged and challenged throughout the game’s short play time. Of course just completing all the levels once is probably doing the game a disservice as it’s very much designed to be mastered over the course of multiple playthroughs.
The developers went to great lengths to ensure that the game’s pace didn’t slow down, even if you failed a certain challenge. I was really impressed with how rapidly it put you right back in the action and how little progress you lost when you failed. There’s even a built-in skip mechanic that’ll trigger after a certain number of failed attempts, ensuring that pretty much anyone will be able to make it through to the end. Couple that with the concise level segments it makes it very easy to pick the game up for 10 minutes or so and come back to it later, something I’m coming to appreciate a lot more of late.
Sayonara Wild Hearts reminded me of the joy I had playing games that based themselves around a solid pop sound track. It’s a short, well crafted experience that anyone should be able to get through in an hour or two. Indeed if I had an iOS device I’d likely have it installed there as my go-to time waster game for a while to come. Really there’s not much more that needs to be sad about it as if you’re not sold already you’ll know either way 5 minutes into your first playthrough.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is available on PC, Nintendo Switch and iOS right now for $18.50. Total play time was 68 minutes with 4% of the achievements unlocked.
* Reading into the game’s development it appears that the colouring comes from the Bisexual Lighting palette, something I was not aware of before writing this review!
At this point I don’t think this game really needs any introduction…however…
I, like many innocent children, was the victim of a goose attack. Now the fact that I may have been antagonizing it with a friend of mine is largely beside the point, the fact still remains that a creature almost the same size as me chased me out of its territory with a series of loud honks and small nips at any part of my body in reach. Thus I came to the conclusion that geese are terrible, terrible animals and so when I saw a game that allowed you to be terrible as a goose I was immediately sold on the premise. So began an almost year long wait for it to come out and, whilst I was somewhat disappointed that it came out on the Epic Store first, I wasn’t going to let that stop me from tormenting others in the same way I had.
It is a lovely day in town and you are a horrible goose, set out to ruin everyone’s day. You have a mission, although that won’t be revealed to you until some time later, which in order to complete you have to make your way through the town proper. However it’s clear that this isn’t the first time you’ve been through here and the town is decidedly unfriendly to geese. From wary shopkeepers who watch your every move to barkeeps who won’t even let you in the door it’s clear that you’re going to have to do your geesely worst in order to get what you want.
Untitled Goose Game utilises a low-poly, low texture visual style that’s still all the rage with indie devs these days. The benefits of doing so are numerous: texturing is easier, the game will run on anything built in the last 10 years and you can hide a lot of mistakes and other mischief when you’ve got a bunch of solid colours lavishing everything. The animations, for everything except the goose, are decidedly low fidelity and are most likely hand animated. For a game whose main premise is all about mischief and mayhem the cartoonish art style fits in well.
Every level in Untitled Goose Game has a set of tasks for you to complete, the culmination of which will then allow you to move onto the next one. They start of pretty straight forward, mostly requiring you to get an item from A to B but the later levels require you to trigger certain behaviours which can be done in a variety of ways. This gives the game a kind of Hitman-esque feel to it as there’s always an obvious solution but every so often you’ll complete a puzzle in a really weird way and that will get you thinking about what you possibly get away with. The answer to that question is, surprisingly, quite a lot as the speed runners and glitchers have aptly demonstrated.
None of the puzzles are particularly challenging however, the most difficult of them mostly just amounting to needing to do something several times over or needing to wait for someone to path into the right spot so you can complete it. Unlike Hitman though none of the cycles are particularly long so you’re not going to be waiting around for ages in order to pull something off. For a casual game like this though I think that’s appropriate since anything too difficult would get in the way of the fun of Untitled Goose Game and there’s certainly enough of that to be had.
The game does have a few rough edges though, mostly stemming from the game’s level construction. Invisible walls abound everywhere and some interactions with the NPCs can see you get stuck behind or around them. It’s also possible to lose certain key items thanks to janky physics interactions although, thankfully, they’re all restored quickly upon a restart. The game could also be a little better at indicating when you’ve figured something out correctly but aren’t timing well, like with the old man in the pub with the dart board. I tried honking at what I thought was the right time multiple times over only to have it not work for some unknown reason. It finally worked on the third try though, oddly enough.
Really there’s not much more to say about Untitled Goose Game other than I think it’s just good fun. It’s not often that you come across a game that does so many things well, especially from a small indie studio with only a single other game under their belt. Untitled Goose Game also doesn’t overstay its welcome either, clocking in at a mere 2 hours for a first play through. In all honesty this is a game I’d love to see on Steam with Steamworks integration as I think the community could have an absolute field day with building custom levels for it. Hopefully that comes in the future as I really haven’t had my fill of being a terrible creature in a sleepy Australian town.
Untitled Goose Game is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours play time.
There’s nothing quite like an inventory puzzler to strike terror into the hearts of long time gamers. The original versions of these, like the classic LucasArts titles, often had you carrying around dozens of different items which you’d end up trying on everything just to see if you could make some progress. Worse still were the ones that allowed you to combine items, opening up a whole other world of problems for you to solve. However modern versions of these games tend to be a little more forgiving in their implementation, most now proclaiming that there are “no dead ends”, hopefully ensuring a smoother game experience. Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise certainly does a lot of things right in this regard although there’s a few times that the developer and I’s logic diverged on some key game points.
You are Agent A: spy extraordinaire who’s been tasked with hunting down Ruby La Rouge, a dastardly villain who’s been terrorizing the world. Just as you track her down however you see that she’s on the same boat as your chief only to leap from it moments later as the whole ship erupts in a massive explosion. You’re able to track her back to her hideout where you’ll begin your long and puzzle filled journey to capture her and put an end to her villainy.
Agent A has a simple, cartoony art style that blends both 2D and 3D elements together. There’s minimal texturing and no real distinction between elements that you can interact with and those you can not which does add to the game’s challenge. Most of the lighting also appears to be baked into the environments as well with harsh, strong bordered shadows being the norm. There’s also very little animation to speak of, the transitions between rooms usually being a simple zoom in and most rooms not having anything moving in them. All these elements combined together do make for a rather visually pleasing game, even if it’s on the same bandwagon that half of the indie scene seems to be on these days.
The puzzles of Agent A are your standard adventure game affair including the usual tropes such as: finding a bunch of the same item everywhere to unlock something, deciphering a code using a decoder you found somewhere else and a good dose of combining items in your inventory to get something you need. Agent A does demand that you pay more attention to the environment than you might otherwise need to in similar games as there’s often clues as to how to solve a particular puzzle littered around. The only way to navigate between sections those is to go forwards or backwards through a pre-set path, something that becomes quite a chore later in the game when you have to back your way through a dozen or so screens to get where you need to go.
Most of the puzzles aren’t too difficult, lending themselves to what I’d consider to be logical solutions that you’d be able to figure out given a minute or two. There are, of course, a few curly ones that necessitate you being either hyper-observant, lucky or in most cases reading from a walkthrough to figure out. Now none of them are on the level of the rubber ducky puzzle from The Longest Journey but there was at least 3 of them that I didn’t really have a clue how to get past and nowhere in the game indicated towards the eventual solution. I’ve certainly had worse puzzler experiences but it does still annoy me when you get stuck with an empty inventory and no perceivable way forward.
The story is a light-hearted affair, full of silly puns and terrible jokes. It’s really no surprise how the story develops or ends as most of it is foreshadowed in such an obvious way that only children and the incredibly daft won’t notice it. The game does make the cardinal sin of screaming out that a sequel will come right at the end which is something I will never forgive a game for doing. However since this game is obviously meant to be played by anyone, whether it be jaded old game reviewers like myself or your 5 year old cousin who just likes pretty colours I guess I can give it a pass this time around.
Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise is a simple puzzle game in all senses of the word. The graphics are basic but visually interesting, the puzzles aren’t particularly challenge save for a precious few that require some real outside the box thinking and the overall interaction with it isn’t particularly complicated. Could the developers have done more with it? Sure, but too often we’ve seen developers get in their own way by trying to cram too much in and end up not getting in enough of the core things to make the game coherent enough to play. So for Agent A the basics are all it needs and should you be needing a short distraction from the upcoming tide of AAA releases then it might just be worth a look in.
Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise is available right now on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch for $14.50. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours play time and 46% of the achievements unlocked.
One of the many reasons I keep doing these reviews is that I enjoy charting the journeys of the various developers that I come across, especially the smaller indies. For some they create an IP and expand on it, like Frozenbyte with Trine or Moon Studios with Ori and the Blind Forest, whilst others like Supergiant Games continually experiment, almost reinventing themselves with each release. Carlos Coronado, who previously brought us Mind: Path to Thalamus, falls into the previous camp having experimented widely over the many years he’s been a game developer. Whilst I wasn’t able to experience one of his previous titles due to it being VR only when I saw Koral, a casual puzzler with a strong environmental message, I was very interested to see what he’d be bringing to the table.
Koral is a self-described love letter to the ocean, created by the developer whilst he was onboard a sail ship in a marine sanctuary in Northern Catalonia. The game’s core is quite simple: you’re an ocean current that can bring life back to the reefs that have been devastated by humanity’s impact on them. Along the way you’ll be peppered with facts about why many coral reefs are currently under threat and some of the positive actions that have taken place to restore them. When it’s all said and done the game will likely only take you a couple hours to get through, maybe one more if you’re looking to 100% it.
The puzzles aren’t particularly difficult although they do get awfully repetitive as they all share the same core base mechanic: explore to find the little light things and then bring them somewhere to unblock the way forward. The challenge ratchets up mostly through adding in more ways to hide the lights from you or by adding a timer to certain challenges. None of them would be out of reach of even beginner games I feel but there are definitely some that felt a little more tedious than others just because they had an arbitrary time limit placed on them, forcing you to do them over again if you fail.
The pacing could also be a little tighter as there’s numerous long sections where there isn’t any music or something particularly interesting happening on screen. Part of this is probably due to the game’s creation (more on that in a sec) but still I feel like these games live and die by their pacing, tying together the various visual and auditory components together so the game effortlessly flows between stages. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled too much by games like The Turing Test which showed me just how great a game like this can be when all those disparate elements come together well.
Probably one of the most interesting parts of the game for me was the credits when it was revealed that quite a bit of this game was created with assets from the Unreal store, including the music. I mean, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that all those kinds of assets are available on there, but it certainly demonstrated to me just how far that ecosystem has come of late. As time goes on it seems the barriers to creating something worthy of playing are getting lower and lower which, whilst it has increased the incidents of shovelware and asset flips, does mean that creators are now free to focus on the much more important aspects of game development.
Koral does exactly what its developer wants it to do: it shows his love for the ocean and the want to preserve it for all to enjoy. It’s construction might not be the best, suffering from slight pacing issues and repetitive puzzles, but it still manages to get its message across. Perhaps most interestingly for me is the amount of things that went into it that were already prebuilt, I honestly would not have guessed that any of it wasn’t created for this game directly had the developer not mentioned it in the credits. So, in summary, Koral is a great distraction even with its rough edges.
Koral is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $16.95. Total play time was 2 hours with 59% of the achievements unlocked.
There’s been few IPs that have managed to achieve the same level of success that Wolfenstein series has. Each new instalment went from strength to strength, refining their formula for old-school inspired corridor shooter action whilst simultaneously working to improve their storytelling by leaps and bounds. So, as you’d expect, my expectations for Wolfenstein: Youngblood were high as I felt Machine Games had really locked their sights on what mattered. However that’s not the case with this instalment in the Wolfenstein franchise as it’s instead this kind of semi-open world co-op hybrid that’s light on the story and, frankly, pretty much everything else I’ve come to expect from this new breed of Wolfenstein games. I don’t appear to be the only one thinking this either and I think there’s a lot of us questioning the idea behind releasing 2 spin off games (the other being Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot) rather than a single, fully fledged one.
It’s 20 years since the events of The New Colossus and most of the world is now free of Nazi control. BJ and Anya have returned to America and have spent their time raising their twin girls, Jessica and Sophia, out on their ranch, teaching them the skills they’ll need to survive in this still hostile world. However one day BJ mysteriously disappears. Fearing the worst Jessica, and Sophia search for clues about where he might have gone and discover a hidden room in the attic with a map indicating Blazkowicz traveled to Nazi-occupied Neu-Paris to meet the French Resistance. Believing that American authorities will not follow Blazkowicz to Nazi France, the girls steal an FBI helicopter and a pair of powered armor suits and head for France. So begins your Nazi killing adventure as one of the twins.
Youngblood is still on id Tech 6 (the debut id Tech 7 game will be DOOM Eternal) and looks as good as it ever did. Much like my previous experiences with new Wolfenstein games though there was a lot of tweaking needed to get it looking good and performing well initially, only for me to discover that I hadn’t yet updated to the newest drivers again which made everything work perfectly. It just goes to show just how much optimisation the respective driver teams must do as it was a complete mess before I updated, chugging constantly no matter what settings I changed. Afterwards it much like I remembered although there was a noticeable decrease in environment detail, I assume due to the fact that it’s supposed to be more open-worldy. In any case it has me excited for what DOOM Eternal will look like though as it’s been a little while between drinks for id Tech engine upgrades.
Deviating significantly from the series’ formula so far Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a co-op, open-world-ish FPS game. After a few short initial missions you’re then left to run around Nazi occupied Paris to your heart’s content: exploring the world, picking up side missions, following the main story lines and all of the usual stuff you’d expect in an open world game. You can play co-op or solo, with the latter granting you an AI partner who’s not completely useless but not for the reasons you’d first assume. There’s a much heavier focus on levelling with the more powerful skill and gun upgrades locked behind levels which don’t come easy as you start to creep up in power. All being said the changes really don’t feel like they’re for the better, even in a spin-off game that might’ve just been some overwrought experiment meant to buy time between Wolfenstein 2 and 3.
Combat has also taken a more RPG bent, trading off the rapid pace of its predecessors for a more bullet-spongy kind of affair. The AI of all enemies, and I really do mean all of them, is complete pants as all they really do is shoot whilst they walk towards you. Nearly all of them can be cheesed in some way most often by positioning in such a way you can hit them but they can’t hit back. This even works for the brother tower protectors who go from being these scary mecha-nightmares to simple bullet soaks with just the right angle through a doorway. Probably the worst thing though is the lack of ammo, even with the upgraded ammo talents, as you’ll constantly run out of it for your weapon of choice. This is made all the more painful by the armour matching mechanic, requiring you to flip between guns when you come up against enemies with certain armour types. So if you, like me, try to min/max you’ll only have a handful of weapons properly upgraded and once those two are out of ammo you’ll be fighting long, slow battles until you can find some more.
Progression comes in a relatively steady stream at first and then seems to slow down considerably past level 30. That doesn’t matter a whole lot since it seems that most enemies will be matches to your level type with only a handful having strict higher levels set. Even those are still defeatable, they’ll just take that many more bullets to take down. None of the upgrades, both skill and weapon, feel particularly impactful however as most of them are just incremental upgrades to things you already have. To be sure there’s definitely a vast difference between a level 1 player and a level 30 one but with auto-scaling enemies and only minor upgrades between levels it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re really that much more powerful.
I didn’t get a chance to try it co-op (even though one of my mates has it) but in all honesty I don’t think it would’ve changed much of the experience. There’s nothing really in the game that would make it better with a friend as all the co-op mechanics amount to are your usual “you need 2 players to do this” kind of thing. I mean sure, there’s always a bit of fun banter when you’re playing with mates, but given the rather mediocre state the game is in you’re likely going to spend most of your time laughing at the game rather than with it.
The game appears to have been built with grander aspirations in mind as it comes bundled with things I really didn’t expect from the franchise. For starters there’s microtransactions which admittedly are limited to just cosmetic items but as far as I can tell there’s no other way to acquire them through playing in game. Further there’s daily and weekly missions which would indicate that the devs think this is the kind of game that you’ll keep coming back to often to progress your character. I really don’t know what kind of person would either spend money on a co-op only game or come back to level after multiple weeks as there’s really no reason to.
I was level 30-something by the end and whilst it wasn’t exactly a breeze to get through most sections (mostly due to the aforementioned issues) I certainly didn’t feel like I needed to go back and grind out a bunch of missions in order to move forward. Indeed the last boss could be cheesed in much the same way as the other bosses so it wasn’t like there was a lot to challenge me there. So who the heck are these mechanics, copied directly from the looter-shooter playbook, built into this co-op game? I really have no clue.
Co-op and open world games invite jankiness and Wolfenstein: Youngblood is absolutely no exception. Throughout the game I had all sorts of weird and wonderful things happen, most notably: enemies clipping through walls (and sometimes getting stuck there), my AI partner teleporting randomly around the room whilst refusing to press a switch to move forward, interacting with objects causing me to get stuck there and so on. It certainly feels like the id Tech 6 engine wasn’t built with this kind of purpose in mind as from playing previous games built on it I know it’s not exactly prone to having issues like this.
Whilst Machine Games and Arkane Studios would have you believe that Youngblood is a spin-off it’s really anything but as the events that happen in it are part of the core story. The narrative functions mostly as a time warp to move everything forward 20 years for the upcoming Wolfenstein 3 whilst also adding in a few more characters which I’m sure will make an appearance. Indeed for all the time you’ll spend in the game nothing much of consequence really happens. Sure, Jessica and Sophia get fleshed out, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that they won’t be the main characters in Wolfenstein’s final instalment. For a series that had been actively improving its storytelling I had hoped we’d get something from Youngblood but it seems that wasn’t to be.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is an unfortunate misstep for the franchise; an experiment that I hope the developers see really didn’t pay off. All of the changes made don’t do anything to make the game better than its predecessors and, in many cases, actively makes it worse. I don’t think any of my gripes really bear repeating in my closing statement so I’ll just leave you with this: if you were looking for another juicy instalment in the Wolfenstein series than this isn’t it for you. You’re going to (hopefully) be far better served by Wolfenstein 3 when it comes out.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $49.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 7 hours playtime and 40% of the achievements unlocked.
Reviving the old school 3D shooters simply can’t be done. Pixel art adventure games, point and click stories even old school styled platformers still seem to be able to work and be innovative in this modern day. Shooters in the vein of the original Quake or Duke3D however have just never really been that great, with notable examples like the Rise of the Triad¹ reboot and the recent Kickstarter disappointment STRAFE. I had thought that AMID EVIL might be different in that regard, seemingly having some small influences from the modern day in it, but they are unfortunately not enough to save the dreary and simplistic combat that was the 3D shooters of old. So I don’t blame the developers for the game they’ve created, no it is the idea that these kinds of games are still good when they are simply not.
Each level of AMID EVIL has its own little story, told through little nuggets of text that are scribed on the walls. It’s nothing particularly deep or meaningful, mostly just a kind of flavour text that gives you some insight into the various enemy types and the boss of the particular level. There might be more to it but honestly I don’t think it’s worth chasing down. If the devs really wanted you to engage with the story they would’ve done something more with it like, say, voice the lines or something like that. Still you’re not going to be playing AMID EVIL for the story so I’m not going to count that against it too heavily.
The graphics try to strike a balance between being old school and modern which makes it end up feeling more dated than anything else. The old school style UI elements overlaid on a low poly environment that has decidedly modern lighting effects removes any illusion that this was an old school game that never saw the light of day. Instead you know that it’s a modern engine (Unreal 4, although that’s easy enough to tell from the way it handles specularity) and it’s been implemented deliberately this way. If you’re trying to make me think I’m playing an old school game then you’d better try your darndest to avoid any cues that remind me I’m playing this in 2019.
As you’d expect the combat is pretty straightforward, you’ve got half a dozen weapons each of which is reminiscent of similar archetypes from games of yesteryear. AMID EVIL’s spin on the traditional shooter mechanics is the overdrive system whereby each enemy you kill fills up a meter that, when unleashed, changes the secondary fire of each of the weapons into a horrendously overpowered version of itself until the meter runs dry. That’s fun enough although after a while you’ll find yourself saving it up “just in case” and then find yourself rarely needing to use it at all.
Each episode has different enemies but they’re dumb as rocks, walking directly at you for the most part and not having more than a couple different attacks. The old circle strafe strategy works far too well here which, depending on what you’re looking for here, is either an extremely faithful rendition of what these old school shooters were like or simply a lazy way of implementing an AI. The bosses do exhibit some more novel behaviour but even then it only took me a couple tries to get past the first boss, his only real challenge being that you needed to DPS him as fast as you could before he had a chance to fill up the room with thousands of projectiles for you to dodge.
Similarly the game also has many opportunities for emergent gameplay, some of which are fun but others are clearly not intended by the developers. Like the games it’s inspired by quite often you can skip large parts of levels or find secrets by exploiting parts of the geometry. Indeed there were a couple sections with certain kinds of angles that allowed you to jump off them when you clearly weren’t supposed to be able to do so. Again if you truly are seeking an experience like the shooters of old then that’s going to be what you’re after but frankly I’ve come to appreciate my games working as intended more than I have come to want to exploit them. I leave all that up to the speedrunners.
Depending on which side of the fence you’re on you’ll either love AMID EVIL for its rather faithful recreation of the shooters of the early 90s or hate it for the exact same reason. If it isn’t already painfully clear I’m very much in the later camp, not really finding any enjoyment in revisiting that part of my gaming history. You might be different however, as are numerous people over on the Steam page who are loving the experience that AMID EVIL provides. So if all the issues I’ve been bellyaching about sound like a good time for you then please, be my guest, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
AMID EVIL is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 68 minutes play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked.
¹ Upon reading the Steam page I see that the people behind this are also the ones behind the Rise of the Triad reboot. I really should have read further before I hit the buy button…
I gotta admit, my backlog of games I want to play ran out a while ago. Sure there’s a few titles on there that I could catch up on but most of them have some barrier to entry (looking at you, Metro Exodus) which I can’t be arsed getting around. So I’m left to scour the Steam releases each week, hoping to see something that catches my eye. Unfortunately the pickings have been slim and so I’ve resorted to playing things that are somewhat interesting but usually not what I’d typically find myself playing. APE OUT, whilst having most of the trappings that you’d usually assume would be right up my alley, was just missing that extra something to keep me coming back. The concept and execution are both extremely well done however so it’s not for a lack of craftsmanship, more it just doesn’t have the mechanics I’d seek out in this kind of game.
You’re an ape in a laboratory and you’ve decided it’s time to get out. Of course the lab can’t have what appears to be a super-intelligent ape running about the shop so they’ll do anything they can to stop you. Of course you’re quite a bit bigger than them and can easily paint the walls with their corpses should they get in your way. Your goal is simple: find a way to escape without getting shot to bits. All this happens whilst a wild jazz soundtrack plays in the background.
Visually APE OUT is very striking with its top down perspective, lack of texturing and use of vibrant colouring. Whilst this does make it rather easy to distinguish foes from furniture the top down perspective could use a little work as quite often pillars get in your way when it feels like they shouldn’t. There has been a lot of attention given to making the visuals feel as chaotic as the background track with numerous overlays, changing colours and other weird and wonderful VFX making for a kind of visual bonanza I haven’t really come across before. I honestly would expect no less from the crazed mind of the great Bennett Foddy (you know, the one behind QWOP and Getting Over It).
The soundtrack deserves its own mention as it’s a reactive mish mash of jazz percussion. Each playthrough will have a slightly different track due to the generative nature of the backing track, even down to things like events on screen driving which part of a drum kit gets played. Each of the albums has its own theme so all those different samples do work together to produce something coherent but it’s still very chaotic. I’m not really a fan of jazz but I certainly appreciated the effort that went into building up the engine that drove APE OUT’s wild soudtrack.
The objective of each level is simple: just get to the other end. You’ll be met with a wide variety of enemies, themed to the current album you’re playing. The levels themselves aren’t particularly big but it’s never going to be as simple as just legging it from one side to another. Curiously you can do it without killing a single person as there’s an achievement to that effect. How you’d do that for some sections is beyond me though as there’s situations where I couldn’t see an easy route around flattening a few folks.
For the most part the combat feels fair as the enemies telegraph their moves and the AI isn’t particularly smart in how it approaches you. Of course when you’re cornered by more than a couple of them things start to get real tricky fast and many of the special types of enemies are designed to make simply crushing everyone more challenging than finding a way around them. Even with the short levels though I found the enemies to get repetitive pretty fast and I think that’s probably what made me give up in the end. I mean sure, part of it was also the difficulty of it, but since there’s no real progression system or anything else to keep you coming back (bar the new levels) I didn’t really feel like the challenge was worth it.
APE OUT is a finely crafted game that I just didn’t find myself enjoying all that much. The visuals, soundtrack and mechanics are all on point, delivering the exact game experience that it set out to achieve. However I felt that it was mostly a game for the speedrunner/Twitch crowd, something that people would love to watch but not necessarily play themselves. That’s why after just a paltry 36 minutes with it I decided to call it quits, lest I give this game a score that’s much further below it’s true value. If you favour that kind of reaction based, beat ’em up gameplay then you’ll surely enjoy APE OUT but for me it just didn’t hit the mark.
APE OUT is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $21.50. Game was played on the PC with a total of 36 minutes play time and 4% of the achievements unlocked.
Steam’s recommendation engine, despite the unholy treasure trove of data they have on what everyone plays, is total arse. Even the new discover queue is a hit and miss affair; weighted extremely heavily towards the last handful of games you’ve played. I’d know too as I got recommended dozens of visuals novels after playing Dream Daddy and not a single other visual novel game (I don’t count Pyre in that genre, for what it’s worth). Suffice to say I don’t have a lot of trust in it and there’s not many games from there that I end up buying. Katana ZERO is an exception to this rule however as it popped up as a recommended game for me and was bought shortly after. The videos were just enough to grab my interest but its solid mechanics, great artwork and perfect game length is what makes it one of 2019’s more interesting titles to date.
You are a samurai assassin, blessed with the gift of precognition. This allows you to look into the future and plan out your moves, ensuring that no target is outside your reach. However you know nothing of your past, save for the fact that you were involved in a great war some time ago and you’re haunted by nightmares from your childhood. Your therapist is helping you though and thankfully the dose of the drugs he gives you is going down. So you keep doing his bidding, taking out targets that he gives to you after each session. Still though something feels off, time seems to flow strangely every so often, the past, present and future mixing together until they all coalesce back together. Although that can’t be right, time always flows forward right?
Katana ZERO has some of the best pixel art I’ve seen in recent times, seamlessly mixing in modern elements that give it a really nice visual flair. This is made all the more impressive that it’s created in GameMaker, something which has a reputation much like Unity for having a certain kind of aesthetic for all titles built with it. The frame rate was also consistently high, something that I’ve definitely not seen done a lot with other GameMaker based titles. On top of this Katana Zero has a great original sound track, one that’s available in ogg format in the game’s base directory should you happen to want it. Overall I’m very impressed with Katana ZERO’s level of craftsmanship.
Mechanically Katana ZERO is a kind of beat em up puzzler as every level is about planning out your moves, figuring out what triggers what and how to overcome seemingly impossible scenarios. You have a couple key mechanics at your disposal: roll which makes you invulnerable, the ability to slow down time significantly for a short period and your usual array of 2D melee combat mechanics. You’ve got one life and a single hit will take you down so you’ll have to plan your attack route carefully. There’s no upgrades, items or inventory to manage; all you have to do is make it to the end of the level by laying waste to everything in your wake. Of course that’s much easier said than done but Katana ZERO provides ample challenge without being unnecessarily difficult. A fine line to walk in this age of Dark Souls clones who are trying to out compete each other in brutality.
The combat is incredibly satisfying when you’re able to clear a stage in a single section, giving you that lovely feeling of being the badass ninja assassin. Of course there’s certain levels which have the “fuck you player” mechanics in them, I.E. things right at the end of levels that’ll kill you instantly and the only way to know about them is to play the level. The boss fights could also prove challenging for some as they all have very particular mechanics that aren’t particularly straightforward. Still Katana ZERO’s combat feels a lot more forgiving than other, similar titles that I’ve played in the past and I think that’s one of the reasons that it didn’t feel like a complete chore to play through to the end.
I only have minor gripes about Katana ZERO which says a lot about it’s quality. Every so often the game would lose its capture of the mouse which meant that it’d shoot out the side of game window and onto my browser running on the second monitor. Clicking would then minimize the game and, most often, lead to a death. The game can also be quite visually confusing when a lot is happening on screen, something which can make it rather hard to understand exactly why you died at one particular time. For me it always seemed to be the shotgunners because, despite being able to reflect the projectiles, it appears you can only reflect one of them. Given there’s like 20 of them coming at you it’s pretty much guaranteed death, even if you hear the ting of the reflected shot. Other than that Katana ZERO was pretty much solid.
The story of Katana ZERO is really what brings it all together though as it’s well thought out and given ample time to develop over the course of your playthrough. Initially it just seems like another typical super soldier story but it quickly starts morphing as you uncover other elements that I can’t discuss without spoiling it. I’m not quite sure how much control you have over the various elements but there was definitely enough freedom of choice to make me feel like I had some control, which is probably all you really need in the end.
Katana ZERO will go down as one of my big surprises for 2019, coming out of nowhere and providing an experience that is just well done all round. The art, music and mechanics are all on point, providing ample amounts of challenge without making it difficult for difficulty’s sake. The story is engaging, well written and appears to give you just enough influence to make you feel like you’re in control of what’s happening on screen. I could go on but realistically if your interest is piqued I don’t think you could go wrong by giving Katana ZERO 4 hours of your time.
Katana ZERO is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $21.50. Game was played on the PC with a total of 4.6 hours playtime and 16% of the achievements unlocked.