You know, I’ve really missed driving games. I spent a great deal of my youth in seminal titles Gran Turismo and the early Need for Speeds, even playing some of the more esoteric titles like the very first cel shaded game I ever played Auto Modellista. Later on I’d spend countless hours with my mates playing Need for Speed Underground, spending most of the time customising our rides before spending what time we had left together racing or trying to beat each other’s drift scores. The want to go back is definitely still there, heck I was staring down buying a racing wheel for far too long recently, but I just haven’t dived fully back in yet. So dipping my toes back in with something that notionally straddled the “driving” genre with one I’ve gravitated more heavily to over the past few years seems like a good middle ground to start off with. Cloudpunk is that game and there’s certainly a lot to love here, from the unique visuals to the simple pleasure of simply driving around the surprisingly large world, the open world tropes that have made their way into the game really detract from the game’s solid core.
You are Rania, a young woman from the Eastern Peninsula who’s moved to the big floating city of Nivalis to escape the debt corps who chased you out of home. You’ve taken a job with a delivery called Cloudpunk; their business? Simple: they’ll deliver a package from A to B for you without any questions asked and they’ll do it faster than anyone else can. This is your first night on the job and it becomes clear that life in the city is nothing like where you come from and just making it through this first night is going to be a challenge in and of itself. You don’t have much time to think about that however as Control tells you that you have a delivery and it’s time to get to work.
I honestly can’t remember the last time I played a voxel based game (quick search shows it was over 5 years ago, The Deer God) so it was refreshing to see agame go back to this art style. Given that you spend a great deal of the game zoomed out though it’s easy to forget that it’s essentially 3D pixel art that you’re looking at, especially given the incredible amount of detail that the developers have packed into the game. Truly the game’s scale is really impressive, especially with the amount of diversity there is in the various details (like different levels having different styles befitting their status). Of course when you do get to zoom in close the extreme lack of detail in things becomes abundantly clear, like just how few blocks make up the majority of the items on screen. Still though it’s the best looking voxel game I’ve seen to date so hats off to the art team behind this.
As the opening plot summary would indicate this is basically a game of fetch quests, sending you between two points with the usual array of challenges mixed in. It is an open world game though, allowing you pretty much free reign of the entire game right from the get go. Exploration is encouraged and rewarded too as you’ll find tons of items, side quests and other tidbits of plot or worldbuilding scattered around everywhere. Thankfully everything is helpfully displayed on your map too, ensuring that if you want to go item hunting you won’t be spending a lot of time trying to discern one clump of voxels from another. There’s also some market mechanics although they’re never explained, but should you want to make a bucket of lims you could do trade runs once you find some arbitrage to exploit. Finally there’s a whole host of cosmetic upgrades for your character and apartment although they have absolutely no impact on the game whatsoever. All said and done there’s quite a bit to unpack in Cloudpunk and for those who simply love driving around and exploring I’m sure this is a game that’d give you quite good value for your money.
The main campaign ticks over at a steady pace throughout game, which you’re most welcome to ditch at any particular point (save for a few specific missions) to go off and do other things that interest you. All of the side missions are self-contained as well and don’t have any bearing on how the main campaign plays out. Your choices in the main campaign will have an effect on the story and the world however, although in all honesty I don’t think you can really move the needle too much in one way or the other.
After a while though the monotony does start to set in however as you’re often sent from one side of the map to the other only to find out that you’ll have to switch to another level and then traverse that to get to your destination. This wouldn’t be so bad if the driving was a bit tighter, or at the very least had upgrade options that’d make it a lot more enjoyable. To be sure there are upgrades but most of the handling ones didn’t seem to make much of a difference. I can understand that it’s part of the game’s design, hover cars after all probably wouldn’t drive like they’re on rails, but when the main thing you’ll be doing for more than half the game isn’t particularly enjoyable perhaps it’s worth looking at sacrificing authenticity for enjoyment.
It’d also help if the upgrades were somewhat rewarding but they’re honestly not. I was pretty excited to see that there was a retro console upgrade and retro game cartridges as collectible items. Figuring that I’d put 2 and 2 together and get something cool, maybe even an achievement, I bought the upgrade. Trouble is I couldn’t tell you where in my apartment it was nor could I interact with it at all. This goes for basically all the upgrades which are simply just more voxels for your PC to render. The clothing upgrades for your character are worse still, some of them just being basic colour changes. It feels as if the game was built with a reason for you to need a truckload of lims but never got around to implementing it fully. So instead we just have what amounts to cosmetics in a single player game, not particularly worth it if you ask me.
There’s also a few items which could use some fine tuning. The physics engine sometimes gets real confused when you bump into another car and shoots you directly upward as far as you’re allowed to go. This would be an edge case issue if the hitboxes for the cars weren’t quite a bit bigger than the models themselves, making unintended bumps and skyward punts more common than you’d expect. It would also be nice to have a way to upgrade your walk speed (for the record I did try the caffeine drink, whatever it was, and it seemed to make Rania run faster but I couldn’t tell you if she really did) as walking back through the same area for the 5th time does get a bit laborious and it’d be nice to be able to rush through them. Apart from those small issues though the game is basically fault free.
The story is kind of middling although it does have a great cast of characters that are given enough screen time to build them out substantially. In the beginning it is a bit much to have everyone you meet vomit their life story at you but after a while they do start to build together into an expansive world which is quite intriguing. However the story told within that just doesn’t really hit the mark and the emotional highs it tries to put forward feel unearned. The ending is also sub-par, taking the end-o-tron 3000 approach after spending most of its time trying to impress upon you the gravity of the choices you’ve been making. I’d definitely play a sequel if the devs choose to revisit this world, though.
Cloudpunk crams a lot into one place with vast voxel environments for you to explore from the comfort of your trusty hover car. There’s been a lot of care and attention paid to the visual experience and they’ve really managed to capture that dystopian, cyberpunk future feel. However the actual gameplay is very middle of the road, with the repetitive nature of the core game loop, unrewarding progression mechanisms and so-so story making for an experience that’s good, but not great. If all you’re looking for is an excuse to drive through a neon-soaked futuristic dystopia then I don’t think there’s many better alternatives around right now.
Cloudpunk is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with 7 hours of total playtime and 63% of the achievements unlocked.
If you’ve been reading my game reviews for any length of time it’s probably quite clear that I have a few…types that I like. Of course there’s the usual mix of must-play AAA’s and the long running franchises that I’ve become a fan of but mixed in between all that is a subset of games that I’ll dub review-bait. Basically any indie/small studio title that’s pretty looking, has a good narrative or is experimental in some way is likely to catch my eye. LOST EMBER fits into that subset perfectly and was on my to-play list last year but I just never got around to giving it a go. It seems I wasn’t missing out on too much as whilst it’s a competent game in many respects the overall experience is decidedly middle of the road; the sum of its parts not being anything greater than its whole.
The people of the Inrahsi believe that those who follow their religion faithfully are rewarded with entry to the City of Life upon their deaths. For those that stray from the path however they’re cast back down into the world as beasts, forced to roam the world once again. You are Wolf, a beast of this world who appears to have the uncanny ability to see the spirits of the Inrahsi people and to possess all other animals in this world. You’re approached by a wayward spirit who’s become lost on his way to the City of Light and seeks out your help. What follows is a journey through the memory of the world that you live in and the spirit’s journey to the life hereafter.
The hallmarks of the Unreal 4 engine are all over Lost Ember from the various particle and lighting effects to just that overall “feel” you get from Unreal games that don’t muck with the underlying engine code too much. Lost Ember is at its best when you’re playing in the wide open spaces, able to soak in the seemingly endless vistas in front of you. That facade disappears quickly when you get up close to anything however where the lack of detail in both the modelling and the textures becomes readily apparent. Some of this can be explained away by artistic choices but in reality it’s more an artefact of trying to make large environments without spending an inordinate amount of time populating in the detail (something indie/kickstarter funded devs rarely have the opportunity to do). Worse still it’s clear that a lot of the animal is hand done with a lot of the animals seeming stiff or incredibly unrealistic in their motion. Lost Ember certainly has its moments, as my screenshot directory will attest to, but it’s very middle of the road when all is said and done.
Lost Ember is effectively a walking simulator, not really requiring much from the player in order to progress to the next section. There are some levels which will require you to possess a certain animal in order to progress but every time that animal will be right there next to the puzzle, making the challenge of figuring out what to do rather moot. There is an exploration aspect to it as well with a bunch of collectibles and “legendary” animals to find but apart from getting an achievement or two there’s really no reason to track them down. Checking out its Kickstarter page it’s clear that the gameplay was supposed to be mostly second to the narrative but what they’ve delivered here is pretty far from that original vision.
The exploration, for instance, is absolutely not worth your time at all. The collectibles are either “artefacts” which are random things that are partially related to the memory that you’ve just seen/about to see but they don’t include more than a sentence or two about them. For instance one item, which would be pretty central to one of the main characters, is given a single sentence simply restating what was said in one of the memories. At the very least the collectibles should give you something you can’t get elsewhere to make seeking them out worthwhile. Collecting the mushrooms is 100% pointless as far as I can see as the game doesn’t give you an indication of whether or not anything will happen should you collect all of them. Finally the “legendary” animals are simply glowing versions of the ones you already had access to, giving no benefits or deeper insights into the story.
The game also could use a couple layers of polish as there’s some unrefined edges that make themselves apparent far too often. The controls feel mushy and unwieldy most of the time making it rather annoying to control the majority of the animals. This is exacerbated by the camera which gets a real mind of its own in certain places and will routinely clip through the level, especially in tunnels or when you’re underground. The platforming controls are also incredibly wonky, often taking several attempts to get them to register what you’re trying to accomplish. Many animals will also get stuck in animations for seemingly no reason at all, some will even get stuck in animations that seemingly affect your input keys as well. The levels are also not 100% vetted as there’s numerous places where you can get yourself into a situation which you can’t get out of (save for hitting a checkpoint). All of these issues are fixable of course but we’re 5 months post-launch now so I can’t say my confidence is high to see them remediated anytime soon.
The main issue I have with Lost Ember’s narrative is that it’s all delivered via endless exposition from your spirit companion and the various cutscenes. The Kickstarter page billed it as a joint exploration that led to a deep bond between you both but in reality all it boils down to is your spirit telling you what you’re seeing. You, as the Wolf, have absolutely zero to do with anything that the story is putting forward and the relationship you have with the spirit is really only skin deep. Now to be fair there are some emotional moments later in the game but they don’t feel like they’ve been earnt, instead relying on cheap narrative tricks to make you care about the characters put forward in the game. All said and done it’s a very mediocre story, made all the worse by the fact that the overall game experience does nothing to add to it.
Lost Ember certainly started out with all the best intentions but it’s lack of polish, uninteresting core game loop and mediocre story make for a rather lackluster experience. On the surface it has all the elements of something that I’d thoroughly enjoy: pretty (even if simplistic) visuals, light gameplay mechanics and a focus on storytelling. But whilst all those elements are there none of them are interlinked with each other, nor is any one of them a standout in its own regard. To sum it all up: Lost Ember is neither good nor bad, it’s just rather forgettable. Fixing up some of the core gameplay issues would push it more towards the good end of things but there’s some serious rework needed if it could ever be considered great.
Lost Ember is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $42.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3.9 hours playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.
You know how there’s always a few games or a series you missed when it came out and just never got around to playing? One of them for me was Kentucky Route Zero as ostensibly it’s right up my wheelhouse: indie, story heavy adventure with a bent for the experimental. Heck I even had a friend of mine recommend it to me when it first came out but still I just let it slip by. Then as the years rolled on I kept hearing about it, learning that it was an episodic adventure that’d be released over the course of many years. So I resolved myself to play it end to end when it finally finished and it just so happened that the final episode was released this year. Imagine my surprise too when I found out that I already owned it, picking it up over 4 years ago. What’s followed over the last week has been an incredible journey, witnessing nearly a decade of work and experimentation unfold before me.
If I’m honest though, I’m glad I waited.
Conway, a truck driver, works as a delivery man for an antique shop owned by a woman named Lysette. Being hired to make a delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive, Conway travels the roads around Interstate 65 in Kentucky to locate the address, accompanied by his dog, Blue. After searching around, Conway elaborates that he is lost and stops off by a gas station, Equus Oils. It’s here where your surreal journey into this slice of the rust belt begins as you try to track down the elusive address which apparently can only be found by taking the road that can’t be mapped, the Zero.
So much of the recent indie fare I’ve played has utilised similar low poly stylins and if I’m completely honest I had a hard time seeing where they would’ve drawn the inspiration from. Given that Kentucky Route Zero is nigh on a decade old (and extremely popular in the indie/experimental game scene) I feel somewhat confident in saying it’s likely that it is the one who popularised this art style. There are some trademarks that are unique to it though, things like the low poly foliage that appears to be 2D or the slow fade to black of the background as you dive deeper into a text block. Backing all this is some solid foley work and an absolutely stunning soundtrack, the highlight of which is each of the act’s bluegrass standards performed by one of the developer’s bands, the Bedquilt Ramblers.
Kentucky Route Zero fits firmly within the point-and-click adventure genre although most of the usual mechanics (like inventory management) aren’t present. Instead the game is more of a wandering adventure, inviting you to explore around, see what’s what, and carve out your own path through the game’s surprisingly large world. Whilst most of the traditional mechanics aren’t present there are numerous progression blocking puzzles that you’ll need to solve although, thankfully, they are all self contained. Each of the acts has its own…theme so to speak, constructed in such a way to change how you interact with it and, by extension, how you view the story. Played as they came out it certainly would’ve been quite the whirlwind of different styles but played through from start to finish the various elements actually blend together rather well.
The adventure game elements are pretty basic, verging on walking simulator territory given that there’s not a whole lot of puzzles to solve. However there’s exploration aplenty to be had, both in terms of actual exploration around the map (in the many forms that it takes) and through the various dialogue choices that the game presents to you. This does then beg the question of whether or not the exploration is worth it and the answer is: well it depends. At a nuts and bolts level most of the exploration you’ll undertake will build out the world first and, only if you’re lucky, give you a little more insight into the characters. However herein lies the rub for pretty much everything that goes on in Kentucky Route Zero: none of it really matters.
The game has an inordinate amount of dialogue choices for you to pick through however I’m 99% sure, bar for a few choice sections, your choices have basically no impact on how the story plays out. There are various dialogue options which are obviously in direct contrast to each other but often they’re backstory elements or other things which don’t really matter to the core narrative per se but, in a larger sense, are part of the who the characters are to you in the story. For instance the dog that accompanies you for much of the game could either be your loving pet which you confide in regularly or simply that mangy mutt you keep around for whatever reason. Does that change how the story plays out? Not in the slightest but it does change what you think about that character, how they interact with others and ultimately the kind of person you want them to be.
Digging more into the construction of the narrative it’s interesting to try and figure out which parts are allegorical and which parts are true to the world. Obviously quite a lot of the world built up in Kentucky Route Zero is surreal however the game bills itself as being “magical realist” which would then lead you to believe that much of what you’re seeing is 100% true to (this world’s) life. Much like the game’s namesake trying to figure this out is likely to lead you in circles which, I gather, is pretty much the point of the whole thing. I can’t say much more before I dive into spoiler territory but suffice to say the world built up in Kentucky Route Zero has a lot to pick through no matter which way you look at it.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
With the benefit of only just finished my full playthrough a couple days ago, completed mostly in single chapter per night stints, I went through a lot of different emotions over the course of the game. The initial chapter hooked me into the concept, giving me just enough to want to see where things led from there. The second, with its proper introduction and implementation of the Zero route, piqued my interest further. However Act 3 (and to a lesser extent, the last few sections of Act 4) began to drag somewhat, the game dwelling a little too long on some of the more esoteric narrative concepts that I simply didn’t find that interesting. However Act 5 brought everything back home, giving the game the emotional climax that I think many had been seeking but may not have appreciated the brevity in which it was delivered.
Though had I played this before it was completed I don’t think I would feel the same way I do now. Back in the day episodic content was all the rage to keep players coming back time after time, but it’s fallen out of fashion lately and for good reason. Many gamers, myself included, simply don’t come back around when the content is drip fed to us over a long period of time. Played all the way through Kentucky Route Zero feels like a masterpiece, an experience that’s been carefully crafted to elucidate a particular feeling. Played over the better part of a decade? I would’ve forgotten character’s names, the reasons they were there and all sorts of other things that made Kentucky Route Zero as enjoyable as it was. I know this opinion will run contrary to most who’ve enjoyed every morsel they’ve been able to savour but I know myself, and I’m glad I didn’t cave into it beforehand.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Kentucky Route Zero is an exceptional storytelling experiment in the medium of games. The craftsmanship is absolutely top notch and played as an entire experience it’s amazing to see their progress as developers over the over 10 year journey it took to bring this vision to life. It may be a little simplistic and slow for some but for those of us who relish the opportunity to play something truly different to the norm there’s not many other titles that can be thrown in the same basket as this one. If you are like me and have snoozed on Kentucky Route Zero for all these years then I’m glad to say that now is the time to get into it, you won’t regret it.
Kentucky Route Zero is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $35.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 7 hours play time and 54% of the achievements unlocked.
This blog is basically just my gaming journal at this point but that serves an important purpose for me: capturing what I felt about a game at a particular time. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about a game many years after I’ve played it, figured I had kept the same opinion about it only to then go back to the blog post I wrote to see how differently I actually felt. This has taught me an important lesson about a lot of things, chief among them is that time brings with it new experiences, opinions and it tends to colour our past with its own brush.
I tell you this as with DOOM Eternal, as it has been with many games and genres of late, I felt that I had drifted away from the intense action that I seemingly loved in the original DOOM in 2016. Talking to my mates about it they were all loving it, whilst I was struggling to really find something to enjoy. That changed over the course of my playthrough but even after finishing the game I feel like something fundamental has shifted in my tastes over the past few years and I don’t find myself agreeing with my opinions of the past.
DOOM Eternal takes place 8 months after the original and Earth has been overrun by demonic forces, wiping out two thirds of the planet’s population. What remains of humanity has either fled Earth or have banded together as part of ARC, a resistance movement formed to stop the invasion, but they have all gone into hiding after suffering heavy losses. The Doom Slayer, having previously been betrayed and teleported away by Dr. Samuel Hayden, returns with a satellite fortress controlled by the AI VEGA to quell the demonic invasion by killing the Hell Priests. These priests serve an angelic being known as the Khan Maykr who seeks to sacrifice mankind in order to save her own world from destruction. So continues the saga of a man too angry to die, hellbent on saving humanity no matter the cost.
This DOOM, like many before it, brings with it an update to the id Tech engine, taking it up to version 7. The list of improvements in brings in are mostly focused on the backend for the most part although it does claim to bring with it 10 times more geometric detail and higher texture fidelity than when compared to the previous engine’s iteration. Comparing some of my screenshots against each other the differences are pretty hard to spot, save for things that honestly could just be down to aesthetic choice. The addition of “destructible demons” is definitely noticeable although it’s honestly a bit of a gimmick considering you’re not going to be spending long looking at them. To id’s credit the game runs perfectly well on my now aging hardware, something I didn’t really expect without having to make a few tweaks to it. I’m sure there’d be a more stark contrast between the games if I’d upgraded my rig in the interim. All this being said DOOM Eternal is still a very good looking game, especially some of the later levels like Urdak.
At a fundamental level DOOM Eternal is very similar to its predecessor, copying and pasting all the core elements that made the original as good as it was. The progression system has been revamped significantly though, breaking up various elements into their own systems most of which can be progressed through simply playing the game and doing the usual hunt for secrets. There’s definitely been an investment in quality of life improvements to take the edge of the original’s more frustrating elements, making overall progression a bit more predictable. All this being said that if you liked the original then you’re probably going to like this one as well, that is unless you’re like me.
Fundamentally I think keeping the same combat loop was probably a good thing as it shook up the established formula enough to make things interesting and that hasn’t really changed in the interim. I couldn’t tell you of any other games that have tried to emulate DOOM’s style with most corridor shooters instead keeping true to their namesake. So DOOM Eternal then still feels like a fresh perspective even though it isn’t given that everyone else has stuck true to their roots. However for me I think there’s one key element that made the first 30% or so of my playthrough not as enjoyable as I would’ve liked it to be.
That would be the game’s unrelenting intensity.
I remarked in my review of DOOM 2016 that I couldn’t really play for more than one level at a time due to how exhausting it was to play and nothing has changed in that regard. My first few hours with DOOM Eternal were split between multiple sittings because I was mentally exhausted at the end of them and I didn’t really feel like putting myself through another level until I’d had some time doing other, less intense activities. Perhaps it’s an artefact of the times we’re living in now as it’s far more common for me to be mentally exhausted at the end of the day, what with all the video conferences and calls I have to be on given that we’re now all working remotely. Whatever it was this meant that I struggled to a) spend time with the game which meant that b) I just couldn’t find much about it to like.
This steadily changed as I was able to progress a little more and gain a few more upgrades, things that didn’t make the game that much easier but did make me feel like I had more options available to make up for any mistakes I might make. This got me through the middle third of the game pretty easily and for a good while I figured it was just that I wasn’t used to the real challenge that DOOM Eternal was throwing up when compared to other FPS titles of recent memory. However after a while the addition of certain enemy types (like the Marauder and Doom hunter) and the extended fights which were just more waves of the same enemies made the game a right chore to churn through. The final boss is probably the best example of this, effectively making you repeat the same bullet sponge fight twice over.
This was made all the worse by the fact that the various progression mechanics don’t feel as effective towards the game’s latter points. Half of the suit upgrades are effectively just quality of life improvements and once you’ve settled on a decent rune combo you likely won’t be changing it at all for the rest of the game. The weapon mastery upgrades are also pretty lacklustre, the initial upgrade points necessary to offset the downsides of the particular mod and the mastery usually just making things a little more convenient to use. At a base level there’s really no way to increase a gun’s overall effectiveness, meaning that every enemy is basically as challenging from the first time you meet it until the last. I get why that’s done from a game design and challenge perspective, but it would’ve been nice to be able to more easily deal with trash monsters rather than them being an continuing annoyance throughout the game.
There were no noticeable bugs or glitches in my playthrough, even in the few times where I was trying to deliberately break things in order to cheese my way through a section. I do have some qualms with some design decisions made about certain interactions (like not being able to dash past certain enemies or terrain of a particular height) but those are obviously intentional so I don’t really count them as a bug. The id Tech 7’s focus on simplifying the codebase seems to be paying off in spades here as I remember the original DOOM needing a little more polish than Eternal does.
Now the story is, to be blunt, completely opaque should you not spend an untold number of hours reading through all the in-game lore pickups. To start off with it’s not made clear at all how you ended up hovering over earth in a spaceship that’s built like a castle and it’s even less clear as to why (or how) the demons are invading earth. To be sure your character’s motivations are made clear enough but there’s no reference I can recall to the 8 month gap between the end of DOOM and the start of Eternal. Towards the end of the game they do a better job of revealing the game’s plot elements without resorting to walls of text but it’s honestly too little too late. Of course you don’t need to understand the story to enjoy the game but it certainly doesn’t help if the game’s narrative is actually detracting from what’s happening on screen.
This puts me in a bit of an odd spot with DOOM Eternal. On the one hand there’s dozens of improvements made to the original DOOM that I think are for the better and the core elements that made it great are still there. On the other though I really struggled to enjoy a good chunk of this game which made those improvements feel less innovative than they really are. Even looking at reviews things are mixed with no real agreeance as to whether or not DOOM Eternal is as good, better or worse than its original. For me I’m definitely in the worse camp, but the things that made that experience worse for me are the same things that I thought were great all those years ago. So honestly I don’t know and all I can really say is that those who enjoyed the original seem enjoy this one too. Objectively I think it has all the hallmarks of a great title, I just didn’t enjoy it as much as the review score might indicate.
DOOM Eternal is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $99.95. Game was played on the PC with around 10 hours of total play time.
It’s been just under a year since I last spun up The Division 2 as whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the numerous hours I dropped into it that initial wall I hit with the raid meant I ended my time with it shortly after the review. The various drops of content between now and then didn’t really pop up on my radar. Indeed I was beginning to get worried that we’d seen the end of expansions or other meaty DLC drops given other games like Destiny have switched to the more regular drip feed of tiny updates, none of which are ever enough to bring me back into the fold. Imagine my surprise when I started to see The Division 2 subreddit lighting up with excitement about the impending launch of Warlords of New York for The Division 2, promising a return back to the place where the original took place and even the return of the main antagonist. Given I’d spent the last couple weeks playing casual-ish games I was ready to get into something a little more engrossing and boy was it ever.
You receive a distress call from Faye Lau who’s still the lead agent in charge back in New York. Agent Keener has unleashed a new and instantly lethal version of the original Green Poison bioweapon which has been called Eclipse. Upon arrival you’re informed that Agent Keener’s current whereabouts are unknown however they’ve identified 4 of his lieutenants and with their SHD watches they should be able to triangulate him. So with little more than that to go on you’re sent out into lower Manhattan to start the brutal search for the rogue agent once again, hoping to find him before he’s able to strike again and put an end to him once and for all.
As you’d expect from an expansion there’s no real changes graphically apart from the differences in the setting of DC vs New York. It’s definitely a major shift in the feel of the game as I distinctly remember DC feeling a bit more flat and open, whereas New York retains its usual high skyscrapers and dense urban environment. The change from winter to summer is interesting too as that, combined with the dynamic weather systems, means that this feels very different to the New York I remember from the original Division.
There’s been a few tweaks to The Division 2’s core game loop since I’ve been away and a few changes which I believe are unique to this particular expansion, although I couldn’t tell you which is which. For starters loot now drops less frequently, with the idea that there should be less trash and hopefully more useful pieces of gear. On the surface that doesn’t really ring true however the inclusion of the new re-roll system, which allows you to extract a single stat roll from a piece of gear and save it for use forever, suddenly means that trash drops with god rolls are no longer trash. The skill power system has also been reworked, now being fixed to “tiers” which each piece of armour can provide 1 of. There’s also now an infinite progression system in the form of your SHD Watch which is basically The Division’s form of the paragon levels from Diablo III. There’s a bunch of stuff I don’t even remember coming across listed here so if you want the full story I’d say head over there and get it directly from the horse itself.
The core fighting mechanics feels identical, save for the fact that skills appear to regenerate a lot quicker but are also a lot weaker as a result. My chem launcher no longer instantly heals me up to full, instead taking quite some time to get me even to halfway health. On the flip side my artillery turret, which use to feel like it was always on cooldown no matter what, was seemingly up every 30 seconds which seemed ridiculously broken given how good it is at clearing out large groups or slow moving elites. That seemed to be counterbalanced by the specialist weapon now feeling downright useless, especially considering my turret seemed to do the same thing and could manage more than 2 shots every 30 seconds. I’m not sure how all of this plays out at higher gear levels though as I haven’t put in the requisite grind hours to get there. Looking at some of the absolutely silly builds I’ve seen online though it seems like there’s a lot of fun to be had mixing things up, which is a good thing my opinion.
I did however run out of puff with Warlords of New York once I got past the missions and started on the end game grind proper. Part of this was a lack of direction for what the grind would be for as in the original game it was clear what I needed the upgraded gear for. With Warlords of New York, even though it’s now got one of the best progression systems I’ve seen in any looter shooter to date, it’s not so clear what I should be gearing up for. The raid? But technically I was already gear for that when I left the game last time, I just couldn’t be arsed manually looking for a group to do it. I did a quick search around to figure out what exactly I should be aiming for but it seems like it might just be the gear for gear’s sake at this point. Well that and the Dark Zone but I’ve never been one to solo in there.
The expansion’s story is what we’ve all come to expect from The Division: linear, predictable and chock full of action. I think my friend said it best when he mentioned that Massive and Ubisoft are known for creating great worlds, but not amazing characters or narratives within it. To prove his point he then asked us to name one NPC in the game and it was honestly embarrassing how long it took to come up with someone (even the main antagonist, this was during the original campaign). Still it’s enjoyable, following the not-so-subtle plot threads through to their conclusion. The expansion does setup the core game for some shenanigans down the line so I’m hopeful for another juicy story expansion in the not too distant future.
So for those of us who enjoyed The Division 2 and have been back since Warlords of New York is definitely a great time to come back. Much like the original release it’s familiar yet different enough to be engaging and all the changes seem for the better. The lack of a clear endgame goal (and a squad of mates also) meant that the end-game grind doesn’t seem like it’ll be for me this time around but I might find myself back in here again should any of my mates pick it up soon. There’s also the 3 episodes to catch up on (which I haven’t) so if Warlords doesn’t satiate you then there’s still enough drip content left to chew on. Overall I very much enjoyed my time with the expansion and hope for another one like it in the near future.
Tom Clancy’s The Division 2: Warlords of New York is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 11 hours played, bringing the total time in The Division 2 to 53 hours.
Oh my word would you look at that, it’s another RPG from our good friends over at Spiders. If you are unfamiliar with them (although how could you having read every single one of my reviews!) they are a small developer who has aspirations of being the next Bioware but not where near the prestige nor funding to achieve it. Their previous run of games, which are all startlingly similar in their construction, have all been firmly in the B-grade category; having many of the trappings of its AAA brethren but nowhere near the same level of polish, finesse or integration of mechanics that would make it seem somewhat similar. Over the years then I’ve grown to love seeing Spiders releasing things because it means that they’re somehow still making money despite peddling some of the most mediocre titles for years on end. However, and I feel strange for saying this, their latest game Greedfall actually manages to be a half decent game, even if the spectres of its past are still very much visible. So this may be the first time ever that I say I’m actually looking forward to seeing what Spiders comes up with next.
You are De Sardet, legate of the Congregation of Merchants and you’ve been tapped on the shoulder to accompany your cousin to a newly discovered island called Teer Fradee. He’s to be the governor there and it’s your job to assist him in ensuring that the will of the Congregation is executed over there. At the same time you’ve been tasked with trying to find a cure for the terrible sickness that has been plaguing everyone on the content, a disease that has been named the Malichor. Your journey is not simply one of bashing heads and saving those in distress; no instead you’re there to ensure political stability on the island, including finding a way for those of the continent to get along with the natives of the island. That’s going to be something of a challenge considering the number of different factions, all of whom have their own ideas of what this new island should be used for.
The graphics of Greedfall are brought to us by Spiders’ own game engine called Silk which itself was based off the free Sony engine called PhyreEngine. The graphics it delivers though are more akin to the best we’d seen out of the previous generation, although when compared to previous Spiders titles it’s definitely a major step up. Whilst there’s a healthy dose of asset reuse the environments are still more detailed than they ever have been before. They will start to blend into each other after a while as all the forests look pretty much the same as do the towns save for the few custom designed areas that each of them has. Heck even the various governor houses are basically identical save for the texture jobs. There’s also some noticeable differences in the game’s framerate and the physics engine’s rate which is probably most notable in your cape which stutters along rather than flowing like you’d expect. Credit where it’s due though this is a pretty big step up for Spiders and I’m not one to chide someone for making progress.
It seems that after making ostensibly the same game 4 times over Spiders has finally managed to streamline it to the point where they’ve actually managed to make most of the systems work properly. You’re still going to have to choose to main one of three character classes, each of which largely fits into the regular RPG tropes. The multiple different attribute and talent systems make a return although at least this time around there’s a respec facility that gives you the ability to tweak things if you happen to make a wrong decision early on. You’ll still be saddled with AI companions that you have zero control over however and their AI hasn’t really improved much in the years since the Technomancer. Crafting once again makes a return although it suffers from the same problems at it always has. Overall whilst the theme of “put everything in that the AAA guys do” is still very much prevalent in Greedfall at least this time it’s a lot better done making for a game that’s actually kind of fun to play.
Combat is still a very simplistic affair, being mostly focus on you whacking at enemies and dodging their more obvious telegraphed attacks whilst waiting for your abilities to come off cooldown. The game asks you what archetype you want to be at the start and, for a change, I decided to see what being a spellcaster would be like. To their credit this was actually quite a viable build although, unfortunately, it still meant that I’d spend about half of most combat encounters meleeing things as I waited for my mana to regen. However there were also times that I could completely wipe out an entire group with 2 spells, something which I sorely needed to do later in the game when I was over everything and just wanted to complete the story. I still have the feeling that going for the warrior tree might’ve been the smarter move overall as it seems all the good weapons and armor require you to invest in points that that tree makes use of. Having to split my points a bit between things to support my spellcasting whilst also wearing armour that wasn’t total shit was a bit of a pain, although it wasn’t too much of a drag for the last 5 or so hours of my playthrough.
Like most things in Greedfall though the combat gets extremely repetitve after not too long. The enemy variety is very low and doesn’t really change much throughout the game. This unfortunately means that the increased challenge usually comes from the game throwing more of those enemies at you or simply giving them a truckload more health and armour. This turns most fights into drawn out slugfests and with an unfortunate late of variety in spells and skills there’s not much to really keep you interested. To be sure I could’ve easily respecced between any of the 3 trees anytime I wanted to (you’ll pick up more than enough items to cover them all off) but I shouldn’t have to completely up-end my build just to keep things interesting. The games that Greedfall aspires to be (Dragonfall: Origins should I take a wild guess) managed to keep me interested without the need for me to change things up so I definitely feel like it’s a lack of time and/or resources on Spiders’ part here.
Pro-tip: there’s basically no reason to invest any points in crafting as there’s NPCs who can craft everything for you. Not only that but all crafting recipes are available to you right from the get-go so there’s really nothing else for you to do but to go and find the required mats. This is made incredibly easy by the fact that every time you travel you have to camp, which also brings with it a vendor who always has every crafting item in stock. It’s probably still worth picking up various mats along the way as you’ll sometimes need to craft something or use them to complete a quest but other than that you’re going to end up with a bunch of materials that you’re not going to have any use for. Thankfully they don’t weigh particularly much so you can still indulge in your packrat ways if you so wish. Once I’d found a good set of unique armour and an associated weapon I maxed out crafting to upgrade everything to the fullest and then respecced into something more useful right away. I think I ended up using that setup for over half the game.
Progression is a muddled affair as you’ll get skill points every level (and can even find “skill shrines” that give you additional points) but will only get attribute and talent points every so often. This means that if you find a sweet piece of armour that needs endurance 2 it’s not going to be 2 levels to use it, no more like 5+. Whilst this does mean that the early game is a bit of a balancing act to get the most out of the loot you have it ends up being a pretty big source of frustration later in the game. This is most apparent when all the good loot requires the higher tiers of attributes unlocked or not having a particular skill (like say vigor) levelled up enough means taking the very long way around something. Of course I totally get the idea that this is meant to make you specialise in something but given the loot isn’t particularly diverse it kind of means that non-warrior builds are less viable than their melee focused counter-parts. This is honestly par for the course with Spiders games though so I really shouldn’t be surprised.
There have been some major quality of life improvements over previous Spiders games like, finally, a fast travel system. Unfortunately this is tied up with a completely unnecessary (but mandatory) “camp” intermediate level which basically means you’ll always see 2 load screens unless you’re travelling within a current map. It would be so, so much better if you had the choice of camping or not as later in the game there’s really not a lot of reason to spend any time at camp. Other improvements include item comparison, so you can see if what you’re looking at is an upgrade, a useable map and a UI that isn’t complete garbage. It’s still probably about 5+ years behind what I’d call AAA but at the very least we’re streets ahead of what I’ve come to expect from this developer.
Of course the game is still riddled with issues, some of which may be due to their continued use of the Silk engine or perhaps just straight up lack of polish. Pathing is a major issue and you’ll routinely get cornered or stuck by NPCs or your companions alike although they’ll usually figure out you’re trying to get past them after a 30 seconds or so. There are missions in the game that are obviously related to each other but haven’t had alternative voice lines recorded from them so you’ll often have your character experiencing weird bouts of amnesia about things that they really should know about. Whilst the level of the jank in the combat is certainly decreased the same issues in Spiders’ previous games still exist, like spells or melee hits just straight up not connecting for no reason at all and enemies straight up ignoring terrain to get at you. A lot of these things can be patched out though and hopefully Spiders does invest some time between this game and the next on improving the overall experience.
The story is passable as it’s rather predictable but at least many of the characters are given time to develop and there appears to be a much richer world behind everything than previous Spiders’ games had. Even with that said though there were a good number of characters I was just straight up not interested in talking to, including 2 of the companions that are introduced much later in the game and as such feel like strangers in your tightly knit crew. I will admit that I played for much, much longer than I would have otherwise just because I wanted to see how everything panned out but even that became quite the chore towards the end. Overall it’s a vast improvement but there’s still a lot of room to grow here.
After 7 years of not really improving at all it’s heartening to see signs of life from the Spiders team. Whilst Greedfall is certainly still in B-grade territory it’s very, achingly close to tipping over to into A. There’s still tons of room for improvement here and a “less is more” approach could still help immensely in focusing more on what matters to the core game rather than trying to emulate what others deliver in the same kind of experience. Still I hope that the success that Spiders has found with Greedfall either gives them bigger budgets or allows them to attract more top tier talent as it’s clear there’s something going on there, they just need the right guidance and resources to make something truly AAA worthy.
Greedfall is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and XboxOne right now for $69.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 22 hours play time and 51% of the achievements unlocked.
Ever since I started keeping a list of games I’d like to review (some 6 years now) it’s become clear to me just how many I don’t get around to playing. Still I try to make time for the ones that everyone seems to enjoy or have seen wide critical acclaim. Which is why I went back to play Control as it has managed to snag many Game of the Year awards and nominations from many of the top game reviews websites. My opinion differs significantly to those as whilst I think Control is a very competent and novel game it’s far from game of the year material. Perhaps the most grievous sin it commits is to follow in the footsteps of the many Assassin’s Creed and Ubisoft open world titles that came before it, introducing the concept of grind into a single player game. Combine that with a game that’s still needing some polish 5+ months after its release and I really have to wonder why so many think Control is a better game than the numerous other contenders for the 2019 release year.
You are Jesse Faden and have arrived at the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, a place called the Oldest House. However upon your arrival you find it practically deserted the only person around being an old man called Ahti who appears to be to be bureau’s janitor. He then points you towards the director’s office for your interview, commenting that he could really use a new assistant to help him out. Upon arriving in the directors office you find his body, apparently dead from suicide. As you grab his weapon from the table you’re transported to another realm where it becomes clear that there’s much more to the bureau, and the world at large, than you first thought.
Control uses Remedy’s proprietary engine called Northlight which was first used with Quantum Break back in 2016. Back then I commented on how good the game looked but it seems like Control hasn’t really improved much on the visuals that the engine is able to offer. I think a large part of this is the fact that the vast majority of Control takes place in smaller spaces, making the lack of detail in some areas a lot more apparent than they otherwise would be in a more open setting. There also isn’t a great amount of variance in the environments either which makes the blandness stand out even more. This isn’t to say Control is a terrible looking game, more that it’s a half step or so behind what I’d consider to be the norm for a AAA title. No doubt part of it is also my now 5 year old rig which seemed to struggle in some places, even at 1080p, but given I had similar troubles 3 years ago with Quantum Break I have my suspicions that the engine could use a few more optimisations.
Control is a third person shooter/RPG hybrid with a healthy dash of open world elements thrown in for whatever reason. Whilst there’s a main campaign mission to follow there’s dozens of side quests, tasks and other errands for you to run that’ll reward you with varying amounts of resources, crafting materials and, if you’re really lucky a skill point or two. You don’t technically find new weapons instead you craft new forms of the “Service Weapon”, most of which fall into the typical archetypes we’re familiar with (pistol, machine gun, shotgun, etc.). Progression comes in 3 different ways: skill points, weapon mods and personal mods. The former is granted on completion of some, not all missions, and feels like it’s mostly tied to the main missions and a few of the longer side missions. Mods can drop from basically anywhere and are randomly generated, meaning it’s quite possible to pick up a mod with a god like roll that won’t get replaced for some time. This is where the game starts to tend towards endless grind territory as you attempt to seek out the best mods to tweak your preferred build. There’s even endgame level activities if you’re so interested although honestly I can’t really see why you’d bother.
Combat is typically medium paced as pretty much every encounter will have a couple waves of enemies and whilst your ammo and powers are unlimited they’ll need recharging pretty often, slowing down how many bad guys you can dispatch in any one go. After the first couple hours you will have seen basically every enemy archetype there is though and so after then it just becomes a matter of numbers and how many waves get thrown at you for any particular combat encounter. For the most part if you take your time there’s not much in the game that can kill you, especially considering that most encounters you can simply just walk away from and leash the enemies, giving you time for round 2. This makes for an overall combat experience that’s OK but somewhat boring after a while as you’re literally just doing the same fights over and over again.
It probably doesn’t help that the progression in the game is kinda meh for the most part. All of the upgrades you get, apart from the 3 or so new abilities and new weapon forms granted to you over the course of the game, are percentage based stat increases and so don’t feel particularly impactful to how you play the game. To be sure there’s a couple skill upgrades which make can change things a little, but even then not by much. Really the only one I got any kind of use out of was the levitating enemies when their health was low perk and even that was only useful because the enemy bodies were usually bigger than the other bits of crap I could hurl around.
If I was able to stack a ludicrous amount of mods then I could see myself having a lot of fun with some really stupid builds but unfortunately you’re limited to 3 weapon mods (per weapon type) and 3 personal mods. Whilst that makes for a large amount of build variety I don’t feel many of them are particularly viable as you’re going to want a health upgrade and, by consequence, the upgrade that makes the little health thingies that the enemies drop more effective. Either that or waste your valuable skill points on the same things which would limit you to the vanilla base skills. Really I feel like Control could’ve been a lot more fun if they just let you go hog wild with these things and become a complete wrecking ball like many other RPGs do.
Control also suffers from a few issues which at this late juncture I would’ve expected to have been ironed out by now. Switching from the menu to the game triggers a good 3 seconds of single digit frame rates which is a real pain in the ass when you have switch in and out of it all the time to read the various files strewn about the place just so you understand at least the basics of the plot. Since a good chunk of the game is physics based you’ve got the usual emergent behaviour issues that goes along with it, something that becomes readily apparent when you say, walk through a room with stuff strewn everywhere and Jesse seemingly forgets how to walk around or over things. In the grand scheme of things these are minor issues but given this is a AAA title, from a big name house and it’s been out for a while now I figured it should be basically issue free.
The story is interesting enough, being a kind of X-files meets the Twilight Zone kind of deal. The game does go out of its way to be especially obtuse with the various plot elements it introduces you to directly, forcing you to sniff around all the various files to find context and detail that you’ll so desperately need to have any clue about what’s going on. The main character’s inner dialogue also started to grate on me after a while as I didn’t feel like it added much and almost felt like a remnant of a choice system that was implemented and then scrapped halfway through the game’s development. If anything it’s reflective of the game as a whole: well built but just lacking that hook to really get me to buy in to the whole thing.
Control is a well constructed game that’ll tick a lot of boxes for many people but seems to lack that certain something to bind everything together to make the concept really sing. Indeed all of the individual elements are good to begin with but fail to evolve or improve over time. So the experience you get at the start feels largely the same as the one you have at the end which, for 10 hours invested, does make you question why you’d bother in the first place. I’m sure there’s some out there with dozens more hours invested in the game’s various end game and open world activities but, for me, I just couldn’t get invested enough to want to keep playing. Just goes to show that what makes something game of the year material will be different for everyone and, for me, it seems that I simply can’t find what others see in Control.
Control is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time.
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 wife was absolutely enamored with Until Dawn. After I completed my initial playthrough I did another with her as she’s a massive fan of the horror genre, especially the cheesier, B-grade ones that Until Dawn emulated. After that playthrough she was hooked and spent a good long time replaying the game multiple times over, trying to see every variation that she could. So when I saw that Supermassive games was releasing a series of shorter titles called The Dark Pictures Anthology I was intrigued and, given that we were housebound due to the bushfires blanketing Canberra with smoke, I thought it’d be a good time for us to play through the first instalment: Man of Medan. Unfortunately this particular title doesn’t feel up to the same level as Until Dawn, feeling decidedly middle of the road.
There were rumours of a downed WWII airplane that hadn’t yet been catalogued out in the South Pacific Ocean. Keen to explore a wreck that hadn’t yet been seen by other humans a group of 4 young explorers, along with the captain of the rented vessel, set out to find it based on some information from one of their friends. However whilst they’re out at sea they catch the ire of some local ne’er do wells and quickly find themselves at their mercy. Soon after that happens they get hit by a storm and find themselves butting up against a ghost ship which, for some inexplicable reason, the pirates decide to take shelter in. So begins their journey into this lost vessel and the horrors that lie within.
Man of Medan retains much of the cinematic level quality that Until Dawn had although now, compared to 3 years ago, the graphics aren’t as cutting edge as they once were. This game’s aesthetic is much, much darker than its predecessor as well so a good lot of the detail is hidden from view most of the time. Thankfully though the performance issues have been addressed so even chumps like me using an original PS4 won’t be left suffering with low frame rates. Given that this game is on Unreal unlike the previous one (which was on Decima) there’s definitely room for improvement here and who knows, maybe the whole thing looks amazing on PC.
This is still very much an interactive fiction game with it’s mostly linear levels, countless items strewn around for you to interact with and the action scenes peppered with quick time events. At the basic level not much has changed with Man of Medan as most of the mechanics have been renamed rather than reworked. The biggest change comes in the form of the Curator, a fourth-wall breaking character who speaks to you about the story that’s unfolding and the choices that you’re making within it. He will also offer you clues from time to time, although whether or not they help or hinder you is something that’s up for debate. He’ll be a recurring character in the series as he’s apparently some sort of collector of these kinds of stories, wanting to observe those who experience them. Given the shorter intended length of these stories most of the mechanics I’ve described above have been streamlined somewhat so there’s a lot less depth to them than what I remember being in Until Dawn.
As with all interactive fiction exploration is the name of the game here although, if I’m honest, Man of Medan doesn’t provide a particularly rewarding experience in this respect. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff for you to find, but most of the time it’s just flavour text for the story of the ship. That’d be great if it wasn’t for the fact that you have most of the story for it already, thanks to the opening tutorial taking place in the past. So the rest of the stuff you read is really just fluff for the most part. Worse still it doesn’t seem like exploration, especially in places that are meant to be hard to find, rewards you in any way at all. In these kinds of games that kind of exploration, I feel, should be rewarded with things that help you in some way when it comes to the game’s critical moments. None of the items I found exploring the ship with my wife helped in any way and indeed, I think most of them actually made things worse. Sure, I can see that could have been intentional, but getting punished for doing the hard thing in a game feels like a swift kick in the pants.
Probably the worst part of Man of Medan though is the lack of connection between your actions and their outcomes. Now our playthrough probably wasn’t the greatest, we managed to kill 3 out of the 5 characters, but one of them didn’t feel connected to previous events at all and the last two were single QTE fails, neither of which gave any indication that that was our last chance to get the character out alive. The premonitions were also total trash as well, the options that they showed you seemingly having zero influence on the situation at hand. Worse still, with losing a character around halfway through the game, it was obvious that there were holes in the story that that character was meant to fill and from then on many interactions felt half baked as the scenes didn’t seem to be rewritten enough to cope for said loss. Honestly I never felt this way in Until Dawn, even when I watched my wife’s playthrough where she killed nearly every character.
Of course I’d probably be able to ignore most of these issues if the story wasn’t so uninspired and predictable. It was pretty clear from the onset what was going to happen and the unfolding of events really didn’t add much to the overall narrative. Combine that with the use of tired jump scares and run of the mill horror tropes and you had a recipe for a story that was forgettable, boring and lacking the drive to push the game forward. Even my wife, who loves this kind of horror, wasn’t really enjoying the story for the most part.
Putting this all together you’ve got a decidedly disappointing experience in Man of Medan, one that really isn’t up the standard that Supermassive set with Until Dawn. I do like the concept though, a mysterious man who takes you through stories of the past and catalogues your decisions, but the first instalment in this anthology doesn’t give me high hopes for future ones. Perhaps with a more engaging story I can look past some of the more egregious missteps as it was that, combined with the distinct lack of agency my wife and I felt whilst playing, that really tore the experience down for us. Maybe the next story, Little Hope, will prove to be a little better.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $49.95. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 4 hours total play time and 11% 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.