Latest Articles

Review: Nex Machina

1.jpg

Twin-stick shooters seem to be ten-a-penny nowadays, so in order to swipe the cash out of your pocket they need to bring something to the table. I played Neuro-Voider recently, and that was pretty cool. I got to customise a mech with upgradeable weapons and blast my way through twenty levels of rogue-like robot doom. Laser Disco Defenders (also very cool) had a great system where all shots fired stayed on the screen, creating a self-inflicted laser hell. Nex Machina: Death machine eschews cool mechanics in the favour of neon visuals that will make your eyes bleed if you stare at them for too long.

There is no story. No motivation at all other than ‘shoot this stuff or die’. There are no gimmicks. There are barely any weapon upgrades. You shoot enemies until they are all gone and then you move onto the next stage. After a few stages you fight a big, bad boss. Then you go to the next stage and do it all again. So why would you even play Nex Machina? Because it’s honest fun reminiscent of Super Smash T.V. In a genre where gimmicks are king, it’s a surprising breath of fresh air.

The whole game is paced wonderfully. You’ll fight waves of enemies that increase in toughness, dashing around collecting the human survivors to boost your score. Enemies will march blindly towards you at first and in later levels the screen will be packed full of fodder to blast away in a satisfying shower of cubes. Neon bullets and lasers will scar your eyes. You’ll spend life after life trying to clear a screen, only to have some random goon spew bullets at you from a direction you weren’t prepared for. Death results in a beautiful explosion of more garish lasers and a reset of the screen, allowing players with the patience to learn the patterns of the enemies to reap the highest of scores.

Power-ups can be collected throughout a play through to aid in smashing more baddies into dust. Expect to grab rocket launchers, grenades and smart bombs, as well as a few minor upgrades to your primary weapon. Each death will result in the loss of one of these upgrades, but fear not, the power will stay exactly where you died. This adds a nice little dimension to the game; do you go back and collect it, or abandon it in favour of rescuing more survivors?

The whole thing looks superb. It really does. If you take a glance at any one of the screen shots above, you will see what I mean. Bright pink lasers, lava, robot enemies, more lasers; the stages really are packed with enough neon to make the eighties look pathetic in comparison. As mentioned earlier, everything explodes into cool little cubes that scatter onto the floor. It’s a nice touch that for some reason reminded me of the old Lawnmower man films. The sound design is also pretty spectacular. The whole thing has a funky techno-style soundtrack that compliments the constant sound of bullets smashing into enemies. It also gets a huge amount of bonus points for utilising one of the most under-used features of the PS4; the speaker in the control pad. I always get a kick out of this. Even though it’s only used to announce a new power up being collected, the fact that is there gives Nex Machina a boost in the sound design score that otherwise would have been missed.

It’s not perfect by any means. I would have liked to see a few more power ups to collect, a few more upgrades to the primary weapon, that sort of thing. Although the visuals are extremely appealing a little more variety would have been nice. As it is, enemies are pretty similar and there is a LOT of neon pink flying around the place. A broader use of the colour palette would have been appreciated. Other than that, Nex Machina: Death Machine is a solid game, perfect for high-score chasers. It comes from established developers Housemarque, who have improved upon their similar attempts at the genre, and aside from the main game (which is packed with secret areas and survivors to collect) offers an ‘Arena’ mode where players are tasked with clearing stages with a number of stipulations such a time limits and the such to add replayability. It’s a little bit pricey for my liking, but if you are in the market for a twin-stick shooter you can’t go wrong with this one.

Review: de Blob

1.jpg

Though it may be a distant memory for some, the Nintendo Wii was a huge system in its day, with a fair number of exclusive and engaging titles that still stand strong to this day (Mario Galaxy). But while many may automatically remember the first party games, the 3rd party contributions were still quite spectacular, if not remembered as readily. Thus, the recent port of THQ’s de Blob to Steam was a pleasant surprise, and I was excited to see if memories hold up as well in the cold light of today.

If you’re not familiar, de Blob is a fascinating game about a world where a corrupt mega corporation has taken a stranglehold on the world and drained it of all color, leaving it gray and bland. You, the titular Blog, have the ability to absorb paint into your person and act as a massive sponge roller to re-color and bring back the world to what it used to be. Along the way, you can run missions, colorize things in different hues, and generally play the game at your own pace. Yes, there is a timer for each level and there are certain constraints (it’s not a free-roaming world, after all) but there are many ways to approach each stage and no wrong way to enjoy things.

1.jpg

For what it’s worth, the game still looks and sounds pretty fantastic. I’ve always admired games that attempt to blaze a new trail in-game direction, and de Blob succeeds on a few levels. Sure, the general idea is a great combination of Jet Set Radio and Katamari Damacy, but it doesn’t pull from either of those two games to be called an homage, and neither is slipped in somewhere in bold-faced tribute. But when I see a rolling protagonist bringing back color and funk to a drab land, those are the parents that I attribute to this love child. And, since the game was made for the Wii, it’s full of colors that pop and shapes that grab your attention at any age. The landscapes always remind me of a three-dimensional coloring book, and you can really appreciate the detail that went into creation when colors start getting added in. Not to mention that, as you color more and more of the world, the soundtrack, which is a groovy sort of ambiance, seems to pick up the further along you get and the more people you help liberate and colorize.

The game also has a huge amount of replay value if you find yourself enamored with the play style. Beside the free painting option and having a multiplayer “Blob Party, the levels themselves are enormous. You only have to ink a certain amount before the next gate unlocks and grants you passage: the true artist inside, however, will compel you to try and color every single square inch you can reach. Not just buildings: trees, rocks and the mountains themselves cry out for a fresh coat, and you can oblige in most cases. You might need to get handy at mastering the camera angles so you can truly check if everything’s pretty in purple (or whichever other color you desire), but it’s very fulfilling for a canvas to get completely covered. And, as far as non-violent games go, this one gives a lot of satisfaction in squishing the bad guys and making sure the sad, colorless folk get to party and live in technicolor once again.

1.jpg

The huge levels can be a drawback, however. Blue Tongue Entertainment originally meant this game for the Wii and for iOS, respectively. The iOS was a pick-up-and-play situation with far less detail, but still gave a fair amount of save opportunities. The Wii version was much more robust, but the save points came after completing each stage in it’s entirety, which might require upwards of 30 minutes at a time. For the Wii, no problem: nothing had the potential to interfere within the console, as background activities were pretty minimal. For the modern PC gamer, however, there’s a lot going on at any given time, and you may need more opportunities to save, even save-state, when you’re on a colorful rampage. I lost quite a bit of time needing to redo entire stages again from the beginning because my computer isn’t the best and sometimes had some issues that required Steam to be closed. The Steam Cloud does exist, however, and de Blob at least makes sure your high scores and accomplishments are saved away should anything happen.

Another small nit I have to pick is the lack of Steam achievements. Make no mistake: this port by Blit Software (who also did the Jet Set Radio port) is fantastic and looks better on my computer than it ever did on my Wii. As far as issues or complaints go, this one is seriously insignificant. But de Blob is a game where players strive hard to do their best in time, score and completion percentage, and the Steam achievements almost seem to be right-over the plate as far as something to bake in. I won’t let this be the currant that spoils my cake, but it did just bother me a little that, with everything else going on, this small thing was absent.

This is a great port through and through. The graphics have been improved from the ground-up and the videos have even been up-scaled from the limited 480p that was the Wii. de Blob handles like a dream and I had no problems zipping around and getting my green on at every opportunity. There’s even Wiimote support to really experience the original play of the game, which…well, it’s novel. If you have the tools at your disposal, I say go for it and enjoy, but don’t run out and pick up a Wiimote otherwise. The 360 controller works pretty great, I had zero issues.

If you were a fan of this classic from recent history, or are absolutely tickled by the idea of fighting the man one paint can at a time, you really can’t go wrong with de Blob. It’s fun, it’s original, and it got the porting it deserved, minus a small detail that doesn’t affect the game itself at all. The success has already lead to de Blob 2 getting ported, and who knows? Maybe even more Wii exclusives are in the pipeline.

Review: Shotgun Legend

1.jpg

Shotgun Legend is a straight up, no shame tribute to the NES and the heyday of the action/adventure classic, The Legend of Zelda. The game has a ridiculous plot regarding tire rims, portals and aliens, but the end result is a carefully baked NES-era game put out onto Steam. You may think “oh, this is pixel graphics on top of a fully modern game” or something to that effect, but I need to stop you dead in your tracks. Shotgun Legend handles and looks like I should have bought it on a grey rectangle for way too much at Funco Land. You can only move in four directions, the action is clunky and your hitbox is much bigger and smaller than you think it is at the same time. If you’re hoping for a “retro indie” that actually plays like a dream, pack up and move on.

1.jpg

One thing people forget about is how goddamn hard the Legend of Zelda and many NES games were because of how well they’ve aged with nostalgia. Additionally, the luxury of looking back and identifying games that were crazy hard due to poor programming (Silver Surfer, Snoopy’s Silly Sports Spectacular) have overshadowed truly difficult games (Kabuki Fighter, Contra) because we also have played them time after time. If you can remember what the original Zelda entailed, it meant being dropped into a HUGE map for the time with three hearts, no coins and no clear direction on where to go. That is the NES experience Shotgun Legend manages to capture.

Given that you have a shotgun as soon as you spawn, the first cavern you encounter gives you no weapons upgrade, but the ability to create a second player who can help you along with the keyboard while player one continues with the controller. I HIGHLY recommend having a friend with you, especially for a first play, because there is no forgiveness in Shotgun Legend. While there is a nice bonus of re-appearing at the start of whichever doorway you’ve recently exited (dungeon, cave, abandoned castle), you will still experience a ton of death trying to find your way around. Certain areas are only blocked off by item related impasses, such as enemies who don’t feel bullets or a familiar looking dock that might need, say, a raft. Upgrades appear either after defeating certain enemies (some might call them bosses) or buying them outright from merchants. At the current time, eight active items and eight passive items do make for a nice build to your character being more playable and powerful, not to mention the heart containers that show up after boss fights and the occasional purchase.

1.jpg

The gunplay, if you can call it that, fits in well with the idea and personality of the game. You can’t fire from one side of the room to the other and hope for the best, but the shot spread is actually pretty decent and you can get about six tiles max if you’re lucky. Shotgun Legend lets you decide your play style, whether you want to get up close and personal for a hopefully one shot take down, or just kind of plink away at the enemy while trying to keep your distance. There isn’t any secret that enemies won’t just lie there while you shoot at them, so I suggest being fast on the trigger and getting in close so that all the shots find one target.

I personally found the difficulty of Shotgun Legend to be pitch perfect to match the emulated environment. I didn’t die immediately, but I got lost enough that I wasn’t surprised when I got done in by a walking tree. I wandered into an abandoned town and met a town hall full of armored skeletons. Beetles fly much faster than I imagined they could. The dungeon wasn’t well lit until it was suddenly full of fireballs. The number of times I died is immeasurable, and I always reloaded, certain that I understood how to survive this time. The game rewards you for not only trying again, but also starting from the beginning. I didn’t know how valuable the compass would be at the start, and, when I decided to start over again, I felt so much better after grinding ten coins and picking that up IMMEDIATELY. The game wants you to succeed, just not easily.

1.jpg

Shotgun Legend is far from perfect, however. One thing that really kind of rubs me the wrong way is the sound panel. For whatever reason, that seems to be the sore thumb in this fist of an NES game. Everything else – the color scheme, the way enemies move, the progression of the game and the controls – fits perfectly with a mid to late 80s persona. But the music doesn’t sound retro, it just sounds really simple and bland. And the most important sound effect in the whole game – the shotgun blast – is way too crisp and on the money. Instead of something that might be more chippy and clicky (the warning sound when your health is low is perfect) it almost feels like a ROM editor dropped in a .wav of a shotgun blast they found online. It’s still old school feel, but it’s a different school, and I don’t know if that’s what the creator intended.

Additionally, it might be too daunting for people who didn’t grow up with the 8-bit generation, or who haven’t bothered to try out the games of yesteryear. Dark Souls is always brought up as a game that punishes players and rewards the veterans, and Shotgun Legend has a bit of that going for it as well. Your first time playing will probably be repetitive and frustrating as you figure out where to go, what you’re allowed to touch and backtrack time and again. I wandered way the hell out on a whim, dodged around a lot of slimes and beetles and ended up at the entrance of a dungeon that I couldn’t do more than look at because it was sealed away until I got the right item. A lot of games nowadays do too much hand holding, but Shotgun Legend may have gone too hard in the other direction by hurling players into a pool without so much as a set of trunks.

One final note is that Shotgun Legend is still very much an Early Access game. The developer has been pretty active and aware of issues since the game’s launch at the beginning of the month, and I appreciate seeing the number of hot fixes that have dropped in just a couple of weeks time. I believe this to be a passion project, both for enjoyment and artistic creativity, and so I trust that we can see more and more of Shotgun Legend as things develop further.

Shotgun Legend may not be for everyone. It’s retro to the point of being an artifact, and it handles like one at times. But there’s charm to it, and incentive. It actually plays well, and it’s engaging and challenging. I wanted to keep going. I wanted to learn more and find more, and it drove me in a way that made it worthwhile. If you used to have a grey box of your own back in the day, or just want to try a tribute to the granddaddy of adventure games, then be sure to grab Shotgun Legend.

Review: Krai Mira: Extended Cut

1.jpg

Krai Mira is a crowdfunded isometric RPG in the style of the old Fallout games. It had an initially rocky launch which saw the game delivered in a barely playable state; riddled with bugs and other technical issues. The developers remained committed though, and sought to relaunch their title all fixed up and dubbed the “Extended Edition”. You don’t get two chances at a first impression though, and despite the work that went into eradicating all the bugs and tech hiccups (which I never encountered, to be fair), Krai Mira may have been pretty much dead on arrival.

It’s first hurdle was narrative. It opens with an ominously badass-sounding guy explaining how the post apocalyptic world is all scary and stuff. You have to be tough to survive and whatnot. Then you assume control of an unnamed dude with his friend out collecting supplies for their settlement. You come across some soldiers who are looking out for some killer cannibals and… yawn. It’s totally stock post apocalypse plot in Krai Mira. In that respect, its much like the old Fallout games that inspired it. In every other regard however, Krai Mira is just a disparate golem of a clone.

1.jpg

The game plays over an isometric field where enemies like bandits, cannibals and stray mutts are all out to steal your lunch money and kill your face. You can see enemies on the map and can sometimes manoeuvre around them unperturbed with your party. Alert them, and you’ll find yourself embroiled in an awkwardly slow and painfully boring turn based battle dictated by a stingy allocation of action points. It’s hilarious to watch; you and your pals are running around the map like gazelles, then BANG, a scary bandit stops you and now you can only move a few inches at a time. It’s incredibly frustrating to get within a centimetre of a bandits smelly unwashed face only to find you’ve run out of action points, allowing your foe the first strike with a splintery bat upside your generic, unnamed face.

1.jpg

Literally everything is dictated by your action points; attacking, moving, using items, changing items, reloading items – just everything. I know that’s how a lot of turn-based games work and some people may actually like it but I just felt strangled by them and how they never allowed any wiggle room for a battle to go in a different direction. If you’re mercilessly slaughtering a bunch of enemies for example, you have to ride out the boring regulations that only allow you to kill one at a time because you have to spend tonnes of points reloading your firearms and moving from one to another. Wait a minute? Can’t I just sit in one area and shoot all the baddies from miles away? Nope. Don’t be stupid, this is the apocalypse, and your cable-tied guns aren’t worth jack. You’d be better off throwing dog shit at your targets as it would probably go farther and possibly do more damage if you got them in the eye.

1.jpg

Luckily, Krai Mira isn’t exactly a visual car crash, and effectively conveys an adequate, albeit unexceptional, atmosphere of post civilisation. It kind of reminds me of one time I got my eyes tested and had to endure a drop of dye that made everything look as if it were steeped in cold tea. That’s it, Krai Mira has been liberally swabbed with an old soggy teabag to give it that exquisitely browny brownness. Do not adjust your colour calibration folks, you’ve just been teabagged.

Kudos to the developers for staying aboard their sinking ship and making Krai Mira at least playable enough for the 12 people that loved it beforehand. Honestly it does warm my heart in all seriousness to see developers sticking to their guns especially after a crowdfunded project. Regardless, no amount of technical improvements or bug testing could ever save a soulless and chronically unfun game from the depths of its, now well-earned, obscurity.

Review: Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada

1.jpg

Many people believe that if you’ve played one Warriors game you’ve played them all. I don’t agree nor do I disagree as some games in the series actually do adhere to that statement and others don’t; luckily Spirit of Sanada is quite unique. With there being over 20 Warriors games ranging from the original PlayStation all the way now to PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.

Omega Force has decided to focus this entire game on the battles of Masayuki Sanada and the lives of his clan. This story has already been covered multiple times through the previous Samurai Warriors games and with the story already told, it did worry me that the entire game would just feel like another walk down repetitive memory lane.

1.jpg

From my previous experience with the Warriors series I immediately knew what buttons to click and how to pull of Rage and Mousu attacks without much thought. With the same aesthetics and similar layouts and the same enemy troops and same officers surrounding you, allowing for massive combos with just a few clicks of the face buttons. This game controls and plays exactly the same as every last Warriors game has with the same button layout and the same combinations. But there’s something about the controls that always feels right and its true when it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

One of the most enjoyable things to me from the Warriors games which they always delivered was variety and with this being locked and focused on the story of the Sanada clan I had expected there to be a very limited cast of playable characters. Thankfully Omega Force pulled all the stops and made sure that this age old feature still existed in this installment with the same wackiness that you’d expect with character fighting with traditional weapons and some very odd weapons.

1.jpg

Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada actually tries to innovate when it comes to war on the battlefield, the player may choose to play in the way they’re accustomed to with the good ol’ hack and slash combat or they can embrace SoS’ new more strategically inclined mechanic. These are called Stratagems and are more like consumable abilities that can be acquired through side missions or by completing specific optional objectives during battles. These abilities range from calling a friendly ninja on a general, officer or to trigger an ambush.  These abilities really help to sway the tides of war when you need them most and add a new depth to the old tired formula. Logically these Stratagems are triggered by spending ‘The Six Coins of the Sanada’ this increases the strategic aspect my limiting your uses and making it a more calculated series of choices to gain success.

Among the other new changes are multi stage battles which are similar the original battles or the older games but now they’re split into smaller battles that are engaged one by one rather than just being thrown into one big map. Along the way of these multistages the player can choose to take in secondary battllefields which focus on non Sanada family members giving some of the other characters some screen time and injecting some much needed diversity in the cast. It also gives a change of pace that gives the game a little more range when it comes to different objectives and maps.

In between battles the player can take part in other activates outside the current base in the story. In these sections the player may shop and perform a few upgrades but can also spend some time with the other characters and by giving them presents you can raise their friendship with you. This is useful as NPCs with a strong bond will offer to join you on your adventures during the side quests.

Graphically the game still looks like it’s using the same techniques from two generations ago with unrealistic physics, low resolution textures and effects that look like they’ve been ported over from a PS2. Warrior games are not the most cutting edge of games and that’s a known fact, it’s also not the reason people play them but it would be such a better experience if characters’ hair didn’t look like cardboard, that and animations that don’t look like so stiff. This is especially noticeable in cutscenes where the characters look awfully mannequin like and unable to really emote their emotions leading to a great disconnect in immersion.

Unfortunately, Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada has a major failing that is a huge disappointment to a fan of the series at that’s a lack of local split screen cooperative play. This is a staple of the Warriors games and was a huge surprise when my sister and I loaded it up for some family bonding. The game doesn’t even offer online co-op which was also quite a shock, to me this severely brings down the value of the game as it’s just more fun in co-op.

Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada is a step in the right direction with many improvements to the Warriors franchise but unfortunately it is not without misstep. The story is greatly expanded and features much more depth in it with a much more focused feel to it delivering a strong effort. The gameplay too has been expanded with new mechanics and methods that were not present in previous games and with this the game is better for it. Although there’s all this improvement there’s a huge decline in value by not including any way of enjoying this game in co-op which could possibly lead to some people skipping this game. In the end if you’re a fan or a new comer SoS is the perfect installment to pick up.

Review: The Franz Kafka Videogame

1.jpg

The Point-&-Click genre is known for its liberal blending of Adventure themes and challenging puzzles. Often, those “puzzles” consist of figuring out where to use certain items, how to combine objects in your inventory, and deciphering dialog options or characters’ needs. The Franz Kafka Videogame sets itself apart by eschewing a lot of the usual Point-&-Click tropes in favor of a vast assortment of satisfying puzzles. Flagged on Steam as a Noir, 2D Puzzle Adventure title, perhaps Franz shouldn’t be labeled as a Point-&-Click at all, though it shares many similar themes with other successful titles in the genre.

Based on the musing of writer Franz Kafka, the historical figure, The Franz Kafka Videogame is an eccentric, chaotic peek into the life and mind of a psychologist circa 1920s. Our protagonist is referred to only as “K.,” whose quest for new employment takes him on a journey into the absurd and surprising. With pieces of intriguing — if dated — psychological theories, this title invites players to explore the complex mental workings of not only K. himself but also his patients and other characters he meets along the way. He is joined by his canine companion, a clever and composed fellow I lovingly nicknamed “Railroad” for the duration of my play-through. Imagine my joy when, just a few challenges into the game, I was met with a train and railroad-themed puzzle.

1.jpg

Without a doubt, this title excels in the puzzle department. I was shocked at the variety displayed within even the first hour of play time. Challenges involving words, railroad switches, alphabetical conversions to numerical amounts, and even an incredibly challenging slider puzzle were all included. Often, the interactions between K. and the rest of the cast in this game are downright bizarre; it certainly challenged the norm, and I enjoyed delving into this acid-trip-worthy world. Given the surrealism that is prevalent in The Franz Kafka Videogame, I found myself far less concerned about the underlying storyline and trying to get it to make sense. Instead, I eagerly awaited the next challenge, hungry for another deeply satisfying puzzle.

The art style and soundtrack are both keenly suited to the general ambiance of the world. I would have enjoyed a separate slider bar for the musical score and sound effects in general, but ultimately it was a minor annoyance. The music feels appropriate for the 1920s, bizarre dreamscapes, and surrealism in general; the cartoon graphics, both for the landscape and the characters themselves, was equally satisfying. It’s a cute combination without seeming too comical; given the 2D, somewhat side-scrolling dynamic it’s no surprise that the graphics aren’t demanding, nor full of special effects.

1.jpg

The Franz Kafka Videogame manages to blend an Adventure genre decent storyline with rich, elaborate puzzles. These challenges offer a degree of variety that is rarely captured in even the most ambitious of Point-&-Click titles. K. comes across as an intriguing if an unusual type of personality, which seems to do justice to his historical legacy. The writings and ideas that Franz Kafka left behind make for perfect surrealism fodder and the Devs at Denis Galanin (mif2000) did a fantastic job of weaving the sometimes madman-worthy musing into a riveting story. The graphics and soundtrack blend to create a compelling, original atmosphere, and I didn’t encounter any bugs or glitches during my gameplay.

Ultimately, if you’re looking for a challenging Puzzle game with some story as well, look no further than this title. Although it shies away from some of the standard Point-&-Click mechanics and themes, The Franz Kafka Videogame more than makes up for that subdued quality with high-quality challenges. And while the replay value is minimal, since a second or third run through the game can’t recapture the novelty and excitement of the first puzzle resolutions, Franz is certainly a can’t-miss sort of title for fans of mind benders, psychology theories, and abstract thinking.

Review: A Butterfly in the District of Dreams

1.jpg

Visual novels, while popular in Japan, have a small die-hard fandom here in the United States. If you were to list game genres, most people would have never heard of Visual Novels being one of them, but they are, like A Butterfly in The District of Dreams, a strong and growing genre that is seeing more attention in the Western World. It’s important, however, to note that only certain people really get into Visual Novels, and are fine completing it from start to finish while others would just give up halfway and just call it a “Story” not a “Game”. A Butterfly in The District of Dreams would most likely fall under the first category by many standards.

The story starts off in Tokyo, where you play as a young college student named Haruki, who has become withdrawn ever since his sister, Anzu, ended up in the hospital. Since then, he has done nothing but wander around instead of going to school, lie to his sister about being happy, and cooking late at night for his parents who come home even later. It’s clear from the start that Haruki is suffering from minor depression due to the current state of things, and is really worried about his sister who, the game hits, is possibly dying. His only friend, Ai, tries to help him out by getting him to come to school again, but when they try to return home they take a strange train that bring them to a mysterious shopping district in another world that seems to go on forever. Taking residence at a local coffee shop run by Yurika, (Who looks a lot like Anzu) the two live there in a slice of life setting while trying to figure out a way home.

1.jpg

The story, at first, was very slow yet interesting as you come to see the mindset of Haruki, who you quickly learn to sympathize, and the obvious romantic interests his friend Ai has for him.  When you arrive at the shopping district, you learn a few interesting facts such as this is another world that goes on forever, people don’t age, nobody is born or dies, and it has a living god that watches over them. The place is built by the dreams of people, and at first it sounds like you’ll be investigating the town itself to discover who the dreamer is and how you can return home. However, the truth is that this game is a slice of life scenario, featuring the main character interact with others in situations that range from hilarious to heartwarming. The problem is that most of these characters and situations have been done to death before. The game pretty much stops standing out after the first chapter, and from there it’s just like watching a standard happy sitcom.

The characters themselves are designed and written well, but the problem is we’ve seen their types before. You have Haruki, the average joe hero who every girl seems to like, Ai, the shy genius who loves Haruki but doesn’t know how to express it, Yukira, the owner of the coffee shop who is perky, brave, and motherly, Rentarou, a jerk with a heart of gold, and Riko, a young little girl who acts cute but annoying. The only character that I personally like is Sakuya, the goddess of the district who pretty much acts like a jerk to everyone because she is a god and doesn’t care. Everyone else is pretty much a bread and butter type character that you can claim to see a hundred different times. You can write as good of a story as you can, but unless the characters are interesting enough it won’t be as engaging as it can be.

1.jpg

Just like with most visual novels, there is less focus on gameplay and more on art and story. The main “mechanic” of any visual novel is making choices that affect the story or your standing with the characters. It takes over three chapters alone just to get to the first choice. I find visual novel games that offer a lot of choices, right from the start to the end, tend to be the most engaging as it keeps the story fresh and flowing. Having very few makes the visual novel less of a game and more of an actual novel. The art is okay, pretty much average in both backgrounds and character design. The music fits the tone too, having a good up beat to fit with the slice of life moments.

I wouldn’t say that A Butterfly in the District of Dreams is a bad game, but it’s just nothing that hasn’t been seen before. It’s very average at certain parts, and cliché in others. If there was more to solving the mystery of the district, more choices to make in the game overall, and better written characters I’d say it would be a better game.

Review: To the Top

1.jpg

It’s fun to be a frog.  Hopping everywhere on land while your sticky hands cling to surfaces makes for a great mode of locomotion.  While technically To the Top features a limbless body with a floating mask and disembodied hands, looking far cooler than a green amphibian could hope to, about the only non-froggy aspect of the movement is that you can’t swim.  Or catch flies with your tongue, for that matter, but there are crystalline geoms to collect so close enough.  To the Top is a VR game where you hop from one grippable surface to another in a race through a vertiginous obstacle course, using the momentum of chained leaps to pick up speed and reach truly incredible heights.

The basics are pretty simple-  Blue surfaces can be grasped, and you can either pull yourself along hand-over-hand or hold with both hands and let go to fling yourself in the direction you’re looking.  Chain jumps together in quick succession to build up momentum and soon you’ll be reaching handholds that initially seemed like you’d need wings to reach.  To the Top wouldn’t work without the sense of depth and space that comes with VR, but once you’ve got in a little practice and can build up a good head of steam you can chain jumps together effortlessly to race towards the end of the course.  Three of the five medals in each of the thirty levels are for good, better, and best times, and once you’ve got the movement system down it’s hard not to try for each one.  The other medals are for turning up all the geoms scattered through each area and finding the secret one hidden on a more difficult path, making for a nice division between speed running and exploration.  Progression is gated by the number of medals you’ve earned, but even if you don’t like being rushed by the timer the minimum medal-count to beat the game is 75, which is a pretty reasonable quest.

With different goals requiring different approaches, the levels in To the Top are designed with replayability in mind.  Aside from different themes, such as city, child’s room, techno-artistic, etc, each level also has different ways to shave time off the run.  Whether that be gaining enough speed to cut corners in the shorter, earlier areas, or entirely different paths with their own checkpoints in the more complicated ones, there are plenty of ways to experiment.

The first tentative steps into the earliest levels only show one simple path, but once you wrap your head around “stare at thing to move towards it” all sorts of options open up.  In my playtime I found the first run through a level was for sightseeing and collecting as many geoms as possible, taking in the scenery and enjoying the incredible feeling of harmless vertigo when dangling off a crane hook hundreds of feet in the sky.  There’s no fall damage, and the penalty for missing a jump is either landing on a spot with nothing to grab, requiring a manual instant-reset to the last checkpoint, or the game auto-resetting back there by itself.  While intellectually you know there’s no harm from falling, though, it’s still easy to look down from the highest areas and feel a bit wobbly.  And then jump off anyway, because there’s a platform down there you know you can reach.

It’s very important while playing, though, to have a well-defined physical area to do it in.  While your disembodied hands have a good reach it’s not infinite, but leaning or stepping forward is a great way to get that little extra distance needed to prevent a fall into the depths.  The levels extend all around you and you’ll frequently go around corners or turn every which way in the course of navigating them.  There’s no Recenter View button so untangling from the headset wire is a regular occurrence, and this is particularly weird when you need to do it gripping a spot hundreds of feet above the ground.  The game is forgiving of this, and once you’ve latched on your hand won’t let go until you release the trigger, but I still found myself keeping my hands together and spinning underneath them as if they were locked in a death-grip to the wall.  Once you’re in the level the illusion is strong, and the real-world intrusion of a stray cable merely disturbs rather than breaks it.  Accidentally punching my monitor or the ceiling was another matter, though.

While that’s not the fault of To the Top, the bugs in the game definitely are.  Loading a level and being taken to the endless VR plain of Steam VR is pretty weak, but dying because of questionable collision physics broke one of the levels and was deeply annoying on many others.  The Giant Robot level starts off like most, with a series of platforms and pads to get through, but you’re going down instead of up.  This is because there’s an enormous robot at the bottom waiting for you, and once you start climbing its sides it starts walking.  It’s a wonderful moment that lasts right until you don’t quite hit a jump fly into a moving part instead, the screen goes black, and you’ve reset back to the bottom again.  Clipping into a wall and back to the checkpoint isn’t fun when it happens on a regular level, and even less so when each attempt at Giant Robot resulted in the same thing happening again and again in different places.

While To the Top may be a bit short on polish its sense of movement is fantastic.  Once you’ve got the hang of managing your momentum you can practically fly through the levels, springing from point to point like a hypercaffeinated frog.  Every level offers something different, whether that be new scenery, air-vortex jump pads, special surfaces that let you skate over them and even one memorable level that gives you jetpack hands.  (That particular level made me glad to play at night when nobody was watching so they couldn’t see me with arms pointed back, leaning forward to get just the right angle to skim ahead at top speed.)  The multiple routes and hidden challenges make each area highly replayable, and while some levels aren’t quite as good as others, at least they’re different enough so if you don’t like one there’s a complete change of pace coming right up.  To the Top is a fantastically creative first-person VR platformer, filled with great challenges and giving the player the tools to handle them if only they can master the techniques.

Review: Prey

1.jpg

Prey is the latest creation from Arkane Studios, veterans of the FPS genre after the release of the widely loved Dishonored games.  Prey, or Prey 2017 as some people call it, has been trivialised as “Bioshock/Dishonored in space”, and to some extent this is true, there are a lot of similarities in the style of those three games, but also a lot of unique differences personal to Prey.  The main protagonist is Morgan Yu, with a purposely ambiguous name to fit either a male or female player character, you are a scientist aboard the space station Talos 1, and second in command of Transtar, the company that owns said space station and funds all the mysterious and sometimes morally questionable research happening aboard.  You begin your story waking up to a view of a picturesque view of a sprawling city, the sun is shining, this is the day you start your ‘new job’ at Transtar.  Your induction includes doing some trivial tests in rooms as scientists look on, scribbling down notes and talking between one another, confused and dismayed.  Suddenly you get your first shock sighting of the game’s enemy, an alien race known as the Typhon, as a Typhon Cacoplasmus, dubbed a mimic, marks a brutal entrance for the antagonist as it rams one of its 4 limbs down the throat of a scientist.  As the scientists are ambushed and you look on in horror, a gas seeps into your test room and you wake up starting your day again, all very suspicious.  This time around however, there are clues as to the reality of your situation, allowing you to break out of this one simulated day that been turned “into the rest of your life”.

As you move out of your luxury prison with no knowledge as to your life before this, you are contacted by January, an AI version of yourself plugged into the body of an operator, one of the many helpful/annoying robots hovering around Talos 1.  He tells you that you are being experimented on by your brother Alex Yu and that the Typhon have since taken over the station, giving you the pretext needed to gear up and… sneak around, hide and hope you don’t get spotted until you’re strong enough to actually fight back.  Prey lays out the back story of the Yu brothers very nicely, leaving the player’s history a scrambled mess of brain matter and fragmented thoughts and memories, all the while painting Alex in an ambiguous light.  He can be seen as friend or foe depending on how you choose to interpret the game as you gradually piece together your shattered past using the multitude of emails mentioning you, Alex, Transtar, Talos 1 and how all of it ties together.  I could go further into detail but I would be doing the game a huge disservice as it is one of it’s greatest achievements, Prey really creates a great and enthralling narrative that draws you in further and further as the game progresses.

Another thing this game does extremely well is atmosphere, the feel of Talos 1 is amazing and I loved exploring it and discovering every caveat to every single character on the station, alive or dead, each one has a tale to tell, not once will you find a corpse without an interesting and unique back story.  The station itself feels vast, open and desolate.  You start the game believing you are still on Earth, but when you discover you are in fact in space by encountering the same view in the screenshot below (only with a bit less clean majesty and a lot less living people) it really changes the dynamic of the game, for me it already made me feel abandoned and alone, at the behest of the extraterrestrial predators stalking through Talos 1 with an instinctual malice emanating from every enemy.

As you progress through Prey you discover Neuromods. Neuromods are touted as the next step in human evolution, although they have an insidious backstory that I won’t spoil here. They allow you to directly implant the abilities and skills of other notable people in history essentially making you a superhuman.  You can run like an Olympian or think like Einstein, as you can imagine these Neuromods are rare and coveted, usually reserved for the upper echelons of society on Talos 1. Each Neuromod can bolster your ability to traverse Talos 1, or butcher the Typhon, exponentially. This makes for some incredibly fun and diverse gameplay, you can play through the game multiple time exploring different skill trees for many different combinations of play styles.  My first and favourite play through utilised a stealth orientated setup, a fully upgraded shotgun, extra stealth critical damage and silent sprinting is one deadly combination. I felt like one of the Phantoms, darting from cover to cover unseen and occasionally one-hitting an enemy. A little bit further into the game and it is revealed that you can use a psychoscope (a device your amnesiac self developed, unbeknownst to the player) a type of headset with goggles designed to analyse Typhon and various other things in your environment. Once you have scanned in enough of a certain enemy you unlock new powers based on the type of enemy scanned. For example, you can scan the mimics and unlock the ability to mimic items yourself, useful for hiding and overcoming obstacles such as a small window, too small for Morgan the human, but just the right size for Morgan the coffee mug.

Another big part of Prey is the ability to leave Talos 1, or enter parts of the station with the artificial gravity switched off.  This really adds a whole new layer to the game, and I was shocked at how much I found myself enjoying it, thinking it would just be moving from one area to the next.  The lack of gravity makes combat harder, especially when the enemies you encounter in these zero G zones are already used to hovering around and can pick you apart easily if you panic at the sight of them and flail helplessly to your swift demise.  A lot of people disliked the Cystoids which are essentially living proximity mines… that move and chase any movement they detect near them.  I personally enjoyed having them around, it made me act a bit more carefully in space as opposed to just propelling myself into a piece of space wreckage without a second thought, I would take my time to creep around the edges at a low-speed to make sure I couldn’t see or hear any of those exploding black lumps.  On the occasion that I did fly in nonchalantly, I would often come face to face with a group of angry shapes looming out of the darkness ready to martyr themselves for the Typhon cause, albeit by instinct, forcing you to part ways with one of the (thousands) of suit repair kits you can find around the station.  The fabrication machines dotted around Talos 1 also added to the game, it allows you to customise your play through to your gaming style.  Stealth, balls out combat, psi powers, all of these can be aided along by fabricating items to suit your needs.  9mm ammo for your silenced pistol, some neuromods to put into the stealth abilities, or maybe some neuromods to increase your psi potential and some psi hypos to keep you topped up in combat.

Overall, I loved Prey. I thoroughly enjoyed the desolate, empty and isolated feeling Talos 1 gave you as you explored it, a stark contrast to the starting mission as you run through your simulated day, complete with a relaxing helicopter ride with a great view, only to be thrust into a totally different and horrifying reality.  The Typhon were a breath of fresh air for me personally when it comes to alien races.  I thought the fact they were physically present but very focused around psychic ability and being semi-ethereal, from a different dimension and with one goal in mind, the assimilation of the people inside Talos 1, and the subsequent destruction of the station, and then perhaps all human life left in the universe.  I loved fighting the Typhon, they felt like a real and soulless enemy to sink your teeth into, no moral ambiguity to them at all, your goals were whittled down to survive, and destroy them.  I also liked how the game presented you with many different perspectives on your brother Alex.  Some people hated him, some admired him, and regardless of everything else, he was still your brother.  This final fact was hit home many times with him speaking to you about your parents, your life on earth, and as you uncover more transcribes and emails I feel as though the game makes you form your own opinion on Alex, which was a fresh experience as opposed to the usual ‘this character is bad, because we needed a bad guy for the plot line to progress’.  Your relationship with Alex feels unique, organic and realistic and I think it adds a lot to the game personally, what with you trying to scavenge and piece together your fractured past, Alex keeping secrets from you (but potentially with your own good in mind) and the Typhon threat constantly growing and creeping closer, Prey felt alive and exciting for me the entire way through.  I would definitely recommend this game to any sci-fi fan, and anyone who loved the way Dishonored played.

Review: Vanquish

1.jpg

After 7 years, Vanquish has finally come to PC, thus allowing so many people to try out what is supposedly, according to many, one of the best cover shooters ever released up until this day. Following the extreme success of the PC release of Bayonetta on Steam, Vanquish was also met with great success and enthusiasm by most people, even despite the crippling framerate bug which has since then been fixed.

Vanquish is an extremely fast-paced third-person shooter with a heavy focus on a cover system, that’s published by SEGA and developed by both Platinum Games Inc. and Little Stone Software. You play as Sam Gideon, a researcher who works for DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and who’s currently testing an Augmented Reaction Suit, which provides the framework for the many game mechanics, such as bullet-time and boosting.

In terms of actual story, even though it appears that the game features the usual plot involving modern-day USA and Russia fighting each other, it does provide some interesting twists which spice things up a little bit. In any case, the story is not the game’s strongest suit by any stretch of imagination. The game exhibits what appears to be little tidbits of information regarding the universe of Vanquish and its characters during the loading screens but, at least on my system, the loading screens barely take more than a second so I never manage to read any of that. Making the player have to press a key in order to proceed would’ve been very suitable here, since reading speed tends to differ a lot from person to person.

1.jpg

The gameplay is where Vanquish really shines. Moving around and shooting handles perfectly with keyboard and mouse, and the game offers the option to rebind keys and individual mouse sensitivity options for looking, aiming and zooming, so that you can configure the controls to make them more suitable for you. While the game is strictly a corridor shooter, the gunplay and movement system are heated enough to always keep you on your toes. In terms of movement, besides the obvious running around, the game relies heavily on boosting and evading in your to remain alive. Amongst other things such as the laser cannon, boosting, which involves you using your suit’s thrusters to slide around at high speeds, overheat your suit. Whenever your suit overheats, you’re more exposed to incoming damage and you have to wait for it to cool down. With that said, when boosting you can trigger your suit’s AR mode, until your suit overheats, which slows down time and allows you to better react to your surroundings, even allowing you to dodge bullets and other projectiles. Likewise, whenever you receive a lot of damage, your suit will automatically trigger its AR mode.

In regards to the actual shooting element, it wouldn’t feel as good as it does if it weren’t for the bullet-time element and the cover system, since both are vital for you to succeed, run and gunning is not going to get you anywhere. As far as weapons go, you can have up to three different weapons on your inventory at any given time, as well two types of grenades. In any case, you’ll be able to switch weapons if you ever come across a new one during missions, and equipping the one you’ve just found will replace the one that you had on your hands. In the same sense, the game also features weapons upgrades that you can pick up, and these will also upgrade the weapon you currently have equipped. As for weapon variety, the game has a wide range of weaponry at your disposal, such as a rocket launcher, a disc launcher, an assault rifle, a heavy machine gun, a shotgun, a sniper rifle, a laser cannon, amongst many others. Unfortunately, while grandes tend to be pretty useful in certain situations, it’s a shame to see that there’s not that much variety to them, since you only have access to fragmentation grenades and EMP emitters, which temporarily disables enemy units. You can also resort to melee if the need arises, which despite being extremely powerful, also overheats your suit.

1.jpg

Considering this was originally a console title, I was very glad to see that a pretty decent amount of effort was put into the PC version. The options menu offers separate audio sliders for music, sound effects and voices, the ability to use inverted controls, as well as subtitles, which as someone who has English as a second language really appreciates. Overall it’s a pretty good PC version, at least right now, given that the famous bug where you’d take increased damage if your framerate was very high has been fixed. Besides that you have a pretty extensive graphical options menu, with a series of anti-aliasing, texture quality and filtering and shadow quality options to choose from, amongst some others. Last but by no means least, you can also choose one out of four different difficulty settings, plus an unlockable one called God Hard, which you can get once you beat the game in Hard.

While some might argue that the game looks dated, I personally find that this visual style, which is very characteristic to asian developers, tends to age pretty well, and, to that end, Vanquish still looks fairly good in today’s day and age. As far as the overall audio and the soundtrack go, I didn’t find them particularly special nor worth giving praise, they’re decent enough and get the job done. In addition, the voice acting feels extremely corny at times, while, for the most part, it’s just serviceable. On that note, while each character is unique on its own, they fall under the category of cliche type of characters you’d expect to find on an action shooting game, especially one that puts the USA and Russia against each other.

Despite taking into account that this is a run & gun game, with a cover system of course, the missions don’t offer that much variety in terms of objectives. Pretty much all you’re going to do is go from point A to point B while killing everything in your way, which I guess is fine if it’s done in a way that it’s enjoyable, and Vanquish most certainly is. I played the game on the Hard difficulty setting and the difficulty felt just right, I’m pretty sure had I played it on Normal it would’ve been a lot easier. I thought it provided the right amount of challenge in order for it to be enjoyable. Even though the game takes place in this huge space station colony, which you can see in the background in pretty much every single level, and despite the fact that the game is a corridor shooter at its core, the levels offer enough variety for it to feel unique, and it’s easy to remember a level based on your experience with it.

On the other hand, while it might seem that the game also suffers from a lack of enemy variety at first, this is compensated by the use of the various different types in simultaneous encounters. You’ll often find yourself fighting a bunch of weaker enemies who then are reinforced by bigger and better equipped enemies, which can either take a lot of damage, or which can be easily dealt with if you hit them in their weak spots. This is how bosses are also dealt with, they usually have a bunch of weak spots that you have to shoot in order to be able to strike at their energy core, rinse and repeat.

In the end, Vanquish kind of disappointed me, but I’m sure that’s mostly due to my high expectations which were a result of continuous praise from hardcore fans over the years. Still, it’s a good game overall, but one which enjoyment will vary a lot from person to person. If you’re into third-person cover based shooters, or score based games with multiple difficulty options, you’ll most likely find something to enjoy quite a lot here. Sure enough, it took me about 9 hours to beat the game on the hardest difficulty the game offers for a first playthrough, which feels alright considering the game’s price tag.