Invisible Inc. Early Access Preview

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Invisible Inc. Early Access Preview

PC

Dev/Pub: Klei Entertainment

 

Two weeks I’ve had this game. Two weeks.

And it’s only now, as I write the review, that I get the joke that ‘Invisible Inc.’ sounds like ‘invisible ink’. What the hell is wrong with me? I’m going to put it down to too much seasonal Diazepam to keep me snuggled up, versus the unrelenting bangs and whistles of fireworks season. Still, two weeks; I won’t feel bad if you feel like you need to consult a second opinion.

invisibleinc-2014-07-14-21-14-06-23-635x336Invisible Inc. is a stealth game – a game of sneaking and sudden, violent electrocutions. It is a game of finely balanced risk and reward gameplay, that delights in giving you just enough rope to hang yourself and then watch you topple over, legs kicking futilely with the adrenaline of overconfidence. How does it do this? With the clever mechanic of a reverse time limit.

You take your small group of infiltrators to various locations in an attempt to procure a whole load of cash, weapons and anything else not nailed down. On arrival, the environment’s security system learns that there is a threat, but it needs a while to track it. A race against time begins where you can see the security system ramping up around you, but – as the Operator – it’s your job to get as much loot as possible and get your team out. Thing is, you find the level exit really quickly – but do you leg it with a satsuma or hang around to get the sweetest plum?

Naturally, you’ll want to hang around. Well that’s just fine but all the time that security system is getting more and more agitated. First extra cameras turn on, then more guards come and then elite guards show up who really know how to show your team a bad time. So, now how much do you value your skills? How close do you want to push it? Are there any potential rewards that are worth the loss of a member of your team? That’s up to you to decide.

In any case, all your quick reactions and battle-hardened twitch shooting skills count for nothing since Invisible Inc. is turn based in a similar style to Shadowrun Returns or – to a lesser extent – XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I say lesser because the focus in Invisible Inc. is on stealth, not body count. The game actively penalises you for going on a kill crazy rampage both in terms of shortening the amount of time before the super guards show up and also by taking some of your spoils in the form of ‘clean-up costs’ which is really a fine for cold-blooded murder. Nothing too hefty, it’s only $50 or so, similar to a minor traffic violation.

invisibleinc-2014-07-14-21-10-29-60-627x353Cold-blooded murder is fine for the guards at the places you visit however. Their guns will chew through your agents like a hungover man with a sausage and egg McMuffin. Lose your team on the job and it’s game over for you, chum. Yes, if you’re not a fan of high-stakes and permadeath you’re going to have to learn to love it to truly embrace Invisible Inc. There’s no save scumming, even on ‘Easy’ mode, so every choice counts. It was actually refreshing to play a turn-based game that doesn’t rely on RNG that uses this format. You have to be thoughtful and careful, but with some forward planning you can avoid getting screwed over. Indeed, with the exits to the level always easy to find, it’s only your own greed that gets your agents killed in most cases. I loved that, it felt like a deliciously evil game mechanic that caused me to look at my upgraded, augmented guys, lying in a pool of their own blood and be forced to say, “Good game, Computer. Well played.”

invisibleinc-2014-07-14-21-15-15-05-635x336So, turn-based, permadeath, upgrades and enhancements, procedurally generated… so many buzz words. The good news is however that all of these things come together to make a game that is very fun to play. A game that allows for cerebral challenge as well as a smidgeon of ‘sod it, let’s just try and leg it past them.’ There is some narrative to hang the gameplay on but it’s not really integral to the game itself. As this is still in Early Access there may well be some developments in this area, such as multiple short campaigns to play through but what is here is more than enough to justify the modest price point.

Invisible Inc. is a well turned out, professional looking product that keeps up the good record of the studio whose other games include the intriguing Don’t Starve. Go and see if you can get your hands on some of that grubby corporate money, it’s probably not even theirs to begin with.

 

Karlos Morale

Invisible Inc. is available on Early Access for £11.99 on Steam.

 

 

Crowntakers Review

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Crowntakers Review

PC

Dev. Bulwark Studios

Pub. Kasedo Games

 

Genre defining is a laugh, isn’t it? In order to give readers a quick overview of what a game is, we’ve developed a shorthand to explain the mechanics in a quick and broadly reliable manner. It does naturally lead to arguments about what exactly constitutes an RPG, an FPS or a Katamari-esque open world collect ’em up, but for the most part this serves a useful function for everyone. With that in mind, let’s take a gander at RPG-lite, Rogue-like, turn-based, RNG-focused fantasy battle game, Crowntakers.

The old king is under threat. The evil duke threatens to usurp the throne and conquer the kingdom for himself and all looks hopeless. Fortunately for everyone, the old king liked to put it about a bit during his younger days and has sired a butt-load of illegitimate offspring that he can now appear to in a dream and cry to for help. Instead of telling his royal highness to cough up for a load of missed Christmas and birthday presents and pointing out all those missed primary school nativity plays, the newly-royal bastard snatches up a sword and rushes to the kings’ aid. If nothing else, we learn that it’s a wise man who goes around impregnating women across the country – you never know when that valuable resource might need to be tapped later down the line.

Crowntakers_Preorder_DLC_Screenshot_3With time of the essence, Hamish McYourAvatar must gather together a band of mercenaries in order to defend the kingdom. For some reason, you don’t even have one friend who can help you out in your predicament, so you’ll need to cough up some gold for everyone you want to be in your party. Luckily, the inns scattered around the land are stuffed to the gills with pikemen, bowmen, assassins and assorted other character classes to be your Boba Fett for the journey.

And what a journey it is. Hoo boy. You start off in your house and follow roads around a strangely hexagonal land, stopping periodically to explore a feature of the landscape or fight some miscreants on the road. A typical playthrough might go like this:

  1. A new world is generated. Leave your house. Follow path around corner.
  2. Ooh, a tower! Let’s look inside.
  3. There are some rats here; should we search the tower or clear out the rats?
  4. You chose search and were bitten by rats – lose 2hp. (If you had chosen clear out rats, you could equally have been bitten or found items. It’s random!)
  5. Find wolves in road. Decide to be prudent and avoid battle until you’ve found a companion.
  6. Oh, that’s the only path you can take.
  7. Fight wolves on hexagonal grid. It’s only one wolf so should be no problem.
  8. You spawn randomly. Too far to reach wolf this turn. OK. Put back to the grid wall to avoid back-stab. Raise guard to enable counter-attack. Feeling confident.
  9. Wolf critical hits you for 4 damage. You miss with your retaliation.
  10. You attack and hit for 2 damage. Wolf retaliates and hits you for 2 damage, killing you. LOL SO RANDOM. You disappear in a puff of smoke.

Don’t worry though, it’s a rogue-like. You get to start all over again and even keep any experience points you’ve earned – pretty sweet. Try again and you’ll progress a little further, maybe unlock a new character, and so on. If you’re familiar with this style of play, you’ll already know if that mechanic is something you can live with; persistently lose until such time as you don’t. You are heavily reliant on RNG to keep you alive during the initial stages, let alone give you a reasonable chance of success. It is absolutely vital therefore that any rogue-like game either excels in gameplay or story world in order to keep you playing so you can make progress.

Crowntakers_Screenshots_02Sadly, Crowntakers is a pretty charmless experience. The world of the game is generic to the point that it might as well not exist. In fact, the ascii-based world of games like Angband do a better job of conjuring up a game world by forcing you to use your imagination. There’s nothing wrong with the functionality of the graphics, they are clear enough, but are so familiar as to be immediately forgettable. Your little men and women have zero personality – something that could have been achieved with a modicum of animation and a little bit of dialogue – so it’s hard to get invested in keeping them alive. They’re just a resource – and a resource that can be snatched away from you by the game at any time in a completely arbitrary way.

You need to explore the kingdom in order to get money and other resources. Without items, you can’t buff your character or heal. Without money you can’t hire any mercs. However, you can’t plan your trip around the kingdoms effectively because each point of interest gives you one chance to explore it only. So, to use the rat house example, you might decide it is best to explore that last, since it could damage your party. But once you’ve clicked on it, you have to decide straight way. If you try to return later, there’s nothing to do there.

Whilst I understand that playing a rogue-like is about balancing risk and reward, I feel that the developers have skewed the balance to the point that the fun is lost. If you’re a big fan of the genre, you might find something there to get your teeth into. All I can tell you is that I have played and enjoyed games such as FTL, Dungeons of Dreadmore and Binding of Isaac and found nothing here to convince me that playing Crowntakers would be a rewarding experience going forward.

Karlos Morale

Score: 5/10

Crowntakers is out now for PC for £12.99 on Steam

This War of Mine Review

Logo_ArtworkThis War Is Mine

PC

11 Bit Studios

One of the best things about the internet nowadays is how easy it is to scream abuse at someone who doesn’t share your opinions.

Seriously.

Imagine what kind of world we’d have to struggle in if you couldn’t tell someone how wrong they are about the music they like, the sports they watch or the video games they enjoy. Oh, it would be awful. They’d never learn, would they? The dumb-dumbs. Wallowing and thrashing around in their own ignorance, foolishly keeping hold of their ill-conceived ideas. We should get them to wise up.

Who knows where it could end? Men could start wearing shirts we object to. Did we lose a war?

Talking of war, here is a video game about it. It’s called This War of Mine and it purports to teach us about the real horrors of war for the people who are caught up in the fighting, but are not necessarily combatants. This is the story of the regular folk; teachers, journalists and the elderly that suffer in war too. Oh and sports stars. And women. Men too, actually. Now I come to think about it, war is pretty awful for everyone involved.

TWOM_Screen_PAX_02TWOM is a survival game. You begin with a ‘party’ of three, made up of ‘real’ people who find themselves caught up in some dreadful war in a ravaged European city. The game tries its best to trick the mind into believing in the pseudo-reality it constructs. Your characters have a photograph in the corner, and believable reactions to the events that surround them. They get tired and hungry, they suffer depression and anxiety, they struggle with the moral consequences of their actions just as you are asked to do.

Moral choices abound in This War of Mine. Since everything you have must be scavenged from other locations, every successful trip you have comes at someone’s else’s expense. You can meet other people in your excursions around the city, some openly hostile, others tentatively friendly. Here’s a guy with a sick parent; will you trade him some medicine, even though he has little to offer? At first, when you feel flush with resources and goodwill you might be inclined to help out but how long can your generosity hold out? Should you save a guy you don’t know when one of your party is sick? Or could get sick?

The format of the game is as follows: By day, your group members conduct jobs around your derelict dwelling, trying to make it fit for habitation. You can construct beds and chairs for rest, stoves to cook, workshops to craft tools and weapons. You are even able to build a distillery to make alcohol for trade. Periodically, people might visit and then you’ll want to send your most skilled barterer to the door to try and weasel a few extra morsels of food in trade for your dwindling supplies. You can also listen to the radio but sadly there’s only news reports. No K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70’s for you.

TWOM_Screen_PAX_04Night time is a different affair. You can select one of your party – let’s say Pavel, since he’s the athlete, strong and brave – to go out into the city on the hunt for materials to survive. At first, your scope is small and you have few scavenging options available to you. Root about in the early locations and try not to get murdered by any soldiers you see, that’s your best bet. Eventually you gather some resources and return home and hopefully on subsequent trips you can return better equipped and explore further until a location is exhausted. Sometimes you’ll want to trade with NPCs, sometimes your mistrust of their motives will lead you to shoot them in the face and burglarise their home. Either way, it’s a choice you made and one that you’ll have to live with.

Don’t feel too bad about what you do to the NPCs however, you can’t go outside for more than 5 minutes without someone trying to break in and steal your precious belongings. Sometimes they just go away and sometimes they steal all your food and mortally injure one of your group. But hey – that’s how awful war is and if you’d built better defences maybe it wouldn’t have happened. Or maybe it would. And maybe one of your party will just decide that they’re going to commit suicide because the horror is all too much. You know, these are all things that I’m sure make valid commentary on the psychological trauma of war.

TWOM_Screen_PAX_06And now, ladies and gentlemen, for my big but…

I hated This War of Mine.

I played it for some considerable time ahead of review and rarely have I felt so downbeat and crushed after engaging in a spot of my favourite pastime. This game can be a truly miserable experience for the player, particularly when a promising run ends in sudden and ignoble doom.

I would venture that This War of Mine is objectively a good product. It has a convincing art style that functions well, its minimalism suiting the tone. The music is chilling and haunting – extremely effective in conveying the sense of bleakness that the game wants to engender. Controls are clear and – for the most part function well – although there is an argument to be made that for a game that is grounded in realism, there is a lack of options presented when it comes to solving problems. For example, you can’t talk to everyone you meet to explain why you’re there, offer comfort or threaten, which leads to some frustrating NPC interaction. The simplicity makes sense but some players might find it unpleasantly restrictive.

This War Is Mine is another example of video games working on the boundaries of what people perceive to be a game and demanding the right to be viewed as art. It can be called art since it is no doubt effective at causing an emotional response from anyone who plays the game – and whilst it might be argued that the message around war has been delivered with more subtlety and style elsewhere, little beats the power of the video game for putting the audience at the centre of things. If it makes your finger hover over the action button for even a fraction of a second as you wonder, ‘is this the right thing to do?’ it has succeeded in engaging you far beyond what could be achieved by a mere novel or film.

I will end on this note however. You have a right not to enjoy art. You have a right not to engage with it. I strongly doubt I will ever play This War of Mine again because it provoked reactions from me that I found uncomfortable. You might well decide that this isn’t what you’re looking for from a game that might take up your whole weekend – that might leave you feeling a whole lot worse than when you went in. I don’t blame you, and you are not wrong.

 

Karlos Morale

Score 9/10

This War Is Mine is out now for PC at £14.99 and it’s a much better survival horror game than The Evil Within

Dreamfall Chapters Review

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Dreamfall Chapters (Book One: Reborn)

PC

Dev/Pub Red Thread Games

 

Dreamfall Chapters is the (hopefully) final part in a story that began more than a decade ago with The Longest Journey. It allows the players to experience life through the eyes of Zoë Maya Castillo, protagonist and world-saver from the previous games. Please, don’t be put off by this being the third game in a narrative rich adventure series, there’s more than enough here to introduce any newcomer and immerse them in the world.

OK, so you start off in a coma. Not the best start, but hey, beggars (and coma sufferers) can’t be choosers. Poor Zoë is stuck in a sort of dreamworld – one that heavily features the colour blue – that serves as a jumping off point for the story and a tutorial for the games’ control system. It’s pretty straight forward, move around with WASD and click on things with the mouse. Clicking gives you the option to interact in a non-specific way, or you can interface with things using your mind. You can also slow down time. Seems pretty odd, but actually it’s mechanically straightforward and the puzzles you come across are simple enough to be an easy gateway to the world.

You will quickly find that our heroine is called upon to make choices in the form of dialogue options, either with others or as part of an internal monologue. These choices are going to form the basis of how the narrative thread develops as it progresses through multiple chapters, so it may be some time until you see the blossoming of ideas you planted during book one. However, the rationalisation for the choices you make are explained to you at the time, so you can pick whichever one sits most comfortably with you – or choose the exact opposite, it’s up to you, I’m not your mom.

Zoe_talking_to_girlZoë realises that there’s some screwed up shenanigans going on in the waking world and decides it’s probably time to stop being in a coma and do something about it. A couple of puzzles later and whoomp…

OK, so you start off in a jail cell. Not the best start, by hey, beggars (and prisoners awaiting execution) can’t be choosers. Poor Kian Alvade is stuck in a dank prison cell – with his head chained to his stomach for some reason – which serves as a jumping off point for the story and first level proper.

It’s OK, you haven’t experienced some sort of temporal lapse. Dreamfall Chapters does indeed start off with two beginnings, one for each main character. While Zoë’s story is set in a not-too-distant dystopian future, Kian’s looks more like a traditional fantasy setting, although some of the uniforms worn by the characters reminded me of Dishonored’s in style. Kian gets some help in breaking free of the prison and has some interesting interactions with his gaoler whom, apart from being multidimensional and interesting, sports the largest conk I’ve ever seen on a videogame character bar none. It’s so impressive, it makes Cyrano de Bergerac look like Daniella Westbrook*. Truly prodigious.

Anyhoo, once you’ve recovered from the whole schnozz thing, you’re perhaps in a position to take a look at the game from its aesthetic perspective in a little more detail. Dreamfall Chapters is beautiful, make no mistake about it. One of the hallmarks of the series has been its high degree of graphical fidelity and the latest game is no different. Not only are the assets strong in and of themselves, but when put together to form – for example – the mega city of Europolis where Zoë, her therapist and boyfriend all hang out and eat sausage surprise, they are truly beautiful. Beautiful to the point where the framerate stuttering probably won’t bother you too much unless you like looking for that sort of thing.

Vamon_and_gunI’m determined not to give away too much in the course of this review, since the Dreamfall Chapters experience is all about the development of the story. If you have any interest in the title at all, do yourself a favour and don’t watch any ‘Let’s Play’ style content until after you’ve played it through. That way you get to experience the game unfolding before you without ruining the fairly moderate interactivity and puzzles that there are. The game is simple to play and uses an elegant interface that makes the otherwise relatively mundane task of clicking on stuff a gentle joy to play. Be warned though, Dreamfall as whole does not have a reputation for giving its players an easy ride when it comes to narrative conclusion, either by not providing one at all or killing off central characters. If you’re not prepared for an adult adventure (sophisticated, not XXX, you heathen), you should probably turn your attention to the new CoD, which I understand is super good now and has double jumping and everything.

Before I go, I’ll clarify something I wasn’t sure about when I first started playing. The cost of Dreamfall Chapters is the price for the whole series of new games, of which there are set to be 5 in total. They’ll effectively be DLC for this base game and you will get to play them as they go live. There currently is no clear timeframe on when these parts will be released but given how long we’ve taken to get to this point, I wouldn’t imagine you’re in too much of a rush. So if you want to go back and check out the first couple of games in the series, you have plenty of time to develop your point and clicking skills.

 

Karlos Morale

Score 8/10

Dreamfall Chapters (Book One: Reborn) is out now for PC £23.99

 

*Daniella Westbrook is a British actress who is infamous for having destroyed the inside of her nose through cocaine abuse. I think she solved it through plastic surgery though, so all’s well that ends well.

Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms Early Access Preview

Heretic_Kingdoms_Shadows-LogoEarly Access Preview

Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms

PC

Developer: Games Farm

 If you’re like me, you know about as much about Kult: Heretic Kingdoms (Shadows’ predecessor dating back some 9 years) as you do heavy crossbow ballistics. To be clear, I know absolutely zero about heavy crossbow ballistics. Having had a quick squizz at some info and screens for the 2005 game however, it looks like it’d be right up my street. I wonder how come I missed it? Ah, probably youthful exuberance and heavy drinking are to blame, as they were for so many poor choices back then.

Still, now relatively sober, I’m in a position to explore the richness of a new RPG world, and as such have dived in to Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms – a game which at the very least should win some awards in the category for Most-Generically-Named-RPG-Of-2014.

Falling somewhere between an action-RPG like Diablo and a slower paced, Neverwinter Nights-style role-player, S:HK is a game that spans two fantasy themed worlds at once. Once past the Tom Baker (yes, that one) voiced introduction, you arrive in the shadow realm where your demon main character – The Devourer – kicks off proceedings. In traditional ARPG style you wander around and smack the crap out of spooky ghosts and what-not, sucking up their precious souls and exploring dark recesses. Once you find your first vessel however, things start to get interesting.

screenshot03Shadows takes an interesting approach to traditional RPG party building, by making it somewhat similar to Trine, insofar as you hot-switch between characters, but only control one at a time. Your first choice comes in a Charnel House, where three recently deceased heroes are entombed; you must choose a body based either on whose story you find most engaging or -probably more likely – you work out which one is the ranged hero, which the tank and which the mage and choose on that basis.

You can only take one to start, so hoover-up your character archetype of choice and journey out into the world and re-unite the kingdoms, or smash it apart or kill the king or devour his children, or whatever the plot is supposed to be. If that sounds somewhat ‘handwave-y’ and non-specific, there are two reasons for this. Firstly, Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is in Early Access and fleshing out and developing the way in which the story is delivered is still likely to be very much a part of that process. Secondly, the characters that you pick to become your avatar and the choices that you make with them allow – according to the developer – for a multiplicity of potential story paths and endings. At the very least, it’s nice that the game changes significantly based on your selections in ways outside of ‘how do I kill this kobold?’

screenshot02Back to the fighting and exploring mechanics, you explore a variety of locations causing mayhem and death. Enemies drop loot, although not at the levels you’d be looking for from an ARPG. Interestingly, healing items are pretty scarce, which causes the players to try and be more careful than might at first seem suited to the game style. There is a different mechanic used for healing and resurrection than you might expect, which draws upon the idea of the ‘two worlds’, since the Devourer can harvest souls in the dark world that can be used to heal heroes in the light side. Switching between the two worlds is as simple as tapping the W key, which changes your avatar to the Devourer. Heal up your characters and send them back into the fray, or switch out one avatar for another and let them take punishment for a while. The game is designed in such a way that the player must switch between the two worlds in order to solve puzzles and make progress, in a manner reminiscent of Soul Reaver: Legacy of Kain. Also like that game, the transitions are appealing and add to the players’ immersion with the world.

Both worlds are crisp and cleanly designed – at times very visually appealing – however, like the title, it can tend to err towards the generic. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing however, as there is nothing wrong with familiar and comfortable tropes if employed with style. The stylishness from S:HK comes from its branching storylines and its characters’ dialogue which is lively enough to keep  you clicking through the story.

Shadows_Heretic_Kingdoms_Screenshot_2Destroy enough monster scum and you can level up your characters at the same time as improving their gear through loot drops. The skill trees looked a little overwhelming at first, but are actually straightforward once you take the time to explore them and think about how you’d like to build your characters’ abilities. Of course, going forward you ideally want to create a party with a range of complimentary powers in order to tackle the range of scenarios the game is going to throw at you.

My only gripe with S:HK so far is that currently, I think the combat lacks surety and solidity. Like the dice-rolling Neverwinter type RPGS you can miss an enemy standing next to you with an axe-swing which is always frustrating. Likewise, there doesn’t always appear to be accurate feedback for the player both on hitting and being hit, which detracts from the enjoyment in this combat heavy title.

I’m looking forward to seeing the final version of Shadows: Heretic Kingdom and playing through it further with different characters and seeing how the story changes. There is already a solid RPG here for the price of the entry fee which will hopefully only get better as time goes on.

 

Karlos Morale

Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is available for £22.99 on Steam

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel Review

2K_Borderlands_The_Pre-Sequel_LOGO

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

PC

2K Australia

One thing I’d never considered before about game development, is to what extent it was like cooking. Specifically, following celebrity chefs, buying their cookbooks and then trying to make their delicious Tarte Tatin.

In this instance, Gearbox Software are Delia Smith; a world-renowned chef to the common man, who makes tasty titbits to be enjoyed by all. 2K Australia on the other hand are more like a semi-finalist from TV’s Masterchef, in which regular plebs, who’ve had a bit of a go at cooking try and do it properly for the entertainment of others. 2KA have started out by following the recipe set out by Gearbox, but somewhere along the way have settled for cheaper ingredients in some areas and brought some of their own herbs and spices from home – with mixed results.

BTPS_Review_In-Game_Art_JackSo Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel tells a story that’s set between the events of Borderlands 1 and 2, before Handsome Jack became the crazed villain we all loved to hate in the second game. It turns out that Jack started out as simply a wise-cracking and thunderingly sarcastic git who has a little ‘something’ about him. You get to discover what that something is as you explore the new Borderlands setting – the moon.

Ah yes, the moon. Pandora’s moon, Elpis, is at once the games’ biggest strength and greatest weakness. It was a very good decision on the part of 2KA to change up the locale for the game. Whilst Elpis is a familiarly dusty wasteland, it’s colour palette is markedly different, with a lot more red and blue than the earlier games dusty browns. Being a moon it naturally lacks the atmosphere of the homeworld – a fact that ties in neatly with the mechanics. When in exterior locations, you are required to constantly be on the hunt to refill your dwindling oxygen reserves. Fortunately, opportunities to do so are frequent, with natural air-geysers (um) and oxygen posts liberally scattered across the surface.

Your precious life-gas isn’t just a timer for certain areas however, it is built into the boost jumps that are now capable of thanks to the lower gravity. The Pre-Sequel now boasts a high-degree of verticality to its play. Areas are designed in such a way as to lend themselves to both yourself and enemies taking advantage of higher ground. Even better, you are now blessed with a stomp attack, where you can thrust yourself into the ground causing enemies surrounding you to take considerable damage. It encourages you to keep mobile, with enemies who can drop in from all sides and heights, simply poking out from behind a box and shooting isn’t as effective as it once was.

Whilst this mechanic is superb, the drawback to Elpis is that it’s simply not as well conceived as many of the locations on Pandora. The first half-dozen hours in particular are pretty slow going, with trudging across the moon’s surface and endless requests to go back through areas on side-missions. Of course, this was a fault with the original Borderlands games as well, but since Pre-Sequel’s environments lack a key ingredient that those games had, namely characters. Too many of B:TPS’ characters feel like recycled versions of people we’ve met in earlier games. It’s very enlightening to see that, when you’ve trudged back across the lunar-scape for the umpteenth time to turn in a quest for Johnny-no-personality, quite how integral to the success of the Borderlands mission system those characters- like Scooter and Ellie were. If you’ve less desire to hear what the NPC’s have to say, due to familiarity or simply less entertaining script,  then your likelihood of doing all those side-quests rapidly diminishes.

BTPS_Review_In-Game_Art_Jack BTPS_Reviews_Screen_DahlBossFortunately what the game does get right is the combat. Shooting things in Borderlands remains as endlessly entertaining as it did in the previous games, especially with new abilities like freezing to add into the mix. Coupled with the increased mobility, gun-play is very strong. Your characters have skill trees that are significantly changed from earlier games and make all four (including various builds for each) markedly different and change up the game-play considerably.

One thing that struck me from the get go was a sense of, ‘huh, I wonder how that’s going to work’, when looking at how the skills pan out. It lends itself to increased re-playability when you’re very intrigued has to how things might develop. The shield-toting Gladiator, drone-equipped Enforcer and dual-wielding Law-bringer classes are joined by everyone’s favourite mechanical malcontent, Claptrap. Far from being a weak patsy for pratfalls and kickings, Claptrap is a rolling death-dealer with a delicious element of randomisation to his abilities. His VaultHunter.Exe skill allows him to draw upon the talents of other vault hunters – supposedly to best fit the situation, but it’s Claptrap. In order to deal with enemies, he’s constantly exploding, releasing copies of himself and buggering up the plans of his team-mates. It’s stupid and awesome, exactly what you’d hope of a Claptrap playable character.

BTPS_Reviews_Screen_SplitScreen_combinedHow much you’re going to enjoy The Pre-Sequel depends entirely on how saturated you are in Borderlands experience right now. If you’ve only just got around to finishing Borderlands 2 and you immediately bite into this title, I think you’re going to get pretty full, pretty fast. This isn’t all that unlikely, since that game has only relatively recently stopped getting DLC, despite being two years old at this point. B:TPS is more of the same, only with writing that would have been sent to the compost pile of the earlier game. If it’s been a while and your taste-buds are tingling for something familiar but with a little twist, then Pre-Sequel should definitely be in your list of things to indulge in.

I’m going to leave it to Jack to sign-off in his own (it turns out, relatively imitable style):

“I called you an asshole because I thought I’d hung up?

….

My bad.”

 

Karlos Morale

Score: 7/10

Borderlands: The Pre Sequel is out now for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3

Costume Quest 2 Review

CostumeQuest2

Costume Quest 2 Review

PC

Dev. Double Fine Productions

Pub. Midnight City, Majesco

 

How in the hell did we make friends as kids?

From what I remember, I sort of wondered up to people and went, “bogies and bums!” and was then accepted within the group as the thrillingly dangerous one.

Costume Quest 2 is the story of a group of children who have to save the best bits of Halloween from the dismal Doctor White, who is determined to screw up the party for everyone. He has his reasons of course, and is slightly more than just a generic git-villain. Still, whatever it is that motivates him, you are forced into some time travelling shenanigans in order to save the day and return the right to wear costumes and eat sweeties to everybody.

CQ2 is an RPG where you guide a small party of children around a set of environments on the hunt for candy to grab and monsters to bash. Little children obviously make for puny fighters, but fortunately by donning various costumes that you find throughout the game they are able to transform into the character represented by the costume for the purposes of fighting. Dress up as a superhero and you become one at rumble-time, able to punch the holy hell out of robots and monsters and also hurl buses at them. Dress up as a clown and you end up as a freakish oversized buffoon who uses his girth to great effect in the fight. Apart from normal attacks, each costume type has its own special ability; the Clown’s is called ‘Laughter is the best Medicine’ and is a party heal. This basically causes the costumes to become character classes, so you can have a tank, healer and damage-guy in your party – or whatever you feel most appropriate to the stage you’re on.

CostumeQuest2_Screen_02

Using the delightful cartoon style that will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played the first Costume Quest game, you once again return to your home-town to find it pumpkin-bestrewn and seasonal. Things soon go wrong however when Dr. White shows up and, engaging the help of a Time Wizard, kicks off this second foray into costume questing. What changes things up a little this time is the environments; future cities, the bayou, even a reform school for naughty candy-eaters staffed by Grubbins, all make an appearance in the new game. It’s a little darker in style graphically, but just a fraction and still retains the humour and light-hearted sense of fun from the original game. The friendly people you find around the place are still just the right side of silly, without becoming obnoxious, and your interactions with everyone keep you smiling throughout the modest 6 hour play time.

If you’ve never experienced the Costume Quest game previously, you should prepare yourself for something of a charm offensive. Nearly every character dialogue, name of attack, place and interactive element in the game is gently funny and cute, leading to the sense of almost overbearing pleasantness in the game. It ought to be something that sits naturally, people just being generally polite to one another, but it actually almost is slightly unnerving for a while until you realise that the game is simply ‘nice’. It’s almost so alien to get a proper game that doesn’t trade on gore, pain or other forms of human misery that it can be awkward to adjust.

CostumeQuest2_Screen_04Some decisions have been made to change up the game this time, that have had mixed results. On the positive side, battles are a little more active now, featuring timed button presses as part of the turn-based combat for every character. This forms part of both the attack and defence portions of combat, so once all the mechanics are introduced, you’re never just sitting back and watching the action unfold. There’s also a risk/reward element to the combat in the form of a new counter system whereby you can choose to begin blocking with a defender before the enemy declares who it’s attacking. Guess correctly and you’ll deal counter attack damage, guess incorrectly and the character actually hit comes off a little worse. It’s a nice idea that adds a little level of strategy to things – purposely having a character feint raises your chances with the other two to 50/50 and a lone character always counters.

On the other hand, one major bugbear of many forum users and reviewers is the decision to change from auto-healing at the end of a battle to forcing you to return to a drinking fountain in a level in order to heal your party. It’s just pointless back-tracking since there are no random encounters in the game, there’s no risk to returning to these save points, it simply artificially elongates the time you spend in the level due to all the back and forth. A shame, because otherwise all the time you spend in CQ2 is otherwise fun, unless you find yourself stumped by a puzzle.

3Yes, Costume Quest 2 does have puzzles, but they are pretty straightforward (with one notable exception). Nothing in it should seriously trouble you too far, battles included. Unfortunately, the cumulative effect of its niceness, length and at-best-moderate challenge results in the game feeling a little too lightweight overall. Whilst it is a solid recommendation if you played and enjoyed the first Costume Quest game, newcomers to the series might do better to visit the more robust original. Familiarity with the characters from the first game will help with your enjoyment of the second in any case.

Now, GET INSIDE READERS… IT’S TIME TO BRUSH YOUR TEETH AGAIN.

 

Karlos Morale

7/10

Costume Quest 2 is out now for PC (Reviewed), PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and XBoner.

 

Freedom Planet Review

freedomplanet-e1407538007249

Freedom Planet

PC

Dev/Pub Galaxy Trail

 

After spending 3 million hours grinding up levels and crap items in Destiny, did you stop and think to yourself, “Why do I even play games at all? I haven’t been enjoying myself for days – this feels like a chore.”

When some little oik gives you a hard time about your K/D ratio on the latest dreadful military shooter, do you experience ennui of soul, ponder your life choices and consider jacking it all in to go and referee roller-derby matches?

Where are the thrills of yesteryear? Everything that was once new and shiny now seems old and decrepit; your gaming enthusiasm is sapped and needs a boost.

That’s presumably why people flock in their droves to pick up the latest franchise title, despite diminishing returns. Like a crack addict searching for a hit that will match the first one, they’re all addicted and desperate.

Not you though, dear reader. You’re above that kind of thing. You are, to paraphrase Uncle Monty, a sponge looking to suck up new experiences.

So with that said, let’s review something that looks like 16-bit throwback Sonic rip-off! Wooo-hoooo!

Aw, look, I’m only 3/4ths kidding. Freedom Planet does bear the trappings of a Megadrive or SNES classic title on the surface but is in fact one of the best slices of arcade platforming that I’ve played for a long time. To be clear, this isn’t a precision platformer in the style of MeatBoy, rather an exploration and adventure title (with a story!) Much more akin to the Hedgehog and Wonderboy games of this world.

Bold and striking in its graphical style, Freedom Planet is beautiful to look at and wonderfully smooth to play. You begin the game as Lilac, a purple dragon teenage girl who spends her time adventuring with best friend Carol – a green, motorcycle driving cat. They soon become embroiled in an adventure to save their world of Avalon from an interplanetary villain and the stupidity of the adult leaders who just won’t listen, damnit.

FPT1

During your quest, you’ll meet up with a friendly alien masquerading as a duck and a lost dog-girl who needs friendship, as well as an assortment of other animal themed NPCs. The writing is pitched just-so; in order to avoid what could have been unbearably saccharine characterisation. Sure, it’s cutesy, but Freedom Planet still manages to tell a competent story and actually make you want to take down Lord Brevon for reasons besides, ‘well, he’s on the right-hand side of the level, and that’s the way I’m going.’

According to the Wikipedia article, Freedom Planet began life as a Sonic the Hedgehog fan game and – in the nicest possible way – it shows. The common tropes are there, spin attacks, smashing robots to reveal creatures inside, tons of pick-ups etc. Most notably however, the game manages to capture the sense of speed that Sonic had at its best. You can careen through levels at a breakneck pace, avoiding many of the obstacles but also missing out on the goodies. When Lilac catches loops and really builds up speed, I was reminded of Chemical Plant Zone from Sonic 2, which was so fast it seemed almost impossible at the time. It’s a testament to the quality of the programming in both cases that I’m struggling to find decent examples since.

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Freedom Planet is a challenge without being impossibly difficult – if you just want to see all the levels and have some effortless fun, there’s an easy setting which is very forgiving – and is suitable for gamers of all abilities. However, really exploring all the games nooks and crannies is going to take a while. There are 3 playable characters eventually open to you, each of who has a distinctive play-style. Beating the game with all 3 is going to take some considerable time, since they can’t all take the same route – especially when it comes to battling the bosses at the end of each stage. I was surprised to what degree I was required to change up my tactics when tackling them with the different characters. It certainly stops the game becoming too repetitive. Having said that however, I found that I definitely had the best experience playing the game as Lilac and found the other two to be still fun but less so. This is probably due to the speed with which I had to get through the game for review however. Leave it a couple of weeks between playthroughs and you’ll probably have a better experience.

It’s heartening to see a game that has gone through Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight end up as such a resounding success. Now on Steam, it hasn’t come out in Early Access with excuses all cued up and promises of future content that may never materialise. Freedom Planet is an extremely well designed, developed and executed game that is -above all else – fantastically good fun to play.

I was always convinced we were supposed to be having fun. Thanks, Galaxy Trail, for making a game so good and so accessible as to remind us all.

 

Karlos Morale

Score 9/10

Freedom Planet is out now for PC (£10.99 on Steam)

Styx: Master of Shadows Review

15

Styx: Master of Shadows

PC/XB1/PS4

Dev: Cyanide Studios / Pub: Focus Home Interactive

 ERMAGHERD! GERHBLERN!

Welcome to the world of Styx, an ancient Goblin who is set upon infiltrating the Tower of Akenash in order to get to The World Tree. This tree is the source of Amber within the world, a powerful gloop that serves as part-time McGuffin and part-time aspirin for the game’s unlikely hero.

Yes, you play as a butt-ugly green menace who stalks the shadows of the tower, sneaking and climbing his way around the levels, snuffing out torches, humans and elves with your bony fingers. Styx is a spritely little fellow, who nimbly crawls, shuffles, climbs, swings and sneaks around the environment; he can also use a range of pretty amazing Amber-powers in order to supplement his natural Goblin flair for the stealthy.

By using some of that precious Amber (that for some reason is lying around all over the place, despite its obvious scarceness and value), Styx can vomit forth a little monster helper to aid his exploration and killing, he can employ ‘Amber-vision’ which allows you to see items (and persons) of interest more easily and he can render himself invisible for a short period. All the powers Styx has at his disposal must be mastered and utilised if he is to prevail, since taking on enemies directly in combat is about as advisable as eating an onion-rich curry the night before an interview – and just as deadly.

Styx-03PUNCHING YOUR WAY OUT OF A PAPER BAG

Like all shadow-hugging bullies, Styx is very good at unpleasantness when he can strike from the shadows. Many situations in the game are resolved by covert sneaking followed by a silent shuffle up behind an unsuspecting guard and then holding down the X button until the ‘muffling and neck-breaking’ animation is complete. Try to go toe-to-toe with guards though and Styx soon finds himself on the pointy end of a one-sided argument. Whilst it is possible to parry and attack guards on easier skill levels, upset more than one enemy at a time and its pretty much curtains. Fair enough of course, Styx is a stealth game after all. Those of you who are looking for stealth-lite with a bit more of a gung-ho approach had better find your kicks elsewhere.

Enemies in the game go about their business on pretty simple loops, but make too much noise – or even deliberately draw their attention using your puke-buddy and they will go into a heightened state of alertness, deviating from their normal path. If they find you, that’s very bad news since they will gang up on Styx and kill him, but drawing soldiers away from their patrol routes is an important technique to master. Once you’ve got your foes out of the way however, the next step is getting to where you need to go.

Styx-04HE’S GOT HI-I-IGH HOPES

Level design in Styx is wonderful. Truly. The vast majority of the areas within the game lend themselves to creative and adaptive route-choice. The levels seem big enough on a flat plane, but once you factor in the impressive degree of verticality on display, you really begin to appreciate quite how much scope you have to be creative in your approach. A vast number of objects can be hidden behind, crawled underneath, climbed upon and vaulted over, which of course sounds like every other stealth game – but Styx needs to be played in order to appreciate that it’s the scope of the environments that make it shine. Even the opening mission gives you so many possible routes through that it can be almost overwhelming. For the record, I took possibly the least-optimal route when I played the first level, but I was having such fun playing with the mechanics on offer that I wasn’t in the least disappointed to observe a much easier way through once I’d got to the end.

If the level design is great, then it is balanced out by some factors that are greatly irritating. Sadly, there are a few issues with the game that move it from the must-buy category, to the think-carefully one.

Firstly, for those of you who are concerned about graphical fidelity, Styx looks pretty mundane. Best described as functional, the graphics within Styx are glitchy and full of ugly-looking textures. The bullshots in the promotional material that you’ll see give you the right flavour, but don’t reflect the true nature of the game. Cut-scenes in general and lip-synching in particular are almost laughably poor and really serve to pull you out of the game.

Also pulling you out of your immersion in the game is the voice-acting which is cringe-worthy at times. Awkwardly expressed and embarrassingly scripted, the game wants to use its dialogue to make it feel like a living world, but unfortunately ends up sounding farcical. This is especially a shame since special mention must be made of the fantastic musical score for the game which, although repetitious, invokes a powerful sense of unease, whilst being securely appropriate for the setting.

Styx-06

Finally and most unfortunately we come at last to the controls. Styx almost gets things right here, sneaking and climbing feel easy and natural, combat feels difficult enough to make it off-putting and the controls are mapped to the controller in such a way that you don’t end up doing the wrong thing due to an unfortunately placed context-sensitive input. Where it gets it badly wrong however is in Styx’s ability to jump from walls to ledges and inability to climb down from ledges. Describing how awkward this is might be tricky – so bear with me.

Getting down from a windowsill – In order to do this, you have to throw Styx out of the window and try to turn and grab the ledge. This is a ridiculous system; Styx is an able and agile character so why he can’t simply climb down from a ledge is beyond me. Similarly, dropping down onto a ledge is hit and miss, since you can’t be sure he’ll just drop. Sometimes he jumps out, no matter how carefully you approach making your way down.

Jumping from a wall bracket to a ledge. This is frustrating in the extreme, mainly because Styx will randomly not catch the ledge. I have no idea why this is but it leads to deaths that are nothing to do with the player.

Not being able to trust that the controls will do what you think they’re going to do is the worst fault a platform game can suffer from. I have no problem whatsoever with the game being tough, nor with it requiring multiple attempts and even a degree of trial-and-error. It is my belief however that a tighter control scheme when it comes to moving around those brilliantly designed levels would have seen Styx: Master of Shadows elevated to a lot of people’s Game of the Year Lists. As it is – much like its protagonist’s aerial gymnastics – too often, Styx falls a little short.

 

Karlos Morale

6/10

Styx: Master of Shadows is out now for PC, XB1 and PS4

Wasteland 2 Review

Wasteland_2_Final_Logo_BStarWasteland 2

PC

Dev. InXile

The Earth is screwed. Those damn stupid humans blew most of it up, and now we’re all living in the kind of lawless grim desert that makes the Wild West look like Disney Land. I don’t know why we keep doing this. Still, there are enough decent sorts out there to try and keep a lid on the marauding mutants, crazed cults and the just honest-to-goodness villainous that life can tick along. Up to now at least. Something has gotten even more rotten than before in the Arizona desert and your team of rookies need to go exploring the irradiated wastelands in order to try and find out what the heck is going on and try and stop it. Or just kill everybody. That’s always an option.

The world of Wasteland is without question, the games’ strongest feature. A living, evolving nightmare, almost all of it ridiculously hostile – the desert, its towns, structures and dark tunnels are full of interesting people who hold you and the Rangers you represent in esteem, contempt or a mixture of the two. Your actions have a notable and far-reaching effect upon the people and places you visit, no matter how isolated the locale. Early on you must choose whether to prioritise going to the aid of the food production or water distribution facilities, both of which are crying out for help. There is no right answer to this dilemma. Someone’s going to suffer no matter what you pick. Someone’s going to resent the Rangers. Someone’s going to hail you as heroes. You’re not super heroes, just people trying to make a difference in a messed up world.

Best of luck Echo One, you’re going to need it out there.

wl2_character_generation_2It’s an RPG! So there’s character creation.

You begin Wasteland 2 by building a squad of 4 Desert Ranger wannabes, whom you throw points at, in the time honoured tradition. You can spend points on improving abilities with all kind of weapons, spotting traps, computer shenanigans, fast talk – you name it. There’s even a stat for toaster repair, although this is actually pretty useful since toasters often contain exciting weapons and ammo caches in the game. Obviously.

I mean, it’s all so rote that it’s hard to see how Wasteland 2 might do character creation wrong – and yet they managed it somehow, by god. W2 lives and dies by how it gets you invested in the story world. So the decision to use character models that look like they would have offended Playstation One owners in 1997 is utterly baffling. It might seem like a relatively minor point but this is a game that invites you to create your own, written, back-story for your characters. A stat sheet and a horrible 3D model are hardly inspirational. Once you actually get into the game proper, you also realise that skill-heavy guys (whom you design to be pretty much non-combatants, an option that seems viable given the range of skills on offer) spend a truly remarkable amount of time being less-than-useless, which leads me neatly into…

missilefacilityTake a chance, take a chance.

Those of you who are familiar with CRPG games will be aware of percentage chances and how they govern everything you do in game. Now either I have been incredibly unlucky during my play-through, or there is something really peculiar about the way these things are calculated. Put simply, I experienced far too many critical failures and point blank misses for me to enjoy myself. Sure, randomness can be fun – even when a seeming sure-bet goes wrong (see: XCOM – Enemy Unknown), but Wasteland 2 just seems to offer far too many chances for the dice roll to screw you over when there should be no way in hell for you to fail.

My be-hatted brawler character, which I named Bruiser, came upon a locked door and I decided it would be a good idea to kick it in. 93% chance of success. Yet, not only did Bruiser fail twice, the second time he failed critically causing the door to become broken but unopened. Fortunately, I have ‘Snipey McGee’ who is a master of mechanical repair take to the door and began repairs, 72% chance of success. He failed. Twice.  On his third attempt though, Snipey fixed the door, which meant Bruiser could have another go at forcing it open. Did it work?

Did it buggery. It’s hard to love your PC tank if he can’t kick open an ‘easy’ door.

The same failings apply all too often in the combat too – combat deep enough to offer attack bonuses for cover, elevation and even firing position. You need to briskly move your troops in and out of cover, be tactically aware enough to avoid being flanked and losing your incredibly precious healer guys. Trouble is, your plans flounder far too often due to ridiculous ‘dice’ results, which swiftly means death on tougher difficulties.

And yet, janky as the graphics are and frustrating as the mechanics can be, Wasteland 2 is a good game. The world is worth exploring since it is full to the brim of characterful moments that you simply don’t see in most games. It’s worth mentioning too that the game can be laugh-out-loud funny at times, with a broad range of humour on display from internet referential stuff to the kind of jokes you might imagine making when you’re about to be murdered by cyborg freaks in the desert.

conversationbar_finalIt’s a shame that the Wasteland 2 comes so hot on the heels of Divinity: Original Sin, a game which really raised the bar when it comes to what can be achieved in the medium of computer role-playing games. However, when Wasteland grabs hold of you with its story, everything else fades into the background and you’ll be glad that you took the time to explore its desolate regions.

Karlos Morale

[wp-review]

Wasteland 2 is out now for PC