Review: The Deadly Tower of Monsters

keyart Review size

The Deadly Tower of Monsters is a new twin-stick style shooter from Atlus that has you climbing a deadly tower, in which you fight monsters. As one would suspect from the name.

Heavily stylised as an homage to the B-Movie horror flicks that so typified 1950’s and 60’s science fiction, you will encounter shoddy ape suits, plastic trees, stop-motion animated dinosaurs, and very obvious strings holding up the flying creatures. It is an aesthetic that manages to maintain its charm long enough without ever becoming overused or cheap. There is a care and dedication to maintaining the feel of these movies, with the stop-motion dinosaurs have missed frames in their movement, or the ape costumes very clearly having no eyes in their costumes. The visual stylisation is best seen when diving from the top of the tower. It is a crisp clean style that knows exactly what it is aiming for, and the hefty draw distance gives fantastic views from the top of the tower.

screen4_f

It’s great and made better by the dialogue and ’director’s commentary’ that act as both the game’s story and hint system. The game is framed as the DVD special edition of the movie The Deadly Tower of Monster, over which the director gives commentary on why certain choices were made or behind the scenes stories from shooting. This adds to the humour on display, and offers hints when you are apparently stuck, ’She didn’t realise she was meant to be shooting the power cores’. It lays on the references to this time in cinema throughout the commentary. It is continuously amusing, and a few times genuinely funny. There are continuous callbacks to the budget problems that build upon one another throughout the game.

Not just a charming game to experience, it is also very fun to play. The controls are generally solid and responsive. I found that using the controller (supported on Steam) lead to a better experience1 . The combat is split into two major sections – mêlée and ranged, with both featuring a diverse range of weapons. You have your standard sci-fi ray guns and laser guns, as well as rocket launchers and Tesla guns for ranged,  batons, whips, and lightsabers for mêlée. Each of the weapons can be upgraded to increase its effectiveness, via the use of collectible cogs found throughout the tower.

DTOM_(12)

The guns have enough impact to feel like they all have their use and place, and being able to carry two at any time means you can equip yourself for most situations. The same is true of the mêlée weapons, but you are most likely to just pick up the one that you think looks the coolest, I went with the giant tentacle and the lightsaber. The enemies are balanced nicely so you never feel under or overpowered as you progress up the tower. The game is never difficult but neither is it a complete walk in the park. The combat is consistently enjoyable throughout the entire climb, and the boss fights have a satisfying logic to them.

The game is quite short, with around 3 hours to complete the initial campaign, and another 2 or 3 hours to explore all the additional areas and collectibles. This time feels about right because it means that game doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. The games continually hangs the lampshade when it comes to its Universe, so by being over and out in just a few hours, as well as providing a great ending, it does itself a favour. If the game went on further the problems of those fixed camera angles may have exposed themselves more. The camera is locked at an angle 1 overhead (that you can adjust slightly) which can make the platforming chunks frustrating due to not being able to tell what you are above until it is too late.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters is a fun little game that will bring smiles to anyone fond of B-Movies, and should provide a few chuckles to anyone not. It provides a solid experience with only a few moments of annoyance or confusion.

Score: 8/10
Pros: Solid and tight combat controls
Fantastic and charming B-Movie aesthetic
Creative and unique weapons add tonnes of character
Cons: Platforming sections are unnecessarily finickity

1. With mouse and keyboard, I had better movement and control but I had inconsistencies with getting the mêlée to make contact. With the controller, I just had to aim in the right direction for both ranged and mêlée.

PONCHO Review

poncho12

I’m going to get straight to the point, Poncho is really short. It’s beautiful, charming. It costs £10.99 on Steam, and I beat it within 2 hours. I then went back and completed the only side quest, and whittled down the remaining collectibles as much as I could manage (588/667 of the little red diamonds, that’s 88.2%!) before closing the game, satisfied, with three hours played. It’s a real shame, because despite Poncho’s problems, I mostly enjoyed my time with it.

Poncho is a 2D puzzle-platformer developed by Delve Interactive, set in a world where the human race has perished in some unknown event. The titular character, presumably named after his choice of attire, is an adorable robot with the ability to shift back and forward between 3 planes. On a controller, this plane shifting mechanism is represented by the shoulder buttons, which my mind had trouble associating with backwards and forwards movement on this new-fangled z-axis. Eventually, I switched to a keyboard, which used the most sensible choice of the up and down keys. As an exploration mechanic, it’s lovely, flipping to another plane to make your way past an obstacle in your path is a simple idea that provides immense satisfaction. However, as a platforming mechanic, it lacks development.

poncho1

The only real obstacles in your adventure come in the form of plane shifting platforms, which come in two flavours; platforms that move relative to time and platforms that move relative to your own shifting. These are often combined to make clever little 3d puzzles that test your internal metronome. It’s a neat idea, but one that certainly wears out quickly. Making a jump only to see your destination literally disappear from under your feet becomes a common occurrence, then to add insult to injury, Poncho respawns back above a platform that has since moved on, or worse, inside a platform that you were moving to avoid. It’s infuriating.

So, after all that, why did I want to love Poncho? Well, despite my platforming grievances, I really enjoyed exploring Delve Interactive’s post-human world. What exactly happened to the humans is your job to discover. What remains of the world is populated by robots, which are scattered around the game in various states of deterioration, and lost without their human masters. It might seem like a simple inclusion, but it’s one that breathes a whole lot of life into Poncho’s world.

poncho14

As for the world itself, it’s truly beautiful. Most of the game takes place in a city reclaimed by nature, a vibrant urban forest that begs to be explored. The coolest thing about these forest levels is that almost all of them have more than one route to completion.  Occasionally, your path is blocked by locked doors, which require a key of matching colour to open. To progress, you can either explore the level and collect whichever keys are lying about, or buy a key from a creepy robot vendor using the little red collectibles you pick up on your journey. Other levels sacrifice the non-linear approach in order to provide more focused narrative experiences, ranging from something as simple as traversing a cave, to a level populated by a masked tribe of robots who claim they’re human. It’s through these levels that the quirky, yet melancholy atmosphere of Poncho is best communicated.

And so, we return to the tricky issue of the game’s length. Obviously, not everybody will finish Poncho in the same amount of time. I personally finished it fairly quickly, without being particularly good at it. There was a point in one of the vertical levels where I lost a huge amount of progress after horribly mistiming a jump and had to walk away from my keyboard for fear of mashing it into dust. Even after opening the game various times while writing this review to double and triple check things I’d glossed over in my notes, Steam tells me that I’ve only clocked 4 hours in-game. For a £10.99 game, that just doesn’t feel like enough.

 

Score: 5/10

Pros:

Pixel graphics are lovely to look at

Beautiful soundtrack

Charming NPCs give life to the world

Cons:

Short

Very little puzzle variety

Buggy respawn mechanic adds to frustration

Project Cars PS4 Review

16690710424_e036a40e8b_o_a_1430914243 review

The anticipation of playing the definitive racing game of this generation has been threatening to set off my engine management light for some time. Numerous delays and sold as seen releases had me concerned that wait may last for at least another season.

3 years in the making and slightly mad Studios have released Project CARS, which although that title sounds oversimplified, when you’re told it stands for Community Assisted Racing Simulator it gives you some idea to the depth and complexity on offer.

There are wide range of cars available from the start, the basic 125cc karts with their twitchy handling through to the Pagani Zonda R and then further to open wheel Formula 1 cars with their face tearing G forces. Whilst most, if not all, forms of racing are covered we have become accustomed to nearly an all-inclusive list of marque’s in competitive titles and in comparison Project CARS does feel light in this regard.

The standard range of game modes are available from participating in a racing weekend, online multiplayer to a full and unrestricted career mode.

Starting with a race weekend there is almost an endless array of options for you to toy with, race length, difficulty, time of day, weather and so on. You can just jump straight onto the starting grid or have a practice and qualifying session first, it’s all fully customisable.

17118708850_b6bbfc770b_o_a_1430914244

The career mode gives you the opportunity to start at any motorsport level you wish, you can begin your journey by following the same path as some household names such as Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton by working your way up from the Karting scene or jump straight ahead into a Formula 1 racing car.

At the start you sign a contract for the season, which from what I’ve seen has no impact on anything, there is no emotional or financial attachment to who you are racing for, you just race for them and they tell you how well/bad you are doing by email. Also looking to review your progress is your Twitter fan base, who will give you encouraging tweets as your season progresses

Of the countless options available to you, it’s the tweaking of the AI difficulty I found to be the most notable, if you feel you’re taking advantage of your opponents you can knock it up a number of notches until you hit your sweet spot, the game can be as demanding as you want it to be and its all the better for it.

The cars handling, for the most part, is impressively replicated, with each type of vehicle requiring you to adapt your driving style accordingly, concentration needs to be remain high and it may take a good while tinkering with the set-ups before you’re happy with your drive. From tyre pressure to ride height, suspension to gear ratios, it’s a tuners paradise.

The controller feedback feels as well as it can, however to get the full effect and experience for this game you’ll likely want to invest in a steering wheel, a Thrustmaster T80 or T100 will see you good.

Out on the track is where the game excels. The detail of the car’s interior is probably the best I’ve seen in a driving game, the vehicles themselves are also beautifully represented and at the very least on par with other driving competitors. There is also a varied range of camera angles to choose from, a few from inside the car and even one from inside the helmet. Driving in varying weather conditions as day passes to night with the shadows from the headlights off the chasing pack, it is a visual masterpiece.

17174146930_e5a46d42b5_k_a_1430914245

Project CARS is also host to some of the most famous racing circuits, Silverstone, Donnington Monza and Spa as well as the Le Mans track, and each of them are recreated beautifully. Playing and appreciating this game on PS4, I can barely comprehend how good this would look on a high end PC.

Online racing is fit for purpose and does work from the off, but currently I can’t see any official rankings for player matching and I think that this would improve the experience dramatically, if not just to make the racing competitive but to match up those who are looking to race and those who want to line up on the grid against the clones of Pastor Maldonado. There has also been mention online of some racers joining midway through a weekend session with a far superior car and that really needs cutting out if a fair race is to be had.

Ultimately Project Cars is a game that will require a lot of patience and time, and if you want to be the very best you’ll probably spend half of your time in the garage adjusting your setup and the other half justifying your racing wheel purchase to your wife/husband/parent/support worker. On most parts it’s as good as any of the competition, it’s just not yet, the definitive racer I’ve been looking for.

Alien Isolation Review

AI_LOGO_RGB_TM_WHITE_1389089703

Alien Isolation

Developed by The Creative Assembly

Published by Sega

Reviewed on the Playstation 4

The original Alien movie is now over thirty years old and yet it seems as though this is the first video game to really take inspiration from that tense sci-fi horror. Many games based in the Alien universe follow the action style of the Colonial Marines from the sequel Aliens, the most high profile of these was the dreadful Colonial Marines game. The Creative Assembly must have been worried that Gearbox’s disaster may have ruined their upcoming, simply just by the nature of association. Luckily Alien: Isolation has very little in common with that game, apart from the obvious name in the title.

Alien is one of my all time favourite films and I have been waiting eagerly to get my hands on this game, it has been billed as survival horror. Set 15 years after the events on-board the Nostromo, you play the role of Amanda Ripley. Ripley is heading towards the Sevastopol Space station in search of a recovered flight recorder, hoping to find out what happened to her mother. Nothing is straightforward and once you are on-board it is clear there is something else lurking in the shadows.

AI_LAUNCH_SCREEN008_1411636911Given access to terabytes of data from the production of the film, The Creative Assembly have painstakingly re-created the gritty analogue future; so well in fact that at times it really feels as though you are in the film. Everything you have seen in the film is here, from the iconic drinking birds, to the steam filled passageways with flickering bulbs barely lighting the way ahead. The sounds are also perfect, the beeps from an analogue world are all here, and none more so than when typing into one of the many computers you will need to use on your journey. It is as near to perfect as a game can get, the atmosphere just oozes from the walls and the vents throughout the game.

The most impressive aspect of this game is the Alien itself, no longer is it just a moving target to be mown down with endless rounds from your pulse rifle. This time it is the perfect organism. It takes a bit of time before you do fully run into the creature, but when you do it is genuinely terrifying seeing it in action. The AI is really incredible, it is unpredictable and whilst it can be frustrating, it really made me think how I would get through to the next area, or to one of the save points in one piece. I loved the return to manual save points, it just added to the importance of staying alive with no auto save every few minutes to ruin the terror.

The random nature of the AI does have its drawbacks though, at times I was really struggling to evade the monster, getting fairly frustrated with taking my time and trying to edge round the corridors and through the vents. I decided to just walk in a straight line to the exit, I didn’t encounter the Alien at all and it made something that should have been tricky ridiculously easy, but this only happened very rarely and I still felt as though it could leap out at me at any time. Once the Alien makes itself known, I automatically feared the worst and I could actually feel myself breathing slower and edging forward. No game has made me do this for a long time.

AI_LAUNCH_SCREEN001_1411636895

There are other threats on board the station apart from the Alien and these are in the form of Androids called ‘Working Joe’s’, these are cheaply made robots that are clearly distinguished from humans by their pale plastic faces and glowing eyes. Whilst I understand that you need variety in the game, I did feel that in the middle section of the game the Androids were far over used and I began to hate running into them, not because they were difficult but because they were ruining the tension that the game had built up in the first half.

I have to admit to rarely using any of the creatable items. this was partly because I didn’t want to attract the attention of anything to my position, but mainly it was because it was too fiddly to switch between items especially with the speed with which the Alien can move. These items were far more effective against the human or android enemies, but at time the effectiveness of these items changes with no reason or warning so I just stopped using them.

AI_LAUNCH_SCREEN014_1411636926It is the long middle section of the game where all of Alien Isolations problems are shown. I would rarely criticise a game for being too long, but at about the half way point there is a kind of mini ending where it feels as though the game is winding down towards its conclusion. In reality you are only half way through and towards the final few chapters it was really getting to be a slog to keep going with so many objectives being rehashed from earlier. Part of this is down to the introduction of the flame thrower, whilst it cannot kill the Alien, it can scare it off, meaning that many times I was just walking around without even trying to evade it. A couple of bursts from this would be enough to see it running back into an overhead vent, this could easily have been changed by reducing the amount of fuel you can find, or even by just leaving this weapon out until the tougher final hours of the story.

I am fully aware that being such a huge fan of the Alien universe may give me a slightly rose tinted view on this game, but on the whole I did really enjoy my time playing through the story. Sadly it is just far too long. It could have been trimmed by at least a quarter, if I was reviewing just the first half of the game I would say it’s up there with some of the best I have ever played. Even with the excessive length, the game does deliver moments of survival horror at its best, there are also some great moments that pay homage to the first film, these alone are worth playing if you are a fan of the films.

It is not perfect but it is easily the best Alien focused game I have ever played.

Score: 8/10

Football Manager 2015 Review

S00118_SEGA_FM15_KEY-ART_Charles_1412865572

Football Manager 2015

Developed by Sports interactive

Published by Sega

Reviewed on the PC

The football manager series developed by Sports Interactive has to be one of the greatest set of games I have ever played. If I added up all of the hours I have spent playing the various games over the past twenty years, I would probably question quite what I have done with my life, but I wouldn’t change the amount of time I have spent playing on this hugely addictive and immersive game. After all, where else could I have taken my Lincoln City side from the depths of English football to multiple Champions League titles?

When loading up the game for the first time I was met with the options of playing the ‘full’ version of football manager or the ‘classic’ version. The Classic version is essentially an option for players who do not have as much time to invest in the game, yet still want to play through many seasons, it is effectively a watered down version of the game, with emphasis more on the match day management of your team. As I have already stated I spend far too much time playing this game so this review, is primarily based on the full version of the game.

There is a third option where you can play through some shortened challenges, I tried out one of these, the aim of keeping AFC Wimbledon up with half the season already gone and being well adrift at the bottom of the table. Sadly my time in charge was brief, as I did little to help the side stay up, but I have to say that this is a great feature to freshen the game up with various scenarios available, if the bottom of the football league isn’t to your liking.

FM15_MATCH_ENGINE_01_1412781262The first big addition to the game comes when you are initially setting up your game, where as in the past you would select your details, such as name/age/favourite club, then pick your team, now you have to select what sort of manager you will be. Will you be a manager who specialises in coaching? Tactics? Or maybe a bit from both? This early decision allows you to tailor your style in a way that you just haven’t been able to in the past, the abilities you possess should be linked to the reputation you have selected, so don’t think you can really go into the Conference with a fully rounded set of skills. Like-wise, the game will help tailor you better if you opt for one of the elite clubs.

On my early play through of the game I tried to become a jack of all trades and spread my skills across all of the fields. I learnt that it is perhaps better to be a tactical coach for the larger sides, where you will have far more coaches to work with and smarter players, but a coaching manager at the smaller clubs, where tactics aren’t as important as getting the most out of your limited resources. It is great to see this added as it will allow you to grow as a manger as you work your way up through the leagues enhancing your reputation. I expect that given enough time, you will be able to ditch the tracksuit you wear early on in your career at the foot of the symbolic gaming pyramid, for a suit once you take charge at one of the top jobs.

The interface has had an overhaul and initially it had me longing for the old layout, but as with most things in life, change is generally a good thing, and after a couple of hours I felt it was far better.

All of the core areas of the game were in the side bar down the left hand side; no longer do you look to the top of the screen, meaning that I was only ever one or two clicks away from where I wanted to be. The addition of an internet style search bar at the top of every page was a brilliant change. Initially I thought that I wouldn’t use the function much, but the more time I spent playing the more I realised just how often I would start typing in it to quickly find the next player I wanted my team of scouts to report on.

This brings me to another fairly big change to the game; the scouting section of the game has now been fused with the old player search. This means that whereas in the past you could literally search for any player in the world, you are now tied in by the knowledge of your scouts. The better and more widely spread your scouts are, the more players you will be able to look at. Whilst this may be viewed as harder for smaller sides, I do think it is more realistic: After all, why would a side in the Conference have a detailed list on players in Burkina Faso? This change really means that you will have to spend more time on sending your scouts to various parts of the world if you want to learn about the next wonder kid before anyone else.

FM15_SCOUT_REPORT_1412781264

The tactics section has also had a nice upgrade. Far more options available and whereas in the past the screen would have sliders to select how you would want your side to play on the pitch, now you have to use instructions. Again, I think this is far better, as I highly doubt Jose Mourinho shows his players a set of sliders before sending them out for a match. The media interactivity has been increased, with odd questions being asked to you in the tunnel on the way out to a match, as well as far more media interest in transfers and rumours of morale in the squad. As with previous versions, if you find any of these areas of the game a little too time consuming, or just boring you can have your assistant manager help out.

The 3D match engine has been updated and it looks far better, with many upgrades being made – ranging from far better weather effects, more detailed stadiums, down to the players kicking the ball in a far more realistic manner. I play the game with the 3D match engine, so I really liked these updates, but many players still play through with just the text commentary; this has also been updated with more variety, so it doesn’t feel like you are reading the same as last year. Of course there are still glitches and problems with the match engine, you see players do very strange things and many games do tend to be very similar when viewing them, but it is an improvement and as with all previous Football Manager games SI work hard to release updates that improve problems promptly.

FM15_SCOUT_REPORT_1412781264Overall this is another superb game from Sports Interactive. Each year they manage to keep the game feeling fresh and this is no exception. The addition of tailoring your management style is something that keeps you wondering how we got on without it before. It is another evolution of the greatest football management simulator and if you have enjoyed any of the previous games then you will love this one too.

Score: 9/10

Assassin’s Creed: Unity Preview

ACU_Logo_Typo_Black_E3_140609_4pmPST_1402219073

“I was wrong”. The most elusive statement on the internet. A sentence so rarely seen online that many refuse to believe it exists. Many Youtube commentators have even removed the letter keys required for this phrase from their keyboard. To mark such an occasion, I’ll say it again: I. Was. Wrong.

A while back I wrote an opinion piece on Assassin’s Creed: Unity, criticising it’s choice of the French Revolution instead of an Far East Asian theme that had been rumoured for some time. I declared the setting of Paris to be boring, and that this game would lead to further stagnation of the yearly franchise.

Well, from what I’ve seen since then, I am gloriously incorrect. Since that E3 demo, Unity has been firmly on my radar, and is now edging into ‘day-one purchase’ status. Every single update is showing that their initial, seemingly impossible promises are being delivered.

ACU_screen_73_SP_District_IleDeLaCite_GC_140813_10amCET_1407889441It’s been a long time since graphics have truly stood out to me. We’re in an age where games all look incredible, and it’s often easy to overlook just how pretty even smaller budget games look. We’ve become spoilt brats, squabbling over 900p resolutions (It honestly doesn’t matter guys) and the difference 2 frames-per-second makes. Games have become so great-looking, and the improvements have become so gradual, that we don’t often notice graphics in a game.

Unity, for me, looks like it’s about to make a giant leap forward. Watching videos of the new Anvil engine in action, It’s hard to believe the level of detail and intricacy the buildings are now showing. Rusted pipes, fully textured brickwork, Incredible torn fabrics. Assassin’s Creed looks properly next-gen. Ryse took the initial steps towards this, but it did so by placing the player in a guided corridor. With this kind of sandbox game, to achieve the level of graphical polish that we are seeing, it’s looking a new benchmark in gaming graphics is about to be set.

ACU_screen_80_COOP_Heist_GC_140813_10amCET_1407889511The narrative trailer recently released also shows us the potential strength the game’s story has. Notorious for it’s complex and often drawn-out storytelling, in the past it felt as if Ubisoft perhaps weren’t ready for the runaway success of the franchise. Trying to tell the plot over so many games took it’s toll, and made a mess of a once interesting approach. After numerous mis-steps with the sub-plots between 2 and 3, I’m interested to see if Ubisoft will pull it back.

And they have the perfect place to start. The French Revolution seems almost made for this franchise. Riots and chaos in the streets making for a perfect distraction for you to create havoc, and the themes of uprising and power shift have been told countless times throughout the franchise already. If Ubisoft can deliver a game that tells it’s story clearly and concisely, the setting and powerful drama that actually unfolded for real will take care of the rest.

ACU_screen_84_SP_District_LesInvalides_GC_140813_10amCET_1407889558If I have any reservations, one would definitely be the extent of the series mini-games. When I played AC4, it felt a bit bloated with the level of side-quests and bits and pieces I had to mess around with. I’d be on a way to a mission, when all of a sudden there’d be an island to explore, or a fortress to conquer, or a shark to hunt, or a treasure to find. The list went on. This kind of gameplay can be done well (See the Fallout series), but Black Flag felt more of a chore. Like Grand Theft Auto 4, the side missions felt like work, dragging down the thrust and adventurous aspect of the game. If Ubisoft can concentrate more on the story and game itself, rather than making it a do-everything sim game, the series will get back to it’s glory days of Assassin’s Creed 2, undoubtedly the series’ finest hour.

We wait and see if Assassin’s Creed Unity can deliver the gameplay and action to match it’s undoubtedly incredible visuals, but I’m optimistic. And if this is the kind of game I get to look forward to and gawp at until that Ninja/Samurai instalment comes along, it’s looking like it’ll at least be an enjoyable wait.

Stronghold Crusader 2 Review

logo

Developer: Firefly Studios

Publisher: Firefly Studios

Platform Reviewed: PC

Release Date: 22nd September 2014

The goal of Stronghold Crusader 2’s campaign is the simplest you might find this year: Kill the enemy Lord to conquer the map. Do this over and again and you’ll succeed in a campaign that pits you against either King Richard or Saladin’s army. That isn’t to say this is a bad thing though, the simple objective leaves you to achieve your victory any way you see fit and feels refreshing when held against recent Real Time Strategy games, whose sole focus seems to be to add complexity to an already solid groundwork. This doesn’t mean the game simply employs you to create a meat grinder and thrash out a multitude of soldiers to simply suppress the enemy by attrition. You’ll need to be skilled in people management to attract people to your kingdom, rather than that of your enemy and manage a very fragile economical position to ensure your resources are juggled with the population growth and the needs of your military.

system_requirements_announcementThe problem with simplicity comes a lack of need to be very attentive. The best part of any RTS is the need to juggle live action battles whilst still managing your economy and any urgent needs of your kingdom. Whilst you will need to do some of this, the main management is boiled down to a simple panel at the top of your screen, which will manage certain attributes that will give boost and penalties through the game. You may want to lower taxes to entice a higher population, or lower rations consumed on a daily basis as you hadn’t quite predicted the growing food needs of your new people and are struggling to keep up with demand. All of these little situations will determine the happiness of your people and, as the game ensures you know, “The people are fickle, sire” and will certainly turn tail and run at the first sign of trouble within your reign. In some ways this feels like the games way of adding a simulation element to proceedings but doesn’t quite go far enough to truly draw you in and complete the experience.

10I found myself mostly dabbling with Saladin’s forces rather than that of King Richard; this was because Saladin’s army seemed fresh and offered some different units rather than the same old Cavalry, Knights and Archers. With Saladin’s army I could have a group of hot oil pot throwers or a wall climbing Assassin – it added layers of depth to the combat and something unique to the game.

While you may have forgotten about your castle once you’ve marched your army to the enemy encampment, you’ll certainly remember it again once the siege weapons are out and ready to annihilate all that hard work you’ve put in to defending yourself with walls and a defensive arsenal. Siege weapons feel fantastic to lay waste to your enemy castle and it is always satisfying to see the wall come down to allow access for your foot soldiers. Of course, you may simply want to weaken your enemy and hurl a plague-ridden cow over the wall to draw them out, or thin the population or the age old stress bringer of a fire ball blasted into their castle.

You will never confuse Stronghold Crusader 2 as a single player game over its multiplayer, as the two campaigns are simply titled “Learning Campaigns” and are designed to get you up to speed with each army and teach competence at the base management; before you take yourself into the multiplayer skirmishes, yet fails to teach you any actual winning strategy beyond very simplistic building and growth support.  You’ll get the opportunity to face the computer AI in skirmishes that will hit you with wave after wave of enemies in ever increasing combinations and difficulty, this can help you stress-test any strategies you’ve thought of for your army, but other than that the learning is extremely bare.

1Multiplayer offers you the real challenge and is the linchpin of the entire game. If you can find good opponents and enjoy the first few hours of having your army torn to pieces, then you’ll find a lot of fun. The game doesn’t prepare you though – especially for people new to the genre – with what to expect when heading into a multiplayer battle. You’ll fly blind and either feel your way out into the battle or give up because it’s simply too much to take in.

Developer Firefly Studios has grown around this genre and have possibly lost a some of focus on what I thought made previous games great – the castle building mechanic is too shallow to really excite any budding RTS player and the tutorials offer nowhere near enough depth to begin teaching anyone who may have stumbled across the game. The combat can be extremely fun and the siege weapons bring additional depth, this is what matters and yet this isn’t enough to hold long term interest in the game. The generic unit choices often leave you simply replicating and creating multiples of the same unit, time after time, until your enemy has relented and you finally win.

Score: 7/10

Clockwork Empires – Early Access Preview

ce_text_banBack in March I became incredibly excited about Gaslamp Games’ Clockwork Empires after reading a preview piece; it promised a core system that had been developed for two years prior to moving onto actually building a game around the infrastructure they had created. Oh yeah, and Fishmen fighting redcoats because, well, why not? Perhaps, by nature of being early access, we are seeing something extremely early in its life and a little unfair to judge and perhaps it’s just too early to be available to the public. As of right now all you’ll get when you head into Clockwork Empires is a rather generic city builder set in a Victorian setting with the aforementioned Fishmen sporadically dropping in to make sure you are kept on your toes, rather than something fresh and new with a hint of Lovecraft to spice up your life.

You can see some of the in-depth personality AI has started to appear, but this is currently in small pieces of dialogue on character descriptions or icons that appear through the game. You’ll see your villagers deciding names for their own part of town – like their kitchen or the barn. You can see these quaint little touches happening and adds some fun to the constant slog to ensure your people don’t starve or are kept warm during long, torturous winters.

ce_mining_accidentClockwork Empires promises something akin to free will. Villagers will voice their displeasure at a monarch, or decide they are better served by going into the woods and joining a cult. In the most up to date build the majority of this is something you’ll have to dig to find and understand, the minutiae held in the depths of menus. Right now maybe that’s a good thing, as the few buildings you can erect won’t take you long and you’ll spend far too long micro-managing every little aspect, rather than setting the stage and letting your village grow with only the most minimal of interactions from you. This is where I’m hoping the game improves with updates, to allow you to sit back and enjoy what is actually being offered; rather than having you zoomed in all the time trying to manage the individual needs – something that, at the minute, is more of necessity than anything else – rather than spend time enjoying the world they are setting up.

The closest comparison I could come up with while playing was that of Peter Molyneux’s fictional land of Albion; I often found myself thinking of Fable landscape, as my villagers ploughed a field while watching the Fishmen climbing from the local lake to attack, as Red coats run to the rescue. It was these moments I probably enjoyed most. The actual atmosphere the game tries to create makes a nice change from most of the boilerplate world builders you run across. Clockwork Empires sets a tone and sticks to that and is all the better for it.

chaos_in_fishtownClockwork Empires is still very much in its infancy, but has laid some impressive groundwork and built up a lot of promise in a very short amount of time. While I’ve probably spent a lot of time in Clockwork Empires being frustrated by silly little bugs or quirks in the gameplay, I still found enjoyment in what they are trying to do – the soul of the game, the atmosphere and the beginnings of the character AI looks like it has the potential to completely change the face of simulation games going forward. While it’s hard to recommend you pick this up immediately due to the lack of polish and actual content (The Gaslamp Games site estimates they are only 25% through development) I’d say this is definitely something you should keep your eyes on for what comes in the future. If you’re looking for something similar you’d be better served in the short term picking up Banished rather than frustrating yourself with Clockwork Empires, but would recommend that everyone check out this game on full release to see what has come of the promises they made.

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

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter PC Review

TheVanishingOfEthanCarter-Logo_white_2_1407761827

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter PC Review

Publisher: The Astronauts
Developer: The Astronauts
Platform Reviewed: PC
Release date: 25/09/2014

Ethan Carter is a very special young boy, he has ability to see what others cannot; It is this gift which has put him in danger. Lost, frightened and alone, he is in desperate need of help. Playing as Paul Pospero, an occult minded detective, you receive a letter from Ethan, his cries for assistance are deafening, you must help this young man and save him from whatever perils that threaten him. Without hesitation you make your way to Red Creek Valley.

The uneven floor crunches underfoot as you take the first steps along an abandoned rail road. The darkness of the tunnel, broken only by the light in the distance. Emerging into the warm glow of the sun, your eyes adjust quickly to the light. A thin layer of mist gently covers the surrounding forest; branches move gracefully as they are kissed by the wind. Moss covered rocks lie in peaceful slumber. The overgrown grass dances to the sound of its own tune.

Crossing a derelict and badly damaged wooden bridge you spot a cold, rusted train car, it has been left to time to do with it as it pleases. It’s only as you draw closer that you notice the blood stains. Peering further down you realise that something foreign is sitting on the tracks. With great unease you approach, the horror of what you witness sends a shuddering chill coursing through you. It is here that we leave your tale, the rest of this mystery is for you to solve.

TVoEC_ScreenShot_01The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a mesmerising mix of mystery and the supernatural. Rarely has a detective game been able to produce such an acute sense of unease. The world you have been tasked to explore feels real and yet so isolated. The minimalistic approach to gameplay only deepens the sense of atmosphere and intrigue. There is no inventory screen, no complicated mechanics, no map or compass, it’s just you and what you can see. You’re left all alone, free to explore Red Creek Valley in your desperate hunt for the young boy who absolutely needs your help.

Progression through the story is achieved by solving various puzzles or crime scenes. Examining a clue will bring Pospero’s thoughts on screen, increasing the level of immersion as you feel at one with his thoughts. Decipher them correctly and you will begin to piece together the awful truth, find enough clues and Pospero will be able to use his supernatural abilities to re-imagine the events leading up to the crime. Place them together in the correct chronological order and whole scene plays out to its devastating conclusion, shedding more light on the events as you continue your search for Ethan.

Devoid of all signs of life, Red Creek Valley is as haunting as it is beautiful. It is easy to become distracted by stunning detail and wonderfully rich environments the team at The Astronauts have managed to create. Whilst all signs of civilisation are slowly decaying, the true force of nature is in full effect as it reclaims the land for itself. The contrast between new an old is a wonderful setting for such a macabre tale.

TVoEC_ScreenShot_02The soundtrack only deepens the feelings of gentle discomfort. It is so wonderfully composed, subtle changes in pace and tone capture the emotions of each scene perfectly. From soft and soothing to chilling and suspenseful, the arrangement is always perfectly timed and perfectly implemented. It is a master class in how music can be used to provoke emotion. Couple this with gruff soliloquy of Pospero, and the atmosphere this manages to create is so intense it seems tangible.

The ability to freely explore makes for an incredible experience, yet it can be easy to become lost and without focus, especially if you miss a vital clue. The lack of direction can, at times, be frustrating. Having to retrace your steps in search of something significant will irritate some. A notebook which details your findings would have been of great benefit and would eliminate some of the senseless backtracking.

That being said, this is only a minor issue in what is a truly remarkable adventure. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a supreme example of interactive storytelling. The beautiful surroundings, the rich and detailed visuals, the complex story, the exceptional soundtrack all combine into an experience that will live long in the memory.  Red Creek Valley is home to something very special indeed.

SCORE: 9/10

Reviewer – Ian @Mrbaddog28