There’s something quite endearing and captivating about a game that plays more like a book than an actual game. What’s even better though, is when it’s done well – when it doesn’t matter that you’re not constantly in the midst of action sequences, or fighting for your life in various unrealistic situations – the story has you so gripped it doesn’t matter. This is what Firewatch does, quite beautifully.
There are moments where you’ll find yourself just looking at the vista in front of you, and those where you’ll happily spend ten minutes lining up the camera just so for a perfect screenshot. The variety of terrain and environment is done superbly well, and there’s enough of it that you won’t feel like you’re going over the same ground again and again.
Firewatch sort of sells itself as a mystery game, and there are certainly elements of that here – although Henry’s main job is to watch for fires, there’s a slowly unravelling story amidst the personal intrigue, and the developing relationship between Henry and Delilah. It just wouldn’t do to give away too much of the underlying story, but suffice to say it’s just present enough to give the game a proper sense of purpose without either element overpowering the other. The solitary feeling is escalated by the fact that you don’t actually see a person throughout the game. Even playing as Henry, controlling him as he grapples rock faces, climbs rocks and threads his way through trees, you’ll only ever catch glimpses of parts of him – an arm here, a leg there. It’s clearly been done by design and it’s been done well, too.
Navigating Henry through the park is not a taxing experience for the most part, although without proper care and attention it would be quite easy to lose yourself during some parts of the game. Henry carries a map that handily marks your current position, although at times it can be a little tricky to correlate what’s in front of you to what’s on the map (please, no jokes about women and map reading…). It would be difficult to be stuck for any prolonged period of time, however – and if anything, it only adds to the feeling of wilderness and isolation.
The narrative is well written, and the voice actors are perfect for it. Visually this is a stunner of a game...
Ultimately, Firewatch sets out to tell a story, and it tells it wonderfully. There are moments, however, where you are left wondering if you’re really participating in the telling of that story, or if you’re just watching it play out as you wander along. It can feel a bit like you’re being led, rather than discovering things for yourself, and at those points the immersion is damaged slightly. At times, you’ll hit certain parts in the plot and entire days and nights will pass by before you start again, which again lessens the feeling of discovery and leans more towards linearity.
Clocking in at around five hours from start to finish (more if you spend as long as I did just looking at it), Firewatch isn’t exactly breaking the bank for what it is and, more importantly, what it achieves. The narrative is well written, and the voice actors are perfect for it. Visually this is a stunner of a game let down only by a slightly lack-lustre ending – but it’s still definitely worth your time. After all, there are worse ways to spend a summer than exploring a National Forest.
Coldwood make it clear from the outset that a lot of love has been put into Unravel, indeed they inform you of the fact before the game has even begun, but they needn’t have bothered. From the first melancholic strings over the intro logos to the picturesque home screen, the game oozes charm.
Some levels may illicit an emotional response from people, but it’s entirely possible that others will find nothing in the story to relate to, and could easily feel a little underwhelmed by the simplistic telling.
Even if the story does fail to resonate, Unravel still works as a decent platformer and as a great looking game. The levels themselves are beautifully rendered, and accompanied by the charming soundtrack, the combination feels almost therapeutic. You’ll undoubtedly share Yarny’s awe as he steps out into each environment for the first time.
2D platformers can make creating an immersive world a bit tricky, seeing as exploration is limited, but everything on-screen in Unravel feels alive. Grass and flowers sway in the wind, animals trample past in the background, snow swirls in storms and when it’s all viewed from the scaled down perspective of Yarny, it makes the ordinary seem much more impressive. Fish become improvised engines, broken logs are bob sleds, kites are gliders and even birds step in to assist. Watching Yarny interacting with them is a heart-warming experience.
The levels themselves are beautifully rendered, and accompanied by the charming soundtrack, the combination feels almost therapeutic.
The game does offer some level of replay-value, with five collectable secrets hidden throughout each level. The majority of the secrets will be hard to miss, but chances are you’ll have to go back for a few of the more well-hidden ones. Displaying a ‘4/5 Secrets found’ next to the entry point of each level seems a cert to get completionists back for more.
Unravel’s platforming is fairly intuitive. Asides from the ability to jump, Yarny can throw out a lasso made of his own anatomy to grapple onto knots of string dotted about the levels in order to climb, swing over gaps or manipulate objects. The yarn can also be used to create makeshift bridges and trampolines, while holding LT allows you to retrace your steps by climbing back up the yarn trail left behind as you move, acting as a safety net. It’s a useful trick when you want to explore everything in one area before moving onto the next and want a shortcut back to your original point, but platforming purists may find it takes any element of difficulty from the game.
Most of the puzzles that you come across will require a combination of these abilities to beat, but they aren’t too difficult to figure out, with only one or two properly stalling progress for some time, and more often than not it was due to overthinking the challenge. Most of the time, the obvious answer was usually the right one.
Using the yarn with merry abandon will eventually cause Yarny to start withering away, and limits how far you can move before finding the spirals of yarn which refill him and also act as checkpoints. The finite yarn does add some tactical elements to the gameplay, making you look for the most efficient and economic routes, but the checkpoints are handed out fairly gratuitously and there are only a few times that a low supply of yarn will hold you back.
Unravel may not be the hardest platformer on the market, but it’s certainly one of the best looking, accompanied by an excellent score and set pieces that create some memorable moments. Any gripes with the difficulty would be a bit unfair, as the overall experience is tailored towards a more relaxed adventure, one that plays on your own nostalgia and means Unravel can be a surprisingly moving game because of it.
Make no mistake about it, chums, this latest game from the folks at Tomorrow Corporation (Little Inferno, World of Goo) is a tad on the niche side. Whether you’ll be bald by the time you finish it will mostly depend on your powers of coding, and much more macabre, maths!
The visual look of the game is a real treat, with a dull palette of greys for the corporate buildings, to the brown walls of the office, to the delightful purple and green dresses of your fellow employees drinking coffee. Every five or six puzzles - or year of employment - you’ll be given the chance to have a drink, or even take a beach holiday. It’s a wonderful send-up of the corporate world, culminating in the thinning of your hair and robots replacing your boss. The music also fits the action perfectly, from lightly brushed jazz drums and organs to more sinister electronic pieces.
If you’re a fan of puzzle games, or games with a dark, quirky sense of humour we’d definitely recommend Human Resource Machine. Likewise if you’re a wannabe programmer, this is a great place to start. I'd personally love to see Tomorrow Corporation sell this game to education providers, as it would be a great way to get younger people interested in programming. Ultimately though, it just might be too frustrating for a lot of us older, and clearly not wiser, folks (this donkey-brain included!).
Gravity Rush is a game based entirely around one central gameplay mechanic, which every other element simply serves to house and contextualise. It's often said that mechanics make the game, and Gravity Rush Remastered epitomises that phrase.
[Gravity Rush Remastered] is a serious exclusive and a feather in the PS4’s cap - there’s a lot of fun to be had here...
Not every element transitions to console as well, however. Narrative sequences are expressed through still comic book panels, with dialogue and cutscenes a rarity. The dialogue and even some text go untranslated, culminating in the nagging feeling that this was a handheld game through and through, held back by both budget and platform capability.
Monstrous Nevi invade Gravity Rush’s foreign world and can be dispatched in combat with a combination of kicks, evasive manoeuvres, special abilities and stasis-thrown objects, either from the ground or air. You’ll need to aim for glowing weak-spots in true video game fashion, making for fast paced hybrid combat encounters, as you maintain perpetual motion in order to hold the appropriate angle of attack.
Hailing from Japan via Sony’s aptly named Japan Studio, the anime-inspired art style is an acquired taste, whilst the remaster treatment makes for a noticeable improvement over the original and the animation is unquestionably sublime. Also an acquired taste are the anime conventions that come part and parcel, most notably playing a young and overly sexualised female often more concerned with pursuing love interests and being “cute” than the myriad of pressing issues that would realistically take priority. It doesn’t morally bother, it’s just dumb.
Gravity Rush Remastered isn’t a system seller, but it is a serious exclusive and a feather in the PS4’s cap - there’s a lot of fun to be had here, despite some drawbacks due largely to its handheld origin. With a sequel currently in development for the console and set to fix that problem, Gravity Rush 2 could be one of 2016’s best!
Just like ordering squid from a restaurant, Octodad is very hit-and-miss. Sure, some of it is perfectly cooked and delicious, but too often it strays into the territory of overdone chewiness.
The other major gripe we have with the game is the camera system. The camera moves freely and positions itself where it deems best, and unfortunately this presents some real grievances. During a flashback on a boat (where you first met not only your wife, but the evil chef too!) you are tasked with moving through the various cabins and corridors on the vessel. Now almost every time you change rooms the camera will move from a view behind you, to a view in front, and thus flipping the controls. This is highly annoying and something that really should have been ironed out after the first iteration of the game.
The graphics and sound are both well done, with a simple cartoon feel to both the visuals and the soundtrack. The character voices are spot-on, especially the gargles of Octodad himself, and the villainous Chef Fujimoto, providing real laughs. There are humourous little touches everywhere; from the supermarket providing AAA Indie milk, Catch-Up ketchup and Mintcraft foodstuffs to the tentacle on the loading screen. There’s some slow-down here and there too, but it’s nothing that’ll affect the action too much.
£11.99 gets you a charming, funny and often barnacle blighted game - a fee that might be too high for most considering the short three-ish hour playtime. An amusing co-op mode where each player controls one arm and one leg, a free-play mode, some short films and a barrel-load of collectibles for folks into that sort of thing do help offset that a little, however.
If you see it on offer, we’d definitely recommend having a punt, but swim cautiously at its current price. Here’s hoping Young Horse can finesse the Octodad formula, and serve us up something truly delicious in the future.
Following 2015's HD spruce-up of the original Resident Evil, and preceding the upcoming Resident Evil 2 remake, Capcom continue to aknowledge criticism and offer more for the alienated Resi fan of yore with the release of Resident Evil Zer0 HD.
Aiming anchors you to the ground where you can awkwardly shimmy side to side in an attempt to aim, but the fixed camera perspective can make things hard to judge. Aiming up or downwards moves a set value, making headshots more about spacing and random chance than a true test of your aim, whilst leg shots are easier to hit and leave zombies begging to be stomped. Combat’s passable, but you’ll likely avoid it where possible to avoid frustration, which incidentally leaves you more ammo for unskippable boss encounters - win-win.
Zer0 introduced some interesting ideas for its time, some of which were tweaked to become series mainstays. You control both Rebecca Chambers, a rookie S.T.A.R.S. member, and Billy Coen, an escaped death-row inmate throughout the game. When the odd couple occupy the same room, each one corresponds to an analogue stick, massively pre-dating the likes of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons for an added element of control and reliability. If you can’t pat your head and rub your stomach simultaneously and you’d rather give commands à la Resi 4, 5, 6, Revelations 1 & 2 - you get the picture by now - then you can do that as well.
... activating a train’s brakes requires a person in both the front and back car to solve maths problems (because that’s totally how it works).
Hit Y and you’ll switch control between the two; in some instances this is necessary for progression as respective personal skills are required for puzzle solving. In other instances it’s purely a tactical choice, like taking Billy into battle for his increased survivability, or gathering herbs with Rebecca in order to combine them and either change their properties or increase potency. It’s an interesting dynamic that throws up a dilemma: do you bring the vulnerable Rebecca to a fight as added firepower and risk her injury, or have her wait in safety and Billy face worse odds?
Puzzles are typically obtuse and nonsensical, but in much the same way as the dialogue it’s an easily forgiven issue when they’re plain fun to solve. As an illustration, in the game’s first area alone a knife doesn’t qualify as “something sharp” and activating a train’s brakes requires a person in both the front and back car to solve maths problems (because that’s totally how it works).
Whilst not offering any settings quite as iconic as the Spencer Mansion or Raccoon City Police Department, Zer0’s level design is undoubtedly strong. From the decedent and aforementioned Ecliptic Express, to the Arclay Mountains, an Umbrella facility and beyond, each location is memorable. You’ll know them like the back of your hand before long, scouring rooms to scavenge every last bullet, ink ribbon and herb to ensure your continued survival. Exploring these rich environments is a highlight.
Unfortunately, copious backtracking largely brought about by the inventory management system also plays a part in ensuring a firm lay of the land. With very limited inventory space, juggling items is inevitable, be it between characters or simply dropping stuff on the floor to return to when required. The system’s both cumbersome and tedious for obvious reasons, whilst tactical and rewarding thanks to constant consideration poured into your loadout and approach.
There’s something about classic Resident Evil that makes it timeless despite numerous issues and compels you to plough on. It’s clunky, cheesy and naff, yes, but it’s bloody enjoyable!
Oxenfree takes its namesake from an old children's saying indicative of safety. Hearing ‘olly olly oxen free’ meant hiders could reveal themselves without losing to the seeker, but that most certainly isn’t the case in this instance.
Oxenfree is Night School Studio’s first game. It doesn’t show...
Sluggish movement does at least grant more listening time; Oxenfree’s eclectic soundtrack from scntfc (Galak-Z, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP) can go from bassy electronic to classic orchestral whilst feeling complementary, rather than jarring as you’d expect. It’s almost possessive of an upward inflection to encourage questions and perpetuate the air of mystery.
Inspired by cult classic films like like Stand by Me and Poltergeist, Oxenfree is Night School Studio’s first game. It doesn’t show, thanks to a team comprised of Disney and Telltale alumni, a team we can only hope take us on further adventures in the future.
The experience evokes memories of personal childhood mishaps, and might even make you wish to go back in time. It’ll keep you playing until it holds no more secrets, gripped by paranormal activity. Above all, it’s a charming and human coming of age story, it’s magic, and you should play it.
Another year, another Lego title. You might think I’d be tempted not to give the game a chance, given my previous musings on the subject, but I went into this new title with the most positive intentions.
What does take things to the next level is when you collaborate with another character to perform a double-takedown, but these are slightly awkward and time-consuming to pull of, so you’ll find you do it once to see what it is for that combination of characters (with about 400 to choose from and a different one depending on who kicked things off, that’s about 800 to see), and then carry on brawling in the same way as you always have.
Environments are quite diverse, and not as random as they felt in Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham, thanks to the familiar storylines and links to the films, though there are a few which are almost identical to how they appeared in the previous games. There are a number of hub worlds this time, rather than just the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier and New York City, including Asgard, Washington D.C. and even Hawkeye’s secret farm, all of which have their own side missions to explore. Unfortunately you are introduced to an area in a story mission and fairly quickly whisked away again, unless you actively try to wander off and ignore the story, but most side missions require various characters, which means you need to have unlocked Free Play by completing the story first.
There’s 100 characters which you haven’t played in a Lego game before, but many of them are comic characters you haven’t heard of,
The story itself features the original audio from the films themselves, meaning the jokes are just as strong as ever, and if nothing else, the game feels like an immersive way to watch The Avengers again. Jokes take on a different style with some of TT Games’ now trademark visual humour, which creates some of the most chuckle-worthy moments and makes some of the darker moments in the narrative more kid-friendly.
Really that is the biggest thing to remember about this title - it is a game for children more than adults. The puzzle elements are more visual this time around, so kids can warm to them more easily without mum and dad’s help, leaving the biggest challenge for adults - to reach ‘True Avenger’ on the story missions, which involves collecting over a certain number of Lego studs, and is markedly more challenging this time around thanks to the ability to increase your score by building up a multiplier in combat first.
The characters have a little more variety than they did before, though some (we’re looking at you Scarlet Witch) still seem to have more than the average amount of secrets, or have a surprising range or abilities. There’s 100 characters in the box which you haven’t played in a Lego game before, but many of them are comic characters you haven’t heard of, whereas you miss out on family favourites like Wolverine. It seems to want to have its cake and eat it too, by focusing on characters we know from the films, but then still including their comic versions rather than MCU versions in the game itself.
The other usual mechanics are all here, such as the character creator (which I’ve never put much stock in) and the Red Bricks, although The Collector now holds the latter hostage in return for specific mini-missions rather than you stumbling across them naturally.
In all the game is very much what you might expect, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It might feel a bit repetitive for those who have played a few of these games before, and it may lack some of the variety from Lego Marvel Superheroes, but in the end it recaptures the fun of the films accurately (even shot for shot in some instances) and the characters are fun to spend time with - some even recorded additional audio specifically for the game.
Considering its available on pretty much every platform under the sun, you’d struggle to avoid it if you have a youngster pulling at your trouser leg for something to occupy them over the weekend, and this fits the bill in a way which few other games can.
It’s an observation already made, but it bares repeating that The Banner Saga shares a lot in common with George R. R. Martin's wildly popular A Song of Ice and Fire, or Game of Thrones, series. An ever vulnerable cast, no character deemed too integral to be given the chop, political intrigue and shades of grey abound.
The Banner Saga is a true road story, its landscapes a character of their own and journeying across them a primary action. It’s unfathomable today, technology as advanced as it is, to undertake gruelling travel for days or more only to reach your destination and find that what you seek no longer resides there. Nobody likes to have their time and resources wasted, so it’s easy to sympathise with the characters’ ye olde plight.
Managing your caravan’s travel is a constant balancing act, every choice having a knock-on effect as well as balanced positive and negative outcomes - it’s never easy. Do you stop and set-up camp when morale is low and rest is needed? Of course, right? Well it’ll come at the cost of supplies, and running out before you reach your destination will result in fatalities at the hands of starvation. Keep going then, you say? Best of luck to your tired, injured and depressed combatants when it comes to baring arms. It's a real task to keep people fed and morale high whilst still winning battles and making good progress. Something has to give and that isn't always easy to accept when many video games have conditioned you to believe otherwise.
The lasting impression is one of an outright compelling journey across a magnificent world...
It can be truly demoralising when you buy food to supply your caravan for a trek, only to be robbed, or befall some other misfortune and lose it. It was disappointing when a clansman given numerous chances to change his ways proceeded unmoved to drag morale down. Infuriating when a traveller given sanctuary offered only betrayal as thanks. Crushing to see those close to you die, or a child lose their innocence to this harsh world. The Banner Saga is well versed in coaxing actual emotion from the player, and should be applauded for that; it’s impossible to simply allow it to wash over you.
Just as you can’t ignore the emergent narrative, tactical combat commands your full attention. The challenging turn-based affairs play out on a square checkered board, each unit upon it possessing different movement and attack traits, along with an exclusive special ability.
These key unit differences make proper team composition a must; choosing which of the cast of companions accompany you into battle, and the turn order they take, can predetermine victory or defeat. Further systems in armour and willpower management culminate in tactically layered and in-depth combat, which is simultaneously easy to grasp thanks to clear and concise tutorials.
Just as when caravanning, these numerous systems make combat a juggle, and again, it’s unlikely you’ll escape unscathed from the act. Recovering from acquired injuries will require rest, rest will consume resources, running out of resources results in widespread misery and death. Avoiding combat where possible means you might find yourself underleveled when it comes to later battles. There is no right and wrong, everything is a struggle.
Levelling is uniquely based on kills gained by a specific character, rather than a conventional shared experience pool. Unfortunately, this somewhat discourages utilising a wide range of characters - they’ll be underleveled upon acquisition, and unlikely to secure a kill as a result. It seems the developer was aware of this and aimed to encourage making use of your hindered myriad with the inclusion of Achievements/Trophies in relation to getting a kill with each character.
Further niggles somewhat hamper the experience: the lack of a true pause function, notification messages getting stuck on-screen, quality assurance slip-ups in the occasional missing word or punctuation. These give way to bigger issues in that foreign place and character names, as well as a similar looking cast, make things hard to follow at times, and the ending serves only to lead into the confirmed sequel, rather than offering any satisfying conclusion of its own.
The Banner Saga easily overcomes these foibles when it comes to viewing the package as a whole, however. The lasting impression is one of an outright compelling journey across a magnificent world, which leaves the player content in the knowledge that despite constant adversity, they made it as best they could.
It’s impressive what Stoic achieved with a relatively small budget (despite being almost eight times that proposed) and development team, but it's undeniably rough around the edges. Here's hoping the sequel can smooth them over.