The story of Conan Exiles is one of two halves. On launch day (for Xbox One), we tried to give it a go straight out the gate and found it to be an extremely lag-ridden, buggy mess. In multiplayer players would drop out as soon as others joined and in single player things weren’t much better, with the game allowing you about five minutes of play before the sheer weight of everything which had to be loaded in around you caused a few seconds of lag for every second of normal gameplay. In short, it wasn’t something we were feeling too confident about as far as first impressions go.
One element which is yet to be explored in depth is the idea of religion, as you choose one of a handful of deities for your character to follow when creating them and each have their own altars with their own abilities. For example, if you character follows Yog, their shrine (the aforementioned fire pit) will let you cook human meat, which doesn’t spoil.
The combat is straightforward enough to be able to jump into easily, though the timing can be tricky as your character generally flinches when hit, and mashing attack at the wrong time can find you stuck in a loop of being pummelled to death. Fortunately your allies will generally (if they can be trusted) come to your aid, and the game is certainly enjoyed best as a co-op experience.
While everyone levels and learns recipes separately, crafting items for others isn’t an issue, meaning we were able to craft plenty of extra clothes and weapons in preparation for our game (before the team promptly threw themselves in a fire and wasted all that hard work...just watch the video).
As far as the endgame or wider story of the game goes, that remains to be seen. The in-game map feels quite vast and filled with different climates to explore once your party is ready to venture away from the comforts of home. Make sure you’re well prepared however, as hyenas and even dragons await you and will make short work of lone survivors.
Despite a shaky start, there’s a solid game to be enjoyed here - providing you’re happy to take the initiative and work a few things out for yourself. The soaring soundtrack feels like a cross between Jurassic Park and Mars from Holst’s The Planets Suite, adding to the sense of scale and grand adventure of proceedings. There’s still plenty of work to do before the full release in 2018, but in the meantime there’s no harm getting to grips with it, providing you think it’s worth £30, but all told it’s a yes from us.
With the indie scene arguably stronger than ever, certainly in terms of the sheer number of games released every month, standing out from the crowd has never been more difficult. First impressions for Masquerada: Songs and Shadows then, are extremely important.
The investigation generally involves going to an area and exhausting the button prompts, rather than any elementary deduction or substantial puzzles, but the commentary between characters as you journey around locales is what keeps you engaged.
These interactions aren’t mere splashes of text plastered on the screen (though NPCs do get that treatment), rather the main cast are gifted full, and convincing, voiceover alongside cheerful animations that bring the characters to life. The narrative is put across in a stylised way, conversations continuing over loading screens without the transition feeling jarring, and key frames punctuating action scenes to reveal more about our heroes.
The story hits familiar notes in family and redemption, but manages to tackle them in a way which grips you more and more as you delve deeper and get to know the cast more, rather than feeling cliché.
The narrative is put across in a stylised way, conversations continuing over loading screens without the transition feeling jarring.
Progression is a little less elegant. Though your opening gambit with Cyrus is straightforward, as soon as you’re thrown into battle as Cicero for the first time it’s entirely possible you’ll have forgotten everything due to the gap in action (hopefully you have a good memory).
Regardless, you’ll soon pick up the titular Masquerada, an ornately decorated mask - think Phantom of the Opera and you’re part way there - which bestows its user with elemental powers of either wind, fire, water or earth, but mysteriously disintegrates when its user dies, providing some further intrigue as you slowly discover more about the mysterious facade.
It seems slightly unfair to tar indie titles with the same generic, low-fi expectations when it comes to presentation, but the quality of craftsmanship on display here far outstrips the game’s humble origins to provide quality on par with Torment: Tides of Numenera, only without the density which could be a headache for some.
The one complaint we have on that front is that the game’s linear design teases us with rich locales to explore and interact with as we pass through to serve the story, but doesn’t give us the freedom to properly roam or get deep into the culture of the society we’re investigating, throwing up invisible walls to keep us on track.
Enemies have some interesting designs, but knowing the best ways to combat them can be more of a tale of trial and error than a natural learning curve. On the other hand, those at home in the genre should take to it easily and may even beg for more AI and character customisation options to allow for further engagement.
In the end, Masquerada is simply very good, and a game with a different feel to a lot of releases that are currently vying for your attention. That lack of bright light and attention-grabbing sound only serves to undersell what a high-quality experience the folks at Witching Hour Studios have produced, but don’t let that put you off.
Severed’s arrival on the Switch is a bit of a strange one. For starters, this being a game that requires a touch-screen to play means it’s one of the few titles in the Switch’s library that has to be played in handheld mode. It will display on a TV if you dock the console, but Sasha, that game’s one-armed heroine, remains completely immobile, no matter how much you manipulate the Joy-Cons.
Slicing off limbs isn’t just for sadistic kicks though, as collecting fallen body parts is key to levelling up Sasha’s abilities. With enough currency collected - be it arms, eyeballs, wings or jaw bones - you get to pick an upgrade from a simple skill tree. It may not be as dense or branching as other, more complicated RPGs out there, but the upgrades on offer in Severed’s skill tree are clear in what they do and what’s needed to unlock them, with everything feeling useful.
If you’re looking for something you can pick up and play on a commute to work or school, then Severed feels perfectly suited for such a job.
Triumphing over the bosses that wait at the end of areas also grants new abilities, such as being able to temporarily blind enemies during a fight or snatch away their buffs like speed or attack boosts. All these extra powers are displayed on your character as living armour, which is a nice way of showing the progress you’ve made. Some of them grant special access to previously inaccessible areas, but having the willpower to go back and unlock them depends on how tolerant you are of the game’s walking animation, which sees you sort of ‘transported’ between a map’s segments that are linked together to create larger, sprawling areas. This can get slightly disorientating if you move too quickly, and using the mini map in the top right of the screen actually felt like an easier, and more efficient way to get around.
During the early stages of the game, you’ll only be tackling one or two monsters at a time, but things quickly escalate and it’s not long before you’re facing three, sometimes four at once. Taking on this many is surprisingly difficult, especially if they’re packing the aforementioned buffs, as even the weaker ones with familiar attack patterns become a real challenge when backed up by their mates. Identifying the most serious threats and taking them out first is key to your success, otherwise it’s easy to end up overwhelmed and frustrated as you frantically try to fend off a barrage of attacks.
An indicator on the bottom of the screen tells you when an enemy is going to attack via a yellow bar, which, once full, means there’s one incoming. Some monsters take time to build their attacks, and can be kept out of a fight altogether if you keep jabbing away to interrupt them, while others deliver ones that can’t be stopped and must instead be blocked.
Battles are triggered by walking into white flames that are dotted periodically throughout the game’s maps, mostly in the dungeon areas. Once activated, you’re locked in until you either emerge victorious or are defeated, in which case you just respawn at the last autosave (usually only a few moments before) with full health, meaning there’s no real punishment for failure other than delaying progress. Dungeons also feature some light puzzles, but they mostly feel like an obligatory inclusion (because dungeons) and all involve simple, familiar mechanics.
Still, if you’re looking for something you can pick up and play on a commute to work or school, then Severed’s simple gameplay, coupled with some light RPG elements and a relatively low-price, means the game feels perfectly suited for such a job. Just be sure to pick up a screen protector.
At first glance, Portal Knights could be mistaken for just another Minecraft clone, but, if you keep looking, it quickly becomes apparent there’s a lot more to it than that. Having been in early access on Steam for the past year - a span of time in which developer Keen Games took constant feedback from the community - Portal Knights features the necessary depth and complexity to make it a varied and fun-filled experience in its own right.
You land at set points after using one of the aforementioned portals, which can be changed by crafting new markers once you’ve gathered a few resources and unlocked some of the more specialist crafting options by upgrading your workbench. The bench is your creative hub, and really where the Minecraft comparison is the most apt, though items are more deliberately sorted and categorised here. You’ll also need additional benches to craft specialist items, be it an anvil for Warrior gear, an archer station for Ranger gear, or an altar for souped-up Mage equipment.
The addictive nature of the game’s main thrust may prove enough to hold your attention for longer than the 30 hours it would take to power through the main questline.
On that note, at the beginning of the game you’re asked to choose one of three fairly bog standard character classes - Warrior, Ranger or Mage. There are a few implications to this choice, as Warriors wield melee weapons, Rangers use (you guessed it) ranged weapons and Mages play with magic wands, naturally. Aside from each class having unique unlockable abilities which you can choose between at roughly five-level intervals, they pretty much serve as loose suggestions, with characters growing based on which skills (Dexterity, Strength, etc.) you assign points to. This means you could make a beefy, tankish magic user if you felt like it, or a particularly nimble Warrior.
Whatever your build, you’ll fight enemies reminiscent of creatures you might come across in The Legend of Zelda, particularly those which add elemental typings to the same base enemy, as Breath of the Wild fans will be all too familiar with (curse you Wizzrobes!). Certain armour provides bonus defence against certain elements, and depending on how willing you are to grind the rarest materials or craft the most complex gear, you can find yourself with astonishingly high defence to absorb the wrath of most foes.
You can team up online with up to three other players if ever you require aid on your quest, with one player acting as host and everyone else coming to visit, but, beyond that, there are no additional modes. The addictive nature of the game’s main thrust may prove enough to hold your attention for longer than the 30 hours it would take to power through the main questline, however.
Portal Knights boasts more deliberate direction and increased complexity over Minecraft, while still managing to keep things straightforward enough to be accessible. The game’s design is endearing and makes basic RPG elements easy to get to grips with, proving to be a good bridge for youngsters in transitioning towards more ‘grown-up’ games, and to be good, laid-back fun for adults.
Lords of the Fallen was the first attempt at aping From Software’s popular Souls series by developer Deck13 Interactive, but it fell significantly short of matching up. Seemingly undeterred and learning from their past transgressions, The Surge (uninspiring title and all) bucks all trends by proving, on this occasion, second time is in fact the charm.
When locked onto a foe you can focus on one of six body parts, namely the head, torso, or any arm or leg. The game's systems and your current circumstance will dictate where you choose to target; focusing unarmoured areas will lead to quick kills, perfect for when you’re near death and looking to avoid combat, but taking the inherent risk in prolonging a fight by pummelling an armoured section will offer up rewards. Successive successful strikes build your energy gauge, which, when filled to the illustrated mark, allows the player to launch into a cinematic finisher on low-health enemies to sever the battered limb and claim the weapon or armour adorning it as their own. While a weapon is immediately good to go, you’ll need to craft new armour using the piece as a base schematic, gathering the materials to do so by targeting the same relevant area on additional baddies and scrapping their gear for parts.
It’s a brilliantly novel system, essentially making combat a morbid shopping spree in which you cherry pick the bits you want and cut them off your co-workers. It fundamentally changes the way you play, and, as sadistic as it may sound, the varied and violent accompanying finisher animations never ceased to satisfy.
The limb targeting system is brilliantly novel, essentially making combat a morbid shopping spree in which you cherry pick the bits you want and cut them off your co-workers.
That said, it does have its drawbacks. The busy HUD that highlights limbs and their status can be obtrusive and make it somewhat difficult to spot the more subtle tells of an incoming attack, whilst enemies can also catch you with unavoidable damage as you come out of the uninterruptible animations (despite being immune during). While those foibles are annoying, especially when one hit can be enough to immediately kill you, we found Deck13’s solution to the inevitable question of “Why doesn’t Warren - just Warren - simply loot the dead?” more amusing than anything else; corpses spontaneously combust when they hit the floor, which, while avoiding undermining their own mechanics, ranks equally on the video game nonsense scale.
In spite of the issues, combat does a great job of conveying the mechanised and improvised nature of encounters, the tools (often literal, weaponised worker’s tools) at your disposal feeling weighty and impactful or fluid and graceful dependant on which class of weapon - each with their own proficiency level that increases with use - you opt for. While there are no ranged weapons, you do acquire a companion drone that requires energy to use, much like finishing manoeuvres, and can be upgraded to gain new abilities that increase its usefulness. While dealing no significant degree of damage, it's a tactical godsend, allowing you to draw single units from groups to engage them separately and avoid being overwhelmed, or knockdown aggressive targets to dictate the pace of a battle as a couple of examples.
With those winning strategies under your belt, you’ll be earning plenty of Tech Scrap, a resource gathered by defeating enemies and serving much the same purpose as Souls do in the series bearing their name. In a twist carried over from Lords of the Fallen, the longer you stay out in the field, the more you earn, with a growing multiplier goading you into taking risks you probably shouldn’t. In doing so, you put your entire pot on the line, as when you die (and you will die) all of the Tech Scrap on your person falls to the ground and you have but one brief chance to reclaim it - if you die again or let the 02:30 timer (which can be topped up by getting kills) deplete before retrieving it, it’s gone for good.
Better to be safe than sorry is a good mantra to adopt, frequently returning to the bonfire-like Medbays to make use of all that glorious Scrap, even at the cost of resetting your multiplier and repopulating the area. Medbays are much less prevalent than bonfires, with strictly one per area, but this is balanced out by the fact you can safely bank Tech Scrap to use at a later time and occasionally find Medstations to replenish your health and items out in the wild. You’ll use Scrap to upgrade your gear - and make sure you do so frequently, because needlessly hoarding it will be your downfall - via the game’s simplified RPG systems. Rather than allocating points to specific stats, you boost your Core Power, which allows you to equip more/better equipment by having the necessary juice to power it.
That might mean you don some fancy armour modules, or that you affix an additional implant, the latter offering one of a range of active and passive perks that range from carrying additional healing items, to earning more energy, to increasing your stamina and far more beyond that. The system allows you to respec to your heart’s content, experimenting with different loadouts to discover one that fits your play style and sees the pieces fall into place. You won’t be able to get too comfortable, however, as if you were to opt for an energy-focused, lumbering tank (for example) that wouldn’t serve you well in all walks, so you’ll need to be flexible and mix things up on those occasions.
The customisation system allows you to respec to your heart’s content, experimenting with different loadouts to discover one that fits your play style and sees the pieces fall into place.
Core Power also serves as a gating mechanic, with paths opened up by overcharging electrical systems where you meet the requirement. These often serve as satisfying shortcuts back to the warm embrace of a Medbay, with environments constantly looping back on themselves in a considered display of intelligent level design.
Areas hold all manner of secrets and loot-based rewards, compelling you to explore every corner of the world, but they aren’t seamlessly interconnected or nearly as sprawling and varied as those that inspired them. That’s not to say they aren’t good - great, even - but by openly drawing comparison to arguably the very best in the business, they begin to fall short.
With no map or objective markers, Deck13 place trust in their design and the intelligence of their players to be able to intuitively follow the game’s nonlinear progression, which sometimes requires you to backtrack to put new items and abilities to use. This makes any and all progress feel satisfyingly earnt, rather than something you just take as given. The same approach is adopted for side missions (delivered by fellow survivors in awkward conversational exchanges), whereby it’s entirely on you to peruse the end goal without any form of handholding; if you can’t find what you’re looking for, you quite simply don’t complete them.
Open spaces generally betray the location of a boss, with battles being disappointingly infrequent considering their consistent high quality. Fights are unforgiving, drawn-out affairs that will generally require a few trial and error deaths before everything clicks and you figure out their attack patterns, your optimum positioning, and your windows of opportunity. With no multiplayer to speak of, and, thus, no summoning a co-op partner for help, you have to ‘get good’ and surmount these significant obstacles independently.
Often large and imposing, transforming themselves and their stages in an intimidating display as battles progress, the mechanised bosses match up to many of the Souls series’ famed behemoths in terms of visuals and mechanics, but are less memorable thanks by and large to the accompanying soundtrack. An industrial sound that, while fitting, is totally generic unsuccessfully stands in for bombastic scores that inspire fear whilst mirroring a boss’ unique personality and movement.
Despite suffering some shortfalls, once you sink your teeth into The Surge’s innovative customisation suite and find what works for you, the game’s core pillars of combat and exploration become immensely rewarding to engage with. With the Souls series officially on hiatus, The Surge offers up a riveting equivalent with plenty of its own merit, though doesn't quite best what is, to borrow a phrase from Dark Souls’ own Oscar of Astora, a game so grossly incandescent.
A reboot of 3D Realms’ 2006 shooter, Prey finds itself fighting an uphill battle. Sharing little but its name with the original, while standing in for what looked to be a promising sequel in Prey 2, many fans of the property are approaching this 2017 reimagining with a justified degree of trepidation. Whether you fall into that camp or not, reset assured, Prey was always very safe in the hands of Arkane Studios (Dishonored).
Uncovering Talos I’s many dark secrets is an unending treat.
You’re free to prowl the detailed station at will, though certain areas are cordoned off until you acquire the relevant skills or items to proceed; as a result, the world slowly unfurls around you in a way that’s not dissimilar to a classic ‘metroidvania’ game. With high character mobility and constant branching paths to accommodate different playstyles, the lavish level design saw us obsessively scour every surface not for medkits, ammo and crafting components, but for the sheer pleasure of it.
Mind-bending microgravity sections in which you fly through claustrophobic maintenance tunnels and around the ship’s huge exterior further contribute to making Talos I a thoroughly memorable - and, dare we say, iconic - setting that ranks amongst gaming’s very best.
Of course, the encounters you face in these quintessential halls play no small part in the achievement. Prey’s enemies are the otherworldly Typhon, a pitch black alien race that look and act as though they stepped out of the static on a television screen. Harvesting human life to multiply, they come in many shapes and sizes, from the hulking Nightmare that crops up for repeat mini-boss encounters, to the invisible Poltergeists that violently throw you around via telekinesis, to the spider-like Mimics that hide in plain sight.
Mimics in particular imbue the experience with a suffocating sense of unease, posing as unassuming, inanimate objects to ensure you’re never certain of your immediate safety. Their unpredictable nature rarely affords you the opportunity to stand at ease, making Prey a game you play on edge, constantly scanning environments with a critical eye for anything that looks out of place. When a Mimic attacks, generally blindsiding and causing you to jump in the process, the ensuing panic has seen us forget about the shotgun in our hands and frantically throw mugs instead.
Paired with a lack of regenerating health and limited resources, enemies become imposing predators, relegating the player to the fitting role of prey. Despite that, there’s a relatively vast breadth of options when it comes to combatting the Typhon threat; a range of satisfying firearms and alien abilities can be used in conjunction with one another to create powerful combined attacks, set traps and get the drop on your opposition.
Enemies are imposing predators, relegating the player to the fitting role of prey.
Neuromods - the game’s eye-injected upgrade currency - are used to purchase skills from a whopping six trees, with the embarrassing wealth of abilities on show making it difficult to choose. Everything looking enticing is a great problem to have, mind, especially as diversifying can position you to take the upper hand. Scanning enemies with the Psychoscope gleans knowledge on their abilities, strengths and weaknesses, so it pays to be somewhat a jack of all trades to ensure you have the tools to take advantage of this information. That said, whatever your build, it’s generally a good idea to disable an enemy with the stun gun or innovative GLOO Cannon (which can also be used to create makeshift cover and platforms) before launching your attack.
Talos I’s security measures are configured to target Typhon DNA, so there’s a risk associated with acquiring abilities from the alien trees. Accruing enough will eventually turn the system against you, but, while investing in some hacking upgrades will remedy that by bringing them back onside, it won’t help quite so much when the Nightmare makes you a higher priority target. Rather than being drawbacks that prevent you from experiencing some of the game’s most fun and powerful abilities, these mechanics materialise as dynamic balancing tweaks that shouldn’t put you off experimenting with everything on offer.
Prey’s audio is worthy of special mention too, thanks by and large to legendary sound designer and composer, Mick Gordon. After delivering last year’s face-melting DOOM soundtrack, heavy metal gives way to a building, synthetic sound that’s menacing and intense. Atmospheric ambient sound, harrowing, distorted Typhon murmurings, punchy explosions and gunfire, along with repeating motifs that accompany specific events make for an all-round aural treat.
Whilst we’ve lavished Prey with a lot of praise, rough inevitably comes with the smooth. Distracting texture pop-in is prevalent, FPS dips crop up occasionally and load times between areas are fairly lengthy. In addition to these technical issues, a number of glitches were peppered throughout: dialogue went awry when we accidentally skipped straight to a later objective, items would randomly be absent from animations, and an objective marker became stuck directly in the centre of the screen throughout the duration of an entire area.
Though these niggles did impact Prey’s otherwise stellar sci-fi horror experience, in the grand scheme of things, they barely put a crease in Morgan Yu’s space suit. Prey is tense and unnerving, while at the same time playful and explorative. Its central mystery compels you to delve deep into the bowels of the expertly-crafted setting, Talos I, engaging in (or even avoiding) rewarding and tactical combat along the way. Arkane have a fundamental understanding of quality game design, utilising that here to produce another fantastic video game for their growing collection.
In This is the Police, players step into the role of Jack Boyd; a grizzled Police Chief who’s looking for one last big payday before he’s forced out of office. Whether you earn the $500,000 Jack needs from mostly legitimately means, or through more nefarious ways, is up to you - but with only 180 days in which to make your cool half million, you might find that the old adage isn’t actually true: crime does pay after all.
As well as keeping Jack’s superiors happy, players must also take into consideration the wellbeing of their employees, many of whom will come up with any excuse to get out of a day’s work. Say no too often, and you may find disgruntled officers go over your head and spark an investigation into your performance, which could lead to a severe pay cut. You can fire troublesome officers, but doing so without reason can lead to messy legal challenges.
Each officer has a numerical score and a coloured meter ranking their ability and mental state, which need to be taken into consideration when deciding who to send out on a call. Choose a weak or tired team and they may botch the response, leading to the perp escaping, or worse, civilians and other officers being killed. While a tragedy, a dead officer can also be an opportunity to earn some extra cash; by not declaring them officially deceased, Jack can keep on collecting their paycheck for himself, but at the cost of hiring a replacement officer
Occasionally, a crime will pop up that requires a detective’s skills to investigate. Answering these calls works in much the same way as a regular crime, in that you pick which detectives respond, but the results are less immediate.
Detectives provide witness statements and theoretical snapshots (some accurate, some less so) of crimes to give a summary of what went down, but it’s you who must piece it all together in the correct order. Do this, and it could lead to the chance to take down a much larger criminal organisation and earn a hefty cash reward.
While breaking up crime syndicates can be satisfying, investigations sometimes end up stagnating if you can’t quite pin down the correct sequence of events with all the evidence your detectives have provided. There is an option to call on a retired veteran who can bring new insight to investigations, but at $50,000 a pop, it’s a steep investment.
The way all these incidents spontaneously appear on the map might lead you to believe they are randomly generated encounters, but after a mishandled mafia war meant we had to restart the game from the beginning, it became apparent they are entirely scripted. Discovering this was slightly disappointing, rather than game breaking, but worse was learning that the earliest (and arguably biggest) of the narrative impacting decisions that the game occasionally presents the player with was not actually that much of a choice.
The decision in question is whether to help out a friend who’s in trouble with the mafia by taking his place as the mob’s inside man. After deciding to be a good pal the first time around and agreeing to help, this time we had Jack refuse, thus sealing our buddy’s fate. As it turns out though, the outcome of this decision is the same either way, with the only real difference being that Jack is effectively forced into helping the mafia rather than reluctantly volunteering, and your friend and his family meet a gruesome end instead of getting out.
Freeburg is overflowing with mobsters, petty criminals and caustic city officials, all of which can be used to your advantage.
Knowing this took some impact away from the rest of the decisions we encountered, and had us questioning whether our actions were having any meaningful influence on the story. Despite this, some solid writing, morally ambiguous characters and a narrative that frequently blurs the lines between good and bad, wrong and right mean it’s still an engrossing story, even if the ending doesn’t quite deliver. In fact, it’s in the latter stages of the campaign that This is the Police really starts to struggle.
After an initial flurry of cut scenes sets up an intriguing contest between Freeburg’s elite, the pace at which the story segments are delivered drops off massively, and the game’s second and third acts become increasingly drawn out. At around 20 hours of playtime needed to reach the finale, it’s not exactly the longest game out there, but with nothing to break up the core gameplay, This is the Police quickly becomes a repetitive slog, and not even the excellent soundtrack can rescue it.
Towards the tail end of the campaign we found it increasingly difficult to care about the welfare of our officers or the people of Freeburg; a stark contrast to the pang of guilt we felt the first time we turned a blind eye to a crime to make a quick buck and it led to a civilian’s death.
It’s hard to say whether this is intentional from the developers, and that your discomfort as the player is supposed to reflect the increasing level of detachment Jack begins to display. There’s a line towards the end of the game where Jack says he simply doesn’t care anymore, and it’s a decidedly profound moment, as chances are, at that point, you won’t either.
● Juggling the responsibilities of a Police Chief is surprisingly fun, if a little stressful
● Well-written dialogue with excellent voice acting
● Captivating power struggle between the city’s elite
● Busting your first crime syndicate is a rush
● Building up an effective crime fighting force is satisfying...
● … Losing it all to budget cuts or bad decisions is not
● Outcome of the opening choice is the same either way
● Gameplay becomes repetitive towards the second half of the game
● Disappointing ending
● Outstays its welcome
Entering a new world when playing a game can be an intimidating experience. There are lots of things to remember - characters, places, abilities - what does it all mean? Some players thrive on delving into the depth and richness of fully embodying a character, getting inside their mind and behaving as they would behave, even imagining they were there themselves.
Something has to be said for the sheer imagination and richness of the world that’s created.
Aside from choosing your gender, aesthetic customisation is non-existent, as the emphasis here is around the character you build, rather than their appearance. That said, you will find some familiar elements if you’ve played other, more mainstream RPGs. There’s a spin on Mass Effect’s Paragon/Renegade system, albeit far more abstract, as certain dialogue choices raise ‘tides’ of certain colours to denote certain types of behaviour. Equally, fans of Dungeons and Dragons, or even Choose Your Own Adventure books, will draw parallels as their character begins to really take shape.
You won’t be alone on your quest - which isn’t to save the world, but more to understand it, and yourself - as you’re quickly joined by a pair of companions who seem completely at odds with one another. Unfortunately, all too quickly you’re asked to choose between the two as their ideologies begin to clash, sadly before you’ve had a real chance to get to know them (especially while you’re still getting to grips with fistfuls of terminology which the game, admittedly, does a good job of naturally introducing quite gradually, but still relentlessly at first).
The reassuring voiceover doesn’t stick around either, as after the initial introduction you’re left to fend for yourself aside from the odd introductory blurb when meeting new characters, or a stray line or two if you leave your party idle too long. It’s a missed opportunity as the initial presentation sets up a certain expectation, a feeling similar to the likes of Bastion or even Borderlands in the realms of reassuring narrators, but all too quickly you’re left alone to what is a fairly quiet game.
It might work for some, but more often than not the harsh clash of starting a conversation or investigating an object cuts through the quiet like a longsword. The fairly minimalist score doesn’t do much to help dispel the atmosphere either, whilst the very occasional ambient sound effect creeps in to complete a setting.
Despite this, something has to be said for the sheer imagination and richness of the world that’s created. Set a billion years in the future, your character explores the Ninth World - supposedly the ninth time the Earth has reached its cultural and technological peak - which has an almost steampunk-like quality and would be at home in an anime or sci-fi dystopian universe. Cities hovering in mid air and airships are commonplace, juxtaposed by more traditional, medieval weapons and sensibilities.
Combat in Torment throws the party into crisis mode, where turn-based battle, the careful use of abilities, flanking and more find their place, but, to be honest, these instances are few and far between - especially if you’re playing the game like it feels it’s intended to be played. Many confrontations which show all the signs of descending into a bloodbath quickly present you with an alternative, in some cases even if you fail your effort rolls (the percentage-based approaches to challenges which stem from Might, Speed and Intellect).
The drawback of this is that any loot you do pick up feels somewhat superfluous, as more often than not your quests involve walking around and talking, rather than making use of your items or skills. Of course, this is part of the intent, as the game encourages you to lose yourself in the tapestry it’s spun for you, and, generally speaking, it succeeds. There are some puzzles and more taxing challenges, which require a bit of real-world memory and lateral thinking to work through, but the generous journal entries will help you stay on track if you do get lost or derailed along the way.
The game encourages you to lose yourself in the tapestry it’s spun for you, and, generally speaking, it succeeds.
There’s a bravery in coming out with a CRPG like Torment in this in this day and age. Conventional wisdom tells us that no one has any time, nobody cares and fails to appreciate both the value and the price of everything. And yet, here’s a title asking you to switch off and step into its own brand of adventure, and at its retail price point it does so in direct competition with some of the most memorable RPGs of recent years.
If you have the time and inclination to devote yourself to Torment: Tides of Numenera, with your imagination as well as your watch, then you won’t be disappointed as there’s an incredible amount of talent and passion packed into every encounter. For many that won’t be enough, and this weird-sounding, obscure game will pass them by, but those about to play through Skyrim for the sixth time with a fancy new mod would do well to look up from the established standard and see what else is out there. They might be pleasantly surprised by what they find.
A phenomenon like Pokémon is difficult to go into objectively. Whether you’ve ever played one of the many, many games before or not, it’s difficult to deny that everyone has some sort of impression on the series.
At the same time, as has been widely reported prior to the game’s release, the changes in this version are perhaps some of the most notable for a decade. Series staple the gym battle, a series of one on one duels leading up to a leader who specialises in a specific type of pokémon, are out, replaced with trials which mix up the formula by introducing everything from dance move analysis to collecting ingredients for a recipe.
Director Shigeru Ohmori and the team at Game Freak never stray too far from the tried and tested formula however, with the tongue-in-cheek dialogue and over-the-top personalities of NPCs on full display.
for the most part the new pokémon stray on the intriguing end of the spectrum, with the odd one or two which raise an eyebrow - as ever.
Most notable of these is the borderline ridiculous Team Skull, who are accompanied by a vague mix of generic rap beats whenever they appear, immediately putting them out of place and yet fitting in with the various oddities of the game as whole.
While the NPCs, and even cutscenes and a fairly solid story, are a nice distraction, let’s not kid ourselves - we are here to see some pokémon battles. There’s a relatively modest 81 new pokémon on show, with some unique to Sun or Moon respectively as usual, and for the most part they stray on the intriguing end of the spectrum, with the odd one or two which raise an eyebrow - as ever.
The main new creature you will get to know is your starter, and you get to choose from the Grass and Flying-type Rowlett, Fire-type Litten and Water-type Popplio (above). Each have their charms, though Popplio has already taken a lot of flak for looking the least cool of the bunch, and you’ll learn to get to know them through the Pokémon Refresh mechanic, which lets you pet, feed and groom your creatures between battles.
It will undoubtedly be something which appeals to some players more than others, but with some evolutions relying on a high Affection score between pokémon and trainer it becomes somewhat essential. The reality is occasionally pressing Y after a battle to dry off your pokémon if they’ve been hit with a water attack, comb their fur or get rid of mud or sand.
While it is something of a minigame, there are significant benefits in battle, such as pokémon dodging enemy attacks or holding onto 1 HP after a vicious attack to avoid fainting. There are also dialogue differences and comments about what pokémon are thinking or feeling about. It is all a bit unnecessary, and yet is a key part of the charm of the game experience as a whole, staving off the feeling of boredom when training up your team ahead of a greater challenge.
Historically there was always quite a lot of grinding needed to have a decent chance of beating the later stages of the game, but in Sun and Moon the balance is actually spot on. While there’s always time for a bit of wandering about grassy areas, looking for easy prey, you could largely avoid it and stick to trainer battles across the region and end up with enough XP to get by.
The setting of Alola, loosely, but quite blatantly, based on Hawaii also adds to the endearing quality of the game, thanks to the world being split up into four islands, all with their own regional pokédex (used to keep track of those caught creatures) and different challenges to take on.
Each time you board a boat or visit a new area you’re greeted with another twist on what this island paradise has to offer, as well as a selection of new pokémon to discover. It’s here where things become a bit unstuck in some ways, as the selection of creatures feels somewhat reliant on the original 150 pokémon which many know and love, rather than embracing what makes this title special and unique.
There are still new regular creatures of course - the Donald Trump-esque Yungoose and woodpecker Pikipek being the most common - and we can definitely forgive the early inclusion of Pichu, Pikachu’s unevolved, baby form, but generally there’s not a lot of variety considering this is a series which now boasts over 800 varieties of creature across its many games.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see why the developers have done this. The last thing you need when trying to get into a new game (or one you haven’t played since 1997) is to remember crucial details about 800 different pokémon at once. The game does go someway to ease this burden in gameplay as well, highlighting the effectiveness of specific moves on foes once you have already faced them, but it would have been nice to go further.
Specific knowledge is rife on the internet at large, with [Bulbapedia] in particular being an invaluable resource for movesets and, more importantly, evolution requirements - some of which are so obscure that you’d never stumble across them on your own.
The question is, why not feed more of this knowledge into the game itself? This game’s pokédex has something of a personality, so why not develop it into a fully fledged personal companion, much as it acts on the animé television show. Having to look something up every five minutes in fear of missing something crucial (did you stumble across the right NPC to teach Pikachu Volt Tackle?) can grow tiresome.
The shiniest part of the gameplay this time around is the Z-Move, a one-use-per-battle ability which spins off a pokémon’s standard move based on type. To use them, your pokémon has to carry a Z-named stone, which are picked up following the game’s trials (or gyms) when you defeat each captain (or gym leader).
Visually, almost every one is an amazing spectacle, almost making you wish the same level of visual detail was thrown into every move (some already commit almost to the same level as it is, while other animations are simple enough to be mistaken for their 20-year-old counterparts). Disappointingly having a Z stone active does use up the slot for pokémon to hold any other item, which is a shame when there are so many subtle, tactical differences which can be lost in battles as a result.
So, are Pokémon Sun and/or Moon worth buying? After countless encounters, earning thousands of XP and a handful of wry smile-inducing nostalgic moments our official verdict is yes. The sheer amount of baggage present in the pokémon universe is huge and to strip a lot of that back into a compelling, enjoyable experience which stands on its own two feet without any prior knowledge is no small feat.
Sure, it could hand-hold a little less at the beginning, and veterans will certainly feel the pace more comfortable after the first island or so, but to be a series which has been consistently active for 20 years and now release an iteration that’s possibly the best yet is exceptional.
Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’ve got a Poké Polago to shake.
Have you been playing the game? Who did you pick as your starter? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Subtlety isn’t always something which comes naturally in gaming. So many experiences are explosion-filled, non-stop action thrill rides that you come to expect grand spectacle and over-the-top set pieces whenever you turn on your console.
Each brutal killer - or ghostlike infiltrator, depending on your playstyle - has their own set of supernatural abilities which work in a similar way to BioShock’s plasmids, only with a more otherworldly presentation. The end result, once you’ve unlocked a number of these powers, is an increasing number of options on how to tackle certain problems and puzzles, which can feel incredibly rewarding when you find a combination that works for you.
The story is, as per usual, one of betrayal and false accusations, which either Emily or Corvo must work towards setting right in order to restore equilibrium. The missions themselves each have their own personality, injected through both level design and specific mechanics, making the game feel much more varied than you might expect.
One such level, which was shown off frequently prior to release, is The Clockwork Mansion, in which the entire building layout transforms around you at the pull of a lever - like some sort of twisted M.C. Escher painting come to life - and it’s extremely impressive.
Dishonored 2 stands up as one of the most compelling single-player outings of the year, balancing gameplay, story and spectacle in a way not often seen these days.
Developer Arkane seems to be acutely aware of the sort of spectacle they’ve created in this and other levels, as they offer occasional periods of respite in which you’re granted the freedom to explore and soak in the richness of this world. It isn’t quite as endearing as pre-event Columbia in BioShock Infinite, but it does have some genuine character to it, while still feeling like a natural battleground to skulk about in.
Gameplay is generally extremely well-balanced; slick and deliberate movements underline the fact you’re a trained killer, whether you decide to use that part of your skillset or not, whilst fluid combat elements flow naturally.
The original Dishonored was considered a challenging jaunt, which is an attribute its sequel holds on to. There are four difficulty settings from the off, with more to be added, along with a New Game Plus option via a free update in due course, but even the standard difficulty is a serious test of skill - particularly if you’re aiming to get through the game with no kills and not being discovered at all. There’s even a mode in which you forgo powers, reserved for actual masochists, though a forgiving save system might help you cheese your way through.
The AI can be overzealous at times, with the slightest glimpse of the player through cover, at a distance, even in shadow, arousing their suspicion, no matter how careful you might be to move slowly and carefully. In the same breath the enemies also suffer from cone of vision syndrome, where if you pull shenanigans behind them, even just a few metres away, they’re completely oblivious. This sort of inconsistency is few and far between, but certainly present enough to be noticeable and impact the way you play.
Some supporting characters have excellent voice talent on show, with turns from Rosario Dawson (Daredevil and Luke Cage), Robin Lord Taylor (Gotham’s Penguin) and Sam Rockwell (Moon, Seven Psychopaths and Iron Man 2). Investing in these names pays off as the cast bring their characters to life, which is essential in what can otherwise feel like quite a deliberately solitary experience.
In the end, Dishonored 2 stands up as one of the most compelling single-player outings of the year, balancing gameplay, story and spectacle in a way not often seen these days. While there are a few things which don’t quite work, the game is greater than the sum of its parts, delivering a thoroughly engaging experience that will push veteran Corvo players while also offering a new gameplay style to master with Emily and her more nuanced set of powers.
At this time of year it might - in the spirit of the game itself - be one which is at risk of slipping by unnoticed, but there are lots of reasons it’s more than worthy of your time.
Did you enjoy Dishonored 2? Let us know in the comments and be sure to check out our video review as well.