Following a recent game update rectifying accessibility issues on Xbox One, we were finally able to dive back into the unique stealth and XCOM-like combat of Mutant Year Zero for an all-new adventure in the Seed of Evil expansion.
So you would still recommend SoE for MYZ: RtE fans?
That’s a tough one, honestly. We loved revisiting the rich gameplay and setting, but the shambolic technical state that Seed of Evil finds itself in on Xbox One is frankly unacceptable.
It doesn’t completely wrap everything up with a neat little bow, which in a way fits the fiction, but otherwise it’s more of a great thing - when it works. If you’re looking to play on another platform, this is a good way to invest £12.99, but Xbox fans should definitely wait with crossed fingers for a significant patch.
A newbie to the DOOM scene, I went into our time with sequel DOOM Eternal, due out 22 November, with some trepidation.
New to the party this time around are mobility upgrades like a grappling hook, a double dash move and the ability to climb walls. Offensively, a shoulder-mounted flamethrower and an arm blade help to bring more of the series’ staple violence to the table. From what we've seen so far, the wall climbing and dash mechanics look to impact the game the most, allowing for a platforming section on Mars and plenty of interesting ways to hide away secrets.
Resource management seems to be a more important aspect here too, as you juggle to keep your health, shields and ammo topped up constantly. Health is straightforward enough - execute a gory glory kill by meleeing an enemy in the stunned, near-death state - while coating them with your new flamethrower tops up your armour and using the chainsaw once again forces them to spit out ammo.
Depending on your playstyle, you could find yourself constantly short of one resource or another. If you're like us that was ammo, constantly flailing our way through demon-infested areas, powering through every gun in our arsenal, rinsing ammo as we went.
The aesthetic and enemies all look familiar, and the overall style has the same sort of irreverent disregard for context, or reason to really care about Doomguy's plight. Combat seems even more frantic than before, thanks largely to the additional dash, which (as noted) also helps with traversal.
While dashing about is good fun, platforming and utilising boost jump pads can feel quite unforgiving, as can the timing for latching onto climbable walls, though they are at least marked by a distinctive texture. All of this added up to quite a lot of falling to our death in these sections, though it’s likely something players will get increasingly accustomed to, as with first-person platforming in general.
So far then? A thoroughly frenetic affair bursting with style, boasting guns that pack a punch and solid gameplay - very much in line with what you’d expect from a new DOOM. While its older brother re-established the series, Eternal looks to be putting in just enough new ideas to keep it fresh without spoiling what caused the previous one to be held in such high regard.
Doomguy returns 22 November on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC, then later on Nintendo Switch.
You can watch the full DOOM Eternal Keynote Presentation from QuakeCon below.
Telefrag VR is a bold new arena shooter from developer Anshar Studios (who we recently interviewed), hoping to bring the intense competition of Unreal Tournament and Quake to virtual reality. We’ve spent some time with the finished article on PlayStation VR, minus online play due to it being pre-release, so let’s throw down the lowdown.
Those firearms are all on different cooldowns (no manual reloads), have two alternative fire modes, plus feature a unique form of weaponisable teleportation. More passively, you can also warp onto designated surfaces to bring a new dimension to fights, perhaps launching an ambush from upside down on the ceiling.
Mix these things together and the result is an experience that is, more often than not, frantic fun.
Sounds great, but just 1v1 deathmatch? Really?
It might sound sparse, but with the game being built around head-to-head play it’s one seriously action-packed tango! Telefrag is also set in an alternate future where the Roman Empire never fell and Gladiators now compete for glory in sci-fi coliseums, which helps to contextualise things.
Moreover, considering VR’s relatively small install base, only requiring one opponent for online matchmaking is much easier to accommodate - especially with cross-play between all major headsets also enabled.
Thumbs up then?
If you’re a fan of 90s FPS games, complete with gravelly announcers, Telefrag does an admirable job of distilling that familiar feel down to fit the VR landscape.
It can certainly be enjoyed solo against bots, as in our case, but online balance is a potential issue due to cross-play. PlayStation players have to choose between analogue movement and independent control of both arms, whereas Oculus and Vive users don’t, most likely placing them at an inherent advantage. If you can, opt for the PC version as a result.
We take Tate Multimedia's Steel Rats for a wreckin’ test ride in our latest Quickie.
Are the unlocks enough to encourage replaying stages?
All stages can be replayed with any unlocks you've acquired so far, excepting the characters who weren't originally available at that point. The first time around, you may want to blitz through the level, ignoring the trio of Trials-like challenges that award bonus scrap, just to get a win on the board and come back later when you're better equipped.
The reason for this is that when all of your riders are killed you have to restart the level entirely, which, even though they’re relatively short, can be enough to discourage exploration.
Sounds tough! Should I be worried?
Limited use Repair Stations provide a marginal safety net, but yeah, kinda, since restarts feel like unfair setbacks when they stem from a mistimed jump and the game then respawning you in an endless falling death loop... This was a persistent annoyance which grew ever more cruel with each occurrence.
That’s unfortunate. Still, can you recommend it at all?
Whilst driving and combat are about competent in isolation, together they pull the game in two different directions, meaning Steel Rats lacks an identity and instead wears the masks of better games that came before it. Even at a wallet-friendly £12.49, it's hard not to recommend you just play Trials.
If you fancy giving Steel Rats a go for yourself, be sure to keep an eye out for our next giveaway, in which you could win the game on Xbox One.
Having begun life on Steam and iOS devices, FDG Entertainment’s Venture Kid made its console debut earlier this month on Nintendo Switch. Join us for another quickie as we take the retro-inspired platformer for a spin.
Eek! Sounds frustrating.
Don’t worry too much, as after every victory you’re given a new toy to aid in your quest, and perks such as extra lives or additional hearts can be purchased at any point (except during boss fights) using orbs collected within levels.
Would you recommend it, then?
Yeah. It’s pretty short, taking us just over two hours to reach the final level, but hidden collectables and additional Switch-exclusive modes (Survival and Boss Rush) offer some extra staying power.
Venture Kid is also cheap as chips at £8.99, and potentially even cheaper if you already own an FDG staple in Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King, Oceanhorn or Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom.
£50.90. Fifty pounds and ninety pence. One more time for the folks in the cheap seats: FIFTY POUNDS and NINETY PENCE. That’s right, comrades, the glorious English rail network outdid itself once more, as yours truly hurtled towards London from beautiful Brighton town, #NoSeatsAvailableNoSeatRequired. We really do get well looked after…
Staying put in the bombast of the Indie Room, we pushed on towards the offerings of good ol’ Chucklefish. They had recent release Wargroove in tow, along with new joints like Pathway (fab desert-based strategy RPG), metroidvania-tinged puzzle platformer Timespinner, and my personal pick of the bunch, Eastward. Not to be confused with that Clint fellow, mind. Or the recent Outward...
Playing (and looking) like The Last of Us funneled through Stardew Valley, Eastward charts the tale of two folks caught up in one of those ruddy world-crumbling-apocalypse periods. Using the skills of each character to solve puzzles, traverse terrain and bash baddies was a lot of fun; I’m looking forward to playing this one again, hopefully soon!
The Indie Room was also home to the underwater charm of Beyond Blue, a game made by the folks behind Never Alone, in collaboration with the BBC’s Blue Planet team. Imagine an HD Endless Ocean, and you’re halfway there. Following the story of Mirai, a researcher attempting to communicate and explore the depths in ways never before seen, Beyond Blue was a dream to play for an ocean-obsessive like moi. Check out the trailer, it really is dreamy.
Our last port of call in the Indie Room was a little game by the name of Mable and the Wood. Taking its inspiration from many classics of the 16-bit era, this platforming adventure game puts thee in the role of a girl with a terrible shape-shifting gift. That’s right, pals: kill a big bastard spider and you steal its grotty powers of webbage (and so on and so forth). Add amusing NPC dialogue and lovely audiovisuals to the fun, challenging gameplay and you’re onto a winner.
Next up JMP and I toddled off to the illusory Unreal Engine Showcase, to delve into some local multiplayer shootin’ and-a snookerin’.
From two-man Italian developer Ludicrous Games, Guntastic is a frantic game of one-screen shooting and platforming. Full of weapons, power-ups, and switches to send trains crashing through stages (and enemies), this free-for-all arcade shooter brought smiles to all who played it.
So, as the great saying goes: “Once one has shot, one must pot.” With that, we went to visit the Snooker 19 gang for a quick frame of Jim Davidson’s favourite sport.
I’ll be honest here and admit I didn’t expect much from Snooker 19. Hands held firmly upward, I’ll also admit I was wrong - it’s bloody excellent! Photorealistic visuals; licensed venues, tournaments and players; authentic cue-on-ball tones; and simple to understand, yet hard to master controls. Lab42 even seem to have taken our suggestion for mini-games based on Australian-accented Ronnie O’Sullivan interviews and 70s-era cigarette smoking and beer drinking under consideration, so let’s hope they get patched in before the game releases next week!
After a quick pizza break - during which we had the great pleasure of listening to the sarcastic woman behind the counter take the piss out of every customer - we went and got green in the ID@Xbox arena.
There were old faves on show like Far: Lone Sails and Human: Fall Flat (fans of that one should keep an eye out for the next of our weekly giveaways), but it was new games Cat Quest 2 and Truberbrook that stood tail and suitcase above the rest.
Cat Quest 2 continues all the excellent RPG goodness of the first game, but with the added twist of a second player this time around. Travelling its colourful cartoon world, beating up baddies and completing quests, chum of choice by your side - purrrrfe... actually, nope, I won’t do it!
Stood abreast of Cat Quest 2’s kitty-caper was, of course, Truberbrook, which is my sleeper hit of the show. Another point-and-click adventure, the game puts you in the shoes of travelling American physicist Tannhauser, as he attempts to break through a mental block in the titular, sleepy German town. The graphics and dialogue provided not only humour, but a lot of intrigue too. I’ll be keeping a beady eye on this mysterious little game, eagerly awaiting its Xbox release.
Down, down, down into the bowels of Tobacco Dock did we plunder, eventually taking up residence in The Leftfield Collection, which had been 2018’s best room. Blessed with a glut of beautiful, innovative and downright quirky games, the LFC again proved to be a personal highlight.
There were beautiful, relaxing games like Becalm; the hilarious fun of Drink More Glurp, best likened to a mix of Octodad and Track & Field; sublime puzzle adventuring with OMNO; and Nth Dimensional Hiking, a far-out, no-hands-held 3D platformer with bizarre, blurry visuals.
The sheer amount of creativity on display never fails to astound me, and all of us here at Pass the Controller, in fact. Long may it continue.
Avoid pecking pigeons, evade the eclairs, and bash the battenberg...
To the homestretch, then, and my favourite part of this year’s show - Coatsink’s showing! Everything about their area was fun, colourful and silly; from the two glorious games on show, to PR man Jack - who won this year’s beard-off, yet again - to the countless laughing, smiling visitors.
New title Cake Bash takes the guts of Super Smash Bros., but replaces those famous Nintendo icons with different types of cake. Yes, cake. Avoid pecking pigeons, evade the eclairs, and bash the battenberg in your quest to cover yourself in decorations, garnish a custard tart, or just plain ice a fondant fancy. A brilliant premise that we look forward to seeing more of.
Check out our video coverage of Rezzed 2019.
We end then with Phogs, the glorious two-folks-one-controller game. James and I once again spent most of this year’s play session laughing out loud as we slid the eponymous double-ended dog around ravishing night time locales, all in search of bones and moons to feed to giant knitted snakes. If that doesn’t sound like the best thing ever, then you are officially a dull, dim-witted turd.
Exhausted, and fearing the worst for my journey home, I slipped away, ready to haunt the halls again next year. Thanks for the games you lovely devs; grazie for the pizza you benevolent gentleman James; and fuck you to ye extortionate Network Rail. See you in 2020. XOXO
We recently had the opportunity to go hands-on with a pre-release PC build of Etherborn, the gravity-defying puzzle platformer being developed by Altered Matter. After spending around an hour with the game’s first three levels, it seems clear that this upstart studio of four are destined for big things.
You’ll always return to a nearby checkpoint, mind, encouraging experimentation within the unconventional physics playgrounds that are Etherborn’s self-contained stages. More conventional is the gated progression, whereby you’ll need to place key items on pedestals in order to transform the shifting environments and accommodate pressing onwards; you will at least need to double back and re-utilise them in different places on occasion, which is an added wrinkle to consider.
While no real cause for concern, considering we’re judging based on the introductory stages alone, so far Etherborn relies solely on reiterating this structure in increasingly complex ways. It does so very well, coaxing you deeper into what feels like a warmer take on the works of M.C. Escher, but nonetheless we do hope that new mechanics are introduced over time.
We’re equally intrigued to see how things are set to progress from a narrative standpoint, as it’s all quite vague and introspect at the moment, whilst feeling as though it’s probably building towards a deeper meaning.
Your avatar is a completely blank slate, a voiceless humanoid appearing as though a sentient x-ray and lacking any clear motivation. The direct address of a disembodied narrator presumably begins to fill that in, but what’s most enticing is the gentle swirl of this dulcet female voice. Experienced in a dark room with a decent pair of headphones, the sound swishes around your head and the minimalist visuals soothe in an almost meditative fashion, which is a state perfectly conducive to switching off the logical parts of your brain to better comprehend the game’s unbound, geographic puzzles.
Consider the sweeping soundtrack - comprised of twinkling chimes and mellow organ bellows, cut through by dreamy vocalisation, percussion and strings - and you have a package which, true to its name, is healthy with an almost ethereal glow.
Etherborn stylishly ebbs and flows it’s way through the early stages, so do keep an eye out for its arrival on Steam, PS4, Xbox One and Switch this spring.
I’m completely hooked on Outward right now, to the point I’ve neglected to join Clementine for the final chapter of The Walking Dead and poor Sekiro’s starting to wonder whether I even care about saving his master. It’s a challenging survival RPG from a passionate team of ten at developer Nine Dots Studio, led by a CEO that clearly cares for both his staff and the integrity of the art they make. Outward is their uncompromised vision of the ideal role-playing adventure, but all the drive in the world and the backing of a big publisher like Deep Silver aren’t quite enough to bring such an ambitious game to market without a few cracks.
How you make the 150 silver you owe, if indeed you choose to at all, is entirely up to you. You could run traditional errands for payment, fish and forage for goods to trade, or delve a dungeon in search of valuable loot. Whatever you opt for, as you venture into the untamed wilds and the rousing main theme kicks in (albeit too loudly, so you’ll want to mess with the audio sliders to fix that) it’s impossible not to feel like the wind is at your back and the world is at your feet.
As the sun shines on lush green pastures and birdsong fills the air, it’s hard not to get carried away, but you always have to remain vigilant in Outward. Much like in real life, the natural world is dangerous and indifferent to your presence. Maps don’t show your current location, so if you aren’t actively charting a journey by taking mental note of landmarks and compass readings, you can very quickly find yourself lost and alone in the dead of night.
As you venture into the untamed wilds and the rousing main theme kicks in, it’s impossible not to feel like the wind is at your back and the world is at your feet.
This is where the survival mechanics come into their own, as your maximum health and stamina deplete as you spend more time awake. You can camp and rest up almost anywhere, mostly dependant on the weather, though the weather's effects can be mitigated by first changing clothes or building a campfire (which can also be a doorway to cooking and alchemy, with the proper equipment). You’ll need to delegate rest hours between sleep, repairing gear and guarding against ambushes, with the longer you take making your character proportionally more hungry and thirsty.
These interacting survival elements aren’t so present as to be constant annoyances, merely needing babysitting now and again, as resources are abundant and the percentages indicating your needs are slow to degrade. That means that when they do rear their head and inflict debuffs at inopportune moments, skin-of-your-teeth emergent tales are told and your adventures are all the more memorable for it.
That being said, bountiful resources pose another problem, as you’re very limited in what you can carry. Pocket space is prime real estate (especially when even currency weighs you down), so you’ll need to carry a backpack of some description if you’re the item hoarding sort, only the bigger the rucksack - and therefore the carrying capacity - the more it’ll impede your movement. This means you’ll probably want to set it down before engaging in combat, then be faced with the daunting reality of being separated from it and the vital contents should you find yourself on the losing end.
It’s yet another tantalising risk vs. reward mechanic in a game full of them. Combat itself isn’t generally required outside of a few quest objectives, so you can sneak or sprint your way past most encounters without too much fear of missing out. That’s down to the fact that Outward doesn’t feature any kind of experience or traditional levelling systems. You’ll still be rewarded with loot for felling a foe, which, provided you can carry it, might help to craft better equipment or fetch some silver that can be put towards training in new skills.
This tweak feels incredibly refreshing, considering how small it is in reality, while further emphasising that coin is king in Outward. It makes it viable to play a sort of pacifist merchant, especially since different enemy classes will fight amongst one another and can reliably be manipulated into doing so, letting you swoop in like a vulture to claim the spoils and finish off the weakened victor. You can also lay traps and lead hostiles into those, rub elemental rags on your weapon to inflict damage over time while you play defence, or take potshots with a bow from higher ground.
If you’re more of a scholar than a rogue, Outward also has a bespoke magic system. You can’t start out as a mage, as gaining mana requires reaching a specific location and trading off health and stamina in proportion to how large of a pool you want to draw from. It’s a big decision as there’s no going back, especially since health and stamina are already limited and both absolutely precious, though, with a little experimentation, being well-versed in the arcane can really pay off.
Spells are pitiful in themselves, but placing and standing inside magic sigils whilst you cast offers massive buffs. Combining different spells and sigils will bring different results, so experimenting to see what works best is the name of the game.
Melee combat is more of a no-frills affair. Stringing light and heavy attacks into combinations with different weapon classes yields unique results, so there’s some experimentation to do in finding what best fits you here as well, but there’s no escaping the fact that combat in Outward feels far more stiff, cumbersome and unimpactful than something like Dark Souls or even Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice - though it boasts the dodge rolls and careful stamina use of the former, poise and staggering of the later, and the punishing difficulty of both.
I’ve found being more aggressive to be the best course of action. In time I got used to the tempo and came to find the learning curve quite satisfying, especially as I implemented new gear and active abilities into my growing arsenal, but for a long time I dreaded each combat encounter and so avoided enemies like the plague.
In time I got used to the tempo and came to find the learning curve quite satisfying, but for a long time I dreaded each combat encounter and avoided enemies like the plague.
Fortunately, many failed early skirmishes lead to some of the game’s greatest moments. You don’t die in Outward, rather fall unconscious and get thrust into a situation dependant on how and where that happened, which you’re filled in on via loading screen text.
Whether a passing stranger took pity and helped you out, or you awake in a prison with a fairly substantial quest to find one of several ways out, you’ll often find an emergent adventure inside your existing emergent adventure and that can take the sting out of failure. Of course, if your backpack isn’t brought along for the ride, you'll need to cannily retrieve it without its contents to help you along the way.
Having set out to create a wanderlust RPG, I have to commend the team at Nine Dots for a job very well done - they’ve nailed the liberated feeling of setting out on a perilous journey over and over again. The reliance on real orienteering skills and lack of fast travel in any form makes the game’s varied regions - from lush countryside to arid deserts and poisonous swamps - thoroughly memorable through necessity.
It’s reminiscent of cult classic Dragon’s Dogma in many ways, though I adore the auto-run feature which Outward boasts over that game, allowing you to continue making forward progress whilst map reading or managing your inventory. In fact, Outward shares similarities to last generation RPGs like Fable, Kingdoms of Amalur and many more, evoking a warm nostalgia for a breed of game long thought extinct. Less positively, it does unfortunately look and load like a last generation game as well, even whilst playing the enhanced Xbox One X version.
So, I’ve waxed lyrical on why I really do love Outward for long enough, but there are some objective shortfalls - even failures - to make you aware of. The game constantly autosaves to stop players pulling any save scum shenanigans, which is fine in itself and significantly ups the stakes, but when you combine that with a knack for getting irreparably stuck in the environment it’s frankly game breaking. There’s obviously no fast travel to get you out of there, there’s also no suicide or “I’m stuck” option to reset your position, so at that point your game is over.
This happened to me ‘just’ a few hours in, so I was in a position to restart, and, touch wood, whilst being exceptionally careful during descents, there haven’t even been any close calls on my second character. I’m so invested now that I’d definitely throw in the towel if it were to happen again, which would be incredibly unfortunate.
If you’re thinking that I could’ve just waited to starve, clever clogs, then here’s another issue for you - I did, for several hours, but when the survival meters fully deplete they just break and you lose the associated debuffs. (That’s a nifty trick in itself for anyone averse to the survival mechanics, though.)
Next up: Your map can break, failing to update when you transition to a new area and instead still displaying the previous one. This is easily fixed by restarting the game, but you really want to avoid doing that, at least outside of safe areas. There’s an incredibly damaging glitch, which only ever stuck me outside of main settlements, where quitting and returning to the game will delete a large portion of the hard-earned inventory from your backpack. It’s infuriating, though the workaround is to always get back to a city before you stop playing, or to very slowly move everything from your rucksack into your non-glitched pockets, which will make you massively over encumbered while sparing the loot.
Obviously you can’t do that if a crash happens to strike, which have been reported, but I haven’t suffered once across many hours of play. I did, however, have the Xbox OS inform me that Outward had become corrupt and needed to be reinstalled when trying to launch it at one point.
I’ve waxed lyrical on why I really do love Outward for long enough, but there are some objective shortfalls - even failures - to make you aware of.
Despite all that, Outward is so gratifying and immersive that I haven’t been put off. It realises its potential, then does so much to push you away, but I’m smitten to an extent that it really doesn’t matter. I’ll keep coming back for more because this is one of those rare, encompassing games that I can’t stop thinking about playing when I’m not playing.
For a title that runs so counter to AAA culture, ironically, the main takeaway is one that applies to many modern AAA games - Outward will eventually be worth anyone’s time. With updates to fix the outlined issues, Nine Dots’ miraculous effort can be held aloft, but, until then, it’s reserved for only the most hardcore of RPG fans. I’m certain they’ll find space in their hearts for Outward too, especially if they have a like-minded friend, since it’s playable in both local(!) and online co-op.
Battlefield V's take on battle royale was worthy of anticipation; DICE have made their name on endlessly replayable multiplayer experiences, filled to the brim with exciting destruction, so why would Firestorm be any different?
Getting into the mode proper, which I was subsequently able to do, I appreciated Firestorm’s greater sense of realism as compared to its contrived peers when it comes to shrinking the circular battlefield. Isolation and terror really begin to build as you hear the fiery inferno starting to make its way towards you, then, once the fire catches up, you’ll hear the screams and shouts of your character as their inevitable demise begins to sink in.
Bugs aside, the intended format is what you might expect from a battle royale game: drop, loot, sneak about, take a few shots, probably get killed by someone you didn't see. Only here, there are vehicles to contend with too. Could this be the USP for DICE’s entry into an already crowded marketplace?
Firestorm has the ingredients for at least a solid survival shooting experience from this tried and tested franchise.
Vehicles are dotted about the map, including amphibious ones, but unlike PUBG you can airdrop them in at will using limited signal flares. You’re even able to signal a fairly devastating airstrike, which can also inadvertently knock out your team if you aren't too careful. Ultimately, the vehicles haven't been the game-changing factor in close games so far, so the jury is still out.
The armour system, which essentially lets you replenish individual armour plates on the fly as you scavenge around the map, is honestly pretty neat. Hits on enemies will register as being deflected by armour specifically, so you have an idea of how much damage you're actually doing to their vitals.
Layer in a comparatively basic battle royale weapon set - appropriate to the time period, but still far from realistic - and you've got the ingredients for at least a solid survival shooting experience from this tried and tested franchise.
Whether Firestorm can hold people's attention versus the big boys of the genre, including EA's own Apex Legends, remains to be seen, but, for the time being, it's done enough to justify its own existence and feel like more than just a tacked-on afterthought.
With the release of great titles like The Surge and Vampyr, increasingly prolific publisher Focus Home Interactive have been distancing themselves from the somewhat derogatory ‘Eurojank’ label often applied to their catalogue in previous years – so called due to a comparative lack of polish when held up to American and Japanese contemporaries. Now, in collaboration with relatively unknown French developer Asobo Studio, new IP A Plague Tale: Innocence looks set to be the final nail in the coffin for that particular adjective.
Whilst A Plague Tale is firmly rooted in reality, this particular mystery feels like it could play out in a number of... interesting ways, though it’s important to note that’s only based on speculation at this stage.
That being said, there’s definitely an element of whimsy to the visuals which is cause for our thoughts to drift towards the fantastical. In Asobo’s rendition of medieval France, the sun shines that bit brighter on lush forests of vibrant green, whilst dark areas are deeply black and weak light sources serve to highlight the grotesque. Everything is idealistically implemented, which could feel jarring or false, but transitions between extremes are gradual and really help in envisioning things from the naive perspective of an inexperienced leading duo.
Simple moments of visual splendour can spur you on during what seem like hopeless times, but little Hugo is the real driving force on that front. He’s charmingly innocent and polite, at least as far as you could reasonably expect, but those features won’t do him much good now. Factor in his sickness and you’ll quickly grow attached to the boy, which is fortunate, as the early stages of A Plague Tale might otherwise feel like an escort mission.
You’ll need to instruct Hugo to wait and follow as your situation dictates, keeping him hidden from armed guards whom he’s otherwise helpless to resist. Leave him unattended for too long though and he’ll become scared, potentially attracting unwanted attention, so you’ll need to plan and execute stealth maneuvers efficiently.
Once again small touches make all the difference here, as Amicia physically reaches out upon recalling Hugo, taking him by the hand in an effort to both calm and guide him. Frequent contact between the two makes it abundantly clear that Amicia, and by extension you, don’t just bark orders but help him through genuine concern for his well being.
Hugo can be independent though, solving many an impasse by crawling through tight spaces or travelling alternate routes off-limits to Amicia, ultimately manufacturing her safe passage. These situations are generally spelled out through the game’s heavily accented dialogue, authentically delivered by an appropriately-aged cast, which helps to keep the pacing snappy during what is, thus far, a linear adventure with a stark focus on narrative. In this day and age that’s quite refreshing, though it doesn’t mean there aren’t light puzzles to solve and optional areas to explore, which often house an array of collectibles and crafting materials.
Those materials can be used to upgrade equipment at workbenches, most notably to allow your sling - powered by rocks found within the environment - to deliver lethal headshots to exposed domes. The sling takes a brief-but-satisfying moment to reach full speed as you spin it up and align a shot, but can’t be too heavily relied upon as it’s noisy enough to give away your position. In these situations, you may want to throw your makeshift ammunition by hand to create a distant distraction.
During certain set-piece moments this choice of approach is taken out of your hands, as you run from crowds of enemies – be they human or rodent – in tense chase scenes and face a scripted boss encounter, requiring you to utilise Amicia’s dodge and backstep moves in a close-quarters skirmish.
Rats can’t be so easily avoided, infesting the screen thousands at a time as they frantically scuttle over one another in a desperate effort to devour anything flesh, glowing red eyes illuminating the dark all the while. They’re reminiscent of the Locust from Gear of War, telegraphing their arrival as the ground rumbles before they burst through to the surface, only there’s no simple means of dispatching them here.
All you can hope to do is avoid the swarm, keeping them at bay with light sources which are often quick to burn out, or, failing that, distracting them with meat - be it living or dead. They’re a plague in every sense of the word, made all the more vile during a fleeting trip below ground through one of their gnarled, oozing nests.
These finer environmental details are easy to appreciate, as A Plague Tale looks outstanding across the board; lighting and textures are a particular highlight though, even at lower graphics presets. Sound is similarly fine-tuned, with audio reverb switching as you transition in and outdoors during conversation, plus an evolving orchestral soundtrack.
The lasting impression of our time with A Plague Tale: Innocence is just how much of themselves Asobo Studio have poured into the game. It’s clearly a passion project from a developer that’s very reliably, but perhaps uninspiringly, been entrusted with handling a variety of ports before now.
Mechanics and relationships begin to develop in meaningful ways during the opening chapters, leaving us eager to see how they’ll continue to blossom in what should be the game’s remaining ten-or-so hours. The complete journey seems set to be a harrowing one, poised to deepen the siblings’ already developing scars, so we can’t help but anticipate trying to assist them in emerging unscathed come A Plague Tale’s release this May.
A Plague Tale: Innocence launches 14 May on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.