Sometimes you need a video game to inject some joy into your life, and that applies especially in 2020. Enter PHOGS!, the charming puzzle game about exploring with a double-headed dog in search of bone-shaped treats.
PHOGS! is easy to pick up and play and the gradual introduction of different challenges and mechanics is steady, drawing you in and having you eager to lap up just one more level.
The PHOGS (a merging of the words physics and dogs, as seen within the gameplay) exude character as you move them around. If you lazily control a single head at a time, for example, you’ll see the trailing head quickly drop off to sleep. That same level of characterisation extends to the NPCs as well, with our particular favourite being an octopus chef who's increasingly pleased with how his mountaintop soup is turning out, thanks to your help.
The game’s music has enthusiasm and beaming positivity to match, but at times relies too heavily on a short, repeated phrase that can start to grate. Fortunately each level has a new tune, meaning such earworms are fairly short-lived.
PHOGS! is an experience we’ve been hearing about for a long time, and it's a pleasure to finally have our paws on it. The sheer delight at successfully getting Red and Blue to the friendly patchwork-style snake which safeguards the end of each level can’t be overstated. It’s easy to pick up and play and the gradual introduction of different challenges and mechanics is steady, drawing you in and having you eager to lap up just one more level.
Coming into the festive season, a family PHOGS! session sounds far more appealing than a six-hour argument over Monopoly. It’s also just as fun to watch as it is to play, for any technologically-opposed family members. Coatsink and Bit Loom Games have taken a simple concept and really nailed it. If you’re in the mood for some gaming joy this Christmas, PHOGS! undoubtedly fits the bill.
There's nothing like clambering over a snow-capped mountain while exploring the hallowed lands of the Norse. Assassin's Creed Valhalla makes this experience, and many more, nothing short of breathtaking.
There's no compromise on scale, though as you travel around you'll notice the odd bit of texture pop-in. Performance is fairly solid on the whole, though we did get stuck in the environment once or twice while searching for goodies in the wilderness.
The approach to uncovering those goodies is fairly unforgiving, with only a vague spot on the in-game map to shoot for. It's a difficult balance to strike, since players tend to roll their eyes at unnecessary hand-holding, but the odd understated voice line to suggest you’re getting colder or warmer would be beneficial in some of the more complex areas.
Valhalla can suffer from a lack of direction at times, but its Nordic influence seeps into every pore, leaving plenty to get excited about.
Environments are very much divided into things you can interact with and things you can't. You can pick up health from odd pots of food that the locals seem to have absent-mindedly left simmering, but a pile of fresh apples and other fruit in a barn aren't deemed edible, for example.
Elsewhere there are more inconsistencies, with Eivor being able to climb mountains endlessly - no stamina needed, à la Breath of the Wild - yet a few consecutive dodges during combat will quickly tire the protagonist.
Fortunately, combat as a whole is reassuringly savage and satisfying. Lower level enemies are entertaining fodder, but more advanced foes require you to keep your wits about you.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla can suffer from a lack of direction at times, but its Nordic influence seeps into every pore, leaving plenty to get excited about. Strong characters, choice of approach and presentation make it a great choice for those breaking in a new next-gen console or sticking with an older platform.
While we're not quite living in the dystopian future that Watch Dogs: Legion predicts, Ubisoft Toronto couldn't possibly have imagined the world it was releasing its latest game into.
Firearms are sparse, as you'd expect in England, which favours the tech-orientated culture this series is known for. Drones of all shapes and sizes are everywhere and vehicles, as in previous titles, can be diverted with a quick hack. Environments are so interactive, in fact, that it's often difficult to focus on the small keypad in front of you as opposed to items in the surrounding area.
An option which helps to set Legion apart from the swathe of similar Ubisoft games is permadeath; if operatives die with this setting enabled, they're gone for good. Problem is, recruitable characters lack personality, so rather than hitting on a personal level it’s just annoying to lose whichever special skills or items they had access to.
Connections between characters raise questions like "Why is that construction worker being targeted by a hitman?"
One nice feature, which admittedly has the potential to get out of hand, is a HUD element that displays connections between existing recruits and recruitable characters. It raises questions like "Why is that construction worker being targeted by a hitman?" and encourages you to start to build out a wider team, members of which are connected by emergent stories. When you get into recruitment itself, however, the variety of missions is fairly limited.
Characters in general have a few shortcomings. Animation transitions are abrupt and occasionally wonky, while speech seems very skewed towards British stereotypes. That isn't necessarily a surprise, but, since you're hearing the same voice line or two whenever you get into a conversation, it gets old quickly.
While cosmetic customisation is possible via numerous shops, some of the initial character designs clash with their intended roles. It isn’t a major issue, but it is another thing that highlights the shortcomings of procedural generation in Watch Dogs: Legion. It’s much harder to care about these characters than it would be a lovingly hand-crafted cast.
Watch Dogs: Legion’s core gameplay is good fun for the most part, but its procedural cast of soulless characters don’t lend themselves to helping players be absorbed by alternate London. Still, the sights and sounds of Blighty’s capital are exciting to explore - especially in lieu of being able to amble around the city in person at present!
With The Great British Bake Off back on our screens, what better time for a sweet treat-themed party game? High Tea Frog and Coatsink present a slice of confection perfection in this bake-em-up; a serving of satisfying sponge smashing great for both distracting from the doom and gloom and venting some pent-up frustration.
Unfortunately there’s no way to set up custom matches with friends for now, as you’re limited to the more structured, standard experience online, but you’ll want to do this anyway to keep unlocking more skins for your various cakes and pastries.
The soundtrack has a similar vibe to Two Point Hospital or even Animal Crossing, which the artstyle also shares some cues, while the visual presentation overall, as well as its theme, conjures memories of frantic Overcooked sessions, but the game still stands on its own.
Cake Bash might not be absolute perfection, but it is a fun time with minimal calories.
Gameplay is solid, though extended play sessions will lead to things starting to feel repetitive, as the, at times, imprecise controls catch you out. Still, the whole experience is greatly enhanced by the joy of taking on other players and perfect for a warm up before a more longform gaming evening.
In all there is a certain charm in a game which feels distinct in the execution of its premise as well as the quality of its production for a small scale title. While we played on Xbox One, we can see greater potential in its Switch version (due out soon) in particular, due to the platform’s flexibility.
There are no soggy bottoms on show here, and with how quickly it is to tuck into, you’ll likely surprise yourself, coming out with phrases like “As an éclair, I’ve never looked better” and “Oh no, I’ve been impaled by a fork.”
Certainly more than worth checking out if you’re in need of a tasty distraction, Cake Bash might not be absolute perfection, but it is a fun time with minimal calories.
In Death: Unchained brings the VR Rogue-lite to Oculus Quest for an untethered, wireless experience after its debut on PSVR and PC. Clever subtitle aside, the procedurally generated shooter has been expanded with all-new content to ramp-up the difficulty and keep players busy for longer. Packed with religious iconography, is this trip to the afterlife destined for heaven or hell?
Since unlocks aren’t a complete crutch, developing your physical skill is key. Aiming takes genuine finesse without crosshairs or any form of aim assist, and getting a feel for the gradual drop of an arrow or bolt also takes some time. At first you’ll be whiffing shots at close range, before eventually hitting headshots over long distances like it’s nothing.
Solid motion tracking on the Oculus Touch controllers makes things painless, which is handy, as combat requires juggling way more than just archery. There’s a defensive shield (which can also be turned to offence with a close-range shield bash), though it often pays to physically dodge incoming projectiles and melee strikes so as to not obscure your vision. The Quest’s lack of wires can really help out here.
It’s possible to briefly trigger slow motion by bringing up the real-time arrow switching menu, which helps if you’re in a small play area and need to be careful with regards to how you move. If space is at a real premium, you can even opt to play stationary and seated. Firing teleportation arrows is probably the best movement option to match, though there is also a free locomotion setting available at launch.
Regardless of your preferred settings, a short-range teleportation shard also occupies your arsenal for clutch dodges and quickly popping around corners or through doorways. You can best use it to your advantage in attracting enemies’ attention and then retreating slightly to draw them into choke points. The AI is pretty exploitable if you pull enemies gradually, though things get hairy when you mess up and they bombard you all at once.
Special arrows can save your afterlife in these situations, doing things like freezing enemies in place and sticking them with explosives, channelling the iconic Gears of War Torque Bow. They’re an absolute must during boss encounters as well; bosses annoyingly spawn in waves of minions, so your best bet is to end the fight before it has a chance to really begin using your heaviest artillery.
Emerging victorious will grant you access to the next level, though being able to start a run from that level (i.e. opting to begin from two at the menu instead of clearing one to get back there) requires hitting an arbitrary overall completion percentage first. Gating is probably intended for players’ own good, but when we’d nearly finished the final level and died it was annoying to learn that we’d need to backtrack and earn 7% more in order to spawn there for an immediate second crack of the whip.
Still, returning to the previous level, Paradise Lost, wasn’t all bad. Cathedral architecture is elaborately laid out amongst the clouds and we found that being mobile and aggressive worked best on the armies of flying cherubs and grounded witches. It can be easy to get lost in the lavish labyrinth and cherubs in particular have a nasty habit of appearing right behind you for cheap hits, but it's still a lot of fun to play the role of ordained executioner.
In Death: Unchained features an engaging sense of progression that helps to take the edge off permadeath.
A major strength of virtual reality gaming is the use of 3D audio, but the implementation here is underwhelming. Enemy sound effects never really cut through the bog standard atmospheric background score, which makes it hard to instinctively pinpoint their locations and can lead to missing enemies standing right by you.
In Death: Unchained is immensely replayable and, impressively, a grander prospect than its higher powered PC and PlayStation 4 counterparts. It’s challenging and moreish, while also being a great fit for the Oculus Quest platform specifically. Permadeath and towering reliquaries – shrines that serve as in-game shops and save points – make the game easy to play in short bursts, lending itself well to the headset’s portable nature and limited battery life.
Horror is a pretty overcrowded genre when it comes to VR, owing mostly to the platform’s greater level of immersion making it easy to provoke a reaction from players. Oculus exclusive Lies Beneath manages to differentiate itself by travelling the survival horror route while adopting a dark and pulpy comic book aesthetic. Throw in some exciting action gameplay and the team at Drifter (Robo Recall: Unplugged) could be onto a winner.
Regardless, the game does a great job of building an unnerving atmosphere through eerie environments and lighting. It’s close to pitch black at times, with only the piercing red eyes of enemies visible in the distance and the faint glow of your trusty lighter illuminating the more immediate area. PSA: If that lighter goes out and takes a few attempts to spark back up, prepare for an unpleasant jumpscare. Otherwise, the direction of its flame is a handy means of setting you on the right path and it’s light also reveals enemy weak points.
Many locations are adorned with grotesque, ornamental butchery that melds animal and human body parts; meanwhile, frantic banging emanates from the next helpless victims that are trapped inside nearby crates. The soundscape in Lies Beneath is strong on the whole and using headphones is an in-game recommendation we’d echo, but, failing that, the built-in Quest speakers do a decent job of outputting fairly immersive 3D audio.
When time comes to combat the deranged townsfolk, there are three tweakable comfort modes and three difficulty settings to ensure everyone can do so enjoyably. Whatever you opt for, Oculus Touch motion tracking works pretty much flawlessly; a great test in any VR game is to throw something, and Lies Beneath gave us no trouble lodging axes in enemy heads from meters away.
There are plenty more melee weapons to wield beyond just axes, which do different levels of damage and cover various ranges. Unfortunately, however, their collision is wildly inconsistent. Weapons collide with and lodge into certain foes and surfaces, but clip right through others, which is distracting enough to pull you out of the experience at times.
Similarly mixed is the amount of damage that specific enemy types can absorb, especially in the late stages of the game. Two identical nasties can take vastly different levels of punishment, which, in theory, could’ve served to ramp up terror through uncertainty, but is more annoying than anything else. With checkpoints being limited at that point in the game, it’s almost enough to have you pulling your hair out.
If that tempts you to drop the difficulty a notch, know that Lies Beneath significantly steps up (or down) with each setting. Easy is a cakewalk, Normal can get pretty challenging, while Hard, above and beyond to its name, is absolutely gruelling.
The difficulty level doesn’t just affect incoming and outgoing damage, but also the resources available to you in ammunition and health-replenishing foodstuffs. There’s a hard limit on what you can carry, with your back designated to a hunting rifle and a non-lethal harpoon gun, while your right and left holsters can be used to store anything from a silenced 9mm pistol to a tin of tuna.
Covering all of the bases with a melee weapon, some food and a pistol is most often your best bet to prep for enemy encounters. That’s especially true for a few set piece holdout sections reminiscent of Resident Evil 4, in which you’ll also be afforded bear traps and gasoline cans to strategically place around the battlefield. That being said, the best laid plans quickly go awry when you’re charged by tankish pigmen and forget to do something simple, like flick your wrist to reload the six shooter or cock the hunting rifle with your spare hand.
Although there are no multiplayer or secondary modes to lean on after finishing the inventive final chapter, it’s worth going back to try and find all of the collectibles for the extra lore and greater access to resources they provide through unlocks. Beating the hardest difficulty can definitely be worn as a badge of honour, while multiple endings and achievements (which a lot of Quest games don’t have) should also help to keep you coming back.
Oculus Quest is a platform that’s largely packed with shorter VR “experiences” and arcade-type games suited to brief bursts of play. That isn’t necessarily bad, considering the generally more casual audience, but it can leave some owners wanting in terms of substance. Lies Beneath brings just that, providing spine-tingling scares that can be as challenging or accessible as you’d like. While it might be frightening at times, the action and comic book leanings impart the necessary mass appeal to see it stick the landing as a flagship Oculus exclusive available on Quest.
Intense. That's the first word that springs to mind when you get to grips with Doom Eternal. The pace has ramped up even further from the lauded 2016 reboot and hits you right in the face so hard that, if you happened to be an in-game demon, you'd be inclined to evaporate into a pool of blood.
The game-changer here is the flame belch, which coats your enemies in fire and causes them to drop protective armour upon death. Armor is vital to your survival, even on lower difficulty settings. Those looking for a challenge have plenty of headroom to push themselves in Doom Eternal, while slayer gates (somewhat secret combat challenges) will push those with a real glutton for punishment even further.
Getting around as the Slayer has never felt so rapid, and traversal has taken a more vertical approach in the sequel. A dash ability combines with the familiar double jump to let you traverse huge open spaces, plus there's even wall climbing thrown into the mix, although, regrettably, it contributes frustration and variety in equal measure.
Often you can see where you need to go but getting there requires a level of dexterity that takes some time to grasp. Unhelpfully, at one point, a floating platform didn’t respawn following a failed attempt and stranded us in an area before a quick restart restored it. Fortunately, technical performance elsewhere is as impressive as the game's visual presentation.
Another weaker point was the many facets of the upgrade system, however. There are runes, which modify the game experience, weapon mods, which unlock those alternate fire modes, and suit stat points, which can be spent on another range of skills. It's a lot to absorb, and even if you have an idea of your play style it can be difficult to know which elements you will and won’t use.
You can respec skills in your ship, which hovers in orbit as a hub between levels. It starts off fairly locked down, but collecting sentinel batteries as you mow your way through levels gradually lets you access more sections of the ship. One useful area you can get to straight away is the training room, which does pretty much what it says on the tin.
Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't also mention Mick Gordon’s pounding soundtrack. The world of Doom has never been so metal, and neither has its music, complete here with a growling intergender choir. Its predecessor’s OST was exemplary, yet somehow, Eternal hits the mark even harder by slowly building to indicate trouble before exploding into frantic confrontations.
There's competitive multiplayer to dive into as well, if you fancy a distraction from the campaign. Battlemode takes an asymmetric approach as two demons tackle one fully-equipped Slayer; there’s definitely some fleeting fun to be had, but the main focus of the game is clearly its campaign.
While there are a lot of similarities to the 2016 reboot, this latest Doom outing offers more bang for your buck. Some of the shots that id Software have taken don't hit the mark, but the effort and care put into the game shines no matter where you look. It’s immensely satisfying, if relentless to the point of being dizzying at times, but Doom Eternal knows what it is and wholeheartedly embraces it to great effect.
Created by Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse developer WayForward, Vitamin Connection is a new and exclusive IP for the Nintendo Switch. It tasks players with saving the fictional Sable family (and by extension, the world) from an all-consuming pathogenic outbreak. Far from a sombre reflection of the present-day Coronavirus situation, Vitamin Connection and its cheery, colourful gameplay could very well prove to be the antidote for those seeking shelter.
Vitamin Connection definitely feels like it’s best experienced in co-op, and while it’s possible to see and experience all that the game has to offer solo, it’s certainly more enjoyable with a partner along for the ride. It’s a shame, then, that progression between solo and cooperative campaigns isn’t shared and there’s no drop in/drop out support for spontaneous sessions.
Rather than simply throwing in another Capsule Ship for a second person, Vitamin Connection’s asymmetrical co-op mode sees players splitting the duties of a single craft. With the left Joy-Con, one player controls ship movement and activation of the Vitamin Beam, while the other, using the right, deals with rotation and aiming.
The added layer of teamwork helps lift the relatively straightforward gameplay and adds a whole new level of humour to proceedings as players endeavour to coordinate attacks and evasions. Sub-games also benefit from the addition of a second player, with WayForward making good use of some of the Joy-Cons’ lesser utilised features, such as motion controls, and even the IR sensor for reflex-based challenges.
Dance Festival has players pulling off moves in time to a musical beat, and is great fun with a partner in tow.
It’s innovative touches like these, along with a ridiculously catchy J-Pop soundtrack and a bright, cartoony aesthetic, that help Vitamin Connection, at times, feel like it could have come directly from Nintendo themselves. Unfortunately, however, the game also has more than a few frustrating quirks that spoil the fun and stop it from being something really special.
Levels often feel samey, despite belonging to different hosts, and sub-games are repeated throughout the campaign with only slight variations to colour and design serving to set them apart. It’s also far too easy for your ship to get stuck in narrower sections of levels and end up being left behind, doomed to a slow death, as the screen, cut scenes and action all continue to move on without you.
Levels are littered with these ribbons, which are incredibly satisfying to break with the corresponding colour.
Away from the actual gameplay, a number of technical issues also dog Vitamin Connection. Controls can become unresponsive after switching from handheld to TV mode, or vice-versa, and the Joy-Cons too easily lose calibration during co-op sessions. The latter is particularly frustrating during the Dance Festival sub-games where precision is key; since you’re unable to recalibrate until the challenge is over, the only choice is to either continue using wonky inputs or reboot the game and start over.
Medicine Ball and Wire Coaster were two of the standout sub-games.
Still, when everything’s going well, Vitamin Connection is a fun party game that’s both challenging enough to keep regular gamers hooked and intuitive enough for casuals to keep pace. With around 5 – 10 hours of content as standard and the challenging post-game Pro Campaign to boot, there’s plenty on offer for the £15 price tag.
While it might not be an entirely sweet remedy, Vitamin Connection is certainly no bitter pill to swallow.
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire reached its crowd-funding goal within one day of the campaign's opening. Two years after a successful PC release, Pillars of Eternity II - Ultimate Edition has now landed on consoles, including three significant DLC expansions and a host of smaller additions.
PoE II’s story can unfold in numerous ways depending on your decisions, with characters divulging more information if you pursue the right line of questioning or pass skill checks. Scripted Interactions (small text-based segments) play out similarly, awarding loot or opening up shortcuts to those who possess a high enough level in one or more relevant skills.
A new combat scheme was introduced to PC post-launch and is present on consoles from day one, offering players the option to either engage in standard real-time-with-pause encounters or alternate turn-based battles. The latter is much slower in pace, making gameplay more akin to something like Mutant Year Zero or Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle.
Pathing is an issue in smaller maps, however, which can make turn-based mode a chore. When faced with a choke point, characters may decide to take the long way around, attempting to circumnavigate the globe and attack enemies from behind, in the process wasting multiple turns and leaving the party exposed. This persistent niggle, along with the excruciatingly slow pace, caused us to abandon our first playthrough after around 20 hours and start again using real-time-with-pause. No, you can’t switch mid-playthrough.
This actually proved to be a blessing in disguise; literally, as each achievement earned will award a specific number of Blessings to be used for a head start in subsequent playthroughs. By leveraging windfalls like cash and increased stats, we managed to catch back up fairly quickly and the combat experience was a lot smoother.
You'll gain access to a ship fairly early on, which not only provides the means to travel throughout the eponymous Deadfire Archipelago, but also allows for ship-to-ship combat. Multiple vessels are available to purchase, each with differing stats, and can be upgraded to provide you with extra firepower, stronger sails and a more durable hull. Every victory on the high seas awards experience to you and your crew, increasing your captain level and your crew's abilities. It's a fun little addition that’s easy to get to grips with, though it can be bypassed entirely by boarding enemy ships and engaging in traditional combat instead.
Not everything is quite so plain sailing, though. Every now and then an exit would bug out, forcing us to reload a previous save. In addition to this, ability names aren't shown outside of the skill trees and you'll spend the majority of your time in a party of five. That accounts for a lot of available abilities at any one time and, as such, necessitates a particularly good memory unless you want to fall back on guesswork.
Issues aside, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire has a rich story with branching narratives, an incredibly in-depth party AI system and endless replayability thanks to its Blessings and multi-class mechanics. It’s a game that any self-respecting RPG fan will enjoy, regardless of whether or not they’re familiar with the original.
Force fever is running high once again with the triple threat of a new Star Wars film - Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker - Disney+ series The Mandalorian and video game Jedi: Fallen Order all occupying the zeitgeist at the same time.
Your lightsaber can be a brutal weapon, particularly when it comes to performing finishing manoeuvres, which you'd expect from the samurai sword the concept was originally based on. It feels surprisingly personal too, by the simple notion of letting you heavily customise your saber with collectibles found strewn about the game's various worlds, alongside the existing cosmetic microtransactions and pre-order bonuses. Before long, the offering will almost certainly be expanded to include tantalising new DLC linked to The Rise of Skywalker.
Exploring multiple worlds is the name of the game - and seemingly the flavour of the autumn after The Outer Worlds - thanks to friendly transport ship the Mantis, which you can also customise to an extent. Traversing around is a mix of platforming and climbing which borrows from titles like Tomb Raider and Breath of the Wild, but it's the collective library of FromSoftware that Fallen Order pulls its strongest influences from.
Falling in battle sees you respawn at a designated checkpoint that’s never too far away, with these meditation spots being equivalent to bonfires. You can upgrade skills there, while also replenishing your health and healing items at the cost of reviving lesser enemies. Should one of them kill you, you'll need to return to the perpetrator and land a single hit to retrieve the experience gained since earning your last skillpoint.
You'll know danger is around the corner when grumbling strings start to creep in, helping to build a sense of tension whenever enemies attack – often from blindspots as you move through doorways.
After the initial tutorial level, which is fairly cinematic and exposition heavy in its attempt to introduce a lot of mechanics, you'll find the game opens up and lets you explore. It’s possible to wander into locations where the difficulty spikes or you don’t have the necessary equipment to explore, which is an indication to turn tail and come back later. It can feel odd to do so, since we’ve been conditioned to see gaming Jedi as unstoppable, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with shifting expectations.
Having only been a youngster when the order fell, Cal isn't a master; not to mention it's been a while since he flurried a lightsaber around on a daily basis. You can knock the difficulty down at any time, however, dialling back enemy aggression and damage while giving you a wider window to parry attacks.
Fallen Order challenges you to discover the Force, just as Cal is rediscovering it, and on that front it definitely succeeds. Combat is satisfying and has the bite of challenge a lot of fans will have been looking for, and the setting is a delicious meal of sci-fi Star Wars goodness. Where it hits a few stumbling blocks are mostly technical issues and things which remind you that this is, after all, a game. Texture and enemy pop-in is fairly common, performance can occasionally slow down, and minute-long load times can really kill your momentum after being defeated in battle.
Still, for those who’ve been waiting for EA to do something really special with the Star Wars licence, Jedi: Fallen Order is exactly that.