Song of the Deep is quite a departure. It’s a small-scale project from the exceedingly busy developers at Insomniac Games, as well as a first for US retailer GameStop and their new publishing arm. Though there are some obvious cracks in the foundations, this venture ultimately proves fruitful, producing a beautifully warm and whimsical nautical adventure.
We met Song of the Deep with an immediate fondness that was, at least in part, slowly chipped away.
One constant seal of quality persists in Jonathan Wandag’s stellar musical score.
Boss encounters don’t do much to enliven combative proceedings, the three present simply serving as arenas in which you fight waves of the same standard enemies in their place.
Unfortunately, a number of tedious mechanics further hamper the experience. Naval mines awkwardly dangle from chains and escorting them routinely ends in disaster; this is frustrating in itself, but travelling back and waiting for another to spawn each time intensifies the feeling. The sub can be crammed into corridors that it isn’t keen on coming out of, pressing B to leave the map or pause screen will activate sonar and can scupper your progress during puzzles, whilst one particular chase scene is inexcusably bad. Enemies that can’t be combatted spawn atop you, executing insta-kill grabs from ludicrous distances as you wrestle with the controls that, in this instance, lack the necessary precision.
One constant seal of quality does persist in Jonathan Wandag’s stellar musical score. It’s simultaneously magical and heavy with sorrow, mirroring Merryn’s internal struggle. It firmly anchors the player to the world and ensures it’s one they’ll want to stick around in, despite the issues.
Reminiscent of favourites Child of Light and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, we met Song of the Deep with an immediate fondness that was, at least in part, slowly chipped away. A beautiful story, an enthralling world, lovable characters and outstanding presentation don't excuse the fact that numerous gameplay elements - the area that matters most - simply aren't much fun to engage with.
I’ve personally always been on board with Kinect, immediately adopting the original peripheral and accruing a sizeable portion of its catalogue. The - mostly - good times that followed meant I took no issue with the second generation initially being a compulsory part of the Xbox One package. I did, however, grow to take issue with the fact that it received excruciatingly little software support thereafter.
If that sounds a tad complex (in the least patronising way possible), FRU is very accommodating and might be able to help. Pass the controller off and designate a person to each operation, use objects to extend your reach, even tactically dress to more easily fit into small spaces or cover larger areas. Perhaps most useful is the ability to pause gameplay whilst repositioning yourself, which opens the experience up to those less able and to those with small play spaces.
Whichever tactic you choose to employ, whoever’s in front of Kinect will naturally look the fool. Embrace this and there’s a great party game that’ll see your friends and family takings pins, lunging, sitting on the floor, standing on one leg and more. The silhouette’s pretty unflattering and seemingly adds a few pounds if you’re self conscious, but if that’s the case you probably aren’t going to be up for crab walking around the room with your arms in the air...
A few personal examples.
Unfortunately, there isn't much substance to justify busting it out more than once. There are four short chapters, each one introducing a new mechanic to keep things fresh, in which you’ll easily acquire all of the collectibles. You’re rewarded for doing so with access to FRU’s prototype phase, which is drastically different aesthetically, whilst maintaining the same core mechanics in a less polished form. It’s interesting to see how the game developed over the course of a few levels, but nothing more.
The undoubtedly front-and-centre gameplay mechanics are complemented by a serene soundtrack that effectively develops to be quite urgent in the final, challenging stages. Meanwhile, the simple art carries a warm and charming glow that’s impossible not to be taken with, mirroring the touching connection made in quite literally guiding a character by hand. Naive storybook framing furthers the effect, as if you were helping them off to sleep with a whimsical bedtime story the whole time. In an odd way, it’s the closest I’ve come to parenthood, because I was essentially playing that role in what was evocative of nostalgic childhood memories.
Perhaps the final hurrah for Microsoft’s Kinect, FRU sends it off with a bang. A sweet, innovative and tight platformer that’ll work your mind and body, the game unfortunately comes to an end all too quickly.
Full disclosure: I’ve had an up and down relationship with LEGO games in the past, from the dizzying heights of LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars to the general mediocrity of the likes of Batman 3: Beyond Gotham and Marvel’s Avengers, so I went into this title with a fair amount of apprehension.
You won’t find complex character progression here, or gameplay with a lot of depth or variety, but what it does it does well, and the ability to take something so popular and make it even more enjoyable is no small feat.
The tried-and-tested building mechanic is back and now has an element of variety to it, as piles of bricks can now often be thrown together into one of two or three LEGO creations, then broken down and rebuilt again, adding a new level of difficulty to some of the puzzles as you try to work out which to make first. On top of that there are arcade-style shooting sections, reminiscent of some of the most well-loved on-rail shooters of the past - even as the first one began it was hard to shake fond memories of Time Crisis 2.
The game isn’t perfect however, as you still find yourself running into puzzle elements which require more luck than skill, as you wander around the map destroying as much as possible, hoping to come across something of use. It would be interesting to see more situations where destroying everything in site had some consequences, but even as you scamper about destroying chairs and tables in Maz Kanata’s cantina no one bats an eyelid. The puzzles can cause frustration for those impatient to move on, but more often than not this time TT get’s the balance of difficulty just right, so that the game is accessible to children but still good fun for adults.
As ever, it’s in splitscreen where the game really goes above and beyond, with many of the aforementioned puzzles requiring constant character-swapping when played solo. The character roster is still filled with plenty of unknowns (such as all the individual members of the Guavian Death Gang), but it’s uplifting to see characters portrayed so faithfully throughout, not to mention controlling BB-8 is a constant joy.
The game manages to build on the strength of the original trilogy as well - just as the film it is based on did - by hitting you with an unexpected Prologue mission which recaps the end of Return of the Jedi, including taking on the Emperor and the assault on the base on Endor and even the Death Star itself. It’s an ingenious way to introduce players to all the new mechanics they will need throughout the game through the lens of something familiar. It feels like these are ideas which the developers couldn’t include when they covered the original trilogy in the past (depressingly, now a decade ago).
In short this game is one of simple pleasures. You won’t find complex character progression here, or gameplay with a lot of depth or variety, but what it does it does well, and the ability to take something so popular and make it even more enjoyable is no small feat. If you have any love for the LEGO games then this is an essential purchase, but anyone with even a passing interest in The Force Awakens should give it some time too. If nothing else, it’s a more rapid and engaging way to watch the film.
Just as soon as you've dispatched of one evil maniac, another has taken his place, and so The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II picks up where its predecessor left off. A short video recaps the story so far, but past events don’t particularly matter, just know there’s a new threat advancing on your (not so) secret base.
The wider story can be ignored for the most part. A mysterious, masked spectre - known only as 'Prisoner Seven' - often guides you and provides the resistance with important information. The desire to find out who, or what, is behind the mask is about all that serves to intrigue.
No boundaries are pushed graphically, either, with "it looks reasonable" about the highest praise that can be mustered. The audio is serviceable, whilst failing to really grab your attention, but they're minor complaints. Let’s be honest, not a soul comes to this party expecting it to be best in class on either front.
Combat, the meat of the game, is another story. It's largely unchanged from the first outing; a couple of main attacks are complemented by numerous abilities unlocked over time, though it isn't long before you have a full complement of tricks at your disposal.
Bouts of frantic blood-letting are punctuated by dialogue between Van Helsing and his captivating companion.
Whilst the combat is frenzied, it also feels smooth and intuitive. We were soon gracefully gliding across the battlefield, picking off our adversaries with nary a thought for tactics. That did unfortunately result in more than a few avoidable deaths - it's all too easy to find yourself surrounded, and every costly respawn was a stark reminder to be ever vigilant. For the next few minutes, at least.
The endless fighting can grow to be of a repetitive nature in time, even the vast amount of skills failing to offer sufficient variety. It benefits you to stick to a few favourites, finding what works for you and pouring all of your upgrade points into those abilities, which seems counter productive on this front. Fairly quickly, the brain goes into autopilot and only snaps out of it when a handful of tanky behemoths attempt to turn you into paste.
Your ghostly companion, Lady Katarina, will aid you in battle, acting as either a melee or ranged fighter. A few further options are available to be tweaked, such as deciding whether she prioritises those most vulnerable to her attacks, or defends Van Helsing from anyone who wishes him harm. You can even instruct her to swoop around the dead after each skirmish, collecting any items you deem important, whether they be gold, potions or gear of a certain rarity.
Bouts of frantic blood-letting are punctuated by dialogue between Van Helsing and his captivating companion. She is at times cynical, calculated, unsympathetic and capable of biting sarcasm, but her endearing charm shines through and it's clear that she has Van Helsing's best interests in mind.
These frequent, brief moments of respite provide other means of entertainment, as the game is packed full of pop culture references. We noticed a plethora during our time - Lord of the Rings, Angry Birds, Inception, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to name but a few.
Exploration is key if you want to get the most out of your time in Borgovia, so thankfully it’s encouraged through varied locations centred on different themes. A snowy mountain, tightly packed streets, the steampunk-styled main city - all feel like separate, yet connected, worlds. Enemies uniquely inhabit each area, although you'll soon realise that many of them are just re-skins of the same archetypes you've fought before. This isn't a huge problem though, as there’s just enough variety to keep things fresh over the game's 15 - 20 hour runtime.
Provided you've hit level 60 when the main story wraps up, you can try out the Neverending Story, in which Katarina is replaced by a mystical dragon compani - oh wait, wrong one - the enemies actually get gradually tougher, whilst you remain at the same level and Katarina remains by your side.
Level 57 characters will be able to take on Scenario mode, whereby you select a difficulty and modifiers before tackling one of six maps, each with specific goals. PvP multiplayer opens up at level 58, but we were unable to find a match. The additional modes we were able to tangle with definitely added an element of fun, as well as longevity and replayability.
That said, the title has its issues that might somewhat put you off coming back for more. Long load times will dissuade you from returning to your lair mid-mission, it's much easier to give all of your unused items to Katarina and send her away to sell them for you. You'll also soon outgrow the gear your captains obtain from missions, making it even less likely you’ll check in with the folks back home.
Overall, it works well as a continuation of the Van Helsing story, but doesn’t quite feel like a fully realised sequel. A few irritations prevent this solid game from reaching greatness.
Sequel to Stoic’s Kickstarted predecessor, The Banner Saga 2 picks up exactly where the original left off. Whilst that means those up to snuff on their lore will settle back in nicely, newcomers - of which there will be many, as the game’s gratis for Xbox Live Gold members this month - will likely feel lost at the hands of the epic Scandinavian fantasy.
As was the case last time, chapters alternate between protagonists to tell one intertwined story from multiple perspectives. Whilst it’s clear the mercenary offshoot are the ‘secondary’ group, their narrative arc is handled superbly. Characters are lovable - in that roguish way, of course - there’s a tangible sense of mystery, and it’s refreshingly fun to make uncouth decisions. More games should offer this freedom to justifiably play at both ends of the spectrum, turning play styles on their head periodically.
Whichever side of the coin you fall on, turn-based combat is integral (though naturally for different reasons). The grid-based system returns, largely unaltered to that which we’ve previously covered in depth. New additions include battlefield obstacles that can be used as cover, or destroyed to prevent opponents from taking advantage, whilst the new centaur-like Horseborn race and a range of new classes provide additional abilities that open further avenues of strategy.
Switching out party members is a more attractive prospect this time around, as they’re recruited at a more appropriate level, which accommodates accruing a body count in order to be eligible to level up. You’ll need to spend Renown in order to actually claim a level, which can now be earnt by partaking in entertaining and educational training challenges that’ll help you develop advanced tactics.
The Banner Saga 2, much like the first, is an enthralling story full of difficult decisions you’ll take great pause to consider.
These tweaks, in addition to seamlessly integrating the previously somewhat tedious War mechanic, refine what was already a strong foundation, whilst taking no bold new steps. A sentiment that really applies to all aspects of the game as a whole.
Austin Wintory reprises his composing role on the soundtrack, which is stellar, as his work tends to be, also complementing the gorgeous, hand-drawn visuals. Most interactions remain text-based, whilst select voiced and animated segments punctuate significant moments with clout. It does beg for that final injection of production value in order to have voice over and full cutscenes persist throughout, dragging the nostalgic Choose Your Own Adventure into this century like never before.
It’s in the human struggles that The Banner Saga 2 becomes a digital page-turner.
A few technical areas could’ve done with seeing more of the budget, too. We suffered a good number of crashes, got stuck in menus, and spotted typos. Furthermore, we were able to kill an enemy that we shouldn't have been; the ensuing scene made no sense with them lay dead on the floor, the next even less so when they were alive and well.
These issues did little to dispel our desire to plough on, which unfortunately brought us to an unsatisfactory conclusion. It’ll undoubtedly bring us back for the sequel, but until then, the cliffhanger leaves a little too much unanswered. There’s at least plenty of replayability to keep you caravanning in the meantime.
The Banner Saga 2, much like the first, is an enthralling story full of difficult decisions you’ll take great pause to consider. Beyond its central narrative, the combat is of rewarding tactical depth, whilst the package is a visual and aural treat. It’s just a shame a few select issues hold the game back from being all it could be - here’s hoping the saga’s continuation can capitalise.