When a game lives and dies on its characters and story, both need to grab you and pull you into its world. In As Dusk Falls, the adventure's first action beat is a group of brothers breaking into a house, and straight away you're challenged by the near impossible – to remember a single four-digit code.
So who are the characters? First up is Zoe, who, rather than swimming at the pool, has taken to holding her breath underwater for as long as possible.
After meeting her, complete with a chilling monologue, we immediately jump back to 1998, where Zoe is now just a youngster, on a road trip across Arizona with family, for her dad Vince's new job.
The other main protagonist is Jay, one of those brothers doing a bit of breaking and entering. You can tell from the get-go his heart isn't really in it, and even though he's arguably the character that gets the most play, we found it the most difficult to sympathise or side with him.
Multiplayer can lead to some interesting conversations, even creating deadlocks in decisions you can break by overriding the other players' choices...
The gameplay involves timed dialogue options and simple quick time events, which can be taken on solo or by up to eight people, either locally, online or both, even joining in with their smartphone. There's even a streamer mode to open the decision-making to an audience.
Multiplayer can lead to some interesting conversations, even creating deadlocks in decisions you can break by overriding the other players' choices, though this only comes into play at key decision-making “outcome” choices, which require all players to agree.
The music in the game combines a country road-friendly soundtrack with licensed songs, in particular a very effective use of Johnny case to accompany the drama as you close the first book. Otherwise, audio cues, force feedback and visual distortion play into the experience throughout, indicating when you need to act and when you need to sit back and take in the narrative.
The story itself is a fairly simple series of events, connected by a lot of layers of the characters. At times you can find yourself with no good option out of a situation, for example, you might be in an altercation with two other characters and need to side with one or the other, when you feel as though the character would choose neither and just leave.
Tension and suspense are racked up whenever you are forced into the aforementioned “outcome” decision points, which, fortunately, have no time limit, giving you that chance to think, or discuss, if you’re playing with others.
Depending on specific choices, you could find entire threads are closed off to you for the remainder of the game, which is why it feels sensible the team have only put together two books here to begin with, rather than three, which might feel like a more natural fit, as they only have to work out two sprawling, interconnected stories rather than three.
It does leave questions hanging though. The way book two closes clearly begs for another, leading us to conclude the success of As Dusk Falls will dictate whether something like As Dawn Rises will follow.
Structurally, how consistently you answer questions can lead to your characters’ behaviour being believable or a bit erratic. Of course, humans are imperfect and can be illogical and unpredictable, but when your choice is a single response which could end a marriage (if the post-chapter summary is anything to go by), it can feel a little arbitrary.
In the end, As Dusk Falls is a well thought-through story with some compelling moments, but exploring it with others might be what makes the game truly memorable. The performances are strong and just about avoid feeling like stereotypes, but limited options mean you can’t always make the characters act as you might in the same situation.
Given that it’s available day one on Game Pass, you’d be silly not to give this a try – especially since it will run just fine on Xbox One as well – and you’re looking at a fairly self-containing six-hour experience, with the potential for repeat plays to discover just how differently things might have gone.
For some, it might be the perfect first page to explore this sort of game, while for others, particularly wondering what happens next, you could be left wanting more.
Code provided by Xbox.
Every legend has a beginning, and Sega’s signature blue blur is no exception. While youngsters' first introduction to Sonic the Hedgehog may be his cinematic debut from 2020, for some of us it was the original release of the Sonic trilogy back in the 1990s where it all began.
Travelling through time takes some getting used to, since you’ll need to maintain speed for an amount of time once you’ve hit one of the Future or Past signs dotted about, but it soon becomes second nature and has you thinking about the best way to go to reach your goal.
Sonic 3: Sonic and Knuckles is, perhaps unsurprisingly, where Knuckles was originally introduced, through an expansion which at the time physically plugged into the original game, though here you can also use him or Tails as a character in any of the games in the collection.
Enemies are still cheap enough to rob you of rings even though you definitely, absolutely, positively jumped on them and they should have died...
As a result it’s the only game which incorporates his abilities – gliding and climbing – into the level design, and even gives him a slightly different path through the game, compared to playing the game as Sonic, where Knuckles is an antagonist.
Enemies are fairly straightforward, since they are theoretically innocent animals cruelly mechanised by the evil Dr Robotnik, generally minding their own business rather than actively seeking you out as you speed through the stage, but still being cheap enough to rob you of rings even though you definitely, absolutely, positively jumped on them and they should have died.
Where the gameplay takes a sharp left turn, and a different one each time, are the bonus stages. Each level has one or multiple, which, at best, grant you a lot of rings and even an emerald for your trouble, or, at worst, just abruptly leave you back where you started. While the variety is welcome, it doesn’t seem to build on the skills you build up by playing the game proper, and so just feels like a distraction a lot of the time.
In terms of the additional material available, the animated shorts from Sonic Mania make a reappearance here, and to get a glimpse of museum items like the concept art are interesting, but for such a celebratory release – coming on the heels of Sonic’s 30th birthday after all – you might expect a little more in terms of the making of the original games or other developer insights.
The highlight is the 2011 arrangements of some of the classic level themes, to varying degrees of success, though it’s a shame not to see the 30th anniversary concert performances available – it’s where the game was first announced after all.
The biggest drawback with this area is that the material is locked behind coins which, though earned in-game, each costing you five at a time, so it could be a while until you’ve managed to unlock everything. There are various, if confusing, downloadable content options to grant access to further material, but nothing to write home about.
As an introduction, Sonic Origins definitely captures the good, and bad, of this era of the franchise, and the reproduction is top quality, running well with only one game-breaking bug during our testing.
However, given this is roughly the eighth time these games have been re-released, going all the way back to the 90s in various compilations and collections, you’d be surprised if the quality was anything other than flawless on a modern system hundreds or even thousands of times more powerful.
The game experience holds up well though, and that’s what really matters at the end of the day. As an opportunity to get new players into these classics, it’s everything you’d expect, but for die-hards looking for something a little more, you could be left wanting.