Spiritual successor to the classic Wonder Boy games, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a strikingly gorgeous, achingly nostalgic adventure that gets better and better the more you play.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a strikingly gorgeous, achingly nostalgic adventure that gets better and better the more you play.
Some items come with associated abilities - like boots that enable a double jump manoeuvre - often granting access to new areas, or at the very least previously inaccessible nooks within explored locales. Monster World is pretty huge, so the detailed, screen-by-screen map that’s awash with hints pointing towards as-yet-undiscovered secrets is a real boon for completionists.
Fortunately, the game’s setting is as varied as it is vast, encompassing idyllic, bustling hub towns through dark, labyrinthine sewers. Not just visually diverse, areas also require different tactics to traverse, making each feel doubly distinct and effectively staving off any potential fatigue resulting from what’s, ultimately, quite a familiar overarching structure.
In basest terms, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is another retro platformer, but, given time, it blossoms into something altogether more complex and enthralling. The fact that the folks at FDG Entertainment and The Game Atelier managed to pull that off while remaining staunchly true to their ‘80s inspiration, Wonder Boy, results in a masterfully-executed game that fans of retro platformers and modern metroidvanias alike will adore.
Does Fallout need NPCs to work? That’s the question we’ve been pondering almost the entire time we’ve been thinking about this review. The short answer is, as always, the cop-out answer, which is - erm, probably not?
This Fallout adventure is designed with friends in mind, up to 23 others at a time in fact, as you share your instance of West Virginia with fellow survivors getting busy living. Teaming up works as you’d expect, though finding other players isn’t necessarily an easy task with so much real estate to roam, and even the invites only gingerly pop up in the corner instead of really pushing the co-op experience.
For those wanting to be more traditional lone wolves this is somewhat of a godsend, but it gives an indication as to Bethesda's odd approach to playing together. Teaming up with friends to build a ridiculous base is plenty of fun by itself, but even more so is picking a point on the map and just going there, collecting the materials required to build and bringing the gameplay loop full circle along the way.
There’s PvP as well, unlocked at level 5 along with the hassle-free pacifist mode, but so far most players have largely been behaving themselves (perhaps everyone’s focused on levelling?) and there's little to actively encourage player encounters this early in the game's life.
76’s story relies heavily on your patience (which will certainly be tested in a multiplayer environment) for discovering and engaging with holotapes and written logs, as there aren’t any human AI characters to bump into and have deliver exposition through conversations. At first you feel a glimmer of hope that one or two of the quests might end up with you, somehow, coming to the rescue of a relieved NPC, but alas, everything seems to end in death. Death, it seems, never changes…
Building and crafting makes a return in a big way, as opposed to the somewhat take-it-or-leave-it approach of Fallout 4, in that you now have a mobile workbench known as the C.A.M.P. With it, you can construct all manner of things, once you’ve discovered the relevant plans, of course, which have been absent-mindedly left strewn across the vast, open wasteland.
No longer limited to specific settlements, you can lug your C.A.M.P. across the map (which is now four times larger) and place it anywhere not too close to a named location. Honestly though, you probably wouldn’t want to anyway, as you’d forever be pestered by respawning enemies.
While there isn’t the same throughline narrative returning players might expect, there are still main quests which take you on a gradual tour of the sizeable map, as well as side quests which pop up as you might expect, but new to Fallout are more MMO-style daily and event missions, the latter of which generally involve clearing out or protecting specific locations, and can trigger very easily if you wander even close to the marker.
Fortunately, there’s fast travel to help you get around with relative ease, however, this brings us to one of the most significant and potentially deal-breaking areas of the game - bugs.
V.A.T.S. is a little different too... With no slow-motion at all there's a tendency for percentages to fluctuate widely and that led us, ultimately, to dispense with it altogether.
There’s no getting around it: Bethesda games have a reputation for… not performing to the best technical standard. Of course, huge open world games are particularly susceptible to bugs, and when you add multiplayer and base building into the mix, Bethesda certainly haven’t made it easy on themselves.
That being said, Fallout 76 has consistently thrown up more bugs than any other release we’ve experienced in 2018. One particularly nasty error repeatedly caused the console (an Xbox One X) to shut itself down entirely to protect it from overheating. Firstly, the console wasn’t at risk of overheating - ventilation was fine and the device wasn’t hot to the touch as you’d expect if that was a serious risk. Secondly, there’s almost no way to avoid the frightening issue creeping up on you, but particularly if you try to fast travel there’s a high chance of having to suffer through a hard restart.
Needless to say there are fixes coming, and the other, more visible reported bugs - like enemies getting stuck in place and walking at 45-degree angles, or event quests inexplicably failing - will likely be dealt with, but as a customer paying a substantial number of bottle caps to pick the game up, the reality is severely below standard.
Perhaps Bethesda didn’t realise the B.E.T.A. (boy, do they love their acronyms) would throw up as many issues as it did, but, for a game of its standing, the stability should really be a lot better.
To address the big question then, does Fallout really need NPCs? It definitely depends on the game you’re looking for. If you imagine this game as a Conan Exiles or Minecraft survival experience then it might exceed expectations, but if you go in looking for Bethesda-does-Destiny then it could go the other way.
While NPCs aren’t essential to make it feel like a Fallout game (76 does still feel very Fallout), there’s really no specific reason - putting Bethesda’s stance on it emphasising player interaction aside - that there shouldn’t be anyone around, particularly when compared to previous games. To implement a blanket ban seemingly on principle makes the world feel a little more empty and locations a little less exciting; just the odd bit of characterisation here and there (besides identical robots) would have made all the difference.
It may get better in time, but right now it’s hard to fully recommend Fallout 76 for anyone other than die-hard series fans that are hungry for more.
Sega spawned many a classic during their Dreamcast-era days, but have struggled to stay as relevant in the ensuing years. The original Valkyria Chronicles appealed because of its gorgeous looks and Dreamcastian demeanour, but we never quite got round to it, so came to this latest edition with some excitement. Let’s cast nostalgia aside though, and answer one of life’s truly great questions: is it any good?
Getting your tactics right and correctly reading the terrain will ultimately decide whether you prosper or fall.
So, the characters are amusing, but how does the dang thing actually play? To boil it down to its essence, each slobberknocker in Valk 4 sees you moving between a top-down map screen from which you issue commands (position/deploy units, request reinforcements, etc.) and the gloriously animated violence of the third-person running and gunning. We’ve played quite a few similar attempts at this mix, but none come close to the perfect blend achieved here.
The sheer variety of choices on offer is astounding, really shaping how you tackle a particular situation or foe. Do you load up on the bazooka-wielding Lancers to take out tanks? Should you employ many-a-sniper to sneak around and take out the enemy crumb by crumb? Perhaps the protective nature of Shocktroopers is more to your taste? Whichever way you decide to go, you’re bound to have fun, learn from your mistakes, and ultimately realise the potential of classes that originally seemed one dimensional (man, the engineers and grenadiers come in handy).
Vehicular combat also features prominently in Valk 4, with regular use of Claude’s tank, The Hafen, at your disposal, alongside the incredibly handy APC, which allows you to transport soldiers across the battlefield. Whether it be vehicles or infantry, getting your tactics right and correctly reading the terrain will ultimately decide whether you prosper or fall.
Much like the original Valk, version 4 boasts the same command points and action points gameplay system. Command points show you how many actions you can make per turn, whereas action points are relative to each individual unit (later on you can buddy-up groups to your sergeants for extra fun). You can only move/shoot freely until that unit’s meter runs dry, with certain units capable of moving faster/farther, adding extra tactical depth. Using your CP and AP wisely is vital to dominating the blasted Imperial Army.
Valk 4 also offers up a buffet of extras, including levelling up character classes, weapon creation, tank/APC improvements, and, best of all, squad building, which functions exactly as you’d imagine while opening up extra cutscenes and fights. All of the above add to the rich expanse of customisation available to the player, really helping to suck you into the story and gameplay on the whole.
Gawping at Valk 4 is simply sublime, too, amigos. The gorgeous watercolour style evokes a lost storybook feel, adding emotional depth to the characters and the horrors of war. It’s not just the perfectly animated and drawn characters and sets, but the tea-stained map and comic book bright text of moving foes in the command segments, all working in unison to add that extra layer of visual polish and personality.
We’re not finished with the positives yet, as you can also add the game’s audio into the mix (WHAT. A. PUN). Sweeping, swooping strings and stupendous orchestration follow Squad-E’s ups and downs perfectly, whilst the voice acting is charmingly corny.
As much as we’ve enjoyed Valk 4, we’d be fool not to point out a couple of its flaws. The many, many, MANY cutscenes can leave you feeling foie-gras’d (you bet your rectum that’s a verb), as it often feels like you’re never going to get into an actual battle. It doesn’t help that voiceovers move too slowly to keep up with the subtitles, seeing us jam the A button on the reg in order to speed through another scene of Claude feeling emo about his weakling past (Scaredy Claude is his nickname, in spite of being in charge). There’s also no getting away from the fact that a Japanese-centric third-person strategy RPG is just an insy bit niche…
Despite those minor negatives, we came away thoroughly entertained by Valkyria Chronicles 4. Its tactics and combat are fun; the characters and story sway between cliche, humourous and melancholy; and the audio-visual presentation is outstanding. We’ve been blessed with some cracking games already this year, but personally, this goes straight to number one for little-old-me. A Dreamcastian delight: thanks Sega.
Upstart developer 3rd Eye Studios have an incredible pedigree, its staff owning credits on a long list of classic films and games, so it should come as no surprise that Downward Spiral: Horus Station effectively channels sci-fi cinema - specifically the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris - whilst also crafting a mechanically engaging interactive thriller.
Downward Spiral: Horus Station effectively channels sci-fi cinema, whilst also crafting a mechanically engaging interactive thriller.
The entire game takes place in zero gravity, which, to allay your immediate fears, isn’t the least bit nauseating in VR. It does take a bit of getting used to, but you always retain the same upright orientation and, as such, you’re never subject to that hopeless feeling of not knowing where’s up and what’s down. Once you’ve gotten to grips with pushing off of scenery to float around, you’ll acquire a grappling hook - which has a smooth, gradual reel to keep things comfortable - and a gun that’ll boost you onwards by expelling a charged shot of hot air.
Now that you’ve properly wrapped your brain around the revised laws of physics, it shouldn’t be long before you learn to string these initially disparate tools together into one seamless combo. There’s almost a balletic element of performance to it, which, had Marvel’s Spider-Man not just launched, we’d have said made it the best movement system we’ve seen for a while.
In similar fashion, the gunplay (toolplay?) takes a little while to really flourish, but as a steady stream of new toys come to comprise a complete arsenal, you’re actively encouraged to swap them in and out to counter the introduction of bigger and badder enemy types. We’d definitely recommend leaving the combat feature turned on, especially considering you don’t lose progress when you die.
Having a few battle scars won’t go amiss if you’re looking to play multiplayer, either. The campaign can be played in co-op, but if you want to venture into the PvP Deathmatch and/or PvE Horde modes, you’ll have to give up your pacifist ways. You’ll also very likely have to bring friends, as finding success with the barren matchmaking is unlikely.
Bar a few jarring frame drops, which are admittedly a cardinal sin in VR, playing Downward Spiral with a headset and a pair of Move controllers is a pretty great experience. That’s a big caveat for those without the proper equipment, however, as it’s also playable on a television and with the DualShock 4. Should you be required to play the game in one of those ways, it‘s an immediate no go.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of having explored Horus Station both ways, but, by comparison to VR, it’s incredibly drab to play on a flat screen. While that’s inherent to a degree, having lost a dimension in the transition, also losing the intuitive and tactile motion controls is a final nail in the coffin. Downward Spiral is a game quite literally designed around reaching out and pulling yourself into its world, which makes a stand-in button press both cumbersome and unsatisfying. It also negates the scope for creating memorable little asides, like instinctively grabbing a dart and launching it at a nearby board, only to find it hanging at the exact point you let it go - duh!
It’s swell having options and all, though when they harm the experience for anybody playing in the optimal fashion, it’s questionable as to whether they’re justified. The game doesn’t auto-detect when it should boot in VR mode, which means you’ll need to use a DualShock to activate it from the main menu, as Move inputs aren’t tracked in TV mode; we can easily live with that minor inconvenience, but a not-insignificant annoyance stems directly from it. If that standard controller is then disconnected, the game will pause and throw an error up, even when you’re actively using the Move controllers instead, meaning you’ll need to remove yourself from the atmosphere Downward Spiral so painstakingly works to preserve in order to reconnect a pad you aren’t even using at regular intervals.
Hopefully that’s something that can be hotfixed, as, when equipped with the right kit, we otherwise thoroughly enjoyed floating around the dark and mysterious halls of Horus Station. Unique movement, satisfying tools and an enthralling location sadly aren’t enough to salvage the experience for anyone without the PlayStation Move controllers and VR headset that are compulsory to a good time.
Themed as a classic, old-timey adventure serial - complete with spiffingly British narrator and an affinity for alliteration (which can be toned down if the gusto gets your guts, though I’d advise averting your eyes if that’s the case) - Strange Brigade’s arcade action compiles and injects existing industry ideas with a persistent panache, shaking feelings of familiarity and raising a rip-roaring ride through 1930s Egypt.
Strange Brigade’s arcade action compiles and injects existing industry ideas with a persistent panache, shaking feelings of familiarity and raising a rip-roaring ride.
Though rifles are still very much present, here a more likely choice of primary weapon would be a shotgun or submachine gun, which can then be complemented by your choice of secondary firearm and thrown explosive. As you amass armfuls of gold throughout the course of any given level, you’ll also be able to roll the dice on a powerful prototype weapon - like an explosive crossbow or punch-packing blunderbuss - anonymously nestled within identifiable crates. These beefcakes have a limited ammo supply to counteract their immense strength, but perhaps more devastating are ultimate character abilities.
Unleashed after charging a magical amulet with the souls of defeated dastards, each brigadier has three additional bespoke abilities to unlock by collecting sets of relics generally hidden away within puzzle-gated nooks. These hidey-holes can also contain gems which slot into weapons to imbue them with passive buffs, allowing for easier crowd control and with that more efficient use of the booby traps that litter each uncharted environment.
Once you’ve familiarised yourself with the ins and outs of all the singular systems governing combat in Strange Brigade, there’s a real art to stringing everything together into one maintained and satisfying stream of destruction.
When you aren’t busy wreaking havoc, you’ll be exploring a range of lush, forgotten locales that are gorgeously vivid on Xbox One X. They’re surprisingly sprawling, often featuring multiple routes to your destination, all while the sounds of moving mechanisms and twinkling treasures beckon you to double back and scour every surface in search of secrets. The classic environmental enigmas you’ll uncover offer up tangible rewards and ensure that there’s reason to revisit the nine lengthy campaign missions in order to deeper delve their depths.
That said, before diving back into the campaign you’ll probably want to try your hand at the pair of accompanying modes in Score Attack and Horde. The former sees you undertake solo excursions on linear, re-purposed campaign sections whilst aiming to combo kills and satisfy a list of secondary challenges like beating par times and not taking damage. Think Mercenaries mode from more recent instalments of Resident Evil, but with greater consistency between runs to allow for really nailing the perfect strategy down.
Once you’ve familiarised yourself with the the singular systems governing combat, there’s a real art to stringing them together into one maintained stream of destruction.
Horde is almost what it says on the tin, only sharing more in common with Call of Duty’s fan favourite Zombies mode than Epic’s eponymous Gears of War 2 trendsetter. You’ll weather an insane undead onslaught across four exclusive maps that expand as waves progress, and also by your own hand, should you choose to spend gold on accessing new areas and their guaranteed goodies. Doing so isn’t exactly the no-brainer it sounds, as you’ll also need to piecemeal purchase a loadout having started with just a solemn sidearm.
This makes Horde a great place to experiment with new loadouts, which, coupled with a moving base of operations to prevent you from getting too comfortable in any one location, stops things growing stale as you’d otherwise be relying on the same old strategies across a whopping 75 total waves. That’s no small undertaking, so you can thankfully step away at any point and then pick back up from right around where you left off.
Weighing in at a reduced asking price, Strange Brigade feels anything but budget and features enough content that you might call it a steal. That’s certainly a relief, as outwardly it was easy to speculate that the Season Pass and its promise of new levels, characters and more might be required in compiling a complete package.
Strange Brigade bears its inspirations for all to see, but while many of the influential games and modes we’ve mentioned are overdone nowadays, Rebellion commit to their goofy theme with such enthusiasm that they’ve captured a formative time in cinema not previously brought to the medium with such verve. This unique sense of fun will make you nostalgic for a period you probably didn’t see, and by a long shot, while the copious conundrums make it an action co-op caper not quite like any other.
The final stretch of the journey to bring Inquisitor - Martyr to consoles was fraught with pitfalls, as the Xbox One and PS4 versions suffered two consecutive last minute delays said to have seen developer NeocoreGames (The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II) enduring 90-hour work weeks in a desperate effort to claw back time. While that definitely isn’t healthy, it did make the seemingly impossible possible, as now, still within the scheduled summer release window, console players are receiving a build that’s pretty much on-par with the PC version.
As your chosen Inquisitor, you’ll serve your leader by boarding the eponymous fortress-monastery, Martyr, to purge it of Chaos corruption.
It’s fortunate that the sides are equally as satisfying as the main, because those looking to engage in co-op play will be disappointed to learn that story missions are entirely off limits. There’s even more bad news for local parties, as they’re limited to two player sessions in which the guest is required to choose a pre-made character that doesn’t retain any progress. You also can’t play the game at all if you’re offline, regardless of whether you’re engaging with any online features or not. At least the frame rate doesn’t really suffer, even when opting to bump the resolution from 1080p to 1440p, but matchmaking/inviting some online friends is preferable when up to four players can converge as their own unique character builds and gain individualised loot and progression.
On the topic of multiplayer, there’s also a fairly sparse and unremarkable PvP offering in which you can hone your skills in 1v1 or 2v2 bouts for objective control.
That said, polishing your gory combat prowess does come recommended, as the higher you climb on the five-rung difficulty ladder the greater the rewards you’ll reap for mission success. Making efficient use of cover, destructible environments, your loadout and abilities - whilst also knowing how best to counter different enemy races and the sometimes overzealous auto-aim - is key to earning more Glory and with that weekly rewards.
Additionally, through standard gameplay you’ll accrue conventional space bucks, dubbed Credits, which are used to purchase gear and services, as well as the more exotic Fate, a valuable resource which is used to fund research projects, launch those custom missions we mentioned earlier, and, reportedly, even gain access to some otherwise premium DLC in the future.
With years of storytelling already under the tabletop franchise’s belt, the lore can be intimidating for newcomers, especially when it comes to the gobbledegook lexicon.
You’ll also work towards achieving Heroic Deeds - persistent challenges that, upon completion, can open up relevant skill trees in the game’s veritable skill forest - and, should you have joined/created one, collective assignments for your online Cabal (communities of like minded players). There are evidently loads of systems to manage, but once you’ve gotten your head around everything they serve as the dangling carrot that ensures you’re never far from your next reward. This constant affirmation cycle and, more specifically, the feeling of growth and progression that goes with it, will see Inquisitor - Martyr quickly sink its claws into loot fiends, especially since it’s so easy to adopt a “one more mission” mentality thanks to their short length.
How dedicated you are to perpetually tweaking stats on a micro scale is ultimately what’ll decide whether this is a game for you. ARPG fans will find it to be classic, satisfying stuff - especially if they’re keen on the Warhammer 40K connection - but newcomers may well find it to be bloated and lacking both the satisfying story and audiovisual flair to keep them around long enough to get to grips with the in-depth systems serving as the driving force in their place.
Having had the distinct pleasure of exclusively revealing the first glimpse of Warhammer: Vermintide 2 gameplay last October, the long wait for the first-person-shooter-come-brawler to arrive on console has been especially gruelling. Now that we’ve gotten our hands on it: was it worth the wait?
You’ll need to juggle priority targets and manage choke points as tidal waves of fetid flesh rage your way.
The level of customisation on offer gets altogether extensive when you also account for Vermintide 2’s loot and crafting systems. Taal’s Horn Keep serves as a sizeable hub area from which to launch your choice of the thirteen main missions, throughout which you can work towards satisfying daily challenges and career quests; completing these tasks awards the game’s strictly non-premium loot boxes, which rain a random array of weapons and gear that can be equipped to improve applicable characters, or, if you unbox a stinker, salvaged into materials used to craft new items and upgrades.
Refreshing a loadout can significantly impact how any given character plays, overhauling attributes and movesets, perhaps not always to your exact liking, but never compromising the viscerally satisfying core combat mechanics. Melee skirmishes can feel either hefty or agile, depending on your chosen armament, though always brutal as you gorily pop heads and lop limbs with each light or (particularly satisfying) charged heavy swing.
While mixing it up at close range you’ll need to be mindful to dodge and block incoming attacks from big bads, though opting for a character with more of a ranged combat style should keep you relatively out of harm's way to begin with. While letting loose with arrows, fireballs, bolts and bullets is good fun in itself, it’s almost a shame to snub one of the best first-person brawling systems around in favour of comparatively bog-standard blasting.
Still, variety is the spice of life, so mixing up your choice of hero whilst tackling repeat playthroughs of Vermintide 2’s semi-open levels - which accommodate multiple paths towards their culminating set-piece encounters, also randomising enemy and item spawns along the way - ensures things remain engaging. Throw in the lure of greater rewards when progressing to higher difficulty levels, as well as unobtrusive storytelling that allows players to easily consume their desired dose of action, and you have a package that’ll keep you busy for a good length of time.
Vermintide 2 is more in-depth than its peers in many ways, but retains the central simplicity that makes this brand of onslaught adventure so frantic and exciting. Doing so at native 4K resolution on Xbox One X, while mostly maintaining a solid frame rate, at no additional cost to Game Pass subscribers, makes for an experience that you (and preferably some friends) shouldn’t hesitate to get stuck into.
A building just fell on me. Before the likes of Battlefield and its 'levolution’ system came along, this 2009 Red Faction reboot and it's Geo Mod 2.0 technology was producing some of the most impressive environmental destruction to date.
What’s really under your control is the order in which you handle different zones, now a staple of any given Ubisoft open world title, to name but one frequent culprit. Here there's no handy radio tower to reveal the map though, so you'll need to roam the map the old fashioned way to discover all the EDF buildings you need to take down, tactically or by brute force.
There's something to be said for knocking the difficulty down to casual and just playing around without worrying too much about your health, but death isn’t too big of a hurdle, so (accidentally) blowing yourself up amidst the chaos isn't as bad as you might initially think. Not to mention that the AI is still extremely zealous, particularly when you're on foot, to the extent that once you have more than two enemy vehicles in pursuit it's basically a lost cause anyway.
As you tear Mars apart one smoke-less smoke stack at a time, you'll collect scrap metal which can be used to unlock and upgrade tools and abilities. It's all fairly rudimentary, but lets you boost things like the number of explosive charges you can place at once, or the number of enemies the fork-lightning-based arc welder will jump between.
Multiplayer was always a shining light for the original, seeing you don a plethora of combat and skill-enhancing backpacks that allow you to crash through walls, hover or beef up firepower for a short time. These variables made even a straight deathmatch, appropriately known as Anarchy, into a chaotic and exciting affair. In this Re-Mars-ter (we’re still undecided on whether the person that came up with that should be sacked or given a pay rise), the online community is fledgling and the early signs relatively encouraging, but you'll be left wanting if you envision yourself drilling down specific game types and levels.
While you’ll have fun regardless, especially since maps are often far more varied and interesting than the single player landscape, gameplay does show its age a bit. Elements are missing that were common even at the time, like iron sights and combat rolls, but after not too long it's fairly easy to adjust.
With that said, elements like mechs to pilot in true Aliens fashion and Wrecking Crew mode, which is a real playground for your destructive skills, do help to modernise the package a bit.
Lighting systems and draw distances (at least on the Xbox One X) showing a marked improvement over the original.
Despite gleefully ploughing through the story the first time around and it raising a nostalgic smile again in 2018, it's difficult to say revisiting Guerilla is essential. In the end then, it’s a good-not-great experience, as only a few bundled DLC missions fill out the package besides the expected suite of technical improvements.
On that front, the game holds up quite well, with the lighting systems and draw distances (at least on Xbox One X) showing a marked improvement over the original. Whether it's enough to warrant a return trip to Mars depends on how much you enjoy blowing things up, especially with a brand new Just Cause (or even, dare we say, Crackdown 3) on the horizon.
Red Faction is a franchise with a lot of potential, in both of its incarnations, which was sadly squandered by a lacklustre sequel (Armageddon) that failed to capitalise on what made this installment so good. Perhaps if the re-release does well for itself we’ll finally get the sequel it deserves.
The latest entry in the rapidly expanding Focus Home Interactive stable, Vampyr is brought to life by sleeper development studio DONTNOD Entertainment (Life is Strange, Remember Me). An ambitious action RPG, Vampyr casts players as Dr. Jonathan Reid and unleashes them on an occult interpretation of 1918 London, framed by relevant Victorian themes in class, disease, race and religion.
Every single citizen you encounter has a personality, relationships and community standing within their borough.
Furthermore, should your moral compass be broken, you aren’t entirely off the hook. Mounting homicide cases may lead people to flee, stores to increase their prices due to the dangers of operation, or, if you’re a real glutton, even plunge a district into irreparable chaos and eradicate its population. That’ll lock you out of any content tied to the unfortunates at hand and also prevent you from rearing any more meat in the area, so it’s best to use your skills as a medical practitioner to craft cures from looted gubbins and subsequently use ‘em to keep the health of a borough at an even keel.
When Shadow of Mordor and later Shadow of War were lauded for their ‘revolutionary’ Nemesis Systems, which supposedly served to build meaningful rivalries, we wondered if we might’ve missed something. The community systems within Vampyr don’t fall similarly flat, realising the potential in attaching a player to what would otherwise be secondary NPCs by making every exchange consequential on multiple levels.
Exploring the quasi open world, rich with environmental detail and written lore as it is, can be as fruitful as conversing in the pursuit of useful information. You’re often kept to a relatively linear path by unpickable locks that gate progress, which isn’t an inherent issue, but is somewhat galling when you consider Jonathan has the ability to teleport and could feasibly get anywhere, but arbitrarily can’t outside of designated contextual prompts. Regardless, streets and interiors alike are a dark and moody treat to turn over for crafting components, used to upgrade weapons and produce injectable buffs that aid in violent confrontations with humans, vampires and additional beasties.
As an immortal, Dr. Reid eats bullets for breakfast, but the likes of fire and holy symbols will quickly turn the tides. Each enemy has their own unique strengths and weaknesses, which, when coupled with a range of classes, create a varied opposition that present challenge in numbers. They’ll work in synergy to bring you down, necessitating knowledge of their respective attack patterns and target hierarchy.
The community systems within Vampyr attach players to what would otherwise be secondary NPCs, making every exchange consequential on multiple levels.
Bouts are fast paced and scrappy, very similar to Bloodborne both visually and mechanically, seeing you lock-on to a single target before launching attacks and dodges at the cost of stamina. Firearms can be equipped to the off-hand when using a one-handed weapon and unloaded without need to manually aim, or, alternatively, a secondary off-hand melee weapon can be used to inflict negative status effects, like a stun that presents feeding opportunities.
This is where the more unique aspects of combat come into play, as you’ll periodically want to clamp your jaws around someone’s neck to keep your blood gauge topped up - blood being required to perform a range of lesser and ultimate abilities that range from simply healing yourself to boiling an opponent’s blood. There’s really a lot at your disposal, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that combat here isn’t nearly as polished as its clear inspiration, lacking the same engaging challenge thanks to some simple exploits.
Animations can also come off as a little stiff, pulling you out of the moment in the midst of an otherwise satisfying combo, but even on the odd occasion that Vampyr underwhelms visually it continues to impresses aurally. Battlecries are particularly guttural, while theatrical voiceovers commit to the patchy script with convincing verve, all complemented by the bellowing chelos and screeching violins of an excellent - and also decidedly Bloodborne-esque - ambient soundtrack.
Whilst Vampyr can feel overly familiar in certain areas, it borrows from the top and at its core holds a unique and intelligent social framework that intertwines engaging themes and characters to birth an enthralling, meaningfully manipulable narrative. It mixes up the conventional RPG structure whilst maintaining a nice balance between management, conversation, combat and exploration to retain the same moreish X factor that made so many fall in love with the genre to begin with. If you can take the rough with the smooth, you’ll find a lot to love in what’s easily DONTNOD Entertainment’s best game yet.
Valentina, Beta, Alexxis, Jay… they're dead. They're all dead. While we mourn their passing, their permadeaths serve as an example of one of the greatest strengths of State of Decay 2.
As a newcomer to the series, it turns out that the complete breakdown of society can be pretty brutal.
Later, when your community swells and you gain enough influence (the game’s de facto currency), you can claim locations ranging from small, resource gathering outposts, to electricity generating power stations and even makeshift forts constructed from shipping containers. Each new locale has its own advantages and how you manage your growing empire, customising locations further with mods and upgrades, is up to you.
That said, it’s advisable that you take council from your community as morale upkeep is a constant battle in such dire circumstances, as one might expect. Sacrificing a building slot to set up a garden or fashion a lounge (in which you can install an original Xbox) can work wonders in keeping everyone cheery.
As time goes on, your survivors will improve their skills based on what actions they perform. While the game wants you to feel you're developing fleshed out characters in a manner akin to the likes of Skyrim, the reality is that skills are fairly limited, and you'll just want to make sure most of your population go for a run once in a while to boost their stamina, or they'll quickly become overwhelmed in a bout of fisticuffs.
What is unique to SoD2, and arguably the main motivator in investing you in its characters, are a collection of 100+ more mundane traits such as “Car crash survivor”, “Cat lover” and “Flatulent”, all of which have passive effects. When each survivor gains enough standing in the community their individual skill is unlocked, such as “Yoga instructor”, offering an amusing look at their pre-apocalypse lives. While these abilities sadly don't unlock a suite of oddly juxtaposed mini-games, they do offer depth at fairly low effort.
There's another side to this of course, in that not everyone gets on, so they can start fights in your absence or generally become disgruntled. If it comes to it, you might have to take the difficult decision to exile them for the greater good, though generally they do go quietly.
The same is true of the different AI factions, known as enclaves, which can get cheesed off if you repeatedly ignore their requests for help or side with other enclaves over them in disputes, potentially leading them to become hostile and spoil for a fight.
All of these elements comes together in a very compelling simulation, with the downsides to the experience so far (much of which lacked the minor polish brought by the game's hefty 6GB day one patch) being technical.
Zombies can drop in from about 20ft in the air as you approach, using vehicles places your life in the game’s hands as they can randomly flip out or explode, and the AI often behaves unpredictably, to the extent that more than once our fellow community members have perished in relatively mild peril.
Using vehicles was something we hardly dabbled in throughout the game's opening hours, assuming them to be too much of a zombie magnet, but in reality to reap the full rewards when scavenging around the map - in particular valuable resources like food or medicine - their boot/trunk space is quite essential. Casually opening a car door to obliterate a squishy zombie as you pass them at speed also never ceases to be messily fun...
Everything comes together in a compelling simulation, with the downsides to the experience so far being technical.
Another significant drawback is the lack of direction on hand for new players; a handful of prompts keep recurring, but seemingly there's little to lead you into new experiences as you’re drawn deeper into the game. On top of this, plenty of basic options like trading items between you and a follower out in the field are far from a simple button press away, taking us back to pre-Resident Evil 5 levels of AI buddy management.
Same applies in co-op, where up to three guests can venture into the host’s world and loot their own unique supplies to take back home with them, but should you want to swap items amongst one another it’s a cumbersome case of using menus to drop them on the ground before rifling through piles of stuff and picking up the relevant drops. There’s also a limiting tether that stops players from straying too far apart, but if you’re committed to watching each other’s backs that shouldn’t be too big of an issue.
Setting a few more minor bugs aside, the overall experience is stable, no doubt aided by the graphical sacrifices that see SoD2 appear visually underwhelming even with the added oomph of the Xbox One X at its disposal.
Whether SoD2 is for you depends on how you attribute value based on look and feel versus raw gameplay. If you favour the former, it certainly doesn't have many “wow” moments to entice you, or make for a particularly good sizzle reel, but the gameplay over time is undeniably compelling.
This post-apocalyptic world effortlessly encourages you to leave the safety of your home and explore just one more area, run over just one more zombie or pick up just one more follower, without drowning you in endless map symbols. Nor does it penalise you too much if you decide to be really heartless and ignore individuals’ needs (*cough* Sam *cough*), resulting in an unparalleled sense of freedom that allows you to craft your own narrative without completely abandoning you to your own devices in the process.
In all, at its basic price point, the game is well worth picking it up, and if you nab it as part of a Game Pass subscription you'll likely find even better value for money. With different areas to settle, origin stories to experience, and enclaves and survivors to encounter, there's plenty to keep you busy until the previously outlined DLC expansions arrive, but, for the time being, if you'll excuse us, we have a wind power station to claim.