As my GCSE German teacher would tell you, I’ve never been particularly blessed with languages. How is it then, that Heaven’s Vault has stuck with me from the first play - back at Rezzed in 2018 - right through until now? More importantly, has that initial promise spawned the Oscar Wilde of video games, or, much worse (but definitely funnier), Danny Dyer?
Like many games before it, Heaven’s Vault utilises an excellent conversation system that not only affects how people interact with you, but what you learn about the settings, story and lore. We’re sure many would site the Mass Effect series here, but since the Brighton branch of PTC (that’s me) has never played any of them, it feels rather more like the ghost of Shenmue. How will you behave around a particularly aggressive slave master, for example? Will you try and sympathise, or downright scold them for their line of work, thus potentially closing off a line of questioning and information? These choices even change the course of your relationship with robot sidekick Six, who bloody loves a good natter.
Discovery and decoding of an ancient language is one of the main parts of the game that we found so compelling back at Rezzed 2018, so it’s wonderful to see it fully realised in the final product. This is where a thirst for adventure really helps, too: interact with everything you can, as often Aliya will remark about inscriptions or glyphs on certain items, and it’s here where the fun begins. If an inscription is split into four parts, let’s say, you’ll be given a potential selection of words to fill in each of the blanks, based on what you’ve previously tried or discovered. This charming element of trial and error further strengthened our desire to explore.
What was all that lark about sky sailing, then? Imagine a blend of Panzer Dragoon and The Wind Waker and you’ll have a decent idea of what to expect, as you pilot the good ship Nightingale along vast rivers in the clouds, to destinations new and old, all the while having one eye out for ruins and wreckages to plunder. The tranquil mood, pastel hues and sublime strings and pianos stave off any potential frustration at the amount of time it can take to get between places in the game, but those of you without patience will be happy to hear that a fast travel option is currently being patched in.
Heaven’s Vault never fails to leave you in awe, in a way only a few games really do.
We’re not sure why you’d want to skip over absorbing more of such a resplendent and alluring game, though. From the dark outlines and subtle colours of the exquisite hand-drawn 2D characters, to the fully 3D, lush environments of the Nebula, Heaven’s Vault never fails to leave you in awe, in a way only a few games really do (here’s looking at you, Breath of the Wild). It’s largely these lavish, luxuriant locales that spur you on to visit as much of the world as possible.
There’s just so much to love about the game, honestly. Sure, it isn’t completely flawless (the lack of music in many of the cutscenes seems odd, especially considering how good the soundtrack is), but the blend of adventuring, sky sailing, story and language are pretty close to perfect. The wealth of choices mean it’s ripe for multiple replays, too, so you’re really getting your money’s worth.
Whether it’s the small touches such as story recaps every time you start a play session, or the big ones listed above, Heaven’s Vault manages to tap into that truly wondrous, almost childlike sense of discovery brought on by experiencing something for the first time. If it sounds like your speed, make sure you don’t miss out on this glorious, glorious experience.
Hot on the heels of their Crash Bandicoot reboot, Toys For Bob and Activision are back with another slice of 90’s nostalgia in the form of Spyro Reignited Trilogy, an upgraded collection of the first three titles to star the diminutive purple dragon, lovingly restored for a new generation.
There are still gems galore to hoover up across the hub worlds and their many colourful offshoots, and old hands and newcomers alike will be glad to hear that the relatively rudimentary gameplay still holds up, even if enemies - particularly bosses - do seem absurdly easy by today’s standards.
All three games feature a healthy mix of biomes, from sandy deserts and treetop villages to the obligatory water levels, but it’s the sequels, Ripto’s Rage! and Year of the Dragon, that outshine the first thanks to the addition of non-dragon NPCs which imbue worlds with extra character. Year of the Dragon even sees you take control of Sypro’s sidekicks now and then, including a jetpacking penguin with shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, which is just about as fun as it sounds.
Along with bonus levels – including our personal favourites that see you flying through obstacles and taking out enemies within a time limit – these moments help to stop monotony from creeping in as you progress through the collection. There’s also the added challenge of collecting skill points, which are acquired through completing specific tasks on certain levels, be it taking out enemies with particular attacks, reaching a hidden area or taking no damage during a boss fight.
Reuniting with Spyro provided a welcome and nostalgic distraction from modern life.
They add another layer of depth, especially for the completionists out there, but the concept art offered as a reward for their completion is a bit underwhelming. We’d have been much more motivated to hunt down all of the numerous challenges if there was a sweeter bonus up for grabs, like maybe a means to switch between the original and remastered visuals. As it is, the only throwback to the original games’ design is the option to play with the old-school soundtrack (composed by The Police drummer Stewart Copeland) enabled, which doesn’t actually sound all that different from the updated one.
Although the Reignited Trilogy may appear basic compared to many of today’s offerings - you won’t find any branching skill trees or a particularly engaging storyline here - the colourful, cheery nature of the games kept pulling us back in for more. On the whole, reuniting with Spyro provided a welcome and nostalgic distraction from modern life, reminding us of a simpler time when penny sweets and six o'clock double headers of The Simpsons were the norm.
Everyone has their own feelings about war. Whether it’s something that feels close to home or distant, it’s undoubtedly an emotional and evocative subject. Coinciding with the centenary of the end of World War 1, 11-11: Memories Retold brings a different perspective to a conflict which changed the world forever.
Gameplay is light here, with only the occasional puzzle or slightly wonky stealth section to vary the pacing, but to suddenly thrust you into some sort of shooting gallery would take away the power of what 11-11 is trying to do.
At times you also take charge of a pigeon or cat, which Harry and Kurt have picked up along their journeys respectively. This can offer a few additional gameplay twists and opportunities for unique storytelling moments, but largely they feel fairly token and don’t reach their full potential.
When you venture out into No Man’s Land as either animal, which you’ll do frequently, there’s a far lesser sense of danger considering both sides deem them to be harmless. Neither army is portrayed as right or wrong, and there’s no glorifying the situation; in fact, the soldiers themselves are more alike than any rhetoric or propaganda from the time would have you believe.
Undoubtedly the first things that’ll strike you when loading up the game is the astonishing visual style, which makes use of a technique known as ‘painterly’ to have scenes appear as if they’re being redrawn by thousands of brush strokes as you move. There’s a feeling of walking through beautiful impressionist landscapes as you explore, offering up breathtaking scenes amid the undeniable horrors of the war itself.
In less skilled hands this could have come off as a cheap Photoshop effect, but this collaboration between Aardman Digital (who, contrary to popular belief, work with more than just clay) and DigixArt creates a sublime combination of technical prowess and artistic flair. They’ve crafted a truly unique style which impressively manages to adapt to a variety of locations and climates throughout the game’s course.
While the effect does attract attention, it may prove to be an acquired taste as the industry races towards photorealism. The visual fidelity of the assets themselves, when you look past the effect, is fairly low, which can give a somewhat dated feel at times, particularly to characters in cutscenes.
It’s not too big of an issue, however, when the elements surrounding that mostly nail remaining historically accurate and respectful of true events, whilst balancing that with the sort of nonsense which makes a game a game, like successfully navigating a homemade hot air balloon over No Man’s Land at night, for example.
11-11’s soundtrack also succeeds in feeling appropriate without sounding generic, as composer Olivier Deriviere, responsible for music on titles like Alone in the Dark, Remember Me and Vampyr, uses a choir’s chorus to echo across the battlefield, creating a chilling and sombre mood.
The execution is exceptional and the end product is, quite unironically, a very memorable experience.
The strongest feeling which shines through as you play though, is pride, as every element of the game is carefully pieced together to create a tribute to those who valiantly fought and sadly lost their lives.
It’s unfortunate that the odd technical mishap occasionally creeps in to spoil the immersion, but compared to a narrative journey from, say, the Telltale stable, 11-11 more than competes with the best in the adventure genre.
If you’re looking for a history lesson, you won’t find it here. While Memories Retold uses the war as its setting, it’s more about the relationship between Harry and Kurt and how it develops over those last two years of conflict. Fortunately, the execution is exceptional and the end product is, quite unironically, a very memorable experience.
Burning Bridges, the penultimate episode in the debut season of The Council, arrives at a tumultuous time for narrative-driven adventure games. Telltale, a company synonymous with popularising the genre and its incremental release format, are in the midst of a heartbreaking majority closure that’ll see many of the studio’s ongoing projects never reach their conclusion. This has, understandably, sewn doubt amongst the community as to whether investing in episodic games ahead of their completion is a good idea. In a case of bad timing, where developer Big Bad Wolf could have lain claim to the mantle with this latest release, it instead fuels the flames with their sloppiest technical work yet.
Each outlandish revelation injects a hit of adrenaline and the result is a faster, often more engaging pacing without as many filler moments.
A replay to see what might have been may be in order, so it’s a good job that feels justified now more than ever as The Council loosens the buttons on its ruffled collar to have a little more fun. Less po-faced politics doesn’t mean that diplomacy is out of the window, however, rather that it’s now waged on an even grander and more bizarre stage than merely influencing world events.
Previously we’ve said that the series’ micro choices prove more affecting than macro-scale decisions, but here that sentiment is flipped on its head. Many character decisions are arbitrarily black and white - good or bad - and underbaked this time around, whereas choosing how best to govern humanity, through equal moral greys that hold a mirror to modern society, is perplexing.
Throw in an elaborate new location and a couple of exciting abilities that’ll help to decipher even the most secretive guests, for a cost, and it’s commendable that Big Bad Wolf aren’t afraid to mix things up a bit at this late stage. The team of former Ubisoft developers also settle on a nice middle ground when it comes to puzzle design, having historically either spoon-fed answers or left players a little in the lurch, here uniformly making them taxing whilst allowing for a degree of circumvention through sleuthing or the smart investment of effort points/use of consumables.
With an abundance of problems both old and new, Burning Bridges is an undeniably messy experience. If you’re a purely mechanics-focused gamer, there’s absolutely naught but a veiny, enraged brow in store, but, that being said, you probably don’t fall into that camp if you’ve made it this far. Anyone that can forgive the many foibles in favour of being spun an intriguing yarn should still apply; we’re certainly eager to see how things conclude when the finale (fingers crossed) launches later this year.
From the moment we were greeted by Unforeseen Incidents’ foreboding title screen, filled with flashes of lightning and lashes of shimmering rain, we suspected we were in for a treat. Being solid fans of point-and-click gameplay since first encountering the iconic Monkey Island series, we were looking forward to having our minds playfully tickled by the brand of puzzles that have you jolting awake in the middle of the night having finally deciphered them. If that sounds like a brain-bruising nightmare to you, rest assured that, in this instance, you’ll face grounded problems that are woven into a delightfully engaging narrative.
Adventure games are all about wandering around solving puzzles, but there are rather drawn-out sections here that dwell a little too long before allowing us to rekindle our love affair with the story.
It’s a credit to how good the cutscenes, dialogue and storytelling are that we rather selfishly wanted more of them. The soundtrack evokes a soft melancholia, with piano drops and violin swells. The dialogue is self-aware and the voice acting is sharp as a tack; so often does Harper seem to perfectly narrate the player’s thoughts, sarcastically breaking the fourth wall in that cheeky Sam & Max way, or playfully scolding you for suggesting something daft in order to solve a puzzle. The amount of times we caught ourselves smirking at Harper’s reactions to hilariously misguided attempts to make progress is beyond measure.
This makes Unforeseen Incidents’ puzzles both a delight and a frustration rolled into one. It’s a strange ebb and flow, as one minute you’ll be flying high whilst lamenting the wasted years in higher education, as you were clearly born a genius, then, around two minutes later, you’re stumped and rapidly approaching rock bottom whilst being presented with amusing dialogue to keep you sweet. The main offenders here are very mechanically complex puzzles, which may well be fine if you’re practically minded and love your tinkering, but, if you’re anything like me, you’ll just have to call your dad and ask him how to repair a fan belt or whatever.
All in all, Unforeseen Incidents offers a challenging and engaging take on the point-and-click genre that fans of a good mystery - who also have the patience to persist through some of the more difficult puzzles - should definitely download. Give yourself the gift of feeling like you’ve earned a great story, and a pat on the back for being dead clever.
Is it just us, or does it feel like too much emphasis is put on looks these days? While modern PCs and consoles push resolutions in the millions of pixels, there’s a lot to be said for a game which focuses on achieving a distinct visual style, more than just pure visual firepower. In those rare cases, how a game looks can enhance or even define the experience, bringing up the quality of the product overall, rather than just being something which might be pretty to look at, but is otherwise bland.
It’s really the puzzle elements - introduced by the opposing perspectives of Kit and Hodge - and beautiful visuals that’ll draw you in here.
Comparisons to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland are certainly easy to draw, in terms of setup, but the game is very aware of this and has Kit namecheck and dismiss them fairly early on. The curiouser and curiouser part of it all is that Kit begins to bump into famous historical figures, each having an effect on the landscape that’s relevant to their most notable skill, for example an impressionist painter imposing a screen filter.
The gameplay itself is a little less robust, with most levels just having you backtrack between one contraption and another, but the fact that the two protagonists navigate so differently brings more variety to working through each level’s challenges, which get progressively more elaborate as the game goes on.
Though Another Sight is pretty to look at, technical issues do show through occasionally, with the transition from gameplay to cutscene being a particular stand-out culprit of “dead eye” syndrome. Really, the story could’ve been told without hopping between the two, which makes you wonder why developer Lunar Great Wall Studios made that creative choice.
On the topic of narrative, the story unfolds gradually as you explore a fictional subterranean London. It’s not immediately clear whether Kit is really there, or if a lot of what she’s seeing (or sensing) is actually a dream, but the unravelling of this particular question is central to the overall plot, and its various twists are enough to hold the experience together.
That said, it’s really the puzzle elements - introduced by the opposing perspectives of Kit and Hodge - and beautiful visuals that’ll draw you in here. Perhaps not enough for those in search of any truly unique gameplay experiences that might have been conjured up by this particular odd couple pairing, but, regardless, if you’re after a puzzle game with a bespoke visual twist, you can’t go much wrong.
If the name Narcosis sounds familiar, it’s probably because the game originally launched over a year ago, but, with the debut of a spanking new PS4 port, comes an opportunity for the existing versions to claw back a little spotlight for themselves. Initially taking to digital storefronts like a stone to water, the ripples have now reached our shores, but is Narcosis a horror that should’ve stayed dormant in the deep?
You probably aren’t crazy about water levels in gaming, but, In this instance, heading to the bottom of ol’ big blue serves to establish an almost alien atmosphere conducive to terror.
Developer Honor Code clearly took great care in crafting Narcosis’ world and narrative, though the same can’t quite be said when it comes to the limited gameplay. Labelled a survival horror walking simulator - we’ll let you decide whether affectionately or not - slightly tank-y controls harken back to early examples of the genre whilst conveying the immense weight of the bulky diving suit you occupy. The slow pace and initially unintuitive controls take a little getting used to, as does independently looking down to view the suit’s integrated HUD, but limited-use thrusters do accommodate sparing speed boosts.
They also allow for a spot of light platforming, which is fine, if unremarkable, whilst sides of simple puzzle solving and rudimentary combat are also thrown in to tick the necessary boxes. Fights are rare, thankfully, as you have but one cumbersome slash manoeuvre to execute with a short knife. More often than not, you’ll instead utilise an abundance of flares to distract enemies and allow you to slip by, but not always unseen. You’re predisposed to run when spotted by a deadly predator, though, in Narcosis’ case, your heavy diving suit disallows that response, contributing further tension.
Your helmet also obscures peripheral vision, adding another unnerving wrinkle, but the apparatus is far too efficient in the one area that could’ve made things outright harrowing. As we mentioned earlier, oxygen levels are limited, so you’ll continually need to accrue the element, while also doing your best to avoid any situations that’ll cause panic, resultantly accelerating your breathing and elevating your intake. It’s a novel conceit, but the game doesn’t fully commit, seemingly scared of imposing too great a challenge, resulting in the mechanic never becoming a major factor.
As such, it only really serves to keep you moving, but even that’s largely unnecessary when Narcosis is so linear. A couple of chapters make for notable exceptions, though most areas only open up into brief offshoots housing text-based collectibles serving to flesh out crew members’ characters.
While Narcosis doesn’t boast a great gameplay experience, rather just palatable, it works as a vehicle for interacting with Honor Code’s atmospheric locations and concise story. At around three hours long, it isn’t too much to ask that you stick out the relative lows in order to enjoy the twisting, psychological highs.
Following a lacklustre second outing, The Council reaches its midpoint faced with the unenviable task of recovering lost ground. Episode 3: Ripples shifts gears to have you focus on tackling conversational encounters with tactical turns of phrase, largely ditching the uninspired puzzle solving that shackled its predecessor, until a stifling blunder sees the experience nosedive just as it should be reaching a fevered pitch.
Whilst it’s possible to spark war between nations, the intimate consequences tend to prove more affecting.
With the old guard fond of early adjournments to retire to their rooms on exhausted whims, spritely Louis is left with spare time on his hands for pursuits outside of politics. Having reunited with his mother, all is not well, as she shares a thoroughly outlandish revelation alongside circumstantial evidence that almost makes it believable. Everything is called into question, making it crushingly unfortunate that, rather than being taken advantage of, any momentum grinds to a halt as you’re sent tottering off on a disconnected fetch quest.
Already the bane of gamers, this plodding section isn’t helped by inconsistencies like subtitles and verbalised dialogue conveying mismatched digits in a sequence, or conflicting quantities of objects to gather, whilst a written note incorrectly asserts that one of the items has already been found.
When you eventually return, gubbins gathered, they’re utilised in a puzzle which bravely requires absolute commitment. That closing conundrum helps to salvage things in the final moments, leaving us eager to see the consequences to follow, but far less so than we would have been if the fetch quest fat had been trimmed. While we did note that the second episode was less substantial than the first, blatant filler is most unwelcome.
Still, those familiar with The Council already know that you have to take the rough with the smooth, owing to its technical issues. Audio abruptly cuts out on the regular, the pitch of Louis’ voice drastically changes, some sections aren’t lip synced, extravagant period costumes clip through any and everything. Though we can’t deny it’s all a bit distracting, it’s just as often amusing, without muddying the game’s refined ambience all too much.
Ripples takes a step in the right direction, though not without catching the toe of its fancy buckled shoe and stumbling on the way. Despite the imperfections, we’re intrigued to see what curious events our remaining stays at the Mortimer estate hold in store, fingers firmly crossed that they’ll fully lean into the occult facade while refining the balance between serving a meaty helping that’s more killer than filler.
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.
Hide and Seek is a slightly disappointing second outing following The Council’s promising pilot, which kickstarted protagonist Louis de Richet’s adventure back in March. Continuing to search for his missing mother whilst hobnobbing with the social elite to keep up appearances, the game’s characters and tangled conspiracies continue to develop with intrigue, whilst a shift in focus away from the defining conversational confrontations towards solving puzzles is a very misguided one.
With that being said, things do fall a bit flat here by comparison to the first episode. Its meandering pace makes Hide and Seek a bit of a slog at times, often failing to either propel things forward or satisfyingly tie up loose ends, with the latter perhaps making the cliffhanger finish more cause for concern than suspense.
Few new areas to explore and a focus on slightly awkward puzzle solving are culprit to the episode’s pacing issues, placing bog-standard adventure fare over the thoughtful character interactions that made the pilot stand out. Acquiring a desired target can be cumbersome in the absence of a cursor, while spending Effort Points to utilise skills often leads to puzzle solutions being spelled out a little too plainly in blatant monologues. Conversely, not making use of Effort Points in select situations can leave you scratching your head until bordering on frustration.
What verbal confrontations remain generally prove more staunch brain teasers than the accompanying puzzles. Now that you’re an episode deep and should have the hang of them, some interactions no longer offer multiple chances and will instead have the brakes applied with one out-of-place utterance, which works in conjunction with the timer to ensure they’re more exciting than ever.
While not quite plummeting the series into the doldrums, Hide and Seek does disappoint at a stage where The Council should’ve been doubling down on its strengths to satisfy those making a return trip to Mortimer’s affluent estate. With the central narrative on a downturn it’s also harder to forgive the game its technical issues, making Hide and Seek an episode we wouldn’t recommend in itself, but would suggest you stick with as it’s not time to give up hope on The Council yet.