Sometimes you need a video game to inject some joy into your life, and that applies especially in 2020. Enter PHOGS!, the charming puzzle game about exploring with a double-headed dog in search of bone-shaped treats.
PHOGS! is easy to pick up and play and the gradual introduction of different challenges and mechanics is steady, drawing you in and having you eager to lap up just one more level.
The PHOGS (a merging of the words physics and dogs, as seen within the gameplay) exude character as you move them around. If you lazily control a single head at a time, for example, you’ll see the trailing head quickly drop off to sleep. That same level of characterisation extends to the NPCs as well, with our particular favourite being an octopus chef who's increasingly pleased with how his mountaintop soup is turning out, thanks to your help.
The game’s music has enthusiasm and beaming positivity to match, but at times relies too heavily on a short, repeated phrase that can start to grate. Fortunately each level has a new tune, meaning such earworms are fairly short-lived.
PHOGS! is an experience we’ve been hearing about for a long time, and it's a pleasure to finally have our paws on it. The sheer delight at successfully getting Red and Blue to the friendly patchwork-style snake which safeguards the end of each level can’t be overstated. It’s easy to pick up and play and the gradual introduction of different challenges and mechanics is steady, drawing you in and having you eager to lap up just one more level.
Coming into the festive season, a family PHOGS! session sounds far more appealing than a six-hour argument over Monopoly. It’s also just as fun to watch as it is to play, for any technologically-opposed family members. Coatsink and Bit Loom Games have taken a simple concept and really nailed it. If you’re in the mood for some gaming joy this Christmas, PHOGS! undoubtedly fits the bill.
With The Great British Bake Off back on our screens, what better time for a sweet treat-themed party game? High Tea Frog and Coatsink present a slice of confection perfection in this bake-em-up; a serving of satisfying sponge smashing great for both distracting from the doom and gloom and venting some pent-up frustration.
Unfortunately there’s no way to set up custom matches with friends for now, as you’re limited to the more structured, standard experience online, but you’ll want to do this anyway to keep unlocking more skins for your various cakes and pastries.
The soundtrack has a similar vibe to Two Point Hospital or even Animal Crossing, which the artstyle also shares some cues, while the visual presentation overall, as well as its theme, conjures memories of frantic Overcooked sessions, but the game still stands on its own.
Cake Bash might not be absolute perfection, but it is a fun time with minimal calories.
Gameplay is solid, though extended play sessions will lead to things starting to feel repetitive, as the, at times, imprecise controls catch you out. Still, the whole experience is greatly enhanced by the joy of taking on other players and perfect for a warm up before a more longform gaming evening.
In all there is a certain charm in a game which feels distinct in the execution of its premise as well as the quality of its production for a small scale title. While we played on Xbox One, we can see greater potential in its Switch version (due out soon) in particular, due to the platform’s flexibility.
There are no soggy bottoms on show here, and with how quickly it is to tuck into, you’ll likely surprise yourself, coming out with phrases like “As an éclair, I’ve never looked better” and “Oh no, I’ve been impaled by a fork.”
Certainly more than worth checking out if you’re in need of a tasty distraction, Cake Bash might not be absolute perfection, but it is a fun time with minimal calories.
Created by Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse developer WayForward, Vitamin Connection is a new and exclusive IP for the Nintendo Switch. It tasks players with saving the fictional Sable family (and by extension, the world) from an all-consuming pathogenic outbreak. Far from a sombre reflection of the present-day Coronavirus situation, Vitamin Connection and its cheery, colourful gameplay could very well prove to be the antidote for those seeking shelter.
Vitamin Connection definitely feels like it’s best experienced in co-op, and while it’s possible to see and experience all that the game has to offer solo, it’s certainly more enjoyable with a partner along for the ride. It’s a shame, then, that progression between solo and cooperative campaigns isn’t shared and there’s no drop in/drop out support for spontaneous sessions.
Rather than simply throwing in another Capsule Ship for a second person, Vitamin Connection’s asymmetrical co-op mode sees players splitting the duties of a single craft. With the left Joy-Con, one player controls ship movement and activation of the Vitamin Beam, while the other, using the right, deals with rotation and aiming.
The added layer of teamwork helps lift the relatively straightforward gameplay and adds a whole new level of humour to proceedings as players endeavour to coordinate attacks and evasions. Sub-games also benefit from the addition of a second player, with WayForward making good use of some of the Joy-Cons’ lesser utilised features, such as motion controls, and even the IR sensor for reflex-based challenges.
Dance Festival has players pulling off moves in time to a musical beat, and is great fun with a partner in tow.
It’s innovative touches like these, along with a ridiculously catchy J-Pop soundtrack and a bright, cartoony aesthetic, that help Vitamin Connection, at times, feel like it could have come directly from Nintendo themselves. Unfortunately, however, the game also has more than a few frustrating quirks that spoil the fun and stop it from being something really special.
Levels often feel samey, despite belonging to different hosts, and sub-games are repeated throughout the campaign with only slight variations to colour and design serving to set them apart. It’s also far too easy for your ship to get stuck in narrower sections of levels and end up being left behind, doomed to a slow death, as the screen, cut scenes and action all continue to move on without you.
Levels are littered with these ribbons, which are incredibly satisfying to break with the corresponding colour.
Away from the actual gameplay, a number of technical issues also dog Vitamin Connection. Controls can become unresponsive after switching from handheld to TV mode, or vice-versa, and the Joy-Cons too easily lose calibration during co-op sessions. The latter is particularly frustrating during the Dance Festival sub-games where precision is key; since you’re unable to recalibrate until the challenge is over, the only choice is to either continue using wonky inputs or reboot the game and start over.
Medicine Ball and Wire Coaster were two of the standout sub-games.
Still, when everything’s going well, Vitamin Connection is a fun party game that’s both challenging enough to keep regular gamers hooked and intuitive enough for casuals to keep pace. With around 5 – 10 hours of content as standard and the challenging post-game Pro Campaign to boot, there’s plenty on offer for the £15 price tag.
While it might not be an entirely sweet remedy, Vitamin Connection is certainly no bitter pill to swallow.
Liverpool vs Manchester United. Borg vs McEnroe. USA vs Europe. Whatever the sport, a decent rivalry can add so much more to a simple competition, eliciting passion, anger and excitement from spectators and participants alike. It’s an extra layer of intrigue that veteran motorsport developers, Codemasters, have successfully recreated in GRID thanks to their nemesis system, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
GRID’s AI provide excellent opposition, keeping races both consistently competitive and entertaining.
Before each race, you’re given the chance to take part in hot lap qualifiers, which, while entirely optional, are a great way to learn each track’s nuances ahead of the main event and also give you a chance to improve your starting position. Leading the line going into a race is, naturally, a big advantage, especially when competing on GRID’s city tracks, where tight corners and narrow streets make it harder to break out from the back of the pack.
Starting in the rear means you’re also more likely to collide with other drivers, and, intentionally or not, pick up a few nemeses in the process. It usually takes several collisions to spark a rivalry, though occasionally just a single bump is all that’s required to annoy the AI. Teammates aren’t immune to a bout of in-house rivalry either, and will actively ignore orders and requests if you hit them too many times.
City tracks are particularly impressive at night
Rival drivers are marked out by an angry red indicator above their car, and will attempt to hinder your progress should they get the opportunity to do so, sometimes even to the detriment of their own race, whether its aggressively blocking an overtake or performing a surprise pit maneuver just as you’re taking a tricky corner. It’s a brilliant system that adds so much more to races, creating short-lived rivalries and added drama without ever feeling unfair or overpowered.
In fact, GRID’s AI in general provide excellent opposition, keeping races both consistently competitive and entertaining; we’ve seen computer-controlled drivers smash into walls, flip cars and take risks that, at times, mirror human behaviour, adding to the overall sense of authenticity. You can, of course, get a similar experience by delving into the game’s online offering, but without the option to pick and choose tracks, car types or weather settings (unless you’re hosting a private game), you might find yourself battling the conditions more than other drivers.
Visually, GRID is a good-looking game, if not spectacular. Some levels stand out more than others; racing through one of Zhejiang’s city circuits at night, with neon lights reflected in the rain-soaked road, for example, looks amazing, but traditional circuits like Silverstone and Brands Hatch, with their wide tracks and open surroundings, are relatively bland in comparison. One of the more bizarre visual hiccups are the cars’ mirrors, which display reflected images in retro-like low-res graphics and reduced frame rates. If, like us, you prefer a cockpit view, it can be a little jarring, but it’s a minor issue that certainly doesn’t detract from an otherwise decent game.
Objects in the rear view mirror are actually a lot prettier than they appear
GRID also caters to both petrol heads and newcomers alike thanks to a generous suite of difficulty options; while we preferred a more arcade-like experience, with automatic gears, race lines, cosmetic damage only and face-saving flashback abilities enabled, it’s possible to turn all assists off, increase AI difficulty and transform the game into a proper simulator. It’s this flexibility, along with the game’s solid racing gameplay, generous solo offering and excellent nemesis system that make it an easy recommend.
Pinball machines are few and far between these days. You might find a dusty old one in your local pub, but it’s very unlikely you’ll stumble across the crème de la crème like a Star Wars-themed table.
The level of detail and visual polish the game has to offer is only really shown off on a big screen however, if only because so much of the detail is otherwise packed into a small space. Even with a range of camera options (which annoyingly don't seem to remember your preference between stages), you can't get the full effect in handheld move.
One particularly neat feature is that you can encourage the screen to turn 90-degrees in either direction, meaning in tabletop mode (presumably with some makeshift stand option) or handheld portrait with an adapter, you can enjoy a more comfortable oblong, bird's eye view of proceedings.
The highlight of the experience, and where Zen Studios really flex their creative muscles, is the scene mode, which has six scenes or characters showcased in micro-fights or challenges spread across the board, where your actions might cause blaster fire to be deflected or a door to be unlocked. The fun of reliving those iconic moments is a genuine thrill, even for a fan with more rewatches of the original trilogy than they might like to admit…
There's longevity here (unless you really, really aren't a fan of pinball), and plenty of nooks and crannies to explore within every table. You'll even stumble across the odd minigame, where you'll navigate an asteroid field or go toe-to-toe with Darth Vader in a lightsaber duel, and playing around with familiar characters (albeit with less familiar voice acting) is a delight.
Pinball is here, and the Force is with it.
While some of us at PTC Towers were only wee lads back in the 1990s, the decade's pedigree can't be denied its role in propelling console gaming to the heights it has reached today, spawning influential games left and right.
There’s a two-player co-op mode on offer, but only accessible locally, and you can also begin to feel like a bit of a spare part if you're a newbie and your co-pilot is a veteran. You can opt for a harder difficulty if you do find yourselves sailing through, which opens up two new characters to try out, but bizarrely only in solo play...
In typical arcade fashion, you're offered only one life and therefore a single try to get through the game without being taken down. If you decide to continue after dying you'll get going again from a fairly recent screen, but the game stops counting your time, and with no in-game scoring system to speak of there's now just pride to play for.
If a nostalgia hit is what you're looking for, The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors could scratch an itch. It’s a well-made if slightly one-note adventure that won't kill a huge amount of time.
There's something quite satisfying about pulverising someone with a large axe. While Redeemer (the prettier Enhanced Edition, in this case) isn't the first game to offer that combat experience, it is an experience which defines it, or at least the broad strokes of its main character Vasily, who utilises elaborate melee strikes and environmental executions to deal devastating killing blows.
Melee weapons quickly degrade too, leading to a map littered with half-broken hatchets and electric batons which are largely interchangeable, but crucial to dismantling some of the larger enemies. There are guns on offer as well, but they’re often difficult to use at range due to the aforementioned camera perspective.
Overall, while Redeemer: Enhanced Edition might be a fun way to pass the time on your commute (should you opt for the Switch version), it's difficult to wholeheartedly recommend you devote your time to it at home.
The world of strategy has been simmering away under the surface of the mainstream for a few years now. Long since the heyday of Westwood Studios, which ruled the real-time strategy genre with its Command & Conquer and Red Alert series, it’s been turn-based games which have been all the rage, thanks to the rise of Firaxis’ excellent XCOM revivals.
Soon, such is your efficiency at producing and preserving units, either by merging wounded squads or healing them at a player-owned city or facility, you’ll quickly find the map overrun and units begin to block each other from moving around effectively, leading to a major risk of bottlenecks if you aren’t too careful.
While the game works well in docked mode, this title has more of a handheld feel, and the turn-based nature lends itself to pulling it out for a few stops on the bus or morning train commute. Matches themselves, even early in the campaign, can easily last over half an hour a piece as games run across 15 or 20 in-game days (or turns) before one team’s HQ is ultimately vanquished.
Tinymetal’s music is fairly unmemorable and doesn’t get across the sort of drama and excitement you might hope for, especially compared to some of those iconic Red Alert or XCOM tunes. It should be noted that we haven’t unlocked the additional tracks with in-game currency, however. Visually, it’s fairly straightforward, but certainly more stylised, exciting and accessible than the somewhat similar Tiny Troopers Joint Ops XL.
Those looking to scratch a strategy itch won’t be disappointed here, with fun and games to be had for a budget-friendly asking price, but the repetition of the experience will start to grate for some before too long.
On top of the main campaign there’s Skirmish, where you battle AI using custom maps and settings, and also an online multiplayer component - but seemingly one too sparsely populated to find a game, even during peak hours.
In the end, Tinymetal: Full Metal Rumble on Switch is a fun little way to spend some portable gaming time, but doesn’t do too much to be exciting or bring a new twist to the genre or platform. There’s little to master, other than the patience for slow-moving and resource-limited units, but there’s still something endearing and easy to enjoy about the game.
Mention the word “chippy” to someone in the UK and you’ll most likely induce mouth-watering thoughts of battered cod, mushy peas and chips drenched in salt ‘n’ vinegar. Having spent some time with Rust developer Facepunch Studios’ latest effort, however, the word now conjures up delicious memories of epic boss battles, as well as deep fried fish.
You can ‘hijack’ replays, letting you take control and practice a specific phase of a fight. It’s a fantastic idea and a feature that should be the new standard in future boss rush games.
Occasionally, bosses will throw out power-ups surrounded by a red hue. Grabbing one of these glowing orbs grants the ability within, but also surrounds your ship with an encircling wall of death that’s very tricky to avoid, introducing a further risk-versus-reward element to collecting pick-ups.
Boss fights are multi-staged encounters that have you duking it out with at least two versions of your opponent, with the difficulty, intensity and scale of enemies ramping up after every successive victory. And boy, do things get tough. Enemies eventually fill the small, square battlefield with a dizzying, hypnotic mass of projectiles in an attempt to stop you. Dying is something you’ll be doing a lot in Chippy, but respawning is instant, and each failure is more a learning opportunity than a frustrating setback.
If you do find yourself completely stuck – as we did during one particularly gruelling fight with a boss that could regrow its missing tentacles and cores – scrolling up through the leaderboards and watching the readily available replays of top players is a rather neat way of learning how to beat tougher enemies. By mirroring the fastest player’s technique, we went from utterly hopeless to 15th in the global leaderboards in less than an hour.
You can even ‘hijack’ a replay at any moment, letting you take control and practice a specific phase of a fight without having to put in the work beforehand. It’s a fantastic idea and a feature that we think should be the new standard in future boss rush games.
While most bosses share similar fundamentals – destroy or remove multiple secondary cores as quickly as possible whilst avoiding attacks to expose a larger, central core – there are occasional outliers, such as a fight that has you surviving waves of minions while automated lasers drill through their leader’s thick shields, which help to keep things fresh.
Facepunch have also done a decent job of imparting character and personality - there’s a very creepy maggot-like creature, for example - to what are essentially sentient mazes through just a few lines of text. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the arenas that house them, with the same plain black backdrop used for fights regardless of the type of environment bosses are supposed to inhabit.
Even if, like this reviewer, you’re not that into bullet-hell or boss rush games (despite having also enjoyed Furi), we’d recommend you try Chippy. While we’d love to see the game reach additional platforms, it’s inexpensive and doesn’t require a top-tier gaming PC to run. It might be tough as nails in places, to an almost daunting extent, but it’s also exhaustingly moreish and incredibly satisfying. Like any good chippy, really.
As the numbered entries in any series start hitting double digits, it can be difficult to still feel inspired by a new release – for both developers and fans. That’s not been the case for Mortal Kombat and the team at NetherRealm (Injustice 2), however, as 2015’s MKX was the biggest success for the fatal fighting franchise yet. Having to follow that means the pressure is on - so, does MK11 deliver?
Krushing Blows are a new feature which differ between characters, barring some more widespread triggers. These devastating variations on existing moves might be prompted by, for example, hitting the same maneuver twice consecutively or from a certain distance - everyone has access to multiple, which can individually be used just once per match in order to prevent spamming.
The final major change to MK11’s core gameplay is a split meter, now comprised of two chunks for defence and two for offence, all of which recharge automatically over time. The former can be used for things like breaking out of juggle combos, rolling out of range when floored, or utilising the environmental interactions available in most of the 20+ stages. The latter can be turned to modifying special moves and performing getup attacks (which also draw on defence), the idea being to enforce a more balanced play style by disallowing the use of meter in any exclusive fashion. It works.
All of the many, many interacting systems and their governing data are broken down and then layered on in a clear and digestible fashion.
Of course, the series' iconic Brutalities and Fatalities return untouched, allowing fights to reach excitingly over-the-top climaxes. They’re a celebration of humanity’s morbid love for the macabre, exquisitely illustrating the snap of bones and cutting of flesh alongside some gnarly audio that’ll squeeze equal amounts of wincing and disbelieving laughter from players.
Despite being a defining feature, these murderous moves can’t be busted out during the campaign for the sake of continuity. It’s easily forgiven, however, since story modes in NetherRealm fighters traditionally stand several severed heads and shoulders above the competition. The pulpy narrative follows directly on from MKX and revolves around the introduction of Kronica, a character with command (kommand?) over time and a distaste for the present, which conveniently slot together to form a time-bending celebration of Mortal Kombat’s past and present.
It’s unadulterated fanservice from a franchise that’s earned the distinction during more years in existence than the person writing this, but, having clambered abound at too early an age, things still got plenty nostalgic. Even if you don’t have any direct connection to old-school MK, everyone should at least recognise the classic costumes and character models which have long since been absorbed into the zeitgeist.
Throughout the story you’ll switch between multiple character perspectives, making it a great place to learn who you do and don’t click with. Outside of kombat, lavish cutscenes tell a fittingly outrageous eight-or-so hour tale which any lover of goofy, big-budget action flicks would jump at the opportunity to see on the silver screen. It’s easy to care about what’s happening, in spite of the unbelievable events and characters, plus a distractingly hammy performance from WWE and UFC star Ronda Rousey as Sonya Blade.
As with Fatalities and Brutalities, your custom character builds can’t be carried over to the campaign. MKX let players pick between preset character variations, massively diversifying its roster simply by fiddling with what was already there, and MK11 takes that ingenuity to the next logical step. Fighters still have a couple of presets each, but you can now build your own by equipping special moves across three slots (some of the more powerful abilities taking up two of them), whilst also switching out a slew of detailed cosmetics and, once you’ve won enough bouts with those cosmetics equipped to level them up, imbuing them with elemental augmentations. This essentially means that two players’ renditions of Scorpion, for example, can look and play very differently.
That being said, amassing the gear to fully deck out a specific character can be tough. Ignoring premium Time Krystals, along with the three premium consumables you can then buy with them, there are three in-game currencies which are paid out sparingly. Hearts are particularly bad, with most fights rewarding only one or two depending on whether you finished with a Fatality or a Brutality respectively. Most related purchases require 250...
What’s more, those purchases take the form of random loot chests, so it’s entirely possible that the ‘reward’ at the end of a long grind will be something useless to you. Delving the expanded and more involving Krypt to locate those chests at least proves engaging, since the gamified storefront is a mini metroidvania with puzzles and item gates all of its own.
Mortal Kombat 11 is a celebration of humanity’s morbid love for the macabre, exquisitely illustrating the snap of bones and cutting of flesh.
There’s no doubting the fact that an unreasonable time and/or money investment would be required of anyone looking to unlock everything, but we actually quite like the fact that we could dip in and out of MK11 in the years leading up to its inevitable sequel and have something new to show for each and every visit.
The ever-changing Towers of Time seek to ensure that you do keep coming back, presenting consecutive fights with devious gameplay modifiers to stack the odds against you. You can retry as many times as you like whilst incurring small incremental penalties to your score, plus equip ‘konsumables’ found in the Krypt to counter the disadvantages at hand, before eventually reaping the greatest rewards for time invested if you can overcome the challenge. Some seemingly insurmountable combinations are nothing short of infuriating though, ushering you towards buying premium Skip Fight Tokens since the alternative is to quit and lose your progress. Like the wider economy, this is being looked at.
There are plenty more ways to occupy yourself within MK11 in the meantime, like exhibition bouts in local co-op or against AI, which can be set to five difficulty levels. There are also Klassic Towers, minus any shenanigans, culminating in a boss encounter with Kronica followed by a trademark ending animatic tailored to your chosen character.
Online modes round out the offering, the most bizarre of which are asynchronous CPU-controlled battles, where you’ll choose three attacking combatants to face those assigned to defence by another user. You can enjoy the spectacle or fast forward, but we really have to wonder why it’s here at all, besides maybe offering a way to passively alleviate some of MK11’s grind. Characters can’t get injured or anything, so there’s no need to manage your roster, and, as far as tactics go, you could look to create custom variants to counter the most common character picks, at least on paper, but acquiring and levelling the gear to do so wouldn’t be worth the effort
Competitive modes encompass ranked first-to-three contests (no custom variations allowed) through ‘kasual’ single and King of the Hill matchups. Early netcode has been great, which is absolutely vital to any fighting game worth its salt, while the community is variable as ever, though there are tools in place to find players of a similar mindset and/or skill level. When you manage to do so, the deeper mechanics really start to shine and matches unfold like thoughtful games of chess, despite looking like mindless violence to onlookers.
There’s a hell of a lot to Mortal Kombat 11 then, as you can see, most of which is absolutely fantastic if you can overlook the current gouging. If you can’t, then maybe wait it out and see how things settle, but you shouldn’t allow peripheries such as currencies, cosmetics and just one of many modes stop you experiencing the immensely fun story and gratifyingly balanced kombat systems at the core of the game.