Remedy Entertainment has a particular brand of storytelling in its games. Since Alan Wake, and even Max Payne (whose voice actor James McCaffrey returns here in a supporting role), they have done things a bit differently, holding live-action scenes in high regard and treating the experience more like a film rather than a game with some story bits thrown in.
There are downsides to the more bombastic action sequences, however. The initial visual impression of former office workers floating lifelessly in the air, repeating the odd phrase to themselves, is extremely effective at building a creeping sense of dread, but the moment combat begins you're quickly pulled back into the fact this is a game, which lessens the impact of the otherwise excellent and foreboding atmosphere at times.
Exploration in Control is non-linear, with new areas of The Oldest House opening up to players in a Metroidvania-style fashion as they progress through the story and gain new abilities. Disappointingly, the structural changes repeatedly referred to in the lore dumps strewn throughout the building aren’t as extreme or as frequent as hinted, with the player only really getting to read about them rather than experience them.
Besides the usual gating off of sections using doors of ever increasing clearance levels, there are environmental puzzles which call on you to put your telekinetic abilities to the test to activate switches or navigate certain areas. One particular brain-teaser called The Astray Maze requires some out-of-the-box thinking, while frequent trips to the Oceanview Motel allow you to pass through the astral plane and access otherwise out-of-reach areas.
The game’s setting is deliberately bland, its harsh, brutalist architecture contrasted by the bizarre happenings taking place within its walls. As the story reveals itself, some of the initial opening intrigue dulls a little, and the vague perspective of the internal monologue from Jesse begins to grate as she's consistently nonplussed by the weirdness of the situation unfolding around her, while a few of the more interesting elements of the game seem to suffer from happening off-screen rather in front of the player.
From a technical perspective Control often struggles, even when running on Xbox One X, with substantial slowdown any time you hop in and out of menus - a frequent occurrence given the lore heavy nature of the game and the number of upgrades available to the player - and even more so when battles get hectic. While performance may suffer, Control is still a very visually impressive game, especially on PC thanks to newfangled ray tracing support.
In all, even with the performance issues, the journey is ultimately very satisfying, and a definite step up from Quantum Break, but if you weren't sold on Remedy's style beforehand then Control is unlikely to do much change your mind. Still, in these days of games as a service and battle royale bandwagoning, a strong, narrative-driven single-player experience is a rare thing, particularly if you’re a fan of Xbox, and it's one which is unlike anything else out there right now.
Based on the 2013 film of the same name, which was loosely based on Max Brooks’ original novel, World War Z the game doesn’t share a great deal in common with either. This survivalist shooter will be much more familiar to fans of Left 4 Dead, the zombie-slaying series which spawned and has defined a sub-genre for over a decade now.
There’s very little in the way of narrative motivation, rather the cathartic pleasure of mindlessly deanimating the reanimate is what’ll spur you on.
Zombies become a sort of hive mind once alerted to your presence, unflinchingly running towards their demise with no regard for anything other than killing their quarry. This is largely familiar stuff, but it takes on new life during regular scripted moments where they frantically clamber into fleshy pyramid structures to reach higher ground (launching explosives at the base to topple these is delectable) or fling themselves from above as makeshift projectiles.
You’re given enough firepower that these imposing setpieces are never outright frightening, which could be good or bad depending on your perspective. Fixed defence units including barbed wire, electrified floor panels and turrets can be placed in designated positions, while devastating heavy weaponry can be carried on your person to eradicate entire swarms single handed.
Special infected types are where you’ll need to employ a greater degree of finesse, although L4D players will already be acquainted with the sparse selection. Lurkers are Hunters that do a great job of waiting around corners before taking you by surprise with the ol’ pounce-and-pin manoeuvre. Gasbags are a marriage of Boomer and Spitter. Bulls are Chargers. Most telling of all, the Screamer is equivalent to... the Screamer.
You can mark these nasties on your teammates’ HUD, though in-game dialogue will most often vocalise their presence anyway, which is one of the few ways allied AI proves to be dependable. They can’t interact with mission objectives, don’t level up alongside you to meet the difficulty curve, and can’t be switched from the default Gunslinger class in order to compose a balanced team. You don’t even gain the ability to pause when playing offline, but hey, they’ll never incur friendly fire (which is always enabled) if you really must go solo.
Should sticking with the normal difficulty setting be your speed – meaning you don’t anticipate toughing it out being a problem – just be aware that an initial playthrough should only take around five or six hours. Longevity thereafter is gleaned by upping the stakes to earn better weapons and perks, which you’ll then use to repeat the cycle, only one notch higher on the five-step difficulty rung. Levels subtly change between runs, mainly in terms of enemy and item spawn frequencies and locations, helping to keep things a little more fresh along the way.
Even with randomisation it can become repetitive if you don’t dip in and out, which makes the unique PvPvE multiplayer a smart addition. Featuring separate classes and progression to that of the campaign, the mode has five classic game types in which two teams of four fight against one another and, at the same time, CPU-controlled zombies.
Its largely no-frills approach harkens back to a period during the last console generation where almost every game had competitive multiplayer, though in an oddly nostalgic way. That feeling is certainly helped by the fact it’s competent and fun enough on a base level not to feel just tacked-on.
Levels subtly change between runs, mainly in terms of enemy and item spawn frequencies and locations, helping to keep things fresh.
There’s an established early playerbase sticking around for the interesting dynamic of undead swarms which can cut off parts of a map entirely, but how long they’ll put up with the current balance issues is up for question. You can’t switch class mid-match, so if you made a choice that doesn’t synergise well with your team or effectively counter the opposition, you’re left no choice but to ride it out or quit. Certain weapons and strategies are overpowered, namely sprinting around with a double-barrelled shotgun and unloading both slugs or popping around a corner with the (thankfully quite limited) rocket launcher, yet the funk doesn’t end when you die. Spawns are incredibly inconsistent, as sometimes you’ll pop up right in front of an enemy with no temporary invulnerability to save your bacon, or, more to your advantage, right next to an unguarded objective.
Whether online or off, in our experience, the PS4 Pro and WWZ servers at least do a good job of handling all the hectic on-screen action. Visually the game is just decent, with some jumpy animations being the biggest sore thumb, but that’s always a worthy trade-off in favour of securing a solid technical performance.
At a budget price point, World War Z offers completionists a lot of game for the money, but anybody with a more one-and-done approach might end up feeling shortchanged by the brief campaign. For either camp, in spite of the strong sense of déjà vu overpowering a few original ideas, WWZ is a good candidate to kick back and relieve a hard day's stress with whenever the time is right.
Desolation. While winter in the UK has its moments, it pales in comparison to Russia at the best of times. In the bleak future of the Metro series, after the Last War reduced the world to rubble, this oppressive landscape begets a bleak outlook, but, just beneath the surface, there is hope.
Tense and claustrophobic underground sections keep your hair standing on end, while bright open-air encounters allow for flexing your action muscles.
The game definitely feels like an epic, despite hanging onto a mostly linear structure. Even larger open areas, which have vignettes of things to explore tucked away here and there - like a makeshift enemy stronghold or an abandoned cabin - flow from one event to the next before transporting you on to another area, which will have its own feel and weather as the in-game seasons pass.
Shootouts are a mixture of musical stings and often frantic ducking for cover, as you toe the line between risk and reward by going loud. More often than not the throwing knife is your best friend in human encounters, far more effective at taking down enemies instantly and not disturbing others nearby.
Out in the open there are more monstrous creatures to tackle, transformed by the surface radiation, who you'll want to have a loaded shotgun ready for. Fortunately, there's a fairly in-depth attachments system in place to let you piece a weapon set together that suits your play style. Don't become too reliant on your equipment though, as things can break and require the odd spot of maintenance, be that pumping up a pneumatic weapon or charging your torch.
Previously, you could only tinker with your loadout at a select few vendor locations, but now these storefronts are a thing of the past. This makes way for on-the-fly resource crafting, via scavenged components, whilst also nixing the intriguing dilemma of choosing whether to utilise bullets for currency or self-preservation seen in the past games. That might seem like a loss, but it quite quickly became arbitrary as you almost inevitably amassed more ammunition than you knew what to do with.
Whether the game holds onto enough of the haunting, thriller gameplay which made the tunnels of Metro 2033 and Last Light so compelling for some is up for debate. Coming in fresh, the balance and variety of gameplay feels on point here, with tense and claustrophobic tunnel sections keeping your hair standing on end, while bright open-air encounters allow for flexing your action muscles.
Visual details go a long way in bringing everything together, particularly as weather effects play with the lighting to make you feel as isolated or on edge as Artyom does. In native 4K on Xbox One X, some of the details are stunning.
Taken as a whole, the experience is a testament to the minute care and attention lavished on every element of Metro Exodus, leaving few drawbacks to speak of. Some characters feel a bit cartoonist at times, but the core interactions between Artyom and his wife alone will be enough to get you caring about the fate of this character and his community.
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.
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.
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.
Yes, Earthfall does look a lot like Left 4 Dead. In fact, the comparison is welcomed by developers Holospark and something that they strived for as their key inspiration and focus. “We loved Left 4 Dead” said CEO Rusty Williams, when we spoke to him at EGX Rezzed earlier this year, “but we wanted more.” So, after a few years of development, including time in early access on PC, Earthfall is the end result.
While the presentation gets a solid “good” - Unreal Engine 4 would struggle to make a game look bad - it’d be nice to see a bit more fidelity in those textures (perhaps an Xbox One X update looms in the future?) and the game isn’t without some technical issues. We’ve seen a couple of crashes when things get especially hectic, plus the friendly AI more than once has stood in place, staring frantically into space as the rest of their team gets mauled around the corner.
In terms of level design, something so tightly managed in Valve and Turtle Rocks’ original, there are oversights too, with invisible walls being used to channel the player into a linear flow through areas which look as though they should be ripe to explore. Furthermore, giving players an objective marker to head for often makes the campaign feel like a pedestrian trudge between two points, rather than four survivors scraping together what they can in a desperate effort to survive.
It’s here we really must broach the subject of AI. Players can either run through levels with allied bots or open up proceedings to being joined by human players online, as in L4D, but the AI in question doesn’t have the same concern for your wellbeing as it did in that game, frequently leaving you to bleed out whilst prioritising reviving fellow bots and often snatching up helpful items and weapons from under your nose.
If they were able to trigger objectives or be commanded in any way they might be more useful, but they aren’t even fans of deploying barriers or using mounted guns, which can be an issue at some of the game’s choke points, referred to in-game as ‘holdouts’. You can punch up the AI ‘skill’ to limited results, only really boosting accuracy and the eagerness to shoot first and ask questions later. But hey, at least there’s no risk of incurring significant friendly fire damage from them.
Earthfall is difficult in general, with even two players experienced in working and communicating with one another, bolstered by a couple of filler bots, seeing the ‘Normal’ difficulty setting pose a serious threat. While the higher difficulties are a stretch, the ‘Easy’ level can at times be too much its namesake, making you long for a shuffle to give a happy medium.
With only two campaigns of five twenty-or-so-minute chapters a piece, you might find Earthfall a tad pricey at £24.99, since it’s inspiration gave us double the number of iconic campaigns and an additional competitive mode, which is conspicuously absent here at present. That said, the team at Holospark are already hard at work on further campaign content which will be released free to all players (cosmetic customisation items are premium), so there’s some added value to look forward to in the future.
One particularly fun element, which pushes the suspension of disbelief in a very different direction than accepting aliens are a thing, is the fact that many levels are peppered with 3D printers to requisition guns and health stations reminiscent of Half-Life. A great idea, which could have been taken further to include attachments and further customisations, as the risk/reward mechanic whenever you encounter them (turning the power on to use them will attract a mob) is always compelling.
Though it might not be Left 4 Dead 3, Earthfall does enough to scratch the itch for players pining for a similar experience. With games developing far more post-launch than ever before it seems likely this one will continue to mutate to the needs of its player base, which doesn’t undo the fact it could have used slightly longer in the oven before final release, but what’s on offer so far is ruddy good fun, if a tad disposable.
A runaway crowdfunding success story, Agony and its grotesque realisation of Hell recently made it to market with the help of nearly 4,000 passionate backers. While there are plenty of grisly sights to quench the thirst of the gore hounds amongst them, anyone looking for anything more than the modern interpretation of a cheap video nasty will be sorely disappointed.
Anyone looking for anything more than the modern interpretation of a cheap video nasty will be sorely disappointed.
Sneaking slows the trudging pace to an absolute crawl, which means you’ll inevitably get bored and make a run for it, almost guaranteeing that you get spotted and face swift murder. After succumbing to a screenful of bare busters, your soul leaves the body and you’re presented a window of time in which to possess a lesser thrall and pick up where you left off. Possessions are automatic on easy difficulty, but require input on normal and send you back to the last poorly-placed checkpoint in the event of failure.
Finding and eating Forbidden Fruit - or Fanny Smith apples, as we call them for reasons you can probably extrapolate - allows you to acquire and upgrade skills that’ll at least give you a better chance at survival. That’s assuming you actually want to extend the trip, mind, as masses of alternate endings and a couple of additional modes - one offering endless procedurally generated challenges and the other the chance to replay the story as a succubus - did absolutely nothing to tempt us into holding the controller for any longer than absolutely necessary.
You might think all that seems a tad harsh, but we haven’t even touched on the crippling technical issues yet. Agony’s frame rate is choppy at best, glitches prevented us from making progress on a few occasions, and the audio is completely bust. Diegetic sounds emanate from the wrong directions, while ambient effects and voice overs constantly cut in and out and jarringly loop back on themselves; missing dialogue makes the unengaging narrative harder to follow than it should be, but, more egregiously, deprives you of relishing every syllable of the hysterically awkward scripting and delivery.
Let’s not mince words here: Agony is a sub-par, early access product masquerading as a finished release. Patches can only hope to make it stably abysmal, as opposed to plain broken, so you should absolutely avoid the unnecessary agony it’ll so ironically impose upon you.
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.