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.
In Death: Unchained brings the VR Rogue-lite to Oculus Quest for an untethered, wireless experience after its debut on PSVR and PC. Clever subtitle aside, the procedurally generated shooter has been expanded with all-new content to ramp-up the difficulty and keep players busy for longer. Packed with religious iconography, is this trip to the afterlife destined for heaven or hell?
Since unlocks aren’t a complete crutch, developing your physical skill is key. Aiming takes genuine finesse without crosshairs or any form of aim assist, and getting a feel for the gradual drop of an arrow or bolt also takes some time. At first you’ll be whiffing shots at close range, before eventually hitting headshots over long distances like it’s nothing.
Solid motion tracking on the Oculus Touch controllers makes things painless, which is handy, as combat requires juggling way more than just archery. There’s a defensive shield (which can also be turned to offence with a close-range shield bash), though it often pays to physically dodge incoming projectiles and melee strikes so as to not obscure your vision. The Quest’s lack of wires can really help out here.
It’s possible to briefly trigger slow motion by bringing up the real-time arrow switching menu, which helps if you’re in a small play area and need to be careful with regards to how you move. If space is at a real premium, you can even opt to play stationary and seated. Firing teleportation arrows is probably the best movement option to match, though there is also a free locomotion setting available at launch.
Regardless of your preferred settings, a short-range teleportation shard also occupies your arsenal for clutch dodges and quickly popping around corners or through doorways. You can best use it to your advantage in attracting enemies’ attention and then retreating slightly to draw them into choke points. The AI is pretty exploitable if you pull enemies gradually, though things get hairy when you mess up and they bombard you all at once.
Special arrows can save your afterlife in these situations, doing things like freezing enemies in place and sticking them with explosives, channelling the iconic Gears of War Torque Bow. They’re an absolute must during boss encounters as well; bosses annoyingly spawn in waves of minions, so your best bet is to end the fight before it has a chance to really begin using your heaviest artillery.
Emerging victorious will grant you access to the next level, though being able to start a run from that level (i.e. opting to begin from two at the menu instead of clearing one to get back there) requires hitting an arbitrary overall completion percentage first. Gating is probably intended for players’ own good, but when we’d nearly finished the final level and died it was annoying to learn that we’d need to backtrack and earn 7% more in order to spawn there for an immediate second crack of the whip.
Still, returning to the previous level, Paradise Lost, wasn’t all bad. Cathedral architecture is elaborately laid out amongst the clouds and we found that being mobile and aggressive worked best on the armies of flying cherubs and grounded witches. It can be easy to get lost in the lavish labyrinth and cherubs in particular have a nasty habit of appearing right behind you for cheap hits, but it's still a lot of fun to play the role of ordained executioner.
In Death: Unchained features an engaging sense of progression that helps to take the edge off permadeath.
A major strength of virtual reality gaming is the use of 3D audio, but the implementation here is underwhelming. Enemy sound effects never really cut through the bog standard atmospheric background score, which makes it hard to instinctively pinpoint their locations and can lead to missing enemies standing right by you.
In Death: Unchained is immensely replayable and, impressively, a grander prospect than its higher powered PC and PlayStation 4 counterparts. It’s challenging and moreish, while also being a great fit for the Oculus Quest platform specifically. Permadeath and towering reliquaries – shrines that serve as in-game shops and save points – make the game easy to play in short bursts, lending itself well to the headset’s portable nature and limited battery life.
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.
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.
The trouble with space is that it's mostly empty. Venturing into the unknown in a tiny spaceship in Subdivision Infinity DX, you feel that sense of scale immediately, as enemy ships, gun turrets and collectables flicker as pixels in the distance - particularly in handheld mode.
Subdivision Infinity DX as a whole doesn’t offer a huge amount of variety, and with limited progression and customisation on offer, at least early on, momentum can start to drain fairly quickly. If you absolutely need a space shooter to play on the go, though, Subdivinity offers a taste of the sort of experience you might expect from something like Everspace at a fraction of the cost. What you’ll miss out on is the depth, variety and graphical polish - though it’s a step up from something like Event Horizon or Vostok Inc. - and experience the odd bit of slowdown when things get busy. It all depends what you’re looking for in a space adventure.
It's a well-known fact that there simply aren't enough hamsters in games these days. Fortunately for the sake of humanity, Hamsterdam is here to put the world to rights. Self-styled as an arcade brawler in which you'll become a "Hamster-fu master" patrolling a charming iteration of (you guessed it) Amsterdam, the game seeks to overpower you with cuteness from the word go.
Mini-bosses and bosses shake up the gameplay with a more side-scrolling approach to action, featuring a few QTEs for good measure. This succeeds in effectively mixing things up, but robs you of some of the satisfaction of taking down the game's beefiest villains. As a result, the difficulty curve also feels a little spikey, since these sections require completely different timing and skills, but after a few determined attempts it’s possible to power through.
Fortunately, the experience remains on the entertaining side of challenging even at those sticky moments, and it's impossible not to fall in love with Pimm and her adorable, increasingly impractical outfit choices. At the price point (less than £10, whatever your platform of choice), Hamsterdam poses great value for money and is an absolute joy.
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.
Three months ago we previewed Etherborn and opined that the indie debut from Altered Matter - helped to fruition by FoxNext and investors on crowdfunding platform Fig - looked set to impress when the full game landed. Now it’s here; an excellent puzzle-platformer which ignores the laws of gravity, requiring you to throw out conventional logic in order to wrap your head (and featureless in-game avatar) around its brain-teasing levels.
Etherborn isn’t a game where puzzles are a brief aside that mostly serve to control pacing, rather it is in itself one large-scale problem to solve.
Based on our early look at Etherborn, which we now know featured quite a large portion of the game, we wondered aloud how it might evolve in terms of its structure. There are only two additional stages in the final product, both built around the same concept of using light orbs tucked away within them to transform the landscape and allow for your passage. Much the same then, but not disparagingly so, since aesthetic diversity partners with a greater focus on platforming elements and more sprawling real estate to keep things engaging right to the end.
So engaging as to warrant an immediate second playthrough, in fact. Game + mode takes place across the same suite of levels, but the light orbs within them are now deviously concealed from view. This is the first time you’ll really need to manipulate the camera, which closely tracks your movements on an initial playthrough in order to help guide you, whereas in Game + those viewpoints are utilised to mask solutions instead. Again, it’s hard to protest it being unfair that something is hidden off-screen when at the same time you’re serenaded by Etherborn’s gorgeous, equilibrium-maintaining soundtrack.
Our preview also left us with an impression of the game’s story we deemed “vague and introspect”, based essentially on its first half. Having now seen it through, the narrative is largely open to interpretation, but does a good job of getting its abstract concepts across. Our take? A sombre and gleeful exploration of the eternal struggles of the human mind. Fitting, as the game being an effective form of meditation means it also doubles as mental medication.
Etherborn is poignant and not precisely like any other game, perhaps feeling closest to Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s focused body of work (Rez, Child of Eden, Tetris Effect) in the flow state it so easily elicits. It’s a thoroughly lovely, meditative experience that’ll have you sink deep into your seat and slow your breathing while exploring the 3D environments in all of their dimensions. It’s outstandingly clever and effortlessly spellbinding, despite the work it no doubt took the talented team at Altered Matter to get there.
For more on Etherborn, check out our interview with the game's Creative Director, Samuel Cohen.