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.
Following its launch on PC and PS4 late last year, Ronimo Games (Awesomenauts Assemble!) have brought their side-scrolling strategy title to Nintendo Switch.
Apart from units actively mining resources, which remain at your base unless commanded to collect pick-ups, all units begin marching towards enemy positions immediately once purchased. They give no thought to their own safety or the size of the challenge facing them, therefore, players must manage resources carefully to ensure troops are sent forth in groups, rather than individually. This leads to some interesting strategization, as you’ll want to find potent combinations that best complement each other.
Missions generally feature at least one main objective along with one or two bonus objectives, which encourage you to experiment with tactics or challenge yourself by deliberately making things harder, adding variety to the straightforward level layouts. Main objectives range from simply destroying enemy bases to more memorable tasks like navigating a limited number of troops through environmental obstacles. Occasionally, you’ll also come across Bonus Battles; these one-off skirmishes give you the freedom to build your own army from all of the units you’ve unlocked thus far.
Both visually and technically, Shawarmageddon fares well on Switch. Frame rates occasionally drop during the largest of battles, but (naturally) Nintendo’s hybrid console offers the most ways to play - docked, handheld and touch - to easily counterbalance that. There’s seamless switching between the latter two, which makes targeting individual units a doddle, though, as we’ve found before, the balance, weight and shape of the Switch just doesn’t lend itself well to this one-handed style of play for long periods of time.
The versatility of the Joy-Cons also facilitates spontaneous bouts of local multiplayer, both docked and on-the-go, with portable play intelligently taking the unconventional approach of splitting matches vertically for optimum use of the Switch’s limited screen space.
Online multiplayer doesn’t hold up quite so well, unfortunately, as you’ll likely struggle to find another player even during peak hours. After just a handful of successful matches (many of which were against the same opponent), we found ourselves ranked 23rd on the global leaderboards, which suggests this mode has a very limited following.
Despite the dearth of online competition, Ronimo have catered their charismatically simple and engaging take on the strategy genre to all play styles on Switch, making it an attractive purchase.
Bust out the hi-tops, gold chains, fluorescent trousers and square hair, gang, for it’s time to revisit the beloved 90s world of ToeJam & Earl. That’s right, the titular twosome are Back in the Groove.
Let’s not forget the baddies, though: the cast of irritants and nasties feature earthlings of all flavours, encompassing autograph-hunting fans, FBI agents, and even sharks. That’s neglecting to mention the likes of ghostly cows, that corpulent, bald casanova, Cupid, and tornadoes that’ll knock you off the edge of a level, back down to the previous one. These foes are rarely threatening, mind, as there’s always a Sunflower forest to hide away in, playing a sublime little jingle whenever you walk into one.
Waltzing around as a bodacious alien, dressed as Vanilla Ice, bopping to a superbly funky soundtrack, is quite the treat in itself.
Now, you could be forgiven for reading all of the above and wondering what the point of the whole shebang is. A fair assessment, perhaps, but that’d be to miss the essence of BITG completely. Waltzing around as a bodacious alien, dressed as Vanilla Ice, bopping to a superbly funky soundtrack, is quite the treat in itself.
Yes, the core gameplay of searchin’ ‘n’ findin’ might not lend itself to the most thrilling of loops, but throw into the mix procedurally generated levels, different difficulties, the kind of laughs that only local co-op play can provide, and mini-games that break up the monotony - on that note, the dancing game is great, but the auto-runner isn’t so much - and there’s scope for even the non-nostalgic to enjoy themselves.
Visually, ToeJam and Earl have thankfully been dragged punching and hollering into the can-only-meet-people-via-an-app age. Gawping at the cartoony wonder of trees, water, snow, desert and caricature-style NPCs is a dream, so it’s a real shame that performance can suffer on occasion, when, in all honesty, the game really isn’t pushing the limits of modern hardware. The mid-level elevator scenes are a prime example of this: fantastic Fresh Prince-inspired backdrops that chug and wheeze as the next level loads.
The undeniable presentational standout here, though, is the absolute funkathon of a score. Squelchy, popped ‘n’ slapped bass smashes through the speakers, throwing some serious aural shapes alongside subdued, crunchy beats. Kickstarter backers had the opportunity to get a copy of the soundtrack on vinyl, and of that fact we’re considerably jealous.
Where does all this leave us though, folks? In reality, ToeJam & Earl is as anti-mainstream as ever, and we appreciate that. If you like local multiplayer games, adore funkadelic basslines, or just have a hankering to revisit 1991, you’ll certainly have fun with Back in the Groove. Comrades with short attention spans, or who find early 90s pop culture and/or the basic trappings of dungeon crawlers abhorrent, though, should breakdance right outta here. PEACE.
Carbon Studio’s award-winning spellcaster has made its way to PlayStation VR in “enhanced” form - now featuring a new stage, new cutscenes, checkpoints, performance improvements and more - but do these tweaks see the game hold up one year after its initial launch?
New to this iteration of the game is an optional head-tracked form of auto-aim, which is enabled by default and that’s definitely a good thing. Throwing is a motion that doesn’t often play well with the Move controllers, at least not with any real degree of accuracy, so the slightly sticky reticule is a must for reliably guiding your projectiles to their target. What’s more, it does a pretty good job of discerning exactly where you’re looking, allowing you to easily pick out priority targets in a crowd.
In-game movement and real-world comfort are handled well too, as The Wizards accommodates both teleportation and free movement, alongside seated and standing play. Expect to fiddle with your height settings if playing seated, mind, as we had to register at a minuscule 80 cm tall in order to align with the UI.
Utilising two PlayStation Move controllers, you’ll motion to weave the arcane into existence while channelling your inner sorcerer.
Getting this right also helps to achieve the perspective required to spot traps and puzzle elements, which litter the game’s eleven brief and fairly nondescript levels. Punctuated by a couple of visually impressive, but mechanically underwhelming boss encounters, the three-to-four hour adventure is fairly replayable due to the inclusion of Fate Cards. These gameplay modifiers are found hiding in chests and can be activated to turn the tides in or against your favour, most notably applying score multipliers to help with climbing the online leaderboards.
Then there’s Arena mode, which tasks you with defending three crystals, once again sights firmly set on outlasting the competition in order to climb leaderboards relevant to each of the three maps. It’s very familiar territory and, without co-op, it doesn’t really have legs.
At its best moments, when you’re fluently fighting off a swarm of ogres without feeling like the real battle is being waged with imprecise motion controls, The Wizards is an intoxicating realisation of any long-held magical fantasies. The PlayStation VR version can cause that illusion to crumble though, which is a burden not entirely shouldered by inferior hardware, as other games have managed to pull off the transition just about seamlessly.
After making its way to Steam and North American Switch owners last summer, Sleep Tight has finally reached our shores this month, bringing its Pixar-inspired take on the classic horde formula to Europe.
During our early playthroughs we attempted to construct a square fort in the middle of the room, using barricades and the four upgrade stations as indestructible cornerstones. While visually pleasing, this left us open to attacks from all sides and required a much more hands-on approach to defence. Later runs brought about a change of strategy, namely hiding in a corner behind a wall of turrets, which allowed us to sit back and watch the automated fire do much of the dirty work for us. There was even a rather daring run which saw us eschew all defences in favour of ammo and shield power-ups, a strategy that proved surprisingly effective.
Every night survived sees you rewarded with suns and, along with stars dropped by downed enemies, these serve as a currency used for purchasing products at the aforementioned stations. You’ll need those to combat the evolving suite of enemies, which could easily pass for Monsters, Inc. movie extras, with small and speedy creatures being complemented by the introduction of bigger, stronger types capable of dealing serious damage to your base as rounds progress.
With only a few suns handed out each morning, you’ll need to spend wisely in order to stay alive for as long as possible, especially considering they don’t carry over to the next day. Do you repair a turret on its last legs, or stock up on shields and ammo in case things go south? It’s decisions like these that can make or break a playthrough, and while watching the inevitable downfall unfold on a particularly good run brings with it a tinge of sadness, last stands are always good, frantic fun. The game’s relatively speedy pace also means it’s never too long before you’re back in the thick of things, which helps.
From a technical standpoint, Sleep Tight appears to run well on Switch, both when docked and handheld. The only drawback was some screen glare when playing in handheld mode during daylight hours, as the game’s entirely set at night and obviously quite dark as a result. You can exit and save progress between rounds, but we often found that simply putting the Switch in sleep mode then returning some time later was a decent way to keep a playthrough going when interrupted.
Overall, Sleep Tight is another solid addition to the Switch’s growing roster of indies. Whilst it would be great to be able to team up with friends for a monster mash, the quick pace of rounds, satisfying gameplay and battery-friendly nature of the game make it a great candidate for solo commuters.
After a brief period of exclusivity with Discord, At Sundown: Shots in the Dark has been released onto multiple platforms, bringing with it an atypical twist on the multiplayer shooter.
As you continue to play and progress, unlocks are awarded with each level gained and come in the form of new weapons, maps and game modes. Whilst the unlockable maps and modes offer some variety (King of the Hill works particularly well), building the unconventional armoury is At Sundown’s real prize.
The level cap can be reached very quickly, ensuring things aren't locked behind progression for too long, but that does mean you’ll pretty much have seen everything the game has to offer within a couple of hours.
Typically for a multiplayer-focused game, longevity comes from honing your craft. You can do so locally, with up to four players supported, while AI bots can fill in any available spaces. AI capability ranges from laughably easy to cheating bastard, which can depend more on the weapons in play than the difficulty setting.
Unfortunately, padding matches with bots isn't an option if you venture online. We weren’t able to find an online bout during our playtime, though that shouldn’t come as a surprise, as we were playing pre-release, but we were able to try out some 1v1 battles and, as suitably tense as they were (thanks in no small part to the ominous soundtrack), the experience felt proportionally watered down. Technically it was spot on, it just lacked the measured carnage of a four-way firefight.
Still, Mild Beast Games have taken the slow, methodical strategy of Battleships, infused it with the twitchy thrill of a modern shooter and presented it in a way which invites an inaccurate, but not unfair, comparison to Bomberman. If you and yours are any sort of frantic multiplayer fans, then At Sundown might just be worth a look.
Cooperation is a powerful thing; playing a game with other people can turn just about any experience into something ultimately more memorable and entertaining. As such, Catastronauts’ endearing brand of chaos is immediately gripping with even just a single fellow interstellar adventurer in tow.
The gameplay experience boils down to a series of quick, exciting bursts of panic, stress and terror in the best possible way.
Of course, a game can sound or look as good as you like (and in fact the soundtrack is suitably otherworldly too), but at the end of the day it’s still how it plays that really matters. Here the gameplay experience boils down to a series of quick, exciting bursts of panic, stress and terror in the best possible way.
Fighting game-style life bars at the top of the screen cause a creeping anxiety as they deplete in conjunction with the escalating action down below. With each level the stakes are further raised as new mechanics are introduced - giving you new ways to power up your weapons and unleash pain on your adversaries - as well as placing new obstacles in the way of keeping your spaceship in working order.
Catastronauts’ difficulty curve is steep, with an awful lot to keep on top of even in the earliest stages, to the extent that it could be a bit much for new players the first time around. The presentation is so playful and accepting though, even a total failure is met with a smile and urges to suit up again for another go.
Motivation to press on is, unfortunately, a little harder to come by when going at it alone. Solo you’re pushed for time twice as much (or more), needing to swap between two characters to be able to access all of the tools to keep the ship running. Much like Overcooked there’s no AI support here, so you can’t set a character off doing something and then swap between them to save time, which can shift the mood from excited, restless panic to something more aggravating.
If you have a group of four friends together, this is where the magic happens, bringing back nostalgic memories, for those of a more distinguished lifespan, of the golden age of couch co-op starring the likes of Mario Party and Goldeneye. Without your friends on hand though, there’s little else to turn to as there’s no online matchmaking here.
With the busy, end-of-year festive period creeping closer than we’d like to admit, Catastronauts feels like a perfect game to bring people together at a host of seasonal gatherings, nestled comfortably between some Mario Kart 8 Duluxe and Quiplash.
There’s plenty of good natured fun on offer here, and while the difficulty might prove too much for soloists, or even those in a pair, as a group of four the balance feels much more natural and lets everyone contribute.
For a fledgling indie outfit, the production quality and attention to detail Inertia have achieved here is almost staggering, with nary an illusion-breaking bug in sight, whilst everything has been thought through to give an overall rich and enjoyable experience.
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.
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.
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.