When Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King first came to our attention earlier in the year, we immediately thought Castle Pixel’s homage to the top-down Zelda games of the past would be a natural fit for the Switch. As it turns out, Nintendo agree, snapping up the retro inspired action-adventure as a console exclusive.
Blossom Tales is an easy recommendation on Switch; a charming, colourful, and, most importantly, fun, title that feels right at home on a Nintendo system.
So, how does it fare on Switch? Having originally played Blossom Tales on a basic laptop that, while capable of running the game, probably wasn’t the optimal platform to best enjoy it on, reliving Lily’s adventure on Nintendo’s hybrid console was an absolute blast, particularly in handheld mode, where we spent the majority of our playthrough.
Seeing Blossom Tale’s world brought to life in the palm of your hands looks and feels great; colours are bright and punchy, and, despite the game’s tendency to pack the screen with large numbers of enemies at the same time, the Switch version puts in a decent performance, holding a steady framerate in all but the most chaotic of boss fights. Despite an impressive console debut there were some slight, platform-specific issues that cropped up during our time with the game.
The HD rumble, an exclusive feature for the Switch version, didn’t really feel like it added much to gameplay and became noticeably irritating after a while due to its intensity, while the default button layout also felt like it could have been better optimised, with the Y and A buttons feeling much better suited for item use than the standard setup which saw X and B allocated the task.
These were both minor issues, however, easily solved with a bit of tweaking in the menus and didn’t detract from the overall experience in any meaningful way, plus the boons of the Switch, particularly flexibility, means it still feels like the best way to enjoy the game.
Being able to pick up and play at any time, almost anywhere, is something that no other platform can offer, and Blossom Tales isn’t a title that’s taxing on the Switch’s battery, meaning it’s possible to leave it in sleep mode, walk away for a few hours, and return to find there’s still plenty of game time left in your console.
Clocking in at around 15 hours to complete, and with a price tag of just £13.49 / €14.99 / $14.99, Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King is an easy recommendation on Switch; a charming, colourful, and, most importantly, fun, title that feels right at home on a Nintendo system.
The Surge’s suffocatingly dark and claustrophobic maze of interiors made for a nightmarish setting that was arguably the star of the show. Continuing that trend, A Walk in the Park places it’s fantastical and fresh theme park at the fore to draw fans of the action role-playing game back into the fold.
The lighthearted location is enticing - especially around the festive season - in providing a welcome break from an otherwise largely bleak game.
Two boss battles help to offset the lack of big bads in the main game, though the first is as bog standard as they come and both are, arguably, too easy. A Walk in the Park lives up to its name for the most part, with easily telegraphed enemies and frequent healing opportunities hardly taxing returning veterans at all.
An abundant supply of high level implants to gather and a new drone attack further tip the odds in your favour, though swapping out an existing, upgraded weapon for one of 16 new additions - amongst them a flaming candy cane staff (!) - will help to stop you steamrolling the competition, should a high level of challenge be something you wish to preserve.
While A Walk in the Park won’t quite scratch the same masochistic itch as the base game, its lighter tone and less demanding nature are just the ticket this time of year and see the add-on dodge merely feeling like more of the same. In managing to juggle this with remaining loyal to The Surge’s core tenants, the £11.99 asking price is one that everybody with a copy of the game should consider.
The fact I’ve never played Skyrim has been a dirty little secret of mine for more than half a decade now; the role-playing game that took the world by storm, and its re-releases, have simply passed me by. While shameful, this does make me almost uniquely qualified to approach Bethesda and Escalation Studios’ Skyrim VR without Sony’s future goggles taking on a rose tint. With nostalgia out of the question, how does The Elder Scrolls’ fifth instalment hold up on PlayStation VR?
Skyrim VR is the rare kind of game that you think about all day at work or school, eager to get home in order to reprise the exciting role of your in-game character.
The technical foibles hampering its execution include a familiar, but no less irritating, image drifting issue that sees your display gradually migrate to the side now and then. If you turn to follow it it only gets worse, and holding start to realign doesn’t do the job, so a quick and easy fix is to cycle your headset’s power with the inline control. The otherwise strong motion tracking on our PlayStation Move controllers also tended to go awry as they started to run low on battery, but that’s probably more to do with the hardware’s ancient tech than the software itself.
Provided you can tough these issues out and stomach the omission of a third-person camera perspective - which isn’t a big deal in VR, but it does mean you can’t fully appreciate that swanky new armour set - the positives you’re presented far outweigh the comparatively insignificant negatives.
It’s the little things that stand out, like approaching a mammoth and bolting when the towering beast postures as though about to attack; getting a real-life shiver when clouds conceal the sun and rain starts to pour in-game; nearly dying of a heart attack when a swinging log trap abruptly falls from the ceiling and crashes directly into your face. The sense of scale and depth creates an immersion that transforms the run-of-the-mill into the extraordinary, plastering a smile on your face as you internally exclaim “Now that was cool!”
Rock solid fundamentals evoke a similar response, whether you’re playing with motion controls or a standard DualShock 4. In addition to this initial choice, you're also able to adventure either seated or standing, and can tweak a range of comfort options, meaning just about everybody can jump in regardless of their virtual reality prowess.
Menus in VR can often be much less accommodating, due to finicky motion scrolling and illegible low resolution text, so it’s a real relief that Skyrim - a menu-heavy game by any account - doesn’t fall victim to these pitfalls. Both a high level of polish and some beautiful reworking make it much less of a hassle to, for example, ditch any useless items you pick up at the game’s mercy, as its point-and-click method doesn’t quite boast the finesse necessary to pluck individual gold pieces from a bowl.
VR's sense of scale and depth creates an immersion that transforms the run-of-the-mill into the extraordinary, plastering a smile on your face as you internally exclaim “Now that was cool!"
While the menus are great and all, favourite shortcuts help you bypass them to access your arsenal toute sweet, and stay in the thick of the fight. Dual-wielding Move controllers is a perfect fit for Skyrim’s mix-and-match combat, in which you can combine a range of spells, melee weapons and shields across both hands. For the first time you’re afforded total independent control, meaning you can simultaneously attack different enemies in different directions, perhaps after anticipating a flanking manoeuvre thanks to PS VR’s 3D audio output.
Getting to grips with combat can be like spinning plates at first, juggling motion and button inputs across both hands at the same time, but once you’ve got your head around it you’ll start to feel like a truly badass death dealer. The conventional system is still passable, but very stiff by comparison; it’s simply so much more involving to physically swing a sword, raise your shield to block a loosed arrow, or shoot arcane elements from the palm of your hand.
Similarly, VR’s proclivity for creeping terror makes travelling the stealthy route just as intense. Nocking an arrow, pulling back the string, aiming and releasing is incredibly rewarding, as you’ll more often than not hit your mark without any kind of HUD element to serve as a visual aid. Just don’t get too comfortable sniping from a perch, as being caught unaware by the incoming axe swing of a virtual assassin-come-executioner isn’t the nice kind of surprise...
Skyrim does show its age in places, particularly with regard to its ugly and stilted NPC interactions, but small sacrifices to visual fidelity had to be made across the board in order to hit the necessary 90 frames per second for a non-nauseating time inside your headset. Just rest assured that, at its core, the game is perhaps more so than ever an incredibly in-depth and engrossing RPG with many meaningful choices of approach.
Whether you’re revisiting The Elder Scrolls V or venturing into its snow-capped mountains, vibrant countryside and deep, dark dungeons for the first time, Skyrim VR is an essential play for PlayStation VR owners. There’s more game for your money here than anywhere else on the platform, and, in spite of a few flaws, it’s pretty much all killer and no filler. With Bethesda bringing Fallout 4 and DOOM to virtual reality just next month, this is a very promising insight into what’s to come from one of the few major players supporting the burgeoning technology, and single player games along with it.
Picking up where the first game left off, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 is an all-new original adventure that sees obscure super villain, Kang the Conqueror, hatch a typically outlandish plot for world domination. Thusly, it falls to you and Marvel Comics’ best and brightest heroes to set things straight.
As worlds collide, so too do super heroes and villains from different eras and realities, accommodating a bonkers narrative that’s packed with nods and direct references.
You'll use their abilities in conjunction with one another to solve simple environmental puzzles and progress through Marvel Super Heroes 2’s self-contained levels. While it’s disappointing to see a return to the more fragmented structure of a central hub with the main missions offshooting from it, after it was ditched in favour of a more fluent throughline in The LEGO NINJAGO Movie Video Game, it’s not a death knell when both elements of the game are entertaining in their own right.
While the areas that comprise Chronopolis aren’t nearly as detailed as some of their videogame counterparts - coming directly from Assassin’s Creed Origins’ take, Ancient Egypt fell more than a little flat - the variety is engaging and there are fun optional activities on just about every corner. Easily the highlight amongst these are the substantial Gwenpool (an amalgamation of Gwen Stacy and Deadpool) side quests that burst with energy.
Along the way you’ll engage enemies in combo-building combat, which is a step above the more typical LEGO game fare without matching NINJAGO’s considered freneticism. Even with additional methods of offence at your disposal though, it’s easy just to mash the standard attack button until you inevitably win. This obviously caters to the game’s younger audience, but, when you basically face no repercussions for dying (as usual in this series), adding a little more nuance wouldn’t do any harm. Set-piece battles against some gargantuan bosses are at least a genuinely cool spectacle.
While the areas comprising Chronopolis aren’t nearly as detailed as some of their videogame counterparts, the variety is engaging and there are fun optional activities on just about every corner.
You can bring a local buddy along for the ride in drop-in/drop-out co-op, or sample the game’s competitive modes if you’d rather battle against than alongside each other. With no restrictions on the characters up for selection the latter mode can be unbalanced, but that’s all part of the fun. You can also play against the AI, should you be on your lonesome.
LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 very much follows the established template, warts and all, with issues like an obstructive camera, clumsy control mapping, and performance blips remaining present and accounted for. None of the issues are invasive enough to undo the game’s consistent charm and fun factor, however; if you’re a Marvel fan, of any age or gaming skill level, there’s a lot here you’ll like.
A direct sequel to 2013’s The Stick of Truth, South Park: The Fractured but Whole sees players reprise their role as the titular mountain town’s New Kid, only this time, swords and sorcery give way to capes and ridiculous superpowers.
It’s classic South Park stuff - intentionally basic visuals and all - packed with the sort of crude humour, plot twists and biting satire that fans of the show know and love.
Battles in Fractured still follow the turn-based structure found in The Stick of Truth, but now offer players (and enemies) greater tactical freedom by allowing them to move around the battlefield on a grid. Rather than simply queuing up and kicking lumps out of each other, it’s now possible - with enough careful planning and the right mix of heroes - to surround and outmanoeuvre enemies, or even dodge their ranged attacks.
This new freedom is put to particularly good use in boss battles, creating some memorable fights. Highlights include outrunning an obese stripper and her one-hit-kill crush attack, simultaneously clearing a path through her minions, and a showdown with a sober Towlie, who’s immune to your attacks and instead must be pacified by igniting cannabis stores placed around the arena.
A range of QTEs crop up both when dealing out and defending against damage to boost outgoing or mitigate incoming punishment, as well as helping to build a meter that, once full, unleashes an over-the-top special attack that’s equally entertaining and devastating.
Before a fight, players can tactically select up to three other members of Coon and Friends to battle alongside them, providing you’ve already unlocked them as a buddy and aren’t on a mission that requires a specific set of characters. Finding the right team may take a bit of trial and error, as there are quite a few options to choose from, but most people should be able to assemble a preferred combination that compliments their play style nicely.
Some of your allies also have powers that can be used outside of combat to reach secret areas hidden around South Park. As an example, you can activate the Human Kite’s flying ability wherever you see a pinwheel, allowing you to reach previously inaccessible areas and rewards, such as new hero costumes and Artefacts (the latter enhancing passive powers and boosting your Might, which makes missions easier). It’s something that helps stop mundanity creeping in as you track your way back and forth across the limited reaches of the town, but, luckily, Jimmy returns to offer another fast travel option that makes things easier on that front.
The Fractured but Whole was always going to be packed with comedy gold, but buried underneath all the fart jokes and political incorrectness is an engrossing and hugely enjoyable strategy RPG.
Although you’re cast as the Amazing Butthole, whose legendary flatulence can be used to interrupt enemy attacks and even bend time, players are able to customise their avatar both visually and on a deeper level, specifically across hero classes and a range of abilities spread between brawler, speed and support archetypes. As you make progress more and more classes begin to open up, and you’re free to combine multiple, though you still only ever have four ability slots no matter how many you’re rocking, not counting your special attack.
It’s worth noting that you’re never locked into a choice, as you’re able to visit Cartman in Coon and Friends’ headquarters to switch out classes should you have a change of heart or just want to experiment with everything that’s on offer.
The Fractured but Whole was always going to be a faithful title packed with comedy gold, which is, to be fair, probably the main appeal for many, but it was surprising (maybe because I didn’t play The Stick of Truth) to find that buried underneath all the fart jokes and political incorrectness is an engrossing and hugely enjoyable strategy RPG.
After breaking away from the annual release cycle last year to put a mediocre film out instead, Assassin’s Creed Origins sees the series triumphantly return with a sequel-come-prequel that cures the rot which had begun to take hold.
From bustling cities, to barren deserts and the Great Pyramid of Giza, environments are intricately detailed and authentic.
Though you’re free to tackle quests in the order of your choosing, if you’re under the recommended character level it’s a good idea to leave them well alone. Their inflated difficulty serves as a gating mechanic to control when you can viably go where, ensuring players aren’t immediately overwhelmed, but also providing motivation to keep gathering experience points and expanding your horizon.
A variety of weapons - each with their own rarity, statistics and status effects - are steadily pumped into your inventory as rewards and need to be swapped out or upgraded regularly. Upgrading weapons simply requires you to pay a blacksmith, though to improve the rest of your gear you’ll need to go hunting or intercept shipments and use the gathered resources to craft their betters.
You’ll put everything to use in the new and improved combat system, which is more satisfying than ever. No longer do enemies take it in turns to attack, letting you counter kill them one by one, but they flank and/or fire arrows as you’re actively engaged in combat. Encounters don’t look nearly as fluently choreographed as a result, but they’re far more compelling.
If you’re familiar with the Souls series or Breath of the Wild you’ll feel right at home with the new mechanics, which, in very similar fashion, see you lock on and avoid incoming attacks in anticipation of a window to launch a light or heavy counter attack. Though it’s more weighty and deliberate, especially when considering the pros and cons of different weapon classes, you can get away with button bashing for the most part.
Certain types of bows can be seamlessly integrated into melee bouts, while others are better served for stealth, but all of them shed the slight feeling of ineptitude ranged weapons have carried in Assassin’s Creed previously. It’s always been far preferable to take enemies on at close range, but Origins changes that, with a headshot being just as quick and deadly as your hidden blade.
Speaking of, stealth has seen a few small tweaks as well. Similar to Metal Gear Solid V you get a brief window of slow motion in which to eliminate an enemy after being spotted, plus you’ll now scout areas from a bird’s eye perspective as Senu, your eagle. Replacing Eagle Vision with a literal eagle’s vision is a better contextual fit and eliminates any ugly screen filters, all while offering up an animal companion to bond with. If Senu strays too far, however, you’ll often need to sit through a loading screen when you warp back to Bayek, which can be off-putting.
Covert infiltrations can also be made easier by utilising the dynamic day/night cycle to your advantage, as many guards retire to bed at night, generally making patrols lighter. An ability can be purchased from the skill tree that lets you change the time of day at will, while you can also unlock a range of familiar tools like poison darts and smoke bombs to further bolster your arsenal.
Combat encounters don’t look nearly as fluently choreographed as before, but they’re far more compelling.
All of the items and abilities available through the skill tree are tempting in their own right, pulling you in every direction and prompting careful consideration for how to invest your attribute points, as the best role-playing games do. Getting all of the abilities you have your eye on will take a while, which is good for longevity, though can feel ever so slightly like you’re being pointed towards Origins’ microtransactions when the game gently reminds you about its storefront.
That said, the implementation is nowhere near as egregious as some recent examples, and you’re given 200 of the premium currency for free. There are loot boxes, but they’re bought with in-game money, plus choosing to complete a daily online quest essentially awards one for free.
While Origins is the best Assassin’s Creed since Black Flag - also maintaining that game’s excellent naval combat - we’d have liked to see more polish from a title that spent twice as long in development. Glitchy animations, clipping, pathing issues and freezes are a few examples of problem we shouldn’t be seeing. While those are here to stay without a patch from Ubisoft, the impending release of the Xbox One X should at least help cut the lengthy loading times down whilst polishing the already shiny visuals.
In spite of the issues it preserves, Assassin’s Creed Origins is a successful soft reboot that comes just in time for the series’ 10th anniversary, modernising the Brotherhood’s adventures by taking inspiration from recent greats like The Witcher 3 and Destiny. It’s very easy to lose hours at a time to Origins’ improved combat and stealth systems, not to mention the wonderful setting, motivated by the developed RPG mechanics and a soundtrack with a touch of whimsy. Here’s hoping Ubisoft keep building on this foundation instead of running the new look Assassin’s Creed into the ground.
When the original Destiny was announced, expectations were high. Activision was keen to lay out the legacy of their and Bungie’s project for the next decade, before anyone had even decrypted a single engram. Now, four years in, the franchise has established itself and Destiny 2 launches not only on console, but also on PC. Is the sequel a fresh new chapter in this saga, or just more of the same?
Bungie’s mastery over gunplay remains on point.
You still do your slaying as one of three character classes, but the choice doesn’t slam shut as many doors as you might expect in terms of playstyle and items. There are subclasses too, meaning you can work your way towards a character who has perks to match how you enjoy playing the game. As there are only 20 levels to progress through before it all becomes about your Light level - boosted by acquiring better equipment, as in the first game - the skill tree is deliberately basic, which serves to keep things straightforward and accessible for new players.
Jumping into the world of Destiny at this stage could be intimidating - all that lore and story to catch up on, right? In fact, other than a nice touch which sees your Guardian’s past exploits recounted over a series of splash screens at the beginning of the game, complete with dates and who you completed missions with, the original feels like a non-essential prologue.
Playing alone is all well and good, though you’re still very much encouraged to venture online with friends. When it comes to Raids, however, that’s absolutely required. These major set pieces see you team up in order to tackle the most devious puzzles and gargantuan enemies Destiny 2 has to offer; they’re the pinnacle of the Destiny experience, though barriers to entry mean you won’t get to enjoy them until you’ve been playing for a while.
It’s at least a testament to the game’s flexibility that it can feel like you’ve had a substantial gameplay experience from the campaign alone, leaving it up to the player whether or not they engage with the endgame content. There’s a lot of depth to explore if you do choose to stick around, not least in gathering the coveted Exotic items and upgrades, which are outstanding weapons and armour pieces that can only be equipped sparingly. You’ll likely want to kit yourself out with these before getting competitive in the enjoyable PvP modes.
It can feel like you’ve had a substantial gameplay experience from the campaign alone, leaving it up to the player whether or not they engage with the endgame content.
Now that the initial hype for the game has slightly died down (and on that note, sorry for the delay), Destiny 2 is free to impress you on its own merits, holding your outstretched hand considerately, but firmly, to pull you into a world which asks as much as you’re willing to give.
If this is a game you’ll play for the odd hour, then there’s an excellent campaign to enjoy in its own right, but if you’ll be sinking hours at a time for the foreseeable future, that will work just as well. One side effect of this is that it’s difficult to feel that you’ve experienced everything the game has to offer, whichever camp you’re in, but more content is good content when it comes to the Destiny framework.
In the end, if you have any attachment to RPGs, MMOs, or, most specifically, FPS games, you’ll definitely find something to latch onto and enjoy in Destiny 2. Beyond that base level of pure enjoyment, the rest is up to you; if you give the game the chance, there’s far more substance here than you might first assume, presented more beautifully than ever before.
2014’s The Evil Within was renowned game director Shinji Mikami’s spiritual successor to the classic Resident Evil titles of his creation, so, with the seventh instalment of Capcom’s horror series successfully returning to its roots earlier this year, The Evil Within 2 needed to evolve to garner attention. Thankfully, that’s exactly what happened: TEW 2 improves and expands on its forebearer in almost every way, making for a great example of a sequel done right.
The Evil Within 2 improves and expands on its forebearer in almost every way, making for a great example of a sequel done right.
While perhaps a little difficult to wrap your head around initially, STEM’s alternate reality is a fantastic means to remove all barriers and let The Evil Within’s design run riot. You’re relentlessly shown exciting new visuals, bolstered by HDR compatibility, all of which are so considered in their grotesquery that they achieve a morbid beauty. Just as you wouldn’t generally link beauty and brutality, The Evil Within 2 revels in making further juxtapositions feel natural next to one another, be that in reality-based and abstract settings, affluence and dilapidation, or low and high technologies.
This serves to complement another of the game’s villains, the artist Stefano, a character that has more than a little in common with BioShock’s fantastic Sander Cohen, complete with his very own Fort Frolic. Using human flesh as his canvas, you’ll bear witness to many of his works, and, somewhat disturbingly, very likely stop to calmly admire them with the fitting accompaniment of an original (and excellent) classical music track.
Having gone quasi-open world, the game’s two truly sandbox areas (one of which is cheekily recycled as a faux third) are, thankfully, packed with exciting and significant optional activities. Compliments for open world design are thin on the ground these days - we, along with many others, have grown tired of the map-filling, tedious brand of busywork many games have come to rely upon. The Evil Within 2’s unique boss encounters, side missions, collectibles and secrets put that issue to rest however, maintaining consistently high quality whilst also serving to fill in the wider narrative and bridge the three-year gap between instalments. This makes scouring the crumbling streets of Union a thoroughly enriching experience, akin to exploring Batman: Arkham City for the first time.
STEM’s alternate reality is a fantastic means to remove all barriers and let the The Evil Within’s design run riot. You’re relentlessly shown exciting new visuals.
What’s more, especially if you up the difficulty to Nightmare, this nonlinearity sees the survival element begin to shine. You might clamber onto a rooftop and use your sniper scope to scout a location in the distance, spotting a tempting loot pile surrounded by enemies before weighing whether or not it's worth pursuing; perhaps you then make some supplies via the simple new crafting system, these convincing you to head in with stealthy intent. You’re spotted. An unnerving chase begins, more and more enemies emerging from all directions, drawn by the ruckus, as you narrowly avoid an incoming swipe and hurriedly slip into the nearest safehouse, breathing a heavy sigh of relief as you stand, shaken, behind the boundary door. That’s just one example of the many possible, and quite memorable, self-contained stories The Evil Within 2’s emergent gameplay can facilitate, in much the same vein as State of Decay.
Frequently breaking away from the open areas for more linear main story segments, as well as trips through a series of tunnels called The Marrow, had us longing to return at times. This feeling isn’t helped by the fact that these sections occasionally force either open combat or stealth on the player, rather than leaving them to choose their own method of approach. Both play styles are at least engaging, with a highly customisable loadout of loud, punchy firearms and a versatile tactical crossbow making up the bulk of your offence, while conventional-but-satisfying hidden melee kills and a slightly dodgy cover system mostly comprise the sneaky side of things.
Having a sizeable arsenal at your disposal unfortunately relieves many of the malformed cast of enemies of their scare factor; provided you’re actively scavenging for resources, you’ll never be in any desperate need for either ammunition or medical supplies, even on the hardest difficulty setting. Throughout a playthrough, which should last around twenty hours, ways to manipulate the dopey AI and reliably spot enemies lying in ambush also become apparent, further tipping the odds in your favour.
Other than some great late game boss encounters, The Evil Within 2 gradually leaks horror until there’s little left to be scared of; this might be either welcome or disappointing, depending on how much you like sitting in your own leakage. Maintaining the first game’s body burning mechanic - which saw enemies have the potential to spring back to life if their corpse wasn’t ousted using a limited supply of matches, à la the Resident Evil remake - would likely have helped the game remain more engaging on that front, however.
All in all, despite a weaker second act by comparison to the superb first, The Evil Within 2 is a mechanically gripping game. It’s a sophisticated mix of old and new, along with Western and Japanese influences, thanks to its diverse development staff. A considered audiovisual feast that, in a year where Resident Evil 7 convinced us first-person perspectives and VR were the unchallenged future of survival horror, compellingly challenged that notion.
There's a reason Monolith’s Shadow of games don’t have The Lord of the Rings in their titles. You might assume that the brand recognition of Middle-earth alone (playfully aped in The Lego Movie as Middle Zealand, after all) is enough to sell a franchise – even one building on a successful debut with Shadow of Mordor back in 2014. In fact, the thing to take from Middle-earth: Shadow of War’s title is that it’s about Tolkien’s world more than his established characters.
Shadow of War takes cues from the likes of The Witcher 3, Assassin's Creed and the Batman: Arkham series.
This shared goal, coupled with the events of the first game (which aren’t thoroughly recounted), have seen the pair form a bond and now forge a new Ring of Power; one unknown to and uncorrupted by Sauron’s influence and filled with the power of Celebrimbor’s wraith form.
It's here we meet the first diversion from established Tolkien lore, which predictably invited controversy during the game’s development. The Great Spider Shelob (encountered by Frodo and Sam in The Return of the King) is depicted as a more ethereal being which generally takes the form of an attractive woman, rather than a hairy arachnid.
While it makes it easier to relate to the character, the depiction does seem unnecessarily sexualised and doesn't do much to make her compelling as a somewhat bystander in the story. Nonetheless, she’s called on to drive the plot forward with Galadriel-esque visions.
It must be said that the main characters in general are fairly uninspiring, despite the extremely cinematic and often epic presentation of the action unfolding around them. While Troy Baker's voice work as Talion fits perfectly, the warring sides of one being (himself and Celebrimbor sharing a body) can be akin to a married couple bickering, rather than two strong personalities arguing over fundamental disagreements. Their conflict isn't nearly as engaging as the world they occupy.
A big part in making this take on Middle-earth compelling is the Nemesis System, which returns to bring enemy captains to the forefront. The process often starts with interrogating a 'worm’ (a lowly orc) to gain intel on a captain's weaknesses, which will help you to defeat the boss-type characters in more convincing fashion. Later you can send death threats to achieve the opposite effect, boosting their level to heighten the challenge and thusly reap greater rewards.
A big part in making this take on Middle-earth compelling is the Nemesis System, which returns to bring enemy captains to the forefront.
What isn't clear is just how unique these characters are to each player. Will one maggot-infested captain who came back to life multiple times to taunt us appear in other games? Or is there a complex system of procedural generation at work, weaving in these memorable encounters on a somewhat user-by-user basis?
Either way, you can bump into the edges on occasion when you come across the same voice actors depicting multiple foes, but adding a personal touch does make these duels more exciting. Especially when three or four gang up on you at once and present an almost overwhelming challenge, the brutes then being promoted while taunting you on their victory should you fall.
The general orc populous are fairly obedient in only attacking one or two at a time, plus they’re either unwilling or unable to interrupt most cinematic actions like execution kills or draining the life out of grunts to regain health. Challenge comes in facing sheer numbers - which are now more common with the introduction of large-scale fort battles - though they can often be whittled down before entering open combat by engaging with the forgiving stealth system, which incorporates instant melee kills and a silent ranged bow (along with plenty of flashier abilities acquired through an upgrade tree).
Shadow of War’s world is separated into different regions, all with their own crop of captains to work through, missions to tackle and collectables to pick up. Looking at the world map brings back the Assassin's Creed comparisons - comparisons to Ubisoft games in general, really - as you're often unable to clear the map of its many, many symbols. Enemies also respawn fairly constantly, meaning there's only limited satisfaction in cleansing an area of filthy orcses.
In the end, Shadow of War is a great game let down by drawbacks which range from nagging to difficult to ignore. The sheer number of systems and sub-systems alone mean you're still being introduced to new mechanics and working out how the game works long into the second act.
If you relish the thought of jumping back into Tolkien’s world, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a no-brainer; there's hours of exciting entertainment to be had. Ultimately though, there's an inevitability to where the story is heading, making it difficult to feel that you're the catalyst for any great change in a world on the brink - but perhaps that's the point.
The original LEGO Star Wars was a breath of fresh air when it released back in 2005, but as its blueprint was reused year-on-year the LEGO series began to shed its new-brick shine. Having taken a lengthy break as a result, returning to find that familiar formula turned on its head was a very pleasant surprise.
The writing, voice performances and visual design are infused with a characterful LEGO flair and knack for slapstick humour that makes the NINJAGO universe immediately likeable, even to the totally uninitiated.
The more you play, the more satisfying the combat gets, as you progressively unlock Ninjanuity tokens used to purchase upgrades from a skill tree. All in all, there’s actually some decent, if simplistic, spectacle fighting here - kids especially will adore the busy visual effects and flashy finishing manoeuvres.
They’ll undoubtedly enjoy piloting transforming Mechs in explosive rail-shooter sections as well, though there’s less here for adults to enjoy. While visually impressive and an occasional welcome change of pace, the shooting is underwhelming when you’ve been spoilt by dedicated shooters.
The LEGO NINJAGO Movie Video Game is far from a cynical cash-in, evolving the LEGO game formula in significant ways to make for an action-adventure that stands up on its own. There are still some familiar foibles here, plus loading takes an age, but the improved mechanics and glut of engaging activities make it a blast whether you’re playing solo, in local drop-in/drop-out co-op, or competitive local multiplayer.