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.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a triumph. Crowdfunded to the tune of more than $5.5 million at the height of the Kickstarter craze, many of its peers released to lukewarm critical and commercial reception, but Koji Igarashi and company took the extra time to produce something truly special.
Igavania? More like egovania, amirite? ... Seriously though, Igarashi (above) is one of the greats!
Gameplay has always been the bread and butter of metroidvania games, and Ritual of the Night certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front. Largely it’s very familiar in that you travel an enormous, satisfyingly interconnected map collecting new abilities - such as the power to fire yourself through narrow gaps like a ricocheting bullet - which in turn grant access to new areas. The well-established gameplay loop is incredibly moreish when executed in exacting fashion, as it is here, almost defying you to leave any small segment of the map unexplored.
From torchlit castle halls to moonlit cathedral towers, to dank sewers and myriad exotic locales beyond, a wide range of seemingly disparate areas are convincingly tied together by a unified aesthetic and intelligent, looping shortcuts. You’ll get to know the world of Bloodstained quite intimately as you backtrack to solve puzzles you’ve since discovered the answers to, or to reach designated save and fast travel rooms, which never becomes a chore.
That’s thanks not just to the exquisite 2.5D level design, but the tight platforming and deep combat systems you’ll engage with along the way. Miriam can acquire and equip outfits and weapons throughout her journey, the former of which offer various stat boosts and aesthetic changes when items are worn on the head, while the latter can completely change how the game plays.
Depending on preference you might opt for the greater range of a whip or a spear, the close-quarters finesse of a dagger, the balance of a one-handed sword, or the brute force of a laboured greataxe swing. That’s not to mention firearms and their different ammo types. Every harebrained enemy - be it a frog, a dragon, or a scissor-handed marionette straight outta Devil May Cry - has their share of quantifiable strengths and weaknesses, so it makes sense to switch things up on the regular. If you can master enemy attack patterns and Miriam’s graceful backstep dodge, as well as the necessary timing and spacing for your favourite weapons, hostile encounters become akin to dance.
An undisputed retro classic made modern, without sacrificing an ounce of appeal or introducing current industry ailments.
Combat has incredible nuance for those who seek to discover it, be that in hidden techniques for specific weapons, attack hit boxes that extend behind and/or directly above your person dependant on the animation, or the realisation that a weapon might be doubly efficient when used while crouched. A small complaint would be that once you do grow proficient, due to normal difficulty being the only option available on an initial playthrough, bosses especially go from an engaging challenge to a complete cakewalk. That and the game's technical performance can take a big hit when your screen-filling, death-dealing prowess matches theirs.
If you’re all about preserving the challenge, limiting your selection of Shards would be a good start. These crystallised forms of demon power randomly drop from enemies and tend to either grant access to one of their abilities or allow you to summon the relevant beast to fight alongside you temporarily. You can equip quite a few at once and they’re more often than not very potent, theoretically balanced out by limiting their use with a mana resource, but, unlike health, mana automatically regenerates over time so there’s little reason not to make liberal use of them.
Familiars are ever-present AI helpers that don’t consume mana, even auto-levelling alongside the leading lady, whilst elsewhere upgrades are carried out via a vendor at a peaceful hub location. Here you can buy/sell and cook/craft using materials most often discovered in chests, dropped by defeated enemies, or gifted as rewards for completing optional side quests.
With Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding also releasing in 2019, we wonder if Konami are feeling ashamed of their words and deeds...
Somewhat uncharacteristically, we’ve been loving the grind to gather ingredients, cook and consume all of the game’s recipes in order to claim their permanent stat increases, perhaps because it’s a simple pleasure to spend time in the Bloodstained universe. Another uncharacteristic find, at least for me personally, is the appreciation of quite an anime visual style; I’m coming around to the character models, but the colourful backdrops evoking the game’s stained glass motif I universally adore! More predictable is our love of the orchestral soundtrack, looping and grandiose in its modern interpretation of catchy retro classics.
In fact, that sums Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night up pretty well - an undisputed retro classic made modern, without sacrificing an ounce of appeal or introducing current industry ailments in the process. There’s a lot of game here, and it’s so compelling in its mechanics and audiovisuals that you’ll want to drain every last drop from the experience like a vampire affixed to its succulent neck.
Spiritual successor to the classic Wonder Boy games, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a strikingly gorgeous, achingly nostalgic adventure that gets better and better the more you play.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a strikingly gorgeous, achingly nostalgic adventure that gets better and better the more you play.
Some items come with associated abilities - like boots that enable a double jump manoeuvre - often granting access to new areas, or at the very least previously inaccessible nooks within explored locales. Monster World is pretty huge, so the detailed, screen-by-screen map that’s awash with hints pointing towards as-yet-undiscovered secrets is a real boon for completionists.
Fortunately, the game’s setting is as varied as it is vast, encompassing idyllic, bustling hub towns through dark, labyrinthine sewers. Not just visually diverse, areas also require different tactics to traverse, making each feel doubly distinct and effectively staving off any potential fatigue resulting from what’s, ultimately, quite a familiar overarching structure.
In basest terms, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is another retro platformer, but, given time, it blossoms into something altogether more complex and enthralling. The fact that the folks at FDG Entertainment and The Game Atelier managed to pull that off while remaining staunchly true to their ‘80s inspiration, Wonder Boy, results in a masterfully-executed game that fans of retro platformers and modern metroidvanias alike will adore.
Hot on the heels of their Crash Bandicoot reboot, Toys For Bob and Activision are back with another slice of 90’s nostalgia in the form of Spyro Reignited Trilogy, an upgraded collection of the first three titles to star the diminutive purple dragon, lovingly restored for a new generation.
There are still gems galore to hoover up across the hub worlds and their many colourful offshoots, and old hands and newcomers alike will be glad to hear that the relatively rudimentary gameplay still holds up, even if enemies - particularly bosses - do seem absurdly easy by today’s standards.
All three games feature a healthy mix of biomes, from sandy deserts and treetop villages to the obligatory water levels, but it’s the sequels, Ripto’s Rage! and Year of the Dragon, that outshine the first thanks to the addition of non-dragon NPCs which imbue worlds with extra character. Year of the Dragon even sees you take control of Sypro’s sidekicks now and then, including a jetpacking penguin with shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, which is just about as fun as it sounds.
Along with bonus levels – including our personal favourites that see you flying through obstacles and taking out enemies within a time limit – these moments help to stop monotony from creeping in as you progress through the collection. There’s also the added challenge of collecting skill points, which are acquired through completing specific tasks on certain levels, be it taking out enemies with particular attacks, reaching a hidden area or taking no damage during a boss fight.
Reuniting with Spyro provided a welcome and nostalgic distraction from modern life.
They add another layer of depth, especially for the completionists out there, but the concept art offered as a reward for their completion is a bit underwhelming. We’d have been much more motivated to hunt down all of the numerous challenges if there was a sweeter bonus up for grabs, like maybe a means to switch between the original and remastered visuals. As it is, the only throwback to the original games’ design is the option to play with the old-school soundtrack (composed by The Police drummer Stewart Copeland) enabled, which doesn’t actually sound all that different from the updated one.
Although the Reignited Trilogy may appear basic compared to many of today’s offerings - you won’t find any branching skill trees or a particularly engaging storyline here - the colourful, cheery nature of the games kept pulling us back in for more. On the whole, reuniting with Spyro provided a welcome and nostalgic distraction from modern life, reminding us of a simpler time when penny sweets and six o'clock double headers of The Simpsons were the norm.
Puzzles are designed to make you think. Everything from putting together a 1,000-piece snowy scene with loved ones at Christmas, to collapsing into a heap as the clock ticks down in that escape room challenge your friend Dave insisted would be fun.
The game’s 80+ puzzles ramp up fairly gradually, reaching what may feel like a natural conclusion around half way through, only to open up to a far more colourful and interesting environment, though to share more would stray somewhat into spoiler territory.
The visual style is stunning, taking mechanically impressive creations and fleshing out the world with sleek design and quality textures.
Unfortunately, thanks to a lack of ability on our part, a single puzzle got the better of us, stopping our progress dead in its tracks - despite feeling like we were on the right track, our usual font of knowledge (the internet) wasn’t able to offer a way out ahead of release day. As a result, we weren’t able to discover the “devastating truth” hinted to lie at the journey’s end, but the mid-game twist alone takes the narrative side of the game up a level, giving an experience which would be perfectly serviceable without the extra flourish.
Particularly compared to the first game, the visual style which Toxic Games have delivered here is quite stunning, taking mechanically impressive creations and fleshing out the world with sleek design and high quality textures - certainly up to the high standards of current console heavyweights - made even shinier with full Xbox One X support.
While the game undoubtedly still owes some inspirational cues to Portal, with this sequel the team have more than moved past such obvious comparisons to deliver something with character and intrigue as well as solid, compelling gameplay that’s well worth your time and the somewhat chunky asking price of £19.99.
With a star-studded team of Rockstar and Bungie alumni at the helm, as well as a pint-sized protagonist that’s cute as a button, anticipation for PlayStation VR exclusive Moss has been riding high since it was unveiled. Now that it’s out, does the storybook tale of an unlikely heroine on a grand adventure deliver? Or does it not quite measure up?
Whether she’s offering a high five to reward a job well done, performing actual sign language in an attempt to communicate, or even chastising you for wasting too much time on petting her, Quill is an incredibly sweet and personable mouse who’s pretty much impossible not to love. I’m not the soppy sort when it comes to virtual animal companions (you could fill a pet cemetery with the Tamagotchis, Fable dogs and Mass Effect fishies I’ve left in my wake), which demonstrates the care and attention poured into bringing her very literal three-dimensional character to life.
Quill’s charmingly stout stature also serves to imbue locations with a mesmerising sense of scale, absolutely dwarfing her, yet at the same time being detailed down to the smallest minutia. Each exquisitely lit area, from lush forest to marble-clad castle, ties into a cohesive whole without sight nor sound of an intrusive loading screen or menu to hamper the presentation so painstakingly built. This is a colourful world in which mice ride tamed and saddled squirrels, but it’s so beautifully grounded as to be believable.
Environmental storytelling hints at echos of human habitation within the realm of Moss, as does the mechanical nature of many enemies you encounter; whilst no definitive answers to these sorts of larger contextual questions are offered, the whimsical soundtrack compels you to linger on them in humanity’s apparent absence. The game does reach a neat conclusion on the more immediate front, however, whilst also extending the tantalising promise that there's more from this world to come.
Quill is an incredibly sweet and personable mouse who’s pretty much impossible not to love.
More Moss is definitely welcome, not least because the three to five hour runtime will probably leave you wanting. Beyond the opportunity to spend more time with Quill, trophies and collectibles are really all that might serve to draw you back in for a second playthrough.
While it lasts, Moss is a charming, magical and gentle-natured adventure which establishes a compelling setting and an absolutely adorable protagonist that’ll bring a smile to even the sourest of faces. Though its simplistic gameplay sees the experience fall short of matching the Hylian escapades that inspired its core design, the team at Polyarc have brought a winning formula to virtual reality along with bucket loads of unique character. If that isn’t a strong foundation on which to build the upcoming sequel, we don’t know what is.
Artificial Intelligence is undoubtedly a hot topic these days. Everything from the cheerful Alexa and Google Assistant to the constant, nameless analysis of personal data across the internet aim to make people’s lives easier. As a game which explores these themes head on, The Fall Part 2: Unbound is perhaps more relevant now than ever. This sequel delves deeper into the rules and logic which make constructed intelligence work, and how the smallest actions can push the boundaries of what programming can do.
Sections within the digital landscape, while visually distinct and just as beautifully constructed as the rest of the game, consist of fairly basic platforming and exploration, paired with a handful of encounters with troublesome, formless black entities attempting to protect the system.
One of the biggest potential pitfalls in the game is that the very nature of the puzzles may go over many people’s heads and demand more patience than the fraught nature of modern life traditionally allows. For example, in order to convince the robot butler to investigate a certain area of the house you need to gradually create the environment necessary for the butler to come to the conclusion that taking a look is a logical plan, and something which falls within its given parameters.
We spent a while walking around trying to make sense of what to do with a certain item before finally finding the (or, possibly a) solution. Perhaps to others it may be more obvious, but it definitely requires a certain way of thinking. The game does very little hand-holding either, which is admirable in pushing the player to find the solution, but at times it might be nice to have a tiny clue to save going around in circles.
The player is rewarded for examining each nook and cranny carefully - in fact, often, puzzle-solving elements require it.
The story is the real star of the show, and something which the game clearly prides itself on. It’s unusual to see as deep a characterisation in an AI, certainly it’s the first instance since the Mass Effect series to really delve into the motivations of an artificial being, and to an extent humanise them with the unfettered determination with which they insist on surviving.
More than that, the game manages to tell a lot of its story very visually, not least through some stunning visual presentation of its world, rather than relying on tons of exposition. The player is rewarded for taking the time to examine each nook and cranny carefully - in fact, often, the puzzle-solving elements require it.
All too often when a game has something to say it can hit you over the head with it, but Over The Moon have done an outstanding job balancing the parallels to our world while examining the contradictory nature of imperfect beings striving for perfection through technology.
This cerebral experience is not a popcorn, throwaway title. To crack its tough, mind-bending exterior you’ll need to adopt a certain way of thinking, but once you do, there’s nothing more satisfying than feasting on its gooey centre.
Platformers can be tricky. The art of a great platformer is to pose a challenge without being frustrating to the point that players are tempted to throw their controller across the room. Somewhat like fighting games, not everyone is gifted when it comes to tackling the genre (*raises hand*), and so there’s equally a challenge in making a game feel accessible to that demographic too. Shu, a delightful indie offering from Coatsink, happily toes that line and - more often than not - passes with flying colours.
If you’re in need of a traditional platformer with some fresh ideas, Shu won’t disappoint.
The musical score really helps to bring the game’s world to life, and while not quite as memorable as the recent instalments of Rayman, which are arguably the gold standard for 2D platformers overall, it brings the kind of gravitas you’d expect from a AAA release to the carefully crafted package of an independent one.
Shu has been available on Steam and PS4 from back in 2016, and since then a few new levels have been added in. On the Switch, which is perhaps the best-suited platform to its pick up/put down gameplay, the Caverns of the Nightjars add-on is bundled for players to enjoy once they’ve polished off the main storyline.
While, at times, frustration can still build and you’ll need to step away (thanks to those race-against-the-end-of-the-world sections), there’s an excellent time to be had here on the whole. If you find yourself on the opposite end of the spectrum and things are feeling a bit easy, you can always try again with a mind to gathering all of the collectables or setting a new best time, so there’s some replay value too.
If you’re in need of a traditional platformer with some fresh ideas, Shu won’t disappoint.
They say foxes are cunning (if you believe 90's sitcoms at any rate), and the decision to ditch VR for this fox-themed follow up to exclusive Oculus Rift title Lucky’s Tale was certainly that if the aim was to reach a wider audience. Whether the move to a more traditional presentation makes it a more compelling game is another matter.
The accessible design philosophy results in a difficulty level that’s pedestrian for the most part, even coming off the already generous Super Mario Odyssey.
Four clovers are available in each individual stage, with the additional three awarded for hoarding 300 coins, collecting all of the Lucky letters and unearthing a secret. The hidden clovers offer up the most fun, such as requiring you to round up chickens into a pen.
While amusing distractions, these objectives don’t do enough to alter the fact that the game overall is fairly average. If the aim were specifically to please children, then it’s mission accomplished - with only a few moves to learn and basic mechanics to master, this is a decent stab at “My First 3D Platformer” - but beyond that there’s little in the way of compelling character, and with that, not much staying power.
There’s a suggestion from Lucky’s sister, Lyra, that “if only” Lucky wasn’t stuck in a book, she’d be able to help. Perhaps if she had been drawn into the story and the game acted as a drop-in/drop-out couch co-op adventure, it would not only help differentiate from the game’s predecessor, but fill a niche in the genre in need of filling - particularly around Christmas.
You’ll face boss encounters throughout Lucky’s adventure, which register a blip on the challenge-o-meter, but don’t change up the gameplay enough to stand out. ‘Unexpected’ visits from Jinx, the mastermind of the Kitty Litter (an equivalent to Mario Odyssey’s Broodals), are also more a distraction than compelling turns in the narrative.
If the aim were specifically to please children, then it’s mission accomplished, but beyond that there’s little in the way of compelling character.
Similarly, the locations in Super Lucky’s Tale are pretty uninspiring across the board, which, admittedly, stems from their relative proximity to the boundless creativity on display in Odyssey. Though nice and colourful, locales also fail to take any major advantage of the 4K upgrade which the Xbox One X offers - a particularly disappointing fact given the game is the X’s only official launch title.
With all that said, ultimately, the game is fine. Not offensive, not broken (though we have gotten stuck in the floor) and certainly not filled with egregious microtransactions. It’s just fine. Even though Super Lucky’s Tale will only set you back £20 (or £14 on sale at the time of writing), it’s a stretch to heartily recommend in such close proximity to Super Mario Odyssey, which just evolved the genre and left Lucky in its shadow.
Fancy trying your hand at winning a copy of Super Lucky's Tale on Xbox One? Check out our latest giveaway!
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.