Sometimes it’s difficult to explain exactly why something is so good without (in this case literally) giving the game away. With that in mind, rest assured that The Spectrum Retreat could well be the strongest contender for my personal Game of the Year so far.
Lone developer Dan Smith, who was awarded BAFTA Young Games Designer in 2016, has been refining this idea for years and the care and dedication poured into every asset of The Spectrum Retreat can’t be overstated. Not only does it have exceptional production values but perform flawlessly on a technical level, helping to emphasise the stark tonal contrast between the game’s two main environments.
Puzzles are cleverly and integrally woven into the narrative; perhaps better than in any other example, the great Portal included.
There are moments when you can be walking down a hallway and find yourself losing your bearings, certain that a door just turned up in front of you. Your surroundings begin to undertake more significant changes as you progress further into the mystery, and closer to the truth, as expertly realised visual distortions give clues as to where the story will turn next. As events unfold the name of the hotel, “Penrose”, suddenly takes on a more deliberate meaning.
Puzzle sections boast a similarly natural progression, managing to take fundamentally simple mechanics and build them gradually to show you the ropes without a shoehorned tutorial to speak of. The variety from just a few simple mechanics is staggering and provides an ever-increasing challenge the deeper into the rabbit hole you go.
Games often struggle to provide genuinely compelling reason for puzzles to exist within their worlds, but in The Spectrum Retreat there’s no doubt that they’re cleverly and integrally woven into the narrative; perhaps better than in any other example, the great Portal included.
Reaching the story’s conclusion is a fitting and brave cherry that tops a thoroughly compelling journey, delicately unfurled over a four or five hour runtime, emphasising just how much can be said without directly telling the player very much at all.
While you may think you’ve seen it all before with the first-person puzzle genre, The Spectrum Retreat begs you to look again and think about how you’d feel in the protagonist’s situation. The potent combination of story and gameplay places it above anything else I’ve played this year, and the entire package is both effortlessly simple and fantastically detailed. With an asking price of just a tenner, there’s no reason you should miss it.
Coatsink’s puzzle room ponderer has been perplexing non-PlayStation players for a period, but now, thanks to a better-late-than-never port, owners of Sony’s budget-friendly headset can finally get in on the fun.
You’re encouraged to tinker with the tools at your disposal and learn from each unjudging failure, ultimately reaching logical conclusions grounded in real-world physics.
That’s no mistake, as the development team were careful not to outstay their welcome, limiting the game's length to less than the latest Marvel blockbuster. With a £6.49 price tag to compensate, Esper is an easy recommendation for fans of the genre, provided they can stomach its few faults.
Regardless of your chosen method of input - be that Move, DualShock 4 or head tracking - the game’s motion controls can lack fine precision and this occasionally leads to fumbles that are out of your hands, which can be extra frustrating in the rare event you’re forced into restarting the (admittedly short) section at hand. We also encountered a bug in the very last moments of the game that put a dampener on the otherwise intriguing finale, poised to lead into the currently-Oculus-Rift-exclusive sequel, though that’s another downer in itself for those without Facebook’s brand of 3D goggles.
Still, it’s hard to hold a grudge when Esper is such a well-executed little game. It’s thoughtful and requires a reasonably high level of execution at times, but consistent in being low intensity and incredibly laid-back, making it a great choice for novice through to journeyman VR voyagers.
A runaway crowdfunding success story, Agony and its grotesque realisation of Hell recently made it to market with the help of nearly 4,000 passionate backers. While there are plenty of grisly sights to quench the thirst of the gore hounds amongst them, anyone looking for anything more than the modern interpretation of a cheap video nasty will be sorely disappointed.
Anyone looking for anything more than the modern interpretation of a cheap video nasty will be sorely disappointed.
Sneaking slows the trudging pace to an absolute crawl, which means you’ll inevitably get bored and make a run for it, almost guaranteeing that you get spotted and face swift murder. After succumbing to a screenful of bare busters, your soul leaves the body and you’re presented a window of time in which to possess a lesser thrall and pick up where you left off. Possessions are automatic on easy difficulty, but require input on normal and send you back to the last poorly-placed checkpoint in the event of failure.
Finding and eating Forbidden Fruit - or Fanny Smith apples, as we call them for reasons you can probably extrapolate - allows you to acquire and upgrade skills that’ll at least give you a better chance at survival. That’s assuming you actually want to extend the trip, mind, as masses of alternate endings and a couple of additional modes - one offering endless procedurally generated challenges and the other the chance to replay the story as a succubus - did absolutely nothing to tempt us into holding the controller for any longer than absolutely necessary.
You might think all that seems a tad harsh, but we haven’t even touched on the crippling technical issues yet. Agony’s frame rate is choppy at best, glitches prevented us from making progress on a few occasions, and the audio is completely bust. Diegetic sounds emanate from the wrong directions, while ambient effects and voice overs constantly cut in and out and jarringly loop back on themselves; missing dialogue makes the unengaging narrative harder to follow than it should be, but, more egregiously, deprives you of relishing every syllable of the hysterically awkward scripting and delivery.
Let’s not mince words here: Agony is a sub-par, early access product masquerading as a finished release. Patches can only hope to make it stably abysmal, as opposed to plain broken, so you should absolutely avoid the unnecessary agony it’ll so ironically impose upon you.
Hide and Seek is a slightly disappointing second outing following The Council’s promising pilot, which kickstarted protagonist Louis de Richet’s adventure back in March. Continuing to search for his missing mother whilst hobnobbing with the social elite to keep up appearances, the game’s characters and tangled conspiracies continue to develop with intrigue, whilst a shift in focus away from the defining conversational confrontations towards solving puzzles is a very misguided one.
With that being said, things do fall a bit flat here by comparison to the first episode. Its meandering pace makes Hide and Seek a bit of a slog at times, often failing to either propel things forward or satisfyingly tie up loose ends, with the latter perhaps making the cliffhanger finish more cause for concern than suspense.
Few new areas to explore and a focus on slightly awkward puzzle solving are culprit to the episode’s pacing issues, placing bog-standard adventure fare over the thoughtful character interactions that made the pilot stand out. Acquiring a desired target can be cumbersome in the absence of a cursor, while spending Effort Points to utilise skills often leads to puzzle solutions being spelled out a little too plainly in blatant monologues. Conversely, not making use of Effort Points in select situations can leave you scratching your head until bordering on frustration.
What verbal confrontations remain generally prove more staunch brain teasers than the accompanying puzzles. Now that you’re an episode deep and should have the hang of them, some interactions no longer offer multiple chances and will instead have the brakes applied with one out-of-place utterance, which works in conjunction with the timer to ensure they’re more exciting than ever.
While not quite plummeting the series into the doldrums, Hide and Seek does disappoint at a stage where The Council should’ve been doubling down on its strengths to satisfy those making a return trip to Mortimer’s affluent estate. With the central narrative on a downturn it’s also harder to forgive the game its technical issues, making Hide and Seek an episode we wouldn’t recommend in itself, but would suggest you stick with as it’s not time to give up hope on The Council yet.
Everyone loves a bit of Norse Mythology, right? Whether you’re enjoying the new God of War or cheering on your chisel-jawed hero Thor in Avengers: Infinity War, there's something particularly epic about that pantheon of gods.
Unlike the other titan-toppler we played this week, Extinction, there's plenty of variety on offer here.
While keeping the challenge level high might goade some players on, this combined with the limited dodge range of your character (in fact the dodge itself is almost as slow as normal movement) can start to see frustration build.
Other times, the beautiful hand-drawn art style and animations can prove to be a hazard, as enemies fall and catch you in their wake when you feel as though you should be free and clear.
The final twist of the knife is the camera, which often zooms far far out, to Below-esque levels of distant appreciation, to show you the points of interest in the scene, but, again, often at the expense of your character's wellbeing.
All in all then, the intrigue of Jotun will keep pulling you through, and, being a portable game on this particular platform, finds itself well suited for quick bursts while trundling along on a train. There's little to bring you back once your quest is done, with only the extra hard Valhalla mode left to tax the most dedicated players. At journey’s end your character might not have much of an emotional arc, but there's variety here to keep you occupied without outstaying its welcome.
Masters of Anima is a charming action strategy game in the vein of Pikmin and Overlord, where the player guides a young man named Otto on a quest to save his betrothed.
Excellent balance is struck between the game's three key pillars in exploration, puzzle solving and combat.
Stocking up on a certain type of Guardian as a situation dictates - bow-wielding Sentinels for a boss that cuts a swathe through melee fighters, for example - can help to secure not just victory, but a pat on the back and some extra experience points too. You receive a letter grading at the end of each engagement, with the lofty S rank often taking a few failed practice attempts to reach.
Upgrading Guardians can help to make them useful in more situations, but with skill points shared between each class and Otto himself, deciding where to invest them can take a bit of thought; luckily, you can respec as many times as you like between levels in order to really nail the perfect loadout. Replaying stages will net you extra experience to keep improving your build, which is a nice little motivator to do so, as is the opportunity to improve upon letter gradings and gather any remaining collectibles.
Outside of the odd technical performance dip and a few proofreading oversights (just note that we were playing a pre-release version), Masters of Anima is a game that’s very easy to admire. Rich with personality and considered design, joining Otto on his quest is a no-brainer for fans of the often overlooked action strategy genre.
The Council isn’t your typical narrative adventure game, serving up a side of role-playing mechanics to complement the impactful decision making and branching story paths you’ve come to expect. You play Louis de Richet, a Parisian aristocrat and leading member of The Golden Order, a powerful secret society headed by his ageing mother. When she mysteriously disappears on a private island owned by the elusive Lord Mortimer, you board a vessel and set sail in search of her.
The Council isn’t your typical narrative adventure game...
New interactions open up across the game as you acquire their corresponding skills, but you’ll have to pick and choose which instances to take advantage of, as performing actions draws from a limiting pool of Effort Points. What’s more, whether you might be forcing entry into a room, translating a document, or noticing small behavioural traits, there’s always a risk your efforts are misplaced and you won’t actually discern any useful information. When you pick your moment and do uncover a relevant morsel, character-specific vulnerabilities and immunities are compiled for reference and help you to politic with the best of them moving forward.
Ingeniously, real-world historical knowledge can also be used to your advantage, for example, knowing Napoléon’s plans for the future of France makes it easier to curry favour by telling him exactly what he wants to hear. For the most part that’s off the cards though, so being afforded a few blunders during tense linguistic jousts helps to avoid blowing an encounter and negatively impacting your story - which it always will, in the absence of game over states. Before it comes to that, tactically popping one of four consumables, which offer a range of helpful buffs, can drag you back from the brink of disaster.
Once you’ve gotten to grips with the ins and outs of the non-violent confrontations, they prove a fascinating advancement over the comparatively humble dialogue systems seen elsewhere. At this stage, The Council also seems set to dispel the infamous illusion of choice by actually bringing more significant differences between two given paths to the fore. You’ll visit contrasting locations and interact with different characters dependant on what you opt for, with each of these separate scenes then featuring more granular deviations within themselves. Ultimately, this leads to one of two very different cliffhanger endings, which certainly seems promising, though only time will tell how divergently the story continues to unfold across the series’ four remaining episodes.
At the end of a chapter you’re informed of the events that you missed, putting the web of opportunities into perspective, and coupled with achievements for making opposing choices this provides compelling reason to start all over again.
At this stage, The Council seems set to dispel the infamous illusion of choice by actually bringing more significant differences between two given paths to the fore.
The first of The Mad Ones’ endings we encountered left us more intrigued than the second, but either way we’re eager to see where The Council takes us next. Until then, this rough-around-the-edges introduction to the series illustrates the strengths of its unique approach, placing it head-and-shoulders above anything from genre leader Telltale Games in terms of gameplay. While it utilises similar techniques to perpetually trap you between a rock and a hard place, keeping you actively engaged with its story, when it comes to scripting and performances, the experience just isn’t comparable.
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.
Upon discovering a planet with a biome conducive to habitation, Axiom Space Agency deploy a probe to scan the new world. They find intelligent life and decide it's prudent to observe this species before making first contact.
The messages are prominent enough to easily draw the eye, ensuring you won't miss a single one, whilst fitting in nicely with the game’s futuristic aesthetic. Visually it evokes a certain familiarity, contrasting dark blues and greys with stark, gleaming whites. Further accentuating this with bright neon hues makes the Espial feel like any of the other spacecraft we've served on throughout our gaming career, though a pervasively uneasy atmosphere does serve to set it apart.
The Station’s narrative is masterfully weaved, giving hints throughout to those with a keen eye.
Which brings us to the real draw: the plot. The Station’s narrative is masterfully weaved, giving hints throughout to those with a keen eye, but ultimately keeping you in the dark until it reaches its climax. Everything comes together right at the very end, which left us mentally replaying key moments and realising their significance as the credits rolled.
The accompanying musical score is barely noticeable at first, allowing you to fully concentrate on the audio messages and sounds coming from elsewhere on the ship, before building to a shattering crescendo as you approach the finish line, adding more than a note of tension.
You can expect the whole experience to last an hour or two, depending on how diligently you explore. Repeated playthroughs will cut that time drastically, though there's relatively little to draw you in for a second round.
Some slight control niggles, a somewhat awkward map and limited gameplay interactions don’t necessarily make The Station a great videogame. Its story, however, makes it a fantastic experience that couldn't be conveyed with as much impact in any other medium.