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.
Everyone has their own feelings about war. Whether it’s something that feels close to home or distant, it’s undoubtedly an emotional and evocative subject. Coinciding with the centenary of the end of World War 1, 11-11: Memories Retold brings a different perspective to a conflict which changed the world forever.
Gameplay is light here, with only the occasional puzzle or slightly wonky stealth section to vary the pacing, but to suddenly thrust you into some sort of shooting gallery would take away the power of what 11-11 is trying to do.
At times you also take charge of a pigeon or cat, which Harry and Kurt have picked up along their journeys respectively. This can offer a few additional gameplay twists and opportunities for unique storytelling moments, but largely they feel fairly token and don’t reach their full potential.
When you venture out into No Man’s Land as either animal, which you’ll do frequently, there’s a far lesser sense of danger considering both sides deem them to be harmless. Neither army is portrayed as right or wrong, and there’s no glorifying the situation; in fact, the soldiers themselves are more alike than any rhetoric or propaganda from the time would have you believe.
Undoubtedly the first things that’ll strike you when loading up the game is the astonishing visual style, which makes use of a technique known as ‘painterly’ to have scenes appear as if they’re being redrawn by thousands of brush strokes as you move. There’s a feeling of walking through beautiful impressionist landscapes as you explore, offering up breathtaking scenes amid the undeniable horrors of the war itself.
In less skilled hands this could have come off as a cheap Photoshop effect, but this collaboration between Aardman Digital (who, contrary to popular belief, work with more than just clay) and DigixArt creates a sublime combination of technical prowess and artistic flair. They’ve crafted a truly unique style which impressively manages to adapt to a variety of locations and climates throughout the game’s course.
While the effect does attract attention, it may prove to be an acquired taste as the industry races towards photorealism. The visual fidelity of the assets themselves, when you look past the effect, is fairly low, which can give a somewhat dated feel at times, particularly to characters in cutscenes.
It’s not too big of an issue, however, when the elements surrounding that mostly nail remaining historically accurate and respectful of true events, whilst balancing that with the sort of nonsense which makes a game a game, like successfully navigating a homemade hot air balloon over No Man’s Land at night, for example.
11-11’s soundtrack also succeeds in feeling appropriate without sounding generic, as composer Olivier Deriviere, responsible for music on titles like Alone in the Dark, Remember Me and Vampyr, uses a choir’s chorus to echo across the battlefield, creating a chilling and sombre mood.
The execution is exceptional and the end product is, quite unironically, a very memorable experience.
The strongest feeling which shines through as you play though, is pride, as every element of the game is carefully pieced together to create a tribute to those who valiantly fought and sadly lost their lives.
It’s unfortunate that the odd technical mishap occasionally creeps in to spoil the immersion, but compared to a narrative journey from, say, the Telltale stable, 11-11 more than competes with the best in the adventure genre.
If you’re looking for a history lesson, you won’t find it here. While Memories Retold uses the war as its setting, it’s more about the relationship between Harry and Kurt and how it develops over those last two years of conflict. Fortunately, the execution is exceptional and the end product is, quite unironically, a very memorable 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.
Burning Bridges, the penultimate episode in the debut season of The Council, arrives at a tumultuous time for narrative-driven adventure games. Telltale, a company synonymous with popularising the genre and its incremental release format, are in the midst of a heartbreaking majority closure that’ll see many of the studio’s ongoing projects never reach their conclusion. This has, understandably, sewn doubt amongst the community as to whether investing in episodic games ahead of their completion is a good idea. In a case of bad timing, where developer Big Bad Wolf could have lain claim to the mantle with this latest release, it instead fuels the flames with their sloppiest technical work yet.
Each outlandish revelation injects a hit of adrenaline and the result is a faster, often more engaging pacing without as many filler moments.
A replay to see what might have been may be in order, so it’s a good job that feels justified now more than ever as The Council loosens the buttons on its ruffled collar to have a little more fun. Less po-faced politics doesn’t mean that diplomacy is out of the window, however, rather that it’s now waged on an even grander and more bizarre stage than merely influencing world events.
Previously we’ve said that the series’ micro choices prove more affecting than macro-scale decisions, but here that sentiment is flipped on its head. Many character decisions are arbitrarily black and white - good or bad - and underbaked this time around, whereas choosing how best to govern humanity, through equal moral greys that hold a mirror to modern society, is perplexing.
Throw in an elaborate new location and a couple of exciting abilities that’ll help to decipher even the most secretive guests, for a cost, and it’s commendable that Big Bad Wolf aren’t afraid to mix things up a bit at this late stage. The team of former Ubisoft developers also settle on a nice middle ground when it comes to puzzle design, having historically either spoon-fed answers or left players a little in the lurch, here uniformly making them taxing whilst allowing for a degree of circumvention through sleuthing or the smart investment of effort points/use of consumables.
With an abundance of problems both old and new, Burning Bridges is an undeniably messy experience. If you’re a purely mechanics-focused gamer, there’s absolutely naught but a veiny, enraged brow in store, but, that being said, you probably don’t fall into that camp if you’ve made it this far. Anyone that can forgive the many foibles in favour of being spun an intriguing yarn should still apply; we’re certainly eager to see how things conclude when the finale (fingers crossed) launches later this year.
From the moment we were greeted by Unforeseen Incidents’ foreboding title screen, filled with flashes of lightning and lashes of shimmering rain, we suspected we were in for a treat. Being solid fans of point-and-click gameplay since first encountering the iconic Monkey Island series, we were looking forward to having our minds playfully tickled by the brand of puzzles that have you jolting awake in the middle of the night having finally deciphered them. If that sounds like a brain-bruising nightmare to you, rest assured that, in this instance, you’ll face grounded problems that are woven into a delightfully engaging narrative.
Adventure games are all about wandering around solving puzzles, but there are rather drawn-out sections here that dwell a little too long before allowing us to rekindle our love affair with the story.
It’s a credit to how good the cutscenes, dialogue and storytelling are that we rather selfishly wanted more of them. The soundtrack evokes a soft melancholia, with piano drops and violin swells. The dialogue is self-aware and the voice acting is sharp as a tack; so often does Harper seem to perfectly narrate the player’s thoughts, sarcastically breaking the fourth wall in that cheeky Sam & Max way, or playfully scolding you for suggesting something daft in order to solve a puzzle. The amount of times we caught ourselves smirking at Harper’s reactions to hilariously misguided attempts to make progress is beyond measure.
This makes Unforeseen Incidents’ puzzles both a delight and a frustration rolled into one. It’s a strange ebb and flow, as one minute you’ll be flying high whilst lamenting the wasted years in higher education, as you were clearly born a genius, then, around two minutes later, you’re stumped and rapidly approaching rock bottom whilst being presented with amusing dialogue to keep you sweet. The main offenders here are very mechanically complex puzzles, which may well be fine if you’re practically minded and love your tinkering, but, if you’re anything like me, you’ll just have to call your dad and ask him how to repair a fan belt or whatever.
All in all, Unforeseen Incidents offers a challenging and engaging take on the point-and-click genre that fans of a good mystery - who also have the patience to persist through some of the more difficult puzzles - should definitely download. Give yourself the gift of feeling like you’ve earned a great story, and a pat on the back for being dead clever.
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.
If the name Narcosis sounds familiar, it’s probably because the game originally launched over a year ago, but, with the debut of a spanking new PS4 port, comes an opportunity for the existing versions to claw back a little spotlight for themselves. Initially taking to digital storefronts like a stone to water, the ripples have now reached our shores, but is Narcosis a horror that should’ve stayed dormant in the deep?
You probably aren’t crazy about water levels in gaming, but, In this instance, heading to the bottom of ol’ big blue serves to establish an almost alien atmosphere conducive to terror.
Developer Honor Code clearly took great care in crafting Narcosis’ world and narrative, though the same can’t quite be said when it comes to the limited gameplay. Labelled a survival horror walking simulator - we’ll let you decide whether affectionately or not - slightly tank-y controls harken back to early examples of the genre whilst conveying the immense weight of the bulky diving suit you occupy. The slow pace and initially unintuitive controls take a little getting used to, as does independently looking down to view the suit’s integrated HUD, but limited-use thrusters do accommodate sparing speed boosts.
They also allow for a spot of light platforming, which is fine, if unremarkable, whilst sides of simple puzzle solving and rudimentary combat are also thrown in to tick the necessary boxes. Fights are rare, thankfully, as you have but one cumbersome slash manoeuvre to execute with a short knife. More often than not, you’ll instead utilise an abundance of flares to distract enemies and allow you to slip by, but not always unseen. You’re predisposed to run when spotted by a deadly predator, though, in Narcosis’ case, your heavy diving suit disallows that response, contributing further tension.
Your helmet also obscures peripheral vision, adding another unnerving wrinkle, but the apparatus is far too efficient in the one area that could’ve made things outright harrowing. As we mentioned earlier, oxygen levels are limited, so you’ll continually need to accrue the element, while also doing your best to avoid any situations that’ll cause panic, resultantly accelerating your breathing and elevating your intake. It’s a novel conceit, but the game doesn’t fully commit, seemingly scared of imposing too great a challenge, resulting in the mechanic never becoming a major factor.
As such, it only really serves to keep you moving, but even that’s largely unnecessary when Narcosis is so linear. A couple of chapters make for notable exceptions, though most areas only open up into brief offshoots housing text-based collectibles serving to flesh out crew members’ characters.
While Narcosis doesn’t boast a great gameplay experience, rather just palatable, it works as a vehicle for interacting with Honor Code’s atmospheric locations and concise story. At around three hours long, it isn’t too much to ask that you stick out the relative lows in order to enjoy the twisting, psychological highs.
Following a lacklustre second outing, The Council reaches its midpoint faced with the unenviable task of recovering lost ground. Episode 3: Ripples shifts gears to have you focus on tackling conversational encounters with tactical turns of phrase, largely ditching the uninspired puzzle solving that shackled its predecessor, until a stifling blunder sees the experience nosedive just as it should be reaching a fevered pitch.
Whilst it’s possible to spark war between nations, the intimate consequences tend to prove more affecting.
With the old guard fond of early adjournments to retire to their rooms on exhausted whims, spritely Louis is left with spare time on his hands for pursuits outside of politics. Having reunited with his mother, all is not well, as she shares a thoroughly outlandish revelation alongside circumstantial evidence that almost makes it believable. Everything is called into question, making it crushingly unfortunate that, rather than being taken advantage of, any momentum grinds to a halt as you’re sent tottering off on a disconnected fetch quest.
Already the bane of gamers, this plodding section isn’t helped by inconsistencies like subtitles and verbalised dialogue conveying mismatched digits in a sequence, or conflicting quantities of objects to gather, whilst a written note incorrectly asserts that one of the items has already been found.
When you eventually return, gubbins gathered, they’re utilised in a puzzle which bravely requires absolute commitment. That closing conundrum helps to salvage things in the final moments, leaving us eager to see the consequences to follow, but far less so than we would have been if the fetch quest fat had been trimmed. While we did note that the second episode was less substantial than the first, blatant filler is most unwelcome.
Still, those familiar with The Council already know that you have to take the rough with the smooth, owing to its technical issues. Audio abruptly cuts out on the regular, the pitch of Louis’ voice drastically changes, some sections aren’t lip synced, extravagant period costumes clip through any and everything. Though we can’t deny it’s all a bit distracting, it’s just as often amusing, without muddying the game’s refined ambience all too much.
Ripples takes a step in the right direction, though not without catching the toe of its fancy buckled shoe and stumbling on the way. Despite the imperfections, we’re intrigued to see what curious events our remaining stays at the Mortimer estate hold in store, fingers firmly crossed that they’ll fully lean into the occult facade while refining the balance between serving a meaty helping that’s more killer than filler.
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.