Sometimes you need a video game to inject some joy into your life, and that applies especially in 2020. Enter PHOGS!, the charming puzzle game about exploring with a double-headed dog in search of bone-shaped treats.
PHOGS! is easy to pick up and play and the gradual introduction of different challenges and mechanics is steady, drawing you in and having you eager to lap up just one more level.
The PHOGS (a merging of the words physics and dogs, as seen within the gameplay) exude character as you move them around. If you lazily control a single head at a time, for example, you’ll see the trailing head quickly drop off to sleep. That same level of characterisation extends to the NPCs as well, with our particular favourite being an octopus chef who's increasingly pleased with how his mountaintop soup is turning out, thanks to your help.
The game’s music has enthusiasm and beaming positivity to match, but at times relies too heavily on a short, repeated phrase that can start to grate. Fortunately each level has a new tune, meaning such earworms are fairly short-lived.
PHOGS! is an experience we’ve been hearing about for a long time, and it's a pleasure to finally have our paws on it. The sheer delight at successfully getting Red and Blue to the friendly patchwork-style snake which safeguards the end of each level can’t be overstated. It’s easy to pick up and play and the gradual introduction of different challenges and mechanics is steady, drawing you in and having you eager to lap up just one more level.
Coming into the festive season, a family PHOGS! session sounds far more appealing than a six-hour argument over Monopoly. It’s also just as fun to watch as it is to play, for any technologically-opposed family members. Coatsink and Bit Loom Games have taken a simple concept and really nailed it. If you’re in the mood for some gaming joy this Christmas, PHOGS! undoubtedly fits the bill.
Pinball machines are few and far between these days. You might find a dusty old one in your local pub, but it’s very unlikely you’ll stumble across the crème de la crème like a Star Wars-themed table.
The level of detail and visual polish the game has to offer is only really shown off on a big screen however, if only because so much of the detail is otherwise packed into a small space. Even with a range of camera options (which annoyingly don't seem to remember your preference between stages), you can't get the full effect in handheld move.
One particularly neat feature is that you can encourage the screen to turn 90-degrees in either direction, meaning in tabletop mode (presumably with some makeshift stand option) or handheld portrait with an adapter, you can enjoy a more comfortable oblong, bird's eye view of proceedings.
The highlight of the experience, and where Zen Studios really flex their creative muscles, is the scene mode, which has six scenes or characters showcased in micro-fights or challenges spread across the board, where your actions might cause blaster fire to be deflected or a door to be unlocked. The fun of reliving those iconic moments is a genuine thrill, even for a fan with more rewatches of the original trilogy than they might like to admit…
There's longevity here (unless you really, really aren't a fan of pinball), and plenty of nooks and crannies to explore within every table. You'll even stumble across the odd minigame, where you'll navigate an asteroid field or go toe-to-toe with Darth Vader in a lightsaber duel, and playing around with familiar characters (albeit with less familiar voice acting) is a delight.
Pinball is here, and the Force is with it.
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.
Ever since previewing the game on PC back in March, we’ve been itching to rejoin Amicia and Hugo De Rune, the noble siblings orphaned and destitute in A Plague Tale’s opening chapters. After replaying those harrowing first hours on Xbox One X, we picked up where we left off on the journey to cure five-year-old Hugo’s undiagnosed illness.
A complete and uncompromised story, which gradually builds and builds towards an almighty crescendo.
You’re at least afforded a degree of control in telling your ‘main’ companion at any given time to wait, preventing them from getting in the way or meeting any misfortune during combat; unless you leave poor Hugo for too long, that is, in which case he’ll panic and unwittingly attract Inquisition guards.
Rats are too numerous to fight head-on, so when we say combat it pertains to humans, who take no issue with running Amicia through with a sword and snatching up her younger brother. You can dodge incoming attacks to open up a counter window, though most often it won’t come to that since encounters are incredibly easy with a few early upgrades under your belt. There aren’t multiple difficulty settings, either, which makes toggling the incredibly generous aim-assist and HUD off the only ways to inject some challenge.
Ms. De Rune’s weapon of choice - the humble sling - at least unleashes projectiles with a satisfying thwip. As well as slinging rocks, you’ll routinely need to craft and chuck alchemical concoctions to turn the tides in your favour, for example corroding an armoured helmet in order to expose the wearer’s dome for a lethal headshot. Alternatively, you could take a more indirect approach, maybe breaking a lantern as means to ring the delicious dinner bell on an all-you-can-eat rat buffet.
Should you need to conserve resources (which we always had in abundance), it’s also possible to opt out of the murder game for the most part. More likely to have you playing pacifist are the instances where your actions are questioned by the impressionable young cast, which, in the absence of a concrete morality system, serve to make you think.
Following a guilt trip, it’s time to engage with the familiar stealth systems. Checkpoints are pretty frequent, so you’ll most often just need to memorise set enemy patrol patterns in digestible chunks, maybe throwing a few odds and ends to manufacture helpful distractions along the way. Getting spotted can result in an instant fail state, necessitating some trial and error to discern the best routes, probably to the frustration of some. There’s no real cause for concern though, since you can get away with basically sitting in an enemy's back pocket while crouched.
There’s no sneaking past rats, on the other hand, who’s beady red eyes can number in the on-screen thousands. These black-furred vermin tirelessly scuttle over one another in their endeavour to escape light, so you’ll often need to utilise makeshift torches to cut a path through them and between more substantial stationary light sources. In the later stages you’ll need to use advanced alchemy and your sling to set and extinguish specific fires from afar, herding and trapping them to facilitate your safe passage.
These lite light puzzles feel rewarding, despite the fact that you'll never really need to pause for thought, rather tackle them instinctively. As the rodents grow to become more aggressive, however, some set piece moments require you to switch off your brain and run for it; here the evocative original soundtrack is perhaps at its best, accelerating from sombre to breakneck as the orchestral string section frantically work up a sweat, inducing absolute panic in the player.
Much like the soundscape, A Plague Tale’s visuals are diverse and affecting, reveling in displaying the gnawed and gnarled reality of widespread death through a liberal littering of ravaged corpses. You’ll wade through human and porcine viscera, as well as slimy rat nests that almost reek right through the screen. It’s unpleasant, but outstandingly so, with exquisite lighting and textures telling a story which justifies the lengthy load times.
Much like the soundscape, A Plague Tale’s visuals are diverse and affecting.
Thankfully, the same is true at the other end of the spectrum, where A Plague Tale’s changing locations and weather effects can segue tone at a moment’s notice. These effective shifts don’t just mirror the current mood, but reiterate the wider theme of perseverance, and emphasise the extreme ways in which the sheltered De Rune children experience the world outside their estate for the first time. Rarely is a game’s presentation this meticulously considered, making it a real shame when character models and animations don’t meet the high bar now and then.
Their first original project following a history of ports, A Plague Tale: Innocence has put developer Asobo Studio on the map and almost certainly secured their creative future. Aided by Focus Home Interactive, Asobo have crafted a memorably melancholic adventure with a life-affirming side of joy.
If you fancy playing A Plague Tale: Innocence, be sure to enter our giveaway before 23:59 on Friday 17 May 2019 for a chance to win an Xbox One copy.
As my GCSE German teacher would tell you, I’ve never been particularly blessed with languages. How is it then, that Heaven’s Vault has stuck with me from the first play - back at Rezzed in 2018 - right through until now? More importantly, has that initial promise spawned the Oscar Wilde of video games, or, much worse (but definitely funnier), Danny Dyer?
Like many games before it, Heaven’s Vault utilises an excellent conversation system that not only affects how people interact with you, but what you learn about the settings, story and lore. We’re sure many would site the Mass Effect series here, but since the Brighton branch of PTC (that’s me) has never played any of them, it feels rather more like the ghost of Shenmue. How will you behave around a particularly aggressive slave master, for example? Will you try and sympathise, or downright scold them for their line of work, thus potentially closing off a line of questioning and information? These choices even change the course of your relationship with robot sidekick Six, who bloody loves a good natter.
Discovery and decoding of an ancient language is one of the main parts of the game that we found so compelling back at Rezzed 2018, so it’s wonderful to see it fully realised in the final product. This is where a thirst for adventure really helps, too: interact with everything you can, as often Aliya will remark about inscriptions or glyphs on certain items, and it’s here where the fun begins. If an inscription is split into four parts, let’s say, you’ll be given a potential selection of words to fill in each of the blanks, based on what you’ve previously tried or discovered. This charming element of trial and error further strengthened our desire to explore.
What was all that lark about sky sailing, then? Imagine a blend of Panzer Dragoon and The Wind Waker and you’ll have a decent idea of what to expect, as you pilot the good ship Nightingale along vast rivers in the clouds, to destinations new and old, all the while having one eye out for ruins and wreckages to plunder. The tranquil mood, pastel hues and sublime strings and pianos stave off any potential frustration at the amount of time it can take to get between places in the game, but those of you without patience will be happy to hear that a fast travel option is currently being patched in.
Heaven’s Vault never fails to leave you in awe, in a way only a few games really do.
We’re not sure why you’d want to skip over absorbing more of such a resplendent and alluring game, though. From the dark outlines and subtle colours of the exquisite hand-drawn 2D characters, to the fully 3D, lush environments of the Nebula, Heaven’s Vault never fails to leave you in awe, in a way only a few games really do (here’s looking at you, Breath of the Wild). It’s largely these lavish, luxuriant locales that spur you on to visit as much of the world as possible.
There’s just so much to love about the game, honestly. Sure, it isn’t completely flawless (the lack of music in many of the cutscenes seems odd, especially considering how good the soundtrack is), but the blend of adventuring, sky sailing, story and language are pretty close to perfect. The wealth of choices mean it’s ripe for multiple replays, too, so you’re really getting your money’s worth.
Whether it’s the small touches such as story recaps every time you start a play session, or the big ones listed above, Heaven’s Vault manages to tap into that truly wondrous, almost childlike sense of discovery brought on by experiencing something for the first time. If it sounds like your speed, make sure you don’t miss out on this glorious, glorious experience.
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.