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.
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.