Looting and shooting may be all the rage, but with the latest iteration of Borderlands boasting billions of guns, the series that popularised the genre is back. Does it have anything new to say?
The plot sees you try to nab vault key parts before the Children of the Vault (or COV) do. Sister of the intergender twins, Tyreen Calypso, keeps gaining power as a siren - a class made famous by Lillith, Maya and newcomer Amara - and you'll be picking up plenty of familiar faces on your journey to help you take them down. In particular, Tales from the Borderlands' Rhys is back (though no longer voiced by the prolific Troy Baker) and brings the same endearing quirks with him, though unfortunately many of the other NPCs aren't as compelling without having had a game to set them up.
It's definitely the game to scratch that looter-shooter itch you might've been looking to satisfy.
Which leads us to an important fact – Handsome Jack is missed. He was always the pinnacle of the brand of amusement the series peddles in, none of the enemies, or the on-the-nose streamer pastiches the Calypsos themselves, have the same endearing quality. Even CL4PTR4P (or Claptrap) feels like the soul of the character has been lost from the change in voice actor, though not as noticeably as we'd feared from the trailers.
A final, and unfortunate, point to make is the technical issues we came up against. Though there is local split-screen co-op, which is notable for its rarity alone these days, the performance suffers pretty consistently, especially jumping in and out of menus - which happens a lot with the loot management element. Elsewhere we ran into a bug which forced our Xbox to turn off at a certain point in a cutscene multiple times, insisting it was going to overheat, as well as other crashes and freezing.
While it's definitely more Borderlands, the game is a sequel which more than earns its right to exist, but generally plays it safe and falls back on its established rules and systems. It's definitely the game to scratch that looter-shooter itch you might've been looking to satisfy, especially for fans of the series, but, despite being a good entry point, ultimately falls short of its potential.
Ever since 2014’s Lords of the Fallen, which was a Souls-like game of questionable quality, German development studio Deck13 has been honing its craft within the genre. Pioneered by FromSoftware’s trademark flair for dark fantasy, unlike Lords, The Surge did very well to distance itself from a similar setting by looking to the future instead of the past. As such, it became a surprise hit and secured itself a sequel, which more than two years later is now in players' hands.
The simple act of exploration in The Surge 2 is immensely rewarding...
Equipped for battle, players can target individual limbs on an enemy’s person and then utilise a mix of horizontal and vertical attacks as required in order to land blows. Targeting unarmoured parts (highlighted in blue) will result in an easier kill, whereas armoured sections (highlighted in orange) will take longer to whittle down though ultimately pay out bigger rewards. Through connecting with attacks you’ll build the power meter and charge your Exo-Rig’s batteries, one of which can then be traded for a limb-severing finisher that’ll grant you the weapon or a schematic to craft the armour that’s relevant to the limb in question.
Subsequent chops of those limbs on the same enemies will instead grant crafting and upgrade materials, as was the case in the original. When we reviewed that game we likened the upgrade and gear acquisition system to “a morbid shopping spree” and the same definitely applies here. It’s no less unique and engaging, serving as a perfect complement to the hefty, stamina-based combat mechanics that are already a joy in themselves.
If you’ve played a Souls-like before then you know what to expect from the moment-to-moment gameplay during combat, though some unique melee weapons help to mix things up and so too does the companion drone with its variety of ranged attacks. Equipping different injectables can have a similar effect, be they passive or active (the latter at the cost of a battery) in their inference of benefits like healing, increased defence, or even temporarily slowing enemies down. You’re limited in how many can be equipped, however, so choose wisely.
Without designated classes you’re free to experiment to your heart's content, though by trading in Tech Scrap - the game’s combined form of currency and experience points, earned through defeating enemies - you can opt to favour the health, stamina, or power attributes. For a small fee you can respec your points allocation, though most builds can be made to work in multiple ways regardless or counter-weighted one way or another over time, provided you don’t make a habit of losing scrap.
In signature fashion, when you die in The Surge 2 you'll drop all of your earnings and need to retrieve them from the position of your death. Dying again whilst en route or failing to do so in good time means that they’re gone for good, but you can securely bank scrap at Medbay safe havens to avoid this. The practice isn’t entirely encouraged, mind, as carrying large scrap quantities applies a multiplier that means the rich get richer at great personal risk.
New for the sequel, dropped scrap can also be used tactically as a sort of gradual healing totem when stood in close proximity and also to offer a full heal when picked up. This further plays into the exciting risk vs. reward mechanics already surrounding scrap and can be the cause of nail-biting moments during the game’s more challenging boss encounters, resulting from holding off on retrieval until the last possible moment.
A lot of the big bads are fought over multi-stage battles that don’t feel quite as gruelling as those seen in the likes of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, mostly thanks to the ability to generate healing items on the fly through being aggressive in order to accrue battery charges. That said, don’t think that this translates to bosses not being a threat.
With plenty of long-haul skirmishes on the cards, opting for the game's performance mode on PS4 Pro or Xbox One X comes recommended. The jump to a smooth 60 FPS provides a tangible advantage over the choppier 30 FPS found in quality mode, which otherwise puts the focus on improving the game’s weak graphics and bumps the resolution up from 1080p to 4K. Here it definitely isn’t worth the trade-off, even for those that generally favour looks, as the overall experience definitely suffers.
Gathering upgrades is unique and engaging, serving as a perfect complement to the hefty, stamina-based combat mechanics that are already a joy in themselves.
Playing pre-launch we quite frequently encountered crashes and some lesser technical issues like texture pop-in and missing NPC dialogue, but with the day one patch installed they appear to be less common if not completely absent. With launch also came the opportunity to better interact with the asynchronous online elements, which include sharing graffiti tags to help or hinder players, hiding player banners in hard-to-reach places in the hopes that nobody will find them, and getting revenge for fallen players (like we did for YouTuber and outspoken game critic Jim Sterling) by killing enemies that bested them in their versions of the game. It’s all harmless stuff that helps to garner a sense of community between those sharing in the struggle of getting through what can be a difficult game, but without contributing anything more tangible than that.
The Surge 2 can feel a little bit “budget” in places, especially for those that played the first game and, as a result, will likely notice the recycled weapons, armour, animations and enemies. Despite these cut corners being coupled with a weak story and uninteresting quests, there’s no getting around the fact that even then Deck13’s exquisite world and combat design are enough reason to forgive it. With an expanded NG+ mode and a second ending to see (regardless of how disinterested we might be in its actual narrative contents), those gameplay elements are proving strong enough to tempt us back for round two even as we enter the busy release season.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a triumph. Crowdfunded to the tune of more than $5.5 million at the height of the Kickstarter craze, many of its peers released to lukewarm critical and commercial reception, but Koji Igarashi and company took the extra time to produce something truly special.
Igavania? More like egovania, amirite? ... Seriously though, Igarashi (above) is one of the greats!
Gameplay has always been the bread and butter of metroidvania games, and Ritual of the Night certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front. Largely it’s very familiar in that you travel an enormous, satisfyingly interconnected map collecting new abilities - such as the power to fire yourself through narrow gaps like a ricocheting bullet - which in turn grant access to new areas. The well-established gameplay loop is incredibly moreish when executed in exacting fashion, as it is here, almost defying you to leave any small segment of the map unexplored.
From torchlit castle halls to moonlit cathedral towers, to dank sewers and myriad exotic locales beyond, a wide range of seemingly disparate areas are convincingly tied together by a unified aesthetic and intelligent, looping shortcuts. You’ll get to know the world of Bloodstained quite intimately as you backtrack to solve puzzles you’ve since discovered the answers to, or to reach designated save and fast travel rooms, which never becomes a chore.
That’s thanks not just to the exquisite 2.5D level design, but the tight platforming and deep combat systems you’ll engage with along the way. Miriam can acquire and equip outfits and weapons throughout her journey, the former of which offer various stat boosts and aesthetic changes when items are worn on the head, while the latter can completely change how the game plays.
Depending on preference you might opt for the greater range of a whip or a spear, the close-quarters finesse of a dagger, the balance of a one-handed sword, or the brute force of a laboured greataxe swing. That’s not to mention firearms and their different ammo types. Every harebrained enemy - be it a frog, a dragon, or a scissor-handed marionette straight outta Devil May Cry - has their share of quantifiable strengths and weaknesses, so it makes sense to switch things up on the regular. If you can master enemy attack patterns and Miriam’s graceful backstep dodge, as well as the necessary timing and spacing for your favourite weapons, hostile encounters become akin to dance.
An undisputed retro classic made modern, without sacrificing an ounce of appeal or introducing current industry ailments.
Combat has incredible nuance for those who seek to discover it, be that in hidden techniques for specific weapons, attack hit boxes that extend behind and/or directly above your person dependant on the animation, or the realisation that a weapon might be doubly efficient when used while crouched. A small complaint would be that once you do grow proficient, due to normal difficulty being the only option available on an initial playthrough, bosses especially go from an engaging challenge to a complete cakewalk. That and the game's technical performance can take a big hit when your screen-filling, death-dealing prowess matches theirs.
If you’re all about preserving the challenge, limiting your selection of Shards would be a good start. These crystallised forms of demon power randomly drop from enemies and tend to either grant access to one of their abilities or allow you to summon the relevant beast to fight alongside you temporarily. You can equip quite a few at once and they’re more often than not very potent, theoretically balanced out by limiting their use with a mana resource, but, unlike health, mana automatically regenerates over time so there’s little reason not to make liberal use of them.
Familiars are ever-present AI helpers that don’t consume mana, even auto-levelling alongside the leading lady, whilst elsewhere upgrades are carried out via a vendor at a peaceful hub location. Here you can buy/sell and cook/craft using materials most often discovered in chests, dropped by defeated enemies, or gifted as rewards for completing optional side quests.
With Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding also releasing in 2019, we wonder if Konami are feeling ashamed of their words and deeds...
Somewhat uncharacteristically, we’ve been loving the grind to gather ingredients, cook and consume all of the game’s recipes in order to claim their permanent stat increases, perhaps because it’s a simple pleasure to spend time in the Bloodstained universe. Another uncharacteristic find, at least for me personally, is the appreciation of quite an anime visual style; I’m coming around to the character models, but the colourful backdrops evoking the game’s stained glass motif I universally adore! More predictable is our love of the orchestral soundtrack, looping and grandiose in its modern interpretation of catchy retro classics.
In fact, that sums Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night up pretty well - an undisputed retro classic made modern, without sacrificing an ounce of appeal or introducing current industry ailments in the process. There’s a lot of game here, and it’s so compelling in its mechanics and audiovisuals that you’ll want to drain every last drop from the experience like a vampire affixed to its succulent neck.
The original RAGE, released back in 2011, was a bit of a technical marvel; it utilised innovative ‘megatextures’ to hit 60 FPS on console and accommodated that trademark id Software freneticism on last-gen hardware. It played beautifully, but everything surrounding that was pretty monotone, resulting in an ultimately forgettable experience. RAGE 2 looks to remedy this by spray-painting the wasteland neon pink and partnering with Just Cause developer Avalanche Studios to inject some vigour.
It’s familiar and largely uninspired stuff, but, to be fair, better implemented than in its peers. Speaking personally, I’ve never been a fan of Borderlands and I tapped out on the increasingly tedious Far Cry series years ago, both of which share structural similarities to RAGE 2, yet here I am happily playing Bethesda’s latest for the gross number of consecutive hours which are required for the TV to assume I’ve fallen asleep.
So what’s different here? id Software, to put it plainly. The originators of the FPS are still doing it best, crafting on-foot combat encounters that are giddily exciting. Action is supremely fluid at 60 FPS (which does come at the cost of 4K support on enhanced consoles), allowing for the necessary precision to utilise the wide array of tools at your disposal whilst staying on the move. As in DOOM, defeated enemies drop time-limited health pick-ups, so it pays to remain in the thick of a fight in the absence of fully regenerating health.
The originators of the FPS are still doing it best, crafting on-foot combat encounters that are giddily exciting.
Whether using the exquisite shotgun or one of RAGE 2’s more unique firearms to pop heads with a satisfying squish, devastating active abilities like a ground pound and an essential force push can also be executed as often as their cooldowns dictate, fully encompassing the supersoldier power fantasy. There’s a frankly massive amount of maneuvers to unlock, to the extent you probably won’t remember to implement them all, though they’re gradually introduced in an effort to avoid that and also maintain a constant feeling of growth throughout the reasonably-lengthed campaign and much longer road to 100% completion.
While there isn’t any concrete incentive to do so, at least beyond boosting your own ego by looking damn cool, experimenting and discovering effective combinations of abilities allows for immense showboating on the level of Bulletstorm. Stringing kills of any fashion together in quick succession will increase your combo and more efficiently charge the Overdrive meter, which can then be activated to massively boost the effectiveness of all your other offensive and defensive capabilities for a short period, filling the screen with a psychedelic techno haze as you go ham.
Outside of Overdrive you can’t always afford to be so reckless, as different factions and the enemy types within them pose different levels of threat, encouraging slightly altered tactical approaches. Using the Focus ability lets you see through walls to formulate plans of attack, which can then be executed against clever AI which appear in numbers and play to their strengths in order to quickly overrun overzealous players. We particularly like the fact that throwing an uncooked grenade at an enemy can prompt them to intercept it and return to sender, then, with a well-timed melee strike, you can even volley it right back at ‘em!
RAGE 2’s first-person firefights are honestly worth sticking out any of the game’s hardships for, and to a lesser extent, so too are the third-person vehicular combat sections. These only really come into play when you encounter and engage a convoy in the open world, which visually plays out like one of the best scenes from Fury Road, but is less exciting to actually control. Ramming riders from their bikes and quickly dispatching the smaller four-wheelers at the rear is explosive fun, but the leading boss vehicles are comparatively uninteresting since you can mostly just hang back, automatically lock-on to their weak points as they’re periodically exposed, then hold down the fire button to win. Convoys were far more involved in Mad Max, where you might need to remove armour plating with a harpoon in order to expose a weak point, then use a specific ammo type to destroy it.
Swapping out vehicles would help to spice things up a bit, but we’d go as far as to say switching is actively discouraged, despite being able to hijack and even unlock a variety of transports directly to your garage. Similar to the Magnum Opus in Mad Max, only minus any of the context, the Phoenix is your starting vehicle and the only banger capable of being repaired and upgraded.
RAGE 2 ’s first-person firefights are honestly worth sticking out any of the game’s hardships for, and to a lesser extent, so too are the third-person vehicular combat sections.
One benefit of opting out of upgrades would at least be avoiding RAGE 2’s painfully sluggish menus, which hang momentarily whenever you switch between the numerous tabs. Elsewhere there’s graphical pop-in (not great considering the so-so visuals in general), invisible and unresponsive NPCs, we’ve fallen through the floor and had to reload a save, and the audio can cut out completely or persist where it shouldn’t (hearing continuous gunfire from a dead enemy, for example). In fact, the audiovisuals are disappointing on the whole, falling well short of the colourful, Andrew W.K. party atmosphere RAGE 2 was made out to feature and instead sticking closer to your archetypal post-apocalypse.
Still, if you’re looking for a substantial shooter to enjoy in all its gory single-player glory, RAGE 2 most definitely fits the bill. The game achieves its main goal in being sheer and unadulterated fun - it doesn't take itself even slightly seriously and favours gameplay above all else, to the extent that tackling what’s essentially the same side mission for the tenth time isn’t any bother, because along the way you can spartan kick a dude and then decapitate him with a boomerang as he sits up. What, pray tell, is not to like about that?
Band of Bastards is the third major expansion for Kingdom Come: Deliverance - Warhorse Studios’ medieval simulation RPG, which is holding up well a year after release - bringing with it a cluster of combat-oriented missions for battle-hardened players to get stuck into.
So, once you’ve polished off Dangler and been accepted into the nefarious crew, what adventures await? With around five hours of new content, Band of Bastards is comprised of six quests - five main and one side - plus the opportunity to explore your new camp and get to know the mercenaries within it.
Each of these characters feel unique and well-rounded, sharing entertaining backstories about how they became members. Particular highlights are the tale of how Dangler acquired his moniker (that’s sure to have set your mind racing) and how Sir Kuno’s family fell from grace.
The DLC’s solitary side quest, where head bastard Kuno asks you to retrieve a ring that grants its holder unlimited booze in taverns, unfortunately proves to be little more than a series of fetch quests taking place entirely within the borders of the small camp area.
Main mission wise, four of the five on offer feature combat situations for players to get involved in, with some decent armour components up for grabs to those willing to pay the iron price. The action’s tied together by some impressive cutscenes, and, while the story may be relatively straightforward, it does explore the questionable morals and irresolute loyalty of a sellsword company.
Unfortunately, it’s over all too soon. Just as you’re growing emotionally invested in a character, the conversation options dry up, and the same goes for Band of Bastards’ narrative as a whole. More disappointingly, the big finale ends on rather a limp note; the game’s framerate tanks and enemies display bizarre behaviour, doggedly chasing you around the battlefield whilst ignoring the rest of your party hacking them to bits. Granted, it’s possible to avoid a brawl altogether and settle things in single combat, but doing so means you miss out on a lot of extra loot, including a significant amount of coin.
None of that’s to say we didn’t enjoy the new content, though. The opportunity to venture out with your own crew and battle loads of baddies is exactly what Kingdom Come: Deliverance needed - the problem is, it needs even more of it! Band of Bastards is good, but it could have been great. All the components are here - the memorable characters, backstories and adventures - they just needed a bigger stage to flourish upon.
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.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden takes the turn-based tactics integral to its tabletop namesake and mixes them with real-time stealth and exploration, giving life to a hybrid brand of gameplay which fittingly mirrors the title’s overarching themes.
Straying from the main path to explore offshoots in the game’s “post-human” take on Earth allows you to uncover these materials in abundance, as well as new weapons and armour, plus even the odd side quest. The latter pair with collectibles to flesh out an intriguing background for what’s a rundown-yet-lush world reclaimed by nature; environments are thick with fine visual details, noticeable even from the game’s somewhat removed, isometric perspective, which makes it a shame that the camera can’t be zoomed in to appreciate them to their fullest.
After any stint outside the one remaining safe haven, a hub area known as the Ark, you can return to tune your kit before heading back out into the Zone, which encompasses the rest of the uncharted world, except for the vague promise of Eden. It’s this illusive, titular paradise you spend the game seeking, initially just as Dux and Bormin, a squabbling and lovable duo comprised of (shockingly) a duck and a boar respectively.
More humanoid companions are acquired along the way, but despite their appearance, everyone in MYZ is mutated in some way or another in order to survive the harsh landscape. All of the party characters are decent, but they only ever share playing third fiddle to the more charismatic leading duo; everyone at least maintains the pervasive air of silliness, quite humorously misinterpreting “ancient” technologies to cut through what can otherwise be quite a bleak atmosphere.
MYZ is a strange game, but in the best way - it’s a mechanics and lore-focused gamer’s game not requiring the sort of time and energy commitment many of its ilk do.
If you can put aside the somewhat cumbersome HUD and a few performance hitches - which aren’t too invasive, due to the game’s methodical pacing - there’s an awful lot both to get to grips with and to be gripped by. Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a strange game, but in the best way - it’s a mechanics and lore-focused gamer’s game that doesn’t require the sort of crazy time and energy commitment many of its ilk do. For a budget buck, or no extra cost to Xbox Game Pass subscribers, it’s one that fans of role-playing and strategy shouldn’t sleep on.
Does Fallout need NPCs to work? That’s the question we’ve been pondering almost the entire time we’ve been thinking about this review. The short answer is, as always, the cop-out answer, which is - erm, probably not?
This Fallout adventure is designed with friends in mind, up to 23 others at a time in fact, as you share your instance of West Virginia with fellow survivors getting busy living. Teaming up works as you’d expect, though finding other players isn’t necessarily an easy task with so much real estate to roam, and even the invites only gingerly pop up in the corner instead of really pushing the co-op experience.
For those wanting to be more traditional lone wolves this is somewhat of a godsend, but it gives an indication as to Bethesda's odd approach to playing together. Teaming up with friends to build a ridiculous base is plenty of fun by itself, but even more so is picking a point on the map and just going there, collecting the materials required to build and bringing the gameplay loop full circle along the way.
There’s PvP as well, unlocked at level 5 along with the hassle-free pacifist mode, but so far most players have largely been behaving themselves (perhaps everyone’s focused on levelling?) and there's little to actively encourage player encounters this early in the game's life.
76’s story relies heavily on your patience (which will certainly be tested in a multiplayer environment) for discovering and engaging with holotapes and written logs, as there aren’t any human AI characters to bump into and have deliver exposition through conversations. At first you feel a glimmer of hope that one or two of the quests might end up with you, somehow, coming to the rescue of a relieved NPC, but alas, everything seems to end in death. Death, it seems, never changes…
Building and crafting makes a return in a big way, as opposed to the somewhat take-it-or-leave-it approach of Fallout 4, in that you now have a mobile workbench known as the C.A.M.P. With it, you can construct all manner of things, once you’ve discovered the relevant plans, of course, which have been absent-mindedly left strewn across the vast, open wasteland.
No longer limited to specific settlements, you can lug your C.A.M.P. across the map (which is now four times larger) and place it anywhere not too close to a named location. Honestly though, you probably wouldn’t want to anyway, as you’d forever be pestered by respawning enemies.
While there isn’t the same throughline narrative returning players might expect, there are still main quests which take you on a gradual tour of the sizeable map, as well as side quests which pop up as you might expect, but new to Fallout are more MMO-style daily and event missions, the latter of which generally involve clearing out or protecting specific locations, and can trigger very easily if you wander even close to the marker.
Fortunately, there’s fast travel to help you get around with relative ease, however, this brings us to one of the most significant and potentially deal-breaking areas of the game - bugs.
V.A.T.S. is a little different too... With no slow-motion at all there's a tendency for percentages to fluctuate widely and that led us, ultimately, to dispense with it altogether.
There’s no getting around it: Bethesda games have a reputation for… not performing to the best technical standard. Of course, huge open world games are particularly susceptible to bugs, and when you add multiplayer and base building into the mix, Bethesda certainly haven’t made it easy on themselves.
That being said, Fallout 76 has consistently thrown up more bugs than any other release we’ve experienced in 2018. One particularly nasty error repeatedly caused the console (an Xbox One X) to shut itself down entirely to protect it from overheating. Firstly, the console wasn’t at risk of overheating - ventilation was fine and the device wasn’t hot to the touch as you’d expect if that was a serious risk. Secondly, there’s almost no way to avoid the frightening issue creeping up on you, but particularly if you try to fast travel there’s a high chance of having to suffer through a hard restart.
Needless to say there are fixes coming, and the other, more visible reported bugs - like enemies getting stuck in place and walking at 45-degree angles, or event quests inexplicably failing - will likely be dealt with, but as a customer paying a substantial number of bottle caps to pick the game up, the reality is severely below standard.
Perhaps Bethesda didn’t realise the B.E.T.A. (boy, do they love their acronyms) would throw up as many issues as it did, but, for a game of its standing, the stability should really be a lot better.
To address the big question then, does Fallout really need NPCs? It definitely depends on the game you’re looking for. If you imagine this game as a Conan Exiles or Minecraft survival experience then it might exceed expectations, but if you go in looking for Bethesda-does-Destiny then it could go the other way.
While NPCs aren’t essential to make it feel like a Fallout game (76 does still feel very Fallout), there’s really no specific reason - putting Bethesda’s stance on it emphasising player interaction aside - that there shouldn’t be anyone around, particularly when compared to previous games. To implement a blanket ban seemingly on principle makes the world feel a little more empty and locations a little less exciting; just the odd bit of characterisation here and there (besides identical robots) would have made all the difference.
It may get better in time, but right now it’s hard to fully recommend Fallout 76 for anyone other than die-hard series fans that are hungry for more.
Sega spawned many a classic during their Dreamcast-era days, but have struggled to stay as relevant in the ensuing years. The original Valkyria Chronicles appealed because of its gorgeous looks and Dreamcastian demeanour, but we never quite got round to it, so came to this latest edition with some excitement. Let’s cast nostalgia aside though, and answer one of life’s truly great questions: is it any good?
Getting your tactics right and correctly reading the terrain will ultimately decide whether you prosper or fall.
So, the characters are amusing, but how does the dang thing actually play? To boil it down to its essence, each slobberknocker in Valk 4 sees you moving between a top-down map screen from which you issue commands (position/deploy units, request reinforcements, etc.) and the gloriously animated violence of the third-person running and gunning. We’ve played quite a few similar attempts at this mix, but none come close to the perfect blend achieved here.
The sheer variety of choices on offer is astounding, really shaping how you tackle a particular situation or foe. Do you load up on the bazooka-wielding Lancers to take out tanks? Should you employ many-a-sniper to sneak around and take out the enemy crumb by crumb? Perhaps the protective nature of Shocktroopers is more to your taste? Whichever way you decide to go, you’re bound to have fun, learn from your mistakes, and ultimately realise the potential of classes that originally seemed one dimensional (man, the engineers and grenadiers come in handy).
Vehicular combat also features prominently in Valk 4, with regular use of Claude’s tank, The Hafen, at your disposal, alongside the incredibly handy APC, which allows you to transport soldiers across the battlefield. Whether it be vehicles or infantry, getting your tactics right and correctly reading the terrain will ultimately decide whether you prosper or fall.
Much like the original Valk, version 4 boasts the same command points and action points gameplay system. Command points show you how many actions you can make per turn, whereas action points are relative to each individual unit (later on you can buddy-up groups to your sergeants for extra fun). You can only move/shoot freely until that unit’s meter runs dry, with certain units capable of moving faster/farther, adding extra tactical depth. Using your CP and AP wisely is vital to dominating the blasted Imperial Army.
Valk 4 also offers up a buffet of extras, including levelling up character classes, weapon creation, tank/APC improvements, and, best of all, squad building, which functions exactly as you’d imagine while opening up extra cutscenes and fights. All of the above add to the rich expanse of customisation available to the player, really helping to suck you into the story and gameplay on the whole.
Gawping at Valk 4 is simply sublime, too, amigos. The gorgeous watercolour style evokes a lost storybook feel, adding emotional depth to the characters and the horrors of war. It’s not just the perfectly animated and drawn characters and sets, but the tea-stained map and comic book bright text of moving foes in the command segments, all working in unison to add that extra layer of visual polish and personality.
We’re not finished with the positives yet, as you can also add the game’s audio into the mix (WHAT. A. PUN). Sweeping, swooping strings and stupendous orchestration follow Squad-E’s ups and downs perfectly, whilst the voice acting is charmingly corny.
As much as we’ve enjoyed Valk 4, we’d be fool not to point out a couple of its flaws. The many, many, MANY cutscenes can leave you feeling foie-gras’d (you bet your rectum that’s a verb), as it often feels like you’re never going to get into an actual battle. It doesn’t help that voiceovers move too slowly to keep up with the subtitles, seeing us jam the A button on the reg in order to speed through another scene of Claude feeling emo about his weakling past (Scaredy Claude is his nickname, in spite of being in charge). There’s also no getting away from the fact that a Japanese-centric third-person strategy RPG is just an insy bit niche…
Despite those minor negatives, we came away thoroughly entertained by Valkyria Chronicles 4. Its tactics and combat are fun; the characters and story sway between cliche, humourous and melancholy; and the audio-visual presentation is outstanding. We’ve been blessed with some cracking games already this year, but personally, this goes straight to number one for little-old-me. A Dreamcastian delight: thanks Sega.
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.