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.
Having had the distinct pleasure of exclusively revealing the first glimpse of Warhammer: Vermintide 2 gameplay last October, the long wait for the first-person-shooter-come-brawler to arrive on console has been especially gruelling. Now that we’ve gotten our hands on it: was it worth the wait?
You’ll need to juggle priority targets and manage choke points as tidal waves of fetid flesh rage your way.
The level of customisation on offer gets altogether extensive when you also account for Vermintide 2’s loot and crafting systems. Taal’s Horn Keep serves as a sizeable hub area from which to launch your choice of the thirteen main missions, throughout which you can work towards satisfying daily challenges and career quests; completing these tasks awards the game’s strictly non-premium loot boxes, which rain a random array of weapons and gear that can be equipped to improve applicable characters, or, if you unbox a stinker, salvaged into materials used to craft new items and upgrades.
Refreshing a loadout can significantly impact how any given character plays, overhauling attributes and movesets, perhaps not always to your exact liking, but never compromising the viscerally satisfying core combat mechanics. Melee skirmishes can feel either hefty or agile, depending on your chosen armament, though always brutal as you gorily pop heads and lop limbs with each light or (particularly satisfying) charged heavy swing.
While mixing it up at close range you’ll need to be mindful to dodge and block incoming attacks from big bads, though opting for a character with more of a ranged combat style should keep you relatively out of harm's way to begin with. While letting loose with arrows, fireballs, bolts and bullets is good fun in itself, it’s almost a shame to snub one of the best first-person brawling systems around in favour of comparatively bog-standard blasting.
Still, variety is the spice of life, so mixing up your choice of hero whilst tackling repeat playthroughs of Vermintide 2’s semi-open levels - which accommodate multiple paths towards their culminating set-piece encounters, also randomising enemy and item spawns along the way - ensures things remain engaging. Throw in the lure of greater rewards when progressing to higher difficulty levels, as well as unobtrusive storytelling that allows players to easily consume their desired dose of action, and you have a package that’ll keep you busy for a good length of time.
Vermintide 2 is more in-depth than its peers in many ways, but retains the central simplicity that makes this brand of onslaught adventure so frantic and exciting. Doing so at native 4K resolution on Xbox One X, while mostly maintaining a solid frame rate, at no additional cost to Game Pass subscribers, makes for an experience that you (and preferably some friends) shouldn’t hesitate to get stuck into.
The latest entry in the rapidly expanding Focus Home Interactive stable, Vampyr is brought to life by sleeper development studio DONTNOD Entertainment (Life is Strange, Remember Me). An ambitious action RPG, Vampyr casts players as Dr. Jonathan Reid and unleashes them on an occult interpretation of 1918 London, framed by relevant Victorian themes in class, disease, race and religion.
Every single citizen you encounter has a personality, relationships and community standing within their borough.
Furthermore, should your moral compass be broken, you aren’t entirely off the hook. Mounting homicide cases may lead people to flee, stores to increase their prices due to the dangers of operation, or, if you’re a real glutton, even plunge a district into irreparable chaos and eradicate its population. That’ll lock you out of any content tied to the unfortunates at hand and also prevent you from rearing any more meat in the area, so it’s best to use your skills as a medical practitioner to craft cures from looted gubbins and subsequently use ‘em to keep the health of a borough at an even keel.
When Shadow of Mordor and later Shadow of War were lauded for their ‘revolutionary’ Nemesis Systems, which supposedly served to build meaningful rivalries, we wondered if we might’ve missed something. The community systems within Vampyr don’t fall similarly flat, realising the potential in attaching a player to what would otherwise be secondary NPCs by making every exchange consequential on multiple levels.
Exploring the quasi open world, rich with environmental detail and written lore as it is, can be as fruitful as conversing in the pursuit of useful information. You’re often kept to a relatively linear path by unpickable locks that gate progress, which isn’t an inherent issue, but is somewhat galling when you consider Jonathan has the ability to teleport and could feasibly get anywhere, but arbitrarily can’t outside of designated contextual prompts. Regardless, streets and interiors alike are a dark and moody treat to turn over for crafting components, used to upgrade weapons and produce injectable buffs that aid in violent confrontations with humans, vampires and additional beasties.
As an immortal, Dr. Reid eats bullets for breakfast, but the likes of fire and holy symbols will quickly turn the tides. Each enemy has their own unique strengths and weaknesses, which, when coupled with a range of classes, create a varied opposition that present challenge in numbers. They’ll work in synergy to bring you down, necessitating knowledge of their respective attack patterns and target hierarchy.
The community systems within Vampyr attach players to what would otherwise be secondary NPCs, making every exchange consequential on multiple levels.
Bouts are fast paced and scrappy, very similar to Bloodborne both visually and mechanically, seeing you lock-on to a single target before launching attacks and dodges at the cost of stamina. Firearms can be equipped to the off-hand when using a one-handed weapon and unloaded without need to manually aim, or, alternatively, a secondary off-hand melee weapon can be used to inflict negative status effects, like a stun that presents feeding opportunities.
This is where the more unique aspects of combat come into play, as you’ll periodically want to clamp your jaws around someone’s neck to keep your blood gauge topped up - blood being required to perform a range of lesser and ultimate abilities that range from simply healing yourself to boiling an opponent’s blood. There’s really a lot at your disposal, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that combat here isn’t nearly as polished as its clear inspiration, lacking the same engaging challenge thanks to some simple exploits.
Animations can also come off as a little stiff, pulling you out of the moment in the midst of an otherwise satisfying combo, but even on the odd occasion that Vampyr underwhelms visually it continues to impresses aurally. Battlecries are particularly guttural, while theatrical voiceovers commit to the patchy script with convincing verve, all complemented by the bellowing chelos and screeching violins of an excellent - and also decidedly Bloodborne-esque - ambient soundtrack.
Whilst Vampyr can feel overly familiar in certain areas, it borrows from the top and at its core holds a unique and intelligent social framework that intertwines engaging themes and characters to birth an enthralling, meaningfully manipulable narrative. It mixes up the conventional RPG structure whilst maintaining a nice balance between management, conversation, combat and exploration to retain the same moreish X factor that made so many fall in love with the genre to begin with. If you can take the rough with the smooth, you’ll find a lot to love in what’s easily DONTNOD Entertainment’s best game yet.
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.
Valentina, Beta, Alexxis, Jay… they're dead. They're all dead. While we mourn their passing, their permadeaths serve as an example of one of the greatest strengths of State of Decay 2.
As a newcomer to the series, it turns out that the complete breakdown of society can be pretty brutal.
Later, when your community swells and you gain enough influence (the game’s de facto currency), you can claim locations ranging from small, resource gathering outposts, to electricity generating power stations and even makeshift forts constructed from shipping containers. Each new locale has its own advantages and how you manage your growing empire, customising locations further with mods and upgrades, is up to you.
That said, it’s advisable that you take council from your community as morale upkeep is a constant battle in such dire circumstances, as one might expect. Sacrificing a building slot to set up a garden or fashion a lounge (in which you can install an original Xbox) can work wonders in keeping everyone cheery.
As time goes on, your survivors will improve their skills based on what actions they perform. While the game wants you to feel you're developing fleshed out characters in a manner akin to the likes of Skyrim, the reality is that skills are fairly limited, and you'll just want to make sure most of your population go for a run once in a while to boost their stamina, or they'll quickly become overwhelmed in a bout of fisticuffs.
What is unique to SoD2, and arguably the main motivator in investing you in its characters, are a collection of 100+ more mundane traits such as “Car crash survivor”, “Cat lover” and “Flatulent”, all of which have passive effects. When each survivor gains enough standing in the community their individual skill is unlocked, such as “Yoga instructor”, offering an amusing look at their pre-apocalypse lives. While these abilities sadly don't unlock a suite of oddly juxtaposed mini-games, they do offer depth at fairly low effort.
There's another side to this of course, in that not everyone gets on, so they can start fights in your absence or generally become disgruntled. If it comes to it, you might have to take the difficult decision to exile them for the greater good, though generally they do go quietly.
The same is true of the different AI factions, known as enclaves, which can get cheesed off if you repeatedly ignore their requests for help or side with other enclaves over them in disputes, potentially leading them to become hostile and spoil for a fight.
All of these elements comes together in a very compelling simulation, with the downsides to the experience so far (much of which lacked the minor polish brought by the game's hefty 6GB day one patch) being technical.
Zombies can drop in from about 20ft in the air as you approach, using vehicles places your life in the game’s hands as they can randomly flip out or explode, and the AI often behaves unpredictably, to the extent that more than once our fellow community members have perished in relatively mild peril.
Using vehicles was something we hardly dabbled in throughout the game's opening hours, assuming them to be too much of a zombie magnet, but in reality to reap the full rewards when scavenging around the map - in particular valuable resources like food or medicine - their boot/trunk space is quite essential. Casually opening a car door to obliterate a squishy zombie as you pass them at speed also never ceases to be messily fun...
Everything comes together in a compelling simulation, with the downsides to the experience so far being technical.
Another significant drawback is the lack of direction on hand for new players; a handful of prompts keep recurring, but seemingly there's little to lead you into new experiences as you’re drawn deeper into the game. On top of this, plenty of basic options like trading items between you and a follower out in the field are far from a simple button press away, taking us back to pre-Resident Evil 5 levels of AI buddy management.
Same applies in co-op, where up to three guests can venture into the host’s world and loot their own unique supplies to take back home with them, but should you want to swap items amongst one another it’s a cumbersome case of using menus to drop them on the ground before rifling through piles of stuff and picking up the relevant drops. There’s also a limiting tether that stops players from straying too far apart, but if you’re committed to watching each other’s backs that shouldn’t be too big of an issue.
Setting a few more minor bugs aside, the overall experience is stable, no doubt aided by the graphical sacrifices that see SoD2 appear visually underwhelming even with the added oomph of the Xbox One X at its disposal.
Whether SoD2 is for you depends on how you attribute value based on look and feel versus raw gameplay. If you favour the former, it certainly doesn't have many “wow” moments to entice you, or make for a particularly good sizzle reel, but the gameplay over time is undeniably compelling.
This post-apocalyptic world effortlessly encourages you to leave the safety of your home and explore just one more area, run over just one more zombie or pick up just one more follower, without drowning you in endless map symbols. Nor does it penalise you too much if you decide to be really heartless and ignore individuals’ needs (*cough* Sam *cough*), resulting in an unparalleled sense of freedom that allows you to craft your own narrative without completely abandoning you to your own devices in the process.
In all, at its basic price point, the game is well worth picking it up, and if you nab it as part of a Game Pass subscription you'll likely find even better value for money. With different areas to settle, origin stories to experience, and enclaves and survivors to encounter, there's plenty to keep you busy until the previously outlined DLC expansions arrive, but, for the time being, if you'll excuse us, we have a wind power station to claim.
Masters of Anima is a charming action strategy game in the vein of Pikmin and Overlord, where the player guides a young man named Otto on a quest to save his betrothed.
Excellent balance is struck between the game's three key pillars in exploration, puzzle solving and combat.
Stocking up on a certain type of Guardian as a situation dictates - bow-wielding Sentinels for a boss that cuts a swathe through melee fighters, for example - can help to secure not just victory, but a pat on the back and some extra experience points too. You receive a letter grading at the end of each engagement, with the lofty S rank often taking a few failed practice attempts to reach.
Upgrading Guardians can help to make them useful in more situations, but with skill points shared between each class and Otto himself, deciding where to invest them can take a bit of thought; luckily, you can respec as many times as you like between levels in order to really nail the perfect loadout. Replaying stages will net you extra experience to keep improving your build, which is a nice little motivator to do so, as is the opportunity to improve upon letter gradings and gather any remaining collectibles.
Outside of the odd technical performance dip and a few proofreading oversights (just note that we were playing a pre-release version), Masters of Anima is a game that’s very easy to admire. Rich with personality and considered design, joining Otto on his quest is a no-brainer for fans of the often overlooked action strategy genre.
The Council isn’t your typical narrative adventure game, serving up a side of role-playing mechanics to complement the impactful decision making and branching story paths you’ve come to expect. You play Louis de Richet, a Parisian aristocrat and leading member of The Golden Order, a powerful secret society headed by his ageing mother. When she mysteriously disappears on a private island owned by the elusive Lord Mortimer, you board a vessel and set sail in search of her.
The Council isn’t your typical narrative adventure game...
New interactions open up across the game as you acquire their corresponding skills, but you’ll have to pick and choose which instances to take advantage of, as performing actions draws from a limiting pool of Effort Points. What’s more, whether you might be forcing entry into a room, translating a document, or noticing small behavioural traits, there’s always a risk your efforts are misplaced and you won’t actually discern any useful information. When you pick your moment and do uncover a relevant morsel, character-specific vulnerabilities and immunities are compiled for reference and help you to politic with the best of them moving forward.
Ingeniously, real-world historical knowledge can also be used to your advantage, for example, knowing Napoléon’s plans for the future of France makes it easier to curry favour by telling him exactly what he wants to hear. For the most part that’s off the cards though, so being afforded a few blunders during tense linguistic jousts helps to avoid blowing an encounter and negatively impacting your story - which it always will, in the absence of game over states. Before it comes to that, tactically popping one of four consumables, which offer a range of helpful buffs, can drag you back from the brink of disaster.
Once you’ve gotten to grips with the ins and outs of the non-violent confrontations, they prove a fascinating advancement over the comparatively humble dialogue systems seen elsewhere. At this stage, The Council also seems set to dispel the infamous illusion of choice by actually bringing more significant differences between two given paths to the fore. You’ll visit contrasting locations and interact with different characters dependant on what you opt for, with each of these separate scenes then featuring more granular deviations within themselves. Ultimately, this leads to one of two very different cliffhanger endings, which certainly seems promising, though only time will tell how divergently the story continues to unfold across the series’ four remaining episodes.
At the end of a chapter you’re informed of the events that you missed, putting the web of opportunities into perspective, and coupled with achievements for making opposing choices this provides compelling reason to start all over again.
At this stage, The Council seems set to dispel the infamous illusion of choice by actually bringing more significant differences between two given paths to the fore.
The first of The Mad Ones’ endings we encountered left us more intrigued than the second, but either way we’re eager to see where The Council takes us next. Until then, this rough-around-the-edges introduction to the series illustrates the strengths of its unique approach, placing it head-and-shoulders above anything from genre leader Telltale Games in terms of gameplay. While it utilises similar techniques to perpetually trap you between a rock and a hard place, keeping you actively engaged with its story, when it comes to scripting and performances, the experience just isn’t comparable.
Since leaving Steam Early Access just over two years ago, Red Hook Studios’ aptly titled dungeon crawler has made its way to a number of platforms. Nintendo Switch users are the latest glory hunters to be offered the opportunity to test their mettle, but is this dungeon worth delving?
Outside of a PC, this has to be the best way to enjoy the game.
The risk of forever losing a favourite character, coupled with a hefty amount of information to absorb, can at first seem a little daunting, but push past the opening hours of uncertainty and you’ll be rewarded with a solid, tactical RPG filled with rich, atmospheric environments, unforgiving-yet-satisfying combat and some of the best accompanying narration heard in gaming.
So, after recently releasing on Nintendo Switch, a console that combines many of the advantages offered by the other devices the game calls home - the portability and touchscreen capabilities of the PS Vita or an iPad, the home console experience of a PS4 – is Nintendo’s hybrid the ultimate platform on which to enjoy Darkest Dungeon?
Considering this is the third iteration of the game to arrive on a console, Darkest Dungeon still feels very much like a title that’s been designed first and foremost with mouse and keyboard in mind. Menus aren’t the easiest to navigate with a standard controller setup, and often require awkward button combinations to open stat screens and sub menus. Handheld mode alleviates this somewhat by allowing you to utilise the Switch’s touch screen, but playing this way also comes with a couple of caveats.
Darkest Dungeon and its blend of gothic horror and engrossing fantasy adventure is an excellent and most welcome addition to the Switch’s rapidly expanding roster.
As we found during our time with Severed, the shape, weight and balance of the Switch doesn’t lend itself well to combined Joy-Con/touch screen control for any lengthy amount of time. In addition to that, the already small text and menu icons shrink even further when viewed in handheld mode and can be quite difficult to read, though Red Hook recently stated they’re looking into resolving this issue after receiving player feedback.
In spite of these drawbacks, Darkest Dungeon and its blend of gothic horror and engrossing fantasy adventure is an excellent and most welcome addition to the Switch’s rapidly expanding roster of games. Outside of a PC, this has to be the best way to enjoy the game, effortlessly merging the home and portable experiences offered singularly by other platforms.
When Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King first came to our attention earlier in the year, we immediately thought Castle Pixel’s homage to the top-down Zelda games of the past would be a natural fit for the Switch. As it turns out, Nintendo agree, snapping up the retro inspired action-adventure as a console exclusive.
Blossom Tales is an easy recommendation on Switch; a charming, colourful, and, most importantly, fun, title that feels right at home on a Nintendo system.
So, how does it fare on Switch? Having originally played Blossom Tales on a basic laptop that, while capable of running the game, probably wasn’t the optimal platform to best enjoy it on, reliving Lily’s adventure on Nintendo’s hybrid console was an absolute blast, particularly in handheld mode, where we spent the majority of our playthrough.
Seeing Blossom Tale’s world brought to life in the palm of your hands looks and feels great; colours are bright and punchy, and, despite the game’s tendency to pack the screen with large numbers of enemies at the same time, the Switch version puts in a decent performance, holding a steady framerate in all but the most chaotic of boss fights. Despite an impressive console debut there were some slight, platform-specific issues that cropped up during our time with the game.
The HD rumble, an exclusive feature for the Switch version, didn’t really feel like it added much to gameplay and became noticeably irritating after a while due to its intensity, while the default button layout also felt like it could have been better optimised, with the Y and A buttons feeling much better suited for item use than the standard setup which saw X and B allocated the task.
These were both minor issues, however, easily solved with a bit of tweaking in the menus and didn’t detract from the overall experience in any meaningful way, plus the boons of the Switch, particularly flexibility, means it still feels like the best way to enjoy the game.
Being able to pick up and play at any time, almost anywhere, is something that no other platform can offer, and Blossom Tales isn’t a title that’s taxing on the Switch’s battery, meaning it’s possible to leave it in sleep mode, walk away for a few hours, and return to find there’s still plenty of game time left in your console.
Clocking in at around 15 hours to complete, and with a price tag of just £13.49 / €14.99 / $14.99, Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King is an easy recommendation on Switch; a charming, colourful, and, most importantly, fun, title that feels right at home on a Nintendo system.
Filled with the genre-blending goodness that propelled the original to cult classic status, Hand of Fate 2 is equal parts dungeon crawling RPG, collectable card game, board game, and interactive Choose Your Own Adventure novel. You sit opposite the enigmatic Dealer, who, fittingly, lays bare your fate with his hand of tarot cards.
The game poses a variety of scenarios and leaves you to carve your own path through them, which, coupled with some evocative penmanship, makes each campaign engaging and memorable in its own right.
With freedom of approach often comes the ability to avoid them, though in dodging potential disaster you also decline potential boons. Valuable rewards include food, fame, gold and equipment, all of which can individually be integral to your continued survival.
Any weapons and armour you might gather are put to use in the game’s basic combat sections, which jarringly pull you out of your cosy sit-down with the Dealer into stripped-back, Batman Arkham-style brawls. A range of enemy types are each susceptible to different weapon classes, adding some variety that helps to invigorate things, but HUD elements that telegraph when it’s time to dodge or counter mostly make battles a breeze. Being heavily outnumbered is the one scenario you can’t approach as par for the course, as being flanked and surrounded proves intense when you consider that health is persistent and taking damage can carry very real, far-reaching consequences.
Naturally, that makes eating an axe to the mush as a result of a distracting performance dip all the more annoying. Even on Xbox One X with the settings switched from default to favour performance over resolution, Hand of Fate 2 doesn’t always run smoothly, which is somewhat baffling considering the game’s small environments and nothing-to-write-home-about visuals.
Though Hand of Fate 2 doesn’t do a huge amount in the way of innovating over its predecessor, Defiant Development have refined its winning formula, which is hard to take issue with. The game combines numerous complex systems into a cohesive and accessible whole that could well serve as a gateway into real-world tabletop gaming for many. Its tough choices prompt pause for thought and weave memorable stories that are compelling enough to keep you ploughing through, while also being self-contained and convenient to dip in and out of on a whim.