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.
There’s a fine art to taking a beloved franchise and using it as a base to produce something new that can stand alone. Whether it’s The Last Jedi dividing a fanatical Star Wars audience or the latest superhero flick not being true to its source material, the process is fraught with danger and potential fan backlash. How reassuring to our faith in humanity then that Two Point Hospital is every bit the worthy standard bearer for a welcome return to the 90s’ management sim boom.
Two Point Hospital is every bit the worthy standard bearer for a welcome return to the 90s’ management sim boom.
A major plus this time around is that you have multiple locations to manage, so you can always revisit an earlier level and beef it up with more advanced equipment and items to boost your overall organisation's revenue. This metagame is a welcome addition, but, so far, hasn't seen different locations interact or crossover.
Repetition and busywork are the quickest way to kill the fun in a simulation game, but fortunately, thanks to the slow introduction of mechanics and a startling amount of depth when you start to dig into the more detailed menus on the information tab, Two Point manages not to be afflicted with this disease.
Given there are humans responsible for Theme Hospital involved with the project, it's no surprise that this and probably every other review mentions the game's connection to what was a mainstay of 90s PC gaming. Despite that, Two Point proudly stands on its own, with more than enough fresh ideas to make it feel like an entirely new game.
There are a few foibles to throw amongst the superlatives, however: AI behaviour of characters can be questionable at times, and in some aspects there's a lot of manual clicking of items to make sure they’re dealt with - particularly for the janitors, even though you can manually enable and disable specific tasks.
Other elements seem very much up to chance as well, such as the panic-inducing emergency requests, which see six or eight patients with the same condition come in for treatment at the same time. In these instances, it often doesn't seem to matter how slick an operation you’re running - there are always casualties. You might have a plus-sized ward with enough empty beds and a more than capable senior nurse, boasting the relevant treatment specialist skills, but still find patients dropping dead on you. A less than encouraging outcome.
Still, these moments are few and far between, and the potential to add in new elements post-launch is now far more likely than in the CD-ROM era.
If you're looking for a surprising diagnosis for this game, then you'll need a second opinion, as we're here to confirm - despite a few minor flaws - that the Two Point fever sweeping Steam right now is every bit as intoxicatingly contagious as it's cracked up to be. If they'd got the original tannoy voice back, it might somehow be even better.
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.
Following in the footsteps of Battlezone 98 Redux, the second game in Rebellion’s classic PC strategy series has now been lavished with the same spa treatment. Originally released nearly two decades ago, Combat Commander’s remaster expectedly shows a few cracks, but an intriguing blend of RTS and FPS mechanics still make for some uniquely exciting skirmishes.
Combat Commander’s remaster shows a few cracks, but an intriguing blend of RTS and FPS mechanics still make for some uniquely exciting skirmishes.
Not all of the changes are to your advantage, though. Obviously you can’t just jump back to your base of operations or an outpost that’s under attack in Combat Commander, upping tension and encouraging a careful approach.
While very subtle tweaks help the gameplay to endure, changes on the visual front are a little more drastic. The game simultaneously looks sharp and slightly retro, clearly being a modernisation of aged assets in place of genuine current design, which there’s a certain charm to. Old school wonk like shooting a chain link fence with a standard round causing it to explode, or hilariously bad walking and on-foot death animations, don’t translate quite so well.
Having largely remained true to the original means that the remaster isn’t too taxing to run. Its range of graphics options ensured we had no problem maintaining 1080p/60FPS on a GTX 1060, though it’s possible to reach the heights of 4K resolution and a higher unlocked frame rate with a more powerful rig. Unfortunately, Combat Commander is less technically accommodating elsewhere, with alt + tabbing causing temporary choppiness, and badly implemented controller support.
On the solo front, Instant Action mode caters to an itchy trigger finger, while the lengthy campaign slowly introduces new concepts to players across 24 varied missions. Set in the 1990s, the discovery of a hostile alien race dubbed Scions prompts the US and Russia to combine forces. You play Lieutenant Cooke of the International Space Defence Force (ISDF) and embark on an interplanetary crusade that’ll lead you down one of two branching paths dependant on a pivotal decision.
The narrative is really what you make of it, delivered through introspective loading screen monologues, written briefs and audio logs that it’s up to you to interact with. Jarringly untouched cutscenes are fortunately a rarity, but worse is the often inaudible mission chatter that gets drowned out by obnoxious sound effects, even after lowering audio levels.
The game simultaneously looks sharp and slightly retro, which there’s a certain charm to.
While hopping between six planets provides a welcome change in scenery now and again, differences in mission parameters aren’t always as easy to appreciate. Combat Commander’s campaign can stray from its strengths, dumping you in an on-foot stealth section, or tasking you with building a base then not allowing you to make use of it. Throw instances of generally poor design into the mix, like needing to leave the area you’re defending to proximity trigger enemies, or placing a particularly difficult section at the very end of a long stretch when the game has no checkpointing, and some outings are a recipe for frustration.
They aren’t all bad - a few objectives are particularly good fun, in fact - but with the multiplayer suite there’s less chance of being let down. Up to 14 players can compete and cooperate locally via LAN or online with cross-play between Steam and GOG Galaxy. Eight modes include the conventional Strategy game type, Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and also more more outlandish undertakings like Loot (steal as much money as possible from a bank) and Race.
You may struggle to find active servers for anything other than Strategy and cooperative Online Instant Action, in which a group of players wage war with challenging AI, but already having ‘dead’ game types doesn’t throw up too many concerns about longevity. With modifiers available to hosts, an endless supply of maps thanks to an extensive editing tool, plus mod and add-on support that anyone can get to grips with, the Battlezone player base has a lot at their disposal.
Much like Rogue Trooper Redux before it, in being ahead of its time in many ways, Rebellion ensured that Combat Commander would remain engaging for future audiences way back when. Its central coupling of genres is still genius, but a concept now held back by some dated execution.
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.
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.
A direct sequel to 2013’s The Stick of Truth, South Park: The Fractured but Whole sees players reprise their role as the titular mountain town’s New Kid, only this time, swords and sorcery give way to capes and ridiculous superpowers.
It’s classic South Park stuff - intentionally basic visuals and all - packed with the sort of crude humour, plot twists and biting satire that fans of the show know and love.
Battles in Fractured still follow the turn-based structure found in The Stick of Truth, but now offer players (and enemies) greater tactical freedom by allowing them to move around the battlefield on a grid. Rather than simply queuing up and kicking lumps out of each other, it’s now possible - with enough careful planning and the right mix of heroes - to surround and outmanoeuvre enemies, or even dodge their ranged attacks.
This new freedom is put to particularly good use in boss battles, creating some memorable fights. Highlights include outrunning an obese stripper and her one-hit-kill crush attack, simultaneously clearing a path through her minions, and a showdown with a sober Towlie, who’s immune to your attacks and instead must be pacified by igniting cannabis stores placed around the arena.
A range of QTEs crop up both when dealing out and defending against damage to boost outgoing or mitigate incoming punishment, as well as helping to build a meter that, once full, unleashes an over-the-top special attack that’s equally entertaining and devastating.
Before a fight, players can tactically select up to three other members of Coon and Friends to battle alongside them, providing you’ve already unlocked them as a buddy and aren’t on a mission that requires a specific set of characters. Finding the right team may take a bit of trial and error, as there are quite a few options to choose from, but most people should be able to assemble a preferred combination that compliments their play style nicely.
Some of your allies also have powers that can be used outside of combat to reach secret areas hidden around South Park. As an example, you can activate the Human Kite’s flying ability wherever you see a pinwheel, allowing you to reach previously inaccessible areas and rewards, such as new hero costumes and Artefacts (the latter enhancing passive powers and boosting your Might, which makes missions easier). It’s something that helps stop mundanity creeping in as you track your way back and forth across the limited reaches of the town, but, luckily, Jimmy returns to offer another fast travel option that makes things easier on that front.
The Fractured but Whole was always going to be packed with comedy gold, but buried underneath all the fart jokes and political incorrectness is an engrossing and hugely enjoyable strategy RPG.
Although you’re cast as the Amazing Butthole, whose legendary flatulence can be used to interrupt enemy attacks and even bend time, players are able to customise their avatar both visually and on a deeper level, specifically across hero classes and a range of abilities spread between brawler, speed and support archetypes. As you make progress more and more classes begin to open up, and you’re free to combine multiple, though you still only ever have four ability slots no matter how many you’re rocking, not counting your special attack.
It’s worth noting that you’re never locked into a choice, as you’re able to visit Cartman in Coon and Friends’ headquarters to switch out classes should you have a change of heart or just want to experiment with everything that’s on offer.
The Fractured but Whole was always going to be a faithful title packed with comedy gold, which is, to be fair, probably the main appeal for many, but it was surprising (maybe because I didn’t play The Stick of Truth) to find that buried underneath all the fart jokes and political incorrectness is an engrossing and hugely enjoyable strategy RPG.
Blast Out, formerly known as RUiN, was inspired by popular Warcraft III mod Warlock, which, in turn, inspired 563 fans to pledge just over £10,000 to successfully fund it on Kickstarter. Considering that budget’s missing a few digits on the games to which Blast Out draws comparison, this vibrant battle-arena brawler is shaping up well.
Fast paced, action-based combat sees ranged spells perpetually flung and dodged in an isometric dance of death that marries Super Smash Bros. and SMITE.
Despite the accessible controls and aesthetic, there’s really a lot going on beneath the surface, so it’s unfortunate that you’re left to learn lessons in actual multiplayer matches and feel like you're letting the side down in the process. Though there are simple, to-the-point text tutorials that put forward the basics in slightly broken English, they don’t quite prepare you for the reality of putting everything into practice during a frenetic combat situation. Thankfully, the fledgling community is nothing less than accommodating, encouraging new players rather than bearing ill will. Bot matches would regardless be a welcome addition to the final game, if only to provide an alternative to waiting out the often lengthy matchmaking process.
Blast Out’s still in alpha phase, with developer Tarhead Studio looking to expand the game together with the community over the next six or so months until final release. They’re even open to transitioning to a free-to-play business model if there’s call for it, which wouldn’t be a stretch, as the groundwork is laid with loot boxes and ingame currency already dictating your access to gear, just without microtransactions as an optional means to speed the earning process up. An asking price of just £9.99 and the promise of rewards for early adopters in the event that this happens should help negate any potential sting in the tail.
The very solid foundations of a game are here, though there's still a lot more to erect around them and a few building faults to smooth over. We have faith Blast Out will get there however, not least because Tarhead have already done the hardest work in nailing the fundamentals down to create an Early Access product that’s visually and mechanically rich, with balanced gameplay that calls for hard-fought, nerve-shredding matches. If you can accept the few caveats that come with the current build, Blast Out is a rare Early Access game that we’d recommend grabbing now, in place of exercising caution and waiting to see how the final release shapes up.
This game is silly. Don’t get us wrong, we don’t mean that in a bad way, but you have to admit no one was calling for Nintendo’s iconic Mario franchise to collide with Ubisoft’s collective of crazed, rabbit-like creatures. What we’ve ended up with as a result of this unholy alliance however, is truly something special.
For many the setup isn’t that important, but the time and care put into it by Ubisoft really puts across what it meant to them to be able to work awithin the Mario universe.
Battles are where the action is of course, and while Beep-O is fine at the odd puzzle, it’s Mario and co. who you’ll be relying on to tackle the rabbids that went extra wacky during the transition. There are a few ever-so-slightly more sane rabbids on your own team, including Rabbid Peach, who constantly snaps selfies and admires herself to really inject her with personality.
Each character has access to different weapons and skills, but variety feels somewhat lacking, with the same skills having different names depending on the hero in an attempt to disguise what’s essentially a copy and paste exercise. What makes things more frustrating is that you might not unlock the character you really want until near enough the end of the game, though at least you can reset your skills at any time to tailor your team to the challenge at hand.
Speaking of which, challenge maps become available once you’ve completed each mode, these taking an existing level and throwing in different conditions like a one turn limit or added enemy variety. Some of these can be taken on in co-op as well, in a perhaps slightly underdeveloped mode which nonetheless manages to be a great time for players in the same room (there’s no online option).
Combat begs comparisons with fellow tactical, turn-based strategy game XCOM, and disappointingly misses the opportunity to poke fun (as far as we noticed), but, on the whole, it really feels quite different thanks to its more basic approach. For example, Mario and chums can dash through enemies during movement to deal serious damage and then attack with weapons, compounding the damage dealt in a way which also fits in with Mario's head-stomping pedigree. Things can even be further simplified by toggling ‘Easy Mode’ at the beginning of any skirmish, helping to make Kingdom Battle more accessible to all.
Combat begs comparisons with fellow tactical, turn-based strategy game XCOM, and disappointingly misses the opportunity to poke fun (as far as we noticed).
Enemies gain skills and health as you do, making the learning curve quite gradual, but there’s a fair amount more re-skinning going on as you progress. Despite that, when the different classes start to interact you suddenly find yourself being tested in ways you didn’t expect, making it all the more rewarding when you finally take all the units down for a victory.
In the end, there’s not much to complain about with Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. It could use more variety in a number of areas - namely abilities, weaponry and the cast of characters on both sides of the titular battle (there’s no shortage to draw from on that front, looking at the recent Mario Kart 8 Deluxe) - but, generally, this is an essential purchase for Nintendo Switch owners. An original game that’s of great quality both at home on the big screen and on the go. In fact, it’s so engrossing that at one point we may have missed our stop on the train… and couldn’t be happier about it.
Mouldy Toof Studios have attempted to make The Escapists 2 bigger, better and more escape-y than the original. Whilst 2015's crossover with The Walking Dead was, essentially, more of the same, the developers have tweaked just about every aspect of this instalment, making it truly befitting the moniker of sequel.
A brief tutorial walks you through the basics, and while it isn’t exactly comprehensive, it feels like a deliberate decision meant to encourage creativity. Just like the previous titles, players must rely on trial and error.
Finding your way around once you’ve bested the tutorial is made much less of a hassle thanks to the mini-map, which will guide you towards your goal in typical fashion. Your cell’s also marked in case you need to rush back and hide any contraband, while guards are clearly displayed so that you can avoid them on the way. This helping hand is extra welcome as there’s been an increase in prison population, with the areas themselves growing to accommodate this.
Level variety coupled with a steady progression in difficulty helps to keep The Escapists 2 engaging throughout.
Starting out in Center Perks 2.0’s low-security compound - should you select the first item in the list, there are three levels available from the start - players will get to grips with the core mechanics while exploring and browsing the expanded library of craftables. Cougar Creek Railroad - also available from the get go - is the first of a new type of challenge, however. Set aboard a moving transport train, you have a limited time to make your getaway before the train reaches its destination. Without other prisoners around to sell you valuable gear, all you get is what you can find and create. This level variety coupled with a steady progression in difficulty helps to keep The Escapists 2 engaging throughout.
A new means of progression also keeps you ticking, as escaping incarceration in unique ways now awards a key, and, subsequently, unlocks more prisons from which to escape. This means that if you run into difficulty there's always the option to replay an easier level and grab one of the four keys you didn't acquire previously, rewarding multiple playthroughs of each institution and making the game more accessible to newbies.
There's enough variation in the key objectives to keep things feeling fresh on repeat runs, each one forcing you to pursue one avenue of approach at a time, rather than preparing for a handful of possible extractions, necessitating a more thoughtful and cautious approach. That said, I’m reminded by my co-op partner that I’m neither thoughtful nor cautious, and maybe that's why I've spent a vast amount of time in solitary confinement peeling potatoes...
… Playing in co-op opens up further escape options that are otherwise impossible in single player, whilst closing off others. Gathering and storing resources is easier with an extra pair of hands (or three), but the tradeoff is that any one member of your team could get caught and lose a valuable item or cause a secret hideaway to be discovered, putting everyone back at square one.
Versus mode plays like a stripped down version of the rest of the game, only with fewer restrictions, the goal simply being to be the first to break out. There is, as always, an element of luck when it comes to finding the right items, which can make a loss feel undeserved.
The Escapists 2 is definitely a step in the right direction for the series, making marked improvements on all fronts as a great sequel should. While it doesn’t offer a huge amount of longevity - despite the added replay value from the key system - the £19.99 price point means you won’t be left feeling short changed.