Persona 5 PS4 Review

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From the very first introduction and menu,Persona 5 leaps onto the screen with style and confidence that is for the most part held throughout the lengthy 80+hour experience. Not relying on mere flashy aesthetics, Persona 5 possesses a substantial and compelling narrative and an excellent turn based combat system, and a surprisingly interesting social life simulator element.

Without spoiling or going into excessive detail about the narrative that is the cornerstone of this lengthy JRPG experience, the basic premise of Persona 5 is the following: you play as a transfer student with a criminal record based on a false accusation that gets transferred to a Tokyo school called Shujin Academy. However, you become imbued with a strange and mystical power that allows you to access the Metaverse, which is an alternate, physical dimension of people’s subconsciousness,  either as a collective unconsciousness in the case of Mementos, a procedurally generated dungeon, or Palaces, which are for individuals with deeply distorted desires, moreso than the small fry in mementos.  Once your merry band of Phantom Thieves is formed, you set about stealing people’s hearts in this realm in the hope of reforming society. It’s a wonderful premise that has a rebellious, idealistic edge yet balances this with drama, positivity and doesn’t shy away from the implications of it’s own premise. There are also plenty of moments of levity and comic relief, which hit more often than they miss and rarely feels inappropriate or as if it’s trying to convey a sense of ironic detachment. The utter sincerity of the whole thing is part of what makes it such a joy to experience.

What makes the story work as well as it does is the characters. From Ryuji,a former track team member with an impulsive and rebellious attitude, or Ann who is a kind hearted beauty,Futaba the shut in, or Makoto the honour student and Yusuke the slightly pretentious artist. These are just some of the characters in your party and they all have excellent chemistry, which is helped by quality, believable voice acting.  All these characters are more than they initially seem and their individual storylines are all worthwhile. There are also non party member confidants, such as Tae Takemi, the punk town doctor, Sojiro your legal guardian, Kawakami the homeroom teacher, Ohya the alcoholic journalist, Mishima the fanboy or Yoshida the washed up politician to name a few. You will want to try and experience as much of these substories as you can too as they offer substantial bonuses for combat abilities, Personas and generally increasing your power.

This ties into the social life simulator aspect, which is more than mere interludes and are important to the storytelling and overall flow of the game. You can also increase five social stats through certain activities, such as knowledge through studying or answering questions in class correctly. These are necessary, as a skill check, in order to progress certain confidant substories. Everything feeds into each other in this core loop, and while this all might sound mundane, as part of the overall experience, it elevates the narrative and dungeon crawling. The main negative of the social stats for me is the interface as the progression between level one and level two of a particular stat is not terribly clear.

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Most of the female confidants also have romance options that can be taken at the conclusion of their substory, and while it possible to have multiple options with no consequence (unless you do new game+), I went with only Makoto and found that to be grounded, satisfying and heartwarming. Although it doesn’t directly have impact on the main story as far as I can notice, it is still presented in such a way that adds extra weight to proceedings. It is deftly handled and not clumsy like many popular western action RPGs that include romance options, or a checkbox element like in many Hollywood action films.

The writing overall, then, is of a high quality. But there are two substantial irritations that hold it back somewhat. The first is that it can be incredibly exposition heavy, especially in the first 10 hours, which can cause certain scenes to drag on just a little bit. The second issue is that when entering a Palace for the first time, a party member will comment on what the Palace represents even though in the lead up, and from the visual of the Palace itself, it is blindingly obvious what it represents. This kind of exposition feels clumsy and unnecessary. As I hinted at previously, the game also possesses it’s fair share of anime cliches (there’s even a section that is pretty much a beach episode) but none of it feels like filler, nor does it feel cringeworthy or rote.

In regards to the combat, it is pretty traditional turn based JRPG fare but with a few tweaks of it’s own that keep it from feeling slow or tedious. For one, exploiting elemental weaknesses of enemies provides more than just a damage bonus, but also enables you to have an extra turn and these can be chained when facing multiple enemies. Once all enemies are downed, you enemies are held up and you have multiple options: an all out attack for massive damage, or you can mug them for cash or items or you can acquire them as a pokemon Persona of your own. There is a gigantic roster of Personas, ranging from small scale supernatural beings, such as faeries, succubi, jack frost, slimes to penis monsters, a risque Lilith and even deities such as Dionysus, Kali, Thor and Anubis. All of these can be combined in some way to create more powerful pokemon Personas. Visually, all the mythical entities the game represents are all strikingly presented in ways you would expect but also in ways that are unexpected and they range from cute, to monstrous, threatening and sometimes even a bit arousing. In fact, sexual imagery and themes are very prominent here, but even with things such as obvious penis monsters, fetish-looking catsuits and a persona that channels a bit of femdom, it never feels excessive or juvenile.

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Aside from this, you will be using your usual buffs, debuffs, guns and regular attacks to defeat enemies as you would in any other JRPG. The combat interface is also bold and stylish without sacrificing user friendliness and responsiveness. The overall feel is slick and fast paced. You can also give your party members automated tactics to fit them into tank/healer, etc roles in combat but I stuck with direct commands, so I am unsure of how good the party AI is when left to their own devices.

There are also a total of five difficulty levels and I played on normal, which I feel offered a fair challenge the vast majority of the game, but on the whole it wasn’t terribly difficult most of the time. But I didn’t feel under-levelled, nor did I feel the need to compulsively grind and over-level on this difficulty setting which for me is a plus in any JRPG, especially long ones. I imagine on Hard and above this would become a necessity. There is also Easy mode, and an even easier mode called Safe mode, which I imagine would deprive the game of any challenge to the point where you might as well not even be playing the game. If you just want to experience the story, there’s an ongoing anime adaptation for that.

Palaces themselves are increasingly complex dungeon crawls, all with varied themes and striking visuals from a medieval looking castle, an appropriately garish museum or an Egyptian pyramid with a digital touch, everything feels well designed. However, there is also a “stealth” element which is just hiding behind bits of obvious cover. This can be used to slip past enemies, but only sometimes since corridors are quite tight and their patrol routes and AI are very basic. Usually it’s best to use for ambushing enemies, which gives you a leg up by guaranteeing your party the first turn. Trying to slip past enemies can feel a bit clunky and on more than one occasion resulted in me getting ambushed by enemies instead.

The overall look and feel of Persona 5, while not technically impressive, looks stunning nevertheless due to it’s bold,anime-inspired art direction that makes the fantastical worlds a marvel to experience and even the more mundane areas of Shujin Academy or Shibuya are pleasant to look at.  The only downer is parts of the procedural generated Mementos levels since they can look quite dull at first, although each area does look slightly different and becomes a bit more interesting to look at towards the end. Cutscenes are excellent too, especially the 2D anime cutscenes, which exhibit excellent production value and are always a joy to watch on the occasion they show up.

The music is similarly excellent, with funky, upbeat and high energy battle music, especially during the final stretch of a Palace dungeon. All the other music is on point as well at utilised very well to match the tone of a particular scene. However I do wish there was a little more variety in the score, especially in battles, mainly because of the game’s length but also more unique boss themes, at least for those in the main story, would be appreciated.

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To wrap this review up, Persona 5 stands as simply one of the best JRPGs around and shows that the turn based combat typical to the genre is not dated, boring or slow at all. Plus, the narrative and characters are compelling and worth the emotional and time investment. I laughed, I cheered and I even almost shed a tear or two at certain points.  The storytelling is mature but also sincere and uplifting, while never being shy of embracing it’s darker aspects. My heart has been captured by this band of Phantom Thieves.

9/10

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(Book Review) Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine

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Author: Anne Applebaum
Publisher: Doubleday, New York
Price: AU$37 from Book Depository
Edition: 1st Hardback edition. Paperback edition releases in mid 2018.

Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine is a stunning and compelling work on the famine that struck Ukraine between 1932-1934. The central thesis of the book is this: that the famine in this time was not a normal famine and was instead created and intensified as deliberate policy on the part of Stalin to crush the vestiges of the national movement in Ukraine and for the liquidation of the kulaks.

The trajectory of the work begins us with the significance of Ukrainian national identity and the independence movement  and peasant rebellions that marked the country, which had long felt the pressures of Tsarist Russification policies, as a hotbed of anti-bolshevik resistance from the very beginning of their regime. After this, we get an overview of the civil war period, of how the countryside was brutalized by both the recently formed Red Army, as well as the White Army’s habit of requisitioning grain from peasants. A particular sub-point I found here was that Applebaum ascribes Denikin, a White general, as being too blinded by the dismissive attitudes towards Ukrainians, to properly utilise the local populations in the fight against Bolshevism and thus as one of the reasons the Whites lost the civil war.  Another faction of the civil war that I had previously not known about, known as the Black army under Makhno, who were essentially anarchists, provided interesting reading.

From here,we move on to the famine of the civil war. This is a fundamental and important part of the text to understand Anne’s central thesis as it lays the groundwork for the distinction between genuine famine caused by war, bad weather and disastrous economic policies versus one created with the intent to weaken or destroy the population. Here we see how the nascent Bolshevik regime under Lenin, tried to squeeze Ukraine for all it’s grain, but as anyone who has studied the bolshevik revolution will know, international aid was allowed and indeed requested by the government to aid at risk populations. However much of it could have still been avoided without the disastrous set of policies known as ‘War Communism’ and the continued export of grain whilst the countryside was starving, a policy that would continue well into the Stalinist era, for the purposes of purchasing industrial equipment from abroad. We also see how the organs of the regime, primarily the Chekists, engineered class warfare and pushed the concept of the kulaks as the class enemy, but as Applebaum explains, the definition of kulak deliberately became a very loose word, liberally used to describe any peasant who might not have been well off, but might have had two cows instead of one or simply disagreed with or resisted bolshevik ideology.

Further on, we have multiple chapters dedicated to collectivization policies and resistance (and compliance) with them. In these chapters especially we are shown how brutal and coercive the bolsheviks were in implementing their policies towards the peasantry. We see the paranoia, the arrests, how the secret police (known at this time as the OGPU) worked and presented their findings to the party. We see how neighbours were often turned against each other, and also how the Ukrainian intelligentsia, who were not communist approved, or were at least under suspicion by them, were often targeted, harassed and liquidated. But Anne presents a nuanced account of events, especially in the following chapters about the Holodomor itself, where there were people at various levels in the Ukrainian Communist Party, as well as the party in Moscow, who showed dissent, especially towards collectivization and the unrealistic grain fulfilment quotas. While this book focuses on, and is generally sympathetic to Ukrainians, those who suffered in other regions of the USSR, such as those in Kazakhstan and the Russian heartland are given mention, this book isn’t Russophobic and the blame is firmly assigned to Stalin himself and the Bolshevik regime more generally, although it is noted that the peasantry often viewed those committing the crimes against them as foreigners, typically Russians or Jews in their eyes. Moreover, we see how people actively collaborated with the bolshevik policy, those in Ukraine and how people were incentivized to turn against each other. The line between perpetrator and victim is shown to at times be a blurry and difficult distinction to make, as the same person can often be both.

These chapters on the collectivization process, and the famine itself are incredibly harrowing even though they are presented in an un sentimental fashion, especially when it talks about the process of starvation and how the soviet authorities created the situation. Roads were blocked, villages were blacklisted, aid was denied, peasants were not allowed to trade, especially if you were not on a collective farm. At first there was resistance but the population was starved into submission. Activist brigades regularly raided homes and searched thoroughly for every last morsel of food. This is why the early chapters on previous famines were so important: the character of famines were clearly different and no genuine famine has representatives of the state actively taking away food from those in need of it. The crisis, engineered as it was, continued to worsen, lead to chaos in the cities, the absolute devastation of the Ukrainian countryside and the degradation of the population into emaciated husks, driven to madness and some to the point of cannibalism. These parts are particularly horrifying and distressing, but crucial, to understanding the absolute horror of this time. The book as a whole is a very depressing read and is not for the faint of heart.

After these chapters, we see the aftermath of the famine and how the authorities covered up the famine, both abroad and domestically. But the cover up abroad couldn’t have succeeded without a press corp in Moscow at the time that is shy of being outright accused of cowardice by the author, as it is said that they were generally aware of what was happening but kept their mouths shut because of coercion. As well as statesmen in Western European countries and America who were mislead or kept quiet, especially British and American authorities, who wanted to maintain positive diplomatic ties with the USSR to keep Hitler in check. These statesmen, especially the Stalin fanboy, Roosevelt, should be utterly condemned by posterity for their cowardice and refusal to simply speak up about this.

The final chapters of the book conclude with a solid discussion and overview of the historiography of the Holodomor and how it is remembered in Ukraine, Russia and abroad during the Second World War and after, being utilised propagandistically in Nazi occupation of Ukraine, and as a part of modern Ukrainian national identity that helps justify it’s grievances towards Russia as well as sovereignty. And like Solzhenitsyn said about Bolshevism and gulag breaking “the back of Russia”, Bolshevism did the same to Ukraine and it explains the current state of things in that country. The final chapter, an epilogue is primarily about this, helping to summarise the text and place in the context on contemporary Russo-Ukrainian relations, offering a fairly pointed and convincing criticism of the Russian Federation’s attitude towards the Holodomor and current policy towards Ukraine. This must be the chapter that fires up negative amazon reviews of the book that claim it is a conspiracy made to subvert Russia in the same way the excellent film, The Death of Stalin, was accused of by Russian government officials, which are honestly laughable accusations that miss the point.

Now that I have given a brief, but nowhere near extensive overview of some of the main points of the book, what did I think overall? As you can probably tell, I found Red Famine compelling, convincing and worthy of praise. Applebaum’s prose, while some might find dry, is generally excellent as it is uncluttered, readable and perfectly structured, with social, political and economic history seamlessly woven together. Events, individuals, institutions are described and analysed well, without excessive editorialising or moralizing and everything is very easy to follow. The central thesis is well supported by rigorous research that pulls from plenty of primary sources, such as diaries and memoirs, OGPU archives, Soviet archives, cultural works and the most up to date scholarship from Ukrainian sources from inside Ukraine itself or research institutes in the West, as well as pulling from many scholarly works on Soviet history. Familiar names like Richard Pipes pop up from time to time and Robert Conquest, something of a pioneer on the subject whose work Harvest of Sorrow (1986) was one of the early works on the subject in english, is given it’s just due. I actually considered purchasing Harvest of Sorrow, but decided on Red Famine instead, given it is more up to date, being released in 2017.

The subject of the Holodomor, in the English speaking world at least, is semi obscure. At least, as far as I’m aware, the general public lacks awareness of the subject beyond vague and ephemeral anti-communism. It definitely doesn’t have the traction and imprint in the mainstream anglophone consciousness that holocaust narratives do, especially since I have yet to see a major hollywood film on the subject. IMDB lists about 10 films that deal with the subject, all of them obscure. Indeed, the general public is typically ignorant of Soviet history and the region in general. One occasionally comes across those that still believe that Russia is communist, or don’t know who Stalin was, for instance. Hopefully works like Red Famine can generate more awareness of this terrible tragedy and improve understanding of Russia and Ukraine, as well as how states, in the past as well as now, deal with dissent.

That said, considering the academic tone of the work, I do not think this will have wide appeal to the general public in Anglophone countries, but it should appeal to anyone with an interest in Soviet history, international relation, as well as students studying the Bolshevik revolution in high school or any study on the Soviet Union more generally. The first 100 pages or so would be especially useful for those studying the Bolshevik revolution and civil war up to 1924 and would be of great interest for history teachers to include in their lesson plans, class discussions or as suggested reading to curious students. Additionally, those who study genocides might find this work valuable. But my hope is that awareness of this tragedy isn’t relegated to the relative obscurity of academia or students simply looking to impress their teachers and examiners, but for a genuine understanding of the past and present state of Ukraine and Russia, as well as the capacity for human suffering and cruelty. It would definitely make a great companion to The Gulag Archipelago, despite the different focus. Red Famine is a brilliant work of scholarship that is presented perfectly. It is essential reading.

Dying Light Enhanced Edition PC Review

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Do you remember Dead Island? That open world zombie game that had everyone hyped and then left everyone with the taste of disappointment because of how janky and underdeveloped it felt? Well in comes Dying Light, which is a lot like Dead Island, with the notable difference that it’s actually fun to play.

So what does Dying Light retain from Dead Island and what differentiates it? To start with, the setting is different. Instead of the zombie outbreak taking place on a resort island, the outbreak this time takes place in the fictional city of Harran, a city that has the feel of being vaguely European and Middle Eastern in it’s people and aesthetic. Or Brazilian, I am not quite sure. The first zone, the slums, evokes images of favelas, whilst the second zone, the old town as the name suggests, provides the charm of a European old town. It is quite the aesthetic shift once you reach it, but it is nice.

After the outbreak has been occurring for some time, you are dropped into the midst of it as Kyle Crane, an American operative working for an organization called the GRE in order to obtain some material and persons of interest. Throughout the game, Kyle finds himself heavily invested in the plight of the people stuck in the city. It’s quite a bland plot really and extremely predictable, as pretty much every twist can be spotted a mile away so it has no impact. Additionally, Kyle Crane himself is bland and becomes attached to the people of Harran unbelievably quickly, like someone who falls in love because that person smiled at them one time. This also includes a romance subplot within the main story that in addition to being forced, is also very unfulfilling. Kyle Crane is attached to these people but the game fails to make me care on an emotional level. So the story is clearly not the main attraction here. The main expansion, The Following has a similarly generic plot that is similarly bland even though it had the potential to be a fun b-movie kind of narrative.

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Some quests can be funny and interesting but these are the exception

In terms of how the game plays, the two fundamental aspects are combat and free running parkour (think Assassins Creed but in first person). The parkour works surprisingly well and is assisted by strong overworld design that facilitates this freedom of movement. It controls wonderfully and intuitively, making it fun to just run around the levels. But it is also very useful and is your most important tool in the early game, since enemies are plentiful, they hit hard and fast and your weapons are, at least at the start, about as effective as butter knives trying to fell a tree.  This makes for a very exciting start to the game in terms of the parkour mechanics, but an at times frustrating combat experience. I also found the ability where you can use an enemies head as a jumping platform to be endlessly entertaining and useful.

The combat really shines in the mid to late game when your weapons start dealing serious damage and you’ve got a good amount of ability upgrades under your belt. Enemies still hit pretty hard throughout the game, which makes me suspect there’s some level scaling at play in both loot and enemy damage output and they can dodge you, even the zombies. And since you have a stamina bar to worry about, you can’t just mash the left mouse button and hope to be effective, so there is at least some thought required in the combat. Early on, I found an effective tactic to cheese enemies by using the slide tackle to down enemies and then wail on their face with my equipped weapon. Drop kicking is also fun, but less effective than the slide tackle. But when you’ve got those higher levels of weapons, the combat becomes extra fun when your machete cuts heads off in one hit and the head flies off and blood gushes out of their neck stump. Or when they have a hammer smashed face or are bisected by a scythe or sword, it’s great stuff.

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Around the half way point, guns become more common, but they are a mixed bag. On one hand, they’re extremely effective as you can now have some range and easily pull of head shots that are one hit kills against normal zombies and smaller specials, such as a spitter that looks like the jockey from Left 4 Dead 2, or regular human enemies. One drawback, however, is that the noise of attracts more zombies to your position, so while it is effective crowd control, it still brings all the boys to the yard. Plus guns don’t have degradation. You’re going to want to keep guns as a staple of your equipped weapons. But on the other hand, the shooting just feels awkward and clunky at times, especially in the more linear main mission levels that involve shootouts against human enemies. Plus there are no abilities in the upgrade tree for guns, which is a missed opportunity.

Another main feature of the game is how night shift runs are quite dangerous,with creatures such as Volatiles (which look like discount bloodsuckers) which will fuck you up if they catch you so it is best not to take them head on in most instances. I usually avoided nights despite the award rate of double exp simply because being caught by volatiles was annoying. But they can still be fun. It’s up to you except for the occasional mission that requires you to go out at night.

In regards to this upgrade tree, the game uses a simple leveling system where you level up combat or parkour through simply engaging in them and thankfully, they are separate exp pools in addition to the general ‘Survivor’ skill tree that levels up through completing quests. It is a good an easily understandable system. The skill trees themselves avoid the common pitfalls many other games like these have of being dominated by passive abilities and instead offer a good balance between passive and active skills. The general progression is very well done and the player going from scrub to death on legs is satisfying and feels earned.

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Early area in the Slums zone

The Following expansion also adds driving, which has it’s own upgrade tree and the feeling of driving, depending on how much you’ve upgraded it and it’s overall condition, range from unwieldy to cathartic as you ram zombies in the countryside and create roadkill. I wouldn’t recommend driving at night until you’ve got a good amount of upgrades because being jumped by volatiles, especially off road, is incredibly irritating. But overall the driving is a fun way to compensate for the parkour being less relevant in a rural setting.

Crafting is also very simple in that all you need is a blueprint and the requisite materials and base weapon if applicable and you can craft a new item. Weapons have two types of upgrades, the first being ones that add durability or higher damage and the other being elemental effects. You don’t need to do this with every weapon as there are many that are effective in their default states. The designs of the weapons can are usually pretty grounded and can look like they would be practical or semi practical in any other kind of zombie media.

In regards to the visuals and performance, the art direction is quite strong as I have mentioned before with the different zones and they are good on a technical level too. Zombies are detailed and have excellent animation where sometimes even their vestigial humanity will show in combat and look like they are briefly yielding. There is also a good amount of variation in what each zombie looks like and while not all are unique, feelings of excessive repetition are minimal. Gore effects are satisfyingly implemented which is crucial for this kind of game and the lighting is phenomenal and the deep, expressive orange hues of twilight are the most impressive along with the immediate coldness and blackness of night. It also performs well at 1440p at high preset using at least a GTX 970.

There is perhaps more minutae of the game I can discuss, but I better wrap this up. I bought Dying Light on sale for about $24 USD and played about 30 hours, the vast majority of it being highly enjoyable in spite of my critiques discussed in this review. It’s not the perfect zombie game, but most of it’s mechanics work well together, the world design is fantastic and the soundtrack even has some good tracks, especially those with more synths. At around that price, this enhanced edition of Dying Light comes highly recommended to anyone looking for a fun zombie game that can be played solo or with friends.

7.5/10

God of War (2018) PS4 Review

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At first I was skeptical about the new God of War. On one hand, all the previews made it look like a boring cinematic The Last of Us rip off. But on the other hand, I’m a sucker for anything with a viking or Norse mythology theme so I thought I would give this one a spin. And with the many hours I have spent with this, it has been an utterly compelling experience.

There are two major changes in this soft reboot. The first is the change in camera from a fixed, pulled back camera to a much tighter third person over the shoulder view. I wouldn’t say this change is necessarily ‘better’ than previous entries, just different. However, the biggest problem with this is that the field of view is just a bit too tight, which means some fights, especially against enemies like revenants, can become very irritating because of their fast movement and teleportation that makes you have to wrestle with the camera and lock on to catch them. This tightness also makes it difficult to see enemies behind you,but this is compensated with by a threat indicator. However, despite being tight, at least the field of view never brought me to the precipice of nausea like the PS4 version of The Evil Within 2 did where I had to acclimatize.

Speaking of camera, in the transition from game to cinematic sequences and in fact, throughout the entire experience, the game utilizes a single shot camera style. This is a risky move, as if it doesn’t work well, it comes across as showing off and distracting. Here, it is superbly implemented and does an incredible job of involving the player in every aspect and is a perfect fit for the series.

In terms of the overall design, the game offers isn’t pure linear hallways, but more of an explorable world with many hidden areas and set pieces that reminded me a lot of Rise of the Tomb Raider or Arkham Asylum. This world of Midgard, and some of the other realms too, such as Alfheim, are truly sights to behold and make the game world a joy to explore. Seeing new worlds and artistry, especially since the game makes heavy use of angular stone monuments, runestones and even just tapestries on walls in certain areas are wonderful. Since the world is not too large and each area is varied in look and design, no area becomes boring in the slightest. The realm of Midgard (an other realms) as presented here is awe inspiring in its artistry and production value.

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The second biggest change for the series, apart from camera, is the tone. The best way to illustrate this is to compare the opening for this one and God of War 3. God of War 3 opens with Kratos climbing Gaia, a Titan, and fighting loads of dudes while also fighting the Titan as well. Here, the game opens with Kratos felling a tree and taking it back home to use as wood for the funeral pyre of his recently deceased wife. The driving thread of the journey is fulfilling the wish of the deceased wife of scattering her ashes on the highest peak of all the realms. Kratos here is also accompanied by his son, Atreus and they have an interesting dynamic and a believable relationship that is well developed. Kratos here is also different in character and, while he still is angry almost all the time (although there are moments where even Kratos shows some humour), his anger is better contained and not compelled to mere blood lust. There is a wonderful supporting cast too, such as the witch, the dwarven smiths that are brothers (the surly Brok and germaphobic Sindri) and Mimir. The journey of Kratos and his son, however, are complicated by Baldur knocking on their door and thrusting them into the affairs of the Thulean gods along their journey. It is a very well told and touching story, with brilliant vocal performances but once certain things are established in the plot, many of its twists are predictable if you have a decent knowledge of Norse mythology and religion.

In regards to how the game actually plays, the game is divided into combat, light puzzles and downtime which is mostly just traversing by boat, which is a relaxing palate cleanser where you can hear Kratos tell fables in the most dry, matter of fact way which is quite funny. Combat is a weighty affair with a visceral feel owed to amazing animation work and quality sound effects. The control scheme for combat is mildly reminiscent of Bloodborne, with the shoulder buttons being used for attacks as opposed to square and triangle like most games in the genre traditionally use. It is a quite simple system, but the series has never been known for having deep combat.

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Here it has just enough depth to be fun and offer decent challenge, but it still doesn’t match up to the genre greats. Also, much like the Souls games, or The Witcher 2, rolling away and then hitting after the attack pattern is a very useful strategy. There is a simplified form of juggling here too, which is effective and looks cool but doesn’t feel quite as satisfying to pull off as it does in something like Devil May Cry 3 or Tekken.  There are also certain moves that can be switched out and are unlocked as loot, but they are on cool downs, which keeps things simple but lessens the skill ceiling of combat compared to if they were all available for use but required more complex inputs. Your axe can also be thrown and recalled, which is not only for the light puzzles but is very useful in combat and setting up combos. Square, or the BOI button, is used to tell your son to shoot arrows at dudes or to read runes on walls and occasionally assist in solving puzzles. I still miss the jump button for combat. There are also light RPG mechanics, where your gear determines your level, which means some fights can be less about player skill and more about how good your stats are. It works well enough in this game, but might annoy genre purists.

Even though the combat is not as complex as I would like and there are lots of slow walking bits, everything from combat to light puzzles, exploration and everything in between is so well paced that there is hardly ever a dull moment

What of the gore, sex and spectacle, you might be asking? The gore is present an abundant, but not as much as in previous entries which is a bit of a shame and he finishing kills often feel less brutal being primarily against draugr instead of flesh and blood most creatures most of the time. There is a lack of the kind of excessive, gratuitous violence, such as ripping off the head of Helios from the previous mainline game, which some might see as making the game more ‘mature’, but I see it more as missed opportunity at best and glaring omission at worst. In terms of sex, having it in this particular entry would not have fit but it was always handled in such a juvenile PG-13 way in the old games that it is not missed here. I wouldn’t be surprised if future entries had more sexual activity, but presented in a more explicit, yet tasteful, fashion. In terms of spectacle, that is present in abundance here from the very first fight with Baldur to the last.However, considering the sequel bait ending and the inability to enter Asgard, Vanaheim or Svartalheim, I can’t shake the feeling that the developers are still holding many cards close to their chests in this regard.  There is also a lack of enemy variety, which is most obvious by the fact that most of the boss monsters in the game, both visual and in combat design, are reskinned trolls, which is quite annoying. The best, most challenging bosses are the Valkyries, but this is late/post game content.

What is my summary, then? The new God of War departs from its roots in many ways yet still retains many essential characteristics. It has superb production quality and artistry, with brilliant storytelling and a setting I enjoy immensely. While the combat and spectacle factor has a few missed opportunities, I still found myself utterly engrossed in the entire experience and as such, the game is very easy to recommend to anyone with a PS4.

8.5/10

Kingdom Come: Deliverance (2018) PC Review

 

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Warhorse Studios have realized their ambition of of creating an authentic-feeling medieval RPG that, unlike most historical themed action games or RPGs which feel the need to add elements of fantasy or nonsensical science fiction (I’m looking at you, Assassins Creed), goes for a much more grounded and realistic approach. And not only that, but it chooses for it’s setting an early 15th century Bohemia,which is rather obscure to most of us in the English speaking world. But Warhorse, under the helm of Daniel Vavra, have made this an accessible and fully compelling setting and adventure.

Like many RPGs and medieval stories, you start as a young man whose village gets attacked by a foreign enemy, slaughters the village and the parents of the protagonist. In this case, you are Henry, the son of a blacksmith and after the village is attacked, you set out on a quest for vengeance and to regain the sword forged by your father. It is a very typical set up. However, to the game’s credit, it takes its time and it is elevated to have a stronger emotional impact than one might expect.

Once the game starts to pick up, you meet plenty more compelling characters, my favourites of which are Hans Capon; a haughty young noble that is first at odds with Henry but soon become friends. The second is Father Godwin; a local priest with whom is part of a wonderful quest involving drunken escapades that require you to deliver his sermon for him the next morning. Theresa is also wonderful, a simple village girl who lived in the same village Henry did. She has a romance quest line associated with her that feels genuine. It really nice and uplifting. I do however wish there was more of it or that extended into the main quest line with at the very least dialogue that reflects the point you are at.  There is also a hilarious side quest involving a witches sabbath that goes awry. And let us not forget Henry himself who is a rather ordinary, but likeable young man who has believable motivations. These are just some highlights, but the writing here is generally quite strong and so are most of the voice performances.

The low point for the quests would probably have to be the monastery infiltration, mainly because it is kind of tedious and annoying if your more rogueish skills are not up to snuff by that point in the game. It felt a little like Bully, minus the fun and ability to give wedgies or kiss girls.

If you have a decent computer, Kingdom Come: Deliverance looks astonishing. The forests are dense and luscious, some of the best I have ever seen in a game. Simply traveling through them either to explore or in between locations and questing is a serene pleasure, whether on foot or on horse. From the tall trees to the running creeks, clearings and hills, the Bohemian countryside presented here is serene, joyous and wonderful.  Towns too are brilliantly realised and despite their relatively modest scale and architecture, feel much more lively and large than anything present in Skyrim. Characters, armour and weapons also possess an incredible attention to detail, not only from their fidelity, but also to the grit, grime, blood and wear and tear shown. I played at the high preset, although I had to turn down my resolution to 1080p. Simply put, the visuals of the game possess extraordinary technical quality that allows for the amazing mimetic aesthetic here. It is incredibly immersive, when it all works.

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Yes, as you have probably heard by now, KC:D fits the “eurojank” descriptor quite well. It is plagued with technical issues. There’s clipping issues, weird shit like sometimes levitating during alchemy and some people have even experienced bugs that have made certain quests impossible to finish or corrupted their saves. Sometimes certain staircases are bizarrely difficult to surmount. Thankfully, in my approximately 60 hours I didn’t experience anything quite that game breaking. However, for me the worst was the pop-in issues that are frequent enough as to be incredibly distracting and immersion breaking. The performance too is quite poor. To play on medium-high, or high preset, I had to drop my resolution down to 1080p to get generally playable, but not ideal, performance on GTX 970. At 1440p, things were wildly inconsistent with some parts being playable, with the better performance being in wilderness areas rather than cities. In cutscenes too the frame rate dived to painful single digits and in towns it would be a “cinematic” 24fps or thereabouts. This would be more understandable if I tried going for the ultra preset on my setup, but on high or a medium-high mix at 1440p, it should not be so bad. So the game definitely needs some work on that front.

800 words and I haven’t even talked about how the game plays yet! To summarise, the game is an open world structure much like the Elder Scrolls series and The Witcher 3. The entire game, except for dialogue, is in first person. Combat lets you use primarily swords, axes or maces and it uses a sometimes fiddly lock on system. It is directionally based, with five directions plus a thrust and the ability to feint, parry and later on, riposte. As you level up, you can learn new combos as well. It is a system that in its fundamentals is actually quite intuitive, but at first it can feel a bit clunky and very weighty. However, the progression is excellent and you go from slow, clumsy scrub that can hardly handle one or two moderately armored bandits to death on two legs by the mid to late game that can singlehandeldy wipe out an encampment of five or six guys by yourself.. So for me it felt like the typical RPG combat progression and it is incredibly satisfying.

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Archery is another facet of the game and, like the melee combat, can feel a bit awkward at the start, especially with the lack of cross hair. But with enough perseverance, it can be rather fun in its own right. Much like the Elder Scrolls games, leveling a skill works by doing, rather than the traditional RPG method of gaining xp and assigning points each level. But with this, an a lot of other elements of the game, will be rather familiar if you have played some of the bigger RPGs of recent years.

As for the save system that is often complained about,while not having a standard manual save (which has been fixed by the recent 1.3 patch), the save system of autosaves or requiring a particular item or using a bed isn’t terribly obtrusive. As for some other general things about the game: much ado has been made about how “hardcore” it is and, while it certainly offers a decent challenge, especially in the combat department, it’s not much more “hardcore” than the Witcher 3 is. The other controversy from some outlets and internet forums is the lack of racial diversity in the game, but those complaints are utter nonsense and I am glad to report that this game is free of irritating pandering to current hot button political issues and other such nonsense.

From start to finish, Kingdom Come: Deliverance was utterly captivating and has been just about the only game I have been playing the past few weeks. I was drawn into it’s serene and beautiful wilderness, the believable characters and the challenging combat. It is a brilliant debut effort from Warhorse Studios and is well worth playing, however it is firmly describable as eurojank, and so the present technical issues seriously hinder the game from achieving true greatness for the present time. Considering that the story also ends on a cliffhanger, I am eagerly awaiting some kind of expansion or sequel that concludes Henry’s story and draws us more into the medieval politics of the Holy Roman Empire.

8/10

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Review

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Another year, another Star Wars film. And with the recent release of The Last Jedi, the internet is ablaze with fury. I’m sure you’ve all seen the user scores on review aggregate sites that are completely at odds with the high scores from professional critics. And Rian Johnson is probably the most hated person on the planet right now. But how is the movie? Let’s find out.

The Last Jedi starts where The Force Awakens left off, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) finding Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammil) on a remote planet and the rebellion are on their last legs being chased by the First Order. In the opening sequence of the film, we have a dazzling space battle where the high risk heroics of hot shot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) takes centre state. It is an exciting sequence, but it also has some out of place humour with what is essentially a prank call. It is a very odd way to open a Star Wars film, but after that, the rest of the opening sequence is excellent.

With the humour of the film in general, it is very hit and miss. The jokes don’t always land and can often be out of place. However, there are a few instances where the film got a genuine chuckle out of me, mostly with visual gags on the casino planet, Canto Bight, a wretched hive of scum and villainy filled with the space bourgeoisie, where a drunk little goblin tries to insert coins into BB-8. Or a scene when Luke chastises Rey for her first attempt at “reaching out” to the force. Hell, even the porgs have some funny moments. The best humour in the film comes from parts that flow organically from the situation, as opposed to Marvelesque quips that miss more than they hit.

In terms of the story, the core of the film with it’s three major plot threads being the resistance retreat, Rey’s training/Punished Luke and the connection between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Much like in The Force Awakens, Adam Driver’s performance is excellent and Kylo Ren is the best new character in these films. In this film, he tries to break from trying to continue the legacy of Darth Vader and he want to “kill the past” and forge a new destiny in words that echo Kreia’s from Knights of the Old Republic 2.  In other words, Kylo Ren is the active nihilist and overman-to-be, which is presented quite well here.

The mental connection that becomes established between Rey and Kylo Ren through the Force is wonderful and the heart of the film. It brings a much needed sense of intimacy and romance to the film in a way that feels genuine and not corny, unlike the B-plot romance between Finn and Rose. It is quite touching and helps to develop Rey and Ren very nicely. It allows us to see the hint of vulnerability in Rey and make her feel a bit more human instead of a character designed by Kathleen Kennedy and market researchers at Disney. However, despite her characterisation being better realised here than in the previous film, her character arc still feels muddled and like her development is by and large being skipped as her ability feels unearned. I want to like Rey, but it is difficult to connect.

In terms of Luke’s character, this is probably the most controversial aspect of the film and has divided audiences. Mark Hammil has even talked about he disagreed with this vision of Luke. Some fans have even described it as character assassination and say Luke would never do x because of his arc in Return of the Jedi. But this complaint feels like those who make it were so enraged by one aspect of this arc that they weren’t paying attention to the rest. Without going into spoilers, I will say simply that Luke’s arc, even though it could have been handled in a multitude of different ways, here it was handled well in spite of what hotheaded fanboys say. The complaints about Luke getting milk from the weird tapir thing seem like strange complaints to me and this moment is clearly a pleb filter. For Luke’s arc, I’m also going to invoke the in built defence that it is like poetry and every stanza rhymes with the last, which is not felt more strongly than when we see a binary sunset soon after an act of heroism.

For the resistance retreat plot thread, which focuses on Poe Dameron’s change from hot shot ace pilot to leader who learns the value of caution, which is portrayed primarily through his relationship with with Leia. Carrie Fisher delivers a touching performance (in spite of one scene that is kind of dumb; those who’ve seen the film know what I’m talking about) as Leia, the grandmotherly matriarch of the resistance. But we also have Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) who is a purple haired condescending authority figure who fans have also complained about. But her attitude and behaviour, despite not having much logic in terms of the plot, nevertheless conforms well to how that kind of authority figure tends to act, so it wasn’t too bad. But since the last time I saw Laura Dern was her role as Diane in Twin Peaks: The Return, I half expected her to suddenly say “fuck you, Poe” and proceed to smoke cigarettes and drink from mini vodka bottles. This part of the story also brings us to the hyperspeed ram, which is one of the most visually dazzling moments in the film and is aesthetic perfection. However, it does complicate some of the underlying rules to the fiction of Star Wars to the point where hyperspeed ram becomes the Star Wars equivalent of why didn’t the eagles just fly the hobbits straight to Mordor?

In regards to the visuals and sound, those are all fantastic as always, especially the beautifully choreographed and shot fight scene in Snoke’s throne room that has so much red it reminded me of Suspiria despite these two films being totally different. The fights are entertaining to watch but don’t quite have the some punch and sense of weight like in The Force Awakens. Performances all round are excellent and Domnhall Gleeson, as well as Benicio Del Toro deliver wonderfully expressive portrayals as General Hux and the mercenary slicer, DJ.

There is plenty to talk about with the new Star Wars film, good and bad. The film is also two and a half hours and while I didn’t feel the run time (except for when I badly needed to use the bathroom), there are still parts of the film that could be trimmed or altered to make the film more cohesive and tightly paced. I should also add that I very much enjoyed the film while watching it, despite it’s issues. Other critics have also praised the film for subverting fan expectations and while the film does this, that is not in of itself a good thing and the limits are pushed here and luckily doesn’t fall into routine. It is a difficult tightrope to walk.

But while the film is enjoyable, good even, it is let down by unusual pacing, humour that doesn’t always hit the mark and interesting narrative direction that aren’t always fully capitalised on among the other things I’ve described. In short, it is a film with an excellent core that is let down by imperfect technical execution and the occasional questionable decision. While some critiques of the film are understandable, the vocal negative reaction to the film that claims it has “killed Star Wars” feel melodramatic and like barely disguised temper tantrums and/or nerd rage. The film fumbles at times, but it never drops the ball completely and Rian Johnson has delivered a film that is entertaining, engaging and establishes a fresh feeling of narrative possibility for the Star Wars franchise in the new canon.

6.5-7/10

Brutal Legend (2013) PC Review

 

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Brutal Legend with its heavy metal theme and aesthetics feels like a game made just for me. The licensed soundtrack, which has over 70 songs, features tracks from a wide range of metal genres. But apart from its unique theme and cast of Jack Black, Ozzy Osbourne, Jennifer Hale and Lemmy, is it a good game, or is it style over substance?

Before I touch on the mechanics, I cannot heap enough praise upon the overall presentation of the game. With a cartoonish style, the visuals have not held up incredibly well over the past 8 years and playing at 1440p, it looks and performs far better than I remember the PS3 version being.  The world of Brutal Legend is an epic fantasy setting and one of the most unique in video games, owing to its heavy metal theme. All the landmarks are striking and could have been ripped straight from the covers of power and thrash metal albums. One of the first areas of the game, Blade Henge, looks like an extended version of the real stone sword monuments in Norway. Trees in this world are actually scaffolding, there are panthers that shoot lasers out of their eyes at you, weird BDSM monsters, spiders whose web doubles as bass strings and all sorts of creative creatures and allied unit types that range from thick headed headbangers, to roadies and big bouncer looking dudes with small heads and large fists, as well as featuring swamps with amazonian warriors that look like they started in the KISS Army.

In terms of the writing, this game is from the time when Tim Schafer still had it and wasn’t so involved with political game dev cliques. The writing, in combination with with excellent vocal performances is sharp and witty and the narrative is a simple good versus evil epic with a heart of romance. It isn’t perfectly paced and there are a few plotholes, but it is engaging nevertheless. And it made me laugh and smile much like the headbanging tunes that played in battles or as I zipped around the map. The background lore is also quite cool and is pretty much The Gods Made Heavy Metal by Manowar. The writing also takes a few shots at nu metal and glam metal, although I would have liked to see some more black metal parody.

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Now to how the game actually plays. There are three pillars here: hack n slash combat, open world exploration and RTS battles.

In regards to the hack n slash elements, it is quite basic and is closer to 3D Legend of Zelda games as opposed to something like Devil May Cry 3 but it is functional and violently stylish. Left mouse is to melee attack, right mouse is to do a ranged attack with the guitar. You can block and also individually target, as well as roll away but I felt these slightly clunky on the mouse and keyboard. I wanted to play this game with a controller but I had a strange technical issue where the left trigger and right analogue sticks would not function and I used two separate controllers that work on everything else. Targeting is kind of dodgy.
There are special attacks, like the face melter for instance, that never get old and work like a basic rhythm mini game. The omission of a jump button is quite strange but the world was designed in a way where it isn’t really needed so it isn’t too much of an issue. The combat system is fun enough but it still feels a bit shallow button mashy and underdeveloped.

In regards to the open world, it feels very small since you can drive around it very fast. If you’re on foot it might feel large but then you’d be missing out on listening to half the soundtrack whilst going fast in a vehicle that becomes more  aesthetically ridiculous (in the best way possible) as you progress through the game. Outside of story missions, there are collectibles that all feel tangibly linked to the progression or theme of the game, so it is not useless bullshit like the flags in the first Assassin’s Creed. There are a few side missions, but there were only two that had any kind of side story content. Maybe I’ve just been spoiler by The Witcher 3. In any case, the open world, despite being visually impressive has little in the way of content besides the same three side missions over and over again. These days we complain about open worlds that are too big, but considering the vehicle in this game as the main means of transportation and the allure of the game’s licensed soundtrack, the world could stand to be a bit larger to bolster the sound track and epic scale.

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The RTS battles caught many people by surprise when the game first came out. But really, they aren’t so bad. There are a good variety of distinct units with specific purposes, but considering this RTS battle system was designed around a console controller , it can feel a bit awkward and to any RTS veterans, it is definitely lacking in depth, at least in the campaign on normal difficulty.  There are a few battles which are fun enough, but only one where I had to use a specific strategy and the strategy is more about build orders than anything else. One nice feature is being able to wade into battle yourself to help out your troops with a quick face melter to a group of enemies or crash the Hindenberg on your enemies.

Brutal Legend is strikingly confident in its tone, theme and aesthetics and feels like the work of people who truly love metal. On the other hand, mechanics wise, it is pulled in so many directions and all of them are underdeveloped. Thankfully, the relatively short campaign length of 4-8 hours is in this game’s favour, for if the campaign was 20 hours, the mechanics would not be able to hold up the campaign. What is important, however, is that the game, despite my gripes, made me laugh, smile and bang my head a few times. If you’ve ever enjoyed metal in your life and you can get this game for a good price, it is definitely worth a run. If you’ve never enjoyed metal or call all metal ‘screamo’, then this sure as shit is not for you.

7.7/10