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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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

 

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

Political Games: Wolfenstein Controversy

 

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In this first entry to a new editorial column on this site, I will be looking at the recent controversy surrounding the upcoming Wolfenstein: The New Colossus.

So what has gotten people so riled up about this latest entry in the long running series? Since the game is set in an alternate history of 1960s America that seems very much like a more violent, pulpy version of Man in the High Castle, naturally this is going to raise some eyebrows considering the current political climate. Even more so since the official marketing material uses phrases such as “Make America Nazi Free Again” that makes the game seem like it will be some overtly political, hamfisted commentary on current events. The developers of the game, Machine Games, have stated that they don’t intend for the game to be a commentary on current events and, considering the nature of modern game development for large titles, I believe them. However, that won’t stop audience reception, particularly from the left or just mainstream American politics in general from interpreting it through the lens of Trump’s presidency, Charlotesville, Pepe the Frog and brown shirt hysteria. It is definitely a controversial marketing slogan, but it has successfully generated enormous amounts of extra buzz for the game.

But what wasn’t expected was blowback. A significant amount of people on the net, on internet forums, anonymous message boards, twitter and so on have reacted negatively to this campaign. A line from the coverage of this at A.V Club  simultaneously explains the situation and irritates me:

“It’s a weird day-and-age we’re living in right now, where “Nazis are bad” has become an actual political stance, as opposed to a bit of basic, obvious wisdom.”

The reason this irritates me is because of it’s almost Francis Fukuyama level of misinformed arrogance. The belief that being opposed to a particular political ideology is somehow not a kind of political position is absurd. The belief that it’s just obvious that nazis are supposed to bad is pure ideology and stems from years of atrocity propaganda, school systems, soviet and hollywood films and so on. Those who share the opinion of William Hughes of AV Club need to re evaluate, as arguing that nazis being bad is self evident is the opinion of the brainwashed.  The opinion of the lead voice actors of the game in response to the same controversy mimic the same arrogance. Additionally,  Hughes claim that the anti-nazi marketing is “shockingly brazen” or brave somehow is laughable, considering being anti nazi is among one of the safest political statements to make publicly in the current year, next to support of homosexual marriage.

Fun activity for my readers: approach any person you know, or a stranger, and criticise the party line on national socialism and the Nuremberg myths and watch as they recoil and call you brain washed. But I digress.

The ride doesn’t stop here, however. Pete Hines, who is the guy in charge of PR at Bethesda, responded to the controversy. He said:

“Wolfenstein has been a decidedly anti-Nazi series since the first release more than 20 years ago. We aren’t going to shy away from what the game is about. We don’t feel it’s a reach for us to say Nazis are bad and un-American, and we’re not worried about being on the right side of history here. It’s disturbing that Wolfenstein can be considered a controversial political statement at all.”

There are a few things going on here. The notion that the Wolfenstein series has always been explicitly anti Nazi in any expressly political fashion is shaky at best. Sure, it has always involved shooting nazis since Wolfenstein 3D, but the context of that game was so simplistic that is was simply about being trapped in a castle and shooting your way out. And if the series was ever expressly political, I must have missed it in between the skeleton warriors, robo dogs, mecha hitlers and dual wielding sniper rifles. However, the political aspects of these games have, up until relatively recently, tended to be in how audiences have engaged with the games. Look at your typical coverage for games in this series, outside the recent controversy, or WW2 games in general and you will often see statements to the effect of how awesome it is to kill nazis, sometimes on the basis of the enemies simply being nazis, to body counts and how the games provide a fully guilt free killing experience. Commenting on the “nazis being bad” and necessarily un-American part would be  mostly repeating myself or straying too far from the topic, but I would add that Pete Hines should brush up on his history, particularly the German-American Bund, George Lincoln Rockwell and also how the eugenics movement was first pioneered by early 20th century progressives in the United States.

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To go back to audience engagement. My simple theory is that while these games, at least up until recently, have had little in the way of explicitly political content, the political character comes through via the player. How this works is that a substantive amount of players, when going into playing a game series like Wolfenstein, bring their own beliefs and prejudices to the experience, which allows for the fully guilt free aspect to hold.  What this effectively does is create a feedback loop: player believes nazis are evil, they then play a game where you kill nazis who are positioned as antagonists, which then in typical video game form provides the player with enjoyment that in these cases might feed back into the initial belief held prior to engaging with the game. All this can only functionThis is all a very schematic explanation of course, but I think it is potentially useful.

Since the game isn’t out yet, nor have I played any kind of demo or preview build, there is not too much else to talk about for the moment. However, the last thing I will say, in defence of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus  is that aspects of the backlash are misguided, especially the opinion that the game is necessarily going to be shit because of the politicised marketing campaign. In fact, in all likelihood, the game is likely to be quite good on the whole, considering Wolfenstein: The New Order was a fantastic shooter that also had a great soundtrack and amazing visuals and artistry. Although the story was quite bad when it jumped the shark at magical jewish concrete that was completely baffling and in the precarious position of being between hilarious and cringe worthy. But the rest of it is mostly good. My speculation is that stating the game will be shit because of this marketing is just signalling from people trying to impress their internet friends. In any case, the game is not out yet and I don’t know when I will get around to playing it. Hopefully, the game will be good and all this politicised marketing that suggests reading the game in relation to current events will just be marketing. But Bethesda have opened the box and can’t close it and shouldn’t be offended or surprised when there is such blowback from the alt right.

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (2005) PC Review

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One of my first impressions of Chaos Theory is how well it has aged, for the most part. The introductory cutscene sets up context of the story: the year is 2007 and the North Koreans and Chinese are performing manoeuvres and holding the contested Yellow Sea area in east Asia. Tensions are flaring with Japan over their re-armament that flaunts the post war constitution. This struck me immediately as something that feels like it is ripped from the headlines of the last few year, as if the writers of the game had some powers of clairvoyance and slammed all the geopolitical tensions of the region into one spy thriller.

As for the game itself, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is widely regarded as a classic in the stealth-action genre, with very much emphasis on stealth. In moment to moment play, you will be sneaking slowly through ships, banks, warzones, apartments, military bases and various other mostly urban looking  locations during the game’s ten or so missions. The stealth mechanics of the game have a decent amount of depth to them, where your chances of being detected are determined by how illuminated you are, which is a sliding scale, as well as line of sight and sound, the latter being determined by movement speed. This system works well most of the time, although there was one instance where it didn’t. I was under a walkway in the third last mission and I was crouched,completely still and completely shrouded in darkness. I was also out of sight, then the guard suddenly turns on a dime and shoots me with pinpoint accuracy. The shooting occassionally has inconsistencies like this as well. At one point, I was similarly stationary, aiming with the silenced pistol and I had my crosshair perfectly on the head of a guard who was sitting down. I shot and missed. Admittedly, things like this weren’t too common for the 5-8 play time of the single player campaign, but when they did happen, they were frustrating.

Stealth is also undoubtedly the best way to play this game, despite the load out screening offering an assault kit. Even though I did use the recommended or stealth loadouts through all of the campaign, any time I got into a high action situation, usually because of a fuck up or two, and the slow movement speed, combined with the controls and tight spaces in the level design make a run and gun approach insanely difficult. And this is not to say the controls are bad; they’re not. In fact, they are very easy to get used to and using the mouse wheel to control movement speed is excellent. It is just that the controls are best suited to stealth play.  Additionally, slightly more customisation for mission loadouts would have been welcome. You also have takedown moves that knock or kill enemies in a single hit, which is incredibly useful in tight moments as a kind of panic button when you’re right by an enemy and you’re suddenly spotted. I also found it useful using it sometimes after luring one or two enemies with some noise, running around the corner, throwing a flashbang and then sprinting up to them to knock them out (or cut their throat).Sam’s goggles also have multiple modes, from binoculars, to night vision and thermal vision, as well as a fourth mode which I never used because I never understood what it was for. You can get by mainly just using the night vision mode, since with thermal vision I only really needed to use it in the Hokkaido level.

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In fact, most of the shooting you do here will likely be less shooting of enemies and more shooting out of light sources to give yourself more darkness. Or you can just turn off the lights at the switch. It’s up to you. However, this has the drawback of making guards suspicious, so use with caution. Sometimes it is best just to use the regular light levels of a room when figuring out your plan of action for a particular room. This game rewards patience, a degree of planning and quick thinking when the situation calls for it.

The visuals here have also mostly held up quite well, at least the environments have. The use of light and shadow here are fantastic and make the environments look quite great. The environments are a texture pack away from passing as a more modern game, but even in their current state they aren’t too bad for something released in 2005. Character models, however, are generally not so good, except for Sam, mainly because the faces look quite bad. There’s a good reason the Metal Gear Solid series used face masks on most of its grunts. Cutscenes, owing to them being pre rendered, also have serious compression artefacts and don’t scale well to higher resolutions, but they’re usually not that long and are minimally watchable as far as technical quality goes. The game also doesn’t support widescreen from the menu settings so you have to either do a .ini edit or use a fan made patch, but it is not too much hassle to do so.

The soundtrack is also quite good and has quite a bit of variety from fast paced almost jazzy sounds to sounds that reminded me a little of Harry Gregson Williams’ score in Metal Gear Solid 3. However, the music tends to play only when guards suspect you or you’re fully detected so if you’re especially good, you might not even hear the music.

In terms of the writing, the story that I summarised earlier is pretty serviceable spy thriller kind of stuff. The best writing in the game are Sam’s interrogation dialogue with guards and the radio banter with Grimsdottir, which Michael Ironside delivers perfectly. While the main plot is serious, there is still plenty of humour in the game, which mostly works, except for that time guards talked about the new Prince of Persia game, which was a cringeworthy moment.

Speaking of Prince of Persia, there is also other product placement in the game from gum to deodorant, which is really distracting whenever it appears.

As for the multiplayer modes, I don’t think you can even play them these days without using game ranger or similar programs, so I do not know how the multiplayer holds up. It’s best to treat it as a single player experience these days.

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is a game that in spite of its age manages to hold up quite well, for the most part. It has some annoyances and rigidity to the movement and lacks some of the mechanical improvements that occurred in the genre over the last decade. But it still remains a mostly very well designed game that is a lot of fun and a good challenge even on the lower difficulty settings. I would definitely recommend it for people to replay or even check out for the first time.

8/10