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

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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

Bayonetta (2017) PC Review

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With legs that don’t quit to the point where they are actually disproportionate and sporting guns on her heels,Bayonetta struts and flaunts herself with confidence. The game is a brazen, cheeky and lighthearted hack and slash romp that is self aware and relentlessly exciting, radiating confidence effortlessly.

The game falls in the tradition of character action games pioneered by titles like Devil May Cry, being a fast paced brawler that prioritises fast reflex and skillful combo memorization. A halfway decent player can create a speedy and fantastic spectacle that can end in torturous finishing moves that sometimes resemble some strange form of BDSM. One of the core mechanics here is witch time, which rewards skillful dodging and risk taking with a brief hit of slow motion, allowing you to start wailing on enemies with abandon,continuing a combo and juggling so insanely like an expert circus performer or Tekken player. This hack and slash brawling, while being a little more combo focused and button mashing than the older Devil May Cry titles is nevertheless requiring in skill and an absolute blast to play.

In regards to the difficulty, I did my playthrough on normal and let me tell you, it can be quite challenging and occasionally frustrating, especially if you want to get the highest mission ranking. However, it rarely becomes so frustrating as to feel unfair or make you want to throw your controller out the window. The only times I felt the game was a bit unfair were with some enemies that could stun lock you and hit hard, taking large chunks of health away. Another is that witch time appears to not work on some enemies for some reason that is not immediately clear. Another thing I would like to have is a few more immediate health restoration drops on the normal difficulty, especially after a particularly difficult mob or mini boss. That said, some sections where I had barely a sliver of health left motivated me to push harder in each section and sometimes to success. On continues, the game restores you health bar fully and boss battles have checkpoints, making them much more fair.

Speaking of enemies, there is plenty of variety between the standard enemy types that the game throws new ones at you almost constantly and mixing them with the previous ones, providing a pace that never leaves you bored. The enemies are typically some form of angel, that are all white and gold trimmed and bosses are impressively scaled and look like bizzare statuesque frankenstein beings with tentacles and wings and gigantic faces and legs that sport a white and gold trimmed aesthetic. One later boss looks like some weird cross between Volgin, David Bowie and the Phantom of the Opera, rocking robes that look like a catholic clergyman and decked out with peacock feathers. All these boss fights, in addition, are tremendously fun, with the Jeanne fights being particular notable highlights since they often have the best backdrops and are the most intense, reminding me of the Vergil fights from Devil May Cry 3.

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The overall look of the game is stunning, with sharp high resolution textures, sublime animation work and environments that range from bright medieval cities with a slight gothic influence in the architecture to art deco near futuristic cities and the heavenly paradiso, Bayonetta will have you running, jumping and fighting your way through all of these. You will even fight on a plane, a rocket and on the sides of buildings, and by the end, literally kill god. The story isn’t the greatest, but it’s presentation is so enjoyable that it’s worth holding off on that skip cutscene button, at least on the first playthrough.

Did I mention that this game is completely ridiculous? Because it is and it revels in it from the absurd character proportions, unbelievable fight choreography in cutscenes and some weird story about the balance between light and dark and destroying the universe to create a new one. Oh, and demonic summons that are weaved from hair. Bayonetta herself , as I have mentioned, is cheeky and sexy, with a sultry and sarcastic British accent. She is just a fun character, both to play and to watch.

The score of the game too is quite idiosyncratic that goes from fast, poppy jazz renditions of Fly Me to the Moon during normal combat to a big orchestral score that builds and sounds like something that might belt out through the choir in a cathedral. It’s quite a strange sound mix for the genre, but it fits the tone of the game quite well.

In terms of game length, a playthrough on normal took about 10 or so hours, but this is something that is made to be replayed, with new unlockables, such as outfits, more techniques and weapons and increased difficulty levels that are a bit more well thought out than being a mere buff in enemy attack and speed and debuff in player health.

As a port of a game that is about 8 years old as of this writing, the PC version of Bayonetta is definitely the best. It performs flawlessly at high resolutions and my system doesn’t break a sweat at max settings with 8x MSAA. It looks sharp and the cutscenes, which I am not sure if they are prerendered or not, look fantastic although they’re locked at 30fps.  I would also recommend playing with some kind of game pad, considering that this game was not originally designed for keyboard and mouse. But if you’re feeling particularly risky, the keys are fully re bindable. As far as glitches and crashes go, I only experience one glitch on the plane section and one CTD somewhere else, but it was otherwise smooth sailing. The load times are incredibly quick too, making the combo practice feature during loads that were supposed to make them bearable on the console release, at least for me, became redundant.

This PC release is without a doubt the definitive version of this Platinum Games classic. Especially if your only experience with the game is the shoddy PS3 version, you should definitely give the game another shot here. The game itself also remains a joy, with some of the best combat in the genre and a lighthearted and sexy style that is impossible not to love, unless you’re some kind of weird prude. This is an absolute must play and it’s only $20 on steam, so there’s no excuse not to get it.

9.5/10

Outlast (2013) PC review

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Outlast is a game I am of mixed mind about. On one hand, it can be absolutely terrifying but on the other hand, the actual game part of this supposedly survival horror game is lacking.

Let us start with what I liked most about Outlast.  It has an impeccable presentation, with the grungy and dirty Mount Massive asylum with strewn viscera rendered in sickening detail sprinkled throughout. The texture work is superb with excellent attention to detail that persists throughout every section of the game. The overall visual quality is excellent and the night vision mode when using the camera, combined with the ever present noise filter give the game an appropriately dirty look that truly does look like a found footage urban exploration film. The game is also quite dark in the Doom 3 sense, so use of the night vision mode is frequently necessary.The only gripe I have with the way the game looks is that in the camera mode without night vision, there is quite a bit of what appears to be really serious chromatic abberation which just makes me think the developers are adopting a bad trend in modern video game graphics or the journalist protagonist deliberately bought a terrible camera for some bizarre reason.The performance at maximum settings is also flawless.

The sound work here is also quite strong, but the score lacks variety in mood, chiming in mostly during chase sections with the bombast of a slasher film. There are a few exceptions of quite tense and creepy ambient tracks during exploration, but these have less presence in the game.

The other aspect of the game I liked is that it manages to successfully build a creepy and disturbing atmosphere that is not totally reliant on jump scares or being too relentless with symbolism. And while there are some shocking moments, they aren’t presented in a way that straddles the line between proper horror and over the top death metal album cover art edginess that players of Outlast 2 might see. The denizens of mount massive are well voiced and have designs that are disturbing stapled faces that make them appear like crosses between Frankenstein and Leatherface. The whole feel of the game is as a whole, quite unsettling.

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Now for the stuff I did not like too much. The actual mechanics of the game are rather slim. Whilst there are times where there is genuine panic, rudimentary stealth or some very light platforming, the whole thing is basic. That said, it is a step above a walking simulator, but not quite as in depth as proper  recent survival horror titles, such as Alien: Isolation or Resident Evil 7which as far as I’m concerned are currently the gold standard of first person horror games. How Outlast works is that you are totally defenseless and armed only with a consumer grade handheld camera, which is used pretty much only for seeing in the dark.  So when you encounter an enemy, you are only able to piss your pants and either make a beeline to point B or hide in a locker or under a bed. This lack of combat, combined with the inability to do anything other than run and hide (no weapons, no ability to make distractions, etc.) and rather tight spaces with linear design mean that every enemy encounter will play out in almost exactly the same way. The rudimentary stealth also works best on the rare occasion when there is a bit more space in a given area. At least you have a decent movement speed and can sprint almost indefinitely if you want. You also have to manage your battery resources for the camera, but on normal difficulty, batteries are plentiful enough and battery life is enough. It is not really a resource management mechanic of any significance and feels superfluous as a whole. But because the game sticks so strictly to defenceless horror game protagonist ethos, there is no way for the game to progress. Because the mechanics are so simplistic and have very little variety, there’s not much else to say.

With the story, to be honest I didn’t pay too much attention to it. But from what I gathered it was something about uncovering supernatural scientific experiments gone wrong. It’s all pretty basic stuff and the plot takes a backseat to the core experience since most of the plot comes from notes and documents that you can read throughout.

2013’s Outlast then is a decent horror game whose strengths lie primarily in its incredible presentation and unsettling atmosphere, with some admittedly quite tense moments throughout like navigating the pitch black courtyard at night and having to shimmy tiny platforms along the walls in the dark. However, the basic mechanics are lacking the quality and depth of survival horror. Even in spite of my gripes with the game, it is still something worth experiencing, especially if you can get it for cheap. The lack of depth really prevents it from greatness as it sits a step above walking simulator but not quite survival horror.

6.7/10

Yakuza 0 (2017)PS4 Review

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Getting a copy of this game was a hassle. I intended to buy it the week it came out, but by the time I went to my local stores, it was sold out. I had to wait at least two weeks before I could find a copy, but when I eventually saw it in the shop, my eyes beamed and I bought it instantly,finally able to play the incredible game within.

Yakuza 0, a prequel to the long running Yakuza series, which is highly popular in Japan and East Asia more generally, but rather niche in the West, has finally graced our consoles with a localised version this year. Being a prequel and requiring little familiarity with the prior games in the series, this is the perfect entry point for those that yet to experience it.

The story in this game focuses around the two playable characters, Kazuma Kiryu, who starts off as just a low level yakuza doing debt collecting jobs and Goro Majima, an exile of the yakuza who wants to get back in, but is forced as being a money maker for his boss in the late 1980s. After Kiryu is framed for a murder in the Empty Lot in Kamurocho (a fictionalised version of the Kabuchiko district in Tokyo) and Majima is tasked with assassinating someone by the name of Makoto Makimura, they find themselves embroiled in different groups fighting and infighting over this tiny patch of land and punch,kick and stomp their way through and making their mark in the Tojo Clan.

The main storyline of Yakuza 0 is a gritty and compelling crime drama that is well written and the performances, whilst I cannot understand Japanese, are full of emotion so in my view they are as a whole, quite good.

There is another side to the writing Yakuza 0 and those are the wacky and often genuinely funny side quests. There is one where you have to assist a dominatrix in learning how to berate her clients better or another where you accidentally agree to buy a young kid a porno magazine, which turns it into a mini stealth mission. Or another where you pretend to be a producer or someone’s girlfriend, there is plenty of variety in the narratives of the side quests,which provide a nice counterbalance to the furrowed brows and tense stand offs in the main story.

As far as the actual mechanics of the game goes, there are two pillars: combat and mini games.

The combat here is of a more traditional brawler style, different to the current trend of making variations of Arkham Asylum combat. This means that you’ll usually have to counter manually, block using L1, strike with square and triangle, grab, pick up weapons or guard break with circle and dodge with x. There are also brutal special moves called HEAT moves that range from curb stomping someone’s face, ripping their teeth out with pliers,suplexing people on rails and pouring boiling water on the faces of goons, delinquents, yakuza and anyone else who gets wide with you. Generally trash mobs are quite easy, although later in the game they tend to have bigger health bars, draw weapons more often and get a few more moves under their belt but the biggest challenges tend to come from some exciting boss fights. It’s not at all a difficult system to get used to but it does have two issues worth noting. At times, it can feel a bit like I’m just button mashing as opposed to games with more finesse, like Devil May Cry 3 or Metal Gear Rising, but in spite of this it’s still lots of fun. The other is that the way lock on works is pure shit. You have to hold R1 to lock on, but most of the time, except for certain moves that require it, it’s pretty useless and not helpful when fighting large packs of guys seeing as there’s no reticle placed on your target, so who you’re actually targeting can be very vague and moving around in time can become a hassle.

There are also three fighting styles per character (4 if you do what’s required to unlock the last one). They are Brawler/Thug, Rush/Breaker and Beast/Slugger, being medium, fast and heavy respectively and you can switch between them in the middle of battle. As Kiryu, I mostly used the brawler and rush styles in combat, whereas with Majima, I tended to use his styles more evenly,as Kiryu’s beast style is best only in tight areas with lots of weapon pick ups, which are not always around. Majima’s breaker style is also very effective crowd control as he spins and kicks while woohooing as if he’s Mario. Each style also has it’s own upgrade tree that while they look like sphere grids, they function as regular old ability trees. You upgrade by ‘investing in yourself’ through Yen, which is the single currency used for everything in the game, from buying food and items, upgrading yourself, buying real estate, gambling and so on.

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There are a shitload of side activities in Yakuza 0. You can play Sega arcade classics, such as Space Harrier and Outrun, use the claw machine, go bowling, play pool, darts, mahjong and more. You can play shogi, which is like a Japanese version of chess that I am absolutely terrible at due to how it deviates from chess throwing me off entirely. There are rhythm games, such as karaoke that are lots of fun although I wish it had more songs.The dancing minigame is quite interesting as it takes a unique spin on rhythm games. There is a grid on the on the screen and each button press will appear at a square on the grid and you must traverse the grids to be able to press it in time, whilst traversing as many squares to get there in order to maximise your score. It’s counter intuitive at first, but once you get the hang of it, can be quite fun. You can also use the telephone club to hook up with girls and watch erotic soft-core videos for a bit of titillation and to recharge your heat bar. There are lots of others that I did not mention and you can easily spend a shit load of time on these, especially if you’re a completionist type. On that note, the game took me just under 61 hours to finish at ~45% total completion.

The other two major mini-games, which have their own quest-lines attached to them are the real estate management and cabaret club; both of which are necessary if you want to be able to upgrade all your fighting styles fully.

How the real estate management works is you use your money to buy property in an area to gain a greater share and run out the billionaire that monopolises it. Then, you get managers (which you obtain through the completion of substories usually) and security guards that you assign to an area when starting collection to maximize profit in addition to using advisors to upgrade the rank of each property. Then you wait, collect the profit.Sometimes you will have to do a money battle, which amounts to mindlessly mashing X, take on the area boss in a bet over 10% area share in a mini game and after you have 90% share, you take them on in combat. Rinse and repeat 5 times. It can feel quite tedious, to say the least, considering how you can only invest in upgrading a property once per collection round.

Majima’s mini game questline follows a similar premise of taking over turf to beat rivals, but it is far more engaging than real estate. The cabaret club has you manage hostesses by preparing the business for opening by choosing which girls you are going to have on per session, which area’s fans you are targeting and customizing the clothes, hair, facial features and accessories of your platinum rank hostesses, as well as training them through karaoke or disco dates and customer service training, which is a dialogue that helps you level them up. These dialogues are actually quite engaging as the lip syncing, voices and back stories of the girls all feel believable. Then when you open up, you must keep customers happy by assigning girls to guests trying to make as much profit as possible, and assisting the girls by reading their hand signs to know if they’re ordering a drink or want the menu or whatever. It’s a rather simple mini game but surprisingly addictive and the grind feels much less tedious than the real estate mini game.

Aesthetically, the late 80s rendition of Kamurocho and Sotenbori, with their neon lit streets and plenty of detail,rendered at full 1080p 60fps and despite some low quality texture and low poly models here and there, the game generally looks quite nice. Cutscenes look even better running in real time but 30FPS. The soundtrack is also varied and generally quite enjoyable too. However, there are many elements of the game that demonstrate it’s limitations as being developed with the PS3 in mind, like the difference in lighting models between certain cutscenes and dialogues (you will know when you see it) and how there is loading times between interiors and the overworld. Thankfully, these load times are quite short.

Yakuza 0 is a game that juggles so many elements, especially tonally, and manages to do it very, very well. You will laugh, cheer, feel hype, tense , sad and sometimes a little fuzzy and much more and just have a generally good time punching guys in the face.  If you’re the type of person who refuses to watch a foreign film out of stubborn refusal to read subtitles, then this is not the game for you, but for everyone else, definitely give it a look, for it is sure to please long time fans and newcomers alike.

8.5/10

 

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017) PC Review

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The Resident Evil series has had it rough after the fourth entry in the main line series. It’s sequel, Resident Evil 5 is routinely laughed at for the ridiculousness of Chris Redfield punching the shit out of a boulder. It is also routinely and rightfully criticised for it’s poor partner AI that is forced on you if you don’t have a friend to play with. Resident Evil 6, while it’s combat mechanics are surprisingly quite good, every other aspect of it’s overall design is questionable. With Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, I am pleased to say that Capcom has put the series back on it’s feet.

One of the first things you will notice about this latest entry in the 20+ year old franchise is that it does not utilise the fixed camera angles of the original 3 games, nor the tight third person camera of 4, 5 and 6 but rather opts for a first person perspective that has become ubiquitous with contemporary horror games. This change in perspective is very effective in RE7. For example, in cinematics, such the dinner table scene, where the Baker family tried to make protagonist Ethan Winters eat some rancid looking human organs, which made me wince and recoil in disgust. Likewise in early sequences when Ethan suffers horrific bodily mutilations.

The storyline is also surprisingly good and well told. The set up is that the wife of Ethan, Mia, has been missing for three years but then receives a message from her in Dulvey, Louisiana, setting Ethan off on a mission to rescue Mia from the Baker’s estate. It all sounds very Silent Hill 2 and I was concerned before the game came out that the plot of this would just be a SH2 rip off. Thankfully, it’s not. Whilst the general trajectory of the story will be of little surprise to veteran Resident Evil fans, it is still skillfully executed and shows a positive level of restraint that never lets the game veer into a level of campiness that would put the game at odds with itself. Skulking around the decrepit houses on this plantation also reveal an incredible attention to detail that provides background information on the Baker’s life, which despite them being the primary antagonists of the game, had me feeling pity for them.

In terms of the mechanics and design of the game, everything from the shooting to the inventory management and sneaking around work really well. The shooting is tight and responsive, with weapons such as the shotgun feeling and sounding powerful, to the SMG’s high recoil or the kick of the 44 Magnum, every weapon feels different and satisfying to use. Even the knife is satisfying to use and can be quite effective, at least in one on one encounters with standard enemy types. Enemies are also threatening and can take quite a few pistol rounds before they can die, which is especially terrifying in the early game where ammo is scarce, so it’s often better to run away. One time after I had picked up the shotgun, I was in the boiler room and quite a few of the molded, which look like a more earthy and grotesque crossbreed of Regenerators and BOWs, had spawned and were giving chase, so I managed to headshot a few and kit the rest until they were all dead. It was tense and exciting. Boss fights, at least the early ones, are especially terrifying and thrilling at the same time. Enemies also telegraph their attacks, which gives you enough time to get a shot off, run away, or crouch to dodge, but you must still be quick about it if you don’t want to be hit. One disappointment is that there are very few different standard enemies.

Stealth mechanics, meanwhile, are very rudimentary, so there’s no lockers or closets to hide in to remind yourself of your high school days,  but it works well enough to be tense yet never frustrating.

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Save rooms and item boxes return and general inventory management return through an interface that is dark and minimalist, but still easily readable and intuitive to use. The save rooms are comfortable spaces which play a melancholic but relaxing tune that is incredibly comfy.

While inventory spaces and item combinations are much more streamlined and forgiving, you will still be making regular trips backtracking to item boxes. But since your movement speed is decent and the levels are designed quite tightly, the backtracking never becomes tedious. There is also a slight bit of handholding in that the map screen tells you what your objective is, but there’s no objective markers that trivialise the game and insult the player, but nor are you under threat of being regularly confused or forgetting what you had to do in case you returned to your game save after not playing for quite some time.

The game is also expertly paced and shows a lot of variety and influence from a variety of different horror titles. One minute you’ll be skulking through the guest house with nothing, the next you’ll be defending yourself against a crazed enemy and then skulking around the main Baker house, finding items and solving puzzles and playing a cat and mouse game with the patrolling Jack who functions much like the Xenomorph from Alien: Isolation, although thankfully frustration is avoided since he can’t one shot you, at least on normal. The best puzzle is a later game escape room, whereas the rest of the puzzles are things like rotating an abstract object in front of a light to match the silhouette of a painting. These puzzles are largely simple and while not entirely brain dead, they aren’t exactly head scratchers of old Resident Evil or the Silent Hill series. Speaking of Silent Hill, the overall progression is more like that than the first Resident Evil where instead of being singular location with shortcuts,loops, different pathways and so one, each area in RE7 is more like a discrete area and it works well here.

The campaign as a whole is quite lean, as I beat it in 7 hours and 42 minutes. Some online have complained about this length, but this length, for a decent player on a first  time playthrough is quite standard for games in the horror genre. The original 3 Silent Hill  games took me about this long, or a bit less to beat.Horror games as long as Alien: Isolation are quite an anomaly. Here is a good balance between quality and quantity. There is also replay value in the Madhouse difficulty mode, which is unlocked upon completing the game, which I will probably play on when I eventually revisit the campaign some day. But what it does is not only makes the enemies tougher or Jack faster, but item placement is changed, checkpoints are removed and saves are limited like how they were in classic Resident Evil.

In terms of the presentation, the game is near impeccable. Sound effects are all excellent and so is the voice acting and overall performances with the Baker’s Southern intonations that are both menacing and highly entertaining that deftly walks a fine line between serious horror and camp. The graphics too, as well as the attention to detail, with deep black shadows, excellent animation, texture work and extremely detailed character model. While there is occassionally a low res texture or two, the visuals as a whole are quite great. Enemy designs are creative and often highly grotesque.

The only downside to the visuals is that they can look blurry at times. When I first started playing I thought my eyes were going to shit since the game looked like a layer of vaseline had been smeared on the camera, but it turned out this was due to the anti aliasing setting it was on, which I promptly changed down to FXAA and all was well. Additionally, the motion blur effect here is quite good and I usually don’t like using it in games, but I recommend turning it on. It’s actually quite nice in this game at high framerates.

On a technical level, there is a high level of polish. On a GTX 970, running at 1440p on settings that were a mix of High and Very High, I had a mostly smooth experience running at 60fps or higher for the vast majority of the game. Although sometimes I would experience inexplicable and massive drops in areas that I shouldn’t have, these were few and far between. It also has a suitable amount of graphics options that allow you the game to be scalable on a variety of systems and tweak the visuals to your liking, such as turning off chromatic abberation or motion blur if you dislike those effects. It’s an excellent PC port all round.

Resident Evil 7Biohazard is a game that as you can see, I enjoyed very much. It has a well told story, excellent presentation and will spook you good, especially if you play with headphones on and lights off; the way horror is meant to be played. This is a Resident Evil game that should be enjoyable for anyone of varying levels of familiarity with the series. A great horror game and great Resident Evil game. This is the best the series has been since Resident Evil 4 and is well worth picking up.

9.5/10