Assassin’s Creed Origins Review


Assassin’s Creed is a series I love more than it deserves, I feel. Sure, some of them are excellent, but Ubisoft pushes what love those instalments generate and stretches it thin with yearly releases hampered by little innovation or even change, and peppered with glitches. II, Black Flag and Rogue were revolutionary for the series as a whole. Everything else was a holding pattern with varied results; a pair of Frye Twins here, a cool old man Ezio there keeping me invested. Syndicate was the peak of that run of AC games; glitchy, largely uninspired gameplay, historical figures crammed with largely embarrassing results, and a futile insistence that the future part of the story line will eventually be worth paying attention to. I enjoyed it for the most part, but even I knew it was time for a change; for the series to take some time off, regroup and come back strong. So here we are with the fruit borne from exactly that: Assassin’s Creed’s Origins, the best the series has been in years.

As the name implies, this is chronologically the first game in the series, taking events all the way back to 48BCE, Egypt. Cleopatra’s brother is doing a pretty awful job of running the country, she’s in exile and looking for a chance to take the throne, and the Greeks are in charge, to the detriment of Egyptians. Caesar’s Rome is at the door, and things are in turmoil. In the middle of all this is Bayek of Siwa, a Medjay who has sworn to hunt down and murder every member of The Order of Ancients, a masked and highly malevolent group who are responsible for the death of his Son Khemu. As a Medjay Bayek is a sort of Detective trained in hand-to-hand combat, archery and freerunning. He does a lot of killing soldiers and rescuing kidnapped civilians, but there’s also a fair bit of looking for clues, fighting off rogue animals and just generally being helpful. Helping him in his endeavour is his equally lethal wife Aya, who is currently in the Cleopatra’s service, and whom the player controls a few times for weirdly out of place ship combat. The game’s plot never really gets any more complex than that setup: Bayek travels from town to town in a frankly enormous open world, then towards the end the story gets more involved and the whole “origin of the Assassin Brotherhood” thing takes the forefront. This part of the story is a lot weaker than everything that came before it; its political intrigue and reveals fall flat, and having ended on a bittersweet but touching note, the game keeps going for another half an hour or so and then ends again in inferior fashion. The plot is strongest when it follows Bayek cutting a murderous but noble path through a beautiful, well-crafted Ancient Egypt. This is the first Assassin’s Creed game to actually inspire me to do further reading and research into the era it depicts. Rather than use its time period and culture as a backdrop and excuse to dump a load of historical characters in Bayek’s path, it ingrains those things into the story. The Duat, the Field of Reeds, the Ka, Sobek, Anubis, Sekhmet and Osiris; these things are not merely paid lip service, they are key parts of Bayek’s story. They weave a different spin on the traditional revenge narrative; yes, Bayek is on a hunt for those responsible for Khemu’s death, but not merely to take an eye for an eye. His journey is motivated by a burning desire to help his Son’s soul move on to the Egyptian afterlife, something he feels cannot happen with Khemu’s killer drawing breath. Bayek is a true believer in the Egyptian Pantheon, and it factors into his role of Medjay; he is as man steeped in the culture and belief of Ancient Egypt, and willing to shed blood and risk his own life in the aid of his country and its people. It was this, alongside their general level of quality, that made it so easy to pick up and complete side missions. Role into a town to inquire about the next Target, find five or six people in trouble, offer help. Sidequests are short and snacky, and usually involve finding and killing people and/or rescuing a prisoner. Mini versions of the base infiltration and assassination stuff you get up to hunting The Order of Ancients.

Gameplay wise, this is the new benchmark for the series, although it does have issues. Freerunning and stealth haven’t really changed, which is fine; they got those both sorted in Unity, with just a few niggles that have been ironed out. Being spotted by an enemy doesn’t alert anyone else, there’s a clear threat indicator, and the freerunning is now controlled with one button press and the left stick. The biggest change is to the combat, and equipment. It’s a “Division”-style RPG now, in which the player and enemies have levels, attacking them makes numbers fly out of their heads and if an enemy is more than two levels higher than you the game recommends giving them a wide berth. Combat places no emphasis on parries (though they are present, but only offer a slight advantage), instead Bayek’s combat style is looking for/creating an opening and then battering enemies into submission. Bows play a large part in both stealth and combat, with different types available: a regular bow that can be charged, a sniper bow aimed in first person, a rapid-fire light bow and a sort of shotgun bow which fires several arrows at once. Giving Bayek the edge is his Eagle Senu, whose eyes Bayek can see through for reconnaissance purposes. Basically, she’s the way you mark enemies in traditional Ubisoft style, and finds objectives once you’re within a certain range. All of this works really well, for the most part; stealth bolstered by Bayek’s ranged options and dealing with any raised alarms with an upgradeable, scaling range of melee weapons is a good mix that deals with most situations. Issues arise primarily if you venture into missions beyond that two level range; they’re possible, but difficult. The problem is that while normally fine, the checkpoints can sometimes place you back at the start of a huge, gruelling battle you barely managed to scrape through, only to be cut down by a random goon who just so happened to be passing on horseback. Also the hidden blade can only be used on unaware enemies, and if the enemy is too high level it doesn’t kill them. Now, this makes sense if taken purely in the context of an RPG, but it is rather stupid to stab and only wound someone with a blade that will outright kill the man standing right next to him. That’s it for my issues though; for the most part it’s an enjoyable open world game with good stealth and combat.

Assassin’s Creed Origins is the best the series has been in years. Having slowly degraded into a factory assembly line open world title with a new coat of paint each year, the time off did it the world of good. Rather than just have a big city populated by people to stab and historical figures embarrassingly crammed in regardless of whether or not they fit, Origins presents a beautifully designed, excellently crafted Ancient Egypt, a very human, character based story steeped in the culture and trappings of the time and a very noble, likeable protagonist. This is what Assassin’s Creed needs to be going forward; a series where each game is given the care, attention and time it needs to just be an all-round enjoyable experience. Plus you can climb a Pyramid and slide back down the other side. It’s ace.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

 

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Game of the Year 2017

Much like last year, 2017 was a good year for games. Once again it’s a list of five, in order from bottom to top. I played a lot of good games this year, and it was a little tricky to narrow it down to five. First though, honourable mentions:

Honourable Mention #1: The Evil Within 2
The original Evil Within had a few good ideas, but they were ruined by an avalanche of terrible gameplay mechanics, design choices, and those few good ideas being run into the ground. It was, for the most part, total shite. Imagine my surprise when its sequel turned out to be a solidly made horror action game that ironed out most of its predecessor’s flaws. Its story was engaging, its characters actually had something for a player to work with, and its gameplay was no longer a frustrating, punishing mess. This is the game the original should have been, and while not as good as a certain game in the top five, it is an enjoyable horror game, and one of the biggest surprises of 2017 for me.

Honourable Mention #2: Berserk and the Band of the Hawk
Yeah, I know. I know it’s that standard musou gameplay of cutting down literally hundreds of enemies, to the point where they offer no real threat, in large, sparse environments. But you know what? I got a real kick out of it; I wanted a game where I got to play as Guts, cutting down soldiers and demons, and now and then fight a villain from the manga, and that’s exactly what I got. It’s really quite good actually; it follows the plot of the manga surprisingly closely and makes the most of the musou trappings to do so, playing as Guts feels good, and some of the boss fights are genuinely great, particularly the fight with Zodd on the Hill of Swords. There were better games released this year, but I personally had a really good time with this, so I had to at least give it a mention. Title’s still stupid though.

5: Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

In a year when saying how shit Nazis are somehow became just one side of a debate instead of the accepted truth, a new Wolfenstein was more than welcome. As I said in my review it felt like a combination of two games: an epilogue to The New Order, and its sequel, The New Colossus. The former is a dark, sombre tale of a man racing towards death, falling apart at the seams and doing as much damage to the Reich as he can with the time he has. The latter is a pulpy, over the top tale of slaughter and revolution, and the two halves combine to form a game that alongside DOOM represents the current gold standard for first person shooters. It takes risks, it gives the player room to explore and get to know the characters and their plights, and it layers it all on a bedrock of slaughtering Nazis. The only things holding it back from a higher spot are its short length and the slightly jarring shift in tone between the two halves, but neither of those aspects stop it from being one of the best games I played this year.

4: Yakuza Kiwami

Two words: Majima Everywhere. Sure, it’s a remake, and Yakuza 0 did wonderful work for everyone’s favourite snake skin-clad mad cyclops, these points I cannot deny. But Kiryu’s story in 0 is generally weak and largely superfluous; existing primarily to bring two important characters together. It also causes some issues for the original game, and as a prequel to Kiryu’s story it doesn’t really add anything. Had it just been Majima, it’d be on this list with no questions asked, but as it stands I prefer Kiwami. Its story is tight, focused and the central conflict between Kiryu and ex-best friend Niskiyama is solid. In particular how the game treats Nishiki as a foreboding presence, looming in the background with power and influence of an unknown extent before you finally confront him. The style system carried over from 0 is still great, as are the new finishers, and the graphical overhaul is lovely. But it’s Majima that steals the show, expending time, effort, money and the manpower of seemingly his entire family purely to restore Kiryu to his former Dragon of Dojima greatness. Goro Majima truly is a beautiful gift, and he must be cherished.

3: Mass Effect Andromeda
People give Andromeda a bad rap, in my opinion. I’ve seen people treat the game as a complete and utter failure; a disaster of epic proportions from which the series can never return, and I don’t get that at all. I genuinely loved Andromeda, for the most part; its new crew were all delightful (particularly best girl Vetra, pictured above) and its story of unified races expanding into the unknown, teaming up with the Andromeda natives to save their new home was great. The combat was pretty much the same as it always is in this series; functional but not particularly exciting, though that was helped by the new boost jetpack thing built into protagonist Ryder’s suit. But it really came down to the crew of the Tempest, who I enjoyed spending time with at the expense of everything else in the game. Much like Berserk and the Band of the Hawk, mentioned above, I got what I wanted, and that was enough for me to really enjoy the game. I wanted more Mass Effect with new characters, I got just that, and I will happily defend this game and its place on this list. It has its issues, namely that terrible sudoku minigame, but I really enjoyed Andromeda and I am hungry for a sequel.

2: Resident Evil 7 Biohazard

Ah Resident Evil. Just when I thought the series was long overdue either a reboot or being taken out back and shot, RESIDENT EVII. BIOHAZARD (Or if you’re in Japan, BIOHA7.ARD RESIDENT EVIL) as the box art insists it’s called comes along and singlehandedly saves the entire series. Simultaneously fresh and classic, Resi 7 brought back a big scary house full of puzzles, bizarre locking mechanisms and prowling monsters, but switched to a first person view and focused the events on a family of nigh-invulnerable swamp folk. The humour’s back, it’s genuinely creepy again, and it’s so nice to play a horror game that puts so much stock in good environment design, both mechanically and aesthetically. The only downside to the main story is its weak third act, in which the player is forced to run around a grounded boat while plot happens, then loses all their weapons and has to run around it again looking for a way back out. It’s by no means a deal breaker, but those first three-quarters of negotiating the Baker estate and fending off southern-fried horrors are so impeccably paced and designed that anything of even slightly inferior quality sticks out like a sore thumb. The Baker family are characters that will stick with me, and Resident Evil 7 will too, both on its own merits as a masterful survival horror and as the exact thing this series needed, coming out of nowhere to save the day in a way I never saw coming. It absolutely deserves a spot on this list, and for a long time it was number one. Were it not for what’s coming next, it would win hands down, but as it stands it gets a well deserved silver medal.

1: Persona 5

As far as I’m concerned, it could only be one game. Resi 7 had the top spot comfortably until I played through this absolute juggernaut, a game that’s a serious contender for my new favourite, and certainly one of them at least. I’ve already written a lot about this game and why I love it so much, so I’ll try to keep this brief: Persona 5 is a sublime mix of style and substance, as rewarding to play as it is beautiful to look at and listen to. 2017 had a lot of excellent videogames throughout its duration, but none of them resonated with me, engrossed me and gave me the level of sheer enjoyment as Persona 5. Whatever you’re doing, whether it be breaking into fortress-esque physical manifestations of people’s minds, maintaining the game’s “Social Links” with the protagonist’s friends or just attending school, everything is given the same care and attention, and every moment of the game is a gem. That’s why Persona 5 is my game of the year, and why it’s a game I’m really glad I took a chance on.

Well that’s 2017 all wrapped up in a NEAT LITTLE PACKAGE. As I said it was a great year for games, and narrowing down this list was hard, even factoring in honourable mentions. 2018’s looking good from where I’m sitting; Red Dead 2, Persona 3 and 5 Dancing games, Far Cry 5 and Yakuza 6 are all on the way. I’ll get to them all throughout the year, but next on my list is Assassin’s Creed Origins, which will be up soon.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

A Brief Update

A while ago I briefly wrote about Nier Automata. Specifically, how I had finished the game once but was planning to do so again twice more before writing a review. I wrote that with the best intentions, underestimating just how engrossed I’d get in other games (namely Personas 4 and 5), as well as other work outside of the blog. As such I’m putting it on the back burner for now: I’d still like to write something about it, but if I do, it’ll be a “thoughts on” piece sometime next year. As for articles in the near future: Game of the Year list is coming tomorrow, and I’ll be reviewing Assassin’s Creed Origins, which I’m playing at the minute. Might write a “thoughts on” for the Call of Duty World War 2 campaign as well, because I’ve got some thoughts on that and few of them are positive. Anyway that’s the rundown for the coming days, and that’s the end of this brief update.

By James Lambert
@jameslamber18

DLC Review: Resident Evil 7 Not a Hero and End of Zoe

(Please note that due to the nature of “Not a Hero” and its main character, a certain reveal at the end of Resident Evil 7 will be spoilt in this review. You probably know about it at this point but on the off chance you don’t and still intend to play the game, bear that in mind)

Resident Evil 7 got the year off to a surprisingly excellent start back in January. After years of mediocre to terrible instalments in the long-running survival horror series, “Biohazard” as it was subtitled was both a return to form and a breath of fresh air, both for the series and the genre as a whole. As well as a sort of fun variety show in the form of two paid DLC packs, the game’s end credits promised free content to come starring the new, normally proportioned Chris Redfield. After a long delay it finally released earlier this month, free as promised and alongside paid DLC “End of Zoe”, combining to tie up the few remaining loose ends left at the end of the main game.


First up, Not a Hero, in which Chris Redfield pursues Lucas Baker through a mine in order to give him a satisfying conclusion and some more screen time. Amusingly, after a lot of speculation on the nature of the new, blue-logo’d Umbrella Corporation and Chris’ role with them, the game just flat out gives you a document that says “Okay, here’s what’s going on with Umbrella now” and proceeds to explain it. Basically the new Umbrella are attempting to make up for the company’s past forays into giant monsters and zambambos by cleaning up any bioweapon-related mess it can get its hands on. Chris is here to investigate Lucas’ work with “The Connection”, the company he was feeding information to about Eveline and her effect on his parents. The entire DLC follows Chris’ trek through the mine from the end of the main game, dealing with traps, a new form of Molded (more on them in a second) and Lucas being his usual charming self. While not quite the all-conquering action hero he was in Resis 5 and 6, Redfield is still more capable than Ethan, being better equipped and capable of punching stunned Molded to death. That’s not to say it’s suddenly turned into a first person shooter though; it’s the same mix of action and horror as in the base game, and certain parts of it are genuinely quite creepy. The aforementioned new Molded is a wailing, paunched creature with abnormally long arms, only vulnerable to a certain type of ammo, and is first encountered on a trip down to a dark, dusty crypt like part of the mine filled with toxic gas. Given the short length of the DLC the tone is rather hectic and desperate; unlike Ethan, Chris has no downtime (not literally- there is a save room), it’s a constant push forward through deathtrap after deathtrap, being taunted by Lucas until you finally confront him, which while not quite what I imagined, is still satisfying. After his story disappointingly petered out in the main game it’s nice to see one of the game’s best new characters get some room to breathe. As DLC goes, Not a Hero’s rather good, even more so because it’s free. It continues the good work started by the main game but in a microcosm, with just enough good ideas and cool stuff to last the run time, as well as more Lucas, which is undoubtedly a good thing.


This is where things get a little messy. Poor Zoe Baker, left behind by Ethan and Mia, has apparently been wandering the swamps around the Baker estate for weeks. Suddenly, for some reason, she becomes encased in a white mold and rendered unconscious. Not that white mold that signifies a character is dead and about to disappear, but a new kind of white mold that cleanly removes the infected person’s clothes and conveniently just covers their private parts. Anyway, just as she’s about to be rescued by Umbrella in comes Jack Baker’s brother Joe, a well ‘ard old man who lives in the swamp and beats Molded to death with his bare hands. Having mess up Zoe’s chances of being cured, it’s up to Joe to punch his way to an antidote, along the way getting into an almighty scrap with Swamp Thing and bringing a conclusive end to the story of Resident Evil 7. To a certain extent I’m in two minds about End of Zoe. On the one hand, it’s fun, its hand-to-hand combat is a great idea and it really changes how you play it. These two pieces of DLC represent the two sides of Resi 7: Not a Hero is the serious, effective survival horror and End of Zoe is the goofy, outlandish sense of humour. On top of that, the game gives a satisfying conclusion to the game’s story, and to (SPOILERS) Jack Baker, who gets a do-over after his weak final form and irritating boss fight. Both fights with his new Swamp Thing form are a welcome change, are far closer in both tone and form to his other two fights, and offer a showdown and death far more fitting for the character. (SPOILERS END) On the other hand, and what holds it back somewhat is its length and price. At just over an hour and a half, with no extras other than a time attack mode with the exact same areas again and at twelve pounds, it’s over priced. Presumably they were thinking people would play it as part of the season pass or newly released “Gold edition”, and under those circumstances it’s more fairly priced. Maybe they thought it was fair given that Not a Hero is free, and that does soften the blow, but taken on its own, twelve pounds is a lot for what you get. Still, it’s very enjoyable when it lasts, apart from the sections breaking up the melee combat in which you have to deal with alligators, who kill you in one hit. Fortunately they can usually be dealt with by throwing cobbled together spears at them, but there’s one section right near the end where you just have to slowly wade past them and it’s deeply frustrating. When it’s just you sneaking and boxing your way past Molded it’s great, and story-wise it’s strong enough to be worth playing. Both pieces of DLC come together to tie things up nicely, and mark a fitting end to one of the best games released this year.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Netflix The Punisher Review

I’m in two minds about Netflix’s foray into the world of Frank Castle, one of my very favourite comicbook characters. The trailers had me weary right out of the gate when they spotlit a CIA conspiracy being responsible for the murder of Castle’s family, as well as an apparent reticence to have the man himself appear in costume, a costume that personally I’m not a big fan of. Still, I wasn’t going to leave my main man hanging, and besides one scene I enjoyed his appearance in Daredevil season 2, so I gave it a go.

Cruelly, the first episode teases what I would want from a Punisher TV series: Frank in costume killing off the last remnants of the criminal groups involved in his family’s deaths, a sweet sledgehammer fight and a brief appearance from the Gnucci crime family. Two Homeland Agents who appear to be analogues for Detective Soap and Lieutenant Von Richthofen show up, if I hadn’t seen the trailers I would have expected an ultra-violent, vigilante rampage cherry picking the best parts of Garth Ennis’ sizeable run on the character. Tragically that’ll have to wait, because the remaining twelve episodes are an extended origin story of sorts, in which Frank and partner Microchip enact a drawn-out plan to kill the men behind the men in relation to the deaths of the Castle family, punctuated with the odd action scene, hampered by a woeful subplot and finishing on a burst of extreme violence. The A plot, Frank and Micro enacting revenge, is strong enough; the two have an unexpected chemistry, helped along by Jon Bernthal’s rather different interpretation of the character. Whereas the comic version is a man of sheer unflappable focus, cold and steely eyed but with a surprisingly active sense of dark humour, Bernthal’s Castle is a hot-blooded, emotional and personable berserker. He can laugh and crack wise, he can be caring, he can relate to other people openly, and when called upon to handle action scenes he throws himself into them with brutal, bellowing aplomb. He’s a man clearly ruined by his tragedy and wracked with survivor’s guilt, with a skill set and unending font of unbridled rage waiting to be turned on anyone who deserves it. Two scenes in particular at the tail end of the series go far beyond anything Marvel’s done before, including both seasons of Daredevil. Elsewhere the aforementioned analogues, actually named Madani and Stein have a solid dynamic of pain in the arse go-getter and “Let’s not piss off the wrong people” sidekick, though Stein doesn’t have all that much to do. Madani is the stronger character, acting as a driven, motivated voice of reason, dedicated to the pursuit of justice for an illegally executed Afghan police officer, and a much needed ally for Castle. The characters are uniformly good, the exception being the two catalysts for the woeful subplot I mentioned earlier: a phoney vet complaining about how the government’s coming to TAKE OUR GUNS and a PTSD-riddled young man who gets dragged into his bullshit orbit with catastrophic results. This brief look at the gun debate, the treatment of veterans and the epidemic of law enforcement shooting unarmed suspects are clearly an attempt to address or at least examine real world issues, but the rushed approach, their actual effect on the plot and the general way they’re handled mean the show is way in over its head, and none of it works. This ties into another problem the series has in that at thirteen episodes it’s too long; a solid eight to ten would have been enough, as it stands it’s bloated. Cut out the entire subplot with the two vets, focus on Frank, his targets and the two Agents on his trail and this would have been a tight, lean intro to a potential season 2 more in line with the comics. That’s not to say its actual form is bad, it just could have done with some trimming.

Overall The Punisher is a success, in spite of taking a detour from the comic. For the most part the characters are well-written and likeable; Jon Bernthal’s Frank is compelling and it’s nice to see him let off the leash and Madani makes for an interesting counterpart, but surprisingly it’s Micro who acts as the heart of the piece, his connection to Frank and their developing friendship being genuinely touching, to the point where I’d gladly accept him as part of the universe going forward. As a Punisher fan I appreciate this take on the character and his world, and I do believe if you’re unfamiliar with either you’ll still get something out of this. It could do with more action, all told, but I’m hoping Netflix will bring along a second season to handle that, where they can just write a long list of bad guys from Garth Ennis’ run on the character and send Frank after them one by one.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

 

Cuphead Review

Cuphead (announced sometime during the Reagen administration) appeared to be (and indeed has been described as) a Metal Slug/Contra-style sidescrolling run and gun game, which combined with a visual style inspired by Max Fleischer cartoons and elaborate, exuberant character design made it look like one to watch. As it turns out, however, it is not a Metal Slug/Contra-style sidescrolling run and gun game. There are levels of that nature, but they act as snacky interludes between Cuphead’s actual bread and butter: boss fights. Much has been made of the game’s high difficulty and gorgeous, hand-drawn animation style, as well as some depressingly inevitable comparisons to Dark Souls, but is the game any good?

The story, as it is, is summed up in song upon reaching the title screen: Cuphead and his brother Mugman like gambling, see? They like to roll the dice, but they rolled the wrong dice in the wrong joint, and now they owe their very souls to the Devil! Happens to us all. In exchange for the Devil sparing their lives they must play the role of lethal debt collectors; murdering a variety of colourful boss characters in exchange for “soul contracts”, because it’s a 30s cartoon, and they were entirely unconcerned about potentially scarring people for life. The story’s just here to frame the action, but I like the whole “Don’t gamble, kids!” angle and how it immediately moves on to homicide, which is apparently all good. The Boss design is, for the most part, solid both aesthetically and practically. Despite mostly being a series of boss rooms, it does play like the genre it claims to take inspiration from; shooting, platforming, dodging and the like, all of which you’ll have to combine with an acute sense of timing and multitasking, because as publicised this game is bastard hard. I can only assume that’s where the Dark Souls comparison comes from, but it’s not an accurate one at all, bar the fact that both games are difficult. Scoring hits is so easy you’ll mostly be doing it on auto-pilot; the hard part is avoiding all the bullet hell projectile attacks, assist enemies and stage hazards to the point where actually focusing on the actual boss is a luxury you often can’t afford. Bosses have no health bar, nor is there any indication of how much damage you’re doing besides a rough chart shown when you die, which again means you’ll be focusing almost entirely on Cuphead and the many projectiles all trying to ruin his day. Helping you out in all this is a parry mechanic, in which pink objects can be double-jumped into (again with the proper timing) to gain super meter, as well as a series of useful upgrades and different shot types of which, although there are clear best choices, all have a use. It’s really tense, but usually in a good way: it’ll often come down to you madly dodging projectiles from about fifty different sources, when during a gap in the action just big enough to allow any cognitive process more involved than dodging and shooting, you think that surely whatever you’re fighting must be close to death by now. Then the words “A KNOCKOUT” fill the screen and you breathe a sigh of relief, feeling sufficiently rewarded by the defeat of a real pain in the arse with your amassed skill and patience. This isn’t to say that the game doesn’t feel cheap at times, it’s just that it doesn’t pretend otherwise, and lets you know early on that it intends to do everything in its power to slaughter you at any and every opportunity. The run and gun levels are a whole different beast; resembling a sort of hardcore “Rayman Origins” with no checkpoints; the same dodge-shoot-parry tactics as the boss fights apply here, but spread out over a much larger area, and with a vastly different sense of timing and context. These missions feature collectable coins necessary to buy new gear, and completing them all without killing any of the enemies contained within nets you the option to play the game in black and white, and with the audio altered to sound like it’s being delivered through a 30s speaker. This isn’t particularly noteworthy but it is a nice inclusion, and I feel compelled to mention it mainly because I actually managed to unlock it, which at one point in the game felt like a pipe dream.

Faring far worse than the entirety of Cuphead and Mugman’s on-foot adventures, however, are the plane sections. Here any weapon upgrades you’ve bought are useless, and the game seems to go the extra mile in how much stuff it pelts you with, which combined with the different method of traversal makes most of the plane fights quickly become irritating. On the flip side, design wise most of these bosses are excellent, and on the whole the game’s art style and sheer level of imagination is fantastic. Bosses all have multiple stages, which often result in vast changes in design and attack patterns, a stand-out being Hilda Berg; a woman-blimp hybrid who attacks using cloud formations of various star signs that then take corporeal form, and her final form is a massive crescent moon with her face in the middle that fires out space ships. The penultimate boss; a little boss run dictated by multiple dice rolls, is stopped from being a nuisance due to each opponent being a lovingly crafted reference to casinos, the best one being a stack of poker chips called “Chips Bettigan”. Chips. Bettigan. I rest my case.

Cuphead is, for the most part, a good time. The level of invention, imagination and effort put into designing and hand-drawing each enemy, boss and location pays dividends for the experience, and no matter how hard bosses get fighting them is almost universally engaging, and the quick restarts fuel a “One more go” mindset. Not everything hits the mark, but most things do; enough to warrant a recommendation if you’ve any interest in the game at all. Yes it’s hard, but it’s a rewarding experience, one that never made me consider leaving it unfinished.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Wolfenstein II The New Colossus Review



Who would have thought five years ago that Wolfenstein would be the new gold standard for first person shooters? Sure it’s the granddad of the genre, but the series’ attempts to keep that pedigree going were generally flat, drab and barely worth a mention. Then, out of nowhere 2014’s “The New Order” changed all that; it married the old school’s fast pace, exploration and large, open areas with the new breed’s penchant for story telling, characterisation and a general sense of focus. Gone was the plot focused on Nazis attempting to harness the occult, in its place an alternate history tale in which the Nazi regime is carried to world domination on the back of cyborgs and giant robot dogs. Series hero BJ Blazkowicz is an unstoppable killing machine built like a brick shithouse, but his inner monologue reveals his true feelings as a weary, poetic human being who just wants all this shit to end, but won’t stop fighting until it does. It was an unexpected gem, all told, and I’ve been greatly anticipating its sequel since it was announced at E3 earlier this year. At this point I will say that in order to adequately discuss both the gameplay and (particularly) the story of “The New Colossus”, I will need to spoil a twist that happens partway through the game. Unfortunately both the marketing material and even the game’s cover art (not seen above) have visually spoiled it already, but if you can go into the game blind then I recommend you do so.

It starts the exact moment The New Order ended: with BJ having killed Deathshead and ordered the Kreisau Circle to nuke his position. Fortunately they come back and rescue him, but after waking up from a five month coma and having had most of his intestines removed he can’t walk under his own power and knows that in his current condition his death is fast approaching, facts he discovers just as the U-Boat the Circle commandeered is besieged by Nazi forces led by Frau Engel, out for BJ’s head after he ruined her face and killed her Boytoy back in TNO. This is where things get spoilery: the story is, in my opinion at least, split into two quite distinctive parts: the first two thirds or so act as an extended epilogue to The New Order. Caroline Becker is dead, BJ is using her Da’at Yichud power armour to move around, he’s staying away from Anya so as to acclimate her to the imminent tragedy of his death, and recruiting resistance and destroying important Nazi installations while he still can. Throughout all this BJ is verging on a psychological break in addition to his inevitable physical one; talking to Caroline in his head, the aforementioned treatment of Anya, as well as flashbacks to his upbringing by a kind, loving mother and almost cartoonishly monstrous father. This all ties into gameplay, too; during these missions BJ has his max health capped at fifty, but his max armour is boosted to two hundred. It actually becomes the sequel “The New Colossus” at that two thirds mark, where BJ is publicly decapitated, his head thankfully rescued by the resistance and attached to a super soldier body Set Roth just happened to have lying around, bringing him back up to his full Nazi-killing strength, as well as returning his max health to one hundred. That’s when he starts wearing the yellow leather jacket and has the gold ring around his neck, as seen on the front cover of the game. It’s here that the game has something of a shift in tone: the opening chunk of the game maintains the grim, sombre tone established by The New Order, made even more so by BJ’s situation, and ends in a way that seems tragically quite fitting given the state of the world. Now don’t get me wrong, BJ having his head cut off and put on a super soldier body isn’t at odds with this series’ tone; it does have a sense of humour, and for all the grim and dark stuff there’s a vein of gung-ho adventure serial running through it, so that isn’t the issue. It just leans into that sense of rip-roaring adventure from that point until the end of the game, which does feel a tad jarring after everything that comes before it. As a result that game really feels like the middle part of a trilogy; tying up loose ends and acting as a definitive conclusion to The New Order whilst putting in place the building blocks that will lead into a third instalment I presume is coming. Not that this is a bad thing, it’s still great and I’d welcome a third game, but in terms of story it does feel like it lacks the singular focus of The New Order.

Gameplay wise, it’s very similar to its predecessor, but that’s by no means a bad thing. It maintains the fast pace and immense firepower but adds new features in the form of upgrades to BJ’s supersoldier body that allow you to reach high vantage points, squeeze into tiny gaps and (the one I picked) shoulder charge through walls. Most important though is the most simple: you can now mix and match dual-wielded weapons. Carry a silenced pistol in one hand and the new tri-barrelled rotary shotgun in the other, for if things go wrong, or maybe an SMG for quick run and gun and the one-handed grenade launcher in the other for the multitude of cyborg soldiers you encounter. My personal favourite was an assault rifle in the right hand and the aforementioned shotgun in the left; with upgrades added through the new system in which you choose what to upgrade rather than finding each add-on in the environment, this combination turned ninety percent of enemies into dog food after a few seconds of continued fire. It was, in a word, brilliant. Stealth is still solid, though often falls through due to how quickly the alert phase spreads through the ranks, though it’s always worth attempting due to how quickly you can and will be gunned down on normal difficulty; even with overcharged health and full armour you won’t last if you don’t keep moving or ensure your firepower is as an all-engulfing blanket of death. Level design is more varied and interesting this time around; the focus on liberating Nazi-controlled America leads BJ to the sinister mixture of Nazism and Americana of Roswell, New Mexico, an eerily beautiful post-nuke Manhattan and a run-down, dilapidated ghetto in New Orleans. Finally it’s not a big addition but I do need to point out how much I appreciate the melee weapon changing from a knife to a hatchet: stabbing Nazis is out, hacking their arms and legs off is in, and it feels so good.

Overall, The New Colossus is very good. Story wise it does lack the singular focus of New Order and feels like the middle instalment of a trilogy, but that does not decrease its impact, and it has enough stand-out moments to smooth over the small issues it has. The gameplay hasn’t changed much, but that’s not an issue; it’s still fun to mow down scores of Nazis with dual automatic shotguns. This current run for the Wolfenstein series stands aside DOOM as this generation’s pinnacle of first person shooters; remembering what made the classics so good while embracing the advantages of modern advances in the medium, and placing an emphasis on character and story at the same time. GET PSYCHED!

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

The Evil Within 2 Review

2014’s The Evil Within was, in no uncertain terms, a car crash. Its story and design aesthetic were cobbled together from half-baked ideas either not given enough time to settle in or mercilessly run into the ground. Its gameplay was the poor man’s Resi 4, but hampered by rough stealth and forced battles; made infuriating with glitches and gameplay mechanics that resulted in the player often being ill-equipped and with weapons that may or may not be at all effective, depending on how the game was feeling. I didn’t like it, in summation, and the praise heaped upon it continues to baffle and irritate me. To me it was a clear sign of – to be fair to him – legitimate survival horror legend Shinji Mikami being over the hill, so it was a pleasant surprise when his name was absent from the credits of this, the game’s sequel.

After the confusing and generally unsatisfying events at Beacon Mental Hospital by way of seemingly every survival horror cliche known to humankind, Detective Sebastian Castellanos is now a sort of roaming drunk, packing heat and passing out in bars. After encountering old friend turned adversary Agent Kidman and the two most conspicuous men in black goons I’ve ever seen he finds out that his daughter didn’t die in a fire, but instead has been thrown into “STEM”, a sort of Matrix knock-off. The minutiae of the story relies on knowledge from the previous instalment and its DLC, but that can be largely ignored in favour of the broader elements, which fortunately fare much better, particularly when compared to that game. Sebastian is sent into STEM to infiltrate a sort of mentally generated small American town called Union; reminiscent of “Downpour”-era Silent Hill, complete with that series’ staple huge, progress-blocking chasms. I’m not sure why, but super-secret corporation and STEM owners Mobius put a load of people into Union for some benefit and/or profit I genuinely can’t fathom, but of course it all went wrong, and the citizens have all turned into zombie-esque monsters. Making matters worse are two villainous humans with an unfortunate case of Far Cry syndrome; a serial killing photographer named Stefano and a charismatic cult leader named Theodore, whose aforementioned charisma is apparently so strong he can talk anyone into doing anything, and so has made himself the de facto ruler of Union. Theodore comes out of nowhere about half way through the game, and while his links to the other characters and overarching plot are reasonably well established, he can’t hold a candle to Stefano. He’s a sharp-dressed Italian psychopath; a mixture of Dr Steinman, DIO and a Hannibal villain, with Sans’ glowing blue eye and complete with a bodyguard formed from multiple female heads and a large buzzsaw. He can teleport, his raison d’etre is to create horrific art installations in which he murders someone and makes them re-enact that moment on loop in slow motion, and he is easily the most interesting thing about this game. The rest of the game is still solid; its design aesthetic, plot and approach to both story progression and story telling are far stronger and more consistent than the original, and the game does a far better job of making you care about Sebastian and those with whom he interacts. Rather than cycle through a series of unconnected environments, this game focuses on two areas; Union and “The Marrow”; a sort of secret military lab tunnel system that leads to different areas of Union, accessed through computer terminals. It’s nothing especially memorable, but setting the game in one town the player has to traverse with no fast travel goes a long way to making it more consistent and enjoyable, particularly when combined with the new and improved gameplay mechanics.

Rather than be a room to room, area to area linear path through shooting galleries and stealth sections, TEW2 is open world. Not a massive open world, but to callback to a reference I made earlier; an open world akin to Silent Hill Downpour. Reasonable size, split into different areas and with a few side missions dotted around, its best feature is how it directly affects the gameplay. Simply put; sneaking or running past enemies is now a far more viable option. Enemies are dotted around the town and pose a legitimate challenge, but the options to deal with them are more numerous now, and killing them is now more easy and less susceptible to the random chance and crippling glitches that plagued the previous game. Bullets, crossbow bolts and health items can now be crafted, enemies go down far more reliably- two headshots with a handgun is generally enough, and once they’re down they no longer need to be set on fire. Stealth is now more forgiving and is handled far better, and while stamina reserves are still an issue running away is a valid tactic. Rather than force the player into combat situations where ammo drops are random and enemies may or may not agree about the fact that you’ve clearly shot them in the face, TEW2 places the player in an open area with enemies that can be dealt with using a wide range of different tactics and the player’s own skills and ingenuity, which is an infinitely better option. That’s not to say the game doesn’t force you into combat now and then, but these moments are always fairly balanced, and if you know what you’re doing you can overcome anything that’s thrown at you.

Overall The Evil Within 2 is a solid experience, if nothing outstanding. That’s not to put it down though; in terms of story, writing, characters, gameplay and emotional impact it’s head and shoulders above its predecessor. Whereas the original was a clunky, unforgiving and genuinely infuriating mess made by a man who refused to move on from the era of his greatest successes, and seemed to misinterpret what made those games so good, this vastly improved sequel understands that it’s okay to mix classic tropes with modern gameplay advances and conveniences. The result is an enjoyable and engaging horror action game confident in salvaging what few good ideas the original had and using them to make something worthwhile. If the sequel hook is acted on and The Evil Within 3 is really on the horizon, I feel like it will truly fulfil the promise and potential this series has. If the series ends here then the quality of this instalment means that’s a victory too, it’s just a shame it took Shinji Mikami vacating the director’s chair.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

I Am Thou, Thou Art I : Extended Thoughts on Persona 5

 

So I wrote a review of Persona 5 the other day, and it was vague at best. While that was done to avoid any and all spoilers for what I consider to be a genuine masterpiece, I will admit it perhaps didn’t lead to the most interesting reading experience. So this is my solution: if you’ve not played the game, read the spoiler-free review I wrote. If you’re in a position to not worry about spoilers, feel free to have a look at this, which I’m thinking of as a sort of Spoilercast in text form. My more in-depth thoughts on one of the best games I’ve ever played, with no restraint on spoilers.

Characters, interactions and their developments:

I felt something of a personal connection to the phantom thieves, due in part to some of them being akin to people I knew when I was their age, as well as being people I would have liked to know. The combination of music and voice acting really does boost the experience; for example every trip to the Velvet Room is given an added weight by that chilling piano and lone female wail, and personally I really like the new voice actor for Igor, even though it’s only temporary, until he’s no longer possessed. I like the shift from a foreboding atmosphere filled with unease, punctuated by the angry twins and sinister Igor, to a more hopeful but still somewhat dire tone when the real Igor and Lavenza regain control of the room. As for the Phantom Thieves themselves, the quest to help Futaba deal with the outside world resonated with me personally for reasons I’d rather not go into, but I love her character; her arc from shut-in on the brink of suicide to survivor doing everything she can to take her life back with the help of her new friends and, in my playthough, boyfriend. She was the heart of the game for me, once she was introduced. I spent time with her above everyone else, and I would have put her in my party if the game’d let me. I didn’t manage to max out relationships with any other non-mandatory confidant, though on my next playthrough I’m planning to focus on Makoto once she joins the team; her mixture of fastidiousness, tactical prowess and strength mixed with a vulnerability brought on due to her living situation and relationship with her sister made her really stand out. Every character in the game has multiple layers, often defy expectations established by early moments, and their traumas are treated respectfully, as is the process of dealing with them. Ryuji is advertised as a delinquent with authority issues, but in actuality was given that label by an abusive, paedophile teacher, and is really a loyal, kind person with a strong sense of justice, who reveals himself to be a stand-up guy in his opening scenes. Outside of the core cast of thieves, I took a shine to Hifumi Togo, whose confidant I intended to max-out, but I ran out of time. I was going to have Joker enter a relationship with her actually, back when I thought Futaba couldn’t be romanced. I also really like Tae Takemi’s story of a promising young Doctor turned into a pariah after being blamed for malpractice she didn’t commit. While I’m on the subject though, I’m not a fan of Joker being able to romance adult women. You don’t have to do so, in fact in order to romance said women you have to actually go out of your way to interact with them and then make a final choice, but it’s still weird, particularly when the game implies a sexual nature to said relationships, and Joker is, after all, a child by Japanese law. Personally, factoring in the onus being on the player it’s not a huge deal, but it’s still an unfortunate niggle at the back of my mind. My biggest problem with the social side of the game was Joker’s dialogue options, though this was largely due to them often not reflecting what I personally thought he should say. Most of the time it offered suggestions I hadn’t thought of, which worked a treat. Other times, however, what I considered to be the best or at least a good option wasn’t available, often times Joker wouldn’t even get to say anything, which given how invested I was in the game didn’t exactly do wonders for me. Case in point: partway through the game, when Morgana runs off on his own, attempts to start his own two-thief team in opposition to Joker’s group, then eventually rejoins with his new apprentice. I was desperate for a dialogue option along the lines of “What you did really worried me, and I’m still angry, but you’re still an important member of the team and a good friend”. Hell, even the last part of that sentence would have done the job, but no such option exists. Joker’s lack of dialogue usually fits his strong silent type, man of action image but there were several times when I really needed him to say something and he didn’t. Most of this can be put down to him having quite an established character and personality that can only be lightly changed by player interaction, but it can definitely be frustrating at times.

The overarching plot of Masyoshi Shido rising to power on a tidal wave of mental shutdowns, murders and framing Joker for unprovoked assault is a solid backbone to all the day-to-day social activities and exploring palaces. He’s a decent villain, though as it turns out he isn’t the main threat, as a malevolent god is responsible for everything bad that happens. It’s quite a sudden reveal, but it’s given time to sink in, due to a supposed-to-lose fight and a rousing scene in the Velvet Room. I did try my best to like Goro Akechi: I shunned and sassed him every time he tried to talk to Joker before blackmailing his way onto the team, at which point I really did think maybe he wasn’t going to turn out to be a main villain, but I was mistaken. The reveal that he’s actually just as damaged as the people opposing him was good, and I liked how he went out, but any cool stuff he got to do in his not-Berserker Armour outfit was downplayed by the whole floppy-haired kid detective angle. Also worth mentioning briefly is the game’s framing device: Joker being interrogated by prosecutor, target and sister to Makoto: Sae Nijima. These scenes didn’t really do much other than signal the start of each “Chapter” (though they’re not actually split up as such) of the game and lampshade Joker making new confidants, but they added to the atmosphere, and set up a foreboding present-day situation for the game to ominously creep towards.  Anyway, this section is getting rather long now, so I’ll sum it up thusly: I love the characters in this game. As much as I enjoyed the combat and exploration I’ll be talking about shortly, for me the most rewarding part of the game was everything in between; the quiet moments where I had Joker work out with Ryuji, chat with Ann about her best friend’s recovery, teach Makoto about what kids their age find fun, and help Futaba get used to the outside world, among other things.

Soundtrack and presentation:

I touched on this a little in the review, but not to the extent it deserves. The game’s presentation is a key part of what makes it so appealing; it’s what draws you in, in a “Come for how cool it looks, stay for the depth” kind of way. The menus use a contrast of bold, single colours like white and red, contrasted against thick, dark black outlines and shading. Everything that can be made elaborate and stylish is; even things like status screen menus have Joker moving between different poses. Moving between rooms in palaces shows Joker leaping across the screen, exiting a palace shows Joker leap through a glass window, fall to the ground, recover and run off, an animation shared with the results screen for most battles. Even the cutaways to the game’s framing device are handled this way; with an outline of a battered, handcuffed Joker acting as a scene transition as events wildly leap forward in time. In the hands of a lesser development team this would just be a load of flashy images to distract from a shallow gameplay experience, but here it enhances every other aspect of the game. It ties into the whole heist flick tone, feeling like an extended anime about a group of students moonlighting as thieves, but never breaks stride when moving between interactive and non-interactive scenes. Equally important is the soundtrack; whatever the situation, the game has a piece of absolutely fitting musical accompaniment that makes what you’re doing infinitely more engaging. Besides the more obvious, active tracks like “Last Surprise”, “Rivers in the Desert” and “Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There” are things like “Tokyo Daylight”/”Tokyo Emergency” when you’ve got time on your hands and you’re out and about in town, “The Days When My Mother Was Here”; the slightly odd, almost hypnotic soundtrack to Futaba’s palace, and the utterly fantastic “Beneath the Mask”, for more contemplative moments.

Palaces, thievery and throwing down

I started the game on normal, turned it down to easy about halfway through Kamoshida’s palace, then eventually had to turn it down to “safe” at the start of Qliphoth, after getting repeatedly ground to dust by the final mini-boss and wanting to see the ending of the story. This means I can’t really speak to how the balance of combat is affected by difficulty, but in my experience the weakness system for both sides of the conflict is fair, but purely in terms of fighting certain party members are vastly superior to others. Once Makoto turned up I had no real use for Yusuke or Ann, whose high HP costs and low HP respectively couldn’t compare with Makoto’s high damage and healing spells. I rotated Morgana back into the mix after the whole incident with him running away, which turned out to be the right move given his healing spells, and kept Ryuji close by for his immense damage. It’s not an issue, as my team generally steamrolled anything that dared oppose us, but it does render different skills and element moves somewhat moot. Haru was rendered completely useless once Joker learned a Psi attack, which didn’t take long. Combat itself is satisfying though, somewhat surprising given that it’s turn-based. I tended to use melee attacks primarily, using Persona skills and gunshots to attack weaknesses. Part of me wishes that running past/away from enemies was a more viable option, especially en route to the depths of Mementos, which turned into an absolute nightmare for a while, but for the most part it wasn’t an issue really. Speaking of mementos, they’re fine, and I did go down there several times, but if they didn’t have sidequest-related hearts to change, it’s unlikely I would have bothered. The palaces on the other hand, I’m well into. They manage to tweak them just enough each time to keep things interesting, mainly through different progression-dictating puzzles and the like.

Finally, a brief quick-fire round of random things I really like:

Turning into a mouse, especially the animation when you flee from a battle in that form. Also Yuskue’s excellent and terrible mouse puns, and how silently furious Futaba is with them
Morgana’s legs when he runs
“CHARGE, JOHANNA”
Carrying Morgana everywhere in a bag, with his little face poking out the back
Sojiro wiping away tears just after Joker leaves
The reveal that the Phantom Thieves’ big plan to free Joker from Juvie was to mount an air-tight legal case
The way the calendar shows what date it is by sticking a knife into the number
“Putting some love into it” when making coffee for people, which just makes them spit it out because it’s too bitter
The awkward, quiet “MREEH” sound effect that plays whenever Morgana turns into a bus, and whenever said bus rams into enemies
How much mileage the game gets out of the same exact clip of Ryuji saying “FOR REAL?!”
The “Take your time” loading screens, and how they change depending on the situation

I’m going to end this piece here, to stop it being too long; it’s already twice the length I intended it to be when I started, and I could write at least another two or three thousand words easy. Maybe one day I will. I do hope this sheds some light on what I liked about Persona 5 though, and goes at least some way to explaining why it’s now one of my very favourite games; one I’d mention in the same sentence as Red Dead Redemption, which I consider to be the best game ever made. I spent several weeks playing it; taking in what it had to offer, loving every minute of it, and I genuinely can’t remember the last time I had such a strong connection to a game, and so quickly. When I have some free time I fully intend to play through it again and try and do as much as I can: try and max out as many confidants as I can for a start. I imagine I’ll be replaying it a whole lot throughout my life, it’s just that kind of game. Anyway, I’ve taken enough of your time. See you when Persona 5: Dancing All Night comes out, which obviously I’ll be all over.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

 

More on Persona 5 coming soon

So I wrote a review of Persona 5 last night, and looking back on it, it’s really rather vague. While I wrote it that way to avoid any and all spoilers for what I consider to be a genuine masterpiece, I will admit it might not make for the most interesting reading experience. That’s why I’m planning to write a spoiler-filled “Thoughts on” piece very soon; focusing on exactly what I like about the game without worrying about giving away crucial plot details, motivations and character development. If you’ve never played the game then read the review I wrote, but if you have played and finished it, or don’t care about spoilers, you’ll get a lot more out of this upcoming piece. Look for it sometime over the next few days.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18