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

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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

Persona 5 Review

Sometimes it’s good to take risks. I have very little experience with JRPGs as a genre, or the Persona series specifically. After trying and failing to get into P4 Golden, I heard some interesting things about the then-new P5 (Luke Westaway talking about it on Outside Xtra, specifically), listened to the song “Last Surprise” and deemed the game worthy of a go, hopefully for longer than I did its predecessor. As I said, sometimes it’s good to take risks: sometimes you try something new and everything magically falls into place. Persona 5 is one of those games. You know; one of THOSE games. It’s been a long time.

You play as a high school student forced to move town and school after saving a woman from a drunken harasser/probable rapist, the event being spun to paint you as an aggressive youth who attacked someone for no reason. Just so it’s clear, the high school student has no canon name, though his code name (more on that later) is “Joker” so I’ll be referring to him as such. After discovering the existence of another world giving corporeal form to the distorted desires of twisted individuals, Joker teams up with an increasingly large cabal of fellow students to “Take the hearts” of those who prey on the weak, forcing them to cease their ill deeds and confess their crimes. Taking influence from lady and gentleman thieves they become “The Phantom Thieves”; vigilantes who literally force scumbags to have a crisis of conscience- stealing mental treasure and looking damn good doing it. The story goes to some pretty interesting places from here, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Each member of The Phantom Thieves has suffered some kind of abuse, injustice or otherwise had a rough time of things; the game deals with tonal shifts towards surprisingly dark, serious subject matter well. This is helped immensely by every member being likeable, well-written and their issues being given time to be addressed alongside the necessary weight. The phantom thievery drives the plot forward and takes up a fair amount of time, but when you’re not cutting about nicking things you spend your time at school, wandering around Tokyo and hanging out with various confidants, the interactions granting stat boots and special skills. The game strikes a good balance between the two story halves; exploring palaces as The Phantom Thieves is exciting and deeply satisfying, going shopping/to school and hanging out with Joker’s friends offers a welcome change of pace, and feels comforting. I don’t want to go into any more detail on the story because it’s best enjoyed without any prior knowledge besides the basics I’ve outlined here, but I will say that it’s gripping literally from start to finish; whatever’s happening it’s handled with the same care and attention, and with a cast of characters this enjoyable to interact with it never gets boring or stale. This is doubly impressive when you factor in how long the game is; the main story took me eighty six hours to finish, and it never got old. That’s longer than most television series and it managed to keep me engaged for the duration.

Gameplay wise, it’s a mixture of exploration, social interaction and turn-based combat. What sets it apart is its presentation; put simply it’s stylish on a level every other game wishes it could one day hope to attain, but never will. Everything, from larger elements like the soundtrack, which is an always-fitting mix of rock, acid jazz and smooth, more reserved pieces depending on the situation, to smaller things like the pause screen and scene transitions, is elaborate without feeling overdone and, put simply; really cool. The in-game graphics are full of vibrant colour and imaginative art design; cases in point being the Phantom Thieves’ elaborate heist outfits, and the game’s broad, extensive bestiary of enemies drawing from a wide range of influences and styles. Each of the game’s palaces (representations of each target’s mind) has a completely different visual theme (again drawing on a range of influences and styles) and gameplay elements, outside of the mainstay turn-based combat. Combat revolves around the use of titular Personas, which are, simply put: Stands from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. If you’re unfamiliar with Stands, they and Personas are corporeal representations of their user’s psyche and fighting spirit, though in this case they’re directly tied to the Thieves’ rebellious spirit and desire for justice. Unlike stands, Personas have access to various elemental magic-style attacks and do not use melee attacks; something each Thief can do instead, as well as use a firearm. Combat is surprisingly satisfying considering it’s turn-based, due in part to the aforementioned outstanding presentation and music. Unique to Joker is the ability to possess multiple Personas and switch between them at will; downing enemies in combat will result in a hold-up situation, during which you can coerce assistance out of the enemy in question, or just team up with your party members to kick their heads in. The social interaction side of the game is all set to a limited time frame: the game moves forward a day at a time, and each day is split into time slots during which you can see people or engage in activities that increase one or more of Joker’s five main stats. There are free actions, namely shopping, but for the most part you can only do one thing per slot. This works fine for the most part, but the game will often decide that you can’t do anything today, either because you’re all tuckered out, or the day will be filled with important story events that will advance time for you. This doesn’t end up being a problem given the length of the game, but it does take some getting used to.

Persona 5 is one of those rare games that comes around once in a blue moon that’s so engrossing, so deeply engaging and immensely satisfying to play and just generally experience that finishing it leaves a massive hole nothing else can fill. I have not played a better game this year and doubt I will. I cannot remember the last time I felt this kind of connection to a game; I will remember it always, return to it often, and hold it aloft as a new personal benchmark for the medium. This review has been vague, but that’s entirely in the service of letting you go into the game blind. If you value my opinion at all, trust me when I say that Persona 5 is an amazing video game deserving of any and all praise it gets, and if you only buy one game this year, this is the one to get.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

DLC Review : Mafia 3 Extravaganza

Remember Mafia 3? It was my 2016 game of the year, which wasn’t an easy feat given the pedigree on display last year. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to try its three piece DLC menu since it was announced, and finally did so over the course of about a day and a half. For those who didn’t play the main game, it was a solid open world third person shooter, made worth playing due to its setting, story and soundtrack. Namely; 60s New Orleans, a biracial Vietnam vet Punishering his way through a city full of racist gangsters to avenge his adopted family, and all the period appropriate music you can think of. This was all layered onto satisfying combat and stealth, as well as surprisingly enjoyable driving, the result of which was an experience thats game of the year accolade I firmly stand by. Onto the DLC.

Faster, Baby!

First up is “Faster, Baby!” which, for better or worse, mixes a grim civil rights struggle with vehicular combat and a whole lot of chases. Lincoln teams up with Black Panther-type Roxy and fellow ‘Nam vet MJ to take down a racist, murderous Sheriff with a folder full of evidence attesting to his crimes. Why he didn’t destroy the folder is beyond me- you pinch it right off his desk. I get that he’s really overconfident because he’s a racist white man in the sixties and in a position of authority, but he understands how dangerous it is, and goes out of his way to get it back, so it does seem odd he didn’t just burn it. Anyway, dealing with said Sheriff revolves around this particular DLC’s focus on all things on four wheels, namely chases and car combat, of a sort. Traps have been added to country roads that, when shot, cover the road in things like oil drums and logs to slow down pursuers. One mission traps you in a car and involves trashing new location Sinclair Parish and shooting anything that explodes. Staying in the car when it’s not mandatory is also encouraged, most memorably during a mission in which you re-enact the end of John Wick with a bunch of Klansmen. Despite the new gameplay direction, this is easily the weakest of the three add-ons. The aforementioned mashing together of grim race struggle and exciting blaxploitation doesn’t feel nearly as jarring as it could, though that’s largely due to this little pocket of story being over before it really begins; dealing with the sheriff takes up roughly half of a ninety minute DLC. Each add-on has a unique, post-story sidequest: “Faster, Baby!” has growing and selling weed, which is harmless enough, but not particualrly involving outside of driving around the map finding new strains to plant.

Stones Unturned

Lincoln’s old Vietnam mate and CIA scumbag John Donovan takes centre stage here, as the pair track down a man named Aldridge, who switched sides during the war, nearly killed Donovan and now has a nuclear warhead to his name. Much akin to how Lincoln’s adventures in the base game were reminiscent of The Punisher, “Stones Unturned” is this universe’s equivalent of the time Frank Castle infiltrated Grand Nixon Island, murdered a load of mercenaries and stopped the head of the island from detonating a Nuke. Once you actually reach said island the DLC comes into its own, leaning into its change of scenery and, thankfully, cementing (in my mind at least) that Lincoln and John do genuinely care about each other. There’s an attempt to make Aldridge sympathetic, with his declaration that the US government at the time is something of a cesspool, and that the NVA and Vietcong “Aren’t [his] enemy”, but it’s only brief, and doesn’t really have much impact. The unique sidequest here is bounty hunting, which is much, much less exciting than it sounds. You’re given a tranquilliser pistol and a Hawaiian shirt (optional) and sent after three sequential men who need to be knocked out, stuffed into a car boot and driven back to another of Donovan’s shady mates. It’s not particualrly fun, it’s not interesting, but it’s over quickly. The DLC itself, however, is quite good.

Sign of the Times

Rounding out the trilogy is somehow simultaneously the best and most disappointing. Basically, it turns out there’s a True Detective cult operating in New Bordeaux, Lincoln and Father James rescue a member who’s been manipulated and abused, then everything turns into that scene from Kill List. You know the one. The USP for “Sign of the Times” is the addition of L.A Noire-style crime scene investigating, though it’s very basic. Most of the time you’re driving to locations historically racked with great tragedy, photographing a few things and examining the odd corpse, then blowing away cultists. The gunfights and skulking around creepy locations that make up the bulk of the add-on work well, and the detective work is a nice idea, albeit shallow and rather brief. The main issue I have is that this doesn’t really fit into the world and narrative established in the base game, despite being canon. It feels like standalone Halloween content, like that inFAMOUS 2 DLC where you’re a vampire, but instead is now a real part of Lincoln’s story. It’s not all bad though, the bond Lincoln forms with Anna (the cultist he rescues) is endearing, and it’s nice to see him work directly with Father James. The sidequest for this one is easily the best, and goes along way to making it the best of the three: rebuilding Sammy’s bar. After all the shit it went through in the main game, as well as being used a human sacrifice site in this DLC, Lincoln and his aunt can spend money to fix up the place, hire new staff, expand to different floors and the like, as well as instal tributes to Sammy, Ellis and Perla. Something like this deserves to be in the main game, but as it stands it makes the DLC worth playing, as a lovely bonus once you’ve dealt with the cult.

Overall the Mafia 3 DLC is solid, if uninspired. The new additions are largely superfluous, but are occasionally excellent, and the main body of each add-on is, when it boils down to it, more Mafia 3, which is always a good thing. None of it reaches the heights of the base game, but if you enjoyed that, this is worth getting.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

 

Yakuza Kiwami Review

Yakuza Kiwami is a charming romantic comedy about an eccentric, one-eyed Polymath trying to capture the heart of his one true love; the toughest man and number one hot Dad in Japan. There’s also something about a little girl, ten billion yen in missing Yakuza funds and a murdered Yakuza patriarch, but that’s all secondary at best. What’s important is Goro Majima’s tale of love, longing and the lessons we can learn from it: always follow your dreams, and never give up on love.

It’s a bumper year for fans of this series: Yakuza Zero provided engaging, illuminating backstory for Majima and set up Akira Nishkiyama as a decent bloke ahead of his heel-turn in this game. Now, only a few months later comes a remake of the original PS2 game, for better and worse, as it turns out. For now I’ll just say that I’ve been looking forward to this, I’m thrilled the series continues to be localised, and I’m really hyped for both Yakuza 6 and Kiwami 2. For the uninitiated Yakuza is a series of games that’s part deep, serious crime drama, part exquisitely brutal beat-em-up with RPG elements, and part batshit, weird minigames and substories off the beaten path. I’ve a deep fondness for the series and if all started with the original on PS2, which I never got around to finishing. Unfortunately as good as this game as a whole and as a remake is, it highlights a real issue with Yakzua Zero; namely series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu’s side of the story. Everything that happened in Kiryu’s story has literally no effect on the plot of Kiwami. There are cutscenes new to this version to strengthen the ties between the two games, but they almost exclusively show Akira Nishkiyama’s transition from Kiryu’s sworn brother to primary antagonist and whiny, slimy villain throwing away his entire life to become a Yakuza big shot. That works though, Nishki’s journey from good to villainous is understandable and even relatable to an extent, and his personal link to Kiryu makes him a solid big bad, particularly in early scenes when his backstory hasn’t been explained and he lurks in the background smirking at Kiryu. The story itself is decent, and wisely focuses on Kiryu and his adopted family, all of whom are connected to the missing money and the violent pursuit of both it and Haruka, a little girl directly tied to it somehow. It lacks the emotional punch of Majima’s plot in Zero, but it holds up well, and personally I think it’s a far superior introduction to Kiryu than Zero was.

So what’s new for the remake? Well it’s on the new engine debuted with the previous game and the voice acting is now all in Japanese to bring it in line with previous games. There are new cutscenes, minigames and substories, the multiple fighting stances from Zero return, with Kiryu’s mainstay fighting style requiring work to unlock all its moves and buffs. Most of said moves and buffs directly tie into the game’s biggest new addition: Majima Everywhere. I cannot stress how much I frankly adore this system. Having shed his reasonable, measured approach in favour of the “Mad Dog of Shimano” persona we all know and love, Majima is now determined to make Kiryu regain his immense strength and skill, it having been dulled by ten years in prison. He does this by hiding around town, wandering around town and having a subordinate lure Kiryu to certain places, all so the two of them can fight. He hides in bins, crouches behind cars, dresses as a police officer so he can search you, pops up behind you at restaurants and various entertainment venues; he’s completely dedicated to keeping you on your toes. At one point he stages a zombie apocalypse at great expense to himself, and gets a load of his men in the act. As far as I’m concerned, this is canon: during the events of the original Yakuza Goro Majima and the Majima family dropped everything else and spent all their time, effort and money surprising and fighting Kiryu to make him stronger. Not only is Majima a joy to fight, and it has the benefit of unlocking new techniques, the writing for all of his scenes is hilarious, and filled with a frankly impressive amount of innuendo double intended to the point that I’d be surprised if the dev team came out and said that Majima ISN’T madly in love with Kiryu. This is easily the most fun I had with the game, and I’m glad Sega capitalised on all the good will they’ve built up with Majima over the years, especially after Zero. Everything else is at good as it’s ever been; combat is still fun and satisfying, the story and its delivery is still gripping and impactful, and all the weirdness is still enjoyable.

If you’ve enjoyed any of the other games in the series, this is a no-brainer, especially for the discount retail price. If you’re new to the series this is the best place to start; see where it all began, get a feel for the series, then if you enjoy it play Zero while you wait for Kiwami 2 to be released. The new features are largely great apart from a new drawn-out side quest right at the beginning, Majima everywhere is inspired and overall I had a damn good time with the game.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

P.S Sega put out a survey asking what people like about the game, which goes on to ask how interested you are in future projects and seeing those projects localised, with specific reference to Kiwami 2 and the Hokuto no Ken game recently announced. It’d do me and every other fan of the series a real solid if you could take a look at it- Sega have said that interest and sales over here have made an actual difference, so it is worth your time. Thank you kindly

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScaE21WJ-iKMNaV1HN9KFqP2xToutQQgfoCW5lsAoxsmGcWjw/viewform

 

Netflix Death Note Review

The Netflix original American Death Note is finally upon us. It took a lot of flak for, among other things, whitewashing, having a black man play L and generally looking shite (depending on your viewpoint), but personally I was rather looking forward to it. I enjoyed the anime but I’m not a diehard fan of it by any means, having the cast be white Americans didn’t bother me (if you want an all-Asian version that exists already) and I took quite a shine to the new L, despite his potentially weak disguise game. I wasn’t expecting it to be a masterpiece, but as long as it was decent I’d probably enjoy it. Unfortunately that was too much to ask.

After a magic book capable of killing anyone whose name is written in falls from the sky, Light Turner becomes a vigilante serial killer at the goading of Death God Ryuk. Along the way he gains the help of fellow student and girlfriend Mia Sutton, and after the killings become numerous and international he falls under the deductive eye of mysterious private detective L, who vows to catch him. First of all, Light and Mia are awful, both as adapted versions of existing characters and as character in themselves. Anime Light was a boy of sheer focus, immense intelligence and an alarming messiah complex. He killed everyone with a heart attack to instil fear and bring about a world in which he is seen as a God. This Light is a whiny dweeb who gets a few lines early on about how people don’t look out for the little guy, which is apparently all the motivation he needs to slaughter people. The heart attacks are gone, seemingly just so that the film can cram in unnecessary gore with which it swiftly grows bored. Here the moniker “Kira” is a name chosen by him to appear Japanese, and apparently means “Light” in Russian and Celtic. I am glad they put in an explanation for it, but it still seems a bit flimsy, and once it’s explained it’s never questioned again, and it’s never really mentioned why exactly Light wants people to think he’s Japanese, specifically. Mia’s loveable ditz routine from the anime has been discarded, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; this Mia has notable moments of real competence fuelled by a chilling desire to kill that outshines Light, but these moments are few and far between, and for the most part she’s just Light’s girlfriend. The love story is depressingly inevitable, begins within five minutes of them meeting and fails so thoroughly in its attempts to make you care about it that it adds literally nothing of value to the plot. Ryuk fares better, though it’s mainly down to Willem Defoe, who basically plays himself and does exactly as good a job as his casting would imply. Several times he’s shown out of focus, with only his glowing eyes giving him away; this combined with the film’s insistence on keeping everything regarding the Shinigami vague and unspoken make him quite effective.

L, on the other hand, is thoroughly battered. It starts reasonably well; Lakeith Stanfield gets the posture and mannerisms down, and has a slightly different take on the character, making him somewhat more self-assured in public, but barely restraining a flood of emotions that threaten to boil over more than once, and occasionally do. He doesn’t have the sheer length of time to show off his acumen afforded to his anime counterpart, but he puts things together, challenges Kira in a believable, understandable way, and maintains the disguise shown in he picture above. He is, for the duration of these scenes, L. Unfortunately the film apparently needed an exciting action climax, catalysed by a sharp departure from the source material involving a rule in the book being bent if not outright broken by the film and never commented upon. It results in L CHASING LIGHT THROUGH THE STREETS, ARMED WITH A BLADE RUNNER GUN. Said chase goes on way too long, as L pursues Light through alleys, diners and apartment buildings, in a scene I still can’t quite believe actually happened. He does all this with his face uncovered, too, and unsurprisingly this has consequences. I know L has quirks, and can do things a lot of people would consider irrational or strange, but the film has other scenes that convey this far more effectively, and without having the character do something so stupid and detrimental to his career. I can understand why it happens, and it’s not completely unthinkable given the series of events leading up to it, but as I said, those events are at odds with the rules in the Death Note, and to have L act so much like his anime counterpart in the scenes leading up to the chase make it jarring at best and detrimental at worst. It’s a shame, because alongside Defoe, Stanfield is the best part of the film, and he does his best with the lacking material.

Overall Netflix’s attempt at a Death Note adaptation is pretty awful. Light and Mia are annoying, bland, and neither likeable, nor truly hate-able as villains. It’s the bare bones of Death Note with gore, a love story and needlessly over-the-top action draped over. Despite what they have to work with, Lakeith Stanfield and Willem Defoe make the most of things, but they are all that the film has going for it. If you’re a fan of the source material, it’s worth a watch as a curiosity, and to see Stanfield and Defoe. If you’re new to Death Note, there’s nothing here for you.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

Nyehfully Yours : Thoughts on Undertale

Much has been said about Undertale, to the point where I feel like writing a review of it is slightly redundant for me personally. The game’s massively popular and has been since its release, which lead to its detriment for a time due to the fanbase ranging from “Yeah this game’s something special” to “PLAY THE GAME THE WAY I DEEM TO BE CORRECT OR I’LL KILL YOUR FAMILY”. It also didn’t help that, much like “Inside” it’s a “BEST.GAME.EVER but I can’t tell you why” situation, which gets us nowhere. While my review would go into more detail than that it would end up being quite hyperbolic without being able to delve into the specifics as to what makes the game so good, so instead I’m going to give a brief, non-spoilery rundown on the game, then move on to a more tangential ramble about what I like and why I’m glad I finally got to play it (the recent PS4 release is my first time playing the game). So for now: Undertale is an RPG in the classic style (see above sprites for reference) in which it’s possible (and encouraged) to spare every enemy you encounter. It’s wonderfully written, funny, sad and surprisingly dark at times, the characters are all brilliant, and it’s full of clever touches and really strong meta plot elements that I’ll elaborate on in my spoiler talk. If you’ve never played it I highly recommend doing so, I can’t think of anything else like it.

SPOILERS follow

So I’ve done both a neutral run and follow-up true pacifist run, and I’ve read a fair bit about what happens on a “genocide/no mercy” run, and I’ll start by saying: that’s a master stoke. Killing every enemy you encounter makes it into a completely different game, with new dialogue, slowed-down music, new encounters and a unique final boss (more on him in a minute). It’s a horror game where you’re the monster, and beating the game this way means that unless you find a workaround (which is apparently tricky) you’ll never have a happy ending again. This sounds harsh, but I think it’s a really neat idea; lots of games hype up their “Every choice has consequences” schtick but it only lasts as long as that playthrough. Here, the game punishes you harshly for slaughtering everyone in the world for no reason, and remembers if you kill someone then reload the game to undo it. This is the meta element I mentioned earlier: two characters in the game, villainous flower Flowey and lazy, pun-loving Skeleton Sans know that you the player have the power to save and reset the game. Play a genocide route and the normally benevolent Sans becomes the final boss; powerful, merciless and constantly cheating because you’re an irredeemable piece of shit and he has to stop you. Normally he’s friendly but weary and melancholic over unseen “resets”, but cross the line and he can’t let you the player make the mistake of poisoning your save file forever. Good stuff, even if I have no intention of ever doing that run.

On the lighter side, the game is genuinely hilarious. It’s approach to turn based combat, making friends with/dating NPCs and even incidental dialogue is fantastic. The stand-outs are Papyrus the skeleton, a constantly cheerful, all-loving goofball who loves making spaghetti and creating puzzles and Undyne, head of the Royal guard and “heroine that never gives up”, who believes anime is real, suplexes boulders because she can and becomes best friends with you out of spite. You end up helping her get together with love interest Dr Alphys; endearing, anxiety-stricken anime fangirl who hits pretty close to home. You can hang out with both of them, with results best seen by your own eyes. Non-lethal approaches to fight run the gamut of encounter-specific choices, including things like petting, complimenting, hugging, singing, flexing and acting mysterious, all of which have different effects. Enemy attacks take the form of mini bullethell shooters, and a non-lethal run involves a mixture of those sections and charming your way to pacifist victory. The writing is generally whimsical and silly, but very sharp, and made me laugh out loud surprisingly often.

On the other hand though, it’s genuinely touching, particularly in the case of the royal family of Asgore (the King, who’s a big softy haunted by the terrible things he’s done) Toriel (loveable, lovely goat lady who wants to adopt and look after the child protagonist) and Asriel, the dead prince who just wants to keep resetting the world because he can’t let go of his dead friend, and has a really dark, upsetting backstory you can help deal with by forgiving and comforting him at the end, after a haunting boss fight. I can’t think of another game that made me laugh and cry in equal measure, that was so funny, touchingly sorrowful and that induced such joyful triumph. That it does so without suffering massive tonal problems is even more commendable.

I suppose this has sort of turned into a review, but that genuinely wasn’t my intention. I love Undertale, I’ll never forget Undertale, and now I’ve finally played it I had to at least write something about it. If you’ve never played it, do so, and play it however you want. If you have, leave it be, because those Monsters deserve their freedom.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

 

Netflix The Defenders Review

Hoo boy. So somehow, against all odds (or most, given Danny Rand’s presence) The Defenders is really disappointing. It was billed as a street level Avengers-style team up between Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist facing a new villain played by Sigourney Weaver. What it actually is, is a tired re-tread of elements from Iron Fist and Daredevil Season 2 in a story entirely related to them, into which Jessica and Luke just so happen to stumble. As it turns out Sigourney Weaver’s character Alexandra is yet another big shot in ancient ninja group “The Hand”, she has no development or depth, nothing interesting to say and do and apart from one catalytic action shown in flashback, has no real effect on the plot. If nothing else, the Defenders is a colossal waste of Sigourney Weaver. The Hand have more than outstayed their welcome at this point, and this entire season is dedicated to finishing off the last remnants, as well as newly revived, eeeeeee-ville Elektra, so Matt has something to do. That’s it for story really; Luke and Jessica follow up on their own private investigations which lead them to finding the Hand, the Hand are still evil and really boring at this point, Matt and Danny do the heavy lifting because they’ve had past business with the group.

Speaking of Danny, I now see him from the perspective of people who found him deeply irritating in his own series. I didn’t really mind him there, but given his key role in the plot and the fact that he still gets the shit kicked out of him by almost everyone he fights he’ll be nothing but the weak link going forward. By the virtue of being the Iron Fist he’s earned instant respect from Matt’s mentor Stick (Scott Glenn on top form, stealing every scene he’s in, just as he did in Daredevil) and (SPOILERS) Stick even dies protecting him, in completely unceremonious fashion, thanks for that, Marvel (SPOILERS END) but I can’t shake the feeling that he doesn’t deserve it, because he’s just an annoying prick who means well but comes across as arrogant, and for a “living weapon” gets punched in the face a whole lot. He’s the cause of the team inevitably fighting each other, for stupid, poorly defined reasons that could be solved with a conversation, and it’s one of the few fights in the season that isn’t dull or just really badly shot. Each individual series had its own spin on fights: Daredevil’s were brutal, harsh and nasty, Luke Cage’s were lighthearted and carried out by a kind-hearted tough guy always striving to do good. Jessica Jones’ were scrappy and often had a wildcard element of the attackers being brainwashed civilians, and even though Iron Fists’ fights were generally poor they at least had a nice martial arts focus. Here they’re just a slapped together mess; the fights feel like ones from Daredevil or Iron Fist; faceless goons by the truck load having a martial arts fight, Luke and Jessica punch and/or throw a few people, sometimes there are guns so Luke stands in the way of the bullets. Besides the scene where the four Defenders meet in a Hand-controlled office and battle their way out, the fights are never particualrly interesting, with the odd exception that’s over as soon as it begins.

There are good points, namely a handful of character-focused scenes. Matt and Jessica have solid chemistry, with the former’s surprisingly upbeat attitude letting the latter lower her guard as they work the detective angle. Jess’ scenes alone with Luke, reunited by extraordinary circumstances and trying to maintain some kind of connection are a definite highlight and just point out that the two of them are the best part of the show, and arguably the entire Netflix Marvel line-up. As I mentioned earlier Stick is as good as he’s ever been, all knowledgeable snark, ruthless efficiency and really good blind acting on the part of Scott Glenn. It’s nice to see Sigourney Weaver, and her character being an underdeveloped waste of time is entirely down to the script, not the actor. Without wishing to spoil the ending the only thing of importance The Defenders does by the end of its eight episode run (besides killing and maiming established characters) is further Matt Murdock’s storyline and set up Daredevil season 3; Danny gets some advancement by proxy and Jessica and Luke get a new story to tell. Also as good as Madam Gao has been in previous series, here she’s a toadying, apparently frightened lackey looking for a chance to usurp Alexandra, which is no where near as effective as the sinister puppet mistress she was previously. She does turn it around as the series goes on, but by that point she’s started taking part in fight scenes, and I’m still not sure where I stand on that whole deal.

Overall, The Defenders is a real let-down. Instead of a new story with a new villain all four team members can rally against, it wallows in a Hand-shaped paddling pool full of lukewarm water, half-arsing a Daredevil season 2.5 where he happens to make some new friends. The fight scenes are nothing special, the story is bland and the character development ratio is skewed in favour of the least interesting team member and the one who’s had two seasons dedicated to him already. Not a complete waste of time, but if the solo Iron Fist didn’t exist this would easily be the worst thing Marvel’s put on Netflix.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

 

Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice Review

Hellblade’s had quite a bit of buzz over the last few days for two main reasons; firstly for developer Ninja Theory’s serious, even-handed approach to the subject of mental illness and secondly for the game’s permadeath system, in which too many deaths will wipe your save. Both of these things convinced me to buy the game, which as it turns out is a character-focused affair with a mix of puzzles and combat, and the aforementioned mental illness angle playing a pivotal role in proceedings.

You are Senua, a Celtic Warrior who looks a lot like Leigh Alexander, embarking on a journey to the Norse underworld of Helheim to retrieve the soul of her slain boyfriend Dillion. It’s unclear if his death was the catalyst or merely fuel for the fire, but Senua suffers from severe Psychosis; in broad terms a disconnect from reality that brings hallucinations. It’s actually debatable as to whether her condition is so bad that the whole “Underworld” aspect of her journey is in her head, and there’s evidence for both standpoints, but the most prevalent, concrete symptom is her extensive auditory hallucinations in the form of voices. Far from being a gimmick that pops up now and then, the voices in Senua’s head are as much a character as Senua herself: they comment on pretty much everything, only rarely falling silent, and when the game recommends you wear headphones (as so many with a horror bent do), it does so for good reason. The voices are mocking, sympathetic, encouraging, defeatist, panicky and condescending all at once, and really do feel like an integral part of the game. The actual plot is a singularly focused journey into the depths of Senua’s personal hell; the only other non-enemy characters in the game are people close to her in the past, everything is seen from her perspective and the game takes its time to ruminate on her psyche and experiences. Credit to Melina Juergens, who inbetween the rare examples of Senua having dialogue conveys her character’s emotional state beautifully with facial expressions, often just with her eyes. For the most part the story is solid, but personally I’m not sure about the ending. I won’t spoil it obviously, but I’m not sure how well it suits the tone of everything that preceedes it.

Most of the game is spent walking around sparse, grim locales solving puzzles based almost entirely around perspective, and taking a break now and then to fight Norse goons. The Underworld shown here is unlike your standard fire and brimstone, rivers of blood deal, instead relying on a real-world aesthetic tinged with dread and a sense of unease, permeated with mutilated corpses and driving rain that create a miserable atmosphere. The puzzles are engaging without being taxing, and aside from some legwork don’t take so long to finish as to get boring, but they do stick to a definite theme. Chief among them is searching environments for door-unlocking runes, finding them represented in shadows, structures and bloodstains, a skill apparently unique to Senua. The rest of them are a variation on this theme; line up images, go through portals that change things in the environment, find runes. The combat, though less prevalent, is surprisingly satisfying, and feels like an attempt to punctuate the exploration with violence as an inevitability of both the time and Senua’s journey. Light and heavy attacks, a guard break, parrying and dodging; it’s deeper than I anticipated, frankly, and works really well.

The game does have some issues though. Senua’s supporting cast of Dillion, her father Zynbel and her old friend and mentor figure Druth are all presented in live action. This isn’t inherently an issue, but they often share the screen with Senua (who is performance captured but still rendered in the game’s engine) and it’s really jarring. When they’re limited to voice over and the visuals focus on Senua it works, all other times it’s off-putting. Also as enjoyable as the combat is and decent as the puzzles are, there isn’t much variety, and you will be doing what I described in the previous paragraph for the whole game, with a few exceptions. There’s also the ending I mentioned earlier, which I’m still debating over in my head.

Issues aside, Hellblade is a success; Ninja Theory’s approach to Psychosis, as manifested in the character they’ve created and portrayed by the actors playing her and the voices in her head are all worth giving the game a go. It’s on the PSN store for twenty five quid, which certainly sweetens the deal, and the rest of the game is enjoyable enough to make the story worth sticking with until the end. It’s also a victory for a reasoned, well-researched take on mental health and mental illness; as detailed in the making of included with the game Ninja Theory consulted with experts in the field of psychiatry and actual psychosis suffers, an approach which is both applaudable and entirely necessary in the industry.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18